Through the first 20-plus games of the NBA season, we’ve already seen drastic separation between the haves and have-nots.
I’m not talking about it being Cleveland, Golden State and everyone else, since it’s too early to write off most of the league. In the East, Toronto looks like a team that could again reach the conference finals and the Cavs’ division is filled entirely with teams that enter the week at .500 are better, so it’s not exactly a cakewalk for the defending champs.
In the Western Conference, the Spurs, Clippers and Rockets all look formidable enough to give the Warriors some trouble.
The separation I’m referring to is what we’re already seeing shake out if you take an early look at the playoff picture. The fact that the entire Central Division has at least as many wins as they do losses has been made possible by there being only five other teams in the entire Eastern Conference that can say the same.
In the West, there are seven teams that have compiled winning percentages of .600 or better as we approach mid-December, which could make the first few months of 2017 all about positioning for seeding and a race for No. 8 for everybody else.
Currently, a slumping Portland squad that broke through last year by reaching the second round with an upset of the Clippers inhabits that final playoff spot, which means Oakland native Damian Lillard could run into his hometown team for a second consecutive year.
For wagering purposes, we have to start looking for value in projecting what teams can get things turned around to compete for that No. 8 seed.
Sure, one could argue drawing Golden State in a playoff series would be the ultimate booby prize, but every one of the teams on the chase would sign up for it this very second. Not only does it add to a team’s playoff revenue, but everyone on the chase, with the exception of injury-ravaged Dallas, is hoping to end a playoff drought of multiple years.
The Mavericks are currently bringing up the rear in the West, threatening to miss the playoffs for just the second time in 17 seasons. Their likely absence creates a vacancy for someone to crash the party.
Of those on the chase, New Orleans is the last to appear, earning the No. 8 seed in 2015. Anthony Davis was supposed to be a fixture in the playoffs but guided his team to a 30-52 season last year.
The Lakers have been out of the spotlight since 2013, doomed by the Kobe Bryant retirement tour. That was the last year Denver qualified, too. Phoenix hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010. Sacramento hasn’t reached the postseason since ’06. Minny has been absent since ’04.
Of all of those teams, the one to watch in the short-term is the Nuggets, which wrap up a season-long six-game road trip Monday night in Dallas and would finish 3-3 if they can pick up a victory. They’ll have already played more road games than every team in the NBA, tying Houston and Portland with 15.
Denver has typically enjoyed one of the top homecourt edges in the league due to the altitude and also has a roster built to take advantage of it since they’ve assembled some real quality depth, albeit young, for the first time since they won 57 games in ’13.
That makes their 3-7 start at Pepsi Center puzzling, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them turn things around. Six of the Nuggets’ next eight games to close out the calendar year will be played at home, starting with this week’s games against the Blazers, Knicks and Mavs. They’ll close out the month against the Wolves and 76ers, so the schedule will definitely be an ally for them to make a move.
Minnesota is another team to watch due to the amazing amount of talent in place there. No one expected Tom Thibodeau to start his tenure so poorly, but Sunday’s 116-108 loss to Golden State was a microcosm of just how frustrating the season has been. The Wolves led the Warriors by 10 points entering the fourth quarter and were outscored 38-20 to drop a fourth straight game.
Minnesota’s home record of 3-9 entering the week is the worst in the NBA besides Miami’s (2-8), but maybe having the Warriors on the ropes will help fuel the confidence of a team that should be able to turn the corner once all the pieces finally come together.
In the East, the sub-.500 team worth watching most has to be Washington. Despite the fact they’ve been sabotaged by abhorrent bench play and have been slow to adjust to new head coach Scott Brooks, there’s simply too much talent in that starting five to not expect a move. John Wall broke through with a 52-point game in a Dec. 6 loss to Orlando and the team responded with home wins over Denver and Milwaukee.
If they can beat the Heat in South Florida on Monday, Washington will record its first three-game winning streak of the season while finally reaching 10 wins. The Wizards close out 2016 with home dates in six of nine, so if they can’t start building a rhythm now, it’s going to be tough for them to crawl out of the hole they dug with a 2-8 start.