Would the Denver Nuggets or Portland Trail Blazers Make for the Better 8 Seed Out West?
With just over 10 games for each NBA team, we're now racing toward the regular season finish. Accordingly, playoff races are heating up and positions are being solidified.
No race is more intriguing each year than the push for the 8 seed in either conference, and this season is no different. In the Eastern Conference, six teams -- from spots 5 through 10 -- are separated by 3.5 games at the moment. But, out west, it's basically a two-team race between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers.
With a record of 34-37, the Nuggets currently hold down the eighth and final playoff spot. As for the Trail Blazers, they're 32-38 and are 2.5 games behind Denver. They, by our numbers, have a 49.7% likelihood of making the playoffs, which is 6.7% higher than Denver (43.0%).
This is somewhat shocking because the Blazers' 45.8 nERD -- a ranking (on a scale of 0 to 100) that is predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage -- would suggest they're not up to par with the Nuggets, who possess a nERD of 48.4 this season.
That's where each squad's remaining schedule comes into play.
The Blazers' final opponents have an average nERD of 50.4, while the Nuggets' average a nERD of 51.5. The Blazers should take advantage of a few soft teams, like the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns -- three of the league's bottom seven teams in terms of nERD. Sure, they have to play the Spurs, Rockets and Jazz (two times), but Denver has games at Portland, at Miami and at Houston, in addition to two matchups with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Sometimes, the numbers don't play out that way, so we could be surprised. But, while everyone's wondering which team it will ultimately be, let's determine which team it should be.
Regardless of strengths versus weaknesses, who is simply the better team in a vacuum?
As we already touched on, the Nuggets have a better nERD than the Trail Blazers, meaning they're a better and more efficient squad, according to our algorithms. But, do other numbers confirm that same belief?
Basketball Reference's Simple Rating System takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule while labeling each team with a point total above or below average. According to that, Denver is an above-average NBA team at 0.73, while Portland is over one point worse than your average squad (-1.35).
Using offensive rating, defensive rating and net rating (offensive rating minus defensive rating), NBA.com determines which teams are better over the span of 100 possessions, regardless of pace and other factors. In looking at this, we also see that the Nuggets are closer to breaking even than the Blazers. Their net rating of -0.5 ranks 16th, while Portland's mark of -1.3 places them 19th overall.
Therefore, it shouldn't surprise us that the Nuggets are ahead of the Blazers in the standings. All the numbers tell us they're the better team right now.
Before we dive into the particulars of each team and how they match up with the Golden State Warriors -- the probable 1 seed in the West -- which team is better suited for the playoff format, according to home and road splits?
This year, the Trail Blazers have gone 17-15 at home and 15-23 on the road. Simultaneously, the Nuggets have won 21 of 38 home games and 13 of 33 contests on the road. With the apparent imbalance between the two, though, we have to look at win percentage, which tells us Denver has the slight advantage.
While Portland's road win percentage (39.5%) is slightly better than that of Denver (39.4%), they trail the Nuggets (55.3%) in home win percentage (53.1%). In the playoffs, winning games at home is usually the difference between competing in a series and getting blown out, so the Nuggets have the edge given the format.
We can now bring the Warriors into the equation and establish which team is the bigger first-round threat given the team and individual matchups.
To this point, Denver is 1-2 in three games against Golden State. Their lone win came at home where the Nuggets won 132-110 with some significant players missing -- the Warriors were without the services of Zaza Pachulia and Klay Thompson. The Nuggets, to a lesser extent, were shorthanded sans Wilson Chandler and had yet to acquire Mason Plumlee, so this game can't possibly tell us as much as we'd like.
In the Warriors' two wins, they won by 8 at Oracle in January and by 24 at the Pepsi Center in November. The three games were high scoring, as the average point total was 238. So, this potential seven-game series would be nothing if not entertaining.
Nikola Jokic did his part here -- in the two games he played at least 24 minutes, he averaged 19.0 points, 17.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists in 30.5 minutes.
On the other hand, Golden State has had Portland's number this year. They've swept all four games between the teams and have won by an average of 19.5 points, despite a narrow two-point game at the Moda Center this January. Two of the Blazers' losses were by at least 23 points, with the worst coming at Oracle in a 135-90 massacre.
Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum haven't been bad, either. They've averaged 45.6 points and 6.7 assists per game between them, but the issue is the supporting cast. In those games, the rest of the team has averaged 59.9 points against the Warriors.
Since great individual performances haven't gotten it done for either team, what could? What weaknesses -- if any -- could either of them exploit?
Well, the Warriors' only three areas where they're outside the top-nine teams in offensive or defensive Four Factors are turnover percentage (13.2%), offensive rebound percentage (22.4%) and defensive rebound percentage (75.3%). They rank 20th, 18th and 26th in those individual categories, respectively. Has either team proven they're capable of taken advantage?
|Team||Opp TOV% (Rank)||OReb% (Rank)||DReb% (Rank)|
|Denver||11.1% (30th)||28.2% (1st)||78.8% (4th)|
|Portland||11.5% (26th)||22.9% (17th)||76.7% (13th)|
Neither team forces frequent turnovers, but Denver is clearly one of the league's better rebounding teams. In fact, on the back of Jokic, Plumlee and Chandler, they've grabbed 15.7 offensive boards per game and have out-rebounded the Warriors by the count of 48 to 38 in their three head-to-head meetings.
I'd be the first to tell you that Portland should be the scarier team. With Lillard, McCollum and Evan Turner, they have a decent amount of playoff experience and certainly more than Denver. But the probabilities don't say much for that.
Here are the chances for either team winning a potential playoff series against the Warriors, and the most likely outcomes, in number of games, for each.
|Trail Blazers vs. Warriors||Probability|
|Trail Blazers Win Series||12.67%|
|Trail Blazers in 6||5.07%|
|Warriors Win Series||87.33%|
|Warriors in 5||30.85%|
Yeesh, things don't look good. But youth doesn't do Denver much better.
|Nuggets vs. Warriors||Probability|
|Nuggets Win Series||12.97%|
|Nuggets in 6||5.05%|
|Warriors Win Series||87.03%|
|Warriors in 5||31.12%|
As we've already alluded to, neither team stands much of a chance because the Warriors are just that good. So, this conversation could be much ado about nothing. If we had to pick a team, though, everything points to the one currently holding down the 8 seed.
The Nuggets have performed better at home and against the Warriors this year. They are also the better all-around matchup for Golden State, and Jokic has proven to give them headaches.
For entertainment purposes, the more Jokic and points we can get, the better. And, in the playoffs, who knows what could happen -- maybe Denver could defy the odds and slay the dragon that is the Warriors' super team.