A week into the seeding games down in Disney, the quality of play has been very high. Almost all of the 22 teams are competitive on a nightly basis and have brought the drama to most contests. Such high-caliber hoops only shows up when the stakes are high and there's something worth playing for. The NBA gets credit for properly incentivizing all teams in the bubble, but the bloodbath of the standings before the shutdown has led to a frenetic pace in Orlando.
No place has been more of a bloodbath than the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers clinched the top seed, but teams 2 through 7 are all jockeying for position with each other. Meanwhile, the race for 8 is wide open and could provide drama until the very last seeding games have been played.
Over the next week, we'll dive one by one into the main contenders to see which teams might give them the most difficult matchups in the postseason. Whether due to matchups, style of play, star power or teams trending upward, we'll dive into a list of who each team would like to avoid most.
The Denver Nuggets are one of the hottest teams since entering the bubble and are neck-and-neck with the LA Clippers for the 2-seed. Regardless of who earns the 2 or the 3, Denver isn't in the clear of the 4-seed, only two games up on the Utah Jazz. But they have one of the most unique stars in Nikola Jokic, an emerging rookie in Michael Porter Jr. and a versatile backcourt led by Jamal Murray.
Team They're Rooting Against: Dallas Mavericks
The Nuggets dropped two of their three 2019-20 matchups with the Mavericks, but that's not the only reason Denver would prefer a best-of-seven series with a different foe. Dallas has the frontcourt most equipped to cause matchup challenges for Jokic and the most efficient offense in NBA history, which would allow them to keep pace with Denver's torrid attack.
Maxi Kleber, a madly underrated defender, and Kristaps Porzingis can play at the 5 and provide unique challenges for Jokic. On defense, Jokic will have to get out and guard the perimeter against 5s who can shoot it. Oklahoma City and Utah, for example, don't boast that challenge. Houston's small-ball advantage sucks teams out of the paint, but their lack of interior defense would allow Jokic to eat through mismatches on offense.
While James Harden is the league's most creative scorer worthy of full-time attention on a scouting report, Luka Doncic is not far behind. The second-year scoring machine has turned the Mavericks' offense into a juggernaut. Rick Carlisle's offense is so well-spaced around he and Porzingis, with role players like Seth Curry having career years from the ease of creation Doncic allows. Curry (45 percent from 3) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (40.2 percent) are sniping from downtown in crunch time.
The fifth man Dallas trots out depends on lineups; they can go bigger with Kleber to put Porzingis at the 4. They'll throw defensive-minded wing Dorian Finney-Smith out there to lock down an impactful wing scorer, such as MPJ. Or they'll use one of their many do-it-all backcourt options like Delon Wright or Jalen Brunson to target a backcourt-heavy club.
The Dallas bench is filled with many overlooked scoring mercenaries. Trey Burke has emerged lately as a reliable shooting point guard, and his hand is as hot as anyone's in the league. JJ Barea, who will move to the starting lineup on occasion, is a veteran maestro in the pick-and-roll who can dissect any defense. Boban Marjanovic, one of the leaders in points per minute, is a monstrous anchor who can score on anyone. Against the Nuggets in March, Boban put up 31 and 17 in 31 minutes of their 113-97 victory.
Here's the real kicker: Dallas is the most efficient pick-and-roll team in the league, an area where Jokic has traditionally struggled in key moments. Teams who challenge the Nuggets most put them in constant positions to be stretched beyond their defensive capacities. Both Jokic and the emerging Nuggets have improved on that end greatly, but have they improved enough to beat the best pick-and-roll attack in the league?
With Dallas looking increasingly likely to land the 7-seed, Denver should be weary of an ascent to the 2. Homecourt advantage is gone within the bubble and matchups are what matter most. With the quality of teams elsewhere, I'm not sure there's one team the Nuggets should desire to draw. But Dallas is as dangerous a 7-seed as we've ever seen, particularly for a team hoping to avoid frequent pick-and-rolls.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).