NBA Western Conference bottom feeders to watch down the stretch

New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis is followed by forward DeMarcus Cousins during warmups before a game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Smoothie King Center. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

We’re less than a month away from the end of the NBA’s regular season, so it’s time to focus our attention on the teams who won’t play in this year’s postseason. We’ll have at least four more games for each of the 16 playoff teams, so use these last 15 or so games to check out some of the NBA’s best young players who aren’t in a position to lead their teams to the playoffs. 

Today begins the first of a two-part series where we look at the four non-playoff teams to watch for the remainder of the regular season. We kick things off with the Western Conference bottom feeders to check out down the stretch.

New Orleans Pelicans

Everyone wants to see if DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis can work together in New Orleans. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There are only two reasons to watch the Pelicans at all for the rest of the season: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. The Pelicans somehow swindled the Kings and acquired one of the NBA’s best big men to play along with another one of the NBA’s best big men. It was definitely the most interesting move that happened at the trade deadline, but it’s not necessarily the best move.

What we do know is that the Boogie-Brow production is going to be a work in progress as they close out the season, but it’s the kind of tinkering that makes for good basketball. While the additional talent hasn’t manifested wins for the Pelicans, we’re starting to see Davis and Cousins figure themselves out. Both men have the talent to play on the block and the skill to extend the defense beyond the perimeter. Their challenge is to figure out who is doing what and when. Without much help on the wings, creating the space needed for two bigs of this caliber is going to require the patience they’re allowed to have with their record.

As the Pelicans work to solve a problem any team in the league would love to have, we can take credence from teams like the 2009 Lakers and the 2002 Kings that spacing can work when the bigs are this talented. Vlade Divac and Chris Webber played off each other beautifully during the Kings' 2002 run while Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom proved to be a pair of the best interior passers in NBA history when they were on the floor together. 

The Pelicans are going to have to do a lot of work in the draft and free agency to build the right kind of team around Davis and Cousins for the 2017-18 campaign, but a lot of the work is going to have to be done by the two stars in figuring out how to mesh their talents, because it is possible.

If you want to watch Boogie and Brow play together before the season ends, these are the must-see games:

  • 3/27: @ Utah (TNT)
  • 3/31: vs. Sacramento (League Pass, Boogie revenge game)
  • 4/12: @ Portland (ESPN)

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns is always entertaining to watch. Brad Rempel/USA TODAY Sports

What’s been interesting about the Timberwolves isn’t about who is playing well, but who’s not playing at all. The Wolves lost Zach LaVine for the season in early February, and the team has been playing much better in his absence. They’ve won nine of 16 games since the injury, and if they had been winning at this clip over the season, they’d be in line for the seventh seed in the Western Conference instead of being on the outside looking in on the playoffs.

The biggest improvements have come in two critical aspects of their game: point guard play and defense. We begin with Ricky Rubio, who had been dangled at the trade deadline but has played beautifully since LaVine went down for the the season. In those 16 games, Rubio has averaged 13 points and 11 assists while shooting just under 43 percent from the field (before the injury, Rubio was averaging nine and eight while shooting 39 percent from the field). Without LaVine on the floor, decision making has been easier for a pass-first point guard, and with everyone getting better looks, the defense has improved, too.

According to the Star Tribune, the Timberwolves have the NBA’s second-best defensive rating over their last 10 games, and they finished 7-3 during that stretch. Both Andrew Wiggins (broke Kevin Garnett’s franchise record of 14 straight games with 20+ points with a 19-game streak of his own) and Karl-Anthony Towns (broke Wiggins’ franchise record with a 21-consecutive game streak of his own) have been incredibly consistent. The fact that this continued consistency has run nearly simultaneously is both a testament to their ability to share the scoring responsibility and how good Rubio has been distributing the ball since all the trade talk has died down.

It looks like the Timberwolves have started to figure things out, just a little too late for this season, but it should bode well as they enter the 2017-18 season. If you’re going to watch them at all this year, these are the games you’ll want to catch:

  • 3/21: vs. San Antonio (ESPN)
  • 4/6: @ Portland (TNT)
  • 4/11: vs. Oklahoma City (NBA TV)

Los Angeles Lakers

Expect Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton to play his youngsters even more down the stretch. Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers are rife with young talent, but for the third consecutive season, they’ll finish with one of the worst records in the NBA. After winning 10 of their first 20 games, the Lakers only won 10 games between the beginning of December to mid-March. While Los Angeles has the second-worst record in the league, things aren’t entirely bad for Luke Walton’s Lakers.

We begin with D’Angelo Russell, the young point guard who many believed would have a much improved season with Byron Scott out of the picture. While he’s been improved, he didn’t make the jump that most expected. However, that golden glimmer of optimism has popped back up in recent weeks after the Lakers moved Lou Williams, the team’s leading scorer before the trade. Since Williams was moved to Houston, Russell has averaged 19 and five, up from the 14 and four he was averaging before the trade.

For this last stretch of the season, expect to see Walton give his young guys a lot more minutes. The team has decided to sit both Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov for the remainder of the season, which means an increase in playing time for Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance and, most importantly, Ivica Zubac, the rookie center who has impressed the team with his play as of late.

The youngsters seem to enjoy playing together, and they’ll do a whole lot more of that moving forward with the hopes that they can add another top three talent in the draft if the ping-pong balls fall their way in this year’s lottery. If you’re going to catch the Lakers before the end of the year, these are the games you’ll want to see:

  • 3/17: v. Milwaukee (NBA TV)
  • 3/26: v. Portland (NBA TV)
  • 4/09: v. Minnesota (NBA TV)

Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers are on the outside of the Western Conference playoff picture heading down the homestretch. Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t the season that anyone in Portland wanted. C.J. McCollum made another jump, Damian Lillard is shooting better and turning the ball over less, and Jusuf Nurkic has been a pleasant surprise after being traded for Mason Plumlee. Despite all of this, McCollum and Lillard weren’t quite good enough to make the All-Star team, and the Blazers aren’t quite good enough to make the playoffs. It’s been the story for these Blazers: In a league that values the top eight, this year they’ve been No. 9.

On the plus side, McCollum is having another fantastic year. Just like Lillard, McCollum raised his scoring average in each of his first four years with 23 per night this season, up from 20 last year when he won the Most Improved Player award. Lillard has seen similar improvements. 

After upsetting the Clippers and taking a game from the Warriors, many expected the Blazers to take the natural jump this season, but they’ve struggled defensively and had a hard time closing out games this year. They have the 26th-ranked defense, and 16 of their 37 losses this season have been two-possession games. These problem areas are largely tied to Festus Ezeli’s inability to stay healthy, but his lack of health opened up the door for a bit of optimism.

Nurkic could be the center who helps elevate the Blazers to a playoff team once again next season. Since joining Portland, he’s averaging 14 and nine, which includes a monster 28-point, 20-rebound, eight-assist, six-block game against the 76ers. He’s working through some conditioning things, but he’s going to help clean up a lot of defensive mistakes made on the perimeter and give the Blazers a force in the middle that they’ve needed for years. He’s been great in pick and roll sets with both Lillard and McCollum, which opens up shots for all the other guys.

Check out the Blazers before their season ends during these games:

  • 3/23: v. New York Knicks (NBA TV)
  • 3/30: v. Houston Rockets (NBA TV)
  • 4/04: @ Utah Jazz (ESPN)
NBA win over/under totals for the 2016-17 season

Phillip Barnett firmly believes in the healing power of a good snickerdoodle cookie. You can follow him on Twitter @regularbarnett.


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