What is so great about the sixth seed?
The playoff format has been relatively consistent throughout NBA history, with a few changes here and there. The most recent change came in 2003 when the NBA decided that all rounds should be played as a best-of-seven series instead of the first-round played as best-of-five series. It has always been the best eight teams in each conference automatically get in, until last year, when a play-in game was introduced. Last year, a play-in game would only take place if the ninth seed was within four games of the eighth seed. This year, and maybe all future years, the play-in will be present but it will look different. The seven, eight, nine, and ten seeds will all have to play in a mini-tournament in order to secure a spot in the playoffs. The seven and eighth seeds will play each other, and the winner of that game earns the real seventh seed in the playoffs, while the loser of that game will have to play the winner of the nine vs. ten game for the real eighth seed. All the seven and eighth seeds have to do is win one game and they are in. The nine and ten seeds must win twice to earn the eighth seed. In the past, all you have to do is be a top-eight seed, but now, you really want to be a top-six seed in order to avoid the play-in tournament.
Right now, the Dallas Mavericks are the seventh seed in the Western Conference. As I am writing this, they sit two games back of Portland, two and a half games back of the Lakers, and three games back of the Nuggets. Is it reasonable to believe that Dallas can jump one or two of those teams? Yes, it is.
To start the year, the Mavs had one of the toughest schedules in the league. On top of that, the chemistry seemed a bit off and as if things couldn’t get any worse, COVID problems struck Dallas hard. Superstar Luka Doncic remained COVID-free through all of it, but he came into the season (maybe) out of shape with his three-point shot off. Of course, he turned all of that around quickly, but it was not enough to make up for his teammates’ absences. The Mavericks lost seven of eight games, and fell to an abysmal 9-14.
Everybody panicked, except for the Mavericks. National media wrote the team, and Luka Doncic, off without even acknowledging all of the missing pieces. Following that rough streak in late January/early February, Dallas rattled off ten of twelve. Today, the Mavs are still hot. They have won seven of nine which puts them at 28-21 four the year, meaning that since being 9-14, they are 19-7. Crazy what having all of your players will do… For those who never panicked, good for you.
On Monday night, Dallas beat the league’s best team in the Utah Jazz without Kristaps Porzingis, while holding Utah to just 103 points. In the games leading up to that, Dallas held the Knicks to 86 points, and the Wizards to 87 points. The whole idea of the offseason was to pile up long defenders. This strategy seemed to be failing miserably. At one point the Mavericks were ranked close to bottom for defensive rating. They have since brought that ranking up to 15, which does not sound great, but considering where they were, it is a win. With Josh Richardson, Maxi Kleber, and Dorian Finney-Smith, all back to full health, the defensive issues seem to be fading.
Another plus for the Mavericks going forward is the remaining strength of schedule. For the rest of the season, Dallas has the easiest schedule in the league. Their toughest remaining games are against Milwuakee, Miami, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and the Los Angeles Lakers twice, and who knows which stars will be available for LA by then. The rest should be pretty easy. The five seemingly easiest games left will be against Minnesota, Houston, Washington, Cleveland, and Detroit twice.
The next thing to worry about is who is in front of them. Portland has a two game advantage over Dallas right now. But, they have the third hardest schedule remaining. The Lakers, who are already without their best players, have the fifth hardest schedule remaining.
Things are looking good for Dallas, especially if they can stay healthy. If they can take care of the games they are supposed to win and maybe win a few that they are not supposed to win, the team will climb the standings enough to avoid the play-in games. They will also be getting veteran shooter JJ Redick soon, which will only help. This team is getting hot and figuring things out at the right time. They just need to close out strong and hope for some misfortune for other teams.