We are nearing the midway point of the season, and we are finally starting to see which teams are true contenders and which are pretenders. Looking at the East, for the most part, it has gone as predicted. The Raptors look very tough and are probably the favorite to come out of the conference. The Bucks, 76ers, Celtics, and Pacers all look like threats to the Raptors. The bottom two or three seeds will be fought out between a handful of teams, but probably won’t be of a threat to the top tier teams.
Then we take a look at the West, and things are looking, well, wild. As of Friday, the number one seed and number 14 seed are separated by 5.5 games. The Phoenix Suns are the only team in the conference who look to be embracing the tank. Let’s take a look at each team that looks to make a serious push for the playoffs from the Western Conference.
The Denver Nuggets sit atop the conference standings, and they look to be for real this season. Everyone thought the Warriors were the favorite to win the conference (and championship) this season, but due to some injuries and rifts between players, things haven’t quite gone according to plan. Nuggets may be the next best team in the West. Nikola Jokic has been sensational as a playmaking big man with great vision. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap are each nice complimentary pieces. The scary thing about this team is that they aren’t even fully healthy. Will Barton, Isaiah Thomas, and Michael Porter Jr. all have been sidelined with injuries this year. Once they return, this team could get even better. With Porter Jr., Harris, Barton, Jokic, and soon to be Murray all locked up under contract for multiple years, this could be a team to reckon with for seasons to come.
We know the potential of the Warriors, and honestly, they probably aren’t sweating their “shaky” start. When you’re tied for first in the conference and your start to the season is still considered “shaky”, that’s when you know how high the expectations were for this team. Stephen Curry has battled injuries, but when he’s on the court, he’s played like the MVP. When he’s off, this team just seems out of sync. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had their disagreements but look to have settled their differences. Much like the Nuggets, this team still isn’t at full strength, and when DeMarcus Cousins returns from his Achilles injury he suffered last season, this team will feature a starting lineup that has five all-stars, all arguably in the prime of their career. Like I said, the Warriors aren’t sweating over their slow start.
Next up are the Thunder, who have improved drastically from last season. The biggest difference with them is they have added some bench depth, as well as ridding themselves of Carmelo Anthony, who just wasn’t a good fit for the team (frankly I don’t know where he would be a good fit). Dennis Schroeder and Nerlens Noel have been nice additions off the bench. Continuing with the current narrative, this team isn’t quite full strength yet either. Once Andre Roberson returns from his injury, this team will gain their premier perimeter defender, relieving some of the defensive burden from Paul George and Russell Westbrook.
Now we come to the first wrinkle in the season, and that’ the Los Angeles Clippers. No one really expected them to be a true playoff team, let alone competing for home-court advantage. This team is solid all-around but are void of a true star. The closest thing they have to a star caliber player is Tobias Harris, who has played great all year long. Ideally, he’s probably better suited as a second star on a team, but the Clippers have made it work. It will be interesting to see how this team plays through the second half of the season, but as for now, they look to be legit.
Staying in Los Angeles, the Lakers had a slow start, going 0-4 to start the year, but have been on a tear since. LeBron James and company are rolling right now and seem to have found their groove. I’ve stressed this a lot throughout the year, but Laker fans shouldn’t get too eager, for it’s not all about this year for them. This year was all about seeing who gels well with LeBron, then making adjustments either at this year’s deadline or in the upcoming offseason. They will have loads of cap space to land a star or two next season, so that’s when this team will look to make some serious noise. That being said, it’s definitely encouraging to see this team playing so well this early on.
On to the Memphis Grizzlies, who, like the Clippers, weren’t really expected to be this good. They have embraced the “Grit n’ Grind” mentality that this teamed made so popular only a few years back. Rookie Jaren Jackson looks like a true defensive catalyst in the making. Mike Conley may make a serious case to be named to his first ever All-Star roster, but will need to continue his individual and team success for that to come true. This is a fun team to watch, especially if you’re a fan of defense, aside from the high scoring games you typically see in today’s league.
Moving on to Dallas, where the Mavericks are another team exceeding expectations. One of my favorite stories of the year is the success of Luka Doncic, who may be the favorite for Rookie of the Year. It’s not only the stats he’s putting up, but the level of confidence that this kid just oozes. He’s playing like a seasoned vet, but he’s only 19 years old. Mavericks may have found their new face of the franchise once Dirk Nowitzki retires, who also made his season debut yesterday. Dennis Smith Jr. hasn’t quite taken that next step forward, but that may be because of what Doncic has brought to the table. I don’t quite believe this team has what it takes to be a serious contender in the West, but they can make the playoffs and maybe perform a first round upset.
The Sacramento Kings may be one of those stories not talked about enough. This team is easily outperforming expectations, and currently sit as the eighth seed, but no one seems to care. It may be because no one really believes they can keep up this level of play, but either way this team needs to be watched. De’Aaron Fox has improved off of last season’s impressive rookie campaign. The Kings have a log jam at the big men positions and loads of cap space. There is plenty of room for this team to improve, and with the cap space this team has, look for them to maybe unload one of their bigs and take on a contract for draft compensation. They could aim to land a star in free agency next year, though they might not be as appealing as other destinations.
The Trail Blazers have had an up and down season, and currently sit on the outside looking in. They are one of six teams that made the playoffs last year that are currently not one of the top eight teams in the standings. They still have the backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, but honestly that’s about it. Jusuf Nurkic is a solid center, but this team could really use some support from others. They can’t keep relying on Lillard and McCollum to carry the offensive load, so if this team wants to make push for the playoffs, they’ll need some help from others. We saw how ineffective this was last year when they were swept in the playoffs by the Pelicans, now they may not even make the playoffs.
The Spurs made the biggest splash of the offseason by trading away Kawhi Leonard to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan. That plan hasn’t quite worked out the way they wished but their hand was forced when it was believed that Kawhi no longer wanted to play in San Antonio. Losing their starting point guard Dejounte Murray to a season-ending injury hurts their cause, but this team just doesn’t quite compare to the teams of recent past. Never count out Gregg Popovich though, for if anyone can make adjustments and get this team back on track, it’s him. He was able to get his team to the playoffs last year, and that was without Kawhi, so I still have faith in the Spurs.
The Pelicans are sitting at .500 right now, so they aren’t in terrible position, but there’s definitely room for improvement. Anthony Davis is Anthony Davis, but he will need help from others around him for his team to be successful. Jrue Holiday has played well, as have Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic. For this team to really be a true threat, they will need someone to step up from one of the wing positions. The Pelicans may be in play to make a move before the trade deadline before the deadline, so some potential new faces may push this team back into the playoff conversation.
The Utah Jazz have been a bit of a disappointment so far, standing one game under .500, but when you look into the numbers a bit more,there’s still hope for this team. They’ve already played 18 away games this year, and actually have played decent on the road (.500), but they need to play a bit better at home if they want to better their record. Donovan Mitchell has been up and down this year, so they’ll need a bit more consistent play from him moving forward. Rudy Gobert has been an animal this year and looks to be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. This team needs to get back to playing strong defense if they want to make a push the rest of the year.
The Houston Rockets have probably been the biggest disappointment this season where they currently sit at 13-14 after going to the Western Conference Finals a year ago. They just haven’t seem to find their mojo this season. That “it” factor that made them so deadly last year. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in the offseason hurts defensively, and I fully expect the Rockets to make a move for some kind of defensive wing before the trade deadline to get back to competing in the West. Look for James Harden and Chris Paul to get their groove back and becoming an absolute force to reckon with in the West here shortly.
Lastly, we have the Timberwolves, who have been in a cloud of drama since the season started. They started the season with uncertainty with Jimmy Butler’s future with the team. That issue was resolved when they traded him away to Philly for Robert Covington and Dario Saric. Both are nice pieces, but obviously they would prefer to have been able to have kept Butler. Derrick Rose looks to have revived his career and could be Sixth Man of the Year. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins really need to step up their play, something Butler challenged them to do while he was still in town, if they want to return to the playoffs.
As you can see, the Western Conference is literally wide open. All eight playoff spots are open, and a team could be in first place one week, and out of the playoff picture the next. Teams need to start focusing and taking each game seriously, for one game here or there could be the difference between home court advantage or even making the playoffs as a whole.