As the Clippers have a few days of rest in between games, it seemed like a good time to take stock of the Western Conference with around 15 games left in the 2023 NBA season.

The Top Dog

Denver Nuggets – Even after three bad losses in a row, the 46-22 Nuggets have a healthy lead for the 1 seed in the West. If they go just .500 the rest of the way, they will almost certainly have homecourt throughout the West playoffs, which is even more advantageous than for most teams considering Denver’s altitude edge. The Nuggets have the second-best offense in the NBA and a league-average defense, giving them a 3.9 Net Rating. Nikola Jokic remains one of the best – if not the best – player in basketball. Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are back and playing well. The Nuggets’ bench is a concern, but they have probably the best top 6 in the NBA (right there with the Celtics and Bucks), and probably have enough bench players to scrape by. Anything less than a Western Conference Finals appearance would be a disaster, and considering the homecourt, continuity, and playoff experience edge they’re likely to hold over most of their opponents in the Western Conference, they really should be bound for the NBA Finals.

Solid as a Rock

Sacramento Kings – Somehow, someway, the Kings have been one of the most stable teams in the NBA this season. They haven’t had any notable controversies, have been winning at a decent clip just about all year, and haven’t been plagued by injuries. The result is a 40-26 record and a 2.9 Net Rating, good for 7th in the NBA. It’s hard to pencil them in as a contender when so many of their key players – De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Keegan Murray, and Davion Mitchell – are untested in the playoffs, and nigh impossible considering their defense is ranked 25th in the entire NBA. Still, they have the top-ranked offense, by far, and will be tough for any team to stop. It’s hard to see them winning a championship with that defense, but a round or two? Why not.

Who Knows

Phoenix Suns – The Suns are 3-0 in the games Kevin Durant has played, and 7-4 since the trade writ large. Their 37-30 record gives them a decent cushion for the 4th seed, but Durant being out the next 2-3 weeks makes it unlikely they can push for 2 or 3. More worryingly for the Suns, a best-case scenario for KD is that he gets like seven more regular season games with his new team, and 10 games total together is not a lot of time to gel and get rotations figured out for a deep playoff run. If all four of KD, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and De’Andre Ayton are healthy for the playoffs, the Suns will be an extremely tough out. Yet CP and KD’s injury issues and the Suns’ uncertain depth in conjunction with their lack of time together casts doubt on their ability to win four playoff series. Could they beat any single team in the NBA in a seven-game series though? Absolutely.

Memphis Grizzlies – There’s no better example for how quickly vibes and expectations can shift than the 2023 Grizzlies, who went from NBA darlings to a shitshow very quickly. Ja Morant’s off-court issues have him away from the team indefinitely, Dillon Brooks’ attitude has backfired in suspensions, and key reserve Brandon Clarke is out for the season with an Achilles tear. If Morant and starting center Steven Adams (who has also missed a ton of time) return with enough time to get the Grizzlies back on track before the playoffs, they could be a very tough opponent. But it just doesn’t feel like the Grizzlies’ year, even with huge breakout campaigns from Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. The Grizz have enough of a standings cushion that they should hold on to a top 3 seed, but they are absolutely a candidate to lose in the first round if they can’t get their act together.

LA Clippers – I don’t need to write too much about the Clippers, who are 19th in the NBA in Net Rating (-0.1) with an offense that has climbed to 20th and a defense that has fallen to 12th. It’s hard to discount the Clippers given that Kawhi Leonard is playing at a superstar level, and considering just how many NBA-caliber players they have. But fit has been an issue, as has coaching, and the Clippers will likely be at homecourt disadvantage throughout the playoffs. If the matchups break right and Kawhi and Paul George stay healthy it’s easy to see this team making a run. It’s also just as easy to see them lose 4-2 in the first round against teams that are more athletic and turn the ball over less.

Golden State Warriors – The defending champions are a league average team, with the 14th ranked offense and 14th ranked defense. Optimism comes from their unmatched chemistry, playoff experience, and the sheer magic of Steph Curry. Worry would come in some questionable-ish depth, the Andrew Wiggins situation, and the Warriors not defending like the Warriors this season. It’s hard to rule out any team with Steph Curry playing like he has, and more than any other team in the NBA, it’s reasonable to think the Warriors have a “postseason switch”. I think it’s fair to see no other team would be eager to face the Warriors except maybe the revenge-seeking Grizzlies, and for good reason. But just like the Clippers, it’s also easy to see the Warriors falling early behind turnovers and sloppy defense.

LA Lakers – After starting the season 0-5, and then 2-10, the Lakers have been 31-25 the rest of the way, and have made massive roster adjustments since the start of the season. A lot of their depth is still not great, but it’s a lot better, and fits more cleanly around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Whether those two guys are healthy for the playoffs, especially LeBron, is an open question, but if they are, the Lakers could have the two best players in a series against just about any team in the NBA. I think the “nobody wants to play the Lakers” is overblown compared to say the Warriors, but other teams will stop being scared of LeBron only when he’s retired. It’s hard to call them a contender when they’ve had such little time together and with question marks on the health of their best players, but it’s also hard to knock them meaningfully below the teams above them in the standings.

Dallas Mavericks – Trading for Kyrie Irving has not helped the Mavs so far, as they’re 5-6 with him in the lineup and have lost the two games he’s been on the team and hasn’t suited up. The Mavs’ defense was not great before acquiring Irving, and it’s been a disaster with him (they’re down to 23rd on the season). The return of Maxi Kleber should help, but the Mavs’ depth is not great, and their two best players are both vulnerable on defense. Luka is so brilliant and the Mavs have enough offensive firepower around him that they’re going to be scary in a given playoff series, but it’s nigh impossible to see this team winning multiple playoff series much less four. Their floor might be higher due to Luke, but the ceiling does not seem to be there.

Minnesota Timberwolves – Unlike most of the teams on this list, the Wolves are pretty good defensively – 11th and rising – but bad on offense (23rd). The offense should improve when Karl-Anthony Towns returns, but like so many of the other Western Conference teams, the Wolves will have very little time to gel. Towns didn’t get in that many reps with Rudy Gobert and has now missed most of the season. He will now need to adjust to a new starting point guard in Mike Conley. I thought the Wolves would be a regular season monster and playoff-weak, and still think that, if the Wolves even make the postseason. An Anthony Edwards-Towns-Gobert trio is theoretically pretty good, and they have some nice role players around them, but I can’t see much of a run happening this season.

Do They Want the Play-In?

Oklahoma City Thunder – The Thunder have a record of 33-35, which puts them in a four-way tie with the Jazz, Lakers, and Pelicans for 11th in the Western Conference, but boast a 1.4 Net Rating, 10th in the NBA and 5th in the West. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is also the best player on any of these teams below the Lakers outside of Damian Lillard, and has been magnificent this year. If the Thunder really want the play-in, they could probably get it. However, they’ve already started resting Shai. With Shai, Josh Giddey, Jalen Williams, and the recovering Chet Holmgren, the Thunder already have an excellent core in place. Adding another lottery pick, with a potential shot at Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson, might be too much for Sam Presti to pass up.

Utah Jazz – The Jazz are 33-35 and hanging onto the last play-in spot by a thread. The question is whether or not the Jazz want to make the play-in. Having traded Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert last summer, the Jazz furthered their tank by moving on from other vets at the deadline. While they have a million future picks from all those deals, it would make sense for them to want to get into the lottery this year as well to give themselves a chance at a top pick and lock themselves to a better pick. If they want to try to win, they can probably hang in there, but I suspect at some point they will trail away to let another team claim the last play-in.

Scrounging for the Play-In

New Orleans Pelicans – The Pelicans are 33-35 as well, tied with the Lakers, Jazz, and Thunder for 9th/10th in the Western Conference, but boast a 0.7 Net Rating (13th in the NBA). Unfortunately, that’s not really a sign of better things to come this year, but more an indicator of how good they were to start the season when Zion Williamson was healthy. Sadly, the big man has once again been out most of the season, and a return does not appear to be close in the offing. Jonas Valanciunas and CJ McCollum are on the wrong side of 30 and having their worst campaigns since very early in their careers, which does not bode well. Brandon Ingram is always injured. Herb Jones has stagnated after a great rookie season. Barring a Zion return soon, the Pelicans seem the most likely of these teams to end in the lottery.

Portland Trailblazers – The Blazers are sitting in 13th place in the Western Conference with a -1.3 Net Rating (24th in the NBA) and 31-36 record – all in maybe the best season of Damian Lillard’s legendary career. The Blazers’ defense is putrid, with only the tanking Pistons, Rockets, and Spurs being below them. Jerami Grant is a great sidekick, and Anfernee Simons can really score, but the rest of the roster hovers around fine at best. Lillard and Simons is unplayable defensively, and one has to think Simons plus other stuff will be on the move this summer to try to pair Dame with another true star as we head into the sunset of his career. Still, the season isn’t over, and with Dame playing at this level, a play-in run is not impossible.

Tank City

San Antonio Spurs – This season saw the last departures of the playoff Spurs era of just a couple short years ago, and the full embrace of the tank. Devin Vassell is awesome, Keldon Johnson is talented offensively, and Tre Jones could be a really nice point guard if he was able to shoot. Among their rookies, Jeremy Sochan has been the standout, what with his versatility on both sides of the floor – but don’t sleep on Malaki Branham as a scorer. If the Spurs get the right guy in the draft, I think they could be back in the play-in mix as soon as next year. They have a nice pool of young guys, they just need that core centerpiece.

Houston Rockets – The Rockets will finish near the bottom of the standings for three years in a row, joining the Process Sixers as an all-time tanking era. Unfortunately for them, this season didn’t see much progress – Jalen Green didn’t improve much on his rookie campaign, and Jabari Smith Jr. was awful in his own rookie year. Alperen Sengun looks like a player, and Kenyon Martin Jr. and Tari Eason have the makings of winning role players, but a true centerpiece does not seem to be present yet. Worse, the culture and environment has reportedly been very bad. Depending on how the lottery falls, they might be bad again next year, though a near-certain coaching change in the summer could help.

Subscribe
Notify of
59 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
59
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x