After looking at the Eastern Conference, let us head over to the Western Conference. The Conference is not as deep as it used to be. It is top heavy with most of the best teams in the NBA.
- Golden State Warriors (27-5): +12.9 Point Differential
After winning a record 73 games in the regular season and coming within one game of capping it off with a NBA Championship, the Warriors made the biggest splash of the offseason by signing Kevin Durant. Obviously, any team is going to add Kevin Durant to it when given the opportunity. However, sometimes a team can have too much talent in basketball because there is only one ball that can go around. In some ways, the Warriors are better and in some ways they are not. Of course, Durant is a significant upgrade over Harrison Barnes. The Warriors are also more than willing to share the ball. So far, they have meshed well together. Durant’s scoring has decreased a little but he is still putting up the best overall numbers averaging 26.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.5 blocks. Steph Curry’s scoring has also decreased to 24.1 points. Moreover, his three point percentage has dropped from 45.4% to 39.9% this season. Nevertheless, his decrease in shooting has very little to do with Durant. He is still playing very well even if it is not the historic figures he has put up in recent seasons. Klay Thompson is still getting his points averaging 21.4 points. Draymond Green is doing more of the same as a jack of all trades who fills up the stat sheet. He is the spark that provides fire to the team. They seem to go when he goes. As their individual numbers and record suggest, they are definitely playing at an extremely high level. As a starting unit, they also have more upside as an unstoppable offensive juggernaut. Durant’s length on defense can also help on that end of the floor.
On the other hand, they are not as good as last season’s team in some ways. The first is depth. In order to make room for Durant, they had to allow a few key bench pieces to leave the team via free agency and trades. Of course, Harrison Barnes was allowed to sign with Dallas so Durant could take his place. However, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, and Maurice Speights were also forced to leave. Bogut and Ezeli are the biggest losses. Even with those two big men, they had issues with protecting the rim and getting beat up down low (e.g. the Oklahoma City Thunder big men in the Western Conference Finals gave them the most significant problems). Bogut and Ezeli were their best big men at rim protection and rebounding. While much was made about Draymond Green’s suspension in Game 5 of the NBA Finals that started the Cleveland comeback, the loss of Bogut due to injury in the middle of that series is also an underreported reason for the Warriors collapse. They brought in a couple of veteran big men, Zaza Pachulia and David West, who can play but they do not plug the deficiencies. They are weaknesses that opponents can exploit again. In addition, the Warriors are not as deep as they were last year. Their bench gave them a significant advantage over every other team’s bench in the NBA last season. Of course, they can now just make sure Curry, Thompson, and Durant is in the game at all times to provide an elite scorer on the court. However, they will not be able to rest their stars as much in order to maintain effectiveness throughout the game. In the regular season, they will not push them as much to win as many games. As such, it was easier to push for the wins record in the regular season with more quality depth. Nevertheless, they were not going to push for the record again anyway because they are much more concerned with winning another title this year. At 5 losses already, 73 wins does not appear attainable this season. When a team has multiple scorers, it is often an issue [albeit a good problem to have] of who the ball goes to at the end of a game in a one shot situation. If the game against the Cavaliers on Christmas is any indication, Durant will be the first option. Of all the stars on the team, he is the one who can best create a quality shot in a clutch situation due to his height and length. Of course, Curry and Thompson is more than capable if not better at actually hitting the shot. Nevertheless, I would look for Durant as the first option to create a shot for himself or his teammates.
A side story of this season will be the scrutiny on Curry’s performance in pressure situations and in general. During the regular season, he has been magnificent. He is already one of the greatest shooters of all-time. However, he needs to do it in the clutch to get the mantle of best ever. He disappeared at the beginning of the NBA Finals two years ago. Once the Warriors figured out how to play against the shorthanded Cavs and turned the tide, Curry finally started hitting shots. Nevertheless, he performed poorly when his team needed him the most. The same situation occurred in last year’s NBA Finals except he never found his stride. One of the defining moments in Game 7 is Kevin Love preventing Curry from hoisting up a quality three point shot in the final minute. It is symbolic of his overall struggles. The conversation of his clutch play started again with a mediocre performance against the Cavs on Christmas Day. As another note from the Christmas game, it is an indictment of Curry’s game that he was lifted from the game for defensive purposes when Kyrie Irving hit the game winning shot. Of the four stars on Golden State, Durant, Thompson, and Green are great two way players. As such, a case can be made that Curry is the fourth best all-around player on his team now. I also think Durant is the best scorer and overall player on the Warriors now. Moreover, head coach Steve Kerr rightfully called out Curry in that he “can make better decisions”. He is a victim of his own greatness. He can hit a shot from anywhere and distances most players would not even attempt on the court. However, just because he can does not mean he should. Consequently, he has become reckless and sloppy with his play. Although Durant took a lot of criticism for joining the Warriors, Curry will most likely take the blame if his team loses and he disappears again in critical situations. Of course, Curry is still a revolutionary player who has changed the way the game is played. He is still the best shooter on the team and in the league. Despite all the criticism, he is a deadly scorer and shooter. Although he still has plenty to prove, we should just wait to see how he performs going forward. Due to his surge in popularity and winning back to back MVPs, he is no under the microscope so everything about him will be analyzed and overanalyzed.
For all these reasons, the Warriors are definitely the story of the NBA this season. Barring injuries, I expect them back in the NBA Finals. They started the season with 5/4 Title Odds.
- San Antonio Spurs (25-6): +6.6 Point Differential
With the Warriors mopping up in terms of winning the news headlines, the Spurs will happily just go about their business and win. They are transitioning into the post-Tim Duncan era and doing it very well. Kawhi Leonard is now the franchise player. He is averaging 24.4 points, 6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 2 steals while also being the best defensive player in the league. His game has taken the greatest leaps in terms of his offense. Like Duncan, he is a low-key, unassuming superstar. Nevertheless, Duncan had a killer instinct despite being quiet. It remains to be seen if Leonard has it or can develop it as the lead man for the Spurs. Again, the Spurs have one of the deepest teams in the league. Patty Mills continues to be stellar off the bench. Jonathan Simmons is a great D-League find and continues to develop this season. Dewayne Dedmon has been another stellar D-League find and a strong contributor as a backup big man. David Lee is a solid veteran pickup that bolsters the frontline depth. The Spurs continue to be the model franchise.
On the other hand, the Spurs have real issues to handle too. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are aging. They are still contributors but their roles are being reduced. In a big playoff series, it begs to question how much the Spurs can lean on them in crucial moments. In addition, they have an interesting problem with their big men, Lamarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Aldridge was brought in to replicate the young version of Tim Duncan. Gasol was signed in the offseason to replace the role an older Duncan was filling. In terms of Aldridge, there were rumors of the Spurs wanting to trade him because he wanted to be the lead man instead of Kawhi and did not necessarily fit in with the system. Moreover, he is not the stellar defensive player that Duncan was during his career. Both Aldridge and Gasol will have difficulty defending smaller lineups that bring them to the perimeter. Neither is good at defending against pick and rolls. They also do not punish smaller lineups in the post. Both players like to shoot jumpers and take fadeaway jumpers. Accordingly, they need to start posting up and exploiting those matchups when teams go small on them to counteract their defensive deficiencies. In general, the Spurs are an older team in transition. I just do not know if they are athletic enough to slow down the Warriors perimeter game. Of course, I am definitely interested to see what Gregg Popovich has up his sleeves. I am skeptical but I would love to see him devise something clever against a juggernaut foe.
- Houston Rockets (22-9): +6.8 Point Differential
The Rockets made the right call allowing Dwight Howard to leave in free agency and centering their offense completely on James Harden. He handles the ball all game and has put up ridiculous statistics: 27.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 11.9 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. Eric Gordon has been a good pickup as a backcourt complement averaging 17.6 points. His issue has always been more about injury than talent and he is healthy this year. Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza are good shooters that spread the floor for Harden. However, I am not a big fan of an offense being focused so much on one player rather than a system that encourages ball movement and team play. I cannot argue that the Rockets and Mike D’Antoni’s system are utilizing Harden’s talent in a highly productive way and he has performed at a MVP level. My biggest issue with this team is their defense. Besides Patrick Beverley and maybe Ariza, I still do not trust their defense besides their improvement to the middle of the pack. As a result, I do not buy they are real title contenders.
- Los Angeles Clippers (22-10): +7.4 Point Differential
The Clippers are a team that could be on its last chance to win a title. They have a lot of key free agents coming up: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, J.J. Redick. They started out red hot but have cooled. They are dealing with another major injury to Griffin. However, it is not that big of a deal if he is back and playing well for the playoffs, which he should be. This team looks very similar to previous seasons. Chris Paul continues to be the leader and play brilliantly. They are a team that just needs to do it in the playoffs. They do not execute that well in the slower game played during the playoffs. More importantly, they just do not exude much toughness when they take a punch in a postseason series. In addition, the Warriors are as formidable as ever. For all these reasons, I am highly skeptical they can get over the hurdle. I give them a puncher’s chance because of their talent. While their stars could leave and devastate the franchise, Steve Ballmer will pay whatever it takes so I expect them to stay.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (19-12): +1.8 Point Differential
With the loss of Kevin Durant, they can no longer win a title. However, it has allowed basketball fans to witness the full potential of Russell Westbrook’s unique talents. He may be the most athletic player to play the point guard position. He is more than capable of averaging a triple double for a full season and has been doing so averaging 31.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 10.9 assists. While I can marvel at his physical gifts and statistics, my feelings are conflicted. At what point is it more about one person’s numbers than a team getting better and winning? If Westbrook is putting up the statistics in the flow of the game with the primary objective of winning, I would totally revel at his accolades. However, a lot of the hype seems manufactured since there is some stat padding going on. His teammates have already admitted to pulling their hands back to make sure Westbrook gets a rebound. It is not like his team is devoid of talent. He has big men who can play. Victor Oladipo is a solid backcourt complement. There are other good supporting pieces. They have a good record but it should be better with his production and the talent around him. One man’s individual accomplishments are becoming more important than a team’s success in a team game. As a result, I have mixed feelings about Westbrook’s chase of averaging a triple double for a season but I would still like to see it done.
- Memphis Grizzlies (20-13): -0.2 Point Differential
I am surprised to see the Grizzlies with their solid record. Their stellar point guard, Mike Conley, has missed 9 games already. Chandler Parsons is a big offseason signing but has only played 8 games. Zach Randolph is older and has a diminished role coming off the bench. Nevertheless, the Grizzlies play gritty basketball with stellar defense and contributions up and down a deep roster who support their stud center, Marc Gasol. They are proof that an old school style can still win in the NBA. They are a team I enjoy rooting for but I am skeptical that they have the offensive firepower, even when everyone is healthy, to challenge the elite teams in the NBA for the title.
- Utah Jazz (18-13): +3.9 Point Differential
The Jazz have been an up and coming young team and they are finally coming on to the stage. They have been mainly beating the teams they are supposed to so far but it is an important step for a young team. Gordon Hayward is one of the most underrated stars in the NBA averaging 22 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. Rudy Gobert is a force down low. Derrick Favors has been dealing with injury but slowly working through his minutes restriction. Once he is back into form, Gobert and Favors form one of the best frontlines in the league. Trey Lyles is another talented, young big man who is developing and bolsters that frontline. The Jazz’s biggest issue in past seasons has been the lack of a quality point guard. The trade for George Hill in the offseason has addressed it. He has been very productive averaging 20 points. I also like the addition of Joe Johnson over the offseason. He adds another veteran presence and a wing who can score off the bench. The Jazz are definitely a team to watch this season and coming seasons.
- Sacramento Kings (13-17): -1.9 Point Differential
The Kings are a highly dysfunctional team. At the center of it is mercurial, young superstar DeMarcus Cousins. He is as talented of a big man as there is in the NBA and he is producing like it averaging 29.1 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.5 blocks. He is also shooting threes at 38%. However, he is a hothead that continues to stir up trouble and generate controversy. On the other hand, a lot of the issues with this team is that he does not have much help. Rudy Gay has talent but he seems to put up meaningless stats during his entire career. He makes very little impact on the outcome of the game. There is also not much after Gay. The Kings will have to decide whether they want to trade Cousins. In my opinion, they should just keep him and try to add pieces around him. They are not going to get equal value so they might as well try to make it work.
- Portland Trailblazers (13-19): -4 Point Differential
They are one of the biggest disappointments in the NBA. Damian Lillard continues to be one of the brilliant, young stars in the NBA. He and C.J. McCollum form one of the best backcourts in the NBA. They also matched a lucrative offer to Allen Crabbe from the Brooklyn Nets and brought him back. He is a good player off the bench to spell Lillard and McCollum. As such, their 13-19 record is unacceptable. They need to play much better defense and more production from their frontcourt. They acquired Festus Ezeli from the Warriors in the offseason. He has been hurt and may need season ending surgery but he is not a big enough factor to excuse the record.
- Denver Nuggets (12-18): -2.1 Point Differential
The Nuggets let head coach George Karl go because they were winning a lot of games but not winning in the playoffs. Now, they do not win in the regular season either. Nevertheless, there is talent on this team. Nikola Jokic is a promising big man who has played better of late. Emmanuel Mudiay is a talented, young point guard who needs to get his feet under him but also has improved recently. I also like their pick of Jamal Murray in the last draft. He has not done much but I still think he will be a good NBA scorer. In my opinion, they should see what they could get for their veteran players and build around Jokic and Mudiay. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari are wing scorers and shooters that a contending or playoff team would like to acquire. Kenneth Faried is an energy player who is better utilized on a good team. He signed a lucrative contract extension of five years for $60 million but it will be close to league average with the jump in the salary cap. He should be much easier to move now. Young players and draft picks would be good returns for these veterans.
- Los Angeles Lakers (12-22): -6.1 Point Differential
A 10-10 start gave a lot of hope in Los Angeles for the post-Kobe Bryant era. However, they have been 2-12 since. Nevertheless, the Lakers should only be focused on developing its young talent. D’Angelo Russell has looked much better playing for a coach, Luke Walton, that allows him to play in his second season. He is averaging 15 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.1 steals. Brandon Ingram looks very raw and needs to add strength. Nevertheless, the talent is there so they need him to develop him throughout the season. Julius Randle is another good young big man. However, I am not his biggest fan. He needs the ball to go isolation too much on offense and does not contribute much on the defensive end. He does not offer any kind of rim protection. He is like a young Zach Randolph. Of course, Randolph figured out how to play well with a team in Memphis so Randle is definitely worth keeping on a team starving for talent. Regardless, I would definitely move him in the right deal if I were the Lakers. As another positive, the Lakers have also gotten a lot out of their bench, especially with Lou Williams and Jordan Clarkson. Nick Young has been surprising good in the starting lineup alongside Russell. It definitely makes more sense to have Clarkson come off the bench so they do not start two point guards together. The Lakers struggles started when they suffered injuries that cut into their depth. Again, it will be a successful season if they can significantly develop Russell, Ingram, and the other young players.
- New Orleans Pelicans (11-21): -4.1 Point Differential
Anthony Davis is putting up MVP caliber production averaging 29.7 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 2.7 blocks. Unfortunately, he is getting no help. It is a shame that his talents are being wasted on such a lousy team. Draft pick Buddy Hield is struggling in his transition to the NBA and Tyreke Evans has only played 4 games.
In a heartwarming story, Jrue Holiday voluntarily missed the beginning of the season to care for his sick wife. She could not treat her cancer until she gave birth to their child. Fortunately, she is doing well now. Holiday should be commended for having his priorities straight.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (11-21): -2.6 Point Differential
With Tim Thibodeau at the helm, I assumed the Timberwolves would win 50 games because they have a lot of great young talent. I did not account for the fact that Thibodeau has only coached veteran teams. The losing must be killing him but the future is still promising. Karl-Anthony Towns is another great Kentucky big man averaging 22.2 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.3 blocks. He also shoots his free throws at 80%. Like Cousins and Davis, they represent the new age of versatile, athletic big men that are gracing the NBA. Those three Kentucky big men will be battling it out for the title of best big man in the league for years to come. Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine are also scoring as they are averaging 21.7 and 21.2 points respectively. In terms of Wiggins, he needs to improve his overall game. With his athletic ability, he needs to be filling up stat lines other than points. At this point, Thibodeau should just focus on developing his young team. He should unleash their offensive potential and let them run. They should learn to play offense first before focusing on defense. It is backwards for a defensive minded bulldog like Thibodeau but it is the better course for a young team.
- Dallas Mavericks (9-21): -5.6 Point Differential
The well has finally run dry for the Mavericks. They had a great streak of success and a championship to show for it. Dirk Nowitzki has only played 6 games and the end of his career is arriving. I fully expect him to retire after this season. There will not be much conversation of trading him. He could definitely help a contender. Nevertheless, he has been loyal to the Mavericks so I expect him to want to stay a Maverick his entire career. On the positive side, Harrison Barnes has been a nice acquisition and averaging 20.6 points now that he has left the loaded Warriors team. They will need to rebuild around Barnes going forward.
- Phoenix Suns (9-21): -6.5 Point Differential
They were winning with three very good point guards a few seasons ago but they had to trade two of them (Isiah Thomas and Goran Dragic) because of the roster imbalance. Beginning with accumulating too many point guards then trading them, the Suns have made some very peculiar roster moves recently. However, not all is lost. Eric Bledsoe is one of the better young point guards averaging 20 points, 5.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 1.5 steals. Devin Booker is a promising young shooter averaging 19.3 points. Alex Len is a good young big man. Accordingly, I just do not understand why they are starting Tyson Chandler over him. They took a gamble on Dragan Bender a year after Kristaps Porzingis panned out so well for the Knicks. Bender has not done anything but they were taking a wait and see approach on him anyway. They are terrible but the situation is not hopeless.