The NBA’s Western Conference is currently like a crowded college bar on a Saturday night. $3 wells. $4 Fireball shots. A blueish liquid that glows. And an entire city’s worth of people crammed into one sticky-floored, tight-cornered trashbin. The whole night is spent trying to find a way to separate yourself from the pack, even if for just 30 seconds. You need those 30 seconds to take in the beautiful fresh air, even if it does smell like the backend of someone’s lunch (am I taking this too far?).
Every NBA team in the West is desperate for that 30 seconds of air. Just one moment of relaxation before being thrust back into the wild and overpopulated landscape cluttered with teams all in the playoff hunt.
Before the season began, there was a consensus that at least 10 teams would be vying for a playoff spot out West, maybe even 11. A quarter of the way through the season and there are FOURTEEN teams out of a possible 15 looking to secure only eight spots.
The Western Conference was a minefield last season. The Los Angeles Clippers won 42 games but didn’t make the playoffs. The Denver Nuggets won 46 games and missed the playoffs because they lost a tie-breaker against the Minnesota Timberwolves – who also won 46 games – in the very last game of the season. 46 wins weren’t good enough to make the playoffs out West but would have been good enough for the six seed in the East.
This season, it’s getting worse. And by worse, I mean the competition is actually unfair. Here’s a look at the Western Conference standings as of Nov. 30.
(Pay no attention to the poor Phoenix Suns, who are off to one of their worst starts in history despite having their best team in years)
This is… Not normal.
A three-game losing streak can be the difference from being in the top half of the playoff picture to being on the outside looking in.
The Western Conference features a considerable amount of former Kentucky players such as Jamal Murray and Trey Lyles from the Denver Nuggets, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, and Darius Miller from the New Orleans Pelicans, Karl-Anthony Towns from the Minnesota Timberwolves, and several others including Rajon Rondo, an injured DeMarcus Cousins, and the Sacramento Kings trio of De’Aaron Fox, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Skal Labissiere.
So what are we dealing with here? How many Wildcats can we expect to filter their way out of this cluster and into playoff basketball?
Let’s run through a quick evaluation of each team, starting at the top.
Los Angeles Clippers (15-6) – 1st
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the Clippers new prized possession. He quickly assumed starting point guard duties and has been on an absolute tear to start his rookie campaign. I tweeted earlier that SGA is the type of player that fans wanted Lonzo Ball to be, and while I said that with a bit of sarcasm, I don’t think it’s too hot of a take.
Anyways, the Clippers are a team that could very well end up maintaining their playoff positioning. Not at the top, obviously, that’ll be saved for the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors whenever Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Boogie return. But the “other” team from L.A. is comprised of plenty of NBA talent. They don’t have a superstar, but they go 10 players deep and every one of them could start on other playoff teams. They might be the most well-rounded team in the NBA when you take in how little production they lose once the bench units come in.
Denver Nuggets (14-7) – 2nd
The Nuggets ascension to the top of the West shouldn’t be a surprise if you watched them last season. They have an elite offense built specifically for the modern NBA centered around one of the most unique players of all time in Nikola Jokic. The defense is finally coming along, too! Trey Lyles is playing the best basketball of his career and is still getting overshadowed by his teammate Juancho Hernangomez. This isn’t a knock on Lyles, because he really is playing great – although at times inconsistent – basketball. It’s just that the Nuggets have so many players who are better than him.
Of course, we all know about Jamal Murray and how good he is. This season has come with some highs (his 48-point outburst against the Boston Celtics) and some lows (the subsequent shooting slump that followed said career-high game), but overall he’s doing everything everyone expected him to do. The breakout play of point guard Monte Morris has allowed Murray to play more of the two – a position he’s more comfortable with – and he’s played some incredibly sound basketball over the past couple of weeks. The Nuggets are a team I would expect to finish the season in the top four.
Golden State Warriors (15-8) – 3rd
I’m not even going to waste my breath with this team. Once Boogie is healthy, it’s all over. They could finish as the eighth seed and still win a ring if they’re fully healthy.
Oklahoma City Thunder (13-7) – 4th
The Thunder is a team that has played well to begin the season despite Russell Westbrook missing eight games and Andre Roberson going through another setback to his previous injury. Oklahoma City currently has the best overall defense in the NBA and that isn’t something they are likely to come down from any time soon. They’re a deep team and have someone who can specialize in nearly every area. Their offense will normalize as they continue throughout the season.
What I would like to see is more from the Kentucky trio of Hamidou Diallo, Nerlens Noel, and especially Patrick Patterson. Diallo was actually quite impressive before his devastating injury that turned into nothing but a mere ankle sprain – a miracle, honestly. As for Noel, he’s not even close to being on pace to secure anywhere near the $70 million extension he turned down from Dallas. But he has found a niche as an off-the-bench energy player that I think suits him better. He’s not a good fit for the modern NBA as a starter and he’s not even close to the caliber of elite non-shooting bigs such as Clint Capela or Rudy Gobert. Finally, I’ll leave you with this stat of Patterson’s last five games: 0 points on 0-12 shooting. Not good. The Thunder will easily make the playoffs.
Portland Trail Blazers (13-8) – 5th
They’ll likely win another 50 games this season. They’ll likely lose in the first round of the playoffs again, too. But they’ll stay in the top eight because of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Memphis Grizzlies (12-8) – 6th
This is a toss-up team at the moment. If they can stay healthy, 45 wins could be a real possibility. But they don’t have any former Kentucky players so we can pass on them. I do love me some Jaren Jackson Jr., though, and the duo of Mike Conley/Marc Gasol could run a perfect pick-and-roll until the year 2040.
Los Angeles Lakers (12-9) – 7th
They have LeBron James. They’re gonna make the playoffs. And when they do, we’ll be able to witness another helping of “Playoff Rondo”, one of the most exciting spectacles in basketball. Also, LeBron.
Dallas Mavericks (10-9) – 8th
The Mavericks are another team with no Kentucky players and I would be thoroughly shocked if they end up winning enough games to sneak into the playoffs. I think 40 wins is a reality for them, but 40 wins doesn’t get you squat in the West. Have I mentioned that I was right about Luka Doncic in every way possible? Please go watch the rookie if you can, he’s even better than everyone thought he would be.
New Orleans Pelicans (11-11) – tied 9th
Now back to the teams that matter. The Pelicans have been a team of spurts this season. Starting 4-0, then losing six straight, then winning six of their next seven games only to drop three more in a row. Their most recent win over the Washington Wizards has them back at .500, but they need to put together consistent basketball to stay in the playoff race. It starts with Anthony Davis, obviously, and his health, but continues down the line to Julius Randle, Nikola Mirotic, and All-Star hopeful Jrue Holiday. This team is much, much better than their current record indicates and they’ll be in the top eight come April.
Minnesota Timberwolves (11-11) – tied 9th
Minnesota has won four straight games and is 7-2 since the Jimmy Butler trade. I think it’s clear that the Timberwolves did not, in fact, “f*****g need” Butler to win. While their newfound success has come a bit quicker than anticipated (I projected it would be the new year before they got back to .500), I’m not sure it’s something they can sustain. Sure, this is a team with a new identity, an energized Karl-Anthony Towns, and Robert Covington/Dario Saric have slid into their new roles seemlessly, but it’s hard to imagine this roster beating out eight other worthy teams. I think 45 wins is a real possibility for this team, but as I’ve said before, 45 isn’t going to be enough.
Sacramento Kings (10-11) – tied 10th
This is the one that pains me the most. Of course the Kings get off to their best start in over a decade while the entire Western Conference is trying to slice apart each other’s throats. I reallyyyyyy hope they can sustain this success, and even though I’ve fallen in love with literally every member of that roster, I don’t know if it’s plausible. The West is just way too deep for them to keep up. Is 35-40 wins still in the realm of possibility? Absolutely, but I think a playoff berth is still well outside that metaphorical circle.
San Antonio Spurs (10-11) – tied 10th
In news that should shock no one, the team with the two players most well-known for taking mid-range jumpers aren’t succeeding in the pace-and-space era. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are unbelievable players, but they don’t have the complementary pieces surrounding them that suit them best. Both the Spurs defense and offense has been questionable. Plus, they don’t have any former Kentucky players, so do we even want them to make the playoffs? I personally don’t think they will at this point.
Utah Jazz (10-12) – 13th
I honestly don’t know what is happening with this team and if you have the answer I think every Jazz fan in the state of Utah would love to hear your thoughts. They won 48 games last season, finished the year as the hottest team in the league, and made a decent playoff run. They return practically the same roster but have looked atrocious on offense. They traded for Kyle Korver recently, which was completely necessary, but it looks like they need to make even more severe changes in the future if things don’t turn around quickly.
Houston Rockets (9-11) – 14th
Injuries have definitely hurt them – as have the losses of Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza – but James Harden is still unguardable. The Rockets aren’t cohesive at all right now, but they have one of the most brilliant front offices in the NBA and I expect them to make changes to fill in their many holes. First, they need Chris Paul back.
Remember, this is only a little over 25 percent of the season, there is still a long way to go before we can even picture what the playoff race might look like. But right now, we have enough evidence that we can at least make some educated guesses on how this will shape up. If I had to guess the final standings, it would go something like this.
- Rockets (yes, I still believe)
- Trail Blazers
- Kings (this makes me cry)
There won’t be more than a one or two game gap between spots 4-12, so most of these picks are toss-ups.
Are we understanding things a bit better now? No? Good, me either. But it sure is fun as hell to watch.
Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan