The Western Conference Bloodbath

It’s crunch time.

 

The 3-10 seeds in the western conference are fighting tooth and nail for playoff seeding as the season winds down with a little over 20 games to go and it is a lot closer than you may think. The Utah Jazz are currently 31-30, sitting at 10th place in the standings. They were closer to the 3 seed than they are the 11th seed a week ago before the Lakers went on a win streak. It is severely stacked in the Western Conference, forcing Adam Silver to possibly change the playoff landscape to the best teams seeded at 1-16. The current standings are as shown below, the Warriors and Rockets look like the obvious 1 and 2 seeds as they have blazing offenses as well as the two best teams in the entire NBA. The rest of the Western Conference is where it gets interesting and where I go into detail for the final month and a half of the NBA season.

NBA.com Standings 1-10

 

San Antonio Spurs

Sitting atop the 5 spot is none other than the San Antonio Spurs. Not unlike the New England Patriots, the Spurs have been atop the NBA hierarchy for decades and seem to have prolonged success due to their future HOF coach Gregg Popovich. LaMarcus Aldridge recently came back from a knee injury that kept him off the court two games before the all-star break, helping them beat the Cavaliers Sunday night but losing to the Nuggets earlier in the week.

Essentially Sports
Photo courtesy of Essentially Sports

 

The question isn’t whether or not the Spurs make the playoffs, I have full faith in them doing so, but can they stay afloat for the rest of the season with so many teams breathing down their neck. Kawhi Leonard has already been presumed out for the rest of the season, and it seems the Spurs will need to trust their longtime veterans in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, and most importantly Aldridge.

If I’m choosing a coach to inspire my team for the last stretch of the season it would be Gregg Popovich, but it’s hard to put faith in a team led by veterans that are on their last legs.

 

Minnesota Timberwolves

Speaking of star players that have been injured, the Timberwolves have lost Jimmy Butler for an indefinite amount of time due to a meniscus tear against the Rockets. While Jimmy Butler is optimistic about his return, saying he’ll be ready for the playoffs around mid-April, I am much more concerned.

Even if he does come back by that timeframe he’ll not only be rusty, but his team will most likely fall in the standings due to his absence. Tom Thibodeau plays his starters more than anyone in the league and keeps a tight rotation on his bench to give his team the best chance to win. Playing the second most minutes in the NBA, Jimmy Butler seems to spend more time at the Target Center than the Timberwolves maintenance crew.

Photo from Getty Images

The T-wolves are in good hands with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, as they’ll be leading the charge for the next month and a half. Expect Wiggins to play more shooting guard and for KAT to take over. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him averaging 25 points and 13+ rebounds to finish the season.

 

Denver Nuggets

Photo courtesy of Denver Stiffs

Of the teams you should not be sleeping on, the Denver Nuggets are a squad I would not want to go against coming this spring. A lineup led by Nikola Jokic, Garry Harris, and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets are young but ready to take that next step. Jokic has playmaking skills that no one at the center position should have, as well as a three-point shot that should not go uncontested. The Joker, as he’s been called, is also leading his team without Paul Millsap and beating top-tier teams in the Warriors (twice), Spurs (twice), and the Raptors.

The backcourt tandem of Gary Harris and Jamal Murray is something that will only get better with time as the two are still in their early 20s (Murray is still 20 while Harris is 23).

The question will be if the Millsap will help or hurt their defense when he returns from his wrist injury. Once going down earlier in the season, the Nuggets had success on the defensive side by placing Mason Plumlee at the 5 spot while having Jokic at the 4. While Millsap is the better player, especially offensively, it will be interesting to monitor how the two will work together and how the lineups and rotations work out in March and April.

 

Oklahoma City Thunder

Seen as the median team in the western conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder are led by the big three of Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. You could argue this group has the most pressure to make it to the western conference finals as they revamped their roster to contend with a core of the aforementioned players.

Photo by Layne Murdoch/ Getty Images

After starting off the year slow, the Thunder have rebounded to a 36-27 record which is currently 7th place in the Western Conference. Russell Westbrook is still your triple-double machine while Paul George is contending for Defensive Player of the Year as he leads the league in deflections and averages over 2 steals a game.  Carmelo Anthony is having the worst year of his career and doesn’t think the bench will be the solution to his problems. Shooting a horrific 41% from the field, Melo’s continued presence in the starting lineup holding the Thunder back even with recent success.

The injury to Andre Roberson also hinders OKC’s chances at making a run for a top seed. His offense and free-throw shooting may be on the same level as a high school player, but his defense provides a much-needed presence that no one other than Paul George can match on the perimeter.

I actually like the Thunder’s chances to get a 4 or 5 seed in the West, considering they can beat anyone in the 4th quarter, especially with three guys that are exceptionally well at playing isolation ball in crunch time. The key will be making it far come playoff time. Otherwise, Paul George may leave in free agency this summer.

 

Utah Jazz

Photo courtesy of The J-Notes

Let’s talk about the guys you aren’t too familiar about, (unless you’re a fan of them like myself): the Utah Jazz. Sitting tenth in the western conference, the Jazz went on an 11 game win streak to end the all-star break beating teams like the Raptors (in Toronto), the Warriors (by 30), the Trailblazers (in Portland) and the Spurs (twice).

The narrative of Utah’s success seems to come from elite rim protector Rudy Gobert. The Jazz have a record of 13-4 since his return from a knee injury. Listing his blocks per game and league-leading defensive win shares per game are one way to show his defensive presence. Another is by watching players consistently look for outside shots because they are too scared to test the big man in the paint.

Donovan Mitchell may be leading the team in scoring and has a solid chance at winning ROY but don’t mistake him as the franchise centerpiece. Mitchell has the flair, the dunk contest champ, the type of guy everyone wants to succeed. Hell, he can ball when it comes down to it and I’ve never seen a rookie play with so much poise along with that killer mentality. Every shot he puts up it looks like it has a chance to go in, maybe that’s why he loves shooting the rock more than anyone on the team.

But if anyone says Donovan Mitchell is the reason the Jazz are doing better than people expected, point them to Rudy Gobert first, then Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale. Those three guys put in the dirty work that no one appreciates unless you love defensive stats and all-around players. Rubio, Mitchell, and Derrick Favors have also contributed with an intense play that could sneak the Jazz into the playoffs as a 5th seed if they play their cards right.

The Jazz have the easiest strength of schedule remaining out of any team in the west besides Golden State. Don’t be shocked to see another win streak to close out the season.

 

LA Clippers

If I had to place money down on a team that would be sitting on the couch come playoff time, I’d bet on the LA Clippers missing out.

The 9th seed in the West, the Clippers would have gone on a complete overhaul from just a season ago had they traded Deandre Jordan. Chris Paul out, Lou Williams and company in. Blake Griffin out, Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley in. The Rockets and Pistons trades not only changed the playoff landscape but changed the team’s philosophy for years to come.

The Clippers are stuck in a rock and a hard place after the deadline as they don’t seem ready to compete for a top playoff seed, but don’t seem keen on tanking for a lottery pick either.

Photo via Clippers Instagram Account

Lou Williams is the offensive sparkplug the Clippers have needed after losing Chris Paul, posting a career year in points per game. The former 6th man of the year award winner even got himself a contract extension with the Clips after earlier talks of being traded. The Clippers have some nice pieces in place for a potential playoff run in Montrezl Harrell, Danilo Gallinari, and Austin Rivers, but lack a lot more talent and chemistry than the rest of the Western Conference.

Let’s see if they prove me wrong in the coming weeks.

 

New Orleans Pelicans

Two words sum up the New Orleans Pelicans team, I think you can take a guess on what those two words (or the player I’m talking about).

Anthony Davis, or as he should be called Anthony “freaking” Davis.

Those numbers are downright nasty, and as Legion Hoops alludes to it is only in the month of February. The Pelicans should be eternally grateful they have AD on their team as he almost single-handily is keeping the Pelicans afloat in the western conference. The Achilles injury to Demarcus Cousins didn’t seem to hurt the Pelicans more than people realized. A trade for Nikola Mirotic at the trade deadline sures up the power forward spot while Anthony Davis took over at center, and the Pelicans are looking to wreak havoc on the boards and from beyond the three-point line. The Pelicans are almost as hot as the Rockets as they just beat the Spurs after trailing most of the game to place their win streak of seven. The guard play for New Orleans has also been impressive for this stretch of wins. Jrue Holiday now has 20 points in all seven of the wins, while Rondo has averaged over nine assists a game in the month of February. The Pelicans are playing well right now and that’s something that’s good to see coming out of the all-star break.

 

Portland Trail Blazers 

Led by two-star shooters, the Trail Blazers were the 8th seed in last year’s playoffs. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are shooting (no pun intended) for higher than that this time around. Both averaging over 21 points a game, the Trail Blazers are not only a good jump shooting team, but also fair well at the free throw line converting around 80% of their free throws.

However, a team like Portland could falter in the upcoming month and a half if they get cold. You could also make the case that they can push for a 3 seed if they get hot.

Photo courtesy of NBA.com

The Trail Blazers need others to step up beside McCollum and Lillard on the offensive end. Jusuf Nurkic is a capable post scorer but doesn’t shoot the three-ball. Evan Turner is grossly overpaid and Maurice Harkless is not a guy you can count on for 20 points a night either. Shabazz Napier does help as he is a sharpshooter at almost 40% from the three-point line. That isn’t enough to take pressure off their starting guards since they, despite being so good, cannot do it all by themselves.

Sooner or later they’ll need a consistent third option to push for a high seed. They passed on the opportunity to add anyone at the trade deadline and decided to stay with what they had, making a move for someone else really could have put Portland over the top.

 

My Picks

Here are my two cents on who ends up making the western conference playoffs. I decided to make the Warriors the #1 seed over the Rockets since they have the overall better team, even though the Rockets have outplayed them head-to-head.

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. Houston Rockets
  3. Minnesota Timberwolves
  4. New Orleans Pelicans
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder
  6. San Antonio Spurs
  7. Denver Nuggets
  8. Portland Trail Blazers
  9. Utah Jazz
  10. LA Clippers

 

 

 

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