Power Ranking the Packed Western Conference

A third of the way through the NBA season, the Western Conference standings are unprecedentedly close. The 14th ranked team in the West is currently seven games out of first. That’s right. 1-14 are only seven games apart. And the Houston Rockets, who were a couple minutes away from winning the conference last season, aren’t even in the top eight. To make sense of this packed conference, let’s try to construct a 1-15 list. To clarify, I’m not ranking the teams based off of their first 25ish games, I’m telling you which teams are really the scariest, and will be when the playoffs come.

15. Phoenix Suns (7-24)

The only easy ranking on this list, Phoenix has been an absolute train wreck in 2018-19. They rank dead last in the NBA in point differential, losing by an average of 11.9 points. Listing off the stats wouldn’t do Phoenix justice. Josh Jackson is really looking like a bust, shooting 26% from three. Even Devin Booker (23p, 7a) and Deandre Ayton (16p, 10r) are putting up empty stats. It seems the Suns are in tank mode again, which, isn’t a bad idea. Adding a Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett would make their young core look pretty promising.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves (14-16)

I wish I could put Minnesota higher, because certain aspects of their team have looked really good since the Butler trade, but the conference is just too packed to have them anywhere above 14th. The Wolves have become a very intriguing team. Yes, they lost Butler, their star player who could dominate on both ends of the court, but it’s no secret that Jimmy was pushing for a trade, and moving him cleared lots of distraction for Minnesota. Robert Covington has been great, especially defensively. Keep an eye on him as a DPOY candidate. He’s really been outplaying Andrew Wiggins since joining the Timberwolves. Here’s their averages since the trade.

CovingtonCategoryWiggins
14.4PPG13.6
6.2RPG3.3
1.2APG2.4
2.8SPG1.1
1.1BPG0.7
43%3PT34%
80%FG69%
39%FT31%

 

As you can see, RoCo has been the better player offensively, too. Meanwhile, Dario Saric has been a solid role player too, and now the Wolves are left with the same questions they had before they traded for Butler a year and a half ago. Does Towns have the mentality to be a superstar? Can he and Wiggins really be the future for Minnesota? And looking back on the trade where they acquired Butler, the Timberwolves may have given up a few young pieces that would be pretty helpful now. Instead, they seem to be stuck in neutral, just hoping Towns and Wiggins will be enough.

13. Sacramento Kings (16-14)

It sucks to have to put Sacramento so low on this list, because they’ve been one of the surprises of the season so far. However, their lack of experience will probably do them in, and they’ll likely regress to the mean, missing the playoffs this season. Sacramento also has a negative point differential, at an average of -1.0 per game. This is another sign that their success may not last. The Kings rank 3rd in the NBA in field goal percentage as well as three-point percentage. Last season they ranked 22nd and 26th respectively. They’re also up to 7th in assists, up from 25th last year. Lots of this credit goes to the young backcourt, De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. Combined, they’re averaging 37.2 points per game, up from 25.1. They’ve also increased their assists from 6.3 to 9.8. Fox shot 30.7% from three last year and has that up to 38.7% this year. Coach Dave Joerger recently called Fox and Marvin Bagley “the next Westbrook and Durant”. Calling Bagley Durant is blasphemous in many ways, but comparing Fox to Westbrook, dare I say, isn’t that outlandish. He may be the fastest player in the NBA already, and he has that competitive “it” factor that every NBA fan, coach, and executive alike loves to see in a player. Now that Fox has improved his shooting off the dribble, coupled with his speed, he’s becoming increasingly difficult to defend. The Kings are in good hands.

12. New Orleans Pelicans (15-16)

I feel like I’m saying this about every team, but it’s tough to put NOLA so low. Especially considering the fact that the Pelicans have one of the five best players in the entire NBA, it’s unfortunate that the supporting cast is so pitiful. They rank 20th in the NBA in three-point attempts, and outside of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, there’s not a lot of help in New Orleans. However, the Pels’ offense has been better than their defense. Their offensive rating is 113.7, 4th in the NBA, while their defensive rating, 112.1, is 22nd. Don’t be surprised if the Pelicans try to make a trade to acquire a wing defender. They could really use the help. To be fair, they’ve struggled with injuries like that of Elfrid Payton, but it seems like this team is inferior to the one that upset Portland last season.

11. Dallas Mavericks (15-13)

How about the Mavs this year? Luka Doncic has been incredible, he’s averaging 19, 5, and 7. He’s shooting 44% from the field and 36% from three, which is especially impressive considering how many of his attempts are off the dribble. DeAndre Jordan was a great pickup for them too, averaging 13.9 rebounds and 11.0 points on 62% shooting—he’s a great pick and roll partner for the young backcourt. They’re right in the thick of things, and they’ll probably fall out of the playoffs by the end of the season. Don’t be surprised if the race in the West continues to stay close all the way to the wire.

10. San Antonio Spurs (16-15)

The Kawhi Leonard trade does not look great in hindsight. DeMar DeRozan has been, well, DeMar DeRozan, which simply isn’t Kawhi Leonard. Not to mention the injuries to Dejounte Murray and then Derrick White, which have hurt the Spurs too. Their defensive rating is 23rd in the NBA. It was 3rd last season. The lack of defense has really been the downfall in San Antonio, and they simply don’t have the roster they’ve had in years past. They’re also shooting too many midrange jumpers. The Spurs actually rank 1st in the NBA in three-point percentage, 38.9%, but 30th, dead last, in three-point attempts, only 23.9 per game. They’re also 1st in the NBA in two-point attempts. That’s the nature of the roster, with DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Rudy Gay shooting 51% of the team’s field goals. They just don’t have the roster they’ve had before, and it seems they may miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97. 21 years.

9. Memphis Grizzlies (16-14)

The Grizzlies are back. Last season, Memphis went 22-60, their worst record of the past decade. That snapped their seven-year streak of making the playoffs. This somehow went widely unnoticed, but Mike Conley only played twelve games due to a bone contusion in his heel. That bad season got them Jaren Jackson, who’s been great, and Conley is back to full health. Now Memphis has a real shot at getting back to the playoffs. They’ve always been the team that refused to tank, continuing to run it back until Conley’s injury last year. But now that he’s back, the Grizz are right back to their competitive ways. Jackson has been an impactful player in his first season, averaging 13 and 6, plus 1.8 blocks per game. Conley and Gasol are averaging 37.0 points combined, and Garrett Temple and Kyle Anderson have been good pickups on the wing. It looks like the Grizzlies will be in real playoff contention, and stay in the hunt until April.

8. Los Angeles Clippers (17-13)

The Clips have probably been the surprise of the season. They were in first in the West for a while, but have come back down to Earth now. The weird thing about LA is that they have no real superstar. However, the inverse effect is they’re one of the deepest teams in the league. The Clippers have eleven players averaging 5+ points per game, and six averaging double figures. Tobias Harris is the closest thing they have to a superstar, averaging 21.5 and 8.2. Doc Rivers deserves a lot of credit for this turnaround, too. He’s proven once again to be one of the best coaches in the NBA. However, LA’s lack of star power may really come back to bite them if they get to the playoffs. Even if they can sneak in as a lower seed, I don’t see them making it past the first round. However, this kind of team in this city has to be pretty attractive to free agents. Looking at you, Kawhi Leonard. It really seems like a 50/50 for him between Toronto and Los Angeles. This season may just be a stepping stone for the Clippers’ franchise.

7. Portland Trail Blazers (17-13)

Not a lot has changed in Portland. It seems they may be stuck where they’ve been the last few seasons. The Blazers have made the playoffs for the past five seasons, but never reached the conference finals. After two straight first-round exits, it’s tough to picture Portland in the West’s final four again. It’s also hard to imagine them trading one of their guards, but I honestly don’t see another path for them to improve anytime soon. They’re middle of the pack, 15th in offensive rating, 9th in defensive. They win by an average of 1.5 points per game, nothing that shows clear dominance, and there’s really no end of the mediocrity in sight.

6. Utah Jazz (14-17)

It’s been an up and down season for Utah so far. Last season, they ranked 16th in offense and 2nd in defense. Both of those are down, to 25th and 8th, respectively. Donavan Mitchell has found somewhat of a sophomore slump. His three-point percentage is down from 35% to 30% as defenses start to prepare for him. Joe Ingles isn’t shooting as well from deep either, 38% instead of 44%. Picking up Kyle Korver was a good move, but Utah will need to start playing better if they plan to build off of last season. Especially with LeBron joining the conference, and the Nuggets looking improved, it’s looking increasingly difficult or the Jazz to make it out of the first round unless they figure something out. Their field goal percentage ranks 21st in the NBA, a far cry from last season, when they ranked 6th. The team defense will be there, especially under Quinn Snyder, but the offense will have to kick in soon.

5. Denver Nuggets (20-9)

Denver has been another improved team from last year. Their team defense has been great. They’ve started using a different type of defense against pick and rolls. Nikola Jokic’s Achilles heel is his perimeter defense, so the Nuggets have started to have him hedge screens, stepping in the way of the ballhandler, while the other defenders help on the roller, dropping down just to give Jokic enough time to recover. Their defensive rating is 5th in the NBA, up from 25th last season. That’s been the real difference maker for Denver, which is currently atop the West. One of the only reasons I didn’t put them in the top four is injuries. Will Barton will still be out for a while, and Paul Millsap just broke his toe. Meanwhile, the Nuggets have done all of this without two new additions from the 2018 offseason: Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter, Jr. It will be interesting to see what IT’s minutes look like, especially considering the breakout season of Monte Morris, who leads the NBA in assist/turnover ratio, and is shooting 44% from three. And MPJ is incredibly talented. He was the consensus #1 pick before the back injury that pushed him to the bottom of the lottery. Who knows where the Nuggets could be at full strength in April.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder (19-10)

The Thunder’s defense has driven them to the third-best record in the West. They lead the NBA in defensive rating, and Billy Donavan just signed a well-earned extension. Their team defense has been the reason they’ve been so good, even without Andre Roberson. Paul George has actually been as good as Russell Westbrook so far, averaging 25, 8, and 5. Given, Russ is averaging a triple-double, but only 20.4 points, and 24.8% from three. Meanwhile, Dennis Schroder has been a great addition for OKC, averaging 16.6 points, 4.7 assists, and 4.0 rebounds. He’s also shooting 42.4% from the field. Adding Andre Roberson should boost the Thunder’s defense even more. But they can take their time bringing him back, because they’ve looked as good as any other team in the Western Conference thus far. With five teams really in the conversation for second best in the West, it could be a very interesting April.

3. Houston Rockets (15-14)

The Rockets have struggled thus far, especially in light of their success last season. However, when it comes to the real implications of the West, especially thinking about the playoffs, Houston is still one of the top teams. They needed twenty-seven straight misses from behind the arc to miss a Finals berth last season. Yes, they lost Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza. But those two didn’t even play very well in that series. Ariza shot 20% from three and Mbah a Moute scored five points in the series. He only played in four games. So who is to blame for Houston’s disappointing season? Well, Chris Paul has kind of fallen off. He’s shooting 40% from the field and 35% from three, down from 46% and 38%. The Rockets’ pick and rolls have also been less effective. It was their main source of offense last season but it appears teams have begun to prepare for it. It’s their defense that has really fallen off, 26th in the league instead of 6th. That’s where the losses of Ariza and Mbah a Moute come in. James Ennis is out for a couple weeks with a hamstring, and Houston is looking very shallow. Danuel House, who was on a two-way contract just a month ago, is playing twenty minutes a game. The Rockets still have a move left in them, whether it be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, J.R. Smith, or another three and D wing. Odds are, come playoff time, James Harden, CP3, Capela, and D’Antoni will be able to give anyone a run for their money, even Golden State.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (18-13)

It was weird not to have Houston here at #2, but in the end I chose the team with LeBron James. LeBron’s teams often take a while to get going, especially in his first season on a new team. And it’s very possible that they still have a trade left in them, too. Rajon Rondo is still injured, too, and he was good for them early in the season. Surprisingly, Kyle Kuzma has been LA’s second-best player as of late. He’s averaging 18.1 points per game on the season, outplaying Brandon Ingram, 15.1 PPG, and Lonzo Ball, who’s putting up 9, 5, and 5. These guys will continue to get used to playing with LeBron as the season progresses, and Lakers will have a real chance of making the Conference Finals. Who wouldn’t love to see a Rockets/Lakers series in the playoffs? I sure would. And at that point, the Lakers could have added a role player on the wing, or maybe even another star next to LeBron if a Beal or Lillard ends up on the block. Either way, the Lakers have a real playoff run in them, thanks to King James.

1.  Golden State Warriors (21-10)

Don’t get it twisted. The Warriors are the best team in the conference, and they’ll be the scariest come playoff time. Once again, Golden State is the overwhelming favorite to make it back to the Finals, where they’d be favored over Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, Philly, or whoever is representing the East. Yes, there have been injuries, and the weird Draymond-KD incident, but as long as those four are healthy when it matters, I’m picking the Dubs over anyone else, and it’s not really a question. It is true that Kevin Durant’s free agency is, in a way, looming over the season, but it shouldn’t get in the way of their incredible advantage in talent. There are more teams to challenge them this year, to be fair, and a tough second-round series could wear them down, but I don’t see them losing before the Finals.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago. I’ve been a diehard Chicago sports fan my entire life, and basketball has always been my favorite sport. In high school, I founded a Sports Media Club, where my classmates and I wrote articles and produced podcasts. After graduating, I kept writing and podcasting on my own. Now I’m a freshman at Purdue University, and I am excited to join Lineups and continue to further the growth of the content side of the site.

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