We’re at the point in the season where fans, coaches, and front offices start taking what teams and players have done seriously. No longer is anyone a surprise, no longer is anyone going under the radar. That doesn’t mean that everyone believes in what those players and teams have done. For instance, take the Los Angeles Lakers. They’re just .500 28 games into the season, but it seems like most people have higher expectations for them. You can point to their 2.82 point differential (7th in the league) or to the fact that they’re starting 4 players who have been All-Stars in the past 2 seasons. Needless to say, they have more talent than most teams. After a confusing, questionable, and injured start to the season, they’ve rebounded with 5 straight wins, 2 of which have been among the league’s elite, record-wise. But who can we say, for sure, is worse than this team? Who can we say, for sure, is better? With that starting point in mind, here are the Western Conference’s best 5 teams, Lakers included:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder – Reigning Western Conference Champions. Though they’ve lost consecutive games, it’s clear they’re still the conference’s best. With arguably the best 1-2 player combination in the league of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they’re offense is also the league’s best in points scored per possession (PPP). They’ve not missed James Harden much at all to this point, as Kevin Durant has picked up his play-making, and replacement Kevin Martin has picked up his scoring, while doing so at a shooting at a true shooting percentage nearly as impressive as Harden’s last season. Where they have slipped, is defensively. More noticeably, the 3 other teams currently competing for the conference’s best record are all top 5 in defensive efficiency (defensive PPP). The Thunder currently rank 11th, and if they wish to stay atop the West, that’s an area they need to improve.
2. San Antonio Spurs – Still chugging along. They’re old. They skip games. They lack any sort of superstar, especially with the gradual decline of Tim Duncan. But still, they remain among the best teams in the West, year in and year out. Greg Popovich continues to get the most out of his role players, utilizing Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard as well as anyone could. That youth, paired with the experience and ability of the Spurs’ ever reliable Big 3, has helped San Antonio maintain it’s standing as the 2nd best team in the West. Don’t forget that they were an extremely hot 4-game Thunder shooting streak from the NBA Finals last season. Eventually, this won’t be able to last, but as long as Tim Duncan is manning the block, it seems the Spurs will still be in contention for their 5th title since his arrival.
3. Memphis Grizzlies – The word that comes to mind is tough. They, like the Spurs, also lack a superstar. Every one of their best players has been, and still is, doubted. There aren’t many who believed Rudy Gay, Mike Conley or Zach Randolph were worth the contracts they received, and plenty still suggest that it’s true. Marc Gasol is still part of a trade that people maintain the Grizzlies were ripped off in. Simply, the Grizzlies play defense, and they play it with more aggression than most any team in the league. Their offense, though isolation-heavy, features 4 players who can get their own points, as well as a capable bench, well-balanced and deep bench. Come playoffs, they will be a team nobody wants to face. Last season, minus a healthy Zach Randolph, they took the Clippers to 7 games. Two years ago, they did the same to the Thunder without Rudy Gay. They don’t go down without a fight.
4. Los Angeles Clippers – The hottest team in the NBA. They’ve won 14 straight. They have the largest point differential in the league. To this point, they’ve probably had the best bench in the NBA. But they haven’t played a tough team in weeks. They haven’t faced adversity in weeks. This is not to take away from their play. They’ve played great. But the last time they played a good team on the road? They lost. In fact, they did twice in a row, over a stretch of 4 straight losses. They’re very good. They’re very talented. But they lack discipline, as well as many ways to score. Blake Griffin has still not expanded his game. DeAndre Jordan still can’t score from more than an arms length from the basket. Willie Green shouldn’t be starting for anyone. Caron Butler, as well as he’s shot the 3, has clearly seen better days. The entire starting lineup relies on Chris Paul to help them create offense. I think the biggest thing people are forgetting, though, is that Vinny Del Negro, is still Vinny Del Negro. While he’s done a great job keeping his stars rested (just 32 minutes a piece for Paul and Griffin), his rotations are as bad as ever, and we’ve no reason to think the next time this team hits a snag, he’ll make the right adjustments. He’s never done it. So as long as the Clippers are winning, they’ll continue to gain ground in our minds as to just how good they are. But, I’m not sure how long that can last.
5. Los Angeles Lakers – Tell me a team outside the top 4 that can come close to equaling their talent. I can’t name a single one. There’s just one team who’s record is even significantly better; the Golden State Warriors. And still, the Lakers have built themselves a clean slate. They have 54 games to show what they’re really made of. Does anyone think, that over a 54 game stretch, the Lakers, who just knocked off those same Warriors in Oakland in Nash’s return to action, won’t show themselves to be 4 games better? Or even a game and a half better than the Rockets? Clearly, their start to the season has put the Lakers on the bottom of the elite teams, but they are certainly still one of them. It will probably take most of the year for them to show just how good they are, but at some point, it would not be surprising if they began to look better still than any of the teams above them.
Where does this leave the Warriors? As well as they’ve played (7th best record in NBA, 5th in West), they’re still clearly not an elite team. They also are no lock to make the playoffs. While the chances grow stronger with each win, it’s still possible that the play of David Lee, Jarrett Jack, and Carl Landry is simply a house of cards ready to fall in on itself. They’re still relying on 3 rookies who have had struggles of their own. Festus Ezeli’s defense isn’t nearly as good as advertised. Draymond Green can’t score. Harrison Barnes is so hot and cold it’s hard to get a read on him. Stephen Curry is not the kind of player capable of putting a team on his back and carrying it to the playoffs. The return of Bogut is a necessity for the Warriors, to some. But even with his return, what is assured? He hasn’t been good offensively in years, and even then he was no special player. Defensively, what can a guy on a bad, but healing ankle bring? Big men with leg injuries need lots of time just to get back ON the court, as we’re seeing now. They need a similar amount of time to adjust to playing well on it.
For the Warriors, it’s simply a question of whether or not the career years that some of their players are having is the real deal, or if eventually, the defense and rebounding will simply fall apart. Essentially, this team is as good as Mark Jackson can inspire them to be. These are all the same players from terrible teams last year. David Lee has never had a winning record. Nor has Curry. Jack has done so only once. Carl Landry had early success with the Rockets, but has wallowed with Sacramento and the Hornets in recent years. With Klay Thompson, all 5 have been known as defensive liabilities, yet somehow, with only rookies and Andris Biedrins otherwise, have put together a league average defense. Lee, known for empty rebounds, and Landry, known for not rebounding much at all for a big man, have spear-headed one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league.
As of now, they rate 6th in the West in my eyes. Ahead of the mess that is 7-12, where any number of teams could conceivably make the playoffs. It’s not sure thing, though. As has been mentioned numerous times, this next month, easily their hardest stretch of games this season, is a real test. Should they survive it while maintaining their position in the standings, certainly it would be hard to say that’s not where they belong. Escaping that stretch with a .500 record, and remaining 8 or so games over .500 would put them in a great place going forward. The remaining teams are hard to sort out. Dallas has just seen the return of Dirk. Houston is hitting it’s stride. The Timberwolves still can’t seem to figure out who they are. Denver, Utah, and Portland can’t seem to lose at home, then give it all back on the road.
As of now, I think they look like this:
If I had to pick 2 to go to the playoffs, it’d be Dallas and any one of the other 4. I just don’t see Dirk, with the decent team that’s been put together around him, not making the playoffs this year. O.J. Mayo and the rest of the back-court is arguably as good as the one that helped Dirk win a title 2 seasons ago. While the front-court lacks considerably, it should still be enough for the Mavericks to overcome their 12-16 start. As for the rest, I’m not sure what to think of any of them. Houston is 4-10 in the Western Conference, but has recently racked up some wins against the East, including 4 straight. The others are all sitting at .500, or a game over. All have been significantly better against their peers than the Rockets. It’s really anybody’s spot to take. Since I took Utah preseason, I’ll stick with my pick, even with the troubling news of Mo Williams being out indefinitely.