The Western Conference Pre-Playoff Primer

Feb 29, 2020, 6:48 PM
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 25:  Joe Ingles #2 of the Utah Jazz argues a call in front of LeB...
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 25: Joe Ingles #2 of the Utah Jazz argues a call in front of LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on October 25, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – With roughly 25 games remaining for each team in the NBA, the playoff picture in the Western Conference is starting to take shape. As casual fans turn their attention to the league after the All-Star break, this is a pre-playoff primer on how each team has performed this season, and what to expect the rest of the year. 

Los Angeles Lakers – 45-12

The Los Angeles Lakers own the best record in the Western Conference and sit a full six games ahead of the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers who are tied for the second seed. The Lakers are riding a seven-game winning streak, the longest current streak in the NBA and will likely be riding a 10-game winning streak when they host the Milwaukee Bucks on March 6, a potential Finals preview. 

The Lakers own the league’s fourth-best offense and third-best defense, implying there is more to the roster than just LeBron James and Anthony Davis, though they lack a true third scorer which will loom large in the playoffs. 

James has carried worse rosters through to the Finals, but those series victories came against lesser Eastern Conference opponents. The Lakers are winless in three meetings with the Clippers and Bucks this season, with three matchups left in the regular season to prove the can hang with other favorites to make the Finals.

The lakers have the 13th easiest schedule remaining and should coast to home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference Finals. 

Denver Nuggets – 40-19

The Denver Nuggets own the second-best record in the Western Conference at 40-19, but have won just six of their last 10 games, including a demoralizing 29 points loss to the Clippers on Friday night. 

Despite injuries that sidelined Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap, the Nuggets have stayed near the top of the Western Conference playoff picture and could again finish with the second seed in the West if they continue to win at their current pace. 

Six different players average double-digit scoring for the Nuggets, led by Nikola Jokic who contributes 20.8 points per game, giving Denver one of the more unique, versatile offensive attacks in the NBA. As a result, the Nuggets own the eight best offensive rating in the NBA, paired with the 12th best defensive ranking. 

Denver has split two meetings with the Clippers this season, and are 1-2 against the Lakers, one of whom they are likely to face should they escape the first round of the playoffs. Despite their consistency over the last two seasons, they likely lack the firepower on the perimeter to be considered serious contenders to advance past the Western Conference Semifinals.

The Nuggets have the eighth toughest schedule remaining and will be tested before the season has ended, maintaining the West’s second-best record will be difficult.

Los Angeles Clippers – 40-19

Despite a sometimes underwhelming of play, the Los Angeles Clippers remain one of the leading candidates not only to win the Western Conference Finals, but to win the NBA Championship. 

The Clippers have yet to have a truly dominant stretch of basketball, but are still tied with the Nuggets for the second-best record in the West and have the sixth-best offensive rating and fifth-best defensive rating in the NBA. 

Between Kawhi Leonard, Paul Geroge, Lou Williams, and Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers have four players averaging at least 18.6, with Leonard’s 27 point average ranking eighth-best in the NBA. Both Marcus Morris and Landry Shamet add to the Clippers scoring attack, each averaging double-digit points for the season, making the LA attack the most dangerous come playoff time as any one of six players is a legitimate threat to take over a game with their scoring ability. 

The Clippers have won both matchups with the Lakers this year but lost both meetings with the Bucks, including a 28 point loss in Milwaukee with both George and Leonard in uniform. 

Los Angeles has the ninth easiest schedule remaining in the NBA and will compete for the second seed in the West. 

Houston Rockets – 38-20

The Houston Rockets have seen their most consistent success of the season since trading Clint Capela and committing to playing small-ball basketball for the rest of the season. The Rockets are 7-2 since making the trade, with their lone losses coming against the Phoenix Suns without Russell Westbrook and to the Utah Jazz on a buzzer-beating three-pointer. 

Since making the move, the Rockets have the league’s second-best offense, led by Harden’s league-leading 35 points per game and Westbrook’s resurgence in a Houston uniform. 

While it’s difficult to judge much of the Rockets season since before they traded Capela, the team is 3-1 against playoff teams in the NBA since making the move, earning wins over the Lakers, Jazz, and Boston Celtics. 

The Rockets have the eighth easiest schedule remaining but will face the Celtics, Clippers, Bucks, and Lakers each once more before the season’s end which should provide insight into their ceiling. 

Utah Jazz – 37-22

The Utah Jazz remain one of the league’s most mercurial teams, going on long stretches of both wins and losses with a wildly inconsistent identity. 

After a streak that saw the team win 19 of 21 games, they proceeded to lose five straight, win four straight over potential playoff teams, before losing the first four games of a five-game homestand to open the second half of the season. 

Donovan Mitchell continues to improve in his third season but has yet to find an ideal backcourt mate with the rapidly fluctuating play of Mike Conley. Conley has struggled to fit the Jazz defensive identity and if the Jazz continue to struggle, could be a candidate to be moved to the team bench to reunite the team’s starting lineup under which it experienced its best success. 

The Jazz have the league’s ninth-best offensive rating and 13th best defensive rating, both of which will need to improve over the final quarter of the season if the team wants to begin the playoffs with home-court advantage. 

With two matchups against the Lakers and meetings with the Celtics, Clippers, and Nuggets remaining, the Jazz have a chance to reveal if they are contenders or pretenders before the end of the regular season. 

Oklahoma City Thunder – 37-23

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the league’s most surprising teams, likely even surprising the Oklahoma City front office that was expecting to undertake a rebuild after trading away stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George in the offseason. 

The Thunder expected to flip both Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari before the league’s trade deadline, but were unable to find a partner and are now deadset on a playoff path. The Thunder lead the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies by 8.5 games, making a date with the postseason inevitable.

While the success was unexpected, it may come at a good time as the 2020 NBA draft lacks top overall talent worth tanking a season for, and the mentorship of Paul could pay dividends for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for the remainder of his career. 

The Thunder are likely a first-round exit, and lacing a higher pick in the draft may leave fans with a bitter taste come June, but setting a culture of winning for the team’s future isn’t a bad consolation prize. 

Oklahoma City Has the 11th easiest schedule remaining, and could further cause trouble in the West by overtaking the Jazz in the stands by season’s end. 

Dallas Mavericks – 36-24

Luka Doncic’s breakout second season bodes well for the Dallas Mavericks future and leading his team to the playoffs in just his second season in a crowded West is an impressive accomplishment. 

However, Dallas doesn’t have the overall talent to compete with the better teams in the West and are a threat to be swept out of the playoffs despite a promising regular season. Dallas needs a legit third scorer to pair with Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, plus some muscle down low. 

Dallas has the best offense in league history, but are just the 18th best defensive team in the season. Fixing their defensive ranking will be key this offseason and could vault them into contender status with a few quick moves. 

Until then, teams may target a first-round matchup with the inexperienced Dallas team rather than playing the scrappier Thunder roster. 

Memphis Grizzlies – 28-31

The Memphis Grizzlies were the surprise team of the first half of the NBA season, but as many young teams do, they ran a spring over the league’s first 50 games, forgetting that the post-All-Star break is a marathon. 

The Grizzlies are led by rookie Ja Morant and second-year big man Jaren Jackson Jr., setting up a very promising future over the next half-decade. 

However, the team that was sat comfortably in the eight seed has lost five straight since returning from the All-Star break, and have the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA. 

With the 19th best offense and defense in the NBA, the Grizzlies don’t truly have an identity to rely on over the final stretch of the season and shouldn’t be expected to make the playoffs. With the now healthy New Orleans Pelicans with Zion Williamson in tow sitting just two games back of the Grizzlies, and having the second easiest schedule remaining, Memphis might fall out of the playoff picture sooner rather than later. 

A lottery pick will help the future of the Grizzlies, but with Morant and Jackson already on the roster, they don’t necessarily need another high draft pick to add a star to the roster to continue to improve next season. 

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