Welcome to the Wild, Wild, West

Hope you will enjoy your stay. If not now, when? It’s safe to say that the Western Conference is more balanced now than ever, with 14 teams being in the playoff run. It would have been all 15 of them if it wasn’t for the injuries of the Golden State Warriors and it’s kind of crazy to think that all the teams from the conference would have had real chances on getting to a playoff spot at the end of the season. Apparently, the Warriors found themselves at the both ends of competitional balance, so to say, as they were the main reason in the past years for the lack of competitivity in the league, because of their all-time great roster. Now, they are the only team from the Western Conference that has no chance on getting to the 8th seed, but all those championship runs in the past years came with a cost, and if you will ask them if it was worth it, well… I guess you already know the answer.

Returning to the other teams which are currently in the race, we see that even the New Orleans Pelicans have improved in their last 10 games, and mainly because of Lonzo Ball, who has step up his game lately, hitting 3s efficiently on a nightly basis. Brandon Ingram is also improving and he’s showing signs of the superstar caliber-player that everybody, including the Lakers in the past, thought he will be. He is averaging 25,2 PPG, 6,8 RPG, 3,8 APG and is definitely a candidate for the Most Improved Player of the Year award. He had only 4 games with 30+ points scored in his first 3 seasons. This season, though, he already has 8 games in which he scored 30 or more. Once Zion Williamson comes back, the Pelicans will be a much better and complete team.

The Minnesota Timberwolves started the season strong, showing signs of improvement, but they immediately fell in the second part of the standings, after 15 games. Even if they are only 1 game behind the 8th seed, Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns are simply not looking like the combo that the franchise and people around the league thought they will be, especially when they signed Wiggins to that huge contract. The lack of experience and chemistry is keeping them behind and because of that they won’t make the playoffs, so problems could emerge with the patience of KAT on continuing his career with the Wolves.

Phoenix Suns is a nice, but still small, surprise of the season. It seems like the tanking era has finally come to an end and they try to make an impact in the West. They also surprised everybody at the very beginning of the season, even without their starter center, who was suspended for using PEDs. Devin Booker is still balling for them, but at what cost? He seems to be just another stellar player who is wasting his time on a team that just doesn’t seem to get it right, even if they tanked for a lot of years. The Suns are currently on the 13th place, but for the moment, the 8-13 seeds are very close to each other, so who knows, a miracle could happen, even if it’s unlikely to.

Going further up in the standings, we see the Kings, Trail Blazers and Grizzlies all being out of a playoff spot for now. This is where the real battle will be, because all those teams, including San Antonio who is just above the line, have the potential to make it. It will be more than interesting to see them go at each other after the All-Star break. The Grizzlies seem to be back, mainly because of their draft pick from this year, Ja Morant, who is highly recommended to be the Rookie of the Year. The kid is just special and his ceiling is off the roof, as he is already averaging 17,8 PPG, 3,2 RPG and 6,6 APG. Him, together with the sophomore center Jaren Jackson Jr., who is also averaging 17,8 PPG, will form a dynamic duo that can be even better than Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Only time will tell. The Memphis franchise is once again in good hands and the future is looking good for them, after they went through all sorts of rebuilding modes following the departures of those two mentioned above.

As for Sacramento, which I stated about in the summer that they will make the playoffs this year, started the season unexpectedly bad, given the fact that they showed us what they are capable of at the end of last year, despite of their young and less experienced roster. The reason for the poor start could be Buddy Hield, who was not happy with his financial status compared to the one of his fellow teammate, Harrison Barnes, who just got a raise in the last off-season. It is not a secret that Buddy repeatedly told the GMs that he deserves a higher pay check, this causing some kind of a little mess in the locker room. However, they adjusted going forward, and now they are only 1 game behind the line. I still think that they have a chance, because of their young core which is full of talent.

The only weird thing which can be seen in this segment is the presence of the last year’s Western Conference Finalist. Just when you thought the Trail Blazers will cement themselves at least as a top-5 team in the West, constantly, they come out flat after their best season in many years. Yes, they have had problems with the injuries once again, as Zach Collins and Rodney Hood went down for quite some time, but the GM has to do something in that matter. The addition of Carmelo Anthony was more of a desperate measure than a well thought move, and even if it seems to be paying off, it’s just not enough. Lillard is playing at the same high level, but it feels like he is doing all that for nothing, and you can feel nothing but sorry for him. Nothing but respect for a great player who chooses to remain loyal to his team, when other players of his caliber just want to form super-teams. They have to get some additions, otherwise this season will be a complete failure and a waste of time and talent for Dame as well.

Despite of being much more balanced than in the past years, the Western Conference is still divided in two. The first 6 spots and the rest “of the world”. As we go deeper into the ocean to the bigger fish, we see the Los Angeles Lakers still being at the top. If they stay healthy, nobody will take them down, at least not in the regular season. Their fellow citizens from Los Angeles didn’t find the right formula yet, as they still have to find a way to learn how to play with each other. Montrezl Harrell stated after the loss to the Grizzlies that they are not a great team and they need to wake up. Do the Clippers’ running office need to be in shambles about those statements? I think not, because Doc Rivers has the pedigree and he will find ways to get his guys on the right track. “I don’t know how many years I’ve coached, 20 maybe, but I’ve never had it where my best two players going into Game 21 have yet to have a practice together on the floor — not one,” Rivers said. “They’ve had one practice where they’re opposing [each other in practice], but they have yet to be in the same lineup and have a practice.” Come playoff time, the Clippers will be just fine and the chances are high that we’re going to see both of the Los Angeles teams in the WCF, so who needs the home court advantage when the court is the same, only the woodwork and the logos on the floor being different.

No team has a better record over the last 10 games than the Utah Jazz (9-1). They are on pace to win 55 games this season. Only one team in league history had more wins in a season without having an All-Star selection on the roster, per Crazy Stats. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are continuing to lift the Jazz up. The difference will be seen in the playoffs, though, if there will be any.

The Denver Nuggets are still the same old good team from last year, but sadly for them, they won’t get past the second round even if they will finish the regular season on the 2nd place. They are still young and have a lot of room to improve. Their only misfortune is that the West is too stacked with talent. The same goes for Houston Rockets, who wanted to make an upgrade when Russell Westbrook came to play on the 1-position. For the moment, the Rockets aren’t looking like they improved as much as they need in order to get to the NBA Finals, not at all. James Harden can score as many points as he wants and be considered the greatest scorer of the already past decade, but in the end all that matters is a NBA championship, a thing that he won’t comprehend too soon.

Last, but not least, Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks are clearly the revelation of the year. After being irrelevant for almost a decade, the Mavs are looking like they can do some damage in the month of May. Doncic is playing at a “never seen before” level, for his age. Every single body out there who is or was a part of the game, including legends like Jerry West or Kobe Bryant, has their eyes on the kid. Luka has a better game than LeBron James had at the age of 20, as he is averaging 29,7 PPG, 9,7 RPG and 8,9 APG, almost a triple-double. Let’s not forget the hype around Russell Westbrook when he averaged a triple-double for the whole season, IN HIS PRIME. If we take in consideration the fact that Doncic is almost doing that in his 2nd year in the NBA, we can say that he is on pace to be the greatest European the league has ever seen, with all due respect to Dirk Nowitzki. Mark Cuban took a gamble when he switched the Mavs’ draft pick with the Hawks (the trade that involved Trae Young and Luka Doncic), and he will collect the goods in the years to come.