Only 5.5 games separate No. 1 and No. 14 in the bewildering Western Conference standings.
Who is the biggest challenger to the Golden State Warriors? Who are the players to watch? And which team has the most upside?
Our experts answer the big questions.
1. Fact or fiction: This will be the Warriors’ easiest path to the NBA Finals in the Steve Kerr era.
Royce Young, ESPN: Fiction. While it seems on the surface there’s no obvious peer lining up to clash for an inevitable Western Conference finals showdown, the West is deeper overall. The Warriors will face tougher tests in the first and second rounds, and through some of that attrition they may be banged up and worn down for whomever awaits in the West finals.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN: Fiction. Does anyone remember when they went 12-0 in the West playoffs a couple of years ago?
Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: Fiction. While I don’t think there’s a clear-cut challenger for them yet, I’m also not comfortable assuming it will be a cakewalk come April and May based on what we just saw while Steph Curry was out. Somehow, I feel like we take his health and his importance to the Warriors for granted, even though we’ve seen repeatedly that he’s prone to injury and that the Warriors often look really average without him or Draymond Green. If they aren’t healthy, a Finals trip won’t come easy.
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: Fiction. The Rockets are slowly waking up, having gone 10-4 in the past 14 games that Chris Paul has played in. They should be a tough out in the playoffs if Paul is healthy. In addition, the Thunder look legit and have no fear, the Lakers will be led by Playoff LeBron and it’s conceivable that there may be eight or more 50-win teams in the West.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN: Almost certainly fiction. Because of upsets and a favorable draw, Golden State faced no opponent with a regular-season point differential of better than plus-3.4 points per game en route to the 2015 NBA Finals. Three teams in the West are currently beating that mark, and it’s likely the Warriors will meet one if not more in the playoffs.
2. Who’s the second-best team in the West?
Snellings: The Rockets, who should legitimately believe they can beat the Warriors when operating at their healthy peak. The Thunder aren’t far behind, and no one should sleep on what LeBron is accomplishing with the Lakers.
Windhorst: I don’t know. Not the answer I figured to have at this juncture, but here we are. I will say that looking just at the Warriors as benefiting from the muddled West isn’t accurate in my mind. LeBron likely doesn’t fear any of these teams, and in a playoff series he’d like his chances to overwhelm all of them. Short of the Warriors when fully healthy, I suppose.
Young: The Thunder. It’s very tight between them and the Nuggets — and the Nuggets just beat the Thunder in OKC a week ago — but with the best defense in the league while overcoming early injuries, the Thunder are more well-rounded. It’s also a pretty big leap to go from out altogether to claiming the proverbial second-best spot, even though the Nuggets have a great case.
Pelton: I expect the Oklahoma City Thunder to be the second-best team come May. Oklahoma City currently sports the West’s second-best differential behind the Denver Nuggets, and that’s despite Russell Westbrook missing eight games because of injury. The Thunder will still add stopper Andre Roberson to what’s already been the league’s best defense on a per-possession basis and have plenty of playoff experience.
Herring: For now, I think it’s hard to argue against the Clippers, even though I assume another club — perhaps the Lakers, Thunder or Blazers — will hit another gear as we move closer to the playoffs. They’re hovering right around being in the top 10 efficiency-wise on both sides of the ball, which generally signals contention. Tobias Harris has taken yet another step forward. It’s very easy to like this team — they just don’t have a superstar, so I think they get less attention because of it.
3. Which West team needs to make a move?
Windhorst: The Rockets. You know who agrees? The Rockets. It’s why they offered four first-round picks for Jimmy Butler. Last season, they were able to make a midseason addition in Gerald Green that really helped. They need something to help boost their depth.
Young: The Rockets are a pretty clear choice. They have a serious wing issue and, paired within that, considerable depth problems. Some things will be solved by improved health overall, but the mix of James Ennis, Gary Clark and a few weeks of Carmelo Anthony has not plugged the holes left behind by Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.
Herring: I actually want to flip this one a bit: I’d encourage the Nuggets not to make too big of a move. They may get Isaiah Thomas back this month from his March hip procedure, but with how Monte Morris has performed — he’s efficient, plays both sides of the floor and has the NBA’s best assist-turnover ratio at a ridiculous 7-1 — it’s imperative that they don’t take any minutes away from him off the bench. Maybe he and Thomas can play alongside each other. But Morris has played too well to take him off the floor.
Pelton: It’s a troubling sign for the Houston Rockets‘ depth that they can add Danuel House from the G League and immediately play him 20-plus minutes per game. Houston needs more on the bench, and consider me skeptical that Brandon Knight will be part of the solution given how much time he has missed and how ineffective he was in Phoenix prior to his ACL injury.
Snellings: The New Orleans Pelicans need to shift some of their frontline strength to the perimeter if they want to contend. Anthony Davis‘ impending free-agency decision is the elephant in the room, and they need to either bring in a star wing to show him they’re serious about winning or else consider moving him early to get as much value as possible for a rebuild.
4. Which player(s) will you be watching most closely in the West race?
Pelton: Danilo Gallinari, who already has played as many games this season (21 of 22) as he did in all of 2017-18. Gallinari has been perhaps the Clippers’ most valuable player this season, and it will be interesting to see whether they can keep pace in the Western Conference if Gallo misses an extended period of time.
Snellings: LeBron. The Lakers experiment is showing serious promise, and he still isn’t in full-on playoffs mode yet. Paul is my second player to watch, purely for his health, as he seems to be integral to the Rockets’ championship hopes. Damian Lillard and Rudy Gobert are wild cards. They both showed last season that they can lead their teams to huge late-season runs, and those runs appear to be necessary again this season.
Windhorst: All of the players wearing Clippers uniforms. They’re an extremely fun team to watch. They’re in the midst of a honeymoon start to the season. Who knows how long it will last? But they’re one of the best stories going on in the NBA.
Herring: Probably the Lakers’ young guys, one of whom will likely need to step up if they’re to be taken seriously as a contender out West. Between Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, I figured someone would by now. But they all go through highly inconsistent stages, which makes sense given how young they are, and how big an adjustment it is playing next to LeBron.
Young: Russell Westbrook’s adjustment to becoming a more efficient and democratic offensive player has been notable this season, and in part why the Thunder have solidified their consistency issues. Can he maintain it throughout the long haul of the season, some revertible hiccups notwithstanding?
Jamal Murray‘s development has been critical in elevating the Nuggets — can he continue to progress as the Nuggets climb? And LeBron, always LeBron. As Brian Windhorst wrote, he has already scrapped his plan. Will there be a Plan C deployed at any point?
5. Which team currently on the West playoff bubble has the most upside this season?
Herring: I’m going to go with Utah, if only to feel better about having talked them up this summer. The Jazz essentially came back with the same club that made the West semis and are still relatively young. They’ve actually been healthy for once. And — this is perhaps their saving grace — the Jazz’s schedule has been the hardest in the NBA to this point. They played the league’s toughest schedule last season in December and then won 29 out of 35 once things lightened and they got healthy again. Who knows whether they can catch fire the same way, but it’s not all that far-fetched.
Windhorst: Did I mention the Clippers, who also have enough upcoming cap space for two max contracts? Or, as may be prudent, re-signing Tobias Harris and then trying to add a max star. Otherwise, I’d say the Grizzlies, who are in the midst of a remarkable turnaround. Not exactly a ratings bonanza answer, I know.
Young: The Rockets. The general feeling around the league is that they will figure it out, eventually. They’ve been hit by some key injuries, but with James Harden and Chris Paul, they’re built to win at least 50 regardless. It’s too severe of a drop to go from a 67-win juggernaut to struggling to stay .500, so once they can get a little roster stability and the 3-pointers start dropping a bit more regularly, they’re still a very dangerous team.
Snellings: The Minnesota Timberwolves are quietly becoming a team that nobody wants to play. With Robert Covington and Taj Gibson as anchors, they are suddenly sporting a legit Tom Thibodeau defense. And if the Derrick Rose renaissance on offense continues, he and Jeff Teague provide strong perimeter creation to balance Karl-Anthony Towns‘ elite interior offense.
Pelton: Despite what I said earlier about their bench — or perhaps in part because of their ability to improve there — I’m going with the Rockets. With James Harden and Chris Paul, Houston still has the ability to get back to something similar to last season’s team that posted the best record in the West.
Bonus: Who are your current eight West playoff picks?
Snellings: Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Lakers, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Jazz and Blazers
Herring: In no particular order: Warriors, Thunder, Clippers, Lakers, Rockets, Nuggets, Grizzlies and Jazz
Windhorst: I don’t make predictions. But I would say there are a couple of MVP candidates on teams outside the playoff line right now — namely Anthony Davis and James Harden — who have a pretty strong chance of bringing their teams back in.
Pelton: Nuggets, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers, Pelicans, Thunder and Jazz
Young: Warriors, Thunder, Nuggets, Lakers, Rockets, Clippers, Jazz and Blazers