Taking a look at the contenders to the Warriors crown out West
January 16, 2018 3:04 AM
by Tony Mejia
We’re barely to the halfway point in the NBA’s regular season, but only nine Western Conference teams appear to have legitimate playoff aspirations for the top eight spots. Here’s a look at where they all stand entering the second half of January.
Denver Nuggets: The Nuggets have run out of gas in games to start the new year, an issue related to Will Barton getting worn down by extended minutes initiating offense as point guards Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay have dealt with inconsistency. After opening January with a 134-111 rout of Phoenix, Denver only topped the century mark once in its next six outings. In order to make the most out of the built-in edge the altitude offers them, they’ve got to get better use of their guards and their overall depth. Trey Lyles has stepped up and Paul Millsap has his cast off after undergoing wrist surgery in late November.
Golden State Warriors: The Warriors were first to 35 wins and should again emerge as the No. 1 seed in the conference. Considering the injury issues they’ve dealt with, from Stephen Curry’s ankle to various issues Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala have suffered through, Steve Kerr has done a nice job making sure everyone is on track to be fresh in June. It’s easy to get caught up in Golden State’s offense, but the number of bodies Steve Kerr is able to deploy against elite wings – Green, Klay Thompson, Durant, Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Patrick McCaw and even Nick Young, is a major edge.
Houston Rockets: The Rockets caught a break in the fact James Harden’s hamstring strain won’t linger into February as originally feared, so they’ll be able to challenge Golden State for the homecourt edge. Chris Paul was able to integrate seamlessly into Houston’s style after missing so many weeks early, doing so expertly enough he was able to run the team, as it has been his for years when Harden went down. That should prove invaluable in the postseason. Harden’s injury should end up being a blessing in other ways too, keeping his mileage down, allowing Eric Gordon to show he’s again ready for a large role and creating a void that signing Gerald Green filled. He’s been a find who should also pay dividends.
L.A. Clippers: Blake Griffin’s return helped spark the Clippers on a run to get back to .500, turning a first half that looked destined to be a disaster into a salvageable situation. Paul’s projected replacement, Patrick Beverley, went down for the season in the first few weeks, but Doc Rivers may be able to survive his absence since Lou Williams has become an elite scorer and “rookie” Milos Teodosic and more traditional first-year player Jawun Evans are holding down the fort. Steve Ballmer didn’t spend as much money as he did to go through rebuilding.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The Timberwolves picked up their fifth consecutive outright win and improved to 6-0 against the spread since Jan. 6 by blowing out Portland on Sunday night. The team will play seven of the next nine outside Minneapolis, giving the Vikings an opportunity to soak up all of the attention as they make their miracle run at playing in the Super Bowl the city is set to host. That’s not to say they’re not deserving of some love themselves since Jimmy Butler has delivered the goods as the veteran presence Tom Thibodeau badly needed to guide his team. If he can do a better job developing the bench, the Wolves should be a force as potential top-four seed.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have improved their chemistry well enough to where one allows the other to carry the team when they have a matchup they can exploit, so if sharing is caring, this group is headed in the right direction. How high the Pelicans’ ceiling lies hinges on consistency at point guard, where Rajon Rondo has been the best option but has struggled with his energy level from night to night. Signing Mike James is a move that could supply a temporary offensive boost.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Still dealing with a number of continuity issues, the Thunder have remained afloat long enough so it would be surprising to see them move Paul George prior to the trade deadline since it’s worth the risk to ride this out even if it means watching him walk in the offseason. His partnership with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony has produced wins against some of the NBA’s best, including the hunted Warriors, but leaves you wanting more on a nightly basis. Steven Adams is a factor as a Top-10 center.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers have seen center Jusuf Nurkic pick up his production, but Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum could certainly use more help. Terry Stotts’ team has really struggled against the league’s best, which is cause for concern they’ll wear down in the second half without some sort of upgrade. There are a lot of young frontcourt pieces to dangle in order to secure veteran help, but it remains to be seen what approach is taken.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard has barely played all season and is still shaking off rust, not to mention a shoulder injury, but the Spurs have played well enough they’ll still be in the mix for a top-four seed and were given the exact same odds as the upstart Rockets (17/4) by Westgate when they released their Western Conference numbers. With better knowledge of how to get the most of LaMarcus Aldridge and a roster that’s as deep as there is in the league, not to mention the NBA’s best coach, San Antonio remains a factor to win it all so long as Leonard is able to get back to 100 percent.