By Rahul Lal
At this point of the season, with about two-thirds of the games played, every team is tired and struggling with injuries. This past weekend’s festivities aside, the NBA All-Star break is essentially a week-long hiatus for anyone who isn’t a superstar.
The NBA Trade Deadline is looming, and teams are starting to make moves. Maybe you noticed that DeMarcus Cousins is now a Pelican. Some teams hope to solidify their lineup and put/keep themselves in playoff contention. Others want to prepare for the draft by acquiring picks or improving their draft position. But tomorrow at 3:00 p.m. ET, all the maneuvering ends. And the games resume a few hours later.
What can we expect in the Western Conference for the second half of the season?
The playoff picture in the West is a lot more stable than in the East. Currently, seven teams appear to have locked up a playoff spot, barring a complete and total meltdown. The Golden State Warriors, who top the list with a 47-9 record, are outscoring teams by nearly 13 points per game on average. It’s important to remember that last season the Warriors struggled down the stretch and in the playoffs. So we can expect them to rest their stars once they get close to solidifying the top overall playoff seed.
The San Antonio Spurs, four games behind the Warriors, are the next team up. While catching the Warriors isn’t impossible, Coach Popovich probably won’t push to get a top overall seed and will also rest his stars down the stretch. Surprisingly, the Houston Rockets are sitting in the third seed in the West, and Mike D’Antoni is sitting in his chair yelling for more three-pointers. James Harden has played like an MVP, and guys like Eric Gordon have even revitalized their careers. With Tuesday’s acquisition of Lou Williams, the Rockets are really making that playoff push and might break a record for most three-pointers made. I expect the Rockets to finish strong and keep the third seed going into the postseason.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been sliding due to plaguing injury issues and a lack of depth. Over the last five years, the Clippers have managed a strong regular season and been seeded accordingly. But with recent struggles and only a 3.5-game lead on the current seven seed, they could find themselves slipping down. The most unsung team in the West has to be the Utah Jazz. As the top defensive team in the conference, they allow a league-best 95.7 points per game. The Jazz have a great mix of veterans and young talent and could very well fight for home-court advantage in the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies have been in this position before and have shown what they can do behind their $150 million man, Mike Conley. While the Griz have played well, 34-24 isn’t the most encouraging record for a team made up of players in their prime. They’ll be forced to rest injury-prone players like Marc Gasol down the stretch. The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a hot topic of conversation, largely due to Russell Westbrook and his historic season. Behind his 27 triple-doubles, the Thunder sit in the seven seed and can move up. The team is getting along and showing a great ability to mesh when needed. Their starters, in particular, should continue to surprise fans with some incredible team play at both ends of the court.
The Denver Nuggets top this list because they currently hold the eight seed. This should be a wildly competitive race with six teams within reach of the final playoff spot. While the Nuggets will remain solid given the rise of Nikola Jokic and a steady veteran presence, the New Orleans Pelicans are the favorites to take this final playoff spot. Before the All-Star break, the Pelicans were just figuring out the key parts like their rotation and establishing themselves a dangerous but inconsistent team. After the blockbuster trade for DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans have another superstar and Kentucky Wildcat to pair with Anthony Davis. The two should make one of the most menacing big-man combinations in the NBA for years to come. Jrue Holiday consistently scoring and distributing will also go a long way. The Pelicans should sneak into the playoffs, and with their own versatile big three, prove formidable well into the future.
The Portland Trail Blazers impressed people in the playoffs last year with their heart, but it’s hard to see them returning, even with all-star-level play from their sharpshooting guards. Fans should still be excited to see what Jusuf Nurkic can do for this team not only this season but next season too. This may not be their year, but they’re getting very close. The Sacramento Kings, despite all the drama, are only 1.5 games back in the playoff race. Even with a somewhat surprising season, the nail in the coffin for these Kings was trading Cousins for a young but talented Buddy Hield and picks. Hield has serious game but still needs to develop further. The Kings are finally embracing a rebuild and should do whatever it takes to further the young talent on their roster. Internally, however, the Kings are still a mess. That was made evident by the obvious poor communication between owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac in the final hours of the Cousins saga.
The Dallas Mavericks are still in the hunt too. Still, while Harrison Barnes has proven his talent, a Deron Williams-led team isn’t going to make the playoffs in a point guard-driven league and a tough Western Conference. It’s time for the Mavericks to embrace a rebuild and give Dirk Nowitzki the potential sendoff he deserves. The Minnesota Timberwolves are still in a position to make a playoff push. The young Timberwolves were picked by many to make a huge leap, but this isn’t their year either. While they’re still as talented as everyone predicted, Zach LaVine’s ACL injury has really hurt them. The Timberwolves will get one more chance to strike gold in the lottery and develop their young stars even further.
When’s The Draft, Again?
The Los Angeles Lakers may be the only franchise that can suffer so many successive poor seasons and still have analysts harping on how great their future is. The Lakers need to finish last to hold on to their top-three protected pick for the stacked 2017 NBA draft. Players like Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball will be tough to pass up, but they could wind up with the third pick and be perfectly fine drafting Jayson Tatum or Jonathan Isaac to fill out their young core. D’Angelo Russell has struggled with consistency, Julius Randle is still finding his game and Brandon Ingram still needs time to develop. The Lou Williams trade gives new team president Magic Johnson another first-round pick to work with. The second half of the season will be a chance to develop chemistry and consistency with their young guns.
The Phoenix Suns have a bright future as well, even if it isn’t showing in the win column yet. Eric Bledsoe is hitting his prime right now, and Devin Booker is developing into quite the multifaceted player. Booker will quickly be in the discussion for the NBA’s best two-guard, but Marquese Chriss will make or break the Suns in the future. Grabbing a legit three guard in the draft or even one of the generational point guard talents could provide the missing piece, making the Suns into one of the NBA’s most feared teams a few years from now.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.