The Western Conference is wide open, allegedly.
Most teams are around .500, and the Nuggets and Grizzlies have started to separate themselves out. But the odds market still believes in the preseason favorites, no matter how the first half of the season has gone.
So if we’re just looking at the West, where is the value? I’m going to give you the arguments for and against each of the top six teams at FanDuel to win the Western Conference.
The Argument Against In A Nutshell: Denver features two players in Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. whom teams will pick on, opponents will dare Aaron Gordon to beat them with jumpshots, and their bench is unplayable.
The Nuggets started the season 14-10. Since then they are 18-3, with wins over the Grizzlies, Celtics, Clippers (twice) and Heat. In that span they are first in offense and eighth in defense, which is impressive for a team that was 28th to start the season.
A key differentiator in Denver and other paper tigers with top records through the years is their versatility. Jokic enables them to counter whatever you throw at them.
If you go small, they put you in pick and rolls to create nightmarish mismatches with their size. If you go big, they space you out with shooting, plus Jokic is able to score on you if you don’t bring help (which opens up the same cuts you’re trying to deter with rim protection).
There are no answers for their offense. The questions are all about their defense. Denver is the top clutch defense in the league, and the eye test checks out on that; they lock in with top-end defenders like Aaron Gordon, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown.
But teams will put Jokic constantly in pressure points. Denver can counter by playing Jokic aggessively at the level, but against top execution teams (like Golden State), that will result in 4-on-3s for the rest of the offense.
Porter Jr. has given great effort defensively this season and has length to bother opponents, but teams will still pressure him on switches and in high leverage situations.
The Denver counter in that situation is to employ Bruce Brown, but Brown has had trouble with bigger matchups this season.
There is a prevailing sentiment that you can’t trust Denver because “they haven’t won anything,” and I am here to remind you this is a dumb talking point: the Nuggets have four playoff appearances with Nikola Jokic and have been eliminated in the first round just once, last year–to the eventual champs–when Denver was without two starters.
The Nuggets have a Western Conference Finals appearance (Bubble asterisk necessary). This is not the Jazz with Rudy Gobert; they haven’t gone out sad when they have a full roster; Michael Malone gets better at matchup coaching as a series goes on.
You shouldn’t buy Denver now; they’re at the apex of value (probably). But if you’re asking me who wins right now? I’m saying the Nuggets.
The Argument For In A Nutshell: The Grizzlies have the best defense in the league with the best defensive player, an impossible homecourt advantage and an unrelenting brash group who fear absolutely no one.
The Argument Against In A Nutshell: They can’t score in the halfcourt, Ja Morant is solvable through defensive counters, and their bench is brutally young.
Ja Morant is a bad man. He makes huge plays constantly and attacks relentlessly. Jaren Jackson Jr. has made a leap on both ends. He’s the best rim protector in the league and has made them the best defense in the league.
Desmond Bane is a big-time player who can shoot, handle and has some creation skills. They have versatility, too, with their ability to play big with Steven Adams or small with Brandon Clarke next to Jackson.
But the Grizzlies are 22nd in halfcourt offense. That’s a problem. When the game slows down, they need to be able to consistently get buckets, and that’s a real problem area for Memphis.
Morant knew coming into the year that he needed a pull-up jumper. He committed to it in offseason work, but as the season went on, he’s gone back to what’s comfortable and simply doesn’t take it.
You have ways to limit Morant: switch and bring help. He’s a great passer, but putting him in situations to make difficult jump passes will at least slow him down.
The best argument for them might be their homecourt advantage. Opponents shoot worse on the road, and if you miss vs. Memphis, they get downhill on you in transition faster than a heartbeat. Memphis is +11 in Net Rating, best in the league, at home this season.
Based on record, you will likely to have to win at least one in Memphis, and that’s getting to be a tough task.
The Argument For In A Nutshell: Their championship starters are elite, still. They have won every Finals where Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson are all available for the full seven games. Their road splits are so bad that it’s likely unsustainable.
The Argument Against In A Nutshell: They are quite possibly the worst road team in NBA history, and they’re going to have to win games on the road. The starters are old with a lot of miles. Their bench is absolute debris.
The championship starters, Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, Green and Kevon Looney, have the best Net Rating in the NBA with at least 300 minutes played together.
They are 5-18 on the road. Horrible. Atrocious. They have the worst road ATS performance in the last 20 years (at least, that’s how far back we have data for).
But are you really worried about the Warriors winning Game 1 or 2 in Denver or Memphis? Are they just unable to win that? Can they not steal Game 5 in New Orleans or win a Game 7 in Phoenix?
This team has too much experience, is too used to the pressure and has too high a gear.
You saw it on Thursday vs. the Celtics. They lost that game because of a Jaylen Brown pull-up 3 to tie in the final seconds. That was against the best team in the league on the road.
But here’s what history tells us: If you’re not a top-two seed, your odds of making the Finals are low. If you can’t win on the road, your odds are very low. If you can’t survive any given injury to your starters, your odds are very low.
If the Warriors are healthy, sure, they can make the run. But what if Klay Thompson or Draymond Green, let alone Steph, has to miss Games 2, 3 and 4 in a series?
Here’s the best way to put it: the Warriors can win the West, but their margin for error is razor thin.
The Argument For In A Nutshell: Nothing about the first half of their season makes sense, and there’s too much talent with too much coaching to count them out.
The Argument Against In A Nutshell: They’re bad–not “not great.” They’re legitimately bad. These odds are based on an idea of a team and not who they actually are.
The Clippers are under .500 with a negative Net Rating. Their coaching has been ineffective, their shot profile is poor, and their stars are almost never available.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
The Clippers are 6-17 against teams over .500. I don’t expect them to be over .500 against those teams–it’s too difficult for health, rest, etc.
But for comparison, the Rockets are 5-18 against teams over .500. The Clippers are almost as bad as Houston against teams .500 or better! That’s wild!
I don’t take much from any particular regular season game. Whatever, most teams don’t care about any particular game. You run into different rest and motivational spots.
But the Clippers went on the road to Denver and got down by 40 as they were embarrassed on national TV. A week later they faced the Nuggets at Staples, the Nuggets rested Nikola Jokic … and the Clippers lost. Paul George didn’t play in that game, but Kawhi Leonard did.
I’ll just tell you this: I do not trust a team to win four series, almost definitely on the road, when Kawhi Leonard has to be the leader for a team. In San Antonio, he had Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. In Toronto, it was Kyle Lowry.
The Clippers were supposed to have a top-five player, a top-five roster and a top-five coach.
They don’t have any of those three at this point in the season. They’ve spent over a half-season telling us they are not serious.
I’m not totally counting them out; the Celtics did the same at this point last year.
But you cannot bet on this team right now to win … anything.
The Argument For In A Nutshell: The Pelicans have a great offense/defense balance, a fierce attitude, a deep bench and an unstoppable offensive weapon (when healthy).
The Argument Against In A Nutshell: They have injury concerns and no experience.
The Pelicans are way better than their record and overall numbers show. Brandon Ingram has barely played this season with a toe injury. Zion Williamson has missed several weeks with an injury.
But even then, they’ve stayed afloat because the roster is deep and well coached.
Their defense is legit, 12th in the halfcourt and seventh overall (schedule-adjusted). That changes their ceiling considerably because they have so many players (Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, CJ McCollum) who can get their own on offense.
Jose Alvarado is the most impactful bench player in the league. (No really, he literally has the best on-court Net Rating.) Larry Nance lets them play small. Trey Murphy III and Dyson Daniels give them energy.
But they just haven’t been there. They have one playoff run together as a team, a frisky six-game push against a wavering Suns team.
Zion Williamson has never been in a playoff series. Can he hold up?
The Pelicans will likely be underrated in their first-round series and overrated if they make it out of it.
However, if we take out the established forces on this list (Warriors, Clippers, Suns) and say that one of Memphis or Denver won’t make it, guess who’s making the conference finals? It’s the Pels by default.
The Argument For In A Nutshell: They were the No.1 team in the West when they were at full strength. They’re getting healthy. An upgrade trade is possible, if not likely. They’ve been there.
The Argument Against In A Nutshell: The vibes seem really unstable, their depth is compromised, and Chris Paul is not the same.
Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Miles Bridges and Cam Johnson — four of the Suns’ five most important players – have played a total of eight games together. They are 6-2 in those games.
When their injury trouble started with Johnson, they were the No. 1 seed. Then Chris Paul got hurt. Then Devin Booker, their best player, also went down.
They are just not the same without Booker. The Suns the past two seasons were a collective monster that was made better by the whole rather than the sum of their parts.
But they’re getting Booker back in the next month. Chris Paul doesn’t look the same, but that’s why Booker is there, to carry them forward as the best player.
They still have size, depth and defensive wings who can shoot. That combination has yielded results in the playoffs.
The Suns are not scared of going on the road, just like the Warriors. They made the Finals. They know what it takes.
This is an absolute buy-low spot on a team that is balanced and can hang with the Warriors, Nuggets, and Grizzlies.
They’re tough and well coached.
Am I worried about them getting into a fistfight on the sideline? A little bit. Do I like the idea of Chris Paul on a team with internal tension in the playoffs? I do not. Do I think that Jae Crowder’s objective value is less than his value to this team? I do.
But the Clippers have told us they’re bad this season, and the Warriors have told us they have no margin for error. The Suns have told us they’re good when healthy, and the market bailed on them.
The best approach here is a bet on the Nuggets and Suns. The Warriors are probably favored in a non-first-round series against the Grizzlies but are probably dogs against the Nuggets.
The Suns are probably dogs to most teams on this list, but if they get hot, they might wind up slightly favored against the Grizzlies, Pelicans or the Warriors.
Denver is the most complete team, but the Suns are the most undervalued. Take positions on those two and then re-examine at the start of the playoffs, especially if those two wind up on the same side of the bracket.