Midseason Report: Breaking down all 15 teams in the West
Take a team-by-team look at the Western Conference as the 2021-22 NBA season hits its midpoint.
For better and for worse, the NBA’s Western Conference has featured a wide disparity between the haves and the have-nots.
The Phoenix Suns can return to The Finals. The Golden State Warriors can become an NBA championship contender again. And the Utah Jazz can finally translate regular-season dominance into postseason success. But midway through the NBA’s 2021-22 season, there are already a handful of teams that have no shot at making the playoffs. The Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs may as well worry more about developing young players than chasing empty wins.
Nonetheless, the Western Conference still has a strong middle class. The Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves all have a case to both make the playoffs and possibly even make some noise. It all depends on those teams’ collective health, chemistry and if they can make a deal before the Feb. 10 trade deadline.
Below is a breakdown of the Western Conference landscape midway through the season.
(All stats through Tuesday, Jan. 11)
Phoenix Suns (31-9): They have all the ingredients to run it back to The Finals, and even win the title. They have a trusted veteran point guard that can still play as if he’s in his prime (Chris Paul). They have established young talent that is still just scratching the surface (Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton). They have strength in numbers (Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cameron Payne, Cam Johnson, JaVale McGee) and a strong coach (Monty Williams) that inspires his players.
Golden State Warriors (30-10): It’s too early to say the Warriors are beginning another dynasty. But they have all the familiar faces that made their 2014-15 title run so special. They have Stephen Curry contending for Kia MVP and Draymond Green in his Kia Defensive Player of the Year form. Klay Thompson is back from his two season-ending injuries and is eager to prove he can still play like an All-Star. And there’s a trusted veteran (Andre Iguodala) and standout coach (Steve Kerr) in the mix, too. The Warriors are also trying to restore depth with their young talent (Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman).
Utah Jazz (28-13): Utah has the same continuity that ensured the NBA’s best record last season: a dynamic point guard (Donovan Mitchell), a strong rim protector (Rudy Gobert), a solid veteran (Mike Conley) and dependable secondary scoring (Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles). But will that translate into postseason success? The Suns and Warriors are still the West’s heavy favorites, but the Jazz should not have the same health problems that Mitchell and Conley suffered in the West semifinals against the LA Clippers.
Memphis Grizzlies (29-14): The Grizzlies are no longer just an exciting up-and-coming team that can appear in the NBA’s Play-In Tournament. They will win at least a first-round playoff series and possibly go beyond that. Ja Morant has already proven he is the best player of his 2020 draft class and deserves an All-Star nod. Morant’s other young teammates — Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Killian Tillie — all exhibit veteran maturity with their hard-nosed work ethic and team play. Aside from that, the Grizzlies have already defeated the conference’s other top talent (the Warriors, Suns, Jazz, Lakers and Mavericks), too.
Still in the mix
Dallas Mavericks (22-18): The Mavs won’t flame out in the first round of the playoffs as they did in the past two seasons. Luka Doncic will continuously improve and find the right balance between leaning on his greatness and trusting his teammates. Kristaps Porzingis has become consistently healthier and more effective. And Mavs coach Jason Kidd and GM Nico Harrison have established a more positive culture than under former coach Rick Carlisle and executive Donnie Nelson. Still, the Mavs don’t have enough dependable help for Doncic, which makes Dallas’ ceiling nothing more than a semifinals exit.
Los Angeles Lakers (21-20): Never bet against LeBron James, even at 37 years old. Just like in his prime, James can appear in The Finals by either blending his talent with star teammates or single-handedly dragging his team. But the Lakers have too many roster flaws for even James to overcome. Sure, Russell Westbrook’s play has improved. Anthony Davis should be healthier once he returns. And the team’s chemistry should unfold down the stretch. Even with a full roster, though, the Lakers are too limited defensively to contend with the top West teams. Besides, the Lakers are still vulnerable to future injuries, given they have a veteran-laden roster.
Denver Nuggets (20-19): The Nuggets never back down. They thrive on adversity. And they can always lean on center Nikola Jokic to provide MVP-worthy performances. Though Denver deserves props for its resiliency, the Nuggets have too many challenges to overcome. The most notable: point guard Jamal Murray remains sidelined with an injured ACL in his left knee. The other notable: forwards Michael Porter Jr. and P.J. Dozier have been sidelined for the past two months after having surgery to treat their spine and left ACL, respectively.
LA Clippers (21-21): Will Kawhi Leonard rehab his surgically repaired right knee in time to return this season? Yahoo Sports reported recently that possibility “is within reach,” that he has increased his workload and that he is considered ahead of schedule with his rehab. All positive signs, but the Clippers and Leonard have both tried to ensure he is handled with care for obvious reasons. The Clippers will be a contender again if Leonard returns (and stays healthy, of course). But until then, the Clippers have to lean on their underdog, grind-it-out mentality just to make the playoffs. Paul George remains sidelined with a right elbow injury, and the Clippers have had mixed results with staying afloat with a supporting cast of young players (Eric Bledsoe, Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Brandon Boston Jr.) and front-court depth (Serge Ibaka, Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris Sr., Isaiah Hartenstein). Clippers coach Ty Lue has mastered adjustments and getting the most out of his players, but the Clippers are only good for a first-round playoff appearance without Leonard.
Minnesota Timberwolves (20-21): If only the Wolves can stay healthy. Then they can show their young team can make some playoff noise. Second-year Anthony Edwards grows by the day with his athleticism, shooting and defense. Karl-Anthony Towns has shown he is the NBA’s most versatile big man. And D’Angelo Russell has shown he is one of the NBA’s most dynamic point guards. Minnesota’s margin for error is slim considering the team’s injuries and lack of depth. But should the Timberwolves’ main trio play together consistently, they will be a dangerous playoff team.
Looking ahead to next season
Houston Rockets (11-31): The Rockets have faced a lot of turbulence. They have not played John Wall, but can’t find a deal that makes them willing to trade the veteran star point guard. Rockets point guard Kevin Porter Jr. recently stormed off the court midway through the game amid frustration. And the losses have piled up. There could be some relative light at the end of the tunnel, though, as the Rockets find more suitors for Wall leading into the trade deadline. Porter has since returned as a valuable young player and rookie guard Jalen Green has continued to grow. Inevitably, though, the losses will continue to mount.
Oklahoma City Thunder (13-27): As it has been ever since trading Russell Westbrook 2 1/2 years ago, the Thunder are all about collecting Draft picks and developing young talent. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey will blossom into stars. But it’s still going to take some time before the Thunder can assemble a competitive roster around them. Hence, the losses will continue for now.
New Orleans Pelicans (15-26): The Pelicans may have to assess Zion Williamson’s future, with all options on the table. He has yet to make enough progress on his fractured right foot to warrant a return, and the Pelicans recently announced they made a mutual decision for Williamson to rehab away from the team. New Orleans should be handling Williamson with care. But only three years into his NBA career, Williamson isn’t offering much comfort that he can stay healthy. He’s missed more games than he’s played.
Portland Trail Blazers (16-24): Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers have remained adamant they won’t end their partnership. But one can’t help but wonder if one or both parties will eventually blink. Perhaps Portland collects some more wins if Lillard gets healthy and improves his play, CJ McCollum perfoms like himself when he returns and Chauncey Billups grows as a coach. But even if those developments arise, the Trail Blazers are just spinning their wheels if they stay status quo.
Sacramento Kings (16-27): The Kings seem set to continue their march to nowhere, just as they have the past decade. Individually, De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield are intriguing young talents. But it hasn’t resulted in enough wins, so look for them to be active leading into the trade deadline.
San Antonio Spurs (15-25): San Antonio could miss the playoffs for three consecutive seasons after once enjoying a 22-year playoff streak under coach Gregg Popovich. They’re still in the Play-In chase, however, and will continuously developing Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson. Popovich is also closing in on surpassing Don Nelson for the NBA’s all-time coaching victories record.
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