To say that I’m on a NBA kick right now could possibly be an understatement. Part of me really wanted to write about about LeBron James lack of leadership throughout his career less than twenty-four hours after he threw his teammates under the bus once again. Not quite positive which players he is referencing to, considering two key pieces, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram, that were continually mentioned in trades for superstar Anthony Davis, went 21-for-34 from the floor and scored 56 points. So obviously, he’s not talking about them. He’s ready to throw out blame, but the other day when the team had 17 turnovers, of which he had 6, he didn’t want to blame the turnovers for their loss because that would mean he has to blame himself.
I could write all day about the lack of leadership and my overall disdain for LeBron James (he’s a great player, make no mistake about it, but he’s not the G.O.A.T.), but I want to continue taking a look at the other half of the league before diving into other topics this week (and probably coming back to talk about the teams on the bubble this weekend.
Contenders/Pretenders: When looking at the top five teams in the conference, it would be very easy to say there is only one real contender to come out of that group and that would be the Golden State Warriors. With by far the best starting five in the league now that DeMarcus Cousins is back, and it’s not even close outside of the Philadelphia 76ers, and a good enough bench that consists of Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Jordan Bell, there’s no doubt the Warriors are the odds on favorite to make it to the Finals out of the West as well as winning the NBA Championship once again. When you have a starting lineup that consists of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (and I put them in that order because Curry is better than Durant, it’s not even a conversation to me). This is a team that can be the best offensive and defensive team on the court 90% of the time when they really want to be. The only ones who can beat them (and I know it’s cliche), is themselves. I think one last pursuit for a title though will ensure they’re in the Finals and taking home the title before Durant moves on to another team.
The second best team in the West are the Denver Nuggets and there’s plenty to like/love about this team, starting with Nikola Jokic. The Joker is one of the most gifted big men in the league when he applies himself and he’s been doing a better job of doing just that over the course of this season. He can dominate the game in so many facets and when he’s doing all of them at the same time, he’s nearly unstoppable. In a league that values players doing all of it (scoring, rebounding, passing) all of the time, he’s definitely one of the best ten players when he’s on. The rest of the Nuggets adds up to a really well balanced team with the likes of Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap providing the consistency you need from the team. From there, the team is deep with the likes of Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Will Barton, and more. Keep in mind that there big draft pick from the offseason was Michael Porter Jr., who has the full potential to be a stud, and hasn’t played at all this season. In addition, they just welcomed back Isaiah Thomas, which if he can integrate himself into the team, will just add another weapon. When I started looking at this, I really thought they were pretenders, and this is a team I like the makeup of, but they could very well be contenders. They’re right on the edge and while this team is right on the edge, next season will be there year to shine.
The next team is a real contender, second to the Warriors, and that team is the Oklahoma City Thunder. If you don’t follow the sport very closely and someone asked you the best player on this team, you would answer Russell Westbrook, which is not a wrong answer. It is this season though. The best player this year on the team is Paul George and it’s not even close. George, in the years since his devastating injury, has continued to get better and better with each season and this season has definitely been no different. Taking over the Thunder has provided this team with an ability to destroy teams on any given night, because their second best player is Russell Westbrook. When you have those two on the court every night, you have a chance to beat everyone in the league handily, including the Warriors. Westbrook is the pitbull you want in your corner every night as he has the ability to have a 40 point triple double every single night of the season. Around those two, you have Steven Adams, who provides them with the toughness they need down low, and Dennis Schroder, who can score twenty points off the bench in a hurry. The recent signing of Markieff Morris provides the team with depth this team has previously not had before. This team has just enough to be a contender, and if the Nuggets/Thunder faced off in the playoffs, I would anticipate it going seven games, but at the end, the Thunder would pull off the final victory needed to advance.
The next team on this list are the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that I don’t think they really know how to play when it matters the most. I would die to have Damian Lillard on my team every night of the week, but it’s what surrounds him that usually lets him down the most. The second best option on the team is CJ McCollum, who is a fine player, but he’s not even nearly as good as Klay Thompson. I like Jusuf Nurkic down in the paint, and the recent addition of Enes Kanter gives them another big body that can do some damage, but as you keep looking at the team, you just realize they don’t have much in terms of depth or firepower to keep up with the other teams in the league. Right now, they would face the Houston Rockets in the first round, and I don’t know many experts around the league who would pick the Trail Blazers over the Rockets. This is a team stuck in the middle with no next step to take. It may be time to start over with this team as every piece under Lillard is replaceable at this juncture.
The Houston Rockets are the final team in this section and they are a pretender team. It’s shocking when you consider the fact that a season ago, they were a powerhouse that were virtually unstoppable. If Chris Paul doesn’t go down with a hamstring injury, then they were marching on to an NBA Championship. The team though lost the wrong pieces while trying to keep Chris Paul, who is on the back stretch of his career, and as a result they had a horrendous start to the season, and lack the depth they need to be serious in the playoffs. James Harden is a scoring genius, to say the least, and he will easily score 40-50 points each game in the playoffs, but it’s what after him that makes a difference. Paul is too injury prone and is not the same CP3 we saw even a year ago. Clint Capela is a great piece, but will need to get back into playing shape after suffering an injury earlier this season that has kept him out for an extended period of time. The other pieces on this team aren’t really worth mentioning because they’re not pieces any contending team would really want beyond the 8-10 spot on the roster. The reality remains they’ll probably get out of the first round thanks to Harden, but a series against Warriors/Thunder/Nuggets would see them bounced from the playoffs in quick fashion.
On the Bubble: Okay, this post is already running long and we are going to circle back to these teams over the weekend. Right now, there are six teams competing for the final three spots in the West. The teams in right now are the Utah Jazz, the LA Clippers, and the San Antonio Spurs. The teams on the outside looking in are the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, and LA Lakers. At this point in time, and it’s really close, but I don’t see the Kings or Lakers making the Playoffs. I’ve been beyond impressed by the way the Kings have played this year as they have no reason to be this good, but they have a ton of good pieces that have the makings of an upstart team next year. The Lakers are a team that have no chemistry and do not trust one another. Out of the Jazz/Clippers/Spurs/Timberwolves, I would say the Clippers are the team on the outside when the season is finished as they traded away their best player in Harris right before the trade deadline.
Cellar-Dwellers: Now it’s time for a quick look at the other teams in the West:
- New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis provided a death sentence to the Pelicans a few weeks ago and it looks like they’re going to be starting a rebuild shortly unless they net some great pieces for Davis (such as Jayson Tatum). I love some of the pieces on this team though, specifically Jrue Holiday and Julius Randle. It will be interesting to see what the team can return for Davis, but more than likely this is a team that will sit in the cellar for quite some time because of their poor management team.
- Dallas Mavericks: This team has so much potential and living in Dallas, I can’t wait to see it all unfold. The future couldn’t be brighter for this team and hopefully an offseason that allows them another big player will help them reach those goals. Luka Doncic is in his first year and looks like a bonafide superstar. As a rookie. No player has looked as good as Doncic has in his first year since LeBron James. Doncic can do it all and he’s going to be a centerpiece for this team for the next 20 years. Then right before the trade deadline, the Mavericks made a trade that brought Kristaps Porzingis to the team that will give them a great 1-2 punch for the next ten years. The issue for the team is going to be getting the third piece they need and the right talent around them. Thankfully, Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the league and can make gold out of nothing time and time again.
- Memphis Grizzlies: They are a team that has slowly marched towards rebuilding, but they’ve had to do so kicking and dragging. They started the year off strong before falling apart and have now traded away Marc Gasol. They decided to keep Mike Conley, but he should be gone come the offseason. Their one bright piece is Jaren Jackson Jr. and they will get another top pick in the draft this offseason. This team is just starting and they will probably be bad for quite some time.
- Phoenix Suns: This is a team that has been bad for a while now and rival the New York Knicks for ownership ineptitude. The fact of the matter is this team has so much talent on it that it’s going to waste. Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, TJ Warren, Josh Jackson, and Kelly Oubre Jr.. They need some experience on this team, they need a new head coach, and they need an owner to stay out of their way because this team has so much talent and the fact they haven’t done anything with it thus far speaks volumes.
Okay, I need to go and be productive in other areas of my life. I wrote far too many words about basketball.