For years, the Western Conference has reigned supreme over its Eastern counterpart, consistently having better top-end teams and more impressive depth from top to bottom.
But while the two best teams in the NBA are generally considered to be the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets (though the Boston Celtics, winners of 16 straight, would beg to differ), the days of the West being vastly superior — or, frankly, even remotely superior — appear to be over.
Besieged by a combination of injuries and poor play, the West is awash with teams struggling to figure out what’s next outside of a few elites. Here’s a rundown on the teams either struggling or dealing with injury issues — or, in many cases, both — beginning with the team holding the league’s longest losing streak.
Los Angeles Clippers
To say it has been a rocky start to the season for the Clippers is an understatement. Now losers of nine straight, the Clippers have lost most of those games with three starters — guards Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic and forward Danilo Gallinari — all sidelined with injuries, though Beverley returned for Monday’s loss in New York.
But even with that understandable excuse, the Clippers haven’t won a game in three weeks. That’s why talk has been rampant around the NBA that Coach Doc Rivers could be out the door soon. It’s unlikely Rivers would want to sign up for a long rebuilding project, and if things continue to go sideways in Los Angeles, selling off pieces seems like the only logical step for the Clippers.
DeAndre Jordan, who can become a free agent after the season, has been coming up in trade conversations, with multiple teams talking potential trades. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank said last month that Jordan will be a “Clipper for life,” muddled matters, as does the limited number of teams who need a center and the size of Jordan’s contract ($22.6 million).
Because other contenders also are floundering, the 5-11 Clippers are only two games out of a playoff spot. But after games Wednesday in Atlanta, Saturday in Sacramento and Monday at home against the Lakers, the schedule gets a lot tougher in December.
The Nuggets signed Paul Millsap to a three-year, $90 million contract this summer to stabilize their defense without sacrificing offense. He’s played his part: Denver has the league’s fifth-best offense (the same as last season) and No. 17 defense — a vast improvement over last season’s ranking of 29.
But the all-star power forward will miss the next three months after undergoing wrist surgery Tuesday. Coach Mike Malone has a critical decision to make about how to fill the minutes vacated by Millsap, and none of the choices is obvious.
It seems Kenneth Faried will get first crack. Faried started Monday’s win over Sacramento, and has nice chemistry with star center Nikola Jokic. He should get an opportunity to return to a regular rotation role — and once again become a rebounding machine — with Millsap sidelined. If he falters, Trey Lyles and Juan Hernangomez would see additional minutes, and Malone likely would try to pair Jokic with Mason Plumlee.
In addition to replacing Millsap, the Nuggets have to get Wilson Chandler right. Chandler has been awful, with his numbers down across the board, at a position — small forward — that for all of Denver’s depth was already an issue coming into the season. Chandler sat out Monday’s game with back pain, and has dealt with plenty of injury issues in the past.
Denver enters Wednesday tied for fourth in the West with the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves at 10-7, but will have to prove they can maintain that kind of pace — and their improved defense — without Millsap.
Oklahoma City Thunder
No injuries here, and not even a bad statistical profile, either. But disastrous performances in the clutch — the Thunder is 1-8 in games in which it was within five points inside the final five minutes — have contributed to the Thunder losing six of their past nine games, leaving them tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Some of those issues are statistical noise, and will even themselves out. But after his unbelievable campaign a year ago, league MVP Russell Westbrook’s shooting numbers are disastrous.
Last season, Westbrook shot 57.2 percent in the restricted area, 40.1 percent in the paint, and 36.3 percent on midrange shots. This year, his percentages from those ranges are 55.3, 20.7 and 27.9, respectively, per NBA.com. Add in Westbrook’s bad performance from the free throw line — 71 percent — and Westbrook’s true shooting percentage is below 50 percent for the first time since the beginning of his career, and down 6.5 percentage points from the past two seasons.
For all of the talk about Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony learning to coexist, the numbers with them together on the court are promising (OKC is plus-8.4 per 100 possessions in 332 minutes they have shared the court, per NBA.com). Instead, it should be Westbrook’s individual performance that has people questioning exactly what’s to come in Oklahoma City.
Memphis started the season with a minimal margin for error. Other than stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies were relying on a lot of inexperienced players and question marks to try to get back to the playoffs.
Surprisingly, some of those question marks have been early successes, including Tyreke Evans, who is scoring 17.9 points per game off the bench, and Chandler Parsons, who may never live up to his max contract but has been a productive rotation player — which is more than was expected after an injury-plagued 2016-17 season.
But the wheels already had begun to come off, even before Conley was indefinitely ruled out because of ongoing Achilles’ soreness. The Grizzlies need to win at home Wednesday against the Dallas Mavericks and Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets, because their upcoming schedule is a beast: at Denver, a home-and-home with San Antonio, at Cleveland, home vs. Minnesota, at the Knicks, at Washington, home against Atlanta and Boston and at Golden State.
That’s a brutal 12-game stretch. And if the Grizzlies can’t survive it, they could be looking ahead to next season by the time the buzzer sounds in Oakland on Dec. 20.
Utah is in a similar spot to Memphis. For the next few weeks, until star center Rudy Gobert is able to return from a bone bruise in his knee, the goal for the Jazz is to tread water in the West, and then make a push once he returns.
It’s been a brutal six months for Utah, beginning with Gordon Hayward’s decision to leave in free agency, then Dante Exum’s shoulder injury that could be season-ending.
Still, there are reasons to be optimistic — even with the rash of recent injuries, which claimed Ricky Rubio and Joe Johnson as well — the Jazz are still within a game of a playoff spot. Meanwhile, rookie first-round pick Donovan Mitchell has impressed, averaging 14.9 points, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals (even if his shooting percentages are not great). And, in the six games since Gobert went down, the Jazz have the league’s 10th best offense. They also have, however, the league’s 21st ranked defense.
That’s why the Jazz are in the same place as the rest of these teams: hoping they have enough time to sort out their own issues, and get their own players healthy, before the rest of the teams competing with them in the morass at the bottom of the West playoff picture can take care of theirs.
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