With the Christmas slate—and the 2017 calendar year—behind us, the NBA season truly has begun. Last week, we surveyed what’s to come in the Eastern Conference. Now, here’s a look at the 10 topics in the West that we’re most interested in over the next four months of the regular season.
1. Which Chris Paul Will the Rockets Get? Which Chris Paul Do the Rockets Need?
Paul might as well have played his first 18 games with the Rockets in a cardigan and fuzzy slippers. Even though CP3 has missed nearly half of Houston’s season thus far because of injuries, the start to what are likely the golden years of his career couldn’t have been more cushy. He returned from a 14-game absence in mid-November to a team that more than held its own without him. And with James Harden only becoming more lethal as a scorer in the wake of his near-MVP campaign, Paul was able to ease into his role of sweeping legs of opponents’ second units and stacking plus-minus numbers along with the rest of the Rockets’ Net Rating Caviar supporting cast.
Things will be different now, with Harden out at least two weeks. Alpha Paul, complete with extra barking, quickly emerged after Harden exited at the end of regulation on Sunday: Despite not look fully healthy himself after missing three straight recently because of a groin injury, Paul turned it up late, finishing with 15 points, three assists, and two rebounds over the two overtime periods. Having two Hall of Fame point guards—a slogan quickly reaching “Mr. Chips to Scarface”–level overuse—is indeed beneficial.
But while having a Point God to break open in case of emergency is certainly valuable, splitting up Harden and Paul again just delays the only worthwhile question lingering over the Rockets for the next four months—one that, given how exceptional the team was at full strength, might be the most consequential in the entire league:
What does Playoff Chris Paul look like in Houston?
That can’t be answered in earnest until mid-April, sure, but the rest of the regular season will serve as the test kitchen for a partnership still very much in its nascent stages. The Rockets are 16-2 when Harden and Paul play, but the duo has logged only 368 minutes alongside each other, per NBA.com, or an average of 20.5 a game. (For comparison, Russell Westbrook has played more than 1,000 with each of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.) Mike D’Antoni has staggered his two stars effectively, and will likely continue to do so in the postseason, but shortened benches mean more of Harden and Paul together.
The data on the two-man combination is positive (8.8 net rating), like it is for most of Houston’s pairings. But Paul’s playoff numbers also aren’t a problem; it’s when his inner control freak takes hold—like, say, trying to draw a shooting foul 60 feet away from the basket in the waning seconds of a crucial playoff game—that the concern creeps in. Having Chris Paul is a gift. Having Chris Paul being too Chris Paul is … complicated.
2. Can Anything Derail the Warriors?
The Warriors are fine. The Warriors are fine. The Warriors are fine. The Warriors are fine. The Warriors are fine. … They’re fine. … Seriously. Fine.
Having said that, have you seen Andre Iguodala shoot lately? The former Finals MVP—who’s set to make $16 million a year for his age-33, -34, and -35 seasons—is blowing past his career lows. The numbers are bad enough (42.3 percent overall, 23.3 from 3), but the visuals are even worse. The Athletic’s Anthony Slater pulled the following misfires from one recent game:
Add in that Draymond Green’s 2015-16 season, when he hit 39 percent of his 3s, is looking more and more like an aberration, and the Lineup of Death is starting to show signs of rigor mortis. Even with Iguodala shooting 19 percent from 3 last postseason, the five-man combination of him, Green, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson was as unstoppable as you’d expect: 32.9 net rating in 65 minutes, with offensive (133!) and defensive (100.1) numbers that would have led the league. This regular season, with injuries seemingly hitting the Warriors’ core every couple of days, the same lineup has struggled in 58 minutes: minus-8.6 net rating, with an effective field goal percentage 13 points lower than their starting unit.
It’s tough to gripe about offense when the Warriors just put up 141 points in Curry’s return, but age-induced decline is a silent killer in the NBA. Three Hall of Fame shooters can cover a lot, but pairing them with two non-shooters (or forcing some of the kids on the bench into their places) is the sort of hairline crack that could become a full-blown issue sooner than anyone expects.
3. Are the Lakers Really Going to Gift the Celtics a Top-Five Pick?
4. Are the Pelicans Good Enough on Defense?
The following photo, which was taken after the Pelicans clinched a playoff berth on the last day of the 2014-15 regular season, is a virtual mausoleum to the franchise’s roster-building malfunctions:
So much has changed around Anthony Davis in the three years since, but New Orleans, after 36 games this season, is back in roughly the same spot: clinging to the eighth-best record in the West (18-18) with a potent offense just barely putting up more points than the defense lets up. The imbalance has been an issue in each of the three seasons since that 45-win campaign (i.e., the only winning one since Chris Paul’s departure). In 2015-16, the Pels were average on offense and bad on defense. In 2016-17, they cobbled together a top-10 defense, at the expense of a bottom-five offense. This season, they’re sixth on offense (with a top-five true shooting percentage) but 25th on defense.
Such a dramatic falloff is hard to figure out. Pairing DeMarcus Cousins with a high pace does not always compute, but Davis, Jrue Holiday, and E’Twaun Moore are all quality defenders when engaged. Rajon Rondo has been better for Holiday than the team as whole, but his savvy-yet-shallow play doesn’t explain the lapses for a group that ran out of excuses a long time ago.
The return of Solomon Hill, a solid (albeit overrated) defender, should provide some much-needed pluck on the wing. (Maybe Zombie Tony Allen will, too.) And the Pelicans surely rank among the most likely to pay for a solution at the deadline. But a remedy is needed; blowing this opportunity, with a soft six-through-15 in the West, would be the worst (and last) miss by their current principals.
4b. Do You Know the Only Team Other Than Minnesota With Three Players Averaging More Than 35 Minutes a Game?
5. Are the Clippers a Playoff Team?
The Clippers lost nine straight, their best player for 14 games, their starting backcourt for over a month, and their most prominent new addition to a torn tuchus. Yet, here we are, two days into 2018, and that same team is one and a half games out of a playoff spot.
The concerns that led to the Clippers’ early collapse—including the bad karma brought on by trying to make “LA,” with no periods, a thing—are still more or less there. But Milos Teodosic is back and playing like the elite-level connector foreseen in an Angus-sweats-induced haze (16.8 net rating!), Doc Rivers was forced to develop the kids, and Blake Griffin is playing like he’s operating a war rig.
The schedule in January gets much tougher than the recent cakey competition (five bottom-10 teams and a suddenly out-of-sorts Houston team), but while LA (jfc) probably doesn’t have the same top-end talent as the Pelicans, its core has at last proved to be playoff-worthy.
6. Which West Team Are We Sleeping On?
They have a top-10 defense, a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate possibly returning soon, and this guy:
It’s tough to find the requisite faith for a team that played through a rookie as often as the Raptors did DeMar DeRozan in December.
On the other hand:
DONOVAN MITCHELL JUST DWYANE WADE'D DWYANE WADE. pic.twitter.com/nXrGzc7iTo— SLC Dunk (@slcdunk) December 31, 2017
7. Are We Actually Sleeping on the Spurs?
Probably. While the rest of the league attempts to keep pace with the Rockets, San Antonio is thriving by playing smashmouth football. A defense as good as Golden State’s, and the ability to turn LaMarcus Aldridge back into an All-Star through sheer human connection, is not to be taken lightly. But it’s hard to know which Kawhi Leonard we’ll get the rest of the way. Anything close to the player from the past two seasons puts the team back on the short list of legitimate title contenders.
8. Are the Thunder for Real?
The Thunder are exhausting. After hitting a stride in late December—six straight wins, a defense starting to grow some fangs, an offense finding a footing by backsliding into a more Russ-centric worldview, Melo receiving a new shipment of hats—Oklahoma City has dropped two straight on its home floor. To be fair, one loss was mired in a controversial no-call, but letting rookie Dennis Smith Jr. out-clutch Russell Westbrook isn’t exactly a great look to finish out the calendar year.
OKC seems to have found some self-awareness over the past few weeks and embraced an identity along the lines of a more star-powered, abrasive version of the Derrick Rose–era Bulls, but it remains to be seen how well that will play in an era of ball movement, pace, and 3-pointers. Its assist percentage, which ranks 28th overall, has sunk even lower over the past eight games; next to Westbrook, Paul George is basically a rich man’s 3-and-D wing.
It wouldn’t be all that surprising, given all the talent and fedoras, to see the Thunder rip off a double-digit win streak in the near future (the defense, Melo willing, has the potential to be very good). But, for now, a team widely expected to push the Warriors won’t move the needle by finally being better than the Nuggets.
9. Will the Wolves Run Out of Gas?
10. Which Terrible Team Is the Most Terrible?
While the Bulls threaten to overthrow the current world order in the East, the class divide has become pretty defined in the West. Even Phoenix, where the other side of the tracks begins, is a lot closer to the Have Nots (minus-6.5 point differential) than its proximity to the Jazz and Clippers in the win column would suggest. In the adjacent shantytowns you’ll also find the Mavericks, Kings, Grizzlies, and Lakers.
But which one will wind up the worst at the end of the season? The Suns, Mavs, and Grizzlies all have their own sort of idiot-proofing in the forms of Devin Booker, Rick Carlisle, and the soon-to-return(?) Mike Conley. The Lakers don’t have a draft pick to play for, and are probably due some moderate stabilization once they get two starters back (three if you count non-California road games).
That leaves the Kings, the only team in the league to average fewer 100 points per 100 possessions. Remember when there was legitimate worry that the veterans Sacramento signed would make it too good to properly tank? Or that trading down from a top-10 pick to add more “culture guys” was what the Kings needed? Good times.
10b. Is Maximilian Kleber a Real Person?
The Mavs could rent out a starting frontcourt position on Craigslist and no one would notice at this point.