The Rockets and Warriors have made a clear separation from the rest of the pack in the Western Conference. But the standings are a traffic jam from there: Two and a half games currently separate the third-place team (Portland) from the eighth-place team (Denver), and just four games separate third from 10th (Utah). Which two teams get left out of the postseason remains to be seen, so we asked eight Ringer staffers to make cases for the eight playoff contenders as the best non-Houston, non–Golden State team in the West.
Portland Trail Blazers
Record: 38-26, third in the West
Haley O’Shaughnessy: You blinked, and suddenly Portland held the third-best record in the Western Conference. Even more impressive is how the team arrived there: Damian Lillard and Co. have beaten the Warriors, Wolves, Thunder, and Jazz on this current seven-game win streak, and are 16-5 in their past 21. Don’t call it a fluke; that’s a disservice to the defense, to Dame’s feverish play, and to C.J. McCollum in general. There is a chance that Portland will taper off before entering the playoffs, but the makings of a top-four team in the West are finally sufficient. Unlike last season, when even their best wouldn’t have been good enough to challenge the top team, the Blazers can no longer be overlooked when at their peak.
New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 36-26, fourth in the West
Micah Peters: Of the things that seemed possible for New Orleans at the start of the new year, “home-court advantage” wasn’t one of them. But as of now, the Pelicans are coming off one of their best months in franchise history (they went 8-3 in February).
It’s tempting to say, but the Pelicans aren’t better without DeMarcus Cousins, although they have been necessarily, confoundingly resilient. Anthony Davis stated his intentions to Rachel Nichols last month in the wake of Boogie’s injury—TL;DR, “Win”—and the Pelicans have done exactly that, eight times in a row. Here are some other things that are true:
- They are, somehow, moving the ball better than any team that isn’t Golden State.
- Davis has averaged 37.3 points and 14.8 rebounds over that eight-game win streak, during which the Pelicans have had the eighth-best defensive rating.
- Looking at the Blazers, Spurs, Timberwolves, Thunder, Nuggets, Clippers, and Jazz, not a single one of those teams has Anthony Davis.
Whether they end up in third is up to the vagaries of the schedule—there are basically 20 must-win games left and 14 are against teams over .500—but they do, at the very least, look like an awkward first-round proposition for a better playoff team, if not a downright scary one.
San Antonio Spurs
Record: 37-27, fifth in the West
John Gonzalez: This is a particularly bad moment to defend San Antonio and argue in favor of it as a serious challenger to anyone, much less the Rockets and Warriors. The Spurs have played some awful basketball of late, including a recent 10-game stretch when they won just two games and lost to several other Western Conference playoff contenders like the Jazz (who bested them twice), Pelicans, and Nuggets (also twice). At their lowest point, they also fell to the Lakers at home, which is something that should not be possible and likely made Tim Duncan weep into a glass of Gregg Popovich’s wine. Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard is still not back from his quad injury, and the whispers about his protracted rehab process having a “chilling effect” on the organization won’t go away. Somehow, the always-stable Spurs and their steady superstar are suddenly spinning out.
But despite the out-of-character losing and the attendant drama, the Spurs are still fifth in the league in net rating. If the playoffs started right now, they’d be in, not out—and with some quick course corrections, they could jump over the Timberwolves, Pelicans, and Blazers and settle back into that comfortable third seed in the Western Conference. If these last few weeks represent the worst-case scenario for San Antonio, then it’s not hard to imagine the team playing better. If LaMarcus Aldridge can get healthy and fully recover from his right ankle sprain, that would go a long way to improving their prospects. And, yeah, Pop said he’d be surprised if Kawhi plays again this season. But what if he was wrong or doing that as motivation? What if Kawhi plays? That’s a lot of ifs, but how confident are you, really, in the other Western Conference teams? The best argument in favor of the Spurs as a possible spoiler is simple: They’re still the Spurs.
Record: 38-28, sixth in the West
Justin Verrier: The Timberwolves are the third-best team in the West with Jimmy Butler. I mean that literally. The Wolves have a .607 winning percentage this season when Butler takes the floor, which would put them just above the ongoing bloodfest in the West. You might say Butler has his finger on the team’s pulse.
The problem, of course, is that Butler is no longer on the court for Minnesota. And his absence over the past four games has evoked bad flashbacks of the Wolves, pre-Jimmy edition: Both Karl-Anthony Towns and Jeff Teague lost their cool and got tossed in an important game against Utah; Tom Thibodeau is still pretending like half of his bench doesn’t exist (players outside of Minny’s eight-man rotation have logged eight total minutes since Butler went down—also, the Wolves beat the Kings by 18 during this Butler-less stretch); the spotlight has once again positioned itself on young Andrew Wiggins, who somehow corralled just one rebound in 37 minutes against the Kings; and the Wolves have lost to the two top-10 West teams they faced (albeit on a road back-to-back).
But Butler opted for a shorter recovery timeline to repair the torn meniscus in his right knee, which means he could be back in time for the playoffs (if they make it?). And while it’s hard to know which Butler the Wolves will get at that point, anything close to the version from this season—i.e., the one making a case as a dark-horse MVP candidate—puts them a cut above the riffraff hoping to give the Warriors and Rockets at least a firm nudge in the second round. Minnesota may have the only offense in the conference that can keep up with its near-historic counterparts, and while its defense is a huge red flag, Butler has the ability to bring it to another level.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 37-28, seventh in the West
Kevin O’Connor: The team that can rival the Rockets and Warriors will need a superstar-level dynamic scorer, so that rules out the Nuggets, Clippers, and Jazz (Donovan Mitchell isn’t quite there). The team will need its stars to be healthy, so that rules out the Timberwolves and Spurs, considering the uncertain statuses of Butler and Leonard. The team will need a strong supporting cast, so that rules out the Pelicans, even as Anthony Davis continues to channel Wilt Chamberlain and Kevin Garnett.
That leaves the Blazers and Thunder. Both teams have multiple healthy stars who can heat up, as well as top-10 defenses. The Blazers are better at scoring in the half court, and a tick better defensively ever since the Thunder lost Andre Roberson (and couldn’t find a replacement). But the Blazers are about as good as they can be this season, while the Thunder still have room for growth.
If the Thunder learn how to maximize Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony and install creative play sets, they have the ammo to possibly take down Golden State and Houston in the playoffs—where the game slows down and the impact of star players becomes more pronounced. The Thunder have shown flashes over the season, but have yet to put it all together. They could by the playoffs, though I wouldn’t bet on it.
Record: 35-28, eighth in the West
Jonathan Tjarks: Having to make the case for the Nuggets is why you shouldn’t turn your Slack notifications off in the middle of the afternoon. In all seriousness, there is a case for Denver being more dangerous than its current place in the standings and net rating (plus-0.4) indicate. The Nuggets have had Paul Millsap for only 19 games this season, and their trade for Devin Harris (i.e., the Mavs’ best player this season) at the deadline allowed them to eject plus-minus black hole Emmanuel Mudiay out of the backup point guard spot. Millsap and Harris are veterans who defend multiple positions, space the floor, create their own shots, facilitate, and use their experience to help their young core.
And how about that young core? Is there a more entertaining trio in the league than Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray? The Nuggets’ young guns can get buckets on just about anyone, and the unique home-court advantage in Denver will give them an edge in every playoff game, even if they have to start the series on the road. This is a young team on the rise with star power, savvy veterans, lineup flexibility, and long and athletic shooters up and down their rotation.
Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 34-28, ninth in the West
Chris Ryan: Before the Clippers can upset the apple cart, they have to get into the orchard. Los Angeles is currently on the outside looking in to the postseason, running neck and neck with the Nuggets. For half a decade, the Clippers have gone into the postseason with the same core, making the same proposition. But they’ve overhauled the roster twice since the end of last season—once with the Chris Paul trade before the season, and then again with the Blake Griffin deal at the midway point. I don’t know what the Clippers are. The Clippers don’t know what the Clippers are. And that’s precisely what makes them a postseason force to be reckoned with.
Since the Blake trade, the Clippers have had a top-10 offense, led by the unapologetic chucking of Lou Williams, the steady scoring of Tobias Harris, and whoever else happens to be hot on a given night, be it Austin Rivers, Clipper-4-Life DeAndre Jordan, or [checks waiver wire] Sean Kilpatrick. They’ve scored 114 points or more in seven of their past 10 games (they’ve also won seven of their past 10). Doc Rivers has a 10-man rotation to play with, and seemingly a different hero rises every night. If the Clippers can squeak into the 8-seed, are you telling me they can’t scare the Rockets? Are you telling me that Patrick Beverley won’t do everything medically possible to play in that series, and that he won’t make it his life’s work to torment Paul the entire time? Are you telling me you won’t cancel any and all social plans to witness it?
Record: 34-30, 10th in the West
Danny Chau: The Jazz have made their triumphant return to being themselves again, which, in such a volatile playoff race out West, could be enough to fly up the standings and surprise the league. Since the new year, the Jazz have the fifth-best net rating in the league and the best defensive rating in the league (101.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), and have seen their possessions per game dip to 98.33, one of the five slowest paces in the NBA. It’s Utah’s tried-and-true identity that highlights the unique gifts of Rudy Gobert, who has reestablished himself as the Jazz’s most important player after missing much of the season because of injury. With Gobert operating at full capacity, the team is playing the kind of anachronistic basketball that got it to the second round of the playoffs last season.
The Jazz control the boards and tempo, turning games into time-of-possession grinds the way football games and soccer matches can. It’s a demanding style of play that requires patience and complete participation from top to bottom. The team seems to have more secret engines than it does regular drone workers—it’s hard to imagine the Jazz without Joe Ingles or Derrick Favors steadying the ship and serving as models of their positional function on the team. And it’s increasingly become difficult to imagine the present-day Jazz without Ricky Rubio, who has reverted to the player he was on the Wolves in the presence of Donovan Mitchell’s budding superstardom: a deeply flawed, idiosyncratic leader who does a tightrope walk between net positive and net negative every single game.
Utah has a baseline as dependable as that of any Western Conference team outside of the top two, with a ceiling that can be defined by only Mitchell’s go-to scoring ability. It may not put the Jazz in a tier anywhere close to the Rockets or Warriors, but they’re as good as any other team out West.