The NBA season is a month old, and there are a few things we know for sure: the two Los Angeles teams are living up to their preseason billing, Luka Doncic is the real deal, and the Warriors … well the less said about them, the better. Coming in to the campaign, with Golden State looking less like the world-beater it had been for the past half-decade, the prevailing logic was that the Western Conference would look, well, like the Wild West. About one-fifth of the way through the season, that still rings true.
Already, teams have begun to sort themselves into strata. The Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, and Rockets all look like the contenders most expected them to be, and the Mavericks, thanks to otherworldly play from Doncic, seem like a lock to hold on to their top-six placement.
Thus far, those six teams seem like playoff shoo-ins. The last two postseason spots are very much up for grabs. Beneath the sixth-place Rockets sit the Phoenix Suns and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The inclusion of either in the playoffs might’ve turned heads before the season; they were projected to have the sixth- and seventh-worst records in the league, respectively. And after them, six more teams are within 3.5 games of the 6-seed.
It’s still early, and determining which of those squads has what it takes to fill out the remaining playoff spots is messy. Some teams, like Golden State—owners of a historic ongoing tank job—and Memphis, are excluded here, because their goals aren’t to succeed. They’re Cryin’ for Wiseman (forgive me, that needs some work). Same goes for Oklahoma City, which, despite exciting growth from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, is one Chris Paul or Danilo Gallinari trade from racing the Warriors to the bottom. That leaves us with the Wolves, Suns, Kings, Pelicans, Spurs, and Trail Blazers. About a fifth of the way into the season, here’s where they stand, and how confident we are they can compete for the playoffs:
Minnesota Timberwolves (9-8)
Before we begin, I’d like to address Andrew Wiggins directly. Andrew, I’m sorry I said you were “a bust” and “terrible on both ends of the floor” and “absolutely not worth a max contract” and “whatever word you use to say someone is washed even when you’re not even 25 years old.” (For the record, I also qualify for that last one. I think the term is “rinsed.”) Through 14 games, Wiggins is averaging a career-high 25.2 points on 46.9 percent shooting, and has, for the first time, a positive box plus-minus. He’s logging more dimes than ever before, and getting more boards as well.
Up front, Karl-Anthony Towns is seventh in scoring, averaging 26.5 points per game, and leads the Wolves in points, rebounds, blocks, free throw attempts, and made 3s. Towns has always flashed the potential that made him the apple of unicorn-lovers’ eyes, but now, five years into his promising career, he finally looks like the real thing. Ryan Saunders’s fast-paced offense is working for Towns, and things seem like they’re only getting better.
On Monday, the Wolves beat the Hawks, 125-113, and it could be the start of a run. No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver started in Atlanta over Jeff Teague, and though he doesn’t offer the passing upside the veteran point guard might, he looked at ease against a pesky Hawks team. Culver’s growth is important to Minnesota’s playoff push, but their success hinges, as it so often has, on the Towns-Wiggins fulcrum, which anchors the game plan and the cap sheet. In 295 shared minutes together so far this season, they’ve more than doubled their shared net rating from last season. Seeing as they’re the two most used players on the roster, it’s fair to say that improvement is the difference between playing into the late spring and fielding questions about continual failures. Two seasons ago, Minnesota broke its long playoff drought. And though the Wolves missed the cutoff last season, this squad looks hellbent on starting a new streak.
Phoenix Suns (8-8)
The Suns have been the biggest surprise of the early season, racing out to a 7-4 record before stumbling back to .500 in their past five games. Wins over the Clippers and 76ers were shocking, but nothing suggests they were flukes. Devin Booker is averaging 24.8 points per game on a career-high 42.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc; Ricky Rubio looks like the ideal backcourt partner for him, and is dishing out 8.1 assists a night (sixth in the league); and Aron Baynes, Dario Saric, and Kelly Oubre Jr. each have thrived in complementary roles for Monty Williams’s squad. Some of their slide can be traced to injuries—Rubio and Baynes have combined to miss eight of their past nine playing opportunities—and some is likely just natural regression. Phoenix entered the season projected to win fewer than 30 games; a .500 finish would greatly exceed those expectations.
Deandre Ayton is set to return from suspension midway through December, and on paper, should provide Phoenix with a significant boost. Talent-wise, he’s the second-best player on the roster. How he’ll assimilate with a team ahead of schedule and in the thick of a playoff push will be worth monitoring. At his best, Ayton provides a high-ceiling interior presence and gives the Suns a bona fide shot blocker. At his worst, he’s a nonshooter who could torpedo Phoenix’s promising offense (the ninth best in the league) and leave the Suns looking dimmer with each stagnant possession.
Sacramento Kings (7-9)
The Kings were the toast of the town last season, riding a blazing-fast offense and the emergence of second-year guard De’Aaron Fox to their best record in more than a decade. This season, Fox is the center of attention yet again, but for less encouraging reasons. The Kentucky product’s ascendance has stagnated, and Sacramento looked listless in his nine games this season. The Kings went 3-6 before Fox sprained his ankle in practice. Since then, they’ve gone 4-2 with wins over the Celtics and Suns, and lost by only two on the road against the Lakers.
In the six games Fox has ridden the pine, the Kings have improved their net rating by 5.1 points, and are now just a game out of the last playoff spot. Fox’s return isn’t imminent, and there’s a chance that Sacramento’s slow start had to do with Fox’s trouble adapting to new coach Luke Walton’s game plan. Last season, the Kings played at the third-fastest past in the league. This season, they’re the third slowest—a tough pill to swallow for Fox, who excels in transition. The Kings have an intriguing youthful core of Fox, Buddy Hield, and the also-injured Marvin Bagley III, but their recent success has come thanks in part to seasoned contributors like Richaun Holmes, Harrison Barnes, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Last season the Kings showed they could climb the Western Conference’s pecking order. Now the question is whether they can do it consistently.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-11)
Most of the talk surrounding New Orleans this season has been about what’s missing, rather than what’s there. Zion Williamson, out recovering from meniscus surgery, has yet to suit up for his first regular-season game. But that hasn’t stopped his teammates from thriving. Brandon Ingram—freed from his Showtime spotlight—looks remade in New Orleans. Ingram is scoring 26.1 points per night while shooting 45.9 percent from beyond the arc on 5.7 deep attempts per game.
Jrue Holiday’s slow start on offense was concerning, though he seems to have figured it out lately. Veteran wing JJ Redick recently supplanted Lonzo Ball in the starting lineup, and paired with Ingram has provided spacing for New Orleans’s slashers to drive at the rim. The real question is what happens once Zion returns. He looked every bit as exciting as promised in the preseason before succumbing to injury, and assuming a full recovery, it’s hard to imagine he won’t perform as well when he returns. But Ingram has played like a true no. 1 option in his absence, and how he transitions back to second banana will determine whether this is another rebuilding season for the Pelicans, or whether they have a real shot at the postseason. Zion’s rehab is right on schedule, according to David Griffin, and even if cohesion is at risk, it doesn’t make sense for the Pelicans to shy away from their budding superstar.
San Antonio Spurs (6-12)
After decades—seriously, decades—of sustained excellence, time is finally catching up to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. San Antonio last missed the playoffs in 1996-97, when an injury to David Robinson encouraged them to tank for Tim Duncan (surprise, it worked out). Before then, their last postseason spent on the golf course came after the 1988-89 season. But after five championships, more than 20 years, and a handful of Hall of Famers, the streak seems like it will finally come to an end.
The Spurs have won just a third of their games. Their two stars are aging (stop me if you’ve heard that part before) and represent an antiquated style of play. No team takes fewer 3s per game than San Antonio’s 24.9 per night, and 13 make their attempts at a better rate. Considering their 26th-ranked defense, and a roster whose third-highest-scoring player is Bryn Forbes, it seems likely that the Spurs’ extended run of greatness is a thing of the past. Popovich has made winners out of confusing rosters before, but he’s never faced an uphill battle quite like this.
Portland Trail Blazers (6-12)
Last season, the Trail Blazers broke through their seemingly impenetrable ceiling, reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1999-2000, when Rasheed Wallace anchored the Portland frontcourt. Despite losing key contributors like Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, and Moe Harkless this offseason, and big men Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to injury, prevailing wisdom suggested that in a wide-open West, a backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum could still keep Portland competitive. Thus far, that hasn’t been the case.
The Blazers have struggled mightily, with two different four-game losing streaks in the season’s opening month, the most recent of which ended with a 117-94 drubbing of Chicago on Monday night. Things got so bleak, so quickly, that Portland did the unthinkable, and turned their hopes to Carmelo Anthony, who’d last played a game in November 2018. So far, Melo’s been, well, Melo. He’s averaging 16 points per game, and on Monday, he turned back the clock, scoring 25 … on 20 shots, 10 more than Lillard and four more than McCollum. Hassan Whiteside is a turnstyle under the basket, and no longer offers enough on offense to make up for his defensive deficiencies. Portland has been rumored to be interested in swinging a trade for erstwhile Cav and honest-to-God Banana Republic model Kevin Love. Love would give the Blazers a third proven scoring threat, and would be an immediate improvement on Whiteside offensively while complementing Nurkic and Collins after their eventual returns. Until then though, it’s up to Melo. Gulp.