A large swath of NBA media is out on the top seeds in the Western Conference — and it makes sense, because, for the first time since the 1996-97 season, the East is far and away superior.
Grant Hill looks to repeat Team USA’s 2004 “success”
The Denver Nuggets have clinched the best record in the West at 52-28 with two games remaining. The No. 2 seed Memphis Grizzlies won their 50th game on Tuesday, and third-seeded Sacramento Kings may not get to 50 wins. Those teams will also not move in the standings by the end of the week.
With the lack of dominance at the top of the Western Conference, analysts and sports books believe that veteran teams clustered in the middle of the standings have — at minimum — a similarly likely chance at advancing to the NBA Finals. Both Fanduel and DraftKings have the No. 4 seed Phoenix Suns as the betting favorites to come out of the West.
Yes, Kevin Durant has returned from injury for the Suns. Andrew Wiggins is back in the Bay Area along with Gary Payton II. The Los Angeles Lakers have been on a tear since the all-star break, and if Paul George returns to the team that defeated them on Wednesday night — the Los Angeles Clippers — they will have as strong a roster as any team with a rejuvenated Kawhi Leonard.
All of that being said, the teams at the top of the Western Conference are no pushovers. A couple of them have real playoff experience, and the one that doesn’t is still better than nearly all over the NBA in an important category.
No. 1 Nuggets are as good as any team in the West
The Denver Nuggets are the No. 1 seed for a reason. Of course, the main one is Nikola Jokić running the offense like he’s Magic Johnson, but while playing center. However, there is a reason that his career-high usage rate — 31.9 percent — has dropped to 27.2 percent which is his lowest since the bubble season and he is still playing at an NBA level.
Not only did Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. return from injury, but the Nuggets did significantly improve their roster. They brought in Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope during the offseason, and Reggie Jackson and Thomas Bryant near the trade deadline.
Brown and Caldwell-Pope have been as good as advertised but Jackson and Bryant have struggled so much that Zeke Nnaji — recovering from a knee injury —has been the Nuggets’ second-best player off of the bench. For all of the work that the Nuggets have done to their roster, depth may be an issue come playoff time.
The starters though, that group is a monster. Four of their five have conference-finals experience. The net rating for the Nuggets’ starting lineup is better than the Philadelphia 76ers’ crunchtime five, all of the Boston Celtics’ most used lineups, and is bested by only one of the Milwaukee Bucks’ most used. If the Nuggets can get anything out of their bench, they will play like a top seed.
The Grizzlies can be maddening but they are good
Between Dillon Brooks’ battle against the world, and Ja Morant temporarily being away from the team after flashing a firearm on Instagram, it can be easy to forget that since the turn of the year the Grizzlies have spent one day in the Western Conference standings lower than second. If they hadn’t hit a skid from mid-January through early February they could easily be the top team in the conference.
Desmond Bane has taken another major leap in his third NBA season. His field-goal attempts and scoring average have increased this season along with his field-goal percentage. Bane is about to receive a fat payday because he is a true backcourt scoring threat.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is well on his way to a Defensive Player of the Year Award. His role as the anchor on that defense has led the Grizzlies to the second-best defensive rating in the league. A defensive-minded team that played the NBA Champions in a competitive six-game series last playoffs. They will be a terror this spring.
Everybody wants to play the Kings
It makes sense. They don’t have a top-10 NBA player on their roster and haven’t been to the postseason since Rick Adelman’s final season as head coach in 2005-06. In many ways, these Kings are a flawed Adelman team. A great offense in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but they struggle on defense.
This is the most vulnerable of the top-three seeds, but out of three options one had to finish last. While the Kings do struggle on defense, they have the best offensive rating in the NBA. The roster is flush with shooting, paint scoring, and playmaking. Every night against them in the postseason will be a workout for the opposition.
And for all of their struggles on defense, they are still better than every team in the West in a significant category — road victories. The Kings are the only team in the Western Conference with a road record over .500, and it’s not just a few games over. They are 25-15 on the road. Only the Bucks — the top-seeded team in the league — have a better road record at 26-14. Combine that with a veteran head coach in Mike Brown, the Kings will be no easy out.
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