The energy of the whirlwind 2017 offseason has thrust itself into the beginning of this season. Now that the schedule has stabilized a little bit, let’s try to figure out where teams in the Western Conference are, and where they’re going.
1. Houston Rockets (13-4)
The Rockets sit at the top of the Western Conference for now, due to the stellar play of potential MVP James Harden. Despite Chris Paul’s absence for almost the entire season, the Rockets have played at a fast pace, shot a ridiculous number of threes, and won games. They have the second highest net rating in the league (behind the Warriors).
With Chris Paul’s recent return from injury, expect the Rockets to continue to play well. Their role players, such as P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela, have looked awesome to start, and they will likely be a tough out for the Warriors in the playoffs. Keep an eye on how they perform in coming weeks, especially at how Paul and Harden coordinate the offense.
2. Golden State Warriors (13-4)
Don’t worry about the Warriors’ strange start for now: the advanced statistics support the fact that they are clearly the best team in the league. They have, by far, the best point differential and net rating in the league. Their offense has been fantastic and their defense is rounding into form.
The Warriors still have room to improve with consistency, mental composure, and discipline. But they’ve started fine this season.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves (10-6)
Congratulations to the Timberwolves for opening the season on a strong note. But they actually have a negative point differential and net rating, and thus seem ripe for regression. Still, they’re a young team that’s still figuring out how to integrate their best player, Jimmy Butler, and could definitely improve as the season progresses. Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins especially seem more ready for a playoff push than ever before.
One thing to watch is how much Tom Thibodeau plays his starters. The Wolves’ bench is pretty weak, and Thibs notoriously keeps his starters in the game, even to the point of exhaustion. Any injuries to their stars will be catastrophic for this season and beyond.
4. San Antonio Spurs (10-6)
Even without superstar Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs have been as solid as ever. They have so many players who are somewhat unspectacular, but buy into the team concept and “know how to play.” With a top ten defense and unrelenting discipline, they get away with a relative lack of talent.
Without Leonard, however, they won’t be a playoff threat. With his health status and return date unknown, the Spurs’ ceiling is a real question: how healthy will Leonard be when he returns, and can he take this team to the next level?
5. Denver Nuggets (9-7)
The Nuggets haven’t been able to continue their elite offensive attack from last season so far, but their defense has significantly improved. New addition Paul Millsap has made the team smarter, tougher, and more dangerous for the playoffs.
Nikola Jokic has had a fine season so far, leading the team in points, rebounds, and assists. But the Nuggets are a deeper team than him: they have six players that are averaging double figures in points, and they’re one of the better passing teams in the league. If they find that offensive spark from last year, they could make some noise in the postseason.
The rest of the Western Conference is to come.