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The Western Conference playoff picture is beginning to take shape

After a hectic first half of the season, the hierarchies in the Western Conference are much clearer.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors are on a roll: now at full health with the return of DeMarcus Cousins, the Dubs are playing their best basketball of the season. They’re on a seven-game win streak, and boast both the best record and net rating in the West. The Warriors should expect to garner the top seed in the conference if they stay healthy.

Western Conference standings
ESPN.com

Below them, the mass of teams is still quite jumbled, but the playoff picture is beginning to clarify. The Denver Nuggets and the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to be the next best teams in the West, and are my bets to capture the second and third seeds. Denver’s dynamic offensive attack and Oklahoma City’s suffocating defense are going to cause problems in the playoffs. Still, they’re probably not as strong as the heavy hitters out East, such as the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks.

From there, the mid-tier is a little blurry. The Rockets are surviving a rash of crucial injuries due to James Harden’s heroics, but it’s clear that even at full health, they’re not nearly as elite as they were last season. The Trail Blazers and Spurs are having strong regular seasons, but it’s hard to see them as threats in the playoffs due to their previous postseason duds.

Expect the Jazz to continue their climb: after an extremely difficult opening to the season, they’ve clawed their way to the seventh seed. They have the fourth-best net rating in the conference, and their defense keeps improving. Utah’s offense is flawed, but they did win a playoff series last year. They’re a team to keep an eye on.

The Clippers and Lakers have both fallen off in the last month: the Clippers’ offense isn’t elite anymore, and their lack of star power is beginning to show. The Lakers have struggled without LeBron James of course, and the recent injury of Lonzo Ball won’t help. But I still expect the Lakers to barely make the playoffs simply because LeBron can lift a team by himself.

The Kings, Timberwolves, and Pelicans all have outside chances of making the playoffs as well. The Kings are only one games away, but have been outplaying their net rating and probably don’t have enough high-end talent to close the gap. The Wolves and Pelicans have dealt with injury problems and would need an elite run to leapfrog other good teams and make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Mavericks and Grizzlies join the Suns as likely bound for the lottery.

Overall, it looks like the conference competition is easier for the Warriors than last year. There’s a good chance the contender from the East will be the most difficult opponent for Golden State in the postseason this year. Sound off in the comments about how you’d like the playoff seeding to play out!

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