Around the NBA Western Conference: Jan. 18
With the halfway point of the NBA season upon us, we can start to find out which teams are legitimate championship contenders. Coming into the season, the Western Conference was believed to be wide open, with many different teams having dynamic duos and powerhouse rosters. At this point, it looks like it’s going to be that way for the remainder of the season. With that, let’s take a look at the eight teams in the playoffs right now in the West.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers are back and better than ever this season. Los Angeles has an outstanding 33-8 record, which is good for first place in the conference. All-Stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis have led the way for the Lakers all season long, but it’s some of the other role players that have stepped up. General Manager Rob Pelinka brought in veteran big man Dwight Howard, wing shooter Danny Green, and two-way guard Avery Bradley in free agency. These moves, along with a mix of youth and experience on the squad, have turned out huge for them this season. Barring injuries, the Lakers are in a prime position to finish top three in the conference.
After a season that ended in heartbreak in the Western Conference Semifinals, the Denver Nuggets have come back this season with a chip on their shoulder. Denver has posted a 29-12 record to this point, mainly because of their stars. Center Nikola Jokić and guard Jamal Murray have put up huge numbers in the first half of the season, but with Murray sidelined due to an ankle injury for the foreseeable future, other guys will have to step up. Guards Monte Morris and Malik Beasley are going to see significantly more time with Murray out. In addition, 2018 first-round pick Michael Porter Jr. has come on as of late for Denver and will need to continue his success moving forward. Jokić is one of the best centers in the game, and with his partner in crime injured, the Nuggets could slow down in the second half of the season.
Los Angeles Clippers
A wild offseason has turned the Los Angeles Clippers into contenders in the West. The Clippers brought in 2019 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard via free agency and All-Star wing Paul George via trade. When you add those two pieces with a team that won 48 games a season ago, you are going to be successful with a 29-13 record this season. Although Leonard and George have missed time, the Clippers have been able to keep pace. Sixth man Lou Williams and bruiser Montrezl Harrell have been huge for the Clippers all season long. However, Los Angeles needs Leonard and George to be consistently on the court before the playoffs if it wants a top three seed in this conference.
How about the play of the Utah Jazz at the midpoint of the season? After a disappointing end to last season, the Jazz are right back in a position to be successful with a 28-13 record. The duo of guard Donovan Mitchell and center Rudy Gobert have been improving since they have been together over the years. Utah has been hot as of late, winning 10 of its last 11 games, and look like the real deal this time around. Guard Joe Ingles and forward Bojan Bogdanović have been excellent secondary scoring options to Mitchell and Gobert. The Jazz will have to continue what they are doing to keep pace in this tight conference.
The Russell Westbrook and James Harden reunion has worked out pretty well for the Rockets to start the season. Houston has a record of 26-14 and again is right there in the West like they have been for years. The departure of point guard Chris Paul to bring the younger, more explosive, Westbrook is what Houston needed. Like every duo, they will have their ups and downs, but so far, Houston is right where they need to be. Harden is scoring at will this season, averaging an unbelievable 37.2 points per game. This team fears no one, but if they want to get a higher seed and come out of the West, they have to get more production out of other role players.
The biggest story during the first half of the season is the play of Point guard Luka Dončić and the 26-15 Dallas Mavericks. Dončić has put up insane numbers to start the season. He and his partner, forward Kristaps Porzingis, look to be the future of the league. Porzingis has missed time with a knee injury, and his timetable to return is uncertain, but Dončić and has been able to carry the load thus far. Guys like Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry will need to continue to hit big shots like they have been if the Mavericks want to have a chance at a top five seed in the conference. However, it’s going to be difficult with Porzingis out for an extended period.
Oklahoma City Thunder
In my opinion, this is the most surprising team in the NBA this season. The Oklahoma City Thunder traded its two best players in the offseason and were largely written off. The Thunder sit at 23-18 on the season, and they compete every night. The additions of guards Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, alongside forward Danilo Gallinari give Oklahoma City a chance to be respectable in the West. Even with departures of Westbrook and George in the offseason, this team is right there to make the playoffs. However, the main question is whether or not Oklahoma City will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. They will most likely be sellers, and if that’s the case, they will slow down in the second half of the season.
Another surprise at the bottom half of the West is the play of the young Memphis Grizzlies. Rookie point guard Ja Morant has been unreal this season, and it looks like Memphis found its star of future for years to come. The Grizzlies sit at 19-22 on the season and have come on as of late. Memphis has gotten massive production from guys like power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., small forward Dillon Brooks and center Jonas Valančiūnas. It will be interesting to see if the Grizzlies remain in the eight spot of the West due to the logjam of teams right behind them. Right now, Morant the Grizzlies are playing at a high level and deserve that position.
Matthew McClure is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact, email firstname.lastname@example.org.