Kevin DurantGlenn James/NBAE by way of Getty Photographs
With a month left within the 2022-23 NBA season, the Western Convention has abruptly grow to be the Wild West.
The Denver Nuggets are seven video games up on second place, so ending first seems like a foregone conclusion for them. However they’re removed from a lock to characterize the convention within the Finals, and the remainder of the standings are a nightmare to decipher.
Simply when it appeared just like the Phoenix Suns had been able to make a cost towards a top-two spot, Kevin Durant went down with a sprained ankle throughout Wednesday’s warm-ups. He’ll be re-evaluated in two weeks, which after all doesn’t suggest that that is when he’ll be again. Any probability on the growth of on-court chemistry for KD and his new teammates earlier than the playoffs is now in jeopardy.
However Durant and the Suns are removed from being on the shakiest floor out West.
That place might be held by the Memphis Grizzlies, who’ve been in second place for many of the common season.
Within the final week alone, Ja Morant was investigated by the Glendale (Colorado) Police Division after he displayed a handgun in an Instagram Reside video (an investigation that didn’t result in any charges), Brandon Clarke suffered a season-ending torn Achilles and Steven Adams obtained a stem cell injection in his injured knee that ended his common season.
As of this writing, Morant continues to be away from the staff, and there isn’t any definitive return date.
His Grizzlies, in addition to the Suns, possible fancied themselves title contenders earlier this month. They most likely nonetheless do, however that pursuit is now, on the very least, extra difficult for each.
Nonetheless, Memphis and Phoenix are among the many high 5 Western Convention groups in FiveThirtyEight’s championship projection system.
- Denver Nuggets: 17 p.c
- Memphis Grizzlies: 9 p.c
- Golden State Warriors: 7 p.c
- Phoenix Suns: 5 p.c
- Dallas Mavericks: 2 p.c
And so they aren’t the one ones for which you can also make an inexpensive “they will win all of it” case.
With a lot information flying in during the last a number of days, now is an ideal time to kind all of them out.
Outdoors Wanting In
With apologies to the 38-26 Sacramento Kings, their lack of postseason expertise makes it simple to guess towards them. They’re definitely a menace to win a sequence, however of the group exterior that aforementioned high 5 (Sacramento, the Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and Los Angeles Lakers), Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers really feel like the most important menace to crash the occasion.
They misplaced their first 5 video games with Russell Westbrook, however his utilization was reined approach in during the last two video games (each wins), and there is at all times an opportunity Kawhi prompts Terminator mode within the postseason.
Well being is at all times a priority for Leonard, however that seems like an even bigger challenge for the Lakers (who have already got LeBron James on the shelf), Pelicans (nonetheless with out Zion Williamson) and Timberwolves (Karl-Anthony Cities hasn’t performed since November, and it is exhausting to have a really feel for the way he and Rudy Gobert will match collectively).
5. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies made a press release in Thursday’s win over the Golden State Warriors, they usually reminded everybody of how worthwhile a starting-caliber backup level guard may be.
Over the past two years, Memphis is plus-7.0 factors per 100 possessions when Tyus Jones, Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. are all on the ground with out Ja Morant. And final season’s accidents to Morant imply that quantity comes from a reasonably vital pattern dimension.
The Grizzlies aren’t higher with out their celebrity, however the ball typically pops when Morant is not dominating it, Jones is a greater exterior shooter and the protection is much less vulnerable to blow-bys on the level of assault.
All which means Memphis ought to stay, on the very least, aggressive for the remainder of the common season. And if it could possibly get Ja and Adams again for the postseason, it’s going to be harmful.
There’s simply a lot turmoil right here proper now. Three vital rotation gamers, together with one perennial All-Star, are out. A kind of absences is the product of extremely uncommon circumstances. And brought collectively, it simply makes it tougher to belief this staff to make a deep run.
4. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks have not prevented the harm bug both, however an MRI on Luka Dončić’s thigh reportedly got here again clear. That alone makes this case really feel somewhat simpler to foretell than Memphis’.
And we’re lower than a yr faraway from Luka placing the Mavericks on his again for a experience to the Western Convention Finals.
Throughout his profession, Dončić has averaged an eye-popping 32.5 factors, 9.3 rebounds and seven.9 assists in 28 playoff video games.
His new co-pilot, Kyrie Irving has his personal playoff highlights too. He is averaged 23.3 factors and a pair of.3 threes whereas capturing 39.3 p.c from deep in 74 postseason video games. And he hit one of many greatest shots we have ever seen on the best way to the 2016 championship.
Having these two collectively will give the Mavericks an unstoppable assault, significantly in isolations or pick-and-rolls for whichever guard attracts the opposition’s second-best perimeter defender.
However availability definitely hasn’t been an indicator of Kyrie’s profession, and his looming free company may have an effect on the staff’s focus as effectively.
The commerce to amass him additionally price Dallas its finest defensive possibility (Dorian Finney-Smith) towards wings like Bane, KD, Klay Thompson and Michael Porter Jr.
3. Golden State Warriors
What a wierd season it has been for the reigning champion Warriors.
All yr, they’ve hovered round .500, handled accidents (or different causes for absences) up and down the roster and a bench that has given them subsequent to nothing.
However that is nonetheless Golden State. Stephen Curry continues to be taking part in like a celebrity, and if everybody else is offered, a title run is not out of the query.
The Warriors are plus-21.9 factors per 100 possessions when Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Inexperienced and Kevon Looney are all on the ground, which continues to be the most effective five-man lineup web score (minimal 200 minutes).
2. Phoenix Suns
In fact, Durant lacking most or the entire remainder of the common season is worse than the choice.
It is exhausting to combine any rotation participant acquired midseason, however that is very true of a celebrity (on the uncommon events one is moved through the season). These few weeks had been speculated to be Phoenix’s alternative to take action with Durant.
With out them, the primary spherical might find yourself being little greater than a crash course for the staff to discover ways to play with one another.
But when there’s any all-time nice who may be capable of skip that part, it’s Durant. Among the many only a few gamers in NBA historical past who had been at or close to his stage, few video games appear as malleable.
That was on gorgeous show throughout his three seasons with the Warriors and his three video games with the Suns.
Durant can utterly dominate a recreation taking 10 or 15 pictures and hardly dealing with the ball. That was the strategy he appeared to be taking early on with Phoenix. As a catch-and-shoot outlet, few have ever been as devastating.
However he is clearly way more than that. When referred to as upon, Durant can dominate in isolation, run an offense or deal with within the pick-and-roll. And all of these descriptions apply to Chris Paul and Devin Booker too. Throw in Deandre Ayton and his capability to complete on the uncommon events these three do not, and you’ve got a really unstoppable offense.
We’ve not even talked about what Durant can convey defensively both. He has the athleticism to slot in as a wing in a switch-heavy scheme, however his dimension additionally means he can play some de facto 5.
If his ankle is all the best way again to regular and the remainder of his teammates are wholesome within the playoffs, the Suns can completely win the championship.
1. Denver Nuggets
So how, after that glowing assessment of Phoenix, can the Nuggets nonetheless have the highest spot right here (and within the aforementioned projection system)?
To start with, there is no such thing as a assure Durant and CP3 can keep wholesome all through a playoff run. Sturdiness has been a big drawback for each lately.
However the Nuggets do not should depend on that wild card.
They’re ok to beat the absolutely wholesome variations of any of the above.
Nikola Jokić rightfully gained every of the final two MVP awards. This season, he is averaging a triple-double with an otherworldly 70.0 true capturing proportion and is a runaway favourite in Basketball Reference‘s MVP Tracker (“based mostly on a mannequin constructed utilizing earlier voting outcomes”) to safe the sport’s high particular person honor for a 3rd time.
And in contrast to final yr, when Jamal Murray and MPJ each missed the playoffs with accidents, it seems like Jokić will get to the postseason with a title-caliber supporting solid.
Even after a disappointing blowout loss to the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday, he and the remainder of Denver’s starters rank first, second, third, fourth and thirteenth within the NBA in whole plus-minus.
- Nikola Jokić: +576
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: +485
- Aaron Gordon: +469
- Michael Porter Jr.: +388
- Jamal Murray: +276
Surrounding the playmaking massive with elite capturing and simply sufficient protection has been a recipe for a hefty lead over everybody else within the Western Convention standings.
And the final time Jokić, Murray and MPJ had been all out there for the playoffs, the Nuggets had been an ahead-of-schedule participant within the convention finals.
Add Aaron Gordon and KCP to that blend and it is easy to think about Denver making a run.