Examining The NBA’s Chaotic Western Conference

For the last two decades, the NBA’s Western Conference has mostly proven to be a powerhouse. From the days where 50 wins could barely clinch the eight seed to seasons with the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets winning 65-plus games and looking unbeatable, historical dominance has always been a bedrock of the West playoff field.

This 2022-23 season has felt anomalous for many reasons, but none more than how jumbled the West teams have been from the start. It took until April 4, just six days before the end of the schedule, for a fourth playoff spot to be clinched. Typically, the only thing in question at this point of the season is who will be grabbing the final seed.

This year, we still have eight West teams alive during the final week. Up until the Phoenix Suns clinched the fourth seed on Tuesday, you could label the West’s No. 4 to 12 spots as pure chaos all year long.

Prior to this season, for the last 20 years, the average margin between the West’s No. 4 and 12 seeds was 0.269 — that’s roughly 22 wins separating fourth and 12th over the last two decades. It’s exactly what you’d expect. A team with a homecourt seed should be miles ahead of those deep in the draft lottery.

This season, the gap in winning percentage between fourth and 12th in the West is only 0.101, the equivalent of 8.3 wins. Up until the last two weeks of action, when the Jazz started tailing off and Dallas became an embarrassment, the difference between fourth and 12th in the West was only three wins.

What does this mean?

Well, the Western Conference, now more than ever, is resembling the NCAA tournament. With a slew of average teams in the conversation for a deep playoff run, there was no juggernaut looking down on everyone and flexing their superiority until the Suns acquired Kevin Durant in mid-February. But due to the timing of the acquisition and various injuries, they were unable to formulate a dominant regular season.

Net Rating (a team’s point differential per 100 possessions) is often a cleaner and more reliable indicator of which teams deserve the ‘elite’ designation and which are ‘pretenders’ in a loaded conference. Whether it’s because of superstar injuries or just incompetent stretches for many of these teams, we’ve seen nothing but average-to-good competition in the West.

Looking back to 1999-2000, the West has averaged 4.3 teams with a net rating over 4.0 during the regular season. This year, there is exactly one team with a net rating above 4.0 in the West. It’s Memphis, not even the No. 1 seed in the conference.

The list below includes the total and median Net Rating among the West’s 4-12 seeds dating back to 2000. Between fourth and 12th, we’ve never seen such a tight field in terms of point differential:

Understanding the West could be wide open, depending on how you feel about Phoenix’s lack of time together, let’s dive into the deep playoff field.

Over the last 20 years, the lowest winning percentage we’ve seen from the No. 1 seed in the West is .695, equivalent to 57 wins. The Nuggets are likely to finish with 54 wins, and that’s with a +3.7 win expectancy based on their scoring margin, per Cleaning the Glass. Denver is 22-13 in clutch-time situations, giving them a few extra victories that could’ve swung either way.

They have the No. 1 seed all but locked up. The West playoffs will go through Denver, where the Nuggets have a 120.1 offensive rating (second among home teams) and 110.6 defensive rating (ninth). For all of the chatter about their lack of defense — yes, it looked atrocious during that four-game skid in March — Denver still manages to get enough stops down the stretch of tight games.

Their starting unit is just so cohesive and ready for the moment. They have played over 1,400 possessions together this season and have picked up right where they left off in April 2021 when Jamal Murray got injured.

Michael Porter Jr. is having arguably his best overall season when you consider the improvements he’s made as a help defender. He’s also just one of five players this season to shoot at least 40% from three on seven-plus attempts per game. He’ll become the 25th player in history to reach that combination for a full season, by the way.

With the spot-up (and movement) shooting that Porter and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope provide, it will inevitably make the Jokic and Murray pick-and-rolls a bear to defend. You can’t switch your point guards onto Jokic unless you’re fine with them getting pummeled in the post, and Murray has rediscovered his 2020 quickness when it comes to shot creation against a big. Try to double Jokic after he scores a few times, and all of a sudden the floodgates are opened — he’s the most gifted passer in the world that can see over your traps and create the most absurd deliveries to open shooters.

Thus, if you defend the Nuggets’ pet actions with a more traditional scheme (drop coverage, hedge-and-recover, or blitzing the ball-handler), Denver will almost always create an advantage and put the defense in rotation. That’s going to yield open shots.

There is no easy answer against them, and that’s exactly why they lead the West. Sure, the Nuggets have a shallow bench with not a lot of players you can trust in a playoff series where every mistake is magnified. But, much like the next team we’ll discuss, playoff depth is overrated.

As Pat Riley once said, “you use eight, rotate seven, play six, and trust five.”

This stretch after the All-Star break has just left many uninspired by the Nuggets’ chances of winning three straight playoff rounds. The latest disaster in Houston didn’t help their case, either. But it’s hard to distinguish how much of Denver’s issues have simply been them not caring about these late-season games, or if they just aren’t a formidable No. 1 seed.

With homecourt, they likely breeze through the first round if they draw the Clippers, Pelicans, Wolves, or Thunder. They won’t be on upset alert unless it’s the Warriors or Lakers marching into Denver (with their large fanbases) as they would no longer have the most dangerous superstar in either matchup.

Unfortunately for the Nuggets, the Suns have locked up the No. 4 seed, putting them on the same side of the bracket. If they were to meet in the second round, that’s a devastating matchup for Denver on the defensive end.

Phoenix is embarking on a journey nobody has completed: Is it possible to win four playoff series after integrating a superstar at the trade deadline and getting 10 or fewer games with him in the lineup? Do you need a unit that’s been tied together all year, with six months of chemistry building, or can you rely on talent to guide the ship?

In any other scenario — one that doesn’t include Kevin Durant and a brittle Western Conference — I’d say this is terrible process. It’s hard enough to win a championship when a group is on a string and has been through the trenches. There will be intense moments, whether it’s facing a 10-point deficit in a pivotal Game 5 of a 2-2 series, or the opponent going on a huge run that swings a road game. In those adverse situations, championship-caliber teams need to be battle-tested. They need to rely on their past experiences and know how to communication with one another. Otherwise, the team can unravel and a series would quickly be lost.

Something about this particular group just feels different.

There’s something about Phoenix’s culture, spearheaded by Monty Williams and Devin Booker, that strikes me as the place this could work. Although not as powerful as the Warriors unit he stepped right into in July 2016, the Suns still have an offensive brand that’s directly up KD’s alley.

The Suns have yet to lose with KD in the lineup, and they are outscoring teams by 22.2 points per 100 possessions with the ‘Mid-Range Mafia’ on the floor:

In many ways, because it’s not as reliant on read-and-react motion principles, Phoenix’s offense is probably smoother for KD compared to when he joined Golden State. It sounds crazy to suggest, I know. But he enjoys dictating the terms on offense and keeping the game simple. When the game is on the line, Durant and Booker will attack through pick-and-roll and force the defense to choose between unfavorable options. With both of them on the floor, opponents won’t be able to trap either one in ball-screen action — unless they choose to give up 4-on-3 opportunities led by the other star waiting on the weakside. Sell out on both, and it’s leaving Chris Paul or Josh Okogie wide-open on the perimeter or Deandre Ayton with a clear lane.

If those guys make enough winning plays, we’re probably going to see a ton of switching against Phoenix. And when the rubber meets the road, Durant should be the piece they were missing — a certified destroyer that can rise over smaller defenders, or create advantages by driving around slower seven-footers.

Because we’re operating under weird times and the West has never looked this way, this would be the year for a team to click at the right time and not require a full regular season together. With all of these other teams in a state of uncertainty as well, the overwhelming talent might be too much to ignore.

Much like Denver, the depth concern is overrated — as long as they maintain good health. Williams is already experimenting with different bench combinations, but it makes a world of difference when two of Booker, Durant, and Paul will be on the floor for all 48 minutes.

Sometimes in basketball, you just overthink it. Sure, they won’t have homecourt advantage after the first round unless one of the top seeds go down. But you still have to outscore these guys four times. When they have answers to every coverage imaginable, that just doesn’t seem practical this year.

Out of this group of average West contenders, the Clippers are the most unpredictable. Their championship hopes are completely up in the air with Paul George’s knee sprain, as he remains without a timetable and is scheduled to get reevaluated in the coming days. It wouldn’t be wise to expect him back before the first round, which begins April 15.

If PG isn’t in the lineup and they draw the Suns for the first round, there isn’t much worth discussing. LA won’t have the halfcourt firepower to keep up despite Kawhi Leonard going supernova for the last three months. Defensively, if the Clippers stick to their ‘switch everything 1-4’ scheme, there would be too many weak or small defenders (Westbrook, Powell, or Hyland) for Durant to exploit.

While it’s true Ivica Zubac and the Clippers have largely done a great job containing Chris Paul’s go-to spots in the mid-range, the Suns now have another offensive initiator, which makes him more a spacer down the stretch of games. With Paul shooting 49.4% on catch-and-shoot threes this season, it doesn’t feel like a great gamble for defenses.

There is no easy answer for who the Clippers should ‘hope’ to draw in the first round, especially if they’re going to be shorthanded. Sacramento would appear to be the best option because of their lack of postseason experience, but it’s not a great matchup for LA. The Kings want to turn every game into a track meet, while the Clippers prefer to operate slower with Leonard dictating the offense.

The Clippers’ discipline against Sacramento’s shooters and cutters, particularly Kevin Huerter, would be tested on every action. It also has vibes of a matchup that could drive Westbrook to prove something against a younger backcourt, pushing the tempo and taking advantage of the Kings’ lack of perimeter containment. However, the biggest question there is how many turnovers and bad shots the Clippers are willing to live with. It could only play into Sacramento’s hands and increase the number of transition opportunities.

Ty Lue has seemed to figure out his main rotation, with Nic Batum starting and Robert Covington playing the backup four minutes. It’s just coming too late. Now the Clippers find themselves in a jumbled mess with the Lakers, Pelicans, and Warriors when they could’ve realistically had the four seed.

For a multitude of reasons, it doesn’t seem like the Clippers’ year to shine. The entire season has been up and down, from week to week. No team with Kawhi can be counted out in any best-of-seven, but they haven’t fared well enough against the top competition to give anyone hope. The Clippers are 18-27 against teams .500 or better, the worst record among all of the top seven seeds.

Then, we have the reigning champs.

Has Golden State earned this much trust after six NBA Finals appearances in the last eight years? Should the dynastic Warriors, with their abysmal 9-30 road record and shaky defense, receive the benefit of the doubt and be among the favorites?

Close observers of this season would say no.

Typically, if a team is surrendering 119.6 points per 100 possessions on the road, the third-worst mark in the league, all trust goes out the window. If a team compounds that with a turnover rate of 16.1% on the road, tied for the worst in the NBA, it’s essentially laughable to classify them as contenders.

But this isn’t just an ordinary team.

The Dubs are six-time conference champions with a core that takes all of the doubt personally. They bottle up every ounce of criticism throughout the season until it’s time to unleash. Although it sounds ludicrous, this season has made me wonder if Golden State is so confident in their playoff abilities that

With the looming return of Andrew Wiggins, who stepped away from the team on Feb. 13 to tend to a family matter, they’ll have an extremely short runway to start clicking before the postseason. Wiggins’ absence has caused their defense to suffer, thus highlighting the team’s weaker perimeter defenders and making them more of a target.

Gary Payton II is back in the mix and appears to be moving well, although he’s yet to play more than 18 minutes since returning. He brings a level of familiarity from last year’s run and gives them a physical guard presence with expert screen navigation and elite instincts. There are moments the Warriors can flip the switch defensively, with Klay Thompson even giving us flashbacks to his old self in certain matchups.

But there’s a reason Golden State is a league-average defensive unit this year. Without Wiggins, they’ve lack perimeter containment for long stretches, and there are major issues defending the point of attack as Jordan Poole gets dusted off the dribble or wiped out by a ball-screen. To make matters worse, the frontcourt doesn’t appear big enough in some matchups. The Warriors have slipped in defensive rebound percentage this season — that can also be attributed to Wiggins’ absence — which makes it an uphill battle for them to win the possession game. Even if you have Steph Curry to light the world on fire, it’s difficult to survive time after time when you concede more shot attempts and turn the ball over at a middle school rate.

By rolling with so many guard-heavy lineups and relying on Poole to this degree, the Warriors have put too much pressure on Draymond Green to clean up defensive mistakes. For all of the shot creation and burst Poole gives them in a young guard, which was sorely needed as the stars begin declining in speed, he’s prone to defensive mistakes and will get hunted in crunch time against any team with an isolation machine such as Durant.

Then again, we shouldn’t put it past the Warriors to implement the proper defensive strategies when facing adversity. Any time they’re having trouble at the point of attack, Steve Kerr finds a way to mitigate the damage. Perhaps we’ll see more ‘show and recover’ schemes that prevents Poole and others from being targeted, and consequently baits opponents into slowing down their offense.

The Warriors’ championship equity this season largely depends on how frequently Green has to put out fires on the back line. His skills as a defensive savior and weakside helper will be put to the test during this run. If it’s nearly every play and there’s any slippage from the Hall-of-Famer, the Dubs will be going home early.

If the last eight years have taught us anything, it’s to never bet against these guys. After all, Golden State is 93-34 in the playoffs since Kerr took over. That’s a 73.2% winning rate … in postseason games.

Plus, outside of prime LeBron James, there’s one player in the last decade that’s dangerous enough to steal a road game with his supernatural efficiency. It’s Stephen Curry, and he’ll be asked to do it multiple times at age 35 if they want another Finals appearance.

Speaking of the Lakers, they are also trying to do something unprecedented. From appearing incompetent for the first 60% of the season, with no shot at making a deep push, to being one of the most dangerous West teams since the trade deadline, the Lakers have earned the right to be mentioned in the same tier as the Warriors and Clippers. In fact, there is a strong argument to suggest they are the most powerful among that group.

It’s another LeBron-led group that reshaped the roster at the deadline. Since Feb. 9, they are 16-8 with the second-best point differential in the West, behind only Memphis. During that span, they have the league’s top defense despite James missing a huge chunk of time. They are third in free throw attempt rate while also keeping opponents off the line better than any team in the league.

With Davis healthy and consistently active — like he has been since late January — the Lakers just constantly apply pressure to the interior. In the 26 games since Jan. 31, he’s averaging 26.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks while shooting north of 58% from two. He’s mostly cut out the long-range attempts from his shot diet, taking just 7.8% of his looks from beyond the arc in those 26 games.

As chaotic as the Lakers’ season has been from the start, this new iteration of the team is the best we’ve seen since the opening stretch of 2020-21, the season that followed the bubble. You can hate the fact a team reinvented itself at the deadline and now has a chance to make a run, but blame the rest of the West for not taking advantage sooner.

LA’s top nine guys don’t make them the best rotation in the West by any means, but it’s a formidable enough group to win two series if things break the right way.

I still worry about whether or not they have enough shooting, even with Malik Beasley and D’Angelo Russell being tremendous fits next to James and Davis. Since the trade deadline, the Lakers are 21st in three-point attempt rate and only 19th in efficiency, per Cleaning the Glass. At the same time, James missed a significant period of time and we know that his presence gives shooters more space, more opportunities, and more confidence.

All of a sudden, there’s only two teams I’d say the Lakers wouldn’t have a good chance of beating in a seven-game series: Phoenix and Denver. Luckily for LA, those two will be on the same side of the bracket. If LeBron and AD are whole, no team is going to welcome that kind of nightmare.

Somehow flying under the radar, Memphis is the team nobody knows where to place. Their vitals would reveal a top-tier West contender. They own the best halfcourt defense in the NBA, over five points per 100 possessions better than league-average. Through all of the noise and unfortunate situation with Ja Morant last month, they’ve continued marching along with a 15-7 record since the All-Star break.

Jaren Jackson Jr. has the inside track for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Grizzlies have absolutely destroyed people with their main trio of Morant, Jackson, and Desmond Bane on the floor. Across 938 possessions, Memphis has a +11.4 net rating with those three together, holding opponents to 105.0 points per 100 possessions — it would rank in the 99th percentile among all three-man lineups this season.

The No. 2 seed will be theirs as they wait to see who escapes the play-in tournament. A benefit of taking care of business during the regular season is that you get a week off to rest and recover before the first round. The down side, however, is that Memphis could be staring at a showdown with Warriors or new-look Lakers in the opening series.

It doesn’t matter how much Morant and the Grizzlies say they aren’t phased by teams in the West … neither one of those matchups would be in their favor, especially without Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke. The situation with Adams doesn’t sound encouraging, with his knee getting reevaluated during the final week of the season (again, a reevaluation doesn’t mean they are returning right away). He was a critical part of their best defensive units and would be paramount in a potential series against Anthony Davis and LeBron James, who love wrecking opponents inside.

For the Grizzlies, their best opportunity at making a deep run this year would be to hope for the Clippers or Pelicans to clinch the seventh seed with a play-in victory. In an ideal world, it would give Adams more time to recover because they likely aren’t advancing far without his ability to give them extra possessions from his offensive rebounding. Before Clarke’s Achilles injury, he was another guy that could create issues on the glass and serve as a small-ball center in some matchups. Not having either is a real shame for a team that was building on last year’s success.

In quite the hilarious turn of events, the Kings might be the one West team that can genuinely feel great about their regular season from start to finish. Think about it — most of these teams have dealt with numerous injuries, had off-court drama, or had to reinvent their main lineups at the deadline. Even Denver can’t be satisfied at how they’ve performed since the All-Star break.

Seriously, the Kings are the most functional unit right now with nothing but tremendous vibes.

And if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the years, it’s how much a positive environment can drive winning — especially if you have two All-NBA level players to guide you in playoff games. Not a soul would’ve picked Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox to be the most reliable and effective duo in basketball this season, but that’s how impressive they’ve been from the jump.

Perhaps I’m in the minority, but miss me with all of the skepticism about their historic offense translating to the postseason. Just because we’ve been told “the game slows down in the playoffs” and “teams with little experience will crumble when it matters,” it doesn’t mean that applies to this year’s West. All it takes is looking at the field to realize this is the season those traditional rules should be tossed aside.

Since the All-Star break, roughly 17.5% of the Kings’ possessions have started in transition. Last year, the Grizzlies were two games away from a Conference Finals appearance with a similar transition frequency (17.8%). The style of play is different for most teams, yes, but you don’t go away from your identity that easily. The Kings are going to make teams adjust to them, not the other way around.

Oh, and if the game does devolve into a slow, ugly battle, Sacramento has scored 110.3 points per 100 halfcourt possessions since the break. With Harrison Barnes, Kevin Huerter, Malik Monk, and rookie Keegan Murray all shooting above 36% from three, Sacramento has the tools to space out their opponents and force them to pick their poison. Spread pick-and-roll between Fox and Sabonis is going to be their bread and butter, and a lot of their playoff fate will rest on Fox’s ability to maintain those late-game heroics.

Every game against the Kings is about to be a shootout. If they draw Golden State in the first round, it has a chance to be the decade’s most entertaining opening series. Scoring records might be broken in that matchup because neither team can stop the other.

The beautiful part about the 2023 Kings, as much as Mike Brown would push back, is that anything beyond the first round would be gravy for them. Both of their stars are under 27 and continue adding important elements to their game. Nobody in Sacramento expected a No. 3 seed in Brown’s first year. But with the state of the West, they won’t be settling for a first round exit. This team can make the Conference Finals because they are on the opposite side of the bracket as the Durant-led Suns.

New Orleans, equipped with one of the best defenses since the All-Star break, still has a chance for the fifth seed. Brandon Ingram’s surge over the last two months really hasn’t been talked about enough. Since Feb. 4, he’s scoring 27.8 points per game and dishing out 6.1 assists while shooting 53.5% from two, 40.3% from deep, and 88.4% at the line.

Willie Green has the Pelicans playing with supreme confidence despite Zion Williamson still being sidelined. While not as dangerous as the Lakers or Warriors in a series, New Orleans proved last year how much fear they can put into an opponent with their size and physicality. If Williamson had avoided the hamstring injury and played 55 to 60 games, they would probably be right there with Memphis and Sacramento in the standings.

The Timberwolves were pushing like hell for the fifth seed before dropping three straight games, including a meltdown to the Portland ‘Tank’ Blazers. It was a loss that warranted all of the possible ridicule.

Still, much like all of these teams, Minnesota would be a tough out for one of the top seeds if they were to sneak in.

With Karl Towns back in the lineup and Jaden McDaniels’ two-way brilliance all year long, playing Minnesota would present issues for many teams. While I ultimately don’t give them a high probability of winning a series, it would be fascinating to see how Denver handles that matchup — the season series was split 2-2, and that would have serious potential for a Murray-Edwards shotmaking war against the other team’s drop coverage scheme.

Mike Conley has helped them look more organized offensively and doesn’t need a heavy shot diet. He’s not the same menace on defense as the Memphis days, but there’s something to be said about always being in the right spots and being a prominent, respected voice on the floor to keep guys on the same page. In 367 minutes with Conley, McDaniels, Rudy Gobert, and Anthony Edwards sharing the floor, Minnesota has a 108.9 defensive rating – a stingy number that would rank among the elite teams in the league.

For as competent as Minnesota has looked during the second half of the year, they still won’t be scaring Denver or Memphis as much as the Oklahoma City Thunder would if they advanced out of the play-in tournament. As a top seed, you’d rather deal with the Wolves’ style of play versus trying to contain Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is likely making the All-NBA First Team.

Observing all of the scenarios, the most electrifying outcome of this year’s play-in tournament would be OKC claiming a playoff spot and watching the Nuggets or Grizzlies try to keep SGA out of the paint. A player that can apply unrelenting pressure on the rim, force a defense into constant rotation, and command double teams is the last thing anyone wants to mess with.

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