The homestretch of the regular season is underway with the NBA All-Star break wrapping up and the race for the play-in spots over in the Western Conference looks set for a furious finish.
While the battle on top of the Eastern Conference standings is as close as it has been in recent years (and is reminiscent of the 2010 Western Conference landscape where only five games separated the first and eighth seeds), the Phoenix Suns have put themselves in a class of their own, not just in the West, but in the entire league.
They are 49-10 on the season and are on pace for a 68-win campaign which would smash their current franchise record of 62 victories set on two separate occassions in ‘92-‘93 and ‘04-‘05. Chris Paul’s thumb injury that will force him to miss at least the next six weeks of action will be a headwind for the Suns though.
However, they have an excellent system in place and a deep rotation that should allow them to remain afloat in his absence. They have already proven in last year’s Western Conference Finals that they can make do without Paul and with the stakes much lower now in the regular season, there is not much reason to doubt that they can maintain their place as the league’s first overall seed. If anything, Paul’s absence will give Devin Booker more opportunities to develop as a playmaker which will come in handy in what is expected to be a deep postseason run.
Behind the Suns, the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies are running in second and third, respectively. The Warriors are 6.5 games behind Phoenix (For context, only five games separate the first and seventh place teams in the East) while the Grizzlies trail by eight.
This is more indicative of the Suns’ dominance more than anything else since both the Golden State and Memphis would be leading the East with their records at this juncture of the season.
The Warriors were running side by side with the Suns early in this campaign before enduring a slump that coincided with one of the poorest shooting stretches of Stephen Curry’s career. They course-corrected through a nine-game winning streak that bridged January and February before dropping four of their last five games before the break.
The brief rest clearly rejuvenated them as they kicked off their post All-Star break schedule with a 132-95 win over the Portland Trail Blazers. With Klay Thompson slowly regaining his form and Draymond Green expected to return from his lingering calf injury in March, Golden State should have no problem securing at least the third seed in the West.
The upstart Grizzlies and newly minted NBA All-Star Ja Morant will be their biggest competitor for positioning here. Memphis has taken the equivalent of two leaps this year, jumping from a fringe playoff team last year to one of the titans of the Western Conference.
It will be interesting to see how their hard-hustling style of play translates to the postseason, but given the youth of their core, all experiences are still good ones for them at this point in time.
The fourth place Utah Jazz do not have this comfort, even if their star guard Donovan Mitchell is still only 25 years old. Most of their key pieces are already on the wrong side of 30 which means that it might be now or never for this iteration of the Jazz.
The rumored tensions between Mitchell and their three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year center Rudy Gobert have only exacerbated things for them and it will not be surprising if a major overhaul takes place for them in the offseason.
Despite all of this, things are not all doom and gloom for the holder of last regular season’s best record. Even with a vicious tumble down the standings in January, they are 36-22 and only 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies. They will have to play with urgency though since the Dallas Mavericks are a mere 1.5 games behind them
Now that the drama surrounding the under-performing Kristaps Porzingis is now behind him after they traded the 7’3 Latvian to the Washington Wizards, Luka Doncic and the Mavericks can focus solely on their chase of home court advantage in the first round. While the addition of Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans in the Porzingis trade may not jump off the page, it gives them a pair of dependable veterans and much needed depth to address what has been their undoing over the past two playoffs.
The Mavericks’ rotation behind Doncic is solid albeit spectacular, yet it looks like a juggernaut compared to the depleted Denver Nuggets. Nonetheless, this has not stopped reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic from putting up MVP numbers once again.
Jokic is the favorite to win the league’s most prestigious individual award once again which is much-deserved considering that the Nuggets are a healthy 34-25 amidst the absence of his co-stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
The tussle in the West grows more fascinating below Denver in the play-in spots where the Minnesota Timberwolves have surprisingly created separation from the rest of the pack. Minnesota has banked on their young trio of Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell to put together what is potentially their second postseason appearance since their Western Conference Finals cameo in 2004.
The Timberwolves have pulled themselves together after an uneven start and their 32-28 record has them 2.5 games ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers who have surprisingly been the better of the two LA-based teams this season even without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
The Clippers are slightly ahead of their cross-town rivals, the 27-31 Los Angeles Lakers, and have a bit of a cushion separating themselves from the current holder of the last play-in spot in the West, the Trailblazers.
With the way that the Lakers are playing, it is feasible that the three-game lead that they have over Portland and the two teams on the outside-looking-in of the play-in, the San Antonio Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans, will quickly evaporate.
Portland won four consecutive games leading up to the All-Star break and, similar to the Clippers, have overcome the assumed dearth of talent that they have on their team by buying in completely to head coach Chauncey Billups’ system. Josh Hart, acquired in the trade that sent CJ McCollum to the Pelicans, has been stellar and is the perfect embodiment of what they stand for as a team.
The Spurs under head coach Gregg Popovich have been doing this for decades which is why they cannot be counted out in this discussion, even in a rebuilding year for them. Dejounte Murray, fresh off his first NBA All-Star nod, is poised for a big second half as he continues to establish himself as the new leader of this storied franchise.
The Pelicans cannot be disregarded here either after overcoming a 1-12 start to the season and slowly creeping into the play-in picture. McCollum has been phenomenal since his arrival, averaging 28.4 points, six rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. The trio that he has formed with Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas should be enough to keep them competitive with the rest of the teams vying for a play-in spot, even if Zion Williamson does not end up playing this year.
The play-in race out in the West might not have as high stakes as the tight battle for the top seeds in the East, but it looks to be just as entertaining, especially since the star-studded Lakers are involved. The backlash from the media and the Laker faithful if LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook fall out of the play-in positions will be a firestorm by all means.
The pressure is there and the stakes are extremely high for this Laker team. The fact that they are competing against franchises that have nothing to lose and no expectations will only make this more exciting. This more than makes up for the lack of drama on top of the West standings and it will inevitably bring a playoff-level intensity to the typically dreary last few weeks of the regular season.