Yin and Yang. Football and beer. Ben & Jerry. In all things, there must be balance. I dropped the the Eastern Conference power rankings last week, and since I haven’t had my Hoops Critic login revoked for it, I figure that I better get hot on the rankings for Western Conference. While the East is in turmoil, the Western juggernauts just churn along, devouring lesser eastern foes like handfuls of sweaty, sneaker wearing peanut M&Ms.
Just how big is the disparity between the conferences? As of Sunday morning, the 9th place squad in the west, the Sacramento Kings, would be 5th in the East at 9-7. The 10-5 Wizards, 2nd in the east, would be scrabbling for 8th in the West. With 20% of the season behind us, only 4.5 games separate the league leading Grizzlies and the current 8th seed Phoenix Suns.
To make your life easier, allow me to detangle the gnarly Western Conference power structure. Remember, this isn’t strictly about team record or points scored; I formulated these rankings based on a complex algorithm utilizing intricate tools such as “watching games” and “how I feel”. Oh, and team record. I balanced out how the team has fared so far with how the team seems to be trending to give you my Western Conference Power rankings. Let’s dig in:
(All stats via Basketball-Reference.com)
1 – Golden State Warriors (13-2, 5-1 Home, 8-1 Road, 8-2 vs West)
5-0 last 5 games
Offensive Rating: 108.7
Defensive Rating: 98.0
Key Wins: 3 game stretch where they upended the now 12-3 Blazers, smacked the Clippers by 17, then outlasted the Rockets in Houston.
Bad Losses: N/A
Pros: Last year, Draymond Green, Marreese Speights, and Harrison “The Future” Barnes combined for 22.1 ppg on about 42%. This year? 35.1 ppg on 50%. That kind of role player production is why the Dubs are rolling despite David “18 ppg and 9 rpg last season” Lee having appeared in only one game and Andre Iguodala turning into a cadaver right before our eyes. With Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s 45 points and 6 made 3s a game leading the way, the Warriors aim to be doing battle deep into the postseason.
Cons: How DOES Lee fit in when he returns? Can Speights keep up his current high level (11.5 ppg on 60%) of play? Probably not. Can Andrew Bogut stay healthy? Seeing how he’s only played 190 of a possible 342 games since 2011, I wouldn’t bet on it. And what the hell is wrong with Andre Iguodala? One more quibble: Dubs have the 4th lowest offensive rebounding percentage in the league. Not ideal.
2 – Memphis Grizzlies (14-2, 8-0 Home, 6-2 Road, 10-0 vs West)
4-1 last 5 games
Offensive Rating: 109
Defensive Rating: 100.9
Key Wins: Thrashing the 12-3 Rockets by 26. Grinding the Clippers down to dust, 107-91. 13 point knock out to send Portland to 12-4.
Bad Losses: Not Applicable
Pros: It’s almost unfair that Memphis now is 7th in offensive rating (they’ve averaged 16th for the previous 5 years) to go with their 4th best defensive rating. They’re ridiculously deep, with 6 guys averaging at least 7 ppg, led by a newly hyper-aggressive Marc Gasol (the career 13.7 ppg scorer is pouring in 20.2 points a night this season). Mike Conley Jr. (16.7 ppg, 6.3 apg, 44% from 3) may be the most underrated point guard in the league.
Cons: This is looking more and more like a team with no real flaws. Last year I would have said they couldn’t generate enough offense to scare other contenders, but Marc Gasol, Conley, and a resurgent Courtney Lee have the offense humming. I’m not sure if Lee and Vince Carter are enough against the elite teams, but they’re damn sure enough for the regular season.
3 – San Antonio Spurs (11-4, 6-1 Home, 5-3 Road, 6-4 vs West)
5-0 last 5 games
Offensive Rating: 105.3
Defensive Rating: 99.0
Key Wins: Finished off the Clippers in Los Angeles on a 14-3 run, then beat the Warriors by 13 in Oakland the very next night.
Bad Losses: The Rockets thumped them with Duncan and Ginobili sitting out, so none.
Pros: Coach Greg Popovich. Kawhi Leonard. Tony Parker. Tim Duncan. Manu Ginobili.
Cons: I’d say “Father Time is undefeated”, but I said that for the last 2 or 3 years regarding the Spurs, yet here we are. After finishing 9th, 2nd, 1st, 7th, and 6th in offensive efficiency in the last previous 5 seasons, the Spurs are currently sitting at 19th. They’re also uncharacteristically loose with the ball; right now only 10 teams have a turnover rate higher than San Antonio’s 14.2%.
4 – Portland Trail Blazers (12-4, 8-2 Home, 4-2 Road, 5-4 vs West)
5-1 last 5 games
Offensive Rating: 110.9
Defensive Rating: 102.8
Key Wins: A 21 point crushing of the 11-5 Mavs. Beating the last 5 Eastern Conference opponents (Nets, Bulls, Celtics, 76ers, and the Hornets) by an average of just over 10 points a game.
Bad Losses: It took a 40 point game from Rudy Gay for the Kings to beat them so that’s not too bad.
Pros: The Blazers offense is once again top notch, sitting at 3rd in offensive efficiency. Few teams have an offensive 1-2 punch as potent as LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. The duo combines 43 ppg. The scary thing is, their defensive efficiency has rocketed up from 16th last year all the way to 6th this season. Portland gang rebounds, with 5 guys averaging at least 5 boards a night, and a healthy Chris Kaman is absolutely murdering bench units with a smorgasbord of post moves and dead-eye mid range shooting.
Cons: Kaman certainly bolsters the bench, but it’s still kind of thin. And I’m personally not a fan of an offense built so much around a power forward taking over 60% of his attempts from 10 feet and out. Only 5 teams take less shots at the rim than the Blazers, and they don’t do a great job in turning the opponents over, ranking 30th in opponent TO% and 28th is steals.
5 – Dallas Mavericks (13-5, 7-2 Home, 6-3 Road, 6-3 vs West)
3-2 last 5 games
Offensive Rating: 115.8
Defensive Rating: 106.2
Key Wins: Bested a tough Wizards squad in Washington 105-102. Knocked off the Pelicans in New Orleans.
Bad Losses: Can’t let a Pacers team led by Donald Sloan and Luis Scola come into your house and beat you by double digits.
Pros: The Mavs are an offensive machine, at least top 3 in the league in offensive efficiency, points per game, assists, and True Shooting percentage. Dallas doesn’t turn the ball over, owning the 3rd lowest Turnover percentage. 36 year old Dirk Nowitzki may not be the dominant player he was in the mid-2000s, but with firepower like Monta Ellis (19 ppg) and Chandler Parsons around him, he doesn’t need to be.
Cons: Chandler Parsons got mounds of cash to at least recreate his almost 17-6-4-47% stat line from last season, and, well…he’s not. So far, he’s making Houston look like geniuses for not matching Dallas’ $45 million offer sheet. And I don’t care how good the shooting numbers or PER of JJ Barea look right now, having him as part of your rotation in 2014-’15 means I don’t really trust you.
6 – Houston Rockets (13-4, 6-3 Home, 7-1 Road, 7-4 vs West)
4-1 last 5 games
Offensive Rating: 104.7
Defensive Rating: 99.6
Key Wins: Roughed up a Duncan-less Spurs team 98-81. Won a tight one over the Mavs with Dwight watching from the bench.
Bad losses: Dwight out or not, there’s no excuse for being one of the lowly Lakers’ 3 wins. The Clippers coming into Houston and winning by 17 is embarrassing.
Pros: With a foundation of James Harden and Dwight Howard (they were combining for about 43 points ans 17 boards a night until Dwight started missing games) and a bevy of shooters (6 Rockets take 3 or more threes a game, and 4 of them shoot 36% or better from deep), the long term “Lay-up or 3” experiment has been effective so far. As much as Houston runs and guns, they’re 3rd in the league in defensive efficiency, 3nd in steals a game, and hold opponents to 28% shooting from 3, tops in the NBA.
Cons: The off-season missteps are by no means fatal, but Houston has a slimmer margin for error than last year after letting Parsons go to Dallas and giving up depth at point and center in hopes of moves that never materialized. Trevor Ariza is plugging the gap left by Parsons’ leaving pretty ably, but Houston missing Lin and Parson’s ball handling and shot creation. Dwight appeared to be 100% since his 2012 back surgery but is now out for an undetermined amount of time with a knee injury: a scary issue for the long term success of the Rockets.
7 – Phoenix Suns (10-7, 5-3 Home, 5-4 Road, 5-5 vs West)
3-2 last 5 games
Offensive Rating: 107.7
Defensive Rating: 106.2
Key Wins: 94-89 handling of the Spurs early in the season. Rallied from 12 down to beat the Klay Thompson-less Warriors 107-95.
Bad losses: Let 4-13 Charlotte come into Phoenix and smack them 103-95. Lost by damn near 30 to the 8-8 Nuggets.
Pros: Phoenix’s depth and versatility on the perimeter is ridiculous. 6 Suns average between 9.8 and 15 points, and 5 guys average between 5 and 6 rebounds a night. Having Goran Dragic (14 ppg), Eric Bledsoe (14.7 ppg), and Isaiah Thomas (15.2 ppg) means there will be be a starter quality scoring threat at point guard on the floor at all times. Combine that with the do-it-all Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus combine for just under 25 ppg, 10 rpg, 2 steals, and 2 3s a game) and the emergence of Alex Len behind Miles Plumlee (combined 11 ppg and 11 rpg) and you have a problem for the rest of the league.
Cons: The Suns energy levels have been maddeningly inconsistent. Coach Jeff Hornacek is still trying to find a way to keep Isaiah Thomas into the rotation without disrupting the rhythms of Bledsoe and Dragic. Dragic especially seems to be struggling; his scoring and assists Per-36 and his 3 point percentage are all down significantly from last year.
8 – Los Angeles Clippers (11-5, 4-3 Home, 7-2 Road, 6-4 vs West)
4-1 last 5 games
Offensive Rating: 111.2
Defensive Rating: 106.2
Key Wins: Throttled the high powered Suns 120-107. Outlasted a tough Blazers team 106-102.
Bad Losses: No excuse for a Bulls team missing both Rose and Pau to come into LA and smack you by 16.
Pros: Having 2 top ten players like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is a pretty good start. On paper the Clips have almost everything a team could want: an elite play maker in Chris Paul (his 6.4:1 Ast: T/O ratio is far and away the best in the NBA), two uber-athletic bigs (Blake and DeAndre Jordan combine for 30 ppg and 19 rpg), shooters (Reddick, Crawford, and Farmar are shooting about a combined 37% from 3), a shifty scorer (Crawford’s 18.6 ppg off the bench is 2nd on the team), quality size off the bench in Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis
Cons: Notice I said “on paper”. The Clippers have looked oddly disjointed and uninspired in too many instances this year. Griffin, known for his relentless energy, has been relatively passive, and his rebounding (7.5) and field goal percentage (48.6) are both career lows. Los Angeles’ lack of size on the wing will again be their Achille’s heel, it seems that every other game a small forward or shooting guard is setting a season or career high in scoring against the Clips.
9 – Sacramento Kings (9-7, 4-2 Home, 5-5 Road, 8-7 vs West)
DeMarcus Cousins is displaying MVP-like dominance, and Darren Collison and Rudy Gay are having career years, filling their roles perfectly. Can Rudy Gay maintain this level of play? Will Collison regress to the mean, or did he really learn and develop into a starter behind Chris Paul? Can we merge
10 – New Orleans Pelicans (7-8, 4-2 Home, 3-6 Road, 5-5 vs West)
Anthony Davis is a monster, but I’m not sure if Monty Williams’ defensive scheme (Pels are 22nd in defensive rating, even with the prowess of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Omer Asik) and the odd mix of perimeter guys is ideal for success in New Orleans. Injuries are already making their mark, with Eric Gordon shelved with a torn labrum. Too often Tyreke Evans or Jrue Holiday seem to forget Davis is on the floor while they force up tough shots.
11 – OKC Thunder (5-12, 4-5 Home, 1-7 Road, 3-7 vs West)
Thunder are ranked this high because 1) they’re 6th in the league in defensive rating despite the nearly-comical spate of injuries they’ve endured and 2) Russell Westbrook is averaging 35 ppg and has a PER of 47 in the 2 full games he’s played, and 3) Kevin Durant soon come. Soon come.
12 – Denver Nuggets (8-8, 5-3 Home, 3-5 Road, 4-6 vs West)
After an abysmal 1-6 start, the nuggets have been a sharp 6-1, with Aaron Afflalo leading the resurgence. He scored 9 ppg on 38% during the abysmal start, and is averaging 18 ppg on 49.6% during the hot streak. Denver still feels like a team of 2nd option guys in need of a foundational star.
13 – Utah Jazz (5-12, 3-5 Home, 2-7 Road, 2-8 vs West)
Utah looked strong and competitive for the 1st 7 games, battling to 3-4. Since then, the wheels have come off, and the youthful Jazz are in a 2-8 free fall. Trevor Booker is the only vet with over 5 years of experience getting significant playing time; every other rotation player is 24 or younger, with 4 years or less of NBA experience (except Joe Ingles, the 27 year old rookie). Growing pains, no Mike Seaver.
14 – Minnesota Timberwolves (4-10, 2-5 Home, 2-5 Road, 1-6 vs West)
The future is as bright as the present is stinky. Youth and injuries (Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin, all starters, are hurt) doesn’t give coach Flip Saunders a lot of options. We were right about Andrew Wiggins: has the tools, shows flashes (29 points, 5 boards, 4 steals in a loss to the Kings), but is a couple years from fulfilling his promise. Zach LaVine will be fun.
15 – Los Angeles Lakers (3-13, 1-8 Home, 2-5 Road, 1-13 vs West)
It’s all bad. the Lake Show is dead last in defensive efficiency, inconsistent offensively, lost their blue chip rookie Julius Randle for the season, and Byron Scott seems to be in over his head. This iteration of the Lakers is doomed by a roster full of C level talent, led by a former A-list aging shooting guard who simply cannot make shots when it matters (Kobe is shooting 38.8% on the year, but that drops to 36% in crunch time). Laker fans are just hoping that LA is bad enough to keep their draft pick next year. Bottom line, the Lakers have some scrappy personnel, but nowhere near enough firepower alongside Kobe to scare anyone.
So there we have it. Tell me where I whiffed in the power rankings in the comments below. Stay tuned for updates on both conferences in the near future.