Questions to Answer in the Wacky West

The post-all-star, post-trade deadline portion of the NBA season is now underway, and as I said last year, we can think of this part of the regular season as a final quarter, as most teams have played 60 games, give or take a few. At this stage in the season, we usually have a few strong contenders for the championship in each conference.

In 2023, that holds true for the East, where three teams, Boston, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia are undeniable Finals possibilities. A fourth, Cleveland, is plucky but probably a year away from making it to a conference finals with a young core. The rest of the likely playoff or play-in field appears to be optimistic spoilers like New York or Miami or near-.500 filler like Atlanta or Toronto.

We can't say that about the West. Just one team, Denver, is an undeniable championship threat at this point. The Nuggets appear to be a certainty for home-court through the West playoffs. The rest of the conference? We don't have much idea.

Since 2010, an average of 5.3 teams have won 50 games in the Western Conference during 82-game seasons. As of Feb. 26, only the Nuggets were on a comfortable 50-win pace. (Memphis barely clicked over the 50-win pace with a win over Denver on Saturday night.) Then, there's a concentration of teams around .500, with the fourth-place Suns just 4.5 games up on the Lakers in 13th as of Saturday.

There's every chance a team could go on a 15-5 run over the last six weeks of the season and catapult itself from a play-in spot to a No. 2 or 3 seed. And a team with preseason championship hopes might be stuck in the play-in tournament — or headed to Cancun or the golf course by the third Saturday of April.

The West has myriad questions to answer in the coming weeks. Let's look at three:

Should the Nuggets Really Be the Favorite to Make the Finals?

Is it a copout to say, "Ask me in a few weeks?" I would consider Denver the favorite to come out of the West due to the Nuggets' consistency, solid playoff rotation, performance against the likeliest playoff contenders in the conference, and — most importantly — their relative health this season.

But that's a tentative yes after the Suns pushed all their chips to the middle of the table and traded for Kevin Durant at the trade deadline. Even though K.D. won't debut for Phoenix until this week, the oddsmakers appear to have baked in the possibility of a Chris Paul/Devin Booker/Durant playoff juggernaut, making the Suns favorites to come out of the West.

I won't deny that Durant should fit in great with Paul, Booker, DeAndre Ayton, and Torrey Craig in the starting lineup, but I'd like to see Phoenix string together a couple of weeks of solid, healthy basketball with all their max contract players in the lineup. After Phoenix gave up a couple of key pieces in Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson to get K.D., I'm especially interested in seeing how the Suns go in the minutes where two of Paul, Booker, or Durant are on the bench.

Do We Trust the Clippers or Warriors at All?

It may seem somewhat heretical to lump the defending champs in with the Clippers here, but each of these West contenders has had rollercoaster seasons, starting off with the respective lows of Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole and Kawhi Leonard missing the vast majority of the first two months of the season.

Due to load management and injuries, we haven't seen a consistent level of great basketball for more than a week or two from either team, and time is running out. For Golden State, Steph Curry and Draymond Green appear to each be out for another few games at a minimum. Without home court in any round, the Warriors would have to defy a 7-23 road record at some point. Only teams in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes have worse marks away from home than the champs.

Concerning the Clippers, the record with both Leonard and Paul George in the lineup is strong, but adding Russell Westbrook is a potentially destabilizing acquisition. The Clips also just had a weekend giving up a combined 310 points in two games against current top-three seeds in the West.

We can talk all we want about the combined playoff experience each team's core has, but the historical fact is that only two out of 76 champions in NBA history came from outside a top-three seed. It's tough to navigate every playoff round, and it's almost impossible to do it by defeating the very best regular-season teams for two straight months.

Could There Be a Sleeper Lurking in the 6-8 Seeds?

It's impossible to know how seeding in the West and the play-in tournament will shake out. Given the concentration of teams around .500, there could be a possibility of a rare sleeper team progressing a round or two in the West. I'm defining a sleeper team as one that's seeded six or below, beats a top-three seed, and gives another top-three seed at least a six-game series.

This happens less often than you might think. The last time it happened in either conference was in 2013, when the six-seed Warriors beat Denver in six games in Round 1 and then took San Antonio to six in Round 2. For a seven-seed, it's never happened in my lifetime, with Seattle the last to do it in 1987. The last eight-seed to do it was Philadelphia in 2012, who had the benefit of a Derrick Rose ACL injury in Game 1 of Round 1.

It's still not likely this year, but I think there are a couple of prime candidates. The first and most obvious to me is New Orleans, who came into the new year 10 games over .500 and with a top-10 offense and defense. Zion Williamson has pretty much been injured since then, and any hope New Orleans has of advancing rests on his admittedly terrible injury record. Still, this was looking like a top-four seed if Brandon Ingram and Williamson each played 55+ games.

I think the other big possibility is Dallas. With a limited sample size, the defense has predictably struggled since Dorian Finney-Smith was sent to Brooklyn as part of the Kyrie Irving trade, but the offense has become more dynamic. Can Kyrie stay locked in during the playoffs in a contract year? Can the Mavericks get more stops with an unproven fourth-quarter lineup? We can't answer those yet, but I'm pretty sure Luka Doncic is going to step up as he has in his three playoff campaigns to this point.

On the betting side, the jumbled West could produce some interesting playoff series odds to take advantage of. For example, if Golden State does make the playoffs and looks somewhat healthy going in, my thought is that they'd only be underdogs against Denver or Phoenix in Round 1. Despite the lack of likely 50-win teams, it might be a stretch run to remember in the season's last few weeks.

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