Western Conference Preview: Ranking the teams in tiers

0 Comments

Much like the East, the Western Conference is deep — but it may be even more brutal.

There are legit contenders at the top, but the depth means some solid teams that would be playoff locks most years could miss the postseason altogether — or pivot midseason to chase Victor Wembanyama.

Let’s break down the Western Conference by tiers to see just how brutal it is. (Note: These are tiers ranked by title contention, not regular season finish — I think Dallas could finish top four in the West but I don’t see it as a title threat.)

CONTENDERS

Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Clippers

The Warriors are an obvious inclusion, and while they have some adversity and tension to overcome now thanks to Draymond Green‘s right cross, there should be no doubt the Warriors are in the mix to repeat as champions. Don’t be shocked if Stephen Curry puts up monster regular season numbers, even by his insane standards. The inclusion of the Clippers will have some readers shaking their heads — we see you, Lakers fans — but they absolutely deserve to be here. The Clips have the deepest roster in the West, a two-time Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard, an All-NBA level player in Paul George, plus a roster filled with versatile, quality role players that gives Tyronne Lue options. The only question is will they finally be healthy? Will Leonard and George be ready to go in the playoffs? If so, the Clippers can beat anyone.

FRINGE CONTENDERS (WE HAVE QUESTIONS)

Memphis Grizzlies
Denver Nuggets
Phoenix Suns

These teams could jump up to the top tier and have the potential to come out of the West, but they have big questions to answer (more than the ones in the tier above). With Memphis, this feels like a season the team plateaus — progress is never linear. The Grizzlies lost depth with Kyle Anderson and DeAnthony Melton leaving, and are banking on internal improvement to make up for that, but will it be enough? Long term, no team in the West has a brighter future than Memphis (New Orleans is the only competition), but this feels like a speed bump season in the short term.

Denver is finally healthy with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back in the fold next to two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. They have quality depth with Aaron Gordon, adding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the growth of Bones Highland, and others. The two questions are will Porter’s back hold up for a whole season, and can this team defend at a high enough level with Jokic at the five to win it all?

If Phoenix fans are ticked their team is not up with the full contenders, they have a legitimate argument — this team won 64 games last season, the one after reaching the Finals. But the defensive collapse at the end of the playoffs was a major red flag, Chris Paul is not getting any younger, there are questions about distractions with Deandre Ayton plus the team being sold, and around the Suns the West has gotten better. It just feels like they take half a step back. Maybe the Suns will prove me wrong and push themselves up a category by the end of the season, but I’m not entering the season sold they are a true contender anymore.

PLAYOFFS OR BUST

Dallas Mavericks
Minnesota Timberwolves
New Orleans Pelicans

These are teams fighting for the sixth seed (and avoiding the play-in), or at least getting the seventh or eighth seed and having an easier path through the play-in — anything less than making the real playoffs should be a disappointment for these three. The Mavericks, with Luka Doncic surrounded by good shooters and enough defense, may win enough regular season games to look like they belong in a higher tier, but I think the loss of Jalen Brunson really hurts them come the playoffs. I do not believe this team is a title contender, as constructed.

The Timberwolves have gone big and paid a steep price to plug Rudy Gobert into the middle of their defense — that will make them better. Minnesota will take a step forward. But come the postseason there will be big questions about if they can hang with the best in the West, teams that will target the weaknesses of a Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert front line. I think that lineup can be exploited in a series. The one wild card with Minnesota is how big a leap Anthony Edwards makes, he could change the dynamic.

No team may be more entertaining to watch this season than Zion Williamson and the Pelicans. CJ McCollum provides not only outside scoring but the locker room leadership this team needs, Brandon Ingram is a bucket, and they have quality role players. I’m not sold that their defense is championship level, but they are a team on that path in a few years.

PLAY-IN TEAMS

Los Angeles Lakers
Sacramento Kings
Portland Trail Blazers

These are three teams fighting for the final two play-in spots. The Lakers are the one team capable of moving up a tier — we don’t question LeBron James‘ play, effort or commitment to winning, he will do his part. But is Anthony Davis ready to be the best player on both ends of the floor for a playoff team over 82 games? Can he stay healthy? And Russell Westbrook… he’s going to have to show with actions he fits in. Darvin Ham will be a good NBA coach, but this roster will test him.

The Kings are desperate to break their 16-year playoff drought and put together a solid roster around Domantas Sabonis and De’Aarron Fox, but I’m not sold they will defend well or consistently enough to make the playoffs. If Damian Lillard is all the way back in Portland he could lift this team to the playoffs, but it’s very heavy lifting with a nice-but-not-thrilling roster (again, in a brutal and unforgiving West).

LOTTERY BOUND

Utah Jazz
Houston Rockets
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs

Houston will be an entertaining team with Jalen Green and Jabari Smith, but the hard lessons of how to win in the NBA are coming. Danny Ainge made his intentions clear with this team and they are not done dealing — Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, Michael Beasley and other veterans could be on the move. The Jazz will get weaker as the season moves along. The Thunder were going to lose a lot of games anyway, but the loss of Chet Holmgren for the season makes them a little less interesting to watch. Teams are going to call about a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trade. I like Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell in San Antonio, but this is more about Gregg Popovich getting to teach, not wins.

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.

Antetokounmpo talks about plans for his 28th birthday while holding Simpsons plush

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
0 Comments

Happy birthday, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak turns 28 today.

After he dropped a casual (for him) 34-13-5 line in the Bucks’ win over the Magic last night, Antetokounmpo discussed his birthday plans. He’s not going out, maybe just dinner, playing with his kids, and once they are asleep… ya know.

I feel safe saying Antetokounmpo is the first NBA player to talk about birthday sex while holding a Homer J. Simpson plush doll.

If you’re asking, why the Simpson doll… why not? Bucks reserve forward Sandro Mamukelashvili won it at Universal Studios, brought it to the game, left it behind in the locker room and Antetokounmpo appropriated it.

In a world where most postgame press conferences are formulaic and filled with cliches it’s good to see a player willing just to be himself and have some fun behind the mic.

Watch Pacers rookie Nembhard drop 31, outduel Curry, lead Pacers past Warriors

0 Comments

SAN FRANCSICO — Rookie Andrew Nembhard outshined the Splash Brothers on their home court.

Nembhard scored a season-high 31 points and added 13 assists and eight rebounds to lead the undermanned Indiana Pacers to a 112-104 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

A second-round draft pick, Nembhard made a key 3-pointer with 4:26 to go and another jumper less than two minutes later.

“He was masterful tonight … 31 and 13, those are high lottery numbers,” coach Rick Carlisle said.

Indiana played without starting point guard Tyrese Haliburton for a second straight game as he nurses soreness in his left groin.

Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made eight 3-pointers, moving up the NBA’s career 3-point list on the six-year anniversary of his 60-point masterpiece against the Pacers.

Thompson finished 9 of 23, but Stephen Curry was held to 12 points on 3-for-17 shooting. Jordan Poole scored 23 starting in place of Andrew Wiggins, who sat out with tightness of the adductor muscle in his right leg.

“No matter what we do, it’s going to be hard to guard these guys. We had some good fortune with them missing some shots they may normally make,” Carlisle said. “But our guys played with a lot of presence to start the game. We were switching a lot and everyone was tied together.”

Nembhard hit five 3s while Buddy Hield added 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists as Indiana snapped a three-game losing streak with just its second win in six games.

Nembhard and the Pacers hardly looked like a team playing the second game of a road back-to-back.

“He was hoopin’ and I think that starts in the first half for us,” Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo said. “The guards have to get into it a little bit more.”

Golden State had its 10-game home winning streak snapped.

Curry went 1 of 7 in the first half, missing all four of his 3-point tries and was 2 for 10 from deep overall. Curry finally connected from long range with 5:13 left in the third after missing his first five.

The Pacers, missing six players with injuries or illness, jumped out to a 22-12 lead as Golden State started 5 for 17.

Thompson knocked down three straight 3-pointers – all from the right wing – to tie the game at 42 with 4:51 left in the second quarter before a Pacers timeout. Thompson also dished out an assist on Jonathan Kuminga‘s layup before his trio of 3s and nearly had another when Kuminga was fouled and made both free throws to cap a 20-2 run 3:40 before halftime.

Three things to know: On night of returns Harden rusty, Leonard hits game-winner

Philadelphia 76ers v Houston Rockets
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
0 Comments

Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) James Harden was rusty, Joel Embiid fouled out, 76ers fall to Rockets in 2OT

Philadelphia picked a soft landing spot for the return of James Harden, on the road against his young and struggling former Houston team, followed by coming home for seven in a row.

This was not what Doc Rivers and company pictured.

For example, remember Harden was going to be a minutes limit? Rivers had him out there for 38 minutes in a double-overtime game, throwing him back into the fire in the overtimes because he had little choice.

Harden made four 3-pointers but was understandably rusty after missing 14 games with a strained tendon in his right foot, and he was 0-8 inside the arc. He missed an open potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. Still, he made some passes and a shot or two that reminded everyone what he can do when he gets his legs back under him — and why the 76ers need him.

Combine that with Joel Embiid feasting early on the undersized Rockets inside, and Sixers fans could see a path to a comfortable win.

However, the underlying problem that did them in was looming — Houston was attacking the rim, drawing fouls, and living at the line. The Rockets got 15 free throw attempts in the first quarter, a trend that would continue much of the night.

The Rockets hung around and hung around, getting 27 points from Jalen Green, while Kevin Porter Jr. added 24. And they kept drawing fouls, eventually fouling out Joel Embiid in the first overtime. When the Rockets hit a couple of 3-pointers to open the second OT, they took control and got the win, 132-123.

Harden’s return should eventually boost the 76ers bottom 10 offense, but what this team really needs is to get healthy (Tyrese Maxey remains out with a foot injury) and to string together a few wins. They start a seven-game homestead Friday against the Lakers (not the best time to catch Anthony Davis and company) and that would be a chance to right the ship. And get out of the play-in level they are at right now.

2) Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return, until the game was on the line

The Clippers followed the 76ers model for the return of their stars — Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both returned to the lineup against an injury-plagued and struggling Hornets team. A nice soft landing spot…

That turned out not to be as soft as imagined.

As expected playing just his sixth game of the year, Leonard looked rusty in his return, starting the night 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

Then he hit two buckets in the final minute that got the Clippers the win.

The first was set up by an impressive hustle play from Paul George, who saved a ball going out of bounds to Leonard under the basket for a shot that tied the game.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner. That is vintage Leonard, using his strength to get to his spot and then calmly draining the shot.

If you’re looking for positives in Los Angeles, the Clippers showed some resilience and grit in getting the win. Leonard finished with 16 points and George looked sharper with 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. Clippers’ role players stepped up.

The Clippers need their stars to stay healthy and on the court, and to build some chemistry. Traditionally 20 games into the season we know who a team is, but this year’s Clippers are the exception to that rule. Their role players and a strong defense have kept the team’s head above water (14-11 on the season), but they need their stars back to turn around their 29th-ranked offense. Then we can see if they have the potential to be a threat in the West or not.

3) Pacers rookie Andrew Nembhard outduels Stephen Curry, Pacers win

Yes, you read that right.

While Bennedict Mathurin has been the Pacers’ rookie garnering most of the attention (and some early Rookie of the Year talk), Andrew Nembhard has been showing out of late. Monday night he had 31 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and hit some key shots late to fuel the Pacers’ 112-102 upset win over the Warriors.

With Tyrese Haliburton out (groin injury), Nembhard — the four-year college player from Gonzaga who was taken No.31 in last year’s draft — showed he knows how to run a team and knock down a 3 (he’s shooting 42.9% from deep this season).

The Pacers also won because it was just an off night for Stephen Curry: 12 points on 3-of-17 shooting overall and 2-of-10 from 3. It felt like a night where the Warriors looked at the Pacers’ inactive list for the game — Haliburton, Myles Turner, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Daniel Theis, James Johnson — and thought they would cruise to a win. Do that against NBA players and you pay the price.

Because guys like Andrew Nembhard can flat-out play.

BONUS THING TO KNOW: Today is Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s 28th birthday. What does he want? What are his plans? And why is he doing his postgame media session with Homer J. Simpson? There are a lot of questions.