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Roundtable: Checking in on the Western Conference

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Stiffs writers discuss the surprises and disappointments around the West.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Right now, the Denver Nuggets sit in third place in the Western Conference through the first month of the season. Are you surprised the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets are leading the way?

Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn): The Lakers and Rockets leading the West isn’t really surprising to start the year. So far, LA’s strength of schedule is relatively weak, with good wins against the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz but primarily wins against weaker competition. Charlotte, Memphis, Chicago, Golden State, Sacramento, and Atlanta are among that group. All are under .500 thus far. As for the Rockets, James Harden equals 50+ wins is a formula that has worked every year save for his first in Houston and the Ty Lawson/Dwight Howard/Josh Smith season.

Reid Howard: At this point in the season I am not at all surprised. As Ryan mentioned, the Lakers have had far from the toughest schedule and their stars have stayed healthy. At least one of those two things will change and more losses will result. I believe the fans and analysts a-like that expected these two teams to be 5-8 seeds have underestimated their star power. Barring significant injury, I fully expect these two teams to be battling for home-court advantage all season.

Daniel Lewis (@minutemandan): I’m sort of surprised about the Lakers, although I knew they had an easy strength of schedule in October and November. They’ve also been able to have Anthony Davis on the court, with the most likely “questionable to return” player in the league battling through another season with slight injuries. The Rockets are a good team, and Harden is having another fantastic season. I’m definitely not surprised about the Nuggets, because despite the dramatically high expectations some people had for them, their season has gotten off to a great start. The Nuggets have the third-best record in the conference and aren’t even playing good basketball consistently. They should be contending for the 1-seed all season.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Which team is off to the most surprisingly positive start?

Blackburn: Let’s go with the Miami Heat, a group that sports a 9-3 record just like Denver. Their only three losses have come on the road, all of which were against +.500 teams. Young players like Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, and Chris Silva are consistently contributing to wins, forming a high level product around the Jimmy Butler-Bam Adebayo duo. They will probably come down to earth at some point, but this looks like a team that will compete for home court in the playoffs.

Howard: I would be far less surprised by the Phoenix Suns record if they had Deandre Ayton. Even though 7-6 may not sound very impressive, many would have guessed 3-9 at this point in the season. Especially while missing their second best player for all but the first game. Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio, and Aaron Baynes have all stepped up in Ayton’s absence, taking some of the pressure off of Devin Booker. Monty Williams has them playing hard every night and they’ve been shocking some teams this year through that effort. I still expect them to finish below .500, but they have shown the rest of the league you have to earn a win over them.

Lewis: It’s the Lakers for me. They brought in a lot of new players, a new coach, and they have had one of the best defenses in the league so far. LeBron James is playing with a ton of energy after a long offseason, and they’re banking wins at a time when a lot of teams are still trying to figure things out.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs both possess a 5-9 win-loss record. Which team turns it around first?

Blackburn: The Blazers. I believe in Damian Lillard turning things around there at some point because he’s an elite leader and elite player. I have no faith in the Spurs after watching their last several games. DeMar DeRozan has a plus/minus of minus-77 in 14 games, and LaMarcus Aldridge hasn’t fared much better at minus-59. Their starting lineup is a mess with zero real spacing and not enough defense to compensate.

Howard: Can I say neither? I see both teams finishing between 40-45 wins the season. I guess in that sense, both would be improving upon how they’ve started. The problem is, the Spurs stars are not good enough to carry a team and they have yet to have anyone else step up. As for the Blazers, they no longer have two of their best defenders from last year in Aminu and Harkless, and they added players such as Carmelo Anthony, Kent Bazemore, and Mario Hezonja to replace their minutes. For a team whose star backcourt already has their own struggles on the defensive end, I saw the writing on the wall with these moves. The Blazers have the best player on either team in Damian Lillard, so I believe they will finish ahead of the Spurs. I just think this “turn around” will only be enough to have them fighting for the bottom seeds in the Western Conference Playoffs.

Lewis: The Spurs. They have the better coach, and they’re not signing washed veterans off the street to fill minutes for them. The Trail Blazers need Nurkic back in a bad way, but even once he returns, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be 100%. At some point, the Spurs will get back to their winning ways and climb back to a .500 record.