Entering the season, the Denver Nuggets were viewed as a decent Western Conference team, but they weren’t seen as a legitimate threat. Following their first postseason birth in five years where they nearly made it to the Western Conference finals, they were projected to finish sixth out West. Right now, they’re in second place, and they’re finally getting their rotation healthy after dealing with beaten up group throughout the last month.
The Nuggets cause issues for every team they play because of their style of play. Despite that, they’re still being overlooked as a serious contender in large part because they don’t have the star power or the big marketability that you get with other teams. Denver has some wrinkles to work out, but they still have a puncher’s chance of beating the best teams on any given night.
For that reason, we’re going to look at where Denver realistically stands among the rest of the Western Conference. We’re starting at the bottom, and we’re going straight to the top. I’m to give you a hint that you’re going to be reading for a little while before you read about Denver. This team is great, and they deserve that recognition.
The Golden State Warriors are here because, after enjoying remarkably good health combined with the greatest collection of star talent the NBA has ever seen, all of that bad luck hit at once. Two-time MVP Stephen Curry has played in just four games. Klay Thompson (Torn ACL) was officially ruled out for the season on Thursday. Draymond Green has missed 14 games, and Kevin Durant is in Brooklyn. Next year could be different though.
For the Sacramento Kings, after entering the season with some quiet hype around their young core, they have reverted back to the hapless team we’ve seen over the last decade. They’re 21st and 20th in offensive and defensive ratings respectively. Their young draft picks have stagnated or regressed in growth, and they could very easily be looking into a GM change this offseason. Things aren’t great in SacTown.
After starting the year hot with a 7-4 record, the Phoenix Suns proceeded to lose six of their next seven. Their major issues occur when Devin Booker isn’t hitting. He drives their offense, as he has a 120.2 offensive rating in their wins, and it’s just 108.6 in their losses. They added some good pieces last offseason, but they have to continue that next year to move up these rankings.
It’s going to be interesting to see how the new-look Minnesota Timberwolves perform with an extended stretch, but it’s safe to say they’re not going to be serious contenders this year. They have no plus defenders in their rotation, and you have to play both ends of the floor to win a title. Denver is able to beat them easily, as they’ve won seven straight over the last two seasons.
The San Antonio Spurs have one of the greatest coaches of all time, and they have some talented players. Unfortunately for Gregg Poppovich, he and the team could very possibly miss the playoffs for the first time since the 1996-97 season. They have a top-10 offense, but they’re just 25th in defense. In a fierce battle for the eighth seed, the Spurs are currently on the outside looking in.
If Zion Williamson is able to become the second coming of LeBron James this season, the New Orleans Pelicans could move up these rankings. However, due to their youth and inconsistency, I just don’t see them actually contending for anything this year. It also wouldn’t be shocking to see them miss the playoffs. That eighth spot is going to be a dogfight, and they may not get that final spot.
The Portland Trail Blazers are in this tier despite having one of the 10 best players in the NBA in Damian Lillard. He’s going to miss about a week with a groin injury, but this team is just not good enough to legitimately contend. They’re 27th in defense, and they don’t have enough difference makers outside of Lillard and C.J. McCollum to contend against the best teams.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have already hit the over on their over/under for the season with 33 wins. They’re in the top 15 on both ends of the floor which is great, but they also don’t have that level of star power that can help push you into serious contention. Chris Paul is leading a three-headed monster of guards, but they’re not going to be upset the teams in the tiers ahead of them.
The Memphis Grizzlies have been playing some of the NBA’s best basketball over the last couple of months. They’re seventh in the NBA since December 1st in points per game. In that same stretch, they’re 11th in defensive rating. This young bunch has played well, and they could make some noise if they sneak into the playoffs. If they’re in, they could make for a fun first-round series.
The Dallas Mavericks are clearly the bottom team out of this trio, but they definitely belong here because of their top two players. Luka Doncic was a borderline MVP candidate earlier in the year, and Kristaps Porzingis has consistently gotten better as the year has gone on. They’re tightly wound in the race to be anywhere from the five seed down to the seven seed. This team needs to develop, but they have the coach to give them an edge in a lot of matchups with Rick Carlisle pulling the strings.
The Utah Jazz are 15th in the NBA in defense despite having one of the league’s best defenders in Rudy Gobert, but they’re making up for that by having the second-ranked offense. They haven’t quite figured out the rotation and fit of Donovan Mitchell alongside Mike Conley, but they have the chance to get that ironed out before the playoffs. If Gobert can figure out how to stay on the floor when teams go small, they could cause a lot of problems.
The Houston Rockets are the top team in this tier because they have what most of the teams below them don’t. They have a legitimate top five player in James Harden. The Beard has fallen off slightly after being a leading MVP candidate, but he’s still one of the NBA’s best. When their shots are falling, they can beat any team on any night. Their defense leaves something to be desired, but, when you can outscore everyone else, you can make it work.
Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers & Denver Nuggets
The LA Clippers are one of the toughest teams in the NBA to figure out in large part because we’ve only seen them at full strength a handful of times this season. Among their most-used five-man lineups, 18 games is the most that any group has played in. That lineup has played the 26th-most minutes among any group of five in the year. While it’s likely that they’ll be healthy and at full strength in the playoffs, the chemistry may not be there, and that could get them into trouble against a hot-shooting team.
You’ve waited long enough, and the Nuggets are finally on the docket. As of now, they’re the second-best team out West. Nikola Jokic is playing like one of the five best players in the NBA this year. They’re one of six teams that are in the top 10 on both ends of the floor, and they tied for sixth since January 1st in win percentage despite half of their rotation missing multiple games during that stretch.
Until something drastic changes, the Los Angeles Lakers are still at the top of the Western Conference. James continues to turn a blind eye towards Father Time, and Anthony Davis has been fitting in fantastically alongside him. They’re in the top five of offense and defense, and Frank Vogel has been pulling the right strings and getting the most out of players alongside James. They’re better than the Nuggets right now, but it’s not the drastic difference that it may seem to be.