The NBA Western Conference has been the stronger of the league’s two sides for several years. This year, it’s stepped up to a new level. We documented last week how the East was headed for a historically awful season. The only possible corollary to that is just how good the West is, as even a cursory glance at the standings demonstrates.
Three teams are playing .800 basketball or better. That includes the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, the West’s last two champions and it also includes the surprising Portland Trail Blazers who are 22-5.
Two men who made their reputations with the Boston Celtics are coaching the teams in the 4-5 spots. Doc Rivers seems to have the Los Angeles Clippers rolling with an 18-9 record, while Kevin McHale and the Houston Rockets are just a half-game behind.
The top five teams in the West look, at least for now, to be separate from the rest of the conference. Golden State is a mild disappointment, just outside the playoff picture at 14-12, although that’s close enough to change by the end of the week. Memphis is really struggling with center Marc Gasol out with a sprained MCL until at least mid-January.
The Grizzlies, who made the conference finals in 2013, are 10-15. In the East, that might be enough to get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In the West it leaves you temporarily irrelevant and with some serious work ahead.
Dallas, Phoenix and Denver currently hold the 6 thru 8 spots. Both the Mavericks and Suns can be considered pleasant surprises. The Nuggets were probably hoping for a little better, with Javale McGee and Danilio Gallianari both out indefinitely, things aren’t going to get easier for Denver’s first-year coach Brian Shaw.
Only two teams are really hopeless in the West, and that’s Sacramento and Utah, neither qualifying as a huge shock. Minnesota and New Orleans are both hanging in, lurking around the .500 mark and in the playoff conversation. The Los Angeles Lakers are in the same spot ,but got hit with bad news on today’s report that Kobe Bryant will miss six weeks with a knee injury.
The Lakers have hung in mostly without Kobe, but what is the psychology of the team right now? Before, players were battling knowing that help was on the way in the form of the Black Mamba. Now they might be wondering if that help will ever come.