The NBA is almost back and we are trying to figure out who can contend for the title outside of the obvious favorites. Today we’re focusing on the western conference and who can make it to the finals besides the Lakers and Clippers.
Who Else Can Make the Finals Out West?
There are two obvious favorites in the western conference and they both play at the Staples Center. What we are trying to answer here is who can make out of the west besides the Lakers and Clippers. The west is loaded and it is no surprise that most of the favorites come from that conference. In fact, 4 of the top 5 teams in terms of odds to win the NBA championship represent the west. Over at Bet355, the Houston Rockets are 4th at +1400 and the Denver Nuggets are 5th at +1800. As much as I don’t want to be obvious and take those two teams, I actually don’t think anyone else has a chance to come out of the western conference other than the Lakers and Clippers. The other problem I have with picking anyone outside of Houston and Denver is the drop off with the next group.
At BetOnline, the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks come in 5th and 6th respectively at +4000 in terms of odds to win the title. I wouldn’t even waste your time as a reader trying to convince you those two teams can make the finals. They can’t and won’t so I’m sticking with the Nuggets and Rockets. While both of these teams are very flawed, at their best, they could pull off an improbable upset and make it to the finals. With that in mind, I will try and state the case for both.
The Rockets are the Only Realistic Challenger
I’ve been saying this all season and I’ll repeat it here, I don’t believe in the Rockets. I need to make that clear because although I am stating a case for them here, I would not put a cent of my own money on them making the finals. Personal feelings aside, there are several reasons the Rockets could actually pull off the upset. One of the most overlooked factors in Houston’s quest for a chip is its consistency. I don’t mean the consistency of their play I mean how they go about their business. Mike D’Antoni has been there for the James Harden era since day one and the team’s identity is firmly established. While I’m not a fan of their style, they have come close to making the finals before and have been one of the top teams in the west for years. Now they have Russell Westbrook in the mix and I feel like in a seven game series, if they get the best version of him to pair along with Harden, that’s a problem for anyone in the NBA.
At their best, the Houston Rockets can absolutely give the Clippers or the Lakers problems. We still aren’t sure if their small ball lineup will work in the playoffs but they showed in the regular season that it’s not going to be easy to deal with. It definitely brought the best out of Westbrook and if you look at the teams out west, only the Clippers are really equipped to deal with Harden and Westbrook combo. This is a big if because the reality of who Houston has been this season is a very inconsistent team. How inconsistent have they been you ask? Here are the only teams that have been worse than Houston against the spread (ATS) on the season: Phoenix, Atlanta,
Portland, San Antonio, Detroit and Minnesota. If the playoffs started today, none of those teams would be in. If Houston can find some level of consistency in the playoffs, they could make a real run. That’s probably the biggest “what if” in the NBA right now so that’s why I am very skeptical of their chances.
Nuggets Can Make Noise If Everything Goes Right
The Denver Nuggets are a young team on the rise and these playoffs will be crucial for them. Going into the season, they had big expectations and they weren’t afraid to let that be known. They haven’t exactly lived up to those expectations although they do currently sit 3rd in the western conference. If you’re trying to state the case for why they can make a shock run to the NBA finals, it would have to start with their defense. Last year, the Nuggets finished the season 54-28 which was the 2nd best record in the west. They did that by being top 10 in both offensive (6th) and defensive (10th) rating. This season their defense has not been at that level which is why they sit 13th in terms of ranking. That might not seem like a big drop off from last year but considering their offense has also taken a step back (they are 9th), they will need to get it together before they can make a legit run at a title.
If we’re being realistic, it’s down to Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. I’ll start with Jokic who I still don’t completely believe in. Please understand my position on this. I love his actual game but what I don’t like is his pass first mentality. When you look at the numbers, Jokic is one of the best passing big men to ever play this game, especially if he can keep this up for a few more years. That being said, I don’t think a team with a pass-first 7 foot 253-pound center can win a championship. It’s not like his offensive game is unstoppable. He scores 20 a game sure, but can you really say that late in a game, you can just dump the ball to Jokic and expect a basket? Maybe but I’m not sure about that until I see it. If he’s your second or third best player then yes, I’m all in. My thing is. if Jokic is your best player, then your number 2 guy better be a lights out scorer or at least a star. Jamal Murray is a borderline All Star but I wouldn’t say he qualifies as a star player. I don’t want to be unfair to Jamal Murray (no not because we’re both Canadian) because he is only 23 and hasn’t hit his prime yet. He’s improved every season since coming into the league and his numbers are great: 18.8 points, 4.8 assists 3.9 rebounds on 45% from the field and 35% from three.
Here’s the problem with Jamal Murray. I’m going to list the 2nd best player on the other 6 playoff teams (I’m leaving out Memphis because they are still in a battle with the Pelicans and Blazers for that final playoff spot). The list goes as follows: Anthony Davis, Paul George, Rudy Gobert, Russell Westbrook, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kristaps Porzingis. Of that group, Murray isn’t really better than any of them. You could maybe make an argument that you would rather have him than Gobert or Gilgeous-Alexander but even that’s a reach. Would the Thunder trade Gilgeous-Alexander or the Jazz trade Gobert to get Murray.? The answer to those questions is no, they would not. That’s the inherent problem with the Nuggets as contenders. Their two best players don’t stack up to the rest of the conference’s best and in the playoffs, that’s a huge problem. To be fair to Murray, if he does take the next step in his evolution as a basketball player, then this is an entirely different conversation. The best version of Murray paired with Jokic is a formidable duo.
That last point brings me back to my other issue with Jokic though. He was terrible last summer at the basketball World Championships. To be clear, this was his country’s best chance to be crowned world champions. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, then you’re aware that Serbia is a basketball crazy country and being world champions means a lot there. Serbia were tournament favorites and he is their best player. He absolutely let himself and his country down with his performance at the world championships, even getting himself benched in crucial situations. He then comes back into the NBA regular season and is so clearly out of shape that it was embarrassing. In his defense, pictures have surfaced online of a slim and trim looking Jokic which is amazing news for Nuggets fans. That being said, I have a hard time believing that this is the guy that’s going to lead his team past LeBron and Anthony Davis or Kawhi and Paul George. The Nuggets could make some noise in the west but they would literally need every single thing to go their way and I just don’t see that happening.