As the 2018-2019 NBA season trudges on, it is becoming increasingly clear who is a real contender and who is not. There is still plenty of stratification that has yet to occur, but in the meantime, many pundits have been asking who they believe is the West’s 2nd best team (presuming the best is still the Golden State Warriors, which is the right assumption in my opinion).
I find this question problematic for a number of reasons. For starters, win/loss record is not always indicative of who the “best” team is. The best team might have the 2nd best record (like GSW last year) and the 2nd best team might have the 4th best record.
The consensus answer for the West’s second best team at the moment seems to be the Denver Nuggets, who sit at the top of the WC standings with a record of 18-9. While I do think the Nuggets aren’t a bad choice, I disagree with the logic that they are the West’s second best team because they have the best record near 25% of the way through the season. I think there is a much more accurate and interesting way to find out who’s for real in the West: Who is likely to host a first round playoff series? In other words, who will finish with one of the top 4 records in the Western Conference?
The reasoning behind posing the question in this way is two-fold. First, it allows for a lot more room for interpretation of how you determine who is the “best.” Second, with the depth of the Western Conference as currently constructed, you need every advantage you can get, and home court advantage in the first or second round can be the difference maker. Styles make fights, and you don’t want to be taking any risks when you might be playing against Anthony Davis or the deep, deep LA Clippers in round 1. Not necessarily in any seed-based order, here are the 4:
Warriors: The first team that I believe will keep a top 4 spot is obviously the Warriors. I think they likely take the 1 seed, as I don’t think any team can beat their long term win/loss record. Regardless, they are easily a lock for a top 4 seed even with taking some minor injuries along the way. With that said, if Steph Curry were to suffer a season-ending injury (knock on wood) the Dubs could be in trouble. I still think they’d be fine, though.
Nuggets: The second team that I think is taking a top 4 seed is the Denver Nuggets. As I said before, they currently lead the West and look poised to keep on rolling over mid-tier teams. They have racked up impressive wins, and star big-man Nikola Jokic really can do anything except jump. He still shows weaknesses defensively, but the team has stepped it up as a whole in that regard making it less of an issue. They will likely add even more depth as the season goes on, as they look to incorporate Isaiah Thomas as he returns from injury soon, and we still haven’t heard a peep about Micheal Porter Jr. whose status is still pretty unclear as far as this season is concerned. Regardless, the Nuggets are one of the more flexible, amorphous teams in the league. Denver has shown they’re more than a statistical anomaly and shows no signs of slowing down in their current state.
Thunder: The Oklahoma City Thunder, who started out the season painfully sluggish, have displayed that they can do it with or without Russell Westbrook, and this team looks like a defensive bastion as of late. Steven Adams is top 5 in the league in offensive boards, and with weapons like Paul George around the perimeter, that pays dividends. Speaking of George, he leads the league in steals, and continues to show his prowess as a two-way player. Now that they’ve worked the kinks out, the best way to describe the Thunder appears to be one word: consistent. Of course they have their fluke losses like all teams, but for the most part the Thunder eat mid to low-tier teams for breakfast. That alone should be good enough to keep them in the playoff bubble, and the teams’ upside as a whole gives me reason to believe they’ll land in the top 4.
Lakers: I did some light research on this one, and last I checked, LeBron James is still on the Lakers’ roster. They have definitely figured out their defense, and since the start of the season have completely turned around on that front. More importantly, the team has figured out which players of their young core function next to LeBron, which is basically the key to succeeding with LeBron. It’s not easy to play on-court with the King, but if they figure it out and stick to their guns from there (the guns seem to be Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma) then they can make waves. Not to mention, even the guys they have that aren’t particularly good fits with LeBron are still solid, athletic players. If they can rest LeBron a few more minutes per night without that throwing the game into the fire, that could go a long way in terms of wins through the rest of the season and into the playoffs. LeBron will turn it on when he needs to, and albeit this may be an earlier time to do so than in years past, nothing is guaranteed in the West right now. Having home court matters way more this year than in his past decade of being in the East.
So, there are my 4, not in any order. I could see any of those 4 in any order being logical at the end of the regular season.
Some notable omissions would be the Houston Rockets who topped the seeds last year. They look stronger, but if they want to even see the playoffs this year, they need to get it together-and fast.
I think the surprise teams of the Clippers and Grizzlies will stay strong, but I think they will have to falter a little bit, the Grizz especially. They are one multiple-week injury away from a serious losing streak. The Clippers are one of the deepest, most well-rounded teams in the league, meaning they are less prone to regression and more likely to adapt long-term, but I also think they are due for a little bit of cooling off. That said, Doc Rivers is making a Coach of The Year case.
Aside from those two, who have flirted with top positions thus far this year, everyone else is in the hunt to even make the playoffs. The Spurs, Jazz, Pelicans, and Trail Blazers all have the talent to make it, but cannot spare a single loss. Those are the types of teams that I’d be skeptical of being able to win consistently enough from night to night to clinch a top 4 seed.