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Western Conference
Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George (Photo: Andy Clayton-King/AP)

Grading the NBA’s Western Conference (2021-2022)

As it stands, each and every NBA team will have reached the 25 games played mark. That means we’re past the ‘small sample size’ segment of the season, where teams are still feeling their way through new lineups, coaches and dynamics. We’re now at the point where we can make some relatively definitive judgements on where each club stands at this point of their campaigns. After examining the East last week, today we head the Western Conference.

All offensive and defensive ratings come courtesy of Basketball Reference and are current up to and including games on Saturday December 11th (US time).

Dallas Mavericks (C-)

Record: 12-13

Off Rtg: 107.7 points/100 possessions (21st in NBA); Def Rtg: 109.1 (16th); Net Rtg: -1.4 (23rd)

The Mavericks biggest change this off season was to part ways with long time Championship winning coach Rick Carlisle in favour of the starting point guard on that same 2011 championship team, Jason Kidd – this writer was squarely in the ‘coaching downgrade’ camp.

Kidd came into Dallas promising to instill a more egalitarian offense, giving more touches to the marginalised Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian is certainly getting more touches and looking much better for it, but at what cost? When you have one of the best half a dozen basketballers in the world, taking the ball out of their hands can only be detrimental. The Mavs are not getting to the rim nearly as much; their pick and roll game (a glaring weakness in Porzingis’ arsenal) is atrocious and as a result, they’re getting lower quality looks from the outside and making less of those attempts.

Kidd has also struggled to nail down a rotation. Tim Hardaway Jr and Reggie Bullock have been in and out of the starting lineup, whilst the constant revolution of bodies at the centre position has been hard to keep up with. Dwight Powell has started games. He was replaced by Willie Cauley-Stein. Maxi Kleiber came in with KP moving to centre. Moses Brown even got some starts.

Of course, come playoff time Kidd could have a rotation nailed down. All those extra touches for Porzingis and Jalen Brunson (having another excellent season) could take the pressure off of Doncic as the Mavs win a round.

In short, Kidd could make us look like fools. But don’t count on it.

Denver Nuggets (C+)

Record: 13-13

Off Rtg: 108.5 (19th); Def Rtg: 108.6 (15th) ; Net Rtg: -0.1 (14th)

The Nuggets really did do everything right.

They turned a mid lottery flyer in Jamal Murray into a legit star. They gambled on a talented but injured potential star in Michael Porter Jr and hit. They flat out stole Will Barton from Portland. They drafted a future MVP in the 2nd round. They made a great trade for Aaron Gordon. They turned low end prospects like Monte Morris, Zeke Nnaji and PJ Dozier into rotation pieces. They were building a model organisation.

Now, Murray is out with an ACL, as is Dozier. Porter’s back injury has flared up right after he signed a mega contract. Jokic has missed games, too. Sadly, this is a team in turmoil.

There are positives, though. Gordon looks great as a Nugget. Rookie Bones Hyland looks a keeper. And there is of course, the reigning MVP. Jokic is putting up a season every bit as good as his MVP campaign; perhaps better when you consider the relative lack of help around him. To get an idea of how much the Nuggets rely on their superstar, Denver’s point differential from when Jokic is on the court to when he sits is a frankly ridiculous 28.1 points per 100 possessions. He is literally the difference between a tight game and a blow out.

Murray should come back later in the regular season, though Porter likely is done for the time being. If Denver can get as many healthy bodies around Jokic as possible, a first round win is definitely in them. They just have to get to the playoffs first.

Golden State Warriors (A+)

Record: 21-5

Off Rtg: 113.1 (3rd); Def Rtg: 100.2 (1st) ; Net Rtg: +12.9 (1st)

There isn’t too much that is left to be said about these Warriors, other than THEY’RE BACK!!!

A top three offense, the best defense in the entire league and a net rating that should it hold will be the highest ever recorded, the Warriors are right now the best team in basketball.

The hype understandably surrounds Steph Curry, but in reality, he’s simply maintained his usual incredible play. Rather, it’s the emergence of Jordan Poole, the maturation of Andrew Wiggins, the seamlessness with which veterans in Otto Porter and Nemanja Bjelica have slotted in and most importantly the reemergence of Draymond Green as a two way force that has seen the Dubs once again climb onto their perch.

Green, still somehow only 31 despite seemingly being around forever, is playing with a verve not seen since the Warriors title runs. Whilst the raw numbers don’t demonstrate Green’s improvement, there are a couple of stats that are telling. Green’s field goal percentage has climbed from 44.7% to a career high 55% this season, mostly as a result of Green once again relentlessly attacking the basket. He’s also shooting 2.3 free throws per game – not a lot, but it’s more than he has since the 2018 season. Getting into the advanced stats, Green’s PER, True shooting percentage, rebounding rate and Defensive Win Shares are all at or near career best levels.

And to think, Golden State should get Klay Thompson back just in time for Christmas.

Houston Rockets (C)

Record: 8-18

Off Rtg: 103.6 (27th); Def Rtg: 109.5 (19th); Net Rtg: -5.9 (26th)

A tough team to grade, are the Houston Rockets.

Embracing the rebuild and with four 1st round picks form the 2021 draft on the roster, this iteration of the Rockets was supposed to be bad by design. They’ve played the kids at the expense of all else,mothballing John Wall and sporadically playing Eric Gordon and Daniel Theis. They turned the ball over at a comical rate and were shooting the ball so poorly that it rendered their almost perfect mathematical shot chart as useless.

With their record sitting at 1-16, somebody in the front office or coaching staff decided that enough was enough. They removed Theis from the rotation, moving Christian Wood to centre. They restored Gordon to the starting lineup, where his shooting (43.6% from deep), play making and sturdy defense were most welcome. Since then, they won seven games on the bounce before a pair of closely contested losses, overwhelming teams with a combination of hot shooting and sheer athleticism, including stirring victories over the Bulls and Nets.

This version of the Rockets is so much fun to watch. They run, shoot and dunk on everybody. They also play exactly zero defense, letting their opponent run the ball straight back at them. Rookie Alperen Sengun might be the most delightfully unpredictable player in the league, trying literally anything and everything on the court.

Los Angeles Clippers (C)

Record: 15-12

Off Rtg: 106.4 (26th); Def Rtg: 105.0 (3rd); Net Rtg: +1.4 (12th)

Without the injured Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers played inspired basketball to take down the Jazz and push the Suns in last season’s playoffs. As encouraging as that result was, it’s another thing entirely to transfer a few weeks of emotion into a whole season of excellent basketball. So far, they’ve been good enough to keep themselves above the Play-in mix.

That’s largely down to a suffocating defense that is anchored by the vastly underrated Ivica Zubac and switches just about everything when the play small. Offensively, the Clips hold an unhealthy reliance in Paul George, whose 25 points per game account for just over a quarter of the Clippers’ total points scored so far this season.

PG has been well supported by close friend Reggie Jackson (17.1 ppg), who has maintained the career best form that he showed late last season. Marcus Morris Sr and the sharp shooting Luke Kennard are viable options to stretch the defense.

With Kawhi out, as well as injuries to Serge Ibaka and Morris, the Clippers have fallen back into the pack, somewhat. That’s fine. Should Leonard return this season, they could be a playoff dark horse.

Los Angeles Lakers (D)

Record: 14-13

Off Rtg: 107.5 (22nd); Def Rtg: 108.5 (14th); Net Rtg: -1.0 (21st)

The 2022 Lakers are championship material. Assuming that championship is a 2017 fantasy league. Their efforts to present themselves as a 2022 actual championship contender have fallen completely flat, thus far. Despite having literally the easiest schedule in the league to this point (as per Tankathon) the Lakers have stumbled to site a hair above .500.

Their issues are numerous.

As expected with an aging roster, the Lakers have suffered with injuries: LeBron James has missed 12 games with various ailments, Talen Horton-Tucker has missed 13. In addition, rotation options Kent Bazemore, Austin Reeves, Wayne Ellington and Rajon Rondo have all missed time, whilst neither Kendrick Nunn nor Trevor Ariza have taken to the court this season.

Even when they play with a full deck, the Lakers just don’t look right. Blind Freddie and his deaf dog could have told you that Russell Westbrook wouldn’t fit alongside James and Anthony Davis (though Russ is shooting over 50% on corner three’s, which is encouraging). Coach Frank Vogel’s predisposition for playing a genuine centre (a habit he’s slowly breaking) doesn’t help matters for any of the three superstars.

The Lakers’ depth acquisitions haven’t really worked, Malik Monk aside. Carmelo Anthony is lighting the nets in fire on offense. However, his direct opponent does the same at the other end. The fact that the very much washed Avery Bradley is playing 22 minutes per game is an indictment on the construction of this roster.

Speaking of which, Vogel is a defensive coach of some note. But asking him to create a top 10 defense out of a soon to be 37 year old LeBron James, Anthony Davis and 36 year old Dwight Howard when the rest of the roster is at best apathetic the the concept of defense is too much to demand. The results are there for all to see.

Memphis Grizzlies (B)

Record: 16-11

Off Rtg: 110.7 (6th); Def Rtg: 110.4 (22nd); Net Rtg: +0.3 (14th)

A weird season to this point for Memphis.

Looking to build upon their surprise playoff berth last season, the young Grizzlies witnessed spearhead Ja Morant just about make the leap to super stardom, before his recent knee injury. They’ve seen Jaren Jackson Jr look increasingly comfortable after his own long term injury absence, and they’ve welcomed back Dillon Brooks after a delayed start to his season. The way they’ve gone about it, though, his been highly unexpected.

The Grizzlies delightful 2021 season was built on the back of an excellent defense. Swapping out offensive dreadnought Jonas Valanciunas for rugged defensive big man Steven Adams was supposed to tighten that defense further. Instead, they’ve dropped 6th all the way to 22nd in defensive rating.

Conversely, their 15th placed offense from the last campaign has shot up to #6 overall, on the back of Morant’s ascendancy, the return of Jackson and the killer play of 2nd year man Desmond Bane (this writer has a rule that 2nd year players should never win the Most Improved Player award – Bane is severely testing that belief).

The Grizz will be desperate to finally get their starting five together for an extended period. When Morant, Bane, Brooks, Jackson Jr and Adams have shared the floor this season, Memphis has a net rating of +25.9 points per 100 possessions.

Minnesota Timberwolves (B+)

Record: 11-15

Off Rtg: 107.5 (23rd); Def Rtg: 108.4 (13th); Net Rtg: -0.9 (20th)

With a lineup that includes one-way stars in Karl-Anthony Town, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, as well as a pure scorer in Malik Beasley off the bench and an offensive maven in the sidelines in Chris Finch, it was expected that Minnesota would at long last claw their way to respectability through an avalanche of buckets.

Whilst the Timberwolves have no doubt earned some respect around the league for their improved play, the fact that they’re doing it with a much improved defense (28th last season to 13th this time around) is what is genuinely turning heads. What is even more remarkable is that it’s their ‘offense only’ stars that are leading the charge.

Finch has incorporated a far more aggressive, trapping defensive scheme and his young charges are lapping it up, scrambling around the court with energy creating hurried opposition offense. Conversely, they’ve also become more patient on defense, not over committing and in turn leaving holes to be attacked.

With a solid defense in place and Edwards emerging as a legitimate offensive force (which puts Towns into a co-star role and casts Russell as the 3rd option – both more appropriate roles) there is – dare we say it – hope in Minnesota.

New Orleans Pelicans (D)

Record: 8-20

Off Rtg: 106.5 (26th); Def Rtg: 113.4 (29th); Net Rtg: -6.9 (27th)

An off season that didn’t go to plan has bled into a regular season that has gone off the rails.

The Pellies cleared cap space for Kyle Lowry, who is instead living it up on South Beach. Their consolation prize in former Hornet Devonte’ Graham has been fine, but not much more than that.

Brandon Ingram missed the opening weeks of the season but since he’s returned he’s just about confirmed that he’s not a legitimate #1 option for a successful offense. Jonas Valanciunas has been better than the team could have hoped for since coming over from Memphis. The giant Lithuanian Bond Henchman is hitting an absurd 46.3% of the 2.5 threes he attempts per game.

There is one thing missing, though. A big, big hole that needs to be filled on this roster. A hole that is rumoured to have ballooned out to something approaching 350 lbs.

Zion Williamson was due to return to play in early to mid December, though that timetable has been pushed back. When he does eventually return, it looks as though he’ll spend quite a period playing himself into shape, assuming that the Pelicans don’t consider ’round’ a shape.

Zion will certainly help this team’s anemic offense, but he’s highly unlikely to assist on defense all that much, outside of snaffling rebounds.

General Manager David Griffin, so lauded through his years assembling rosters around LeBron James in Cleveland, is very much on the hot seat.

Oklahoma City Thunder (C)

Record: 8-17

Off Rtg: 100.7 (30th); Def Rtg: 110.1 (20th); Net Rtg: -9.4 (28th)

Between a terrible record and a roster that but for a few notable exceptions is the least talented the league has seen since the heady days of The Process, you may ask: why are the Thunder are getting a C grading? The answer is simple: they are getting exactly what they want out of this season.

Oklahoma City is not, nor will it ever be a free agency hot bed. Their primary method for building a contender must be through the draft, just as it was a little over a decade ago when they drafted three future MVP’s in a three year span. To that end, General Manager Sam Presti has hoarded all of the draft picks over the next few years and is quite deliberately fielding a team that is not designed to win.

It’s not all bad in OKC, though. Their delightful young back court are #NBATwitter darlings. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is star in waiting, putting up 21.4 points (despite career worst shooting splits), five assists and 4.6 rebounds. Alongside him is the creative Australian rookie Josh Giddey, whose passing is as outlandish as it is skillful and creative.

Phoenix Suns (A+)

Record: 21-4

Off Rtg: 111.0 (7th); Def Rtg: 104.1 (2nd); Net Rtg: +6.9 (3rd)

Considered a surprise finalist last season – including by this writer – the Suns have only gone and exceeded expectation so far in season 2021-22.

Their 21-4 record leads the NBA. The team’s defense – led my Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mikal Bridges – is elite. Phoenix’s offense sits 7th in the NBA, despite not really hitting it’s stride. They’ve weathered injuries to Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton with minimal fuss thanks to their improved depth. They won 18 freaking games on the bounce!

The Suns are a delight to watch and alongside the Warriors look the class of the Western conference. Their only concern – and it’s one that may not even eventuate – is the health of veteran point guard Chris Paul. The 36 year old has suffered injuries seemingly every season for the past few years. It’s reasonable to question his durability should Phoenix make a second consecutive deep playoff run.

Portland Trailblazers (D+)

Record: 11-15

Off Rtg: 110.3 (10th); Def Rtg: 113.2 (29th); Net Rtg: -2.9 (25th)

It’s all going horridly wrong in Portland this season.

After repeatedly hitting their heads against a glass ceiling, the team parted company with long time coach Terry Stotts (much to the annoyance of star man Damian Lillard), replacing him with Chauncey Billups who was revered as a player but untested as a coach.

The team recently fired long serving general manager Neil Olshey after some less than savoury findings coming out of an internal team investigation, though to be fair Olshey has given the team a few basketball reasons to let him go, as well.

On the court, the team are still running on that same hamster wheel. Despite trading for a plus defender in Larry Nance and bringing aboard a solid back up big in Cody Zeller, the team remains rooted to the bottom of the NBA’s defensive tables. Turns out that playing three guards – two of them defensive liabilities – and a slow footed centre are not conducive to good defense. Billups aggressive schemes haven’t helped matters.

Offensively the Blazers have come back to the pack at little. Lillard opened the season in an almighty shooting slump and even now is sporadic by his own high standards. CJ McCollum came out blazing (sorry, not sorry) for the second consecutive season, but has once again succumbed to a serious injury; this time a collapsed lung. Norman Powell is a fine third option, giving Portland 17.4 points on 46/40/82 shooting splits, but he’s too small to guard wings.

McCollum’s injury may have scuppered any potential in-season shake up, but with Lillard reportedly unhappier by the day, could this be the final year of the Blazers as we know them?

Sacramento Kings (D)

Record: 11-16

Off Rtg: 109.7 (14th); Def Rtg: 112.4 (26th); Net Rtg: -2.4 (24th)

It’s a question that seemingly never goes away: what the hell is going on in Sacramento?

Another poor start saw the firing of coach Luke Walton, a move that should have happened in the off season. Or the off season before that. Alvin Gentry came in for his billionth (Subs: please check) interim head coaching position.

On the court, the product has been as uninspiring as usual. The roster is almost comically unbalanced, with a plethora of undersized guards and centres with little in between. Gentry has even dusted off failed #2 overall pick Marvin Bagley of late.

De’Aaron Fox is mired in a terrible slump. The soon to be 24 year old has fallen away by five points and a pair of assists per game from last season with alarming 44-26-74 shooting splits. With Buddy Hield, Tyrese Haliburton and Davion Mitchell all on roster, it’s unclear how the Kings plan to move forward with their guard rotation.

This organisation is, as always, a mess. Yet they’re somehow still just a half game out of the play-in tournament.

San Antonio Spurs (C+)

Record: 9-16

Off Rtg: 108.2 (21st); Def Rtg: 108.9 (14th); Net Rtg: -0.7 (19th)

For the first time since the late 1980’s the Spurs are in full rebuild mode.

On the positive, Dejounte Murray looks fully recovered from that ACL tear of a couple of seasons ago and has become a genuine star giving the Spurs a nightly 18/8/8 with 1.9 steals whilst shooting around 35% from beyond the arc. The Spurs have the point differential of a 45 win team when he’s on the floor – they crater when he sits.

Keldon Johnson is adding some guile to his bullocking drives and Devin Vassell is coming along as a secondary play maker. Even the wildly inconsistent Lonnie Walker is showing some steadiness as a bench scorer. Jakob Poeltl is criminally underrated as a low usage centre.

Derrick White, however, is struggling mightily. At age 27 he can’t be considered ‘one for the future’ any more. At this stage, he is what he is: a solid rotation piece who shouldn’t be starting for anything but the worst NBA teams.

Like all things the Spurs do, this rebuild will take some time. They have all of their draft picks and should be able to snaffle one more when they eventually trade the underused veteran Thad Young.

Utah Jazz (A)

Record: 19-7

Off Rtg: 117.7 (1st); Def Rtg: 103.3 (5th); Net Rtg: +11.4 (2nd)

The Warriors are all caps BACK BABY! The Suns are making a legitimate claim to being the best team in the NBA. But behind them in the Western Conference, quietly and efficiently going about their business, are the Utah Jazz.

With an offense that is almost comically good (the gap between Utah and 2nd placed Atlanta is the same as the gap from Atlanta to 12th placed Philadelphia) and Rudy Gobert a defense unto himself, Utah are once again a juggernaut of a regular season team, racking up wins for fun.

It’s easy to acknowledge Utah’s talent, but it’s equally as difficult to trust them once the playoffs come along, whilst their Achilles heel remains: perimeter defense.

Inexplicably, people blame Gobert for the Jazz’s playoff failings. Rather, it’s his teammates stark inability to provide resistance at the point of attack that, when the opposition play 5-out, gives Gobert a Sophie’s Choice. If he covers his teammates, he gives up an open trey to his man; if he sticks with is man, the Jazz allow a procession of dunks and layups.

Veteran Rudy Gay – specifically brought in to give Utah a small ball centre option – has looked solid since making a delayed debut after heel surgery. His presence should help Utah come playoff time.

Prior to the season, this writer called for Gobert to be given more post touches, to see if he could mash smaller defenders in the post as he did in the Olympics for France, thus dictating match-ups to the opposition, rather than the other way around. Sadly, coach Quin Snyder hasn’t seen fit to experiment in that regard.

This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.

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