Who's the Fourth-Best Team in the NBA's Western Conference?
Through 18 games, the Golden State Warriors haven't been the standalone team atop the Western Conference as predicted and expected just weeks ago. Just recently -- after 12 straight wins and two straight losses by the Los Angeles Clippers -- have they taken over the number one spot, with a record of 16-2.
Even at that, the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers have just one and two more losses than the Warriors, respectively. Those three teams, all with at least 14 wins, are what constitute the top of the hierarchy out West. After that, though, there's a noticeable dropoff.
So, in a top-heavy conference, which team should be considered the best of the rest out West?
As I previously indicated, those candidates in the next group of teams are Houston, Memphis, Oklahoma City and Utah. Depending on who you ask, you'll almost always get a different answer to the question of who's the best of those four teams.
In Marc Stein's most recent power rankings over at ESPN, he ranks this group as the Rockets (7th), Grizzlies (8th), Jazz (9th) and Thunder (11th). They're not far from one another, but Stein has the Rockets pegged as the best among them, citing James Harden's play and Mike D'Antoni's system as the reasons for their jump.
You really can't argue with that. Beard and company sport the league's fourth-best offense, according to offensive rating, and rank in the top 10 of various offensive categories.
|Rockets Offense||3PM/G||3PT Att. Rate||3PT%||eFG%||AST/G||ORB%|
This isn't surprising given D'Antoni's offensive strategy of running and gunning up threes and Harden's newfound ability to dish out assists by the dozen. However, as elite as the Rockets are on the offensive end, they're as poor on the defensive end. Houston allows 105.5 points per game and 108.8 per 100 possessions.
Can you trust that? I know I can't.
Coming into last night's home game against the Charlotte Hornets, the Grizzlies were 7-1 in their last eight games. But, after a 25-25 first quarter, the Hornets out-scored the Grizz 31-14 in the second quarter. Memphis never recovered, having lost the game by 19 points and their point guard, Mike Conley, for the foreseeable future to a back injury.
Conley's absence can't be understated, but he didn't exit last night's game until the third quarter. The problem with the Grizzlies is lack of production and depth.
On the season, only Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are averaging double-digits. And if that doesn't sound bad enough, they're the only three players with more than 9.3 points per game. Their 51.4 points make up more than 53% of their team's points on a nightly basis.
The combination of James Ennis, JaMychal Green and Vince Carter haven't been getting it done offensively, which really is no fault of their own. They're not the type of players you should expect to put up more than 15 points on any given night, let alone average double-figures. The same can be said for young players like Wade Baldwin IV and Deyonta Davis who will be called upon to step up without any experience to speak of.
If and when Chandler Parsons returns to health and his previous form, he would provide a much-needed boost. But, it's hard for Memphis to be consistent with a plague of injuries constantly circling the franchise. Now, with Conley out for an extended period of time, they'll be lucky to make the backend of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook is unstoppable -- we know this to be fact. The only question is whether or not it matters.
Like with the Grizzlies, the Thunder's issue is secondary producers and scorers. Westbrook is the first player to average a triple-double this late in the season since Oscar Robertson in 1963-64, but check out his averages versus the rest of his team.
|Rest of Team||76.2||9.8||35.2||7.0|
In terms of rebounding, the Thunder don't have anything to worry about. The likes of Westbrook, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter have OKC ranked first in the league in rebounding. If that's how you won games they'd be great, but it's all about putting the ball in the hoop, which the majority of the Thunder's players fail to do with consistency.
Kanter was the one to step up in Monday night's come-from-behind victory over the New York Knicks, but he's one of just three players to average double-figures and more than 6.8 points per game. Victor Oladipo's a capable second scorer, however, the team's two centers -- Adams and Kanter -- have combined for 13 games in which they've failed to score in double-digits.
As great as he has been, Westbrook needs help. Coach Donovan needs to play Kanter more or get like Jerami Grant and Andre Roberson to produce at a higher level offensively -- somehow, someway. Until then, they're just a one-man band destined for a brief stop in the playoffs.
In comparing the four teams, the Jazz are much more like the Grizzlies than they are the Rockets and Thunder. They are absent one true bona fide superstar, but get production from a few key contributors on a nightly basis.
As you can see, production -- in its many different forms -- has come from a handful of different players. That's not to mention that these numbers are so with Hill, Hayward and Favors missing at least six games apiece due to various injuries.
What is concerning about the Jazz, nevertheless, is their inability to be more efficient offensively. They rank 26th and 16th in the NBA in points per game and offensive rating, respectively. This comes out of Utah's lack of playmaking in the true sense of the word. Their 17.9 assists per game place them above only one team -- and if you're thinking that has a lot to do with their snail-like pace (slowest in the NBA) you'd be wrong, because even over 100 possessions that per game total jumps to 19.5 assists.
At times, there has been an unhealthy amount of isolation offense in Utah, which is somewhat surprising given their consistency and success. You'd have to think that when they're healthy, they'll see their assist totals rise and the offense become that much more efficient.
The Jazz are 10-8 even with injuries to key players. They're behind the three other candidates in terms of wins, but advanced metrics suggest they're sufficiently better than those others as a whole.
Take our nERD metric, for example. This number is a team ranking, on a scale of 0 to 100, that is predictive of the team's ultimate winning percentage. The league average is 50, and the Jazz come in at a 63.6. That's 6.1 the superior to Houston, more than 13 points better than Oklahoma City and almost 18 points higher than Memphis.
If you want more proof, Utah is also 10th in effective field-goal percentage and first in effective field-goal percentage against through 18 games, which must be how they've managed the eighth-best margin of victory and eighth-best net rating (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) thus far.
And to take it a step further, our algorithms project Coach Quin Snyder and company to finish the season with 45 wins, behind only six other NBA teams. That gives them a 92.8% chance of making the playoffs at this point in time.
When you have above average talent across the board, that's what effort, solidarity and consistency gets you in today's NBA.