NBA Western Conference spotlight: 5 surprises

Marco Benitez
PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 9: Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets shoots the ball against the Portland Trail Blazers on December 9, 2017 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. (Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

For the past few seasons, the West has been undoubtedly the stronger conference, with most of the league’s All-NBA-ers playing there and with the Golden State Warriors besting the Cleveland Cavaliers in two of the last three Finals matchups. And while the league’s best player in LeBron James plays in the East, and we're seeing the balance of power ever so slowly evening out this season, fans still regard the West as the home of the league’s best and most exciting teams, not to mention the eventual 2017-2018 champions.

Yet even with that in mind, here are 5 things that have somehow caught me by surprise from this season’s Western Conference:

1. The early struggles of the OKC Thunder

Despite making that big offseason splash where they landed both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder have struggled at times, and are currently just one game over the .500 mark at 16-15, good for 6th in the West, tied with less talent-laden teams like Denver and Portland.

Meshing those two superstars with the reigning MVP has been somewhat of a struggle, to say the least. All three players have posted the worst field goal percentages of their careers. Melo is averaging a career-low 17.3 ppg on just 40.4% shooting from the field. George's numbers have taken a dip as well. His 19.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 3.2 apg are his lowest since the 2014 season, and he's been relegated to the last option on offense with the shot clock winding down on a regular basis - definitely not ideal for someone who's used to being its focal point all his years with Indiana.

Still, all three superstars insist that the Thunder are a work in progress, and that come April, they will be where they want to be. However, with the trade deadline Les than two months away, and with both George and Anthony both with player options for next season, GM Sam Presti will have to think long and hard on how long to keep this experiment going; otherwise they risk George seeking greener pastures at season's end in exchange for nothing.

2. The San Antonio Spurs keep humming

Kawhi Leonard has played a total of four games and 69 minutes this season. Tony Parker has played 9 games total, averaging just 16.5 minutes per game. The San Antonio Spurs, surprisingly - or rather, unsurprisingly - are still in 3rd place in the Western conference at 22-11, just 5 games behind the Houston Rockets. As if we did not expect it already, Coach Gregg Popovich has found ways to win with the personnel afforded to him.

LaMarcus Aldridge, after a subpar 2016-2017 season and a heart-to-heart talk with Pop last summer, has found his old form, averaging 22.3 ppg on 49.5% from the field, the highest since his All-Star season two years ago. Rudy Gay has also found renewed relevance playing for a contender, averaging 12.3 ppg in 23.4 mpg, but posting the best eFG% of his career (53.0%). Gasol, Mills, Green, Anderson and even Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes have pitched in solid numbers, stepping up in the absence of Parker and Leonard. Even the timeless Manu Ginobili has been counted on in the clutch, putting up two crucial game-winners for the Spurs this season. Safe to say, come April, the Spurs will still be among the West's elite. The big question that remains is whether they will have enough to dethrone the Warriors or get past a Chris Paul-backed Rockets.

3. Chris Paul has been better than good for Houston

There were many concerns when the Rockets landed Chris Paul on how he would fit in with James Harden and the Mike D’Antoni system, which puts a premium on three-point shooting, as Paul has been known more as someone who hunts mid-range jumpers throughout his career. More importantly, how would Paul and Harden co-exist as two superstars who have had the ball in their hands for practically their entire careers? Well, in the games that Paul has been healthy – 16 of Houston’s 30 games this season – not only has he coexisted with Harden, Paul and the Rockets have thrived.

Prior to Thursday's (PHL time) loss to the Lakers where Paul left early in the fourth quarter with what the Rockets are calling a left adductor strain, the Rockets have been undefeated with Paul in the lineup, winning 14 straight prior to today.  In that span, Paul is averaging 9.0 assists per game, tied with Harden for most on the team, but he leads Houston in steals per game (2.1) and assists-to-turnover ratio at 3.8. Paul’s three-point shooting clip (40.8%) and three-pointers made per game (2.5) are also the highest they've been his entire career, proving to naysayers that not only is he good for Houston, but that he can actually be the key to ending Golden State’s stranglehold on the West.

4. The Denver Nuggets are actually in Playoffs contention

The less publicized and not-often-talked-about Nuggets are actually in postseason contention. Not just that, they’re currently in 7th place in the West, but with identical 16-15 win-loss records as Portland (5th) and OKC (6th). That is pretty good company to be mixed up with considering Portland has stars like Lillard and McCollum, OKC has their big three of Westbrook, PG, and Melo; while the Nuggets are led by Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic. Denver head coach Mike Malone has done a splendid job so far steering his team to a winning record, despite the loss of Paul Millsap (wrist) back in November. The Nuggets are actually 2nd in the West for best home record (11-3), tied with Golden State, and behind the Spurs’ 15-2. With their young players gaining more experience and with the possible return of All-Star Paul Millsap after the All-Star break, the Nuggets may actually be in the playoff picture come April, over teams like the Jazz, Clippers, and the Pelicans.

5. Parity between the East and West

Finally, while the common notion that the Western conference is much much stronger than the Eastern conference may have been true the past couple of seasons -- with Curry and Durant leading the Warriors to last year's best record, and the other Western teams loaded with the NBA's elite -- this has actually not been the case so far this season. Eastern conference teams have enjoyed relative parity with their Western counterparts. In fact, record-wise, the East has almost drawn even, with the top 8 Eastern teams having a total combined 67-35 win-loss record vs the West (through Thursday, PHL time). In fact among the top 8 teams in each conference, only 1 Eastern team, Indiana, has a losing record against the West (5-6), while among the top 8 Western teams, Minnesota has a 3-7 win-loss record against Eastern teams. As the League’s best player, Lebron James, has gotten more help and taken Cleveland on another tear in recent weeks, with Kyrie and the Celtics sitting atop the East leaderboard, and with the emergence of amazing young talent in the lower-ranked Eastern teams (Porzingis, Antetokounmpo, Oladipo, Embiid and Simmons, to name a few), the West is no longer the outright dominant conference.

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