We’re headed down the home stretch of the NBA season and are getting ready to gear up for the NBA playoffs. Remember back in 2013-2014 when the Jazz were terrible and finished last in the Western Conference? My goodness am I glad those days are gone. That was painful.
Fortunately, we no longer have to deal with that with this roster. In fact, the Jazz are at the opposite end of the standings now. At 47-18, the Utah Jazz currently have the best record in the NBA. They are having their best season since the Stockton 2 Malone days and it has been an absolutely amazing season. Yes, there have been a few bumps in the road. And the team is dealing with some health issues at the moment. But this has been a (regular) season to remember.
So how are things shaping up for the West here in the last two weeks? Of the Western Conference contenders, who is building up steam and who looks like they are running out of gas?
The defending champs looked primed to defend their title through most of the season. At one point they were 21-6 and were leading the West. Then the injury bug plagued them and they haven’t found their way out of it yet. Since mid-February they have had 4 losing streaks of 3 or more games. Even since LeBron James and Anthony Davis came back they are only 1-2. And now LeBron re-aggravated his ankle injury and Dennis Schroder is caught up in health protocols. Oh and don’t forget that their remaining schedule is brutal.
In their last 10 games they’ve only won 3. And things might not get better between now and the end of the season. The once-leading Lakers have found themselves as possible contributors to the play-in tournament. (something that LeBron was once a big fan of... until his team was suddenly implicated. Then the narrative changed real quick. But that’s beside the point.)
We’ll say how this plays out soon enough, but even if the Lakers avoid the play-in tournament, things have not been trending right for them. Even Davis himself admitted that things could only go up from where they’ve been lately. Even worse than the play-in games is that they might find themselves matched up against the LA Clippers in the first round. So LeBron may need to step his game up earlier than usual this season, because he doesn’t get a 1st round tune-up against the Wizards or Pistons anymore.
Currently in 4th place, the Clippers have done quite well despite the absence of Kawhi Leonard for most of the last 11 games. Well, up until a few days ago anyways. They ripped off 17 wins in 20 games and were looking absolutely dominant. But then they also lost their last 3 games. They’ve looked dominant, but not unbeatable this year. However, unlike some other teams in the West, their remaining schedule does not look particularly difficult. In fact, if I were a betting man, I’d say they move up and end 3rd in the West.
With a point differential of +6.0, I think they can safely be considered one of the favorites to come out of the West. And nothing in the past month or even the past week or two has really convinced me otherwise. 538 actually has them as the current favorites to win the finals this year at 26%. This is not a team you want to see in the playoffs. But for the Western Conference, you can say that about multiple teams.
Look for the Clippers to end the season strong and be ready for a deep playoff run.
The Denver Nuggets are currently 43-22, 3rd in the West. After an injury to Jamal Murray, I couldn’t help but wonder if their season was over. But Nikola Jokic is proving that he is the bonafide MVP of the league this year by carrying them to an 8-2 record in their last 10. That injury also made the acquisition of Aaron Gordon all that more important. Michael Porter Jr. has also stepped up big time to fill the scoring void by averaging 25 points since Murray’s injury.
Is this team as big of a threat as they were? No, of course not. But should the be dismissed? Absolutely not, as seen by their win on the road against the Clippers just a few days ago. That being said, I think that Murray’s unfortunate injury does catch up to them eventually. I anticipate the Nuggets finishing 4th in the West and they’ll be a tough out in the first round. But I worry they just won’t have quite enough firepower in the end. We saw first hand just how much Jamal Murray can influence a series.
As it turns out, trading for Chris Paul can turn your franchise around in a hurry. After spending much of the last several years in the absolute basement of the Western Conference, the Suns now find themselves in the drivers seat to finish 1st. They are currently on a 4-game winning streak and have extremely impressive wins over the past few weeks. Bucks, 76ers, and Knicks on the road as well as the Clippers and Jazz at home. Things are clicking and they are a definite threat to come out of the West.
Their end-of-season schedule has some tough matchups, so watching the race between the Suns and Jazz will be fun! I don’t think we’ll see the usual finish where the top teams start resting their guys for the playoffs. I think both of these teams really want to have that 1st seed. And with the way the Suns have been playing, they have what it takes to get there for sure. However, 528’s model for one reason or another isn’t loving what the Suns are doing. Their full-strength rating puts the Suns at a surprising 8th in the league. Let’s just say, I won’t complain if they are able to knock out either of the LA teams in the playoffs. Yet I also wouldn’t be too keen on a matchup against them either... (mostly because I just don’t want another Chris Paul series. We’ve had our fair share of those.)
It’s hard to really say exactly how the Jazz are performing lately. With Donovan Mitchell missing the last 9 games and Conley the last 4, the Jazz have played a ton of minutes without 2 of their starters. So Rudy Gobert has been able to show to the entire NBA just how important and dominant he can be. And Bojan Bogdanovic has found his groove and been a monster in that timespan. Plus, the Jazz are getting guys like Niang and even Trent Forrest more confident and comfortable. (I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a big Georges Niang fan, but that guy has shut me up lately. He’s averaging over 10 points per game in his last 14 and has shot nearly 46% from downtown.)
You could say the Jazz are only 6-4 in their last 10 games, which is true. But having a winning record with 2 All Stars out with injury is pretty dang impressive. With the West as open as it may appear this year, the most important thing for this squad is to get healthy. But I have to be honest, I really want to see Conley and Mitchell back out there sooner rather than later. Obviously, I hope the Jazz can do what it takes to finish 1st in the West. But I also want them to get some momentum back individually and for the team heading into what is hopefully a deep playoff run this year.