HomeNBANBA: Evaluating the Western Conference at the All-Star Break

    NBA: Evaluating the Western Conference at the All-Star Break

    Jonathan Von Tobel evaluates the NBA Western Conference teams as they head into the All-Star Break.

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    NBA Western Conference Overview

    As we head into the All-Star Break, now is a good time to evaluate where each team stands in the NBA Western Conference and separate the contenders from the pretenders.

    NBA Western Conference: Contenders

    Minnesota Timberwolves
    Minnesota comes out of the All-Star break as the top seed in the Western Conference due to its incredible defense. The Timberwolves lead the NBA in non-garbage time defensive efficiency (108.8), and in halfcourt settings, they allow the fewest points per 100 plays (92.2). Rudy Gobert is the massive odds-on favorite (-650) to win Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, but he is hardly the only great defender for this team. Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are elite on-ball defenders, and Mike Conley is a smart defensive guard who is hardly ever out of position. This team’s size and length make them a challenge to any opponent in the postseason, and they are a legit threat to win the conference because of it.

     

    If anything holds Minnesota back, it would be its offense. The team averages only 116.9 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time on offense. That is good for 15th in the league at the All-Star break. As elite as their halfcourt defense is, the Timberwolves need help in the same situation on offense. They average only 100.8 points per 100 plays against set defenses. It is why the addition of Monte Morris at the deadline is so big for this team. They desperately needed another shot creator, and Morris gives that to them. He will not fix this offense by any means though. The starting group must find a flow on that end of the floor or risk being eliminated early.

    Immaturity could derail this train as well. Minnesota has not handled expectations well with this current group, and that is represented by its 18-18-3 ATS record as a favorite. This team thrives as an underdog – 10-5 ATS this season – but those situations will be few and far between after the break. This is not a team that is worth fading or following once play resumes, but it is a team that can have success in the postseason. If you haven’t already, consider investing in Minnesota to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.

    Denver Nuggets
    The reigning champions are still every bit as dangerous as they were last season, especially if they get homecourt advantage in the Western Conference again. Their starting five – Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic – has played the most possessions of any lineup in the league and is outscoring opponents by 12.4 points every 100 possessions. Jokic continues to dominate the league as well. He is the odds-on favorite to win MVP (-165), and he is averaging 26.1 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 8.9 assists at the break on 57.7% shooting from the floor. As long as those five are intact, this group is a threat to repeat as NBA Finals champions.

    If there is an issue to nitpick with Denver, it would be its bench. Last season, the Nuggets had Bruce Brown and Jeff Green making up their bench rotation. This season, Reggie Jackson (10.9 PPG) and Christian Braun (7.0 PPG) are their leading scorers off the bench. When Jokic is off the floor, Denver goes from a +9.6 net rating to a -11.3 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass. They do use Gordon at center at times, and those lineups have a +13.5 net rating, so it is likely that is what bettors see once the postseason comes around. However, you do need some bench production to win the NBA Finals, and what we have seen from the Nuggets’ bench leaves a lot to be desired at times. It could also be what keeps them from being a back-to-back champion.

    Denver has also been a very poor team to back at the window, which will likely be the case as we move into the season’s homestretch. The Nuggets are among the highest-rated teams in the league, and that leads to some bloated point spreads. It is why they are 23-31-1 ATS on the season and just 13-13 ATS at home despite a 21-5 SU record. This is not a team worth backing night to night, and the value on them to win the Finals has been sucked dry. But they are still one of the top contenders in the Western Conference.

    Los Angeles Clippers
    There has been no better team since the beginning of December than the Los Angeles Clippers. Over its last 35 games, Los Angeles is 28-7 SU/22-13 ATS with the best offensive rating in non-garbage time (125.3), according to Cleaning The Glass. The Clippers are among the deepest teams in the NBA, but there is no question that Kawhi Leonard’s play is the driving force behind this success. Over the same span Leonard is averaging 25.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game on 55.9% shooting from the floor and 49.3% on 3-point attempts. His play has thrust him into contention for MVP and the Clippers into the upper echelon of teams in the Western Conference.

    Leonard is hardly alone with his spectacular play, and that is what makes Los Angeles so dangerous. James Harden has played every game since being acquired by the Clippers, is averaging 17.5 points and 8.4 assists, and he improves their net rating by 15.7 points every 100 possessions on the floor. Paul George has a similarly incredible efficiency differential (+9.7) while averaging 22.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. The trio of Leonard, Harden and George outscore opponents by 12.3 points every 100 possessions on the floor together, and their starting lineup is among the most efficient in the NBA.

    The obvious disclaimer for Los Angeles is health, but that has not been an issue to this point of the season. Leonard missed the last game prior to the All-Star break with an adductor strain but missed just four games before that. George has missed only three games all season. The Clippers’ lack of size could do them in as well, as evidenced by a loss to Minnesota prior to the break. However, this team has depth at almost every position and could have the best player on the floor in almost any series, save for one with Denver. It’s a team worth riding once we return to play.

    Phoenix Suns
    Health has been what has held Phoenix back this season, and it threatens to derail the Suns yet again. Bradley Beal left Phoenix’s win over Sacramento prior to the break with a hamstring injury, and as of this publication, a timetable for his return has yet to be reported. Beal has played in just 30 games this season. His inability to be available this season is a large reason why the Suns find themselves fighting to stay inside the top six seeds of the Western Conference. The potential of what this team can be is scary, though, and the league has seen it.

    Phoenix went 18-7 SU/13-11-1 ATS in the 25 games prior to the Beal-less win over Detroit before the break. Over those 25 games, the Suns were fourth in net rating (+9.0), second in offensive rating (124.6), and ninth in defensive rating (115.6). When Beal is on the floor with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, Phoenix outscores opponents by 15.4 points per 100 possessions. Their offensive rating in those possessions (130.6) is in the 100th percentile of qualified lineups. 

    Those figures point to how dangerous Phoenix can be. Among the contenders, this is the team worth investing in the most from a future standpoint. They are 14-1 to win the NBA Finals at DraftKings. That is a price that carries some value, but make sure the injury for Beal is not a serious one that will keep him sidelined for an extended period of time.

    Oklahoma City Thunder
    Oklahoma City went into the All-Star break on a small skid, but this team looks like it is the real deal. The Thunder are third in non-garbage time net rating this season (+7.9), and top five in both offensive (120.9) and defensive rating (112.9). At the center of this success is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is the second choice on the oddsboard for MVP at DraftKings (+280). Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game on 54.6% shooting from the floor. He is also contributing defensively by leading the league in steals (2.2).

    Gilgeous-Alexander’s success is also part of the downside for Oklahoma City this season. When he is on the floor, the Thunder outscore opponents by 10.4 points for every 100 possessions. But, in the possessions without Gilgeous-Alexander they only outscore opponents by 1.1 points per 100 possessions. The problem is the offense, which manages just 112.3 points per 100 possessions without him on the floor. In a playoff series, Oklahoma City could run into issues with good defensive teams that have an adequate defender to put on Gilgeous-Alexander while subsequently taking advantage of the minutes in which he doesn’t play.

    With all that in mind, this is still going to be one of the best teams to follow at the window once the season resumes. The Thunder are the second-best cover team in the NBA at the break (33-20-1 ATS, 62.3%). At home, they are 21-6 SU/18-9 ATS, and they are covering by 4.9 points per game. The odds for this team to win the title are too short to invest in at this point – especially with such a glaring weakness when it comes to the non-Shai minutes – but it should treat bettors well at the window the rest of the season.

    Oustide Looking In

    New Orleans Pelicans
    One could make the argument that New Orleans is the team that has the best chance of breaking through to the next tier of competitors. They have a dominant player in Zion Williamson (22.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists) who can take over a series. New Orleans has also been quietly dominant on defense throughout the season. It enters the break seventh in non-garbage time defensive efficiency (114.0) and 10th in halfcourt defensive efficiency (97.6). However, there are some signs that the defense has an expiration date. In fact, some shot metrics paint the picture of some luck on the side of the Pelicans. If that defensive success regresses, then an average offense will have a massive load on its shoulders. Still, they have exceeded expectations. The Pelicans are 30-25 ATS on the season and 15-11 ATS at home. They are on pace to go over their preflop win total as well. New Orleans will likely start the postseason on the road, but of the teams on the outside looking in, it could be the most lethal.

    Sacramento Kings
    Sacramento deserves to be here because of the remaining core of a team that made the postseason last year, but it is hard to take them seriously as a title contender because of their defense. The Kings allow 117.9 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time this season, and as a result, they have a -0.5 net rating. Their halfcourt defense is particularly awful and allows 102.8 points per 100 plays. That is not going to win a championship, and they did nothing to address it at the deadline. Last season, Sacramento balanced their poor defense with an offense that led the league in efficiency. This season, they are just 14th in offensive efficiency. There is nothing about the Kings that says they are a championship contender this season. Sacramento is also one of the most overvalued teams at home this season, and enter the break 15-9 SU/11-13 ATS at the Golden 1 Center. It might be worth it to continue to play on that angle once play begins again.

    Dallas Mavericks
    The upside of Dallas is absolutely real. When Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are on the floor together, the Mavericks outscore opponents by 8.9 points for every 100 possessions. That duo also ranks in the 93rd percentile of qualified lineups in offensive rating (122.6). On any given night, they can match up with any team and have offensive success. However, their shortcomings on defense will ultimately be their downfall. Neither Doncic nor Irving are above-average defenders, and for the season, the Mavericks rank 17th in non-garbage time defensive efficiency (117.1). Dallas is also a high-variance team. It takes 41.9% of its shots from beyond the arc but only 28.3% within four feet of the basket. That style of offense is not conducive to sustained success, and it would be unwise to bank on that success in the big picture. For the rest of the season – as long as Doncic and Irving are on the floor – this would be a team worth backing with some consistency at the window.

    Golden State Warriors
    Of all the teams in this category, I believe that Golden State is the only team with true upward mobility. Since Draymond Green’s return from suspension, the Warriors are 8-5 SU/9-4 ATS. In those 13 games, they outscored opponents by 6.8 points for every 100 possessions. The biggest difference was the offense which had a 120.4 offensive rating in those contests. With Green and Steph Curry on the floor, Golden State has a +4.5 net rating and a 120.1 offensive rating. Now that Green is available regularly, we are seeing what the Warriors can truly be. This is what is lost in a down season for Golden State. Green missed time due to a suspension. Chris Paul remains out with a left hand injury. Once Paul returns, this team will be at full strength for the first time in a long time this season. This team is much better than what their record would indicate. If a bettor reading this wanted to invest in one longshot from this group, it should be Golden State, which is 25-1 to win the Western Conference.

    Los Angeles Lakers
    To be honest, I do not believe Los Angeles deserves to be in this tier. The Lakers are a subpar offensive team that averages 116.5 points every 100 possessions. They shoot the fewest 3-point attempts per game (30.7) and rank 13th in accuracy (37.0%). Against any of the better teams in the NBA, they are at a massive statistical disadvantage, and that will play out in any postseason matchup, should they even get there. This is all despite the fact that LeBron James has played 49 games, and Anthony Davis has appeared in 52 contests. Their two best players have appeared in a vast majority of contests, but Los Angeles still finds itself fighting for a bottom Play-In seed as we enter the All-Star break. Players like D’Angelo Russell are in the midst of a hot streak – 23.4 points and 6.9 assists per game over the last 16 games – but that is not sustainable over the long haul. As long as James is playing, his team will always have a chance, but the chances for this team are minimal.

    The Rest

    Utah Jazz
    Utah is currently outside of the Play-In race, and at the trade deadline, it sold off three rotation players. Despite that, it is a somewhat highly rated team when compared with some of its contemporaries. It might be worth fading a worse Jazz team when the league returns to action.

    Houston Rockets
    Houston is three games out of the Play-In seeds at the break, and they will likely remain on the outside once the season ends. Still, they are fifth in non-garbage time defensive efficiency (113.0) and 28-26 ATS on the season. Given how well they play defensively, this should be a winning ATS team on the season and worth backing in the right spots.

    Memphis Grizzlies
    Memphis will be the first team to clinch a decision on their preseason win total, but not all is lost. They have an intriguing young core of players that give a good effort, and they are 13th in non-garbage time defensive efficiency (115.1) at the break. The Grizzlies entered the break on an 8-5 ATS run, which could be a sign of things to come for the rest of the season, given how low their market rating has become.

    Portland Trail Blazers
    Portland has a litany of veterans playing large roles for a losing team. It is almost certain that players like Malcolm Brogdon, Jerami Grant, and Deandre Ayton will get extended time off once we get closer to the end of the season, and this could be the best team to fade in the Western Conference once we get to mid-March.

    San Antonio Spurs
    The only thing worth watching for San Antonio is Victor Wembanyama. The French rookie heads into the break -600 to win Rookie of the Year, but the Spurs have been careful with his workload. He is averaging less than 30 minutes per game, and he could be a candidate to be shut down early once San Antonio is completely out of the picture.

    Jonathan Von Tobel
    Jonathan Von Tobel
    Jonathan Von Tobel the Senior NBA Betting Analyst and on-air host for the Vegas Stats & Information Network. He was the first on-air producer for VSiN and has been with the company since its inception in 2017 when he served as Brent Musburger's producer on My Guys In The Desert. Von Tobel is the creator and host of Hardwood Handicappers as well as weekend programs Live Bet Saturday, Live Bet Sunday and College Lines Revealed.

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