Stacked from third all the way down to the 13th-placed Los Angeles Lakers, the Western Conference is set for a thrilling ride with spots on the line. In the third and final segment covering the teams in the West, it's on to reviewing the Southwest Division.
From up-and-comer to contender, the vibrant, exuberant Memphis Grizzlies ascent in the last two years has them firmly as a team to keep tabs on. A season ago, the Grizzlies went to the Western Conference semifinals only for their run to end to eventual Champions Golden State in six games. However, Memphis' play this season is only showing why this upcoming group is ready to advance one rung higher. Occupying the West's second seed (37-23), the Grizzlies have been wobbly losing 10 of 16, despite five wins in its last seven.
There's barely room for the finest marginal error with the Kings, Suns, Clippers, and Mavericks all on Memphis' heels. Ja Morant continues to be at his dazzling athletic self with a repertoire of creative layups in traffic. The former Murray State star is putting up a career-high 27 points along with 8.1 assists.
Desmond Bane's elite three-point shooting is a crucial cog for Memphis shooting at 41.6% clip. His production makes him the ideal second option behind Morant. Jaren Jackson Jr's immense rim protection (3.2 blocks per game) allows the Grizzlies to breakout into transition supplying for many of Morant's showreel dunks.
Add in the pesky perimeter defence of Dillon Brooks and the athletic Brandon Clarke, Memphis covers most bases to legitimately challenge for the West's supremacy. The major return will be Steven Adams from a PCL sprain. Setting arguably the toughest brick-like screens, Adams' toughness and prowess in offensive rebounding (5.1 per game) allows the team to generate extra second-chance opportunities.
Kyrie Irving's early play is giving a major chop out to franchise superstar Luka Doncic. Dallas currently (32-31) sits seventh in the West only half a game behind sixth-place LA Clippers and 2.5 games from fourth-place Phoenix. From his rookie year, Doncic has been carrying the team with his historic performances. However, shouldering the offensive load without a second or third star to take off considerable pressure. By landing Irving, the duo can lean upon one another in vital moments.
Both have done it throughout their careers. Making the move to bring across Irving puts Dallas from a playoff team to a threat. But giving up Dorian Finney-Smith slightly regresses the Mavericks who haven't been able to recapture their defensive identity from last season. This season Dallas is currently 23rd in defensive rating via StatMuse.
One crucial piece in the Mavericks rotation that has been out of action for over two months is Maxi Kleber with a torn right hamstring. Arguably the side's best big man and most switchable defender, his absence has been felt. The JaVale McGee move hasn't paid off yet and Christian Wood, although being an excellent shot-blocker isn't a terrific defender.
Boosting its bench production further helps accommodate the Doncic-Irving partnership with Justin Holiday's signing to pair alongside Tim Hardaway Jr and Wood. The Mavericks are 17th for bench scoring with 34.5 points per contest via StatMuse.
Australian Josh Green is becoming an underrated piece in Coach Jason Kidd's system. Since being a regular member of the Mavericks' in late January 2022, the defensive-savvy Green supplies the team with another defensive perimeter/wing option. His three-point shot has vastly improved hitting 42.1% this season, compared to 35.9% last season and 16% in his rookie year (2020/2021).
In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Kidd stressed on the importance of every player pulling together defensively as they don't have an elite defender, "That's what we've talked about, is helping one another. We might not have the best defensive players, but I think with the basketball IQ that we have, we understand where we have to be on the floor to help one another."
New Orleans Pelicans
When the Pelicans began 23-12 after topping Philadelphia on December 30, aspirations of a darkhorse contender started gaining momentum. Since then, it has gone the opposite direction losing 20 of its last 27, including a 10-game skid from January 16 to February 2. The majority of their slide can be attributed to significant injuries to All-Stars Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
After missing the entire 2021/2022 campaign due to a foot injury, Williamson was at his usual best bullying opponents on the block with him and Valanciunas bulldozing opponents on the glass. Then bad luck hit straining his hamstring in a January 2 loss to Philadelphia. In his quest to return, Williamson has encountered another setback with the former 2019 number-one pick to miss several more weeks according to Christian Clark of The New Orleans Times-Picayune. Williamson has only featured in 29 games this season.
Ingram, like Williamson, missed a hefty chunk of basketball for exactly two months because of a toe aggravation on November 25 against Memphis. Ingram's timely return hasn't been enough to rectify the Pelicans' slump, but his production has. Currently in the month of February, Ingram is averaging 28.3 points on excellent shooting numbers of 49% and 41.7% from three.
With Williamson remaining on the sidelines, Ingram and C.J. McCollum are going to have to carry the offensive load to keep the Pelicans in the playoff picture. If there is any inspiration to go by, then last season is the perfect example having lost 16 of its first 19 games before making the play-in and ultimately the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets
The two cellar dwellers of the West, San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets are in the stakes for landing number one pick Victor Wembanyama in June's NBA draft. San Antonio hasn't been in this position since the 1996/1997 season when it compiled a 20-62 record, ultimately landing consensus number-one pick Tim Duncan. The Spurs were able to break a franchise-worst 16-game losing streak in a win over Utah. Although its an unwanted record surpassing 13 straight losses during the 1988/1989 season.
Through the doom and gloom, the Spurs possess a group of young players who are showing already to be the next crop for the next decade. Keldon Johnson resembles former Spur Kawhi Leonard's game evolving from a defensive stopper into an all-around player. After enduring a substantial shooting slump in November (35.9%), the fourth-year pro has found his stroke again. This month, Johnson is shooting 49.3% from the field having shot 47.6% in January and 47.1% in December.
Although it might take some time for the Spurs to build back up again, there is optimism to feel good with Malaki Branham, Jeremy Sochan, Devin Vassell and Tre Jones.
After considerable deep playoff runs, the last three seasons have been the resetting of the Houston Rockets. The franchise hasn't experienced anything to this extent since the late 1990s to 2002 when it netted Steve Francis and Yao Ming. Yes, like its Texas rivals the Spurs, rebuilding from the ground up is going to have its growing pains.
There are pieces in place which are going to be catalysts for the franchise including its backcourt pairing of Kevin Porter Jr and Jalen Green who have shown flashes of their potential. Same with rookie Jabari Smith Jr and Kenyon Martin Jr. The one-piece who may be the most important in underlying Houston's rebuild is Alperen Sengun.
The Turkish centre is shaping as a substantial contributor. Already having a soft touch around the basket and sound passing fundamentals, although his shooting range is a work in progress, the 20-year-old game is getting recognition. The praise coming from Minnesota All-Star Anthony Edwards. After a January 21 game against Houston, Edwards went on record to praise Sengun, "All praise to, I don't know how to pronounce his name, number 28 Sengun. He's good."
Rebuilding is a painful process, but if you can draft well and develop your players then in no time things start to change. For Houston, that's where they are currently at, but history says the franchise doesn't stay down the rungs for too long.