We’re quickly approaching the All-Star break in what, to this point, has been a very odd season. Soem teams are starting to find their rhythm while others are struggling. As for individual players, we’re seeing guys put up monster numbers on an almost nightly basis.
There’s a lot of basketball being played, so here’s what we learned in the Western Conference this week.
Zion Williamson Unlocked
The Pelicans have started giving Zion Williamson a lot more responsibility in terms of initiating the offense and, in turn, Williamson has become one of the most unstoppable forces in the entire NBA. He has relentlessly attacked the basket with his athleticism and insane touch around the rim. His efficiency is through the roof and his play is deserving of an All-Star spot.
In his last five games, Williamson is averaging 30.4 points and 4.2 assists while shooting an incredible 71.3 percent from the field. Most of his work is coming right at the basket and there doesn’t seem to be a defense that can stop him from getting there. It’s a real glimpse of what Williamson could look like at his best and it’s something that should terrify opposing teams.
Williamson’s play aside, the Pelicans still struggle to win on a consistent basis. Their defense has been awful all season long, routinely giving up over 120 points per game. If they can figure out their defensive issues and string some wins together, New Orleans could pose a serious threat in the season’s second half.
Trail Blazers Winning Despite Injuries
The Portland Trail Blazers, for what seems like the entire season, have dealt with injuries to key guys like Jusuf Nurkic, CJ McCollum and Zach Collins. Still, somehow, they are the hottest team in the NBA, with the longest current win streak at six straight games. As guys have stepped up, the team has thrived.
Gary Trent Jr. has scored efficiently while providing great defense. Enes Kanter has been a double-double machine as a starter. Anfernee Simons has started to find his game, scoring in double digits in 11 of his last 14 games off the bench. Camelo Anthony has filled his role as a scorer of the bench rather nicely.
While those guys have stepped up, no one has done more for the team than Damian Lillard.
It’s hard to state just how great Lillard has been this season. He’s carried this team to the fourth seed amidst all the injuries, planting himself firmly in the MVP conversation. A large reason for the team’s success is how they’ve performed in close games; Lillard, in particular, has hit huge shots in the clutch on multiple occasions. Meanwhile, his 43-point, 16-assist performance against the Pelicans this week was one the best games by anyone on the season.
Jokic Keeping Nuggets Afloat
Nikola Jokic has been arguably the best player in basketball to this point. It is a marvel that he’s able to play the way he does at his size. His season averages of 27 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.6 assists are reflective of his remarkable style of play. Jokic has multiple 40-plus point performances as well and a 50-point game in a loss to the Kings a few weeks back.
Despite his play, the Nuggets have struggled this season and the team’s success is the only real negative in his MVP case. In Mason Plumlee and Jerami Grant, they lost two key players to Detroit. They’ve also got inconsistent play from Jamal Murray, who had a 50-point outburst against the Cavaliers this week but has been up and down otherwise. Michael Porter Jr. missed significant time due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols.
The Nuggets have managed a 16-14 record, good enough for seventh in the Western Conference. After last year’s playoffs, there were high hopes for this team. Jokic has largely kept them afloat. There’s still plenty of time left for the Nuggets to find that level they were at last season, but it’s concerning they haven’t looked like the same caliber of team.
Best in The West?
As of right now, there are three teams that are clearly in a tier above everyone else: the Utah Jazz, Los Angles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers. All three teams have pretty good cases for being the top team, but all three equally share some concerns as well.
The Jazz have the best record of any team in the NBA, while they’ve also managed the best net rating at 9.0. However, the question with the Jazz is if they have enough top-end talent to compete come the postseason. It’s a fair question, but we have seen Donovan Mitchell raise his game to that level before — the Jazz will need him to do so again if they want to win a title.
The defending champion Lakers are second in the West. Still, despite their great record, they haven’t played to that same level this season. They also now have injury concerns with Anthony Davis now sidelined with a calf strain. Simply put, the Lakers need a fully healthy Davis to win a championship this season. They still have LeBron James which will always give them a shot, but at the moment there seem to be more questions than answers.
The Clippers, despite their talent, have become a sort of underdog in terms of title teams. Third in the West and third in net rating. They have been a great offensive team and their depth has been an asset. They also seem to have much better on-court chemistry this year. The concern with them is related to their performance in last year’s playoffs and whether they can put that in the past or not.
The NBA is an ever-changing beast that can look different even on a week-to-week basis. Be sure to check back for our next installment of What We Learned.