- Grade: B+
What I enjoy most about the Nuggets is how they go against their history of fast-paced, use-the-altitude-to-our-advantage basketball in favor of the antiquated grind-it-out style. The difference this year is that they are playing top-notch defense along with efficient offense. After what seemed like a slow start, the Nuggets are currently 30-13 and ranked 10th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating per 100 possessions, and have established themselves as the team that does a lot of things well, especially defending the three-point line, currently ranked second in opponent three-point percentage. They also do a fantastic job of offensive rebounding, ranking third in the league in offensive rebounding percentage, which comes in handy as they rank bottom-third in the league in three-point percentage. No one ever really considers them a championship contender, but if the Nuggets can start making more threes, then they might change some people’s minds.
- Grade: D
I give Minnesota a D for being one of the most uninspiring teams in the league, on and off the court. I came into the season having very little hope and they’ve done nothing to assuage my feelings towards them. They’ve had a brutal couple of months, including an 11-game losing streak through December and are currently on a six-game skid. Minnesota’s issues stem from the fact that they rank 3rd in three-point attempts and 29th in three-point percentage. Their new GM Gersson Rosas is from the Daryl Morey tree, so it makes perfect sense.
The only problem is Minnesota only has one player who shoots at least 40% from behind the arc: Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns has only played 26 out of their 43 games this season, so I’m slightly nervous that Towns is pushing the limits to player empowerment by holding out in Year One of his five-year extension, seeing as he’s been very healthy every season he’s been in the league (jokes). But on the bright side, this team does get to the free-throw line at a decent rate, so if the Timberwolves can get to league average three-point shooting, the playoffs aren’t completely out of reach (they aren’t making the playoffs).
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Grade: A+
I have no bias for OKC, I just love that they’re competing and playing hard. The Thunder are currently ranked 14th in offensive and defensive rating per 100 possessions and are 25-19, 7th in the Western Conference. I’ll be honest, I figured the Thunder would be at the bottom of the West, assuming they traded Chris Paul. However, the Thunder opted against that, opting for Paul to act as a mentor to their young guys for a while, which has proven to be the correct move. What I like about the Thunder is that while the aforementioned Timberwolves continue to jack threes without the correct personnel, the Thunder have no problem taking (and making) shots inside the three-point line.
They also do a great job of getting to the free-throw line and making their free throws (ranked 3rd in free throw per field goal attempt and 7th in free throw percentage). On the opposite end of the floor, they play solid defense without gambling or fouling, ranking third in opponent free throw per field goal attempt and third in fouls per game. As a parting take, I’ll leave this here: I get why Trae Young is going to be an All-Star this season, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a more complete player who I would much rather have on my roster.
- Grade: C-
I’ll give Portland the benefit of the doubt: they entered the season injured and have only continued to get more injured. That being said, they failed to address their issue with their depth at the wing this summer, so Rodney Hood being sidelined for the remainder of the season only magnifies their main issue. Besides having two-and-a-half elite shot creators, the Blazers do nothing at an elite level. Honestly, I struggle to think of what they do at an above-average level as a team.
Besides making personnel transactions, there’s no way for the Blazers to improve. I would just hate for them to think that trading for Kevin Love will offset their problems in other areas, especially if they’re willing to give up legitimate assets to acquire him. That being said, if they don’t make a move, Jody Allen might consider hitting the reset button on the franchise.
- Grade: A
I’m proud to say that the Jazz were my surprise pick to make it out of the Western Conference. I was a little worried at the beginning of the season, but the Jazz look great right now. What’s more surprising is how poorly they were playing with Mike Conley in the starting lineup and how much they’ve turned up their play since his injury and reintroduction as their $30 million dollar sixth man, as well as the acquisition of Jordan Clarkson. Currently 30-13, the Jazz have gone 12-1 in their past 13 games, and over that time have led the league in true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, offensive rating per 100 possessions and net rating.
The defense has never been an issue with the Jazz, as they are currently ranked 8th in defensive rating per 100 possessions. I’m also proud to say that I picked Donovan Mitchell to make All-NBA this season, which doesn’t sound too crazy right now since he’s been the leader of the top-ranked offense since the turn of the calendar year. One thing to consider is that their strength of schedule is ranked 23rd in the league, so their schedule is only going to get tougher from here. They’ve had great early wins against quality competition, and if they really are a better team than when the season started, then the Jazz really should be considered a title contender.