Solely 5.5 video games separate No. 1 and No. 14 in the bewildering Western Conference standings.

Who is the greatest challenger to the Golden State Warriors? Who are the gamers to watch? And which crew has the most upside?

Our consultants reply the large questions.

1. Reality or fiction: This shall be the Warriors’ best path to the NBA Finals in the Steve Kerr period.

Royce Younger, ESPN: Fiction. Whereas it appears on the floor there is not any apparent peer lining up to conflict for an inevitable Western Conference finals showdown, the West is deeper general. The Warriors will face more durable assessments in the first and second rounds, and thru a few of that attrition they could be banged up and worn down for whomever awaits in the West finals.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN: Fiction. Does anybody keep in mind once they went 12-Zero in the West playoffs a few years in the past?

  • It is now on the Chicago entrance workplace to get the subsequent large choices proper.

  • The Western Conference’s visitors jam — with 14 groups separated by 5 video games — is getting stranger by the day, whereas Blake Griffin & Co. are making some noise in the East.

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Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: Fiction. Whereas I do not suppose there is a clear-lower challenger for them but, I am additionally not comfy assuming it will likely be a cakewalk come April and Might primarily based on what we simply noticed whereas Steph Curry was out. One way or the other, I really feel like we take his well being and his significance to the Warriors as a right, regardless that we have seen repeatedly that he is susceptible to harm and that the Warriors usually look actually common with out him or Draymond Inexperienced. If they don’t seem to be wholesome, a Finals journey won’t come simple.

André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: Fiction. The Rockets are slowly waking up, having gone 10-Four in the previous 14 video games that Chris Paul has performed in. They need to be a tricky out in the playoffs if Paul is wholesome. As well as, the Thunder look legit and haven’t any concern, the Lakers shall be led by Playoff LeBron and it is conceivable that there could also be eight or extra 50-win groups in the West.

Kevin Pelton, ESPN: Virtually actually fiction. Due to upsets and a good draw, Golden State confronted no opponent with an everyday-season level differential of higher than plus-three.Four factors per recreation en route to the 2015 NBA Finals. Three groups in the West are at the moment beating that mark, and it is seemingly the Warriors will meet one if no more in the playoffs.

2. Who’s the second-finest crew in the West?

Snellings: The Rockets, who ought to legitimately consider they’ll beat the Warriors when working at their wholesome peak. The Thunder aren’t far behind, and nobody ought to sleep on what LeBron is undertaking with the Lakers.

Windhorst: I do not know. Not the reply I figured to have at this juncture, however right here we’re. I’ll say that trying simply at the Warriors as benefiting from the muddled West is not correct in my thoughts. LeBron seemingly does not concern any of those groups, and in a playoff sequence he’d like his possibilities to overwhelm all of them. Wanting the Warriors when totally wholesome, I suppose.

Younger: The Thunder. It’s extremely tight between them and the Nuggets — and the Nuggets simply beat the Thunder in OKC every week in the past — however with the finest protection in the league whereas overcoming early accidents, the Thunder are extra nicely-rounded. It is also a fairly large leap to go from out altogether to claiming the proverbial second-finest spot, regardless that the Nuggets have an excellent case.

Pelton: I count on the Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder to be the second-finest crew come Might. Oklahoma Metropolis at the moment sports activities the West’s second-finest differential behind the Denver Nuggets, and that is regardless of Russell Westbrook lacking eight video games due to harm. The Thunder will nonetheless add stopper Andre Roberson to what’s already been the league’s finest protection on a per-possession foundation and have loads of playoff expertise.

Herring: For now, I feel it is exhausting to argue in opposition to the Clippers, regardless that I assume one other membership — maybe the Lakers, Thunder or Blazers — will hit one other gear as we transfer nearer to the playoffs. They’re hovering proper round being in the prime 10 effectivity-smart on each side of the ball, which usually indicators rivalry. Tobias Harris has taken yet one more step ahead. It’s extremely simple to like this crew — they simply do not have a celebrity, so I feel they get much less consideration due to it.

How will the Lakers and Nuggets stack up in the West at the finish of the season? David Zalubowski/AP Picture

three. Which West crew wants to make a transfer?

Windhorst: The Rockets. You recognize who agrees? The Rockets. It is why they supplied 4 first-spherical picks for Jimmy Butler. Final season, they had been ready to make a midseason addition in Gerald Inexperienced that basically helped. They want one thing to assist enhance their depth.

Younger: The Rockets are a reasonably clear alternative. They’ve a critical wing difficulty and, paired inside that, appreciable depth issues. Some issues shall be solved by improved well being general, however the mixture of James Ennis, Gary Clark and some weeks of Carmelo Anthony has not plugged the holes left behind by Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute.

The eight-half docuseries, produced by UNINTERRUPTED and airing on ESPN+, will observe LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s inconceivable journey from Akron to the international stage. Watch on ESPN+

Herring: I truly need to flip this one a bit: I might encourage the Nuggets not to make too large of a transfer. They could get Isaiah Thomas again this month from his March hip process, however with how Monte Morris has carried out — he is environment friendly, performs each side of the ground and has the NBA’s finest help-turnover ratio at a ridiculous 7-1 — it is crucial that they do not take any minutes away from him off the bench. Possibly he and Thomas can play alongside one another. However Morris has performed too nicely to take him off the ground.

Pelton: It is a troubling signal for the Houston Rockets’ depth that they’ll add Danuel Home from the G League and instantly play him 20-plus minutes per recreation. Houston wants extra on the bench, and contemplate me skeptical that Brandon Knight shall be a part of the resolution given how a lot time he has missed and the way ineffective he was in Phoenix prior to his ACL harm.

Snellings: The New Orleans Pelicans want to shift a few of their frontline energy to the perimeter if they need to contend. Anthony Davis’ impending free-company resolution is the elephant in the room, and so they want to both herald a star wing to present him they’re critical about profitable or else contemplate shifting him early to get as a lot worth as doable for a rebuild.

Four. Which participant(s) will you be watching most carefully in the West race?

Pelton: Danilo Gallinari, who already has performed as many video games this season (21 of 22) as he did in all of 2017-18. Gallinari has been maybe the Clippers’ most dear participant this season, and it will likely be fascinating to see whether or not they can hold tempo in the Western Conference if Gallo misses an prolonged time period.

Snellings: LeBron. The Lakers experiment is displaying critical promise, and he nonetheless is not in full-on playoffs mode but. Paul is my second participant to watch, purely for his well being, as he appears to be integral to the Rockets’ championship hopes. Damian Lillard and Rudy Gobert are wild playing cards. They each confirmed final season that they’ll lead their groups to enormous late-season runs, and people runs seem to be essential once more this season.

Windhorst: All of the gamers carrying Clippers uniforms. They’re an especially enjoyable crew to watch. They’re in the midst of a honeymoon begin to the season. Who is aware of how lengthy it would final? However they’re one in every of the finest tales occurring in the NBA.

Herring: In all probability the Lakers’ younger guys, one in every of whom will seemingly want to step up in the event that they’re to be taken critically as a contender out West. Between Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, I figured somebody would by now. However all of them undergo extremely inconsistent phases, which is sensible given how younger they’re, and the way large an adjustment it is taking part in subsequent to LeBron.

Younger: Russell Westbrook’s adjustment to changing into a extra environment friendly and democratic offensive participant has been notable this season, and partially why the Thunder have solidified their consistency points. Can he keep it all through the lengthy haul of the season, some revertible hiccups however?

Jamal Murray’s growth has been vital in elevating the Nuggets — can he proceed to progress as the Nuggets climb? And LeBron, at all times LeBron. As Brian Windhorst wrote, he has already scrapped his plan. Will there be a Plan C deployed at any level?

5. Which crew at the moment on the West playoff bubble has the most upside this season?

Herring: I am going to go along with Utah, if solely to really feel higher about having talked them up this summer time. The Jazz primarily got here again with the similar membership that made the West semis and are nonetheless comparatively younger. They’ve truly been wholesome for as soon as. And — this is maybe their saving grace — the Jazz’s schedule has been the hardest in the NBA to this level. They performed the league’s hardest schedule final season in December after which won 29 out of 35 as soon as issues lightened and so they obtained wholesome once more. Who is aware of whether or not they can catch fireplace the similar approach, however it’s not all that far-fetched.

Windhorst: Did I point out the Clippers, who even have sufficient upcoming cap house for 2 max contracts? Or, as could also be prudent, re-signing Tobias Harris after which making an attempt to add a max star. In any other case, I might say the Grizzlies, who’re in the midst of a outstanding turnaround. Not precisely a rankings bonanza reply, I do know.

Younger: The Rockets. The final feeling round the league is that they are going to determine it out, ultimately. They have been hit by some key accidents, however with James Harden and Chris Paul, they’re constructed to win not less than 50 regardless. It is too extreme of a drop to go from a 67-win juggernaut to struggling to keep .500, so as soon as they’ll get a bit of roster stability and the three-pointers begin dropping a bit extra often, they’re nonetheless a really harmful crew.

Snellings: The Minnesota Timberwolves are quietly changing into a crew that no person desires to play. With Robert Covington and Taj Gibson as anchors, they’re abruptly sporting a legit Tom Thibodeau protection. And if the Derrick Rose renaissance on offense continues, he and Jeff Teague present sturdy perimeter creation to steadiness Karl-Anthony Cities’ elite inside offense.

Pelton: Regardless of what I mentioned earlier about their bench — or maybe partially due to their means to enhance there — I am going with the Rockets. With James Harden and Chris Paul, Houston nonetheless has the means to get again to one thing comparable to final season’s crew that posted the finest document in the West.

Bonus: Who are your present eight West playoff picks?

Snellings: Warriors, Rockets, Thunder, Lakers, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Jazz and Blazers

Herring: In no specific order: Warriors, Thunder, Clippers, Lakers, Rockets, Nuggets, Grizzlies and Jazz

Windhorst: I do not make predictions. However I might say there are a few MVP candidates on groups exterior the playoff line proper now — specifically Anthony Davis and James Harden — who’ve a reasonably sturdy probability of bringing their groups again in.

Pelton: Nuggets, Warriors, Rockets, Clippers, Lakers, Pelicans, Thunder and Jazz

Younger: Warriors, Thunder, Nuggets, Lakers, Rockets, Clippers, Jazz and Blazers

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