The Golden State Warriors lost again last night. On Tuesday, the Phoenix Suns dropped a game to the lowly Houston Rockets for the second time this month. Those two wins account for 22.2 percent of the Rockets’ victories this season.
The Denver Nuggets have a decent grip on the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, but have struggled to string enough wins together to make a move into the top two. The Dallas Mavericks have a .500 record, the Los Angeles Clippers are just getting healthy, and the current four through seven seeds all have 12 or 13 losses.
In the Eastern Conference, there are two top teams — the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, who are a clear level above everyone else. With the West’s top 12 teams only separated by seven games, some may think that the conference lacks clarity. Its top-two teams have not dominated in the same way.
While talented and feisty, some may believe that the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies are too young to be boldly declared the best in the West. Neither team has one of the three best players in the conference on its roster — Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokić, or Luka Dončić. The Pelicans and Grizzlies don’t currently have an MVP frontrunner on their rosters, but they are tied for the best record in the conference at 18-9.
It’s tempting to blame early-season injuries — along with drama in Phoenix and Golden State — to explain away the successes in Memphis and New Orleans to begin the season. As the health of the Nuggets and Clippers continues to improve, maybe they do go on a run. However, the same can also be said for the Grizzlies and Pelicans.
The Grizz have been without their second-best scorer since Nov. 11. Desmond Bane has been dealing with a big toe injury, and is expected to miss another 3-4 weeks. Brandon Ingram is the Pelicans’ No. 2 scorer and has also been dealing with an ailing big toe that has kept him out of the lineup for eight games, and he will be re-evaluated in a week.
Herb Jones — New Orleans’ best defender — was on the court Tuesday for the first time in three games. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a mosquito net on defense for Memphis this season, but he has only played in half of their games.
Still, through 25 games not only do the Pels and Grizz have the best record in the West, but both are top-10 in the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Pelicans are top five.
It’s far too early to declare Zion Williamson and Ja Morant to be the best ever No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks selected in the same NBA draft, but the early returns look promising. Through Thursday afternoon, Zion is averaging 25 points per game, and Morant at 27.7, as they are two of the most unstoppable forces in the paint in the entire league.
They are also both willing passers. The Pelicans aren’t relying on Point Zion nearly as much as they did in 2020-21, but this most powerful of power forwards is still averaging 4.3 assists per game. Even with Bane missing a month of action, Morant is still averaging 1.1 more assists per game than he did last season.
With health always a variable, and a trade deadline looming, there is no guarantee that these two will stay atop the West. Maybe the Mavericks make a trade, and maybe Michael Porter Jr. averages 20 points per game on 50/40/90 shooting splits for the rest of the season when he returns from his heel injury. The Golden State Warriors are the defending champions, and have beaten several of the league’s best teams. They’re always lurking.
It will be a tall task for the Pelicans and Grizzlies to stay atop the West, but they have the talent to do so. Their franchise players are rising NBA stars, and play in offenses that don’t require them to shoulder an unnecessarily heavy burden. Also, both teams are young, and focused on the defensive end of the ball. That’s a headache for any opponent left on their schedule.
And don’t forget, these are two teams that have taken a fair share of playoff punches. The Grizzlies had the Warriors on the ropes at times in their second-round series last season. Against the 65-win Phoenix Suns, the New Orleans Pelicans didn’t have Willamson for a single game and still pushed them in a hard-fought six-game series.
Battle-tested, improved, and key contributors are still out with injury. The Pelicans and Grizzlies are for real, and expect them to fight over the top spot in the West all season.