What We Might Know After a Week (Western Conference)

What might we know after a week of NBA games? After looking at some data…maybe, probably nothing. But we can look at what last year’s standings were after each team played three games, and where that jived with or diverted from final standings. After waiting breathlessly all offseason for NBA action and eager to understand the league power structure, I crave context. We’ll start with the Western Conference.

Each team in the West except for Minnesota has played three games through Sunday. Golden State, Oklahoma City, LAC and as we all expected, Minnesota, are your undefeated teams out West. Very surprisingly, Houston and New Orleans are winless. Quite unsurprisingly, so are the Lakers. Here are your very early Western Conference standings

Team W L
1 Warriors 3 0
1 Thunder 3 0
1 Clippers 3 0
4 T-Wolves 2 0
5 Grizzlies 2 1
5 Spurs 2 1
5 Mavericks 2 1
5 Suns 2 1
5 Jazz 2 1
10 Blazers 1 2
10 Nuggets 1 2
10 Kings 1 2
13 Lakers 0 3
13 Pelicans 0 3
13 Rockets 0 3

Through three games last season here were the West standings, compared with how the teams ranked at the end of the season.

14-’15 Team W L   Final Standings W L
1 Warriors 3 0 1 Warriors 67 15
1 Rockets 3 0 2 Rockets 56 26
1 Grizzlies 3 0 2 Clippers 56 26
4 Spurs 2 1 4 Spurs 55 27
4 Mavericks 2 1 4 Grizzlies 55 27
4 Clippers 2 1 6 Blazers 51 31
4 Kings 2 1 7 Mavericks 50 32
4 Suns 2 1 8 Pelicans 45 37
9 Thunder 1 2 8 Thunder 45 37
9 Pelicans 1 2 10 Suns 39 43
9 Nuggets 1 2 11 Jazz 38 44
9 Blazers 1 2 12 Nuggets 30 52
9 Jazz 1 2 13 Kings 29 53
9 T-Wolves 1 2 14 Lakers 21 61
15 Lakers 0 3 15 T-Wolves 16 66

At first glance, the first three games of 2014-15 were actually a great representation of the conference power rankings. The Kings’ early start last year was fool’s gold, at least once Vivek Ranadive ran amok and fired Michael Malone. The Mavericks ended up slipping a little in the standings but still winning 50 games and the Suns fell out of the playoff race, while the Pelicans rose into the playoff picture. So let’s take a look at this year. Do I really think Minnesota is a playoff team? Of course not. But the rest of the top eight in the current standings all have a legitimate chance. The Warriors are monsters, on a tier of their own. The Thunder, Clippers, Spurs and Grizzlies are shoe-ins. The Suns have bounced back from that atrocious first loss to the Mavs at home and the Jazz have shown that the hype may be real.

The real question marks here are the Rockets and Pelicans. At least the Pels have an excuse in injuries, and should get better as they get healthier. But the Rockets are truly confounding, and this hole they’re digging for themselves is concerning. Not only are they 0-3, but they’ve made history by becoming the first NBA team to lose its first three games by 20 points. Yikes. They also play in the toughest division in basketball, while teams like Portland, Minny, Sacramento and even Denver aren’t playing like the pushovers we once assumed. So while it’s very early, climbing out of that hole won’t be easy. Things are fundamentally wrong with this team, which is predicated on three point shooting, getting to the line and running teams out of the gym. Right now James Harden is in a terrible slump, shooting just 3-32 from three.

The team is following its struggling star’s lead, clocking in at third-worst in the league in three-point percentage, at just 25%. Last season they were second in the NBA in free throw attempts, but this season they rank 12th through three games. Most surprisingly, the Rockets are scoring only 88.7 points per game, tied with Brooklyn for second-lowest in the league.

They are due for some positive regression. But it’s a major red flag that after making the Conference Finals, adding depth across the board and bringing in the speedy Ty Lawson, the Rockets are playing slower, less efficiently and with the intensity of an Oregon drum circle. Last season I had doubts about a team led by Harden and Dwight Howard, who are not the most rah-rah locker room guys. But those doubts were erased after the incredible playoff run that included one of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever seen against the Clippers in Game 6. Now I’m just confused.

Who knows, maybe Josh Smith was the glue holding Clutch City together. Could we have been wrong about Josh all these years?

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