NEW ORLEANS — Are we going to get some readability within the Western Conference at any level? Or will we have already got it, and the reply is that everybody is simply common?

My tour of the convention’s underbelly this week solely appeared to strengthen the purpose that after 50 or so video games, right here’s what we all know:

The convention enters the weekend in an unprecedented muddle, with solely 4 video games separating third place from thirteenth within the win column. Only one sport separates seventh place (house Play-In Tournament sport!) and twelfth (lottoville).

The distinction between internet hosting a first-round playoff collection and winding up out of the Play-In Tournament isn’t rather more than a nasty weekend. (There are situations during which fourth-place New Orleans might be ninth on Monday morning and eleventh by Wednesday.)

You would possibly suppose, “OK, but we know that these teams will separate and how it will go.” Well, probably not. Looking in our crystal ball doesn’t present a lot readability.

Take a take a look at the latest FiveThirtyEight projections. For occasion, 11 groups within the West undertaking to complete between 38 and 45 wins. Only two video games undertaking to separate fourth and ninth, with once more, a nasty weekend separating home-court benefit from the gold course. Meanwhile, ESPN’s BPI has 10 teams projected to win between 40 and 45. While these outcomes are considered extremely favorably in some quarters (light the beam!) and fewer so in others (whats up, world champion Warriors), the upshot is identical: We have ourselves a large muddle within the center.

We are also lower than two weeks away from the commerce deadline, and this muddle is a giant drawback for making offers. One of the explanations groups delay and delay on finishing trades, proper up till the final hour earlier than the deadline forces their hand, is the hunt for extra info. Teams are continuously attempting to know what they’ve with their workforce and the place they stand in opposition to the competitors, and the buildup of video games helps offset the risks of recency bias from a minor streak.

Unfortunately, a workforce’s method to the commerce deadline varies rather a lot relying on whether or not it’s monitoring for fourth place or thirteenth. Usually, by now, that’s much more identified and fewer of a crapshoot relying on a few bounces and what day of the week it’s.

The quest for info goes deeper than this. It can be one factor if groups watched their largely wholesome lineups play these final three months and concluded they have been simply fully, totally common. While one or two groups would possibly fall on this camp (hello, Portland), the overwhelming majority have zigged and zagged thus far in a collection of matches and begins outlined largely by key absences to star gamers.

Nowhere has that been extra true than in New Orleans, the place the Pelicans have rather suddenly lost six in a row and 11 of 14, culminating in Wednesday’s disappointing setback in opposition to the very-alive Minnesota Timberwolves.

In a associated story, New Orleans has solely had All-Star forwards Brandon Ingram and Zion Willamson on the courtroom collectively for a dozen video games this season. They haven’t had Williamson since Jan. 2 and simply received Ingram again from a 29-game absence Wednesday.

Wait, it will get higher. Williamson and Ingram have been teammates for 4 years and performed a complete of 92 video games collectively, the overwhelming majority of which got here in a 2020-21 season that predated the arrival of nearly each different essential participant on this roster.

Thus, the important thing piece of knowledge on how the Pelicans must construct their workforce — how issues look with their two max contracts enjoying collectively — is a clean. Is there sufficient capturing? Is there sufficient protection? Can defensive ace Herb Jones shoehorn into these lineups even whereas capturing 27.8 p.c from 3? What about post-masher Jonas Valančiūnas defending subsequent to Williamson?

Who is aware of? Or perhaps New Orleans ought to simply plan for one or the opposite of the 2 stars being obtainable however by no means each. Neither has performed greater than 62 video games in a season since 2017-18.

It’s maddening as a result of the Pelicans, in the event that they needed, may management the commerce deadline. Think of any star participant who would possibly turn into obtainable, and New Orleans has the means to go and get him. (Particularly, if we faux for a second there is no such thing as a such factor as the posh tax.)

Sitting on an unprotected 2024 first from the Lakers with a proper of deferral and one other unprotected 2027 first from Milwaukee, New Orleans has the draft capital to boost eyebrows in 29 different front-office convention rooms. The Pels even have a roster closely stocked with good younger gamers who might be commerce belongings (notably rookie lottery decide Dyson Daniels, who sprained his ankle on Tuesday and was bouncing round Smoothie King Center on crutches and in a strolling boot Wednesday) and the power to amass expiring or palatable contracts to place a deal collectively (Jaxson Hayes, Garrett Temple and Devonte’ Graham being the almost definitely suspects).

But any guesses as to what New Orleans’ lacking piece is perhaps is generally conjecture. The Pels simply haven’t had sufficient reps with key gamers to know. That degree of uncertainty is vexing sufficient after we’re speaking about trades for back-end function gamers, however placing one other headliner round Williamson, Ingram and CJ McCollum is a fragile endeavor.

The Pelicans aren’t alone. Their opponent on Wednesday, Minnesota, misplaced Karl-Anthony Towns simply 21 video games into the season, and he may not be again for just a few extra weeks.

His nascent frontcourt partnership with Rudy Gobert received off to, shall we embrace, a sputtering begin. But the Wolves have stored hammering away and at the moment are 25-25 on the 50-game mark — identical to they have been final season. Gobert hasn’t been “That Guy from Utah,” however throughout Towns’ absence, Minnesota has slowly discovered how one can higher incorporate Gobert into what it’s doing. In explicit, the Wolves have hit him on much more tic-tac-toe kind of deliveries that get him the ball on the transfer to the rim.

Check out this candy ATO from Wednesday’s win:

Still, the commerce deadline technique is hard. The Wolves are dedicated to the Towns-Gobert pairing as a result of they traded a half-decade of draft picks, however what about going additional in on this season, once they’re perhaps a No. 4 seed and perhaps forking over a lottery decide to Utah?

That notion impacts what they do with free-agent-to-be D’Angelo Russell, specifically, but in addition how they assault their shaky perimeter depth (I don’t suppose Austin Rivers is the reply except the query is, “What are the Pedernales, the San Gabriel and the Colorado?”) and whether or not they need to commerce breakout third middle Naz Reid earlier than his stroll 12 months.

Look round, although, and 9 different West groups could make related statements. Let’s do a fast tour (a theoretical one, anyway; these mountain time zone driving distances are not any joke) and see how the standings uncertainty is preying on decision-making:

Should Sacramento go all in? And what would that even appear to be? Sitting at 27-20 and in third place within the convention, however with a troublesome remaining schedule and projections nonetheless placing them in the midst of the West pack, it’s onerous to justify going too loopy right here.

That’s tougher to blithely say when your franchise hasn’t finished jack for almost 20 years. Sacramento would love to show Richaun Holmes into an elite frontcourt reserve and desperately wants a plus wing defender who can shoot. However, Sacramento is hamstrung by the protections on the 2024 first-round decide owed to Atlanta within the Kevin Huerter commerce. The Kings can solely convey one future first (in 2028) except they modify these phrases with the Hawks.

The greatest pathway might be to suppose a bit smaller, even when that provides much less short-term enjoyable. Sitting in 4 additional future seconds and having some small expiring offers (Alex Len, Terence Davis), it’s simple to think about them as low-level consumers attempting to fill out the bench.


Golden State received the championship final season and routinely will get the good thing about the doubt due to it, however its season up to now hasn’t precisely impressed confidence in a repeat. The Warriors are mired at 24-24 and are simply 17-16 in video games each Stephen Curry and Draymond Green have performed.

To what extent ought to the Warriors push their chips in? Is it value it to maneuver a number of of the 4 current first-rounders on their roster for a final gasp at one other ring? Or is it time to map out a post-Draymond future that features the children extra prominently?

Phoenix no less than has the notion of what its greatest lineup appears like, regardless that it’s hardly ever been seen this season. The Suns received 64 video games final season and are 9-4 when each Chris Paul and Devin Booker play no less than quarter-hour in 2022-23, however accidents to each and Jae Crowder’s season-long hiatus have uncovered them.

Reggie Bullock and Chris Paul (Rick Scuteri / USA Today)

After a midseason swoon that noticed them drop 17 of twenty-two at one level, the Suns have received 4 straight and welcomed Paul again to the lineup on Sunday, with Booker hopefully returning quickly.

With a resurgent Dario Šarić fortifying the bench and the potential of a Crowder commerce filling out the roster additional, it seems the worst of their woes are over they usually may make a cost for a top-three seed if everybody stays upright. (If solely there was some metaphor for this, some form of resurgent mythological creature that rises from its ashes.)

On the opposite hand, the Suns are $16 million into the posh tax and are 25-25. Paul is 37 years previous. The Suns have a brand new proprietor reportedly on the way soon, so we may get a late sprint of weirdness right here too. Keep in thoughts that not like most contenders, the Suns nonetheless have all their future picks.

Dallas made the convention finals final 12 months however has been hamstrung by an absence of elite backcourt assist for Luka Dončić, a large number of the Mavs’ personal making after they failed to increase Jalen Brunson a 12 months in the past.

Now Dallas is each costly ($15 million into the tax) and common (26-24), regardless of having a top-three MVP candidate. Is it value buying and selling future firsts to repair this now, or are the Mavs higher off taking their medication and ready until summer time? Is it doable they do one thing wacky with free-agent-to-be Christian Wood earlier than they must pay him? (My favourite faux Dallas commerce: Wood and draft capital to Indiana for Myles Turner if the Pacers don’t suppose he’s coming again.) It’s wonderful how carefully this parallels the Lakers’ dilemma (see under), however the greatest distinction right here, and the argument for ready, is that Dončić is 23 and is signed for no less than three extra years.

Trail Blazers

Portland is maybe a extra boring commerce story than a few of these different groups. The Blazers are landlocked by a roster that’s close to the tax line and lacks a lot asset fairness to place into offers. The closest factor to a present-versus-future commerce deadline debate facilities on their willingness to maneuver Josh Hart, a possible free agent who can be unlikely to return given the Blazers’ tax scenario and zest for retaining Jerami Grant.

But in some unspecified time in the future, they must cope with the truth that they’re Wizards West, locked in on a middling roster after giving a veteran guard a wealthy extension. That’s extra simply completed in the event that they make the playoffs this season and dispense with a draft decide obligation to Chicago, opening the door to buying and selling future picks for a difference-maker.

Should Utah verify in or take a look at? Unexpectedly lurking in the midst of the West playoff pack, the present standings do provide a tempting alternative for a speedy pivot to Le Tanque Grande for Frenchman Victor Wembanyama, particularly if the Jazz can persuade Lauri Markkanen that he has “tendinitis.” Remember, ending thirteenth within the convention mainly ensures a top-10 decide and a puncher’s probability at one thing a lot, a lot better when the ping-pong balls are drawn.

On a associated observe, the Jazz would possibly discover the competitors in the remainder of the convention helps drive up the worth of veterans akin to Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Kelly Olynyk and Malik Beasley … even when it presumably prices them a playoff berth.

The Clippers are one other workforce that should determine whether or not to push in much more chips on an previous, costly roster. They’re 27-24 regardless of at occasions seeming hell-bent on load-managing themselves proper out of the playoffs. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have solely performed 19 video games collectively, with LA going 12-7.

The Clippers have all the time been aggressive on the deadline however are starved of belongings this time round. Do they’ve one other Robert Covington-Norman Powell kind commerce up their sleeve? While we’re right here, what are Steve Ballmer’s limits? Do they’ve the inexperienced mild so as to add much more cash to what’s in the meanwhile a mid-tier workforce dealing with a nine-figure luxurious tax verify?


Nothing, in fact, embodies the ennui of commerce season greater than the Lakers’ season-long inside debate over whether or not to ship future firsts to make a late-season push behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. L.A. has clung tenaciously to the again finish of the playoff race, however that also may not be sufficient proof to justify surrendering their solely two respectable commerce belongings to salvage a disappointing season. Did the Rui Hachimura commerce make it roughly doubtless that they do one thing else?

Finally, can we discuss Oklahoma City? It’s a terrific story that the Thunder are hanging within the playoff race, however there’s a associated state of affairs no person is speaking about right here: What concerning the Thunder as a purchaser on the commerce deadline?

Not essentially to make a playoff push this season, though that may be a possible by-product as a bigger-picture transfer to make use of their hoard of future picks so as to add a younger participant from one other workforce proper now. Nobody is speaking about it, however it’s a much more doubtless approach for the Thunder to accumulate exterior expertise than via free company; name it pre-agency if you’ll. There’s precedent for it too — suppose again to how this similar administration acquired Enes Freedom and Dion Waiters. It can be wonderful if, in spite of everything this, the Thunder find yourself being the workforce on this multi-car Western Conference pileup that makes the closest factor to a chips-in transfer.

(Top picture of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green: Geoff Burke / USA Today)

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