Let’s say you were sitting at the Thanksgiving dinner table, and your cool older cousin, glancing at the NBA standings, asked you if the Clippers, Grizzlies and Kings could be playoff contenders. In a treacherous Western Conference, all three currently—and somewhat surprisingly—boast winning records.
You immediately pushed back, arguing that those teams have no right to contend in what might be the best conference in league history. But later, while plowing through your second slice of pumpkin pie, you wonder to yourself, “Are any of those teams actually legit?”
We’ll break it down for you. In Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview, we picked the Clippers to finish 11th in the Western Conference, with the Grizzlies and Kings occupying the No. 12 and No. 15 spots. Yet so far, they have a combined record of 35–23. None of these teams has a realistic shot at winning the title, but could we see one, or more, of them in the playoffs? Let’s break it down.
Los Angeles Clippers (13-6)
Adjust your glasses if you need to, because the Clippers currently are on top of the West.The high-flying Clippers are on the forefront of the NBA’s scoring surge, posting 116.8 points per game, which ranks third in the league. The Clips also rank fourth in three-point shooting, with a 37.3% team stroke. For a lineup without a star player, the Clippers’ offensive onslaughts have turned heads. They crushed Houston by 20, with 133 points, and beat the Bucks and Warriors in back-to-back overtime contests. In the midst of seven wins in eight games, the Clippers have easily been L.A.’s best team in 2018, and their bench has been the catalyst.
The Clippers score almost half of their points (55.9 per game) via their loaded bench, significantly the most in the league. Lou Williams is scoring in bunches, Montrezl Harrell has been really efficient offensively and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has provided some pop off the bench. On top of it all, Boban Marjanović, the 7’3” Serbian wonderman, ranks third in the NBA in player efficiency rating, trailing just Stephen Curry and LeBron James.
Most of all, Doc Rivers has leaned on his most talented player, Tobias Harris. In a contract year, Harris bet on himself after reportedly turning down an $80 million deal over the offseason. He’s turned in a solid season so far, posting 20+ points in 12 of the Clips’ 19 games.
If you lack a superstar like the Clippers’ Staples Center counterparts have, the antidotes are depth and speed. The Clippers have both, which makes them a threat on any night. Plus, Harris and Williams’s scoring abilities mean the Clippers can keep pace with teams like Houston and Golden State—sometimes. They’ll likely hover around the eight seed for most of the season.
So, are they legit? Maybe. They’re better than most expected. But sadly for Steve Ballmer, all this offense will likely regress some. Harris and Danilo Gallinari will not shoot this lights out from three all season, and teams will catch up to L.A.’s quick-moving tendencies. And there’s just too much talent out West—without a true star, it’s so tough to contend. Even the loaded Nuggets missed out on a postseason berth last year. The same fate will likely befall the 2018-19 Clippers.
Memphis Grizzlies (12-7)
The Grizzlies trudged through a disastrous 22-win 2017-18 season because of the heel injury that kept Mike Conley out of 70 games. Through 19 games, the Grizzlies are only 10 wins away from matching last year’s victory total.
Unlike the case with the flashy Clippers, Memphis has leaned on its identity: defense. The Grizzlies yield just 100.9 points per game in a conference that seems to feature 130-128 scorelines every night. A veteran core featuring Conley and Marc Gasol has solidified Memphis's standing as a defensive juggernaut. Sure, if one of the Grizzlies' two stars go down, J.B. Bickerstaff’s team can come apart in a hurry, but the seasoned vets (Conley is 31, Gasol is 33) are on fire at the moment.
Gasol is shooting—and making—more threes than ever before, drilling 34 so far on the season. His rebounding is also at an all-time high (9.7 per game). Conley, meanwhile, has recovered nicely from his season-ending heel surgery. He’s scoring at the second-best clip of his career, dropping over 20 points per contest. Even as age and injury have tried to slow them down, look at the vintage Conley-Gasol combo we’re seeing in 2018:
The pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll sets have been sparkling for the duo, and the addition of the No. 4 pick Jaren Jackson Jr. has invigorated them. The 6’11” Jackson Jr. has caused havoc for opposing offenses, spearheading a defense that creates a slew of turnovers. He’s also pouring in an average of 13.1 points, a number that’ll only rise when he gets his three-point shooting shored up.
Grizzlies guard Garrett Temple told The Commercial Appeal, “I can't remember being on a team that was this bought in this quickly [on defense].” Memphis is tied for second in the loaded West behind some old-fashioned defense, and the slowest pace in the league. That approach has pushed them to wins over Milwaukee, Denver and Philly.
So, are they legit? Probably not. This is the team at its healthy peak. As the season progresses, and fatigue (and maybe injuries) play a factor, the defense might drop off a tad. And unfortunately, in the modern NBA, scoring just over 100 points won’t cut it offensively. They have to score more, and down the stretch they’ll fade against significantly more talented competition.
Sacramento Kings (10-10)
Spearheading one of the NBA’s youngest cores, 19-year-old Marvin Bagley and 20-year-old De’Aaron Fox have provided speed and sizzle to a previously tired lineup.
This season, the Kings have beaten the Jazz, the Thunder (twice) and nearly shocked the Warriors at Oracle.
And while Bagley and Fox provide the most promising future, Buddy Hield has keyed the Kings’ offense over the course of the surprising start. The Oklahoma alum drops 18.8 points per game, by far a career-high. He’s shooting 45.1% from three-point land and providing career bests in rebounds and assists. For the first time in his career, the sixth overall pick in the 2016 draft is playing like a first-rounder. This highlight tape of his 28-point outburst in Oakland showcases a lot of Hield’s 2018 offensive tenacity.
The Kings’ top-10 scoring offense is the second-fastest in the league, and Fox’s lightning speed keys that. Look at his dang wheels:
His scoring has increased by six points, and the 2017 first-rounder is leading the Kings on quite the charge. Sprinkle in some Bogdan Bogdanović, who can put on a scoring display any night, a pinch of Bagley, whose comfort level keeps rising, and some Nemanja Bjelica, who’s shooting 50% from three—and you have the makings of a disruptive team.
Coach Dave Joerger has reportedly come under fire from Kings brass for not playing his youngins more (Bagley and former UNC star Justin Jackson rank seventh and eighth on the team in minutes), and his veteran-focused approach has also fueled Sacramento’s early wins.
So, are they legit? No. Above are the Kings’ strengths. They’re a young, fast, high-scoring team that’s more intriguing than most of us expected. But despite the 10-10 start, Sacramento doesn’t have a very strong team. Its defense is among the worst in the league, surrendering nearly 116.7 points each night—a brutal mark even for a scoring-crazed NBA. For how impressive Hield has been, if he’s the best player on your team in the West, you’re going to struggle a lot. Sacramento won 27 games last year and retained most of its roster coming into this season. They’ve clearly improved, but the Kings are still a mere minnow in a conference full of sharks. The franchise will easily miss the postseason again.