OAKLAND -- The Rockets, Western Conference finalists last season, are one game below .500 and already recalibrating their coaching staff.
The Jazz, a popular pick to make a deep playoff run, are two games below .500 and on a four-game losing streak.
The Thunder don’t know when Russell Westbrook’s ankle will allow him to return. The Timberwolves are traumatized, the Pelicans are on a six-game skid, and the Lakers' anticipated resurrection is starting with a snivel.
This is the big, bad Western Conference?
These are the roadblocks that were supposed to be pure peril for the Warriors, prodding and pushing and maybe bloodying them on their march toward their ritual appointment with the East in June?
It’s early, sure, but appears the Warriors are ready to reclaim the No. 1 seed in the West, if not overall.
The toughest competition appears to be in the so-called Leastern Conference. It’s top heavy, but what a top there is.
The Raptors (9-1) have 11 players averaging at least 15 minutes per game. They have the best second unit in the league. Kawhi Leonard is providing elite defense, with the nerve to average 26.1 points on 50 percent shooting. Kyle Lowry has recovered from losing his friend DeMar DeRozan and has been productive. If Toronto doesn’t make a deep playoff run this time, heads must roll. Again.
The Warriors have beaten the Raptors eight consecutive times. That streak is in jeopardy.
The Celtics (6-4) are trying to win while learning how to play with Kyrie Irving again and Gordon Hayward for the first time. Hayward’s return has been bumpy -- he’s not fully healthy -- while Jaylen Brown has been off his game and Marcus Smart appears to be waiting until the playoffs. Still, this team has enough depth and intellect to be a certified championship contender.
The Warriors have split the series with Boston in each of the last three seasons. They know the Celtics are a very real challenge.
Then there are the Bucks (8-1 going into the game Tuesday at Phoenix). They haven’t been a factor since 2000-01, when Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell led them to the conference finals. There is a highly visible change in Milwaukee, which generally has been a capable defensive squad lacking in offense. Don’t look now, but the Bucks are second in both offensive and defensive ratings in their first season under coach Mike Budenholzer.
Boston aside, there is no team the Warriors enjoy competing with less than Milwaukee, which has beaten them twice over the last three seasons.
For the better part of two decades, the Western Conference has been appreciably better to the East. The West is responsible for 14 of the 20 championships since the Chicago Bulls took a wrecking ball to the Michael Jordan era. The thought entering this season was that, once again, the West was vastly superior.
And it is, overall, because there are more All-NBA caliber players and has more quality depth. No fewer than seven teams are capable of winning 50 games, though only four or five will. The No. 8 seed in the West likely would be favored over the No. 5 seed in the East.
At the top of the conferences, though, the East is right there. And could stay there throughout the season.
Understand, the Rockets will improve but still fall well short of the 65 wins they posted last season. Bringing back Jeff Bzdelik to coach defense won’t be enough to prevent that side of the ball from giving away six or seven games.
The Jazz will climb well above .500 but still has several key players, including big man Rudy Gobert, whose mental toughness is open to question. They’re front-runners. They don’t respond well when pushed hard, and that’s what the postseason is all.
The Thunder can’t be taken seriously until Andre Roberson returns and is effective enough to make his usual defensive impact. The Timberwolves are done, with or without Jimmy Butler, because he’s essential yet also a cancer. The Pelicans are dangerous, because they have Anthony Davis, but still lack quality depth.
After adding LeBron and a questionable crew of new faces over the summer, the Lakers look like a team still requiring nametags. They’re built to buy time until next summer’s free-agent market opens, no matter what Magic Johnson says.
The Warriors are free to skate through the West, conceivably winning at least 40 of their 52 intra-conference games.
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