What the Lakers, Warriors, Suns, Pelicans and Mavericks can do to rise in the West

ByNBA Insiders ESPN logo
Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The 2023-24 NBA season is nearing its halfway point, and with the Feb. 8 trade deadline looming, teams are starting to pay closer attention to the standings.

Things are especially tense in the Western Conference, as several teams with postseason ambitions are stuck in the middle of the pack. Whether it's due to injuries, inconsistent play or a combination of both, these teams face some big questions.

The Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans, who face off Wednesday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC), are among those teams looking to build momentum entering the second half of the season. Other teams, such as the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakersand Phoenix Suns, are also fighting to stay in playoff (or at least play-in) contention.

Is there a trade or tweak that could change the trajectory of any of those squads? Our NBA Insiders break down what these teams need to do to move up the standings.

New Orleans Pelicans

Record: 22-15 (No. 6 in West)

The easiest way for the Pelicans to climb in the standings and avoid a play-in berth is preserving the leads they have built in the first halves of games.

The Pelicans have held a double-digit first-half lead in 30 games and are a plus-265 before halftime. Only the NBA-best Boston Celtics have a better mark at plus-307.

Those are the makings of a team that should be toward the top of the West standings. So why are the Pelicans just 22-15? Because they've had problems holding on to those leads and performing at the same level in the second half.

New Orleans has blown eight double-digit leads this season, and only the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs have lost more. In the second halves of games, the Pelicans are minus-110, which ranks 26th in the league.

In clutch minutes -- defined as the score being with five points in the final five minutes and overtime -- the Pelicans have struggled from deep and the free throw line. The team has attempted a league-low 25 3-pointers during clutch time while shooting a league-worst 60.9% on free throws.

On the other hand, the Pelicans have 14 wins by double digits, tied for third best in the league, including their past four victories. In their first and only clutch game since forward Larry Nance Jr. returned from a broken rib, the Pelicans pulled out a 112-105 win against the Utah Jazz.

Since their embarrassing in-season tournament semifinal loss to the Lakers in Las Vegas, the Pelicans are 10-4 and shooting 42.3% from deep, the best mark in the NBA since Dec. 11, while attempting only 31.6 3s per game, which ranks in the league's bottom five.

Being healthy has helped. CJ McCollum missed time because of a punctured lung, but New Orleans is 17-7 in games he has played and 11-0 when he scores at least 20 points. The more McCollum, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson play with one another, and help New Orleans capitalize on more early leads, the higher the Pelicans will rise.

-- Andrew Lopez

Dallas Mavericks

Record: 22-16 (No. 7 in West)

After the Mavericks' Christmas Day win over the Suns, Luka Doncic answered questions about:

  • His 50-point, 15-assist masterpiece, during which he passed the 10,000-point milestone;
  • Having such a spectacular performance at the expense of the rival Suns;
  • The impactful return from injury by rookie center Dereck Lively II;
  • His overall happiness after becoming a first-time father last month.

Doncic was a bit miffed that another subject wasn't broached.

"Nobody's going to ask about my defense?" Doncic muttered at the end of his media availability, quite proud of the four steals and three blocks he recorded to fill out a historically prolific line in the box score.

Defense serving as a source of pride for Doncic is an extremely encouraging development for Dallas. For the Mavs to move up in the West standings, much less be dangerous in the playoffs, Dallas must be a drastically improved defensive team.

The Mavs have been trending in that direction despite dealing with injuries, including Kyrie Irvingmissing 12 games because of a heel contusion and several other rotation players missing time. They've had a top-10 defense over the past month, allowing 113.5 points per game. Since Dec. 23, they rank eighth in the league in scoring with 119.7 points per game.

With Doncic and Irving, the Mavs are one of the league's most explosive offensive teams. That wasn't enough to even make the playoffs last season due in large part to a miserable defense, which is why the Mavs acquired defensive-minded role players Lively, Grant Williams, Derrick Jones Jr. and Dante Exum. The hope is to replicate the formula from the Mavs' West finals run two years ago, when Dallas ranked seventh in defensive efficiency with Doncic and Jalen Brunson surrounded by dirty-work role players.

Lively is a teenager learning on the job, but he's a springy 7-foot-1, plays hard and has absorbed coaching, proving capable of being an immediate major contributor. Jones has filled Dorian Finney-Smith's shoes as the Dallas player who usually gets the most difficult defensive assignment. Exum's on-ball defense helped him earn a starting role in Irving's absence, although Exum is dealing with a plantar fascia strain that has sidelined him for the past week.

Nothing matters if Doncic is a defensive matador opponents can exploit. That has been the case at times in the past, but as Mavs coach Jason Kidd puts it: "He has taken the challenge." Before Tuesday's 120-103 loss to Memphis, Doncic had allowed 0.85 points per possession in isolation plays, which ranks in the 67th percentile of the league, according to Synergy data. He had allowed only 0.48 points per post-up possession, which ranks in the 98th percentile.

"It just shows everybody that he's locked in," Jones said of Doncic. "I mean, if he's locked in on the defensive end, everybody should be."

-- Tim MacMahon

Phoenix Suns

Record: 19-18 (No. 9 in West)

When the Suns made the 2021 NBA Finals and had the best record in the league the following season, they were strong on both offense (fifth in offensive rating in 2021, fourth in 2022) and defense (ninth in defensive rating in 2021, third in 2022). This season, they are middle of the pack on both sides of the ball with no particular identity. The Suns rank 27th in turnover percentage and 21st in 3-point assist rate.

On defense, the Suns have difficulty creating possession changes, ranking 23rd in defensive rebound percentage and 23rd in turnover percentage created. Simply put, Phoenix's offensive issues are consistent with a team playing without a true point guard.

This Suns roster was built around three elite individual offensive creators in Bradley Beal, Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, and stats like team true shooting percentage (seventh in the NBA) and free throw rate (second in the NBA) show how good the team is at creating in isolated situations.

But the Suns either need to play at a faster pace (third-slowest pace in the league at 97.5 possessions per game) or, more likely, bring in a floor general to create a more efficient offense without turning the ball over at such a high rate.

-- André Snellings

Los Angeles Lakers

Record: 19-19 (No. 10 in West)

The Lakers have a problem with 3-pointers: They can't score them, and they can't stop other teams from hitting them, either.

The team is shooting just 35.2% on wide-open 3s, according to Second Spectrum tracking, which puts the Lakers at second to last in the league. They're also last in 3-pointers attempted (30.5 per game). It doesn't help that the Lakers don't get a lot of those open looks, compared to the rest of the league. They take only 15 wide-open 3s per 100 possessions, the fewest in the NBA.

"I think it's a fact that we preach, attacking the paint and attacking the rim quite a bit ... but when we get in the paint, being willing to make that extra pass," Lakers coach Darvin Ham said before Tuesday's 132-131 win over the Toronto Raptors when asked to diagnose his team's 3-point deficiencies. "And not only making the pass to an open guy on the perimeter, that open guy being ready to shoot it."

On the other side of the ball, the Lakers' defense has allowed opponents to shoot 42.2% on wide-open 3s -- which ranks 28th in the league -- and they're also seeing teams take 22.4 3s per 100 possessions against them, which is the second most in the NBA. In Tuesday's game, the Toronto Raptors made 15 wide-open 3-pointers, its most in a game this season, per Second Spectrum.

This approach, Ham admits, has been part of L.A.'s defensive strategy.

"You don't ever want to totally disrespect a guy that's an NBA player, but you'd rather have maybe more role players taking 3s than [Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard] or whoever that threat is on the other team," he said.

He also mentioned the old adage: "It's a make-or-miss league, man."

To put it simply: The Lakers' offense has been responsible for too many misses from beyond the arc, and their defense has allowed far too many makes. Until those numbers improve, it will be difficult for L.A. to break away from the play-in race.

-- Dave McMenamin

Golden State Warriors

Record: 17-19 (No. 12 in West; one game out of play-in)

When Warriors general manager Mike Dunleavy spoke with reporters following Draymond Green's indefinite suspension Dec. 13, he said, "The bigger impact will be how we do the next 15, 20 games. ... I don't think I need any more evaluation of Draymond as a player. We need a little more evaluation of this team: the chemistry, the lineups and all that."

The Warriors have gone 7-6 since Dunleavy made that statement, and Green is now working toward his return to the court from that suspension. By pinpointing the 15- to 20-game range as a crucial evaluation period, Dunleavy was basically defining the time frame players had to prove their worth, or some major shakeup could come before the Feb. 8 trade deadline. Trade candidates on the Warriors could be players such as Chris Paul (who is now expected to miss 4-6 weeks after undergoing hand surgery), Moses Moody and Andrew Wiggins. Sources told ESPN the Warriors aren't quite ready to deal third-year forward Jonathan Kuminga.

Golden State has faced spacing issues when two of those players -- Kuminga and Wiggins -- share the floor. The wings have a minus-20.6 net rating in 146 minutes, the worst mark among two players who have played at least 100 minutes together. It has been an especially tough season for Wiggins, who is putting up career-low numbers in points and assists and has a minus-150 plus-minus, the worst on the Warriors.

Curry leads the NBA with 155 3-pointers while shooting just under 40% from beyond the arc, but since Dec. 23 has shot just 22% on off-the-dribble 3-pointers, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Getting another shooter and scorer to help Curry and Klay Thompson could be more beneficial than solely focusing on size -- an area of the 2023-24 Warriors that's often criticized.

With the emergence of Trayce Jackson-Davis, the Warriors have another true center to spell Kevon Looney. And while they still have undersized lineups, it's difficult to imagine the Warriors making a realistic postseason run with another non-shooter on the floor or in the rotation.

-- Kendra Andrews

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