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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 2

Ariel Pacheco takes a look at what’s gone on in the Western Conference in the second week of the 2020-21 season.

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The NBA season is a months-long grind, so here at Basketball Insiders, we’re breaking down each conference on a week-to-week basis. And, just two weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference is shaping up to be a gauntlet. 

As it currently stands, nine teams are at .500 or better with another three just one win away from reaching that mark. It was an interesting week, so let’s get into it. 

Stephen Curry is Still Stephen Curry

After what would be considered a rough start for Stephen Curry, his play recently is more emblematic of the player many wanted and expected to see this season. His 62-point explosion against the Portland Trail Blazers was reminiscent of the Curry we saw during his two-time MVP run. Meanwhile, the return of Draymond Green has enabled Curry’s play and a surge by the Golden State Warriors as well; the team went 3-1 in a week that included solid wins over the Sacramento Kings, Trail Blazers and a 22-point comeback over the Los Angeles Clippers. 

Going forward, the Warriors are going to need Curry to continue his nuclear streak. In their five wins this season, Curry is averaging 39.4 points and 7 assists per game with a 72.8% true shooting percentage. In their four losses, Curry has managed just 19.5 points, 6.5 assists while his true shooting percentage dips to 47.3%. 

If it wasn’t obvious, Golden State’s playoff hopes are tied along to Curry’s play — and they’re doing everything they can to get him easy looks. The Warriors have played at the second-fastest pace in the NBA this season, which has allowed Curry to generate easier shots in transition. The improved play of Andrew Wiggins and Eric Paschall has also been helpful and, while Kelly Oubre’s shooting struggles are well documented — he’s made just 6 of his 45 three-point attempts (13.3%) — a positive regression should do both him, Curry and the team wonders.

Regardless, where the Warriors go over the course of the season rests solely in Curry’s hands.

The Spurs Are Still Competitive

Like the Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs also went 3-1 this week, picking up impressive wins over the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers along with an overtime victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

They are currently 5-4 and playing good basketball. They score by committee, with seven guys averaging double figures. And, while the numbers may not reflect it, they defend extremely hard, a constant among Greg Popovich coached teams. They’ve also had one of the tougher schedules to start the season

A nice balance of youth and veteran talent has allowed the Spurs to be competitive while also developing a lot of their future core at the same time. Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV and Devin Vassell, for example, are all under 25-years-old and contributing positive minutes. LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay, meanwhile, are older guys that can produce and keep the team in games while allowing the younger guys to grow without the pressures of being the focal points on offense or the primary focus by opposing defenses.

San Antonio also sports the league’s best assist-to-turnover ratio and has the fewest turnovers on the season. Their offense is methodical as they try to force matchups that are advantageous for them. DeRozan seems to have reinvented himself, as well, as he’s averaged what would be a career-high seven assists per game and shot 39.1% from three, which would also be a career-high.

The Spurs may have been one of the more overlooked teams coming into the season. But, if there’s anything the last two decades have taught us, it’s that Popovich and San Antonio are almost always a competitive squad and can’t be counted out. 

New Orleans Still Working Things Out

The New Orleans Pelicans are on a three-game losing streak, having dropped close games to the Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Charlotte Hornets. And, while there’s no question the Pelicans are one of the more talented teams with a young core that is filled with potential, there have been some early-season red flags.

To start, New Orleans’ lack of depth has really hurt them, as their bench outside of Josh Hart has largely struggled. And, Nickeil Alexander-Walker hasn’t taken the sophomore leap the team had likely hoped for, the offseason trade that sent Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks has left them in desperate need of a competent guard that can attack and create for others.

Outside of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans lack capable depth at guard or on the wing — and it’s shown in the way their bench has played. An easy fix could just be to move Bledsoe to the second unit but, of course, the starting lineup has struggled in without him as well. If Alexander-Walker can’t take the next step, New Orleans will have to get creative to address their depth issue.

On a more positive note, the defense has been good. Very good. With Stan Van Gundy at the helm, the Pelicans have packed the paint and dared teams to shoot it from deep — based on the sheer size and strength of Steven Adams, Jaxson Hayes and Zion Williamson, it’s probably more forced rather than dared — and it’s led them to the eighth-best defensive rating in the NBA. New Orleans is also third in rebounding and fifth in offensive rebounding, in large part because of Adams and Williamson. Ingram, meanwhile, has continued to improve, becoming a much better playmaker for others as he’s registered a team-high 5.8 assists per game.

The Pelicans are under .500, but there are reasons for optimism. Still, they’ll need to address their depth and bench if they truly want to right the ship.

It’s still early in the season and many teams are still trying to find their footing. Still, the Western Conference is already filled with tons of exciting teams and storylines and should be exciting to watch going forward. And, as you watch, make sure to follow along as Basketball Insiders continues our “What We Learned Series” all season long.

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