Memphis Grizzlies New Orleans Pelicans Top 2 Western Conference

Zion Williamson and Ja Morant

Zion Williamson (left) and Ja MorantImage: Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors lost again last night. On Tuesday, the Phoenix Suns lost a game to the modest Houston Rockets for the second time this month. Those two wins account for 22.2 percent of the Rockets’ wins this season.

The Denver Nuggets have a solid grip on the Western Conference No. 3 but have struggled to string together enough wins to finish in the top two. The Dallas Mavericks have a .500 record, the Los Angeles Clippers are recovering, and the current four to seven seeded players all have 12 or 13 losses.

There are two top teams in the Eastern Conference – the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks – that are a clear cut above everyone else. With the West’s top 12 teams separated by just seven games, some might think the conference lacked clarity. The top two teams didn’t dominate in the same way.

Though talented and feisty, some may believe the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies are too young to be boldly declared the best in the West. Neither team has one of the top three players in the conference on their roster – Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokić or Luka Dončić. The Pelicans and Grizzlies don’t currently have a MVP leader on their list, but they are tied 18-9 for the best record in the conference.

It’s tempting to blame early-season injuries — along with the drama in Phoenix and Golden State — for explaining away the early-season successes in Memphis and New Orleans. As the Nuggets and Clippers continue to improve in health, they may flee after all. However, the same is also true for the grizzlies and pelicans.

The Grizz have been without their second-best scorer since Nov. 11. Desmond Bane is struggling with a big toe injury and is expected to be out for another 3-4 weeks. Brandon Ingram is the Pelicans’ second-best scorer and is also struggling with a sore big toe that kept him out of the lineup for eight games and he’s being re-evaluated in a week.

Herb Jones – New Orleans’ best defenseman – was back on the court for the first time in three games on Tuesday. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a mosquito net on defense for Memphis this season, but he’s only played in half of their games.

Still, not only do the Pels and Grizz have the best records in the West after 25 games, they both rank in the NBA’s top 10 for both offense and defensive efficiency. The pelicans are the top 5.

It’s far too early to rank Zion Williamson and Ja Morant among the best No. 1 and No. 2 all-time picks selected in the same NBA draft, but the early returns look promising. As of Thursday afternoon, Zion is averaging 25 points per game and Morant is averaging 27.7 as they are two of the most unstoppable forces in the entire league.

They are also both willing passers-by. The Pelicans don’t rely on Point Zion nearly as much as they did in 2020-21, but this premier power forward is still averaging 4.3 assists per game. Even with Bane out a month, Morant is averaging 1.1 more assists per game than last season.

With health always a variable and a trade deadline looming, there is no guarantee these two will remain at the forefront of the west. Maybe the Mavericks make a trade, and maybe Michael Porter Jr. will average 20 points a game on 50/40/90 shooting splits for the rest of the season when he returns from his heel injury. The Golden State Warriors are the defending champions and have beaten several of the league’s best teams. They’re always lurking.

It will be a tall order for the Pelicans and Grizzlies to stay on top of the west, but they have the talent. Their franchise players are rising NBA stars and play in offenses where they don’t have to carry an unnecessarily heavy burden. Also, both teams are young and focused on the defensive end of the ball. That’s a headache for any opponent who stays on their schedule.

And don’t forget that these are two teams that have taken a good chunk of playoff hits. The Grizzlies had the Warriors on the ropes at times in their second-round streak last season. Against the 65-win Phoenix Suns, the New Orleans Pelicans didn’t have Willamson for a single game and still pushed them in a hard-fought six-game streak.

Battle-hardened, upgraded, and key contributors are still out injured. The Pelicans and Grizzlies are real and expect to fight for the top spot in the west all season long.