Ready for a hot take? The NBA’s Western Conference is not as wide-open as you think it is.
For months now there has been a notion that any of the teams who qualify for the postseason West of the Mississippi could reach the NBA Finals. For a while, this idea seemed to be falling into place because the defending champions were sitting in seventh and a team with two of the top ten players in the league were fighting just to get inside the exclusive 16-team club that opens in April.
Thanks to a slew of injuries, the Spurs and Thunder looked like they would have to endure the task of going through the top two seeds in the conference just to reach the second round. This gave people all of the ammunition they needed to write the “this is the end of the road for the Spurs” column, while updating us daily on how many games the Thunder would have to win in order to match the win total from the eight seed last season (Mavericks, 49).
Meanwhile the rest the of the conference witnessed the true rise of the Warriors as their dominant run has all but assured them the best record in The Association. Directly beneath Golden State sits the Memphis Grizzlies who, for the first time in franchise history, have recorded back-to-back 50-win seasons, but for the third straight year will enter the playoffs as an afterthought when title contenders are discussed.
The Rockets, Blazers, Clippers and Mavs were all jumbled up in the upper-middle class of the conference as each of the teams had a different aspect to latch onto if you believed they could actually make run at the finals:
Trail Blazers: Their stunning improvement on defense, which currently has Portland sitting seventh overall per 100 possessions.
Mavericks: Pre-Rondo trade offense was scoring at a rate the Warriors would approve of.
Clippers: Star power of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with Doc running the show from the sidelines (let’s not talk about Doc the GM).
Rockets: JAMES HARDEN, JAMES HARDEN, JAMES HARDEN, JAMES HARDEN, Dwight Howard, JAMES HARDEN
Since the All-Star break, the landscape of the Western Conference has gone through more twists and turns than this season of The Challenge. Here’s a chart with the post All-Star break records of the West’s top eight and their offensive/defensive numbers per 100 possessions (and where it ranks in the entire league).
Ew Dallas. The Mavericks offense has hit a brick wall since the awkward insertion of Rajon Rondo and look there’s video proof!
Rondo’s addition is far from the only problem in Dallas right now. Dirk Nowitzki is on pace for his lowest point total in a season with more than 70 games played by a mile (1,349, lowest current total for him with over 70 games played: 1,435 in year two) and Monta ball is falling out of flavor.
The Blazers are the other casualty of the post All-Star break freefall as a horrifically unfortunate Achilles injury ended Wesley Matthews’ season and could quite possibly change the outlook of the rest of his career. LaMarcus Aldridge is fighting through a left thumb injury, which has amazingly not affected his play at all (he’s recorded 16 double-doubles since suffering the injury in late January), but last Saturday he reaggravated the injury against in Memphis, which only increases the odds of him injuring the hand again during the playoffs.
Adding Arron Afflalo at the trade deadline for a couple rotation players and a 1-14 protected pick, which baring an absolute collapse from Portland, will transfer over to Denver this season. It was a necessary move for the Blazers as they desperately needed production from their bench and Afflalo was a great fit as their sixth man, but as a replacement for Matthews, Afflalo has been a disaster defensively. The Blazers’ starting five went from what would be the league’s best defense, 97.1 rating, to what would be a league worst 114.6 with Afflalo.
That leaves the Clippers and Rockets as the two remaining candidates from the group. While James Harden has placed himself firmly in the MVP discussion, there is a blueprint for slowing Harden down and at this point it’s impossible to trust Dwight Howard to play like the guy who looked like he drank out of the fountain of youth before Houston’s first round matchup last year against Portland. Harden won’t be able to win three series in the Western Conference by himself.
While they’re a guy short on the wing and currently have Austin Rivers in the rotation, the Clippers have been playing recently like a legitimate contender. Chris Paul is playing out of his mind right now (seriously, look at his game log) DeAndre Jordan has made 20+ rebound games look like just another day in the office, Blake Griffin has reinserted himself nicely into the rotation and J.J. Redick is QUIETLY becoming a real x-factor.
Speaking of x-factors, is there a bigger one in the league than Russell Westbrook? Scroll back up to that lovely Microsoft Word chart and look at the Thunder’s offensive efficiency numbers over the last month and a half. Outside of a few bright spots from Enes Kanter and Anthony Morrow, Westbrook and his mask have kept OKC afloat without the services of Kevin Durant, who was recently shut down for the rest of the season and Serge Ibaka , who is scheduled to be out another 3-5 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.
Look Westbrook’s little run is nice and he totally deserves all of the MVP talk he’s getting, but there’s enough historical evidence which shows one guy can’t lead a team to a finals, let alone a championship by himself. Kudos to the Thunder’s resiliency, but it’s time to write them off of the contender’s list.
The team that has put their name in permanent marker on the list is the Spurs (yawn). For a while this season, the Spurs looked like the college kid who wakes up with half of their body hanging off of the couch at two in the afternoon after a night of $2 beers and Fireball shots, but at some point that college kid is going to recover and head back to the bar.
And whew boy have the Spurs recovered nicely. They’ve absolutely blitzed their opponents in March with a per 100 possession scoring rate of 115, which would lead the league by a mile. There were plenty of vintage Spurs plays in their win over the Hawks on Sunday:
Danny Green stopping a corner three attempt, which leads to a great block by Duncan
And this thing of beauty, Duncan gets in the way of Al Horford, while executing a handoff to Tony Parker. Duncan then sets a pick on Jeff Teague, steps back and receives a pass from Parker who fakes a jumper to get Teague off of his feet. Tiago Splitter who is standing at the left elbow, darts past Paul Millsap who is locked in on the action between Parker and Duncan and puts home a perfect pass The Big Fundamental. #VintageSpurs
Pop has his guys peaking at the correct time (what a surprise) and right now a Spurs-Warriors conference finals series seems like the most likely outcome. The Clippers and knocking on the door and the Grizzlies should also be in the conversation, but their offensive numbers over the last six weeks are highly concerning. Their offense looked fantastic against the Blazers on Saturday, but right now Philadelphia’s offense would light up Portland.
I’ve lost count of how many times the Western Conference playoffs have been compared to an upcoming war with buckets of blood being lost, when in reality there’s only three teams with a realistic chance represent the Western Conference in June.
Follow me on Twitter @ScottDargis