The Western Conference of the NBA has long been considered the more competitive half of the league, with no team making the playoffs in the West with a below .500 record since the L.A. Clippers, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves all made it to the playoffs in the 1996-97 season.
This year is no different.
At the halfway point in this season, which conveniently fell at the same time as the All-Star break, the Western Conference is more finely balanced than ever before.
This year, though, there is no consensus No. 1 team. The Oklahoma City Thunder may hold a 4.5-game lead over the San Antonio Spurs, but there are question marks hanging over them, too.
In reality, there are as many as four teams that could have a legitimate shot at reaching the NBA Finals from the Western Conference.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are off to a fantastic start with a 29-7 record, good for the best in the league. Kevin Durant is a front-runner for the MVP award and both he and Russell Westbrook have inked long-term deals to tie them to the team for the long term. Alongside Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, the Thunder have the second-best trio in the league (based on PER) behind LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami.
There are three big questions hanging over the Thunder for the remainder of the season:
The Thunder have somehow been pretty much injury-free to date this season, with only one player having suffered a season-ending injury. When that player comes off the bench, you don't mind as much. If Durant, Westbrook or Harden were to go down injured for a few weeks, the Thunder could fall back into the West pack very quickly.
The Thunder's defense has improved this season, but there are still question marks over its toughness. Kendrick Perkins has added that and Serge Ibaka is a phenomenal paint-dweller, but when they are faced with the Miami Heat's high-octane offense or Derrick Rose's incredible skills at getting to the rim, can they get the job done?
Yeah, OK, you've heard it all before. Russell Westbrook doesn't pass to the league's best scorer at the right times and can be selfish. I'm not convinced that it's an ego problem, especially after he signed a contract that keeps him on the team for the long term. It's more of him being a poor decision-maker in the crunch time of close games.
Whatever the reason, there could be crucial games at the end of the season and in the playoffs, that could cost the Thunder dearly.
2. San Antonio Spurs
This season, the Spurs were expected to be nowhere near their lofty, top-seeded record of a year ago. Tim Duncan's minutes have been in forced decline for a few years now and when Manu Ginobilli broke his hand, the Spurs' season looked to be almost over. Yet somehow, the team has managed to stay afloat and put together a 7-1 road trip in February, going 7-0 in games they actually tried to win (Duncan and Tony Parker sat out a 40-point shellacking in Portland).
What hurts the Spurs in the dash to the finish line is the same curse felt in the gold and purple quarters of Los Angeles and in Boston: age.
Tim Duncan's Appearances
Tim Duncan's minutes have had to be scaled back so that he can still be fresh enough to be affective. This starts a real tough cycle for the Spurs, as when he is in, they value scoring so much that when he goes out, they start to lose games. Then they either have to sacrifice keeping him fresh to win or have him sit and risk losses.
Manu Ginobilli's Body
Manu Ginobilli is no youngster, either, and with a broken hand and a strained oblique already on his list this season, his ability to stay injury-free will be crucial to the Spurs' success as the playoffs approach.
Kawhi Leonard remains an enigma to me. I've heard wonderful things coming from various sources about good performances and future promise, yet when I've turned on, I've seen poor plays and bad basketball I.Q. at key moments in the game. He's a rookie, so it's acceptable. But with the team needing big contributions from everyone right now, it's a big risk.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have been a revelation, and for the first time in their history, relevant. Since Chris Paul's arrival in a controversial trade, the Clippers have been the highlight reel of the league, with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan throwing the ball down every night.
The Clippers, however, are flawed, perhaps fatally.
The Clippers' offense, for the most part, is good. They are lethal in transition and can give the ball to Griffin and let him do work in the post, or find him cutting to the basket for either a lay-in, dunk or, at worst, foul shots.
The trouble for the Clippers is that, at times, their offense becomes horrifically stagnant. When Paul feeds the ball to Griffin in the post, the offense dies as players stand on the perimeter watching. No movement, no help—just standing watching.
This is survivable against the poorer teams in the league, but as witnessed against the Heat and the Bulls, the Clippers will fall thanks to this stagnant offense, as the league's top defensive teams completely shut down the Clippers. Unless Chris Paul's talent alone can trump the defense, the Clippers have a big problem.
The Clippers' defense is not bad, let me get that out there. They have the league's best shot blocker in DeAndre Jordan.
The trouble is that their defense is not good enough to control the likes of Durant, Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan. The effort level is not there and the cohesion is the biggest missing piece. Watching their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves highlighted this, as Caron Butler time and again hesitated closing out on a three-point shooter and let him get a wide-open look.
Then there's the poor switching that left Kenyon Martin guarding Derrick Williams, who, to be honest, took Martin to school. Not good enough in a league that has much more deadly scorers than Derrick Williams and Kevin Love.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers might end up in the NBA Finals this year. That's a mark of how unpredictable this Western Conference is as much as it is a mark of how good the Lakers have been this year. However, the Lakers' issues are so deep-running that they could be punted out in the first round this year. There are three big issues affecting the Lakers right now.
Kobe Bryant's Shooting
Kobe Bryant is shooting a lot. Too much? We'll see. His average 24 shots per game is easily leading the league and while he is currently scoring a glut of points, this rate cannot continue if the Lakers have any serious championship aspirations.
When the key games and the playoffs arrive, teams will gravitate to Bryant's high usage and force a team not used much to win the game rather than Kobe. This is not a slight against the Laker roster, who is good enough to get it done; it's more of a slight at Mike Brown, who hasn't seem to have installed a real offense yet.
The Front Line
Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are still two of the best big men in the league, and together they still make up probably the best power forward-center tandem in the NBA.
However, it is Gasol's production that I worry about as the season goes on. Gasol has shown signs of regressing from his once-dominant self. Could this be because his constant involvement in trade talks is wearing on his mental state?
It is widely known that the Lakers need a new point guard. Without one, they probably don't win a championship.
How they go about getting one shapes the rest of their season. A lot of teams would only give up a starting-level point guard for a big-name player. Pau Gasol is touted as that player to be traded, but how does that affect the Lakers post-trade? If Gasol goes, who do the Lakers have to replace his contribution on the court?
The answer is that they might not have anyone. Metta World Peace cannot pick up the slack and the rest of the supporting cast in L.A. is distinctly average. Getting back someone to replace the output lost in a trade requires giving up even more players.
There is one trade, however, that could get the Lakers over the hump.
A point guard who can both run an offense (keeping Kobe happy) and who can score on demand, too. Nash has masses of experience to add to the team, and he deserves a chance to get a ring for his eventual Hall of Fame application form. Nash is still averaging 11 assists at age 38, shooting over 50 percent from the field, 90 percent at the line and playing at a level close to his MVP years.
When you also have teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets knocking on the door, the West playoff race and the playoffs themselves will be must-see TV. Who doesn't want a Clippers vs. Thunder series, or a Lakers vs. Clippers series, or a Denver vs. Thunder series?