While many NBA fans and commentators turn their attention to the Miami Heat and the never-ending win streak, the Western Conference is providing more drama and tighter races.
From the Los Angeles Lakers battling to simply qualify for the playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder shooting for the top spot and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, the West is filled with intriguing storylines and developments. It will all eventually lead up to the playoffs, where seeding will play a monumental role in who advances and who is sent home.
Read on to see how that seeding will look come the end of April.
The NBA’s most intriguing storyline (unless you are a Miami Heat fan) has been the will they or won’t they drama surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers and the playoffs.
It looked as if there was going to be no way Kobe Bryant would allow his team to miss the postseason party. The Black Mamba has been on fire lately and posted some of his most impressive efforts of the season recently in monumental comeback wins against the Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Hornets.
The rotation was also starting to click, although that will be subject to change when Pau Gasol returns from injury. Even Earl Clark has been playing at a passable level during this recent surge.
And then Kobe Bryant severely sprained his ankle. He is out indefinitely and the question once again changes from what seed the Lakers will get to if they will even make the playoffs. The fact that they are the No. 8 seed here is more about a distrust of the Utah Jazz than a belief in the Kobe-less Lakers.
The key for Los Angeles now will be how Gasol and Dwight Howard coexist when Gasol returns. Howard is finally starting to play like the All-Star he is, but coach Mike D’Antoni’s system doesn’t necessarily lend itself to two big guys playing together.
Even with potential issues there and Bryant's injury, the Lakers will still get in the playoffs. But they won't last long when they get there.
The Golden State Warriors feel like one of those teams that are loaded with excellent individual players that a high seed doesn’t really want to deal with in the first round. That’s not to say the Warriors would win a playoff series, especially in the No. 7 spot, but they are talented enough to scare someone.
Stephen Curry may be the best three-point shooter in the NBA, David Lee is criminally underrated considering the numbers he puts up on a nightly basis and guys like Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack have given Mark Jackson solid contributions.
However, the Warriors have struggled recently. Golden State will not slide all the way out of the playoffs, but with the Rockets chasing Curry and Co., seventh place seems likely.
Plenty of Western Conference contenders remain on the schedule as well.
The Los Angeles Lakers were going to catch the Houston Rockets from behind before Kobe Bryant's injury, but the Rockets will hold them and the Warriors off and seize the No. 6 seed. It would still be wise to avoid losses to the likes of the Suns and Wizards during the stretch run, something Houston was unable to do recently.
Any discussion about the Rockets clearly starts with James Harden, but he is not a one-man show this year. Omer Asik has provided Houston will excellent rebounding and solid interior defense, and Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson have adequately filled their respective roles.
However, the Rockets will struggle no matter who they play in the first round of the playoffs if they don’t tighten up their defense. Scoring is great, but the inconsistent play (hence the No. 6 seed) will continue if they can’t stop anyone.
It would also mean an early postseason exit.
The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts when it comes to the superstar-less Denver Nuggets.
This is one of the best scoring and rebounding teams in the entire league, and opponents never really know where the baskets are going to come from on any given night. Throw in the fact that they are nearly unbeatable at home, and the Nuggets could be playing well into the playoffs (or at least until they match up with the Spurs and/or Thunder).
Ty Lawson is one of the most underrated players in the NBA (partially because there are so many talented point guards in the league that overshadow his production), and Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, JaVale McGee and Andre Iguodala give Denver a solid core.
The Nuggets have been on fire lately and don’t have a very demanding schedule the rest of the way outside of two matchups with the Spurs and one with the Thunder. It is not that far-fetched to think they will finish higher than the No. 5 spot, but let’s keep them here for now based on the talent of the teams ahead of them.
It’s strange to live in a world where the Los Angeles Clippers are arguably the best basketball team in Los Angeles (it is inarguable that they are higher in the standings), but that is a testament to the Clippers’ emergence as much as the Lakers’ early struggles.
The now healthy again Chris Paul has his team operating on all cylinders, and with plenty of easy games remaining on the schedule, there is no way Los Angeles falls lower than the No. 4 spot.
The Clippers are regulars on SportsCenter’s Top 10, but there may be more substance on this year’s roster than last year. Blake Griffin has improved his all-around game, and the supporting cast has stepped up (even if it does include Lamar Odom).
Look for Los Angeles to host a first-round playoff series. It would be very intriguing if it was against the Lakers, although the Clippers would probably have to climb higher than the No. 4 spot if that is to happen.
This year’s version of the Memphis Grizzlies looks much different than last year’s, but the expectations and performance are both still rather high. The Grizzlies have won on the back of their defense, which is something that won’t go away during the stretch run like a streaky jump shot may.
Behind the two big men in the middle (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol) and the underrated play of Mike Conley Jr., Memphis is poised to host a playoff series and possibly put a scare in the Thunder or Spurs.
While everyone is talking about the Heat’s winning streak, perhaps the second-hottest team in the NBA is Memphis (Denver may have something to say about that). The Grizzlies have only lost once since the first week of February, and that just happened to be a close game at Miami.
The one thing working against Memphis is the number of road games left on the remaining schedule. However, with a strong defense in place, expect the Grizzlies to continue to play at an elevated rate.
If it wasn’t for Tony Parker’s injury, the San Antonio Spurs would have more than enough to clinch the top seed in the Western Conference and home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs.
Unfortunately for Gregg Popovich and Co., Parker will be out for an extended amount of time, and the San Antonio machine just doesn’t seem the same without its chief operator. The good news is the injury happened before the playoffs, and he should return.
The Spurs are 5-4 in their past nine games, which for most teams wouldn’t be that bad but for this squad that is a downright slump. The schedule isn’t that demanding the rest of the way, even with games against Miami, both Los Angeles teams and Oklahoma City.
The depth of the Spurs and the veteran guile of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili will carry San Antonio to a No. 2 seed. Home-court advantage matters to a lot of teams, but the Spurs are talented enough to overcome one extra road game against Oklahoma City in the playoffs.
Whether they will or not remains to be seen.
Based on last season’s postseason results, home-court advantage may not be that important for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Yes, Oklahoma City enjoys one of the best home crowds in the entire NBA, but it overcame the Spurs’ home court last year in the Western Conference finals and could not defend their own arena against LeBron James and Co. in the NBA Finals.
Nevertheless, it is safe to assume the Thunder aren’t going to turn down a chance to seize home court throughout the playoffs with the No. 1 seed in the West on the line this season. No team will benefit more from Tony Parker’s injury than the Thunder, who will eventually take over this spot from the Spurs.
The absence of James Harden will be felt in the playoffs, but Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the supporting cast will finish the season strong. The schedule isn’t particularly demanding, and Oklahoma City has some of the best talent in the NBA.