The Western Conference has taken center stage during the 2013 NBA playoffs, as stars have been made and injuries have proven devastating. Through all of the heartbreaks and riveting performances, however, we've come to one question.
Who's the favorite to emerge from the West and make a trip to the NBA Finals?
This question can be answered subjectively, as both fan bias and a prisoner-of-the-moment mentality comes into play. In order to truly come to a conclusion, however, we must use our objective minds and weigh all factors involved.
It's then that we can determine who the paper favorite truly is.
Every Team's Greatest Strength
Before we get into which team is the supreme contender, it's imperative that we outline every team's greatest strength. As one might imagine, the final four teams in the deep Western Conference are quite powerful.
So what is it that has led them this far?
For starters, the Golden State Warriors are led by postseason hero and budding superstar Stephen Curry. Thus far, Curry has defied the postseason odds and averaged 25.3 points and 8.8 assists on a slash line of .448/.420/.914 in his first career playoff appearance.
It doesn't hurt that Curry led a sharpshooting team that topped the NBA in three-point field-goal percentage.
The Oklahoma City Thunder join the Warriors in their possession of a superstar, as Kevin Durant is a three-time scoring champion and a proven postseason commodity. Durant led the Thunder to an NBA Finals appearance in 2012 and a Western Conference Finals berth in 2011.
Thus far, Durant is outdoing himself with averages of 33.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game.
The Memphis Grizzlies depart from the previous norm, as they boast the NBA's top-ranked scoring defense. At the heart of their success is Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, but that's far from it.
Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Tayshaun Prince all play elite-level defense, while Zach Randolph is a double-double machine averaging 19.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
The San Antonio Spurs have their fair share of superstars, as they're led by Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and head coach Gregg Popovich. With one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, the Spurs certainly have the firepower.
Did we mention that they've won four NBA championships with the tandem of Popovich and Duncan, as well as three with Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Pops?
Moving forward, we'd be remiss to ignore the undeniably important injury factor. This isn't necessarily reserved to teams that have lost their stars, but the impact is certainly maximized for those playing without their leaders.
The Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder immediately come to mind.
On Apr. 20, All-Star power forward David Lee was reportedly lost for the season due to a torn right hip flexor. In turn, the Golden State Warriors' championship dreams appeared to be dashed as Lee, the player that led the NBA in double-doubles, went down.
Miraculously, Lee returned to the rotation just 12 days later—sort of.
Lee's presence on the bench has been uplifting, but we appear to be ignoring the fact that he's played four combined minutes since "returning." For that reason, we must evaluate Lee's comeback for what it is.
Spiritually uplifting, but all but irrelevant on the court for a young, inexperienced team that has put on some of the worst fourth-quarter meltdowns in recent memory.
As for the Thunder, All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook was lost for the season after suffering a torn right meniscus. Since then, Kevin Durant has been playing at an obscene level and proving he's much more than just an elite scorer.
Unfortunately, the Thunder are 2-4 in that time.
As it presently stands, the Thunder trail the Memphis Grizzlies by a count of 2-1. The Warriors, meanwhile, are down by that same margin against the San Antonio Spurs.
Between the injuries and the series deficit, OKC and Golden State are ruled out.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. San Antonio Spurs
Series leads aside, the top two teams in the Western Conference are the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies. Not only are they the healthiest squads remaining, but they hold momentous advantages over their opposition.
The question is, which team holds the superior advantage?
The Grizzlies entered the postseason as the league's top scoring defense, allowing 89.3 points per game. They were third in opponent field-goal percentage, second in opponent three-point field-goal percentage and third in three-point field goals made.
That's the perfect recipe for success should they draw the Golden State Warriors.
The Spurs, meanwhile, have won three titles with their current core and reached the 2012 Western Conference Finals. After lacking the necessary athleticism to win last season, they've seen drastic improvement from young players such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Just check the numbers.
How's that for improvement?
Both teams have their fair share of stars, and neither appears to possess glaring weaknesses that could sink them in the end. For that reason, the only way to truly establish which team is favored is to weigh strengths.
That comes down to a team with a championship pedigree going against a team that is built to win—unfortunately for Memphis, the former takes the cake.
The Spurs finished the regular season with the second-best record in the Western Conference. Furthermore, they were fourth in scoring offense, 11th in scoring defense and fourth in point differential.
They're also seventh in three-point field goals made and fourth in three-point field-goal percentage, which touches upon their offensive versatility.
The Grizzlies would give San Antonio a run for its money, OKC has experienced success against the Spurs and the Warriors have outplayed them in two of three games. With that being said, having momentum and being the favorite are two completely different topics of conversation.
Gregg Popovich's four championship rings help name the Spurs as the paper favorites—fortunately for the other three teams involved, that's why we play the game on the court.