Believe it or not, we're about to hit the midway point on the NBA schedule. The early-season nadir of being shifted to the side by football is nearly over, and with that, we can finally begin to take stock of where both conferences stand.
Injuries, unfortunately, have riddled the championship picture unrecognizable from the preseason. Derrick Rose's season-ending knee injury ended a Bulls title push that never got underway. Conference finalist Memphis will probably miss the playoffs because of Marc Gasol's knee issues. The Nets' nearly $200 million payroll didn't work out the way anyone planned, but injuries to Brook Lopez and Deron Williams have derailed any chance of a late-season push toward the conference finals.
Looking at the playoff picture as a whole, though, it becomes clear that there's a wide separation between the East and West.
Say what you will about the Eastern Conference, but there is an unquestioned sense of normalcy. Barring a major injury—and, knock on wood, considering how this season has gone thus far—Indiana will earn the No. 1 seed and Miami the No. 2. The Eastern Conference playoffs will mostly be a shrug-worthy affair that leads to the inevitable Heat-Pacers conference finals. That series will be everything we need and more, but there is an air of inevitability that kind of sucks the life out of every development.
The West, on the other hand, is a thrilling, deep, talented, complete and utter mess. The Thunder, Blazers and Spurs are all within a stone's throw of one another in the Western Conference standings. The top-six teams are within 5.5 games of one another. In the East, the Nos. 1 and 8 seeds are separated by 14.5 games. In the West, the Nos. 1 and 14 seeds are separated by 15.
There are some Sharpied lies we can draw, but they're few and far between. The Mavericks, Suns, Nuggets and Timberwolves are in the relatively same tier—super fun to watch, but destined for a first-round exit if they make the postseason at all. If you want to get frisky and totally ignore injuries, you can add New Orleans to that tier as well. Phoenix is the NBA's most surprising team; Minnesota is perhaps its most frustrating.
Either way, that's the "sheep being led to slaughter" tier.
Finding discernible separation between the six other teams in the conference? Yeah, that's much more difficult.
The Clippers would probably be the No. 6 team if we're getting all power-ranky, but that's only because Chris Paul's shoulder injury makes them the likeliest to drop in the coming weeks. The Rockets and Blazers have defensive issues that could be crippling over a seven-game series. The Spurs are old. The Warriors are always playing a precarious game with Stephen Curry's ankles, and Russell Westbrook's knee issues are enough to make everyone hyperventilate.
Six teams—all Western Conference championship contenders—each with glaring issues that could get exposed over the long haul. Given the classic gun-to-your-head choice, most would probably choose San Antonio or Oklahoma City as the favorite. But the West is one injury or two away from a seismic shift in a way that cannot be approached in the East.
All of this makes the next month-plus awfully interesting. With all those franchises jostling for position—and league executives knowing those teams are doing so—the transaction sheet may wind up being the deciding factor in the wide-open West.
You're already beginning to see teams linked to names—or even linked merely to trade speculation.
CBS Sports' Ken Berger dispatched intel from the D-League Showcase in Reno, noting the Spurs have been "unusually aggressive" trying to add a piece. San Antonio leads the Western Conference in point differential per 100 possessions, but seven of the team's eight losses have come against current playoff teams. The best wins of the Spurs' season have come against Golden State, one of which was played without Stephen Curry.
It's unclear where Gregg Popovich wants to improve, but it seems a personality shift could be in order. NBA head coach turned ESPN analyst George Karl said on ESPN New York 98.7's Michael Kay Show that embattled Knicks guard J.R. Smith received some internal discussion.
Danny Green's struggles are a major disappointment, so adding a score-first wing could be in order. Whenever the Spurs struggle, it tends to be when Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili can't bring it on a given night offensively. Smith isn't a realistic option—the Knicks were never trading him—but could they be a Rodney Stuckey destination? Maybe Gary Neal could return? Those both seem like realistic options that could shore up bench scoring.
The Thunder and Warriors find themselves in similar situations. Little has been made of the three-team deal that landed Courtney Lee in Memphis and Jerryd Bayless in Boston, but Oklahoma City's shoehorning of Ryan Gomes into that deal could be critical. The Thunder, deathly afraid of being a tax team, now have a roster spot and about $2.3 million available under the threshold.
That number is no coincidence. While it was always unlikely that Sam Presti would use the $6.5 million trade exception he acquired in the Kevin Martin sign-and-trade, the Eric Maynor exception (worth about $2.3 million) is now in play. The Thunder could theoretically acquire an unwanted player at that price without giving up an asset outside a highly protected conditional pick.
Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson are both vastly improved from a season ago, but Scott Brooks certainly wouldn't complain about adding an additional wing. Thabo Sefolosha has been a bit of a mess at points, and neither Jackson nor Lamb have that 25-point potential at this point in the same way James Harden and Martin once did. Oklahoma City is still a contender regardless of whether it makes a move; the Gomes deal just made one more likely.
Golden State will make a move before the deadline. It just cannot afford not to. The Toney Douglas signing has been a bust, as Douglas has been injured for much of the season and ineffective when he's been on the court.
Signing Andre Iguodala and allowing Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack to leave has proven a prudent decision, but there is one trickle-down effect that must be rectified: This team is a dumpster fire when Stephen Curry leaves the floor. Dump-ster. Fire. With Curry on the floor, the Warriors score 109.8 points per 100 possessions, a rate only worse than Portland's league-best number. When Curry sits, the Warriors' 86.5 average would be the worst in the league by nearly 10 points.
Curry will play 40-plus minutes in the playoffs every night, but Mark Jackson has been playing him at a Thibodeauian rate of late—a totally irresponsible move considering Curry's noted ankle issues. Sam Amick of USA Today reported that Golden State has engaged the Bulls in an effort to land Kirk Hinrich, and it would be remiss if Andre Miller wasn't on the radar as well. Both are veteran guards who, at the very least, could help tread water and allow Iguodala to avoid playing a backup point guard role.
The Blazers and Rockets are interesting, mainly because they're perfect bedfellows in theory. Houston holds an asset (Omer Asik) who could be the difference between championship contention and being known as this year's nice story bounced early. Robin Lopez has been better than anyone could have expected, but Asik is one of the best handful of defensive centers in the league.
Asik was the difference between being abhorrent and solid enough last season on the defensive end, and while Lopez is a very solid rim protector, he's only been worth about two points. Adding Asik and keeping Lopez would be ideal, but Daryl Morey would likely demand the latter in any trade. And, seeing as this isn't a video game, I have a hard time seeing Morey being willing to deal with a fellow contender. Analytical types aren't usually beholden to the old-school avoidance of intra-conference trades, but this is a different scenario.
No matter, Houston needs to find an Asik partner, and soon. Teams are already deathly afraid of the $15 million balloon payment Asik is due for next season, and the longer he sits out, the less likely it is opposing general managers will pony up what Morey is looking for. Asik hasn't played since Dec. 2.
Who will win Western Conference?
We're looking at six teams, each flawed, each with at least one move to make, all with the chance to fundamentally alter the championship hierarchy. If the Thunder were willing to pay the luxury tax and give up the right assets, Arron Afflalo is waiting in Orlando as the perfect piece—one who could probably separate them from the pack. Houston is a perfect Channing Frye or Spencer Hawes destination. The Warriors must add a point guard. There isn't an obvious target for Portland (beyond Asik) or San Antonio, but R.C. Buford and Neil Olshey are among the league's most resourceful general managers.
There will be no stone left unturned, no possibility that goes undiscussed and no discussion that goes unreported. On the court and off, the Western Conference reigns supreme. I can't wait to see how it all shakes out.
(All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise cited.)
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