How the NBA Western Conference Will Be Won
Unlike the woeful Eastern Conference, the NBA's Western Conference is thriving due to the prosperity of clubs like the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and many more.
It remains a foregone conclusion that the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers will eventually square off for the Eastern Conference title, but things in the West remain much more uncertain thanks to an array of talent that has produced eight teams with records above .500.
For context's sake, the Phoenix Suns—currently occupying the West's No. 8 seed—would own the No. 3 seed if they were in the East, which is probably why the team's Twitter account (in tandem with the Blazers) chose to troll the Association's inferior conference just a few months back.
And with competition growing increasingly fierce out West, it's time to break down the factors that will result in a conference title for the elite contenders, such as injuries, home-court advantage, favorable matchups and the timely emergence of role players.
All statistics are current as of Tuesday, Jan. 21 and were retrieved from Basketball Reference unless noted otherwise.
Who Has the Fewest Injuries?
Unfortunately, the biggest postseason X-factor is the one that teams won't be able to control.
As we saw last April with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the fortunes of a title contender can change in an instant when a key player suffers a long-term ailment.
In a sobering and disappointing turn of events, injuries have ravaged teams throughout the Association during the season's first half, and it feels safe to say that the health of a crucial contributor (or two) will eventually prohibit a team from reaching its full potential.
The last two years suggest as much.
In 2012, injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah held the Chicago Bulls back from making a run at an Eastern Conference title. Last year, No. 1-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder lost Russell Westbrook to a torn meniscus.
The real task will be finding the teams that are capable of withstanding injuries to multiple players and still make a run at Western Conference supremacy.
And with that depressing reality out of the way, it's time to pose a critical question.
Whose Role Players Will Step Up?
It's no secret that the West is the NBA's superior conference. Examining the depth of current playoff contenders tells us all we need to know.
And since we've already established that injuries are an inevitable and unfortunate part of the game, role players may wind up deciding who emerges with a conference title in hand.
Ponder this group of names for a brief moment: Marco Belinelli, Reggie Jackson, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lamb, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Jamal Crawford.
They are all capable of swinging a series, and we know that role players of their ilk have done it before. Just go back to the 2013 playoffs, when the likes of Beverley, Jackson and Danny Green all stepped up in big spots.
When Russell Westbrook went down, Jackson burst on the scene and averaged 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists over 11 playoff appearances and nine starts. Then Beverley, while making five starts for the injured Jeremy Lin, cemented his case to become Houston's starting point man by averaging 11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals in that first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
More importantly, though, it was Green who demonstrated the importance of a hot role player when he sunk 48.2 percent of his threes en route to an 11.1 point-per-game average and setting a new record for most triples made in an NBA Finals.
Heck, even Gary Neal proved how important depth was when he drilled six threes and racked up 24 points in San Antonio's 113-77 Game 3 win over the Miami Heat.
The focus will be on the superstars, but it's the Greens and Neals of the world who may prove to be the difference-makers when April and May roll around.
As the second half of the season approaches, one of the more significant storylines will be the race for home-court advantage and which teams need it to stay afloat.
Historically, we know that postseason upsets are hard to come by, although there may be an exception or two every year. Check out this 2013 article from SportingCharts for more info:
Breaking it down by seeding and conference, we see that the East 5th seed actually holds the best playoff winning percentage at .413, but the West 5th seed has the best chance of actually winning the series, at 28.6% chance compared to the East 5th seed at a 23.1% chance. As we progress through the lower seeds in each conference, we see the chances at pulling the upset continue to diminish. To that point, only four Eastern conference teams seeded 6th seed or lower over the last ten years won a playoff series, equating to 13.3% of the time.
Of course, the 2013 playoffs were a bit of an anomaly in that regard.
The Golden State Warriors overcame a sixth seed and defeated the Denver Nuggets in six games in the first round before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. We also saw both No. 5 seeds (Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies) win their first-round series. Furthermore, the Grizzlies went on to upset the Oklahoma City Thunder (sans Russell Westbrook) in five games during the second round.
Andrew Mooney of Boston.com has more on the plight of lower seeds:
Only two teams seeded lower than fourth have even made the Finals—the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets in 1995, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, and the eight-seed New York Knicks in the strike-shortened 1999 season. The vast majority of teams (81 percent) to play for the title have been the best or second best in their respective conferences in the regular season.
This year, several teams could benefit from a coveted top-four seed, specifically as it relates to home-court advantage.
Following Tuesday night, the Blazers and Thunder are 16-4 and 19-3 at home, respectively, while the Warriors have been 12-6 at home compared to 14-11 away from Oracle Arena.
And while it's essentially a foregone conclusion that the Spurs will wind up with a top-four seed, it's worth noting that they actually own a better winning percentage (83.3) on the road than at home (74).
At this juncture, the clubs that are arguably the most desperate for home-court advantage are the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets.
Following last Wednesday's win over the Dallas Mavericks, the Clips tied the Thunder with a then conference-best 18 wins at home. The story changes dramatically, though, when Doc Rivers' squad hits the road, as LA is an average 11-11 away from Staples Center.
The story is similar for the Rockets (current owners of the West's No. 5 seed), who are 17-6 at Toyota Center and 11-9 on the road.
We're still months away from playoff brackets being finalized, so trying to predict seeding isn't a valuable exercise at this point in time.
What are worth exploring, though, are the successes and struggles of various Western Conference contenders against one another midway through the 2013-14 campaign.
In this case, the most polarizing club is the San Antonio Spurs. While Gregg Popovich's boys are plugging along with a conference-best winning percentage of .780, they've struggled against several elite clubs out West.
Specifically, they are a combined 1-7 against the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers. The only silver lining is that they're a combined 4-0 against the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, who could wind up being San Antonio's opposition in the first and second rounds, respectively.
And for the most part, the rest of the West is a mixed bag when it comes to the records of the conference's top six seeds in head-to-head matchups.
Houston is 2-0 against the Blazers but 0-2 against the Clippers, which would be bad news if the playoffs started on Jan. 21, as LA and Houston occupy the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds.
According to NBA.com's stats database, the Clips are scoring 118.2 points per 100 possessions in their two wins against the Rockets, which is the second most they're scoring against any Western Conference foe, although they own the second-worst defensive efficiency against West playoff teams of any Western conference playoff team, per CBS Sports' Matt Moore.
The Rockets also happen to be 2-0 against the Spurs, 2-0 against the Warriors and 0-2 against the Thunder. Further, Oklahoma City, which has owned the Rockets, is limiting Houston to 91.3 points per 100 possessions (the fewest of any conference opponent) this season, according to NBA.com.
Outside of losses to the Rockets, Portland has done well, accumulating a combined record of 7-3 against its stoutest competition, while the Thunder and Clips own records of 8-4 and 5-4, respectively, against the conference's best.
But aside from San Antonio, the biggest surprise has been Mark Jackson's Warriors, who find themselves 2-8 within the contending group, which doesn't bode well for a squad that's just 6-4 in January and hovering outside of the top four.
Drawing a conclusion based off a half-season sample isn't the easiest thing to do at this juncture, but if nothing else, it has become clear that the breadth of talent in the West means we can't label one team as the unanimous favorite to capture the conference crown.
Can Anyone Slay San Antonio?
There may not be a consensus No. 1 team in the West, but the San Antonio Spurs continue to own bragging rights as the conference's reigning champions.
Not only do Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili still own the title belt, but they're backing up last season's 58-win campaign with 32 wins through 41 games, putting them on pace for 64 victories in 2013-14.
Sure, they're not as sexy as the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers or Los Angeles Clippers, but the Spurs are as consistent as they come.
What's really scary is that the Spurs are scoring the ball more efficiently than they were last year.
After pouring in 108.3 points per 100 possessions in 2012-13, the Spurs are now scoring nearly two points more per 100 possessions and own the league's third-best offensive rating, according to Basketball Reference.
In addition, San Antonio is the only team in the NBA that ranks among the top five in both offensive and defensive rating, per Basketball Reference. Factor in that the Spurs' net rating of 8.82 ranks second behind the Indiana Pacers, and it's clear that they're going to be a tough out.
The counter-argument, of course, is that the West has improved dramatically from a year ago, meaning the Spurs won't have the luxury of facing a depleted Los Angeles Lakers team (No. 7 seed), an up-and-coming Golden State squad (No. 6 seed) and the gritty Memphis Grizzlies (No. 5 seed) on the road to the NBA Finals.
And if the Thunder have a healthy Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook tandem or Portland's defense rises to the middle of the pack in terms of defensive efficiency (currently No. 20 overall thanks to surrendering 107.7 points per 100 possessions), the fight to represent the West will become even more intense.
However, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale recently noted, the Blazers still have work to do in order to become a championship-caliber club on the defensive end, even if they do wind up showing incremental improvement in the short term:
The last team to win a title while ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. Nearly 13 years have elapsed since then. This isn't a trend meant to be broken; it's a pattern meant to be followed.
As the first half of the season has demonstrated, the Spurs are absolutely fallible. In the big picture, though, they deserve consideration as the conference's best based on their track record of postseason excellence.