"Elite" is a word that gets thrown around in plenty of sports conversations, and the NBA isn't exactly a league willing to provide an exception.
We talk about whether John Wall has become an elite point guard and how long it will take for Michael Carter-Williams to join him in such a class. We talk about how the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and how plenty of squads are fighting to earn the same title in the West.
In some ways, "elite" gets used too often, to the point that it marginalizes the impact that word has on us. But what does it actually mean?
Everyone has a different definition, and it depends on both the topic of conversation and the landscape of non-elite entities that serves as a backdrop to the one in question. An elite player may be a top-five guy at his position, or he could be an All-Star starter. He could be the best center in the league or the No. 7 point guard in the Association, thanks to the depth of the positions.
Definitions vary, but it's necessary we determine a working one before analyzing which Western Conference teams are truly elite. You're welcome to come up with your own, but mine revolves around the concept of that landscape serving as a backdrop.
To be elite, a team (or a player, though that isn't relevant in this conversation) has to stand out from the rest of the pack. It has to establish itself as the class of the group—which, not so coincidentally, is quite similar to the official definition provided by Merriam-Webster.com.
The gap is what's relevant, not the overall quality. And based on that definition, you can come up with two strikingly different groups of elite teams in the NBA's stronger conference.
Argument No. 1: There Aren't Any
Who has stood out as the class of the Western Conference?
The Oklahoma City Thunder, who currently sit atop the standings with a slim three-game lead? The San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers? After all, they've spent time at the top and are only a handful of contests behind Kevin Durant and Co.
How about nobody?
That may seem like a strange statement, given the state of the two conferences. The Eastern Conference has been universally lambasted as one of the weakest sets of squads in basketball history, to the point that Grantland's Bill Simmons called it "the NBA's E-League." Even the Blazers joined in on the fun:
Is it too late to join the Eastern Conference? Asking for a friend.— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 4, 2013
Meanwhile, its counterpart generally earns the opposite reputation. So it's understandable to immediately read that prior question and sit back with a puzzled expression.
The stronger conference should have the elite teams, not the weaker one. Right?
Not exactly, because it's all about providing context and setting that landscape that is going to serve as the backdrop for measuring elitism.
Naturally, we have to start at the top of the conference. OKC has a three-game lead on Rip City, so do we want to call the Thunder elite? If we do that at the expense of the West's 14 other teams, then we can eliminate the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference, since they trail the Pacers by an identical margin.
But that's silly, because the Heat have such an advantage on the remaining teams in the conference, and they've clearly established themselves as contenders for a title, which would just happen to be the three-peat-completing one.
It's not an insult to the West to say that nobody has stood out. In fact, look at a visual representation of the winning percentages in each conference, starting with the East:
And now the West:
The strength of the conference defies a natural cutoff point. While one has clearly emerged between the Heat and Atlanta Hawks, the only similar gap would lead us to conclude that a non-playoff team is an elite squad in the West.
That's obviously not true.
Fortunately, there's another way to conceptualize this.
Who's going to play in the Eastern Conference Finals?
If your answer was anything other than the Pacers and the Heat, then you're either a ridiculously biased fan of another team, or you're banking on an upset for which there is sparse evidence. At best.
Those two are the prohibitive favorites to be the last pair standing in the East, so it's only logical that they're the elite squads.
Now, who's going to play in the Western Conference Finals?
You probably have no idea. I certainly don't.
Cases can be made for the Thunder, Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Blazers, Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors. Hell, you could realistically argue that the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies are dangerous enough they could advance through the first rounds of the postseason.
The conference is mired in uncertainty, and that prevents any set of teams from being called elite. It's not an indictment of the West's strength; quite the opposite, in fact.
While the weakness of the East has created two clear-cut elites, the strength of the West has prevented the same statuses from being bestowed upon any team.
However, what if we change the landscape?
Argument No. 2: There Are Elite Teams
The entirety of the previous argument rests upon the fundamental assumption that we should be comparing teams in the Western Conference to other teams in the West. But what if we looked at the NBA as a whole?
Let's use the visual representations of records one more time, this time grouping together teams from each set of 15. For purposes of space and the inherent insanity of calling a bottom-15 team "elite," we'll only be looking at the top half of the NBA standings:
Now there are more than a few options, and they all involve at least one team from the West.
That chart—which is zoomed in to emphasize the tiers—shows a more significant stair-step pattern, but there are plenty of different levels reached before you get to the third team in the East (represented by the blue bars).
Pick which one you want to hone in on, because this is now more of a subjective decision.
Want to call Portland and up elite? Fine.
Feel like including the Rockets and everyone else with a better record? That works too.
Deciding to be generous and giving credit to the Suns and Warriors as well? Now you're stretching it, but you won't receive much strong opposition.
It's all because the question is shifting here. Whereas it dealt with conference-oriented tasks like making the penultimate round of the playoffs during the previous argument, it now centers around a much simpler inquiry.
Who can win a title?
So long as we're basing the quality of a team on the ultimate measure of success (wins), that's the question at the heart of being elite on an NBA-wide scale. And even though the Western Conference is so packed together that it prevents teams from being elite when compared to each other, the Eastern Conference is weak enough that more enter into the equation.
While you'd get looked at funny if you claimed the Hawks could hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy—even though they sit at No. 3 in the East—you could make a legitimate case for Golden State. You know, the same team that holds down the fort at No. 7 in the West.
The concept of "elite" is all about context.
Don't be afraid to use that word when describing a team in the Western Conference, but don't let it stand alone either. Without explaining yourself, "elite" is a meaningless descriptor.