NBA

Making Sense of the Wild West's Race to the NBA Playoffs

Fred KatzFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2014

Making Sense of the Wild West's Race to the NBA Playoffs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    It seems like the Western Conference has been the class of the NBA forever, but this year, the divide is as apparent as it's been in decades.

    Take a list of the best 11 teams in the league, and it's possible nine of those squads come from the West. It seems almost impossible, but one conference is harboring more than 80 percent of the top-tier squads in the NBA.

    One team is going to earn the right to call home crying to their mommies and daddies about the rules at the end of the year. The Phoenix Suns would probably be third-best in the Eastern Conference, but right now they sit on the outside of the postseason looking in, qualified to make the playoffs on merit, but not on geography.

    So we sit and wait to find out what will happen over the last month of the season.

    Will the Suns get back into the hunt? Will the Memphis Grizzlies continue shooting up the Western Conference totem pole? Will the San Antonio Spurs finish with the best record in the league yet again?

    We've got about a fifth of the year remaining to find out for sure.

     

    *All statistics current as of March 20 and from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. 

9. Phoenix Suns (39-29)

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    You know you want the Suns to make it to the postseason. That is, you want that if you have a soul.

    The Suns are this year's upset team. They're the tanking-for-the-season squad that somehow isn't tanking at all.

    This team is different. There are so many unexpected surprises.

    Miles Plumlee. Goran Dragic. Gerald Green. Heck, just go ahead and pick a Morris and you'll be good to go.

    Now, though, the Suns find themselves as the No. 9 seed in the Western Conference, barely trailing the Dallas Mavericks and the surging Grizzlies, and that may be a problem as the season heads to a close.

    Phoenix desperately wants to make the playoffs. The last place this team wants to fall to is one in which it possesses the final pick in the lottery, but that seems like it may be the case for a group that could end up with close to 50 wins.

    That darn West. It's too tough.

    Phoenix has eight teams with a winning record remaining on the schedule. Compare that with 10 for Memphis, and maybe the Suns can catch up.

    Phoenix is, after all, only one game back of the No. 8 seed in the loss column.

    For now, though, the Suns just have to be glad they have a healthy Eric Bledsoe back in the starting lineup to complement Dragic, who has averaged 21.8 points per game on 53-45-72 shooting since Jan. 13. And for all we know, Phoenix's season may come down to when they match up with Memphis on April 14, the third-to-last day of the season.

    Dragic is on fire, and hopefully for the city of Phoenix, that means the Suns can get just hot enough to match their moniker as they close the year.

8. Dallas Mavericks (41-28)

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Do you like offense? 

    Good. Then you probably like the Dallas Mavericks.

    Dallas ranks fourth in the NBA in points per 100 possessions, and at this point, we should be marveling over Dirk Nowitzki far more than we are already.

    We do realize Nowitzki is on the fringe of throwing up a 180-shooting season, right? At 35 years old, if Nowitzki finishes the year with 50 percent overall shooting, 40 percent three-point shooting and 90 percent free-throw shooting, he'd become the second-oldest player in NBA history to do that, just barely younger than Steve Nash was in his final 50-40-90 season.

    Nowitzki's 49-39-92 shooting numbers mean he is close to having an historic year. And people kind of care. They care when they care about caring. But they don't honestly care.

    Basically, we don't notice him enough

    But we should. Nowitzki is an all-time great. The best shooting 7-footer of all time. 

    He's got a ring. He's got an NBA Finals MVP. He can still carry a top-five offense (we know that because he's doing it right now).

    The Mavs, though, don't have the easiest schedule in the world down the stretch, facing eight teams currently over .500 in their final 13 games. And that 22nd-ranked defense will make it tough for them to beat down squads who can score.

    Dallas needs to get into a shootout to win against the best, even though it did just blow out a Thunder squad that was missing Russell Westbrook. Ultimately, though, with only five road games left, the Mavericks can trend in either direction, and luckily for them, they find themselves in back of the Grizzlies by just percentage points.

7. Memphis Grizzlies (40-27)

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The Grizzlies are part of a strange phenomenon this year.

    Remember, this is a team that went to the Western Conference Finals last season. Granted, it got to face the Vinny Del Negro-led Los Angeles Clippers and the Russell Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder, but by playoff standards, this was the second-best team in the West.

    This year, Memphis is fighting for the No. 8 seed, barely in and barely out of the playoffs on any given day. But here's the catch: The Grizzlies may be better now than they were at any point last season.

    Memphis swapped a struggling Jerryd Bayless for a contributing Courtney Lee, who gives the Griz a desperately needed shooter on the wing. The offense is moving better, averaging 103.0 points per 100 possessions, up from last year's 101.7. And the defense is just as good.

    It's hard to look at the numbers with this team, because so many of those losses came without Marc Gasol.

    Gasol is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. He's easily the most valuable Grizzly, running the defense and, often, the offense. So the Grizzlies went 10-13 without their center on the floor.

    Since his return, though, Memphis is on a run, winning 21 of 29 games and taking sole control of the No. 8 seed in the West. 

    The Grizzlies may be climbing. It's possible we see them continue to rise, considering they sit just one back of the Golden State Warriors in the loss column.

6. Golden State Warriors (44-26)

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    The Warriors are one of those teams whose national reputation doesn't really match its actual play.

    Fans look at Golden State and think three things: Shooting, shooting and shooting.

    Steph Curry. Klay Thompson. Harrison Barnes. Even Andre Iguodala got himself off to an unusually hot start from three-point land at the beginning of the year.

    All those guys helped create some idea that the Warriors are an offensive-minded team that kind of lags on defense. But it's not true. None of that is right.

    Golden State ranks just 12th in points per 100 possessions. And it allows just 99.5 points per 100 possessions on defense, good enough for third in the league.

    The Warriors don't really score all that efficiently, and most of that has to do with their irrational love for isolation basketball. It's all about Mark Jackson's affinity for exploiting matchups. 

    Have a major height difference between two players guarding each other? Jackson's making sure the taller guy on his team gets the ball far more often than usual.

    Have a slightly slower guy on someone who's much quicker? Jackson's jumping at the first opportunity to get the rock into his player's hands.

    All Jackson wants to do is find inequalities within personnel, but sometimes, that's not the most effective way of getting the ball in the hoop. And because of that, the Warriors offense isn't among the best in the NBA.

    Maybe this reputation just developed because of Steph Curry.

    Maybe it's just a case of the casual fan taking the traits of a team's star player and placing them onto the squad as a whole. Curry is the best shooter in the league and is someone who doesn't exactly play the best defense in the world. So maybe fans think the rest of the team mimics that personality.

    But it's not true. The Warriors do play defense with Andrew Bogut, Iguodala and Thompson among others. And their offense is far from the land of the elite. 

    With only five of their final 12 games coming on the road, and with that unparalleled home-court advantage, we could see Golden State make a run for the No. 5 seed. After all, it's not like the Portland Trail Blazers are playing their best basketball of the year.

5. Portland Trail Blazers (45-24)

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    Oh, Trail Blazers. How weird are you?

    Portland started the year 24-5, all so that it could fall back in the standings as the season continued. The Blazers aren't a bad group; just a misleading one.

    This was never an .800 basketball team like the one we saw earlier in the year. It was never a .700 one. A group that relies so heavily on mid-range jump shots and contested threes can't sustain that level of greatness throughout a full season unless it plays with one of the stingiest defenses in the NBA.

    And the Blazers defense is far too generous to keep them in the elite category.

    Portland ranks 20th in points allowed per 100 possessions and plays a relatively conservative, low-reward brand of defense. The Blazers stay back on the pick-and-roll, and they switch more often than Cher changes costumes. And that's it. That's everything.

    The defensive strategy isn't really there, and neither is the defensive personnel. That's not exactly the best recipe for success if you're trying to make a deep playoff run.

    There's a reason the Blazers are just 21-19 since that 24-5 start. It's called regression. This number stuff...it's based on general truths. Hot starts tend to be just that: hot starts.

    So now, as they hold the fifth spot in the West, the Blazers are falling, and they continue to drop.

    Could they dip below Golden State to the No. 6 seed? Sure. 

    Could they plunge to seventh? If the Mavs start streaking, it's possible.

    How about eighth? OK, we won't answer this one just to save Blazers fans from having a heart attack.

    This team is good. It's very good. But so is the rest of the Western Conference, and even though we saw the Blazers fighting for the best record in the league not too long ago, it'd probably be a long shot to expect them to finish in the top four of the West. 

    Speaking of which...

4. Houston Rockets (46-22)

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Here's where we get to the class of the West, the top four. And the Houston Rockets may be in the better position to finish the season strong than the Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers or San Antonio Spurs.

    The Rockets have 14 games left on the schedule with one contest against each of those aforementioned top Western Conference teams. But remove those games from the schedule, and it seems like Houston may have 11 winnable contests left.

    Those other 11 opponents (with some duplicates like the New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets) combine for a .429 winning percentage. And on top of that, the Rockets are playing well.

    They may have recently dropped three straight, but that was against the Thunder, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. But those aren't embarrassing losses.

    Besides, Houston bounced back just fine, destroying the hopes of everyone in the states of Utah and Minnesota and trouncing the Jazz and Timberwolves by 38 and 23, respectively.

    The part of this team that should scare the Rockets down the stretch resides on the perimeter. Sure, those are where many of Houston's scorers are, but it's also where a team like this can get rocked in the postseason.

    The Rockets don't really have any defenders on the wings. 

    Patrick Beverley can annoy people, but he's not big enough to guard non-point guards on a consistent basis, and after him, who does Houston have?

    James Harden? Jeremy Lin? Chandler Parsons? Jordan Hamilton?

    All those guys are above-average to great players. And they all help the Rockets and contribute to the identity of this highly statistically minded team. But unfortunately, part of that identity is that no one can guard on the wings.

    So unless Dwight Howard turns into "2009 Dwight," the one who carried the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals (which, though unlikely, isn't impossible), it may be hard for Houston to make a run all the way through the West. But that doesn't mean the Rockets can't take out some teams come the postseason.

3. Los Angeles Clippers (48-21)

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Clippers are hot. They're burning.

    Though L.A. just lost in Denver, it has come out victorious in 11 of its past 12 games, and that trend may not change any time soon.

    Los Angeles is banged up, as injured as any other team in the NBA. They've played long stretches without Chris Paul. They've missed J.J. Redick for most of the season.

    Now, the Clips have run off this 11-of-12 stretch while missing Redick, Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison in parts. Everyone's hurt. There are no guards.

    Reggie Bullock is playing legitimate minutes. So is "the Professional," Willie J. Green. It's a weird situation, but the Clippers refuse to lose.

    And just as everything on this team tends to do, it all points back to Blake Griffin.

    At this point, Griffin is the best non-LeBron James power forward in the NBA. (Apologies to Kevin Love, Serge Ibaka, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki and Anthony Davis.)

    He's averaging 27.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 39 games since Dec. 26. He's become a more-than-reliable shooter from mid-range. He's one of the three or four best passing bigs in the NBA, and the way he gets a rebound and takes it coast to coast consistently is like no one else in the NBA except for LeBron.

    Griffin has earned his spot as the No. 3 MVP candidate. And as the Clippers' schedule winds down with five of their final six games of the year coming at Staples, the team with the best home record in the West should be able to head into the postseason as a hot candidate to win the conference.*

    *If healthy.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder (50-18)

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    The Thunder have dropped six of 13 and could end up limping into the playoffs, though it may just be a relative limp, considering the high standards we consistently throw Oklahoma City's way.

    OKC isn't healthy, and we don't really know how long it's going to take before they're at full strength.

    Kendrick Perkins is out. Thabo Sefolosha is sidelined. And even though Russell Westbrook is playing, he's not doing so everyday.

    Westbrook is living on the Dwyane Wade program now, sitting out half of back-to-backs and playing in the rest of the Thunder's games. 

    It seems like a reasonable precaution from OKC. The Thunder can't win a championship if they lose their starting point guard and second-best player for a second straight postseason. 

    So Oklahoma City has gone the intuitive route, prioritizing health over wins down the stretch. And that's fine. It's smart. It's the right thing to do. But it could also lead to it falling out of the No. 2 spot in the West.

    The Clippers are on a run. So are the Rockets. And the Thunder have four back-to-backs left on the schedule.

    Four. That's four games without Westbrook—at least.

    So can a team that's been struggling so much defensively of late hold onto the No. 2 seed without Russ in about a third of its remaining games? That's going to be tough. It could happen, but almost more realistically, we may see OKC fall to a lower-than-expected seed in this year's playoffs.

1. San Antonio Spurs (51-16)

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Is there anything to write about the Spurs? It's all the same. It's always the same.

    Why is it always the same?

    It's funny how little we pay attention to San Antonio at times. We always talk about how this team is boring, and therefore, it's ignored. But the Spurs aren't actually inherently boring.

    If a basketball-loving alien landed on Earth and had to watch the Spurs play (hang with me, here), he'd probably enjoy it. San Antonio runs an effective offense that scores a ton.

    Tony Parker is a blast to watch. Manu Ginobili makes unrealistically flashy passes and plays with the fluidity of the Parana River. San Antonio hits threes and moves the ball like no other team.

    It's always fun to watch. But you know what is boring? Winning.

    Yep, it sounds so counterintuitive, but the Spurs are boring just because they always win.

    What's exciting is not knowing what's going to happen, having some sort of doubt about an outcome. Games that go down to the wire or to overtime or to multiple overtimes are enthralling because fans grow more and more unsure of how they will end.

    We know how the Spurs' story ends—with a win. And now is that time of year again when the Spurs boringly won't stop winning.

    San Antonio has won 11 in a row with 15 games left in the season. A two-game lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder may help it hold off the rest of the West and earn a No. 1 seed for the seventh time under Gregg Popovich. And at this point, with all the uncertainty in the rest of the NBA, it might be the safest choice to pick the Spurs to win the Western Conference for a second year in a row, even if it is boring.

Key Western Conference Showdowns to Close the Season

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    March 22

    • Warriors vs. Spurs, 10:30 p.m. (NBATV)

    March 25

    • Mavericks vs. Thunder, 8 p.m. (TNT)

    March 27

    • Mavericks vs. Clippers, 8:30 p.m.

    March 28

    • Warriors vs. Grizzlies, 10:30 p.m.

    March 29

    • Rockets vs. Clippers, 8 p.m. (NBATV)

    March 30

    • Trail Blazers vs. Grizzlies, 9 p.m. (NBATV)

    April 1

    • Mavericks vs. Warriors, 8:30 p.m.

    April 2

    • Spurs vs. Warriors, 8:30 p.m.
    • Suns vs. Clippers, 10 p.m.

    April 3

    • Thunder vs. Spurs, 8 p.m. (TNT)
    • Mavericks vs. Clippers, 10:30 p.m. (TNT)

    April 4

    • Rockets vs. Thunder, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
    • Trail Blazers vs. Suns, 10 p.m.

    April 6

    • Spurs vs. Grizzlies, 7 p.m. (NBATV)
    • Suns vs. Thunder, 9 p.m. (NBATV)

    April 9

    • Clippers vs. Thunder, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

    April 10

    • Mavericks vs. Spurs, 8 p.m. (TNT)

    April 11

    • Spurs vs. Suns, 8:30 p.m.

    April 12

    • Mavericks vs. Suns, 8:30 p.m.

    April 13

    • Trail Blazers vs. Warriors, 9 p.m.

    April 14

    • Rockets vs. Spurs, 8 p.m. (NBATV)
    • Suns vs. Grizzlies, 10 p.m.

    April 16

    • Grizzlies vs. Mavericks, 8 p.m.
    • Trail Blazers vs. Clippers, 10:30 p.m.

     

    *All times in Eastern Standard Time.

    Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

     

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