NBA Insider: West Playoff Race Headed for Surprisingly Early Conclusion

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterDecember 31, 2014

Nelson Chenault/USA Today Images

This should be a buoyant time for the New Orleans Pelicans, a time of boundless possibilities. There should be confidence in Phoenix, optimism in Sacramento and hope in Denver. There should be.

So we present this premise as delicately and respectfully as we can: The Western Conference playoff race is over. Sorry, was that too blunt?

It is perhaps unwise to speak in absolutes on Dec. 31, with two-thirds of the season still ahead, with trades to be made and injuries to be reckoned with, but it's hard to get around the notion that the West's elite eight are already set, or soon will be.

Six teams will carry a .600-or-better winning percentage into the new year: the Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers.

The San Antonio Spurs, the NBA's defending champions, will be close behind them.

The Phoenix Suns hold eighth place for now, but their stay will be temporary, like those well-dressed seat-fillers at the Oscars. The stars of the Oklahoma City Thunder will be supplanting them soon enough.

And there it is, your 2015 Western Conference playoff field. Barring an unforeseen catastrophe (or several), would any objective person argue otherwise?

"It's a serious situation," Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw recently conceded, with his team still in shouting distance of the eighth seed. "Right now, it's hard to envision any of those teams that are basically in the top seven spots right now sliding out. So there's really a handful of teams that are vying for the eighth spot in the West, and that's pretty much the only thing that's right now possibly attainable."

December 18, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) dribbles the basketball against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) during the second quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Thunder 114-109. Ma

Reigning MVP Kevin Durant, who has missed 23 games, is expected to rejoin the Thunder lineup Wednesday night, just in time to play the Suns. It's only a matter of time before the Thunder seize a top-eight position.

For everyone else, "It doesn't look good," Shaw said. "But if we're going to do anything and try to get that spot, we got to do it now."

Consider this one more unfortunate effect of the imbalance between East and West. In the Eastern Conference, the Suns and their flashy backcourt would be the sixth seed. Pelicans star Anthony Davis would be anticipating his postseason debut, and strengthening his MVP campaign. DeMarcus Cousins would be giving Sacramento a reason to rattle the cowbells again. In the West, they are lame ducks.

On the plus side, we might soon witness the most competitive, unpredictable and thoroughly mesmerizing Western Conference playoff bracket ever. But seven franchises have almost no hope this season. And that could have consequences.

Failure to make the playoffs could cost some executives and coaches their jobs, as unfair as that would be under the circumstances. Finishing in the lottery will certainly cost Cousins and Davis a lot of MVP votes, despite their stellar individual work.

The glut of power teams has also inspired a bit of an arms race at the top. The Mavericks, who already boasted the NBA's top offense, acquired Rajon Rondo. A week later, the Rockets signed Josh Smith.

League executives expect to see more of the same in the coming weeks, with the West's other contenders scrambling to add talent.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

"It's a competitive league, and we're in the Western Conference of that competitive league, which increases it all the more," Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro said. "I don't think there's an owner in the West that feels that they can sit back when you see two teams really get better like that. So yeah, I think it does add a little bit of pressure on the rest of the teams."

But this much is true, too: Those teams hovering just below the playoff bracket, which in a normal year could crack the field with one smart trade, have scant hope of doing so this season. That could push some teams (notably Denver) to shift direction entirely, and start auctioning off rotation players, with an eye on the future.

The Kings, who have been backsliding ever since the firing of coach Michael Malone, are not quite ready to concede the season, however.

"This league, it's a league of injuries, it's a league of things that happen, chemistry," D'Alessandro said. "And you've seen things happen really fast in this league. So I don't think we buy into the notion of, 'Well, it's locked to eight.' We really don't believe that.

From our perspective, it's: How are we getting better? How are we pursuing that spot?"

The Kings are thrilled with Cousins' progression, with Rudy Gay's evolution as a supporting star, with Darren Collison's surprising play at point guard and with Ben McLemore's rapid growth. If they see an opportunity to add another impact player, the Kings will do so—the standings be damned.

"We believe we can do it," D'Alessandro said. "And we want our players as well to kind of have that same feeling, and I think they do have that feeling."

It's the right sentiment. It's a defensible stance. But everything we've seen this season contradicts it. The Western Conference race is over.

Five Things to Look for in 2015

1. A Truly Awesome, Action-Packed, Thoroughly Compelling MVP Race

Dec 30, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) saves a loose ball during the first quarter of a game against the Phoenix Suns at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

By my count, at least 11 players merit consideration at the two-month mark: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Marc Gasol, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard and LeBron James.

This is as competitive a race as I can recall in my 18 years covering the league. Kevin Durant's long injury absences will probably prevent him from repeating as MVP. The Cavs' struggles—along with a drop in productioncould imperil James' bid for a fifth award.

It's likely the player clutching the Maurice Podoloff Trophy this spring will be a first-timer.

2. Cleveland Acquiring a Big Man Before the Feb. 19 Deadline

The Cavs badly needed frontcourt help, even before Anderson Varejao was lost to a season-ending Achilles injury. Cleveland has three key trade chips: Brendan Haywood, whose $10.5 million contract for 2015-16 is nonguaranteed; a $5.4 million trade exception; and the promising/infuriating package that is Dion Waiters.

3. Knicks Fans Embracing the Pain

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 27: Shane Larkin #0 of the New York Knicks looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on December 27, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

The New York Knicks never intended to be this horrendous. But their awful start (5-28) has a silver lining: They actually own their first-round pick next June and are on pace to draft in the top three. That would be their highest selection since 1985, when the Knicks won the first-ever draft lottery and landed Patrick Ewing.

They haven't drafted any higher than fifth since 1986 (Kenny Walker). If ever there were a time for New York to cheer for misery, this is it.

4. Another Attempt at Lottery Reform

Seventeen ownerssix shy of the required supermajorityvoted in favor of immediate changes to the lottery when the subject came up in October.

Some teams were concerned with the timing of the vote, others with the details of the proposed new format. But there's enough momentum for reform, in general, to expect another proposal and another vote in 2015.

This time, expect it to pass.

5. Sponsor Logos on NBA Jerseys…or Steps Toward It

A number of league insiders are convinced that corporate logos are coming soon, based on changes to the NBA uniform. The league moved its dribbling-man logo (also known as Jerry West) to the back of its jerseys this season, creating more open real estate on the front.

The special Christmas Day jerseys featured a minimalist lookteam logo in the center, player number beneath itthat also looked like an attempt to create advertising space.

Insider's Take

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 18: Head coach Jason Kidd of the Milwaukee Bucks coaches Brandon Knight #11 against the Sacramento Kings on December 18, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

A year ago, Jason Kidd was a flailing, soda-spilling, assistant-firing, insecure rookie head coach leading an expensive, underachieving Brooklyn Nets team. The critics were not kind.

"He doesn't do anything," a veteran scout told Bleacher Report in November 2013.

The scout dinged Kidd for a wafer-thin playbook, for delegating all of the play-calling to his assistants and for having a "terrible" comportment on the bench.

One messy exit later, Kidd is coaching in Milwaukee and presiding over one of the NBA's early success stories. The Bucksyoung, spry and eagerare currently sixth in the East, and on pace for a 26-win improvement over last season, when they were an NBA-worst 15-67.

So we asked the same scout for a reassessment.

What's changed?

"Confidence. You know what he wants to run. He's got a young team, so it's different. They listen to him. Right away they have automatic respect for him. They play really, really hard, which is part of being a young team. But they have something to prove. So it's a totally different dynamic from when he took over in Brooklyn to what he's taken over there. But they have a lot of talent, and they're playing hard."

On Kidd's comportment: "He's comfortable; he's calling plays. A much bigger playbook. He has to call the plays, because he's got young guys. Brandon [Knight] still calls them, but it's not like Deron [Williams], who was running everything last year."

On the change of scenery: "I think it's having a young team, and I think it's having a year under his belt. Lower expectations help. Knowing that you have complete trust from your ownership (and front office), that helps."

On Kidd's coaching imprint: "I think that their playing fast helps. They're moving the ball, pretty good defensively, but they're aggressive. They're playing kind of like [Kidd] played. They're more a mirror of him."

So, we asked, can we now consider Kidd a good coach?

"He is a better coach now than he was a year ago."

The One-Question Interview

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 27: Head Coach Derek Fisher of the New York Knicks coaches Carmelo Anthony #7 against the Sacramento Kings on December 27, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Derek Fisher, like so many others before him, is struggling to revive the woeful New York Knicks. The roster is nearly devoid of talent. It's seemingly incapable of running the triangle offensethe system beloved by Knicks president Phil Jackson.

Two months into his coaching career, Fisher is already being picked apart by impatient fans and pundits.

I asked Denver Nuggets coach Brian ShawFisher's former Los Angeles Lakers teammate and fellow Jackson disciplewhat advice he would give his old friend.

"What you believe in, you have to keep on coaching. He knows. He's won five championships as a player. He's been part of an organization that expects championships, and anything less than that is not considered a successful season. He'll persevere. All the experiences that he had to deal with in L.A., that I had to deal with in L.A., did nothing but prepare him for what he's going through right now."

Shaw made his head coaching debut last season, in the relative calm of the Rocky Mountains. Fisher has the added challenge of the New York spotlight.

"It's a different type of pressure," Shaw said. "But I don't know that it would be any better if any other coach was in that seat, with the same personnel and the same circumstances.

"I know there's some resistance (to the triangle). When Phil first came to L.A. and first introduced the triangle, there was resistance to it. Kobe [Bryant] resisted it, because he felt like it limited his game. And until the players really buy into it and they really trust, it's not going to happen for them."

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.