Crowded NBA Western Conference Is Just a 4-Team Race

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2015

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Apologies are in order for 11 of the NBA's Western Conference teams.

Try as they might to keep up with the hustle and bustle of another brutally built title chase in 2015-16, they just won't. Because they can't.

The West, which is as deep as ever, is now a four-squad race consisting solely of the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. That's it.

Other worthy teams will feign contention. They will flirt with obnoxious win totals and remind the public at large just how ridiculously ruthless life in the West can be.

The Houston Rockets will look the part of a legitimate threat. The Memphis Grizzlies will grind their way into the championship conversation. The Utah Jazz are again going to surprise some people. Anthony Davis will carry the New Orleans Pelicans somewhere special.

In the end, though, the West's pursuit of an NBA Finals bid will unfurl within a four-team clique forged in the melting pot that is the offseason.

Golden State Warriors

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Entering the offseason, the Warriors had just one job: Stay the same.

Mission accomplished.

With the exception of trading David Lee to the Boston Celtics, the reigning champion Warriors are running it back for a repeat attempt. They locked up Draymond Green on a lucrative five-year deal and are even bringing back Leandro Barbosa.

And good for them.

There was no reason to make any substantive tweaks to this roster. Three of their five starters—Harrison Barnes, Green and Klay Thompson—are 25 years old or younger. Stephen Curry ranks as the second-oldest member of the starting unit, and the league MVP is only 27.

If the Warriors have anything to concern themselves with, it's the potentially depreciating play of Andrew Bogut. They were a statistical dud with him on the floor during the NBA Finals, and at 30 years old, he boasts the durability of a shore-line sand castle at high tide.

But now we're nitpicking. Bogut has cleared 65 appearances in each of the last two seasons and was the third-best rim protector among all qualified players in 2014-15. He should be fine.

Failing that, the Warriors have Green, their resident do-everything specialist. He can play center as part of super-duper small lineups and will do so without compromising Golden State's stingy defense.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

It also helps that the Warriors remain deep. Demonstratively deep. Andre Iguodala, a reserve for all but three games last season, won the NBA Finals MVP. That doesn't happen. And he's not alone.

Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Shaun Livingston and Marreese Speights are all serviceable second-unit talents. Head coach Steve Kerr, even without Lee, can stretch his rotation 10 players deep without worry.

Since these Warriors—these exact Warriors—just wrapped up a championship crusade in which they posted the eighth-best regular-season point differential ever, there's no reason to question their viability next season.

That Larry O'Brien Trophy is theirs until another team proves otherwise.

Los Angeles Clippers

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

For a moment or two, the Clippers appeared to be one of the offseason's biggest losers.

And then we blinked. 

DeAndre Jordan's decision to spurn the Dallas Mavericks and return to Los Angeles has the Clippers sitting pretty. So too does Paul Pierce's arrival. And the trade for Lance Stephenson. And the rich-get-richer signing of Josh Smith, per RealGM's Shams Charania.

Suddenly, even though coach and president Doc Rivers had virtually no money to spend this summer, the Clippers have gone from disturbingly shallow to formidably deep. And that's a problem for the rest of the Western Conference.

Clippers' 12-Man Depth Chart
PGSGSFPFC
Chris PaulJ.J. RedickPaul PierceBlake GriffinDeAndre Jordan
Austin RiversJamal CrawfordLance StephensonJosh SmithCole Aldrich
C.J. WilcoxWesley Johnson
Source: Basketball Insiders

An inferior version of this Clippers squadron was only one victory away from a trip to the Western Conference Finals last season. They maintained the league's best offense for the second straight year. Their starting five included three top-20 superstars, each of whom is still in his prime.

Now, they're better. And not only are they better, but they've fortified their greatest weaknesses.

The Clippers look absolutely absurd on paper these days.
The Clippers look absolutely absurd on paper these days.Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Small forward has absolutely buried the Clippers up until this point. It was statistically their worst position last season, and it wasn't even close, according to 82games.com. They now have three legitimate threats to play the 3 in Pierce, Stephenson and Wesley Johnson, all of whom were starters for their respective teams in 2014-15.

Bench play has previously killed the Clippers in general. Their second unit ranked in the bottom two of offensive and defensive efficiency last season, per HoopsStats.com—a lingering liability that aided in the team's second-round demise against the Rockets.

That same bench now enjoys a logjam, to the point where two-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford is available on the trade market, according to the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd, and cryptically tweeting about wishing he was a free agent:

Irrespective of what happens with Crawford, Rivers needn't struggle to coax seven actual NBA players out of his rotation anymore. He can run nine, maybe 10, deep without even thinking.

Best of all, thanks to his various mini-offseason coups, Rivers has more stylistic options than ever, as Eric Freeman noted over at Yahoo Sports: 

That increased lineup flexibility should be where Smith provides the most help. With marquee signing Paul Pierce able to play as a stretch-4, Rivers can go super small with Griffin, Smith, or potentially Glen "Big Baby" Davis (still a free agent) as a nominal center or play more classic lineups without sacrificing much quickness. Smith also joins Lance Stephenson as a new reserve with a collection of skills, all while minimizing the likelihood that the Clippers will have to depend on one of these often frustrating players to their own detriment. Adding Smith increases what the Clippers can do while simultaneously diffusing risk.

Re-signing Jordan always meant the Clippers would remain title contenders, even if they didn't make any other changes. Now that they've piled on more talent and surrounded their three superstars with weapons they need, it's time to watch out.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Alonzo Adams/Associated Press

After making an unexpected lottery appearance this past season, the Thunder are quickly becoming the NBA's forgotten contender.

Never mind that Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook are all stars, or that Oklahoma City outscored opponents by 11.4 points per 100 possessions with them on the floor last season, or that the Thunder own the league's fourth-best record since 2012-13 because of this three-player core. Let's throw them by the wayside after an injury-riddled 2014-15 and direct our attentions elsewhere.

Or not.

Look, there's no downplaying the significance of last year's injuries. Durant is 6'9" going on 7'0" and needed a bone graft in his right foot. That's terrifying, even at just 26 years old, if only because big men and foot injuries evoke a sense of painful nostalgia.

Are we actually about to doubt this team, though? When Durant missed just 16 games through his first seven seasons combined? When Westbrook just posted the third-highest player efficiency rating (29.1) of any guard in NBA history? When Ibaka, even while battling injuries, just became the first player to average two blocks while shooting at least 35 percent from deep in three different seasons?

Don't sleep on the Thunder after their 2014-15 hibernation.
Don't sleep on the Thunder after their 2014-15 hibernation.David Goldman/Associated Press

There are indeed a ton of questions the Thunder must answer leading into 2015-16. They have a new coach in Billy Donovan, who champions an offense that isn't conducive to Westbrook's 24/7/365 ball-dominating. They just committed five years and $70 million to a defensive turnstile in Enes Kanter, someone who makes no sense in the starting lineup but shouldn't play without Ibaka and the rim protection he provides.

Dion Waiters' own ball-dominating makes him an iffy fit for a second-unit role that demands he play off the rock. The health of Oklahoma City's Big Three will be a concern until it isn't.

Durant's free agency will draw the focus of the rumor mill throughout the year.

All of which may make for an overwhelming number of distractions—complications that could, in theory, turn the Thunder into a jilted juggernaut lurking on the outskirts of a top-four playoff seed.

Still, this is the same team that, despite injuries and James Harden's departure, has averaged the equivalent of 55-plus victories every season for the last half-decade. The Thunder have earned the benefit of the doubt—mostly because, when healthy, they're head and shoulders above it.

San Antonio Spurs

Eric Gay/Associated Press

How scary are the Spurs after signing LaMarcus Aldridge and David West, trading for Ray McCallum and securing the returns of Tim Duncan, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard?

Scary enough that Kerr is willing to offer Spurs coach Gregg Popovich a (friendly) win-the-championship-or-perish ultimatum for next season.

“You look at what San Antonio did getting Aldridge,” Kerr said during a chat on NBA TV, via For The Win's Mike Foss. “I mean if they don’t win the whole thing next year, it’s clearly the coach’s fault. I mean if Pop can’t win the whole thing with that roster, then he has no business coaching in this league.” 

That's not even kind of, sort of true, but you get the point.

The Spurs were one win away from nabbing the West's No. 2 seed last season. They ranked third in defensive efficiency. They finished seventh in offensive efficiency. They posted a better net rating than the 67-win Warriors when Leonard was on the floor (plus-12). 

Now they've gone and added a four-time All-Star who is still in his prime to their dynastic party without rattling their infrastructure beyond the departures of Aron Baynes, Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph and Tiago Splitter.

The Spurs are forever scary, but they should be especially menacing next season.
The Spurs are forever scary, but they should be especially menacing next season.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Immediately, on paper, they look like the biggest threat to Golden State's throne. Their foremost problem: figuring out how to maximize this embarrassment of riches.

To be sure, it is an actual problem. Aldridge isn't a touted rim protector, so as Seth Partnow opined for Nylon Calculus, the ramifications of adding him at the expense of Splitter could be vast—mostly for Duncan:

All is not lost, Aldridge has shown more of an appetite for defending the rim in post-season play, upping his overall contest% (as either primary or secondary defender) to a more respectable 39.6% over the last two playoff years and holding opponents to only 42.8% shooting on those contests. So perhaps he is able to use his length and bulk effectively to deter shots at the rim, and just prefers to avoid taking the night in, night out contact during the regular season, and the culture of high expectations in San Antonio will convince him to do so more regularly. But maybe not, and if not, a lot is riding on the legs of a player who will turn 40 during the first round of the playoffs in Duncan.

Acknowledging that the Spurs aren't infallible helps keep things in perspective. There's a reason why the NBA doesn't simulate the regular season, after all.

But let's be real: The Spurs have been transcending potential problems—mostly age—for years.

Incorporating a superstar like Aldridge, whose offensive skill set fits their overriding philosophies like a glove, into their championship-caging culture should be child's play.

The Wild, Wild, Basically Closed West

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Admitting that the West's top-most hierarchy is set before the season even tips off doesn't qualify as hyperbolic or overly presumptuous. Nor is it a knock on the Rockets, Grizzlies, Jazz, Pelicans or any other team that, as of now, plans on making a splash.

It's merely a fact founded upon lasting evidence, not just offseason whimsy.

Over the last three years, the four teams with the league's best combined records are the Spurs, Clippers, Warriors and Thunder. This is not a coincidence. The race to win the West won't just be a closed-door affair next season because it's a convenient narrative.

It will be an exclusive competition built for these four teams, by these four teams.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

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