The NBA Playoffs are fast approaching with only a few games left on regular season schedules. Those few who have already solidified their place are on auto-pilot while a respectable few are also playing hard in the hope of building toward next season (Jazz, Wolves). Then there are the rest (Sixers, Knicks) who don’t seem to be playing for anything other than losses (and Jahill Okafor). Below, I will breakdown each team in the West and guide you through some scenarios of how their playoffs will play out.
All Season, NBA analysts, friends, family, loved ones, and even people who don’t care much about basketball have jumped on the Golden State Warriors bandwagon. This is reasonable behavior given that they boast a young, exciting backcourt and have compiled a top win/loss record not seen since the Phoenix Suns of the Steve Nash days. Like those Suns, however, I am omitting them from this section for reasons mentioned later in the article and will instead focus on the San Antonio Spurs (defending NBA and father-time champs), the Los Angeles Clippers (still the little brother in LA), and the Memphis Grizzlies (whose grit’n grind basketball philosophy can be confused with how I drive manual transmission). Jokes aside, these teams all have the necessary components to either expose match-up inefficiencies or defend against them as well.
The San Antonio Spurs have not (as many believe) gotten better with age, but because of their willingness to play seldom used players while their elder statesmen rest. In this way, players like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, and Cory Joseph are able to develop while also make it harder for coaches to prepare for such a team with many unique line-ups. Next time you see a unique Popovich substitution pay off with a 6-0 run, remember that its mostly a product of the other team not being able to handle the skill-sets on the floor at the time. This is the genius of Greg Popovich. He understands that the NBA is loaded with talent and rather than go “all-in” with playing his main guys all of the time, he diversifies his time so that other promising talent emerges to keep the machine humming. It isn’t like the Spurs magically make their players drink the “Michael Jordan’s secret stuff” from Space Jam. A guy like Derrick Williams would thrive on a team like the Spurs because they would essentially give him ample playing time and put him in positions where he can succeed (mostly a dunking, rebounding role). The Spurs bench is arguably the greatest strength of their team, but this brings me now to their key cogs.
For one, Kawhi Leonard has emerged as the best perimeter defender in the NBA. His combination of length, athleticism, and mostly discipline allows him to disrupt virtually any offense. He can guard any position between 1 to 3 (sometimes 4 depending on the team) which gives the Spurs a major advantage against more perimeter-oriented squads (Warriors, Trailblazers, Thunder, Mavericks). Even though Danny Green isn’t in Kawhi’s realm defensively, he is just as disciplined which gives them another steady defender on the outside. Additionally, the Duncan-Parker combination is still as deadly as ever only now they have a bench and 3 other starters who can all put up 15 on any given night. This combination of depth, defense, and interior presence (Duncan, Splitter) should make them favorites to reach the Western Conference Finals no matter who they face.
Verdict: At least a West Finals appearance.
Who are we kidding, the Los Angeles Clippers will always be the little brother to the Lakers. Like a little brother, however, they are desperate to always beat the elder even though the elder may not even know it (just ask my older brother). Chris Paul epitomizes this competitiveness; arguing every call, flopping around, and just being an officials worst nightmare. Nevertheless, Paul should be considered the best point guard of the decade capable of carrying a team at any moment. Blake Griffin, the other notable superstar, has legitimized himself as a mid-range and interior presence while DeAndre Jordan supplements them with a defensive activity mindset.
Where the Clippers lack is mostly on their bench and shooting guard position. The JJ Redick – Jamal Crawford combination and Matt Barnes can provide scoring and toughness (sometimes confused with defense) respectively, but they are often inconsistent, making life more difficult for the aforementioned trio. Needless to say, the Clippers will scrap against any opponent and Chris Paul is capable of uplifting this team to a good chance of playing in the West Finals. Whether or not they make the West Finals will depend on Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan who, based on their play this year, are primed to do so. On a good night, Austin Rivers shows enough flashes to be a good player in the league for many years and the playoffs will be his coming out party much like it was for Darren Collison last year.
Verdict: Great chance of a West Finals Appearance.
The much talked about acquisition of Boston Celtic Jeff Green (I keep thinking to myself; “how do these abusers of analytics like Hinkie and Presti still have jobs?”) further legitimized the Grizzlies as a team to beat in the West adding much needed athleticism and scoring at the small forward position. To a lesser extent, Jeff Green has the exact traits I described in the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard and thus puts the Grizzlies in a place very similar to San Antonio. The Grizzlies are anchored by their big man duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph with consistency at the point guard position in Mike Conley. The Grizz offensive philosophy preaches interior play and staunch defense, all of which are strategies that work well come playoff time.
Although they are very similar to the Spurs, the Grizzlies lack the variability in scoring that the Spurs possess. Opposing coaches will game plan to limit the offensive production of Gasol and Z-Bo (much easier said than done), but if so the Grizzlies lack the offensive identity to counteract this scenario. While their bench is perhaps overlooked in the league (I see you Beno!), they too are under-average in terms of offensive production.
Verdict: Good chance of West Finals Appearance, but less of a chance than the Clips. The difference between the Grizzlies and Clippers is quite simply; Chris Paul.
It is hard to categorize the West in tiers because every team is amazing, but here we will place the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. I’m sure I am both simultaneously receiving head nods for the Rockets and head shakes for the Warriors but I will explain why they fall out of the first pack.
The Houston Rockets are led by a likely MVP in James Harden (again, how does Sam Presti have a job? He also traded Eric Bledsoe in case that didn’t make my case). James Harden is a legitimate scorer who frustrates opponents into fouls and closely resembles a young Dwyane Wade in the free throw shooting aspect of his game. While still only in his mid-20’s, Harden is actually slowly becoming one of the best shooting guards of our time (I will show you the stats!). Even though the Rockets might seem like a one-man show, they have quite a bit of talent in Terrence Jones, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, and Trevor Ariza. Typing that lineup about 3 years ago might have looked a lot more scarier than it is now, but they, nonetheless, have the talent necessary to advance past the initial rounds.
For the same reason as the potential talent of the list of players I typed above, I have little faith in how these players will realize that talent. Brewer and Smith were mid-season acquisitions and are now relied upon heavily for minutes, while the Montiejunas-Papanikolau combination isn’t particularly dominant (defensively or offensively). Additionally, the roster in general is well past its prime in the frontcourt (Howard and Smith) so they will struggle mightily with teams who are able to expose them here. Should they exit the playoffs early, another analytics abuser, Daryl Morey, will have many questions about the future of this roster. I loved the acquisitions of Nick Johnson (Draft) and K.J. McDaniels (acquired from Philly analytics “savant” Hinkie) and the Rockets may stand a decent chance if they allocate minutes to these young, explosive, and defensive minded players. Otherwise, look for an early exit from these Rockets. Based on how frequently they seem to playing Jason Terry, that’s what I predict.
Verdict: First Round Exit depending on the match-up. Otherwise, will not advance past the second round.
The Golden State Warriors have been very consistent all season in the process of amassing one of the best win/loss records in NBA history. Their young guard combination of Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry is perhaps the most exciting in the league and they have a defensive versatility unlike any other team in NBA history. The Warriors essentially play a roster composed entirely of small forwards who play strong defensively, cut to the basket, and can score 10 to 15 on any given night (Shaun Livingston,Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguoudala). What makes the Warriors so tough to play is that any combination of these guys having a bad game will be offset by a good game output from another player. That is not to mention that they boast two of the league leaders in scoring.
For all the strengths that the Warriors have as mentioned before, they legitimately lack in one critical area where the first tier of teams can expose them; height. Basketball is obviously a sport where height can be the one most telling advantage (ask my high school team) and the Warriors will not fare well against the bigger bodies of the Spurs, Grizzlies, or Clippers (look at what happened last year). Andrew Bogut and David Lee are basically much worse versions of the Jordan – Griffin combination in LA and are the only defenders of size. Draymond Green does have the body to bang with the likes of bigger players but he is also much shorter than an average 4 and a natural small forward. The Warriors would have been wise to add another piece like Jason Thompson of Sacramento, but alas their style of play come playoff time will not continue and they will only advance past round 1.
Verdict: First Round Series Win. Second Round Elimination.
The Dark Horses
At the beginning of the season, the Portland Trailblazers and Dallas Mavericks were in similar positions, that being they were up-and-coming teams primed to advance further after defeats at the hands of the eventual NBA champion Spurs. Both teams also have unique and similar players in LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki who play stretch 4 but are skilled enough to take any big man off the dribble. Their point guard play is also similar when we compare Damian Lillard and Monta Ellis who score in bunches and are the arguable leaders of their teams.
The nature of injuries in the NBA is a tough and unpredictable reality of the league. Title hopes can vanish in an instant which is precisely what the Trailblazers experienced with the loss of their own “Kawhi Leonard” player in Wesley Matthews. Matthews provided defense and scoring which would have proved of tremendous value in the playoffs. Nevertheless, I label the Blazers as dark horses largely because their stars (Lillard and Aldridge) remain in tact. Having an backcourt/frontcourt all-star combination bodes well in the playoffs and they have nice pieces in Robin Lopez, Nic Batum, and Arron Afflalo who fill the gaps in areas other than scoring.
Perhaps the Blazers biggest weakness (as was last year, but now to a lesser extent) is their bench. The additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake helped to maintain the consistency of play and they do have scoring off the bench in CJ McCollum, Dorell Wright, and Allen Crabbe. Meyers Leonard and Chris Kaman are also closer to 7 feet which is a huge bonus defensively against other bigs. For some reason, NBA GM’s do not like Thomas Robinson and what he brings, but he too would have provided a physical presence upfront. Despite these roster changes, the Blazers bench is still relatively weak compared to league counterparts. Having Arron Afflalo and Thomas Robinson come off the bench would have bolstered this unit tremendously, but unfortunately the Blazers are now faced with dark horse status rather than “Juggernaut” as where I would have likely placed them before.
Verdict: Probable first round exit. Very unlikely past the second round.
The Dallas Mavericks, opposite to the Trailblazers, inflicted against their own contendership status after trading away much of their depth for the promise of hitting it big with Rajon Rondo. Even though the Mavericks boast a formidable starting lineup anchored by Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler, and Rajon Rondo, they have virtually no depth beyond that other than Devin Harris and Al-Farouq Aminu. At the beginning of the season, the Mavericks’, like the Spurs, greatest strength was its bench. In addition to having Harris and Aminu, they also featured the likes of the long-armed Brandan Wright, veteran-savvy Jameer Nelson, and promising Jae Crowder. At his peak, Rajon Rondo was a triple double machine and great defensively but that was also on a Celtics team that featured 3 hall of fame players and perhaps the greatest defensive anchor in league history (Kevin Garnett). Perhaps the best aspect of that trade in terms of the future was packaged with Dwight Powell, a power forward rookie out of Stanford who projected much higher than drafted and showed great promise during the season but now plays sparingly (for some reason Charlie Villanueva plays more often).
Despite all the drawbacks of the Rondo trade, the Mavericks still have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs although their hopes now hinge on Dirk Nowitzki rather than the bench that was previously devastating opponents. At his age, Dirk still poses many problems for opposing defenses and he has probably his best sidekicks in Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons to help alleviate the scoring load. Rick Carlisle should be regarded as the best coach from an X’s and O’s perspective so they too have that going for them as well. The West is brutal and because of their seeding the Mavs may have to play a team mentioned previously so unfortunately for them and the Dirk Nowitzki championship window, the trade of depth for Rajon Rondo will ultimately prove fatal to their chances. Had they stayed the course with their overwhelming bench, the Mavericks would also have been a “juggernaut” and eerily similar to the San Antonio Spurs.
Verdict: Very Likely First Round Exit. Extremely unlikely past round 2.
Injuries and Hero Ball
Currently, there is a tight race between the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder for the 8 seed. These two teams are trending in opposite directions with the Pelicans surging and depleted Thunder losing most of their core in Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. They are similar, however, in that they share perhaps two of the most dynamic players in league history with “the (uni)brow” Anthony Davis leading the Pels and Russell “Why Not?” Westbrook leading the Thunder. Davis is a double-double machine on steroids capable of putting up numbers like 40 points, 20 rebounds on any given night and Westbrook is the triple-double machine unlike anything we have seen since the days of MJ. I would even fathom to say that if we placed Michael Jordan in today’s league, he would be Russell Westbrook. Unfortunately there can only be one, but I will break down both teams just in case.
The New Orleans Pelicans (as mentioned before) are led by Anthony Davis and his unibrow. When I think of Anthony Davis and watch him destroy the league, I recall my days playing NBA video games as a young chap. I would create my own player with maxed out abilities in every category and make him 7 foot 6. To put it this way, Anthony Davis is the closest to that unstoppable fantasy creature. While Davis assumes the power forward position, the Pelicans are actually well-balanced across their line-up with promising young players at each position. Tyreke Evans was once considered to be a potentially smaller Lebron James but has been marred by inconsistency. This season he has played well as second banana to Anthony Davis, but unless he finds that hidden potential in the playoffs, the Pels are in trouble round 1.
The remaining roster is a good balance of offense, defense, and youth with the likes of rim protecting big Omer Asik, steady point guard Jrue Holiday, sharp-shooting four Ryan Anderson, and scorer Eric Gordon (aka young Michael Jordan in Space Jam). Throughout the season, this combination has struggled to find consistent play to complement Anthony Davis but they are young and a work in progress. The 8 seed in the West has the difficult match-up of having to face the Warriors in round 1, but this might bode well for the Pelicans given that the Warriors will have no answer for Anthony Davis. Davis will be able to expose the smaller frontcourt of the Warriors, but the remaining roster will not be able to counteract the balanced scoring attack of the Dubs.
Verdict: Anthony Davis reminds everyone that he has next and wills two wins, Pelicans fall in 6.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have suffered a disastrous season after having been favored by many to win the title in the preseason. This has largely been due to injuries across the entire roster and now a lack of their superstar Kevin Durant, who will miss the playoffs altogether. Since then, Russell Westbrook has emerged from the MVP shadow cast by Kevin Durant and legitimized as a candidate for the award himself. Most notably, he is capable of putting together strings of triple doubles much like Michael Jordan before him. Like Jordan, however, Westbrook needs a Pippen (let’s be clear; Paul George is today’s Pippen, Kevin Durant is a Larry Bird/Alex English mix). Without a secondary star though, this Thunder team simply does not have enough to contend with the alpha dogs out West.
Analytics savant Sam Presti (despite his shortcomings as a “numbers” guy), actually pulled off one of the better trades of the season in dealing Reggie Jackson for the likes of emerging center Enes Kanter, savvy point guard DJ Augustin, and the old/young versions of themselves in shooters Steve Novak and Kyle Singler. This trade gave the Thunder much depth ( a significant predictor of success in the playoffs) and size as it combined to the already punishing center duo of Mitch McGary and Steven Adams. The Thunder also made a reasonable gamble in hoping that Dion Waiters would replace the scoring that Reggie Jackson provided, but that did not work as intended since Dion Waiters has still remained highly inefficient. I criticize Presti through the scope of statistical analysis, but from a basketball perspective I applaud the 4 for 1 swap and give him props for taking the Waiters/Jackson risk. Had Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka remained healthy for the playoffs, this team may have well been the first 8 seed to be favored in a playoff series; a remarkable idea. Without Ibaka and Durant though, this Thunder team will go only as far as Westbrook and Kanter will take them which will be to one, possibly two wins in the first round.
Verdict: The Warriors match-up is unfavorable for the Thunder and they will be lucky to get one win. Westbrook will put up solid numbers, but face the tough, rotating defensive trio of Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Klay Thompson. First round series loss with only one win.
Because the season is still not over, seeding is still being jockeyed out, but the predictions above still stand. Should the Spurs and Grizzlies face-off in a momentous round 1 series, the winner of that series (I’d pick San Antonio) would still be favored to reach the West Finals. Unfortunately, a number of permutations are possible and a team like the Warriors may not have to face a “juggernaut” opponent until the conference finals. The possibilities and intriguing match-ups are all what make this iteration of the NBA season one of the most fascinating in history. The team that emerges will have undoubtedly proven themselves worthy of the Western crown where just as difficult a match-up awaits (only if the Cavs, Bulls, or Hawks make it) from the East.