Connect with us


Head to Head: Best of the West

Bill Ingram, Tommy Beer, Moke Hamilton and Jabari Davis debate which teams have the best shot at winning the Western Conference this season.

Basketball Insiders



The 2014 NBA trade deadline has passed, which means we have a pretty good idea of what teams will look like down the stretch. With that in mind, four of Basketball Insiders’ writers take a look at a few teams in the Western Conference that may make some noise come postseason time.

There is no question that Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant is having an MVP season. The way he kept his team winning at an elite level despite the absence of All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook was incredibly impressive. With Westbrook back, the Thunder should finish with the best record in the Western Conference and find themselves back in the Western Conference Finals. Unfortunately, there is one opponent that will still stand between the Thunder and the NBA Finals, and that opponent is likely to prove to be insurmountable.

The San Antonio Spurs never cease to amaze. Though Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are well past their primes, they continue to contribute in significant ways to a team that has grown far beyond the need for either of them to dominate. Tony Parker has proven that he is the franchise player in San Antonio, and management has shown a propensity for finding help in the most unlikely of places. Players like Danny Green, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli have been great additions to the Spurs’ supporting cast in recent years and they help the team win as one unified collective. In a league driven by superstars, the Spurs continue to buck the system. They no longer have superstars, but together the Spurs are super, indeed.

Obviously, as the march toward the postseason continues, the Spurs will need to not only mend, they will need to stay healthy. During the team’s run to the 2013 NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard played a major role, but he has already missed 15 games this season. They will need him healthy.

However, the emergence of both Mills and Bellineli adds additional weapons to Gregg Popovich’s arsenal, and for a team that has been there and done that, the Spurs still warrant the utmost respect as a team capable of winning the West, once again.

– Bill Ingram


When Russell Westbrook went down with a knee injury back in December, there was some concern and consternation in Oklahoma City, as Thunder fans were worried that their team would slip back toward the middle of the pack out West.

Instead, Kevin Durant went into the telephone booth, donned his superman cape and put the team on his back for the better part of two months. As Durant was compiling MVP-type numbers, the Thunder were notching win after win. When Westbrook returned to the lineup this past Thursday, the Thunder had actually expanded its lead atop the Western Conference. While some pundits point out that Westbrook’s return may dampen Durant’s MVP chances, this team is not at all concerned about individual honors. For the Thunder, it’s about getting back to the Finals.

With more than 25 games remaining in which to re-acclimate Westbrook, the Thunder hope to be hitting their stride and playing their best basketball of the season when it counts most—just as the postseason is beginning.

The first important step is finishing the regular season with the best record in the West, if not the entire league. That would secure home court advantage for the Thunder throughout the West playoffs, and would make riding into the 2014 NBA Finals all the more plausible. The Thunder currently have a three-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs, as well as a slight lead over the Indiana Pacers for the NBA’s best record.

We can safely assume we’ll continue to witness herculean efforts on a nightly basis from Durant, but the team will need its role players to continue to contribute. Reggie Jackson stepped up in Westbrook’s absence over the last couple of months and even though his role will now be reduced, Thunder coach Scott Brooks needs Jackson to play well in the minutes he receives. Ditto for youngsters Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and Perry Jones. They are the wildcards for the Thunder. If they exceed expectations, this team should be able to lock down the much-desired No. 1 seed and perhaps make another run to the NBA Finals.

At the end of the day, Westbrook will remain the crucial “X-Factor.” When he is healthy and at his athletic, aggressive best, Oklahoma City is the best team in the West. And for that reason, the smart money says the tag-team of Durant and Westbrook carries the Thunder all the way to the Finals in June.

– Tommy Beer


Head scratching and deep-thought aren’t required to draw at least one easy conclusion about the Western Conference this postseason: It’s gonna be a dogfight.

Aside from the Spurs and Thunder, the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers have each made tremendous strides as basketball teams and it is amazing to consider that one of those five-mentioned teams will not even get as far as the second round of the playoffs.

Everything depends on how the seeds break down in the West, first and foremost. If the playoffs began on Feb. 23, the Rockets would battle the Phoenix Suns in the first round while the Clippers and Trail Blazers would engage as the four and five seeds. Of those three teams, it is a tough task to choose one who may emerge as a legitimate contender, so I’ll cheat and make the case for two of them.

Sorry Trail Blazers, but you are the weakest link.

Contemporary history has shown us a few times over that teams that rely on midrange jump-shooting and porous defenses do not typically excel in the NBA playoffs. The games inevitably slow down, getting stops is necessary and a lucid head coach who has an opportunity to study a high-powered offense over a seven-game series will usually find some way to slow it down—even if Damian Lillard is leading it.

That’s why it is difficult to buy the Blazers as a true contender at this moment.

But the Rockets and Clippers? It is impossible to discount either of them.

With Doc Rivers manning the sidelines, the Clippers have put together an overall tremendous season, despite being without both Chris Paul and J.J. Redick for extended periods of time. The reason why is simple: Blake Griffin. He has received ample assistance from Jamal Crawford, but Griffin has simply taken his game to another level. Though his post-moves are still somewhat raw, he has figured out how to use his athleticism to take full advantage of the gifts he has over the conference’s other power forward. His mid-range jumper has become more reliable, and most impressively, he has become one of the game’s premier passers from the power forward spot.

What’s been difficult to ignore with Griffin is how opposing defenses have begun playing him—they know he is a willing passer and have to worry about covering passing lanes as well as his forays to the basket. It is something that has made a tiny difference in the Clippers’ offensive flow, but a major difference in their on-court product.

With Paul and Rivers steering the ship and DeAndre Jordan to defend some of the conference’s other elite big men, the Clippers have a legitimate shot to win the conference crown, though the Rockets do, as well.

The Rockets checked in last week as the No. 3 team in Basketball Insiders’ Power Rankings, and in a nutshell, they are a team that is built for the playoffs.

As Dwight Howard’s health continues to improve, he will once again emerge as a nearly indomitable post presence on each end of the floor, and we have seen flashes of that over the past few weeks.

With James Harden being one of the best one-on-one players in the entire league and their awesome depth featuring the likes of Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, the Rockets could make a serious run in the Western Conference this season, depending on how the brackets shake out.

With less than 30 games remaining in the regular season, we will be watching with curious eyes.

– Moke Hamilton


A case for which team may eventually rise to the top of the West should also be made for the Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors appear to be the wild card of the bunch. Even though injuries and an understandable period of adjustment with Andre Iguodala’s addition may have limited them at the beginning of the season, they’ve gone 20-9 since mid-December. Although they were just 1-6 against the teams that currently occupy the top-four Western Conference playoff slots (Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Clippers) prior to December 20, they have gone 3-1 against them since that point. In fact, they also had a 10-game winning streak during that period that also featured a win over an upstart Suns team, and seven straight road victories including one in Miami.

MVP candidate Steph Curry has been a large part of that, but one of the more impressive and refreshing aspects of the fifth-year point guard is the fact that he is so quick to credit their balanced attack and overall chemistry for the team’s success. If at full strength, they are one of the few teams constructed for both a fast-paced, high scoring affair as well as having the capability to slow it down and still execute in the half-court set.

As with any team, health is always a key component to sustaining and even building upon momentum, and these Warriors are no exception to that rule. Curry is the engine that powers the vehicle, but Golden State relies upon consistent contributions from everyone within Mark Jackson’s rotation. From David Lee’s perpetual 20-point, 10-rebound nights to Klay Thompson’s ability to balance the court as the Splash Brothers’ other member to varied contributions of guys like Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and the bench, the Warriors have quietly developed into one of the more complete rosters and most cohesive units in the league.

Additions like recently acquired reserve guard Steve Blake only bolster that mix, as the 11-year veteran brings an added toughness and playmaking ability they’ve lacked since Jarrett Jack’s departure to Cleveland last offseason. Make no mistake, Curry has developed the playmaking aspect of his game quite impressively, but Blake provides Coach Jackson with a nice luxury of being able to utilize Curry primarily as an offensive, off-screen catch-and-shoot weapon during certain periods. Jackson tended to do just that last season by utilizing a three-guard lineup that included Jack during last year’s playoff run. With Blake, they now have that option again.

Ultimately, while anything is certainly possible with such a deep race, the matchups are still most likely to be the determining factor. At 34-22 and only two games beneath the fourth-seeded Clippers in the loss column, the idea of potentially hosting a playoff series is still well within reach for the Warriors.

As a team that can match up favorably against much of the league, all these Warriors need is relative health when all is said and done in order to stand a good chance versus anyone the West throws their way.

– Jabari Davis


Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race

Basketball Insiders



Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.

Continue Reading


NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue

The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.

Buddy Grizzard



The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.

The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.

“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.

Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.

“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”

There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.

Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.

“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”

Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.

“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”

While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.

In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.

After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.

The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.

With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.

What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.

For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.

“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”

On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.

“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”

With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.

Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.

“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”

Continue Reading


A Breakout Season for Joe Harris

Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.

David Yapkowitz



The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.

Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.

During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.

After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.

“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”

Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.

In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.

“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”

Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.

He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.

“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”

When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.

However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.

“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”

Continue Reading

The Strictly Speaking Podcast


Trending Now