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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.

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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

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