It’s time to give up trying to figure out the Western Conference and just enjoy the ride, as 11 teams battle for eight playoff spots, and two others — the Suns and Warriors — improbably lurk just one game behind the 11th-place Trail Blazers in the loss column. I can’t remember a season in which it has been so difficult to get a firm grip on a simple question: How good is Team X? This is especially so in a lockout-shortened season, when veteran teams may well be saving something for the playoffs.
We’re nearly 40 games into this thing, and I feel comfortable saying two things about the Western Conference:
1. The Thunder, as we all expected, are the clear favorites. They’re 31-8, rolling to home-court advantage, and even if their scoring margin (plus-6.0 points per game) paints them as a team that really should be something like 27-12 and not all that far ahead of their conference peers, that scoring margin is still nearly two full points ahead of the Spurs’ second-best mark.
That said, the Thunder, as documented here and here, are riding a ridiculous wave of super crunch-time play that has pushed their record above where it probably should be. They remain a so-so defensive team, except in the final minutes of close games, when they turn into the 2008 Celtics. They struggle to find any scoring at all beyond their top three players; Oklahoma City piled up 115 points last night against the Suns, and only five of their players scored any points. Floor-spacing can be an issue, Russell Westbrook remains addicted to pull-up 20-footers in the first five seconds of the shot clock and the three core big men –Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison — are almost total non-threats on the pick-and-roll.
If this team really has another gear on defense, as perhaps evidenced by its crunch-time play, they might be able to waltz through this conference. If they’ve been lucky, they could be had.
2. San Antonio is going to earn the No. 2 seed and no one will think much of them. The stink of last season’s first-round loss to the Grizzlies lingers over this team, as does concern over Manu Ginobili’s continued bad injury luck. The Spurs are humming along behind a motion-heavy offense that has ranked among the league’s top-five in points per possession almost all season, but they are playing so many inexperienced guys, and their defense, though improved over the last three weeks, remains mediocre. The Spurs rank 14th in points allowed per possession, and even as they’ve tightened up a bit in their last 16 games, they’ve still allowed nearly 99 points per 100 possession over that span – equivalent to about the 10th or 11th best defense in the league.
If they find themselves matched up against a team with two interior bullies, the same post-defense issues that undid them against Memphis will emerge as a potential killer flaw again this season. Matt Bonner has been better in the post this season, but neither he nor DeJuan Blair can guard good interior scorers one-on-one, and the Tim Duncan/Tiago Splitter pairing remains a novelty item.
Still, compared to the mess of the rest in the West, the Spurs are a model of stability sailing to the No. 2 spot.
What of the other nine teams?
I’ve labeled the champs the league’s most intriguing team for the last few weeks, but there comes a point at which you have to shed the intrigue, set your rotation and just play well. Dallas is running out of time to do that, and the schedule is about to get absolutely brutal. The Mavs start with three straight road games at Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State that should all be winnable, except that they come as part of a back-to-back-to-back. After that? Eleven of 12 games come against teams that would be in the playoffs as of today, and the one outlier is a home game against the Blazers.
The intrigue here is based upon Dallas’ unexpected play on defense, where it ranks third in points allowed per possession despite losing its best defender (Tyson Chandler). The Mavs historically are a top-10 offensive team every season, but they rank a shocking 20th in points per possession so far this season. If they could get their offense up to normal levels without compromising their defense, they could be dangerous.
Again, time is running out, and there are no signs of progress. In six of its last 10 games, the Mavs have scored at a rate below their own subpar points per possession average, while injuries and other personnel issues continue to rob Dallas of any chance at stability. You’ll recall last season, the Mavs went through similar late-season rotation shake-ups before righting themselves and setting their rotation just ahead of the playoffs. The difference, though, was that Dallas had shown over a 50-game sample size that their veteran core, with Dirk Nowitzki healthy, was a championship-level team. When the playoffs began, they simply got that core healthy and reset the rotation, aided in part by an injury to Rodrigue Beaubois in the season finale that allowed Dallas to exile him quietly.
There is no such sample size of championship-level play this season. Can the Dallas vets turn it on when the playoffs start? Maybe. But they have to get there first.
Los Angeles Lakers
More Hollywood drama, with some L.A players anonymously lobbying for a return to the triangle offense after depressing losses in Detroit and Washington, per ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne. The Lakers rank just 15th in points per possession, and as I’ve written before, teams that play such mediocre ball on one end of the floor rarely make the Finals — unless they are outstanding on the other end. The Lakers rank 10th in defensive efficiency, which is nice, but not nice enough to make L.A. a realistic contender.
The blame may fall on coach Mike Brown, who has admittedly stressed defense over offense and ditched a system that had the Lakers among the league’s five best offenses almost every season. The adjustment away from the triangle, and to a more post-heavy and traditional NBA offense with elements of the flex, was always going to be painful, especially without a reliable pick-and-roll creator other than Kobe Bryant. But that’s the point: L.A. has lost or jettisoned almost every decent perimeter shot creator it’s had over the last half-dozen seasons, instead relying on Bryant, two elite centers with semi-overlapping skills and aging players either long in decline (Derek Fisher) or declining at turbo speed (Metta World Peace).
Bryant, at age 33 and flanked by two star big men, is using a higher percentage of Laker possessions than at any point in his career and posting his lowest field-goal percentage since 2004-05. The offense is out of balance, but given the lack of scoring depth here, it’s unclear how much more efficient it could be with proper balance.
All of this said, would it be shocking if the Lakers ended up in the conference finals?
Los Angeles Clippers
All the signs here paint the Clippers as a marginal playoff team and nothing more — a club a year and a couple of roster moves away from seriously contending. But given the scoring power on hand and Chris Paul’s record of reserving something extra for the postseason, the Clips winning a round or even two wouldn’t be a mind-blower.
Even with variables like Paul’s penchant for flipping a switch, the regular season can still be predictive in a larger sense, and the regular season right now reveals the Clippers as a bad defensive team. They rank just 21st in points allowed per possession, they have problems defending the three, they don’t force turnovers and they commit an obscene number of fouls. Kenyon Martin’s smart sliding and rotations have helped stabilize the defense, but his presence (to say nothing of Reggie Evans’) makes the team a bit easier to defend.
Still, Griffin is a major work in progress on this end, and when Caron Butler sits, the Clippers just don’t have a defender capable of credibly checking a top wing scorer. Randy Foye can give it a go, but he doesn’t have the shooting range or dynamism a team ideally wants from its two guard.
There would appear to be too many holes here, but you never know. But in general, it’s a bad sign if you’re trying to shoe-horn 2012 Bobby Simmons into your rotation at the last minute.
The Grizzlies, fresh off destroying Golden State on Wednesday, have the third-best record in the Western Conference and are 22-12 without Zach Randolph. The Grizz, in lots of ways, are exactly what they were last season: an average offensive team that makes up for a total lack of outside shooting by playing top-10 defense, forcing turnovers more often than anyone, pounding the offensive glass and avoiding dumb shots.
Having Rudy Gay back and playing up to his standards has been huge for a team whose lack of perimeter scoring ultimately doomed them against Oklahoma City in the playoffs. Randolph’s condition is the big unknown here. He has been cleared for contact drills, but his return to game action remains unscheduled.
As good as Memphis has been, it likely needs all hands on deck to topple the Thunder four times in seven tries. But would you feel uncomfortable taking them over any other team here? Or picking them to lose to any other team here? What a crazy season.
Portland Trail Blazers
The struggles of Raymond Felton and the simmering tension in the locker room have been well-documented, but the larger — and possibly connected — story here has been the fall-off in Portland’s defense. The Blazers are down to 12th in points allowed per possession after spending much of the season among the league’s top half-dozen teams. The lack of reliable size behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby has hurt, and the Blazers over the last couple of weeks have suffered a startling number of communication breakdowns defending simple off-ball screens, rotating along the back line or dealing with pick-and-rolls.
The Blazers are in trouble already, but if the defense doesn’t correct itself soon, the hole could get too big very fast.
The Nuggets limped into the All-Star break riddled with injuries and having lost 10 of 13 games. They came out of it with Nene and Danilo Gallinari still hurt and proceeded to beat three straight quality teams, including two (Houston and San Antonio) on the road. Denver ranks as a below-average defensive team, and on offense, the cliché is that it relies on transition chances won from simply outrunning tired or lazy teams — chances that won’t be there as often in the playoffs. Yet, Denver moves the ball nicely in the half court and has gotten brilliant crunch-time play of late from Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo, the latter gradually finding his game as the season goes on.
The defense is worrisome, particularly the reliance on small lineups and the over-switching. But on any given night, this team looks like a world-beater.
As perhaps the league’s most maddening team, it’s fitting the Rockets now own a scoring margin for the season of exactly zero; Houston has played to a 3885-3885 draw in 40 games and has lost five straight to fall from a top-four position all the way to eighth. The Rockets have improved defensively and on the glass, thanks in part to Samuel Dalembert, but that has not been enough to offset their huge drop-off on offense, where they’ve fallen from fourth in points per possession last season to 12th this season. Kevin Martin and Luis Scola have yet to find their peak games, and Martin especially has struggled since the All-Star break.
Houston is getting to the line at a semi-normal rate after barely getting there at all over the first few weeks of the season, but they don’t get there enough — or defend well enough — to make up for the inconsistent scoring around the brilliant Kyle Lowry.
Houston, with its collection of B+ veteran assets and disappointing first-round picks (a group that does not include Patrick Patterson, nor Marcus Morris), will work the phones as hard as any team over the next week, but without an upgrade, it’s hard to see this team doing serious damage in the playoffs. But as with almost every other team here, the Rockets have the potential to be a problem, too.
Speaking of problems: Here come the Wolves, now at 21-19 and holding the head-to-head tie-breaker over the Rockets. The Wolves have had the statistical profile of a slightly above-.500 team all season, so it’s no surprise to see them slightly above .500 as we enter the last third of the schedule. More good news: They’ve started the toughest part of their schedule with a 4-2 stretch that includes two wins each over the Blazers and Clippers; unless the Clips pull out the Pacific Division, Minnesota will hold tie-breakers over both Portland and Los Angeles based on head-to-head record.
Starting on Monday, the Wolves play 11 of 13 on the road, a stretch that will likely determine their season — and whether the Hornets, sitting on the Wolves’ unprotected first-round pick via the Chris Paul deal, will get a second lottery pick. The Wolves have hit a new gear offensively since ending a four-game losing streak that had dropped them to 13-16, and you can see Minnesota learning new ways every day to use Kevin Love’s versatility as a way means of opening up things for other players. On nights where the Wolves get anything at all from their wing players, they are a difficult challenge.
Count me among those surprised that Utah is still in the conversation — and among those skeptical the Jazz can stay in it. The Jazz have a negative scoring margin overall, and their defense remains sieve-like — they rank 23rd in points allowed per possession, they often struggle on the defensive glass and they still foul more than almost every team in the league. A recent burst of offense has fueled a nice three-in-four streak, and the Jazz over the last 10 games or so have gotten much-needed production from at least one scorer per game beyond the Al Jefferson/Paul Millsap duo that has been carrying them all season.
None of Utah’s perimeter scorers — Devin Harris, Gordon Hayward, C.J. Miles, Josh Howard — will ever emerge as a consistent weapon, but if two can combine for 25 to 30 points in a game, the Jazz have a fighting chance. Even so, they still lean heavily on Millsap and Jefferson for scoring, which means they play one so-so big-man defenders (Millsap) and one bad one (Jefferson) heavy minutes each night. Utah seems like the safest bet among these 11 teams to make the lottery — if any bet is safe this season.