NBA Playoffs: Western Conference
Part 2 of my NBA playoffs preview takes a look at the tightly contested Western Conference. The 6-8 seeds aren't official yet, but for all intents and purposes, Houston and Golden State have clinched a playoff berth. The Lakers are still battling with Utah for the 8th seed and if the season ended today, the Lakers all-star lineup would miss the postseason. Record-wise, the West has been far superior to the East. 5 teams have more wins than the Knicks, who are second in the Eastern Conference. Taking a look at the West, the conference is wide open, and I can see more than half of the teams in the playoffs having a chance to win the conference.
1. San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio proves year after year that age is just a number. They're a game ahead of Oklahoma City and have been consistent all year. Lately, I can see their tired legs catching up to them. Their last few losses have been close. The Spurs lack a closer after Manu Ginobili's injury and this could lead to an early downfall. Tim Duncan has been a defensive star, upping his career blocks average a half block per game. For the Spurs, they need their younger guys to play at a top level and not crumble under the pressure. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green need to hit their 3's for the Spurs to move far into the postseason. All that being said, if Ginobili doesn't return for the playoffs, the Spurs could be looking at an early exit.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder's difficult decision to trade James Harden was entirely financial. I don't think anybody can argue that Harden wasn't a major asset to their team and that they're better with Kevin Martin. The Thunder's success hinges on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing well together. Westrbook's selfishness takes the Thunder out of a few games, but there is no denying that he is a talented PG. His speed can't be guarded and he plays with reckless abandon. Durant and his Thunder teammates are bitter after losing to the Heat in the championship last year. They'll be itching to get back there and show that they've improved. I'd give the Thunder my nod in the West. They play good defense, can score from anywhere on the floor, and know how to win when the pressure mounts.
3. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets may have been the biggest surprise in the NBA this season. We knew they were going to be good, but we didn't know that Andre Iguodala would take them to another level. They play a deep rotation, which keeps them fresh and ready to run. They're the best in the NBA in transition which gives them a huge advantage over older, slower teams like the Spurs and the Lakers. The Nuggets also have the best record in the NBA at home and I'd consider them a lock to win at least their first round series. A glaring issue for Denver will be the loss of Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL. They don't have many big men who can stretch the floor and teams will look to lock down the paint against Denver.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers transformation over the past two years has been remarkable. The addition of Chris Paul may have changed the franchise forever. They have earned top billing in L.A., playing up-tempo, high-flying basketball. Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan are an extremely talented frontcourt. The Clippers are a deep team, rolling out a bench squad that probably has 3 guys who could start on most other teams. The Clippers biggest issue will be free throws. Griffin has actually improved his stroke from the line to 66.3%, but Jordan shoots a paltry 39.1%. Teams may employ a hack-a-Jordan strategy late in games. If the Clippers can get good-great play out of 6th man Jamal Crawford, they could see themselves in the Conference finals.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Trading Rudy Gay mid-season gave the Grizzlies new life. They move the ball better and center their offense around Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Memphis is not usually a high scoring team, but their defense makes up for that. They're second in the NBA in defensive rating. If a team goes into Memphis, they're going to be in for a fight. Memphis could be a dark horse team out of the West if they can control tempo if/when they go against the Clippers, Nuggets, or Thunder. Veteran Tayshaun Prince, who was acquired in the Gay trade, will be a huge asset for the Grizzlies this postseason.
6. Golden State Warriors
The Warriors were not supposed to be this good this fast. They've built a franchise in San Francisco that will be around for the next 5-6 years. PG Stephen Curry runs the show for Mark Jackson's team. Curry is not afraid to shoot from anywhere on the court and has been one of the best 3-point shooters this season. David Lee may have been the most underrated offseason addition in the entire NBA. The Warriors needed a rebounding big man with Andrew Bogut's constant health concerns. Lee has been a calming force for Golden State, giving it his all every night. My concern with the Warriors would be their lack of playoff experience. I'm just don't think that guys like Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes are ready yet for the big moment. If the Warriors draw the Nuggets in the first round, their similar play styles would give an edge to the more experienced Nuggets.
7. Houston Rockets
Without James Harden, there is no chance that the Rockets would have made the playoffs. He's the only guy on the team that can create his own shot. The Rockets certainly have talent, but are still very young. Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons still figure to need a year or two to round out their games. Not to mention that James Harden is their leader and is just 23 years old. The Rockets are a scoring machine, but that is not usually a recipe for success in the playoffs. They'll need to stop opponents from scoring at will to win, and I'm just not sure they can do that.
8. Utah Jazz/Los Angeles Lakers
Whichever of these teams makes the playoffs in the West, I don't see either getting past the Spurs. The Jazz are just not a great team besides Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. They have been on fire from 3 in their past few games, but could go cold at any moment. The Lakers have a difficult schedule down the stretch. They'll play Golden State, San Antonio, and Houston in their last 3 games. Either one of those games, if not all, could end up being must win situations. I know it would be foolish to doubt Kobe Bryant, but there is a reason that the Lakers have been much worse than expected this year. They lack identity under head coach Mike D'Antoni. Unless they can get that figured out in the last 3 or 4 games, the Lakers will miss the 2013 playoffs.
That will wrap up my 2013 Western Conference postseason preview. When the playoffs begin, I'll be making my official predictions out of both conferences. If you missed my Eastern Conference preview, you can check it out here. Check out ESPN Binghamton for all the latest NBA news.