The Western Conference is a tad bit trickier to figure out than the Eastern Conference. There are three areas of concern for me as the one man selection committee:
1: Who gets the 1 seed, and who ends up 2?
2: How does 3-5 work out?
3: How does 6-8 work out?
Don’t worry, I’m ready to break it down.
Who gets the edge for the 1 seed? That would be the Oklahoma City Thunder. Not only are they the defending conference champs, but there is a very real chance the Spurs could actually fall out of the 1 seed with Tony Parker on the sidelines for the next few weeks, which by the way is an absolute crime. Tony Parker had been awesome this season, and worthy of consideration for a 2nd place vote for MVP. And let me throw this out there… I think Tim Duncan deserves at least a mention in the MVP discussion. He’s putting up 17 points and 10 rebounds a game, he’s the anchor of the Spurs defense (Duncan’s averaging 2.6 blocks a game, and the Spurs have improved since last year in field goal percentage, three point percentage, and opponents points per game), and let’s be real, if the Spurs are going to win the title, Tim Duncan needs to be at least 2007 level Tim Duncan, which seems possible given how well he’s played at times this year. Father time always wins, but the near 37 year old Duncan is still out there throwing punches. The Spurs have won at least 50 games in 14 straight seasons, which is a feat I’m confident no other team can boast. But that doesn’t automatically qualify them as a 1 seed in my book. It’s like how Duke always gets the easiest region in the NCAA tournament just because they’re Duke and Duke has history. Sometimes the name matters. In this case, it doesn’t.
In my book, Oklahoma City is the 1 seed. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka are all having career best seasons, and detractors of the Thunder can’t even use the excuse anymore that the Thunder are too young. They’ve beaten the Spurs, been to the Finals and felt the pain of defeat on the biggest stage, and you can tell it’s hardened them, particularly Durant. I love the edge he’s played with this season, and I don’t even mind the increased number of technicals he’s had called against him. It’s almost like the loss in the Finals last year and everyone writing the Thunder off after the Harden trade legitimately pissed Durant off. And by the way, I don’t know if Sam Presti regrets trading James Harden, but at least once a week he day dreams about what it would be like if Harden was still in a Thunder uniform. And how can you blame him? Harden’s poor performance in the NBA Finals coupled with a steep price for his potential upcoming contract was just enough to drive Presti to panic trade Harden right before the beginning of the season. More and more I wonder what it would be like if the Harden was the first guy off the bench for the Thunder instead of Kevin Martin. Isn’t it totally possible that we’d be looking at a 65 win juggernaut with Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden all having career years for the Thunder? My goodness gracious that’s slightly horrifying. And as a Heat fan, with the Thunder being perhaps the biggest road block to a 2nd consecutive title, Harden and his beard scares me a whole lot more than Kevin Martin and his herky-jerky jumpshot does.
It’s settled, Oklahoma City over San Antonio for the 1 seed. Now it’s on to a much tougher decision; how to seed teams 3-5, all of whom have definite sleeper potential in the West. We have the Clippers, Grizzlies and Nuggets all in the mix, and each team can make a serious case for the 3 seed. The only possible way to sort this mess out is with a Dr. Jack Style Breakdown: Triple Threat Edition!
Star Power: Behind Chris Paul, Cliff Paul, Blake Griffin and Young Blake Griffin, the Clippers are runaway winners in this category. Much respect to Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies, and the relatively no-name Nuggets, but casual fans will get behind the Clippers. Edge: Los Angeles
Starting Five: This one is just about as close to impossible to call as you could get. If you just use the eye test, you look at Memphis and Los Angeles who both have multiple All-Stars in their starting lineups, and more names that casual basketball fans would probably notice. But if you want to get nerdy about it and look at the five man unit statistics, then the Nuggets starting five holds a slight edge in production over the Clippers current starting five, which makes sense for a variety of reasons (coming up). I’ll go with the numbers and give the Nuggets the edge. Slight Edge: Denver
Bench: Even though Denver’s bench continues the high octane pace the starters bring from Jump Street, and the Grizzlies bench is much improved after the Rudy Gay trade, neither team boasts two Sixth Man of the Year Award candidates like the Clippers do. Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes could all start for a number of teams in the league. Edge: Los Angeles
Home Court Advantage: Denver will run, and run, and run, and run, and never stop running; and at that high altitude, they are close to unbeatable. The Nuggets and the Heat are both 30-3 playing on their respective home courts. Edge: Denver
Move That Got Them Here: It’s easy to say I told you so after the fact, but the bottom line is, every move each of these teams made to get them here I defended at the time. I obviously loved the Chris Paul to Los Angeles trade (Los Angeles Clippers, not Lakers; that trade wasn’t allowed to happen). I thought people were too critical of Memphis for the Rudy Gay trade, even though it solved their biggest issue (they desperately need bench help, plus they got a better outside shooter in Tayshaun Prince). And I adamantly defended Denver for trading Melo to New York even when nobody else wanted to. I loved it, and I still think they are better off with this group than with Melo slowing down the offense, which is their biggest advantage (We’re really close to getting to this). Edge: Denver
Most Impressive Run: All three teams have put together some pretty dominant stretches of basketball this season. Memphis is in the midst of a stretch where they’ve won 14 out of 16 games. The only two games Memphis has lost have been at Miami, and last night at Denver, who are in the middle of a pretty impressive streak themselves. Denver has won eleven straight games (7 by double digits). Dig a little deeper and you’ll find this streak even more impressive. Denver has beaten six playoff teams (Lakers, Thunder, Hawks, Clippers, Knicks, and Grizzlies) during this streak, and speaking of streaking, they’ve won 15 in a row at high altitude in Denver. But the most impressive run by any of these teams this year was posted by the Clippers, who won 17 in a row throughout December. The quality of those wins (wins against only three current playoff teams) aren’t nearly as impressive as the 11 game streak by the Nuggets, but the number alone gives them the slight advantage. Slight Edge: Los Angeles
Calling Card: Although Lob City is a ton of fun, definitely highlight worthy, and in some rare cases life ending, it’s not necessarily a calling card you are going to have long term success with. Leave those to Denver and Memphis, who by two completely different methods are an extreme pain in the ass to deal with. Maybe you can’t say Denver is the fastest or most athletic team, but they are bar none the most relentless team I’ve ever seen when it comes to attacking the basket. In a league that is shooting more and more three’s and becoming so perimeter oriented, it’s refreshing to watch Denver do the complete opposite and do it so well. They are going to work in the paint, and it doesn’t matter if it’s off a turnover, missed basket, made basket… they are filling their lanes and running full speed to the basket, and it’s going to turn into a layup or dunk. They average 11 more points in the paint per game than anyone else in the league, and to be completely honest I’m surprised it’s not a wider margin because they are always fast breaking and attacking. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Memphis Grizzlies who play at a deliberately slower pace, and it’s just as effective as Denver’s tactic of speeding the game up. Memphis is methodical and patient on offense, and stifling on defense. If you are looking for a team that has given Miami, the clear cut favorite at this point, the most trouble, you don’t have to look any further than Memphis. That’s a tough matchup for the Heat in a prospective Finals matchup because of their ability to defend on the perimeter and a ton of size to prevent LeBron and Wade from attacking the basket. They’ll grind out wins, and it won’t be as fun as Los Angeles, or even Denver, but it’s just as effective. Tie: Denver/Memphis
Overall: It comes down to the calling card for me. I buy into Denver and Memphis more long term because they do something great. And it’s not throwing lobs. Denver is my 3 seed, Memphis is 4, and Los Angeles is 5.
Finally, we’ve got to sort out the final three seeds of the Western Conference, and I’ll keep it relatively short and sweet. The Warriors and Rockets get the 6 and 7 seeds respectively, and I don’t really think there could be much dispute about it. Golden State and Houston are both moderate surprises this year, and both have been consistently in the playoff picture all season long. Stephen Curry and James Harden both need to be in the playoffs, and is there any basketball fan on the planet that doesn’t want to see a Thunder/Rockets round one series? I haven’t met one. These two young teams might not be ready for an extended run this year, but their time might be coming in the near future.
And the final spot in the Western Conference belongs to the Los Angeles Lakers. I could slice this one up a ton of ways. I could talk about how bad Utah looks on some nights since there is no trace of perimeter play making on that roster. I could talk about how Dallas’s time might be past, Portland’s time isn’t here yet, and Minnesota’s will never come because apparently God hates the Minnesota Timberwolves. But I’ll leave you with two words to justify why the Lakers are locked in as my 8 seed: Kobe Bryant. And that’s really all I need to say.