An Email Exchange: Derek and Scott Breakdown the Western Conference Playoff Race

Photo: Flickr/Jayneandd

Photo: Flickr/Jayneandd

While the Eastern Conference has been a bit of a dumpster fire this season with three teams expected to make the playoffs with a losing record, the West has been just the opposite. The top three teams — Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Portland — are all separated by just three games and the bottom is just as competitive as well. As the season has gone on we’ve seen teams fade in and out of the chase, some of them being somewhat surprising. Since our very own Scott Rafferty and I were unable to join in on the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, we decided not to go on strike and keep posting.
Scott, seeing as to how we’re now over the halfway mark of the season, I think it’s a good time to take a look at the playoff race out front. Right now we have Phoenix, Golden State and Dallas with Memphis just a half-game out occupying the ninth seed. It appears that the Mavs continue to rise as the Warriors and Suns gradually slide, but Memphis has been scrapping for that last playoff spot seemingly all season long. Who do you think gets in come April?
Scott: That’s a tough one.
As disappointing as the Warriors have been this season, I don’t see them missing the Playoffs. Even though they’ve got a similar record to the Mavericks and Suns at this point, I think they’re too good to miss it. As for the Suns, I was a little skeptical of them at the start of the season (for good reason because everyone was), but I’m a believer now, granted that Goran Dragic can stay healthy. They’re also getting Eric Bledsoe back soon, supposedly, which should give them a big boost.

So that leaves us with the Grizzlies and Mavericks. The Mavericks don’t play defense and have a pretty tough schedule ahead of them with 19 of their final 23 games coming against Western Conference foes. The Grizzlies on the other hand will slap you silly, kick you while you’re down and laugh in your face while they run down the other end of the court, so Memphis it is. I can’t go against the Grit N’ Grind.

But all those teams are really good. They’re all flirting with a .600 record, which, funnily enough, would be good enough for the third seed in the East right now. While the Heat and Thunder will likely steamroll their way to the Conference Finals, the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Rockets are going to have their work cut out for them. With that in mind, who do you think out of those bottom four teams is more likely to pull off an upset in the first round? Because, you know, everyone loves an upset.

Derek: The Suns have been a real surprise and I don’t think any of us saw them coming. Dragic staying healthy will be key for them in order to stay afloat above the playoff bubble. Bledsoe returning, as you mention, will of course be huge in their cause. Still, I have a hard time counting out the Warriors although both them and the Suns have cooled off from their hot early starts. Really, the Grizzlies will need to count on one of those teams to fall out since it seems like the Mavs are only going to entrench themselves above the seventh and eight seeds. Getting Gasol back in time to get back in rhythm was so huge since he’ll have time to get his legs back for the homestretch.

As far as upsets go, the Blazers could be in the most trouble at the third seed. If the Mavericks or Warriors claim that sixth seed, they could potentially claim the upset over the Blazers should they hold steady. The Blazers have struggled defensively and are mediocre on a good day. Granted they have an offense to pace themselves with either team, but the Warriors really have that potential to stimy their offense while also punish them offensively. Like I always say, never rule out Steph Curry getting hot. My other upset candidate is the Rockets if they wind up as the four seed since their offense can be either dynamic or ice cold.
Now that we’ve touched on who could do damage by getting in, let’s talk about which team could be damaged most by not getting in. The Timberwolves were poised to return to the playoffs after a decade, but those hopes have most likely been dashed being five games out and still trying to get healthy. On the other hand a team like the Warriors whose expectations were raised by last spring’s run could be in for a long offseason should they fall out of the hunt altogether. Those are just a couple names but I feel like I’m still missing a name or two.

Scott: The Trail Blazers have come back down to earth this month and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them slide a little more. There’s only one game separating them between both the Rockets and Clippers right now, so they can’t really afford to lose many games over these next six-something weeks. Either way, I think they’ll get a rude awakening in the Playoffs. The game slows down, teams tighten up their defense, and there tend not to be many second-chance opportunities. That’s why I worry about the Rockets, too. They’re very hot-and-cold, as you said, and thanks in large part to James Harden, they have a tendency to fall in love with iso-ball.

In a nutshell, both teams try and outscore their opponents rather than stop them, which isn’t ideal in the post-season.

But those Timberwolves. It’s not looking good for them. Kevin Love has been playing out of his mind lately and there isn’t much to show for it in the wins column. To add to that, they’ve got a lot of money committed to Pekovic and Martin over the next four or five years, which doesn’t give them a whole lot of flexibility. So the fact that they’re on the outside looking in on the Playoff race is worrying. Basketball purgatory is no joke. The Mavericks are in a similar situation, I suppose. Even if they do sneak into the Playoffs, I don’t see them upsetting anyone. It’ll be as though they got pulled up to basketball heaven, only to slip through the cracks of whoever’s hand was pulling them up, leading them right back to purgatory.

Not fun.
But now that we’ve looked at the bad, what about the good? The Trail Blazers have been a huge surprise this season and even if they don’t make it far in the post-season, they’ll have a lot to build on in the off-season. The same can be said for the Suns, too. They’ve done a lot with nothing this season and the franchise has got to be excited about the direction they’re heading in.

Derek: Abosolutely. The Blazers are the one team in the top-4 that I trust the least in the playoffs. On the other hand, they still have enough weapons with Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum to make a run; especially since they do shoot the three well, like we saw with Golden State last year in the playoffs. That’s the thing with them: you don’t know if they’ll be the three, the four or the five see I think I’m answering against the flow of the conversation here, but oh well.

Yes, I agree that it is the Timberwolves that have the most to lose. Even their fans are feeling disappointed by their season as the 29th ranked team in attendance. Faced with a crucial season next year since Kevin Love can opt-out now, it’s even more important that they at least finish strong and work towards the playoffs next season. As you mentioned, they don’t have a ton of cap room to play with so they will be working with the pieces that they have. They’ll be hoping that Gorgui Dieng can stay on the floor and that Shabazz Muhammad’s strong February wasn’t a fluke and continues to grow as a sophomore. Really, the consequences the Timberwolves would face in missing the playoffs would be far more damaging in the long term than the short term.
I would say either the Blazers or the Suns as well. Both teams are playing with house money here since they weren’t expected to be where they are right now and anything they do this spring would just be a bonus. The only thing I would worry about is if either team is overachieving and they aren’t actually as good as they are playing now and therefore cutting themselves off from adding more young talent; but let’s just enjoy what we’ve seen now and worry about that later.

Scott: The Timberwolves are ranked 29th in attendance this season? Ugh. That’s rough. I’m really intrigued by Shabazz Muhammad, though. I liked what I saw in his four-game stint with the Iowa Energy at the D-League Showcase and it’s hard not to appreciate someone’s game when they give it their all every time they step on the court. It’s good to see him finally get some game time.

The Suns are a really interesting case because they have so many draft picks. They already have a good core, but do they build on that through one of the most hyped drafts in recent memory, or do they trade those picks away to bring in some veterans? Ryan McDonough is going to have some tough decisions to make this off-season.

Derek: Alright, let’s wrap this up and make some way too early to know picks. Your teams, 1-8…GO! I’ll say:

1) Thunder
2) Spurs
3) Clippers
4) Blazers
5) Rockets
6) Mavs
7) Warriors
8) Grizzlies (Narrowly edging the Suns and making my predictions interesting.)

Scott: For my Western Conference standings, I’m going with:

1) Thunder
2) Spurs
3) Clippers
4) Rockets
5) Blazers
6) Warriors
7) Suns
8) Grizzlies
I’m prepared to look like a fool.

Derek James

In addition to writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, Derek James covers the Minnesota Timberwolves for 1500ESPN in Minneapolis. Derek is also a co-editor for SB Nation's At the Hive-- the best Charlotte Hornets blog around. He often finds himself writing too many words on irrelevant players. Unrelated to LeBron James, but taught him everything he knows.