Heading into this season, it was safe to say that the majority of basketball fans assumed that the Golden State Warriors were the odds-on favorite to win the Western Conference.
“Man, how time has proven us all wrong. “
While the Warriors are still fairly dominant, it no longer seems like a sure thing that they will represent the West when the NBA Finals rolls around. From the emergence of the Houston Rockets to the potential ending of a renaissance, let’s look at three things that are currently sending shockwaves through the professional basketball community.
- HOUSTON, WE HAVE LIFTED OFF
Yes, we knew the Houston Rockets had potential. But in no way did we think the Rockets were going to be THIS DAMN GOOD.
I won’t lie to you, I’m a native Los Angeles Clippers fan. So, when news of Chris Paul being traded to Houston made the waves, I was genuinely hurt, yet intrigued. Hurt in a way that the best player to ever slip on the Clipper red was leaving us, but intrigued because now the league was going to see what he could do with another ball-dominant guard in James Harden, and an offensive wunderkind coach in Mike D’Antoni.
And man…this team is GOOD.
Not only are Harden and Paul leading the league in real plus/minus (Paul is 1st with 7.50, Harden is 2nd with 6.93), but Harden is in the midst of a career season. With Paul taking on the main distributor role, Harden has been able to unleash his inner offensive freak, as he currently leads the league in scoring (31.2 PPG as of March 21).
This offensive revolution in Houston isn’t just limited to Harden, however. Center Clint Capela leads the lead in field goal percentage, and the team as a whole is second overall in points per game, while leading in point differential. They’ve also went toe-to-toe with the best and came out relatively unscathed, owning the best record against above .500 teams (34-10), including two wins over the above-mentioned Warriors. Their remaining schedule is looking pretty favorable, with five teams that have already been eliminated from playoff contention (Houston is 23-4 against below .500 teams, so it’s an almost bygone conclusion that they can sweep these games) and three teams that are fighting for the four through eight seeds in the Western conference (more on that next topic).
As it currently stands, the Rockets are slated to face the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. If Houston takes that series (The Rockets swept the season series 4-0 by a combined 70 points), even D’Antoni’s lack of playoff success (never led a team past the conference finals; lost in the first round three times, including two sweeps) might end up in the rearview mirror.
- A RACE FOR ALL TIME
In the 22 years I’ve been watching the NBA, I’ve seen some pretty competitive playoff races.
That being said, I cannot recall seeing such a race as the one we have brewing in the Western Conference right now.
As it currently stands, the third through 10th-ranked teams are only six games apart (as of March 22). And I know someone is going to say, “Have you been living under a rock the last few years? The Eastern Conference has been razor thin the last four seasons in a row.” And to that, I give this rebuttal: two of those years (2013-14, 2014-15) the eighth seed had a below .500 record; in 2015-16, it took an epic run from Charlotte in their last 10 games to avoid being eliminated, and even then finished in a four-way tie for the three seed; and last season the wrong eight seed made the playoffs (Chicago; Miami was the hotter team in the second half and would’ve had a more competitive series against the Boston Celtics, but Chicago had the head-to-head advantage).
Before we begin the breakdown, let’s assume the following:
- The ninth and 10th seeded teams (Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers) are going to end up on the outside looking in. All 10 of Denver’s remaining games are against teams currently in the playoffs, with the exception of their head-to-head against the Clippers on April 7. The Clippers have a little bit of a reprieve, as they have the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers on their schedule, but asking them to go 8-2 (the minimum both teams will need to stand a chance) is a bit much. And the current eight seed, the Utah Jazz, has gone 9-1 in their last ten games, so while both teams are within a game of the Jazz, they’ll need luck on their side. I don’t see it.
- We’ll also assume that the third seed, the Portland Trail Blazers, will lock up that spot. Their remaining schedule: Boston, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies (twice), LA Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston, San Antonio Spurs, Denver and Utah. I’m giving them the sweep against Memphis, and Dallas has already given up on the season, so that’s a win. OKC, New Orleans, San Antonio and Utah are neck-and-neck for four of the final spots, so Portland has a chance to not only put distance between them, but also affect the entire Western Conference playoff picture.
The separation between the fourth and eighth seed is only TWO GAMES. So, let’s look at the four through eight seeds and see what their best and worst case scenarios for the remainder of the season:
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (43-30, fourth seed): Best case scenario – Russell Westbrook, Mr. Triple Double himself, propels the Thunder to a 7-2 record in their remaining games to maintain their fourth spot. Worst case scenario – they face Portland, San Antonio, New Orleans, Golden State, Houston and Miami in that run…all above .500 teams. The Thunder’s record against winning teams: 22-19. Their only lucky break comes against Memphis in the season finale, and even then the Thunder aren’t a sure bet (21-11 against below .500 teams).
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (42-30, fifth seed): Best case scenario – Anthony Davis continues his quest for MVP (he’s got a damn good case; they should have collapsed after losing DeMarcus Cousins) and they go 8-2. Worst case scenario – they have to go up against the top three seeds, and can’t lose more than one of those games. They also can’t afford to lose against OKC or San Antonio, the latter being the season finale. If they’re not in contention come that game, expect Alvin Gentry to be looking for work this offseason.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (42-30, sixth seed): Best case scenario – Kawhi Leonard comes back. Period. Yes, they’ve won their last five, but having Kawhi in the lineup almost assures them the four seed. Worst case scenario – their record against above .500 teams is abysmal for a team in contention (17-24)…and they have eight of those games coming. Their only so-called “easy” games are against the Lakers and Sacramento Kings, and even those games aren’t sure victories. Of the remaining teams, I feel like this is the team with the most to lose (more on that later).
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (41-31, seventh seed): Best case scenario – the Wolves could easily go either 8-2 or 10-0. They have the easiest schedule of the five teams (five games against non-playoff teams) and Jimmy Butler could still come back before the playoffs. Worst case scenario – it’s Minnesota. While we’ve already ruled out Denver (whom they face twice), it doesn’t mean Minnesota can lay down against them either. And they still have Utah on the calendar, so they have to win. Otherwise, they could be looking at the playoffs through a TV screen.
UTAH JAZZ (40-31, eighth seed): Best case scenario – they beat San Antonio (3-0 so far in season series) and Minnesota (a bit tougher, 1-2) and try to make some wiggle room. Worst case scenario – the Jazz pick the wrong time to lose to San Antonio. If that happens, they can’t afford another loss to Minnesota, as the Wolves already will own the head-to-head advantage in case of a tie. And with two games against Golden State and Portland in the season finale, the Jazz need every win.
If I had to pick a team that will end up in the eighth and final spot (or potentially out altogether), it’s the San Antonio Spurs. Which leads to the last main point…
- ARE WE WITNESSING THE END OF THE SPURS AS WE KNOW IT?
In the “Age of the Superteam”, only one team has resisted the urge to blow up their foundation and cave in to the new trend.
And as an end result, the basketball world may be witnessing the end of what could be the most dynamic era since the Boston Celtics of the early NBA era.
The San Antonio Spurs, since the 1997-98 season, have served as the golden standard of consistency. With a key core of head coach Gregg Popovich and soon-to-be Hall of Fame power forward Tim Duncan, the Spurs won five championships from 1999 to 2014. They are also the only team in the NBA to have not missed the postseason in the last 20 years; a feat that hadn’t been accomplished since the 1950-51 to 1968-69 Boston Celtics.
However, this season could be the potential end of that streak. As it currently stand, the Spurs are in sixth place in the Western Conference playoff race, which if they hold up should give them their 21st consecutive playoff berth. But the separation between them and the ninth-place team, the Denver Nuggets, is only three games; with ten games left there is no margin left for error.
There has also been an unusual amount of drama around this usually reserved, quiet team: first there was a report at the beginning of the season that LaMarcus Aldridge, who had just came from the Portland Trail Blazers after the 2015-16 season, had requested a trade over the summer due to his somewhat rocky relationship with Popovich over his role. The biggest problem hanging over the Spurs, however, has been the up-and-down status of their franchise cornerstone, Kawhi Leonard. In the six seasons prior to this one, Leonard had proven to be the future of the Spurs, going from the bench to NBA Finals MVP in his first three seasons, and inheriting the throne from Duncan as the unquestioned court leader when Duncan retired in 2016.
This season, though, has been a roller coaster. First, Leonard missed the first 27 games with a right quadriceps injury, and while he came back to a winning record (18-9 in that span), it was apparent that not all was well. After nine games and averaging 25 points per game and 7.2 rebounds in that stretch, Leonard was listed as out indefinitely on January 17 and hasn’t sniffed the court since. Multiple rumors have popped up since then; one day it’s that he wants out of San Antonio and is forcing his hand; Leonard and Jordan Brand are beefing over contract demands; teammates are frustrated over his status, etc. Obviously, that has taken a toll on a team that is not used to such turmoil.
However, it also doesn’t help that the Western Conference has become the equivalent of the Cold War arms race: as mentioned in the second part of the column, the separation of the third through ten seed is only six games. And if Murphy’s Law has taught us anything, it’s that anything that can go wrong usually does. The Spurs have a 17-24 record against winning teams, and of the ten games left on their schedule, they have eight against winning teams. And barring a freakish undefeated streak, there might be a chance that the fate of the Spurs falls out of their hands.
If the Spurs were to not make the playoffs, it would truly be a Shakespearian tragedy, and an unfit end to the second-greatest dynasty in NBA history.