The State of the West

With the NBA season nearing the homestretch, it’s time to take a look at the Western Conference and how the rest of the the regular and postseason might play out.

 The Frontrunners

Oklahoma City Thunder (46-15) – Current seed: 1

San Antonio Spurs (44-16) – Current seed: 2

While the overall talent in the Western Conference is far superior to that of the East, continuity is what sets these two franchises apart from the rest. San Antonio has been winning ever since they drafted Duncan in 1999, but even OKC has managed 5+ seasons from Durant and Westbrook together along with a rotating cast of characters. So while the Spurs may have the established reputation, the Thunder have also achieved much of that same long-term success, save for an elusive championship (or four). This season, both teams have been up to their usual tricks. The Thunder have survived long stretches without star point guard Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and Greg Popovich continues to rest players in hopes of keeping them fresh for the playoffs in San Antonio. Both squads thrive when they play shorthanded, which is the ultimate testament to the enormous depth built into each team. That fact should serve them well when the games ultimately start to matter.

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Rising Hope

Houston Rockets (42-19) – Current seed: 3

Los Angeles Clippers (42-20) – Current seed: 4

Golden State Warriors (38-24) – Current seed: 6

A notch below OKC and SA isn’t anything to be ashamed of. In fact, the Rockets and Clippers should feel an empowering sense of hope and optimism heading towards the last 20 games of the regular season and into the playoffs. Both teams are currently 8-2 in their last 10 games and while they may not be firing on all cylinders quite yet, it sure seems like they are pretty darn close. Likewise, the Warriors should feel great about their chances come postseason time even though they currently sit 8.5 games back of first place.

It’s not often that the team everyone is buzzing about in Hollywood wears blue instead of purple, but that’s exactly what is happening in 2014. The Clippers’ offense has been their saving grace this season as they are 2nd in the league with a whopping average of 107.2 points per game. Their defense, while much improved under Doc Rivers, is still not quite elite and could be an achilles heal for this team down the stretch. However, the Clippers have vastly improved even within the last week or so. By scouring the buyout pool after the trade deadline, Los Angeles managed to scoop up energy big man Glen “Big Baby” Davis (a desperate need) as well as former all-star swingman Danny Granger (a solid value pickup). After the potentially season ending injury to J.J. Reddick, Doc Rivers’ sqaud needed a little more firepower off the bench. The additions of Granger (who will push Matt Barnes to the pine) and Davis allow the Clippers to be much more creative with their lineups which can only be considered an advantage come playoff time.

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On the other hand, Houston pretty much stood pat during the typhoon that is transaction season, and for good reason. Why fix something when it’s not broken? Dwight Howard fits nicely into Kevin Mchale’s scheme as he erases defensive miscues from James Harden and Jeremy Linn while also acting as another bullet in the chamber for the offense. Save for his defensive issues, Harden has certainly turned himself into a top 10 NBA talent and belongs in the MVP discussion, after KD and LBJ, of course. Finally, complementary pieces like Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverly provide quality minutes to a team trying to hang on to the 3 seed in the West. It will certainly be an uphill battle for Houston if they want to knock off one of the frontrunners from the Catbird’s seat, but nevertheless the collective talent acquired by GM Daryl Morey has the Rockets as playoff contenders in 2014 and for years to come.

Golden State is clearly in “win now” mode as evidenced by their recent moves. It goes all the way back to signing Andre Iguodala to a 4 year, $48 million dollar contract that might not look great in 2016, but right now it’s exactly what the Warriors need. After an exhilarating  playoff series vs the Nuggets last year, Stephen Curry and co. couldn’t stop the well oiled machine that is the San Antonio Spurs in round 2. Enter Iguodala, a tenacious perimeter defender that can slow down Manu Ginobli or take away Danny Green from the game, and the Warriors’ chances suddenly look much better. Likewise, recent moves such as the trades for Jordan Crawford and Steve Blake suggest that Mark Jackson knows he needs another ball handler to take some pressure off Steph Curry every once in a while. This team is absolutely electric from beyond the arc, and when they get hot, they can beat any team in the league. It’s always dangerous to live and die by the three ball, but when I get spotted Curry and Klay Thompsen, I like my odds. However, only the playoffs will tell if the Warriors have truly taken the next step into the NBA’s elite.

The Quiet Stallion

Phoenix Suns (35-25) – Current seed: 7

Much like the Bobcats in the East, few expected Phoenix to contend for a playoff spot in the West. However, unlike Charlotte, the Suns are doing it in a stacked conference with little breathing room between them and the teams around them in the standings. Once thought to participate in the tank-fest this season, new coach Jeff Hornacek has completed erased that line of thinking and established a true winning culture in Phoenix. The man has revitalized the careers of Gerald Green and Channing Frye while getting productive minutes out of P.J. Tucker as well. Talk about a magician. Meanwhile, Goran Dragic (20.4 ppg) and Eric Bledsoe (18.0 ppg) have combined to form one of the most exciting backcourts in the league. I doubt the Suns can do much damage in the playoffs against the likes of San Antonio or Oklahoma City, but they are definitely on the radar and won’t be going away any time soon.