With March Madness dominating sports headlines as of late, it is easy to forget that the NBA playoffs are drawing ever nearer as well. While the Western Conference has served as a perennial bloodbath for the last decade or so, many thought that the Warriors would emerge the clear-cut conference champions after the arrival of superstar Kevin Durant. This, however, has not come into fruition, as the Spurs recently tied the Warriors for the top seed, although now currently sit 2 games back. Couple that with the surprising resurgence of the Rockets under new head coach Mike D’Antoni, as well as a (finally) healthy Clippers team, and we may see an interesting outcome come April.
Golden State Warriors:
The Warriors were heralded by many as being the clear favorites to win the West before the season started, and while they’ve hit some bumps, mostly because of the temporary loss of Durant to injury, they are arguably still the favorites to make it to the Finals. They possess an unmatched superstar tandem in Durant, Draymond Green, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson, they are well-coached, they possess incredible chemistry on both ends of the floors, and they also happen to have one of the most raucous arenas in the league. Really their only Achilles heel is their frontcourt. Zaza Pachulia and Javale McGee are solid players, but they pale in comparison to the big men of their closest competitors. Will the Warriors be able to withstand the interior onslaught of the Deandre Jordans, Blake Griffins, and Lamarcus Aldridges of the league come playoff time? Remember how much damage the Enes Kanter-Steven Adams duo dealt to the Warriors in last year’s playoffs. We will have to wait and see.
San Antonio Spurs:
The Spurs, perennial contenders, are once again right in the mix of things. This time, they are led by a new face: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate, and for good reason. He has become an offensive star, averaging above 26 points a game. Couple that with the fact that he is once again in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, and you are looking at a bonafide superstar. Of course, you can also always count on Gregg Popovich as well come playoff time. The issue with the Spurs lies in their defensive issues. Tony Parker’s age is catching up to him, Danny Green has not looked himself, and David Lee and Pau Gasol have proved themselves complete liabilites on that end of the floor. Leonard’s defensive greatness can only cover so much ground. While the Spurs are still doing well defensively (they are actually 1st in the league in defensive efficiency), as they work well as a unit, it’s hard to say whether their defense will be able to hold up in the playoffs, when teams start to rely on their starpower more often, and the strength of individual defenders becomes more important.
The Rockets have risen at a pace no one expected during the offseason, now sitting at third in the Western Conference standings. James Harden has been arguably the best player in the league this year, helped also by a mishmash of offensive talent in the likes of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, defensive specialists such as Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza, and frontcourt scrappers in Nene and Clint Capela. He’s also been helped by one of the greatest offensive minds of all time in head coach Mike D’Antoni, who has built a brilliant offensive system that has pushed Harden and the talent around him to their full potential. Now the question remains as to whether the Rockets’ style of play can hold up during the playoffs. Houston has a mediocre defense at best, sitting at 15th in the league in defensive efficiency, and it’s been well-documented since his days coaching the Phoenix Suns that D’Antoni is far weaker on that end of the floor. Unless the Rockets can muster up their defense come playoff time, they will have to simply outshoot their opponents, and I wouldn’t bank on them outshooting the Spurs and the Warriors.
Thoughts on Other Teams:
The Jazz have a monstrous frontcourt and an all-star in Gordon Hayward, but is that really enough? Not to mention much of their roster does not possess a modicum of playoff experience. The Clippers have one of the best starting lineups in the league, but their bench, as always, is as awful as their starting lineup is great; Chris Paul may never make it out of the second round with a roster like this. The Thunder and Grizzlies are fighting hard, but I don’t think anyone expects that they will make it very far. In a league like the NBA, a lack of starpower means the difference between a championship and a first-round exit, and both these teams are lacking in this department.