The tiers of Western Conference supremacy: Spurs best/worst 2013-14 matchups
The importance of earning the conference’s top seed during the regular season has almost always been downplayed in San Antonio, as Gregg Popovich’s Spurs have long been more concerned with maintaining optimal health, minimizing wear and tear and being physically prepared for the postseason. But today, the West is arguably better than it has been at any point of the Big Three era, and the argument that seeding is relatively unimportant is holding less and less water these days.
On paper, the West can be divided into four tiers: title contender, fringe contender, fringe playoff team and cellar-dweller. Given the depth of the conference, we’re going to see contenders squaring off early in the playoffs — something that’s great for television but not quite as desirable for those involved. And there appears to be a pretty clear-cut line in the sand between the top six teams and the other nine in the West. That line that might determine the likelihood of team success once postseason play begins, which makes snagging a top-2 seed in the conference as important as ever.
It would be difficult to make a case against the top six teams in the West. San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, Memphis and Houston (with the addition of Dwight Howard) all appear to have a sizable edge on the next tier of competition, thus increasing the importance of avoiding one of these squads in the first round. Hypothetically speaking, the difference in facing the Grizzlies in an opening series and going up against, say, the Mavericks is significant (just a hypothetical, Mavs/Grizz fans … don’t be mad). It’d be like walking into work at 8 a.m. and getting punched in the face rather than just sitting down to a stack of paperwork. Neither is desirable, but I’d rather not start my day with a broken nose.
And that’s really the point here: It’s unlikely there’s going to be a significant chasm between the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds in the conference, but the difference will be tangible. While one team might be marginally better than the other, being physically pushed to the brink in the opening round is not ideal given the energy it takes to make a run to the NBA Finals.
The Spurs are one year older, the Thunder will theoretically be without Russell Westbrook for roughly 20 games, the Clippers have a new coach and some new toys for him to work with, Andre Iguodala is a Warrior, the Rockets brought in Howard and the Grizz are still a group of street-brawlers in basketball uniforms. The race for the top two seeds in the Western Conference will be a roller-coaster ride, and once it ends the paths through the playoffs for two of the top six teams will be much more easily traversed. To start out, at least.
So, which matchups are most favorable for San Antonio if the Spurs would like to make another deep run at the playoffs? EVERYBODY LOVES RANKINGS, RIGHT?! (We’ll go from most favorable to least favorable.)
Fringe playoff teams: Lakers, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Nuggets (in no particular order):
This tier is an ancillary one in this exercise for several reasons. First of all, on paper, the Spurs would be favored in a series against any of the teams on this list as we currently stand at this point of the new season. Secondly, each group has new pieces to incorporate and, in some cases, entirely new looks to sort out. So we’re not really sure what most of these teams will even look like.
Will Kobe and his cast of misfit toys be able to defend anybody? Will Anthony Davis make the leap to stardom and justify the splashy moves made by the Pelicans over the summer? Will “Monta Ball” be a new, awesome thing in Dallas, or will it be the same (still awesome, just in a different way) thing we’ve seen throughout his having-it-all career? Each one of these teams has major questions that will sort themselves out in the coming months. So, for now, we’ll put them off to the side.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
This feels like a slight to the team that ransacked its way to last season’s Western Conference Finals, but I assure you it’s not. It’s more of a matchup thing, and I’m not sure much has changed in that category since these two teams met in May. While it was much closer than a sweep would indicate on paper, the Spurs were clearly the better team and are as difficult a matchup for Memphis as there is in the league.
The addition of Mike Miller, though helpful, likely won’t be enough, especially given that there’s no promise the guy won’t dissolve into a pile of dust at some point during the season. The Grizzlies will do what they can to take care of him throughout the regular season, but Miller is no longer on a team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Memphis is a great second option with its inside-out attack, but it’s not like playing in Miami. This feels like one of those moments where you move to Florida for your twilight years … except he left Florida and moved to Memphis. I’m guessing that’s a move most people don’t make.
Anyway, not much has changed between these two teams, and I don’t believe the outcome of a potential playoff series would differ much, either. The Spurs have the personnel to thwart what the Grizzlies do well, and trading two-pointers for threes will hurt Memphis again, despite the addition of Miller.
Still, if the Grizzlies can pull off a midseason deal or two to bring in some long-range shooting, it would make a world of difference. And given the potential of that active front office, I can’t put it past them.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Consider me not sold, I guess.
There has been a bubble of hype enveloping this Clippers team for several years now, and it has become as tight as ever prior to the start of the 2013-14 season. Caron Butler and Spurs killer Eric Bledsoe are gone, and J.J. Redick, Darren Collison and Jared Dudley have filled in their roster spots to add even more offensive firepower to what was an already explosive team. Make no mistake about it: The Clippers could be the best offensive team in the NBA throughout the regular season. They will be scary. There will be shooters, scorers and heady basketball players all over the floor, and that constant assault will be nightmarish on any given night.
But offense during the regular season was never the problem in Clipperland. The other Los Angeles team struggled with its interior defense, and during the playoffs its high-powered attack would often bog down once the game slowed to a half-court pace. That’s where the team’s biggest offseason acquisition comes into play.
The trade that brought Doc Rivers to L.A. was as bizarre as it was huge for the Clippers. Widely considered one of the best coaches in the NBA, he brings a pedigree to the table that was never present at the front of the bench with the oft-criticized Vinny Del Negro at the helm. Team stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin spoke out against their old coach numerous times to the media, but that’s highly unlikely to happen with Rivers in town.
Still, the most important thing Doc brings to the table is his identity as a top flight defensive coach. The Celtics spent much of the past half-decade near or at the top of the league’s defensive rankings, and while much of that had to do with Tom Thibodeau’s influence during the Finals runs, it was still Rivers overseeing it all. But there’s no Kevin Garnett in Los Angeles. Instead, he’ll be tasked with turning DeAndre Jordan from an athletic specimen with no real idea of how to play defense beyond swatting a ball into Bill Simmons’ beer, to the anchor he needs to be in a frontcourt that does not defend well at all as a whole. The reports out of L.A. have been great so far, and you would expect they would be with Rivers in charge. But, if you’ll recall, there were similar returns early on last year with Jordan, and he has yet to show consistency over the course of 82 games. It’s a long season, so I’m squarely in wait-and-see mode.
Then there’s Blake Griffin. As impressive and dangerous as he is, elite defenses have shown the ability to game-plan against the big man. His jumper has improved considerably, but it still lacks consistency, especially when each possession matters so much in the playoffs. And until he demonstrates a better mid-range game (or at least a more disciplined one), teams will just sag off and force him away from the basket, where he becomes terrifying. But it’s not Griffin that’s the problem here. He changes the game by virtue of the fact that all opposing coaches have to train their defenses to keep him out of the paint. There have been plenty of non-shooting bigs in league history that have been great, it’s going to be about discipline for Griffin. (He went 5-for-28 from the three-point line last season. WHY WAS BLAKE GRIFFIN SHOOTING 28 THREES? I’m pretty sure he shot one from his ass. Poor Vinny.)
As long as Chris Paul is running the show, the Clippers will be fine offensively. They’ve added more floor-spacers to the mix, theoretically giving CP3 more room to operate and pick defenses apart. They’ll be elite on that side of the ball. If they are to take that next step, it will have to come on the defensive end. And while Rivers is as good a coach as you can ask for, this team is still depending on Jordan to hold down the paint. That’s a scary proposition.
Side note: I believe the Clippers will miss Eric Bledsoe quite a bit defensively. He was a terror against Spurs backup guards over the last couple of seasons, and his ability to apply pressure up to 94 feet caused opposing point guards to struggle to initiate the offense comfortably. Collison is a sieve on that end of the floor, so that backup unit won’t have that same attack dog that allowed them to play defense for just a few seconds less per possession. It’s something that bears watching, because the Clippers bench put up some wonderful defensive numbers last season, and Bledsoe was the common denominator.
3. Houston Rockets
Houston was already a young team that tested the Spurs’ modest athleticism, and they’ve now added the game’s best center (when healthy) to the fold. This team will be must-see TV all season, if only for the curiosity of which Dwight we’re going to get. If it’s pre-injury, Orlando Dwight, then the West is in some trouble. If it’s less-than-Superman, the Rockets’ jump in the standings won’t be quite as drastic.
Opinions on this team don’t seem to vary much. They’re going to be very good. Houston has already demonstrated a highly effective and wonderfully entertaining style of basketball, and the synergy between players, coaches and front-office folks is there. James Harden has turned into arguably the league’s best shooting guard, Chandler Parsons has proven to be an absolute steal in the second round and definitely the dreamiest player in the NBA, Omer Asik is an defender and rebounder, and the Jeremy Lin-Patrick Beverly combination at point guard is 48 minutes of annoying to the opposition. They really do have it all, but questions remain.
Are they still a bit too young? Do they have the requisite experience (if you believe in such a thing) to make the next step toward title contention? Is Dwight’s back good to go? The latter is probably the most important, as the two former queries tend to work themselves out. I believe they’re still a piece or two away, but they’re going to be exciting to watch and brutal to play against. Still, those questions keep them on the precipice on the final tier until they prove otherwise.
2. Golden State Warriors
I’m still not sure people realize just how terrifying Stephen Curry is.
The conference semifinals gave Spurs fans a jolt, and a realization of just how good this team can be. Now, they’re one year older, and they’ve added one of the most impactful defensive players in the NBA.
Tony Parker was massacred in that playoff series, and through no fault of his own. He’s not long enough to defend Curry — it’s difficult to find a point guard who is — and his ridiculous range, and he can’t be hidden on Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes. And DEFINITELY not on Andre Iguoudala. And the Warriors picked on him. Wherever poor Tony went, Golden State pushed the ball right at him. Whether it was Curry dribbling around a screen and pulling up from the River Walk or Harrison Barnes posting him up, Parker had no chance. It forced Popovich to alter his rotations to get him out of the lineup a bit sooner, because he knew Jarrett Jack would be the first man off the bench, for the most part.
While Jack was quite good in that series, his presence offered a bit of a respite for Parker. He didn’t have off-the-dribble three-point range, and he wasn’t physically dominant enough to bully Parker around. Still, Jack had made a habit of torching San Antonio over the years, so it’s funny to think back on the fact that his presence was good for Tony. But that’s how lethal the Warriors were.
Now, it becomes even worse. With Iggy in the mix, it’ll likely be Thompson or Barnes as the first man off the bench, making matters worse for the Spurs’ point guard. As bad as this matchup was for San Antonio before, it’s worse now. And if Golden State can stay healthy — always a big ‘if’ — they’re a legitimate threat to get to the Western Conference Finals, and potentially beyond.
Hell, I’m picking them to finish as the No. 2 seed in the West at the end of the regular season, but I’m still not ready to put them in the top tier.
Title contender (along with San Antonio):
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
I know there is some skepticism around a team many feel has actually gotten worse over the last two seasons, including me, begrudgingly. They’ve basically swapped Harden for rookie big man Steven Adams and Jeremy Lamb, and have gotten younger and less experienced along the way. Tack on the re-injured Russell Westbrook meniscus and the fact he’ll be sitting out for much of the early part of the season (theoretically), and you’ve got fuel for regression fire.
I’m not ready to drop them from consideration, though. No way.
They are young, but they’re quite talented. It’s reasonable to think they may struggle in the absence of Westbrook, and they probably will. They’ll also likely have to reacclimate once he returns. But we all know how long an 82-game season is, and if LeBron James didn’t exist, Kevin Durant would be the best player on the planet. They’ll have plenty of time to adjust and learn, and by the time the playoffs roll around they’ll be as undesirable a playoff matchup as you can find. The only thing that could truly derail them would be injuries to key components, but that goes without saying for any team in the NBA.
My money’s on the Thunder being just fine in the long run, and because of that, they’re the team San Antonio should be most concerned by. (Though I’m telling you, the Warriors are close.)
The league as a whole is as talented and deep as ever, and the typical doldrums of the NBA winter might be a little less gloomy. It’s going to be a hell of a ride the whole time, and chances are a couple of those fringe playoff teams will find a way into the mix.
I can’t wait, and you shouldn’t be able to, either.