Breaking Down The NBA’s Western Conference Contenders
LOS ANGELES– By Aron Jacobowitz
Now that the condensed NBA season is coming to a close, it’s time to map out the legitimate title contenders in the very deep Western Conference. Throughout the season, all the chatter in NBA circles as well as ESPN tagged the Oklahoma City Thunder to breeze through to the Finals. Now that the postseason is set to begin in a little more than a week, the tide has turned and the power in the West has shifted. Here are your Western Conference LEGITIMATE contenders, in no particular order.
Los Angeles Clippers (38-23, 4th West)- The LA Clippers were skating on thin ice and Vinny Del Negro was about knee-deep in hot water after losing three straight in mid March, capped by a defeat in New Orleans. All the Chris Broussards out there were talking about Del Negro losing the locker room, players wanting him fired and management speaking internally of replacing him, among other things.
Then Donald Sterling came out and gave him his “vote of confidence.” The Clippers have won 12 of their last 14 since. The two losses are to the Lakers and Grizzlies. They’ve defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder twice in the last six days and aside from the San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers are the hottest team in the league. Nick Young and Mo Williams highlight a very deep bench that also features the likes of Kenyon Martin and Eric Bledsoe. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul provide this team with enough star power to take the Clips to the Finals as they have learned to impose their will on opponents rather than remain stagnant on offense and solely rely on their talent.
Paul has literally saddled this team on his back lately and the Clippers are imposing their will on opponents through their defense. What other team has held Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to 10-35 FG’s and 11-34 FG’s in their last two meetings? Exactly. Nobody. Griffin has become one of the better passing big men in the game averaging five assists per contest in his last five games.
Del Negro has made in-game adjustments that are noticeable, and he (I can’t believe I’m saying this) deserves to be mentioned in the running for Coach of the Year. Yes, he and the Clips had a lull in March, but they have since responded and they are doing it on the defensive end, not with the flashy lobs. They have proved they have the wherewithal to defeat the leagues best teams, and they really do not lose much when they go to their bench – not many teams can say that.
San Antonio Spurs (43-16, 1st West): The Spurs moved into first place by way of the tiebreaker with the Thunder. This team is never talked about, never hyped up, yet they have won four championships in the last 12 years. San Antonio has won 17 of their last 20 games and are, without question, the hottest team out there right now.
Tim Duncan is killing it. He put up 28 and 12 boards in last week’s win over the Grizzlies, giving us a blast from the past. They have also been able to rest Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili throughout the season because they have such a deep roster. With the additions of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw to an already stacked roster, this team appears poised for a trip to the Conference Finals, at least. They have nine players averaging nine points or more and only Parker is averaging more than 30 minutes per game this season. Again, credit needs to be given to Gregg Popovich for keeping his players fresh for a deep run come playoff time.
Every night it’s another guy doing work for this squad. Gary Neal pops out with 17 points here, Tiago Splitter hangs a 15 point, eight board performance there. Parker dropped 42 on the Thunder early in the season. This team is the most well-rounded, best coached and most fundamentally sound squad by far. If they stay healthy (ahem, Manu), there isn’t a team that can contend with them.
They play to team’s styles. They like to slow the ball down and execute their offense, however, if their opponent wants to run, they adjust and kill you at your game. They are probably the only team in the NBA that can pull that off. You would think this team only scores in the mid-90′s, but go take a look – they are third in the league, averaging 102 points per game. Parker is having his most efficient year at the PG position averaging 19 and eight, while shooting a career high 80 percent from the free throw line, which is crucial to his game because of how often he finds space and gets into the lane.
Los Angeles Lakers (39-22, 3rd West): Kobe Bryant is out resting a shin injury and the Lakers haven’t missed a beat (if you don’t count their blowout loss to Phoenix). They have gone 4-1 since Coach Kobe was added to the suits and Andrew Bynum has looked fierce. He is probably the best big man in the game, but don’t tell him I said that. Ron Artest has replaced Metta World Peace over the last week as he has averaged 17 points, five boards and two steals while shooting 50 percent over his last five games. Matt Barnes has lifted a bench that was completely ineffective through the first half of the season as he has put up 12 points, 8.5 boards and four assists in 28 minutes over his last five as well.
Who would’ve thought this team would survive without Kobe? I did. Watch their games and it’s clear. They move the ball, play inside out and draw and kick out to open shooters. They play actively on defense because they do not have many stagnant offensive possessions, as they thrive on enthusiasm.
I am by no means saying this team is better off without Coach Kobe. However, it is clear that this team has enough weapons to contend in the West without the league’s leading scorer. They are still much better off with the Black Mamba in uniform as they need a perimeter threat to go along with their double seven-foot presence down low. Bynum hasn’t shot the ball particularly well over their recent stretch (41 percent), however, he has averaged 22 points and 17 rebounds, causing havoc against any defender that dare challenge him in the post. It’s a good thing Dwight Howard didn’t want a trade to the Lakers, because Bynum is a much more refined big man than D12, and he’s also two years younger.
Ramon Sessions has been the difference maker for this Lakers team, as they finally have a PG who can keep up with the other quick, athletic guards in the upper echelon of the West (Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul). He has also averaged 14 points and seven assists since his arrival, while shooting a hot 50 percent from the field.
Oklahoma City Thunder (44-17, 2nd West): Even after a recent lull in their otherwise terrific season, the Thunder remain a very dangerous team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Their only downfall is that they turn the ball over at a high rate and the reason is simple: the loss of its backup PG, Eric Maynor, to an ACL injury.
Maynor provided the stabilizing presence they so desperately needed, as Westbrook is still very raw as a point guard. He does not have the necessary instincts a true point guard needs to have in crucial situations. If he wants to improve, he will need to watch film of Chris Paul, learn clock management and find teammates in a position where they can thrive. This is not to take away from Westbrook’s talent and athleticism, because he is a freak and is still very young, but at this point in his career, he needs a mentor. Derek Fisher was a nice addition to help guide this young team from the guard position, however he is still too slow to be effective on the defensive end.
All that said, the Thunder is insanely talented. Serge Ibaka leads the league in blocks, Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the league, Westbrook is averaging 24 points per game and James Harden is the consensus Sixth Man of the Year. There’s no question that this team has improved from last season’s trip to the West Finals, but again, Maynor’s absence has really begun to show and opposing teams are exploiting their second unit from the PG position.
OKC is legit because they have incredible talent and a very good coach in Scott Brooks. Kendrick Perkins’ value goes way beyond the box score. He actually boxes out his man on every single defensive possession. I have never seen a center so fundamentally sound outside of San Antonio and Chicago, but Perkins comes from Boston’s defensive system which was run by Bulls Head Coach, Tom Thibodeau, where Kendrick won his ring in 2008, so it comes as no surprise.
Memphis Grizzlies (35-25, 5th West): I Have to include them, mainly because of their impressive run last season and the fact that they are getting healthy and hot at the right time. Zach Randolph is back from his early season injury and beginning to get himself into game shape. Rudy Gay, who was absent from last season’s playoff run, is healthy and thriving. Mike Conley is having his best season as a pro at the PG position and OJ Mayo is playing as well as any other bench player in the last few weeks. Tony Allen adds a perimeter defender with championship pedigree from his time in Boston.
The Grizzlies are the dark horse – they have the talent and depth to make a long run, however, the teams in front of them have more talent. Don’t count them out though. Wow, the West playoffs are going to be insane.