Clarity in NBA Western Conference playoff picture

Clarity in NBA Western Conference playoff picture
February 28, 2014, 1:15 pm
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Compared to the Eastern Conference, in which there’s a clear hierarchy — the upper-echelon teams (Indiana and Miami), the middle-class clubs (Chicago, Toronto and Washington) and a jumble of squads almost tripping over themselves not to make the postseason (Brooklyn, Charlotte, Atlanta, Cleveland and Detroit) on most nights — the West’s playoff picture is much more competitive.

[RELATED: NBA Eastern Conference playoff picture becoming clearer]

Only nine-and-a-half games separate the conference’s first-place team, the Thunder, from the Suns, its eight-place team. Still, with less than two months to go in the regular season, things are becoming clearer, in regards to playoff positioning.

Oklahoma City and San Antonio are locked in a battle for the top seed, and while the Spurs are obviously a prideful and competitive veteran group, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gregg Popovich rest the likes of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, currently sidelined All-Star point guard Tony Parker and sixth man Manu Ginobili periodically down the stretch for a squad that just got one of its key young players, small forward Kawhi Leonard, back from a month-long hiatus due to a hand ailment.

The Thunder, on the other hand, will be searching for a rhythm in the wake of Russell Westbrook’s return to the lineup from the knee issues that have troubled him throughout this campaign. MVP front-runner Kevin Durant’s run without his sidekick, while thrilling to watch, clearly isn’t sustainable, as evidenced by the team’s second-round ouster in last spring’s playoffs after Westbrook’s initial knee injury in the previous round. Perhaps the acquisition of veteran small forward Caron Butler, acquired after being bought out by his home-state Bucks, will bolster the team’s depth.

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The next tier of Western Conference teams feature three squads looking to be taken seriously as NBA Finals contenders in the Trail Blazers, Clippers and Rockets. Each of the trio has seen tremendous highs this season, as well as visible flaws, making them equally vulnerable and dangerous in the upcoming postseason, depending on the matchup.

Portland was one of the league’s early-season surprises and while the Blazers haven’t kept up their torrid pace, with one of the best inside-outside duos in the game in the All-Star tandem of power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and point guard Damien Lillard, the reigning Rookie of the Year, it would be unwise not to treat them as anything less than legitimate threats. Conversely, though Portland has improved its bench and defense, center Robin Lopez has provided a physical presence inside, and wings Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are consistent supporting role players, it’s hard to find an observer that would predict an extended run for the jump-shooting club.

The Clippers, in Doc Rivers’ first year at the helm, have shown signs that they’re ready to take another step, but have also displayed a lack of development on occasion. The squad relies on All-Star point guard Chris Paul’s playmaking ability in the half-court offense and while shot-blocking center DeAndre Jordan, the league’s leading rebounder, has become a focused rim-protector, there are still major holes on that end of the floor. All-Star power forward Blake Griffin has made improvements in his overall game — the Clippers are well aware that “Lob City” won’t work in the playoffs, though a return to health for elite sharpshooter J.J. Redick would certainly help their cause — and a bench that features sixth man Jamal Crawford, speedy backup point guard Darren Collison, the underappreciated Matt Barnes and new acquisitions Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Danny Granger is nothing to sneeze at. But despite all of that firepower, there’s a sense that the Clippers are still susceptible to another first-round exit if they’re challenged by a physical, experienced and defensive-minded opponent.

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Houston has quietly emerged as one of the West’s top teams behind All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden, arguably the two best players in the game at their respective positions. The Rockets aren’t a balanced squad, however, though the point guard tandem of Chicago native Patrick Beverley and sixth man Jeremy Lin are underrated, as is versatile small forward Chandler Parsons and emerging second-year power forward Terrence Jones. But an overreliance on three-point shooting and a flawed defense, even with backup center Omer Asik back in the lineup, don’t bode well for their long-term prospects.

There’s a quartet of teams battling for the West’s bottom-three playoff spots: Dallas, Golden State, Phoenix and Memphis, a mix of teams that have either underachieved or outperformed their expectations.

The Mavericks’ success is somewhat surprising, but a healthy Dirk Nowitzki and the underrated Monta Ellis have combined to form a potent offensive combo with excellent chemistry in only their first season playing together. Dallas appears poised to return to the playoffs after a brief hiatus, due to veteran floor general Jose Calderon, the experienced wing tandem of Shawn Marion and sixth man Vince Carter, and a seemingly underwhelming big-man rotation of Samuel Dalembert, Brandan Wright and DeJuan Blair have been getting it done for Rick Carlisle, one of the league’s best sideline strategists.

After looking like a potential contender-in-the-making following their short-lived, albeit exciting, playoff success last spring, the Warriors tinkered with their roster over the offseason, adding versatile swingman Andre Iguodala, which sent second-year small forward Harrison Barnes to the bench, as well as meaning the end of key reserves Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry’s respective tenures in Oakland. While injuries have also factored into Golden State’s periodic struggles this season, there have only been fits and starts of the chemistry displayed last postseason, though All-Star point guard Stephen Curry has established himself as one of the game’s elite players and backcourt partner Klay Thompson rivals him as a pure sharpshooter. Picking up veteran floor general Steve Blake at the trade deadline should help and while the Warriors likely aren’t a matchup many teams look forward to, the fact that head coach Mark Jackson has to keep his foot on the gas just to ensure they’ll make the playoffs is a bit troubling.

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Suns first-year head coach Jeff Hornacek, a front-runner for NBA Coach of the Year honors, has done a remarkable job with a roster most observers thought would lead to a high draft pick, especially considering that dynamic young point guard Eric Bledsoe has missed most of the campaign with a knee injury. But Phoenix, while it should be proud its success thus far, has taken a dip as time has gone on — not surprising, as point guard Goran Dragic is perhaps the only player on the team that would definitely be a starter for another squad — and is now simply holding on for dear life as the playoffs approach.

The Grizzlies, Western Conference finalists a year ago, are currently on the outside looking in during Dave Joerger’s first year as head coach after Lionel Hollins’ surprising ouster last spring. Although injuries to key pieces like point guard Mike Conley Jr. and center Marc Gasol undoubtedly made matters more difficult, disastrously experimenting with changing styles of play early in the season and rumors of shopping players such as Zach Randolph and Chicago native, Tony Allen both beloved in Memphis, certainly didn’t help the situation. Still, the Grizzlies seem to have found a semblance of their old ways and just a half-game behind Phoenix, could easily make a run to sneak into the playoffs.

Only one other team in the West, Minnesota, even has a chance of contending for the postseason, as a promising stretch by Denver earlier in the season has given way to dysfunction, injuries and an overall lack of competitiveness. The Timberwolves, too, have been disappointing and look to be on the verge of squandering yet another stellar season by All-Star power forward Kevin Love, which only fuel the constant speculation that he won’t be wearing the same uniform for long.