For the past three seasons, a few things have been crystal clear in the NBA. The three-point shot is more important than ever, LeBron can still win games single-handedly and the Golden State Warriors are the best team in the Western Conference. The only things separating the Warriors from a potential four-peat this year are simultaneous superhuman performances by LeBron and a questionable suspension to Draymond Green in the Finals two years ago. The Warriors’ recipe for success during this stretch has been a combination of the game’s best long- range shooters, a pass-first system and a frenetic defensive pace that can confound almost any opponent. This season, despite sitting in second place in the West at the All-Star Break, questions loom for the defending champs. Namely, why are they in second place? Let’s have a look at the top teams in the Western Conference and their potential for a Finals appearance.
Houston Rockets (26-8)
Let’s calm down with the faux surprise here, folks. This is a really well constructed team that was designed to do one thing, and one thing only, contend with the Warriors in the Western Conference. They’re doing it. The Rockets reeled off ten straight wins heading into the break to snatch the lead from the Warriors, plus they’ve won the season series with the Warriors 2-1. The addition of Chris Paul has worked nearly perfectly thus far, creating more balance and a varied attack that has both Paul and James Harden handling the ball at times, creating confusion and opportunity for both star players. Unsurprisingly, Harden is atop the league’s scoring leaders, averaging over thirty-one points per game (PPG). What is surprising is that Harden has bought into the sharing system and leads the team in assists as well. His nine assists per game (APG) are fifty percent higher than his career average, and he’s stepped up his game defensively, with eighty-eight steals and thirty-six blocks thus far this season. Can the Rockets retain the top seed? I’d be surprised. They’ve had a great string of games going into the break as the Warriors scuffled slightly, but rank well behind the Warriors in almost every meaningful statistic.
Golden State Warriors (25-11)
Want an idea of how good the Warriors are, despite the “sky is falling” cries that echo across the
Bay? Here’s the list of important statistics that the Warriors currently lead the NBA in.
- Points Per Game 115.8
- Assists Per Game 30.5
- Blocks Per Game 7.9
- Field Goal Percentage 51%
- Three-Point Percentage 39.2%
- Free Throw Percentage 81.1%
- Net Rating 10
- Offensive Rating 113.7
- Fast Break PPG 20.7
Interestingly, the Warriors are being blown away by the Rockets in one category, and it isn’t close. The Rockets lead the NBA in three-pointers made (893). The Warriors rank only fifth in that category (679). But their percentage tells the story. The Warriors are still the best three- point shooting team in the league, they just aren’t relying on it exclusively. While fans in the Bay feel like the bench play has slipped, the numbers simply don’t bear this out over the season. While Shaun Livingston and Andre Igoudala haven’t had top-tier seasons thus far, the Warriors bench ranks second only to Toronto in net points. They’ve looked sloppier than we’re used to seeing on defense at times, but make no mistake, without a major injury to one of the big four, the path to the Finals still comes through the Bay.
San Antonio Spurs (35-24)
Kawhi Leonard. That’s all you need to know about this team for the stretch run. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard has been medically cleared to return to the team, but he remains inactive. Coach Gregg Popovich’s take was blunt and brutal. “I’d be surprised if he returns this season.” Say what you want, Coach Pop doesn’t sugar-coat anything. Leonard hasn’t played since January, and while the Spurs have hung tough thus far, if he stays away, whether the reason is medical, or not, their chances of staying near the top of the crowded Western Conference rankings are slim. LaMarcus Aldridge has been great, averaging over twenty PPG, but without their MVP contender, they’re probably sunk.
Minnesota Timberwolves (36-25)
This is a team on the rise. The addition of Jimmy Butler in an offseason deal with the Bulls has increased the ceiling for this young group led by Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They’ve already exceeded their win total from last season, and are playing with confidence. While they might not remain ranked above the Thunder as the season draws to a close, expect them to stay in the playoff mix with Towns averaging a double-double and significant points from Butler and Wiggins. If they can shore up on defense, this team has some real potential to advance.
The Best of the Rest
The West is stacked, with ten teams playing above .500 thus far. Expect a dogfight for the final few playoff spots, with the Clippers and Jazz currently on the outside looking in. I also expect to see the Oklahoma City Thunder move up a few slots. They’ll have the advantage of experience over the T-Wolves down the stretch, and the Spurs should fade without Kawhi. Don’t be surprised if they end up as the three seed.
While a few of these teams can make some noise come playoff time, I expect that if there’s a team that can take down the Warriors, it will be the Rockets. Harden and Chris Paul are a potent combination and they have (thus far) displayed the defensive will to contain even the best offenses. That being said, I’d expect to see the Warriors flip the switch defensively and pull away over these next few weeks. They’re not likely to coast to the Finals as easily as last year, but I fully expect we’ll see them there.
Image Source: twitter.com/warriors
Tom Capo writes about sports, parenting, food, wine and travel; but seldom all at once. He’s currently working on his first novel and collection of shorter fiction. He lives in the Bay Area with all of his girls; wife Allison, daughter Liliana and dog Artemis.