By Rob Mahoney
While Miami has already claimed dominion over the Eastern Conference, even the West's most convincing contenders remain bogged down by the prospect of running an exhausting postseason gauntlet. Of the West's playoff lot, there could be as many as five legitimately dangerous teams -- not all necessarily good enough to vie for the title but certainly capable of causing some disorder throughout the playoff bracket.
The health of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker introduces some doubt for San Antonio, but the Spurs remain one of the most effective two-way teams and a likely conference finalist. The Rudy Gay deal has only served to refine the Grizzlies' offensive operation and focus, while Memphis' defense remains one of the most feared components in any potential playoff series. Denver will need to settle in after the loss of Danilo Gallinari to a torn ACL, but should still make for an intriguing postseason team. Even the Clippers could provide a hearty playoff challenge for most any West opponent, provided their complete dependence on Chris Paul can be offset by sharper defensive execution and an engaged Blake Griffin.
That leaves us with the Thunder, that hyper-talented bunch engaged in a season of mixed messages. The loss of James Harden has been managed more effectively in OKC than even the most optimistic projections anticipated, but the reigning Western Conference champs boast an underwhelming record against the best teams in the West since claiming that title. Oklahoma City makes quick work of the vast majority of its opponents, but has only managed a winning record in its season series against the most underwhelming (LAC) of those aforementioned Western Conference challengers. That -- along with OKC's ho-hum 7-7 overall record against that group -- doesn't make a compelling case for the Thunder returning to the Finals.
Regardless of whether Oklahoma City winds up with the first or second seed, a route to a rematch with the Heat would likely require series victories over some pair of the Spurs, Grizzlies and Nuggets (not to mention a first-round opponent that, while not as dangerous, can't be glossed over). None of those opponents are insurmountable on a case-by-case basis, and the Thunder would likely be the favorite against any of the three. But the compounding odds of winning back-to-back series against such heavy competition is no small order for the Thunder, as their primary advantage over the rest of the West was ceded to Houston due to luxury tax concerns.
Harden, who was traded from OKC to Houston prior to the season, was a huge offensive asset for the Thunder in seasons past, and there's no question that the tradeoff between Harden's skill set and Kevin Martin's will come to play a significant part in how the Western Conference on the whole shakes out.
Martin, after all, isn't merely a player of slimmer talents, but also of flakier production. Though Harden's numbers in Oklahoma City fluctuated along with his touches and role, Martin's game-to-game performance varies simply because his game is far more specific and, as a result, a bit less dependable. Whereas Harden could be utilized to create reliable points out of pick-and-rolls or fit alongside Westbrook and Durant in virtually any situation, Martin's specialized shooting is a bit more limited in its scope and thus easier for opposing defenses to account for and to manage. Some of that deficit is offset by the expansion of Kevin Durant's game and Russell Westbrook's belligerent greatness, but in an iso-driven offense like the Thunder's, exchanging a versatile player for a less dynamic one always comes at a price.
Last season, Oklahoma City turned the tables on San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals by exploiting the Spurs' lack of supplementary playmakers. With Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan limited, Tony Parker was the sole player capable of initiating offense for San Antonio on a consistent basis. So Thunder head coach Scott Brooks tweaked his defense to pressure Parker and cut off his support, thereby reducing San Antonio's well-oiled machine to a far less resilient sputter.
Interestingly enough, the Thunder have opened themselves up for just such a strategic turn in accepting Martin's contributions in exchange for Harden's -- not to mention the addition of the utterly stagnant Derek Fisher to replace more useful offensive players. Westbrook and Durant make for one of the most potent shot creating duos in the league, but should an opponent manage to lock down Durant with any measure of success, it could throw Oklahoma City's offense off-balance enough to make every game of a potential series winnable. As prolific as the Thunder are, the absence of a third playmaker -- and their dependence on individual dribble-driving rather than team-wide ball movement -- makes them susceptible to pressure-heavy schemes. If an opponent keys in on Durant and/or Westbrook in the same way that the Thunder once focused on Parker, OKC becomes an imminently beatable opponent.
That's far easier said than done, but one has to think that outcome would at least be a possibility against two of the top-three defensive teams in the league in the Grizzlies and Spurs (who collectively held the Thunder to about seven points per 100 possessions below their season average, per NBA.com), to say nothing of the unique challenges that would come with OKC's high-turnover offense holding up against the goading run-and-gun style of the Nuggets. There's a reason, after all, that the Thunder have won just four games out of 11 against those three opponents this season; as good as Oklahoma City is, the overt reliance on Durant and Westbrook to manufacture shots (or to make the play that immediately leads to a shot for a teammate) creates rather clear objectives and targets for opponents with high-functioning defenses. That defensive approach can be rendered irrelevant by talent alone, but without Harden the Thunder are a bit less talented and significantly less adaptable.
Given the issues facing the other contenders, there's no real reason for alarm in regard to the Thunder's playoff path. But with a Western Conference field this tricky, there's also no room for blanket certainty in the Thunder's favor. Oklahoma City may well be the best team in the West, but by such a slim margin that it may not be enough.
• Happy to see that Deron Williams has finally turned things around after piddling along for much of the season (even if his improved play doesn't make me much more optimistic about Brooklyn's playoff odds). Williams has averaged 23.6 points (on 48.7-percent shooting!) and 7.8 assists per game over his last 19 games, and that's nothing to scoff at; even though Williams' improvement can be traced more to his hot outside shooting rather than some hard change in his shot distribution or approach, he does look better and healthier than he has at any point in his Nets career.
• After a few seasons hovering near the top of the charts, it appears as though Atlanta's Kyle Korver -- who is currently in an exact tie with Shane Battier -- may finally lead the league in effective field goal percentage on jumpers this season. Elite shooters like Ray Allen, Anthony Morrow and Steve Novak have all denied Korver in recent years, but this time around Korver has a solid chance as Erik Spoelstra seems likely to rest LeBron James and Dwyane Wade down the stretch, and thus undercut Battier's shooting efficiency.
• Players who average more points per minute in the clutch than the notoriously clutch Paul Pierce (per NBA.com): Brook Lopez, Al Jefferson, O.J. Mayo, Ramon Sessions, Carlos Boozer, Mike Conley and George HIll. Do with this information what you will.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. A precious opportunity likely lost
It's a shame to see any team's season unsettled by injury and any player's career put on hold for a major surgery and significant recovery. Yet both seem particularly unfortunate in the case of Danilo Gallinari -- who tore his ACL this week and will miss the remainder of the season -- and the Nuggets, who were collectively sprinting their way into the postseason on the basis of their smart, uncompromising offense. Gallinari was a crucial element of Denver's success on both ends this season, and will be sorely missed despite the fact that the Nuggets rank as one of the deepest teams in the league.
I can't help but think that this makes for an opportunity lost as far as Denver's postseason hopes, as an uphill battle just took on an even more brutal slope. Mounting a long playoff run is difficult, and doing so without a traditional superstar player even more so, as Galinari's scoring, ability to draw fouls and pesky perimeter defense have all proved rather important for a Denver team short on dependable options. The Nuggets will still be a team well worth watching come playoff time, but the postseason will undoubtedly test the elasticity of Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer as they attempt to fill in for Gallo. I'll be as pleasantly surprised as anyone if Denver manages to rally from both this news and Ty Lawson's lingering injury.
2. Generosity among NBA bigs
The race for the title of best-passing big man in the NBA has turned into something of an open derby, with around a dozen qualified candidates in legitimate contention for the award. That's insane, really, and makes it almost impossible to declare a single victor for this somewhat arbitrary honor. Is it Josh Smith, who leads all bigs in assists per game (4.3)? Or Joakim Noah, who smooths over Chicago's offense with his work from the top of the floor? Maybe the ever-pliable Marc Gasol? Or perhaps one of either Blake Griffin or David Lee, who do most of their playmaking on the move? We could go on and on. Ask me day-by-day and I'm likely to give any number of different answers, if only because today's bigs are now playing a more involved role in overall offensive function.
3. Ben Gordon, playing nice (enough) in Charlotte
Ben Gordon and Bobcats head coach Mike Dunlap reportedly don't have the warmest relationship, with the most notable piece of evidence on the subject coming courtesy of Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski back in February:
As Dunlap led the Bobcats in a morning shootaround on Monday before a victory over the Celtics, Gordon refused Dunlap's request to stop bouncing a ball as the coach spoke, sources said. Before long, Gordon began baiting Dunlap, telling him that he needed to "humble himself," sources said.
Gordan refused to give the ball to Dunlap, and eventually tossed it toward a ball rack, sources said. Bobcats general manager Rod Higgins was in the practice session and ultimately intervened, sources said.
"Beyond disrespectful," was how one league source described the scene.
Yikes. And though that report didn't emerge but two months ago, it appears that Dunlap and Gordon have managed to put their differences aside to establish something of a working relationship. The episode described above strikes me as the kind that could land a player in his coach's doghouse for a good chunk of the season, but Gordon's punishment -- a stretch of diminished playing time -- seemed to only last a few weeks. Thereafter, Gordon again began to hit the 25-minute mark on a regular basis.
Managing disgruntled veterans has to be among the less appreciated challenges of coaching a lottery team, as it presents a no-win situation; there is a clear emphasis among the league's worst teams every season to yield playing time to developing players, which almost always deprives minutes to the veterans who landed on the roster as a result of various trades or hedge signings. That would make many players a bit salty, and yet Dunlap and those of his ilk have little choice but to manage these kinds of situations as quickly and decisively as possible.
4. Making sense of Kawhi Leonard
Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard isn't a first-rate NBA athlete, but he's fairly quick, has a decent handle and at various times this season has showcased his ability to finish over and around defenders:
So why is it that we don't see those kinds of plays from Leonard a bit more often? He has the skills to pursue the basket a bit more off the dribble, and the Spurs -- particularly with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili limited by injury -- would definitely appreciate the added dynamism. But some mental or physical barrier is keeping Leonard from accessing this important part of his game, even though that development seems to be altogether crucial to his evolution both as a Spur and as a player in general.
5. The foundation of Omer Asik
Omer Asik was long overdue for the minutes and role he got this season in Houston, if only for all the good he does his team as a rotational defender and pure-effort rebounder. But I've been impressed by Asik's slight offensive development under Kevin McHale over the last few months, particularly in regard to his footwork around the basket. It's uncommon, to say the least, for a player who struggles to finish around the rim to have such sound lower-body fundamentals, and perhaps it's a mere coincidence that Asik seems to be making strides while playing for one of the best post-up players in NBA history. But Asik nevertheless does an outstanding job of using the full radius of his pivot -- and both possible pivoting directions -- to his advantage around the hoop. It's an incredibly helpful quality for a player who can only convert open dunks with regularity, as in some cases that fancy footwork turns what could be a difficult, contested shot into an unencumbered slam.
6. The life, death and afterlife of a pregame ritual
Something I noticed while LeBron James and Dwyane Wade sat out for Miami over the last week or so: James Jones, Mike Miller, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis huddling together near the scorers table, sharing a shaker/bottle of talc chalk and mirroring LeBron's old pregame ritual by collectively chalking up their hands before throwing the powder into the air. Is this a regular occurrence from Miami's group of reserved wings, or a little bit of theater as they took the stage during James' absence?
7. DeJuan Blair, inching toward a fresh start
The end of the regular season is nearly upon us, as is the cap on any and all playing time that 23-year-old big man DeJuan Blair is likely to see until the fall. It's no secret that Blair doesn't figure prominently into San Antonio's plans for the present or future, and, in all likelihood, Blair will find a new basketball home when his contract expires at the end of this season. As an unrestricted free agent, Blair -- who has averaged 14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes over his four-year career -- is likely to draw plenty of interest, and I, for one, am curious to see how he'll fare with a bit more opportunity. San Antonio is an impeccably run organization and one that remains thoroughly committed to player development, but the on-court fit between Blair and Tim Duncan never quite worked out as planned, and Blair proved replaceable enough to fall out of the Spurs' rotation entirely.
To his credit, Blair has handled his situation with class, and produced on the few occasions in which he was called on to fill a significant slice of playing time. But his relationship with the Spurs has run its course, and his play under a new coach on a different team should make for an interesting subplot next season.
8. Magic prospects, gunning for numbers For those in need of some late-season entertainment, check in on the Magic's amazing commitment to late-season stat-padding. With the formality of pretending to win now thrown out the window, Orlando's players are running hard … toward every uncontested rebound. Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless have put up some really impressive numbers of late, but not without cannibalizing on free boards bouncing toward other teammates or hoisting up shots unapologetically. It's been a fun (and wildly productive) run for both players, but there's just a tint of shamelessness to the way that both Harris and Harkless are pretty clearly chasing stats.