Which way is the Western Conference Headed?


If you’ve got a rooting interest in these NBA Finals, I’m very, very sorry. The Spurs and the Heat are playing basketball at an absurd level, and it’s a legitimate shame if you can only cheer for half of it. Also a shame: there is probably not much more of it.

No one knows when Tim Duncan will retire, but it won’t be long. It won’t surprise anyone if Gregg Popovich is right behind him. It won’t be after this year, and maybe not after next year. But it’ll happen at some point. And despite growth from Kawhi Leonard and brilliance from Tony Parker and RC Buford drafting a superstar with the 14th pick at some point, the Spurs have to decline.

Thank goodness, too, because the West was an absolute buzzsaw this year. The Miami Heat would have landed in a three-way tie for the fourth-best record in the conference with the Blazers and Rockets. We’ve already covered the Blazers’ uncertain capacity for growth. They really could benefit from some weakened competition. So how likely is that?

I won’t attempt to explore the Spurs any longer because the more I do, the better they’ll be next year and the year after and the year after… let’s talk Thunder.

May 31, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) and San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) meet after the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Thunder in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. San Antonio won 112-107. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder are a really, really good team, full of really, really good players. If you could freeze this team in time and have them play like this forever, they’d probably have a 30% chance to win the Finals every year. Unfortunately, the NBA doesn’t work like that. They haven’t gotten past the conference finals since 2012, mainly thanks to rotten injury luck. They’re a nightmare matchup for San Antonio, but last year Westbrook and this year Ibaka got injured before they had a real chance.

That’s not to say it’s all luck. Despite backing from the front office, many doubt Scott Brooks’ coaching ability. They still muck around with Kendrick Perkins, and they’ve got Kevin Durant’s looming free agency to deal with. The sheen of 2012 is off the Thunder.

That’s fine, but all teams have some problems. The fact remains that the Thunder aren’t slipping and won’t for a good while yet. They could absolutely have won the finals any of the last three years and they’re probably the team best suited to capitalize on the Spurs eventual decline.

The Clippers, if you haven’t heard, are in a weird spot right now. We can probably assume that the Donald Sterling stuff will be worked out by next season, and in the meantime Doc Rivers has pulled off a pretty impressive power-grab. The product on the floor remains as good as ever, which, per Basketball-Reference’s Simple Rating System, is better than the Thunder. Chris Paul’s health will be a growing concern as he ages, but Blake Griffin only gets better and better, and keeps doing position-defying nonsense. The Clippers are scary as hell.

The Rockets are an interesting case. Ever since they lost to the Blazers while actually outscoring them in the first round, there has been a consensus growing that the Rockets are fundamentally flawed in a way that prevents them from anything but regular season success. That’s wrong. The Blazers series could’ve gone either way, and the Rockets probably would’ve given the Spurs some trouble in the semifinals. I don’t know if coach Kevin McHale needs to be replaced, but the Rockets and everyone else know that they’re going to need a little more complexity. There’s nothing to suggest they can’t adapt, and you also never know what Daryl Morey will pull off. Don’t be shocked when he sends Parsons and Lin to the Pacers for Paul George and a second-rounder. No, the Rockets are better than the Blazers and will probably remain so.

The Warriors have a new coach and Kevin Love aspirations. They also have aging and/or injury-prone pieces in Andre Iguodala, David Lee, and Andrew Bogut. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them take a step back this year as Steve Kerr learns the ropes. They probably underperformed last year offensively (12th in the league, despite the NBA’s two best shooters) and with Mark Jackson gone anything might happen.

The Grizzlies are another complicated case. They played at a 55-win pace when Marc Gasol wasn’t injured, and very nearly ousted the Thunder in the first round. While they remain a great team, Zach Randolph is clearly in decline. They’ll likely be on the Blazers’ level next year, assuming they don’t decide they’re nowhere near a title and blow it up, which is also a possibility. In fact, anything’s a possibility as long as they are run by Robert Pera, including player-coach Mike Miller.

The Mavericks! A team that’s legitimately declining! Thank God. Dallas is dealing with the free agencies of Dirk Nowitzki (definitely re-signing) and Shawn Marion and Vince Carter (probably re-signing). Those dudes are old, and their load will have to be taken by the likes of Devin Harris and Monta Ellis. They barely made the playoffs this year. Unless Mark Cuban et al pull off a coup, I’d be surprised to see the Mavericks back in the playoffs.

Unfortunately for the Blazers, there are enough teams in the west ready to step up that the couple teams potentially in decline won’t make much difference. The Suns are young and on the rise, while Anthony Davis is on the verge of devouring the NBA whole and then flying off into the sunset (the Pelicans’ other issues notwithstanding).

So the majority of the western conference is either static or improving, which does not bode well for the Blazers. One good piece of news for the NBA in general: this next draft is excellent, and the East has 5 of the top six picks. We can cross our fingers and hope that this means the league’s talent imbalance might shift at some point soon. The Blazers, however, will have to improve or sink for the next few years at least.

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