Yesterday, I looked at the biggest weakness, or Achilles heel, of each Eastern Conference playoff contender. Today, it’s the Western Conference’s turn.
While only about five teams have a legitimate chance to win the conference in the East, the West is stacked. All eight teams currently in playoff positioning in the league’s stronger conference have the potential to go on a hot streak and make some serious noise in the postseason. I’ll even include one bonus team that isn’t currently one of the West’s top eight teams, but could be a tough out come April.
Golden State Warriors (36-7)- Pace
Admittedly, it’s difficult to come up with something wrong with the NBA’s top team winning-percentage wise. But they aren’t perfect.
The Warriors play their games at the league’s fastest pace, accumulating 101.3 offensive possessions over the course of an average game. It’s worked out for Golden State so far, as its opponents have trouble keeping up with the quick triggers of the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
But history tells us playing at a breakneck pace and playoff success don’t always mesh. In postseason series, opponents have plenty of time to scout a run-and-gun team’s offense and learn how to stop it. The last time a championship team ranked in the league’s top three in pace was 1975.
The team? Sure enough, the Golden State Warriors, who played at the league’s third-fastest pace that year. The 2015 Warriors could repeat the feat, but it would be a historical anomaly.
Memphis Grizzlies (34-12)- Three-Point Shooting
The Grizzlies have a problem both scoring from and defending the three-point arc.
Memphis ranks No. 28 in long balls made per game (5.6), while letting its opponents drain 8.5 shots from downtown per contest, good for 24th-best in the league. Just taking into account three-point shots, the Grizzlies are getting outscored by approximately 8.7 points per game.
In the playoffs, Memphis could be vulnerable if its opponent is able to take advantage of the Grizzlies’ sub-par outside shooting and defense of the three-point line.
Portland Trail Blazers (32-14)- Perimeter Depth
The Blazers own a nice trio of starters on the perimeter: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Although Batum is having a down year, those three can all do considerable damage against the opponent’s point guard and wings.
How are their backups at those same positions? Rough, to say the least. Steve Blake, Will Barton and Allen Crabbe all own player efficiency ratings below 10 (15 is the league average).
Last season, the San Antonio Spurs obliterated the Blazers with a host of competent perimeter players. If the Blazers don’t make a trade or get significant improvement from their bench guards, they could be awaiting a similar fate in the playoffs this year.
Los Angeles Clippers (32-14)- Small Forward
Matt Barnes is one tough guy. He plays his heart out and has no problem dishing out hard fouls. But he should not be a starting small forward for an NBA title contender.
Barnes is a solid spot-up three point shooter, but he doesn’t provide much else besides average defense.
Considering Hedo Turkoglu and Dahntay Jones back him up, the Clippers will not be winning many small forward battles against the Kevin Durant’s, Kawhi Leonard’s and Jeff Green’s of the Western Conference.
Houston Rockets (32-14)- Behind-the-Arc Overkill
A pleasant surprise this season, the Rockets have gotten an MVP-level season out of James Harden and unexpected production from some of its role players.
But Houston sure has been chucking up a lot of threes.
The Rockets take 33.6 shots from distance per game, six more per contest than the No. 2-ranked Trail Blazers. Thankfully, their success rate is at a solid 35.3 percent (No. 13 in the NBA). But it’s tough to trust a team to make a deep run when it relies so heavily on its long shots falling.
San Antonio Spurs (30-17)- Health and Motivation
Seeing the defending champion Spurs all the way down at the No. 6 seed this late in the season feels a little bit weird. It’s both a testament to the strength of the West and the injury and motivation struggles San Antonio has dealt with this season.
Kawhi Leonard has missed 18 games. Tony Parker has been out for 14, Tiago Splitter has sat for 23 and Marco Belinelli has missed 20.
The ball isn’t moving quite as crisply as it did last season, and some of the fire seems to have left. Those things may or may not return in time for the playoffs.
But if San Antonio, the most complete team in the league, doesn’t have any key injuries and is feeling motivated in April, it should have as good a chance as any team to win the title.
Dallas Mavericks (30-17)- Frontcourt Depth
The Mavericks’ starting lineup might be the NBA’s best on paper. Rajon Rondo, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler is certainly a tough unit to scout against.
Unfortunately, a great starting group can go all for naught when its backups aren’t effective. For the Mavericks, it’s the backup big men who are lacking. Without the traded Brandan Wright, Dallas is having to rely on Dwight Powell, Charlie Villanueva and Greg Smith to spell Nowitzki and Chandler.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle, I’m not feeling great about that trio in the playoffs.
Phoenix Suns (27-20)- Center
Much like the Miami Heat and their point guard situation, the Suns have several bench-level players filling in at center.
Alex Len, Miles Plumlee and even the undersized Markieff Morris have all tried their hand at playing pivot for Phoenix, but it just hasn’t worked. Overall, the Suns rank last in points per game by their centers (12.0), while surrendering the third-most (20.8) to opposing pivots.
Should Phoenix hold onto a playoff spot, their centers will need to step up their games in the postseason.
Bonus: Oklahoma City Thunder (23-23)- Time
The Thunder are actually in the West’s No. 10 slot right now, but they’re the only team out of the top eight that stands a chance of doing anything of note in the playoffs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is still the league’s best one-two punch, as Oklahoma City has five straight postseason appearances, including three berths in the Western Conference Finals.
Can they even get past the regular season, though? Due to some terrible injury luck, OKC is 3.5 games out of the No. 8 seed at the moment. Inconsistent play and minor injuries since the returns of Durant and Westbrook are preventing the Thunder from really taking off, however.
If Oklahoma City somehow squeaks into the playoffs, it will probably mean they ended the season on a hot streak and are smelling the blood of the West’s No. 1 seed.
In that case, all I can say is “watch out, NBA.”