As it seems to be every season, the Western Conference should be incredibly strong when it comes to playoff teams. While a few different Eastern Conference postseason teams lost pivotal players due to trades (Magic, Hawks), the best of the West largely got better while many of the non-playoff teams improved as well. Since the Warriors have the talent on paper to be in contention for the postseason, it feels like a worthy exercise to plot out the West and figure out where Golden State fits in.
At the outset, it seems important to note that injuries are a major part of today’s NBA and will hit nearly every team in this piece over the course of the season. For the purposes of this exercise, I will assume that all major injuries happen randomly and thus give a moderate reward to teams with quality depth that can withstand more players being hurt.
With that out of the way, the first group contain the playoff locks. There are five teams that fit the bill this season (in no order): the Thunder, Lakers, Spurs, Nuggets, and Clippers. Each of those teams has elite talent at the top and enough depth to get them into the playoffs in nearly all reasonable circumstances. That is not to say that they have the top five seeds locked up; they simply stand a great chance of being five of the eight teams in chairs when the music stops.
One of the consequences of a deep conference comes into play in the next group: playoff near-locks. In other years and other conferences, this section can be populated by a myriad of teams that are just a little bit off the locks column. Thanks to there being so many strong teams below the locks, only Memphis fits here this season. The Grizzlies are a very good squad and should make the playoffs, though they have some questions. Losing OJ Mayo without getting a proper replacement and their reliance on a narrower core of players puts them one step down for the time being.
The next group proves to be the most complicated in this year’s Western Conference. While there are major differences between the teams, it proves impossible to further stratify the next five teams in the playoff hunt who are gunning for the final two playoff spots.
The top team in this tier at the outset has to be the Minnesota Timberwolves, who went from having far too little perimeter talent to having one of the more interesting rotations in the entire league. They had a shot of making the playoffs last season before Ricky Rubio’s injury and have replaced the weakest players in their rotation with the likes of Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, Alexey Sheved and Greg Stiemsma. The upgrade on the middle and back of their depth chart will mean the world to a squad that had so many problems there the last few seasons. Even without Rubio on the floor for the first two months or so, they have the talent to lead this pack.
The next spot gets even more complicated, so I will put two teams together.
The Warriors finally have a balanced starting lineup that does not have a top three with similar flaws. Andrew Bogut can fix much of what plagues the Warriors' defense while a deeper stable of SF’s can help as well. As a team that can both move away from gimmickry and still embrace it when they like, the Warriors should make lots of teams uncomfortable throughout their rotation. Adding depth in Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, and the rookies makes them a team much more capable of withstanding injuries up and down the lineup.
Dallas has been a consistent playoff team for years and did a strong job retooling after an offseason that started with them losing out on Dwight Howard and Deron Williams while Jason Kidd ended up signing with the Knicks. Mark Cuban and company turned around and added some meaningful contributors in Darren Collison, OJ Mayo, Elton Brand and Chris Kaman.
The question for both of these teams (and the one that could decide the last playoff team) is which will gel first and start to gain momentum. My gut says that the Warriors have slightly better odds, especially considering the Mavs have to deal with Nowitzki's knee injury, while Golden State also reaps the benefit of a slightly worse division on the aggregate. It should be close and exciting.
Two more teams populate this “playoff hunt” grouping: Houston and Utah.
The Jazz made the playoffs in 11-12 and did not lose much over the summer by replacing Devin Harris and CJ Miles with Mo Williams and Marvin Williams. Considering the youth of most of their contributors, the Jazz certainly have a good chance of making themselves a part of the discussion simply with in-house improvement.
Houston definitely had the largest roster overhaul in the conference this summer and likely had a meaningful increase in talent. Omer Asik and Jeremy Lamb both stand out as meaningful new contributors while losing both Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry and only adding Jeremy Lin at PG could be a challenge for at least the start of the season. Both Houston and Utah have the talent to make the playoffs if the breaks go their way a reasonable amount.
What makes the 12-13 Western Conference incredibly fun is that even the teams likely out of the playoff mix have a puncher’s chance of making some noise. New Orleans got the best player in the Draft and could have a healthy Eric Gordon along with a ton of other new talent and a good coach. Portland has an All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge and a young core that can take advantage of their home floor and win some unexpected games. Sacramento may have the best rebounding front line in the entire league and could get some more contributions from their much-maligned perimeter guys. Phoenix, well, it’ll take a ton for them to be in the mix even though they have a solid amount of talent.
When it all comes together, the West has eleven teams with a respectable chance of making the final eight. The Warriors come in a few steps behind in chemistry and talent compared with the elite teams yet compare favorably with many of their direct competitors for the final few slots. As always seems to be the case, expect injuries and depth to go most of the way in separating these otherwise close squads. Since there are so many teams that could be in the mix, at least one team should take a hot streak and get one of the spots, making the road even tougher for everyone else. It should be a fantastic end to the regular season and one of the most compelling playoffs in the last two decades.