By: Darius Sadeghi
With the NBA playoffs set to begin April 14, we are now just over a month out from the most wonderful time of the year for basketball enthusiasts. This season has had no shortage of storylines and excitement and there’s no reason to believe the playoffs should be any different.
While Adam Silver has hinted that he may be willing to abolish the dual-conference structure in the near future, for at least one more year fans will have to accept the possibility that the playoffs’ best matchup may very well come in the Western Conference Finals.
Houston Rockets are Serious Contenders
As of March 13, the Houston Rockets (53-14) sit two games ahead of the Golden State Warriors and seem poised to make real noise in the playoffs. With the soon-to-be 2018 NBA MVP, James Harden, leading the way, the Rockets have won 19 of 20 dating back to January 28 and have also won the season series 2-1 against the Warriors.
Diving deeper into their advanced metrics, they sport a +9.0-point differential per game (tops in the league), a 113.3 offensive efficiency rating (second only to Golden State), and a 104.2 defensive efficiency rating (#9 in the NBA). While #9 may not seem amazing, it is a definite improvement for the offensively-minded Rockets and a staggering number for any Mike D’Antoni-coached team. It’s also important to note that since 2000, only one NBA Champion team has had a Defensive Rating outside the top 10, and this squad, the 2000-01 Kobe-Shaq Lakers (21st overall DRtg) was in the midst of a three-peat and had arguably the best duo in NBA history.
Many Rockets critics are quick to point to James Harden’s playoff track record, where he has shot below 41% from the field in four of the past five seasons, and say that he does not have what it takes to lead a team on his own. But the reality is that very few in NBA history have. Along with a formidable defense, this year he also has a true Robin and supporting cast running alongside him. His Rockets teams of the past have had nowhere near the combination of shooting, defense, veterans, and depth, which is what today’s NBA is all about. The addition of Chris Paul has provided massive relief all season, Clint Capela has grown immensely both as a pick-and-roll player and defensive presence, and as a result the Rockets are 35-2 with this trio in the lineup. Add in veterans Eric Gordon, Joe Johnson, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc-Richard Mbah a Moute and the Rockets have the depth, experience, and toughness needed to make a deep run into June. Finally, throw in the storyline of having Harden finally win NBA MVP after finishing second in both 2017 and 2015 and then leading his team to a championship and everything seems to be in place for this to be the Rocket’s year.
For now, however, the Rockets’ title hopes are still based off the expectation that they will finally be able to translate their regular season success into postseason glory.
Warrior’s Championship Pedigree?
Segway to the Warriors (51-16), and they have the championship pedigree on their side. They have taken a step back this year, already recording 16 losses after 15 all of last regular season. However, aside from the LeBron-led Cavs, the Warriors seem to have more understanding of the tradeoff between sustaining regular season success and being prepared come playoff time.
Steve Kerr himself said earlier this season, “The regular season and playoffs are so different because of the amount of preparation.” It’s a little hard to believe that the product we’re watching now will be the same one we see in the playoffs.
The only real area for concern this season is the combination of more injuries and a thinner bench, and unfortunately these two go hand-in-hand. Stephen Curry has already missed 17 games due to ankle issues and if his past is any indication, this is nothing to take lightly with him. We can probably factor in that about a quarter of these games were more of a result of the cautiousness of the Warriors staff and not any real injury concern, but the fact with Steph that we’ve seen in the past is that once these ankle sprains happen once, they seem to continue to reoccur. Expect the Warriors to exhibit extreme caution with him over these next 15 games, because one inopportune ankle roll for Steph in the playoffs can be the difference between championship or bust. Whatever different level of preparation or intensity the Warriors bring will be irrelevant if Steph can’t get healthy by the playoffs.
Past Warriors teams have also been more equipped to weather these types of injuries to their main guys with a deeper bench, but this season has been a little different. Patrick McCaw was a pleasant surprise during his rookie year but now is currently injured and has looked simply lost this season. And how do we all feel about Nick Young or Quinn Cook getting minutes during playoff games? Shaun Livingston has continued to be rock-solid all season and with his past experience, he is definitely somebody to count on. But aside from him, the Warriors’ backcourt depth could be in serious trouble.
Moving to the frontcourt, even that area has seemed less stout this season. David West has been banged up here and there all season, and at 37 time isn’t exactly on his side. Zaza is only playing 14 minutes off the bench. Jordan Bell has shown flashes this season, but he has basically missed the last two months and it’s hard to play rookies in the playoffs. Omri Casspi is another solid player, but does not have a single playoff minute to his name. Andre Iguodala has found his groove post All-Star break, as he always seems to do, but him and Livingston are really the only bench players that we can count on this year, whereas past Dubs teams went 8-9 deep consistently.
The rest of the playoff picture includes the Blazers, Thunder, Timberwolves, Pelicans, Nuggets, Spurs, Jazz, and Clippers who are all separated by just four games.
You can never count any Pop-coached team out but the Spurs really miss Kawhi, and they’re a dreadful 14-22 on the road. Portland has won 10 in a row behind Dame’s late MVP-like heroics, but they’d need CJ and Dame to combine for absurd scoring totals every game to have any chance in the postseason. The Jazz just held the Pistons to 79 points, and with Gobert in the lineup their defense has been as good as any. But do they have the offense to get it done? Minnesota is floundering with no Butler. OKC has serious defensive issues with no Roberson. The Pelicans have been solid since the Mirotic addition, but I can’t imagine them going anywhere without a healthy Boogie. Denver’s head coach Malone has struggled to integrate Millsap properly, and they may still be a couple years away with their young core all being 23 or younger. The Clippers have been gritty but they’re not beating the Warriors in the first round with Lou Williams as their best player.
All these teams have a puncher’s chance, but I can’t really see them beating the Rockets or Warriors at full health.
A month in NBA circles is an eternity and without a doubt, many things will change between now and then. It’s just extremely hard to ignore the steps forward the Rockets have taken this year and the steps back the Warriors may or may not have taken. We won’t know anything for sure until the ball tips on April 14, but clearly the Warriors won’t have as easy of a road to the Finals as last season.
As an optimistic yet unbiased Golden State Warriors fan, it’s always been only a matter before a Western Conference Team tested the Dub’s dynasty, and this may finally be the year we see a new team emerge from the West.