As the end of this crazy, compressed regular season comes to a close; what may turn out to be the most exciting postseason in recent memory is set to begin. Both conferences have clear cut favorites but each with a handful of question marks and potential upsets awaiting them. Unlike previous seasons, we are hard pressed to find one team that stands out as a clear cut title favorite. Alternately we have a bundle of teams that die-hard fans of the league could make a legitimate case on their behalf as to why that team has a chance to win it all. So with that said, lets break it all down and take a look to see what lies ahead.
By listening to the rumblings from fans across the league, one would imagine that the Oklahoma City Thunder hold a double digit lead over the rest of the West and are the clear cut favorites to win the Conference. That, as we all know is not the case. The separation between the Thunder and Spurs is minimal despite the fact that both teams play an entirely different game. Despite this, the Thunder as the second seed still have to be considered the favorites in the West by many experts, though not by much.
The uncertain situation with James Harden after taking the people's elbow from a man named World Peace leaves the Thunder with only 2/3 of their dynamic trio. Perkins, Ibaka, and Sefolosha provide the Thunder with some serious meat on D while the greatness of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has the potential to leave us mentioning the duo as one of the greatest tag-teams of all time when this is all said and done.
If Harden can come back and show no ill-effects from what many assume to be a concussion, the Thunder could run away with the conference, if that is not the case they may still win it; but the door is open a bit wider for the Spurs or any of the underdogs that may get hot at the right time.
The Forgotten Soldiers
Is there any franchise in professional sports that goes as unappreciated as the San Antonio Spurs? Think about it, since David Robinson and Tim Duncan joined forces the Spurs have been a perenial top seeded team. The whole team gets disrespected by the younger NBA fans in all honesty. Tim Duncan may be one of the top seven players in the history of the league, but you'd never know it with the coverage, or lack thereof in comparison to the Lebron's, Wade's, and Kobe's of the league.
How about Gregg Popovich? He's on that second tier of coaches in terms of titles behind the Auerbachs and Jacksons; but in terms of developing players and making gold out of horse dung he is second only to Auerbach. Pop has made guys like Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, DeJuan Blair, and Kawhi Leonard into one of the most formidable second units in the league. If the Thunder have the Superstars edge, the Spurs have the edge in depth. Easily the deepest team in the playoffs the Spurs have once again racked up a bunch of wins behind their Big Three of Duncan, Manu, and Parker. Yes, Duncan and Manu are a bit older but the media would like to make you think that Tony Parker is an aging vet as well, did anyone realize he is only 29?
I had to pick two underdogs for the West because there are real possibilities from both teams as long as the ducks fall in line for both squads. I give Dallas, Utah, Denver, and the Clippers no chance to make any noise this postseason as Dallas looks exhausted and disheveled, Utah lacks the star power, the Clippers still haven't figured things out (and Griffin is overrated) while Denver has a few nice pieces (Faried, Lawson) but need a few pieces to round out their roster. That leaves us with the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Grizz as many of you will come to find out, are my personal "second team" that I've always taken an interest in. I've made it a point to follow them since the arrival of Rudy Gay and was one of the few that predicted their postseason success last year. Many counted the Grizzlies out this season once Zach Randolph went down with a knee injury early on, but since returning and playing well he gives the Grizzlies what may be considered the best front court in the league with Randolph, Gasol, and Speights.
The Grizzlies have perennially been in the upper rankings of the league in defending the paint, and scoring in the paint thanks to Randolph and Gasol; adding Speights only strengthens this attack. Combined with the play of Rudy Gay, emerging into a star as well as the lockdown defense from Tony Allen the Grizzlies will not be an easy out for any team this postseason.
The Lakers are another one of those teams that everyone had sent to the morgue early on this season. They were just "too old" and lacked "unity". But quietly the Lakers were able to get some real trade deadline steals with Ramon Sessions and Jordan Hill (though Hill has underperformed he is still very talented) Sessions gave the Lakers their first true Point Guard in recent memory while Matt Barnes and Ron/Metta "I elbow people in the temple" Artest/World Peace have improved drastically over last season.
With Kobe Bryant playing some of the best ball of his career this season, Pau Gasol staying healthy all season and playing well, and Andrew Bynum giving the Lakers some real big performances at times, if the Lake-show gets hot at the right time, they have a real chance at going deep.
So Who Takes The Cake?
This is a real tough conference this year, as you can see, four teams have legitimate chances at the crown but each has a hole. The Thunder with Hardens health and lack of a bench, the Spurs with age, the Grizz with experience and depth while the Lakers have depth, coaching and chemistry questions. I am a pound it in the paint guy so it is very tempting for me to say that the Grizzlies will surprise everyone and make a run (though don't be surprised if they make the Conference Finals) I have to go with the Spurs out of the West. Not just because Duncan and Pop are great but because guys like Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard DeJuan Blair and Danny Green are better than you think; and I think come June you will finally realize how amazing what the Spurs have done truly is.