Challengers out West appear to be falling away one by one, leaving the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets clear of everyone else and looking likely to meet in the Western Conference final. They look to have superior lineups right now, and with other teams having problems they need to deal with, the Warriors and Rockets may not actually need to be at their best as we end the season.
The other teams look like they have enough of their own problems to contend with, leaving those two to cruise to the end of the season, and set up what would more than likely be a Western Conference final between them.
The most likely challenger to the front two should be the San Antonio Spurs, a team that has had more than their fair share of problems in recent weeks. That has really made them struggle, and to make things worse for them, it doesn’t appear to be any easier on the horizon.
With question marks over the fitness of Rudy Gay, both the fitness and willingness to play of Kawhi Leonard and a tough schedule, the Spurs are right up against it here. There are questions surrounding other clubs too, with Jimmy Butler injured, the OK3 not pushing the Thunder forward, and many other issues for teams to solve.
Behind the top two, the battle is certainly on to finish third, with anyone from 3rd to 8th thinking they have a shot at a top-four spot in the West. However, despite the chance to finish as high as third in the standings, no one has a chance to close in and trouble the top two teams, and here is why.
#5 The Spurs Needed a Big Trade, They Didn’t Get One. Lack of Ambition?
The trade deadline is always an interesting time during the season, some teams are quiet while others are very active. The San Antonio Spurs are known for being a quiet team at the deadline, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to see them do nothing. However, this season was the first time when they really could have made a move and increased their chances, and they missed out.
The Spurs went into the deadline needing help, with Kawhi Leonard and Rudy Gay both missing game time. By the time we get to the playoffs, the hope is that these two will return to the lineup, but nothing has been confirmed by the team. What the Spurs really needed was someone to help them right away, someone who could step in and give them something during the absence of Leonard and Gay.
When they were at the stage where their two stars could return, the Spurs would have an extra weapon to add to these two, giving them a better chance of doing something in the postseason.
The move to bring someone in would also have sent a message to the rest of the conference, showing that despite their two stars missing, the Spurs still mean business. They have missed an opportunity to do that, which for me was a big mistake by the franchise.
#4 Are the ‘Best of the Rest’ Actually Good Enough?
Taking away the problems that many teams have, even if they had no problems amongst them, are they actually good enough to trouble the Warriors and the Rockets? We currently have New Orleans, Portland and Denver taking playoff spots in the west right now, but are they actually good enough to contend and legitimately challenge the best teams in the west right now? You would have to say no, we have seen flashes of brilliance from all three, but a lack of consistency has really hurt them.
The problems that teams are having right now with injuries could be masking a problem that we have out West. This is simply that the teams behind the Warriors and Rockets are not of the right standard to challenge, leaving the top two with an easy chance to dominate. Can a case legitimately be made that the Timberwolves, Pelicans or anyone else can break into the top four and challenge for a top two position? It seems not for the foreseeable future, without major changes to the roster.
#3 Big Games Need Big Players – No Leonard and Butler = No Challenge
Pretty much every team in the NBA has a leader, a star player who they turn to in their hour of need. These players are paid a handsome sum to lead the team because they can do things on the ball that other players can’t. When it is your hour of need, it is those players that help you win games, lead you to championships, and generally do great things for the franchise.
Two of the most legitimate challengers in the west have lost their stars, and they are going to struggle without them. The Timberwolves have just lost Jimmy Butler, just at a time when they needed him the most. They were heading towards 3rd place in the West but now may have to settle for less, such as the impact that Butler has on them. He is a star talent, and without him, the Timberwolves will not be able to challenge the top two.
The Kawhi Leonard situation in San Antonio has been fascinating for a number of weeks now. The latest is that he will return to playing for the Spur sometime in March. He has been in contention to play recently but decided himself stay away and look after his health.
But here’s the real question: does Leonard want to play for the Spurs? How does the team feel about him, and his decision to not come back straight away? What will chemistry in the dressing room be like when he is back to the team on a regular basis? All these are questions that will determine whether or not the Spurs can challenge. I can see this saga dragging on for a while yet, and the longer it goes on, the more likely it is that the impact on the team is a negative one.
#2 Have You Seen The Spurs’ Schedule? Ouch!
Did you know who has the toughest schedule from here until the end of the season in the NBA? That’s right, the San Antonio Spurs, with the most amount of turmoil in franchise history, have an uphill battle.
It’s clear there are many things against the Spurs right now, the lack of help for their current roster, missing stars, lack of confidence and momentum. Those are the things that you definitely do not need when you are about to enter your toughest group of fixtures in the entire season. However, that is what the Spurs have to contend with.
The majority of their remaining games come against teams that right now have a winning record. That is bad news for the Spurs, who have a terrible recent record against those teams. With so much happening off the court, there is a genuine chance that combined with the schedule they have, the Spurs fall further than 4th place in the West. That, of course, would be a catastrophic drop for them, and questions would need answering, but right now that looks to be a likely scenario unless they can pull something out of the bag.
I don’t think they will be that bad, but it has to be a worry for them going forward and into the playoffs. There is a good chance that from here until the end of the season, the Spurs will finish with a losing record. On top of that, they are just 2-6 right now in February, including a 0-2 record on their home court. This is certainly not contending form, at the most crucial time of year.
#1 Are OK3, just simply OK?
The Thunder laid down their marker and during the summer they were spoken about as genuine challengers in the West. Paul George, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony were thrown together by the franchise in an attempt to make a breakthrough, with fans labeling them the ‘OK3’. Of course, they will be judged on their playoff performances together, because that is what they were brought together to do, but right now, are they showing themselves to be any better than just ok?
The next few weeks are going to test these three players, they have been given an opportunity to really make a jump up the league, but looking behind them they are far from assured a playoff spot. Should the Thunder cruise towards the end of the season, and finish 7th or 8th in the standings, there would likely be some criticism aimed at the three stars. However, thanks to problems at teams above them, the Thunder have a big chance to turn things around. A good run could give them 3rd seed, with the criticism disappearing almost overnight.
These three are paid big bucks to perform, the stage is set in March, now it is time for them to perform. Are they going to be the OK3 that many people hoped for in the summer, or are they simply going to be ok?