Sorting Out The NBA’s Western Conference Arms Race

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The bomb shelter’s are being stocked. The prayers for safety are being amen-ed. The hatches are being battened down. Such is life when you are preparing for an 8 team, interstellar space war.

Playing basketball in the Western Conference this year wouldn’t be a joke even if Carrot Top pulled it out of his prop trunk. Imagine the evil Empire from Star Wars, except for there are 10 of them all trying to conquer the same galaxy.

Right now there are ten organizations sweating bullets and biting their fingernails down to the nub every anxiety ridden day of this season. Well probably not San Antonio, because they’re the emotionless wax figures. In any 82 game season, the bumps and the breaks are a guaranteed companion on your journey. This season has taken that old adage, crumpled it up into a paper ball, and bricked it against the edge of a waste basket. Every game has a meaning beyond just a win and a loss. Earlier this season, Popovich played a 38 year old Tim Duncan 48 minutes (!!!) in a triple overtime loss. A single night in Memphis can mean the difference between playing at home in Game 7 of the Conference Finals or playing in front of a hostile rival crowd that would do anything to bite your head off.

Every team has countless amounts of strengths, and a weakness that sticks out like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at a graduation ceremony.

Golden State has an Andrew Bogut’s fragile body problem; Memphis has a wing problem; Portland and Dallas have depth problems; San Antonio has a motivation problem; The Clippers have a “secretly we’re not athletic enough to keep up” problem; Houston has a Dwight’s just kind of a big baby problem; Phoenix and New Orleans both have “we’ve never been here before” problems; and Oklahoma City has a “Started From The Bottom” problem.

So what do you do when you’re preparing for four rounds battling for every single basket night after night after night? You stock up. You gather up enough ammunition so that, hopefully, you can outlast the guys firing missiles from across the parquet.

Five teams so far have thrown their names into the Goblet of Fire that is the Western Conference Arms Race. Some have given up assets like the last ditch effort of a losing Monopoly player (Houston), and other have given up legitimate rotation players (Dallas).

The only thing clear ray of light in this murky Western Conference picture is this – there is no favorite. It’s like an episode of Lost. Every time you got an answer to a question, it was replaced with three new questions. This is anyone’s conference to win. The team with two of the top five basketball players in the entire world is sitting at the 10th seed.

Let’s take a look at the five teams who have made an attempt to put themselves over the top.

Oklahoma City

We all know what the Thunder are. They’re a terrifying blur of pure athletic and basketball talent that no other team in the league can match. Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook is in the pantheon of all-time intimidating presences in sports. Serge Ibaka is a gigantic force of nature sent from the basketball gods to erase all soft ass takes to the basket.

Yet come playoff time the conversation remains the same. “Westbrook is taking too many shots”, “Let Westbrook be Westbrook”, “Durant needs to get mean”, “Is Durant soft?”, “When will Scott Brooks run a play in the fourth Quarter?”, and so on and so forth.

As of writing this, the Thunder are sitting at 18-19 and only one game out of the playoffs in the loss column. All this while being forced to rely heavily on Perry Jones III and Reggie Jackson for a decent chunk of the season.

In comes Dion Waiters riding in from the shores of Lake Eerie, fully prepared to take as many step-back jumpers and needed to fill his monthly quota. I understand what General Manager Sam Presti was thinking here, just like I understood what the Cavaliers motivations behind drafting him were. You need more than one playmaker to win in this league, it’s proven time and time again.

Only problem is, Dion Waiters isn’t trying to be anyone’s second playmaker. If you gave Waiters a dose of Veritaserum and asked him if who was better between he and Durant, his answer would probably be something like, “Men lie women lie BUCKETS DNT”.

Overconfidence Guy is a must for any team with championship aspirations, but if you already have that him and he also happens to be one of five best players in the league, it suddenly doesn’t become as important. Westbrook possesses enough overconfidence to make up for a roster filled with high school chess club members. I don’t really see the use in adding any more of that, especially in the form of Dion Waiters and long step back twos.

Dallas

The Mavericks made their move for one purpose, the last four minutes of playoff games. Rondo/Ellis/Parsons/Nowitzki/Chandler is the most talented top to bottom five guys any of the West teams can run out there.

Rajon Rondo is the type of player that needs the game to matter for him to care. I saw Rondo be the best player on the floor during a game in which Lebron James, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Dwyane Wade were all playing at the same time. The guy just has another gear he’s consistently gotten to when it matters most.

Dallas did have to sacrifice big time depth in losing Jae Crowder and Brandon Wright in order to acquire Rondo. This is the big drawback to making this deal. When they find themselves in the inevitable “Oh shit, Durant is torching Parsons, we have no one that can guard this guy” situation, where do they turn? Richard Jefferson was washed up six years ago, and you annihilate any spacing you may have if you play Rondo and Al-Farouq Aminu (a 26% 3 point shooter) on together.

The Mavericks are banking on you not keeping up. I would have done the trade 999 times out a 1,000. Mark Cuban attained the best singular talent out of any of the moves made so far. I just refuse to count out a team with that can ram Rondo to Dirk pick-and-pops and Rondo to Tyson pick-and-rolls down your throat during the crucial stretch run of any playoff game. That sounds downright frustrating to have to combat through a seven game series.

Houston

Daryl Morey runs an NBA team the same way a 15 year old kid runs his 2k15 Franchise. Procure as much top-level talent as possible, worry about the rest later.

Trading away only one actual player (Troy Daniels), three second round picks, and the right to Sergei Lishouk (yeah I know I didn’t know who that was either), they pocketed Corey Brewer, Alexy Shved, and Josh Smith.

The first two, Corey Brewer and Alexy Shved, are rotation pieces. Set to play 15-20 minutes a game and not screw, take some threes, play a little defense, and not screw it all up. Josh Smith, on the other hand, is a totally different story.

After being given a 4 year 54 million dollar deal by Detroit during the 2013 off season, Smith managed to basically just be told to leave and not come back. Stan Van Gundy decided they would pay Smith the remainder of his contract to get the hell off the team. It was an unprecedented move at the time. Judging by the Pistons being 9-1 since his presence exited the locker room, it was seemingly the right move.

Morey just seemingly couldn’t pass up a warm slice of that Josh Smith pie, and signed him four days after the Pistons cut him loose. What do the Rockets do when Smith tries his damndest to shoot them out of a game down the stretch? Can he check enough of his ego and superstar mentality at the door?

If Smith plays defense, grabs rebounds, and does all the other Josh Smithy things that actually help a team win, than the Rockets made the right move. But as soon as those rebound turn into a full court dribble into a long, contested two point shot, they might just be second guessing their foray into this deadly dog-eat-dog Western Conference Arms Race.

Phoenix

Why couldn’t a healthy Phoenix team give a Bogut-less Warriors team seven games of hell in the first round?

What’s stopping Eric Bledsoe from neutralizing James Harden just enough on the defensive end for the Suns to sneak by the Rockets?

Wouldn’t Deandre Jordan and Blake Griffin set a playoff record for most fouls trying to stop the Dragic/Bledsoe/Isiah Thomas three headed Hydra from Hercules constantly attacking the lane?

They are a nightmare match-up for about half of the contenders in the West, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. The Thunder head out the desert two more times this season, with those games suddenly becoming must wins for the two 8th seed contenders. February 26th and March 29th should be circled by all self-respecting League Pass subscribers.

The Suns bolstered their rotation by adding Tony Mitchell (a 12th man super-duper emergency big), and Brandon Wright (Yes the same Brandon Wright that was the centerpiece of the Rondo to Dallas trade), for basically Anthony Tolliver and a first round pick.

Sneaky Suns draft bit: If the Lakers pick falls out of the top five, the Suns get it. Right now the Lakers have the 4th worst record in the league.

Love the move for this team. Head coach Jeff Hornacek can now split the center minutes dead even between Alex Len, who can really, really play, and Brandon Wright when they play against the bigger teams (think Dallas, Memphis). That means 12 useful fouls from your seven footers instead of 6 from one. That is huge, considering the gluttony of point guards with the ability to get to the rim that any team will inevitably face.

Don’t sleep on these Suns, they play at a pace few teams can match. Isiah Thomas and Gerald Green wreak havoc off the bench for at least two four minute stretches of every game. They’ll be a tough out.

Memphis

Memphis is a serious title contender. Outside of the Spurs, they have the most sweat equity as a unit of any team in the league. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley have all spilled the same blood in the same mud for so long, nothing can shake them. Watching them in the playoffs is a favorite springtime tradition of mine. Seeing a basketball team play 100% for each other in perfect synchronous harmony is one of the most pure and beautiful sights in the world.

Jeff Green as a basketball player is like a well tossed salad. Just enough stuff to leave you satisfied. He’s the perfect blend of just enough shooting, defense, positional flexibility, and basketball IQ to add to the bed of lettuce already in the Grizzly bowl.

Maybe I’m just hungry, but that sure as hell made sense to me.

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