The Western Conference is coming off one of its greatest seasons ever, with 9 teams winning at least 48 games in the middle of a playoff race that was settled until the last few days of the season. Now heading into what promises to be a postseason to remember, the West appears primed to produce the eventual NBA champion.
However, before anyone dreams of lifting the Larry O'Brien trophy, the West has to be sorted out among 8 teams that actually could build a strong case to be considered contenders. From the steady excellence of the San Antonio Spurs and their 17th straight playoff appearance, passing through the emergence of the Los Angeles Clippers to the return after two years of Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, the West is loaded with talent and is bound to be full of tight series.
Having said that, and with the NBA playoff format usually rewarding the best teams from the regular season, today we take a look at the past 11 Western champions to find trends and try to predict 2014's winner. After the playoff format was tweaked in 2003 to what we have nowadays, only 4 Western teams have been able to advance to the Finals, with the Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers doing it 4 times each, the Mavs twice and the Oklahoma City Thunder filling out the select club with their lone appearance in 2012.
By using regular-season point differential and team winning percentage, we'll try to identify how each Western champ has fared since 2003, ultimately selecting the team we expect to play well into June and fight for NBA glory.
WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS SINCE 2003
|Year||Conf. Champion||Winning Pct.||Seed||Point Diff.||Point. Diff. Rank|
*NBA champions in bold
As it can be seen in the graph, no team lower than a 3-seed has represented the West in the Finals, while the lowest winning percentage of .683 translates to 56 wins over a full season, a number that again only three teams in the West actually achieved: San Antonio, OKC and the Clippers.
Does this mean that the other squads have no chance? Well, if we turn our heads towards point differential, the story remains the same for the top 3, though history shows that some Western teams have been able to surpass a middle-of-the-pack differential to reach the Finals. By expanding the lowest threshold to the +3.9 mark posted by the 2004 Lakers, six current teams make the final cut, leaving out only Dallas and Memphis.
While it seems understandable to side with the first two seeds advancing, the other two first-round matchups should be fun to watch and tough to predict. However, while round 1 presents this problem, things should be clearer going forward, as only the aforementioned Spurs, Thunder, and Clippers appear to be true contenders.
Even as Golden State Warriors and its +4.8 is actually tied with Miami, who had the best differential in the East, the competition level in the West is just too high to consider them. The same reasoning goes for Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, teams that still lack the tools to make a deep playoff run.
Of the three teams left, the Clippers appear to be the weak link, with a combined 3-4 record against the Spurs and Thunder, along with a 23-18 record away from home – which is good, but not as solid to think that they could close a defining series in San Antonio or Oklahoma City. Unless someone upsets any of the top two in the earlier round, the Clips are probably doomed to wait for next year.
Setting up a potential 1 vs 2 matchup, the pick falls to the Thunder. For starters, they swept San Antonio during the regular season, while the Spurs have never managed back-to-back conference titles under Greg Popovich. Also, the Thunder's balance (sixth in the league in both offensive and defensive ratings) should give them an edge despite not having home-field advantage.
Riding the hottest scorer in the game and his amazing streak of 25+ point games, the Thunder have all it takes to avenge their 2012 Finals loss. Oklahoma's +6.4 point differential is better than the average for the last Western champions, as numbers and the eye test back this prediction.