Nearly a quarter into the 2013-14 season, the contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the pretenders. In the Eastern conference, we’ve learned it’s a two-team battle between Miami and Indiana in what will be a rematch of last year’s conference finals. Through Monday’s games, the Atlanta Hawks are the only other team in the conference above .500. The Western conference however, has three elite teams and three other teams who can be considered second-tier contenders. Below is a breakdown for each of those contenders.
Portland Trail Blazers, 18-4
If you didn’t think the Trail Blazers were for real, think again. With signature wins over San Antonio, Golden State, Indiana and, most recently, Oklahoma City, they have put an end to the notion that they were just playing out a hot streak. GM Neil Olshey has built the franchise around All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and rising second-year point guard Damian Lillard with perfect complimentary players like Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez. Mo Williams has become efficient in his sixth man role, and C.J. McCallum has yet to even step on the court yet due to a fractured toe. They own the second-best record in the league and currently hold a 1½-game lead over San Antonio for the top seed out West.
San Antonio Spurs, 15-4
At 15-4, they have the perfect balance of veteran and young players. Coach Gregg Popovich, one of the best in the league, continues to distribute the minutes evenly and preserve his veterans for the postseason and only one player is averaging more than 30 minutes a game (Tony Parker). The Spurs continue to win as a unit, though Parker is the key to their playoff success (evident last year in the NBA Finals after he was limited due to a hamstring injury). Tim Duncan’s production has decreased significantly, proving that Father Time is undefeated, but the Spurs still rank third in points allowed and first in assists per game.
Oklahoma City Thunder, 15-4
For those that missed the Pacers-Thunder matchup from Sunday, Kevin Durant put a halt to all of the hype (much deserved though) regarding Paul George’s rise as a superstar in this league after a 118-94 blowout of Indiana. After the game, Durant yelled to the media, “Write about that” — a shot taken at George and his inability to guard him one-on-one. Now that Russell Westbrook is fully healthy, the sky is the limit for this team as they look for a return trip to the Finals. They rank third in scoring (104.7 PPG) and second in rebounding (46.7 RPG) largely due to Durant and Serge Ibaka, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year.
Los Angeles Clippers, 14-8
The Clippers fall under the category of a second-tier contender at 14-8. Chris Paul is having another MVP-caliber type of year, averaging 18.7 points, 12.0 assists (best in the league by a wide margin) and ranks third in steals. Doc Rivers is still trying to figure out a way to get this team to compete defensively and gets stops on a more consistent basis. They have undersized shooting guards in J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford and Jared Dudley (far from athletic) and Matt Barnes at small forward. Blake Griffin’s scoring and rebounding numbers are up from last season, but he’s still not at that point in his career where he can demand the ball in the fourth quarter when it’s money time and score with a go-to post move. When Griffin combines his freakish athleticism with more skill, what other power forward in the league is going to stop him? That is the day Clippers fans are hoping for.
Houston Rockets, 15-7
The Dwight Howard signing has paid off for the Rockets, but not like you expected it to. Instead of being one of the top defensive teams, they lead the league in scoring (107.5 PPG) and rebounds (47.3 RPG). Howard can still draw the double team and score in one-on-one situations – just not as consistently as he used to. James Harden is averaging almost the same numbers as last season in which he was the star of the team. Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin have also been bright spots this season. Kevin McHale’s experiment of playing Omer Asik alongside Howard has failed and the team is now actively looking to trade Asik before Dec. 19. The ideal situation for the Rockets is to bring back a forward who compliments Howard’s inside game much better than Asik – though Terrence Jones has played admirably as a starter. Are Thaddeus Young or Howard’s former teammate in Orlando, Ryan Anderson, on the Rockets radar? If the Rockets can add one of the two, their chances to come out the west will be even stronger.
Golden State Warriors, 12-10
Don’t let the Warriors current record fool you. Yes, they would be out of the playoffs if they started today, but when healthy they are a top contender. They’ve just been bitten by the injury bug so far. Stephen Curry is poised to make his first All-Star Game this season and Klay Thompson is a candidate for Most Improved Player. Small forward Andre Iguodala, who plays as the backup to Curry at point guard as well, has missed the last nine games and is expected to be out another two to four weeks with a bad hamstring. He was the won who hit the game-winning shot at home against the Thunder a few weeks ago, so when he returns it will be a big boost to the morale and leadership of the team. What to like about the Warriors: They have versatile big men in David Lee, Andrew Bogut and Marreese Speights, along with top notch perimeter shooting (41.7 percent from 3 this season, which ranks first).