It's crowded at the top of the wild, wild west

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

The Clippers 17 game win streak barely made a dent in the Western Conference standings, where they currently find themselves in a virtual tie with the Spurs and Thunder

What's a team got to do to get some separation in the Western Conference?

Apparently, they have to do more than simply go on a historic winning streak. On the morning of November 28th, just after the Clippers had lost four in a row, their record stood at 8-6. At that point, about five weeks ago, they trailed San Antonio (12-3), Memphis (10-2) and Oklahoma City (11-4) by 3.5, 3 and 2.5 games respectively and were tied with Golden State.

The Clippers then went on to win their next 17 games, a franchise record and the longest winning streak in the NBA in almost four years. They've since lost two, but even so, 17-2 over a five week period is some scorching hot basketball. So they should have made great progress in the standings, right?

Well, they've certainly moved up, but not nearly as much as one might have hoped. While the Clippers were going 17-2, here's what their four primary Western Conference competitors were doing over the last five weeks:

  • Oklahoma City 13-3
  • San Antonio 14-6
  • Memphis 10-7
  • Golden State 14-4

Only the Grizzlies have had the common courtesy to cool off a bit and allow the Clippers to make a leap forward in the standings, from three games behind Memphis at the end of November to three games in front of them today. Both the Thunder and the Warriors have been white hot (only slightly cooler than the Clippers themselves) and the Spurs, even with a loss in New York Thursday night, have been humming along at a .700 winning percentage.

Consequently, the Clippers find themselves in a three way dog fight for first place in the Western Conference, with Golden State breathing down their necks just 2.5 games back in the Pacific Division after their impressive win in Oakland on Wednesday.

The logjam at the top of the conference is absurdly tight. While the teams have all played different numbers of games creating some separation in their winning percentages, when measured by margin of victory it's a virtual dead heat. Here's a quick look at some of the key numbers for the West's three best teams:

W

L

Pct

PF

PA

Diff

Oklahoma City Thunder

24

7

.774

3271

3010

8.419

Los Angeles Clippers

25

8

.758

3345

3067

8.424

San Antonio Spurs

26

9

.743

3683

3394

8.257

The Thunder have the best winning percentage, but have also played fewer road games and more home games than either the Clippers or the Spurs. The Clippers have the best average margin of victory of the three, though clearly not by much. The Spurs are third in both winning percentage and average margin of victory but have played the toughest schedule of the three teams so far. So take your pick.

Oh, and don't forget that Memphis and Golden State are looming not far behind. The average margin of victory metric would seem to indicate that there is some separation for the current big three (the Grizzlies are at 4.8 and the Warriors are at 3.2), but these are all good teams. Bear in mind also that the Warriors will get Andrew Bogut back at some point.

What's truly frightening is to think that at least one of the top three teams is going to be eliminated from the playoffs in the second round -- if not sooner. By definition, either the Thunder, the Spurs or the Clippers, if not more than one of them, will fail to advance to the Western Conference Finals, a fate that will certainly be interpreted as disappointing for whomever if befalls. Not to mention that even if they maintain their dominant positions in the conference through the end of the season, they will almost certainly be facing the likes of Memphis, Golden State, Denver or the Lakers in the first round -- frightening teams fully capable of making their own playoff runs all.

All this to say, if you want to make a bet on this year's NBA champs, put your money on Miami. Not that I think they're necessarily better than any of these teams, but the odds that they'll get to the Finals are so much higher in the far less scary Eastern Conference that their championship odds are necessarily better. Even if you only give the Heat a one in three chance of winning the Finals over whichever team survives in the West, that's one third of a much better chance than any of these teams have of surviving what will inevitably be a brutal struggle in the West.

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