If you haven't had a chance to peruse the SB Nation NBA Season Preview, you really should take the time to do so. It's pretty awesome. Yeah, that's right, I'm the Clippers blogger for the media company that produced that! Respect!
As part of that process, the team bloggers and various other hoops-head of SB Nation were surveyed to predict the order of finish in each conference, the conference finalists, and the NBA champs. The results of that survey were that the Los Angeles Clippers would finish first in the Western Conference -- but that the Oklahoma City Thunder would win the West, going on to lose the the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.
There's nothing contradictory about that on its surface of course. There may be reasons why people would think that one team might thrive in the playoffs while another might not. And of course in the specific case of the Thunder, we know that they will not have Russell Westbrook available for at least the first month of the season, but will have as good a chance as any team to be fully healthy for the postseason.
What the preview doesn't reveal is the voting behind the predictions; the Western Conference rankings reveal a bit more when you look at the details. Using a simple system where the first place team is assigned a value of 1 and the 15th place team a 15, the rankings created three pretty clear groupings in the West playoff race. At the top were the Clippers, Spurs and Thunder, with total scores of 75, 96 and 116 -- averages within exactly one position of each other, from an average of 1.89 for the Clippers to 2.89 for the Thunder. (Note that only the Heat, at 1.29, had a lower average ranking than the Clippers.)
The next three in the West likewise bunched together -- with less than seven tenths of a point separating the Rockets (4.49), Grizzlies (4.56) and Warriors (5.12). As we've said for a while, don't finish third in the West, because you'll draw the sixth seed in the first round and that team is likely to be a monster.
Denver and Minnesota squeak into the final two spots by this method, but neither actually finished with an average below 8; and Dallas, Portland, New Orleans and the Lakers are all given a chance. This is all more or less what one would expect -- the experts at SB Nation echoing what the experts elsewhere seem to think about the season.
What continues to baffle me though is the ultimate faith that most experts have in the Thunder. Of the 36 SB Nation writers who named a conference champ, fully 20 of them picked the Thunder. So while Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Clippers were pretty equal in people's eyes in the regular season, a solid majority viewed the Thunder as the postseason favorites. My views on this subject have been well documented (by me). The Thunder would have needed to be absolutely dominant last year in the West to go through an off-season where they lost their third leading scorer and added zero players who played in the NBA last year (which I feel like has got to be a first since the dawn of free agency) without falling behind their closest competitors. They weren't dominant last year, so my conclusion is that they have fallen behind. Yes, Westbrook and Kevin Durant are very, very good -- but it's still a team game, and the Thunder can barely put five good players on the court together. Until Westbrook is healthy, I have them at five legit NBA players if you count Reggie Jackson; Durant and Westbrook can not do it alone.
For what it's worth, the Clippers and Spurs each received seven votes for Western Conference champion, with one vote each going to the Grizzlies and the Rockets. The Clippers did not receive a single vote as NBA Champs.
The overall voting reflects another bit of conventional wisdom about the Clippers -- that they'll be effective in the regular season, but are not built to succeed in the playoffs. We'll see. The Clippers' big weakness on paper is their lack of quality depth in the front court, but it occurs to me that the last several NBA Finals have featured small ball lineups most of the time. In last year's NBA Finals, Miami Heat players listed over 6'8 played 338 minutes over seven games -- three fewer than the 341 minutes available to one big man, let alone two. Adding in the 6'8 Udonis Haslem brings the total to 402 minutes, still leaving 280 minutes -- that's 40 minutes every game! -- where LeBron James or Shane Battier was the power forward.
The Spurs countered with 397 minutes of players over 6'8, and 94 minutes from the 6'8 Boris Diaw, leaving about half of every game with Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green at the four. The 2012 NBA Finals told a very similar story. A lack of quality size off the bench could eventually prove to be a problem for the Clippers, but it certainly hasn't been the downfall of recent NBA finalists.
By contrast, Coach Nick espoused a somewhat opposite view regarding the Clippers regular season in his recent breakdown of the new Clippers offense, one that is pretty logical really. He wonders if the Clippers might win fewer regular season games than their talent level might indicate as they're getting used to new offensive and defensive schemes under new coach Doc Rivers, but be at their best when the postseason comes around after a full season together. The idea has merit.
In the end, the conventional wisdom that some teams are built for the regular season and others for the playoffs is, like so much other conventional wisdom, just not that accurate. The best regular season teams tend to be best in the playoffs, with all kinds of factors like matchups and injuries and other things playing into the final results. In that sense, sure, Westbrook's absence at the start of the season would indeed dictate that the Thunder will be better in the postseason than in the regular season -- but there's not much reason to think that the Clippers will be worse. The 2012 book Scorecasting crunched some numbers behind the old adage that defense wins in the playoffs and found out ... both offense and defense win in both the regular season and the playoffs. The game is played on both sides of the ball, and if you're good enough, on either side or both, then you win.
And don't forget, if the Thunder do indeed stumble to the third seed, they'll face a very difficult first round opponent and will likely lose the home court advantage from the second round. If they fall as far as fifth -- not out of the question in the Western Conference, particularly if Westbrook's return is delayed any more or if he is slow to round into form -- they'll have to go on the road to win three playoff series in order to advance out of the West. These are not insignificant disadvantages and Westbrook's regular season absence could still be felt in the postseason because of them.
The great news here is that the time for meaningless predictions is over. It's only five more days until we actually start playing games.