For most of the first half of the season, the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers were statistically speaking the three best teams in the NBA, and it wasn't really close. But even as the team was overachieving statistically, particularly on defense, the Miami Heat had to be considered a part of the top group, for at least two reasons. First because they were the defending NBA Champs, and second because they were clearly the best team in the East and the odds-on favorite to make it to the NBA Finals, where they'd finally meet one of the other top teams for the first time in the post season.
Indeed, for the last several weeks the Heat have lived up to their reputation, going on a tear to join the top group from a statistical standpoint. During that same time the Clippers fell off the pace a bit, owing primarily to an injury that kept Chris Paul out of the lineup or limited his effectiveness during a 3-8 stretch. Both before the injury and since, the Clippers have proven to be more than worthy of inclusion in the top group.
Power rankings out this week tend to confirm this observation; most of them agree on the top four teams. Winning percentage, margin of victory, Hollinger power rankings, RPI and Simple Rating System all agree as well. The Spurs, Thunder, Heat and Clippers (generally in that order) are the four best teams in the NBA at the All Star break, and no one else has much of a case for inclusion in the top group.
I've looked at the data a lot of different ways, and it is difficult even to nitpick any of these teams in any way. While Miami's defensive efficiency is barely above the league average, they've nonetheless been fantastic on defense recently, and have improved their defensive efficiency considerably during their recent run. For now it looks like the Heat were disinterested on the defensive end but have rededicated themselves to the task, which is bad news for the rest of the league. Likewise Miami's road record is the weakest of the group at a lackluster 13-11 -- but they've won three of four on the road, including double digit victories in Brooklyn and in Oklahoma City, so likewise they appear to be much improved in that area.
The Clippers primary weakness in their resume so far is that they're not that great without Chris Paul -- so there's your news flash. Assuming that they have a healthy CP3 for the rest of the season and the playoffs, how good they are without him becomes irrelevant. The Clippers have also had some lapses against bad teams, more than either the Thunder or Spurs who tend to always take care of business against weaker competition. But since there are no bad teams in the playoffs, the Clippers' tendency to stumble against the likes of Cleveland and New Orleans and Orlando shouldn't be a big issue. Looking at home record, road record, record against good teams, offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency and lots of other indicators, there's just no denying that the Clippers are a solid team across the board -- and even more so with a healthy Chris Paul.
The Spurs are just a machine. They have the best record in the league, the best home record, the best road record, the most wins against winning teams, the most home games remaining after the break, a top five offense, a top five defense -- and unlike the Clippers, they've done much of it through injuries to key players. Frankly, it it were not for some post-season failures from San Antonio in recent seasons, it would be difficult to find even a theoretical vulnerability in the team. The only hope for the rest of the league is that the Spurs massive advantage in execution (and make no mistake, they are the best coached team in the league and run their sets to perfection) is somewhat diminished in the post-season when all the other teams step up their game and are also able to study up on stopping the Spurs. Post-season success tends to turn more on pure talent and less on one team out-executing the other. While the Spurs have plenty of talent, it is not what differentiates them.
The Thunder is the one team of the group that may have a few little chinks in the armor. Basically, OKC has done a great job of beating up on the weak teams of the NBA with a 25-4 record against teams under .500. But they're record against teams over .500 (14-10) is the worst of the big four. Consider also that the Thunder have played the fewest plus-.500 opponents among the top teams (24 as opposed to 28 each for the others). But the biggest cause for concern may come in their recent performance against good teams on the road.
Since January 1, Oklahoma City has just one road win against a team with a winning record -- and that win came in L.A. against the Clippers while Paul was hurt. It's clear that the Thunder have one of the most talented rosters in the league, so most night's they will win on talent alone. Playing on the road against good teams -- that's where they have to distinguish themselves, and in 2013 they haven't done much.
Consider this as well -- of OKC's 15 remaining road games, 10 come against teams currently over .500. That's as compared to five such games for the Clippers (among 11 road games total). The Thunder currently hold a 1.5 game lead over the Clippers (all of it in the all important loss column) and with eight weeks left in the season, they appear to me to be quite catchable. In fact, with OKC visiting Houston and Denver in the next 10 days, the game between the Thunder and the Clippers on March 3 could easily end up being for second place in the conference at that point. Unfortunately for the Clippers, the Thunder have already clinched the season series so a tie won't be enough in the end, but there will be an opportunity to pass them, it seems to me.
No one's catching the Spurs -- they're too good, and importantly, they're too consistent. But the second seed is definitely in play. Bear in mind that if these are indeed the best teams, at most two
one of the three Western Conference teams will make it out of the second round of the playoffs -- that's just the cruel math of the playoffs. And speaking of cruel, in theory the third seed in the West, while being demonstrably one of the top four teams in the entire NBA, could have to go on the road against the three other top teams in order to win the NBA title -- ouch.
If things go according to seed, the 2 seed will have home court advantage against the 3 seed in the second round, which could end being the difference between a successful season and a disappointing season for one of those teams.