NBA’s Western Conference better than ever

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The NBA’s Western Conference is the best and deepest it has been in recent memory. The year that comes closest is 2007-08, when the Golden State Warriors finished 48-34 (.585 win percentage) but still missed the playoffs by two games. However, if the Warriors had been in the East, they would have been the fourth seed (sound familiar?). That same year, however, the West had four terrible teams with a .280 win percentage or worse.

A similar situation is playing out this year, except the West is even better than 2007-08. This year’s 07-08 Warriors team currently is the Memphis Grizzlies (.566 win percentage), who are one game out of the playoffs, but would be the third seed in the East. Obviously the West is leaps and bounds better than the East this year, and unlike 2007-08, the West is stronger top to bottom. Every team has at least a .333 win percentage, and the bottom three teams all have played well at points this season: the Kings have beaten Miami, Portland, Houston twice, and Phoenix twice; the Jazz started out abysmally at 1-14, but since then are a decent 18-20; and even the Lakers … oh, they’re 5-23 in the past two months, so never mind.

Another quiet trade deadline passed Thursday afternoon. The only notable Western Conference trade was the Warriors (who had an exciting win against Houston Thursday) acquiring backup point guard Steve Blake from the Lakers for ho-hum role players MarShon Brooks and Kent Bazemore.

With no power-shifting trades to speak of, the key storyline for the rest of the regular season will be the return of Russell Westbrook to the Thunder, who got blown out at home last night against the Heat in Westbrook’s first game since Christmas. The loss to the Heat isn’t a huge deal, and I’m not one to overemphasize one game in late February, especially when the losing team’s second-best player is just returning from an eight-week injury absence. OKC still has a 2.5 game lead in the ultra-competitive West, thanks mainly to Kevin “The Servant” Durant, who is having his best year ever and is the MVP frontrunner. KD has taken his game to a new level since Westbrook was sidelined, averaging a ridiculous 35-7-7 with 52% shooting from the field. Furthermore, Serge Ibaka is proving he is one of the league’s best two-way big men, and Reggie Jackson has blossomed in his starting role.

These facts bring up questions about Westbrook’s value to the Thunder. For years, critics of Westbrook have claimed that the Thunder would be better without him. These detractors can now point to the past eight weeks of play to support their assertions, in which Oklahoma City has emerged as the championship front-runner to counter Miami.

The answer to the question about Westbrook is more unclear than ever. The Thunder can obviously win in the regular-season without him, and it remains to be seen if they can win a title with him. There are only two ways this question will be answered definitively this year: If the Thunder win the NBA Finals thanks in large part to Westbrook, or if the team wins the NBA Finals without/despite Westbrook. The first scenario is much more likely to happen, but the Finals are a long way away. Regardless, this will be the story of the NBA for the next two months.

Five significant games are coming up in the next few days: Clippers at Grizzlies and Spurs at Suns tonight; Clippers at Thunder and Rockets at Suns Sunday; and Rockets at Clippers Wednesday. The four legitimate championship contenders (Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Rockets) from the West are all in action, and two games involve two contenders. I have Clippers at Thunder circled because I can’t wait to see the Westbrook-Chris Paul and Durant-Blake Griffin matchups.  It will be an exciting week of basketball for NBA fans as teams gear up for the final one-third of the season.