There is a three-team race emerging in the Western Conference of the NBA this year, and for the first time in a long time one of those teams definitely isn’t the Lakers. The L.A. Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and San Antonio Spurs are all within a game of each other in the standings. There is a good chance that one of those three will ultimately win the conference. The question, though, is which team is the best? Let’s take a look from several perspectives:
The Clippers sit third in this category, with the Thunder and Spurs essentially tied. Oklahoma City has the edge in points, three-point shooting, and on the foul line. The Spurs have a slightly better field goal percentage, and a better assist-to-turnover ratio. It’s a coin toss. What’s really striking about these two teams is that, despite the fact that they do it quite differently, they are remarkably consistent and comparable. This year the Thunder sit second in points scored and the Spurs are third. Last year the Spurs were second and the Thunder third. The year before Oklahoma City was fifth and San Antonio sixth. In 2009-10 they were 14th and 15th. The year before they were tied for 23rd. For five years in a row the two teams have scored almost exactly as many points as each other. That should be all but impossible, but it has happened.
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The Clippers don’t score as much as the other two teams, but they make up for it by the fact that they allow just over three fewer points per game than the others. There are better defensive teams — Memphis allows four fewer points per game, and Indiana and Chicago allow fewer as well — but the Clippers are an elite defensive team. Oklahoma City is ninth and San Antonio is 13th, so neither team is weak without the ball — they wouldn’t be where they are if they were. The Clippers get the edge here, though. .
The Spurs are out in this category — Tony Parker is very good, obviously, but not a superstar like the others, and Tim Duncan is in the twilight of a megastar career. Beyond that, then, it depends on whether you value point guards or scoring forwards. Kevin Durant is perhaps the best offensive force in the league. Chris Paul is definitely the best point guard in the league — at least until Derrick Rose finally comes back and is again healthy. I lean towards Durant, but Blake Griffin is a bigger star than any option on the Thunder, so the Clippers get the win in this column.
James Harden made a good argument for Oklahoma City, but Kevin Martin is a lousy replacement, so the Thunder are out. Manu Ginobli is obviously a big factor off the bench — and has been eternally, though not now at the same level as he used to be. In terms of bench, the runaway winner here is the Clippers. The biggest single reason for their success this year — aside from the superb play of Paul — is that their second five is better than more than a couple of first fives in the league right now.
The biggest liability that the Clippers have is the game-time decision making of Vinny Del Negro. I have no faith in him in crunch time. Scott Brooks is a very good coach, but he has only been a coach for four years, so he still needs to prove himself with some hardware. The clear champ here is Gregg Popovich. How can you argue with him? Four championships in 16 years with the team. Nine first-place finishes in the division and six second-place showings (sixth in his first season was his only sub-standard result). He’s an absolute legend. And though it looked a couple of years ago like maybe he was ready to move on, his renewed focus and excellence the last couple of seasons is wildly impressive. With Phil Jackson out of the league, there is no better coach in the sport right now.
Little to differentiate these teams here — it’s essentially a photo finish. Only Memphis has been more profitable against the spread than Oklahoma City. The Clippers are third in the league ATS, and San Antonio sits fourth. Betting on any of these teams has been a pleasure all season. If I had to pick a loser here it would be the Clippers for the simple reason that they sit at 7-8 ATS on the road. The Spurs (12-9 ATS) and the Thunder (8-5-1 ATS) are both profitable teams on the road.
By pure tabulation we had two of these six categories that wound up without a clear winner, three wins for the Clippers and one for the Spurs. I’m a little surprised because I haven’t fully bought into this L.A. team yet, but I laid out the criteria and the results are clear. Based on this process, at least, the Clippers are currently the best team in the Western Division.