How can the West be won?

LeBron James's observation still rings true: there are no seeds out west, just eight teams with a title shot. (Photo: Rick Bowmer/AP)

Appraising the Western Conference playoffs down the stretch last season, LeBron James astutely observed that there are no seeds out west. And despite last week’s explosive trade deadline, which reshaped many teams, the King’s observation still elicits nods. It’s hard to look at any team in the West’s playoff picture and make a solid case that they couldn’t win it all.

Only once has a team seeded sixth or lower entering the post-season won the NBA title. In contrast, the San Antonio Spurs collectively being given up for dead only to come back into the playoff picture and make things interesting seems to happen every season. Currently the Spurs sit seventh out west. They’ve also lost three straight games. So go ahead, rule them out, I dare you.

San Antonio isn’t the only team making things interesting at the bottom of the table. The race for the eighth seed between the Thunder, Pelicans and Suns was dramatic enough even before Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti (who must have compromising pictures of someone) bolstered his team dramatically on deadline day. That, combined with the airing of dirty laundry that pushed Phoenix to shake up their backcourt, should make OKC a lock to finish as a very dangerous lower seed—all the more impressive given the questions around Kevin Durant’s health.

The middle of the pack may be even more hotly contested, with just 4.5 games separating seeds three through seven. The Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers are both looking to make the leap to genuine title contention this season, and that’s not impossible even if it certainly won’t be easy.

There have been whispers about the Blazers’ depth, but in the playoff pressure cooker rotations tighten and benches shrink, so Portland should be fine. The addition of Arron Afflalo doesn’t hurt, either. The UCLA grad is a desirable grinder, and will fit in with the other Blazers, who are always willing to do the grunt work in order to make the team successful. Portland also ranks in the league’s top five in opponent field-goal percentage, and yes folks, defence travels with you on the road.

The Clippers, admittedly, are less likely to find themselves in the Finals. A look at their last month and a bit of basketball—in which they won seven of eight, then dropped four straight, then won their next four before losing by a hair to the Grizzlies—showcases the type of roller-coaster ride that indicates a degree of mental toughness may be missing. LA has floated in and out of a focused and winning headspace this season. They’ve got to lock it down if they want to make it out of the west alive.

Bookending Portland in third and fifth, respectively, the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks are built on a “shoot ‘em up and sleep in the streets” offensive mentality that will leave them looking for defence in the post-season. While the always-dangerous Memphis Grizzlies continue to grind out wins on the back of their standout and shut down D, playing a brand of basketball that provides a taste of the playoffs all season long.

The Golden State Warriors are having a tremendous year and currently rank as regular season favourites. But they haven’t really experienced the rite of passage of having their hearts broken and subsequently hardened by crushing playoff disappointment. You know who has, though? Darn near every team below them. The “Dubs” need to remain leery of the more experienced dancers lower down the seeding ladder. If they don’t, they have the hard truth of the King’s observation to look forward to.

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