Handicapping the Western Playoff Race

The Western Conference teams currently in the top six spots will all make the playoffs. Currently, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets are in the seventh and eighth seeds respectively. Golden State and New Orleans/Oklahoma City are on the bubble looking in on the race.

Not all of Denver’s questions have been answered since they acquired Allen “The Answer” Iverson, as they’ve gone 22-27 since the trade with Philadelphia. A big reason for those 27 losses is the 15-game suspension Carmelo Anthony received after his participation in the melee at Madison Square Garden. Iverson kept the team from completely collapsing during that stretch.

With the whole team healthy aside from the oft-injured Kenyon Martin, things are going well. According to John Hollinger, creator of the PER statistic, players with near 20 PERs are having “Borderline All-Star” seasons. Iverson and Camby have PER’s over 19, while Anthony has a 22.02 PER, a “Bona-fide All-star” season. Those three players are great, but the key to this team will be Steve Blake. The pass-first point guard from the Maryland 2002 NCAA championship team had a great March, averaging 8.4 points, 5.3 assists and only 2.2 turnovers per game. If Blake keeps playing well and making sure Iverson and Anthony have enough shots, this team will probably win at least one first-round game against either Phoenix or Dallas.

Coming off last year’s second-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns, big things were expected from the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Besides the addition of swingman Tim Thomas, every other player returned to the roster. However, the team sports a mediocre 36-37 record. There have been a few problems. Shaun Livingston’s season, and maybe his career, ended on February 26 when he tore all of his knee ligaments. Elton Brand has played great (22 PER), but not as well as last year’s near-MVP season (26.67 PER). Nevertheless, coming off an 8-8 March, the Clips remain in the playoff race. Sam Cassell has been replaced by waiver-wire pick-up Jason Hart in the starting line-up, and Corey Maggette’s play has been inspiring. The former Duke Blue Devil has scored almost 19 points per game and has hit nearly half of his shots. They are currently playing as well as they have all year, which is not saying much, but they will make it hard for anyone looking to take the last playoff spot.

Are the Warriors in the ninth seed, only a game and a half out of a trip to the post-season dance with less than ten games in the season? Is the world about to end? The Warriors have not been in the race this late in the year since Tim Hardaway and Chris Mullin were running the show in 1994.

Baron Davis is carrying the team on his back, having his best season (21 PER) in years. The two-time All-Star is the key to making this team go. Jason Richardson has been injured a lot and his scoring average has dipped more than eight points from last season. New imports Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington have helped, playing some of the best ball of their careers. Finally, young Andris Biedrins (16.94 PER, second highest on team) and Monta Ellis (16.8 points/game in his second year out of high school) complete a potent six-man rotation. Known for his hard-nosed defense and rebound, Colgate’s greatest basketball player of all-time, Adonal Foyle is a valuable asset for Don Nelson’s squad.

Despite only going 16-18 since the trade, this team is really hot right now. Golden State has gone 10-3 in their last 13 games. During the run, the Warriors have beaten some of the NBA’s best including Detroit and Dallas. Last Thursday night in a 124-119 thriller, they outhustled the NBA’s fastest team, the Phoenix Suns. It was one of the best basketball games I’ve ever watched; 78 points were scored in the first quarter alone!

Looking at the remaining regular season games, I can say with confidence that Denver is in and New Orleans/Oklahoma City is out. Between Los Angeles and Golden State for that last spot, it’s tough to predict. The Clippers have a one-and-a-half game lead and an extra game in hand, but Golden State is playing incredibly well. Looking at each team’s remaining games, the Clippers have it tough. Given that Golden State is peaking right now, playing more bad teams, and shown they can compete with and beat the NBA’s best, I’d take the Warriors today.