Clocker Sports

NBA Playoff Surprises and Disappointments: Western Conference

Let’s look at the playoff field in the Western Conference, in particular, the most surprising and disappointing playoff teams. The 2018-19 NBA regular season is drawing to a close and the playoffs are essentially here for some teams needing wins at the end of the campaign.

Playoff Winners and Losers in the Western Conference

Pt. 2

Clippers Cutting Up

44. That is how many wins ESPN had the Los Angeles Clippers pegged for (at best) back in October. It was actually an improvement from the 35 wins the sports media giant projected in the summer. Sitting at 47-34, L.A. is getting the last laugh, but if they foresaw the season going this way they are the only ones.

A roster built with bench and injury-prone players has turned out to be greater than the sum of its parts. Potential 6th-Man of the Year Lou Williams is averaging 20 points and career-highs with 5.4 assists and 2.9 rebounds. They have gotten 19.9 points (and 67 games) out of Danilo Gallinari and 16.5 off the bench from Montrezl Harrell. L.A.s top-five scorers are rounded out by rookies Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet.

Los Angeles is fifth in true shooting percentage and eighth in opponent effective field goal percentage. But the elephant in the room is how far can this scrappy group go with no superstar? Especially in an era where true contenders have two and three such players. Whatever the outcome for this team in the postseason, the real target is 2019-20. With space for two max contracts this summer, the Clippers have at least given themselves a shot at a big fish (or two).

Spurs Spurn Offseason

Fifth in offensive efficiency, third in percentage of points from twos, sixth in effective field goal percentage, and second in field goal percentage. All the hallmarks of a Coach Pop-led San Antonio Spurs team. They even made the playoffs to boot; currently the seventh-seed. That seeding could typically be construed as a negative for this organization. But this year was supposed to be vastly different.

Trading Kawhi Leonard (and Danny Green) for Demar DeRozan (and Jakob Poeltl) was obviously not looked at as an upgrade. And to be clear, it has not been. They are scoring more this year (111.7 PPG) than 2016 (103.4) and 2017 (105.6), the last two seasons with a healthy Kawhi. But that output has them ranked 17th this season as opposed to 10th in ’16 and 13th in ’17. Defensively they are allowing 110.2 PPG, good for 12th in the NBA. They allowed 92.9 (1st) and 99.4 (2nd) points per game in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

San Antonio’s defensive numbers taking a hit sans Leonard was always the expectation, but DeRozan has been much more than a consolation prize. While his 21.3 points per game are down from last season, that is still above his career average. Additionally, he is averaging career-highs in assists (6.2), defensive rebounds (5.3), and total rebounds (6) per game. He and LaMarcus Aldridge (21-9-2-1) present a very underrated draw for whatever opponent they ultimately face. That is especially true if they do indeed take on the young, second-seeded Denver Nuggets in the first round.

Thunder Struck

Russell Westbrook (23-11-10) is averaging a triple-double for the third consecutive season. Paul George (28-8-4) spent much of the year being rightfully touted as an MVP candidate. The Oklahoma City Thunder are in the playoffs for the fourth straight season and ninth time since moving from Seattle. And yet there is as much uncertainty as ever regarding how far this team can actually go in the playoffs. Who they face in the first round will likely play a huge part in that.

OKC has raised their scoring from 107.4 (12th) last year to 114.3 (8th), but they are 19th in field goal percentage. The only playoff team with a worse effective field goal percentage (and true shooting percentage) is the Detroit Pistons. No playoff teams are shooting a worse percentage from three-point range and they are the third-worst free-throw shooting team. No player personifies the nature of the Thunder season than Westbrook. Despite the gaudy stat line, he is shooting 42.5% from the floor and 28.6% from three while hitting only 65.7% of his free throws.
George is also….culpable in the Thunder looking more like a pretender than contender. Somewhat. ‘Blame’ is definitely too strong of a word, but OKC is 8-9 since his shoulder injury. Their current three-game win streak only almost offsets the four-game skid they hit in March when they went 6-10 for the month. The Thunder would square off against the Houston Rockets if the playoffs started today. If they continue to shoot so poorly from deep and the charity stripe, they are certainly looking at a third-consecutive first-round exit.

Trail Ablaze

The Portland Trailblazers are having their best season since 2014-15 at 51-29 and fourth in the West. They are sixth in scoring and 10th in true shooting percentage. Damian Lillard (25-6-4) is the picture of consistency and C.J. McCollum (21-4-3) has provided his usual support, despite missing 10 games with a knee injury. The dynamic duo, however, is not what had many excited about this iteration of the Blazers.
Jusuf Nurkic, aka the Bosnian Beast, was having a career year before suffering a gruesome leg injury. It is a big blow for Nurkic (15-10-3) who also had to bow out of last year’s postseason with an injury. Portland still has the likes of Enes Kanter, Myers Leonard, and Zach Collins to man the pivot, but therein lies the rub. The Blazers will be able to replace the points, but Nurkic was their only rim-protector. Kanter is a great rebounder and contributes on offense (12.7 PPG since joining the Blazers). But he is often the butt of jokes about his defensive (li)abilities. Leonard and Collins are also offensive guys on the court for their scoring.  All three lack Nurkic’s presence down low defensively.
Portland was undoubtedly looking to shake the stigma that they cannot get to the NBA Finals. Three first-round exits mixed in with only two appearances in the second round over the past five years is a high hurdle to overcome. And the Blazers have never been known as a defensive powerhouse. They also still lack that dynamic wing player to alleviate the burden on the devastating one-two punch of Lillard and McCollum. They were poised to be more physical and dominant on the boards with Nurkic and Kanter. Now they are who we thought they were, and it is difficult to see them going any deeper into the postseason than in years past.

Still Playing in the Western Conference

All of these teams are in the playoffs so one could argue that this is nitpicking. Except these are crucial to any success they might have. Sure some are out of team control, but that will not take away the sting of impending early exits if they are unable to correct the issues they face. Perhaps it is all moot since the entire basketball universe expects the Golden State Warriors to three-peat. But on the off-chance that we do crown a new NBA champion, it is approaching far-fetched to think it would be one of the teams listed above.