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The Extra Pass: Is the second tier in West ready to challenge Thunder, Spurs?

Feb 28, 2014, 8:51 AM EDT

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors Getty Images

We know Oklahoma City is a contender — despite their little three-game blip as they re-adjust to Russell Westbrook in the lineup, they are still 21-7 when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both play this season, they have a top-10 offense and defense when you look at points per possession. The same is true of the Spurs, and while they have had struggles against the NBA’s elite during the regular season last season’s run should remind you not to read too much into that. When the Spurs are healthy and focused they can compete with anyone.

But what about the next tier in the West? What about the Clippers? The Rockets? The Trail Blazers? Can any of those rise up and truly challenge OKC (the current bar for Best in the West).

Defining a contender can be a bit nebulous. It’s more like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart effort to define test for obscenity — we know it when we see it. I don’t see it with Portland, I think the Clippers and Rockets are on the cusp but may not be there yet.

Here are a few numbers to help us get an idea, using stats (including some from the Sports VU cameras).

• Portland came back to earth some in February — they had a point differential of +4.4 per 100 possessions, which is good enough for ninth in the NBA but more in the Charlotte/Washington/Toronto range than contender status. Their defense remained 11th in the NBA and their offense, now without LaMarcus Aldridge, can’t bail them out. I’ve not been sold Portland is ready to knock on the door of the contenders all season, nothing right now is changing my mind.

• The question with the Clippers remains defense — in February they allowed 105.6 points per 100 possessions, ranked 22nd in the league. Because of a stellar offense (114 per 100) they remain fourth in point differential through those 11 games, but that doesn’t mask the question of if they can get enough stops to win in the postseason.

• Opposing teams get a league-high 10.4 shots a game at the rim when DeAndre Jordan is on the court — he defends it well and they only hit 51.5 percent of them, but they get there.

Glen Davis may actually help the Clippers defense — it’s not that he’s a great defender, he’s just better than Ryan Hollins and that is who loses minutes with Davis in the fold. Same with Danny Granger, who is no great wing defender but will be taking minutes from Jared Dudley.

• Houston on the other hand has the sixth best defense in the NBA since Feb. 1. They give up a lot of points per game because they play at the fourth fastest pace in the league but they defend their possessions well and are a very good transition defensive team.

• In February, teams finished a very high 63.2 percent at the rim against the Rockets — but they never get there. The Rockets gave up just 250 attempts at the rim in the month, only Charlotte did better (247, but they played one less game than Houston). (And yes, using raw numbers for a moth is a rough gauge, go the last 15 Rockets games and they are 20th in shots allowed at the rim and teams shoot 62.3 percent.)

• The Rockets are maybe the best first half team in the NBA — they are disciplined in forcing their style and sucking other teams into a pace the opponent is not comfortable with. It leads to big quarters, like the 42 they dropped on Sacramento this week. However in the playoffs that element of surprise goes away. Will the Rockets in the halfcourt suddenly be too much James Harden in isolation, and too much Dwight Howard in the post? Both of those can disrupt the Rockets’ offensive flow.

• The question with the Rockets in February was the toughness of the schedule — we will learn more soon. They lost to the Clippers on Wednesday but that was the second night of a back-to-back and their tired legs showed as their transition defense was not what it normally is. That said, their next eight games port the Rockets include the Heat twice, the Pacers, the Thunder, Trail Blazers and Bulls. That’s a legit test.

• My sense is the Rockets are closer — they are now getting quality minutes out of Omer Asik off the bench, he gives them depth of defense that the Clippers just do not have. That the Trail Blazers do not have. Houston also is starting to find its identity. They may need to learn a hard lesson in the playoffs this season, they may need to tweak the roster some, but they have grown toward being a contender this season in a way I haven’t fully seen with the Clippers yet.

  1. fanofthegame79 - Feb 28, 2014 at 9:07 AM

    Another fact to note is that Houston has had the best record in the NBA since January 1st. It takes time for a team to adjust to new players like Howard. Their depth remains my biggest issue becuase after Howard and Harden, it drops off.

  2. aboogy123456 - Feb 28, 2014 at 9:09 AM

    If Tony Parker is healthy I don’t see anybody in the league stopping the Spurs. The problem is, he never seems to stay healthy.

    • asimonetti88 - Feb 28, 2014 at 12:15 PM

      Spurs are pretty good. I think they will lean on Patrick Mills more down the stretch to keep TP healthier. It seems like everyone counts the Spurs out, but there they are every year. Shows what good coaching will do for a team. Take note, Lakers.

  3. shaner329 - Feb 28, 2014 at 9:30 AM

    If JJ gets healthy and Davis and Granger pan out as planned, I see the Clippers being a threat in the playoffs for sure.

  4. jbeagles23 - Feb 28, 2014 at 9:47 AM

    The clippers are a lot of flash with no substance. They’re not real contenders

    • unxpexted1 - Feb 28, 2014 at 12:13 PM

      they used to be all flash, but the moves they are making are for solid role players that seem to fit needs. There pieces seem to fit.

  5. innovativethinking87 - Feb 28, 2014 at 10:29 AM

    Watch for Blazers. I always pay attention to teams nobody focuses on. Rockets and clippers games everybody up BC of the star power and market but Portland has a better well rounded starting 5. Everybody knows in the playoffs teams rotations are shorter..

    I’m telling you although this would be a nightmare for PBT Portland could be dangerous

    • Kurt Helin - Feb 28, 2014 at 3:32 PM

      I love Portland the city and would love for them to be good enough to make the finals so I can travel there. This job changes and largely kills your team fandom, I really do not care who makes the finals, I find it odd people think I have some great rooting interest.

      • asimonetti88 - Feb 28, 2014 at 5:38 PM

        Its not possible for Lakers fandom to be killed :)

  6. money2long - Feb 28, 2014 at 10:50 AM

    I really wish the rockets would have acquired rondo

  7. chargerdillon - Feb 28, 2014 at 11:30 AM

    The problem with the Clippers will be just like last year. It’s all about how they handle the game when it gets physical. Last year Zach Randolph took Blake Griffin out of the game in a physical sense. He straight up bullied him on that court and made him look small. That cannot happen.

    The Rockets could go all the way to the finals and it really all depends on their defensive presence. If Dwight can play like the dominant paint presence he used to be with the Magic then there isn’t any reason they can’t make it to the finals.

    The real shame is how pathetic the East is. There’s basically 2 legit teams in all of the conference in Miami and Indiana, after that you have a bunch of teams who wouldn’t make the 8th seed in the West.

    • asimonetti88 - Feb 28, 2014 at 12:18 PM

      Griffin has improved a fair amount from last season, that said I still do not see the Clippers as being physical enough to come out of the West. I think the Spurs have more organizational depth, and whenever the Clippers and Thunder play, the Thunder will have the best player on the court.

    • jimsjam33 - Feb 28, 2014 at 4:25 PM

      Griffin sprained his ankle last year after the second game of the opening playoff series . The Clippers leading two games to none . If Griffin cannot play 100% , of course the Clippers lose .

  8. 00maltliquor - Feb 28, 2014 at 11:45 AM

    The playoffs in the West this year are going to be EPIC!

    • asimonetti88 - Feb 28, 2014 at 12:17 PM

      The only thing that worries me is that the Western Conference winner will be beaten down from the dogfight that is the West, whereas Indiana or Miami will be relatively fresh after only one tough series.

  9. 00maltliquor - Feb 28, 2014 at 11:46 AM

    ….and for the East….wake me up when it’s the ECF.

    • money2long - Mar 2, 2014 at 2:18 PM

      Semis will be good. Just watch

      • 00maltliquor - Mar 2, 2014 at 4:00 PM

        Yeah I know, I was just trolling. All bball is good bball to me

      • money2long - Mar 2, 2014 at 5:18 PM

        Lol. Ah alright bro

  10. jimsjam33 - Feb 28, 2014 at 11:51 AM

    The Rockets go the road that James Harden goes and that’s a road that’s been detoured from the championship . Their bench is weak and pgs Beverly and Lin are not NBA championship material . Asik if is good backup , but in the Rocket scheme of things he is tenative playing on the second team . Howard is Howard and he’s consistent , but that not enough for the Rockets .
    It looks like you are a Clipper fan but you don’t want to jinx them by saying their going to win it all . Certainly , losses to Denver , Memphis , Charlotte , Miami , Phoenix , Cleveland , San Antonio has us all doubting . That been said , moves in the last two weeks have been tremendous and very encouraging . Moving two non contributing big men and adding Davis and Turgelou is huge . Danny Granger for Dudley is considerable to say the least . Matt Barnes goes to the second unit . Jamal Crawford goes back with Collison and Davis at PF . Blake and Jordan alternate at center . Turgelou and Dudley fill ins .
    The Clippers can win it all . Their bench is deeper than anyone else’s in the NBA .

  11. au1978 - Feb 28, 2014 at 1:20 PM

    The Rockets are very close, but they still have a big defensive problem at the PF position. Terrence Jones is very strong offensively, can grab lots of rebounds and even times his blocks pretty well. HOWEVER, he’s still a pretty small PF and routinely gets manhandled by the more elite PFs in the West (Aldridge, Duncan, even Griffin). D-MO has gotten better, but not sure if he can really hang with those guys either. If they can make improvements at that position–and I DON’T think putting Howard and Asik together is the answer–the Rockets definitely can make it to the WCF and perhaps beyond.

  12. 1forest1 - Feb 28, 2014 at 4:03 PM

    No, they are not ready yet. The Rockets Clippers and Blazers are a few steps below to be able to seriously challenge them. I think by the end of the season one or two of those teams they be able a true contender, but as of right now, they are not contenders.

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