There are three teams in the Western Conference that are much, much better than the rest of the Conference. There are the Warriors, who by the numbers at least, have fallen back to Earth a little after their best-ever start. Check out just how great that start was over the first five weeks of the season compared to the second and third best teams in the league by Net Rating:
|Golden State Warriors||114.2||97.4||16.8||51.6||57.4||18-0|
|San Antonio Spurs||102.5||93.4||9.1||52.6||51.0||14-4|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||107.3||100.6||6.7||54.0||51.6||11-7|
This makes sense, the Warriors essentially brought back their entire roster (continuity!) and were highly motivated to prove just how good they were after some chatter about luck helping them win the title. Any Spurs fan that holds the notion that the Warriors weren't the best team in the league -- and won the Larry O'Brien fair and square -- probably doesn't remember Phil Jackson's asterisk.
So the Warriors started off scorching while the Spurs turned over much of their roster and started off a little shaky. The starting unit struggled to figure out what everyone's role would be as Popovich figured out what he could expect from his new bench unit. Meanwhile, the Thunder had "struggles" of their own, with a healthy roster (something that has been pretty rare for their club) and a brand new coach in Billy Donovan after years of the Scooter Brooks treatment.
And then December came, the Spurs and Thunder started to play much better basketball and the Warriors couldn't keep up their astounding first-month-of-the-season effort. Take a look at the numbers from December 1st to January 9th:
|San Antonio Spurs||113.5||93.8||19.7||54.9||55.7||18-2|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||111.9||100.9||11.0||54.3||52.3||15-4|
|Golden State Warriors||110.5||99.7||10.8||51.6||55.1||15-2|
Check out the differences from the first set to the next. It's easy to see how the Warriors are moving in a different direction than the Spurs and Thunder.
|San Antonio Spurs||+11||-.4||+10.6||+2.3||+4.7||N/A|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||+4.6||-.3||+4.3||-.3||+.7||N/A|
|Golden State Warriors||-3.7||-2.3||-6.0||0||-2.6||N/A|
This is not to say that the Warriors are not an incredible basketball team and deservedly sit atop the league standings. Just that the Spurs and Thunder have been playing some ridiculously good basketball as well. The Warriors' numbers have fallen off, but they continue to win games and have been very, very good in clutch situations. The Spurs on the other hand, have not performed well in clutch situations.
The Warriors have played 71 minutes in games within five points with less than five minutes left to play and have posted an absurd NetRtg of +40.4 and a perfect 13-0 record in such games. When the game is on the line, they simply destroy their opponents. The Spurs have not had similar success, going just 8-5 in close games and posting a poor NetRtg of -8.5 in their 44 minutes of clutch play. The Thunder are 11-8 and have posted a NetRtg of +4.7 in their 81 minutes of clutch play.
Of course, these are numbers versus the rest of the league. This doesn't tell us how these teams match up with one another and that's what really matters.
*The Spurs, Warriors, Thunder and Cavs have had the easiest strength of schedule by basketball-reference.com's measurement.
*All numbers from stats.nba.com.
I've run into quite a number of Spurs fans who have expressed little to no concern about the Thunder this season, instead placing all of their worry into the Warriors. So I'll end with this:
Since 2013-14, the Spurs have beaten the Warriors six of the seven games they've played.
Since 2013-14, the Spurs have lost to the Thunder six of the eight regular season games they've played. The Spurs did win a playoff series 4-2, but remember, Serge Ibaka missed the first two games of that series and was not 100% in the last four games of the series.
This season is looking like we'll have three historically good Western Confernce teams, making an appetizer of the next three months while we wait for the real season to start.