The Jazz have a major test coming in the playoffs, no matter their seed. (via NBA.com)
Let’s quickly dispel the notion that seeding matters in the Western Conference this season. The five teams are so good this year and roughly equivalent threats, so wherever a team lands from a seeding perspective, the path through the West is going to be challenging for anybody.
Going into Tuesday’s games, the non-play-in seeds are set like this (subject to change on a minute by minute basis, it seems like):
- Utah Jazz
- Phoenix Suns
- Denver Nuggets
- L.A. Clippers
- L.A. Lakers
- Dallas Mavericks
Here are a few takeaways about the current shape of the West.
LA & LA are favorites no more
If you looked at this list at the beginning of the season and had to point out the title favorites, the two that stood out then as the strongest contenders were the LA teams. At this point, due to injuries for the Lakers and a mix of injuries and performance for the Clippers, they’ve lost that status. Of course the LA teams are still at the top of everyone’s radar, but the catch is that three other teams have also risen to the top and are on somewhat equal footing. The Jazz and Suns have been prominently featured for weeks and/or months now. And while many counted the Nuggets out after Jamal Murray went down with injury, they have somehow come back even stronger, with nine wins in 11 games since the star guard tore his ACL.
That list of the top 5 teams is probably an equal split for likelihood of getting to the finals. And a lot of that will be determined purely by how the matchups shake out. No question the winner of the West gauntlet will have to battle through ridiculously tough opponents, but some are more favorably matched against each other than others.
A look at the candidates
Notes on each of these teams:
Utah Jazz — Winners of the “math problem,” they generate more good shots than any other team and they also limit good shots from other teams. They are the only team in the top 5 in both offense and defense, usually a decent indicator of contender status.
Phoenix Suns — Coincidentally, they are somewhat similar to the Jazz in how they are constructed. A lot of shooters and multiple playmakers around a tough rim protector and defensive anchor. Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell are both scoring guards putting up eerily similar numbers. And of course the veteran point guards both putting up eerily similar numbers, in Phoenix’s Chris Paul and Utah’s Mike Conley.
Denver Nuggets — The Murray injury caused many to count them out, but they also traded for Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokic took his game up a few thousand levels. Winners of nine of their last 11, the Nuggets are a team nobody wants to face in two weeks.
Clippers — Extremely well-rounded, well-built, and well-coached and it doesn’t even really look like they have ever been operating at their peak this season.
Lakers — LeBron James and Anthony Davis have looked less-than in their injury returns, but it’s still very hard to project them being playoff duds.
With a little recency bias, you may say the Suns or Nuggets are favorites to come out of the West. But it’s an impossible projection and the seeding and matchups are so in flux that there isn’t any way to guess. Its free for the taking for any of those five teams. Seeds won’t matter as much as the matchups that come out of them.
Of course, the one caveat that makes seeding matter more is home court advantage, both to open the playoffs and in later rounds. The Jazz are currently on track to have one of the top two records in the entire NBA. The only scenario where the Jazz play more road games than home games in a series will be if they face the Phoenix Suns in the conference finals. But for reasons stated above, the chances of both the Jazz and Suns making it there are probably unlikely. The Jazz will have homecourt in any series they play in this postseason unless both they and the Suns clear their first two hurdles.
The history says otherwise
The counter argument is the history of Finals-bound teams or even championship teams. If you look at any given season in the 3-point era, most of the teams that won the championship have been #1 seeds. I’ll refer to tweet from HoboTheJazzFan on Twitter.
In the 3pt era there have been 42 NBA champs. 29 were 1 seeds. Of the 13 who weren't 1 seeds, 7 had won chips in previous szns with virtually the same core. 1 had made a previous Finals appearance. Only 5 of 42 won the chip without the 1 seed, previous chip or previous appearance
— HoboJ (@HoboJTheJazzFan) April 25, 2021
Obviously the numbers here are startling and the most obvious conclusion is the same that Hobo later makes: “The #1 seed is of extreme importance if you want to win a championship.” I would be inclined to agree at first glance. But take a good look at each of the teams that were #1 seeds who also won the championship. In almost every case from 2010 to last year’s Lakers, they were clear and away the best team in their conference.
2020 — Lakers #1 Seed, #5 Net Rating
2019 — Raptors #2 Seed, #3 Net Rating
2018 — Warriors #2 Seed, #3 Net Rating
2017 — Warriors #1 Seed, #1 Net Rating
2016 — Cavaliers #1 Seed, #4 Net Rating
2015 — Warriors #1 Seed, #2 Net Rating
2014 — Spurs #1 Seed, #1 Net Rating
2013 — Heat #1 Seed, #2 Net Rating
2012 — Heat #2 Seed, #4 Net Rating
2011 — Mavericks #2 Seed, #8 Net Rating
2010 — Lakers #1 Seed, #7 Net Rating
We could go all the way back, but this past decade is a better facsimile of the modern NBA as there’s been a Moneyball revolution and its just a cleaner way of approximating what we might expect this season. The West has also been full of juggernauts and a stronger conference in pretty much all of these seasons. You had the Grit’n’Grind Grizzlies for half this decade. You had the Spurs. You had the Lob City Clippers and the Dame-led teams in Portland. But you almost always had a “favorite” with a bunch of “dark horse” contenders a rung or two below.
All that being said… in nearly every one of these seasons (forget the Net Rating for a moment) the title team was viewed as a top team in their conference or in the league. And if they weren’t, they upset a top team in the conference finals or finals.
It’s been said several times already but it bears repeating– this season you can’t really see a clear favorite in the west. The only team you could look to as a title favorite in the league are the Brooklyn Nets, who still have some question marks but are the odds-on favorite to be 2021 NBA Champs.
Seeding won’t matter for the Jazz as much as getting healthy. If their main guys are ready to go on May 22, with a top-2 record and homecourt for the entire post-season unless they run into the Suns in the WCF, they have a good as shot as any at winning the West.
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