Success in the playoffs is a result of equal parts of stars scoring, and offensive efficiency from unlikely sources. You don’t have to look further than last year’s NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs, and Kawhi Leonard for evidence. Even the 2013 Spurs followed this formula. In a Finals-series that they let slip away Danny Green set an NBA record with his 27 three-pointers. The Finals as of late are more about guard play than front court dominance. San Antonio has one of the greatest front court players of all time, and the greatest power forward in Tim Duncan. Even he would admit that the lane becomes much smaller in the playoffs. It gets clogged, trafficked, and hosts a physicality that usually proves to be zero-sum between the two teams.
What we need to analyze is the back court efficacy. Let’s look at the Western Conference contenders in terms of shooting, and points per 36 minutes.
The Clippers are second in the NBA with 106.4 points per game. They’re moving the ball well with 24.7 assists per game, which is good for third in the NBA. First off, we know the front court is explosive. DeAndre Jordan plays the game like he is actually playing inside NBA Jam. Blake Griffin, when healthy, is a top scorer in the league. Frankly, the back court is pretty incredible as well. Per 36 minutes, Chris Paul is scoring over 19 points, and JJ Redick is right behind him with 18.5. Coming off the bench, again when healthy, Jamal Crawford is always a Sixth-Man of the Year candidate. The 34-year-old is the most efficient guard on one of the league’s top offensive teams with 21.9 points.
Memphis almost has an aversion to offense. Despite being the second best team in the Western Conference, they have the 18th best offense (98.7 PPG). And with only 21.7 assists per game they don’t move the ball well. Of course, when you have Marc Gasol in the post, why swing the ball? That being said, Mike Conley and Jeff Green are scoring with ease this season. Conley is over 18 points per 36 minutes and Jeff Green scores almost 16. Former Spur Beno Udrih has played 40 games for Memphis and adds 14.4 points-per-36 on 49% shooting.
Golden State has the most prolific offense in the league with 109.8 points per game. They are logging 27.4 assists proving the correlation of passing to offensive numbers. Of course we all know about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, but who backs them up? Leandro Barbosa. Admittedly I don’t watch many Golden State Warriors’ games, but I really thought Barbosa was out of the league. Come to find out he is 32 years old, has played 840 minutes this year, and is dropping 17.5 points per 36 minutes. He will be on the playoff roster. Its hard to pick apart any part of this roster, but there just is not a lot of backcourt shooting depth. Coach Steve Kerr will likely keep lots of bigs on the playoff roster, leaving what room to carry that depth?
The Trailblazers are similar to Memphis in that their offense doesn’t move. 12th in assists and 11th in points scored. Their formula to success, sans Wesley Matthews, has been to drop the ball into former Texas Longhorn LaMarcus Aldridge and let him work. Point guard Damian Lillard has been the offensive spark and has shown bursts of brilliance. His productivity per 36 minutes is ridiculous. He is logging 21.1 points during that frame. But, without Matthews, the back court scoring drops off significantly after Lillard. That will be their downfall in the playoffs.
Now that Dwight Howard has returned Houston has the potential for an inside out game. Of course, James Harden won’t let that happen. Harden is going to be the MVP of the league, and it isn’t going to be because of his defense. Harden is an offensive juggernaut. His 27.2 points per game have led the seventh ranked offense to the third position in the West. Outside of Harden, if we only consider players that are going to be in the playoff rotation, scoring from the guard position gets pretty thin. Corey Brewer is averaging a sneaky 17.4 per 36 minutes. Forward Josh Smith isn’t a pure shooter, but he is scoring an impressive 16.8 in the same interval. The Houston front court is impressive, with Howard as its anchor, but the lane will get tight in the playoffs. Shooters are going to need to hit the 15-foot-and-out shot, and Houston just isn’t deep enough.
Finally, the Spurs sling the ball around just about as good as any team. By compiling over 24 assists in each game the Spurs have the ninth-best offense in the NBA, despite an up-and-down season overall. The points leader Kawhi Leonard (15.9 PPG) does a great job scoring transition baskets and getting to the rim for dunks, but this column is about shooters. And San Antonio has some pretty good ones. Per 36 minutes, Danny Green and Marco Belinelli are are scoring almost 15 points. Patty Mills is at 15.6. Manu Ginobili is scoring 17.2, and Tony Parker is over 18. Heck, even Matt Bonner is scoring nearly 11 points per 36 minutes. Perhaps their greatest shooting strength is depth.
With that depth, and those stats, San Antonio has a great shot this year. Pun intended.