Before the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to Houston and the Los Angeles Lakers fired Mike Brown and replaced him with Mike D’Antoni instead of Phil Jackson, the Western Conference was expected to be a two-team race that could possibly be spoiled by perennial contender San Antonio.
The defending conference champion Thunder and the Lakers still have the talent and experience to represent the West in the NBA Finals next June. But two other teams – one representing the mid-South like Oklahoma City and another sharing the same home arena as the Lakers – are forcing the rest of the league to take notice.
The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers both recorded wins over the defending champion Miami Heat last week; the Grizzlies also have a win over the Thunder and the Clippers have demolished the Spurs in San Antonio.
The two squads are hardly surprises, since both battled through seven games in an entertaining first-round playoff series last season, but they haven’t been considered real contenders, with shared histories plagued by misery and mediocrity.
In the 34 years since the franchise left Buffalo, the Clippers have won just two second-round playoff games. In the 17 years since entering the league as an expansion team in Vancouver, the Grizzlies are only slightly better with three such wins. They have no division titles between them.
Oddly enough, both teams are relevant now, in part, at the expense of the Lakers.
Memphis was roundly lambasted for dealing Pau Gasol in 2008 and essentially gifting two championships to the Lakers. Gasol’s younger brother, Marc, went to the Grizzlies in the deal and four years later, he not only has made an all-star appearance but he is arguably the better player.
The Grizzlies also used the cap space from the Gasol deal to make a trade for Zach Randolph that has given them one of the NBA’s most physical and formidable front lines. Rudy Gay, the Baltimore native and one of the final cuts from the U.S. Olympic team this summer, is the player that can help propel Memphis to the next level.
Gay and Randolph have struggled to stay healthy and play well at the same time, but they appear to have overcome those problems. Gay is off to a superb start and was the difference-maker in Memphis’ resounding victories over the Thunder and Heat, totaling 49 points in those wins. He also provided one of the highlights of the season when he dribbled behind his back around LeBron James, froze Dwyane Wade and dunked over Chris Bosh.
“They’ve got a lot of guys that complement each other very well,” James told reporters in Memphis last week. “They got so many guys who patrol the paint. Marc and Z-Bo. Rudy Gay is like — and I don’t know if I can say this, because he’s so talented — but when he’s like the third option, you have a really damn good team.”
Blake Griffin made the Clippers a novelty and prime-time attraction with his explosive, above-the-rim acrobatics. But the Clippers’ days as a laughingstock came to an end the moment NBA Commissioner David Stern vetoed a three-way trade that would’ve sent Chris Paul to the Lakers and redirected him to the Staples Center’s other, less decorated tenant.
Paul’s arrival has given the Clippers instant credibility and made them a more attractive destination for free agents. This summer, the Clippers were able to attract Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford and convince Chauncey Billups to re-sign after his initial anger about being claimed off amnesty waivers before last season. They also traded for Lamar Odom, giving them the depth and championship experience – including former Wizard Caron Butler – to make a deep run.
Griffin already signed a five-year extension last summer, but this season is about convincing Paul that the Clippers are serious about being more than just Los Angeles’s other team. Paul will be an unrestricted free agent next summer but his current team has more depth, athleticism and less drama than the Lakers and already proved that it can play against the best, with lopsided wins over the Lakers, Spurs, Heat and yes, Grizzlies.
Unfortunately, the Clippers also can play down to the competition with home losses to Cleveland and Golden State. Still, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said he viewed them as “legitimate contenders to the title,” a phrase rarely utilized in reference to that franchise.
It’s early, but if the Clippers and Grizzlies keep it up, one or both could break up a Lakers-Thunder conference finals matchup that seemed preordained this summer.