As we near the midpoint of the 2012-2013 NBA season, the narrative for the Warriors is shifting.  They’re still one of the league’s best feel-good stories, they’re still exceedingly fun to watch when their shots are falling, and they’re still a relative unknown to the common fan.

But at 22-12, fifth in the Western Conference, and with a 85.5% chance to make the playoffs according to John Hollinger, it’s no longer about whether Golden State will get a taste of playoff basketball.  The question now, rather, is how big their bite will be.  While that may seem premature given that we’ve yet to reach the All-Star break and even seen what the Warriors will look like with Andrew Bogut in the lineup, the postseason picture out West is getting clearer by the day.

Assume the Warriors are a notch below the esteemed trio of Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and the Los Angeles Clippers.  There’s always some consternation regarding Memphis – 94-87 winners at a raucous Oracle last night, by the way – but that’s unfound; the Grizzlies’ success over the past three years, not to mention their 23-10 record, makes them a playoff shoo-in.

Four spots remain, then, that clear division in classes most saw coming before the season began having almost fully emerged.  Houston and Denver are playing well of late and seem primed for sustained success, but each is at least two games behind Golden State right now, and the former faces a daunting road-heavy slate for the rest of January.  Still, let’s assume they’re in and worry about the seeding later.

Oklahoma City, San Antonio, the Clippers, Memphis, Denver, and Houston – that’s your playoff sextet for now, leaving just two postseason births.  The candidates? The Warriors (22-12), Portland (19-15), Utah (19-18), Minnesota (16-16), and the Los Angeles Lakers (15-20).

Go ahead and start crossing the surprising Blazers off the list right now, though they’re currently positioned as the conference’s eighth and final seed.  Lamarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and company not only have a -1.9 point differential and have feasted on a laughably easy stretch of games recently, but boast the lowest playoff odds – 25.1% – of this quintet.  Minnesota? Just as unlikely.  They’ve played just .500 basketball to this point and boast playoff odds just a hair better than Portland’s, a major concern that doesn’t even take Kevin Love’s most recent injury into account.

Utah? They’re postseason odds are 1-in-2 shot right now according to Hollinger and they’ve won four games in fie tries.  But this team, devoid of the major development needed this season from Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, or Gordon Hayward, clearly has a ceiling.  The front office likely feels getting blitzed in the first round by one of the West’s elite again isn’t worth failing to cash in on the expiring contracts of Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson, either.  The issue for the Jazz? Those are their two best players.  To tread murky water or make a move for the future? Kevin O’Connor knows the bold move (see the Deron Williams trade) is the right one, too, and will in all likelihood make it.  Utah, then, looks to be out of the playoff mix.

Who’s left? That purple-and-gold clad group from down south.  The Lakers will probably get better; their health will improve and the collective skill and basketball smarts of their Big Four all but ensure it.  But will that improvement be enough, and if so, soon enough? This is still a flawed team, with a weak bench and major parts that not only make little sense together but make little sense for the system they employ, too.  Hollinger gives them a 28% chance of making the playoffs right now, a metric that, again, doesn’t account for injuries.  They’re already 4 1/2 games behind Portland’s current eight seed pace, too, and have January games remaining against Oklahoma City (twice), Miami, and Memphis before a seven-game road trip kicks off on the last of the month.  Things could very well get worse before they getter better in Laker Land, stretching their already supremely tightened limbs on the postseason rack.

Those four teams have long odds for many reasons: analytics, injuries, schedule, potential personnel moves.  But the Warriors? The schedule thickens in points from here, but every other aspect is in Golden State’s favor.  Playoff odds love them, their injury situation is actually a positive, and barring front office lunacy they’re rolling with this group for the rest of the season.  What’s better than all that, though, is the Warriors are bound to get better as the season wears on even if it’s not reflected in the win-loss column.  That’s what youth, offseason roster turnover, and, eventually, a major injury addition mean as the league’s second half approaches.

The Warriors are playoff bound.  That much is close to crystal clear by now.  But can they be anything more than a thorn in the side of the West’s top four come spring time? That’s something nobody knows, with an answer that depends as much on what this team looks like with Bogut as it does Golden State’s first round opponent.

And last night’s loss to the playoff-seasoned Grizzlies indicated as much.  Watching Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph bully Golden State’s David Lee/Carl Landry frontline and Mike Conley and Tony Allen hassle Steph Curry and Klay Thompson around screens gleaned an easy revelation – the Warriors don’t want to see Memphis in the postseason.  That’s a sobering thought given that the Grizz are one of Golden State’s most likely (and current) first round foes, but an exciting one, too, because it means the Warriors are a playoff team at all.

And until the heat returns, the rain does the opposite, and March turns into April, that’s reason enough to enjoy the regular season ride of a team and organization that’s made doing so all too difficult in the past.

Follow Jack Winter on Twitter @armstrongwinter.



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