I had some spare time and with the Spurs holding a healthy two-game lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference, it’s the perfect timing to compare the Western Conference to Breaking Bad characters. (SPOILER ALERT: There will be plenty of spoilers. I’m pulling no punches. If you haven’t seen the show, stop reading.)
Without further ado:
San Antonio Spurs: Walter White
Breaking Bad’s pragmatic anti-hero, Walter White, does not seem like an imposing fellow, at least on the surface. Walt, seen in Season 1 wearing “whitey tighties”, transforms into a ruthless drug kingpin in a span of year (five seasons in the TV universe).
That transformation, in a way, is similar to the Spurs’ much more methodical transition, spanning several years — the transition to Tony Parker, a younger, pliable weapon capable of upholding the burden of a NBA offense, as an offensive fulcrum, instead of Tim Duncan (who still is very important on both ends of the floor). The Spurs’ pace soared, from a plodding 88.9 possessions in 2004-05 to 94.9 this season, and they have veered away from Duncan post-ups as the sole basis for the offense, limiting it to a semi-effective vehicle intended to generate other juicy shot attempts instead of a valuable weapon in itself.
The Spurs are dramatically different. Walt is dramatically different. Though, unlike Walt, the Spurs have always been dangerous — they are the professional poker player, trying new things, tinkering and remaining at the top of their craft.
Let’s just hope the Spurs don’t meet their (inevitable) demise quite like Walt did.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Jesse Pinkman
The Thunder are an interesting team. Up until three weeks ago, they were widely considered the best team in the Western Conference. Then Russell Westbrook returned. Then they lost Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha to injury. Then, they started losing, even to the team in Los Angeles who isn’t very good. They hit rock bottom when Gerald Green (welp) and Jodie Meeks (double welp) each scored 40+ points. As a result, those sneaky Spurs jumped in and reclaimed sole possession of the top seed in the conference.
Are the Thunder done? No. But, indeed, they are vulnerable. Kevin Durant is going to score a boatload of points against any opponent. But their mini-slide exposed their defense. Of course, losing Sefolosha and Perkins, two pieces of the Thunder starting lineup, forces other, less established players to assume minutes and roles they aren’t prepared for. Their defense will likely return to the mean when the playoffs begin — specifically, when Thabo returns and the impetus to play defense heightens. Durant and Westbrook, both capable of plus-defense, will stop going through the motions, and that will help the Thunder defense more than anything.
The Thunder will be around for the long haul. But they are vulnerable. Does that remind you of someone perhaps, say, Jesse Pinkman? Pinkman, Breaking Bad’s dopey-eyed high school flameout, is the emotional center of the show because of his vulnerability. He’s a human punching bag. He’s beaten senselessly on many occasions. Everyone takes a crack.
Jesse, ultimately, finds the light at the end of the tunnel. Life will get better for him, though it’s hard to foresee a happy ending at this point. Did Walt poison Brock? Will I never find someone like Jane? Should we have traded James Harden? The Oklahoma City Thunder, too, will have better days ahead.
Los Angeles Clippers: Uncle Jack
Look at the standings, as of today. Yep, there’s the Los Angeles Clippers, sitting three games out of first place and two out of second. The Clippers are outscoring the opposition by 16 points per 100 possessions during their 11-game winning streak, with the league’s best offense (114.1 points per 100 possessions) and best defense (98.0).
The Clippers’ 11-game winning streak is the highest active streak in the NBA and their second-longest streak in franchise history. Blake Griffin is dunking, and doing other things very well. Chris Paul, battered and bruised often this season, is averaging 16.9 points and 10.2 assists during the streak.
The Clippers are dangerous. Seemingly out of nowhere.
Season 4 of Breaking Bad closed with a bang (literally). Walt exorcised his inner demons, manifested in Gustavo Fring. With Fring dead, the show needed to find another source of conflict, something to generate interest in the final season. Fring, after all, was tough to replace. Breaking Bad salvaged the first half of the season, when Hank Schrader, Walt’s brother-in-law, an employee of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), realized Walt’s double life, turning the entire show upside down.
Uncle Jack, the leader of the neo-Nazi’s, jumped in the middle of season five. Though the mounting tension between Hank and Walt was the focal point of the final season, it was Jack, who finished off Hank. It was Jack, upright, with most of Walt’s remaining drug money. It was Jack, who needed to be finished before Walt concluded his run.
The Clippers, unlike Jack, were dispatched of the Spurs in the playoffs in their last meeting, but it doesn’t make this current iteration any less dangerous. In fact, they might be better this year.
Though I’d still favor the Spurs over the Clippers in a playoff series, their recent winning streak notwithstanding.
Houston Rockets: Todd
Todd, played by Friday Night Lights’ Jesse Plemmons, joined the show following the downfall of Fring’s empire, during the awkward start-up stage of Walt’s drug empire (a very short-lived one, at that). He was Jesse, if Jesse was capable of killing a kid in cold blood. When Jesse finally — for the umpteenth time — ended his ties with Walt, Todd was Walt’s willing understudy. Todd even spared Jesse’s life in an attempt to duplicate the purity of Walt’s meth product once Walt faded in obscurity (read: New Hampshire).
The Houston Rockets, now with Dwight Howard and James Harden, have sat in the Spurs’ shadows for a decade-and-a-half. The Spurs aren’t going to be around forever. The Rockets, the impatient understudy, can only hope to replicate half of their success.
Portland Trail Blazers: Hank Schraeder
At first, Hank Schraeder was intended to be a source of comedic relief in a show bereft of such moments. The writers eventually fleshed out Hank’s character because Dean Norris’ acting chops deserved more attention. They added more depth. He wasn’t just the ex-jock, slapstick kind of guy. Hank did his job well. Hank, most importantly, was human. He was everything Walt was not. And, as the show closed, he resembled the final piece of the puzzle — the nail in Walt’s coffin.
Though the Trailblazers are a flawed team — 19th in defensive efficiency — they are thorn in the Spurs’ side, the DEA agent aiming to take down the Spurs’ basketball empire. They weren’t supposed to be this important in the plot, but after winning 31 of their first 41 games, they are a fixture in the Western Conference thicket. They aren’t close to defeating the Spurs’ empire just yet, but they’re slowly putting the pieces together, one by one.
Golden State Warriors: Leonel and Marco Salamanca
Leonel and Marco Salamanca didn’t last very long — just seven episodes — but, man, they were scary. They wielded an axe, and dispatched of their foes quietly. Efficiently. Aside from occasional Stephen Curry brilliance, the Warriors are rarely mentioned in the Western Conference contender conversation. They are sixth in the conference, with the seventh highest net rating (+5.0) in the league. Golden State’s playoff run may be short-lived but they’ll swing some axes around and wreak some havoc, regardless.
Dallas Mavericks: Mike Ehrmantraut
The Mavericks shouldn’t be this good. They shouldn’t be a playoff team with a frontcourt consisting of Dirk Nowitzki, DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert. Shouldn’t they be dead?
But, alas, Dallas is very much alive, in the thick of the playoff picture. They are well-coached and they score often enough to offset glaring holes defensively.
Mike Ehrmantraut should not be this good at his job either. He’s old — really old. He compensates for his age, with guile, smart and spot-on instincts — he has to be basically impeccable to be Gus Fring’s right hand man, after all. He has to be ready to handle anything in a pinch. He’s a machine, much like Dallas. Time isn’t on Dallas’ side, but it’s going to take a concerted effort to take them down.
Memphis Grizzlies: Skyler White
Skyler and Walt don’t see eye-to-eye. Walt is a terrible person. Skyler, even though many people love to despise her, isn’t a terrible person. She’s a typical stay at home mom of two kids. She wants to protect them, provide for them. Walt does, too.
Just in very different ways.
While the Spurs are one of the better offensive teams in the league, Memphis hangs their hat in the trenches, on the defensive end. (The Spurs happen to be very good at defense too, by the way.) They rarely shoot 3-pointers. They use two big men. They are old-school in every sense of the word.
Memphis just wants to stay at home with their two kids and do things the conventional way.
Phoenix Suns: Saul Goodman
Phoenix is a good story. Jeff Hornacek, in his first season, is a viable Coach of the Year candidate. He turned a team widely expected to tank into a team contending for a playoff spot. They push the pace, they have two guards capable of creating shots in transition and half-court and they have twins (!!!!) on the same team. They’re a bunch of fun.
Saul Goodman, Walt and Jesse’s sleezebag of lawyer, is similarly fun, the comedic relief of the show. He just wants his money, and he’ll tiptoe around the law in order to help Walt and Jesse.
Saul is a “bad” person but he has a limit. He won’t stoop as far as Walt, and he isn’t as dangerous either.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Hector “Tio” Salamanca
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ point differential means they should be a playoff team, but their differential is artificially high because they’ve feasted on weaker opponents. They are 11-22 against above .500 teams and 21-21 against below .500 teams, respectively. They should be much better.
Tio Salamanca used to be dangerous but, nowadays, he’s relegated to a wheelchair. He still has some juice left in him — his last trick, blowing up a nursing home just to vanquish Gus, the man who killed off the last of his family, was pretty diabolical — but he’s just a shell of his former self, incapable of inflicting fear in any opponent.
Denver Nuggets: Ted Beneke
Dever is on pace for 36 wins this season, 21 wins fewer than last season, when they were the third seed in the Western Conference. Their fall from grace mirrors Ted Beneke’s fall from grace — the president of Beneke Fabrications was bed-ridden in the final season after tripping and suffering (presumably) crippling brain damage. Denver, one of the league’s most exciting teams last season, is also bed-ridden under the control of first-year head coach Brian Shaw. Someone save the Nuggets.
New Orleans Pelicans: Skinny Pete/Badger
Skinny Pete and Badger, Jesse’s former associates and probably the only two people he can legitimately call “friends, work best in tandem with each other. They’re goofy people, and they seem out of place in the Breaking Bad universe. New Orleans seems out of place in the Western Conference, too, though that may change as Anthony Davis continues to improve. (The dude registered 40 points, 21 rebounds, three assists and three blocks last night. In-sane.)
For the time being, New Orleans is a fun side-show — look, there’s Davis dunking! Look, there’s Tyreke Evans doing, uh, things! Look, Pierre the Pelican, he might eat you! They are just here to complement the better teams in the conference.
Sacramento Kings- Gale Boeticcher
They’re just an innocent, very bad basketball team. Please spare them, Walt.
Utah Jazz: Huell
Richard Jefferson earning $11 million this season calls to mind this photo of Huell laying on top of a stack of money.
That’s all I have.
Los Angeles Lakers: Marie Schraeder
They both wear purple a lot. And they are both the worst.