The Game of Thrones–to–NBA Playoffs Translator, Book 1: Westeros Conference

Steve Mcpherson/Grantland Illustration GOTNBA

To read the Essos (Eastern) Conference translator, click here.

Steve McPherson: As darkness sweeps the land, a lone figure works by dim light, trying to write one of those intros where it seems like he’s talking about Game of Thrones but then he’s really talking about basketball. Like one of those promos for a Transformers movie during the playoffs where LeBron James turns into a Porsche SUV and Russell Westbrook turns into a ball-dominating MINI Cooper? That kind of thing.

Back to the dramatic intro.

This solitary figure labors furiously through the night, but he needs help. He needs your help. And by “your,” I mean netw3rk’s help. Which is you. And he’s me.

Never mind. Listen, we know how this works: HBO’s Game of Thrones is returning for a third season of T&A and D&D on Sunday, March 31, and the NBA playoffs kick off a few weeks later. Both should be reaching fever pitch in early June. Each revolves around a singular symbol of power: the Iron Throne or the Larry O’Brien Trophy. As soon as either is won, that possession makes the possessor a target, and each prize exerts an overwhelming gravitational force that organizes and distorts their respective worlds.

So let’s just put down some rules and do the thing. Teams will be viewed through the lens of houses or factions, and individual players through the lens of individual characters. Unless it doesn’t work, in which case I reserve the right to do whatever I want.

Can we now begin with an overall State of the Seven Kingdoms address, sir? You are, I believe, well versed not only in the HBO series but in the books as well, so explain to us in what specific ways winter is coming, Maester.

The Favorites for the Crown


netw3rk: WINTER IS OVER, but since I need very little prompting to talk about two of my favorite things, let’s entertain this allegory. I promise to limit myself to the events of the first two seasons of the HBO show and not leverage my nerdy obsession-fueled knowledge of the books.

One way (not the only way) to view Game of Thrones is as a long-term struggle for control of Westeros between the Lannisters and the Starks, and I think that’s exactly how the NBA will shake out over the next few years: a struggle for the title dominated by the Heat and the Thunder.

The Starks are basically children led by the barely-more-than-teenage Robb — a military prodigy whose strategic leadership remains in question. Kevin Durant is a genetically engineered scoring machine who may or may not be the leader of his team. Arya Stark refuses to conform to the traditional role that Westerosian society expects from her. Westbrook has spent most of his career inspiring proponents of the pass-first point guard to gnash their teeth and rend their garments.


Certainly the easiest comparison to make is the Heat as the Lannisters. The Lannisters sit on the throne, LeBron is called “King James”; the Lannisters’ sigil is a lion, LeBron uses a lion in his Nike logo; Tywin Lannister is a ruthless leader with a flair for deception who uses overt power and behind-the-scenes politicking to maintain his family’s position, and Pat Riley is still Pat Riley.

McPherson: I’m sure the good people of Seattle would have a thing or two to say about the Thunder being branded as the good, noble house of the North, but it’s hard to argue with. Robb Stark, of course, was a little more like Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett in getting drafted straight out of high school, but the second season also taught us that Robb will lock up HIS OWN MOTHER. He, like Durant, is definitely not nice. Although he’d probably even clean that lady’s gutters, too, saying something about, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

And as the defending champions, the Heat are an apt comparison to the Lannisters. The end of the second season even had the Lannisters fighting off an invading army with the help of 8,000 jars of wildfire. Does this make LeBron wildfire? It seems like Joffrey is a dead ringer for the public perception of James following his exit from Cleveland: a spoiled, self-aggrandizing king who’s been handed everything he has. I suspect that if James had tried to walk down the street in Cleveland circa 2011 he probably would have gotten a cowpie in the face — or worse.

But honestly, at this point it seems like James is more than any one man could be: He really does seem like 8,000 jars of wildfire, a substance, according to the alchemist Hallyne, “so hot it melts wood, stone, even steel … and burns so hot it melts flesh like tallow.”

So deep down at the roots, Game of Thrones comes down to the Lannisters vs. the Starks, the North vs. the South, and the NBA playoffs are likely to come down to the Heat vs. the Thunder, the East vs. the West. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be contenders and pretenders. Let’s start by going West, young man.

Western Conference

Houston Rockets

netw3rk: I see the Rockets as Daenerys Targaryen and the dragons. At the beginning of the first season, Daenerys’s brother Viserys planned to marry her to the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo in return for an army with which to take back the Iron Throne. As Westerosian power grabs go, pretty standard stuff: Use a strategic asset (Daenerys) to cement an alliance with an established military power. The Rockets were pursuing a similar strategy: Use strategic assets in the form of young players to swing a sign-and-trade for an established star in the form of Chris Bosh. Both plans fell apart in embarrassing fashion: Drogo dead, Viserys left with face full of molten gold, and Rockets GM Daryl Morey left holding an iPad with Bosh’s name engraved on it. But Daenerys managed to recover in a way no one expected because she saw the true value in holding on to something that others would have simply sold: her three dragon eggs. She held firm and eventually the eggs hatched: Asik, Lin, and Harden.

[Imagines Morey, having just signed Harden, nude in his office surrounded by ashes as his staff looks on in amazement.]


McPherson: I have a counterproposal for the Rockets. In terms of ethos, approach to the game, and aesthetics, the Spurs are a great fit for the Night’s Watch. (Can anyone doubt that the men of the Spurs have taken the Black?) But the Rockets-as-the-Night’s-Watch story line fits the 2013 playoffs a little better. Although the Rockets are pursuing the championship like anyone else, in so many ways they seem more like an experiment by Morey (Lord Commander Mormont) in how to build a team. Rather than look for the quick fix, he takes the long view, believing that there’s a purer way to understand the game than via gaudy but misleading per-game numbers and the traditional box score. Any success the Rockets have is evidence that Morey’s approach works, just as the Night’s Watch stake their hundreds of years as successful guardians of the Wall to their oaths of poverty and celibacy.

And here’s the clincher: Harden as Jon Snow. Banished from House Stark, a.k.a. Oklahoma City, he finds a new home where he can become more than just a sixth man. He can become a leader. And wow: I just realized there are five legitimate Stark children, which really makes Snow a strong Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

San Antonio Spurs
netw3rk: I must nerdily disagree with joining the Houston Rockets with the Night’s Watch. I’m sticking with the Spurs here. The Night’s Watch are based out of the decrepit fort Castle Black while San Antonio is known for the Alamo. The Watch toil in near obscurity, overlooked by the wider world and taking in Westeros’s outcasts in order to forge them into a black-clad fighting force. The Spurs are derided as boring; their self-induced isolation causes their fans to complain that the world ignores them. Both the Watch and the Spurs represent the closest thing to true egalitarian meritocracy within their worlds. In the Watch, a Westorosian outcast can become a person of respect. With the Spurs, players like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and Tiago Splitter become more than the sum of their draft positions.

Los Angeles Lakers
McPherson: I’m going to break the house/faction rules and just throw out the comparison that got me started thinking about all of this: Dwight Howard is Theon Greyjoy. In the first season, he’s likable enough, if a little hot-tempered. Plus there’s that scene in the season finale where all of Robb Stark’s bannermen are swearing fealty to him and Theon kneels down with them and swears his sword to Robb as long as he shall live.

That lasts at least until his dad and sister make fun of him, at which point he decides he wants to be the focal point of the offense. He takes Winterfell and then can’t seem to figure out why no one likes him very much. He can’t even pull off a good beheading, maybe because back surgery has made him less explosive off the block. Within the Stark family, his cockiness and arrogance was held in check. He chafed against it, but that restraint curbed his worst impulses.

When Robb sends him home, it puts him in a poisonous environment that feeds his insecurity and goads him into shortsighted and ill-advised decisions. His family mocks and belittles him. For some characters, this is the kind of thing that would force them to grow up. But instead of growing straight, he grows crooked. His story shows how it’s not enough just to be “the man”; people (including basketball players) need to be given responsibility in a way that can reinforce their best instincts, not their worst.

Now putting Howard into House Greyjoy is going to get us into trouble down the line because there’s no way the hard-bitten clan of the Iron Islands is a good comparison for the glamour and power of Los Angeles. Help me out here.

netw3rk: I see the Lakers as Stannis Baratheon’s forces, and Bryant as Stannis Baratheon, brother of the fallen king Robert and would-be usurper Renly. Stannis is stern and unyielding, possesses no friends, and is beholden to mysterious Eastern magic to bolster his strength. Kobe is a basketball sociopath, possesses no friends, and is beholden to experimental German procedures to maintain his body. Stannis, nursing a grudge for being unfairly passed over, hatched a plan to invade King’s Landing with overwhelming force by sea. And it probably would have worked if a highly flammable chemical mixture didn’t turn the bulk of his fleet into a beach barbecue. Kobe and the Lakers, feeling cheated by David Stern’s meddling in their plans, sent shock waves through the league by acquiring Steve Nash and Howard only to see their season put in jeopardy by a conflagration of poisonous chemistry. Now, having Kobe as Stannis and Dwight as Theon puts them at cross-purposes, narrative-wise, but then again, that pretty much fits.

Denver Nuggets

netw3rk: The Nuggets are the Dothraki of the NBA: respected as a regional power capable of overrunning any opponent with their decentralized, fast-break attack, yet also dismissed as not being true contenders for the throne because of their structural and tactical deficiencies. In the playoffs, when the pace slows down, will the Nuggets be able to score without a superstar? Do they defend well enough to contend? The Dothraki are a fearsome tribe of horse-mounted warriors who pillage all before them, but they lack charismatic leadership in the wake of the death of Khal Drogo and, in any case, don’t have the ability to build ships to cross the Narrow Sea. The Nuggets and the Dothraki: two opponents no one believes will be there in the end that no one wants to face.

McPherson: Plus let’s not forget about how Kenneth Faried has such long hair because he will only cut it after he’s defeated in battle.

Los Angeles Clippers
McPherson: On the rise in a city that was until recently the seat of power, the Clippers are using the shakeup of the basketball food chain in their market to sow chaos. They’re led by the chronically underappreciated Chris Paul (who’s pretty clearly the best point guard in the league and maybe the best since Magic Johnson) and the chronically misunderstood and/or underestimated Blake Griffin (who’s growing into more than just a dunker), so maybe they’re most closely paralleled by Petyr Baelish and the network of influence he exerts throughout King’s Landing. Plus, there’s the fact that Baelish is a slimy, two-faced manipulator who runs several brothels and that the owner of the Clippers is Donald Sterling. This does break down a bit, though, since I’m almost positive that Vinny Del Negro is Hodor. I really like the idea of Del Negro calling a timeout, getting the whole team circled around him, then pointing at the clipboard and saying, “Hodor.”

Memphis Grizzlies
netw3rk: The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the elite defensive teams in the league, built around a pair of bruising big men in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Z-Bo is one of the last true low-post scorers and a prodigious rebounder. Gasol does a little bit of everything, from the punishingly physical to the balletically sublime. Grit and Grind. They, and the Grizzlies, are Gregor and Sandor of House Clegane. Admittedly it isn’t a perfect analogy because Gregor and Sandor hate each other. What makes it work is that Sandor and Gregor both display unswerving loyalty and a high aptitude for dirty work in the service of their respective benefactors.

Golden State Warriors

McPherson: There was a stretch earlier in the season when the Warriors looked legitimately dangerous, especially given how well they were holding everything down without Andrew Bogut. But then Bogut came back and instead of getting better, they got worse. It was not unlike how the Thirteen in Qarth initially appeared so daunting, but turned out to mostly be hollow men. Sure, Xaro Xhoan Daxos has a lot of size down low, but the advanced analytics show his defense to be lacking. And Pyat Pree can be all over the court at once, but he turned out to be surprisingly vulnerable to sprained ankles and being burned alive. And like the inhabitants of exotic Qarth, the Warriors dress funny.

Steve McPherson (@steventurous) is a contributor to the New York Times’s Off the Dribble blog and ESPN TrueHoop Network sites A Wolf Among Wolves and Hardwood Paroxysm.

netw3rk (@netw3rk) is a Grantland contributor and coauthor of We’ll Always Have Linsanity.

Filed Under: Denver Nuggets, Game of Thrones, Houston Rockets, I Love This Game of Thrones, James Harden, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook, San Antonio Spurs