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TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...NBA ALL-STAR BREAK REVIEW PART II

     by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor and Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Following is Part II of our NBA All-Star break review, this issue covering the Western Conference...

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PACIFIC DIVISION

Golden State (48-4)...The Warriors are on track to break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' record mark of 72-10 in the regular season...and they still own just a 3 1/2 -game lead for the best record in the West over San Antonio. Golden State is undefeated at the Oracle Arena, where it has won 42 straight regular-season games. Point guard Steph Curry has improved his scoring and shooting dramatically over last season's MVP performance. Guard Klay Thompson has proven nearly as deadly from beyond the arc as Curry, shooting 42.1% before the break and then wresting the All-Star 3-point shooting contest title away from his teammate over the weekend. The team has dealt with injuries to forward Harrison Barnes and center Andrew Bogut, and the extended absence of head coach Steve Kerr seemingly without a second thought. This is an unusual group that's reminiscent of the '60s Celtics or early '70s Knick teams that might not have had as much sheer athletic talent as other squads, but played a team concept that maximized their abilities and enabled them to win as many games with their brains as with their athleticism. Grade: A

L.A. Clippers (35-18)...There are plenty of teams that would covet the Clippers' record. There are a dozen GM's that would love to have their roster. However, in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, L.A. fans and the front office are not satisfied, and all is not well in Clipperville. Local sports-talk hosts go over possible "trade Blake Griffin" scenarios daily. The team is reportedly actively attempting to trade the All-Star power forward, averaging 23 ppg, 9 rpg and shooting 51%. All-Star point guard Chris Paul is playing on aging knees and often rubs teammates the wrong way. The Clippers have a window to win, and it's closing. Paul and Griffin can become a free agents after next season. The chances of winning this year, which would probably mean having to beat San Antonio or Golden State (or both), is very unlikely. The more likely scenario is another playoff flameout. If it comes too early, the team might be blown up in the offseason, and Doc Rivers will have to start over. Grade B-

Sacramento (22-31)...While Sacramento is on track to exceed its preseason over-under win total, the Kings are a team in turmoil. Acerbic head coach George Karl is on thin ice with the players and with GM/VP Vlade Divac. Yet enigmatic DeMarcus Cousins has been very productive for Sacramento this season, averaging 27 pts. and 11 boards. Rudy Gay is a "piece" to build on, scoring 18 ppg and grabbing 6.7 rpg while shooting 47%. Point guard Rajon Rondo (12 ppg, 12 apg, 45%) has rekindled his career, and backup Darren Collison would start on a lot of teams. So what's the problem? The Kings were terrible defensively last season, and they're giving up 4 more ppg and a higher opponents' FG% this year. Part of that is style, as Sacramento has overtaken Golden State as the fastest-paced team in the league this season, but their defensive efficiency ranks near the bottom again. Sacramento has enough talent to be a playoff team, and if Kings make the postseason, they could be a sticky matchup. George Karl's job may rest on his ability to rally the troops and overtake Portland or Utah for a spot in the playoffs. Grade C+

Phoenix (14-40)...Phoenix is just a mess. The team fired former boy wonder head coach Jeff Hornacek on Feb. 1, replacing him with assistant Earl Watson. The team lost its first 5 games under Watson, and the only thing that's clear is that the Suns don't know what to do next. The team let Goran Dragic go last season and broke up the Morris twins. Markieff Morris has been requesting a trade all year and is the subject of trade speculation. He's almost come to blows with teammates at times, most recently getting into a shoving match on the bench during the Feb. 10 loss to Golden State. Dragic is a key part of the successful rebuild in Miami, and PG Eric Bledsoe, who the Suns decided to keep in lieu of Dragic, is out for the season with a knee injury. Additional bad news for the Phoenix front office is that they won't clear enough money this offseason to go after any free agent of consequence. Center Tyson Chandler's contract is an albatross that won't go away until 2019-20. Bledsoe and G Brandon Knight are also both tied up for three and four years, respectively, at $13-15 million per season. No, things are not good in the Valley of the Sun, and getting a coach who can straighten this mess out is imperative. Grade: F

L.A. Lakers (11-44)...The Lakers started the season looking bad, and things just continued to get worse. Kobe Bryant clearly didn't have much tread left on his tires and quickly shifted the tone of the season from his "last stand" to a retirement send-off tour. Rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell's slow (very slow) start left local pundits wondering about using the second pick on a player who is ranked no better than the 7th-best rookie. Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, the front office brains behind the choice, will have some serious questions to answer if Russell doesn't turn the corner (namely, what was wrong with Jahlil Okafor?). Head coach Byron Scott has been second-guessed at every turn this season, and his defense-first message clearly has fallen on deaf ears, as the Lakers rank dead last in defensive efficiency. Another makeover and a new head coach might be on the way if the Lakers don't win the lottery and are able to draft LSU's Ben Simmons. Grade: F

NORTHWEST DIVISION

Oklahoma City (40-14)...
There's a big difference between now and a year ago for the Thunder, when Kevin Durant battled injuries and played in only 27 games as Ok City would miss the playoffs. More on current status in a moment. But there is perhaps a bigger story within the story this season at The Peake, and it involves Durant and his pending free agency. To their credit, the Thunder have been making moves for the past couple of years designed to upgrade the supporting cast and make Durant believe that he should stay with the Thunder, which is also going to be able to pay him more than anyone else. But rumors persist that K-D could land in a variety of venues (Golden State, LA Clippers, New York, hometown Washington) as this storyline likely begins to pick up considerable steam over the next few months. Of course, GM Sam Presti made a bold move in the offseason by hitting the eject button on HC Scott Brooks and luring Billy Donovan from the University of Florida. So far, so good with Donovan, faring better than this season's other high-profile coaching hire from the college ranks, Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State to Chicago Bulls). Many of Presti's moves over the past year, either via trades (C Enes Kanter & G Dion Waiters) or the draft (Murray State rookie G Cameron Payne) have also upgraded the supporting cast, and Russell Westbrook (24.1 ppg) and Durant (27.7 ppg) are playing some of the best ball of their lives at the same time. But because of the Warriors and Spurs, the Thunder appear destined for no better than the third seed in the West, and will likely have to go through both if Ok City is to make the finals for the first time since 2012...and perhaps convince Durant that his best chances for future rings are staying just where he is. Grade: A-

Portland (27-27)...In contention for the most pleasant surprise in the league, the Blazers have refused to go in the tank in hopes of improving their chances in the draft lottery. Instead, and quite unexpectedly, they've whipped themselves back into playoff contention. All of this after looking like perhaps the most downgraded operation in the league when almost the entirety of last season's rotation (LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Wes Matthews, Arron Afflalo), save G Damian Lillard, departed in the offseason, taking a whopping 76 points and 34 rebounds per game with them. Portland instead embarked upon an old-fashioned rebuild as it took steps to develop a coherent on-court identity and build for the future without viewing every player and pick on hand as an asset to be discarded the second an object of greater value came into view. They're rebuilding in real time, as sorts such as G CJ McCollum have taken advantage to show what they can do with increased minutes (and, in McCollum's case, developing into one of the top backcourt tandems in the league with the prolific Lillard, with whom the ex-Lehigh man combines for 45 ppg). The likes of McCollum, G Allen Crabbe, and fronliners Mason Plumlee, Al-Faroug Aminu, and Meyers Leonard have all flourished with opportunities given them by HC Terry Stotts, who has been able to foster an admirable esprit de corps. The Blazers took an 8-game win streak into the break, which moved them into the seventh seed in the conference, while making it easier to stay up late to watch the NBA League Pass and stay entertained with developments at the Moda Center. Grade: A

Utah (26-26)...After a recent 7-game win streak, the Jazz hit the break in the eighth and final West playoff seed, which is quite an accomplishment considering the team has been without emerging G Dante Exum (knee) for the entire season, while key frontliners Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, plus G Alex Burks, have all missed considerable time due to injury. Among the many positives are the explosion onto the scene of second-year G Rodney Hood, who endured a bumpy rookie ride but now looks like the sort of swigman Utah has been dying for since the days of Jeff Hornacek (when Hornacek was a player, that is, not his ill-fated coaching venture in Phoenix). Utah also ranks among the league's top offensive rebounding teams, and Gordon Hayward, though not on display last weekend in Toronto, is on the verge of All-Star status. So, why doesn't HC Quin Snyder smile a bit more often? The Jazz are also the fourth-youngest squad in the NBA based on age weighted by minutes played, and youngest among teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Thus, they figure to be buyers more than sellers at the trade deadline. Though Raul Neto and Trey Burke have been serviceable in place of Exum at the point, that's where Utah might be looking to make an upgrade that would enhance its chances to stay in the playoff mix, and sorts such as Atlanta's Jeff Teague and New Orleans' Jrue Holiday have been mentioned as possible targets for GM Dennis Lindsey. Grade: A-

Denver (22-32)...The Nuggets are probably not going to make the playoffs, but they have the look of a team on the upswing. Denver played almost .500 ball for the past month leading into the All-Star break after losing 23 of its first 35 games for new HC Mike Malone After the Nuggets' slow start, most of their important stat categories (such as offensive and defensive rating) are now in the middle of the pack, and they rank second in free-throw attempt rate. The recent upgrade has partly coincided with rookie PG Emmanuel Mudiay and vet swingman Danilo Gallinari returning to active duty around the same time in early January. The ability of that pair to drive into the paint has better spaced the floor and provided more clear looks for Denver's shooters, while former Memphis Tiger Will Barton has emerged as one of the NBA's best sixth men. The progress of rookie C Nicola Jokic (9.5 ppg) has also been noticeable. Though mentioned in a couple of wild recent rumors (including one in which James Harden lands at the Pepsi Center), and with de-emphasized vets Randy Foye and J.J. Hickson available for interested buyers, the Nuggets are not likely to be very active at the deadline, but figure to nonetheless be a dangerous spoiler in the second half of the season. Grade: B-

Minnesota (17-37)...The season began on a downbeat note in the Twin Cities due to the passing of HC Flip Saunders on the eve of the regular season tip-off. Interim HC Sam Mitchell has mostly held the situation together, though the T-wolves, not unexpectedly, effectively dropped from playoff contention before New Year's. For nearly two months at the outset of the campaign, Minny was nonetheless an interesting pointspread phenomenon, covering spreads like crazy on the road but rarely notching a W at home, though those trends have not been as pronounced since the Christmas holidays. Even had Sanders not gotten ill, however, this figured as the next step of a rebuilding process at Target Center, with a youthful roster even younger after adding more top-shelf talent at last June's draft, including top pick ex-Kentucky C Karl-Anthony Towns, who has proven worth the investment. Last year's number one pick, Andrew Wiggins, continues to post intriguing numbers as a sophomore, poised to become just the ninth player to average 20 PPG at 20 years of age or younger, but shooting just .252 from 3-point range while ranking second to last in assists (1.8 APG) among 21 current players at 20+ PPG. He's a mixed bag, as are the T-wolves, who remain a work in progress, but still capable of pulling the occasional surprise, as wins over the Clips, Bulls, and Raptors proved just before the break. Expect more of those sorts of results down the stretch before checking back next season to see if they are getting any closer to the playoffs. Grade: C

SOUTHWEST DIVISION

San Antonio (45-8)...San Antonio has done an unbelievable job this season, hanging just a few games off the record-setting pace blazed by Golden State. The Spurs are within a fraction of the Warriors' overall efficiency differential, with both clubs a full 10 points ahead of the league's third-best team (OKC). Head Coach Gregg Popovich has managed to pilot this ship despite injuries to center Tim Duncan, who's played in just 38 of the 53 games, G Tony Parker (missed 5 games), and Manu Ginobili (out for 10). Tim Duncan's absence has been a particular challenge, as the team defensive numbers have been the best in the league when he is patrolling the paint, but they've yielded 4 more ppg, 2% more on foes' shooting attempts, and have been even in rebounding when the 39-year-old center is in street clothes. Make no mistake, however, forward Kawhi Leonard is now the star of this star-studded team. Leonard leads the team in scoring at 20.3 ppg, is the third-best rebounder (6.7), shoots 51%, and is the best wing defender in the league. All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has settled in nicely (17 ppg, leads the team with 8.3 rpg and shoots 50.4%), PG Tony Parker has shown he's still tremendously efficient, scoring 12 ppg, dishing 5.1 apg, and shooting 52% while playing a career-low 26.7 minutes a game. The team has developed and/or recruited superior depth, with PF David West, G Patty Mills, PF Boris Diaw and C Boban Marjanovic all contributing significantly. Grade: A

Memphis (31-22)...Memphis was just hitting stride, winning 9 of 11, and then the Grizzlies hit the breaks with one misstep by center Marc Gasol. Gasol broke his foot fighting for a loose ball against Portland on Feb. 8 and is out for the season. With that injury the Grizzlies' hopes for a long run in the playoffs went down the drain. Power Forward Zach Randolph can make up some of the rebounding and scoring the team loses without Gasol, but now the team will have to rely on Brandan Wright to deter foes in the paint. Wright is expected to return from minor knee surgery when play resumes after the break, but Wright's career averages of 7 ppg and 3.7 rpg tell the story that he is strictly a backup player. More likely, Randolph will take over full time in the pivot, Jeff Green will man the power forward spot, and the bench and defense suffer. Randolph isn't the deterrent in the paint that Gasol is (or was), so that's where the falloff will come. The bench is still two-deep at PG with Mike Conley and Mario Chalmers, and at small forward with defense-minded Matt Barnes and Tony Allen, but Gasol was an "aircraft carrier" and was playing at the height of his abilities. Grade: C-

Dallas (29-26)...Dallas is a fading team holding onto playoff hopes with a couple of one-time superstars. Power forward Dirk Nowitzki will eventually be in the Hall of Fame, but his scoring and rebounding numbers are significantly off the averages maintained during an illustrious 18-year career, and his shooting percentage is the worst since his rookie season (1998-99). Point guard Deron Williams was considered one of, if not the best, players at his position when he went to the Nets from Utah in the 2010-11 season, but he hasn't come close to averaging 20 ppg or 9 apg in the last four seasons and is a player whose star has faded. Other moves the Mavs made in the past two seasons, signing forward Chandler Parsons from Houston last year and guard Wesley Matthews from Portland for this season, have yielded mixed results. Parsons has missed time with injuries and is scoring just 12.6 ppg, down from 16 ppg he averaged the last 3 years, while Matthews is shooting just 38% and scoring 12 ppg, also down sharply from the 16 ppg and 44.5% marks in his last two seasons in Portland. The Mavs lost 4 of their last 5 SU and against the number heading into the All-Star Break, and the team seems far more likely to fall out of the playoff picture entirely than to leapfrog Memphis and the Clippers and gain a home court for the first round of the playoffs. Grade: C

Houston (27-28)...The Rockets were in the Western Conference Finals last season, fighting it out toe-to-toe with the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. Smash-cut to the present, when the fading Rockets are mired in controversy and mediocrity, standing on the outside looking in at the playoffs if the season were finished. Kevin McHale was fired after a 4-7 start, with J.B Bickerstaff taking over on an interim basis. The situation has only worsened since. It seems apparent that Rocket guard James Harden and center Dwight Howard are not a good fit. What's unclear is if Harden and Howard can get along anywhere, with anybody. Howard hasn't been the same player since he left Orlando. His inability to make free throws remains an Achilles' heel, and he's scoring fewer points than he has since he was a rookie, as knee and back injuries have taken a toll. Some Houston media have questions about Rocket leader Harden as well, as, although he's scoring at a career-high 28 ppg, his 42.7% shooting is the lowest since he was a rookie with the Thunder in 2009-10. The twittersphere is awash with speculation that the Rockets are trying to trade Howard, who is expected to decline his option and again become a free agent in July. Bickerstaff said the team is "broken" after the Rockets fell below .500 with the loss in Portland in their final game before the All-Star intermission. We agree with Bickerstaff. Grade: D-

New Orleans (20-33)...New Orleans looked like a team on the rise at the beginning of the year. Power forward Anthony Davis appeared poised to become the league's best frontline player (sorry, LeBron). Norris Cole and Jrue Holiday were a good pair of point guards, Ryan Anderson is a poor-man's Kevin Love, and with swingman Tyreke Evans and shooting guard Eric Gordon, the Pelicans had plenty of talent to return to the playoffs. Not so fast, my friend. Evans is out for the season after undergoing knee surgery, and Gordon has already missed a dozen games with a broken finger. Anderson is reportedly looking forward to free agency and has been rumored to be on the trade block. Centers Alexis Ajinca and Omer Asik have lost a combined 19 games with injuries. Granted, Davis has been mostly super again, scoring 23.4 ppg and taking 10 rpg. But the team has fallen off defensively this year, giving up 105 ppg compared with 99 ppg in 2014-15. HC Alvin Gentry is still on his "honeymoon" in New Orleans, but this is his 5th stop as a head coach in the NBA, and his record is 355-403. Grade: C


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