TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NBA WEST ALL-STAR BREAK UPDATE
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
The All-Star weekend is a welcome break from the grind of the 82-game NBA season for just about every NBA squad (not to mention for the handicappers). Teams will be off for either seven or eight days this season. The players have time to recuperate from the grind, rest their legs, and generally unwind (or hit the Strip in Vegas or the beach in Antigua, take your pick). Coaches and general managers of flagging franchises evaluate potential moves to set up priorities for next season. Teams in contention burn the phones hoping to pick up the piece that will help their squad go deeper into the playoffs.
As handicappers, we review each team and reset our expectations up and down the standings. We review the Western Conference below.
GOLDEN STATE (47-9)...The reigning Western Conference champion was 48-4 SU at the break last year, so it appears as if nothing much has changed. Head coach Steve Kerr has his Warriors four games in front of San Antonio in the West and 7 1/2 in front of Cleveland in the race for homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. The integration of Kevin Durant into the Golden State attack has been seamless and a plus, as he leads the team in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. The only setback of the first portion of the season was a shoulder injury to center Zaza Pachulia, but he's expected back after the break. Kerr's biggest problem might be controlling Draymond Green's temper (his technicals might draw suspensions later in the season).
L.A. CLIPPERS (35-21)...The Clippers started the season on fire, winning 14 of their first 16 games to keep pace with Golden State for the league's best record through the first few weeks of the season. Then a familiar story played out again as injuries claimed power forward Blake Griffin, who missed 18 straight games after undergoing a knee procedure. After Griffin went down, all-star point guard Chris Paul was forced to sit out seven games with a hamstring injury. Shortly after returning, Paul tore a ligament in his thumb against OKC on Jan. 16 and hasn't played since. If they ever get healthy, the Clippers can give anyone a run for the money in a seven-game series, but they never seem to be healthy.
SACRAMENTO (24-33)...Sacramento could be on its way to going "over" the preseason total victory number of 33 set by Las Vegas. However, head coach David Joerger has had injury problems of concern, most notably losing forward Rudy Gay for the season with an Achilles injury. Joerger also hasn't been able to convince star center DeMarcus Cousins to tone down his caustic personality and deal with the referees in a more business-like manner. Cousins has already reached the tipping point for technicals and will undoubtedly miss more games down the stretch. In order to cash the total win "over" tickets, the Kings must go 10-15 in the final 25 regular season games. That will be difficult to do if Cousins is unavailable.
L.A. LAKERS (19-39)...Many overreacted to the Lakers surprising 10-10 SU start this season. Enthusiasm surged in L.A., new head coach Luke Walton was being touted as a genius, and the front office was starting to take some bows. Smash-cut to the present, and the team is 9-29 SU since. An increasingly desperate front office has invited Magic Johnson to step in and likely expects him to take over for Jim Buss and/or Mitch Kupchak and run the team. Good luck with that. Actually, any sort of rally in the final third of the season would be detrimental, if anything, as the Lakers lose a first-round pick if it isn't a top-three pick. The franchise is still in a mess that won't be easy to clean up.
PHOENIX (18-39)...The Suns are another team that's drifting a bit under head coach Earl Watson. Watson took the job last season from Jeff Hornacek and was then retained by Phoenix. However, his 28-65 mark in his first 93 games in charge doesn't bode well for the franchise. The backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker has been one of the most productive in the league, combining for 42.7 ppg. However, the front office has apparently wasted a lot of cap money on Brandon Knight, who is due almost $44 million over the next three seasons. Knight isn't the only mistake the front office has made, as the Suns are also on the hook for the next two seasons for $46 million for center Tyson Chandler and forward Jared Dudley. However, they are in good shape with draft picks and own the second-worst record in the league. But that won't help Earl Watson sleep better at night.
UTAH (35-22)...The Jazz have emerged as one of the surprise stories of the league this season. Utah finished 15 games behind Oklahoma City last season with a 40-42 record and .488 winning mark. Now they sit atop the Northwest Division with a three-game lead over OKC and the 5th-best record in the West. Granted, head coach Quin Snyder got a boost when the Thunder lost Kevin Durant in free agency, but the Jazz are a maturing group that will be a difficult team to beat in the first round of the playoffs, especially if they maintain a homecourt edge. The maturation of forward Gordon Hayward (22 ppg, 47%) and the addition of PG George Hill (18 ppg), combined with the talents of intimidating defender Rudy Gobert, have meshed to make the Jazz a formidable group.
OKLAHOMA CITY (32-25)...The Thunder are on track to win nine fewer games in head coach Billy Donovan's second season in charge than they did in his first. That's the cost of losing Kevin Durant and enduring a key injury to OKC's top sixth man C Enes Kanter. Interestingly, the loss of Durant has affected the Thunder defense as much as its offense. Last season, OKC had a 127-110 edge in offensive/defensive efficiency, this year the Thunder numbers are 117-117, as opponents have scored more points and shot a higher percentage than a year ago. PG Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double, so there's not a lot more he can do except hope the Thunder acquire a player to help carry the team through the first round of the playoffs. Rumors are flying about Westbrook's future, and Victor Oladipo's deal ($21 million a year for the next four seasons) doesn't look too good.
DENVER (25-31)...Denver is another surprising team that is on track to exceed its preseason victory total, provided a rash of recent injuries doesn't derail a possible playoff bid. The Nuggets haven't been in the playoffs since 2012-13, when George Karl was named NBA Coach of the Year. Three of the most important players on that team, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried, are still on the roster, although all three have been injured or sick lately. Those players will soon be back, and the emergence of 6-10, 250 Nikola Jokic (20 ppg, 11 rpg, 6.3 apg in his last 10) has been a boon. Management is rumored to be actively seeking a trade in order to bolster the Nuggets' playoff chances, so it could be an interesting situation in the final 25 games.
PORTLAND (23-33)...Portland made the playoffs last season after winning just 15 of its first 39 games through January 8 of 2016. By the time the dust had settled, the Trail Blazers finished the season on a 29-14 run, procured a 5th seed, and ousted the Clippers 4 games to 2 in the first round before succumbing to the Warriors in the Conference Semifinals. It will be a tougher road to hoe this season if a repeat performance is in the cards for head coach Terry Stotts' crew. After opening February 1-5 SU, Portland is 10 games under .500. However, the Blazers are in a dogfight for the 8th seed with just 3 1/2 games separating Denver, Sacramento, Portland, New Orleans, Dallas and Minnesota for the right to be executed by Golden State in the first round. The Blazers' backcourt ranks 2nd in offense and 4th in efficiency, so a stretch run and move up the ladder certainly isn't out of the question.
MINNESOTA (22-35)...The situation in Minnesota is an interesting example of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson's famous quote, "Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth." After highly-sought head coach Tom Thibodeau signed on, things looked rosy in Minneapolis. Thibodeau was a defensive genius, who it was assumed would solve the T-wolves' aversion to playing hard on the stop end. The Timberwolves had a trio of young studs, with G Zach LaVine, F Andrew Wiggins and C Karl-Anthony Towns all scoring more than 20 ppg in the first half of the season. PG Ricky Rubio finally seemed healthy, and the team had added a few pieces here and there to fill in the gaps. Well, things haven't worked out according to plan. The team's defense hasn't improved a bit, LaVine tore his ACL, and Rubio might be healthy, but he still can't shoot. Now its appears as if exceeding the preseason 41 win total is an impossible task, as Minny would have to win 20 of its last 25 to get to 42 victories. C'est la guerre.
SAN ANTONIO (43-13)...If it weren't for Golden State, everyone would be talking about what an unbelievable job Gregg Popovich was doing with the Spurs. San Antonio has the second best record in the league but is still four games off the Warriors' pace. Forward Kawhi Leonard, who was good two seasons ago, developed into an all-star last year and was second in the MVP voting. The Spurs absorbed a major blow when center Pau Gasol injured his hand. Gasol missed 15 games but is expected back after the break. Acquiring free agent PF LaMarcus Aldridge has proved a shrewd move in replacing Tim Duncan. San Antonio PG Tony Parker is aging, but he and backup Patty Mills combine for 20 ppg and 8 apg. Pop's kept an eye on Parker's minutes over the last few years, and the PG often reaches back and plays like an all-star for key spurts. The question is, can they beat Golden State in a seven-game series?
HOUSTON (40-18)...Houston is one of the most improved teams in the league. The "addition by subtraction" of losing center Dwight Howard coupled with the arrival of head coach Mike D'Antoni has transformed the Rockets from a .500 club that just managed to edge out Utah for the 8th seed last season to the 4th-best record in the league behind Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland. The bad news being the Warriors and Spurs are on the schedule a lot. This is without doubt guard James Harden's team, and his transition to being a true point guard under D'Antoni has been remarkable. Harden has dished out twice as many assists this season as he had averaged over his previous seven seasons in the league and is flirting with triple-doubles almost every night. The influx of 3-point sharpshooters G Eric Gordon and F Ryan Anderson was clearly part of D'Antoni's plan, and the Rockets are shooting a league-high 40 threes per game.
MEMPHIS (34-24)...Memphis has huffed and puffed a bit this season, but the Grizzlies are in better shape than they were last year at this time. Memphis was 30-22 a week into February last season before going on a 9-4 spurt, but head coach David Fizdale has to hope the Grizzlies don't mimic last year's closing. Memphis staggered down the stretch, losing 10 of its last 11 to barely hang on to the 7th playoff spot, a game ahead of Houston. So far, Fizdale seems to have been able to extract more from the team this season than Dave Joerger did last year, but it remains to be seen if the Grizzlies will return to the 50-win plateau of 2015 and 2016 under Joerger. Injuries have played a role, with PG Mike Conley missing a dozen games, but he's back now and has scored 22 ppg on 49% shooting in his last 10 outings. C Marc Gasol and F Zach Randolph make Memphis one of the most physical teams around.
NEW ORLEANS (23-34)... There's only so much all-star PF Anthony Davis can do. The Pelicans have missed badly with some additions (Solomon Hill, Alexis Ajinca, Omer Asik) and haven't been able to keep PG Jrue Holiday and swingman Tyreke Evans healthy enough be on the court together for very long. Those two are available now, and New Orleans is just 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, which would be an encouraging step for beleaguered HC Alvin Gentry (53-86 while in charge). On the other hand, the Pels are 0-4 in the playoffs the last 5 seasons, swept out by the Warriors two years ago under Monty Williams.
DALLAS (22-34)...It's a bit hard to believe how far and how fast Dallas has fallen. The Mavs have only missed the playoffs once in this century and will likely finish below .500 for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. The aging of Dirk Nowitzki and a rash of injuries at point guard have hampered Rick Carlisle's team this season, but just the same, the Mavs are still just 3 games out of the playoffs. Dallas has recovered somewhat from an 11-27 start to gain some relevance, thanks to the development of Seth Curry and the surprising play of rookie Yogi Ferrell (14 ppg; 46% on his treys). Nowitzki missed 26 games with injuries, but he's scored 15 ppg and grabbed 6.5 rpg playing limited (28) minutes in his last 10 games. Not great, but not bad.
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