TGS HOOPS SPECIAL REPORT...NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE UPDATE
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
Golden State...First-year head coach Mark Jackson has likely already realized that life commentating courtside is much easier than a life in coaching. The new head coach is also taking heat for letting Jeremy Lin go (Jackson never even saw Lin in a Warrior uniform). Jackson hasn't been able to break the Warriors out of the mold of a running team that plays little or no defense. Golden State is tied with Charlotte as the most permissive defenders in the league, yielding 101 ppg this season. When Kwame Brown went down with injury, the Warriors lost their only true center, and they've been forced to use undersized Andris Biedrins, who has devolved into a non-factor on offense, and either rookie Jeremy Tyler or second-year Ekpe Udoh, who's a good shot-blocker but also a virtual zero offensively (4 ppg; he's made a total of three shots in the last three games despite playing about half the minutes). The Warriors have scorers, however, in the trio of shooting guard Monta Ellis (22 ppg), power forward David Lee (18.4 ppg; 10 rpg) and point guard Stephen Curry (17.7 ppg, 51%), not to mention a trio of subs contributing double-digits in 3-point threat Dorell Wright, vet point Nate Robinson (added off the waiver wire after his release from Oklahoma City), and guard Brandon Rush. All play a little offense, but none is a defensive stopper. The Warriors have been surprisingly beatable at home, starting 6-8 at Oracle Arena after a 26-15 mark there last season. Jackson has his work cut out.
L.A. Clippers...Expectations were high when the Clippers (with a little help from David Stern) swooped in and picked up all-star Chris Paul from New Orleans like a hawk making lunch of a ground squirrel. The Clips have a four-game lead in the loss column over the Lakers in the Pacific Division, and, despite a season-ending Achilles injury to Chauncey Billups (15 ppg), HC Vinny Del Negro's team still has to be tabbed the favorite to take the division. Despite some additional distractions from backup guard Mo Williams, this remains a focused, deep team. Williams has made noises about not knowing how he fits into the team's plan (translation: "You need me now that Billups is hurt, and I want a fat contract extension!"). Randy Foye is becoming more comfortable with replacing Billups in the starting lineup. Foye averaged 16 ppg in 24 starts with the Clippers last season and 13 ppg in 38 starts for Washington in 2009-10. Another plus is that reserve frontline help arrived with the addition of power forward/center Kenyon Martin, and guard Eric Bledsoe recently returned to the team after playing just one minute in the first 25 games. Bledsoe contributed 7 ppg, 4 apg, 1 steal & 3 rpg in 23 mpg as a rookie a year ago. Blake Griffin and Paul give L.A. more than adequate offensive punch, as the Clips rank fifth in the league in scoring at 99 per game. Paul has also solidified the Clippers' ball security, as they have moved from 29th in turnovers a year ago to third-best in the league this season.
L.A. Lakers...The coaching change from hall-of-famer Phil Jackson to Mike Brown (and the ensuing offensive change from the triangle to Brown's conventional approach) was one hurdle. The botched attempt at trading for Chris Paul, and the ripple effect of losing the NBA's best sixth man, Lamar Odom, for nothing was another. A shortened preseason and free agent window compounded both of those problems. The result has been predictable, as L.A. is, for the first time in a long while, chasing the Clippers in the standings. The Lakers are struggling badly on the road, where they have won just 5 of first 15 games straight-up after nipping Toronto on Sunday. Lakers are an aging team faced with the challenge and/or choice of piecing together a roster capable of contending for the title once again, or completely revamping and moving in a different direction (Dwight Howard?). Certainly Brown's system implementation was shackled by the injury to backup PG Steve Blake, whom the Lakers originally signed through 2013-14 with the idea he might supplant ancient Derek Fisher. Blake only recently returned to the court, and he obviously needs time to get up to speed. Fisher is a hard-trying vet who's a great influence on the team in every aspect. Except when he needs to guard quick opposing point guards for extended minutes. Therefore, the Lakers are looking for some help at point guard. Allen Iverson? Rafer Alston? Gilbert Arenas? Is that really looking for help? Who are they going to defend? Last season Odom gave the Lakers 14.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg and 3 assists off the bench, not to mention he was able to fit in at four (sometimes even five) positions in a game. This year Troy Murphy & Josh McRoberts are giving them 6.2 ppg & 7.4 rpg between them. Phil Jackson's last team also got a combined 19 ppg from reserve guards Sasha Vujacic & Shannon Brown. That production hasn't been replaced.
Phoenix...Phoenix was slated for demolition in the first portion of the season. The accepted story line had Steve Nash being shipped to a contender in order to clear the decks for a rebuilding run at free agents in the offseason. Despite the rumors, Nash stayed put, and the team has recently made known its intent to keep the Canadian in the Valley of the Sun. However, Phoenix sleepwalked through a 6-12 start, at times putting forth what appeared to be no more than "exhibition-level" effort. A few weeks ago, something changed and the Suns hit a run of solid form, winning 6 of 9 and making a move in the right direction. In part, it was the gritty Nash willing the team forward. He's 38, but still very effective, and HC Alvin Gentry says he's in tremendous condition. Part was the fact that Michael Redd, acquired in December but not fully healthy until recently, began to contribute. Redd has scored 12 ppg as the Suns won 5 of their last 6. Center Marcin Gortat has made strides that have gone relatively unnoticed. Gortat is at career highs 15.1 ppg, 10 rpg and 1.7 blocks, while shooting 56%. Consider that Gortat's player efficiency rating is better than Atlanta's Al Horford, Memphis' Marc Gasol, N.Y.'s Tyson Chandler, Chicago's Joakim Noah or Philly's Spencer Hawes. Forward Jared Dudley has been giving the Suns added offensive punch in February, scoring 16 ppg on 56% shooting. Not a team you want to lay points with (only 2-6 first 8 as chalk), but also a squad on the upswing.
Sacramento...Interim HC Keith Smart has the young Kings pulling in the same direction and making a team effort, something ex-coach Paul Westphal couldn't do. The Kings fans are still supporting the team (attendance is up 10% over last season), and although their position in the standings hasn't improved, their success rate has risen from 2010-11. Smart has a "poor-man's big three" in shooting guard Marcus Thornton (17.4 ppg), point Tyreke Evans (16.9 ppg, 5 rpg, 5.1 apg), and power forward DeMarcus Cousins (15.8 ppg, 11.3 rpg). The coaching change obviously helped, as Westphal was very stiff in his demands on players and unforgiving of any perceived lack of effort. Smart has instilled an all-for-one, one-for-all, everybody-plays-defense-too attitude that practically has the players singing Kumbaya in postgame interviews (at least after wins). That's all well and good, but Sacto has taken just a few steps down the "yellow brick road" and it's still an awfully long way to Oz (hey, Evans still needs a brain and Cousins still needs a heart...we won't challenge Thornton's courage). Sacto is giving up 100.5 ppg, 28th in the league, and the Kings are shooting an NBA worst 40.4%, so there are still major issues Smart must deal with. (Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!)
Dallas...It's no secret fewer points are being scored this season for a variety of reasons. Most teams are giving up 4-6 points fewer per game than a year ago. Some things remain constant, for example, in the NBA Boston is still leading the league in fewest points allowed and Golden State still ranks near the bottom. However, Dallas has moved up the ladder, climbing from 10th to 6th in points allowed. That fact would indicate that the loss of center Tyson Chandler to free agency hasn't had a negative impact on the Mavs. All-star Dirk Nowitzki has shown some wear and tear, taking time off to rest his aching knee. Although he's playing 33 minutes per game this season (only about 1½ fewer than a year ago), his scoring average is down from 23 ppg to 18 and his shooting percentage has dropped from 51.7% to 46%. He'll turn 34 around the time of the conference finals, so a decline can't come as a shock. To his credit, Nowitzki has been on fire since returning from his rest period, scoring 26.4 ppg on 55% shooting while grabbing 7.4 boards in his last 5 games. Interestingly, the Mavs won 3 of 4 games that Nowitizki rested, a better rate than their 14-10 mark with the big German. The Mavs will be fighting it out with San Antonio for the Southwest Division title down to the wire, but don't expect them to push Oklahoma City for the homecourt edge in the West.
Houston...Houston has been a remarkable success story under new mentor Kevin McHale this season. The addition of center Samuel Dalembert has filled the defensive void that's existed since Yao Ming's injury-induced retirement. PG Kyle Lowry is having his best season with 14.7 ppg, 7.6 apg, and he's heated up lately despite a minor elbow injury. McHale is keeping his players fresh and hungry by spreading out the minutes, as 10 players regularly get at least 16 minutes per game. The Rocket defense has gone from 22nd in the league a year ago to 18th and improved its rebounding percentage from .500 to .516. It might not sound like a quantum leap, but it's a result of increased effort from the players. McHale has gotten his team to buy in to his methods and plan, and he's keeping them fresh and fighting for playing time. The Rockets have the fifth-best record in the West, just a half game behind Dallas. Okay, so Houston general manager Daryl Morey let Jeremy Lin slip through his fingers...can we get off Lin, already? As long as the media and twitter-mongers are going there, why exactly didn't Roy Williams or Coach K get Lin on campus for a visit? McHale and Morey have expressed interest in taking Chris Kaman off of New Orleans' hands, although Indiana might have the inside track on the deal due to salary cap angles. They are definitely on the right track in Houston.
Memphis...There's an old adage in sports that you either get better, or you get worse. You never stay the same. In the case of Memphis, the team is evidently getting worse. Injuries have dogged the Grizzlies on and off for a few seasons, and this year the loss of Zach Randolph has certainly been a negative, but having a healthy Rudy Gay to lead the team in scoring has to be considered a major plus considering he missed 28 games last season. Even taking that into consideration, it doesn't explain Memphis plummeting from 12th in the league in scoring a year ago to 21st this season. Most of the other variables have remained the same for the Grizzlies, who just a short while ago were considered of being anointed "the next big thing," much as Oklahoma City has been this season. Memphis HC Lionel Hollins has his team just a couple of games behind last year's winning pace, but the Grizzlies wouldn't have a chair if the music stopped and the playoffs started today. Center Marc Gasol is an all-star, Randolph will return soon, and getting Marreese Speights looks like a solid addition from Philly, considering his recent rebounding surge. But something's just not quite right with the Memphis offense.
New Orleans...New Orleans is a prime example of the Murphy's Law "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" philosophy of life. The Hornets made a deal for Chris Paul with the Lakers only to have it rescinded, leaving them to work out a different trade with the Clippers. If the Hornets had been allowed to consummate the Laker-N.O.-Houston deal, the Hornets would have Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom and Goran Dragic available. As it is, the Hornets have Eric Gordon (injured), Chris Kaman (in the shop window with one foot out the door) and Al-Farouq Aminu (5 ppg, 4.3 rpg). Oh, yes, they got the unprotected No. 1 pick from Minnesota, which right now would be worth only the 10th selection and a couple of ping pong balls in the lottery for a shot at the top slots. Certainly the trade and ensuing injuries had a great deal to do with the present New Orleans predicament, but the Hornets were a playoff team last season; now they have just one more win than the worst team in the NBA. Obviously not having Eric Gordon, Jarrett Jack, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry and assorted complementary pieces for various periods of time due to injuries has been a major problem. However, N.O. HC Monty Williams has underachieved just about any way you crunch the numbers. The team has covered just four of its first 16 games at New Orleans Arena.
San Antonio...San Antonio leads the Southwest Division despite losing Manu Ginobili for 22 games with a broken hand. HC Gregg Popovich has done one of the best coaching jobs of his career, dealing with an injured, aging roster, a short training camp, and compressed schedule all at once. Still managing to grab the top spot in the division while keeping pace to claim the second seed in the West is astounding. Now Ginobili is back on the court, point guard Tony Parker is having his best scoring season since 2008 and is at a career-high in assists, Brazilian pivot Tiago Splitter is scoring 11 ppg, pulling down 6 rpg in just 21 minutes the last 10 games, and shooting 63% for the season. Popovich's team dealt with the injury to Ginobili, who last season scored 17.4 ppg, by giving more minutes to Danny Green and rookie Kawhi Leonard, moves that should eventually help depth. SA was 15-7 minus Manu. Pop's Spurs have the best winning percentage of any team over the last 10 seasons, and look geared up for a run at another title. It would be Tim Duncan's fifth ring.
Denver...Have to applaud what the Nuggets have accomplished in the last 12 months. A year ago, Carmelo Anthony was the disgruntled star in Denver demanding a trade. The trade was made, and the Nuggets received several key pieces that formed the core of a 10-deep roster that was cruising in high gear until an injury to leading scorer Danilo Gallinari threw a wrench into Karl's machine. Gallinari injured his ankle after playing just 20 minutes against Houston Feb. 6, and the Nuggets ended up losing that game and two of the next three without the big Italian. Gallinari will be out for a month, but Karl's stockpiling a deep roster has served the Nuggets well, as the team has survived losing PG Ty Lawson (3 games), centers Nene (5) & Timofey Mozgov (7), guards Arron Afflalo (3) & Rudy Fernandez (4), and F Corey Brewer (7). The Nuggets still trail Oklahoma City by 5½ games, but they are just a half-game out of the fourth seed in the West (and the homecourt edge in the first round). Denver reportedly will sign free agent swingman Wilson Chandler when he returns from China in March, and that will be a boost for the Nuggets in the last 5-6 weeks of the season.
Minnesota...Minnesota is improved. The Timberwolves have a better record by a substantial margin, winning 13 of first 28 under new head coach Rick Adelman after managing just 17 victories all of last season with Kurt Rambis calling the shots. Adelman has guided Minny from 27th in defensive efficiency last season to 12th this year. Star forward Kevin Love is having a monster season, scoring 26 ppg and grabbing 14 rpg, numbers that garnered the fourth-year power forward a max contract from Minnesota. Point guard Ricky Rubio arrived and has captured the attention of the T-wolf fans. He's 5th in the league in assists, and is averaging 11 ppg, 9.2 apg and 5 rebounds as a starter. All that being said, Minnesota is still at the bottom of the Northwest Division standings again. However, Adelman's made a difference and the Timberwolves have a great potential upside, with Love, F Michael Beasley and not only quality but depth at the guard spot, and even production from the pivot, where Nikola Pekovic and Darko Milicic have combined for 16 ppg and 10.4 rpg. Minnesota has proven a value as a dog, logging an 11-3 mark its first 14 chances in role.
Oklahoma City...The sexy preseason pick to unseat the Dallas Mavs as the champs (or at least get to the final) was Oklahoma City. Sure enough, with more than 40% of the schedule in the books, the Thunder is pushing the Bulls for the best record in the league. OKC is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the league because the Thunder have two players that are an extremely difficult matchup for opponents in all-star forward Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has averaged 27 ppg since the club pulled the trigger and gave him a fat new contract, but there are different opinions about his relationship with fellow star Durant. The players say all the right things, downplaying any signs of tension that might be visible to the media or fans. However, some in the media feel Westbrook's body language often reveals he's not satisfied with just winning games as the second option with Oklahoma City. Observers speculate Westbrook would rather be in a place where he's the big cheese, even at the cost of playing for a team that's not as high in the standings. But, as John Mackey once famously said, "Winning is the best deodorant."
Portland...The Trail Blazers have begun the season playing like gangbusters at the Rose Garden, but struggling badly on the road (4-10 SU, 5-9 vs. the number). Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is a load for any foe to deal with. Aldridge has averaged 23 pts. & 8.6 boards this season, and the Blazers have 5 other double-digit scorers in guards Ray Felton & Wesley Mathews, swingman Gerald Wallace, and French swingman Nicolas Batum. Felton has been a bit sluggish since returning from a sprained left foot, and Crawford & Matthews have made just 39% & 41%, respectively, this season. Wallace's shooting has been compromised by a ligament strain in his right hand. As a result, the Blazers are lagging behind last year's win ratio despite ranking fourth in defensive efficiency. Sixteen-year vet pivot Marcus Camby has missed some time with injury and illness, and while his rebounding and blocked shots have been good, he's a non-scorer this season, at just 3.2 ppg and shooting 36%. Backup center Kurt Thomas is in his 17th season and doesn't have much left, so it's up to Aldridge to do a lot of work inside (which he's pretty good at doing).
Utah...Tyrone Corbin is feeling his way as the head coach in Salt Lake City, and the team has taken baby steps in the right direction. The Jazz are above .500 this season after finishing 39-43 and missing the playoffs a year ago. While they wouldn't qualify for a postseason berth if the season were to end today, there are signs there's a run in them. Al Jefferson is producing in typical fashion (19 ppg & 9 rpg), forward Paul Millsap is cleaning up the boards and creating his own offensive looks (16.3 ppg & 9.6 rpg), and 6-8 guard Gordon Hayward is gaining momentum in his second season in the pros. Hayward had a season-high 23 pts. against Memphis Sunday, and he's scored 14.4 ppg & shot 56% in February. PG Devin Harris has been a disappointment in his second season in Utah, scoring just 9.1 ppg (lowest production since his rookie season), and he handed out only 4.4 assists (fewest in last 7 seasons). Corbin needs to focus on the Jazz defense, as Utah ranks 23rd in points allowed, a defensive trend from last season when the Jazz were just 24th in defensive efficiency. In its last full season under former HC Jerry Sloan, Utah shot 49% and ranked 12th in points allowed. Corbin has to get the Jazz back to being more intense on defense and pickier when it comes to shot selection.
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