by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

We complete our NBA All-Star Break Review with a rundown on the the Western Conference.

Northwest Division

Oklahoma City (43-12)...Oklahoma City suffered a major blow when All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook injured his knee and missed the last 29 games, but the Thunder have fashioned the best record in the league. Kevin Durant has jumped into the lead in the race for the MVP title, and HC Scott Brooks has reinforced his reputation as one of the top bosses in the league. OKC has scored 105 ppg, and Durant is leading the league in scoring again, but what’s flown under the radar is the Thunder defense. Brooks has constructed a group of long, lean defenders, led by Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha, who are holding foes to just 43% shooting, second-best in the league this season. The Thunder are outrebounding foes by 5 per game and have almost double the blocked shots of their opponents. The impending return of Westbrook, who expects to play Thursday vs. Miami, might seal the fate of all other Western pretenders. Grade: A

Portland (36-17)...Forward LaMarcus Aldridge’s production jump (from 21 ppg LY to 24 ppg this year; his rebounds have increased from 9 rpg a year ago to a career-high 11.4) and PG Damian Lillard making similar advancement, the Blazers are primed to make a return to the playoffs after a two-year hiatus in which they recorded a 61-87 SU mark. The addition of Robin Lopez stabilized the pivot after several seasons of turmoil since the ill-fated drafting of Greg Oden. More importantly, the team has stayed as healthy as any in the league, using the same starting five in all 53 games. The Blazers have definitely stepped up their game when playing the better teams, logging a 12-4 mark as an underdog this season. Portland leads the league in scoring (108 ppg) and ranks third in offensive efficiency, while only three teams commit fewer turnovers than the Blazers. While HC Terry Stotts has engineered a quick turnaround of the Trail Blazers, the team hit a bump in the road the last few weeks before the all-star game, dropping 6 of 9 SU. However, if they wish to advance in the playoffs, a move up the playoff ladder and into a homecourt advantage would be advised. Grade: B+

Minnesota (25-28)...Minny seemed to have made some progress this season before injuries to center Nikola Pekovic and guard Kevin Martin led to a 2-6 SU run in last 8 games. Now the Timberwolves are on the outside looking in at the playoff race, and they could fall further off the pace with five of their next six games on the road and no ETA on a return for Pekovic or Martin. The front office has tried. They signed all-star Kevin Love to a big contract, but his deal will be up in two years, and the vultures around the league are already planning for the “summer of Love” in 2016. Pekovic was given a big deal, but he’s proven to be somewhat brittle, missing 63 games the last 3+ seasons. Kevin Martin’s deal will keep him around through the 2016-17 season, and he’s previously been deemed non-essential by Sacramento, Houston and Oklahoma City. Ricky Rubio is a nice looking guy, sells a lot of jerseys, and makes some flashy passes, but he’s a career 36% shooter who’s scored 8.9 ppg this season. PG J.J. Barea is the top bench player, but he is scoring just 8.7 ppg and shooting 40.6%. The bench drops off sharply from there. Grade: C-

Denver (24-27)...Denver is among a group of teams that took an injury-related dive just before the All-Star break, losing 4 games that PG Ty Lawson was out, as well as the Detroit game on Feb. 8, when he played just 19 minutes before injuring his ribs. Replacing future Hall of Fame HC George Karl hasn’t gone smoothly, as the team has a losing record under Brian Shaw after winning and making the playoffs 10 straight years, the last nine under Karl. Shaw has had a feud with vet backup PG Andre Miller (suspended since early Jan.) that’s caused friction. The Pepsi Center, a fortress for the Nuggets last season when they went 38-3 SU, has lost its intimidation factor, as the team is just 14-11 SU at home and has covered just 4 of 16 chances as a home favorite. The acquisition and subsequent signing of athletic but inconsistent center JaVale McGee has yielded virtually nothing this season, as McGee has played in just 5 games and will likely undergo season-ending surgery on his fractured tibia. His production has fallen from 12 ppg & 9 rpg in his last half-season in Washington to 9 ppg and 4.7 rpg in his last 84 games with the Nuggets. Denver has had similar bad luck with the signing of Danilo Gallinari, who is now eight months to a year away from playing after undergoing ACL surgery in late January. Transition from George Karl’s regime is not going well. Grade: D

Utah (19-33)...Utah is in rebuilding mode, and at times it’s not pretty. The Jazz have been dumping salaries and adding draft picks, and they have lots of cap room and a couple of extra picks over the next few seasons. It looks as if the Jazz got a head start on the rebuild in last year’s draft, as the addition of Michigan rookie point guard Trey Burke looks like a gift (thanks to Joe Dumars and the Detroit Pistons, who passed on the Wolverine one pick earlier). The Jazz will bid farewell to Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Marvin Williams (among others) this offseason, as the team’s salary obligations drop to $16 million. There’s no doubt about it, the Utah front office is unconcerned about the present and pointing to the future. They’ll get one and possibly two quality players from this season’s deep draft (they have two first-round picks), but ultimately the Jazz must sell Salt Lake City as a landing spot for quality free agents. That’s a tall order. Grade: C

Pacific Division

L.A. Clippers (37-18)...The Clippers are leading the Pacific Division and are just two games off of San Antonio’s pace in a race for the second seed in the West despite losing PG Chris Paul for 19 games and valuable shooter J.J. Redick for 25. HC Doc Rivers has been a steady hand, and “Dunk City” has made a solid transition. Center DeAndre Jordan is leading the league in rebounding, Paul in assists, and F Blake Griffin in dunks. Although the Clippers are the second-highest scoring teams in the league, they play the best perimeter defense, holding foes to a league-low 32.5% on treys. The front office made a substantial investment in free agents in the offseason, so L.A. is one of the deepest teams in the West. This obviously paid off, as free agent signee Darren Collison took over during Paul’s injury, and the Clips produced a 12-6 record while the superstar recovered. Grade: B+

Phoenix (30-21)...Preseason forecasts had Phoenix in the “tank” mode, but the Suns have surprised the league and are currently in playoff position. This unexpected move is largely due to the shrewd tactics of new HC Jeff Hornacek, work of G Goran Dragic, who stepped his game up a few notches early and then dropped it down into overdrive leading up to the all-star game. The maturation of the Morris twins and Miles Plumlee bolstered the frontline, and PG Eric Bledsoe was a revelation before injuring his knee after just 24 games. It’s questionable whether the Suns can hang onto their playoff spot, as Memphis is right on their tail after winning three of its last four while Phoenix lost three of four at the break. However, the Suns are 17-8 against the number on the road and own the best overall pointspread record in the league, so they get bonus points from our point of view. Grade: A-

Golden State (31-22)...Golden State was 24-13 straight-up and riding high back on Jan. 7, then things went off the rails a bit. Guard Klay Thompson went into a shooting funk, and injuries chipped away, taking games away from F David Lee, who was playing at an All-sSar level, and Aussie C Andrew Bogut, who was near his career-high in rebounding. Golden State’s depth wasn’t sufficient to maintain an “A” level through slumps and injuries as some teams have this season. However, the Warriors have a very steadying influence in head coach Mark Jackson and point guard Steph Curry, so expect a turnaround when Andrew Bogut’s shoulder gets better and David Lee regains his form. This is a team that could ace the final and raise the curve. Grade: B+

L.A. Lakers (18-35)...The Laker problems started a while back. Like a pretty coed trying to get by on good looks, L.A. thought it could fake it through another season. Signing Steve Nash to a hefty guaranteed contract when he was basically all through was a mistake. Making the deal to sign Dwight Howard without even exploring whether he would seriously consider signing with the team as a free agent was a mistake. Signing Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension when there’s very little tread left on his tires was a mistake. And from current view, thinking they can attract quality free agents when all they’ve got is Bryant (who will never be the same player he was, even if he regains his health), Nash (who can’t keep up anymore) and Robert Sacre represents optimism of an extreme nature. Jim Buss will be at the back of the line with his hat in his hand begging for free agents to take pity on him, and with his track record, whoever comes calling will be making a mistake. Grade: F

Sacramento (18-35)...Sacramento has finished fourth or fifth in the Pacific Division for eight straight seasons and hasn’t made the playoffs since the days when Rick Adelman coached them and point guard Mike Bibby led them in scoring at 21 ppg. The Kings are like stoner Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, showing up wasted and sleeping in the back of the class, spending most of the time in the dean’s office (look it up kids...funny movie). Anyway, at least you know what to expect from Sacramento...not much. The Kings’ prospects aren’t that great either. There was a reason Rudy Gay was available. He has a player option for $19 million next season, and you can bet he’ll exercise it. The Kings only drop $8 million off the cap for any potential free agent runs this spring, and that’s if they don’t make a qualifying offer to DeMarcus Cousins, their best player (he’s a bargain at $5 million this season and 6.5 next). Sacto ranks 27th in defensive efficiency this season and is giving up 104 ppg, so the fact that the Kings have three 20-point scorers (Cousins, Gay and Isaiah Thomas) is really just for show. Grade: D-

Southwest Division

San Antonio (38-15)...San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich is part John Wooden, part Rasputin and part witch doctor. He doesn’t have a LeBron James, nor a Kevin Durant, yet the Spurs are seemingly always in the conversation when one looks at the top records in the league. Popovich and the decidedly un-flashyTim Duncan have won four titles with the Spurs, three of those since point guard Tony Parker arrived. Popovich finds players to plug in, sprinkles a bit of pixie dust on them, and poof!, 6-7 DeJuan Blair averages 7 rpg in 21 minutes. A little pep talk and some instruction and, boom!, Bruce Bowen morphs from a vagabond bit part player to a starter on multiple title teams and the self-appointed “Kobe-stopper” back in the day. “Pop” uses the 57th pick in the draft to take Manu Ginobili. Twenty-seven teams passed on Tony Parker in 2001. No, there’s more here than meets the eye. This is alchemy, turning lead into gold on a regular basis. Injuries don’t faze him. He holds out his stars and the team still wins. This is alchemy. Grade: A

Houston (36-17)...Houston HC Kevin McHale has done a pretty good job. He’s recruited guard James Harden, center Dwight Howard, point guards Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley. Drafted forwards Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones, bringing together a completely new group that includes the top six contributors on the team in just two seasons. And the Rockets have their highest winning percentage in the last 17 seasons. That’s quite a rebuilding job in a very short span. Howard actually seems happy, and Lord knows the Magic and Lakers tried to keep him happy with no success. Jeremy Lin is starting to look like the player who inspired “Linsanity” a bit, shooting a higher percentage than Harden. McHale knows what he’s doing, and the pieces are fitting together nicely...let’s just wait and see if he can keep Howard from destroying the locker room if they hit a rough patch. Grade: B

Dallas (32-22)...After finishing 41-41 last year and missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years, Dallas has taken a step back toward the light this season. HC Rick Carlisle has done a solid job with a team that appeared to be attempting to strip down its salary structure for a rebuild as all-star forward Dirk Nowitzki rode off into the sunset. Instead, Nowitzki found a canteen from the “fountain of youth” and has scored 24 ppg and grabbed almost 7 rpg in the last 18 games, leading the team to a 12-5 SU surge to put the Mavs 10 games above .500. The acquisition of veteran Gs Monta Ellis (19 ppg, 5.7 apg) and Jose Calderon (12 ppg, 4.8 apg) has solidified the backcourt. Ellis’ scoring has taken pressure off of Nowitzki, and 37-year-old Vince Carter has been contributing off the bench (12 ppg since Dec. 1). Dallas has lost seven straight to the Spurs and 11 in a row to the Thunder, so getting to the Western Conference final appears to be a bridge too far for the Mavs this season. Grade: B+

Memphis (29-23)...Memphis’ ownership has aligned the team with the trendy “metrics” craze, hiring Chris Wallace and John Hollinger to “do the math” with very mixed results. When Lionel Hollins took over the Grizzlies in the middle of the 2008-2009 season, the team had a 55-152 record in the previous 2½ years. Under Hollins the team improved its record each season, finishing at 56-26 last year and defeating the Clippers and Oklahoma City on the way to a Western Conference Finals meeting with San Antonio...so naturally they fired him. You have to wonder just what the ownership with this team is thinking. To be fair, the Grizzlies have had their share of injuries, with starters center Marc Gasol, PG Mike Conley and G Tony Allen all missing extended time. Last season those three missed a total of one game between them. Still, we’re wondering if Gregg Popovich or Scott Brooks of the Thunder spend a lot of time pouring over the “VA” (value-added) or “EWA” (estimated wins added) stats that Hollinger invented. We think not. Grade: C-

New Orleans (23-29)...New Orleans obviously hasn’t been the same since Chris Paul left town, but the team appeared to have filled the point guard void by acquiring Jrue Holiday from Philly. Then Holiday suffered a stress fracture in his tibia five weeks ago. Injuries also claimed Ryan Anderson (20 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and center Jason Smith (10 ppg, 6 rpg), so the Pelicans’ 23-29 record has to be considered a step forward after the team was just 48-100 post-Paul. They have an All-Star in PF Anthony Davis, who has turned into a “20 & 10" machine and is leading the league in blocks, and when and if they get healthy, the Pelicans should contend for the playoffs. Rumors have New Orleans shopping Ben Gordon, as he’s a very expensive ($15 million per in the next two years) duplication of Tyreke Evans at shooting guard. The future looks “arrows up” for the Pelicans, provided key players stay healthy. Grade: B

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