Back three weeks ago I took a look at the landscape of the NBA’s Eastern Conference. I’ll be honest, I initially planned on ranking the Western Conference teams one week later. A combination of school giving me a serious beat down, my birthday (thanks to any readers who wished me a Happy Birthday), and a shoulder injury that resulted in me spending a few days in a haze because of pain pills… I didn’t quite get around to it. Well, better late than never. Halfway through the season, here is how the NBA’s Western Conference looks.
15 New Orleans Hornets
-Is it a bad sign that the 2nd worst team in the league is “owned” by the league and the league is making executive decisions for said team? That doesn’t really inspire a ton of confidence in the brain trust making crucial decisions for the NBA, does it? I know all of this was already beaten to death during the “Chris Paul is traded to the Lakers… Psych!” episode, but it’s worth mentioning again. There is a very good reason why I relentlessly bashed David Stern during the NBA Lockout like he was a punching bag. He didn’t know what he was doing then (or maybe he did, and was just blatantly trying to cancel this season), and many feel that he/the league doesn’t know what they are doing with the Hornets now. The Hornets flat out suck. Sure, Eric Gordon has only played two games; he was the biggest piece of the Clippers trade, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that the Hornets would stumble out of the gate. I truthfully don’t think Eric Gordon makes too much of a difference in the win/loss column for the Hornets though. He’s a nice player and all, but are the Hornets going to the playoffs with him in the lineup every game? The answer is no. New Orleans is lottery bound and will likely win the Anthony Davis Sweepstakes thanks to a “lucky bounce” of a ping pong ball (wink wink). On the bright side, the Hornets have indirectly provided one of the best highlights of the NBA season so far.
14 Sacramento Kings
-Hey Sacramento fans, your team might be really bad, but look on the bright side… At least you get to keep your team. You could be from Seattle.
13 Phoenix Suns
12 Golden State Warriors
11 Utah Jazz
-I’ll write about Phoenix when they either get some help for Steve Nash or do the right thing and trade Steve Nash. As an NBA fan, I want him playing for a contender, and I don’t care who it is. I’ll write about Golden State when people acknowledge that Stephen Curry is the best player on their team. I’ve had enough of watching Monta Ellis, Nate Robinson and David Lee competing to see who can take the most shots. And I’ll write about Utah when their most interesting player isn’t Jeremy Evans, the winner of the worst NBA Slam Dunk Contest ever.
10 Denver Nuggets
9 Houston Rockets
-You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Sonny, why so low on Denver and Houston? Houston is fifth in the standings right now and you have them ranked ninth. Denver started out the season better than anyone in the West other than Oklahoma City and their tenth according to you… Why no love?” It’s not so much I don’t have love for Houston or Denver, it’s just that someone has to be on the outside looking in. Unfortunately for a select few teams in the West, only eight teams from one conference can make the playoffs. By my estimation, at least the top ten teams in the Western Conference would safely make the playoffs if they were in the Eastern Conference (I’m wishy-washy on number 11 Utah). Hold on, it’s time for a tangent.
Interesting/Slightly Wacky Idea: My initial idea proposal was going to be eliminating conferences all together, taking the top 16 teams in the league, seeding them 1-16 and going forward with the playoffs that way. Then I realized you can’t just eliminate conferences. That’s way too drastic. But what do you think about the idea of taking the top eight teams from each conference, and then reseeding them 1-16, to try to balance the power a little bit, and create matchups we don’t have the luxury of seeing more than twice a year? Hypothetically, last year the first round playoff matchups would’ve looked like this:
1 Chicago v. 16 Indiana, 8 Orlando v. 9 Denver, 5 Dallas v. 12 Memphis, 4 Los Angeles v. 13 Atlanta, 6 Boston v. 11 New Orleans, 3 Miami v. 14 New York, 7 Oklahoma City v. 10 Portland, 2 San Antonio v. 15 Philadelphia
I can almost guarantee you are against this idea, since its engraved in everybody’s head that the way something has always been done is the right way. I on the other hand like to look for ways to improve or tweak the system. I’m sure you’ve seen the extensive work I’ve done on changing the College Football postseason. I’m not going to campaign to change the NBA playoffs because I love the NBA more than I love being able to breathe clean air. But it would be interesting to think about past instances where a change in the playoff system would be fun. Think back to the early 2000’s when the Lakers would battle through the Western Conference playoffs only to annihilate the Eastern Conference champ in the Finals. Take a look at what the 2002 playoffs would’ve looked like under my radical playoff structure. Remember, in real life the Lakers swept their 1st round series against Portland, defeated San Antonio 4-1, won a battle against Sacramento 4-3, then swept and embarrassed New Jersey in the Finals. The one team that challenged the Lakers was Sacramento.
1 Sacramento v. 16 Indiana, 8 Boston v. 9 Portland, 5 New Jersey v. 12 Orlando, 4 Dallas v. 13 Utah, 6 Detroit v. 11 Charlotte, 3 Los Angeles v. 14 Philadelphia, 7 Minnesota v. 10 Seattle, 2 San Antonio v. 15 Toronto
We’re most likely looking at a classic Lakers/Kings Finals matchup rather than 4 games of Shaq sodomizing Todd MacCulloch. Isn’t that more fun for basketball fans and especially for Todd MacCulloch?
Well, anyways… I do have love for Denver and Houston. I like that Houston has a solid trio to build around (Kevin Martin, Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola), and a few nice pieces outside of that. I just don’t know if they can sustain what they’ve done so far throughout the rest of this crazy season. Denver might have already proven they couldn’t sustain a hot start. And maybe, just maybe, slotting Denver at ten and Houston at nine has something to do with my fascination of the team I have at eight.
8 Minnesota Timberwolves
-Yes, it’s true, I do have quite the fascination with the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s not so much that I like them. It’s more that they are a very interesting team to watch. Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio are both standout players. I’ll take it even further: they are transcendent players. Love is the best rebounding power forward in years. Add 25 points per game on top of that. Ricky Rubio belongs to a breed of point guard that is extremely rare: An absolute pass first point guard who not only enjoys setting up his teammates, but does it with unbelievable style. He can easily control a game without making a shot and even in instances where he is 0-10, can rise up in a key moment and nail a game tying three. Rubio is special, and so is Love. And maybe they are making Minnesota a contender in the future.
- Can Love lead the young Timberwolves to the playoffs?
As Minnesota was making a strong comeback against the Clippers on Tuesday night, Paul Clark texted me mentioning how deep Minnesota is. I’ll do him one better: they are deep AND young. This is a team that has some promise for the future. If Minnesota is lucky enough to keep its young nucleus together for a four or five year stretch, we are looking at a yearly playoff contender. Love, Rubio, Rubio’s contagious unselfishness, JJ Barea, a budding Nikola Pekovic, Derrick Williams, and Michael Beasley (or whatever you can get for Michael Beasley) is a good foundation to build around. For now, Minnesota can settle for being the team that I love watching and that I’m praying finishes eighth in the West just so I can enjoy a Timberwolves/Thunder series.
7 Portland Trailblazers
-Note to readers: By the time Miami finished their stomping of Portland and I got done recording a podcast with Paul Clark, it was 2:45 am. I was sleepy and drained from a busy day lying by the pool. Portland certainly didn’t look like the seventh best team in the Western Conference last night, but they’ll stay there for now.
6 Memphis Grizzlies
-I hope you haven’t made the crucial mistake of forgetting about the pre-season Western Conference sleeper Memphis Grizzlies. Just because they are still sleeping doesn’t mean they won’t wake up before the playoffs start. Mark my words; it’s going to be shades of the 2011 playoffs when Memphis knocks off a higher seeded opponent in the 2012 playoffs. They’ve been treading water for a large portion of the season without the catalyst of their playoff run last year (remember when Z-Bo was taking the NBA by storm). Plus Rudy Gay is in the lineup, and he was missing in action last year. I’m not backing down from my pre-season NBA Finals pick of Miami over Memphis. You can call this a Bold Prediction if you’d like, but it’s really not too bold.
Maybe the Grizzlies don’t fit the mold of a team led by a super-duper to the championship, but they do have all of the ingredients to be a title contender. Last year was absolutely not a fluke. They have a premier inside scorer—Zach Randolph, 22 points per game in the playoffs last year. He is flanked by a top 3 center in the league—Marc Gasol, All-Star this year, 15 points, 11 rebounds per game in the 2011 playoffs. Additionally, they have a small forward who is a premier talent on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor—Rudy Gay, 19 points, 7 rebounds per game this year; injured in the 2011 playoffs. Mix in a speedy/smart point guard who stepped up his game in the playoffs last season—Mike Conley, boosting his scoring and assist averages in the playoffs and was unafraid to take some big shots (most notably, the deep game tying 3 he hit against Oklahoma City in game 4 of the Western Conference Semi’s). Rounding out the starting lineup is Tony Allen, whose averages don’t show his defensive presence and hustle plays. Don’t forget about a bench that is filled with size, instant energy and in the case of OJ Mayo, instant scoring. Yes, I’m still totally sold on the Grizzlies. But at this point in the season, they can’t crack the top five.
5-2 Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers
-Time to flash back to January 2011 when I didn’t know who the top team in the NBA was. Since I can’t totally differentiate one team from another it’s time to rank the Mavericks, Spurs, Clippers and Lakers in a series of categories to figure out how teams five through two fall into place. All of these teams have major flaws, but I could see a case you could make for all four as the 2nd best team in the west at this moment. The lower the number, the better the ranking.
Point Guard- 1: Clippers, 2: Spurs, 3: Mavericks, 4: Lakers
-Chris Paul is the best point guard I’ve ever seen, and I’ll stick to that until I’m as blown away watching someone else as I am when I watch him. Tony Parker has been absolutely sensational this year, even outdueling Chris Paul back on February 18th (30 points and 10 assists for Parker, 21 and 6 for Paul). Jason Kidd is old reliable. He’ll manage the game, play some defense and knock down an open three. But the key word is old. I don’t know if he can stick with Paul or Parker. Derek Fisher is the odd man out in this group. The point guard position shows up as the glaring weakness of the Lakers night in and night out.
Shooting Guard- 1: Lakers, 2: Spurs, 3: Mavericks, 4: Clippers
-A note for this category: Kobe is obviously number one. His credentials don’t even need to be mentioned. The Spurs come in second, assuming Manu Ginobili can stay healthy (which may be turning into a bigger issue than we realize). The Mavericks two headed shooting guard monster that is Vince Carter and Delonte West comes in at third, just ahead of the Clippers Randy Foye. If Chauncey Billups didn’t tear his Achilles (ouch) the Clippers would be third in this category.
Small Forward- 1: Mavericks, 2: Clippers, 3: Spurs, 4: Lakers
-Small forward isn’t quite the strongest position for any of these four teams. Evidence of this is Shawn Marion is without question number one in this category. You probably think that seems crazy, but it actually shouldn’t. Marion was an absolutely vital piece of the Mavericks championship run last year. 26 points in the closeout game against Oklahoma City, 14 points per game in the finals, great defense. That’s good enough for me to be rank Marion number one. The occasionally trigger happy Caron Butler is in second (his season average is 12 shots per game… sometimes he strays away from that number). The Richard Jefferson (past his prime)/Kawhi Leonard (much better than I expected) combination comes in third. And the artist formerly known as Ron Artest comes in a distant fourth. Does he bring anything to the table anymore besides huge muscles and increased odds for a fight every game?
Power Forward- 1: Mavericks, 2: Clippers, 3: Lakers, 4: Spurs
-An absolutely stacked position, especially if you consider for the majority of his career, Tim Duncan played power forward. For this Spurs team, DeJuan Blair is considered the starting power forward with an aged Duncan starting at center. So Blair comes in fourth. I gave Dirk the nod over Blake and Pau, even though Dirk is working his way out of a slump to start the season. After what happened last spring, it’s impossible to say Dirk isn’t the power forward you’d trust the most in the playoffs. I give Blake Griffin the edge over Pau Gasol simply because Pau isn’t assertive enough for my liking. I can’t see Pau approaching Kobe late in a game and saying “give me the ball!” even though he absolutely should. Pau has been more of a non-factor this year than he ever has during his Lakers tenure (especially late in games). It should be noted, this is partly because no one can get him the ball, so how can I take him over a budding superstar who will get plenty of touches thanks to his superstar point guard?
Center- 1: Lakers, 2: Spurs, 3: Clippers, 4: Mavericks
-If (that’s a big if) Andrew Bynum can stay healthy, and if (another big if) Mike Brown can find ways to get him, and Pau, more touches down the stretch, I take the Lakers seriously as a title contender. The pace of the game in the playoffs slows down so mightily and that might be the Lakers savior. Shots in the paint for Bynum and Pau drastically cut down the potential of fast breaks for the much faster and athletic teams the Lakers will be playing. If Bynum really is the second best center in the league, he needs to start being treated like it. Next is Tim Duncan, who is enjoying a statistically better season compared to last year, comes in 2nd. He’s 35 years old and his prime is way behind him, but I’m not going to fully count out the best power forward ever quite yet. Third is DeAndre Jordan, who has seen an increase in production this year and that is not a coincidence of the Chris Paul trade. He’s potentially Tyson Chandler 2.0. Speaking of Tyson Chandler, I bet the Mavericks will be wishing they had Tyson Chandler to go to war with instead of Brendan Haywood come playoff time.
Depth/Bench- 1: Spurs, 2: Clippers, 3: Mavericks, 4: Lakers
-It’s amazing that this category was arguably the biggest plus for the Mavericks and Lakers over the last couple of years, and now each team’s depth is a major concern. The Mavericks downgraded from a solid 10 deep last year (Dirk, Kidd, Jet, Chandler, Marion, Haywood, Barea, Peja, Stevenson, Mahinmi) to a mediocre 10 deep this year (Dirk, Kidd, Jet, Marion, Haywood, West, Carter, a very disengaged Lamar Odom, Mahinmi, Beaubois). Look at it like this- The Mavericks starting center this year was their back up last year, and he’s not starting because he improved. The four guys in the backcourt last year (Kidd, Jet, Barea, Stevenson) trump the four this year (Kidd, Jet, West, Carter). And unless Lamar Odom eats some candy and bursts out of this mental slump, I’ll take the hot shooting 2011 Peja Stojakovic over him. The Lakers on the other hand are a complete disaster. I don’t even have jokes about Steve Blake, Andrew Goudelock, Troy Murphy, Jason Kapono and Josh McCheddarBob.
Coaching- T1: Spurs, T1: Mavericks, 3: Lakers, 4: Clippers
-Gregg Popovich is the consensus best coach in the game, but it’s hard to discount the coaching clinic that Rick Carlisle put on in the post season last year. I locked them in as a tie for the number one spot. Lakers coach Mike Brown comes in third far ahead of his Los Angeles counterpart, Vinny Del Negro.
Injury Concern- 1: Clippers, 2: Spurs, 3: Mavericks, 4: Lakers
-Somehow, in the category of injury concern I’m the least concerned about the Clippers, who have already lost one vital piece to a torn Achilles (once again, ouch) and happen to be the beneficiary of some historically bad luck. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul aren’t exactly the healthiest dudes, especially considering Blake Griffin throws his body around like he’s a rag doll. Maybe it’s the youth, but I don’t have a huge worry about the Clippers breaking down. The older and more experienced Mavericks, Spurs and Lakers have me concerned. Manu’s been hurt, Dirk started off the year nicked up, and everyone is well aware of the injury issues the Lakers have. Andrew Bynum’s paper mache knees have been well documented, and what injury isn’t Kobe Bryant playing through right now? It’s conceivable to believe they can both break down in this hectic schedule, especially Bynum. On second thought, the only way I can see Kobe not playing is if Jigsaw kidnapped him and put him in a trap that removed both of his knees. Yes indeed, that was a Saw reference.
Totals- Spurs 18, Mavericks 19, Clippers 19, Lakers 24
The Spurs have been playing better basketball than any of the other three teams. The Clippers are the flashiest team and may have the highest upside. The Mavericks are the defending champions. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, and are only two years removed from winning an NBA title. What exactly do these totals mean? I wish I could tell you. I don’t know for a fact that the Spurs are the 2nd best team in the West, or if the Lakers are the 5th best. I’d probably rank the Clippers as 2nd best to be honest with you, and that’s based simply on the fact that I can’t totally trust the Spurs after their first round loss last year and I don’t think the Lakers and Mavericks are deep enough. All I really know is it is very likely one of these teams (or Memphis) will have to go through the number one team in the rankings for a chance to play for the NBA Championship.
1 Oklahoma City Thunder
- The Durant-Westbrook duo has to stay on track for OKC
-It’s not much of a surprise for Oklahoma City to be sitting here. Any possible worries about the Thunder are drowned out by the fact that when clicking, they are the highest-octane team in the league minus Miami. I’ll be the first to admit that the Westbrook/Durant partnership seems sketchy at times. Not so much from a friendship or teammate standpoint, it’s just hard when Russell Westbrook, who is naturally a shooting guard, is forced to play the role of distributor because he is flanked by the best scorer in the league. Before the year I called for Oklahoma City to start Eric Maynor at point guard (who stole some crunch time minutes from Westbrook in the 2011 playoffs because of Westbrook’s general mentality/shot selection) and slide Westbrook over to shooting guard. Maynor is out for the year, but the Westbrook/Durant duo looks better and more cohesive than it ever has. They’ve found a Wade/LeBron type balance of both relentlessly attacking defenses without making it look like they are taking turns. For the most part Westbrook hasn’t forced the action and that’s key. Westbrook can get his as long as it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the game for Oklahoma City, or stop Durant from getting his shots up. A perfect example would be last night’s game against Orlando. Westbrook 29 points, Durant 38 and all of the late game baskets. Durant needs to be the guy to close. It has to be this way. It’s Durant’s’ team, and even though Westbrook might be one of the fifteen best players in the league, Durant is too.
Ultimately, Oklahoma City will go as far in the playoffs as the Westbrook/Durant duo can carry them. Or until they play Memphis.