This post is the second part of the major surprises (at least to me) that have occurred over the first third of the NBA season. In the first post on Wednesday 12/16 (http://hoopsbusiness.com/?p=450) we looked at the Eastern Conference. Tonight let’s examine the Western Conference.
Western Conference: The conference seems to have taken a collective step backwards, which is fascinating and slightly concerning at the same time. These things are supposed to be gradual, but the drop between this season and the last one seems wider than it should to me. It’s not as if there isn’t good basketball being played, but the fact that the 7th and 8th seeds are both under .500 has led me to believe that I’m watching a Bizarro version of the West right now. There are only two games separating the 7th seeded Houston Rockets and the 12th seeded Sacramento Kings, so the playoff race is still very much up in the air like the Eastern Conference (we are only a third of the way into the season after all).
Dallas Mavericks: In the preseason I dismissed this team outright. After being spurned by Deandre Jordan I was… underwhelmed, to say the least, when the team ended up signing Zaza Pachulia. Not to mention I have cooled significantly on Deron Williams, as has most of the league. That being said, I continued my pattern of underestimating what having a fantastic coach like Rick Carlisle can do for any roster. Plus it helps that Dirk Nowitzki is playing like he’s five years younger, which I never saw coming. Pachulia has been very good for the Mavs (I’d like to see who actually thought that this would be a reality this far into the season), and Williams (or perhaps his half-dead body double, since his career was rumored to be 6 feet under) has seemingly found a good fit for himself. All this has led this team to be one of the most pleasant surprises in the league.
Denver Nuggets: It’s still early, but seeing the Nuggets as the 8th seed is certainly not what anyone would have anticipated in league circles. Emanuel Mudiay looks like he is the real deal, and has outshined the PG taken before him in the last draft, Deangelo Russell. Before the season started I figured that the Nuggets would finish either 12th or 13th, given their rebuilding status. Well, joke’s on me! This team is playing well enough right now, but it will be interesting to see how they play once Mudiay hits the rookie wall. On a positive note, it’s great to see Danilo Gallinari playing well after missing significant time with various injuries. He’s been forgotten because of those injuries, but he has been a big part of why the Nuggets are, and hope to continue exceeding expectations.
Golden State Warriors: It’s pretty hard to write about this team without touching on something that every other basketball writer has already written about ad nauseam. So I’m not going to talk about how absurdly good this team is right now. I am surprised that Golden State is already being so readily compared to the 95-96 Chicago Bulls, which is considered by most NBA experts/aficionados/historians to be the gold standard of all NBA teams. The hyperbole and exaggeration surrounding sports media in general is beyond ridiculous right now, and the Warriors are just the latest example already. Seriously, can we just enjoy what this team is doing and let the entire season play out before we start trying to engineer a time machine to actually allow the 95-96 Bulls to play the Warriors (I would actually chop off my arm to get tickets to this game if it ever happened, but that’s not the point right now). I understand how special this team has been so far, which is shocking in and of itself. But let’s enjoy the ride for now, okay?
Houston Rockets: Another weirdo team. I thought this team had a legitimate chance to win the West in the preseason, with their depth and assumed step forward they were supposed to make this season. I should have listened to my gut when it said don’t trust Dwight Howard, it’ll end badly. Not that I particularly trust James Harden either, but certainly he has shown that he has potential to change in clutch playoff situations. Howard just does not look the same at all, which was the case his final year in Orlando and with the Los Angeles Lakers. He used to be in another plane of existence in Orlando, much like Stephen Curry is now or LeBron James has been for his entire career. It was spectacular to watch! Then, he hurt his back (and shortly thereafter started indulging his fragile ego and allowing his insecurities to get the better of him) and he has slowly degraded before our eyes. Now he is reportedly unhappy in Houston. This team is currently seeded 7th in the West, so there is still a lot of time to fix things. But there is no reason why this team shouldn’t be in a much better position than it is right now.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers rival the Bulls and the Rockets as the weirdest team in all of basketball. Their ceiling is so high it’s mind-boggling; this team could be sooooo good! Yet, they are underachieving so far, not to the same degree as the Rockets, but it remains true none the less. Last year they had arguably the best starting 5 in the league, according to analytics, but were done in by their bench (as well as their inexplicable weirdness and inability to put the Rockets down). This team has pushed the Warriors to the brink twice so far, only to come up short in crunch time. Blake Griffin continues to progress and improve his skillset, although I swear he loves his jump shot a bit too much. Chris Paul is still ridiculously good, and the bench has supposedly been supplemented with enough depth to carry this team to the conference finals, at the least. Lance Stephenson still hasn’t fit in, Josh Smith isn’t exactly lighting it up either and I still don’t know how good of a coach Doc Rivers is. I think he’s really good, but there are too many times where I’m left wondering if he’s getting the most out of this roster. On paper this team looks like it has all the makings of a true title contender, but are they really just a more functional version of the Rockets? They are the 4th seed in the West right now, but they still haven’t truly looked like the title contender they could be, aside from when they play Golden State. It’ll be interesting to see how this team augments its roster to try and get over the hump (or in their case a towering mountain) before the trade deadline.
Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers are sly dogs. They knew coming into this season that they weren’t going to be very good, but they tried to sell the potential to be decent to their fan base. I never thought that an organization would actually go so far in their attempt to tank that they would allow Kobe Bryant to hinder the development of their young core of Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson by getting the minutes and the shot attempts that he is getting (even though he is thankfully playing better now). This is amplified by Coach Byron Scott’s curious coaching style. I love Kobe, his passion for basketball and his captivating play in his prime were just something special. It kills me to see him go out in this way. I guess the thing that surprises me is how ungraceful the Lakers fall from basketball grace has been.
Memphis Grizzlies: Grit and Grind is in need of shooting. Badly. Yet for a couple seasons now the front office has not been able to get adequate shooting for Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and company. Why this hasn’t come to fruition yet is well beyond my understanding, but the fact that it still hasn’t happened is stupefying. The Grizzlies are going to have to look themselves in the mirror and decide if they want to continue to trudge on with this team, or do they try to make a change (or three) and raise their ceiling? This sentiment is easier said than done, but the Grizzlies have not done enough to improve their standing in the West.
Minnesota Timberwolves: This team is going to be scary good in a couple years. Like, buy your season tickets now for the 2017-2018 season good. Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns are the truth. It’s not pretty all the time but I like what the team is doing and their direction. Even though their record hasn’t indicated it, this team is much improved from a season ago. They are about where I thought they would be standing-wise, but if they got crazy hot it’s not out of the question that they could sneak into the playoffs. That would be a great way of honoring the memory of Flip Saunders.
New Orleans Pelicans: I predicted this team would make the playoffs as the 7th seed this season. I did this with full knowledge of the numerous injuries that the Pelicans had suffered at the time. I blindly gave Anthony Davis the “cure all” label without considering that maybe this was too much for even someone of his stature to overcome. It never occurred to me that this team was doomed before opening night. I’ve heard some pundits who I greatly respect say not to count the Pelicans out yet, but I’m not buying the optimism. They’re done. The only bright side at this point is that the organization can evaluate their roster to see who they want to play with Davis. I’m curious how much of a participant they will be at the trade deadline, if they decide to punt on this year. Who knows, maybe I’ll be wrong again and they’ll have a shot at the playoffs.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Is Scott Brooks still coaching this team? I can’t really tell because of all the isolation that the Thunder are using still. Plus there are those pesky end of game situations that are still plaguing the Thunder. I don’t understand how a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can be so good, yet still seem nowhere close to the Spurs or the Warriors. This team might be the deepest in basketball. However, they don’t seem to fully utilize everyone. They might be starting to turn a corner as I write this (they’re the 3rd seed in the West so I’m talking tongue in cheek a bit), but if they truly want to get back to the Finals again, something must change. This team is in some ways similar to the Clippers, without the weirdness that seems to pervade the Clippers. I’m shocked the Thunder still look the same as they did two seasons ago.
Phoenix Suns: I’m amazed at this team’s ability to remain in the conversation of making the playoffs in the West, and equally amazed at their inability to take the next step or two. They have a good coach (I think) in Jeff Hornacek, they have a good backcourt in with Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe and they have talent on their bench. In many ways they are what the Rockets were a few seasons ago before James Harden arrived. They are trying to keep fans coming to games, so they have to remain competitive. They are also simultaneously acquiring assets and players that may not exactly fit together on the court in an attempt to be able to interject itself into any trade talks. They, like the Rockets, are searching for a superstar player to lead them to the Promised Land. Unfortunately, I’m not sure when the Suns will be able to upgrade from the middle class to the penthouse, but I think it’s still a ways off.
Portland Trailblazers: Once again I completely underestimated the power of having a good coach. Terry Stotts has done a fantastic job keeping the Trailblazers from bottoming out. After losing 4 of their 5 starters from a season ago (including Lamarcus Aldridge and Wes Matthews) I thought Portland was finishing no higher than 14th in the West. I’m sure glad that I was wrong though, because this team is fun to watch. Most of this has to do with Damian Lillard being a beast, but it’s also because this team plays hard and it has more talent than I ever gave them credit for. As it stands right now, they are 1 game (!!!) out from the 8th seed, which I never thought would be an attainable goal for this team. I’m just glad that this gives me a greater incentive to watch Lillard play.
Sacramento Kings: I have no idea what to feel about this team. I love watching Boogie (Demarcus Cousins) play basketball for the most part. But he is without a doubt a mercurial player. Depending on the reports you read, he either is or isn’t being put on the trade block. In any case, I’m stunned by their ineptitude, mainly stemming from their front office. Their owner seems to have quieted down a bit, but I’m sure he still has that meddlesome owner instinct just waiting to be exposed. I thought I would have a better feel for this team by now, but I’m even more confused than in the preseason. As confusing as they are, they are also one game out of the 8th spot. Welcome to Bizarro World NBA.
San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs underwent yet another makeover. They underwent one a few years ago when people thought that the Spurs were done the first time, and then they reinvented themselves and we know what happened from there. This offseason, they changed how they play again. Nowadays, they are one of the slowest teams in the league in terms of pace of play, which is a far cry from what they were doing over the past couple seasons. I’m in awe of this team from head coach Greg Popovich and Tim Duncan to Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. You would think that we would all become numb to their greatness or put off by their constant success (like the New England Patriots in the NFL) but that has not been the case by and large. I’m not shocked they’re playing as well as they are, but I am continuously impressed by this franchise and nearly every move they make.
Utah Jazz: I think I did the best job of projecting this season’s outcome with the Jazz. I think they will be the 8th seed in the West, and I haven’t seen anything right now to change that opinion. Gordon Hayward continues to be underrated, and Rudy Gobert is a defense unto himself. I fear that they are heading towards the same existence that the Suns are in right now, except with better players. They are probably two pieces away from really being a force to be reckoned with. I have to confess I am unsure what these pieces look like, but this is a team that I will follow closely at the trade deadline.