Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 NBA Quarterly Review: Western Conference

By Spencer Pyke

Just past the quarter mark of the NBA season, the powerhouses of the Western Conference have performed as anticipated in our season preview. While a good number of teams “Are who we thought they were,” some organizations have performed better than expected, and some worse than expected, as we cruise towards the All-Star Break.

Oklahoma City, 20 – 4, has picked up right where they left off last season despite Sam Presti sending James Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and three draft picks.  Currently touting the longest win streak in the league at eleven games, the Thunder has been lights out on the offensive side of the ball, thanks to regular contributors, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. While Durant and Westbrook placing OKC on their backs is nothing new, the contributions of bench player Kevin Martin cannot go unnoticed. Martin, who as mentioned was a key piece in moving Harden, has averaged 16 points per contest, shooting 47% from downtown. If Martin continues to play at this level, Harden will continue to become a distant OKC memory, and the Thunder will be back in the Western Conference Finals.

"No Harden, no problem" -- Samwise, the Presti

After being swept out of the playoffs at the hands of San Antonio, the LA Clippers entered this season with a chip on their shoulder to prove they are legitimate. In the midst of a 10-game win streak, they have not only shown how legitimate they are, but how deep they are. While fans have become accustomed to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul getting their double-doubles night in and night out, they may have not expected such brilliant play from sixth man Jamal Crawford. After playing for five teams in 11 years, it looks as if Crawford has finally found a home in the City of Angels. As one of the early All-Star Ballot snubs, Crawford has been excellent off the bench for Lob City, tallying 16 points per game. And with “Mr. Big Shot” Billups finally returning, the Clippers get even deeper as they position themselves for another postseason run after the New Year.

Prior to each season, critics dismiss the San Antonio Spurs as legitimate Championship contenders due to their age. As annual as those criticisms have become, so has the ensuing silence. With more road wins than any team in the league, the Spurs have shown great depth around their veteran big three.  Parker, Ginobili and Duncan averaging double figures is nothing new, but Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green doing the same most certainly is. Throw in Tiago Splitter, Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw along with the league's finest red-headed sharp shooter Matt Bonner, and opponents are looking at one extremely deep squad come playoff time. A double-digit loss to OKC a few nights back showed the Thunder still have the upper hand, but the Spurs cannot be counted out just yet.  It’s clear that no one outside of OKC wants to travel to San Antonio come playoff time.

The Clippers are in need of redemption after getting swept by the Spurs last year, and are looking poised to do so.

Along with the Thunder, Clippers and Spurs, the Memphis Grizzlies are who we thought they were.  Allowing only 90 points per game, Memphis touts one of the best defenses in the league as Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol own the low post. Similar to last season, the Grizz have played excellent at home, but are barely .500 against Western Conference opponents. I like the Grizz from top to bottom, but I don’t know if they have what it takes to win a seven game series against the likes of OKC, LAC or San Antonio. They badly need a top four seed if they want to make it out of the first round. After that, it does not bode well when facing off against the other contenders in the West.

When it comes to my preseason outlook on the Golden State Warriors, I have never been happier to say I was wrong. The word “hate” would be an understatement.  With a 10 – 5 record on the road, the Warriors have been the biggest surprise out west of the season at 17 – 8.  Not only is Steph Curry getting it done, David Lee has killed the game averaging 19 points and 11 boards a night.  The Warriors are third in the entire league in rebounding, and that was without Andrew Bogut. Now that he has returned, one can expect even more success on the glass.  I’m not saying they are even close to sniffing the Western Conference Finals, but this squad has been very exciting to watch.  Not to mention they shut me up first hand by knocking off the Heat in Miami.

Steph "The Kid" Curry has GS on the move - quite literally, as they're headed to San Fran in 2017, but who knows if he'll still be there.

At one game above .500 and eighth in the standings, the Minnesota Timberwolves did exactly what they needed to do without superstars Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio to stay afloat. Thanks to big men Niko Pekovic and Andre Kirilenko, yes we have an AK-47 sighting, the T-Wolves stayed in contention early on while Rubio and Love rehabbed injuries. Having won seven of their last ten in the two weeks since Love returned, it does not take a genius to see the positive effect that these two young stars will have on the role players around them. Love has only played 12 games and already leads the team in points per and rebounds per game. The dude can ball, and when Rubio gets back to 30 plus minutes a night, this roster will be gelling come postseason play.

At first glance, the Denver Nuggets seem to be one of the more disappointing teams thus far in the Western Conference at 14 – 12. At second glance, one cannot ignore that the Nuggets have played over 70% of their games on the road this season, a tough challenge no matter who is on the roster or what future Hall of Famer is coaching. While Denver has struggled on the road at 7 - 11, they are 7 – 1 at home. George Karl has done a lot more with less than his current roster features, but it is all going to come down to defense. That may not bode well for a team that consistently allows triple figures, but on the positive side, all these road games do make way for a stretch of 15 of 18 at home after the New Year. As new acquisitions continue to learn each other, I fully expect them to reach the postseason.

Much like Denver, the Utah Jazz rarely win on the road, and although they are 9 – 2 at home, 5 – 10 away from home just does not cut it. Currently seventh in the standings, the Jazz need to get it together soon, or risk missing the postseason. Thankfully, Al Jefferson has been the veteran leader they hoped for, and former NCAA Tournament star Gordon Hayward has averaged double figure scoring. On paper, the Jazz should be one of the top teams in the league, sitting in the top ten in points per game, rebounds per game and assists per game - but unlike ESPN's Michael Smith would have us believe, numbers do lie sometimes.

Although I took pleasure in dismissing the Dallas Mavericks as a serious playoff contender, I was wrong.  Probably the biggest surprise behind Golden State has been the play of O. J. Mayo. After departing Memphis this offseason, the former USC Trojan has been “super star-esque,” while averaging 20 points per game. Even more surprising, he is the only player in the league with a three point percentage over 50. Like Minnesota, all Dallas has to do is stay alive while awaiting the return of the star, Dirk Nowitzki. Mayo has been fun to watch, and is by far one of the most underrated players in the league. If he keeps killing the game, when Dirk returns, the postseason is definitely within reach for the Mavs.

O. J. has everyone in the world except for J.R. Smith saying, "More Mayo, please."

At 12 – 12, the Houston Rockets are doing a lot better than I thought they would.  With Harden leading the way averaging 25 points per game, he has shown he can be the star of a team.  Unfortunately for Houston fans, it has not equated into wins as the Rockets are a dismal 3 - 10 against Western foes. Side note, forget Jeremy Lin, I’ll take Chandler Parsons any day. Parsons has without a doubt been the surprise in Houston, averaging 15 points, six boards and three assists per game. Bro is electrifying to watch because of his quickness and ability to take the ball to the rack. At this point Houston may not even sniff the postseason, but Chandler Parsons deserves a shout out.

Swag, then surf, then average 15, 6 and 3.

Prior to the season, members of the media, and a certain Sportz Bro contributor, declared Anthony Davis the Rookie of the Year without seeing one game.  Well, all the way out west at some team called the Portland Trailblazers, Damian Lillard took note.  The rookie out of Weber State, Lillard, has been an exciting player to watch this season, drawing Oscar Robinson comparisons early on, while averaging 18 points and six boards a game. Dude is lightning fast and has the natural “clutch gene.” The play of Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews cannot go unnoticed either, as they are both averaging 15 a night. As expected, Lamarcus Aldridge continues to be the franchise player, but he needs help from his supporting cast if Portland wants to blaze its way back into the postseason. So far Lillard, Batum and Matthews have answered the call, but like most teams on the postseason cusp, defense will be the determining factor.

I’ve made it through 1500+ words without mentioning them. With all the attention they receive day in and day out, I didn't even want to talk about them, but I must: the Los Angeles Lakers aka the only squad that gives us more highlights in front of their lockers than on the court.  In my season preview, I was not sold on Mike Brown leading this team, and apparently neither was the Laker front office. Five games in, as we all know by now, Brown got the well-deserved boot. As rumors swirled and Phil Jackson was all but sitting on the sideline in his big boy chair, the Lakers did the unfathomable and brought in Mike D’Antoni.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Mike. He is a great coach and a real standup guy, but I don’t like him coaching this squad.  Let’s be honest, a team cannot rely on outscoring their opponent come playoff time. Defense must play a contribution as well, and an offensive-minded coach is no help. I know, I know, they say “Nash is the driver to this offense that is a Ferrari…” but with all due respect, I am not buying it.  Even when Nash returns, I guarantee Dwight and World Peace continually look lost on defense.  I guarantee Gasol trade rumors will continue to swirl up a distraction. And I absolutely guarantee that Kobe cannot do it alone, well, at least not the entire season.  The Black Mamba himself put it best, “They’re really (expletive) with my (expletive).” When healthy, this squad may be a scoring machine, and remains a postseason lock in my book, but struggling to beat the Bobcats last night is almost a disgrace. Simply put: Are they a legitimate contender for the title? No.  Ferrari? More like the short bus. Wait - does Ferrari make a short bus?

There is a lot of basketball to be played and nothing is set in stone.  Except for the fact that Phoenix, New Orleans and Sacramento are legitimate pretenders and I know fifth graders who could post a better free throw percentage than Dwight Howard. Other than that, it should be an exciting season to watch down the stretch.