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Halfway Through: Many Western Title Contenders

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HALFWAY THROUGH IN THE WEST

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Warriors – Last Spring, Steve Kerr seemed set to move east. His former coach and mentor Phil Jackson offering crazy cash and the patience of a Zen Master to Kerr to begin his head coaching career baby, or rather “salary-cap sitting” the Knicks. Kerr was tempted but he’s smart enough to look at a roster and understand the Knicks might not win in his lifetime. Winning in NY? Nirvana but losing in Gotham will bring out all the nasty, mean worms in the Big Apple. So Steve selected Steff and the Warriors in the Golden State and he’s never loooked back. Things are going so unbelievably well for the Warriors the unthinkable just happened! Lebron James stranglehold on fans love was just usurped. Steph Curry bagging the most votes for the upcoming NBA All Star Game in NYC in February. This is just some of what “Splash Squared” have been doing to everybody in the first half of the season.

His Splash Brother Klay Thompson’s also going and those two are making history as a backcourt pair. Just this past weekend Thompson went off .  I mean REALLY WENT OFF!  Like “… 37 points in the 3rd quarter going off”. Klay finished with 52 but just seeing every made shot in his 37 pt 3rd Q is “wow” enough.

Coach Kerr’s quick perusal of the Warriors roster probably stopped at those two. When you’re coming off a 50-plus win season and have Curry and Thompson firing away every night, there’s no need to look at any other NBA job.

As far as the Golden State goes…so far so great! 1st in points, 1st in assists, lot of touches, happy team. Kerr’s most pleasant surprise though has been power swingman Draymond Green. A defensive monster who can handle the rock and drain the 3. Perfect for this Golden State team. Add in the Human Thunder from Down Under Center Andrew Bogut and this group of Warriors had the powerful strutt to go with the backcourt Splash-Swag. David Lee’s finally healthy and Steve Kerr has his core and the most varied attack in the wicked Western Conference. Kerr’s taken the good work of former coach Mark Jackson and turned up their overall mental toughness and defensive prowess. Golden State’s close to breaking into the top ten in DEFENSE! Knowing full well what looks great in January can be turned into “just ok” by the time the Western Conference Playoffs roll around and the rest of the wicked West gets a hold of you.
Grizzlies
Every season “Team Grind” is the consensus “team nobody wants to face in the playoffs” and here they go again.
With a healthy and inspired Marc Gasol leading the way with an MVP-caliber season, Memphis was rockin Beale Street early. Marc Gasol’s numbers are MVP-esque. Witness his 30 point, 12 rebound night against the Clippers

Started every game, 35 minutes a game, 19 points, 8 rebounds and a stunning 22.8 PER!  Starting 15-2 and then 21-4 put the Grizzlies right into the West elite right away.  Point guard Mike Conley also carving up defenses as the Grizzlies started this season a whopping 10-3 against other Western Conference playoff teams. Recently Memphis went out and reeled in Jeff Green from Boston.  Back in the west where Green once starred with Durant and Westbrook in the OKC.  He’ll help Memphis score. Zebo’s doing what he does in a beastly way next to MGasol scoring, rebounding and D’ing up down low.  Then there’s Courtney Lee pushing up on the perimeter, backup big Kosta Koufos playing more than 15 valuable minutes every night and what an addition Vince Carter’s been.  Still a bigtime shotmaker, he demands a defender so Vinsanity spaces the floor well.  Memphis is part of a wicked West that’s 10 or 11 teams deep.

Spurs — With everybody back from the championship run, San Antonio searching for an internal gut-inspiration to motivate this veteran team. Last season it was retribution.  The Spurs believed deep down they had Miami beaten but couldn’t seal the title deal the year before. That pain drove the Spurs all of last season, so what’s the push this time around?  Well it’s not togetherness.  With starters Tiago Splitter , Tony Parker and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard all missing long stretches in the first half of this season.  Off the bench flame thrower Patty Mills also missed the first 8 weeks recovering from shoulder surgery.  Gregg Popovich found out a lot about his bench.  Then a brutal December schedule, while also dealing with injuries caught up with the Spurs. 7 back-to-backs and serious opponents led to a rare losing month  (8-10) for the first time since February of 1999. Would’ve been worse if not for this bit of “Big Fundamental Good Fortune”

With all the Spurs men now finally healthy again, can they get rolling? Sure, probably will since they’re playing 7 straight at home then the annual “Rodeo Road Trip” 9 games that usually pulls the Spurs together and the bonding could help them close in on the top 4.  Obviously the defending champs will be a very tough out in the playoffs but it’ll be mighty tough to repeat if they have to win all 3 Western Conference playoff series without homecourt advantage.

Thunder – Don’t even mention injuries to the Oklahoma City Thunder. They lost both max-money men Durant and Westbrook for extended periods of time and while it did give backups some important minutes, OKC lost lots of games.  Only now are the Thunder climbing out of the doldrums and back around .500 .  The good news is that those injuries were relatively minor so OKC’s stars are back and fully healthy.  OKC leads the league in rebounding which surprises me.  Funny trend in the league.  It was always mid-February before major trades went down, you know at the “trade deadline” but suddenly the Holiday Season signals the beginning of the NBA”s shopping days.  OKC picked up much needed deep three threat Dion Waiters for just a trade exception.  More firepower as the season grinds into the key months.  Right now the Thunder wrapping up a stretch of 10 roadies in 13 games.  It gets better right before the playoffs, playing 12 out of 17 on their homecourt.  Ample opportunity for this tested group to pile up enough wins to get into the top 8, then, who wants to get Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka in the first round?

Blazers — They’ve built a fat lead over OKC atop the NW division and looks like Portland may need every game of that lead to hold off the Thunder. Last season Terry Stotts guys stayed healthy. No starters missed any games in the first half of the season, overall Portland had just 2 starting lineups all season but this season’s been a pain.  The latest to go down?  All-Star PF LeMarcus Aldridge just tore up his thumb, he’ll miss 6-8 weeks. Joining starting Center Robin Lopez , down with broken bones in his right shooting hand.  All the down time explains why, after winning 30 of their first 38 games the Blazers have struggled, losing 5 out of 6 and their trademark D (5th best in NBA) is popping leaks.  It may get worse before it gets better.  Portland’s about to play 6 out of 8 on the road and in the West they could freefall from 3rd to 6th in a week.  Course once the Blazers get healthy again, Damian Lillard’s ready to lead his team right back up.  We’ll see where they wind up.  In this conference history, stats even homecourt don’t matter much, in the West “Playoffs don’t lie”.

Rockets — Maybe the biggest surprise is Houston.  Lost Asik, Lin and Parsons yet the existing cast is performing. It’s clearly become James Harden’s team.  Look what the NBA’s leading scorer just did to the Suns in Phoenix

Harden goes for 33 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds. The Rockets rally from 16 down, their 15th road win ties them for 3rd in the NBA away.  Dwight Howard left early with an ankle injury that didn’t appear too serious.  Patrick Beverly continues to give Kevin McHale rewards on both ends of the court. Josh Smith’s tour with Houston’s still up and down, after getting ejected in the last game, J-Smoove goes for 14 on 7-11 shooting in his 26 minutes. McHale likes what he’s getting from Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza and Dontas Montiejunas. Houston best beware the Ides of early March when they play 11 out of 16 on the road.  It will be especially interesting to see how this team, so dependent on Dwight Howard, fares in the playoffs where Superman has often played more like Clark Kent.

 Dallas — The Mavs opened the season bursting with confidence. Rick Carlisle’s coaching genius on display coast to coast in last year’s first round, pushing the eventual world champion Spurs to 7 games, longer than any other team stayed with San Antonio in their title run. Cuban and company very busy in the off-season. In comes quality young small forward Chandler Parsons (3 years $46 million) bringing athleticism, basketball moxie and deep 3 ability to a Mavs team already explosive.  They reached East bringing former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler in that June blockbuster. Chandler’s previous time in big D was spectacular. 1 year and an NBA Championship.  The tinkering continued even as Dallas won 30 of their first 43 games, feeling the need for better defense at the point guard position, they reeled in Rajon Rondo from Boston for Brandon Wright, Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder and a pair of draft picks. His debut was electric, helping his new team to a tense win in Dallas over arch-rival San Antonio.

In a glimpse of what he brings. Rondo scored 6 points, handed out 9 assists and grabbed 7 rebounds.

Rondo’s distribution skills are legendary but he’s also a lightning rod for controversy. The latest is Carlisle sitting the star in late-game crunch time in Friday’s home loss to Chicago.  Then in the postgame presser Carlisle bristled when pressed about benching Rondo “Coach’s decision…a decision that the coach makes”.  It might have something to do with Rondo’s reknown inability to knock down three-pointers, making just 25.9% from way out over his career. Rondo’s ok with the late-game sitting so far, but with his mercurial attitudes over the years, it’s certainly a sitch that warrants watching in the coming weeks. Rondo’s also in a contract push, he’ll be a free agent at the end of this season.  As tight as this West playoff chase will be, a united lockerrom is crucial. Yes teamwork matters.

The schedule’s always a factor for these elite playoff teams. The Mavs facing a rough roadie, 6 of it’s next 8 games away  Just after the All-Star break the Mavs will have 10 home games and just 4 on the road then as they undoubtedly will be pushing for a spot among the top 4 (bringing homecourt advantage in first round) Dallas has a stretch of 7 out of 11 on the road right at the end of the season. Bottom line: This is a talented and playoff tested team, another squad nobody wants to get in the first or any round of the playoffs.

Clippers — Few thought this team would be able to play and perform in such relative calm just months after former owner Donald Sterling blew up the franchise with his words and deeds but the sale to Steve Balmer                            (for an eye-popping  $2 billion) has cut out the cancer and the team is just playing. Two significant runs define Doc Rivers’ first half of this season. Winning 9 in row in  late November into December then a recent run taking 9 out of 12 putting the Clippers with in the pack of 5 teams. Just a game and a half separating 2nd from 6th in the West. Led once again by All Star point guard Chris Paul this L.A. team is electric. 4th in the league in scoring, happily scoring since they are also 4th in the NBA in assists but while Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordon make highlights as the main men with “Lob City” every night, Doc needs them to put their bodies on the other team a lot more.  The Clippers among the worst rebounding teams in the league. Also depth is a serious issue too.  The Clips cut 7 deep down to Spencer Hawes but that’s about it and they’ll need at least two guys to step either from the bench or from another team.  I see this team as one and done come playoff time.  There’s no room for not enough in the wicked West.

Suns — Although Jeff Hornacek’s done a masterful job in his season and a half running the Suns, which way are they really going?  Just missed the playoffs last season, satisfied star guard Eric Bledsoe with a max money deal and now have to decide what to do with (read: how much to offer) loyal Sun Goran Dragic at the end of this season when he’ll decline his option for $7.5 million and test free agency. Bledsoe making almost twice what Goran’s making won’t last long.  So back to this season. First they meandered through November and December before catching fire, winning 14 of 18 games to climb back into firm control of the 8th spot.  Still unless they get better through a trade and soon Phoenix won’t be able to hold off hard-charging Oklahoma City.  Imagine a Thunder/Warriors first round series?  The Suns just don’t have enough and can’t defend enough to make the great 8.  Hornacek needs to work hard at keeping Dragic and find ways to bring in more talent.  Currently the Suns are near the bottom of the league in team payroll, they’re learning the hard way, you’ve got to spend wisely to compete in the West.

Pelicans — Not enough either. Anthony Davis is a multi-dimensional talent and will one day win a lot in this league.  He leads the Pelicans in scoring, rebounding, blocks, minutes and boasts a whopping 31.2 PER which is the new-age metric for defining greatness in the NBA.  New Orleans has AD but doesn’t have enough around him. Monty Williams is overwhelmed in this job coaching the Pelicans.  He’s run nine point/shooting guards through his roster, several for just days. In the last year of his contract Williams is groping for help but it’s probably not on this roster.  No way this roster can make the great eight in the West,.  In the East? Right now New Orleans would be fighting for the fifth seed!  The Pelicans have a solid base in Davis, Omer Asik, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holliday and Ryan Anderson but not nearly the firepower nor enough size or toughness to make a dent in the West.

Rest of the West — Denver Severly spinning it’s wheels, going nowhere in the land of the giants.
           Sacramento — The strange case of the Kings? Started very well, winning 9 of their first 14 games, but then losing of the next 10 cost Mike Malone his job, not getting along with your general manager is never a good thing for a coach who’s team is losing too. Former Jazz headman Tyrone Corbin steps up from assistant.  Then All-Star Demarcus Cousins, part of the USA basketball team that took the gold in the World Cup in Spain over the Summer then goes down with a rare case of Viral Meningitis. The Kings collapse and await a new coaching staff and new direction that will begin this summer.

             Jazz — Intriguing and confusing collection of young talent. Likely need an infusion of talent role-playing veterans.  Max-money man Gordon Hayward’s had a standout season when everyone was looking for him to prove he was worth the 4 year $63 million dollar deal the Jazz matched from Charlotte.  Here’s his takeaway moment from this season, beating Lebron and the Cavs in SLC,

Hayward’s been steady, Favors and Kanter have been good inside and out as the Jazz main bigs.  Rookie Dante Exum’s emerging as the starting point guard and Trey Burke’s status seems up in the air.  The transcendent player on this Jazz team though is a guy who couldn’t get on the court for half of last season, Rudy Gobert was buried in the Jazz organization for some unknown reason last season but now at 7’2″ carrying an enormous 7’9″wingspan and is playing his way to stardom right before our eyes.  As for Quin Snyder’s team?  Jazz still trying to figure out who they are and still not good enough defensively in the West.

   Lakers — With Kobe down for rest of the season again.  Facing major surgery and tough rehab again, set to make $25 million in the final year of his contract next season, LA’s at a crossroads starting with what to do with the aging Mamba.  Any rebuild must be started without Kobe but what do they do with the face of their franchise?  We’ll watch it all unfold this Summer.

       T’Wolves — There really isn’t much to say.  If this was European soccer, Minnesota would’ve been relegated long ago! Good luck to Andew Wiggins, get out as soon as you can. Like KG, KLove and so many others who gave the T’Wolves years of their career but had to leave to win. At least move Minnesota to the…East!