What happened to the depth in the Western Conference?
Just three years ago, the basketball world was advocating unbalanced playoff assignments (why should the east get eight playoff berths? It’s unfair!!) because of the unlamented Phoenix Suns, who won 48 games with a young and exciting team, yet finished ninth in the West in 2013-14. Literally, you had to win 50 games just to have the pleasure of getting eliminated in a No. 1 vs. No. 8 mismatch in the first round. And it looked for all the world that that trend would continue for years to come.
The West had a couple of bottom feeders at the time — Sacramento, which had three 20-point scorers and a young, promising coach in Mike Malone, but was otherwise wrought with dysfunction. The team’s leading scorer, Isaiah Thomas, would be dealt to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade deal that summer — and the Los Angeles Lakers, playing out the Kobe Bryant era.
But otherwise, the conference was stout as even the rebuilding teams looked menacing. The New Orleans Pelicans won 34 games and had a incandescent rookie in Anthony Davis around which to build. Coach Rick Adelman wrung 40 wins out of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who flipped Kevin Love that summer for a package including Andrew Wiggins. The Denver Nuggets only won 36 games, but were still being hailed for all the assets (Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, Wilson Chandler, first-round picks in 2014 and 2016) they’d gotten in 2011 from the New York Knicks for Carmelo Anthony. It was a deal that was still giving.
But where was the path forward for an up-and-coming team? The San Antonio Spurs were still, well, the Spurs. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were the mainstays for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and an emerging DeAndre Jordan were locks to win 50-plus for years. Dwight Howard had just joined James Harden in Houston, and the Rockets had just won 54 games.
But this year is a different story.
The top third of the conference is as strong as ever. The Warriors now have the last three Kia MVPs on their roster in Kevin Durant (2014) and Stephen Curry (‘15 and ‘16), along with All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Tim Duncan retired, but the Spurs have another superstar in Kawhi Leonard to build around, and coach Gregg Popovich still makes it all work. Houston’s pairing of Howard and Harden failed, but the Rockets have retooled quickly around Harden and have a dominant offense built around a geyser of 3-pointers. The Clippers — when healthy, big caveat — are still as good as anyone in the conference.
Behind them, the Memphis Grizzlies still Grit-N-Grind with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, though it does it a little faster this season. Westbrook is having an historic season and carrying the Thunder to the playoffs with help from Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Vic Oladipo. And the Utah Jazz, the worst team in the West in 2013-14, has parlayed several successful drafts with solid trades and signings into a strong nucleus. (The Jazz’s primary problem going forward is deciding how many of its talented young guys it can max out.)
After that, though, the bottom falls out.
Denver is currently the eighth seed in the West. The Nuggets are 18-25, and the only question most have around the league is which players Denver will move by the trade deadline. By way of comparison, the current eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls, are just a game under .500.
The Portland Trail Blazers, which looked like a comer after giving the Warriors all they wanted in the 2016 Western Conference semifinals behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, has been awful defensively most of the season, and currently is eight games under .500. That’s after the Blazers spent lavishly in the offseason — $70 million for Evan Turner, $75 million for Allen Crabbe, $41 million for Meyers Leonard — to keep their core together.
Davis is still incandescent in New Orleans, but it’s three years later, and there still isn’t much talent around him — although the Pelicans have been a decent team since Jrue Holiday returned.
Sacramento is still looking for a return on all the high Draft picks it’s had since ’14. Minnesota has a lot of young talent, starting with 2015 top pick Karl-Anthony Towns, but struggled terribly out of the gate under new coach Tom Thibodeau. The Dallas Mavericks gave a max deal to Harrison Barnes last summer and traded for Andrew Bogut to help Dirk Nowitzki in the sunset of his career, but it hasn’t helped the won-loss bottom line.
It’s not so much the won-loss records of the West’s non-elites, which can be easily explained — they play the West’s elites more than their Eastern Conference brethren, which beat each other up. It’s the quality of play that has fallen off. (Through Sunday, the West’s top four teams are a combined 50-14 against the East so far this season. The East’s top four teams are just 35-33 against the west.
Part of the reason may well be the common futility almost everyone in the west feels going up against Golden State and San Antonio.
“I think the elite teams in the West are so good — they seem to all have multiple future Hall of Famers — that the rest of the teams in the conference need to be very aggressive (or very patient) in order to have a chance to compete against the top teams (either now or in the future),” one team executive said over the weekend.
Several factors have occurred at the same time:
Durant in the Bay: OKC is still playoff good with Westbrook, but it’s no longer OKC, Title Contender, while KD made what was already the West’s top team even harder to beat. The Warriors are just a couple of games behind their 73-win pace of last season, but have the luxury to not feel any pressure to pursue it this season.
Father Time, now 7,944,814,942 and 0: Dallas was elite for a decade with Nowitzki in his prime, but as he aged, the Mavericks never were able to bring in the kind of support he had on the 2011 championship team, when Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler were major contributors. Since then the Mavericks have brought in a series of vets who were good (they maxed out Wesley Matthews a year ago despite Matthews coming off of a torn Achilles’) but no longer dominant. Meanwhile, the Mavs couldn’t get any of the top free agents the last few offseasons to seriously consider them. The one who did, Chandler Parsons, was hurt most of the time in Dallas and left for Memphis last summer. Another who was about to, DeAndre Jordan, changed his mind at the 11th hour and went back to the Clippers.
Back to the Drawing Board: Phoenix never again reached the heights of that 48-win team in ’14. The Suns made a major miscalculation bringing in Thomas when they already had Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, then made a bad situation worse by sending Thomas to Boston, where he’s become an All-Star. Just six months after that Thomas trade, they opted to tear it all down by firing Jeff Hornacek, trading Dragic to Miami and, later, Markieff Morris to Washington. Now, the Suns are starting over with a new core featuring Devin Booker, Bledsoe and 2016 first-rounders Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. Minnesota moved Love for Wiggins, then fell to the bottom of the league/top of the Lottery and started building again around Towns, Wiggins and Zach LaVine.
Eastern Promises: The Milwaukee Bucks hit Draft homers with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker in the last three years. The Philadelphia 76ers’ renaissance is wedded to the emergence of Joel Embiid. The Charlotte Hornets have a solid nucleus built around first-rounders Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and traded for Nicolas Batum, too. The Washington Wizards are finally getting a decent return on their recent Drafts of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.
But, none of those teams in the East is a real threat to Cleveland. And, right now, Cleveland remains the best team in the east by a lot.
“Three to 15 in the East aren’t remotely a threat to displace one or two,” another executive texted. “Whereas two to six in the West could all (still) make the conference finals.”
… You Write In, DA Answers …
The Best of Bad Choices. From Gus Martin:
With Westbrook’s bad shooting performances and losses to good teams recently, is it time to consider making a change to his game to try and involve the team more and take some of the offensive burden off of himself to potentially win more games?
Nope. It’s unfair to put the Thunder’s last two losses, to teams better than they are (Clippers, Warriors), on Westbrook — unless you also gave him all the credit for OKC’s wins earlier in the year over Houston and Boston and Memphis, etc. The Thunder can’t win unless Westbrook does the heaviest lifting. The Thunder can’t win with Steven Adams (concussion protocol) out of the lineup. The Thunder can’t win with rookie Domantas Sabonis in the midst of a hideous (19 of 52 since New Year’s) shooting slump. And the Thunder certainly can’t win with Westbrook going 15 of 42 in his last two games. He’s getting the ball to his teammates just as much as he has all season; if they, and he, miss, OKC has no shot. There’s just no margin for error with this team this season.
And this hurts me, personally, because of my fond memories of the Pan Pacific Hotel. From Brody Herman:
What do you think the chances of the NBA eventually returning to Vancouver are? The city has changed magnificently since the Grizz left. The Canadian dollar is more stable, the city is constantly ranked one of the best places to live in the world. Basketball remains one of the more popular sports, particularly at the high school level. High level AAU teams are beginning to emerge, and the Provincial championship tournament draws thousands of fans.
I don’t know, Brody. You are right that Vancouver has improved in many ways since the Grizzlies went to Memphis. But I think the cachet/business model of the Raptors being “Canada’s Team” (I’m sure everyone in Canada isn’t a fan, but that’s the conceit) has some sway in the league office. I’m also not sure that if the NBA does expand that it would pick Vancouver over Seattle, and I don’t think it would do Vancouver and Seattle. My guess — and it remains a guess right now — is that there would be more interest in Las Vegas or other U.S. cities. But I could be wrong on that.
This is a lot more than a seven-second delay. From Mateusz Zakrewski:
I’m a big fan of your column, which I eagerly await each and every week. I am also a huge NFL fan. Due to the fact that I live in Europe (Poland to be exact), I usually watch NFL playoff games with 1-2 days delay as they run at night here.
To enjoy it as if I watched it “live”, I have to carefully navigate through the Internet minefield of information on Mondays so as not to spoil the fun and read anything about the games that already happened.
Of all places, I thought your column is a safe haven from NFL spoilers, but no! I deeply regret, but I will have to put off reading of your column until end of the week at least until after the Super Bowl. 🙂 On the other hand, I am glad that I found this out so early in the playoffs. I guess, no place is safe these days …
I’m half joking here of course, keep those great reads coming. 🙂
No you’re not, Mateusz. And you shouldn’t be. That’s on me. I would hate to find out a score of a game in such an unexpected place; I’ve taken great pains over the years to not hear a score, only to be sideswiped at the last minute. Sorry. Will try to be more careful in the future.
Send your questions, comments and…as my friend Mike Freeman likes to say: pack yo’ (bleep), humans. If your e-mail is funny, thought-provoking or snarky, we just might publish it!
(Last week’s averages in parenthesis)
1) Russell Westbrook (25.5 ppg, 10 rpg, 8.5 apg, 357 FG, .947 FT): I hope Baron Davis (NSFW) is right about this; otherwise, I’m gonna lose faith in the system.
2) James Harden (31 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 9.8 apg, .506 FG, .944 FT): Fifth straight All-Star selection, and third start.
3) LeBron James (23.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 8 apg, .543 FG, .680 FT): There was never any doubt LeBron wasn’t going to play in the 2016 Olympics, and while he again said nice things about Gregg Popovich last week, it will be a surprise if he’s in Tokyo for the 2020 Games, either.
4) Kevin Durant (27 ppg, 8 rpg, 5.5 apg, .619 FG, .864 FT): Is there seriously some question about whether KD is going to re-sign with Golden State next summer? There shouldn’t be.
5) Kawhi Leonard (36.3 ppg, 6 rpg, 4.7 apg, .565 FG, .960 FT): First Spurs player since Mike Mitchell to go for 30 or more points in six straight games.
BY THE NUMBERS
11 — Different times, since Steve Kerr took over as the Warriors’ head coach, that Golden State has won at least seven games in a row. The Dubs’ win over Magic Sunday marked their latest seven-game streak since the start of the 2014-15 season. That dwarfs other contending teams like the Spurs (six times), Clippers (six), Cleveland (four) and Atlanta (four).
880 — Games since the Nets had scored more than the 143 points they dropped on the Pelicans in New Orleans Friday. The team lost a 161-157 double-overtime game to the Suns while still in New Jersey on Dec. 7, 2006. The previous franchise high in a non-overtime regular season game came in a 147-132 win over Detroit on April 17, 1982, a stretch of 2,830 games. Since then, the Nets’ franchise has hit 147 or better four times — all in overtime games, including the one with Phoenix.
3 — Consecutive victories, a season high, for Miami after beating Milwaukee Saturday.
I’M FEELIN’ …
1) Signing the new CBA, officially, is always a good day. To know there won’t be a need for shoe support for standing in hallways and sidewalks until at least 2023 does my heart good. Among the welcome changes in the new CBA: there will now be an apprenticeship program run out of the D-league office for D-League coaching staffs that will provide both basketball operations and business training for former NBA players. An assistant coaching program will also be established in the D-League for training and to provide experience for former NBA players.
2) The league was right to fine the Wizards and assistant coach Sidney Lowe for Lowe stepping on the floor in the final seconds of Washington’s win over New York on Thursday. But Courtney Lee still needed to take that shot. A guy in wingtips is not gonna challenge your shot.
3) If you want to know, these were my picks for All-Star Game starters (we believe in transparency around here): Kyle Lowry and Isaiah Thomas in the East backcourt, and LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Love in the East frontcourt. My West picks were Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the backcourt, and Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and DeMarcus Cousins in the frontcourt. Have at me.
4) Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons did work Sunday in dispatching the red-hot Packers, as did Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in their dismantling of Pittsburgh. Let’s hope the Super Bowl makes up for what has been a dreadful NFL playoffs.
NOT FEELIN’ …
1) Every journalist who’s ever covered a sport has heard variations on this theme: you never played. You don’t understand. So I had no problem with NBA players getting to vote on the All-Star Game starters. Yet many of their votes were … ridiculous. More than 150 of the 324 players who voted didn’t have Kevin Durant on their ballot. Among those that players did vote in as starters — starters!! — for the game: Sergio Rodriguez (12 votes), Gary Harris (10), Randy Foye (4), Isaiah Canaan (2), Cameron Payne (2), and single votes for Patrick McCaw, Garrett Temple, Mike Miller, Tyus Jones, Ish Smith, Tomas Satoransky and Michael Gbinije, among other dubious selections. If this is how players are going to treat the process, they can’t ever criticize media members for their selections, ever, again.
2) Just awful news on the Sacramento Kings’ Rudy Gay. He was likely to see a big payday next summer in free agency. I think there will still be a market for him, though it will be a smaller one. It’s a challenge for his new agents from Roc Nation.
3) RIP, Michael Goldberg. The longtime Executive Director of the National Basketball Coaches Association (he took the post in 1980, after serving as General Counsel for the ABA through that league’s merger with the NBA) was a tireless advocate for the NBA’s coaching fraternity. He negotiated greater pensions and benefits for coaches both in the NBA and NHL, and also worked on behalf of the NBA’s Athletic Trainers’ Association. Plus, he was just a nice, polite guy.
4) If it’s true that Curt Schilling’s Hall of Fame candidacy has been adversely impacted by his political views, that’s wrong and baseball’s writers and voters for the Hall are wrong. I’m pretty sure you all know by now that my political views do not gibe with Schilling’s. But when considering the Hall, only one thing should matter: what he did between the lines. I don’t believe Pete Rose should be out of the Hall because he gambled; I don’t think Schilling should be out of the Hall because he says and Tweets harsh things about reporters and progressives. I don’t know enough about baseball to know if his performance on the field warrants induction, but he shouldn’t be shunned because of what he says off of it.
More Morning Tip: Young Lakers learning hard lessons | Where has depth gone in West? | Q&A with DeAndre Jordan
Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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