2018-19 Midseason Report Cards: Western Conference
NBA.com’s Shaun Powell gives a team-by-team look at each team in the Western Conference at the halfway mark of the 2018-19 season.
(Note: Teams listed in alphabetical order)
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Team grades: Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Golden State Warriors | Houston Rockets | LA Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | Oklahoma City Thunder | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Utah Jazz
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Does it matter if they miss the playoffs? The Mavericks quite possibly found themselves a generational talent and that’s more important for the long-term health of the franchise than whatever they may accomplish this season. Rookie Luka Doncic is more NBA-ready than they imagined, showing range on his jumper, sharp court vision and, in the estimation of Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, is already “a problem.” A rookie is averaging 19.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists and could make the All-Star team. In rapid time, Doncic has become the present and the future. Dirk Nowtizki has someone he can hand the baton off to.
All things considered, the Mavericks are competitive most nights and moving in the right direction. They’ve already matched last season’s 18 wins despite losing 17 of their first 20 road games. DeAndre Jordan is yanking 14 rpg and Harrison Barnes is shooting a career-best 42 percent on 3-pointers. There has, however, been marginal drop-off from Dennis Smith Jr. in his second season (but not enough for alarm).
Squeezed out of the playoffs last season on the final day, the Nuggets are making a serious bid for the top seed in the West. That’s quite a reversal. Aside from a mid-November mini-slump, they’ve muscled through the schedule, shedding any notion of being flukes while also scoring big wins.
Almost all the core players are having fine (if not their best) seasons, with Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris taking the lead. They’re ninth in defensive rating (106.4) and their balanced scoring makes them tricky to guard. Best of all, the Nuggets haven’t reached their ceiling. Will Barton has played in only two games and Isaiah Thomas has yet to play this season. Both will be factors off the bench at some point in the second half of 2018-19.
Stephen Curry missed 11 games with a groin injury, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had a dust-up, Klay Thompson suffered through a frigid spell, some home games have been a struggle and they took a Christmas Day lashing from the Lakers (with LeBron James missing almost half the game). So what are the Warriors doing sitting near the top of the West, and why all the fuss about them?
When you’ve won three championships in the last four years, including the last two, the bar seems higher than usual sometimes. Or maybe the Warriors are bored by the regular season — it wouldn’t be the first time. Regardless, they’ve overcome hiccups to keep their record among the top three in the West thanks to the usual productivity from Durant and Curry. The performances from their big men seem troublesome but oh, look: DeMarcus Cousins is warming up in the bullpen.
The Rockets needed a historical scoring run from James Harden to rescue this team and season after a dreadful start. It was low-lighted by a 27-point loss to Utah on Dec. 6, which preceded a nine-point loss in Cleveland on Nov. 24. At one point, the Rockets — hemorrhaging defensively and missing Chris Paul for 10 games from a suspension and injuries — were next to last in the West. The Carmelo Anthony experience got the plug pulled after a few weeks, only heightening the costly offseason departure of versatile wingman Trevor Ariza.
Ultimately, though, the reigning Kia MVP can carry a team, and Harden did so in smashing fashion. He averaged roughly 40 points over two-plus weeks in mid-December/early January as the Rockets climbed into the West’s top five. It was a reawakening for Houston, still trying to re-establish itself as a title contender and the biggest worry in the West for Golden State.
Relatively good health, plenty of grind and consistent play has the Clippers in top-six territory in the West and prevented them from getting lost in LeBron’s shadow. They’re an odd team for today’s NBA because they don’t rely on the 3-point shot (27th in 3-pointers made; 30th in 3-pointers attempted) draw fouls at a high rate (No. 1 in free throw attempts) and don’t rely on a singular player to rescue them.
There’s little dead weight on this team. Montrezl Harrell, armed with a new contract and beefy role, is posting career numbers across the board. Tobias Harris is averaging 21.1 points and made himself into a better 3-point threat. Coach Doc Rivers handed the starting point guard spot to a rookie and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hasn’t wilted from the responsibility. It’s all clicking for the Clippers, maybe better than anticipated, and all signs point toward the playoffs.
The results and signals seem mixed here in the first Year of LeBron. But, there are reasons for that. LeBron James missed a batch of games with a strained groin, and veteran Rajon Rondo has played in just 14 games because of injuries. At times, the Lakers look ready to be a top team in the West. Other times, they’re struggling against lesser teams — often in the same week.
Even at 34, LeBron looks MVP-like. Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram have shown reasonably measured growth and a willingness to accept larger roles in the rotation. LeBron’s first season with a new team has historically been wobbly initially before all the pieces come together by the All-Star break. There’s no reason not to think this is more of the same.
In early December, the Grizzlies were 15-9. Then, the schedule toughened up and we learned more about where this team ranks in the West (and the answer is … not high). Memphis is a better team than it was last season simply because Mike Conley is healthy and again a borderline All-Star. But the same issues that plagued this team for years are still jabbing it now: lack of wing scoring and an offense that ranks 26th in 3-pointers made.
Memphis is encouraged by rookie Jaren Jackson Jr., who, on occasion, looks like a solid pro with a long future. Additionally, offseason pickup Garrett Temple has done well at times. But Dillon Brooks has dealt with injuries and inconsistency. Then there’s swingman Chandler Parsons, set to be cut loose yet owed $38 million, confirming his status as one of the worst investments in recent NBA history.
Was it all Jimmy Butler’s fault? Well, no. The Timberwolves were a mess during his turbulent stay in Minnesota and now, they’re just average with him gone. Add it up and a team that barely qualified for the 2018 playoffs is struggling to get traction despite another solid start by star center Karl-Anthony Towns.
No surprise, then, that coach and team president Tom Thibodeau was dumped days ago. His performance in both jobs simply wasn’t up to standard. Andrew Wiggins is once again an enigma with a high price tag and lacks the mindset necessary to become a star. Derrick Rose (18.9 points per game, 46.2 percent on 3-pointers) has been a bright spot and rookie Josh Okogie is showing good defensive tendencies in limited time. Still, the Wolves are trapped on a treadmill and seemingly being passed by the likes of the Sacramento Kings.
This team has never put a consistent winning formula around Anthony Davis and this season is shaping up as same-old, same-old. Once again injuries are sapping the Pelicans as Nikola Mirotic and Elfrid Payton missed time. The flow that New Orleans had last spring after reaching the West semifinals has been disrupted. Davis is beastly again (28.7 ppg, 13.3 rpg, 2.6 bpg), yet the Pelicans spent a segment of the season looking down only at the Phoenix Suns in the standings. While it’s fair to question the organizational leadership, why can’t Davis carry a team like other great players?
Julius Randle is averaging 19.9 points and 9.3 rebounds in his first season with the Pelicans. Jrue Holiday (20.8 ppg, 8.3 apg) has been solid, too. But suspect defense (111.3 defensive rating) and a 2-3 mark in games decided by three points or less are proving too much to overcome. Because of a poor start, the buzz about Davis possibly refusing a super-max contract next summer will only intensify and haunt this franchise.
There’s someone playing at a Kia MVP level this season and it isn’t the resident former MVP. For the moment anyway, the Thunder belong to Paul George. He’s putting up career-best scoring numbers (26.8 ppg) and serving as OKC’s savior whenever it gets caught in a pinch. This is refreshing for a franchise that convinced George, a two-way star, to stay last summer during free agency and needed someone to balance the offense with Russell Westbrook.
George isn’t the only reason for OKC’s rise to the attic in the West. Dennis Schroder was the offseason’s most underrated pickup and serves as a solid backup to Westbrook. Meanwhile, Jerami Grant is no longer surviving exclusively on athletic ability thanks to a reliable jumper. Even more impressive is how OKC has managed without injured defensive ace Andre Roberson.
Has the season already gone off the rails in Phoenix? It sure seems that way, because there’s little signs of growth within the organization in terms of talent, direction and leadership. That pretty much covers it for a club with a young core that’s still stuck at the bottom after adding pieces that were supposed to form a foundation. Signing Trevor Ariza only to pawn him off two months into the season was embarrassing. And, the Suns still lack a true point guard.
Let’s at least cite the positive: No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton is developing as a double-double big man. Devin Booker, when healthy, remains ruthless offensively. There’s also a chance that Kelly Oubre, acquired from Washington in the Ariza deal, may find a home. Plus, there’s only one direction to go from here.
The Blazers once again are the team you thought they were, which means they’re on pace for another winning record … yet they don’t exactly pass the contender smell test. The centerpiece players (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum) remain familiar as they generate most of the perimeter offense. Meanwhle, big man Jusuf Nurkic handles the work in the post. All three are having typical seasons for them and Lillard is on pace for another All-NBA season.
Maybe the mild disappointment is that Zach Collins has yet to emerge as a stronger asset. With Ed Davis gone, the hope was Collins would seize the opportunity at power forward. But the former lottery pick is averaging 7.0 points and 4.2 rebounds after a solid October (11.1 ppg, 4.7 ppg). He represents the best hope for growth this season on a roster loaded with players who have reached their peak.
They’ve beaten the Oklahoma City Thunder twice, the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Lakers once and made a few other contenders sweat. This represents positive change for a franchise that was long snickered at and often served as easy wins for much of the league. If anything, Sacramento’s youngsters — lead by an intriguing backcourt — are giving the Kings hope.
De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield are averaging roughly 40 points nightly and often drawing double-teams, the ultimate sign of respect. The duo is one of the NBA’s fastest backcourts, with Fox bringing improved outside shooting and Hield leading the league in catch-and-shoot 3-pointers made. Top pick Marvin Bagley has dealt with a bone bruise in his knee and also second-guesses about whether the Kings should’ve drafted Luka Doncic instead. Still, Bagley has looked decent in spurts. Come April, the Kings might still be playing meaningful games.
They’ve been among the league’s hottest teams since the first week of December, showing improvements across the board and looking like, well, the Spurs. It was initially a struggle for the franchise here in the first year since trading Kawhi Leonard, yet a shift into a new era brings the same commitment to teamwork and smart play (if the last three weeks are a true indication).
DeMar DeRozan’s transition appears relatively problem-free. He arrived grumpy after being dumped by his beloved Raptors, yet it doesn’t reflect in his play. His passing (6.4 apg) has been a plus for a team that lost starting point guard Dejounte Murray for the season after knee surgery. With the likes of Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes playing the role of overachievers, the Spurs may keep their 21-year playoff streak alive.
A .500 mark through the first half of the season seems like a glaring step down for the Jazz after their 48-win season in 2017-18. Consider, though, that Utah had to endure the toughest schedule of anyone for two straight months and it becomes a reasonable excuse for the record to date. The Jazz face a up for a put-up-or-shut-up second half and if they continue to play uninspired ball through February, the record isn’t a fluke after all.
Most of head-scratching over the Jazz focuses on Donovan Mitchell, the runner-up last season for Kia Rookie of the Year. His sophomore season has seen a decline in shooting (40.9 percent overall, 30.9 percent on 3-pointers) and he’s no longer catching foes by surprise. A case could be made that nobody in the rotation has taken a step forward and the point guard play is weaker, with Ricky Rubio’s shooting troubles (under 40 percent) resurfacing again. At least the Jazz have time and a friendlier schedule on their side.
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