2019-20 Midseason Report Cards: Western Conference
NBA.com’s Shaun Powell breaks down all 15 teams team in the Western Conference. And, for a look at all the magic of the season to date, check out our Midseason Ultimate Highlight!
(Note: Teams listed in alphabetical order)
* * *
Welcome to superstardom, Luka Doncic. If nothing else favorable happens to the Mavericks the rest of this season, at least they know a special and perhaps generational player is in the fold so soon after the retirement of the great Dirk Nowitzki. Doncic seems to be all that, and could make a case for being the greatest 20-year-old in world basketball history. At the midway point of this, his second season, he’s flirting with averaging a triple-double while scoring roughly 30 points a game. Even sweeter, Doncic is a box office attraction and along with Giannis Antetokounmpo projects as the face of the NBA for the next decade.
As for the rest of the Mavs: Their place in the West qualifies as a surprise considering they won just 33 games last season and haven’t had a winning season since 2015-16. Obviously a big reason is Doncic, yet other signs are positive. Kristaps Porzingis has sparkled at times while riding shotgun here in his first full season with Dallas. However, he’s still not the efficient player he was in New York, shooting around 40% this season. Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell are filling their respective roles adequately. With the trade deadline approaching, Dallas can stand put, make the playoffs and be good with that. Or they can be buyers and roll the dice on Doncic taking them places that only Dirk managed.
They’re not the stubborn defensive team of last season. Former Kia MVP candidate Nikola Jokic spent the first two months of the season looking tame. And they had head-scratching losses to the Pelicans (twice!), Hawks and Wizards. Yet, the Nuggets pull into the halfway station in decent style, based on their place in the standings if nothing else. They’re having a productive season even if it hasn’t always felt that way.
Jokic averaged 15 ppg in October and 15.8 ppg in November while looking curiously hesitant. He then got the message and turned aggressor, averaging 20.8 ppg and 9.4 rpg in December and January, capped by back-to-back 47-and 33-point nights. Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Paul Millsap developed better consistency as a result, since the ball moves first through Jokic. The Nuggets also got a bonus in Michael Porter Jr., who lately became a rotational player after missing all of last season. Finally, the rhythm and flow fell into place by Christmas and the Nuggets began resembling the team of a year ago that won 54 games and finished as the No. 2 seed.
Hard to accurately and fairly judge a team that never had Klay Thompson, barely had Stephen Curry and placed Draymond Green in a holding pattern, mostly preserving him for the future. Essentially, the Warriors have trotted out a squad of dreamers auditioning for jobs next season. The result, of course, hasn’t been pretty; the Warriors get gut-punched almost on a nightly basis mainly because they’re overmatched, even against so-so teams. And that’s not mentioning the salt rubbed into the wound: national TV erasing the Warriors’ appearances from the primetime schedule at warp speed.
Nobody wants to watch this bridge-year experiment. Except there are times when the Warriors have been entertaining especially when rookie Eric Paschall and veteran journeman Alec Burks get in a groove. In addition, D’Angelo Russell has been a bit better than advertised, leading the Warriors at 23.3 ppg and often putting on a show. The bigger surprise? He’s still a Warrior.
Those waiting for the implosion from the James Harden-Russell Westbrook pairing need to be patient. Either that, or bail. So far, the basketball marriage that few folks seem to give a chance has worked from the standpoint that they’re still friends and the Rockets are in the upper class of the West. While they’ve appeared to conflict at times on the floor (both rank in the top 10 in Usage Percentage), Westbrook and Harden also found a way to be effective and do what they do. Harden, for example, leads the NBA in scoring and is flirting with a 40-point average. Westbrook is getting his looks and triple-doubles, though not at a historic rate. But, he’s shooting 23.6% on 3-pointers — his worst mark since 2009-10.
Ben McLemore has surprised as a 3-point shooter (36.5%) while filling in for the injured Eric Gordon, and Daniel House Jr. has had his moments, too. Overall, the Rockets continue to be a feast-or-famine team from deep and play off of Harden’s whims. They haven’t ripped through an amazing win streak or struck great fear among the top teams in either conference. All that said, the league’s highest-scoring team is still positioned to be in the mix.
If not for beating the conference-leading Lakers twice, would this season be underwhelming so far? Perhaps. The Clippers haven’t been the historically-great defensive team that was promised, and performances from the rotation players beyond the top four are mixed at best. They’ve proven to be vulnerable on the road (they’re 10-9 there), too. Besides those pair of Laker scalps, there was a brief bit of glory when Paul George made his debut after missing the first 11 games and the club won 12 of 14. Otherwise, meh.
Of course, they do have an excuse. In addition to George getting a late start, Kawhi Leonard still doesn’t do complete back-to-backs and not until Christmas Day did the Clippers suit up everyone on the roster. This kind of instability lends itself to the occasional sputter. Besides, the few times when the Clippers had George, Leonard, Lou Williams, Pat Beverley and Montrezl Harrell on the floor, they’ve sparkled. Their top four scorers are averaging 19.2 ppg or more, and Harrell in particular is having himself a season. Hopefully for their sake, the Clippers are healthy and in step by April.
Behold, the purple and gold. After almost a decade mired mainly in misery, the Lakers finally have some pop. For much of the first half of the season they’ve been in the West penthouse and at times flirted with being No. 1 in the league in the opinion of some among the basketball world. Obviously, this has been heavily due to the high level of play and durability of the league’s most productive duo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That combo that has been every bit as advertised. How many teams can boast two Kia MVP candidates? LeBron leads the league in assists while posting high numbers across the board, while Davis is enjoying the benefits of playing next to a superstar.
There’s more good news: The supporting cast is working, which is better than last season! Dwight Howard came to camp on a non-guaranteed deal yet has shown force near the rim as a rebounder, shot-blocker and put-backer. Danny Green is decent from deep with other assorted players filling in nicely when called upon. The only head-scratcher is Kyle Kuzma, who started late because of a summer injury and seems foggy as the third wheel so far. He’s played well of late and there’s time left, but still. His numbers and impact are both down.
A major offseason shakeup allowed the organization to start with a fresh slate with the hope of creating a new culture. With that said, the Grizzlies struck gold in their search to find a player to represent a new beginning. How fortunate was Memphis to get Ja Morant? The No. 2 overall pick checks the multiple boxes for being a foundational player: Talent, work ethic, competitive desire and an ability to entertain. He’s had some lapses, which is to be expected for rookies, but overall it’s rare when a game comes and goes without his fingerprint. With Zion Williamson out for a generous stretch in New Orleans, Morant has pole position for Kia Rookie of the Year.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has taken a reasonably decent step forward in his second season and is rapidly bonding with Morant, his fellow 20-year-old. There’s also positive vibes from Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks, which means the Grizzlies have three players 23 and younger in which to build upon. Furthermore, veterans Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder are solid influences. The Grizzlies’ problem is defense (111.5 Defensive Rating, 22nd in NBA), but that has been better during their six-game, midseason winning streak.
After finally breaking through the barrier and reaching the playoffs in 2018, the Wolves were poised for a new direction. Since then, the signs are mixed and you must ask: Are they going in reverse? Andrew Wiggins appears to have finally gotten the wakeup call and there’s more solid work by Karl-Anthony Towns this season. Yet the Wolves appear at best to be a mediocre club right now, agonizingly inconsistent for the most part. An 11-game losing streak in December spoiled the mood as they went 2-12 that month overall and have been trying to shovel out from that since.
Rookie swingman Jarrett Culver is fighting through a tough NBA introduction. He’s shooting 25.9% on 3-pointers and searching for consistency elsewhere. Big man Jordan Bell, who signed as a free agent after an encouraging few years in Golden State, looks like a mistake and can’t get significant minutes. Rotation veterans like Jeff Teague, Robert Covington and Gorgui Dieng are more reliable but they’ve long reached their peak as players. With the exception of Jake Layman on some nights, the Wolves haven’t seen a great infusion of new help for Towns and Wiggins. They can still salvage the season and make the playoffs , but not without a spirited run.
If the No. 1 overall Draft pick who projects as a franchise savior doesn’t suit up for the first three months, does that earn you a pass? In some ways yes, others no. There’s no secret the Pelicans missed having Zion Williamson around because of knee issues, but were they supposed to struggle this much? Especially with Brandon Ingram enjoying a breakout season so far? There’s no other way to classify the season’s first half except to describe it as mostly dismal if not disappointing. This is a team with Ingram, Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick and functional rotation players. Yet for much of the winter, they stared at only the Warriors at the bottom of the West.
A late December mini-run provided a much-needed confidence boost and it happened just as Williamson began breaking a sweat in practice. Ingram is drawing All-Star notice for his hot start (25.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg to date). The production from his fellow former Lakers, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart, has been much more tame. Derrick Favors is providing help near the rim (10 rpg) and Holiday remains solid. Essentially, the Pelicans do have the goods to help make Williamson’s debut — which is planned for Jan. 22 — go smoothly. But only if their worst is behind them.
Is it too early to say the Thunder won the Russell Westbrook trade? Perhaps so, although right now they’re feeling good about the state of things in OKC. Not only do they own a treasure chest of first-round picks from Houston and the Clippers (from the Paul George deal), the idea of this being a rebuilding year was effectively flushed by Chris Paul. The veteran guard had every reason to pout and hatch an exit strategy from OKC once he arrived from Houston, and yet he’s been the exact opposite on every level. Not only is Paul playing well here in his twilight, he’s being a leader, good soldier and inspiration to the younger players on the roster. That’s especially true in regard to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a wonderful pickup from the Clippers in the George trade, who’s averaging nearly 20 ppg.
All hail Sam Presti, then. The GM continues to pivot in the right direction following defections by James Harden, Kevin Durant, Westbrook and George. Of course, there’s no time to relax. Presti must decide whether to continue on this potential playoff path or or parcel off a few pieces to stockpile more assets. (Danilo Gallinari and his expiring deal are tantalizing.) Keep in mind that OKC isn’t a destination spot for A-list free agents, so the most effective way to build is through the Draft or trades. Either way, the Thunder are in far better shape than many thought they’d be without George and Westbrook.
New coach Monty Williams is steering an outfit that long craved his credibility and stability, which means the Suns seemingly got it right with this hire. Williams is drawing solid reviews for his personality, temperament and efforts to change the culture in Phoenix. Although it must be said that Williams, nor anyone else, isn’t a miracle worker. This will take some time, as the first half of the season proved. The Suns by all indications will not be an overnight success story. They’re too young, unproven and inconsistent on defense and in the moment of truth. They need more talent around Devin Booker, certainly, but they also need more time.
It also didn’t help that Deandre Ayton missed 25 games from suspension — the Suns would be measurably higher in the standings if not for that. On the flip side, Ricky Rubio is the right player next to Booker because he allows Booker to play off the ball. Another offseason addition, Aron Baynes, was beneficial during Ayton’s absence and provides toughness. With Kelly Oubre Jr. averaging 18.3 ppg and benefitting from all the attention paid to Booker, the Suns can bring the offensive heat. There are signs that point to a more productive second-half from a club with Ayton in the fold. How much better, though, is an interesting question.
It’s amazing how a club that added Hassan Whiteside (who’s averaging nearly 16 ppg and 14 rpg) and Carmelo Anthony (who rediscovered his touch) hasn’t progressed from the team that reached the 2019 West finals. And keep in mind, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum spent the first half of this season in good health. Given all of the above, it’s difficult to understand why the Blazers, based on their surprisingly low position in the standings, are no locks to make the playoffs much less return to the West finals. They can beat the defending champion Raptors on the road one night, then lose to the Timberwolves in another. They lost to the Pelicans twice and the Warriors, Knicks, Suns and Cavaliers in the first 41 games. Good teams simply don’t do that.
Yes, it didn’t help that Zach Collins suffered a shoulder injury in the third game and needed surgery. Or that Rodney Hood, who was refreshing during the postseason run last year, tore his Achilles in December. At least they had the good sense to sign Anthony, who seems reborn in Portland and is meshing with Lillard and McCollum to give the Blazers more perimeter scoring flexibility. Good signs of growth from Anfernee Simons are also a plus. The Blazers still bring enough heat to minimize the loss of Hood and the temporary loss of Collins. The betting money says the Blazers will eventually figure it out, but at some point, time will not be their friend.
Was this supposed to be a next-step season with new coach Luke Walton? If so, the Kings will require a better second half. Once again, they still need to shake free from inconsistency. An eight-game losing streak in December didn’t help their cause, along with an inability to be feared on their home court. It hurt that Marvin Bagley III suffered thumb and foot injuries that kept him shelved for much of the first half. Also, newcomers Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon largely failed to make a significant impact. And is Bogdan Bogdanovic already out of favor in Sacramento? The marksman was tossed around in trade rumors as the calendar flipped to 2020.
Besides getting the expected production from Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox, the Kings discovered a gem in Richaun Holmes. The blue-collar power forward seized an opportunity after Bagley’s injury and created a permanent place for himself in the rotation. The hope is that, with a healthy Bagley, the Kings will be better equipped to flourish in the season’s second half and perhaps make a run at a playoff spot.
We’re still not convinced that this is the year the Spurs finally watch the playoffs on their TVs. The last time that happened was in 1996-97 — the season before they took Tim Duncan with the No. 1 overall pick. If the Spurs intend to keep that streak alive, they’ll need better results than what they’ve given so far. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are having reasonably decent seasons although it’s apparent they’ve already peaked at this stage of their careers. There is slippage from both, though not significant enough for big alarm.
The Spurs banked heavily on their young core and they’re still waiting to see that. Dejounte Murray is spending the season on a minutes restriction after knee surgery. Derrick White, briefly a playoff star last spring, and Lonnie Walker IV are both still locked in the developmental stage. A major disappointment is veteran DeMarre Carroll, who’s chained to the bench. Plus, the Spurs most certainly miss Wizards sharpshooter Davis Bertans. This team traditionally doesn’t do mid-season shakeups, yet absent of that, you wonder where the turnaround is coming from and when does it happen. An amazing playoff streak is on the line here.
The Jazz are a tale of two quarter-seasons, one spent in a fog, the other brimming with swagger. Lucky for them, they’re pushing in a positive direction and starting to soar up the standings. You’d be hard-pressed to find a team that flipped the switch faster than Utah, and you wonder if the club can keep the light on. They were 13-11 after a home loss to the Thunder on Dec. 9, but the schedule turned softer and they’ve gone 15-1 since.
Much of the suspicion for the early struggles fell on Mike Conley (36.5% shooting), who stumbled out of the gate in his first season with Utah. He’s been out since mid-December with a hamstring injury. Conley was supposed to form the perfect backcourt mate to Donovan Mitchell by assuming much of the ball-handling chores, yet once again the ball is back in Mitchell’s hands, where it may remain. The good news is Mitchell (24.2 ppg) is doing wonderful things with it. That, and also the Jazz are feared as a perimeter club, with Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles both above 40% from deep. They’re also getting good value so far from Jordan Clarkson, who arrived in a December trade. Rudy Gobert remains one of the league’s top defenders and rebounders (14.5 rpg). The ingredients are here for another solid season, and if Conley reverts back to Memphis Mike, all the better.
* * *
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.