This was supposed to be “the year” for the Los Angeles Clippers, at least this year or next. They hired Doc Rivers as head coach to infuse some championship toughness into a team that had finally gotten out of the shadow of the crosstown Lakers, but has yet to make it as far as the conference finals.
And this may very well be “the year” for the Clips—they’re 37-18 and sitting in the #4 spot in the Western Conference, a tightly packed race when ending up anywhere from #2 to #6 is well within reach. But there’s also some issues that can cause disappointment come playoff time again if not rectified.
The biggest factor is the health of Chris Paul. The point guard has been on-again off-again with his injury status and Rivers will have to pace his leader to allow him full health for the playoffs. Paul averages 19 points/11 assists per game and brings an intangible quality to this team no one else can. Doc has had experience pacing veterans like this when he coached the Celtics, so Paul is in good hands.
In the meantime, Darren Collision is a steady hand as a backup point guard and the Clippers are in good shape at the two-guard spot, with Jamal Crawford averaging 19 ppg and J.J. Redick on hand as a three-point specialist. Redick’s skills are badly needed, as even with him, Los Angeles ranks 23rd in the NBA in converting from behind the arc. They are also a poor free throw shooting team, meaning Redick is almost a necessity to be involved in end-game situations.
Blake Griffin is perceived as soft by a lot of NBA players, for his flopping routines and an alleged general lack of toughness. I won’t get into that, but there’s no denying how productive Griffin is. He’s averaging 24 points/10 rebounds and is one of the best interior players in the game today. DeAndre Jordan is a rebounding force at center, getting 14 boards a game. It makes the Clippers’ subpar #19 ranking in rebounding a bit of a mystery. Perhaps the guards are consistently being outhustled for long rebounds.
Small forward is a weakness, with Jared Dudley unproductive and Matt Barnes more of a hockey-style enforcer (or protector, depending on your interpretation). When you measure the Clippers against the high standards it will take to win even one—much less three—playoff series in the Western Conference, these weaknesses start to stand out like a sore thumb. At the very least, the rebounding must improve.
If the rebounding picks up, this is still a team that can go deep into the postseason—at least to the conference finals and perhaps further. Los Angeles ranks 2nd in the NBA in offensive efficiency, a byproduct of having one of the game’s best point guards steer your attack, and they’re at #8 on the defensive end. They have star power in the backcourt, the post and on the sidelines. They’ve played well enough prior to the All-Star break to put themselves in good position. Now it’s time to finally cash in some chips.
The Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the big surprises in the NBA this season. A team that didn’t even make the playoffs in 2013, the Blazers have played well all year this time around and bring a 36-17 record into All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. It’s good enough to be tied for third in the Western Conference. Let’s take a look at how they’re doing it and whether it can sustain now that the season is about to get serious.
Offense is the reason the Trail Blazers win. They rank 3rd in offensive efficiency, excel at hitting the three-ball and are the best free-throw shooting team in the NBA. Playing at a fast tempo, Portland is one of the league’s more entertaining teams.
Guard play drives the tempo and Damian Lilliard has followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign last season with 20 points/4 rebounds/6 assists per-game average thus far in 2014. He also hits 40 percent from behind the arc. Wesley Matthews, his running mate at the two-guard spot is averaging 17 ppg and is also on the right side of 40 percent from trey range.
But if Hilliard and Matthews push the pace, the straw that stirs the drink on this team is power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. One of the league’s underrated players, Aldridge averages 24 points/11 rebounds per game. He deserves to be in the MVP conversation.
Aldridge’s MVP credentials are further burnished by the fact that Portland does not have great depth. Nicolas Batum is a nice contributing piece at small forward and Robin Lopez is serviceable at center. But this is a pretty thin starting lineup, at least by the championship standards we have to start measuring Portland against. And there’s nothing really reliable coming off the bench.
The lack of depth is troubling, but the lack of defense is truly disconcerting. Portland’s defensive efficiency numbers are in the bottom third of the NBA. This stat adjusts for tempo, so you can’t use the excuse that the defense just looks bad because of the up-and-down character of their games. At least the Blazers rebound the ball well, but when you don’t force enough misses that doesn’t do you a lot of good.
That’s why I’ve been skeptical of Portland as a true championship contender ever since they emerged leading up to Christmas. I think they are more likely to find their level as the #6 seed in the West and play a fun, but ultimately unsuccessful first-round series. At the very least, they would not advance further past the second round.
Keeping in mind that the Blazers had fallen off the map the last couple years and play in the league’s toughest conference, this is still substantial improvement and would have been gladly taken by any Portland fan at the start of the season. I suspect expectations are higher now, but I think the Trail Blazers have already peaked.
The Golden State Warriors got off to a slow start, but they’ve started to find their rhythm, and as we reach the All-Star break the Warriors are 31-22 and in the 8-spot in the NBA’s Western Conference. Given the current trend, you have to like Golden State’s chances to eventually pass at least Dallas and Phoenix (whom they trail by just a half-game) and move as high as #6. Let’s take a closer look at the team who advanced into the second round and then threw a scare into the San Antonio Spurs in 2013.
Golden State is known for its fast pace and its sharpshooting backcourt and both of those reputations are well-earned. The Warriors are one of the top five teams in the league when it comes to pushing the tempo, and they’re second in three-point percentage. That second-place ranking is even more impressive when you consider the high volume of treys Golden State guns up there. Steph Curry attempts eight a game and hits 42 percent. Klay Thompson fires up seven treys a game and hits 41 percent.
Those percentages are good regardless, but at this level of volume, it’s outstanding. Curry is averaging 25 ppg, while Thompson adds 18. Head coach Mark Jackson thinks they might be the best shooting backcourt in league history. Offhand, that sounds a little over the top, but I guess I’m not ready with an immediate alternative. They are, at the very least, the best shooting backcourt in the game today, and Curry hasn’t forgotten his point guard responsibilities, handing out nine assists per game.
David Lee was injured during last year’s playoff run, and the Warriors will need the power forward if they want to advance deep this year. Lee is averaging 19 points/10 rebounds. Andrew Bogut, the oft-injured center, has stayed healthy this year and is averages 11 rebounds per game. Bogut doesn’t score, but with the guards and Lee, the center doesn’t need to. He just needs to go hard to the glass, and Bogut has done exactly that. Between Bogut and Lee, the Warriors are a top-five rebounding team.
Golden State has two more items essential to playoff success. At small forward, they have two players—Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala who chip in to the offense and are capable of big games if one of the stars is cold. More important, the Warriors play serious defense. The stat of defensive efficiency adjusts for tempo, so teams that play at a rapid rate aren’t perceived as worse on defense (or better on offense) just because of the pace of play. Golden State ranks fourth in defensive efficiency.
That’s a championship-quality defense, and there’s more than enough star power on the offensive side. The stacked Western Conference makes it seem unlikely, at least to me, that Golden State could make it all the way to the NBA Finals. But if you wanted to argue their case, there’s plenty of ammunition. Now they just need to build on their momentum and move up the seeding ladder.
The Houston Rockets have been the NBA’s big mover and shaker each of the last two offseasons, getting James Harden prior to the 2013 season, and then adding Dwight Howard for this year. The results are showing up on the floor. Houston brings a 36-17 record into the All-Star break, good enough for #3 in the Western Conference.
Now the gap from 3-5 in the West is separated by percentage points, so the Rockets could slip quickly, but on the flip side they are only two games back of the San Antonio Spurs for #2. Here’s a look at how they’re winning and where they need to get better.
Houston plays at a fast pace, and still ranks 5th in the league in offensive efficiency, which does not give fast-paced teams credit for artificially high point totals. Efficiency is what you get when the offense can generate easy baskets and with Howard averaging 19 points/13 rebounds per game, easy baskets are what Houston can get.
Harden has continued his emergence as one of the league’s top scorers since leaving the long shadows of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Harden knocks down 24 ppg from the two-guard spot and Chandler Parsons kicks in 17 a night from his small forward role.
What the Rockets don’t do well is shoot the three-ball. They rank 20th in three-point percentage, and what’s more, their selection in this regard leaves something to be desired. Harden only hits 32 percent from behind the arc, which does not justify shooting an average of six treys a night. Point guards Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin get in the act, combining for eight attempts a night from long range, and at 35 percent or below.
The only player who can shoot the three with efficiency is Parsons, who hits 40 percent. The rest of the team needs to rein it in, or they need to acquire a three-point specialist. On top of this, the free throw shooting is atrocious, with 69 percent being the second-worst in the NBA. Clanging your threes and frees is a good way to lose playoff games.
For now though, life is good in Houston. The Rockets are a great rebounding team, as you would expect with Howard. They also get underrated help from power forward Terrance Jones (12 points/7 rebounds) and if Beverley and Lin can resist the urge to jack up threes, they make a good tandem running the offense.
There are still issues to work on, and even winning one playoff series is going to be a battle in the brutal Western Conference. But the progress in Houston continues to roll on.
The San Antonio Spurs have, in a unique way, defined NBA basketball for 15 years. They haven’t been a dynasty in the sense of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers or LeBron’s Heat, all of whom have won consecutive titles in that timeframe. The Spurs have just churned it out, winning four titles and nearly taking a fifth last June in Miami before Ray Allen ripped their hearts out. The Spurs are at it again, with a 38-15 record coming into All-Star weekend in New Orleans.
A big reason San Antonio won the West a year ago a suffering playoff disappointment in 2012, is that their defense moved from being merely okay to being very good. The Spurs have continued the positive trend, ranking fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency (points adjusted for tempo). The area head coach Greg Popovich has to be concerned with is the rebounding, where the team is middle of the league. It’s great to force the misses, but you’ve got to clean them up and right now Tim Duncan (10 rebounds a game) is the only one doing that consistently.
The Spurs are seventh in offensive efficiency, doing it with the complete team-oriented approach that has marked this franchise’s play for the last fifteen years. The three-point shooting is a case in point. San Antonio doesn’t have any regular rotation player breaking the 40 percent threshold from behind the arc. Yet the team overall is so consistent that they’re actually the league’s best at converting their trey opportunities.
Tony Parker continues to run the floor at the point, averaging 18 points/6 assists a game, and hitting 50 percent from the floor. Duncan gets 16 a night, and then Popovich fills in the spots around them with role players from Boris Diaw to Marco Bellinelli to Danny Green.
Manu Ginobli is still an X-factor for this lineup. He was brilliant in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals and put the Spurs on the threshold of a title. Then he made mistake after mistake in Games 6 & 7 and gave it back. Ginobli is averaging 12 points/4 rebounds/5 assists, though he’s currently out with a hamstring injury right now. The good news is that he should be back by the end of the month and at this point in his career it’s probably best to save some regular season wear and tear anyway.
San Antonio can’t be quite as sanguine about Kawhi Leonard’s injury situation. The young small forward who came into his own in last year’s Finals broke his hand on January 22. He was averaging 12 points/6 rebounds and was becoming the team’s third-best player. He’s absolutely vital if the Spurs are going to make another deep run in a stacked Western Conference bracket and we’re not yet sure how the injury is going to play out. Leonard is scheduled for an X-ray over the All-Star break and we’ll then know more.
It’s hard to look at this San Antonio team and see a fifth NBA title—or even a sixth Finals appearance—in the future. They seem to be a step behind the triumvirate of Indiana, Miami and Oklahoma City that are setting the standard right now.
But the Spurs’ status as a veteran team means we have to give them a big benefit of the doubt—they can’t push too hard in February and that’s going to show up in areas like rebounding stats. And everything we’ve learned about the NBA playoffs over the years tells us never to rule out the veterans.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been…well, thundering through the NBA’s Western Conference as we reach this weekend’s All-Star break in New Orleans. The Thunder are sitting on a 43-12 record, good for a four-game lead for the top seed in the West, and narrowly ahead of the Indiana Pacers for the NBA’s best overall record. What’s more, Kevin Durant is emerging as the odds-on favorite to be the MVP.
Durant is averaging 32 points/8 rebounds/6 assists per game, and he does it with efficiency. The 6’11” small forward shoots 51 percent from the floor and in spite of shooting several three-point attempts a game, still hits 41 percent behind the arc. The knee injury to All-Star caliber guard Russell Westbrook has seemingly inspired Durant to take his already outstanding game to a new level.
The play of Durant has always been excellent though. What separates this year’s Oklahoma City team from recent seasons (years we might add that were pretty damn good, reaching the NBA Finals in 2012 and winning 60 regular season games in 2013 before Westbrook got hurt in the playoffs) is that the Thunder of 2014 are really locking down defensively and hitting the boards.
Oklahoma City’s defense ranks 3rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency—a stat that adjusts points allowed for tempo, thus not penalizing a team like the Thunder who play at a pace faster than the norm. That isn’t all that surprising given this team’s athletic ability in the backcourt, and the presence of a defensive stopper at guard in Thabo Sefolosha. What is surprising is that OkC is the best rebounding team in the NBA, better even than Indiana.
That brings us to Serge Ibaka, the power forward averaging 15 points/8 rebounds per game. Ibaka has been inconsistent in the past, and I would argue that it’s his steady performance that is the real difference for Oklahoma City this year. Please note I’m not saying he’s the best player—that’s obviously Durant. But again, Durant has always been great. When Ibaka chips in points and hits the boards, he gives the Thunder a championship dimension.
Oklahoma City plays a guard-oriented lineup, so center Kendrick Perkins only plays about 20 minutes a game. This makes the Thunder’s rebounding dominance even more surprising and it should get even better when Westbrook comes back. The aggressive guard who plays basketball with the same wild fervor that Robert Griffin IIIplays football, averages six boards a game from the point guard spot.
In the meantime, the OkC backcourt is being upheld by Reggie Jackson (14 points/4 rebounds/4 assists), Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb. Westbrook’s return will add to the offensive punch—he averages 21 ppg—as Sefolosha is primarily a defender and Lamb is better suited to being a role player.
Westbrook is going to be back soon, perhaps even in time for next Thursday’s game with the Miami Heat. The big question is going to be what effect this will have on the team. Westbrook has an alpha personality and likes to take over. Durant is more laid back—or at least was, until the injury forced the star to not only score, but lead.
Does the return of Westbrook upend the new chemistry? It’s possible, and something to watch out for. What we do know is that Oklahoma City can’t win the NBA championship without him. In last year’s playoffs, Durant put up big numbers, but at the end of games, defenses simply took him out, without Westbrook to distract some attention. It’s the challenge of head coach Scott Drew’s career to make Westbrook’s return work, and if it does, the ultimate payoff is right there to be collected.
The NBA Western Conference has been the stronger of the league’s two sides for several years. This year, it’s stepped up to a new level. We documented last week how the East was headed for a historically awful season. The only possible corollary to that is just how good the West is, as even a cursory glance at the standings demonstrates.
Three teams are playing .800 basketball or better. That includes the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, the West’s last two champions and it also includes the surprising Portland Trail Blazers who are 22-5.
Two men who made their reputations with the Boston Celtics are coaching the teams in the 4-5 spots. Doc Rivers seems to have the Los Angeles Clippers rolling with an 18-9 record, while Kevin McHale and the Houston Rockets are just a half-game behind.
The top five teams in the West look, at least for now, to be separate from the rest of the conference. Golden State is a mild disappointment, just outside the playoff picture at 14-12, although that’s close enough to change by the end of the week. Memphis is really struggling with center Marc Gasol out with a sprained MCL until at least mid-January.
The Grizzlies, who made the conference finals in 2013, are 10-15. In the East, that might be enough to get homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. In the West it leaves you temporarily irrelevant and with some serious work ahead.
Dallas, Phoenix and Denver currently hold the 6 thru 8 spots. Both the Mavericks and Suns can be considered pleasant surprises. The Nuggets were probably hoping for a little better, with Javale McGee and Danilio Gallianari both out indefinitely, things aren’t going to get easier for Denver’s first-year coach Brian Shaw.
Only two teams are really hopeless in the West, and that’s Sacramento and Utah, neither qualifying as a huge shock. Minnesota and New Orleans are both hanging in, lurking around the .500 mark and in the playoff conversation. The Los Angeles Lakers are in the same spot ,but got hit with bad news on today’s report that Kobe Bryant will miss six weeks with a knee injury.
The Lakers have hung in mostly without Kobe, but what is the psychology of the team right now? Before, players were battling knowing that help was on the way in the form of the Black Mamba. Now they might be wondering if that help will ever come.
There’s eight days left in the regular season and I’m giving in and talking about the Los Angeles Lakers. I’ve resisted using this space’s NBA commentary to talk about the Lakers, because they managed to eclipse Tim Tebow as the most overrated topic in sports. But with five games left, they’re locked in a final battle for the #8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and let’s face it—they’d make a formidable challenger to anyone in a playoff series, regardless of how ugly they’ve looked this season. So let’s diagnose why this team underachieved, and what its chances are at playoff redemption.
The problems with this Lakers team could have been foreseen in October. In fact, at least to a certain extent it was foreseen here at TheSportsNotebook. That problem is defense. Three of this team’s core four—Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash—are defensive liabilities. It was asking a lot of the fourth member of the quartet, Dwight Howard, to bail them out all the time. I’m not going to say I thought Los Angeles would be in this much trouble as we come down the stretch, or even that they wouldn’t be in the title discussion. But the preseason commentary makes it clear I was never enamored of the Lakers and the reason was defense.
Los Angeles is tied for 17th in defensive efficiency, a stat that ties them with Brooklyn, a team I just panned last week as not being strong enough on this end to make a serious playoff run. But to shift the conversation a bit, we’ll paraphrase 1988 vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen and say simply that the Lakers are no Brooklyn.
The four future Hall of Famers the Lakers put on the court know what they’re doing on the offensive end, and Los Angeles is 8th in offensive efficiency. Kobe Bryant is averaging 27 ppg, and between Bryant and Nash, they combine to hand out 13 assists each night. For all the heat Dwight Howard has taken—most of it self-inflicted—he’s averaging 17 points/13 rebounds and has been on the floor in all but six games. If that’s what he does in a bad, injury-ravaged year, I’d hate to see what happens if he’s good and healthy.
Gasol kicks in a 14/8 nightly average and Nash is a good shooter, who hits 50 percent from the floor and 44 percent behind the arc, meaning you can’t back off to defend his incomparable passing skill, and he can alternate with Kobe as the shooting guard, something the team has done to good effect this season.
One problem has been efficiency in three-point shooting. Los Angeles takes the third-most attempts of any team in the NBA, but they’re only 16th in percentage. A certain gap here is inevitable—high volume in anything means a lower percentage. But being below the league average in percentage suggests you’re not doing something right. That “something” is that the wrong players are shooting from behind the arc. Kobe and Metta World Peace combine for 11 trey attempts per game and neither hit at the minimum 33 percent to make this shot mathematically worthwhile. Meanwhile, role players like Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake come off the bench and shoot well behind the arc, as does Nash.
I don’t want to reduce everything to stats, because I know there’s certain freedom Kobe has to be given to take his shots, particularly at the end of his games when he really is—percentages or no —the guy I would want. But the numbers suggest that during the flow of the game for three quarters, the Black Mamba would be better off working more inside the arc and kicking out to his mates for the long-range game. As for Metta World Peace, just give him a simple message—if you’re aren’t going to make the shot, quit shooting. The Lakers need him more focused on defense anyway.
Laker fans will point to injuries as a big part of the problem, and that’s fair enough. Nash has only played in 50 games, while Gasol’s only gotten on the court for 44. Although when most of your core is aging, that can’t be unexpected. A more legitimate injury excuse would be to wonder how good Howard might have been had he not had the chronic back problems throughout the year.
Now, we look forward to the final five games of the regular season and potentially into the playoffs. The Lakers host New Orleans tonight (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV), make a tough trip to Portland tomorrow night, then come home for three straight games against playoff-bound Golden State, San Antonio and Houston. The good news is this—Golden State and Houston are likely to have little to play for, especially the Rockets in the season finale next Wednesday. The Spurs are more likely to value rest than pushing to hold on to the #1 seed, a race they led by a game over Oklahoma City. Combine all that with homecourt advantage and it’s not unreasonable for the Lakers to win all three, something that would certainly get them in the playoffs. At the very least, they can win two of the three, and then if they get the win in Portland, would likely be enough.
As many problems as this team has had, as real as the defensive issues are, if I’m San Antonio, I don’t want to see the Lakers in the first round. The last lingering health issue is Nash’s hamstring—he’s listed as doubtful for tonight—but if he’s healthy, that gives Los Angeles the chance to go into the playoffs with four future Hall of Famers ready to roll and on the floor. If the matchup was Oklahoma City, I frankly don’t think it would matter—the Thunder are too young and dynamic to be stopped by a team that’s old and defensively-challenged. But the Spurs? I think San Antonio would win such a series, because they have played well defensively, but their own age issues hardly make it a slam dunk.
If nothing else, Los Angeles’ season-long soap opera has made this final week of the NBA regular season very interesting. Their failure to make the playoffs would be about as big a disaster there can be in sports, given the talent assembled and the number of teams that qualify for the postseason. But if they survive and get a clean slate, that becomes a whole new story unto itself and would make the Lakers finally worth talking about—something they have not been, despite an ESPN obsession to the contrary.
The NBA’s Western Conference has had some clear structure and definition throughout the season. San Antonio and Oklahoma City were the co-favorites, the Denver-Memphis-LA Clippers troika was next, and the Los Angeles Lakers were the soap opera that sucked up all the media oxygen in the room with whether they could make the playoffs or not. The teams that mostly slid under the radar were Golden State and Houston. Each has solidified their playoff position. Now’s the time to ask if they’re a live dog that can challenge a favorite in the first round. Answering that question will the focal point of today’s NBA commentary.
Both teams play at a rapid pace—in fact, no one in the NBA pushes a faster pace than the Rockets, with Jeremy Lin at the controls and James Harden as his running mate. Harden has taken advantage of the opportunity to escape the shadow of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and is averaging 26 ppg, to go with six assists per game. With 44 percent shooting from the floor, Harden is doing it with a fair amount of efficiency for the number of shots he takes. More importantly, he gives Houston the superstar presence that NBA teams need if they’re going to win a big playoff series.
What Houston does not do very well is play defense, ranking a little bit below the league average in efficiency. Please note that the efficiency ranking factors in the pace of the game, so the Rockets’ up-and-down approach can’t be used as an excuse. They do rebound the ball well, led by 26-year-old center Omer Asik, who averages 12 rebounds a game. And they’re certainly not shy about gunning the three-ball. This team leads the league in three-point shot attempts—something we certainly don’t need to remind Golden State of. The Rockets buried a record-tying 23 treys in an early February game against the Warriors and Golden State was reduced to intentionally fouling to prevent a new record from being set.
My problem with the Rockets—in addition to the biggie of their defense—is the lack of quality depth. Chandler Parsons is a good secondary scorer, getting 15 ppg, but there’s not a lot coming off the bench. I love the trade this team made at the deadline to get 22-year-old power forward Thomas Robinson from Sacramento. I think Robinson, under the tutelage of head coach Kevin McHale can become an outstanding power forward in this league. But that’s for future years. Right now, Robinson is nowhere near ready to contribute significantly in a playoff series.
If you pick the Rockets to win a playoff series you’re essentially asking James Harden to almost personally carry you past a good team four times in two weeks, to stay hot from three-point range and to continue an up-tempo pace at a time when most games become more of a grind. I’m rooting for the Rockets, because as a Boston fan I feel a certain loyalty to McHale—and he’s one of my all-time favorite NBA players to boot—but it’s tough to see Houston winning a playoff series in 2013.
Now let’s go to the great sports city of San Francisco—they have the World Series champ, they have a team that came within one play of winning the Super Bowl, and the Rose Bowl winner is nearby. The Warriors’ turnaround to make the playoffs under Jackson has already marked them part of the city’s success. Is there more success in the offing?
Golden State is similar to Houston in that they play up-tempo and are better offensively, than they are defensively, but the gap isn’t quite as pronounced as it is with the Rockets. Jackson has turned the Warriors in a team that competes on the defensive end. To continue the comparison, Golden State isn’t as dependent on the three-ball, but also lags a little bit behind Houston in rebounding.
The Warriors do have legitimate stars, in power forward David Lee and point guard Stephen Curry, The inside-out combo produces 52 points a game, and you can mix in two-guard Klay Thompson and his 16 ppg. Golden State has their own talented young forward under development in 20-year-old Harrison Barnes. The North Carolina product only averages 9 ppg, but like Robinson in Houston, he has the talent to become a playoff series-altering star.
If center Andrew Bogut really gets physical down low, I could see Golden State pulling off an upset, obviously pending what matchup they draw. Bogut gets seven rebounds a game, which isn’t a disgrace, but it’s not enough for a non-offensive center who goes 7’0”. If Bogut was grabbing a dozen boards or so during the playoffs, something that would also open up opportunities in transition, this could be a scary team.
Golden State is 43-32, with Houston a game back at 42-33. The race between the two is significant, because the lower finisher will draw the #2 seed, which means either San Antonio or Oklahoma City. Which means elimination. But to play the 3-seed means that, as the bracket stands right now you get Denver. The Nuggets are noted for their lack of stars, and any one of Lee, Curry or Harden would be the best player on the floor in a series with Denver. A potential matchup with Memphis would have a similar dynamic. The Clippers have the star power, but also lack the discipline of OkC or San Antonio and would be vulnerable.
We should also note that the Warriors and Rockets have a record that would position either in the 4-spot in the Eastern Conference bracket—and likely higher if they actually played an Eastern Conference-heavy schedule. It’s one more example of the disparity between the conferences and how it hurts up-and-coming teams like these.
THE WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
The Lakers are currently holding the 8-spot, though they are three games back of Houston with just seven to play. The talk of a couple weeks ago about how Los Angeles might get to that 6-spot has gone away. Although LA’s win over Dallas on Tuesday night realistically pushed the Mavericks out of the picture and effectively turned the race for the final berth into a two-team affair with Utah, currently a game out.
Oklahoma City beat San Antonio last night and the teams are tied in the loss column for the top spot. Denver is a half-game up on Memphis for the 3-seed, though the teams are tied in the loss column, with the Clippers two games behind. Note that as a likely division champ, the Clips can’t technically be seeded lower than 4th, although if their record is worse than the 5-seed, homecourt would be given to the team in the 5-hole (currently Memphis).
If you find that confusing and bizarre, you’re not the only one. I agree with the notion of guaranteeing a division champ a certain seed. I understand if you disagree and just want to seed by record. The NBA approach of trying to split the difference is stupid and needs to go. Just pick an approach and be consistent.
The NBA is going to slide well under the media radar now that March Madness is underway, but the pros are taking full advantage of their Monday night with the TV spotlight. ESPN will be in Boston, as the Miami Heat put their 22-game win streak and run at history on the line against the still-surging Celtics in an 8 PM ET tipoff. That game will be followed by New York-Utah, another matchup of significance in the playoff picture.
TheSportsNotebook’s focus will be on the NCAA Tournament—regional previews will start going online early this evening in anticipation of the play-in games that start Tuesday—with our MLB coverage continuing with team previews, as we build to the April 1 opener. But we can’t completely lose sight of the NBA. By the time the sports world comes up for air when the NCAAs conclude on April 8, the NBA season will have just nine days left and all the races that are compelling right now might be mostly settled. As such, today’s daily sports look will double as NBA commentary, and we’ll summarize the key races within each conference and look ahead at the entire week of pro basketball.
We can pencil in Miami-Milwaukee as a first-round matchup in the Eastern Conference, with the Heat having pulled away with the 1-seed and Milwaukee three games out of seventh, yet well in command of the playoff push. But after that, it’s a crapshoot in the East.
Indiana is 40-26 and in second, but Danny Granger is again dealing with knee problems. New York is tied with the Pacers in the loss column, but have their own injury issues with Carmelo Anthony’s nagging knee troubles, so much so that even Knicks’ head coach Mike Woodson admitted concern in public. Brooklyn is only a game back in the loss column, while Atlanta, Chicago and Boston all have 29 losses, well within striking distance.
Everything is up for grabs and almost every seed level has its own importance. #2 gives you the homecourt path to a shot at Miami in the conference finals. #3 at least gets you opposite Miami in the bracket. #4 will give you a good homecourt to win a playoff series. The only area of strangeness might be the of the 5-6-7 spots, is probably the worst. You’re on the road in the first round, the opponent is not demonstrably easier and even if you win, you can’t get opposite Miami in the draw.
The Western Conference breaks down much more clearly, with three distinct races…
*San Antonio and Oklahoma City look locked into the 1-2 spots and are fighting for homecourt.
*Memphis, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver are in a tight battle for the next three spots, with the odd team out having to on the road for the first round. The winner of this mini-race avoids having to play the other two and gets a first-round opponent one rung down. The Nuggets by the way, are having about the quietest 11-game win streak ever, thanks to Miami’s bold charge at the ’72 Lakers record of 33 straight wins.
*Golden State is in the six-spot and leads up a group of six teams fighting for the last three spots. Houston and the LA Lakers are currently the other two teams, but Utah is tied with Los Angeles in the loss column. Portland and Dallas are still lurking. The Lakers and Jazz have 32 losses, while Portland has 34 and Dallas is at 35. The Blazers and Mavs aren’t finished yet.
Finally, let’s not overlook the race for the overall #1 seed. Miami’s big win streak has put them at 51-14 and in the lead. But the Heat’s slower start to the season (at least relatively speaking) means this is still a race. San Antonio is 51-16 and Oklahoma City is at 50-17. Miami was able to win the Finals last year without the benefit of homecourt, but as anyone who’s watched the NBA playoffs for any length of time can tell you, this isn’t the NCA A Tournament—seed position matters, because homecourt is huge, especially if a series gets to a decisive seventh game.
That’s the context of the NBA race. Now here’s what’s ahead this week…
*Besides the ESPN doubleheader tonight, you’ve got Denver-Chicago and Dallas-Atlanta in a key interconference games.
*Tuesday it’s a good game out West on NBA-TV, when Denver-Oklahoma City tip at 8 PM ET.
*Brooklyn-Dallas get ESPN coverage on Wednesday at 8 PM ET. It’s the headliner of a good night of pro hoops. Utah-Houston is a big game in the Western playoff fight, along with Golden State’s visit into San Antonio. The higher-ups have a key battle with Oklahoma City-Memphis, a tough road assignment for the Thunder coming off the Nuggets game the night before. Out East, Atlanta hosts Milwaukee. And there’s even some soap opera fun—LeBron and Miami go into Cleveland. Now it’s not a question of a hatefest, but whether LeBron will keep laying the groundwork for a return home when he can opt out of his contract the end of next season.
*The NBA then goes dark, like a Catholic church on Good Friday, at least when it comes to TV coverage. They don’t even try and contest college basketball now that the NCAA Tournament hits full gear and nothing is on national TV the rest of the week. Thursday only has one even notable game and that’s Portland-Chicago.
Friday has three noteworthy games of Milwaukee-Indiana, Boston-Dallas and Utah-San Antonio. The same goes for Saturday, with Indiana-Chicago, Boston-Memphis and Brooklyn-LA Clippers. This is an interesting southern road swing for the Celtics. They also have New Orleans mixed in earlier in the week and this comes off what’s likely going to be an emotionally exhausting game with the Heat tonight.
ABC eschews its Sunday doubleheader to give way to the colleges, but League Pass subscribers can still enjoy an Atlanta-Milwaukee rematch in the Midwest, or three games at the bubble of the Western Conference playoff race—Houston hosts the Spurs, Portland goes to OkC and Utah-Dallas go head-to-head.
It’s going to be tough for even passionate sports fans to find time for the NBA over the next few weeks. But don’t let them go completely off the radar, because who plays well know will go a long way to deciding who wins when everyone’s tuned back at the end of April.
The Memphis Grizzlies continue to lurk in the Western Conference standings, sitting on the #4 seed with a 38-19 record as they enter Sunday night’s game in Orlando. They Grizzlies hold a game and a half lead on Denver for the right to hold homecourt advantage in the first round and they’re 3 ½ back of the Los Angeles Clippers for the three-spot. Memphis also made the signature trade move of the regular season when they shipped out leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto as a part of a three-way deal back on January 31.
So how good are the Grizzlies? Can they get out of the first round of the playoffs and maybe challenge for a top three seed position? Or are they a pretender that’s likely to slide in the standings and almost certainly headed for an early playoff exit? That’s the question TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will seek to answer today.
Memphis is a pretty straightforward team—they win with defense, and they do it especially in the frontcourt. The Grizzlies are second in the NBA in defensive efficiency, meaning that their relatively slow pace is not the reason for the high defensive ranking. Efficiency adjusts for pace and the numbers show Memphis is a genuinely outstanding team on the defensive end. With power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol manning the low post, the Grizzlies effectively close out possessions by being the second-best rebounding team in the league. Randolph and Gasol combine to average twenty rebounds a game.
The two interior players are also the focal point of the offense, with Randolph’s 16 ppg and Gasol’s 14 ppg being the top two numbers on the team. There’s a lack of balance overall though, and the Grizzlies only rank 21st in offensive efficiency. Mike Conley averages 13 ppg and is a good playmaker, but the only other threat is veteran small forward Tayshaun Prince, the key acquisition in the Gay deal and averaging 11 ppg. There’s just not a lot of depth to this attack and three-point shooting is a problem.
While trading Gay hurt the offensive’s potential to explode, it did eliminate one rough edge—Gay only shot 31 percent from three-point range, yet chucked up an average of three per game. Prince is both a better shooter from behind the arc and also more discerning in his selection. The lack of consistent three-point shooting is still this offense’s Achilles heel, but at least they aren’t making it worse by having players try and pretend they can do something the numbers say they can’t.
The above paragraph is harsh and not an accurate measurement of how I feel about Gay’s overall game—I just think he shot too many threes for what his percentage justified. I was a skeptic of trading him and this was a topic that seemed to elicit mixed reviews from NBA observers.
If you’re a believer in the trade you can point to a 9-4 record since the deal, with two of the losses being at Oklahoma City (the night the deal went down) and at Miami this past Friday. I don’t think even Rudy Gay’s biggest supporter would argue that his presence means the Grizzlies start winning road games like these.
The other two losses came within a week of the trade. One was a bad 96-90 home loss to Phoenix on February 5, a game in which the Grizzlies were beaten on the boards and didn’t defend the interior against Marcin Gortat and backup Jermaine O’Neal. One night later in Atlanta, the Grizzlies fell to the Hawks because they played poor defense on the perimeter and allowed point guard Jeff Teague to have a big night. In both games Randolph was the only consistent offensive threat, as Gasol was a non-factor.
Memphis’ wins in this timeframe include take-care-of-business games at home against Washington, Minnesota, Sacramento and Orlando. They include road wins at trading partners Detroit and Toronto. None of these tell us much about the ability of post-Rudy Memphis to compete in the playoffs. The two wins that are noteworthy are a February 8 home win over Golden State and a February 24 road win at Brooklyn.
The win over Golden State followed the classic Memphis formula of letting Randolph and Gasol go to work, as they combined for 36 points/23 rebounds. In the victory at Brooklyn it was a refreshing dose of offensive balance, with all five starters scoring between 12-16 points, along with a superior defensive effort. Even so, Golden State and Brooklyn have both been struggling of late, so while the wins are noteworthy, I don’t know that they establish Memphis as a team capable of at least making the second round and then making any of the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers sweat.
Memphis’ coming schedule can be split into two sequences. The first one, starting tonight in Orlando and going through March 12 won’t tell us any more. It includes a couple games with Portland, along with Cleveland and New Orleans. It’s on March 13 that Memphis’ season gets serious again—they have consecutive road games with the LA Clippers, Denver and Utah, then a March 20 home date with Oklahoma City, and on March 23 it’s Boston that comes to town.
Three weeks from tonight we’ll have a read on whether Memphis can be a factor in this year’s playoffs without Rudy Gay. I know there were other longer-term considerations in the trade, but as far as the short-term prospects go, I’m still not a believer. I respect this team and they way they play defense and if they were in the Eastern Conference, I could see them in the conference finals. But in the rough world of the West, I see Memphis as an early casualty again.
When it comes to disappointments, the Dallas Mavericks have gotten off the hook when it comes to media pressure this season. All of the oxygen in the room has been sucked up by the Los Angeles Lakers. Then you can add in that Dallas has been further submerged by the success of the other two teams in the Lone Star State. San Antonio just keeps churning out wins, while Houston is the only NBA team to have already exceeded its preseason Las Vegas win projection.
Trade deadline talk took up more airtime, though the 3 PM ET deadline passed today without major incident. Finally let’s add in the fact that Dirk Nowitzki missed games in the early part of the season, so the Mavericks were tacitly off a lot of radars to begin with. Nonetheless, Dirk’s been back since Christmas, and the Mavs are still on the outside looking in the Western Conference playoff picture, with a 24-29 record. Therefore, TheSportsNotebook’s NBA coverage today hones on what the problem is in Big D and whether there’s still time to turn it around and at least squeak out the #8 seed.
When you look at Dallas’ complete body of work the first thing that has to jump out is how bad the rebounding is. The Mavericks rank 27th in the league in rebound rate. The defense has also declined, ranking 20th in efficiency. This isn’t a franchise with a defensive reputation, but they were 8th a year ago, and 7th in their championship year of 2011. In fact the last time Dallas was in the bottom of half of the NBA on defense was 2009 when they were 17th. So this is a very shaky defensive team that doesn’t close out possessions when they do force a miss.
There are some reasonable excuses that can be put forth. The season-long data obviously includes the games Nowitzki misses. Another big man, 7-foot center Chris Kaman has been out with a concussion since January 30. He’s started to do non-contact drills in practice the last couple days and the Mavs really need him back. The front line is rounded out with Shawn Marion and Elton Brand, ages 34 and 33 respectively. Combined with Dirk, this makes for a frontcourt that’s long in the tooth.
Dallas invested in the backcourt during the offseason, bringing in Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo. It’s turned out to be a pretty good tandem. Mayo is averaging 18 points a game and does it with efficient shooting both from the floor and from three-point range. Collison shoots 48 percent from the floor himself and both players are decent distributors. There’s veteran depth in the backcourt with 38-year-old Derek Fisher who knows something about winning, even if he’s not productive on the stat sheet. And there’s 36-year-old Vince Carter who knows something about being productive on the stat sheet even if he’s not winning.
Even allowing for the competitiveness of the Western Conference, the personnel is here to at least make the playoffs. Dallas has played modestly better since Nowitzki’s return on December 23. The overall before and after records don’t show it, at 12-15 without and 12-14 since the return. But that includes losing the first four games Dirk was back, when he was presumably still playing his way into shape. Dallas stabilized in January, at 7-8 and has gotten on a nice little run in February, winning five of seven this month.
Thus, the question is whether the improved play of February is a sign of an impending stretch drive. Here’s a run through each game of the 5-2 stretch with a special focus on the question of rebounding…
Feb 1: at Phoenix (109-99)–Brand and Marion each have double-digit rebounds, keying an overall 51-46 edge on the glass. Dirk misses this game.
Feb 4: at Oklahoma City (91-112)–I’ll cut the Mavs slack here since there’s no denying they lack the talent to compete with the West’s upper crust. Dirk was back and ineffective and Dallas lost rebounding, and the Thunder were also hot from three-point range.
Feb 6: vs. Portland (105-99)–A good night on the glass, with a 46-42 advantage, again keyed by Marion and aided by Nowitzki. Mayo knocks down 28 points to be the offensive difference-maker.
Feb 9: vs. Golden State (116-91)–The best defensive performance of this stretch, holding the Warriors to 38 percent shooting. It makes up for a tough night rebounding, with Collison and Mayo playing a dominant game in the backcourt.
Feb 11: vs Atlanta (101-105)–A tough home loss is caused by Josh Smith and Al Horford owning the boards for the Hawks. Dirk scores 24, but Smith and Horford can eat up a weak rebounding team and that’s what happens here.
Feb 13: vs Sacramento (123-100)—It’s 51-44 for Dallas on rebounds and that advantage is thanks to a complete team-wide effort. It’s the best game in this sequence, although it’s also easily the worst opponent.
Feb 20: vs. Orlando (111-96)–Close to a wash on the glass, at 44-43 Dallas. But when you’re 27th in the league in a category and you play dead-even, that counts as a win. And it’s translated into a W on the court.
Dallas has held its own on the glass—if you go strictly by rebounding, that’s four wins and three losses, with the final win being close enough to call a push. It’s a demonstration of the fact that if the Mavs can continue to at least break even, they can keep winning games. The next question would be how much credibility do you give the competition?
It’s not a bad schedule stretch by any means, with three games against playoff teams and Portland at least being respectable. But it does have to be concerning that the three playoff teams—Oklahoma City, Golden State and Atlanta also are the three teams that beat the Mavs on the boards and two of them won the game.
If Dallas had some cushion that could be overcome by just taking care of the games against inferior teams. But they’re 4 ½ games behind Houston for the last playoff spot. It’s only three games in the loss column, but don’t forget the Lakers are a factor in this race as well. Portland might also be if they can turn around their recent slump. In the Western Conference, you have to assume it will take 42 or 43 wins to get in, and that means the Mavs have to win 18 or 19 times in their final 29 games.
Somewhere along the line that means beating quality teams and that starts Sunday. After a Friday night trip to New Orleans, the Mavs host the Lakers in a 1 PM ET tip on ABC. That’s followed by a home date with Milwaukee, followed by games with Memphis, Brooklyn and Houston. So it’s a Sunday preliminary bout, followed by four straight against teams currently in the playoffs. There’s no room for error and that means Marion, Brand and Nowitzki have to get tough on the glass.