By Cub Buenning
Welcome to the first installment of the WESTERN CONFERENCE WRAP, where I place my corrective lenses-aided keen eyes on the Western Conference. I will breakdown things by division and within the conference, look at the top performers, go behind the numbers a bit, and pretty much breakdown what has been and continues to be, the superior half of the league.
Northwest Pacific Southwest
UTAH 16-5 LA LAKERS 15-6 SAN ANTONIO 16-6
DENVER 12-7 PHOENIX 14-6 HOUSTON 14-7
MINNESOTA 10-9 LA CLIPPERS 10-10 DALLAS 14-7
SEATTLE 10-12 GOLDEN STATE 11-11 NEW ORLEANS 10-10
PORTLAND 9-14 SACRAMENTO 9-11 MEMPHIS 5-16
Utah: The best record in the league is held by a team that has yet to even fire on all cylinders. Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams have been beast-like and the Jazz have been bolstered by contributing newcomer, Paul Milsap. Despite nagging injuries that have kept AK-47 in and out of the lineup, the Jazz were able to put up an impressive 22-point win last night over the returning conference champs, Dallas, which gave Coach Sloan 1K W’s.
Denver: They boast the league’s top scoring tandem in Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith. Over the course of the year, the high-scoring Nugs should have a nice battle with the Jazz for divisional supremacy, but they also must do something to fix their propensity for playing down to inferior comp (see home losses this year to NYK, Memphis, and Atlanta)
Minnesota: The T-Pups are starting to play better ball over the last two weeks. If we ignore the AI rumors, this squad is led by vets KG, Ricky, and Mike James and backed-up by rookies, Randy Foye and Craig Smith, holla Big East!
Seattle: A team that was not that deep to start has been hampered by injuries before the season started (Robert Swift) and during the year (Ray’s current stint chillin’.) Rashard Lewis and Luke Ridnour look to pick up the scoring bulk, but it could be another long year with no real inside threat and a prolonged absence of #34.
Portland: This team could very easily be in the Memphis-range, if not for the outstanding start by Zach Randolph (see below.) The Blazers have also seen point guard, Jarrett Jack develop into a viable starter, both scoring and passing the ball.
LA Lakers: Possibly the most surprising team in the conference. In year #3 of the Kobe experiment, owner Jerry Buss’s decision is starting to look like the wise one. Things are early for this team, as they have relied on home cooking, having already played three times as many games at Staples as they have on the road. The Lakers will be a bit short-handed over the next month, after Lamar Odom went down last night.
Phoenix: Even without that crazy game in the swamp last week, the Suns are probably the hottest team in the league right now. The mass media wrote these guys off early in the year, but 11 straight wins later, and Nash, Amare, and the Matrix are again hot news around the league. Nice win last night on the road against the “best” team in the East.
LA Clippers: Just one year removed from a playoff run and high hopes and this year’s installment continues to fight the injury bug and inconsistency. SAMIAM has been huge for this team, but even the vet has been prone to injury early in the year. The injury to center Chris Kaman, who gives Elton Brand that little space around the free – throw line to roam, has been a large factor in the Clip Joint’s mediocre play to this point.
Golden State: The Warriors got off to a great start this year and have been strugglin’ as of late. Besides the on-again, off-again physical condition of guards Jason Richardson and Baron Davis, the Warriors have been fortunate to see youngsters Andris Biedrins and Monta Ellis grow as consistent contributors on the court.
Sacramento: Like the Warriors, the Kings battled atop the Pacific for most of the season’s first month. Things have drastically changed, however, as the Kings have dropped 6 of its last 7.
San Antonio: Just rollin’ along as usual. The three-headed “Alamo-attack” has again put the Spurs in the position as contenders. Not much has been said this year about the Spurs, but peep the record atop the league’s most stacked division.
Dallas: Like Phoenix, the Mavs got off to an awful start that was in stark contradiction to their great run through the playoffs last year (minus the finals’ last few games.) Also, like Phoenix, the Mavs were able to string together a double-digit winning streak to right the ship, led by up-and-coming stars, Josh Howard and Jason Terry, who have made life much easier on workhorse, Dirk Nowitzki.
Houston: With both Yao and T-Mac healthy for the first real stretch of games, the Rockets have given their faithful what was expected when McGrady came from Orlando. The additions of Shane Battier and Bonzi Wells (who has played little due to injuries) should ensure that this team is FINALLY around come springtime. Oops, the stubborn back that made T-Mac miss 35 games last year, has flare up again!
New Orleans: In a display of the conference’s overall depth, the Hornets are another of the disappointing teams. The two-citied team has endured a tough last two weeks. Peja and Tyson Chandler have been nice additions (Tyson, top 5 in the league in boards?!?!) but they have yet to fully mesh with Chris Paul.
Memphis: No Pau Gasol, playing in the league’s toughest division, ‘nuff said.
By position, the most valuable (insert definition debate) to their team:
Point Guard: This conversation starts and stops with Steve Nash. Averaging over 21 points and 11 assists a night doesn’t do his value any justice. He runs the team beautifully and is now learning how to play alongside Leandro Barbosa, instead of using him exclusively as a back-up. These two jets can get up and down the 94-feet faster than possibly any tandem in the league(‘s history.) Nash was also just named the conference’s player of the week.
With a nod to: Chris Paul, Andre Miller (best assist to turnover ratio), Deron Williams, and SAMIAM. I’m in my thirties, and I swear that last cat was playing when I was in middle school.
Shooting guard: Kobe Bryant. The Laker guard has been beautiful at times (see 52-point game against Utah.) He is scoring less, but he does have his team atop the Pacific once again. His 50% clip from the field is impressive and is a sign of his willingness to be a part of a team, instead of…. Well, what they were.
NOD: First on this list is Sacramento’s Kevin Martin, who’s putting up 21 a night on 50% shooting, from everywhere. Golden State’s Ellis, Phoenix’s Barbosa, and Denver’s Smith have given their respective teams positive and slightly unexpected lifts.
Small forward: Another easy one with Denver’s Carmelo Anthony. Not only is the fourth-year star at the top of the entire league in scoring at 31 per night, but he is scoring three baskets more per game than anyone else. 50% from the field for a volume shooter who has also been deplorable, but not shy, from behind the arc, is amazing. He is involving his teammates more and is a better scorer and player for it.
NOD: Seattle’s Rashard Lewis, and hesitantly, Tracy McGrady.
Power forward: Portland’s Zach Randolph, who is backing up his newly penned bank roll, with some large digits. 26 and over 10 boards is all he can do, to keep his extremely young lineup above water in the ultra-competitive west. Speaking of large digits, ZBo now needs to learn to keep his middle one to himself.
NOD: Dirk and KG have done nothing to keep them from earning the above distinction, but ZBo’s start has just been more impressive.
Center: Carlos Boozer of the Utah Jazz. Best player on the conference’s (record-wise) best team. The dude is shooting basically 60% from the field and cleaning the glass better than anyone else in the conference.
NODS: Yao has been dope and Timmy is always good for 22 and 10.
HOT TEAMS: Phoenix, Dallas, LA Lakers, Minnesota.
NOT TEAMS: Sacramento, Golden State, LA Clippers, New Orleans
As we move on in the year, we will look deeper at the conference breakdown, as well as continue to look at the West’s top performers.