By Cub Buenning
In the eleven years since my graduation from college (not to date myself or anything) I spent the majority of those in the education field teaching and coaching middle and high-school-aged kids. Mr. Buenning was a moniker I was never comfortable with, but I shall assume a similar role as we “grade out” the teams from the Western Conference. With all teams entering the second half of their schedule, it makes perfect sense to break out of the normal pattern of the Western Conference Wrap. As a teacher, I always abided by the objective method; “you are what your percentage says you are.” However, this examination period will be handled a bit differently, as I will factor expectations and other variables into the equation. (Sorry, but I spent the majority of my days in education as an algebra teacher. Which by the way, brings the most squeamish looks from adults.) In other words, a bad (record-wise) team can still achieve a passing grade. REPORT CARD TIME!
Let’s start by breaking down the Southwest Division.
DALLAS (39-9, #1 in the SW, #1 seed in West): A
This grade is a no-brainer, as the Mavs currently possess the league’s best record, all while playing in the toughest division in the tougher of the two conferences. They boast a likely MVP candidate in Dirk Nowitzki, a perennial Coach of the Year candidate in Avery Johnson, and many young up-and-coming players in Josh Howard, Jason Terry, and Devin Harris. They play offense and can score; they play defense and can lock teams down. Nice recipe for a return trip to the Finals this spring.
SAN ANTONIO (32-16, #2 in the SW, 7 back, 4th seed in the West): B
I might be a little tough on the team that has won the chip two out of the last four seasons and three of the last eight, but I have not gotten a feel that this team is a true threat to win the West. They are inconsistent and play great on some nights but deplorable on others. They have lost their edge at home where they used to own its comp. Some things are unheard of down in the River City, mainly losses at the crib. They have always been good on the road, too, but their identical records at home and away this year is astonishing. 8 losses by midseason at Hemisphere/Alamodome/SBC/AT&T?!?! In the last two seasons, the Silver and Black lost only 10 combined games at home. Y’all know I love what Tony Parker has done this year, but Bruce Bowen, Manu, Finley and the crew need to give TP and Timmy more help.
HOUSTON (31-17, #3 in the SW, 8.5 back, 5th seed in the West): B+
I have personally left this team for dead on multiple occasions this year, and I continue to be proven wrong. With TMac and Yao spending long stints on the chillin’ list, again this year, things looked bad for the Rockets. In past seasons, an injury to either of Jeff Van Gundy’s superstars, pretty much doomed their chances, but this year has been different. TMac has proven his doubters (of which I am a card-carrying member) wrong with great play and leadership in Yao’s absence. The Rockets have also been carried by key contributions from Shane Battier and spotty contributions from Skip.
NEW ORLEANS/OK CITY (21-27, #4 in the SW, 18 back, 11th seed in the West): C+
This mark is probably much higher than a team that is out of the playoff race would normally earn, but the Hornets have been absolutely decimated by injuries. While the extended losses of Peja and David West have hindered Byron Scott’s squad, the games that Chris Paul missed have put the Hornets in a hole they might be able to crawl out of. Some back-ups have stepped in the stars’ absence, but too many games have been missed and the Hornets have relied on their D-League affiliate in Tulsa, way too much, just to suit-up the league minimum.
MEMPHIS (12-37, #5 in the SW, 27 back, 15th seed in the West): D-
The case of the Grizzlies is a tough one, as an already bad team was forced to start the season without its best player in Pau Gasol. Throw in a bunch of rookies who were forced into action and it’s a wonder that THE CZAR lasted as long as he did this year. His notorious defensive style could not work with a young, athletic team, hence the move to Tony Barone, who has inserted some life into the morbid franchise. The Griz have not beaten one team in its division, which is never good. Gasol wants to be traded now, and the Griz are neck and neck with the free-falling Celtics for the “most balls” in the Oden/Durant lottery sweepstakes. Does anyone remember that this team finished last season 16 games above .500?
Let’s make our way up the “imaginary” NBA-landscaped coast and check out the Pacific.
PHOENIX (39-10, 1st in the Pac, 2nd seed in the West): A
Another easy grade as the Suns have been consistent and impressive since the start of the season. Two winning streaks of 15 games or more is akin to “acing” the midterms. STAT started the season rehabbing his injured knee and has really started to approach where he was two seasons ago. The backcourt triumvirate of Steve Nash, Raja Bell, and the Brazilian Blur gives Head Coach Mike D’Antoni the luxury, of relinquishing the reins and just letting his horses run free. Everyone says they still need more defense, but with the universal shift in the league, I feel that this argument is growing as stale as 3-day old bread. If the Suns don’t meet up with Dallas, again, in the Western Conference Finals, I’ll be pissed.
LA LAKERS (30-19, 2nd in the Pac, 8.5 back, 6th seed in the West): A-
One of the truly great stories of this season. Gone are Shaq, Derek Fisher, Robert Horry, and even the lifer, Devean George. Still remaining is…… well, Luke Walton and Kobe? After their comrades from across the hall stole the LA headlines last year, the Lakers wasted no time in re-establishing themselves as the Lords of LaLa Land. Luke is ballin’; youngbuck, Andrew Bynum is developing faster than even his mentor, #33 thought was possible; and Kobe has become the player no one dreamed he could ever be, a teammate. Kudos to KB8x3.
LA CLIPPERS (24-24, 3rd in the Pac, 13.5 back, 7th seed in the West) C+
This is a tough one, as the ClipJoint has struggled to follow up their “darling” season of a year ago, when they made it to the 2nd round of the playoffs. Despite losing their last two games, the Clippers have been playing well, as of late. Their injury bug has cleared up with SAMIAM and CaveMan Center (cue Bill Hartman, “I’m just a Caveman!” skit from SNL) returning to push the Clips back into the playoff race. OH, by the way, Elton Brand is averaging about 20 and 10, again…..
GOLDEN STATE (23-26, 4th in the Pac, 15.5 back, 9 seed in the West): C-
This team, along with the Denver Nuggets and the Hornets have been forced into using way too many different lineups. The Warriors executed that big trade last month to bring in Whoo! Jackson and Al Harrington, while dumping Troy Murphy, Lil’ Dun, and Ike Diogu. I have been on record as displaying my distaste forthe GS end of the trade. While Jackson and Harrington have given the Warriors instant offense, they gave up too much on the defensive and rebounding end by giving up Murphy and the “unknown” quantity in Diogu. The Warriors have been bitten by the injury bug, as well, losing BDiddy for a CHUNK of games, and Jason Richardson for most of the season’s first half. This team was supposed to raise up to the next level this year, but well….. read above.
SACRAMENTO (20-26, 5th in the Pac, 17 back, 12th seed in the West) D+
Another disappointing team, as they looked to move back into the conference’s elite. The team has failed to stay consistent and keep a winning streak intact. Kevin Martin has been wonderful, but besides the rail-thin, 3rd-year swingman, the Kings have given the Capital City little to cheer about. I’m sure that the rumor surrounding their possible move to Las Vegas doesn’t help. Just do everyone a favor, Maloofs, give us (LV is everyone’s town) a team! Having something other than eat, drink, gamble, drink, swim, repeat, to do in Vegas would be dope. Imagine, the Lakers are in town, and instead of catching your 23rd viewing of the amazing Lance Burton, you check out Kobe taking on the Las Vegas Palms.
We will finish by grading the final division, the Northwest.
UTAH (32-17 #1 in the NW, 4th seed in the West): A-
This team could be that annoying little “grade grabber” who thinks they deserve an even better grade. Maybe they do, as the Jazz have been nothing short of phenomenal. Deron Williams has developed already into one of the conference’s elite pointmen, Carlos Boozer has been beastin’ fools on a nightly basis before his recent injury shelved him for a month. Jerry Sloan’s boys have put themselves into a position to be able to win at least one series in the playoffs and Boozer absence might turn into a positive. The one blaring issue this year, has been the less-than-stellar play of AK-47, and with Boozer out, maybe the Russian will do more than 8 points, 4 rebs, and 3 assists a night. (side note- is it obvious that AK-47 WAS on my fantasy team?)
DENVER (23-23, #2 in the NW, 7.5 back, 8th seed in the West): B
I am going to give this science project a solid grade, as they have worked hard to do well and put themselves in a place to have success, but have not been able to get out of their own way. First, the silly suspensions from that middle-school dance of a “fight” at MSG, which took away the league’s top scoring tandem, at almost 50 points a night. Second, the complete upheaval in the backcourt as the midseason moves of Earl Boykins and Andre Miller, have been tougher than imagined, especially with Allen Iverson’s recent time on the shelf with a gimpy ankle. This team reminds of one of the science projects that is a “work in process.” While they should make the playoffs this season, the real grade should be given this time next year, when I predict the Nuggets will be right alongside the Mavs and Suns for conference supremacy. Don’t look now, but there has also been a rash of recent, NENE sightings (dropping 20 in the last few games.) You put a trimmed-down Nene in the mix alongside Marcus Camby in the frontcourt, and this team COULD get things together for the playoff push.
MINNESOTA (22-26, #3 in the NW, 9.5 back, 10th seed in the West): C
Is this team really just three years removed from being a game away from the Finals!?!? This team is a wreck internally and Kevin McHale has had to continually assure the Wolves’ fan base that his basketball expertise expands beyond once sporting the illest post-moves in league’s history. Randy Wittman is now at the helm and is still relying too much on a group of youngsters to back up his weak starting unit. KG is still the man, though.
PORTLAND (20-30, #4 in the NW, 12.5 back, 13th seed in the West): B-
Besides the power forward spot being held down by Zach Randolph, much of this year’s Trailblazer outfit is pretty new. Gone are most of the “character issues” which plagued this franchise and, I believe, ultimately kept them from ever advancing past the Lakers. New guys Brandon Roy, Martell Webster, and Ime Udoka have done nicely to compliment ZBo’s inside presence, and while they are not in a real position to threaten for the last playoff spot, they should be commended for their effort. Hence, the B-.
SEATTLE (17-31, #5 in the NW 14.5 back, 14th seed in the West): C-
Yes, Ray Allen missed a slew of games, and Rashard Lewis has been out most of the year, but this team has severely disappointed. Luke Ridnour has regressed as a team leader, and the young Frenchman (Johan Petro and Mickael Gelabale).have been thrown into much larger roles than they were ready for. I guess, I have been a little hard on the Sonics, as emerging scarecrow center, Robert Swift was also lost early on for the entire season, but I just am not impressed. Remember this team was the Northwest Division champ just two seasons ago.
Mr. Buenning has spoken! (Nice 3rd-person usage that I honestly detest.) When the Wrap returns in a couple of weeks, we will have some ASG fall-out to discuss. I have purposefully neglected the whole Melo-exclusion topic, as I trust that Commish Stern will rectify that situation in the next couple of days. Oh wait; he was the guy who suspended the league’s leading scorer, for a slap. One that has been duplicated more than once since then by such luminaries as Garnett and Bryant. Where were their month-long suspensions? Dude has risen his scoring by 6 a night to lead the league at over 31 per, his rebounding and assist numbers are up and he is shooting a much better percentage than at any point in his career. Yeah, he’s not one of the conference’s best players…. Stop hatin’.
RAPTOR BONE: Raptor fans, I’ll give you a B+, so you have something to discuss. I like their young, int’l nucleus, with CB4 as a foundation. But c’mon, the Atlantic? That’s like the Pacific Coast League in baseball…..
Until next time!