NBA 2013-14 midseason hoedown: Western Conference update

In the NBA, the West is best. No team from top to bottom is completely locked into hopelessness — every team has a legitimate case for a playoff berth within the next three seasons, which cannot be said of the Eastern Conference. In a conference where Golden State, a team that stole fans’ hearts in last year’s postseason before adding another top-50 player to their roster, is hanging on to the No. 8 seed and you know the talent pool is deep. We’ve had some surprises in the West, and most of them have been pleasant (to balance out the downtrodden East). 

As I did with the East, I’m here to look at my preseason assessments, and figure out why I was right and why I was wrong.

 

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (Preseason assessment: No. 2 in West)

Update: Nothing about this Thunder squad is No. 2 right now, and that includes the NBA’s penultimate superstar Kevin Durant. Come playoff time, that balance may shift back in favor of LeBron James and the Miami Heat, but then again, it may not. Durant’s scoring is as good as it has ever been, and his defense is improving as he’s definitely setting his sights on getting back the the NBA Finals, and it’s tough to imagine someone stopping him the way the Thunder have played recently. Russell Westbrook’s return will impact this team, but you have to believe there will be no power struggle when he comes back this time — that it’s Durant’s team and everyone on earth knows it.

My preseason assessment was: Disrespectful. The James Harden trade set this franchise back an indefinite amount of time, but that time appears to be over. The Thunder have reformed, with a smaller, stronger, more dense core of Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook. The pieces around them seem much more viable now as well, with Jeremy Lamb (can we come up with a cute, lamb-themed nickname for this guy? The Great White Fleece? Something?) and Reggie Jackson contributing at high levels. Kendrick Perkins is still a weak spot, but Steven Adams may be the long-term answer at center. Nick Collison is still solid and Thabo Sefolosha fits as a non-demanding defender who can knock down the three when open.

New, better prediction: Loss in the Western Conference Finals

2. San Antonio Spurs (No. 1)

Update: San Antonio has no problem with the Thunder making all the noise in the West. They’ll be right there in the end when it counts. Home-court advantage is important, but the Spurs can get by without it. Not that the year is over — the Spurs will keep winning about 80 percent of their games and the rest will balance itself out. Tim Duncan and company don’t appear to have any hangover from last year’s Finals, and they’ll be back on their grind come postseason time.

My preseason assessment was: Correct. The Spurs are “holding court,” waiting it out, steady as a rock in a river of trending and change. San Antonio just approaches the game in a different way. Gregg Poppovich is still coaching the crap out of his guys, and they’re still getting better, inching ever closer to breach that gap that last year was as big as one stupid rebound.

New, better prediction: Loss in second round 

3. Portland Trailblazers (No. 10)

Update: Oh, hi! Nice to see you here. Portland has blitzed the Association with an offensive onslaught spearheaded by point guard Damian Lillard and anchored by big man LaMarcus Aldridge. The remaining starters in this lineup provide fantastic complementary scoring, rebounding and, in the case of Nicolas Batum, do-it-alling. Whether the defense will hold up in the postseason is another matter. Either way, this Blazers team is likely a year away from serious title contention.

My preseason assessment was: Ignorant, I guess. I had them as an “upward seeker,” meaning they were looking to improve and had the pieces to do so, yet I also had them 10th after they finished 11th last season, so they didn’t really gain much ground in my head. Even still, had I been more optimistic, I would have nestled them into one of the West’s bottom three playoff slots, but I never would have seen this coming, and I don’t feel bad. They’ve been the year’s biggest (positive) surprise.

New, better prediction: Loss in first round

4. Los Angeles Clippers (No. 3)

Update: There will be a time this season when Los Angeles is the hottest team in the league. That time has not come yet, and for Doc Rivers, that’s ideal. When Chris Paul returns, he returns to a much more confident Blake Griffin, who’s been carrying the load by himself successfully for a while now. He returns to a DeAndre Jordan who has been grabbing and putting to good use every ball near the rim on both sides of the floor. Darren Collison is getting valuable experience on the floor with these Clippers and there should be enough ammunition at the wing positions to survive defensively in the playoffs, though the lack of a premier two-way player is cause for concern.

My preseason assessment was: Solid. The Clippers are certainly “establishing contendership” in the West, jelling as they have through the season. Just because they haven’t improved from last year’s No. 4 slot doesn’t mean they’re not a better team with a better chance of making a deep playoff run. This team is Chris Paul’s best shot thus far in his career at a title, though I’m not sure they’ll be able to get through the Western gauntlet.

New, better prediction: Western Conference champions

5. Houston Rockets (No. 6)

Update: Houston’s lucky to be this high in the conference. There’s still a power struggle between James Harden and Dwight Howard as far as who this team’s best player is. Not that the power struggle is cutting into Houston’s production or win total — but it’s still something that needs to be sorted out, which may only happen in the playoffs. Omer Asik is just now coming off a bruised thigh that, let’s face it, was probably never bruised to begin with. Asik’s ego has hurt Houston probably most of all, as he’s pretty much an ideal backup center for a champion team. He deserves to start, but he’s not starting on a title team this year unless he finds himself in Miami somehow. Terrence Jones has all but eliminated the need for Houston to trade for a stretch-four like Spencer Hawes or Ryan Anderson, though they may still do it. This team is good, and though it could be better, I still wouldn’t want to face the Rockets in April or May.

My preseason assessment was: About accurate. Still waiting on the Ryan Anderson deal to go down (may never come, as it turns out), but this is a well put-together team that needs to figure a few things out before the postseason comes.

New, better prediction: Loss in second round

6. Golden State Warriors (No. 5)

Update: The Golden State Warriors are one of the league’s most fun teams to watch. They have one of the league’s most marketable stars, they’ve solidified their bench somewhat and have strong, All-Star caliber players at all five positions. Their head coach Mark Jackson has brought a defensive attitude that has changed the paradigm for this team, which now doesn’t rely solely on 3-point shooting to survive. They have scorers, the second-leading assist man in the league, tough interior rebounding and a great wing defender in Andre Iguodala.

But uh, guys, they’re not winning. Sure, they’re 10 games above .500 and would be comfortably in third in the East, but as it stands they’re barely staying away from the bottom two seeds in the West, which would mean they’d have to go through San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round if the playoffs started today (they don’t). Something needs to change in the mentality of these guys or they will have too tough a road in the postseason to make a serious run.

My preseason assessment was: A little bit too nice, given their lack of consistency. It’s all there; there’s nothing you need to add to this team (save for a bench scorer, maybe) to save it. They’re put together right, they’re just not executing 10 times out of 10. Right now, it’s more like five out of 10. If that doesn’t change, this team is doomed come April.

New, better prediction: First round loss

7. Phoenix Suns (No. 15)

Update: Whoa. I have seen a few Suns games, and I still don’t know how a team I picked to finish very last in the conference is rising up the playoff rankings. I suppose it starts with Goran Dragic, who’s actually gotten a lot better since his days of being posterized by a Derrick Rose equipped with two good knees. But the true secret of this Phoenix team lies in the play of bigs Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris and Channing Frye. These bigs have all been solid; none spectacular, but none weak. In addition to the bigs, this team has been buoyed by the ascension of wing scorer Gerald Green, who, despite being drafted in 2005, is younger than Taj Gibson (drafted in 2009) by more than half a year. Head coach Jeff Hornacek has revitalized Phoenix Suns basketball, and that’s a good thing for the NBA.

My preseason assessment was: Very, very wrong.

New, better prediction: First round loss

8. Dallas Mavericks (No. 11)

Update: Long live Dirk Nowitzki. A couple years removed from a title, with not even scraps — just Shawn Marion — of the team that hoisted Dallas’ first banner, Dirk has his team in contention for the postseason. Whether the Mavericks can hold on, let alone gain ground to avoid a matchup with the Thunder or Spurs, remains to be seen. But Monta Ellis has been rejuvenated in Dallas, and he’s to be equally credited with Dallas’ success. They don’t have a lot to bet on, but they keep winning, which is good enough for now. They’re another one of this season’s many mysteries, but they may not have enough to hold off the charging Memphis Grizzlies.

My preseason assessment was: Right, sort of; if only a little too pessimistic. I dubbed them “burning slowly,” which I think they’re doing. But they’re also burning brightly, not going down without a fight. That spirit should be credited to Nowitzki.

New, better prediction:  No. 9 in the West

9. Memphis Grizzlies (No. 4)

Update: January’s hottest team still finds itself outside the playoff picture thanks to a slow start caused, in part, by an injury to Marc Gasol. Gasol is back, and Courtney Lee has been added to help head coach David Joerger’s squad get back into the playoff picture. They’ve actually created a bit of separation between themselves and the Timberwolves and Nuggets, the only other teams seriously contending for the last playoff spot. The Grizz are still a defensive-oriented team, and Zach Randolph’s inside toughness has embodied their spirit. Mike Conley has played better lately as well.

My preseason assessment was: A product of assumption. I underestimated the adjustment period for Joerger when I said the Grizzlies were “holding court.” I didn’t think they were good enough last year to compete for a title, and they didn’t do enough to get better, but the league got better around them and made them worse. Having said that, let’s see where their momentum can take them by the end of the season.

New, better prediction: First round loss

10. Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 7)

Update: The ever-disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves need something else. Ricky Rubio has a positive impact on the court, but the defense is absolutely crippling this team. Rick Adleman has failed to instill a defensive mentality that’s so vital in today’s NBA. Maybe it worked in 2001 in Sacramento, but it’s not gonna fly in the Western Conference if you play the finesse, fast-paced style that Minnesota does.

My preseason assessment was: Something I’ll stand by even though it’s so wrong. This team should be doing better. They’re the Cleveland Cavaliers of the West, but they have more talent. They are not “playing to win.” They’re playing in circles.

New, better prediction: No. 11 in the West

11. Denver Nuggets (No. 9)

Update: As stupid as it was to fire Coach of the Year George Karl, it’s, uh, turned out to be pretty stupid in hindsight, too. Maybe Brian Shaw was a top-level coaching candidate and a coach of the future, but they couldn’t have expected to match last season’s success with this team. Ty Lawson is their best player, and he’s not really close to being an All-Star. If you were able to complement Lawson with some pieces beyond the erratic Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, you’d see this team improve. They’re just not very good as currently composed. Perhaps they’re overachieving.

My preseason assessment was: A little friendly but not far off. They still have to get worse, I believe, before they get better.

New, better prediction: No. 12 in the West

12. New Orleans Pelicans (No. 8)

Update: An injury to Anthony Davis early in the season stunted New Orleans’ development, but they should be better than this. Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon have played well, but with not enough effort. Davis has been a monster defensively, but a terrible January has got this team thinking lottery. We’ll see what they can manage before the year’s end.

My preseason assessment was: Naïve idealism. I just want New Orleans to be good because I think they’d be fun to watch. Davis’ time is coming, though, if not this year then maybe next.

New, better prediction: No. 10 in the West

13. Utah Jazz (No. 14)

Update: The Jazz started the year 1-14, and have been the equivalent of a legitimate Eastern Conference playoff contender ever since. Trey Burke’s return from injury marked the turnaround for Utah, which is great news, as it indicates he’ll be able to hang in the pros. This Utah lineup is actually one player away (which, in an ideal world, would be Jabari Parker) from having a very solid lineup (in addition to Burke-Gordon Hayward-Derrick Favors-Enes Kanter). Should they find Mr. Right in the draft, they could be playoff contenders as early as next season.

My preseason assessment was: A little harsh, but reasonable. They are one spot ahead of where I pegged them, but they have not been doing anything to lose. The losing has taken care of itself, which is fine for now.

New, better prediction: No. 13 in the West

14. Los Angeles Lakers (No. 12)

Update: The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t had a first round pick of their own suit up for them since Javaris Crittenton, who was flipped in his rookie year as part of the Pau Gasol trade. So their impending lottery involvement should be a new, refreshing experience. The Lakers have had contributions from a plethora of young talent, they’ve been really fun to watch as a veritable D-League squad. But that’s not Lakers basketball. Lakers basketball is about stars and showtime — you name a pay-per-view channel, the Lakers have been compared to it. Kendall Marshall gobbles assists, Pau Gasol is still getting statistics, Jodie Meeks is still shooting like crazy and Wesley Johnson is still trying to fit in. None of these players will have a part in the Lakers’ next championship.

My preseason assessment was: Expecting Kobe Bryant to be back. Bryant doesn’t let his teams lose to this extent. He’s a winner, and his absence on this team speaks for itself.

New, better prediction: No. 15 in the West

15. Sacramento Kings (No. 13)

Update: The Kings just don’t win. They’re proof that plans aren’t worth a whole lot, what with Isaiah Thomas and not Ben McLemore experiencing a breakout season. They traded for Rudy Gay, who will be a free agent at the end of next season, making for an ill-fated era with DeMarcus Cousins and Gay serving as the core. Sacramento has shown signs of life here and there, and a top pick in the draft could work wonders, but the solution isn’t currently in sight.

My preseason assessment was: About right. They’re bad, and we knew they’d be. Oh well, maybe next year.

New, better prediction: No. 14 in the West