Western Conference still up for grabs
Two months into the NBA season and there’s the one truth we know so far about the Western Conference race: It’s still wide open.
The reigning NBA champion Dallas Mavericks would be a hazardous pick to repeat. The Los Angeles Lakers, who must either win the league title or hang their heads in shame, look dysfunctional. Do they need a point guard or a shrink?
The Clippers, doormats for so long, are considered contenders by some, but they’re still looking for consistency as they adjust to their new-found success. Three teams — the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz — are within two games or less of the conference’s eighth playoff spot, so the final two months of the lockout-shortened 66-game season figure to be intriguing.
Here’s where we stand at the halfway point as this weekend’s All-Star Game in Orlando approaches:
Midseason favorite: Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might be the most dynamic scoring duo in the NBA — or maybe you missed Sunday’s game in which Durant went off for 51 and Westbrook added 40 in an overtime win against the Nuggets. OKC is one of three teams averaging more than 100 points a game, but the defense needs to improve by playoff time. The Thunder’s big test comes in the season’s second half, where 23 of its remaining 33 games are against teams with winning records.
Biggest surprise team: Houston Rockets
The Rockets missed the playoffs by three games last season, but currently are in sixth place in the conference and look good enough to contend for a playoff spot until the very end. After parting ways with coach Rick Adelman, losing out on Pau Gasol when their three-way trade was quashed and then starting 3-7, they looked ready to retool. But coach Kevin McHale has his roster of non-stars playing well, particularly guard Kyle Lowry, who’s averaging a career-best 15.6 points, and rookie Chandler Parsons. The Rockets are not to be dismissed if they continue playing well together. Can they fend off the rest of the West?
Biggest disappointment: Los Angeles Lakers
It’s not so much their record, it’s the fact they seem to be slowly unraveling from within. When Kobe Bryant criticizes team management and general manager Mitch Kupchak responds by issuing a statement defending his right to pursue trades, it causes potential rifts that can only worsen over time. Despite a rousing victory Wednesday at Dallas, the Lakers need to refocus. They remain needy at point guard and small forward, they must start winning on the road (6-12) and they must figure out how to get better offensively. If the playoffs started today, they’d be matched against the Mavericks — and we all know how that turned out last time.
Bubble team: Denver Nuggets
If they can ever get healthy, the Nuggets might be able to squeeze into the No. 8 spot in the conference. But after breaking out to a 14-5 start — the best start after 19 games in the franchise’s NBA history — Denver has been hit with a string of injuries. Forward Danilo Gallinari might have been an All-Star had it not been for a bone chip in his ankle he suffered Feb. 6. Throw in a calf sprain to Nene and an ankle sprain to Ty Lawson, and the youthful Nuggets will struggle to stay competitive. If that happens, it’ll be a shame for likeable coach George Karl, who deserves better.
Conference MVP: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Paul is the singular reason the Clippers have risen to the Pacific Division lead — and the reason Lakers fans are still steaming about commissioner David Stern rejecting the trade that would have paired him with Bryant. Paul’s impact is more than just alley-oop passes to Blake Griffin; he has created an atmosphere on the court and in the locker room in which losing is not acceptable. He creates shots for his teammates, but also is willing to carry the scoring burden when it’s needed (witness his 36 points Wednesday against Denver). He had rough back-to-back games in losses to San Antonio and Golden State, but ultimately the Clippers will go as far as Paul takes them. Also considered: Kevin Durant (Thunder) and Tony Parker (Spurs).
Coach of the Midseason: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Popovich is generally considered one of the league’s best coaches, but the job he’s doing this season is worth noting. The Spurs continue to rely on their veterans — Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — but Ginobili has missed 24 of 33 games with injuries (currently an oblique strain), and forward Tiago Splitter is down with a calf injury. Both are expected to return by the end of the month, but don’t count on it. In the meantime, San Antonio had an 11-game win streak going until it lost Tuesday in Portland, and was 7-0 on its nine-game trip. As usual, Popovich has his team playing its usual unselfish, team-oriented brand of ball. Don’t be surprised if the Spurs overtake Oklahoma City for the No. 1 seed at playoff time. Also considered: Scott Brooks (Thunder).
Most significant injury: Chauncey Billups, Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers are 4-4 since Billups sustained a torn left Achilles’ tendon on Feb. 6 at Orlando, but the real effect of his loss won’t be felt until the postseason. He owns an NBA championship ring and was a Finals MVP in 2004 with the Pistons, and he had already established himself as a team leader on the Clippers. There’s a good reason his nickname is “Mr. Big Shot” — he’s not afraid to take the decisive jumper with the game on the line, something the Clippers could use now and in the playoffs.
1. Will the Lakers finally make a deal by the March 15 trade deadline? If they don’t add at least one starter at point guard or small forward, they’re probably doomed to a first-round playoff exit.
2. Can the Mavericks repeat? It won’t be easy. The Mavs lost Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea to free agency, but acquired Lamar Odom from the Lakers. If Odom can emerge from his season-long funk, they could go far.
3. Which teams will win the final playoff spots? The Trail Blazers own the eighth position right now, but just four games separate six teams pursuing the final three berths. Our rooting interest is with Minnesota, which had the worst record in the league in 2010-11, but could surge behind big men Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic and the electric Ricky Rubio.
Predicted order of finish
7. Trail Blazers