Western Conference not making things easy on Wolves

The NBA’s 1989 expansion continues to be unkind to the

Minnesota Timberwolves.

One-fourth of the way through the season — that was quick,

wasn’t it? — the Western Conference has been as wild, wide-open and whacky as

predicted. The Timberwolves find themselves reaching for the bottom rung of the

postseason ladder, which for a franchise bearing a nine-year playoff drought

marks improvement.

Especially when they’re grouped in this half of the NBA.

Had things shaken out differently when the Timberwolves

entered the league, perhaps they’d be grouped in the Eastern Conference, where

their 11-11 record would have them slotted in the third or fourth playoff spot

(they might even sport a better mark without facing so many Western foes) at

the moment. But as history stands, East member Orlando Magic began play the

same year as Minnesota, meaning the Twin Cities’ team drew the short end of the

conference affiliation stick.

The travel and the schedule are enough to get coach Rick

Adelman going on a multiple-minutes rant.

But when the West is this competitive — and the East, with

two teams over .500, is not — it makes the Timberwolves’ conference lot look

even less attractive.

As Adelman likes to point, “there’s nothing you can do

about it.”

Nothing you can do about running frequently into three

four-loss teams at the top of the Western Conference standings, including San

Antonio on Friday. Nothing you can do about nine teams ahead of Minnesota that

are better than .500. Nothing you can do about the fact that Golden State and

Memphis, two dark horse conference champion contenders, are behind

rebuilding-mode Phoenix in the standings — a phenomenon that’s likely to

change.

Nothing you can do except win, particularly the manageable

matchups — see this week’s back-to-back against Philadelphia and Detroit —

while stealing one against the top tier here and there.

That’s a call easier asked than answered.

A look around the Western Conference ahead of the

Timberwolves’ Friday night clash with the Spurs.

3 at the top

Minnesota’s victory Nov. 1 over Oklahoma City seems like

eons ago.

As expected, the return of Russell Westbrook since then from

a torn meniscus has vaulted the Thunder to the top of the Western Conference

standings. Westbrook’s 18 games have wrought 21.2 points and 6.4 assists an

outing, while Kevin Durant leads the league in scoring at 28.4 points per game.

Since falling 100-81 at that Target Center in the second game of the season,

Oklahoma City has won 16 of its past 19 — including a 113-103 pull-away from

the Timberwolves on Dec. 1 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

But the Thunder aren’t alone.

Defending conference champ San Antonio continues to defy all

logic surrounding age and wear, entering Friday with the same 17-4 mark as

Oklahoma City and relying heavily on Tim Duncan, 37, Manu Ginobili, 36, and

Tony Parker, 31 — the same trio that helped the Spurs to their second NBA

championship 10 years ago and have won two more since then. San Antonio is

outscoring its opponents 102.9-92.8 points per game.

And then there’s Portland, which Minnesota hosts Wednesday

after a three-game road swing against San Antonio, Boston and Memphis. The

Trail Blazers are making the move many thought they could this season early and

vigorously. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are one of the league’s best

one-two punches and both average more than 20 points per game.

Those three franchises look awfully formidable, and only the

Spurs appear in danger of fatiguing as the season rolls along. But even that

possibility seems unlikely with the way Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli, Tiago

Splitter, Boris Diaw and Danny Green have carried  the load at times.

This conference, though, is far from merely top-heavy.

Loaded Southwest

When 2013 No. 5 playoff seed Memphis — which,

personnel-wise, is almost a carbon copy of last year’s roster — sits in last

place in the Southwest Division with a 10-11 record, it’s pretty clear what a

meat-grinder this grouping has become.

The Spurs’ presence alone renders the Grizzlies, Rockets,

Mavericks and Pelicans’ schedules rather taxing. But all five organizations are

showing signs of vitality in the early going.

Dwight Howard appears to be working out in Houston thus far,

ranking behind only Kevin Love in rebounds per game with 13.4 and shooting 56.3

percent from the floor. The Rockets have lost back-to-back games just once and

are benefiting from a business-as-usual James Harden, whose 24.6 points per

game are fifth among NBA scorers.

Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki continue to keep Dallas’ hopes

at a return to the postseason afloat. The young, flashy Pelicans are still

gelling but have six players scoring in double figures and are .500 — a good

place to be for a remade franchise hoping to make a push at some point this

season.

And the Grizzlies have to figure it out at some point, don’t

they?

Despite returning almost everyone from its 2013 Western

Conference Finals run, Memphis is still a work in progress under coach Dave

Joerger. The lockdown defense that procured a franchise-record 56 wins last

year is still there (opponents are scoring 97 points per game against the

Grizzlies, good for seventh in the NBA) but are one of the league’s poorer

rebounding teams.

Center Marc Gasol has missed the last eight games with an

MCL sprain and remains out indefinitely. Leading scorer Mike Conley is

producing just 17.7 points per game.

But if Memphis gets going and New Orleans keeps improving,

watch out. The Southwest will be even deeper than it already is.

Clipping along

One of the West’s other primary powers, the Los Angeles

Clippers have experienced both prosperity and problems so far this year.

They’re 15-9 and currently sit 4 1/2 games back of Portland for the Western

Conference lead — a position many, including Doc Rivers’ bunch itself, saw as

a realistic goal before the season.

Chris Paul has been magnificent as usual, leading the NBA in

assists and ranking second in while scoring 18.9 points per game. Blake Griffin

has added a step-back jumper to his game and is shooting better than 50 percent

while scoring more than 20 points per game. Jamal Crawford is a fiend off the

bench, as the Timberwolves learned in two November losses to the Clippers.

But Minnesota also saw that Los Angeles can be vulnerable.

The Timberwolves nearly upset the Clippers on their home

floor and lost to them by just four at home. Injuries to Matt Barnes, J.J.

Redick and Reggie Bullock have limited Los Angeles’ once-bountiful depth, and

Rivers has had to implore his players to improve their body language at times.

But a team with as much firepower as the Clippers is always

going to be dangerous, so long as Paul and Griffin stay healthy.

The “other” team in Los Angeles, meanwhile, is

10-11 and basking in the glow of Kobe Bryant’s return from an Achilles tendon

injury. But the Lakers are a building team at this point, waiting to make a

significant overhaul next year in hopes of one more Kobe-led title run.

Other developments

In no particular order of importance:

— Despite boasting the league’s second-lowest payroll,

Phoenix is a surprising 12-9 and currently mans the West’s No. 7 playoff spot,

one ahead of Golden State. Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and the Morris twins have

been solid, but a cushy schedule that’s included Utah three times, Charlotte

Orlando and Toronto is about to get significantly tougher. The Suns, despite

their good start, don’t resemble a playoff team.

— As Timberwolves fans know all too well, the Denver

Nuggets are off to a decent start despite significant organizational turnover

that included the departure of their general manager and head coach. But Ty

Lawson, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and friends still create some

significant matchup problems for some teams, including Minnesota, which has

lost to Denver twice by a combined 11 points.

— New Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro isn’t sitting

on his haunches, waiting for next summer’s bumper-crop draft. The first-year

personnel czar has negotiated trades for former Timberwolves forward Derrick

Williams and short-lived Raptors star Rudy Gay. Once-proud Sacramento is 6-14

and a long way from rejoining the league’s upper tier, but it’s certainly not

waiting to try and do something about it.

Where the Wolves fit in

With eight back-to-backs in the first six weeks of the

season and a November-December slate that includes the Clippers three times,

Oklahoma City twice, Indiana, Miami and Houston, the Timberwolves have done

their best to keep expectations within reason before the New Year.

Love said the goal is to stay at or near .500 through this

month, then take advantage of a less-challenging January schedule to make a

move in the standings.

But losses like Minnesota suffered Nov. 19 at Washington

(9-11) can’t happen. Sustained success will depend on winning each winnable

game while sprinkling in an upset on the Western side of things.

The Timberwolves missed out on two prime opportunities to

execute the latter against the Clippers. Their next chance comes Friday in the

Lone Star State.

Follow Love’s plan, and a No. 7 or 8 playoff seed remains

attainable. Fail, and remain a victim of the big, bad West.

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