With the end of January fast approaching and the NBA All-Star Game on the horizon, what better time to assess the Western Conference. Let's look at the teams and players that make up this highly competitive conference and see if the Spurs should be concerned about these teams heading into the second half of the season. The usual top teams are doing what they normally do, but a couple young teams, and crop of fresh young talent, has made the West not only more exciting, but more competitive than ever.
Before the season started, two teams were picked to come out of the West -- the Spurs and Lakers. And while it has taken the Spurs nearly half the season to finally catch on, sort of, the Lakers hit the ground running. The Lake show jumped out to an incredible 17-3 record in their first twenty games and never looked back. They are currently hold an absurd 32-11 record and are 3.5 games up on the second place Denver Nuggets for first place in the West.
Kobe Bryant is having another MVP caliber season. He has played in all 41 games for the Lakers and is averaging 28.3 points per game, fourth best in the league. Pau Gasol may be averaging a career low in points per game with 16.8, but he’s averaging a career high in rebounds with 11.1 per game. Gasol has missed 17 games this season due to injury, but don’t sleep on him. He is still one of the best low post scorers in the game. Gasol’s partner in crime in the paint, Andrew Bynum, is continuing down the path of eventually becoming an All Star. He’s averaging a career high 15.4 points per game. But Bynum isn’t all about the points. He adds a tough, physical presence in the paint, and his two blocks per game is a main reason the Lake Show is ranked second in defense in the NBA. As much as it angers me and Spurs Nation to say this, expect to see the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
Should Spurs fans be afraid of meeting the Lakers in the playoffs? Of course not! As long as the Silver and Black have Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich coaching, we should fear no team. However, the Lakers are tall and athletic and have one of the best closers in the game in Kobe Bryant. But I’ll take the Spurs bench over the Lakers bench any day. In a seven game series, it’ll come down to injuries. If Gasol can remain healthy and Tony Parker can get through the pain of his planter fasciitis, then expect a thrilling seven game series.
The Lakers aren’t the only team tearing up the Pacific division. After missing the playoffs last season, the Phoenix Suns jumped out to a 15-5 record behind the brilliant play of former MVP Steve Nash. Nash, who was recently named a starter for the All Star team, is playing perhaps the best ball of his career. He is averaging 18.6 points and 11.2 rebounds a game, the exact same averages from the 2005-2006 season when he was named MVP. Amare Stoudemire, who will start with Nash at the All Star game, is playing terrific basketball averaging 21 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Also, the addition of Channing Frye has been huge for the Suns. Frye is playing his best ball since he was with Knicks back in 2006.
Alvin Gentry has done a great job as coach, allowing Steve Nash to run the offense the way Mike D’Antoni ran it before he left to the New York Knicks. But the Suns are beginning to cool. Despite having the number one ranked offense in the league, they are second to last in defensive efficiency. After the 15-5 start, the Suns are currently 26-19, holding the seventh seed in the West.
Even though the Suns have two All Stars in Nash and Stoudemire, as well as the number one offense, their inability to get stops at the end of games will eventually be their down fall. The Spurs will be able to go bucket for bucket with the Suns, and at the end of the game, when it’s necessary to get a stop, it’ll be the Silver and Black who come through on the defensive end.
Even though they have been plagued with injuries all year, the Blazers still have one of the best closers in the game in Brandon Roy. Roy is having the best season of his young career averaging a career high 23 points per game. However, no matter how great Roy is playing, he won’t be able to do it alone. It will be up to Nate McMillan to figure out how to deal with injuries that have left the Blazers looking for help in the front court. Joel Przybilla and former number one overall draft pick Greg Oden are both out for the season with knee injuries. Also, forward Travis Outlaw will miss 3-5 months after undergoing foot surgery. It’ll be up to former Texas Longhorn LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, and 16 year NBA veteran Juwan Howard to help Roy lead the Blazers back to the playoffs. The currently are 26-18, holding the fourth seed.
The Blazers are hungry. Every game they play you can see that hunger in their eyes. They play fast, aggressive basketball, and with Roy on the court, never count the Blazers out. The lack of depth in their frontcourt is what will hurt them the most in the playoffs. Especially, when the game slows down, and buckets are needed in the half court. Aldridge will have to play big for the Blazers to beat the Spurs.
The Utah Jazz seem to have the Spurs number this season. They swept the Spurs this season, winning all four games. At the beginning of the season, all eyes were on Carlos Boozer. After having a troubled offseason in which he demanded a trade, Boozer seems to have put that all behind him and is averaging a double-double with 19.3 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. Deron Williams is also averaging 19.3 points per game, but he is dishing 9.7 dimes per contest. Also, the play of Paul Millsap has been great. Millsap is instant energy of the bench. He is unafraid to dive for loose balls and is always willing to commit on the defensive end.
The Jazz are currently in sixth place in the West with a 25-18 record. But don’t think that’s where they’ll stay. Jerry Sloan is a master at midseason adjustments and great at understanding the character of his team. This Jazz team has been together for quite some time now and Sloan knows what he has to do to make sure his team gets into the playoffs.
Watch out for the Jazz in the playoffs. Not only can they spread the floor with Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko, but in the half court, Williams and Boozer run the pick and roll as well as anyone in the league. They also play good defense and have great young bench. Although this team has been together for a long time, this is not the same team that the Spurs rolled over in the 2007 Western conference finals. The Spurs will have to play great perimeter defense and limit their turnovers to beat this team in a seven game series.
Carmelo Anthony is not your typical MVP candidate. But understand this -- Carmelo is the Most Valuable Player to his team. Without him, the Nuggets don’t make the post-season. Carmelo is without a doubt playing the best ball of his career. He’s playing with a confidence and swagger that we’ve never seen before. He’s playing like everyone thought he would when he was taken third overall in the 2003 draft, averaging a staggering 29.7 points per game. And because of his outstanding play, Anthony will start beside Tim Duncan at the 2010 All Star game.
It seems the whole Nuggets roster is playing with confidence. Chauncey Billups is having one is best statistical seasons ever averaging 18.9 points and 5.7 assist, while Nene is averaging 14.2 points per game, shooting a ridiculous 58 percent from the field. J.R. Smith is one of the top candidates for sixth man of the year, averaging 14.9 points per game. The Nuggets are 29-14 and are 3.5 games behind the Lakers for the top spot in the West. If the Lakers don’t look out, the Nuggets could grab that number one spot.
The Spurs should definitely watch out for the Nuggets in the playoffs. This isn’t the same team we beat three different times in the playoffs. They play better overall defense and Billups is always a matchup nightmare for Parker. Without Bruce Bowen, the Spurs will have to throw different defenders at Carmelo. Will Pop use George Hill to defend Carmelo should they face in the playoffs?
The feel good story of the year has to be the Oklahoma City Thunder, and they begin and end with Kevin Durant. Durant is having a breakout season, and should make his first All Star game this season. He is averaging 29.3 points a game, which is third in the league. Head Coach Scott Brooks is doing a great job of developing young players like Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green. The Thunder have young trio of talent, and if they make the playoffs can definitely give any team a run for their money.
As crazy as this sounds, the Thunder are a team the Spurs should be weary of come playoff time. Durant gives the Spurs lots of matchup problems and the Thunder are ranked fifth in defensive efficiency. However, their youth and inexperience will be their undoing if they make playoffs.
There were a lot of questions concerning the Dallas Mavericks before the season started. Some felt most of their players were on the wrong side of thirty. Others thought they were too small in the front court. But the Mavs have done a great job of quieting all their preseason doubters. They are led by MVP candidate Dirk Nowitzki, who continues to do what he does best, score. Jason Terry is perhaps front runner for sixth man of the year, averaging 16.2 points off the bench. And the acquisition of Shawn Marion this offseason has helped the Mavericks spread the floor more than ever, allowing Jason Kidd to shred apart opposing defenses.
As good as the Mavs seem this season, Spurs fans should want to play them in the postseason. Spurs fans should want revenge for last season’s first round knockout. Dirk is always going to get his 25 points, but if the Spurs can play aggressive defense on Kidd, and shoot high percentage shots in the paint, we can have our vengeance. Dallas is 29-15 and are currently third in the West.
Three other teams that could make the playoffs are the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Hornets and the Memphis Grizzlies. Yes, I said the Memphis Grizzlies. Zach Randolph seems to have found a place where he can flourish. And in Houston, Aaron Brooks is balling out of his mind. Look for Brooks to possibly make the All Star team. As long as Chris Paul is wearing a Hornets jersey, never count them out.
In the West, only 8.5 games separate the eighth seed from the top spot. With one loss, any team can go from making the playoffs to out of the playoffs. So let’s sit back and enjoy the ride that is the Western Conference and hope the Spurs can make a push and challenge for the top spot in the Western Conference.