Again, terrible name…my bad
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1. Oklahoma City Thunder
We know…Post Harden, Post-Martin, they might be the strongest they’ve ever been
But…What will happen when Russell Westbrook returns?
With no Westbrook we have been treated to an Old Country Score Buffet by Kevin Durant that has been the most entertaining stretch of basketball by any player in the league thus far. KD scored 30 in 12 consecutive games including 48 @Utah, 37 @Memphis, 54 vs GSW, 46 vs Portland, 36 @San Antonio, 41 vs ATL, and 33 in a duel against Lebron James. But enough jibberjabber about KD, we’ve known he can score. What’s better is the young guys have been stepping up without Westbrook in the lineup. Jeremy Lamb’s scoring has increased every month so far and his outside shooting is a huge upgrade from the stinkbombs Thebo punts up there every night. Steven Adams has been tough down low, cutting into Kendrick Perkins’ minutes and getting under everyone’s skin when he’s out there. Reggie Jackson, put back into a starting role, is proving last year’s playoff performance was no fluke. This team has matured from being two uber-talented future HOFers to one of the deepest teams in the league. But what happens when Russell returns? Luckily, with the versatility, length, and athleticism of the team’s top players, Jackson and Westbrook can be on the court at the same time. Lamb and Adams will lose minutes come playoff time but that is more a product of their young, unpolished games (especially Adams although I love this dude) than RW’s return. In any case, OKC remains my favorite to come out of the West.
2. San Antonio Spurs
We know…They can win regular season games regardless of who suits up
But…Are they going to be healthy enough when the playoffs come?
I’m not a doctor so I can’t realistically answer this question, but it does concern me that Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter and Manu Ginobili (expected) have all missed considerable time. But it isn’t those guys I’m worried about. They are all young and/or used to missing time and will bounce back healthy, it’s Tim Duncan though that has had to pick up the scraps. He has only sat three games this year (he missed 13 last year) after battling through a long playoff run. He needs to sit more but therein lies the problem. The Spurs need a top seed to ensure home court advantage and can’t do that right now without playing Duncan. But playing Duncan could mean a lesser version of him come playoff time where they will need him most. It’s a bit of a Catch-22. As soon as those guys come back I anticipate seeing Timmy in a lot of suits.
3. Portland Trailblazers
We know…They are a legitimate team
But…Can they actually fight for a title?
While Portland is the most offensively efficient team in the league they rank 21st in defensive efficiency. To put that in perspective they are ranked right around Cleveland, Detroit, and both New York teams. That isn’t going to be good enough to win a title. To fix this they could trade for Omer Asik but Houston has backed off of shopping him and Portland seems content with keeping their current group of guys. Another sneaky stat: Portland has four guys in the top-15 in Total Distance Traveled according to NBA.com’s player tracking data (it tracks the number of miles covered during games). The only other teams with multiple players clocked that high are the Warriors and Clippers (2 each).That’s a lot of mileage, literally. Even though they are young, this could come back to haunt them late in the season.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
We know…Blake CAN lead this team as its number one option.
But…will they make a move?
Since Chris Paul injured his shoulder Blake Griffin has been a beast. His usage numbers are up, he’s averaged 25/8/4 in January and the team is 10-3 (albeit against mostly Eastern Conference a.k.a D-league teams). But most people still think this team is one move away from winning four playoff series. The most likely option is trading Jamal Crawford. He’s averaged 20/4 since the CP3 injury and has always been a great secondary ball handler and elite heat-check option off the bench. I’m not sure who they might get for him but they NEED a third big man before the playoffs start. Griffin and Jordan are both having career years but come playoff time they will need one more guy in their frontcourt rotation.
5. Houston Rockets
We know…They have star power and phenomenal shooting.
But…Quietly this team has serious questions….EVERYWHERE!!!
Dwight has maturity issues (although they have not surfaced in Houston yet), their coach runs very few offensive sets, and James Harden might be the worst defensive player in the league. If this team wants to contend these have to change, especially James Harden. Name the last team to win a championship when their star player was also their worst defender…go ahead…take all the time you need…
6. Phoenix Suns
We know…They have serious young talent and a reason to be positive about the future
But…Should they continue exploiting that now or put it on the shelf for next year?
This team defies all logic and reason. They are 10 games above .500 and your average NBA fan probably can’t name multiple players on this team. Rookie coach Jeff Hornacek has gotten every single ounce of talent and effort out of these players, it’s incredible to watch. Unfortunately though they come across as the only team in the Western conference playoff race that has no chance of stealing a series. When a team has nothing to do except game plan to stop your strengths, is an offense predicated on Goran Dragic drive-and-kicks going to be enough? Do you think Gerald Green is still going to be a 25 point threat when games slow down? I don’t think so. With that being said I 100% believe they should keep fighting and avoid tanking at all costs. They are finally giving hope to a fan base that hasn’t had a pulse since the 7 seconds or less Steve Nash teams.
7. Golden State Warriors
We know…they have a ton of pieces
But…can they put it together to make a championship run?
When listing the “best” teams in the league GSW always comes to mind around #5-6 for me yet they are still only the seventh seed in the West. Other than losing Iguodala for a little bit they haven’t had to overcome injuries…they have a legitimate star player…they have a defensive anchor…they are young yet have as much confidence as everyone else…what’s the deal? Part of it is the development of Harrison Barnes. He has been relegated to the bench (after starting 81 games last year) and hasn’t responded in his new role. His numbers are down across the board and the emerging force we saw in last year’s playoffs hasn’t made a peep in months. Hopefully the Jordan Crawford trade will give Barnes another offensive running mate on that second unit. Draymond Green has looked solid but is far from an offensive threat at this point in his career.
8. Dallas Mavericks
We know…Carlisle is as good a coach as any in the league
But…How much time does Dirk have?
Somehow Rick Carlisle has made Monta Ellis into a more efficient player and the pairing of him and Jose Calderon hasn’t hemorrhaged points. It’s a modern day miracle! But this team, as well ran as it is, is not a contender and Nowitzki doesn’t have much more time playing at this level. I just hope to see one more playoff run from Dirk but I don’t think the current lineup will give him that chance.
9. Memphis Grizzlies
We know…Can defend, can’t score
But…what will Marc Gasol’s return mean?
Gasol’s injury coupled with a slow start has the Grizzlies on the outside of people’s peripheral vision but they are 8-1 since Gasol returned. Their defense is as stout as ever and if they can claw back into the playoffs (currently two games out) they will still be one of the hardest outs in the league. No one wants to fight them in the first round because, win or lose, you will leave that series bruised and battered.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
We know…Kevin Love can play…
But…can anyone else?
They were finally granted a sustained stretch of good health and the results were undeniably disappointing. Here is a legitimate question though: Other than Kevin Love is anyone on this team top ten in the league at their position? Due to his historically bad shooting and the ocean level depths of talent at point guard in the NBA right now Ricky Rubio absolutely is not. Pekovic might be in the top ten numbers wise but talent wise there are ten centers I’d rather have than him (don’t believe me check the footnote). Kevin Martin has a great shot but is a below average secondary ball handler (considering the depth at point guard a lot of teams play with two on the court at the same time) and is a terrible defender. If they want to keep Love when his contract is up, they MUST upgrade his supporting cast.
11. Denver Nuggets
We know…they have had a ton of personnel issues.
But…is it really worth the fight?
McGee and Gallinari have missed the entire year, Chandler has been hurt, Faried’s minutes have fluctuated wildly, Andre Miller wants out, Nate Rob is out for the season…it’s been a tough follow up to last year’s 50-win season. They have no chance of making the playoffs so why not move a couple of these guys and tank. Chandler and Faried might garner phone calls, ditch Miller for anything you can get. Let them go and start anew.
12. New Orleans Pelicans
13. Utah Jazz
14. Los Angeles Lakers
15. Sacramento Kings
We know…They can’t make the playoffs
But…What do they have to look forward to next year?
New Orleans has the best player under-20 in the world (yeah I said it) and enough pieces to where they could easily be the 3 seed in the East (yeah I said that too). Utah almost has an entire starting lineup under 23 years old but may have made a mistake waiting until the offseason to resign Gordon Heyward. LA Lakers have…Kobe?…and some cap space in their near future? And Sac-Town has a surging Demarcus Cousins. Seriously, look at his numbers the past couple month. I think he will make the leap into elite player next year.
 For a classic example of addition by subtraction.
 Hibbert, Howard, Gasol, Horford, Drummond, Brook Lopez, Cousins, and Noah before you even consider Pek. There’s still DeAndre Jordan, Al Jefferson, Andrew Bogut and a slew of power forwards who can play both like Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka that I would rather have than Pekovic.