The NBA regular season is a Western Conference production so far. While the Heat and Knicks pace the relatively weaker East, the West provides so many teams that could at least qualify for third in the other conference.
It's not hard to imagine the Thunder, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Warriors, Wolves, Jazz, Nuggets and Rockets as teams that could all plausibly snag an Eastern Conference third seed, were they shifted towards the Atlantic Ocean in the categorical sense.
Not only is the competition level out West high, but there's parity in the upper half as well. While it's difficult to see, say, the Thunder getting felled by an underdog in the playoffs, all other plausible matchups are a near toss-up.
All statistics accurate through Dec. 23, 2012.
It gets bleak for the Bobs, and then it gets bleaker and bleaker. They've lost 15 in a row and now own the league's worst point differential. The good times were just too good to be true, sadly.
It's hard to be happy about much in the wreckage of all this, but I do love how Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been playing. It's hard to be a successful NBA player without a shot or decent handles.
Somehow, Kidd-Gilchrist is doing it. Over the past five games, he's averaging 29.4 minutes, 11.6 points, a .590 field-goal percentage and six boards. On the season, he's been an above-average player, with a defensive lapse here or there.
This kid might be better than any player who was on last year's Bobcats team. Hell, the 19-year-old might be better than any player on this Bobcats team.
This could be bottom for Washington, but they always seem to burrow deeper than the seventh circle. The Pistons absolutely blasted the Wizards on Friday night, 100-68. Yes, those Pistons, the ones with the .300 winning percentage.
When will the mediocrity treadmill end? I see Bradley Beal shooting 36 percent from the field and I'm reminded of how John Wall came in as an acceptable shooter, only to become a horrendous one in D.C. Where is the skill development? Where are the draft picks who improve and grow on a team that's supposedly building from the ground up?
On a slightly more positive note, this frontcourt isn't the worst. Emeka Okafor and Nene won't space the floor, but both are good players. If Wall ever comes back and plays with a healthy Okafor and Nene, this would look like a competent basketball team.
But it's a bit much to expect competence from a team that's more dysfunctional than the political process of the city from whence it hails.
I really fear for Anthony Davis on this Hornets team. He got a concussion early in the season, which caused coach Monty Williams to complain about the league's concussion policy, rather than express concern for his rookie.
Via ESPNChicago.com, William said: ''Now, they treat everybody like they have white gloves and pink drawers and it's getting old."
Then, in Tuesday's game against the Warriors, Davis fell and hit his head hard against Draymond Green's leg. Though he was clutching his skull in pain, the Hornets kept him in the game. Perhaps there's some excuse for why this happened, but I'm a little concerned, given the injury issues Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon have gone through.
Meanwhile, the Hornets have lost 11 in a row. It's not entirely surprising given their lack of health and lack of players who'll probably be in NBA uniforms next season.
Everybody wants Anderson Varejao traded to their team all of a sudden. It's that little-kid logic of, "You're not using (blank). Can I have (blank)?"
I'm not certain why the Cavs would want to make anyone else's title path easier, but the Andy-yearning is a testament to how well he's played this season. The mobile big man is snagging 14 rebounds to go with 14 points, and so long as he stays healthy, he is having an All-Star level year.
In theory, Andy plus Kyrie Irving should equal playoffs. In practice, both are perpetually hurt and they're surrounded by some awful teammates. As Varejao sits out some time with a knee contusion, much of his minutes are soaked up by the likes of Luke Walton. That's right, Walton played 24 minutes on Saturday against the Bucks.
Related: Did you know that Luke Walton is still in the league?
Yes, the Sacramento Kings won their last game, but it's hard to feel positive about this team in the wake of recent DeMarcus Cousins news. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, Cousins was suspended for "unprofessional behavior," which translates into a nasty yelling confrontation with Keith Smart.
At age 22, I doubt that DeMarcus Cousins is a lost cause. It's just that, given all that's happened in Sacramento, given ownership incompetence and ownership distractions, it's hard to envision Cousins panning out in Northern California. The kid has a lot of talent (he pretty much single-handedly beat the Warriors on Wednesday night), but one suspects that he might not be at the right age or temperament for such a bad basketball situation.
Then again, nobody should have to suffer playing for this ownership group.
How'd Phoenix do against the Clippers on Sunday night? Let's check the ol' Twitter feed:
How bad was it for the #Suns tonight? The Gorilla just fired the t-shirt cannon straight in the air and had the shirts land at his feet.— Chris O'Leary (@olearychris) December 24, 2012
Oof. In fairness to Phoenix, they were playing the Clippers, currently the NBA's hottest team. I don't even think the Suns are that bad; they just happen to be mediocre in a stacked conference. After Phoenix, we see a massive dropoff into the dregs that are New Orleans and Sacramento.
The Pistons have feasted on the Wizards, separating the awful from the merely mediocre. At home on Friday, Detroit killed Washington, 100-68. In Washington on Saturday, the Pistons won by a mere nine.
I find Lawrence Frank to be an intensely frustrating coach to watch, due to his lineup decisions. His players don't appear to share that sentiment as they continue to play hard, despite carrying far less talent than the average opponent.
There is, however, one particularly talented gentleman who's been drawing some attention outside Detroit this season. Andre Drummond continues to produce in abbreviated minutes, to the point where he's likely runner-up for Rookie of the Year consideration, if such awards were considered so early.
Why Frank plays him so little, nobody knows. But we do know that he's an incredibly fun to watch, rebounding, dunking, talent...oh, and that he loves Penguin movies.
It's been the same story for a while in these parts, but my, has the absence of Andrea Bargnani saved Toronto's season. Or perhaps, the Raptors were without Bargs after it was too late. Right now, they've won five in a row, and their point differential has crept back to a respectable minus-4.3.
The win streak (against admittedly bad teams) has corresponded with The Rise of Calderon. The Spanish ham farmer has been dishing and swishing like the days of old.
Against Detroit on Wednesday, he delivered 17 assists. Over the win streak, he's averaging .547 from the field and .409 from three. When healthy and not getting completely torched on defense, Calderon can be a force unto himself.
A lot of Philly fans railed against me when I noted the easy schedule in regards to their winning record. Well, this is why I was so cautiously pessimistic. The Sixers have lost six of seven, and while I give credit to them for waxing Atlanta and playing Brooklyn tough, that's still six of seven.
On the upside, Evan Turner looks a lot better this year. The 2010 No. 2 pick seemed like a lost cause these past two seasons, but he's really emerged as an actual, valuable contributor. Turner's true shooting still overs in the low 50s, but he's hitting enough shots to let his elite rebounding and fine passing stand out.
It's a shame that, in a season where Jrue Holiday and Turner have made significant strides, Andrew Bynum is nowhere to be seen. Save for his hair.
Like with Anderson Varejao, thousands of fans are suddenly wishing J.J. Redick onto their teams. Rare is the Twitter visit during a Magic game where I don't read, "Ya know, J.J. Redick could really help a team." Well, he is helping a team: the Orlando Magic.
Two close losses to Toronto and Utah have thrown it somewhat off course, but Orlando is much better than prognosticators (including myself) realized. Part of this is attributable to savvy shooter/defender types like Redick and Arron Afflalo.
The Magic will miss Glen Davis as he recuperates from a shoulder injury, but with their top-10 defense, they'll be able to fill many of the gaps.
Dallas got Dirk Nowitzki back, and that matters more than anything that happened in their 129-91 thrashing at the hands of San Antonio. Nowitzki didn't play much in his return to action, but he went 3-of-4 shots and got six rebounds on top of it.
They'll need the Dirk of old, and I'm talking 2010-2011, not last year's version. Dallas is a long ways from competing, and while making the playoffs is far from out of the question, they'll certainly need to work for it. The Timberwolves and Warriors are much improved from last year, and the other Western playoff teams have held their ground.
For the Mavericks to crack the rotation, they'll need to markedly improve from their current "fourth-worst point differential in the Western Conference" level.
Damian Lillard is taking over the world, one West Coast League Pass game that you're sleeping through at a time. The kid reminds of Chauncey Billups in his ability to run and pick-and-roll, shoot the three and be productive while rarely ending up in a highlight film.
Indeed, right now, the most interesting question in Portland is the one about Lillard's ceiling.
How good can a great 22-year-old rookie get? Since we did not necessarily see this kind of talent emerging from Weber State, it's hard to have a grounding in just how much Lillard has improved year to year. It's also difficult to project the growth of such a skillful operator.
Since we usually look at raw talent and envisage its development, Damian is befuddling because he appears already developed. Oh, and the Blazers won five in a row, then lost to the Kings. That's also hard to figure out.
I refuse to panic over this team, but I probably would think much of this squad, were I only judging by the numbers, produced by anonymous players. Since I have some faith in the Celtics' defense brand, in Garnett, Pierce and Rondo, I merely dismiss much of this regular-season floundering as a biding of time.
Except, I'm not exactly sure what I'm supposed to expect from this team in the first place. Last season, before a deep run in the playoffs, they weren't far from the quality of the .500 team we see before us. The Celtic strategy is always to saunter into the postseason and get the most out of a puncher's chance. So, we're probably cursed to overanalyzing a mediocre regular-season squad for whom the first 82 games barely matter.
The Celtics could still use a boost in the pre-postseason. They've lost four of their last five and aren't communicating effectively on defense. Perhaps the (possibly) imminent return of Avery Bradley (via CSN New England) will fix a lot of those problems.
Mediocre on defense, acceptable on offense, it's sometimes hard to form Jazz thoughts apart from, "When are the young guys playing?" and, "Wouldn't less of Al Jefferson help the defense?"
Oh, there are also questions like, "Wouldn't more of Gordon Hayward be nice?" and, "Whoa, so Jamaal Tinsley is still in the league?" The Jazz are confounding because they have all the unresolved issues and frustrations of a bottom dweller, but they made the playoffs last year and are on the fringes of the race this season.
They lack superstars, but that's possibly in part due to a four-big-man rotation that leaves no one with full minutes. It's quite possible under these circumstances that the Lakers will boast two All-Stars and not make the playoffs while the Jazz will boast none and make the postseason.
I'm probably unfair to the Bucks, because I increasingly hate watching them. Both "stars" in their backcourt produce field-goal percentages that look like batting averages. While Milwaukee may win the pennant this way, they aren't winning much else.
Now for the positive. Larry Sanders continues his reign of terror, beasting the Celtics for 20 rebounds and 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting. Best of all, Sanders prompted this tweet from a noted Boston Sports Guy:
Once upon a time, Larry Sanders owned the half-hour cable comedy format. Now he owns the Celtics.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 22, 2012
Hey now, those Larry Sanders Show jokes are never getting old, so long as the real life Sanders stays producing. No flipping when he's on the court.
The Lakers are on a winning streak, albeit an unimpressive one. They barely beat the Charlotte Bobcats at home, and then they eked out an overtime victory against the Warriors. Obviously, the Warriors are better than the Bobs, and the Lakers do deserve some credit for winning on the road.
But having watched the Golden State game closely, I saw reasons for concern.
First of all, Dwight Howard did not look like himself, picking up a quick five fouls and flinging ridiculously errant shots at the backboard. He's not healthy, and he's trying to get his hands to do the work his feet once did. Steve Nash notched 12 points and nine assists in his return, but he looked significantly slower than I'd ever seen him.
Also, Mike D'Antoni saw fit to give the middle-aged point guard 41 minutes in his first game back. This is a long-winded way of saying that the Lakers still appear to be a rickety ship, even if their luck has improved.
JaVale McGee is having an incredibly productive season, stat-wise. The numbers don't quite match up with observation, though. JaVale continues to compromise his team's defense by helping when he shouldn't. It's something to watch, as the Karl-JaVale dynamic is one of the points of interest with this team.
The Nuggets are responding well to the better schedule, taking four of the last five. That one loss was against the Portland Trail Blazers, and it was brutal. Denver went 0-of-22 from three-point land and lost by eight. Even mediocre deep shooting would have secured the victory.
Even though that game was mostly the result of bad luck, it spoke to a nagging issue for the Nuggets: This isn't one of the better-shooting teams around.
Much (deserved) focus has been on Deron Williams' shaky shooting, but he's been better of late. In the last five games, he is .385 from three, on 5.2 attempts per contest. I'd still prefer that Williams shot from the outside less and got to the line more, but at least he's bounced back from a fairly hideous slump.
For a guy who was traded for the No. 6 pick, Gerald Wallace has been a disappointment. He's under a 15.0 PER (league average), and he's made five shots in his last two games. If the Nets are ever going to justify that trade, 3-of-7 and 2-of-7 nights aren't going to cut it.
Right now, the move towards a core of Williams-Johnson-Wallace-Lopez seems beyond questionable.
The Pacers have feasted on some relatively weak competition to claw their way back into Eastern Conference respectability. They continue to be a top defensive team, on account of the skills and communication between David West, Roy Hibbert and Paul George. The latter two players in that defensive equation have been offensive disappointments, to say the least.
This is where we're at with the Pacers, and it doesn't look like it's changing. They're an awesome defensive team, a horrid offensive team, and they lack the star power to go far in the playoffs should they even make it to the postseason.
Much of their money has been spent on free agents, and they're stuck with this low-ceiling squad for quite some time. At least they have a low floor, I suppose.
Fear this team, even if Ricky Rubio is, let's face it, adorable. Though they went against a Kevin Martin-less Oklahoma City, the Wolves showed what they're capable of by decisively beating OKC on national TV.
Also, can you imagine a worse matchup out West for the Thunder? Andrei Kirilenko will never shut down Kevin Durant, but he's the prototypical player to guard him. Ricky Rubio can defend athletic, sizable point guards, which should help with Russell Westbrook. Finally, Kevin Love can exploit some weaknesses in Serge Ibaka's defense by drawing him far from the paint.
I'm not sure whom I'd choose in a series between these two, but I'm inclined to believe the Wolves are a first-round match of which OKC wants no part.
The Timberwolves most recently lost an away game to the Knicks on Sunday, but it's not the worst defeat if you dig deeper. Rubio is still working his way back, which forced Minnesota to play J.J. Barea 38 minutes. Kevin Love missed the game after suffering a poke to the eye. Also, the Wolves were in control for most of this one before ceding a late New York rally.
When a team dominates Boston, beats the Knicks and then gets thrashed by the Hawks, what do you make of it? I personally make that this is a sampling of quite even Eastern Conference teams and should expect almost any result. Chicago has earned fourth place in this Eastern Conference hodgepodge of playoff squads, boasting the fourth-best point differential to go along with the fourth-best record.
It's amazing that Chicago is winning games, considering that they're not getting above-average backcourt play from anyone. I suppose playing Luol Deng over 40 minutes and Joakim Noah around 40 minutes buys you a lot.
This team is currently showing that you can be successful in the NBA without guards, leading me to conclude that the frontcourt positions are more essential...generally speaking.
Holy efficiency, James Harden had quite the week. On Monday against the Knicks, he had 28 points on 18 shots. On Wednesday against the Sixers, he had 33 points on 12 shots. On Saturday against the Grizzlies, he had 31 points on 13 shots.
The last performance against the Grizzlies was the most impressive. The Grizz have a top defense and a habit of manhandling perimeter players. By working Memphis, Harden showed that he could do it against any competition.
Right now, Harden should be an All-Star lock, which is funny considering that his former team hasn't missed a beat since trading him. It looks like Harden found a situation where he could help a team much more than he was helping the Thunder.
What? The mighty Golden State Warriors aren't invincible? They've done a commendable job in playing well without Andrew Bogut or Brandon Rush, but the past week brought some reality back to the Bay.
Their defensive approach of not showing hard on screens is as much a way to compensate for a lack of defensively able big men as it is sound strategy. While it's not quite "smoke and mirrors," it's close.
Golden State has also had issues on the wing, where Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes have bright futures, but spotty production this season. Both Thompson and Barnes have PERs below the 15.0 average, but for different reasons.
Barnes struggles to assert himself, sometimes hanging back when he should be driving or getting open off the ball. Thompson presses too much, too often slinging shots when his teammates are open. If the Warriors are going to make some noise in the West, they need one of these guys to improve.
What a bipolar team we have here. The Hawks get blown out by Philadelphia, then scrape Chicago in the next game. In the broader scope, the Hawks have been inconsistent since playing spectacularly over their 11-of-13 win stretch that served as a bridge between November and December. Atlanta as an elite team just felt too good to be true...and probably was.
Over that recent inconsistent stretch, the magnificent Al Horford has had some curiously bad games. Over three games (Sixers, Thunder and Wizards), Horford shot 9-of-35. It could just be the rhythms of the season, but one wonders if Big Al is still feeling his way back from a tough injury.
My, Marc Gasol's been quiet of late. If we're talking, "best centers now that Dwight Howard doesn't look right," Gasol is certainly part of that conversation. But it's hard to make his case when he puts up 10.8 points and two assists over his last five games.
The Grizzlies have been playing well, a recent Rockets whomping notwithstanding. The normally stingy perimeter defense got carved up by Houston's mix of pick-and-roll and threes. It's something to watch for, should these teams face off in an early playoff round.
In last year's playoffs, Zach Randolph's reflexes weren't all there, probably due to his injury layoff. His hands are back now, as is his timing on those modest leaps. Z-Bo is currently claiming 21 percent of available rebounds, good for a career high.
Back in the mid-to-late aughts, San Antonio demolished Phoenix. Then, later, under the radar, San Antonio became Phoenix. I think back to this after the Spurs rocked Dallas 129-91. Popovich's team hit the Mavericks up for 20 three-pointers on 30 attempts, a figure befitting of a Mike D'Antoni squad.
San Antonio is fourth in three-point shooting, and the Spurs are just as inclined to space the floor as they are to pound it down low with Tim Duncan. In fact, Timmy is an important orchestrator of the kind of free-flowing offense that finds three-point shooters.
Speaking of Duncan, he's having his best season in years. Though playing abbreviated time, he's in that 20 points, 12 rebounds range per 36 minutes. Considering his age, his productivity and style have been incredible.
The Knicks have kept winning, but they aren't playing at quite the level they were earlier this season. There are some warning signs, indicators that a romp to a No. 1 seed might not be so easy.
Raymond Felton's shoot-firsting was fine when he was nailing his shots, but as he's regressed to the mean, it's become a source of frustration. Felton is .167 on threes in his past five games, and he's averaging a whopping 17.8 shots per game in that span.
Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler remain golden, but the other guys on the roster are beginning to be an aggregate issue for New York. Jason Kidd is reverting back to play befitting a middle-aged man. Ronnie Brewer is fading into oblivion. J.R. Smith often looks like the most sane person on offense.
The Knicks are a good team, but this stretch is a reminder that it's not always so easy.
Slowly but surely, Miami has crawled out of its defensive funk (Note: "Defensive Funk" would make for a terrible genre of music). After spending much of the season in the bottom third of the defensive rankings, Miami now ranks No. 12 in defensive efficiency (via ESPN.com). Getting Joel Anthony more involved has helped, as has a renewed team focus in general.
Anthony has been a godsend to the struggling D, but it comes at a cost. The Heat like to play with as many shooters on the floor as possible, spacing the area for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade drives. If Anthony helps the defense, the offense is likely to suffer some.
Speaking of Wade, he's been playing better lately. Over the past five games, he's shooting 55 percent. Wade's playing less and shooting less than in years past, but his efficiency is creeping back to old levels.
They finally lost! Though, it was on the road and Kevin Martin wasn't suited up. It's going to take a lot to convince me that this isn't the prohibitive Western Conference favorite...not against the field, but close.
OKC's not No. 1 this week, but that's merely because the team ahead of them is playing a better brand of regular-season ball. In the playoffs, I still like the Thunder out West.
If I'm nitpicking basketball's scariest team so far, it'd be nice if Kendrick Perkins got even less playing time (Note: 85th time I've said that) and also if Russell Westbrook was shooting a bit better. Russ has been a more perceptive point guard this season, averaging a little under nine assists per game. That's great, but he's also shooting near 40 percent and taking his fair share of attempts (18.3 per game).
As you can see below, a lot of Westbrook's misses are coming from mid-range, and he's only above average in two shooting zones (Note: Green is above average, Yellow is average, and Red is below average):
They're great; it's time to stop equivocating. It's time to stop dismissing the stretch as resulting from an easy schedule...not when the Clippers are blowing teams out to the tune of the NBA's biggest margin of victory.
It's time to stop assuming that Vinny Del Negro will run this operation into the ground. The Clippers are legitimate until proven otherwise—they've earned that. If this was a franchise by any other name, we might be declaring them the title favorites.
Also, I found this to be an interesting point from a Twitter follower:
@sherwoodstrauss Clippers feel like a really bad matchup for LA.— Brad (@callmebradeh) December 23, 2012
The chances are against these two teams playing each other, but it's true that one L.A. team seems an awful matchup for the other. Eric Bledsoe guarding a brittle, slowed Steve Nash? Sounds like a snuff film. Pau and tender-back Dwight guarding Blake Griffin? Ouch.
Oh, and the Clippers still have the kind of point guard who feasts on L.A.'s shaky pick-and-roll defense (i.e. the best point guard there is).