This is a repost of my current column in the sidebar over at BlazersEdge. Hopefully that fact doesn't render it too spammy for inclusion here. I figured that the content was of general interest and that doing it like this was superior to a FanShot linking to a piece three times this long...
Watch out for those Grizzlies, I tell ya!
(whoops, too late...)
Well, January 1 means another month is in the rearview mirror. Two months down and 3-1/2 to go... It's time again to take a look around The Only Conference That Matters to see who's up, who's down, and who's stuck in the cellar because they're the Sacramento Kings... Yes, it's time for
(Through games of December 31, 2010...)
1. San Antonio Spurs (28-4)
Rank Last Month: 2
December Record: (13-2)
December Wins: T-wolves, Hornets, Warriors, Hawks, Blazers, Bucks, AT Nuggets, Grizzlies, Suns, Nuggets, Wizards, Lakers, AT Mavericks.
December Losses: AT Clippers, AT Magic.
Comments: Before anyone goes anointing Grandpa Bankshot and Tiger Parker and The Hairpiece as Western Conference champs, bear in mind this elderly team's 13 win December was puffed up with a ludicrous 11 home games. On the road, these guys were a mortal 2 wins and 2 losses for the month, including a big L to the mighty Clips. Popovich & Co. have recently proven they've got the ability to roll into Dallas and beat a Dirk-free Maverick team, 99-93. Color me unwowwed. Home and away wins against the Nuggets are nice, and SAS put the fear of Jee-uh-zuz into the staggering Lakers with a 15-point smackdown, but talk to me at the end of February when the NBA schedule catches up with the angel cake sugar fluff bunny sprinkles of a schedule that this team has had to thus far navigate... I have NEVER liked the Spurs and it thoroughly pains me to slot them #1 in the Western Conference, however briefly — but that's the only place one can reasonably list a 4-loss team at this juncture.
2. Dallas Mavericks (24-7)
Rank Last Month: 1
December Record: (11-3)
December Wins: T-wolves, AT Jazz, AT Kings, Warriors, Nets, Jazz, Blazers, Suns, AT Heat, AT Magic, AT Thunder.
December Losses: Bucks, Raptors, Spurs.
Comments: If Dirk stays healthy, the Mavs remain the team to beat in the Western Conference. Phrased differently: if the Blazers sneak into the 8 slot, this team stands as the odds-on favorite to be their playoff foe. A club with a deep and talented roster, the Mavs have the Best Billionaire Owner in Pro Sports™ and look almost unstoppable on nights when things are clicking. They can be jumpshot-oriented, however, so there are other nights when things don't go quite so swimmingly. Still, they have the NBA's MVP, whether you want to admit this truth or not, and that makes them the favorite against anyone anywhere coming down the stretch in a tight game. Nowitzki's recent absence has not accidentally coincided with a two game losing skid, including a painful L to the arch-rival San Antonio Spurs at home in Dallas. But bear in mind that in the previous 18 games the mighty Mavs were 17-1, which is, ummmmm, sorta good. They'll soon be kicking ass and taking names when the Large German Man recovers from his strained knee and gets his unguardable 24 ppg 7-foot greatness back on the floor.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (23-10)
Rank Last Month: 3
December Record: (10-5)
December Wins: Kings, Wizards, AT Clippers, AT Nets, AT Wizards, AT Pacers, AT Sixers, AT Raptors, AT Hornets, Sixers.
December Losses: AT Rockets, AT Bulls, Bucks, Heat, AT Spurs.
Comments: We all remember Mike Rice's recurrent whining about the "soft schedule" of the Lakers at the start of the season, but how many times did he subsequently mention that the same team was on the road for 10 of 15 games in December? I'll tell you, me being a regular parser of The Wild One's quotes — ZERO. Despite the frequent flier miles being amassed, it isn't road losses that have shaken the quasi-mystical faith of the Lakeshow's followers, it has been back-to-back-to-back 15+ point drubbings at the hands of the Bucks (!!!), Heat, and Spurs — two of which took place at Staples Center. The team has subsequently staggered back to its feet, with PJ moving oft-injured Center Andrew Bynum back into the starting lineup and shiftling the multitalented Lamar Odom to his accustomed role as 6th man extraordinaire. Still, long time Laker fans are very, very uneasy at this juncture, with homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs slipping out of reach and the team frequently looking highly mortal on both offensive and defensive ends of the floor. The old Black Mamba, he ain't what he used to be... LALA can still get hot and win their three-peat this season, to be sure, but there are a number of other equally likely outcomes which one may envision in this 2010-11 campaign.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (23-11)
Rank Last Month: 6
December Record: (11-5)
December Wins: AT Nets, Warriors, AT T-Wolves, AT Hornets, Cavaliers, Rockets, Kings, AT Bobcats, Nuggets, Nets, Hawks.
December Losses: AT Raptors, AT Bulls, Suns, AT Knicks, Mavericks.
Comments: This remains a 3 man team built around an over-hyped volume scorer. I guess that's fine, the Thunder are starting to put away an impressive list of lesser teams, but this is in no way an elite NBA club. Truth be told, it's Russell "Triple Double" Westbrook who's the drum major of this jumper parade — woe be to OKC if they lose his services to injury. Westbrook's penetrating ability helps make the space for Durant's shooting possible. Durant will continue to accumulate his regular gaudy scoring lines — using 25 shots a game will easily get you to 25 points a game, after all — and Jeff Green will continue to toil magnificently in obscurity. OKC has benefited from an extremely soft December schedule and can be expected to have the letter L engraved on their collective foreheads a number of times in January. Still, this is a team pulling towards the front of the pack in the Western Conference horse race and their new #4 ranking is reflective of this fact. We'll talk again next month when they're back to #6... This team is two bigs short of a full deck...
5. Utah Jazz (22-11)
Rank Last Month: 4
December Record: (8-6)
December Wins: Pacers, Grizzlies, Magic, Warriors, AT Bucks, AT Cavs, AT T-wolves, AT Clippers.
December Losses: Mavericks, Heat, AT Mavericks, AT Hornets, Blazers, AT Blazers.
Comments: If it weren't for the fact that the faced the epically inept Cleveland Cavaliers out of sequence and beat them handily, this is what the Jazz's December would have looked like: W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L-W-L. Are we noticing a pattern here? Fortunately for the slumping Jazz, they DID play the Cavs, and their mediocre month managed to avoid comment and criticism outside of the obscure Bedge sidebar. The Jazz have been dinged with injuries, as we know, most recently missing Mehmet Okur (again) and Andrei Kirilenko. An All-Star Point Guard will get you some wins, but he does need a supporting cast, after all. Unfortunately for the Jazz, the loss of Carlos Boozer and Wesley Matthews has left the formerly deep dish Jazz as thin as a Dominoes crust. This fact has yet to sink in with many Utahns, but as the team's .500ish win pattern of late becomes more clear, the inevitable sense of dread will start to sink into now optimistic minds. There seems to be trouble ahead for Jerry's kids...
6. Denver Nuggets (18-13)
Rank Last Month: 7
December Record: (8-7)
December Wins: Bucks, Clippers, Grizzlies, AT Raptors, Magic, T-wolves, Blazers, AT T-wolves.
December Losses: AT Bobcats, AT Celtics, AT Knicks, Spurs, AT Spurs, AT Thunder, Sixers.
Comments: The loss of Carmelo Anthony to deal with family business following the death of his sister has given the Denver Nuggets a glimpse of their Melofree future. It's a workable proposition. The Nuggets have a terrific front line, featuring the athletic Brazilian Nene, the aggressive scorer Kenyon Martin, and the multicolored numbnuts Chris Andersen. Aaron Afflalo can shoot, PG Chauncey Billups is a steady veteran hand with considerable scoring pop of his own, and the Nuggets still play half their games in Denver, where they are able to face a steady stream of back-to-backing, psyched out opponents. Loss of this team's superstar to the Knicks will not be a terminal event. That said, December has been rough for the Nuggets, as the formerly 10-6 club took it on the chin nearly half the time. The wins have been mostly at home and mostly against second division opponents, with only a win over the Magic and a blowout of the exhausted and depleted Blazers qualifying as even slightly impressive. The good teams that the Nuggs faced generally beat them. Denver will need home court advantage to make noise in the playoffs, and they'll need to figure out how to put it together better than they've been doing lately to get there.
7. New Orleans Hornets (19-14)
Rank Last Month: 5
December Record: (7-9)
December Wins: Bobcats, Pistons, Kings, Jazz, Nets, Hawks, AT Celtics.
December Losses: Knicks, AT Spurs, Thunder, AT Sixers, AT Heat, AT Pistons, AT Pacers, AT T-wolves, Lakers.
Comments: Just when you're ready to consign the faltering New Orleans Hornets to the 2011 NBA draft lottery pool, they roll into Boston Garden and defeat the Celtics. Go figure. Still, December has not been kind to the future Seattle SuperSonics, with team's fast start now a fond and fading memory. The team's wins have been almost exclusively at home, generally to crappy teams. On the road, the bees have been whacked — including an embarrassing 15-point drubbing at the hands of the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves. Another month like this and the Hornets will be out of the money in terms of Western Conference playoffs and their gym will start looking as empty as that of Memphis. The Hornets live and die with Chris Paul and David West and no amount of defensive magic is going to change that fact. Head Coach Monty Williams is a religious man and no doubt he is actively soliciting supernatural aid to the continued physical well-being of his tiny core. I know I would be if I were him, because the only place further south than NOLA is the Gulf of Mexico and that's where the season would be heading if either of the team's All Stars go down.
8. Portland Trail Blazers (17-16)
Rank Last Month: 10
December Record: (9-7)
December Wins: Clippers, Suns, Magic, AT Suns, T-Wolves, Warriors, Bucks, AT Jazz, Jazz.
December Losses: AT Celtics, AT Wizards, AT Spurs, AT Grizzlies, AT Mavericks, AT Warriors, AT Nuggets.
Comments: It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. The loss of young Center Greg Oden combined with the downward spiraling Brandon Roy saga was akin two minibikes ridden by Guinness Book of World Records fatties using the groins of long-suffering Blazer fans as a jump ramp. ("That's a double ooch!" as Drooper the Banana Split would say...) Just when it seemed that fans could take no more, something miraculous took place. Channing Frye-wannabe PFINO LaMarcus Aldridge suddenly discovered that he could not only survive with the NBA's big boys in the paint — but that he could jump higher than them, run faster than them, cut quicker than them, and score the ball with more skill than them. BING!!! — on popped the light bulb for the first time, illuminating the entire arena. Just when the collapse of all Portland hopes and dreams had seemed near, the team had its authentic new franchise player... Other magical things took place. The ostensibly overpaid free agent 6th man Wesley Matthews revealed himself to be a budding young NBA star if given a chance to grow in the clearing vacated by a fallen big tree. Crafty veteran PG Andre Miller was given a real chance to ply his trade for the first time since his arrival. Rudy Fernandez was freed from his futility and funk by time and space to move on the floor. Deficiencies remain, we know what they are, but on nights when they are clicking and the shots are falling, the plodding Portland Trail Blazer team is now, dare I say it, actually fun to watch! The Blazers were 7-0 at home and 2-7 on the road in December. That's progress forward, actually.
9. Houston Rockets (16-16)
Rank Last Month: 12
December Record: (11-4)
December Wins: Lakers, AT Grizzlies, Pistons, Cavaliers, Kings, Grizzlies, AT Kings, AT Warriors, AT Clippers, Wizards, Raptors.
December Losses: AT Bulls, AT Bucks, AT Thunder, Heat.
Comments: If the New Orleans Hornets are headed down the charts, the Houston Rockets are soaring in the opposite direction, powered by a better-than-the-Lakers 11-4 record in December. Of the team's four losses, two were against Eastern Conference powerhouses Chicago and Miami, and a third came against the always-tough-at-home OKC Thunder. That's as good a record of achievement as any other team in the Western Conference for the month. Yao Ming may well be gone for good, but GM Daryl Morey's plucky and overachieving Rockets will be just fine, thank you very much. Kevin Martin is the man, of course, averaging over 23 points per game, while Luis Scola is only a small chunk of hair grease away from being a 20-and-8 sort of Power Forward. The rest of the lineup doesn't cause soiling of the shorts, but they play together as a team and believe that they can beat anybody, which is fully 3/4 of the battle. The team remains short one or two Bigs from being an authentic contender in the rough and tough Western Conference, but don't be surprised if the Rockets are in the money at the end of the year. GM Morey has at least one more master machination up his sleeve, I'm guessing...
10. Phoenix Suns (14-17)
Rank Last Month: 9
December Record: (6-8)
December Wins: AT Warriors, Pacers, Wizards, T-wolves, AT Thunder, Pistons.
December Losses: AT Blazers, Grizzlies, Blazers, AT Mavericks, AT Spurs, Heat, AT Clippers, Sixers.
Comments: No matter what happens to Phoenix this season, at least they are free of four years of the albatross known as Hedo Turkoglu, and that's cause for celebration. Of course, him being on the roster in the first place was a self-inflicted stupidity that would be a firing offense in about 20 NBA cities, but hey, we're talking about the Phoenix Suns here, so all is forgiven as long as the team turns a profit. PG Steve Nash is one month older than the last time we visited. Now he's got Vince Carter in addition to Grant Hill on the lineup to help make him look Not Quite So Washed Up and Not Quite So Old, respectively. This comical collection of 3-point slingers has seen good play from Jared Dudley of late, but with Vince Carter, Channing Frye, and Mickael Pietrus dominating the discussion, good luck buying him a legitimate chance to shine. Goran Dragic has frequently been terrible this year and Marcin Gortat has not shown himself dominant as either a scorer or a rebounder. The Suns are 3 wins and 8 losses in their last 11 games — LOOK OUT BELOW!
11. Memphis Grizzlies (14-18)
Rank Last Month: 8
December Record: (6-8)
December Wins: AT Suns, AT Clippers, Blazers, Bobcats, AT Pacers, Raptors.
December Losses: AT Hawks, Rockets, AT Nuggets, AT Jazz, AT Rockets, AT Spurs, Nets, AT Kings.
Comments: The Grizzlies remain the most dangerous of the 2nd Tier Western Conference teams and with every loss that accumulates for them, Blazer fans should celebrate a little. The Grizz are streaky as hell, losing 4 games to open December, then winning 4, then losing 3, and you get the picture... They've got enormous firepower at the wing with O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay, Portland favorite Zach Randolph is the undisputed king of the offensive rebound and the putback bucket, Marc Gasol is a highly competent Big, and Greg Oden's buddy Mike Conley is worth half what he's actually getting paid, which means he's pretty good. The Bears' bench sucks truly and totally, however, and therein lies the rub. Still, if you don't think that starting five can beat any team in the NBA on any given night, you need to partake of the Grizzly experience a little more frequently to enlighten yourself. In addition to their deficient bench, Memphis's other two problems are being saddled with one of the dumbest General Managers in recent memory (Chris Wallace) and the absolute #30 worst home crowd (using the term loosely) in the entire NBA. Seriously, the Grizz play 41 road games and 41 games on a neutral court every year — and that makes it hard to get any kind of momentum rolling. Until they move to greener pastures, including a new owner, new city, and new front office, the Grizz will always remain a slightly more talented incarnation of Donald Sterling's San Diego Clippers of Los Angeles.
12. Golden State Warriors (13-19)
Rank Last Month: 11
December Record: (5-9)
December Wins: T-Wolves, AT Kings, Blazers, Sixers, AT Bobcats.
December Losses: Suns, AT Thunder, AT Mavericks, AT Spurs, Heat, AT Jazz, AT Blazers, Rockets, AT Hawks.
Comments: Monta Ellis is good at basketball, pass it on. I loves me some David Lee, too. And Steph Curry can shoot, let there be no mistake. And did I mention Dorrell Wright, who's also pretty okay as well? Very well, now riddle me this: Is that a basketball team or an accumulation of good players? The latter, methinks. New Head Coach Keith Smart is doing his darnedest to instill a novel new concept called "defense" upon his charges, albeit with limited success. Fortunately for their cause, the Warriors have some of the best fans in the NBA, which provides them with an outstanding home court advantage and help keep things at even keel, even when the Blazeresque injury bug from which they suffer bites 'em on the buttocks... After dropping 6 in a row to open December, the W's won 4 of 5 to finish, so there is a bit of anticipation brewing by the bay as the squad starts to get healthy for the first time in forever. Oakland will lay wood to a bunch of good teams in coming months, you can take that to the bank, but they are missing too many pieces and lacking too much internal integration to be considered a legitimate playoff contender this year. Still, one could do worse than to build around Monta Ellis, a guy who may be terrible riding a Vespa but who knows how to put the orange globe through the round ring with the best of them.
13. San Diego Clippers of Los Angeles (10-23)
Rank Last Month: 13
December Record: (7-8)
December Wins: Spurs, Kings, AT Pistons, AT Bulls, T-wolves, Suns, AT Kings.
December Losses: AT Nuggets, AT Blazers, Lakers, Grizzlies, Magic, AT Sixers, Rockets, Jazz.
Comments: How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways... In a just world Donald Sterling would be taken for a balloon ride and used as ballast, but if that happened the Clippers would no longer serve their purpose in life: standing as the most obvious physical manifestation of the reality of a concept called karma... Sterling is an obnoxious cheapster who seems to use the team as a profit center and as long as he remains associated with this franchise, their fate is sealed. Etch that in marble. However, since the Clips ALWAYS suck, they will always have some of the brightest young stars in the NBA on their roster. These same guys whoinvariably can't wait to paddle their little legs to get out of town ASAP, ditching the AAA team and its seedy owner so they can play ball in the big leagues, helping assure that the Clippers will always suck. This is what economists call "equilibrium." PG Eric Gordon is a legitimate superstar PG that could and should be mentioned in the same breath as Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, and Russell Westbrook. Blake Griffin is an entertaining and powerful low post force as a redshirt rookie. Outside of that, god bless ya... Chris Kaman has regressed to the mean of his career, which is to say: not very good. Baron Davis is a financial and on-court catastrophe, Ryan Gomes is a 40% shooter, and the scoring options go downhill from there. Still, the Clips managed to rip off 5 wins in their last 7 games — testament to how good Messrs. Gordon and Griffin actually are. I wish those two gentlemen the best in their forthcoming escape from Donald Sterling Loserville via free agency.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves (8-25)
Rank Last Month: 14
December Record: (4-12)
December Wins: Cavaliers, Pistons, AT Cavaliers, Hornets.
December Losses: AT Mavericks, AT Spurs, AT Knicks, Thunder, AT Bulls, AT Warriors, AT Suns, AT Blazers. AT Nuggets. AT Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets.
Comments: At times the reliably inept Timberwolves have been plenty bad enough to look like the worst team in the Western Conference; it's just the Kings are even more terrible... With their freakish-looking me-first gunner Michael Beasley relishing the role of big wheel in Minneapolis, I wouldn't wanna be laying too much money on them turning things around any time soon, either. There is actually hope for the wretched though, with Kevin Love breaking out this season as one of the more dominant low post players in the NBA. Love is averaging 20.8 points and 15.5 rebounds as of this writing, which means an All Star appearance — no matter how much hype Blake Griffin is generating. Marty Webster is back in action and kicking in 14 ppg off the bench, while Luke Ridnour is performing passably, so to speak. The biggest surprise is the strong, steady play of big man Darko Milicic, formerly a Jay Leno punchline to a very funny joke known as the Detroit Pistons but now developing into a skilled offensive force. (Yes, I just wrote that line, and without a trace of irony.) While Kevin Love's continued gobbling up of every available rebound makes it difficult to judge Darko's board-gathering acumen, it does seem that he ranks among the league's most improved players. If the T-wolves are able to flip Beasley to someone even dumber (Hello, Grizzlies and Suns!) for a team-first sort of leader, there may yet be hoop happiness in the Twin Cities. That's putting the onus on GM David Kahn to do something other than be stupid, however, which would seem to be setting the bar unreasonably high...
15. Sacramento Kings (6-23)
Rank Last Month: 15
December Record: (2-11)
December Wins: Wizards, Grizzlies (at the buzzer!).
December Losses: AT Lakers, Mavericks, AT Clippers, Heat, AT Rockets, AT Hornets, AT Thunder, Rockets, Warriors, Bucks, Clippers.
Comments: Poor Kings, they suck so bad... Trading Kevin Martin = really not smart. Tyreke Evans is a talented player, sure, but he's a Tracy McGrady-style gunner that's never gonna be a winner. I doubt that the Kings' front office is clever enough to realize that the path forward is to double him up by making him go away. Omri Casspi is a SF rucker that can play on any team of mine, but he's like a sixth or seventh man role player on a good team. The perimeter pansy Spencer Hawes has been bu-byed, but Samuel Dalembert isn't cutting the mustard and PF Jason Thompson is playing like septic tank flotsam and often riding pine. The Kings simply have a really Double Not Good Roster and need to make magic happen by turning Evans into two legit starters and a couple draft picks. The Kings were fun to watch overachievers last season. This year: not so much. If I were Rich Cho, I would be on the phone to Kings GM Geoff Petrie every morning at 9:00 am, listening to his woes, consoling him, and trying to steal Omri Casspi...