JANUARY WESTERN CONFERENCE POWER RANKINGS
This is a cross-post excerpted from my column No. 48 over at Blazers Edge. I figured that doing it like this makes it an easier read than fighting through the whole column there via a FanShot link. It's a little bit Blazersy in orientation (consider the source), but hopefully entertaining enough that C.A. and Dex won't beat me for spamming...
1. San Antonio Spurs (40-7)
Rank Last Month: 1
January Record: (12-3)
January Wins: Thunder, AT Pacers, Timberwolves, AT Timberwolves, AT Bucks, Mavericks, Nuggets, Raptors, Knicks, AT Warriors, AT Jazz, Rockets.
January Losses: AT Knicks, AT Celtics, AT Hornets.
Comments: As much as it pains me to say it, the San Antonio Spurs remain the best team in the Western Conference — by a good margin. While Timmy Duncan slides towards AARP membership, the team has been carried forward by frequent stellar performances of Manu Ginobili, ably assisted by PG Tony Parker and the skilled low post play of DeJuan Blair (passed on 1-2-3 times in the draft by Kevin Pritchard). Even Richard Jefferson has been relatively unsucky this year, while George Hill provides pop off the bench. Plus they also have Pop on the bench. The team finished January a mortal 5-3 on the road (beating the bad teams and losing to the good teams), but didn't suffer a single mishap at home. Dropping Ls on the heads of teams like the Thunder, Mavs, Nuggets, and Knicks does count for something. Still, color me unwowed about either the quality or depth of this team. They're not an unstoppable juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination — it's just their main competitors in the conference have demonstrated themselves to be even more unjuggernauty in the new year.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (33-15)
Rank Last Month: 3
January Record: (10-5)
January Wins: Pistons, AT Suns, Hornets, Knicks, Cavaliers, AT Warriors, Nets, Thunder, AT Nuggets, Jazz.
January Losses: Grizzlies, AT Clippers, AT Mavericks, Kings, Celtics.
Comments: Laker fans are a peculiar lot. While Blazer fans root for misfortune to befall the Jazz or the Nuggets or the Grizzlies in the race for the postseason, Laker fans keep two eyes on how Boston or Miami are doing. The "real season" begins for the purple people come playoff time, advancement to the NBA Finals is considered nearly axiomatic. The regular season is all about minimizing losses so as to have home court advantage all the way through the Finals... That's the annoyingly self-assured side of Lakerdom. But for this yin there is a yang — a thinly concealed gnawing self-doubt as to whether the wheels might be coming off the wagon at last. Andrew Bynum is back: a third straight World Championship is assured. No wait, Pau Gasol can't do anything right, Kobe's body is starting to break down, Derek Fisher couldn't guard 60 pounds of river rock dropped at midcourt in a burlap bag, Ron Artest is an incompetent chucker, and the bench players represent four flavors of FAIL: all is lost. The truth lies between these poles of mania and depression, of course. The Lakers have the potential to get hot and destroy all comers in the West. They could also fizzle and fade. I'll get back to ya on that as the 82 game second pre-season moves along... For now, a 10-5 January is good enough to bump 'em ahead of the fading Mavs into the #2 slot, methinks.
3. Dallas Mavericks (32-15)
Rank Last Month: 2
January Record: (8-8)
January Wins: AT Cavaliers, Blazers, Lakers, AT Nets, Clippers, Rockets, Hawks, Wizards.
January Losses: AT Bucks, Thunder, Magic, AT Pacers, AT Spurs, AT Grizzlies, AT Pistons, AT Bulls.
Comments: The Mavericks without Dirk are absolutely done for. Let's be absolutely clear about that from the top. When the Large German Man went down to injury in January, the Mavs not coincidentally went into a tailspin, losing six consecutive games and 7 of 8. With the LGM back again, the team closed the month with 5 straight wins. The loss of Caron Butler has single-handedly knocked Dallas from its place as a favorite to win the Western Conference Championship, but Mark Cuban is a billionaire with a serious hobby, so don't count on another six or eight million dollars' worth of luxury tax stopping him from making a move if he sees one. Dirk isn't getting any younger and Jason Kidd is so far past that stage of life that he's getting a Golden Years discount from the Mavericks' fan shop, so time is of the essence for the Mavs. January turned out just as bad as it could be for Dallas, marked by losses to such non-powers as the Bucks, Pacers, and Pistons. Prospects of a Top 2 finish in the conference and a clear path to the Western Conference Finals are slipping and Dallas clearly needs to rediscover its mojo.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (30-17)
Rank Last Month: 4
January Record: (7-6)
January Wins: AT Mavericks, Grizzlies, AT Rockets, Magic, Knicks, AT Timberwolves, Wizards.
January Losses: AT Spurs, AT Grizzlies, AT Lakers, AT Nuggets, AT Hornets, Heat.
Comments: I'm slowly warming up to the idea that this Kevin Durant guy might be okay. I always considered him an Allen Iverson-type volume shooter, inefficiently racking up huge scoring totals through huge shot totals and killing his team in the process with the plethora of misses and the offensive energy-sapping long jumpers that he favors. Upon further review, his statistical numbers aren't heinous — quite good, actually — and he seems to have, you know, IT. There aren't a lot of players with IT and he has IT, so there you go. This team is still short at least two bigs from serious contention, but they're young, way under the salary cap, and the world is their oyster. Hmmm, where have we heard that before... Young, star-laden, under-cap basketball team??? Hmmm... Russell Westbrook is actually the main cog that drives the wheel, don't ever forget that. Jeff Green's season has been non-superstariffic, but Serge Ibaka has picked up the slack, and then some, helping the Thunder to outperform the expectations of doubters such as myself. The Thunder were just 7-6 in January, but not one of their losses was a "bad" one, with five coming on the road. They seem to be headed for a Top 4 finish.
5. New Orleans Hornets (31-18)
Rank Last Month: 7
January Record: (12-4)
January Wins: AT Wizards, Sixers, AT Nuggets, Magic, AT Rockets, AT Bobcats, Raptors, Grizzlies, AT Hawks, Spurs, Thunder, AT Warriors.
January Losses: Warriors, AT Lakers, AT Kings, AT Suns.
Comments: It has been the tale of three seasons for the New Orleans Hornets. The first version of the team came out of the gates smoking, slaying all rivals and looking very much like an elite team in the Western Conference. New Head Coach Monty Williams had his guys buying in to a defense-first mentality. Then towards Thanksgiving the Bees went into the mother of all swoons, dropping 13 of their next 20 games and looking every bit like the lottery fodder that many people expected them to be this season. Attendance dropped and the team looked like it was on the ropes, maybe forever in New Orleans. The third period began on New Year's Eve with a dramatic 83-81 victory over the Boston Celtics on the parquet floor. The team went 13-4 from that date, featuring an impressive 10 game win streak that included victories over the Nuggets, Magic, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder, and Hawks. Back up the table of ranks they move. I'm not sure whether this is a Top 4 team in the West, but I'm now convinced that the Hornets are playoff bound.
6. Denver Nuggets (28-20)
Rank Last Month: 6
January Record: (10-7)
January Wins: Kings, Rockets, Suns, Heat, Cavaliers, Thunder, Pacers, AT Wizards, AT Pistons, AT Cavaliers.
January Losses: AT Clippers, AT Kings, Hornets, AT Spurs, Lakers, AT Sixers, AT Nets.
Comments: Between the heaven of serious Western Conference playoff contention and the hell of an unscheduled visit to the lottery there is the limbo of Carmeloland. The iron logic of the situation indicates that Carmelo Anthony and the Nuggets will complete a sign-and-trade deal with the New York Knicks prior to the trade deadline. One would hope for his sake that Anthony isn't stupid enough to trust his future income to the vagaries of a still unwritten new Collective Bargaining Agreement... It is difficult to envision the Nuggs attempting a rent-a-player deal with one of their Western Conference foes. Nor would a GM with any sense at all ride the Melo wave in to the beach and park the surfboard, losing the All Star without compensation. Who in the East might be interested in a Melo rental for the stretch run? The Chicago Bulls, perhaps? It's a weird situation and one that has gone on entirely too long for the taste of Head Coach George Karl and the Denver Nuggets front office. The Nuggets continue to win and win despite it all, but until the February trade deadline passes it will be difficult to tell which end is up as far as Denver's future is concerned.
7. Utah Jazz (29-20)
Rank Last Month: 5
January Record: (7-9)
January Wins: Grizzlies, Pistons, AT Rockets, Knicks, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Bobcats.
January Losses: Hawks, AT Grizzlies, AT Wizards, AT Nets, AT Celtics, AT Sixers, AT Lakers, Spurs, AT Warriors.
Comments: If Portland falls out of the playoff picture, nobody will be surprised. There will be much tut-tutting, to be sure, about overbearing fans and pretentious front offices counting chickens before they're hatched, etc., and there will be sympathetic sighs about the fragility of the human knee and the cruelty of the bitch goddess Fate. But if the Utah Jazz fall out of the money into the ping pong pool — what excuses will be made? That the Blazers robbed them of Wesley Matthews because they didn't want to get pushed into luxury tax land two years in a row by Paul Allen and his minions? That they kept the wrong guy in Paul Millsap while letting Carlos Boozer get away? After dropping 7 of their last 9 games in January, the prospect of the Utah Jazz fading and falling out of the playoffs altogether becomes a realistic concept. The Jazz have seemed rather........unSloanlike.......this season, with some games marked by pathetic defense and a lack of effort. Andre Kirilenko got outjumped in a jump ball by Steve Blake in a blowout by the Lakers, there ya go... Deron Williams remains an All Star, but his accompanying cast is thin and this team seems headed the wrong way fast at this juncture.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (25-24)
Rank Last Month: 11
January Record: (11-6)
January Wins: AT Lakers, Thunder, Jazz, AT Pistons, Mavericks, Rockets, AT Bucks, AT Raptors, at Sixers, Wizards, Magic.
January Losses: AT Jazz, AT Thunder, AT Bobcats, Bulls, AT Hornets, AT Nets.
Comments: You know, if I ever get kicked off of Blazers Edge for alleged crimes against the state, I'm not going to write about the Blazers on another blog. Nor is it likely I shall toodle back to Silver Screen and Roll with my tail between my legs since the "2 Column Rule" that prompted my departure is still in effect there. No sir, I'm gonna blog about a team I couldn't care less about — the unloved and unlovable Memphis Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have it all: a team statistical leader named Zach Randolph, the living embodiment of a hilarious punchline. They've got a horrible General Manager, Chris Wallace, truly one of the most inept in the business — prime snark material. They have a free agent-to-be Shooting Guard with steroid-related issues that reminds me quite a lot of a robusto version of Kobe Bryant. They've got a criminally underappreciated superstar named Rudy Gay who is really fun to watch. They play their games in a multimillion dollar vacant barn of a building, which they share with the real basketball squeeze in town, the Memphis Tigers — joke possibilities galore. Their bench sucks, but this team is gonna make the playoffs because they've got real stars on the floor. Moreover, their SBN blog is virtually extinct and their fanbase consists almost exclusively of ushers and employees of the team store. It's a perfect storm for me to work my schtick, really it is, and I eagerly await my next writing challenge. I may head for Elvisland under my own volition at the All Star break, who knows... Oh, the team? Yeah, they're gonna be in the playoffs this year, I already said that, right?
9. Portland Trail Blazers (25-22)
Rank Last Month: 8
January Record: (8-6)
January Wins: Rockets, AT Rockets, AT Timberwolves, Nets, Timberwolves, AT Kings, Clippers, Pacers.
January Losses: AT Mavericks, Heat, Knicks, AT Suns, Kings, Celtics.
Comments: As January came to a close, the plucky surviving handful of Our Blazers clung to the #8 seed in the Western Conference with their little piggy fingers as they prepared to absorb the final two of a series of four successive beatdowns. What could have been a successful January had been fizzled away when the bottom dwelling Sacramento Kings came to town and put a 15-point hurt on the Good Guys. With Marcus Camby on the shelf the Frail Blazers had reached the point of critical scrawniness, their anorexic roster nearing collapse. Then in the last game of the month Nic Batum badly bruised a knee, forcing the insertion of the completely-useless-at-any-speed 2010 draft sensation Luke "Deadeye" Babbitt into the playing rotation. The end of the team's 2010-11 playoff run seems to be drawing near. Depending largely upon whether Camby can get back expeditiously and whether other rotation players can stay healthy — two VERY big IFs — the Trail Blazers could end up as high as the #7 slot in the Western Conference. Alternatively: implosion and flames and a finish as low as #13. It is hard getting too excited about the team's prospects at this juncture as the Blazers seem lost in the swamp of mediocrity and appear one serious injury away from abject catastrophe. Pinned against the luxury tax line by Brandon Roy's dead dog of a contract, depleted of tradable players by 18 months of front office ineptitude, burdened with a meddling owner and an unproven rookie GM, the buzzards are starting to circle...
10. Los Angeles Clippers (19-28)
Rank Last Month: 13
January Record: (9-5)
January Wins: Nuggets, Warriors, Heat, Lakers, Pacers, Timberwolves, Warriors, Bobcats, Bucks.
January Losses: Hawks, AT Warriors, AT Blazers, AT Mavericks, AT Rockets.
Comments: I spend a lot of time watching the Blazers and the Lakers. That doesn't leave too much time for other NBA games, but I must confess a sweet tooth for the San Diego Clippers of Los Angeles. Mind you, I'd rather eat dog dirt buck naked in the front yard than break bread with Donald Sterling and I earnestly dislike the game of Baron "Chuck It If Ya Got It" Davis... But Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and Eric Gordon are the primary colors of fun on the basketball floor. If it weren't for the team's Crock-o-Crap™ start to the season (they began the year 1 win and 13 losses, but who's counting?) this team would be a betting man's favorite to make the playoffs. Gordon's recent hand injury put the kibosh on whatever lingering hopes remained to sneak into the 8th seed this year. Now the intrepid Clips face the horrible visage of February, the numerals 666 etched upon its boil-ensconced forehead... The team plays 12, count them 12 road games and just 2 home contests in the month. The home games? Try the Chicago Bulls and the Boston Celtics. Have a nice day. If the Clippers manage to win 10 of their 14 February games, David Stern should just unilaterally award the Clippers a playoff birth and let the rest of the Western Conference fight it out for the other 7 slots. That sounds fair to me. I have grown to love Ralph Lawler's play-by-play calls, he's the sweetest and most honest homer out there. Do yourself a favor and check out a random Clipper game sometime...
11. Phoenix Suns (22-24)
Rank Last Month: 10
January Record: (8-7)
January Wins: Cavaliers, Nets, Blazers, AT Knicks, AT Cavaliers, AT Wizards, Celtics, Hornets.
January Losses: AT Kings, Lakers, Knicks, AT Nuggets, AT Sixers, AT Pistons, Bobcats.
Comments: I don't like the Phoenix Suns. They were sort of fun to watch when Mike D'Antoni was the boss in a run-and-gun, this-is-really-different sort of way. Now they play a little defense and are utterly charmless. Steve Nash remains a big time scorer when his team needs a bucket or three and could always pass the rock with the best of them, but the lost little boy on the side of his milk carton has long since been located, grown up, and gone to graduate school. If the NBA ever follows professional golf and starts a Senior Circuit, Steve Nash and his timeless teammate Grant Hill will be hooping effectively into their middle-60s, without a doubt. The Suns made a super genius trade with the Magic which got rid of the self-inflicted Hedo contract but which somehow managed to render their squad even worse. "Who is Robin Lopez?" is a future NBA for $500 answer to the question "He is All Star Brook Lopez's twin brother who also once played in the NBA." Channing Frye is a highly compensated 6'11" Shooting Guard that incompetent opponents sometimes forget to cover. Goran Dragic has regressed from PGOTF to PGWTF. That's a lot of bad pieces on this undersized and aging team. No chance whatsoever that this mess is playoffs bound. Book it.
12. Houston Rockets (22-27)
Rank Last Month: 9
January Record: (6-11)
January Wins: AT Celtics, AT Hawks, Bucks, Knicks, AT Timberwolves, Clippers.
January Losses: AT Blazers, Nuggets, Blazers, AT Magic, Jazz, Thunder, Hornets, AT Grizzlies, Magic, AT Mavericks, AT Spurs.
Comments: Daryl Morey, we salute you. It has been a tough sled this season for the Houston Rockets — they unsuccessfully bet the ranch on oft-injured All Star Center Yao Ming just like the Blazers will soon be putting the farm down on the health of Greg Oden. Morey managed to steal Kevin Martin from the reality-challenged GM of the Sacramento Kings, former Blazer Geoff Petrie, and still had Luís Scola and Shane Battier and the speedy former Duck Aaron Brooks in the arsenal. Things looked good. Things turned out poorly. January was a bit of a mess for the Rockets, with the team dropping 7 of 8 to open the month and 4 of 6 to bring it to a close. Now 5 games under the .500 mark, this Texas tribe seems too far behind too many to grab the 8 seed. A really rasty first half of February faces the Rockets as well, with 5 of Houston's first 7 opponents probable favorites in the betting line and another meeting with the always dangerous Memphis Grizzlies a push. Unless they beat the odds in the first half of February, Houston will be tits-up by the All Star Game. On the other hand, if Adelman's crew can somehow put together a winning streak against the forthcoming formidable foes, things loosen up after the break and the team might go on a little run leading to a final push for the playoffs. I'm doubtful.
13. Golden State Warriors (20-27)
Rank Last Month: 12
January Record: (7-8)
January Wins: AT Hornets, Cavaliers, Clippers, Nets, Pacers, Kings, Jazz.
January Losses: AT Heat, AT Magic, AT Clippers, Lakers, AT Clippers, Spurs, Hornets, Bobcats.
Comments: Monta Ellis is good at basketball. That's where all commentary about the Oakland Warriors should begin. The Warriors are really tough when they come out to play at home, that should be point two... Widely regarded as a crap team by the East Coast basketball intelligentsia, the Warriors are actually a dangerous middle-of-the-pack sort of outfit featuring lights out perimeter scoring by Messrs. Curry and Ellis and the versatile midrange game of new addition David Lee. Short a tough inside Big and a Corey Maggette-type slasher/shooter, the Ws are as good as their shooting night. If the jumpers fall, they can blaze anybody; if they don't, they'll lose to circus clowns. January wasn't an altogether forgettable month, including a win on the road at NOLA and a reasonably successful defense of the home floor, with only a late loss to the Charlotte Bobcats resembling a Easter egg. February should be a good month for the East Bay wonders, as they have only 3 road games, all potentially winnable. Unfortunately for them, they're gonna need big suitcases in April. Barring a February-and-0 winning streak, you can pretty well stick a fork in Golden State's playoff hopes for the 2010-11 season, but you've probably done that already anyway.
14. Sacramento Kings (12-33)
Rank Last Month: 15
January Record: (6-10)
January Wins: Suns, Nuggets, AT Knicks, AT Blazers, AT Lakers, Hornets.
January Losses: AT Nuggets, AT Hawks, AT Raptors, AT Wizards, AT Celtics, AT Pistons, AT Hawks, Blazers, AT Warriors, Bobcats.
Comments: Last year: overachievers. This year, deprived of scoring sensation Kevin Martin in one of the worst trades since Kevin Pritchard's Zach Randolph dump, the Kings have struggled to find their way. After making the first part of January a Super Sucktastic Suckabration of Suckiness with a 1-7 run, the Kings rolled into the Rose Garden and handed the depleted Blazers their bottoms, medium rare on a silver platter. After a miscue to the Bobcats on the back-to-back, Tyreke & Co. then partied in Staples Center, holding a luau featuring Pau on a spit with a pretty red apple in his mouth. Then they beat the streaking New Orleans Hornets at Snake Oil Pavilion, capping a mediocre 6 win month with a flourish. The team's new Designated Artest, crazypants headcase rookie DeMarcus Cousins, fueled the effort, contributing 52 points and 22 rebounds to the last two big wins. Sorry, Timberwolves, mediocre is better than you.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (11-36)
Rank Last Month: 14
January Record: (3-11)
January Wins: Nets, Wizards, Raptors.
January Losses: AT Celtics, Bobcats, Blazers, AT Spurs, Spurs, Magic, AT Blazers, AT Clippers, Rockets, Thunder, AT Jazz.
Comments: The Timberwolves have Kevin Love. You might have heard of him. They also have Kevin Love, Kevin Love, and Kevin Love. Did I mention that they have Kevin Love? Yes, KEVIN LOVE... Do you hear me, THEY HAVE KEVIN LOVE!!! If the NBA were fantasy basketball — and addled Wolves GM David Kahn may well think that it is — the Timberwolves would be racking mad fantasy points each and every night based on Kevin Love's season averages of 49 points and 76 rebounds. Kahn might even win his league and a large, ugly trophy — Kevin Love is just that amazing putting back misses and gobbling garbagetime boards in 20 point blowouts. Kevin Love is really something, that Kevin Love. He shoots the long ball well, too. The team Kevin Love plays for — the Minnesota Timberwolves? They suck. Yes, they really, really suck. The Wolves had three wins in January out of 14 games played, managing to beat up New Jersey, Washington, and Toronto at home. None of those teams play in the Western Conference, I note. Meet your new cellar dweller.