by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Following is a continuation of the NBA midseason evaluations from the last issue. Today we turn our focus to the league's Western Conference.


L.A. Clippers (SUR: 39-17)...The turnaround of the Clipper franchise has been remarkable to say the least. In the four seasons prior to acquiring All-sStar point guard Chris Paul last year, the average Clipper record was 26-56 and 13th place in the Western Conference. With Paul and fellow all-star Blake Griffin, the Clippers climbed into the playoffs with a 5th-place finish in the West last year. Now they've taken the next step and appear ready to capture a Pacific Division title, the property of the Lakers for the last five years. It's no secret how this happened. With a little help from Mark Cuban and other owners (who in fact "owned" the Hornets last year when New Orleans was a ward of the league) bellyaching to commissioner David Stern, Paul became a Clipper instead of a Laker. The Clips are very likely to lock up Paul and Griffin for max deals, as owner Donald Sterling already gave permission to loosen the purse strings and sign center DeAndre Jordan to a lucrative deal. Suddenly the Clippers became a much more attractive destination for free agents. The addition of Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, as well as ex-Lakers Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Rony Turiaf, have beefed up head coach Vinny Del Negro's bench with a second team that is as good as some opponents' starting units. No, these are most definitely not your father's Clippers. Grade: A+

Golden State Warriors (SUR: 30-22)...Golden State has also passed by the Lakers in the Pacific Division, as the Warriors are six games in front of the perennial Western powerhouse with just 30 to play. A five-game losing streak in which G.S. allowed 118 ppg just before the All-Star break has to have coach Mark Jackson worried. However, the Warriors produced their first All-Star representative since Latrell Sprewell in 1997 with David Lee's selection, and Steph Curry might've deserved an all-star bid as well. Paced by Curry (44.7%), the Warriors lead the league in three-point shooting (.393), and have improved their defensive efficiency from 26th last season to 16th this year while maintaining top-ten offensive efficiency. Curry and Lee have played their way back into the conversation for the national team. The sometimes-abrasive Aussie Andrew Bogut needs to regain his pre-injury form in the 30-game stretch run, and he's expected to have his 25-minute allotment expanded soon. It will help if he's allowed to play in the second of back-to-back games (the Warriors play six without rest before the playoffs begin). Guard Jarrett Jack seems to have found a home coming off Golden State's bench, contributing 13 ppg, 5.8 assists and shooting 47.2%, although the Warriors are Jack's fifth team in the last six seasons. Second-year guard Klay Thompson has found a bit better touch after shooting less than 40% through the end of December. All in all, the Warriors and making the most of what they have. Grade: B+

L.A. Lakers (SUR: 25-29)...Laker situation is one of the most perplexing scenarios to play out in any NBA season in memory, and now the death of owner Jerry Buss adds another distraction for the franchise. L.A. added two-time MVP Steve Nash and all-star pivot Dwight Howard to play alongside all-stars Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, and they've fallen flat on their collective faces. After the oddsmakers' quoted the Laker total wins over-under of 58, we suggested going "under" on Los Angeles. We should've recommended making the investment using European "spread betting," because the Lakers will fall far, far short of that mark. The Lakers fired head coach Mike Brown after a winless preseason and a 1-4 start, hiring Mike D'Antoni. D'Antoni tried to install his "system" (succinctly described in the title of a book about his fast-paced Phoenix teams ":07 Seconds or Less"), and it went over with a thud. Running and gunning with an older, ill-fitting roster wasn't a good idea. D'Antoni eventually threw up his hands and gave the players the leeway to figure it out, and L.A. won eight of its last 11 straight-up, but most of those victories came against losing teams. There's no indication the Lakers can flip a switch. There's no switch to flip. If Howard doesn't re-sign, this will go down as the biggest front- office boondoggle in league history. Grade: F

Sacramento Kings (SUR: 19-35)...This franchise doesn't have much going for it. The team appears headed for Seattle unless Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson can cobble together a consortium willing to invest a great deal of cash in the club. Enigmatic center DeMarcus Cousins leads the team in scoring and rebounding...and pouting, already disciplined multiple times in his young career, and rumors say he's being actively shopped around. The front office is still waiting for shooting guard Tyreke Evans to fulfill the promise he showed in averaging 20 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds in his rookie year of 2009-10, but his scoring and assists have fallen each season since. Head coach Keith Smart has served as a stop-gap coaching solution for three NBA teams, compiling an 84-151 record with Cleveland, Golden State and Sacramento. The fact the Kings rank last in the league in defensive efficiency, and have worse numbers than last season, makes it likely Smart's future with the team is limited. Big moves are unlikely, as the Maloof brothers don't want anything getting in the way of the potential sale for a reported NBA-record $500 million. The Maloofs need the cash to get out from under a massive debt. Does any of this sound good to you? Grade: D-

Phoenix Suns (SUR: 17-36)...Phoenix signaled its intentions to tear down and rebuild in the offseason when it jettisoned vets Steve Nash and Grant Hill, and amnestied Josh Childress. The Suns now have the second-lowest payroll in the league, sitting near the floor of the league's salary cap. They fired coach Alvin Gentry and replaced him on an interim basis with Lindsey Hunter, losing assistants Dan Majerle and Elston Turner in a public relations debacle. Their agenda is clear...position themselves for a complete housecleaning through free agency, possible trade deadline moves, and the draft. Point guard Goran Dragic, guard Jared Dudley and center Marcin Gortat have drawn inquiries, and the Suns are reportedly in the middle of the conversation on potential movement of Josh Smith out of Atlanta. However, Hunter has more to worry about than trying to turn around the Suns. The FBI is investigating him for potential mortgage fraud linked to his playing days in Detroit. Grade: D


San Antonio Spurs (SUR: 42-12)...San Antonio owns the best record in the league, ranks third in defensive efficiency and fourth in offensive efficiency this season. Yes, that sounds great, but the Spurs are, well, the Spurs. Tim Duncan has four rings, and Tony Parker & Manu Ginobili three. Gregg Popovich is regarded as the top coach in the league. Now, consider that Popovich has his team where they are after having maneuvered around a loss of 50 man-games to due to injuries from starters Duncan, Ginobili, Parker and Kawhi Leonard. The only thing that's stood between Duncan's knee and an ACL tear this year is a heavy brace...and his ankle is in similar condition. Mix in assorted other injuries to key reserves and the fact the club has been heavily fined for holding out starters to protect them from being hurt and it's clear Popovich is not so much a coach as an alchemist, spinning lead into gold on a nightly basis. Grade: A+

Memphis Grizzlies (SUR: 33-18)...Memphis ownership is definitely getting its money's worth. The Grizzlies' payroll ranks 26th in the league, but only four teams have more wins than Memphis. The trade of Rudy Gay and acquisition of Tayshaun Prince was interesting. Memphis, which is operating under new ownership this season, was on the hook for $62.4 million on contracts for Gay and Mareese Speights. Prince, Austin Daye and Jon Leuer came to Memphis in the three-team deal, along with a total contract obligation of $25.4 million. Grizzlies All-Star Zach Randolph is behind the move because Speights was a high-priced backup who ate into his territory, and Gay liked a spread-out attack that allowed him more freedom to work in the paint on drives or post-ups. Tough when Randolph and Marc Gasol are already occupying parking spaces in the key. Now Rudy Gay's production has spiked in a more wide-open court in Toronto, and Randolph is happy (as is new management, being $37 million lighter in the pocket). Grade: B+

Houston Rockets (SUR: 29-26)...Perhaps have to give Houston a temporary "incomplete," since the jury is out on the Rockets' season. With the smallest payroll in the NBA, general manager Daryl Morey has made owner Leslie Alexander very happy. Combined, Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas (now playing for the Shanghai Sharks) make more than the entire Rocket roster. Morey has amazingly racheted up the talent by acquiring James Harden (5th in scoring), fan favorite Jeremy Lin, and overachieving center Omer Asik. If coach Kevin McHale can hang on to the final playoff spot, this will be a remarkable season for this franchise (and a remarkably profitable one for Morey, who's in line for a new contract). The Rockets lead the league in scoring, and only the Sacramento Kings give up more points than Houston, so the fans also get their money's worth. With the rock-bottom payroll, the Rockets are positioned for a run at any big free agent they fancy. Grade: A-

Dallas Mavericks (23-29)...Mark Cuban has essentially written off this season, and perhaps next, for a run at the FA market over the next two summers (how would LeBron James or Dwight Howard look in Mav gear?). Dallas has improved since star Dirk Nowitzki returned to the starting lineup (9-8 with Dirk starting), but the playoffs are probably a bridge too far for the Mavs this season, as they have to climb over Portland, the Lakers and Houston to get to the eighth spot. With the league's 20th-ranked defense and the second-worst rebounding percentage, that's probably not going to happen. It's likely the Mavericks will be a motley-looking crew for the rest of the season, as a group of them pledged not to shave until the team reaches the .500 mark. If they follow through, there's a good chance they'll end up looking like they belong in ZZ Top. Grade: C

New Orleans Hornets (SUR: 19-34)...It's good-news, bad-news for New Orleans. On the one hand the soon-to-be Pelicans have a core of decent talent to build on. Greivis Vasquez is a strong point guard. Power forwards Anthony Davis, the top pick in the draft, and Ryan Anderson give head coach Monty Williams an inside-outside threat on the front line. Guard Eric Gordon is capable of producing 20 ppg, and there are some potentially bright, young bench players in the fold. On the downside, the Hornets are in the toughest division in the NBA, as the teams in front of them in the Southwest standings have an aggregate .599 winning percentage. There are no easy nights in division games. Gordon is injury-prone. Pivot Robin Lopez might be rated the 10th best center in PER (stat geek) ratings, but he looks to be mediocre to courtside observers. New Orleans plays at one of the slowest paces in the league, so even though the Hornets hold foes to a respectable 97 ppg, they rank 27th in defensive efficiency and only a few teams force fewer turnoverss. The team downshifts even more at home, where the games average a total of just 184 points. The Hornets are 19-9 as vs. the points on the road, so, from a wagering perspective, they are a bit of an overachiever. Grade: B


Oklahoma City Thunder (SUR: 39-14)...OKC hasn't missed a beat this season despite trading All-Star James Harden on the eve of the season. Last year Harden came off the bench and scored 16.8 ppg. Kevin Martin, who came over from Houston in the deal, has settled into the same role and is contributing 15 ppg and shooting 44% from beyond the arc. Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka has upped his scoring from 9 ppg to 13.4. Scoring champ Kevin Durant's production is up, as is the average of defensive specialist guard Thabo Sefolosha (by 3.5 ppg). OKC was just off the pace for the best record in the league prior to losing just before the all-star break at Utah and against Miami. Kevin Durant is having an MVP-level season, and head coach Scott Brooks is keeping the team one big happy family (despite often-emotional but very talented point guard Russell Westbrook). The Thunder have covered 60% of their games this season, and they've got Durant, Westbrook and defensive intimidator Serge Ibaka locked up for at least three more years. Grade: A

Denver Nuggets (SUR: 33-21)...Denver head coach George Karl has his team flying a bit under the radar this season after being under "The Association" microscope on NBA TV last year. The Nuggets are deeper than any team in the league with the exception of the Clippers, and they rank in the top five in offensive efficiency while playing at the second fastest pace. The Nuggets definitely hit a bump in the road in losing at Boston, Toronto and Brooklyn just before the break, but the team outlook remains bright. Power forward Kenneth Faried's high-energy hustle yields 9.7 rebounds and 12.3 points per game, even though they almost never run a play designed for him to get a shot. PG Ty Lawson has become a solid floor leader, increasing his scoring and assists this year. The trade with Minnesota that brought Lawson to Denver for a draft pick is making GM Mark Warkentien and Karl look like very smooth operators. Forward Danilo Gallinari, the main piece Denver received from New York in the Carmelo Anthony deal in 2011, is just 24 years old and at career-highs in scoring and rebounding. He's not 'Melo, but he and now-healthy shooting guard Wilson Chandler (also acquired in the trade) score as much as Anthony did as a Nugget. Grade: B+

Utah Jazz (SUR: 30-24)...Utah is on track to exceed preseason expectations of 43½ wins, as head coach Tyrone Corbin is proving to be a bit underrated as a leader. Although there are rumors flying about the Jazz moving either Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson, as both are free agents (along with starting PG Mo Williams, Raja Bell, Randy Foye and four other squad members) after this season, the Jazz might just sit tight. Utah is in a unique position, as the Jazz are obligated for a league-low $25 million next season and have a committed payroll of $0 in 2014-15. With the array of free agents available in 2014, the Jazz are looking at reinventing themselves in the next few seasons. For the present, Utah's .556 winning percentage is remarkable considering Williams has missed more than half the games, key outside shooting guard Gordon Hayward missed 10, and assorted other players have also lost time. Grade: B

Portland Trail Blazers (SUR: 25-28)...With 16 home games remaining at the Rose Garden, Portland seems a good bet to exceed preseason expectations of 33½ wins (a TGS recommendation in hoops issue No. 1 back in October). The Blazers are still in the playoff hunt because they've stayed relatively healthy and have gotten a pleasant surprise from rookie point guard Damian Lillard. The acquisition of center J.J. Hickson off waivers from Sacramento looked like a brilliant move early in the season, as Hickson's 13 ppg & 10.3 rpg production was welcome. However, Portland's defense has regressed, as the Blazers rank 26th in efficiency this season, a sharp drop from a year ago, and many observers blame Hickson's passive defensive effort. The fact that Portland is suffering from a lack of defense in the pivot is a leftover result of drafting fragile 7-footer Greg Oden as the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft. Oden is just a bad memory for the Blazer front office, who likely only want to talk about how smart they were to take presumed 2013 rookie of the year Lillard. Still, Portland has dropped 8 of its last 10 against the points through the break, and is just 5-13 SU since beating the Miami Heat on Jan. 10. Grade: C

Minnesota Timberwolves (SUR: 19-31)...Minnesota has underachieved this season, but has a ready list of excuses. The loss of top scorer and rebounder Kevin Love after he played just 18 games was an obvious blow. Although flashy point guard Ricky Rubio returned from his ACL injury, he's played in just 25 games and has had restrictions on his minutes. Rubio doesn't seem quite back to the form that made him a definite factor before the injury, but his February numbers (13.5 ppg, 9.3 apg) are an indication he's slowly recovering. Remember, in the shortened lockout schedule of last season, the Timberwolves were 20-19 when Rubio went down, and they won just six of 27 afterward. Certainly center Nikola Pekovic (a true "aircraft carrier" in the middle) continues to improve, and his 16 ppg & 9 rpg is welcome. Head coach Rick Adelman brought forward Andrei Kirilenko back from a year's exile in Russia, where he was the Euroleague MVP for CSKA Moscow, and it's proved to be a fortunate move. Although he's missed some time due to a quad injury, Kirilenko has shown his skills didn't erode in Moscow. He's shooting a career-high 51%, and his scoring and rebounding numbers are the highest they've been since 2007-06. Adelman is also getting production from Puerto Rican PG J.J. Barea (11 ppg) and Russian Alexey Shved (11 ppg). But small market Minny will never be big players in the free agent bidding, and the team is just 15-27-1 against the number since starting fast. Grade: C

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