TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NBA WEST ALL-STAR BREAK UPDATE
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor
Pacific Division: Golden State Warriors (41-16)...The Dubs have slipped a bit over this time last season in terms of win-loss record, which was 44-14 at the break a year ago. But, believe us, any perceived regression is a mirage created by the regular-season complacency that comes with four straight NBA Finals appearances and three titles in four years. With C Boogie Cousins coming online a bit earlier than expected (Jan. 18), there are only a few worries in the Bay Area (not including where the Raiders will land for their home games in the fall). Cousins has contributed 14 ppg, 7 rpg, 3.7 apg in just 23 minutes per game. Godlen Satte is getting a little heat in the race for the Western Conference top seed from Denver, but let’s recall that the Warriors were forced to go through Houston to get to the Finals last season. Golden State did have a scare with G Klay Thompson’s ugly dislocation of a finger, but it’s not on his shooting hand, so he should be fine, although in his next start after the injury, he made just 2 of 16 shots. Head coach Steve Kerr is pacing his team well, managing minutes while still leading the West, and with Steph Curry shooting 44.4% from long range (above his 43.7% career mark over the last 9½ years), while Kevin Durant flexes his offensive muscles (27.6 ppg, 51.6%). And this season Warrior players have only been ejected twice, once each for Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala compared with 10 last season. Now, if Kerr can just keep Green calm enough to finish all the playoff games, they’ll be set.
LA Clippers (32-27)...Doc Rivers and the rest of the Clipper front office made a decision to pack it in and re-work the roster. Considering they are 2-15 SU against Golden State, it was clear what they’ve been doing the last four or five seasons simply wasn’t enough to compete with the Warriors. Los Angeles was sitting in the eighth slot in the playoffs at the break, and they should be in tank mode, as finishing in the playoffs will cost them their first-round pick. Still, the moves made were generally very positive for Rivers’ team. The team stole young, talented C Ivica Zubac for Mike Muscala. The catch was the Lakers also sent troubled PF Michael Beasley along in the trade, but Beasley is just getting a check and will likely be waived. Moving PF Tobias Harris, who had all-star level numbers in this, his contract season, meant they’d just decided he wasn’t worth a max contract, and waiving C Marcin Gortat and possibly Milos Teodosic, who both lack athleticism, is no loss. Moving Avery Bradley to Memphis for JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple was a positive move for the Clippers. The team is looking to the future, and rumored to be in the running for some of the top free agents becoming available this summer, and the payroll drops from $116m this season to $49.3 next year and they are obliged for just $8m in 2020-2021. They’d better hit on some of their four first-round picks over the next three seasons!.
Sacramento Kings (30-27)...Last season at this time, the Kings were 18-39 and we questioned why GM Vlade Divac had a job. Things have changed a bit, as Sacramento has made some progress in renovating the franchise, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006. The team appears to have clicked big-time in selecting De’Aaron Fox, who was inexplicably still around for Sacto to take at No. 5 in the 2017 draft. The acquisition of Buddy Hield and a couple of draft picks from New Orleans for Boogie Cousins and Omri Casspi was a major win. While C Willie Cauley-Stein has been a bit of an underachiever, Hield and Fox have turned into 20 ppg scorers this season, while F Bogdan Bogdanovic (15 ppg, 4 rpg, 4 apg), PF Marvin Bagley (13 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and PF Nemanja Bjelica (10 ppg, 6 rpg) are all contributing. The acquisition of F Harrison Barnes could be a good move, giving the Kings a veteran player who has won a ring and has averaged double figures in his 64 playoff appearances. The team is on the hook for Barnes’ player-option next season, but with Fox, Hield, Bagley and Cauley-Stein still on their rookie deals, the Kings still the 29th-lowest payroll in the league. The impressive thing about the Kings this season has been the level of intensity they’ve played with under HC David Joerger. They don’t back down and try hard almost every night. Sacto counts OKC (twice), Indiana, San Antonio (twice), Philadelphia and Portland among their victims and would love a shot at the playoffs (even if it means getting bounced by the Warriors). The Kings have improved from 29th in offensive efficiency and 27th in defensive efficiency to 16th in both categories this season. With the Lakers struggling and the Clippers tanking, a return to the postseason might be in store for Joerger’s playoff-starved team.
LA Lakers (28-29)...Things aren’t going as planned in Tinsel Town. The Lakers invested more than $153m to acquire LeBron James for the final four years of his career, and word is they always felt they would only be getting three seasons of quality production from the aging future Hall-of-Famer. Now the team is chasing the 8th spot in the playoffs and it would be nothing short of humiliating not to make the postseason after closing last season on an uptick (24-20 SU L44 despite tanking the last few weeks). It doesn’t help that some of the recent front office moves have made the franchise look like bunglers. We weren’t Mitch Kupchakfans, but he was at the helm when the team chose Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac, as well as Brandon Ingram. The new regime, under Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, are responsible for Lonzo Ball (the jury’s out, but they passed on Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson, De’Aaron Fox, Lauri Markkanen, Donovan Mitchell and Dennis Smith Jr. to take Ball) and wasted two other first-round picks on Tony Bradley (now a non-factor in Utah) and Moritz Wagner (non-factor). That Johnson-Pelinka front office badly botched the fiasco that was the negotiation for a trade with New Orleans to acquire Anthony Davis. They were also played last season when they were danced around by San Antonio in the Kawhi Leonard talks, and it turned out the Spurs were using them as leverage against Toronto. Losing productive young pivotIvica Zubac to the Clippers in essence just to get a nominal outside shooter and dump caustic vet PF Michael Beasley. Now there are a lot of young egos who need to be smoothed over, and one of those young egos might be that of the coach, Luke Walton, who has his own problems. He appears to be a “dead man walking” and is rumored to be first in line to take the fall for this season’s potential flop. He wouldn’t be the first coach LeBron got fired or tried to get fired. It’s a mess, stay tuned.
Phoenix Suns (11-48)...Phoenix has lost 15 straight coming out of the break and has turned to full “tank” mode. The talking points at the Talking Stick Arena is that the Suns own a few “pieces” in the person of vet G Devin Booker, F T.J. Warren and rookie C Deandre Ayton and will likely have two first-round picks in the upcoming draft. Booker is on the payroll for an extension that will pay him more than $158m over the next five years, so he will be the centerpiece of the franchise going forward. Booker’s 24.6 ppg and 6.7 apg this season is a big factor in keeping the Suns in games, but the team’s 5-10 spread mark in the 15-game losing streak is an indication he’s not keeping them competitive of late. The Suns rank 27th in offensive efficiency and 29th in defensive efficiency, not much of an improvement for the team under first-year HC IgorKokoskov. It’s a learning experience for Kokoskov as well as rookie star Ayton (16.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg), but right now the team is only learning how to lose.
Southwest Division: Houston Rockets (33-24)...The Rockets were a lofty 44-13 SU when, at the All-Star Break last season, on their way to a league-high 65 wins and the overall top seed in the playoffs. It wasn’t enough to get past Golden State. This season Houston has scrapped and clawed its way to the top of the Southwest Division on the prolific scoring run of G James Harden, who has scored 30 or more points in 31 straight games. The Rockets are 21-10 SU in Harden’s scoring splurge, as he’s dragged them through injuries to PG Chris Paul, G Eric Gordon and C Clint Capela. Paul and Gordon are back, although Capela is out for the season, and Houston is sitting in the 5th seed in the West, facing a first-round series with 4th-place Portland. The acquisition of PF Kenneth Faried has been a major plus, as he has filled a void, scoring 16ppg and grabbing 10.3 rpg in his first 12 games after coming over from the Nets on Jan. 21. Interestingly, Houston has been a team in transition the last few years, moving from the atypical go-go team that ranked 3rd in the league in pace two seasons ago to a much slower, careful side that is currently 27th in possessions per game. The Rockets had a bit of an adjustment re-introducing Chris Paul into the lineup after he missed 17 games, and his shooting touch is still rusty, as he’s made just 18 of his last 50 shots through the break. Gordon is rounding into form, and he’s scored 17.3 ppg since returning from an eight-game layoff from New Year’s Eve through mid-January. The Rockets have been a bully and giant-killer at home, covering 5 of 6 laying more than 9 points while going 3-1 as a home dog at the Toyota Center for HC Mike D’Antoni.
San Antonio Spurs (33-26)...San Antonio is in roughly the same position it was in last season, second in the Southwest. Although at this time a year ago they had 35 wins, plus they are riding an 8-game spread losing streak and have lost 4 of their first 5 SU on the annual “Rodeo Road Trip” this year. DeMar DeRozan has helped soften the blow of having to deal Kawhi Leonard to Toronto in the offseason, and F Rudy Gay is shooting 52% and scoring 14.5 ppg after struggling with the Spurs last season. San Antonio is third in the league in offensive efficiency behind Golden State and Houston, but HC Gregg Popovich’s defense has fallen from 4th in the NBA a year ago to 22nd through 59 games this season. The Spurs have been a great play at home as long as they aren’t laying too many points, logging a 16-3 mark this season as a dog or a favorite of 6 or fewer, but they’ve eased up and covered just 2 of 10 chances as home chalk of more than 6 (and they are just 4-6 as a road favorite this season). In the last 10 games before the break, San Antonio yielded 121 ppg and foes shot 51%, so it’s no wonder they were on a major spread slide. As a result of having defensive worries, the Spurs’ games went “over” 10-1 coming out of the break. LaMarcus Aldridge has stepped up his game, averaging 23 ppg and 11 rpg in his last 9, but it’s been the backcourt injuries that have shackled coach “Pop” this season. Losing PG Dejounte Murray with an ACL injury on the eve of the season-opening was a major blow. Derrick White, a 2nd-year pro out of Colorado gave them some good minutes, but he was injured and, although he’ll be back after the break, it has put pressure on useful Aussie PG Patty Mills. Mills has been the leader of the bench producers the last few seasons and using him in the starting lineup has hurt.
Dallas Mavericks (26-31)...The Mavs are now in official tank mode, with the big trade bringing PF/C Kristaps Porzingis to the team along with Tim Hardaway Jr., for C DeAndre Jordan, PG Dennis Smith Jr. and G Wesley Matthews signaled owner Mark Cuban waiving a white flag on this season. That move set up a quality trio of the future after the clear “hit” in the draft with Luka Doncic (21 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 5.6 apg). The Mavs were in the thick of the playoff chase, but now are hoping to drop down, get lucky with the ping-pong balls and get a 1-5 slot in the lottery to protect their first-round pick (protected, but going to Atlanta as part of theDoncic deal if it’s higher than a No. 5), as well as keeping its 2nd-rounder from going to Golden State (protected 31-55). Doncic has been a pro for a while and plays like a vet, having played professionally in Europe since he was 16 years old. The Mavs also managed to move F Harrison Barnes, which cleared $25m off next year’s salary cap, making Dallas responsible for just $55.6m next season (only 4 teams have a lower base heading into free agency). That’s what it’s all about right now, building a team around Porzingis, Doncic and (maybe) Hardaway, hopefully adding a quality FA, and making some draft moves that will help fill in the cracks with role players. The Mavs went into the All-Star Break in the 12th spot and looking down the list they can “catch” New Orleans and Memphis if HC Rick Carlisle plays his cards right.
New Orleans Pelicans (25-33)...The Pelicans rolled the dice in not taking the Lakers’ trade offer for Anthony Davis, but that had a ripple effect. New Orleans had kept AD on the sidelines during the negotiations leading up to the trade deadline, and the team had covered 5 straight until the “no-deal” decision was made, with Jahlil Okafor having the best stretch of his career since averaging 17.5 ppg and 7 rpg in his rookie season in Philadelphia. Okafor averaged 18 ppg and 9.8 rpg in the 9 games he took over as starter for Davis in late January and early February. The Pels have fumbled and stumbled this season despite the overall fine play of not only Davis (28.5 ppg, 13.1 rpg), but they’ve also wasted the work of PG Jrue Holiday (21 ppg, 8 apg) and backup PF Julius Randle (20 ppg, 9.1 rpg) and the recently-traded Nikola Mirotic (17 ppg, 8.3rpg; moved to Milwaukee at the trade deadline). So the Pels rounded up a handful of second-round draft picks at the deadline while still holding on to Davis for an anticipated monster trade (possibly with Boston) to be consummated in the summer. Randle has a player option at $9m, but the way he has played this season, he might take his chances on the open market. New Orleans has to play Solomon Hill $13.3m next season(whose idea was that?). HC Alvin Gentry is noted to be a genuinely good man, likeable and approachable and the players like him. That being said, the Pels are 25th in defensive efficiency this season after finishing 12th last term, and Gentry’s team has enough talent to be in the top eight in the West. Now they’re looking to the future and likely won’t care if they remain huddled at the bottom of the standings.
Memphis Grizzlies (23-36)...Memphis is another team that’s gone into “wait till next year” mode, desperately trying to maneuver their salary cap, sending C Marc Gasol to Toronto for Jonas Valanciunus (and Deion Wright and C.J. Miles) and acquiring Avery Bradley from the Clippers for the players they can’t afford next season (or just had no intention of signing). The Grizzlies have a couple of huge mistakes that have handcuffed them in trades and in their “capology” at this point, as they couldn’t deal away PG Mike Conley, who’s owed $67m the next two years, or F Chandler Parsons, who’s been called the worst free agent signing ever, soaking them for a $94m contract and essentially giving nothing in return. Still, the Grizzlies have been covering some numbers lately (7-3 last 10), although Gasol was part of that. Wright stepped into the starting lineup for Memphis, and he’s likely soon to be joined by Valanciunas, and the veteran Miles who scored 35 pts. in 68 minutes in his first three appearances with Memphis after getting very little use with the Raptors over the past six weeks. Avery Bradley has also helped, scoring 18.7 ppg on 58% shooting in his first three appearances (all as a starter). Twenty-six players have appeared for the Grizzlies this season, so who can expect J.B. Bickerstaff to attain any positive continuity while working three new starters into the lineup?
Northwest Division: Denver Nuggets (39-18)...Denver has been better than anticipated already, and Isaiah Thomas has now returned just in time for the runup to the playoffs. Good times in the Mile High City. C Nikola Jokic has been the “point center” this season, pushing a triple-double nearly every night (20.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg and 7.8 apg), while PG Jamal Murray is at 18.3 ppg and 5 apg. If G Gary Harris and swingman Will Barton can stay healthy, and PF Paul Millsap continue to provide toughness, leadership and rebounding, the Nuggets will continue to pressure Golden State. However, the schedule is a bit demanding, as Denver will be tested by playing 9 road games in their last 14 this season, and it must still visit Golden State twice as well as playing a pair vs. Indiana, San Antonio, Utah, Portland and hot OKC down the stretch. The Nugget defense is just average on the year, and their challenge has been built at home, where they are 25-4 in the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center (20-9 vs. the spread). The Nugs shoot 49% and have out-rebounded foes 47-40 at home, where Jokic averages 22/12/8 and is shooting 53%. Denver has been “adjusted” by the oddsmakers, and are just 11-16 vs. the points since Dec. 22 after a profitable 19-11 start this season. Lately, the Nuggets have been receiving solid support from 6-5 G Malik Beasley, who’s made the most of his added minutes, scoring 21 ppg on 55% shooting in February, including a 35-point outburst against James Harden and the Rockets in a 136-122 Nugget triumph. With the unforgiving schedule, doubt Denver can catch the Warriors, and will have its hands full holding off OKC, which had won 11 of its last 12 SU prior to facing New Orleans Thursday night.
Oklahoma City Thunder (37-19)...Paul George is surprising virtually everyone, playing by far the best ball of his career, proving he was worth every penny of the fat contract he signed in re-upping with the Thunder. George has scored 29 ppg this season, and 40 ppg in February, but it’s his defense that has made the difference in Ok City. George leads the league in steals, followed closely by teammate PG Russell Westbrook, who is, per his usual, averaging a triple double on the season. Westbrook’s shot is still not falling often enough, but he’s averaged 13.2 assists and 13.8 rebs. over his last 10 games, and the Thunder have surged to an 11-1 SU and 10-2 spread mark in that span, so no one is complaining about his touch. Westbrook and George became the first teammates in NBA history to post 20-point triple-doubles in the same game, and right now are a very formidable duo. That being said, they will need help if they hope to scale Mt. Everest and beat the Warriors. C Steven Adams is a solid double-double tough guy and Dennis Schroder is a professional scorer and energetic, willing defender. Still, what they really could use is the return to action of 6-7 G Andre Roberson, who is the team’s best defender and would come in handy in containing some of the high-scoring wings out West.
Portland Trail Blazers (34-23)...Portland is 19-10 SU in its last 29 and has won 10 of its last 11 games at the Moda Center (9-2 vs. the spread), as the backcourt production of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has continued to fuel the team. C Jusuf Nurkic (15 ppg, 10 rpg) has been the third cog, and F Jake Layman has scored 13.4 ppg and shot 56% off the bench over last 10 games, while additions of G Rodney Hood (10ppg as a Blazer) and Enes Kanter have strengthened the bench considerably. Portland is in position to host Houston in the first round, and given the way the Blazers are playing at home and the fact they won two of three from the Rockets, they have to like their chances to advance out of the first round for the first time in the franchise’s last 11 playoff appearances. Blazers might be a go-with situation down the stretch, as they’ve been one of the league’s better teams the last few years, posting a 87-44 SU mark the last 3+ seasons from around mid-January onward. Must be a bit wary of unloading on the Blazers straight out of the All-Star Break gate, as Portland has a treacherous seven-game road trip in store and plays 16 of its last 25 away from the Moda Center.
Utah Jazz (32-25)...Utah is in the mix of six Western Conference teams separated by just 4 games vying for slots 4 through 9 in the standings, not counting the Lakers and Timberwolves who are 2 and 3 games behind that pack, respectively. Second-year phenom G Donovan Mitchell continues to improve (22.4 ppg on the season; 25.6 ppg in his last 10), and C Rudy Gobert has been spurred by his all-star snub (again) and has been producing 16 ppg, 12 rpg and 2.5 blocks over his last 10. Even Spanish PG Ricky Rubio has been on his toes of late, sinking 44% (good, for him) and scoring 14 ppg over his last 10. F Joe Ingles has enough attitude for the whole team (and scores 12 ppg), while Derrick Favors is a tough defender who combines with Jae Crowder to produce 23 ppg and 12 rpg from the power forward position. The Jazz have ramped it up since mid-December, notching an 18-8 SU mark and 16-10 spread mark in their last 26. Utah has a favorable schedule down the stretch, playing 2 more games at the Vivint Smart Home Arena than on the road, and Jazz have numerous tanking cupcakes on the docket. Utah is playing for now, as Favors and Rubio are likely playing their last season for the Jazz, but the team isn’t playing with the defensive intensity QuinSnyder would like, as it ranks 27th in the league in efficiency on the stop end. Last season, Utah was second in the NBA in that department, trailing only Boston. With an intimidator like Gobert down low, it’s clearly the perimeter defense that’s the problem, and the Jazz give up far too many points off turnovers (23rd). Jazz will claim a playoff berth, but it could be a first-round exit.
Minnesota Timberwolves (27-30)...Hard to believe, but Minnesota was leading the Northwest Division at this time a year ago with a 35-25 record, Jimmy Butler was all-aboard and scoring 22 ppg for the Timberwolves and Tom Thibodeau was being hailed as a genius. Things have changed, haven’t they? Butler is in Philly, Thibodeau is working as a commentator on ESPN (with an oddly disturbing, frozen smile) andMinny is at the bottom of the Northwest and four games off the pace for a playoff spot. The results haven’t improved much, if at all, since Thibodeau was fired with a 19-21 SU and 21-19 pointspread record. Under popular Ryan Saunders, the son of revered former Timberwolf coach Flip Saunders, Minny is 8-9 SU and against the number. The Timberwolves have been a mediocre rebounding and defensive team all season, resulting in a 20-8 run “over” since mid-December. G Andrew Wiggins has no conscience, gunning up 20.5 shots per game in his last 8, connecting on just 38% (23.5% on treys), while injuries to PGs Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose have been a major issue. With no noticeable improvement in evidence, Saunders might have a hard time convincing Minnesota’s front office to take the “interim” tag off and giving him a shot.
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