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February 19, 2008
Game Reax
Western Conference Midseason Report

by Bradford Doolittle

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Sadly, there are now more NBA regular-season games behind us than ahead of us. Well, at least regular-season games--then the real fun starts.

With that in mind, let's take stock of what has happened and then glimpse ahead to what may come. Today, the focus is on the Western Conference.

RANKINGS are for offensive and defensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions); WA82 is wins added prorated to a full season

NBA RANK/TEAM (NBA POWER RANKING) (WIN PACE / PYTHAGOREAN PACE / PRESEASON PROJECTION)

3. Utah Jazz (17.8) (52 / 56 / 50)
RANKINGS: OFF: 2; DEF: 10
WA82: 1. Carlos Boozer 6.23; 2. Deron Williams 4.72; 3. Paul Millsap 2.18; 4. Andrei Kirilenko 1.18; 5. Mehmet Okur 1.01; 6. Ronnie Brewer 0.82; 7. Ronnie Price 0.55; 8. Kyrylo Fesenko 0.34; 9. Matt Harpring 0.26; 10. C.J. Miles 0.07; 11. Morris Almond -0.23; 12. Kyle Korver -0.51; 13. Jarron Collins -0.74; 14. Jason Hart -0.75.
NUTSHELL: A typical Jerry Sloan team--in a very low-key manner, the Jazz has become as good as any team in the West and is within striking distance of the top spot in the conference, little more than a month after the team was .500 and out of the top eight.
LOOKING AHEAD: Everything is clicking for the Jazz. The only nitpick is that sometimes Sloan's usage of Kyle Korver and Ronnie Brewer is a little random. That's pretty minor, which says a lot about how solid Utah has become. Add to the mix that reserve guard Ronnie Price has emerged as a very solid two-way player. The Jazz needs Mehmet Okur to maintain his recent solid play, and in terms of acquisitions a shot-blocking big man to absorb 8-10 minutes a game off the bench would help.

4. Phoenix Suns (17.3) (57 / 55 / 58)
RANKINGS: OFF: 1; DEF: 18
WA82: 1. Amare Stoudemire 6.02; 2. Steve Nash 4.27; 3. Leandro Barbosa 1.58; 4. Shaquille O'Neal 1.54; 5. Grant Hill 1.42; 6. Alando Tucker 0.37; 7. Brian Skinner 0.34; 8. Sean Marks 0.02; 9. D.J. Strawberry -0.14; 10. Eric Piatkowski -0.23; 11. Raja Bell -0.52; 12. Boris Diaw -0.68.
NUTSHELL: Business as usual in the desert, but there can be no judgement until playoff time.
LOOKING AHEAD: No dispute as to the questions here: Can Shaq stay on the court? How will his presence change the Phoenix dynamic? Mike D'Antoni should also try to get D.J. Strawberry some more high-leverage minutes to see if he can be the impact defender that he shows signs of becoming. Another answer for Kobe wouldn't hurt.

5. Los Angeles Lakers (11.8) (55 / 57 / 42)
RANKINGS: OFF: 4; DEF: 8
WA82: 1. Kobe Bryant 6.80; 2. Andrew Bynum 3.61; 3. Pau Gasol 2.88; 4. Lamar Odom 1.29; 5. Derek Fisher 0.78; 6. Ronny Turiaf 0.50; 7. Trevor Ariza 0.45; 8. Sasha Vujacic 0.37; 9. Coby Karl 0.10; 10. DJ Mbenga 0.06; 11. Jordan Farmar 0.04; 12. Chris Mihm -0.05; 13. Vladimir Radmanovic -0.30; 14. Luke Walton -1.10.
NUTSHELL: L.A. showed that, if healthy, it is as deep and talented as any team in the NBA.
LOOKING AHEAD: Get Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza healthy. Get Pau Gasol integrated into the attack. Once Bynum returns from his knee injury, figure out what to do with Lamar Odom. Hope the interior defense holds up. Do all this while trying to maintain a high seed in the West. That's a long laundry list for Phil Jackson, but his GM Mitch Kupchak has put the Lakers back on the map.

6. Dallas Mavericks (10.9) (54 / 52 / 52)
RANKINGS: OFF: 6; DEF: 14
WA82: 1. Dirk Nowitzki 4.59; 2. Josh Howard 2.86; 3. Jason Kidd 2.51; 4. Devean George 1.01; 5. Jason Terry 0.58; 6. Brandon Bass 0.54; 7. Erick Dampier 0.44; 8. Nick Fazekas 0.04; 9. Juwan Howard -0.13; 10. Malik Allen -0.29; 11. Jerry Stackhouse -0.65; 12. Jose Barea -0.77; 13. Antoine Wright -1.42; 14. Eddie Jones -1.62.
NUTSHELL: Will the Mavericks' splashy acquisition of Jason Kidd ultimately drown them?
LOOKING AHEAD: Even with Kidd on board, the key to Dallas improving its offense may be for Dirk Nowitzki to recover his outside shooting touch. Without a second interior defender to go with Erick Dampier, the Mavericks may have to play more small ball, an approach which won't sit well with Avery Johnson.

7. New Orleans Hornets (10.3) (57 / 56 / 40)
RANKINGS: OFF: 7; DEF: 6
WA82: 1. Chris Paul 5.64; 2. David West 3.17; 3. Tyson Chandler 3.10; 4. Marcus Vinicius 1.34; 5. Julian Wright 0.84; 6. Jannero Pargo 0.66; 7. Rasual Butler 0.42; 8. Peja Stojakovic 0.03; 9. Melvin Ely -0.08; 10. Ryan Bowen -0.55; 11. Hilton Armstrong -0.70; 12. Morris Peterson -0.97; 13. Bobby Jackson -1.17.
NUTSHELL: Tyson Chandler and David West have been great, but let's be honest: it's Chris Paul who has propelled the Hornets toward the top of the West while injecting himself into the MVP discussion.
LOOKING AHEAD: The Hornets could use more depth and an upgrade at shooting guard. The depth problem may be manifesting itself in Paul's play, which of late hasn't been quite as strong. One shrewd trade by the estimable Jeff Bower could put N'awlins in an excellent position entering the playoffs. This isn't a team that should stand pat with its current roster, as an inspiring postseason run may be crucial to the team's future in the Crescent City.

8. Houston Rockets (10.2) (50 / 50 / 49)
RANKINGS: OFF: 18; DEF: 2
WA82: 1. Yao Ming 5.56; 2. Tracy McGrady 1.68; 3. Luis Scola 1.52; 4. Bonzi Wells 1.09; 5. Carl Landry 0.77; 6. Chuck Hayes 0.23; 7. Steve Francis 0.21; 8. Luther Head 0.01; 9. Steve Novak -0.01; 10. Dikembe Mutombo -0.03; 11. Rafer Alston -0.11; 12. Aaron Brooks -0.37; 13. Mike James -0.88; 14. Shane Battier -1.04.
NUTSHELL: The Rockets' ultimate destiny could be to serve as the best team to miss the playoffs in years.
LOOKING AHEAD: On a team that struggles to score at times, the Rockets should feature more Luis Scola and less Chuck Hayes. As the second-best defensive team in the NBA, Houston could absorb the hit on that end of the court and, besides, Scola isn't a bad defender. Just because you're not from the U.S. doesn't mean you can't defend. Rookie Carl Landry has been playing more lately, and while it's a small sample size, his per-40-minute numbers are ridiculous: 20.7 points/13.1 boards. It would be nice to see how the Rockets would do if Rick Adelman could successfully install the ball-movement scheme he favors. Alas, could that ever happen on a Tracy McGrady team?

9. San Antonio Spurs (8.7) (54 / 55 / 53)
RANKINGS: OFF: 11; DEF: 4
WA82: 1. Tim Duncan 6.72; 2. Manu Ginobili 4.84; 3. Tony Parker 3.56; 4. Matt Bonner 2.47; 5. Robert Horry 1.66; 6. Francisco Elson 1.26; 7. Fabricio Oberto 0.48; 8. Ime Udoka 0.33; 9. Darius Washington 0.13; 10. Michael Finley -0.12; 11. Brent Barry -0.41; 12. Jacque Vaughn -0.94; 13. Damon Stoudamire -1.10; 14. Bruce Bowen -4.84.
NUTSHELL: The champs are the oldest team in the league, and it showed at times during the first half of the season.
LOOKING AHEAD: Besides getting Tony Parker healthy, Gregg Popovich must recognize that 30-plus minutes per game for Bruce Bowen can no longer be justified. Hey, all good things come to an end for 36-year-old defensive specialists, too.

11. Denver Nuggets (5.2) (50 / 48 / 46)
RANKINGS: OFF: 13; DEF: 5
WA82: 1. Allen Iverson 4.09; 2. Carmelo Anthony 3.84; 3. Marcus Camby 3.61; 4. Kenyon Martin 0.60; 5. J.R. Smith 0.10; 6. Nene Hilario -0.07; 7. Jelani McCoy -0.14; 8. Anthony Carter -0.36; 9. Linas Kleiza -0.49; 10. Chucky Atkins -0.68; 11. Von Wafer -0.71; 12. Mike Wilks -0.78; 13. Eduardo Najera -0.81; 14. Yakhouba Diawara -0.85.
NUTSHELL: The Nuggets fancy themselves title contenders, but they still need more from their role players to reach that status.
LOOKING AHEAD: Finding a backcourt mate for Allen Iverson has always been a thorny issue for the teams on which he's played. Lately, the Nuggets have been using him with Anthony Carter. The five-man unit numbers at 82games.com suggest that the pairing hasn't worked very well. Denver's best units have included J.R. Smith. In fact, the combination of Iverson, Smith, Carmelo Anthony, Linas Kleiza and Marcus Camby has produced some nice results in limited minutes. That's a unit that seems to have a lot of upside. The Nuggets need to do something drastic to distinguish themselves in the rugged West--they're clearly a notch below the top six.

13. Golden State Warriors (0.6) (50 / 47 / 36)
RANKINGS: OFF: 5; DEF: 24
WA82: 1. Baron Davis 2.86; 2. Monta Ellis 1.93; 3. Andris Biedrins 1.45; 4. Kelenna Azubuike 0.68; 5. Patrick O'Bryant 0.47; 6. Stephen Jackson 0.44; 7. Austin Croshere 0.24; 8. Al Harrington 0.22; 9. Stephane Lasme 0.21; 10. Brandan Wright 0.20; 11. Matt Barnes 0.06; 12. Chris Webber -0.10; 13. Marco Belinelli -0.81; 14. Mickael Pietrus -1.02.
NUTSHELL: Nellie's fun-with-matchups shell game is still working after all these years. The Warriors aren't one of the eight best teams in the Western Conference, but it wouldn't be surprising to see them in the playoffs anyway.
LOOKING AHEAD: While it's too early to know if Chris Webber can still help an NBA team, goodness knows the Warriors needed someone like him. Don Nelson can still hodge-podge it with his small-ball attack, fitting in interchangeable pieces like Al Harrington, Mickael Pietrus, Kelenna Azubuike and Matt Barnes around his dynamic core of Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson and budding superstar Monta Ellis. Without another interior presence besides Andris Biedrins, the Warriors weren't likely to repeat last year's first-round surprise. The vintage version of Webber would fit in perfectly with Nellie's scheme; it remains to be seen if this version of Webber fits with anybody.

14. Portland Trail Blazers (-0.5) (44 / 40 / 26)
RANKINGS: OFF: 14; DEF: 17
WA82: 1. Brandon Roy 1.75; 2. LaMarcus Aldridge 1.02; 3. Joel Przybilla 0.44; 4. Channing Frye 0.25; 5. Josh McRoberts 0.14; 6. Steve Blake 0.08; 7. James Jones 0.02; 8. Raef LaFrentz -0.09; 9. Taurean Green -0.21; 10. Travis Outlaw -0.65; 11. Sergio Rodriguez -0.66; 12. Martell Webster -1.35; 13. Jarrett Jack -1.82.
NUTSHELL: The depth of young talent on this team, even with Greg Oden sitting on the sidelines wearing really nice suits, is a testament to the acumen of Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard.
LOOKING AHEAD: Blazer mania is back, and even though Portland is probably going to ultimately miss the playoffs, the renewed spirit is not going anywhere anytime soon. The only thing Portland really has to sort out in preparation for next season is how the playing time at power forward will flesh out in the future. Travis Outlaw's game is expanding beyond the confines of a reserve role, but LaMarcus Aldridge is clearly the four-man of the future. Channing Frye still has lots of upside at that spot as well. With Oden out, a lot of those minutes are absorbed by using those guys at center. Long term, it might be a worthy experiment to try Outlaw at the three. His jump shot has become good enough, so it's just a matter of if he can guard at that position. Not that the Blazers will be weak at the three--the growth in Martell Webster's game has been significant and he's still just 20 years old.

22. Los Angeles Clippers (-8.2) (27 / 28 / 36)
RANKINGS: OFF: 27; DEF: 12
WA82: 1. Chris Kaman 2.06; 2. Corey Maggette 1.18; 3. Sam Cassell 0.92; 4. Aaron Williams -0.30; 5. Ruben Patterson -0.34; 6. Richie Frahm -0.51; 7. Al Thornton -0.58; 8. Paul Davis -0.86; 9. Dan Dickau -0.91; 10. Brevin Knight -1.66; 11. Josh Powell -1.76; 12. Tim Thomas -2.10; 13. Cuttino Mobley -2.15; 14. Quinton Ross -2.77.
NUTSHELL: Injuries doomed this season before it even started.
LOOKING AHEAD: Mike Dunleavy and Donald Sterling need to do the right thing and let Sam Cassell find a new home. Other than that, L.A. is just playing out the string. The Clippers can take solace in Chris Kaman's improvement and the fact that rookie Al Thornton has shown signs of being a geniune talent. With Elton Brand walking after the season, the Clippers will be back to where they always end up: starting over.

23. Sacramento Kings (-8.6) (36 / 35 / 37)
RANKINGS: OFF: 15; DEF: 23
WA82: 1. Brad Miller 1.65; 2. Ron Artest 0.93; 3. Kevin Martin 0.24; 4. John Salmons 0.21; 5. Spencer Hawes 0.18; 6. Lorenzen Wright 0.02; 7. Shelden Williams -0.08; 8. Tyronn Lue -0.68; 9. Francisco Garcia -0.80; 10. Anthony Johnson -0.84; 11. Beno Udrih -0.88; 12. Kenny Thomas -1.11; 13. Mikki Moore -1.44; 14. Quincy Douby -2.04.
NUTSHELL: The Kings are an impact power forward away from being really good.
LOOKING AHEAD: The Mike Bibby trade means that Beno Udrih, who played well when Bibby was injured, gets his minutes back. It also means that Sheldon Williams will have a chance to fill the gaping hole at power forward that Mikki Moore has flailed away in during the first half of the season. Note to fans everywhere: if your starting lineup includes Moore, Jeff McInnis or either one of the Collins twins, your team isn't very good. Williams hasn't been able to find an offensive idenity as a pro, but he can defend and is a solid rebounder. He's definitely worth the flyer Geoff Petrie took on him. The three expiring contracts Petrie got back in addition will also help Sacramento moving forward. The Kings will continue to be a tough matchup for contending teams during the second half, especially at Arco.

25. Seattle Supersonics (-11.6) (20 / 21 / 29)
RANKINGS: OFF: 30; DEF: 20
WA82: 1. Chris Wilcox 0.94; 2. Nick Collison 0.50; 3. Mouhamed Sene 0.11; 4. Robert Swift -0.30; 5. Wally Szczerbiak -0.51; 6. Kurt Thomas -0.51; 7. Luke Ridnour -0.61; 8. Mickael Gelabale -0.91; 9. Damien Wilkins -1.21; 10. Earl Watson -1.53; 11. Jeff Green -1.70; 12. Johan Petro -2.10; 13. Delonte West -2.42; 14. Kevin Durant -3.57.
NUTSHELL: Seattle fans have had the chance to watch Kevin Durant in NBA utero. The way it's sounding, Oklahoma City fans will get to see the finished product.
LOOKING AHEAD: There is really nothing to quibble about regarding the Sonics' approach. Durant and Jeff Green are getting ample time to work on their games. Another high lottery pick is in the offing. Other than lining up a relocation firm, there isn't much else to do for the Sonics. The annoying thing is that with the Seattle market open, if the Hornets move into relocation mode people could forget that Kansas City is the obvious choice as the next great NBA city.

27. Memphis Grizzlies (-15.7) (22 / 28 / 30)
RANKINGS: OFF: 16; DEF: 30
WA82: 1. Mike Miller 0.53; 2. Brian Cardinal 0.29; 3. Hakim Warrick -0.07; 4. Mike Conley -0.25; 5. Andre Brown -0.35; 6. Javaris Crittenton -0.52; 7. Kwame Brown -0.63; 8. Rudy Gay -0.74; 9. Bobby Jones -0.77; 10. Casey Jacobsen -1.51; 11. Darko Milicic -1.57; 12. Juan Carlos Navarro -2.30; 13. Kyle Lowry -2.80; 14. Jason Collins -2.83.
NUTSHELL: The Grizzlies play fast, but not well.
LOOKING AHEAD: In Mike Conley and either Kyle Lowry or Jarvis Crittenton, the Grizzlies have a very nice young point guard combo to team with developing star Rudy Gay. They also have a ton of cap room and an appealing style of play. This upcoming offseason is huge for Memphis. Can they get lucky in the lottery? Will owner Michael Heisley spend money on the free-agent market? Even if he is willing to do so, will any of the top available players take his cash? It's not really a great situation in Memphis right now. Cap flexibility is not an ideal basis for a ticket-selling campaign.

30. Minnesota Timberwolves (-18.2) (16 / 20 / 34)
RANKINGS: OFF: 29; DEF: 25
WA82: 1. Al Jefferson 3.29; 2. Randy Foye -0.56; 3. Michael Doleac -0.78; 4. Ryan Gomes -0.99; 5. Theo Ratliff -1.06; 6. Greg Buckner -1.18; 7. Gerald Green -1.21; 8. Craig Smith -1.23; 9. Chris Richard -1.53; 10. Antoine Walker -1.98; 11. Rashad McCants -2.03; 12. Marko Jaric -2.54; 13. Corey Brewer -3.57; 14. Sebastian Telfair -3.87.
NUTSHELL: Al Jefferson is currently like a thoroughbred on a pig farm--his excellence really stands out in Minnesota.
LOOKING AHEAD: The Wolves have been much more competitive lately and are finding that some of their young players have upside. Besides Jefferson, Craig Smith has emerged as a neo-Clarence Weatherspoon and Rashad McCants has proven that he can create his own shot with the best of them. In the second half, Minnesota needs to focus on getting Randy Foye re-established as an up-and-comer, and it really needs to get Corey Brewer comfortable as a pro player as well. There is a long way to go for Kevin McHale, Fred Hoiberg or whoever is running the Timberwolves in the future, but more help is on the way.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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