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January 15, 2009
No Tanking
The West's Weaklings Improve

by Kevin Pelton

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For the average fan, it can be hard to see the motivation for teams in the NBA's second division to win games. With nothing to play for in terms of the postseason, it's easy to imagine players mailing in their efforts and teams playing for a better draft pick instead of wins. That's why it has been encouraging to see three of the NBA's cellar-dwellers of recent vintage--the Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder--playing competitive basketball of late.

Entering the season, either the Grizzlies or the Thunder were picked by most sources to finish as the league's worst team. Basketball Prospectus' projection had Memphis bringing up the rear, with Oklahoma City not far ahead. The Timberwolves were actually projected as a fringe playoff contender, but those hopes were quickly dashed when Minnesota opened the season 1-8. The Thunder overshadowed that with one of the worst starts in NBA history--1-16 and then 2-24. Predictably, both teams changed coaches. If published reports are to be believed, Marc Iavaroni narrowly avoided that fate when the Grizzlies dropped seven straight to fall to 4-14 on the season.

Yet, as we near the midway point of the season, all three teams have shown that they have enough talent to be dangerous when overlooked by opponents. While the wins this group has collected might not amount to much in the short term, the progress they have made is crucial in the longer run as they continue the rebuilding process.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

Although the Grizzlies were the only one of the three teams not to make a coaching change, in a real sense they have benefited from a new Marc Iavaroni on the sidelines. We've become so accustomed to instant success from head coaches in the NBA and other leagues that it's easy to forget there is a growth curve for coaches, just as there is for players. All the experience in the world as an assistant cannot completely prepare anyone for sliding over those all-important two feet. Having struggled with the transition as a rookie head coach, Iavaroni seems more comfortable this season.

Expectations were tempered in Memphis when the team followed up last season's deal sending Pau Gasol to the Lakers by trading away its other veteran anchor, swingman Mike Miller, to Minnesota. That move has left the Grizzlies very young, but also more talented than last year's ballclub with the addition of rookies O.J. Mayo (acquired in the deal that sent out Miller and the rights to Kevin Love) and Marc Gasol, part of the return for his own brother.

Gasol has been a revelation as a rookie. He rates by WARP as Memphis' most valuable player. In many ways, Gasol is like a poor man's version of his brother, with the odd feature that instead of shying away from physical contact, he welcomes it. The Lakers are never going to regret making the move, but the younger Gasol's play has gone a long way towards removing the punchline aspect of the trade from the Grizzlies' end.

I'll confess to being a bit of a cynic about Mayo. Something about his game--predicated on the ability to create and hit long jumpers off the dribble--strikes me as off. Mayo shoots plenty of three-pointers, but he still ends up shooting too often from just inside the arc, basketball's no-man land. Being an excellent two-point jumpshooter is sort of like being a singles specialist in baseball--the rewards don't match the quality of the effort. I suppose it took me a long time to appreciate Ichiro as well.

Either way, the Grizzlies project to have a fearsome wing combination in Mayo and Rudy Gay. The latter has suffered through an up-and-down campaign after a breakthrough sophomore season, seeing his shooting percentages decline while his turnovers ticked up. Not surprisingly, Gay's best stretch of the season generally matched Memphis' best run--five wins in six games in early December. In those wins, Gay averaged 22.8 points with a 62.0 percent True Shooting Percentage (TS%).

The biggest question the Grizzlies must address is their future at point guard. Mike Conley was supposed to be the answer, but he has been unable to put together a period of sustained success during his first season and a half at the NBA level. Kyle Lowry is limited, and better suited as a backup; still, he's been Iavaroni's best option much of the time. As a result, Conley's name has been regularly floated in trade rumors, including the recent talk of sending him to Milwaukee for Ramon Sessions and Joe Alexander--a trade that would have to be considered a steal for the Grizzlies considering Sessions has outplayed Conley dramatically this season.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

After starting their season with a two-point win, the Timberwolves proceeded to lose their next eight games. Included in the streak were losses by three points, by four points (in double OT), by four points, by three points (in OT) by five points and by six points. That is brutal. Psychologically, that kind of stretch can be very damaging; having seen teams go through both that and the opposite, I suspect at times we see actual records catch up to point differential because a team's play changes, not its luck.

Still, it was probably inevitable that at some point Minnesota was going to get it together, because outside of Randy Wittman losing the team late in his tenure, the Timberwolves have been in games throughout the year. Minnesota won five straight and seven of nine (or a Jeri Ryan stretch, and yes that's an incredibly lame joke) before falling at the buzzer Tuesday against Miami. The Timberwolves took advantage of a weak schedule that featured three games against the other two teams in this group (and a date with the Chicago Bulls, who have somehow lost to all three of these teams).

While Minnesota improved on both ends over the nine-game stretch, their progress was most apparent at the offensive end. 24th in the league in Offensive Rating over the course of the season at 105.4 points per 100 possessions, the Timberwolves have seen that number leap to 114.3 of late--about as well as the league's best offenses have scored over the course of the season. By adding Miller and Love, the Wolves figured to be much improved on offense, and that has finally come to fruition of late.

A key factor in Minnesota's surge has been abandoning the Randy Foye point guard experiment and letting him settle in as an undersized point guard. Over the last 11 games, Foye has averaged 19.8 points a night while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and an even 50 percent from three-point range. Foye as a shooting guard creates problems in terms of lineup construction because the Timberwolves are thin at the point (journeyman Kevin Ollie has been starting, with Sebastian Telfair doing a nice job filling in with Ollie now sidelined by an elbow injury), but getting production out of the lottery pick is an important step.

Quietly, Al Jefferson has done nothing but produce in two seasons in Minnesota. On a better team, Jefferson's consistent scoring and rebounding production would earn All-Star talk. Jefferson would look even better alongside a true center with length who could be the Timberwolves' primary help defender. Alas, that description doesn't match anyone on the roster, and especially not Love or Craig Smith, who has started alongside Jefferson most of the season. As for Love, as I broke down in Unfiltered not long ago, his season has been a dramatically mixed bag.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

While the Timberwolves had a rough start, no one beats the Thunder when it comes to heartbreaking losses. Oklahoma City has lost five games by a single score. Most heartbreaking might have been the loss to Denver a week ago Friday. The Ford Center celebrated Kevin Durant's go-ahead three, but the Thunder left too much time on the clock and Carmelo Anthony answered Durant's triple at the buzzer to give the Nuggets the win and leave home players and coaches in stunned silence.

Since Scott Brooks replaced P.J. Carlesimo on the sideline, Oklahoma City has lost just twice by more than 15 points (including a bizarre 42-point demolition at the hands of the Timberwolves). Based on that, it should have been obvious that any talk that the Thunder might threaten the 9-73 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers for all-time NBA futility was extremely premature. Lo and behold, Oklahoma City is already two-thirds of the way to that mark and still has dramatically underperformed its point differential, which on average would translate to an extra three wins thus far.

At the offensive and defensive level, the trend under Brooks remains the same as when I looked at the Thunder and Kevin Durant last month: The offense is much improved, the defense greatly weakened. Oklahoma City has even passed the L.A. Clippers to move out of the league's cellar offensively, but will not be able to win consistently until being able to pair solid production at both ends of the floor.

The good news for the Thunder, in the bizarre way, is that the team's veterans besides Nick Collison have generally struggled this season. While that might make things more difficult for GM Sam Presti in trying to move Earl Watson and Chris Wilcox in particular prior to the trade deadline, it means that most of the team's surge can be tied to the young core of sophomores Durant and Jeff Green and rookie Russell Westbrook.

In that earlier column, I suggested Durant's offensive surge (which has yet to let up) should not really be credited to Brooks moving him from shooting guard to small forward. However, it does appear that has affected Durant's rebounding for the better. When Carlesimo was fired, Durant had a dismal 6.3 percent rebound percentage, along the lines of what he did as a rookie. Under Brooks, Durant has become an above-average rebounder, grabbing 10.5 percent of available boards.

What I missed then is that Westbrook too had benefited from the Thunder's improved floor spacing. John Hollinger pointed out recently that Westbrook played as well in the month of December as any of the league's rookie guards. He's shown a rather stunning ability to create shots for a guy who was the third or fourth option on his NCAA team. Despite that, Westbrook is using 25.2 percent of Oklahoma City's possessions and has been assisted on just 28 percent of his baskets. Since the coaching change, Westbrook has started to control his drives, and now the biggest question is whether he's such a capable scorer that the Thunder might want to put him at shooting guard for the long term, along the lines of what Minnesota has done with Foye.

Like Durant, Green has taken a massive step forward this season after an underwhelming rookie campaign. There's still work to be done--Green must improve his rebounding if a starting lineup with him at power forward is to make sense, and his college profile suggests he can be a more effective interior scorer than he has been--but there have been enough flashes this season that it's reasonable to project Green as a part of Oklahoma City's core at this point.

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

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