After the opening two weeks, it’s a good time to take a look at the Western Conference standings to see who’s good and who’s not. With the west by far the stronger conference, gaining an advantage early could easily turn into a trip to the finals and an eventual NBA championship. Here’s who to watch out for:
San Antonio: Coming off a trip to the finals and a game seven, many predicted the aged Spurs to have an off year. While they seemingly lost a step, having a close game with the defenseless Lakers, the Spurs actually sit in first place. With Tony Parker aging like wine, and Tim Duncan executing as well as ever, look for them to make a deep run in the playoffs if they can stay healthy.
Phoenix and Minnesota: who would have thought those two teams would be sitting atop the West at third and fourth, respectively. Phoenix seemed to be in full blown rebuilding mode after giving up Nash and Beasley in the past two free agencies, and yet they seem to have decent depth: since all of their players are about average, they have consistent effort throughout. Markieff and Marcus Morris working in tandem with Goran Dragic, the Suns can hit you fast and they can hit you hard. Minnesota was actually predicted to do a little better this season: Kevin Martin came from OKC, bringing length, athleticism, and phenomenal three-point shooting. With a healthy Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio healthy, the Timberwolves are a well-coordinated, skilled team.
Normally this section would be a little smaller, but the teams in the “Who’s not” this time are infinitely more interesting. I recently remarked to a friend that it seems that this season the good teams are doing poorly. That being said, the two teams many predicted to be first and second this year (the Clippers and Golden State) are pretty mediocre so far. The Clippers, predicted to be in first place with new coach doc Rivers, sit in sixth place at 4-3. The Clippers gave one up on opening night to the Lakers. As the commentators said, nobody predicted the Lakers to win that game, and yet the Clippers gave up 78 bench points. Griffin continues to struggle, missing countless mid-range jump shots. Chris Paul simply cannot do it alone, he needs solid bench contribution.
Golden state has faired well, but also hasn’t. The franchise hasn’t been great in many years, and were predicted to come in second heading into the playoffs after picking up Andre Igoudala in free agency and seeing solid improvement from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry and Thompson have continued to be hot from three-point-land (45 and 47 percent), and it is conceivable that both could take a run at the record Curry set last season for threes made (272). The Warriors haven’t seen the production they would like to from Andrew Bogut, however, who is only averaging 5.4 points a game.
Houston hasn’t faired very well either. Lots of people thought Dwight Howard would play well with James Harden in Houston, but anyone who watched last year could have predicted otherwise. Howard still doesn’t have any real post-presence, and needs to play pick-and-roll to succeed, which he will always maintain he doesn’t want to do. His free throw percentage is better this year, while still at a horrid 49 percent. In their shocking loss to the Lakers, Howard shot 5/16 from the line, which likely cost them the game: the Lakers won by one point after giving up a 21 point lead in the second half, rising past the rockets on a Hail Mary three-pointer from Steve Blake over Howard with 1.3 seconds to go.
The rockets will likely improve by the playoffs, but their seventh place ranking at present is woefully inadequate for the hype.
Finally we come to the Lakers. Although they sit in 12th, which is far from hot, the Lakers had solid performances against the Clippers and Rockets, receiving strong contributions from their bench. Xavier Henry and Wesley Johnson have contributed strong performances so far. While the Lakers are shooting better this year from three (39.7 percent), the Lakers have poor defense, which is likely to improve by much even when Kobe returns. Look for them to just barely eek into the playoffs.