Don't discredit these teams out West
By Shawn Clarke, NBA Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The notion that you are what your record indicates holds some truth in the sports world.
Usually that concept is spot on in the NFL, and in some instances, the NHL and Major League Baseball. The disparity between conferences in the NBA has been well documented, with the Eastern Conference receiving the bulk of the criticism for poor play and more teams barely hovering at the .500 mark.
Take a peek at the NBA standings as the second half of the season beckons and you will discover two teams in the Eastern Conference's top eight spots with a record below .500 (New York, Boston), while nine teams in the Western Conference sport marks above the even plateau, and a 10th team at .500. The reason for that is simple: the talent is better in the West and each team is stacked with at least two impact players.
Now that the annual All-Star break is history, teams will start gearing up for the stretch run and others are hoping to redeem slow starts in the first half. Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Dallas and both the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers should have no trouble losing ground in postseason positioning. It's the other teams on the outside that have to wake up and realize that there's still a chance to make something happen from here on out.
There are four teams below the top eight that have a strong mathematical shot at extending the season beyond the truncated 66-game schedule and Denver is ahead of the pack. Sitting just a half-game behind Portland for the final playoff berth in the conference, it's hard to imagine the Nuggets not in the top eight with the second-best point production in the league at 103.4 ppg. Miami is only percentage points ahead of Denver at 103.7.
Would the Nuggets be in better position had leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (17 ppg) not suffered a chip fracture in his left foot? Probably, but there have been some nights when the newly signed Italian struggled from the floor.
|In order for the Nuggets to make a case for the playoffs, Danilo Gallinari must return at full strength.|
In order for the Nuggets to make a case for the playoffs, Gallinari must return at full strength, and it doesn't necessarily help that guard Ty Lawson (ankle) and forward Nene (calf) also are on the mend. Gallinari has missed 10 straight games, Nene seven in a row and Lawson two straight. The Nuggets have a winning record when either of the three start, as they are 15-10 with Gallinari, 13-10 with Nene and 16-14 when Lawson opens the game on the floor.
"Once we get healthy, we're going to show everybody that we're better than 18-17," Lawson said. "Every team knows that. They know they're getting away with not playing us at full strength."
A strained lower back has kept Denver guard Rudy Fernandez on the sidelines, opening the door for some of the younger guys such as Jordan Hamilton, Kenneth Faried and Julyan Stone. The Nuggets have lost 10 of 13 games and will resume their second half Wednesday versus Portland.
Minnesota sits one game behind the Trail Blazers for the final postseason berth and has a decent shot at hitting the playoff path, all because of one man in forward Kevin Love. Love, the recent winner of the Three-Point Contest during All-Star festivities, leads the team in points (25.0) and rebounds (14.0) and will lead his team against Portland twice in the next 10 days. You don't have to tell Timberwolves head coach Rick Adelman what lies before him in Love because other superstars in the league are taking notice, too.
"He's been dominant," Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said of Love. "It's been fun to watch. He's an impressive, impressive rebounder, and he's expanded his game. He's now money from three-point, he can put the ball on the floor, post up and really play an all-around game. It's been fun to watch."
Keep an eye out for rookie Ricky Rubio in the second half, as he's posting 11.3 points and 8.4 assists in a team high-tying 34 games. Fellow rookie Derrick Williams is starting to get acclimated with the NBA, too, but he hasn't been able to get on the floor as frequently (18:26 mpg).
Seasoned players in Michael Beasley, Luke Ridnour and the emerging Nikola Pekovic have the potential to put the Wolves in contention for the playoffs -- a goal that hasn't been reached since the 2003-04 campaign. Minnesota, which is 10th in scoring at 96.8 ppg, better get used to playing on the road since it's scheduled to compete in four straight and 11 of 15 games to open the second half, including three games in as many nights.
Utah is right on the tails of Portland, Denver and Minnesota, and sits two games off the pace for a postseason spot. February, however, hasn't been too forgiving on the Jazz, losers of 10 of 13 games and three in a row overall. A strong start to the season is now dust in the wind for a Utah squad that also has experienced trouble on the road at 3-11. Head coach Tyrone Corbin spent a lot of time during the break studying game tape and players' statistics, and finding ways to get the team back under his wing.
"We've got to be able to finish ball games. We've got to be able to make shots. We've got to be able to execute better in the fourth quarters," Corbin told the Salt Lake Tribune. "So that's where we are. We'll look at things and see what gives us the best chance to get better soon."
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are the only Jazz players scoring in double figures, averaging 19.1 and 16.1 points, respectively. But they're not the problem in Salt Lake City. Corbin needs more production from C.J. Miles, Devin Harris, Derrick Favors and Raja Bell (when healthy) to climb the charts once again in the Northwest Division.
Gordon Hayward has been a pleasant surprise in his second season in the pros and is third in scoring with 9.4 ppg. Hayward has scored 10-plus points 14 times this season and the team needs more of that. Harris, pegged to be the floor general when Deron Williams was shipped to New Jersey, hasn't lived up to the hype since the deal.
It's anyone's guess as to what's been eating the Golden State Warriors. It could be injuries, inconsistent play from Monta Ellis at times or the learning curve for first-year head coach Mark Jackson. Whatever the reason, the Warriors are three games back in the Western Conference playoff race and fifth in the NBA with 99.2 points per game.
David Lee is Golden State's only pure inside threat, but Dorell Wright is beginning to make teams aware of his abilities. The same cannot be said for center Andris Biedrins, however, and he should be worried that the team will make a trade to boost its production in the paint because he's simply not getting it done with 2.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Even tiny guard Nate Robinson is putting up better numbers than Biedrins with 10 points, 3.7 assists and 2 rebounds per game.
Point guard Stephen Curry's ankle and foot issues seem to have caught up to the former Davidson star and he is listed as day-to-day for a Warriors team that ranks second in three-point percentage (.398), third in assists (22.4) and fifth in field goal percentage (.459). Back-to-back games in this compressed NBA schedule will do no wonders for Curry's foot, either.
Golden State needs some tinkering with its personnel and can even make it past Portland in the standings if the right moves are made. It also helps that teams have yet to distance themselves from the rest of the pack, leaving the door open for the likes of Denver, Minnesota, Utah and Golden State. Phoenix is closing in on a playoff spot, too, and is four games out of the picture.
"We fully understand what we have to do to be successful," Jackson said of his Warriors in the Oakland Tribune. "Now is an opportunity for us to take what we've learned in the first half and to build on it."
That means Ellis will have to revert to his 30-point ways on a regular basis if Curry is slow to get healthy. But then that's where the trade deadline comes into play for Golden State, and any other team looking to improve in the second half for a possible postseason run.