After another sloppy start, the United States blew open a big lead in their second Olympic matchup against Tunisia. For the game recap and analysis, click here.
The United States earned a 98-71 win against France in their 2012 Olympic opener, making it clear that it will take a gargantuan effort to knock this team off. However, it also became pretty obvious that this is no ’92 Dream Team. Read the game recap and analysis from Team USA’s Olympic opener here.
In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:
Winners: New Orleans Hornets
No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.
Winners: Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.
Winners: Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.
Winners: Golden State Warriors
Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.
Winners: Milwaukee Bucks
With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.
Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder
They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.
Losers: Brooklyn Nets
This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.
Losers: Phoenix Suns
It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.
Losers: Los Angeles Lakers
I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.
Losers: Charlotte Bobcats
Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.
Question Marks: Boston Celtics
There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?
Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks
After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.
Question Mark: Indiana Pacers
The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.
Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves
With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.
Question Mark: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.
Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers
Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.
In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:
- Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
- Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
- Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
- Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
- Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
- Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
- Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
- Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
- Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
- Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
- Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
- Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
- John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
- Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
- Royce White – Houston Rockets
- Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
- Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
- Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
- Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
- Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
- Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
- John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
- Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
- Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
- Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
- Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
- Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
- Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
- Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
- Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
- Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
- Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
- Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
- Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
- Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
- Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
- Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
- Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
- Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
- Kim English – Detroit Pistons
- Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
- Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
- Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
- Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
- Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
- Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
- Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
- Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
- Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
- Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
- Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
- Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
- Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
- Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
- Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
- Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers
Two minor trades have gone down in the past few days with the NBA draft and free agency looming. Here’s a quick rundown:
Bobcats Trade for Ben Gordon – In exchange for Corey Maggette, the Charlotte Bobcats got their hands on Pistons’ sixth man Ben Gordon, along with a 2013 protected draft pick. The move saves Detroit $14 million in the long-term and gives them the 13-year veteran Maggette, who averaged 15 ppg last season despite only playing half of it because of injuries. Maggette has averaged just over 16 ppg in his 13 years in the league and will be a welcome addition after Gordon’s lackluster couple of seasons in Detroit. The trade greatly benefits both sides, as the Bobcats now have a talented albeit streaky shooter in Gordon, and perimeter shooters is an area that Charlotte desperately needed help in. Gordon averaged 12 ppg last year with the Pistons, including one transcendent performance in which he totaled 45 points after making nine 3-pointers without missing.
Houston Rockets ship Chase Budinger to Minnesota – This move isn’t going to drastically alter the fate of either team next year, but it is a slightly curious one for Minnesota nevertheless. The Timberwolves traded their first round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft (number 18) for Chase Budinger and the draft rights to Lior Eliyahu, an Israeli power forward currently playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Budinger averaged just under 10 ppg last season for the Rockets, but the decision to trade a first round pick is slightly questionable considering the talented draft class coming in and the fact that Budinger never really developed into the superstar some predicted him to be. However, the young and talented nucleus of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and others will certainly welcome more points from this new acquisition. For Houston, this move is a smart one, as the Rockets look to make big offseason moves and will need draft picks to either trade (rumor has it they’re going to go for Dwight Howard) or use to bring in more young talent.
That’s all for now since nothing new has been reported about Ray Allen wanting to join the Miami Heat, but keep checking back to get the latest on NBA free agency and all offseason trades.
In today’s star-studded NBA Injury Update, a lot of playoff-bound teams are dealing with injuries to their key players. Here are the top injury headlines of the past week:
Dwight Howard – Howard left for Los Angeles to get a second opinion on his back injury and was told he has a herniated disk in his lower back. He will most likely miss the Magic’s games Sunday and Monday, which would be eight in a row. Word on the street is that people within the Orlando organization wanted Superman to return to the court, but Howard wasn’t taking any chances and wanted to be completely healthy for the playoffs, which is why he sought a second opinion. There is no timetable for Howard’s return at this point.
Kevin Love – Kevin Love suffered a mild concussion and neck strain against the Nuggets on Wednesday and missed yesterday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers. There is a chance that Minnesota will shut him down for the rest of the season to avoid any potential risks that concussions bring. With so few games left in the season and the Timberwolves not contending for anything, don’t be surprised if Love is done for this year.
Kobe Bryant – Kobe sat out for the Lakers’ game last night against the Denver Nuggets. Bryant has missed the last four games with an inflamed left shin, but the injury is apparently not too serious; although he’s missed a few games, the only reason is because of the nature of the injury. Once he’s been inactive long enough, the shin shouldn’t bother him for the rest of the season. The only problem is waiting it out until Kobe reaches that point.
LaMarcus Aldridge – Aldridge will miss the rest of the season with a hip injury as the Trail Blazers’ injury woes continue. Although Portland isn’t contending for anything, Blazer fans won’t be happy to hear that an MRI found an abnormality in his hip that will warrant further evaluation. He may undergo surgery, but hopefully this isn’t the kind of injury that will affect him for next season.
James Harden – James Harden, the best bench player in the league and OKC’s most important piece in winning a title this year, missed last night’s game with a sore left knee. It was only the second game Harden has missed all season. Knee injuries are never a good sign, but hopefully it does not amount to anything more than just a sore knee.
Ray Allen – Allen remained behind on the Celtics’ road trip last night to receive treatment on his ankle injury. It’s not certain whether or not he will rejoin the team for the remainder of their four-game road trip but Danny Ainge said he expects him back on the court soon.
Kyrie Irving – Irving is still about a week away from being able to return, but by that point, the Cavs may just shut him down for the rest of the season to avoid any risk to their rookie sensation. It’s much more important for Cleveland to make sure he’s healthy for next season since the Cavaliers aren’t contending for anything.
Jarrett Jack – Jack will miss the remainder of the season recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot. The Hornets haven’t been able to catch a break this season, as injuries to Jack, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Carl Landry have crippled them at times.
Amare Stoudemire – Amare is still going to be out for awhile thanks to a bulging disk in his back, but his return seems a lot closer than it did a few weeks ago. Stoudemire could be back on the court in just a few weeks, perhaps making an appearance in the Knicks first-round playoff matchup if all goes according to plan. However, no specific timetable has been given.
Jeremy Lin – After having knee surgery, Lin said he feels better but probably won’t be available for New York’s first round playoff matchup. This means Lin would probably only be available for the Knicks this season if they somehow got past either the Bulls or the Heat in the first round.
Andrea Bargnani – Bargnani has struggled with injury problems all season long, so it’s unfortunate that he will miss the remainder of the season with a calf injury. The Raptors have no reason to rush him back to the court and given his injury history, it’s no surprise they’ll allow him to sit for the rest of the year.
Hedo Turkoglu – Turkoglu will miss another two weeks after having surgery to repair facial fractures he sustained about a week ago. The Magic could have him back in time for their first round playoff series.
Nene – Nene, no stranger to this injury list, has missed six straight games due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot. However, he is expected to return sometime next week for the Wizards.
Gerald Wallace – After hurting his hamstring in Sunday’s game against the Cavs, Wallace has missed his last two games. No timetable on his return has been given yet.
Jose Calderon – Calderon missed Toronto’s game against the Celtics last night with an eye injury he sustained after taking an elbow to the eye Wednesday against the Nets. He had to get three stitches above his right eye for the injury.
Luke Ridnour – Ridnour has missed the Timberwolves’ last five games due to a sprained ankle and looks doubtful for tonight’s game against the Thunder.
Darren Collison – Collison missed last night’s game against the Cavs with a groin injury, which has sidelined him for the past three games.
Tony Allen – Allen missed the Grizzlies’ game against San Antonio on Thursday, but is set to return tonight against the Jazz after missing five games with a facial laceration.
Kevin Martin – Martin, who has not played since March 11 with a torn right shoulder, is going through rehab but is not expected to return anytime soon.
A lot of things have changed since the time I listed the top MVP candidates for the 2012 season. A seemingly clear MVP race has become a lot closer than it was a month ago, which is why it’s time to take a look at who the most deserving candidates are for the award this year.
1) LeBron James – I still feel that LeBron is the best choice for the MVP award this year. This is a lot more difficult to say now because of his recent slump (as well as Miami’s), but don’t forget that his numbers are better than anybody’s and that the Heat will at the very least make the Eastern Conference Finals, barring an improbable meltdown. While Kevin Durant has stated his case for the MVP with inspiring play over the past month, the MVP Award is about the entire season, not just the month leading up to the playoffs when everyone starts paying close attention. The MVP Award summarizes which player has been the most dominant over the course of the season, the NBA’s alpha dog, the best overall player. Yes, sometimes the MVP Award does have a “value” component which takes into account a player’s necessity to their team, meaning: If you were to take that player away from their team, how would the team function without him? The “story” component also arises sometimes, such as when a talented player has never won the award or when a superstar has a particularly impressive season and becomes a popular underdog choice just so we don’t have to pick the same guy again (i.e. Derrick Rose last year, Charles Barkley in ’93, Karl Malone in ’97). That being said, LeBron’s season has a slight blemish on it thanks to the past few weeks, but overall, he remains the most deserving candidate.
2) Kevin Durant – Unfortunately, being deserving doesn’t always result in hoisting the MVP trophy. That’s why Kevin Durant is my pick to win it. Not because he’s had a better season than LeBron and not because he’s the NBA’s alpha dog. But because he is becoming the popular choice over LeBron, who hasn’t exactly thrilled us in the past few weeks. The Heat have floundered a little bit, losing potential statement games to OKC, Chicago, Indiana, Orlando and Boston. Kevin Durant is now the nation’s favorite choice because he is the best player on what appears to be the best team in the league. His numbers for this month are up, his team is winning and he has hit some clutch shots all season long. KD has become the sexy choice even though LeBron has had a better overall season. Why? Well, aside from the reasons I just listed, Durant has won scoring titles but he’s never won the MVP Award. That automatically increases his chances. Then, you add in the media and public opinion that favors Durant over LeBron, if only because most people still hate on LeBron for taking his talents to South Beach. So even though LeBron is the most deserving candidate for the second year in a row, my guess at the most likely winner for this year is Durantula.
3) Kevin Love – I only had Love as an honorable mention in my last MVP post, but his continuing ability to put up big numbers, his will to win, his unquestionable value to a team riddled with injuries and a lack of talent and his general dedication to an otherwise unimportant team have all changed my mind. If not for LeBron and KD, people would be noticing that Love has been quietly having his own MVP-caliber season. A big man that crashes the boards, attacks the rim with a variety of post moves, and can also drop threes on unsuspecting big men? I would describe that as un-guardable, which is exactly what Kevin Love has been for the Timberwolves. Although you usually like your MVP-candidate to be on a more successful team (a lack of team wins even when your personal stats are outstanding doesn’t look as impressive), no one can deny Love’s incredible value in Minnesota and the incredible season he’s having.
Kobe Bryant – Kobe is the best player on one of the best teams in the West. But the fact that he has to shoot so many times to fill up the stat sheet takes away a lot of his value. He’s not always the greatest team player and although he’s a cold-blooded killer in the fourth, a lot of attention is given to Andrew Bynum and his shooting percentages have been a bit off in the past few weeks. This season won’t be remembered as one of Kobe’s most memorable, which is essentially what we want in an MVP.
Chris Paul – CP3’s numbers are the least impressive of anyone in the bunch, but his ability to manage every game for LAC with complete control makes him the perfect point guard. Paul attacks the basket when he has to, takes over games in the last five minutes, and spend the rest of the time setting up teammates and facilitating. Any point guard that defers to his teammates and makes them better is an incredibly valuable piece to his team, but one with as much talent, competitive fire and crunch-time drive is definitely his team’s most valuable player.
Dwight Howard – Howard’s performance this season is undeniable. Superman has been a beast in the paint and is the sole reason for Orlando’s success this season. Replace Dwight Howard with any other center in the league and the Magic’s defense falls apart and this team probably doesn’t even make the playoffs. But the whole controversy and flip-flopping about leaving Orlando is the exact opposite of what we want to see in an MVP. Howard wanted out, then committed to the Magic after he had pissed off management with his “roll the dice” comment, then decided he wasn’t sure, and then finally caved under the pressure and committed to Orlando for the next year. This indecisiveness in regards to something so important to an entire fan base and playoff-contending team will stain this season and really diminishes his beastly statline.
The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.
1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.
2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.
3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.
The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:
4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).
5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.
6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.
7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.
8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.
Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves
9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.
10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.
11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.
So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?