Today, I continue with my look at the NBA's second half. Here's a team-by-team look at the Western Conference.
Dallas Mavericks: I've already discussed the Jason Kidd trade and how I feel about losing Devin Harris. Even though some of you have told me, Dallas had to shake things up, I still see this as a lateral move. That being said, the new trade has them keeping Stackhouse, which helps greatly. Their shooting guard position has been weak and Stack needs to be there to provide scoring help off the bench. He's too old to start anymore, but his presence for 25 minutes a game is a plus. Without Diop on the bench, look for the Mavs to play more small-ball when Dampier is out of the game. This means more playing time for Brandon Bass and that can only be a good thing. Bass averages 8 points and 4.5 rebounds a game in only 20 minutes off the bench. At 6'8," he can defend the 3 or 4 while giving Dallas another offensive weapon.
Denver Nuggets: Reason #1 why this team won't do any damage in the playoffs -- Anthony Carter is their starting point guard. At 32, he has has career avgs. of 39% FG, 5 ppg, and 3.9 apg. Basically, somewhere between Mateen Cleaves and Eric Snow. I think Denver would be much better off playing AI at the point full-time and giving people like Linas Kleiza and J.R. Smith more PT on the wings. Stop wasting time with people like Carter and Yakhouba Diawara and give some time to the more talented players. So maybe George Karl doesn't like J.R. Smith, but too bad, he's effective. He can flat-out shoot, something Carter has never been able to do. If the Nuggets want to overtake Utah for the division title, they're going to have to replace Carter. Yes, he's having a career year, but so did Shane Halter and Deivi Cruz at one point. GMs and coaches have to recognize when career years are flukes, not the norm.
Golden St. Warriors: You always know what you're going to get with this squad -- run n' gun, shots from anywhere on the court, and little defense. Don Nelson has used this formula his whole career and it's gotten him plenty of playoff appearances, but no titles. Phoenix has given up this style of play and brought Shaq into the mix. The Warriors, though, will gut it out and keep running. I hated the Webber signing when it happened and I still don't like it. He's already taken a game off to get acclimated to the offense and get into shape. I just don't think he's built to run any longer. It'll be interesting to see what he can do the rest of the way. I'd hate to see him take playing time away from people like Andris Biedrins or Mickael Pietrus because, frankly, he's not nearly better than those two anymore. These guys won't surprise anyone in the playoffs this year like they did last season.
Houston Rockets: This is a team built around Yao and T-Mac, plain and simple. But it's Rick Adelman's plethora of guards that makes or breaks this squad. The play of people like Rafer Alston, Luther Head, Bonzi Wells, Mike James, and Aaron Brooks are crucial to the Rockets' success. The one player not mentioned in that group is Steve Francis. What has happened to Francis in the past 3 years is amazing. For someone who is only 30 years old, Francis has seen his career completely apart. He averaged 20, 6, and 6 in his first six seasons. Yet, now, after a season-ending injury, we're talking about Francis being washed-up. It's rare to see someone's career evaporate so rapidly. According to databasebasketball.com, three of Francis' most similar players are Anfernee Hardaway, Jamal Mashburn, and Kelly Tripucka. All of those guys were essentially done by the time they hit 31. But, those players all had major injuries that forced them to quit early. Francis has simply stopped being good. There's very little explanation for what's happened. Even though Francis has a bad rep for refusing to report to Vancouver when he was drafted, it's still sad to see someone's skills diminish so fast.
LA Clippers: Riddled with injuries, the Clippers have fallen back into NBA irrelevance after a couple years flirting with the playoffs. Without Elton Brand up front, the Clips have been unable to find a second solid scoring option behing Corey Maggette. But, with a season of misery comes a couple breakthroughs. Chris Kaman and Al Thornton have stepped up this season and given Clips fans hope for 2008-09. Kaman averages 16.4, 13.6, and 3 bpg as the Clips' only frontcourt option. His stats had been pretty stagnant since he entered the league, even going down last season. But, he has bounced back in a big way in Brand's absence. He has been pretty consistent throughout the year, suggesting this is no fluke. Thornton has recently stepped his game up in 2008, putting up 15 and 5. He's already 24, so there may not be much more improvement, but he has shown he can be a solid guy off the bench behind Maggette. The Clips can't let Brand come back to play this year because they don't need to risk another injury. Get Cassell out of town to a contender, draft a young point guard in the draft and be ready for next season.
LA Lakers: By now, everything that could be said about the Gasol trade has been said. I want to see what the Lakers will do when Bynum comes back from injury. How will they play Odom, Gasol, and Bynum together? Odom may not be quick enough anymore to play 3's on defense. Do they bring one of them off the bench? Or do they use Gasol and Bynum as weakside help for Odom? I'm sure Phil Jackson can find a way to make it work, but will the players like it? There are bound to be less touches and someone might complain. This team is so incredibly deep, it's amazing. Jackson can go with Radmanovic, Walton, and Turiaf in the frontcourt or Vujacic and Farmer in the backcourt. Those five comprise a pretty deep bench. They can stretch the floor 4-out and have Turiaf setting screens and getting loose balls. Like most teams with a great starting five, the bench can get overlooked, but this Lakers group shouldn't be taken lightly.
Memphis Grizzlies: The antithesis to the Lakers. Their starters are horrible, bench is even worse, and they're losing money in an arena that's about half-full. Rudy Gay and Mike Conley are the obvious future of the team, but everything else seems to be up in the air. Can any other team claim to have the two biggest draft busts of the decade (Milicic and Kwame Brown)? How about the most overpaid player in the league (Brian Cardinal)? They claim to be clearing cap room by getting rid of Gasol (and possibly Mike Miller soon), but what free agent is going to want to join a team that might be moving in two years? With no chance at the playoffs, they need to take the second half to decide what do with a frontcourt that has no starter-quality players and which backup point guard to keep (Kyle Lowry or Javaris Crittenton). One more thing, how do you think Juan Carlos Navarro feels? One of the combo guards in Europe, he comes over from Spain to join best buddy Pau Gasol on a team coming off 3 playoff appearances in 4 years. Now, he comes off the bench for a team going nowhere and his best friend is off to LA.
Minnesota Timberwolves: I think this team definitely has the start of something good. They have a great building block down low with Al Jefferson. He makes the Garnett trade worth it. A 23-year-old big man that averages 21 and 12 is a rare commodity. Guys like Ryan Gomes and Craig Smith are also solid players to have around as well. Gomes would probably be better off the bench in the future, though. Their PG situation, with Telfair and Foye, has been hampered by Foye's season-long injury. Just recently back, Foye has struggled to regain his rhythm. However, I think once he returns to form, a lineup of Foye, McCants, Brewer, and Jefferson will be strong. Now, they just need a center. Jefferson has been playing out of position so far. Drafting someone like DeAndre Jordan, Brook Lopez, or Hasheem Thabeet would help big-time. The second half should be used to sort out the playing time battle between Foye and Telfair and to give Corey Brewer more PT. His offense isn't there yet, but he's already a versatile defender.
New Orleans Hornets: The Hornets have four above-average to great starters, but little in the way of a bench. In David West, Peja Stojakovic, and Tyson Chandler, they have 3 injury-prone starters. If anything were to happen, their frontcourt would be severely taxed. Froncourt backups Melvin Ely, Hilton Armstrong, and Ryan Bowen are offensive blackholes and none of them play more than 14 minutes/gm. Their backup guards, Jannero Pargo and Bobby Jackson are better on offense than defense because of their size, forcing Chris Paul to play major minutes. He's in the middle of his worst shooting month, at only 44.7% from the field and 71% from the line. For most players, that's a decent line. For Paul, it's a sign of decline. The Hornets need to be careful in the second half. If their bench doesn't improve, watch for them to fall back to the middle of the Western standings.
Phoenix Suns: For the Suns, the major test will be incorporating Shaq into their lineup. Losing Marion will only serve to increase Hill and Diaw's role in the offense. Marion averaged 10 rpg, but that should easily be replaced by a combo of Shaq, Hill and Diaw. I have little to say about Phoenix that I haven't already said in previous columns. This team, with Shaq, Nash, and Hill, is built to win sooner rather than later. If it can't get done this year, it may never happen.
Portland Trail Blazers: While they have predictably fallen back to earth, the Blazers have set themselves up nicely for the future. They have a quality 5,4,3, and 2, along with a solid bench. Oden, Aldridge, Roy, and Webster will be a good lineup. Having Travis Outlaw as a 6th man is a nice luxury. The question is the point guard slot. Steve Blake is much better suited as a backup than a starter. They will be getting Rudy Fernandez from Spain next season, and at 6'6", Fernandez has the height to defend bigger guards that Blake doesn't have. This season was written off once Oden got hurt; the winning record has been a big surprise. Next year is when Portland will be expected to contend.
Sacramento Kings: The last remaining link to the Divac-Peja-Webber-Bibby years is finally gone. The Kings have stumbled along the past couple years without a major identity. Now, that Bibby is gone, they can finally move forward and build a more cohesive team. The next step will be to trade Artest and maybe Brad Miller. Building around Kevin Martin, Beno Udrih, and perhaps someone like Francisco Garcia or John Salmons should be the next step. Their frontcourt is a mess of bad contracts and past-their-prime players. The next leg of the rebuilding process must start with finding a way to rid themselves of Kenny Thomas, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and Mikki Moore. It's sad to see Sacramento waste such a tremendous fan base like Arco Arena has. That was one of the toughest places to play back in 2002. Now, this team has little to root for.
San Antonio Spurs: Does this team have one more championship run left? Aging wings Bruce Bowen, Michael Finley, and Brent Barry can't be expected to play much longer. And how long can Tim Duncan continue to post 20 and 10 nights? Much like the Pistons, the Spurs have chosen to stand pat while other teams make major moves before the trade deadline. Thus far, that formula has worked for the Spurs. They've shown they can play fast with Manu and Parker running the floor or they can play slow and let Bowen and Duncan clamp down on D. There are no secrets with the Spurs by now. It usually comes down to what unsung bench player helps out in the playoffs. With Robert Horry playing fewer and fewer minutes, who will it be this year?
Seattle Sonics: The Sonics have an interesting mix of players. On the hand, they are gearing up for the future with Durant, Jeff Green, Nick Collison, and Chris Wilcox. Yet, they also give big minutes to older players like Kurt Thomas, Wally Szczerbiak, and Earl Watson. The second half will be a big test as to which vets stick around and who goes. Most likely, people like Thomas and Wally be let go as Seattle sticks with the young guns. However, Watson has earned the starting nod over incumbent Luke Ridnour and will probably stay. After three failed lottery picks at center (Robert Swift, Johan Petro, and Saer Sene), Seattle still needs to find a center so Collison and Wilcox can play their natural 4 spot and they can get rid of Thomas. While this was obviously a rebuilding year, the future looks good with Green and Durant. The rest of the picture is still fuzzy, though.
Utah Jazz: Quietly, Utah is one of the best teams in the West once again. They are deep at every position and can play a variety of ways. Guys like Harpring, Millsap and Boozer allow Utah to play tough down low against stronger teams. Conversely, Utah has newfound athleticism in guards Ronnie Brewer, Ronnie Price, and C.J. Miles. Before, the Jazz struggled to play up-tempo, but these young guards have allowed Sloan to pick up the pace a bit. Though Okur has struggled most of the year, he, along with Kyle Korver, can spread the floor with long-range shooting and allow Boozer to score easier down low. In my opinion, Utah can win the West and it wouldn't be a surprise. They can match up with anyone in the league because of their depth across the board.