Kevin Durant and Lebron James on Christmas Day - Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Time for the 2nd part of this week's AtL, wherein we do a drive-by of the Western Conference
Oklahoma City Thunder (21-6): Two straight losses does little to dim the luster of this offensive juggernaut. Tremendous shooting led by the incomparable Kevin Durant and Kevin Martin's remarkable form have made the absence of James Harden barely noticeable. That might not continue all year, but so far they have been firing on all cylinders. Of particular note are the offensive improvements made by heretofore defensive specialists Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha. The team itself is nearly as likeable as the ownership is unlikeable.
Denver Nuggets (15-13): Much more impressive than the record indicates, because their schedule has been brutal: 19 of their 28 games have been on the road. They combine fairly efficient shooting with best in the league offensive rebounding (thank you, Kenneth Faried) to generate one of the better offenses in the NBA. Their major weakness offensively is their poor free throw shooting (which, again, thank you, Kenneth Faried). Random question: the Nuggets are first in the league in ORB%, but only 25th in DRB%. How unusual is this? My sense is that this does happen sometimes; does it suggest that offensive rebounding is as much a choice as it is a function of overall rebounding prowess? Something to consider.
Minnesota Timberwolves (13-12): I usually stay away from the Wolves in these pieces, but for the sake of completeness: Great rebounding at both ends, good at getting to the line, and reasonable defense. If they could just get healthy and SHOOT THE DAMN BALL things would be looking good.
Utah Jazz (15-14): A fairly loaded front court headlined by Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors is somewhat hampered by perimeter weakness. They haven't been able to replace the traded Deron Williams effectively, and their wing play has been less than stellar. This division is the offensive rebounding division, as the Nuggets are 1st in the league in ORB%, the Wolves are 3rd, and the Jazz 4th. (And like the Nuggets, are much worse at defensive rebounding, ranking 27th in DRB%). This is a team that seems ideally suited to making a trade or two at the deadline, since their front court depth (which also includes Enes Kanter and the criminally underrated Jeremy Evans) should be enticing to other teams.
Portland Trailblazers (13-13): Off to a better start then I expected, largely because Damian Lillard has been terrific from the get-go, which is fairly unusual for a rookie point guard. Of particular note is the play of J.J. Hickson, who has combined career high shooting percentages with career high rebounding percentages to forge the best 25 game stretch of his career. The Blazers have been fairly healthy, which is lucky for them, because the have no depth. They have four guys averaging 35+ minutes a night, plus Hickson at 29, and that's about it. Nonetheless, kudos to them for being this competitive in a season many people were writing off as a rebuilding year.
Los Angeles Clippers (21-6): Well. Blowing out the Nuggets as of this writing, the Clippers have been on an historic roll. Tonight looks like it will be their 14th straight win, sending them to the top of the conference standings. Not a great 3 point shooting team, what they do is get great 2 point looks and make them (thank you, Chris Paul). They also force a ton of misses and turnovers from their opponents, and thus have an incredible +10 point per game differential, which leads the league. They would be even better if Vinnie Del Negro would just give all of Willie Green's minutes to Eric Bledsoe. At any rate, they've been as good as anyone this year, and while it was clear they were pretty good, I certainly didn't expect this.
Los Angeles Lakers (14-14): Seem to have found their stride with the return of Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, just won their 5th straight. The bright spots are Kobe Bryant playing remarkably efficient basketball and Metta World Peace having something of a renaissance; the bad news is that they are old and thin. Their aging starters are playing too many minutes because there simply aren't enough decent alternatives. If they can get to the playoffs healthy, they might do something, but it's a large ask.
Phoenix Suns (11-17): An awful defensive team that also doesn't rebound well. Not a successful combination, and not a successful roster. Too many ex-Wolves is part of their problem, as Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley are taking up space and payroll and not even remotely helping. The Suns have three players you'd like to have: Goran Dragic, Marcin Gortat, and Jared Dudley, and then a bunch of guys who aren't pushing you toward winning. It isn't a pretty roster, and it's hard to see how they will get better, as they aren't loaded with young prospects. Basically they have a bunch of guys in their primes, it's just they aren't very good.
Sacramento Kings (9-18): Another terrible season so far amid more troubles with their most talented player. This is frankly a depressing team. What's to say? They are bereft of talent, they have a complete mess of an ownership situation, and they play unappealing basketball. They don't pass, they don't rebound. On the other hand, they've had one of the toughest schedules in the league, so maybe things are quite this bad. But they are pretty bad. They need better, more appealing players, and it isn't clear where they will come from.
San Antonio Spurs (21-8): Same old Spurs. They just keep rolling along. Their ability to find the right guys and plug them in and get success is well documented, but worth noting again. Last year's rookie Kawhi Leonard is having a terrific second year, Tiago Splitter has slowly taken on a bigger role and is thriving. They shoot the ball with ruthless efficiency, surprisingly are playing at the 2nd highest pace in the league, and get quality contributions up and down the roster.
Memphis Grizzlies (18-7): The defend like crazy and are great on the offensive glass, a combination that serves them in good stead. They finally have their entire front line healthy and playing together, which has been a great benefit for them. Another example of a team that benefits by not playing anyone who is truly hurting them. Having no terrible players in their rotation helps. We've seen the flip side of that enough to last a lifetime.
Houston Rockets (15-12): One of the pleasant surprises in the league so far, and one of its best stories. Darryl Morey worked incredibly hard to land a star player, finally did in James Harden, and he's been everything they could have imagined. On fire recently, winning six of their last seven, the last two blowout wins over Memphis and Chicago in which they poured 120 points against arguably the two best defenses in the league. Happily the Wolves are catching them tonight on the second night of a back to back. They run an offense in which they shoot a lot of threes and get to the free throw line a ton. Threes and free throws. The only real negative so far is their inability to make things work with Royce White.
Dallas Mavericks (12-16): Without Dirk Nowitzki until the other day, the Mavericks have predictably struggled. OJ Mayo is off to his best start mostly due to hot shooting, but there isn't a lot of good news otherwise. They couldn't make anything big happen last summer, which had been their plan since winning the 2011 title and letting Tyson Chandler walk, and instead filled their roster with guys nobody wanted to give long term deals to. Not surprisingly, these are not great players. Most disappointing so far has probably been Darren Collison, who looked like he might be the answer at the point going forward, but has not played well. They have lost three in a row in what might be the most brutal six game stretch of games for any team in the league: Heat (L), @Grizzles(L), @Spurs(L), @Thunder, Nuggets, Spurs.
New Orleans Hornets (5-22): A quality front court rotation with Ryan Anderson, Robin Lopez, and super rookie Anthony Davis has been entirely undermined by a total lack of perimeter talent. Eric Gordon was supposed to help, and the Hornets invested heavily in him by matching his max contract offer sheet, but has yet to appear after managing nine games last season. This is not good. It's looking more and more like he is one of those guys. They also spent a lottery pick on Austin Rivers, another guard, and that, predictably, has not worked out. They struggle to stop anyone, and other than Anderson lack a consistent offensive focus. Davis looks like he's gonna be a star, but worryingly has only appeared in 14 games thus far, missing a bunch because of a "stress reaction" in his ankle. Hopefully he can stay healthy, because when he's out there, he's tremendous.
EDIT (Madison Dan helpfully pointed out that I skipped the Warriors. Total accident, I assure you.
Golden State Warriors (18-10): Easily the biggest surprise of the year for me, the Warriors are off to a tremendous start. A big key for them has been health; other then Andrew Bogut (admittedly a big deal), everyone has been available. Of note is that Steph Curry has not missed any games so far. They are also getting significantly improved play from Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, and David Lee. Gang rebounding on the defensive end has been one of their calling cards this year, but ultimately the whole has been more then the sum of their parts. I'm still not sold that it will continue, but great work so far.
Well, that's it for another Around the League, this one in two parts!
Note: I tried to set this up to link with the first part as a "stream," but since I don't know what I'm doing, I'm pretty sure it didn't work.