LOS ANGELES– By Aron Jacobowitz
Now that the condensed NBA season is coming to a close, it’s time to map out the legitimate title contenders in the very deep Western Conference. Throughout the season, all the chatter in NBA circles as well as ESPN tagged the Oklahoma City Thunder to breeze through to the Finals. Now that the postseason is set to begin in a little more than a week, the tide has turned and the power in the West has shifted. Here are your Western Conference LEGITIMATE contenders, in no particular order.
Los Angeles Clippers (38-23, 4th West)- The LA Clippers were skating on thin ice and Vinny Del Negro was about knee-deep in hot water after losing three straight in mid March, capped by a defeat in New Orleans. All the Chris Broussards out there were talking about Del Negro losing the locker room, players wanting him fired and management speaking internally of replacing him, among other things.
Then Donald Sterling came out and gave him his “vote of confidence.” The Clippers have won 12 of their last 14 since. The two losses are to the Lakers and Grizzlies. They’ve defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder twice in the last six days and aside from the San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers are the hottest team in the league. Nick Young and Mo Williams highlight a very deep bench that also features the likes of Kenyon Martin and Eric Bledsoe. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul provide this team with enough star power to take the Clips to the Finals as they have learned to impose their will on opponents rather than remain stagnant on offense and solely rely on their talent.
Paul has literally saddled this team on his back lately and the Clippers are imposing their will on opponents through their defense. What other team has held Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to 10-35 FG’s and 11-34 FG’s in their last two meetings? Exactly. Nobody. Griffin has become one of the better passing big men in the game averaging five assists per contest in his last five games.
Del Negro has made in-game adjustments that are noticeable, and he (I can’t believe I’m saying this) deserves to be mentioned in the running for Coach of the Year. Yes, he and the Clips had a lull in March, but they have since responded and they are doing it on the defensive end, not with the flashy lobs. They have proved they have the wherewithal to defeat the leagues best teams, and they really do not lose much when they go to their bench – not many teams can say that.
San Antonio Spurs (43-16, 1st West): The Spurs moved into first place by way of the tiebreaker with the Thunder. This team is never talked about, never hyped up, yet they have won four championships in the last 12 years. San Antonio has won 17 of their last 20 games and are, without question, the hottest team out there right now.
Tim Duncan is killing it. He put up 28 and 12 boards in last week’s win over the Grizzlies, giving us a blast from the past. They have also been able to rest Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili throughout the season because they have such a deep roster. With the additions of Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw to an already stacked roster, this team appears poised for a trip to the Conference Finals, at least. They have nine players averaging nine points or more and only Parker is averaging more than 30 minutes per game this season. Again, credit needs to be given to Gregg Popovich for keeping his players fresh for a deep run come playoff time.
Every night it’s another guy doing work for this squad. Gary Neal pops out with 17 points here, Tiago Splitter hangs a 15 point, eight board performance there. Parker dropped 42 on the Thunder early in the season. This team is the most well-rounded, best coached and most fundamentally sound squad by far. If they stay healthy (ahem, Manu), there isn’t a team that can contend with them.
They play to team’s styles. They like to slow the ball down and execute their offense, however, if their opponent wants to run, they adjust and kill you at your game. They are probably the only team in the NBA that can pull that off. You would think this team only scores in the mid-90′s, but go take a look – they are third in the league, averaging 102 points per game. Parker is having his most efficient year at the PG position averaging 19 and eight, while shooting a career high 80 percent from the free throw line, which is crucial to his game because of how often he finds space and gets into the lane.
Los Angeles Lakers (39-22, 3rd West): Kobe Bryant is out resting a shin injury and the Lakers haven’t missed a beat (if you don’t count their blowout loss to Phoenix). They have gone 4-1 since Coach Kobe was added to the suits and Andrew Bynum has looked fierce. He is probably the best big man in the game, but don’t tell him I said that. Ron Artest has replaced Metta World Peace over the last week as he has averaged 17 points, five boards and two steals while shooting 50 percent over his last five games. Matt Barnes has lifted a bench that was completely ineffective through the first half of the season as he has put up 12 points, 8.5 boards and four assists in 28 minutes over his last five as well.
Who would’ve thought this team would survive without Kobe? I did. Watch their games and it’s clear. They move the ball, play inside out and draw and kick out to open shooters. They play actively on defense because they do not have many stagnant offensive possessions, as they thrive on enthusiasm.
I am by no means saying this team is better off without Coach Kobe. However, it is clear that this team has enough weapons to contend in the West without the league’s leading scorer. They are still much better off with the Black Mamba in uniform as they need a perimeter threat to go along with their double seven-foot presence down low. Bynum hasn’t shot the ball particularly well over their recent stretch (41 percent), however, he has averaged 22 points and 17 rebounds, causing havoc against any defender that dare challenge him in the post. It’s a good thing Dwight Howard didn’t want a trade to the Lakers, because Bynum is a much more refined big man than D12, and he’s also two years younger.
Ramon Sessions has been the difference maker for this Lakers team, as they finally have a PG who can keep up with the other quick, athletic guards in the upper echelon of the West (Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul). He has also averaged 14 points and seven assists since his arrival, while shooting a hot 50 percent from the field.
Oklahoma City Thunder (44-17, 2nd West): Even after a recent lull in their otherwise terrific season, the Thunder remain a very dangerous team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Their only downfall is that they turn the ball over at a high rate and the reason is simple: the loss of its backup PG, Eric Maynor, to an ACL injury.
Maynor provided the stabilizing presence they so desperately needed, as Westbrook is still very raw as a point guard. He does not have the necessary instincts a true point guard needs to have in crucial situations. If he wants to improve, he will need to watch film of Chris Paul, learn clock management and find teammates in a position where they can thrive. This is not to take away from Westbrook’s talent and athleticism, because he is a freak and is still very young, but at this point in his career, he needs a mentor. Derek Fisher was a nice addition to help guide this young team from the guard position, however he is still too slow to be effective on the defensive end.
All that said, the Thunder is insanely talented. Serge Ibaka leads the league in blocks, Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the league, Westbrook is averaging 24 points per game and James Harden is the consensus Sixth Man of the Year. There’s no question that this team has improved from last season’s trip to the West Finals, but again, Maynor’s absence has really begun to show and opposing teams are exploiting their second unit from the PG position.
OKC is legit because they have incredible talent and a very good coach in Scott Brooks. Kendrick Perkins’ value goes way beyond the box score. He actually boxes out his man on every single defensive possession. I have never seen a center so fundamentally sound outside of San Antonio and Chicago, but Perkins comes from Boston’s defensive system which was run by Bulls Head Coach, Tom Thibodeau, where Kendrick won his ring in 2008, so it comes as no surprise.
Memphis Grizzlies (35-25, 5th West): I Have to include them, mainly because of their impressive run last season and the fact that they are getting healthy and hot at the right time. Zach Randolph is back from his early season injury and beginning to get himself into game shape. Rudy Gay, who was absent from last season’s playoff run, is healthy and thriving. Mike Conley is having his best season as a pro at the PG position and OJ Mayo is playing as well as any other bench player in the last few weeks. Tony Allen adds a perimeter defender with championship pedigree from his time in Boston.
The Grizzlies are the dark horse – they have the talent and depth to make a long run, however, the teams in front of them have more talent. Don’t count them out though. Wow, the West playoffs are going to be insane.
Lakers Acquire Sessions
Lakers trade Luke Walton (and his precious bench seat), Jason Kapono and 1st rounder to Cleveland for Ramon Sessions, Christian Eyenga.
Lakers Grade: B , Cleveland Grade: B-
LA desperately needed an upgrade at PG with an aging Derek Fisher and an average Steve Blake while ridding themselves of Walton’s contract. If Sessions can fit in with Kobe’s style of play and try to get some fast-break points for a team that plays mostly in the half court, it could lead to the Pacific Division crown for them. However, the loss of Derek Fisher could infuriate Kobe. Which leads us to….
Lakers Send Fisher To Houston
Lakers trade Derek Fisher and Dallas’ 1st rounder (acquired in Lama Odom trade) to Houston for Jordan Hill.
Lakers Grade: C+ , Houston Grade: B
A pure salary dump move for the Lakers. Saving money due to Fisher’s player option of $3.4 million next season. Jordan Hill has made some strides this season and will provide big man depth so the Lakers don’t have to play Troy Murphy anymore. While it may not be morally correct to dump D-Fish, this move saves the Lakers money and they get a young big. Houston gets a first rounder and if they keep Fisher instead of buying him out, they gain a nice backup point guard for Kyle Lowry.
Three Way Nene-Young-McGee Trade
Clippers send Brian Cook and 2nd rounder to Washington for Nick Young, Washington sends JaVale McGee and Ronny Turiaf to Nuggets in return for Nene.
Clippers Grade: B+, Wizards Grade: A, Denver grade: F
This move is good for Clippers for two reasons: One, Nick Young is coming home as he was born and raised in West LA. Two, the Clippers needed SG depth when Chauncey Billups went down for the year, but the Clips refused to part with Eric Bledsoe in any deal to improve. This move allows them to keep Bledsoe, dump Cook and acquire a pure scorer.
It was a great move for Washington, as they weren’t sold on keeping Young for the future, and they get a great center in Nene and now get a 2nd rounder to continue to build. Everyone in Denver, correction, everyone in the NBA is shocked. Nene for JaVale?! F MINUS.
Warriors flip Stephen Jackson (acquired in trade with Milwaukee) to San Antonio for Richard Jefferson and draft pick.
Spurs Grade: A- , Warriors Grade: C
Stephen Jackson is reunited with Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan in San Antonio, where he was part of a championship team in the early 2000′s. He is the slasher they wanted in their starting squad at SF and he will have no choice but to get along with Pop, and he knows it too. Great move for San Antonio. Warriors are tanking this season, everyone knows that.
Rockets Acquire Camby
Portland trades Marcus Camby to Houston for Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn + Minny’s 2nd rounder.
Portland Grade: B- , Houston Grade: C
At least Portland takes on young talent in Jonny Flynn. Thabeet is terrible. Houston takes on another defensive minded center who can’t score in Camby, while they already have Sam Dalembert.
Nets Acquire Wallace
New Jersey trades Mehmet Okur, Shawne Williams, top-3 protected 1st rounder to Portland for Gerald Wallace.
New Jersey Grade: B+ , Portland Grade: C+
With the expiring deal of Okur and a potential lottery pick, Portland is in fire sale mode, ridding themselves of almost everyone, including Nate McMillan. New Jersey gets a very talented Wallace to begin surrounding Williams with some talent without giving up Marshon Brooks or Anthony Morrow. Great move.
He broke the news via his blog and Twitter. The L.A. Clippers had pressured Bailey into removing the ‘Clipper’ from his now famous nickname. Clipper Darrell was no more: “It is with great sadness 2 say this that I have been told by@LAClippers front office that they no longer want me 2 b Clipper Darrell.” Here is the link to his blog post.
Darrell Bailey used to be an electrician. Just a regular guy, doing his 9-5 to make ends meet. Then he was laid off and told he wouldn’t amount to anything, ever, ever. He got home, turned on the TV, and there is was: The media criticizing the much maligned franchise – The LA Clippers. “They’ll never be any good…they’ll always exist within the Lakers shadow.”
It was that moment in time when Darrell Bailey morphed into Clipper Darrell. The name hadn’t stuck yet, but he wrapped his thoughts and personality around the franchise. He began attending games because the his persona had now enveloped the Clippers as well. Told by the media they would never be anything as he was told by his former boss, he decided to take his enthusiasm to the arena.
It all began when the music started bumping and he decided to flaunt his moves. The camera quickly found him in the empty arena and he soon became a mainstay on the jumbotron at each and every home game, dubbed “Dancing man.” Soon thereafter, the Clippers were actually a topic of discussion on sports radio shows around Los Angeles. 1540 AM’s Dave Smith spent tireless nights thinking of a new nickname for the now recognizable Clipper fan as Clipper Darrell – and the rest, as they say, is history.
He was the fans’ voice at Staples Center. He began “lets go Clippers, lets go” and soon the entire crowd would join. While the opposing team was at the free throw line he’d chant “U-G-L-Y, you aint got no alibi, you UGLY.” An icon was born. In 2005, he stepped his game up when he decided on a major wardrobe change: the half-red-half-blue suit to each and every home game. Craig Sager has nothing on Clipper Darrell. Mark Cuban even offered him housing in the Dallas area as well as free season tickets to become Dallas Darrell, the number one Mavericks fan, and he respectfully declined because he didn’t do it for the press, he did it for himself. He formed his identity through his Clippers. He personifies the Clippers; the struggle to become relevant in a city that is built to beat you down.
Despite all that, it’s tough to come to his defense, even though you want to. He embodies what true Clippers fans are. Clipper Darrell became a self-made celebrity in a town like Hollywood where you need to follow protocol to reach that goal. He even painted his car red, white and blue with the Clippers logo front and center. He has the Clippers logo on his front yard basketball court. Clipper Darrell is the Clippers. Struggle, struggle, struggle, push, push, push and eventually you’ll reach the top.
It’s quite perfect timing for this whole debacle to go public as the Clippers lead the Pacific Division (although not by much, anymore), however the Clippers have a fair point. He began using this name to make public appearances at schools, charities, parties around the LA area while, of course, gaining monetary compensation while using the Clipper name. It’s funny that they never seemed to really care, at least publicly, until they are now becoming more of a nationally recognized franchise, though. But that’s neither here nor there.
The Orange County Register reported the truth: “In a conversation with an authoritative and tenured Clippers’ executive last week, he was asked again to either consult with the team on all public appearances and/or commercial ventures, or stop undertaking those opportunities representing himself inappropriately. His response was an offer to stop representing himself commercially in that way and his offer was accepted in principle. The next thing we heard was the baseless claims he has made today and the ensuing media rush to judgment….We have had multiple conversations with him concerning his inappropriate use of the Clippers’ team name and trademark for his own unmonitored commercial gain. We have spoken to him repeatedly about his desire to make public appearances in ways which improperly suggest that he is officially affiliated with our organization. In all cases and over a long period of time, he has consistently rejected our efforts to operate in consultation.”
Regardless, he was still given free season seats by the team to remove the “Clipper” from his name and return to being Darrell Bailey. He took it so seriously, he even dropped the blue and red suit for an all black attire for their first game following the All-Star break against Minnesota. Even Clippers players reacted to the news via Twitter, voicing their support for him.
Any way you look at it, it’s a sensitive subject. This guy has stuck with his team through the worst of times, and now that their at the top of the mountain, he can no longer join them as his alter ego. But he still gets to sit in section 108, he’s still locally recognized as Clipper Darrell, and he still gets to enjoy watching his team thrive. He just can’t have monetary gain from his nickname anymore. I’d take that trade any day.
Underrated is one of those terms thrown around. Most people define it as a player who flys under the radar. But whose radar? GM’s? Fans? ESPN? It’s those unheralded players in the league who go to work every night regardless of the national or international attention gained or maintained. Fans are also split into two categories: Enthusiastic, avid followers of the game or the casual, ESPN-informed fan. This is the first installment of the 2012 All Underrated Team:
Point Guard- Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks- It’s tough to just place one player in each position, however, this is what I’m here for. It came down to a competition between three: Teague, Andre Miller and Luke Ridnour.
In terms of flying under the radar, Teague averages 12 points, 4.5 assists, two steals, and shoots 47 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc and deserves the recognition. It’s his first season starting and logging at least 30 minutes after only 13 per game the previous two seasons and his team sits at 20-14 – right in the thick of things in the East. Others who were considered:
Andre Miller has long been one of the most savvy veteran point guards in the league. Never been the fastest or the best shooter in the game, his form, release and lack of lift on his jump shot causes opposing teams to allow him to shoot from 20 feet. Despite that flaw, he has continued to succeed in the league. Now acting as the backup to Ty Lawson in Denver, he posts 10.5 points and seven assists per game. Miller continues to be one of the best at his position, yet not one casual fan would include him in their top 10 list of PG’s.
Luke Ridnour? Is he still in the league? That small white dude? Yes, the starting PG for Minnesota has been a mainstay in the league despite his size and race. Most would take a glance at Ridnour and be done. Standing at a generous 6’2, 175 pounds, few would assume this guy has the talent to even grace the bench of an NBA squad. Yet he still continues to impress, averaging 11 points, four assists and an unmatched competitive drive to silence the doubters.
He hit the game winning floater to complete a remarkable comeback vs. Utah right before the All-Star break. Minnesota is sitting at 17-17 and the point guard position has a whole lot to do with it. Yes, Kevin Love is the driving force, however, consistent PG play trumps all. The two headed monster of Rubio and Ridnour allow this team to thrive and surprise the league halfway through the season.
Shooting Guard- Arron Afflalo, Denver Nuggets- There are, once again, three very good candidates for the position. Afflalo gets the nod, mainly because of his efforts on both ends of the floor. O.J. Mayo and Wesley Matthews slide into the runner up spots.
Afflalo starts for the Nuggets and provides steady leadership on offense; but it is on the defensive end where he establishes a name for himself. He’s always checking the opposing team’s most prolific scorer, ranging from Dirk Nowitzki to Kobe Bryant. To go with the fact that Denver is struggling without the likes of Nene, Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson, Afflalo has picked up his offensive game as well, scoring more than 20 points in six February games. A tough-minded individual who makes the necessary sacrifices for his team as well as the necessary leadership, Afflalo commands the respect of his teammates.
Mayo has not yet lived up to his hype only because those who discuss his potential to drop 20 points on a nightly basis are upset when the box score reads 12. However, his efficiency and role on the Grizzlies is to be that spark-plug off the bench, as they have plenty of guys who can score on the roster. He provides support in other aspects of the game, as evidenced by his 1.5 steals per game this month, all the while still putting up 12 points splitting time with starting guard, Tony Allen.
Wesley Matthews is the definition of overlooked: Undrafted out of Marquette, the Utah Jazz took a chance on him and he answered the bell, averaging just under 10 points in under 25 minutes for a playoff team. After proving his worth in the postseason, Portland extended the olive branch and signed him to a nice deal as Brandon Roy was beginning to break down. Just because he had rookie success in Utah did not mean he would continue. Perhaps he would slip into a sophomore slump. He quickly changed that when he poured in 16 per game shooting over 40 percent from three last season for the Blazers. This season, his scoring is down to 12.5 points, however, the addition of Jamal Crawford takes shots away from Matthews, and he has contributed on the defensive end by taking the toughest assignment each game.
Small Forward- Nicolas Batum, Portland TrailBlazers- Nicolas Batum has progressed every season thus far, yet still flies deeply under the radar. Batum is averaging 19 points, five boards, 1.6 blocks, 1.6 steals, and is shooting 50 percent on field goals and 43 percent from three in the month of February. He is a longer, younger and more athletic version of Shawn Marion. He doesn’t get much press but Batum is a budding star and will be a hot commodity once his contract is up. As an integral piece to the success of the team, only those who follow the team closely or live in Portland realize the talent this young Frenchman possesses.
Kawhi Leonard, a rookie out of San Diego State, has really been nothing short of incredible for the Spurs, specifically because stats never tell the whole story in San Antonio. He brings energy, defense and incredible instincts on the rebounding front for a rookie. Seven points, five boards and 1.5 steals in 23 minutes per game speaks volumes to this kid’s heart and effort. If Batum wasn’t one of the leading candidates for 6th man of the year in my book, Leonard would take the spot.
Power Forward- Kris Humphries, New Jersey Nets- Humphries is still under the radar only because he plays for New Jersey and is more famous for his failed 72 day marriage to that Armenian slut. In every arena he visits he is booed every time he touches the ball, which also says something about American pop culture – they would rather defend a known whore than realize she craves media attention even more than athletes between the sheets. Averaging 14 points, 11 rebounds and a block per contest, he should be in high demand this offseason as he narrowly beats out Taj Gibson for the starting nod.
Center- Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota TimberWolves- In the month of February he is posting 17 points, 10.5 boards and 1.2 blocks per game – eclipsing 20+ points five times with eight double-doubles. Who knew?! He played a total of four minutes in their first 11 games, only to become their starting center for the last 14 games, adding to the talent pool coming out of Yugoslavia.
Pekovic’s season averages of 12.5 and 7.5 are high enough to propel the second coming of Vlade Divac to the starting position on the All Underrated Team. Helping keep the T-Wolves relevant in a deep Western conference is a tall order, and second year big man Pekovic is doing his part – avoiding any media attention whatsoever.
1) Thursday marked the first time Jeremy Linsanity went up against one of the top team defenses in the NBA, and it showed. Lin finished 1-11 from the field, six first half turnovers (eight for the game), and continued to be hesitant as the game wore on. That may be a result of terrific on-ball defense by Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, and LeBron James, or just a case of pre-game nerves.
Chalmers and Joel Anthony are the unheralded players on the Miami roster; those who will never make an All star team, sign multi-million dollar endorsement deals or lead a posse into the club, but they provide the steady hands and the consistent defense effort that allows this team to thrive on enthusiasm and cohesion. Anthony played 24 minutes, grabbed six boards, blocked five shots and the Heat were +18 with him on the floor. Chalmers and Cole combined to pour in 18 points, five assists and three steals; very impressive numbers considering James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh do the heavy lifting on the offensive end (combining for 67 points).
Something that isn’t talked about with the Knicks? Steve Novak. He’s nailed 36 three pointers in the 11 games he’s played in February. He’s done all that in 21 minutes per game. New York coach Mike D’Antoni needs to get him on the floor. His offensive game plan requires those who can drain the threes with consistency. He needs to play J.R. Smith at the point instead of the useless, aging Baron Davis so to have two legitimate threats from deep when Lin takes a rest.
It seems, thus far, that Smith has not been a victim of his ego and has managed to play some smart, efficient ball since his arrival. I may be wrong, but probably not. Jeremy Lin will be fine if he takes care of the ball. Everyone dismissed the turnovers prior to Thursday because the Knicks were winning despite them. However, eight turnovers from your point guard against the defending East Champs will always result in a loss. If your PG averages at least six turnovers per game, you just won’t make the leap to that upper echelon.
This Knicks-Heat game proved one thing: Miami is too good to fall into the media hype. Erik Spoelstra’s team is too quick, talented and cohesive for the rest of the league. Unless the playoffs prove to tell a different story, we should see Oklahoma City and the Heat in the Finals.
2) Speaking of the Thunder, they made the Lakers looked like parents chasing their kids at the park: Old, out of shape and kind of pathetic. Andrew Bynum limped up the court on a knee that will have him playing like Jermaine O’Neal in less than five years (you heard it here first), Pau Gasoft skips up and down the court flaunting his femininity and Derek Fisher cannot, I repeat (every Laker fan say it with me), CANNOT keep up with any point guard under 30 in the league. Kobe Bryant was off the mark for the second straight night, but the Lakers weren’t able to maintain pace with the fast breaking Thunder and they will continue to fall victim to teams that can establish a running game. Young, athletic teams are the Lakers’ kryptonite.
However, the Lakers still stand at 20-14, good enough for fifth place in the West heading into the break. They also hold a 14-2 home record. As long as they can push their road record closer to the .500 mark they will have a chance to take anyone down in the postseason. Gasol and Bynum, providing they’re healthy, are most certainly the most dominant front line in the league to go along with the best closer in the game in Bryant. That trio makes the Lakers a very dangerous team, specifically because everyone is sleeping on them.
3) San Antonio continues to win. Tony Parker is having one of his best seasons as a pro. Career highs in assists (eight per game) and free throw percentage (80), two aspects of his game that were fairly inconsistent in years past have sparked this club in the absence of Manu Ginobili to be second in the West at the break. His minutes and shot attempts have also climbed, and he has to be considered, or at least mentioned in early season MVP talk.
At 24-10, having won 12 of their past 13 games, they are the hottest team in the league. This is why Greg Popovich is the best coach in the league. It’s also why the Spurs have been to the playoffs 14 straight years, good enough for longest current stretch in the league. Tim Duncan’s minutes have been decreased to save his legs for the postseason because they have the necessary depth to absorb his absence. Dejuan Blair, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Matt Bonner and Gary Neal are not household names, but they all contribute to the surging Spurs’ continued success in different, however, equally important aspects.