Today in The Works: looking at which conference is best and going over big draft gaps.
But first, the worst best teams in the West..
Who Is Least in the West?
This week, all NBA teams will play their 41st game of the season, if they haven't already. That means we're effectively at the halfway point of the 2010-11 season, a time for both reflection on the first half and some forward-thinking consideration of the rest of the regular season campaign.
Nowhere is this speculation more necessary than for the Western Conference playoff picture. While teams like the mighty Lakers and powerful Spurs are virtually guaranteed of spots in the postseason, the last two places one the West playoff dance card are up for grabs. With current holders Denver (No. 7) and Portland (No. 8) perpetually perched on the brink of disaster, there could be one heck of a fight over these last few months of the regular season. Let's preview the melee, team by team.
Denver (23-17): As you might have heard, the Nuggets are thinking about trading franchise linchpins Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups before the deadline. If they go for a collection of draft picks and young players, they can kiss the playoffs goodbye. With those players, though, they're likely to hold onto their current spot and maybe even vault themselves towards first-round homecourt advantage. Anything can happen with this squad.
Portland (22-20): Up until now, the Blazers have weathered a horrific rash of injuries to stay in the playoff picture. But with Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and now Marcus Camby sidelined for the foreseeable future (if not the whole season), things could get ugly in Stumptown any minute now. Look for Portland to miss out on the postseason, although Nate McMillan and his band of hardworking charges are sure to make a valiant effort to stay in the picture.
Memphis (19-22): Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley has already guaranteed a postseason berth for his group of perennial lottery-dwellers, and it looks like they might have a good shot this year. With Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay playing to All-Star levels, the Grizzlies just need to get better performances out of OJ Mayo and Marc Gasol to reach that goal this year. If they stay healthy, they have a pretty solid chance of tasting postseason glory ... and then getting bounced in the first round.
Phoenix (18-21): The Suns aren't returning to the conference finals this season, but they may be able to claim another spot in the playoffs. If they can hold onto Steve Nash, get a reinvigorated Vince Carter in his contract year, and find anyone who can rebound consistently, they have a chance to unseat Portland or Denver, particularly if Melo is traded.
Houston (19-23): The Rockets don't have Yao Ming, but they have a fighting chance at returning to the playoffs for the first time in two seasons. They run more without their star, and that could honestly make them a more formidable foe than with a half-strength Yao in the lineup. They may not be able to put together enough of a sustained run to avoid the lottery, but if things break their way they could stay in the mix.
Golden State (17-23): The Warriors probably aren't going to make it to the postseason -- they have virtually no depth and could face more problems as the heavy minutes of Monta Ellis and Dorell Wright start to catch up to them. However, if David Lee and Andres Biedrins start to regain some form, they could be there when the dust settles in April.
LA Clippers (15-25): That record suggests the Clippers don't have a chance, but Blake Griffin is performing so well that he and a fit Baron Davis could lead the team back to the playoffs. It's unlikely -- they have to move past a lot of teams, for one thing -- yet I wouldn't put anything past Griffin. If he can lead his team to the playoffs, it'll be a fitting cap on one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in recent memory.(EF)
Forget the West, The East Is The Best
There are two conferences in the NBA: East, and West. Unlike football and baseball, which separate their two broadest divisions with words that basically mean the same thing, these are opposites. Shades of the Civil War, even. Or of a more innocent time in our nation's history, when the East was the establishment and tradition, and the West, everything it only dreamed of being: freedom, possibility, quick riches and less oppressive styles of clothing.
In basketball, historically, it has been a contrast between the hard-nosed play of the East, and the free-flowing, high-scoring West. Maybe it's something in the air. Or the water. Or the mountain that comes between them. But as long as the modern NBA has existed, these two regions have been like parallel universes, fierce rivals and bickering siblings.
For much of the 21st century, the West has, hands-down, been the mightier of the two conferences. In addition to powerhouses like the Lakers and Spurs, nearly any player of any consequence who measured above seven feet in height -- and most of the other gifted big men at the power forward position -- played out West. In All-Star Games, the West could trot out a line-up with four giants, while the East often found itself going small before that was considered cool again. One of the happiest moments of my childhood came when Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury led the East to a victory in 2001. Within ten years, both would be dead, at least in NBA terms.
It got to be such a bad joke that the Finals were a non-events, the first round of the Eastern playoffs a must-miss, and most early games only for die-hards. The West was the best, and the best was out west, which really, really sucked if you lived in Eastern Standard Time. Then a magical thing happened. No, I'm not talking about Michael Jordan's return, or even LeBron James going East, which was supposed to really shake things up. I refer, of course, to the Celtics' series of deals in the summer of 2007, which for the first time since Jordan, brought a real favorite for the title to the Eastern Conference. That set the ball rolling, and broke open the taboo.
Now, three and a half seasons later, we can in all honesty ask: WHICH CONFERENCE IS BETTER?
I shall make no bones about it: the West has still got it. The defending champs, the Los Angeles Lakers, hang their hat in this conference. So it is with the ageless, proud San Antonio Spurs. But the West looks increasingly like the East did in 2007-08: top-heavy, but falling off fast. The Oklahoma City Thunder, who at press time had the third-best record in the West, are a young team whose destiny remains to be revealed. The Mavericks, on the other hand, are plummeting into the abyss of Father Time's outstretched lap. Portland is gone; Denver appears headed for the scrap heap. At very last, the Nuggets have peaked. The Jazz are intriguing, but aren't serious contenders.
In the East, things are very different. Atop the conference sits Boston, seemingly indomitable and impervious to obstacle. Then the Heat, that storied team, who -- regular season aside -- could mess around and win a title by accident. The Magic are currently a perplexing fifth, but with their recent retooling of their arsenal, are a deeper, more complete team than the one that made the Finals in 2009. Chicago has an MVP candidate in Derrick Rose who can seemingly take over games at will. When Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer finally join together as his frontcourt, the Bulls could surprise a lot of people with just how good they will be. The Hawks have stabilized, and the Knicks will only get better when, this summer, they finally do something with that Eddy Curry money.
In short, the East looks a lot like the West circa 2003, with more than half of the league's real championship aspirants, and all the other playoff-bound teams either healthy and strong or indisputably on the rise. Most notably, it is no longer possible to simply write off all the early games. That is where the fiercest rivalries, and most intense competition, happens. If only Blake Griffin were there, it would be perfect. And I didn't even get into the Bucks, who have been wracked by injuries this season after a playoff trip in 2009-10.
Most importantly, the West is getting older, while much of the East remains young, or at least not overly dependent on aging players like Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan. Times do change, they really do. And we are lucky enough to be witnesses to history. (BS)
The King Of Draft-Day Gulfs
Bethlehem Shoals: First of all, big up to Chris Vernon, whose radio show is awesome. On Twitter today, he raised a titillating question -- brought about by a discussion with John Hollinger, no less -- that the gulf between Blake Griffin and Hasheem Thabeet is matched only by LeBron James and Darko Milicic. That can't possibly be true, can it?
Eric Freeman: Obviously LeBron is better than Blake, and obviously Darko is a more capable player at this point than Thabeet. But when Darko was a second-year pro he was also similarly ineffective and unable to find playing time, so perhaps Thabeet will grow into a useful player at some point in his career. But is this even how we should judge busts? Isn't it more about who teams passed up? It's not like the Pistons had a chance to take LeBron. People make fun of that pick because they passed up Carmelo, Wade and Bosh.
BS: I guess they didn't actually say it was the biggest gulf ever, just in recent memory. Really, this is more about our new national pastime -- slobbering over Griffin -- than anything else. Darko is having a good year, but the real point of this exercise is to compare Griffin to LeBron.
EF: Which is plainly a ridiculous comparison. LeBron is the best player in the world. Griffin is awesome but it doesn't appear that the Clips will be challenging for championships for quite some time.
BS: That's what people forget about LeBron. Getting LeBron allowed the Cavs to go from the worst team in the league to a contender in two seasons. Forget about advanced statistics, or even making your teammates better. That is simply the highest order of basketball greatness imaginable. Then again, you could say Iverson did that, too, so who knows.
EF: We are not arguing Iverson vs. Marcus Camby; please stay on topic. I guess what we're saying here is that Griffin is awesome but shouldn't be discussed as if he's already one of the best players in the NBA. Then again, Griffin has echoed LeBron in some ways by making the Clippers relevant again. They don't have a stink anymore, which is akin to what James did for the Cavs.
BS: And as we determined yesterday, when we talked about something very similar, Griffin is an absolute beast who has opened up the game for all his teammates. Oh, I forgot to say yesterday: that's why Love has nothing on Griffin. Who is Love helping? Beasley?
EF: Beasley and Love are the modern-day Odd Couple, so they help each other. But LeBron is still on another planet in terms of helping others. Remember, he made Mo Williams an All-Star. It seems that we're discussing Griffin's effect largely in terms of potential at this point, i.e. he could eventually make Eric Gordon an All-Star. And for a discussion like the one brought forth by Vernon and Hollinger, aren't we supposed to be mocking people for buying into as yet unfulfilled potential? Maybe we should wait before putting Griffin into that upper echelon of stars.
BS: Griffin got Gordon on Team USA before Griffin played a second of pro ball!
EF: I think that was because every true superstar decided he hated America last summer. What hath Obama wrought?
BS: That would have been a good excuse for Rondo to use. "I don't like the job-killing health care bill, so I'm pulling out of Team USA." But wait, Jerry Colangelo is a huge right-winger. Maybe he put that team together to make a point about REAL patriotism? Did a single player on that team support Obama? Oh wait, Billups did.
EF: Rondo is really into the gold standard, I've heard. Anyway, back to Griffin. When will we know he's arrived as a superstar? Will he have to get his team to the playoffs? That seems so normal for him. I think it will be when he dribbles the ball and it pops from the force.
BS: I do think people are taking him for granted. That 47 seemed so ... routine.
EF: Are you saying that he's already there?
BS: Unless you're holding him to the impossible of LeBron James ... why yes, I am.
EF: So when does the backlash start? If the Clippers don't make the playoffs, will people say it was his fault? Or will it be like LeBron's past where no one blamed him for anything because the rest of his team was so bad.
BS: I thought they blamed LeBron for everything because his team was too bad to blame.
EF: No, that's what they do now. It's called revisionist history. Soon, after Blake Griffin leaves the Clippers to play for the Lakers, we'll look back fondly on this chat and wonder how we ever considered the man positively.
BS: You're a jerk.
The Works is written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Eric Freeman (@freemaneric), who also contributes regularly to Ball Don't Lie. Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History is now available.