As we race toward 2014 and the midpoint of the NBA season, the Western Conference is in a more muddled state than most of us anticipated. Injuries have wiped out key players, one giant surprise team has emerged, and a bunch of other teams have played uninspired, inconsistent ball. Getting a feel for those teams has been difficult, but here’s one man’s attempt to step back and take a bigger-picture look at the hierarchy of an absurdly stacked conference. Here are the Western Conference Power Rankings.
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15. Utah Jazz
The combination of Trey Burke getting healthy and Utah playing semi-permanent small ball, with Marvin Williams starting at power forward, has stabilized what had been a dreadful offense. Burke is struggling from 2-point range, but he has shot the 3-pointer well, and Gordon Hayward badly needs another ball handler around to share creative duties. Alec Burks has strung together a bunch of good games off the bench of late, gradually sucking some minutes away from Richard Jefferson.
This team is still awful — dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions, with an incoherent defense that seems to be at least gradually coalescing behind the idea of having Jazz big men drop back toward the foul line in helping on the pick-and-roll. The development of Enes Kanter counts as a disappointment. His numbers are down across the board, and he and Derrick Favors have played just 62 total minutes together since Tyrone Corbin demoted Kanter to the bench. That has worked in the short term, but it would be nice to get a longer look at the alleged frontcourt of the future against starter-level competition. This may be an instance in which the priorities of the coach and the front office are not perfectly aligned.
Oh well. None of this really matters. The Jazz are designed to be terrible this season, and they’re terrible.
14. Sacramento Kings
Sacramento hired a defense-first hard-liner as the team’s new head coach, and, wouldn’t you know it, the team’s defense is terrible for what feels like the millionth straight season. Sacramento ranks 28th in points allowed per 100 possessions and remains an abysmal transition-defense team; the Kings allow nearly 1.3 points per possession on transition chances, the second-worst mark in the league, per Synergy Sports.1 The Kings ranked 29th by this measure last season, though they’ve done a bit better this time around in at least cutting down the raw number of opposing fast-break chances.
They remain a mess in the half court, too. Opposing guards can get wherever they’d like to go on the pick-and-roll — namely, to the middle of the floor — and DeMarcus Cousins is still a lurching, reaching, and sometimes lazy mess both against the pick-and-roll and in rotating over to protect the rim. (He’s a huge culprit in their bad transition defense, too.) The Kings attack the pick-and-roll pretty aggressively, with their bigs (especially Jason Thompson, who just hasn’t developed at all) jumping about above the 3-point arc to contain ball handlers; they just can’t execute the scheme.
Mike Malone called out his team’s defense in jarring terms over the weekend, and he’s not wrong. Look: Cousins has been much better this season. He’s a legitimate star on offense now; he’s shooting fewer midrange jumpers, hitting more of his shots overall, drawing constant double-teams, and doing a decent job protecting the rock. He is an absolute load in the post.2 But it’s very hard to build a competent NBA defense with Cousins in the middle, without a rim protector at the other big-man spot and with average or worse defenders dotting the perimeter.
This is still a roster in flux, at least to some degree. Malone is still trying to find the right mix after the Rudy Gay and Derrick Williams trades, which decimated the team’s depth at multiple positions and left a ton of bigger wings on the roster. He’s playing Travis Outlaw at three positions, using Jimmer Fredette (a sieve) at backup point guard, and trying to balance minutes for Thompson and Williams at power forward. This is a work in progress, and the Kings may not be done trading. “We’ve increased our talent level,” says Pete D’Alessandro, the team’s new GM. “But I don’t think we’ve put together a team at this point.”
SORTA BORINGLY BAD
13. Los Angeles Lakers
Mike D’Antoni and his band of cast-offs have done a wonderful job finding wins amid injuries and roster upheaval, but this is a bottom-10 team on both ends of the floor. And it’s sort of sad. D’Antoni has really never been able to play his style of offense here. Steve Nash broke his leg in just his second game as a Laker, and it has been an endless series of crisis adaptations since then. We’ve seen D’Antoni play a traditional flex-style offense with two big men; Kobe-centric stuff in the post and in a two-man partnership with Pau Gasol; and this latest bit of survival without a single healthy traditional point guard.
Kobe played that role until his recent knee injury, and the Lakers are now splitting it among Xavier Henry, Kendall Marshall, Nick Young (mostly via dribble handoffs), and even Gasol facilitating up top. They’ll get Jordan Farmar back soon, and the Lakers are doing their best with limited talent to pack the paint and overload the strong side on defense. It hasn’t really worked — no team has allowed more shots in the restricted area, per NBA.com — but L.A. makes you earn it.
A playoff spot is a stretch, but watching the team retool with cap space and Kobe’s monster extension will be fascinating.
12. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizz are 5-9 since Marc Gasol’s injury, and almost the entire drop-off in play has come at the defensive end. The grit-and-grind crew ranks an ugly 26th in points allowed per possession, and they’ve been hemorrhaging points since the reigning Defensive Player of the Year went on the shelf, per NBA.com. Injuries have crippled Memphis in general. The team signed James Johnson off the scrap heap to fill in for Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter, allowing Memphis to tighten its grip on the market for wing players who can’t shoot. Kosta Koufos cratered on offense under a heavy burden. Zach Randolph is slowing down and struggles on defense without Gasol. Ed Davis shows flashes, and only flashes.
Here’s the thing: This team’s offense has been mediocre (and often worse) even when the roster is fully stocked, and its defense ranked just 18th in points allowed per possession when Big Spain went down — far below the level at which Memphis must be in order to contend. It has also played a conference-high 16 home games, though it has done so against a brutal schedule.
Why are they above the Lakers, then? Two reasons: This team has a years-long track record of playing elite defense, and the raft of middling clubs ahead of it have sputtered along over the last month or so. If the Grizz can stay afloat until Gasol’s return, they could be within striking distance of the no. 8 spot. That could be tough, though; the next three weeks feature a bunch of games against fellow Western Conference playoff hopefuls, including four combined against Phoenix and Denver.
11. New Orleans Pelicans
The Pellies survived Anthony Davis’s shorter-than-expected absence, thanks largely to two wild overtime wins against Chicago and Detroit. The Brow is back, just as the Pelicans’ schedule — second-easiest in the West so far — gets thorny and road-heavy.
The evidence is piling up that this team’s defense just won’t be good enough to stay in the playoff race. New Orleans is a putrid 25th in points allowed per possession, and though the Pellies have been better with Davis on the floor, they’re still allowing 104.1 points per 100 possessions when he plays — a mark that would rank about 20th overall. Their big men have a tough time executing Monty Williams’s aggressive hedging scheme on the pick-and-roll, and Davis is the only thing close to a plus defender among the rotation bigs. The guards are better, but opposing ball handlers don’t have much problem getting into the middle of the court for drive-and-kick death.
The team’s offense has been much better than expected; the combination of Ryan Anderson’s shooting and Davis’s pick-and-roll threat opens up space for everyone, and New Orleans has incorporated some dribble drive–style stuff to empower all the ball handlers here. The team’s dream lineup, with Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Davis, and Anderson, has scored an insane 125.7 points per 100 possessions. Bad news: It has given up 118, in part because teams understand that if they can get Davis far from the hoop by involving him in a pick-and-roll, New Orleans will have zero interior defense left behind him. Alexis Ajinca isn’t solving this problem. Al-Farouq Aminu helps, but no one guards him on the other end. This team feels at least a year, and maybe another move, away from the playoffs.
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10. Denver Nuggets
You can sort these next three teams almost any way you like. They are all imperfect, with very similar point differentials. The Nuggets have stagnated over their last dozen games, and they’re no longer indestructible at home, where good Denver teams can typically walk (run, actually) into 30 wins. The Nugs are just 7-6 in the friendly confines after a dispiriting loss against Golden State on Monday, meaning they’ve already lost twice as many home games this season as they did all of last season.
Their starting lineup has allowed a disastrous 110.6 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark among all lineups leaguewide that have logged at least 150 minutes, per NBA.com. The team has predictably struggled to stop anyone whenever Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson share the floor, and it’s a below-average defensive rebounding team. Brian Shaw may have to contemplate a lineup change if this keeps up; he started Timofey Mozgov in Faried’s place last night to due Faried’s ankle injury, and the defense looked stouter with a true big man at center and J.J. Hickson sliding over to the power forward spot. The team’s defense has been about average overall thanks to a strong bench, but the offense isn’t as dynamic as it was under George Karl; it’s just hard for these guys to put together a complete, two-way game at this point. JaVale McGee was supposed to be the team’s starting center, but he looked awful early, and his injury probably helped the Nuggets right themselves after a 1-4 start.
Danilo Gallinari’s return will be huge in shorting up the small-forward spot,3 and teams are watching Denver on the trade market. The Nuggets have a lot of mid-sized contracts and, as things stand now, a bloated cap sheet in the short- and long-term. I picked Denver to miss the playoffs, and I’d stick by that today — though not with a huge degree of optimism.
9. Dallas Mavericks
Perhaps the wackiest team in the league, in a fun way. Wait, is everyone on the floor 6-foot-7 or shorter? Did the Mavs just run a Shawn Marion/DeJuan Blair pick-and-roll — and score off of it? What freaking position does Jae Crowder play? Are they in a man or a zone defense? Does Jose Calderon ever shave — or miss open 3s? What are the rules of Monta-Ball?4
Monta Ellis has been very good offensively though he has cooled off of late, the bench is strong now that Vince Carter has found his game and Brandan Wright is back, and Dirk Nowitzki remains Dirk F’ing Nowitzki.
“The last two years were tough for me physically,” Nowitzki says. “But I’m having fun again. I feel good. I like to go to war with these guys.”
There is just no defense here. The guards are mostly awful, Nowitzki has long relied on his brain and long arms to help an aging body along, and Samuel Dalembert’s inability to get on the floor has left the Mavs with zippo rim protection. The team can’t score when Nowitzki sits,5 the backup point guard spot is a problem, and it’s too early to see if Wright can consistently lift the Mavs’ non-Dirk offense. Getting Devin Harris back at some point will help, but I just don’t trust this team enough defensively to slot it into the playoffs.
One thing in its (slight) favor: It has survived having eight back-to-backs over its first 26 games. “When I looked at our schedule,” Nowitzki says, “I saw it was an absolute beast. We’re an older team. I thought we would struggle out of the gate. I think we are right where we want to be. Our goal is the playoffs. I thought before the season we could compete for the no. 7 or no. 8 spot.”
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
The team no one can figure out, Minnesota has slipped to 15th in points allowed per possession. The Kevin Love–Nikola Pekovic pairing offers (some) sound fundamentals, but no rim protection or speed getting back in transition — something to which Love isn’t always committed, anyway. Love still has a habit of turning into rebounding position early instead of challenging shots on the block, and Corey Brewer’s gambling has been a messy net minus of late. About 15.8 percent of Minnesota’s opponent possessions have come in transition, the highest share in the league, per Synergy. It would help if Brewer brought one-tenth of the urgency to his transition defense that he brings to leaking out on offense.
The team needs Chase Budinger back offensively in a bad way. Love’s shooting from power forward is a boon, but when he’s on the block, a lineup of Love, Ricky Rubio (still on pace to be the worst shooter in modern NBA history), and Brewer cannot space the floor. The spacing gets even worse when Luc Richard Mbah a Moute replaces Kevin Martin or Brewer, and the team’s bench is generally a train wreck. Rick Adelman usually keeps either Love or Pekovic on the floor to anchor the offense at all times, though the offense has collapsed horribly whenever Pekovic plays without Love, per NBA.com.6
Also, the Wolves have been a two-way disaster in the clutch. They’re 4-9 in games that have been within three points at any time in the last three minutes, according to NBA.com. They’re ranked 27th in points per 100 possessions in that sample, and 28th in points allowed. Yikes. No team has been more foul-prone in crunch time, a problem that plagued Minnesota two seasons ago, when Love was last healthy for a majority of games.7
This should turn around, and the Wolves have played the league’s second-toughest schedule — and one heavy on road games. In a group of flawed teams, Minnesota has the most potential to stabilize as an above-average two-way club.
LOOKING GOOD FOR PLAYOFF SPOTS, BUT …
7. Phoenix Suns
The longer this goes on, the more the Suns look like a real team and not some out-of-the-box fluke catching teams off guard with a dual point guard lineup, killer floor spacing, and a fast-breaking style. The Suns are plus-3.4 points per 100 possessions, tied with the Warriors for the eighth-best mark in the league, one that screams “LEGIT TEAM.”
The Suns had no clue they’d be anywhere near this good after they unloaded Marcin Gortat. Channing Frye’s name came up in various three-team trade proposals that would have sent Omer Asik elsewhere, and the Suns could still plummet down the standings if they move both Frye and Goran Dragic — or perhaps just one of them. Frye has perked up lately, and the Suns are thriving in a spread pick-and-roll attack based upon the ability of Frye and the Morris twins to hit outside shots. They’re smoking teams when Dragic plays without Eric Bledsoe and struggling on both ends in the reverse situation.
This looks like an emphatic playoff team for now. Jeff Hornacek, the team’s coach, says he has tried his best to get the team’s mind off the possibility of making the playoffs. The team has the conference standings up in the locker room,8 and the players enjoy peeking at them and speculating, but Hornacek has tried to get them to focus on three-team chunks of games. “Win enough of those,” he says, “and we’ll probably be in the playoffs.”
They’re not a shoo-in, though. A trade could gut the big rotation, and P.J. Tucker is really the only natural small forward on the roster. The competition is stiff, and the Suns are a bottom-five defensive rebounding team. But they’re more solid, so far, than any team below them here.
6. Golden State Warriors
They have some injury-related excuses. The Dubs went 5-7 when Andre Iguodala sat with hamstring issues; Jermaine O’Neal is out indefinitely, Festus Ezeli hasn’t played, Stephen Curry has missed four games, and Toney Douglas was out for a while. That would hurt any team.
There has been a strange malaise around these guys. They’re the most turnover-prone team in the league, and at least part of that comes from the haughty pursuit of highlight plays at the expense of easier, sounder things. Only five teams have allowed more free throws per shot attempt, a bad multiseason trend for a team that struggles to get to the line on the other end. Andrew Bogut fouls a lot, and the team has to overthink matchups on defense in order to hide Curry. Iguodala enables that flexibility, but there will be nights when Klay Thompson, a plus defender, has to guard a much quicker guy.
David Lee’s midrange shot is broken, and the Warriors have been a bit slow to experiment with enticing hybrid lineups; the Curry-Thompson-Iguodala–Draymond Green–Bogut unit, for instance, has logged just eight minutes all season. In a larger sense, it sometimes feels like the team goes away from its best strengths on offense. Only about 22.5 percent of Golden State’s possessions have ended as a result of a pick-and-roll,9 the sixth-lowest share in the league, per Synergy. That is strange for a team with a killer pick-and-roll point guard in Curry and two capable bigs in Lee and Bogut. Only the Knicks and Raptors finish a higher share of possessions via isolations, and Golden State sometimes falls in love with stagnant post-ups.
Variety is important, and an isolation for Curry is fine by me. But things are just a bit out of whack. Still: I’m not worried … yet. The team’s starting lineup with Iguodala is just destroying people, and Golden State blitzed a rough early-season schedule before Iggy got hurt. The defense has held strong, and the bench will get healthier. This ranking might feel low in two months.
JUST PLAIN SOLID
5. Houston Rockets
I contemplated going one spot higher, but every time Houston appears to have turned a corner, the Rockets fart out a complete dud like their stinker in Indiana on Friday. Houston ranks a very solid 10th in points allowed per possession, but when they are bad, they look so hopelessly bad that you just can’t imagine them winning a playoff series against a good team.
In their defense, a full starting lineup’s worth of rotation players have been in and out with nagging injuries, and the Rockets will probably rev up Asik trade talks again in order to balance out their roster. Terrence Jones has been fabulous, but he’s still learning the nuances of NBA defense, and he’s just not big enough to guard the best power forwards on the block. The team badly needs another plus perimeter defender to go with Patrick Beverley. The Asik trade will hopefully address at least one of these things.
You might recall that about six weeks ago, I wrote that Dwight Howard’s post game was “dead, or at least on life support.” At that point, Howard had shot just 33 percent on post-ups, and he was turning the ball over on an embarrassing number of them — the continuation of a decline dating to Howard’s first wave of back issues in Orlando.
Gulp. In the 16 games since that column ran, Howard has shot 55-of-101 on post-ups — 55 percent! That would have ranked no. 3 among 70 players with at least 100 post-ups last season, per Synergy Sports. His points per possession on post-ups over that span would only rank about 25th among those 70 guys, mostly because his turnover rate is still too high. The Rockets would benefit from shifting a couple of those post-ups each night into pick-and-rolls with James Harden and Jeremy Lin.
Howard looks spry again, and he has proven me and other critics wrong. He has dunked out of the post several times in those 16 games after having zero dunks out of post-ups before that. His post-ups demand attention now, and that’s a huge boon for Houston.
4. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are good, but they are not quite as good as their record, and there’s no great shame there. They’ve played the easiest schedule (by a hair) among Western Conference teams, and three of their next four games come against the Clippers, Heat, and Thunder. They’re 22nd in points allowed per possession (tied with the Knicks), one spot behind Milwaukee. Repeat: They are 22nd in defensive efficiency. Translation: They are bad at defense.
Look, Portland is awesome. I love watching them. I have no problem with their 3-point volume or LaMarcus Aldridge jacking midrange jumpers at a record pace. They have the best offense in the league, and it’s not all that close. Damian Lillard is shooting, I think, 4,756 percent in crunch time. It’s just hard to find teams that make deep postseason runs with bottom-10 defenses.
There are some caveats here. Portland’s starting lineup, which has logged more minutes this season than any other five-man group, has allowed just 101.8 points per 100 possessions — equivalent to a borderline top-10 mark, per NBA.com. The team has been a smidgen better with the starting frontcourt of Aldridge and Robin Lopez, and it’s doing just fine on the defensive glass when those two play. C.J. McCollum has yet to suit up.
Things get dicey the moment any of Portland’s bench players comes in,10 especially one of the two bench bigs — a duo that now includes Meyers Leonard instead of Thomas Robinson.
Portland’s clutch success is also unsustainable. The team is 10-1 in games that have been within three points in the last three minutes, and it has scored 138.5 points per 100 possessions in those situations. It has been damn near perfect on both ends. That never lasts.
This is a really good team, and if you want to slot the Blazers at no. 3, that’s fine. But they don’t belong in the top two, and I have a feeling that when we get through 82 games, we might regard them as no. 5 or no. 6 on this list — better than their internal preseason expectations, by the way.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Here’s how unsettled the Western Conference is right now: We have no real clue how good the Clippers are, and yet it seems perfectly reasonable to place them in this lofty perch. Two weeks ago, we were talking about how depressing it was that this team had lost on the road in Orlando, Cleveland, and Brooklyn — and failed to defend its home court in a challenge game against the Pacers. J.J. Redick was hurt, and they weren’t the same on either end.
Since then? They’ve won five straight, four by double digits, including home blowouts of the Spurs and Nuggets,11 and the team’s defense has steadily improved since a rough start. The Clips are seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions, and unlike last season, this isn’t some bench-powered mirage — or even just a Redick-related thing, as some feared in the first week or so after his injury. The Clips have allowed 100.4 points per 100 possessions when Griffin and DeAndre Jordan share the floor, almost identical to their very solid overall mark. Opponents were shooting in the mid-60s on close shots when Jordan was near the rim just a few weeks ago; that number has fallen into the low 50s since, per SportVU camera data.
There are still issues, obviously. Jordan has occasional hiccups — late rotations near the rim, uninspired post defense, and miscommunication with Griffin. They still need a third reliable big man; Antawn Jamison isn’t getting it done, and Stephen Jackson as a small-ball power forward will not have staying power as a game-by-game thing.
This team should be very, very good in the long haul. Jamal Crawford has worked well in the starting lineup, shifting to a less ball-dominant role, but he still fits better as a bench scorer who can play in hybrid lineups. Matt Barnes is back, earning ejections and generally being a pain in the ass. This is a good team, and it’ll upgrade the big-man rotation at some point.
A NOTCH ABOVE
2. San Antonio Spurs
Oh, hey, the Spurs are freaking awesome again. Shocker! Tim Duncan’s averages in December: 17 points, 12 boards, 52 percent shooting, spry defense, the usual screening and passing. All is well. Manu Ginobili is having a crazy year, and he might be the favorite right now for Sixth Man of the Year. I’m pretty sure he and Marco Belinelli have some secret nonverbal language; there must be something to explain the surreal connection they’ve established after a quarter of a season together. Belinelli is shooting 54 percent from deep, by the way. Patty Mills is pulling up for 3s on 1-on-0 fast breaks and making them. I’m pretty sure the Spurs could sign me and turn me into a rotation player.
I mean, what is there to say? They have the second-best defense in the league, trailing only the Pacers, and they’re one of just five teams in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession. They are revolutionizing the very concept of a rotation, in part because the star players make salaries reasonable enough that the Spurs could splurge on bench guys. No one is playing more than 30.3 minutes per game. You look at a San Antonio box score in the morning and you just start laughing at the minute totals.
Pop has been his usual cranky self, changing starting lineups here and there (or using a different one to start the second half), pulling guys two minutes into quarters after an early mistake, and generally being the Pop we know and love. It’s a concern that they’re just 2-5 against the other teams in the top six here, with one of the wins against a Golden State team missing Curry.
Even with those concerns, are you taking anyone but the top team over these guys in a seven-game series?
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
I’m not sure casual fans realize how great these guys are defensively. They’re third in points allowed per possession, nearly tied with San Antonio, and they just keep getting better on that end. They feature long-armed menaces at almost every position, and their combination of speed and length has been flustering San Antonio since the start of Game 3 of the conference finals two seasons ago. There’s really no way to track this, but I don’t think any team runs the Spurs off more initially open 3-pointers, forcing them to dribble and pass and cut their way into difficult end-of-clock shots. And that is the one worrisome thing about San Antonio: can they squeeze out enough points against a defense that can vaporize at least some of their preferred shots? The Spurs don’t get offensive rebounds, and they’re on pace for one of the half-dozen lowest free throws-to-field goal attempt ratios in league history. Oklahoma City has that matchup figured out, and that’s the most likely conference finals at this point.
The emergence of Reggie Jackson, and of Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams behind him, has been one of the half-dozen biggest stories of this season. Lamb and Adams don’t bring it every night, but Jackson does (or nearly so), and what looked to be a Thunder team in need of one more piece may need only to stand pat.12
The Thunder’s biggest internal obstacle is Scott Brooks’s fight to find the right lineup combinations in the right amounts. The team’s tenured starting lineup — bad in the 2012 playoffs, dynamite last season — is back to being terrible; the Thunder are minus-45 in the 263 minutes that group has logged. Kendrick Perkins has somehow gotten worse,13 and Thabo Sefolosha’s 29 percent hit rate from 3-point range has defenses taking an extra step off of him to clog the paint.
It’s clear the Thunder are better with Jackson and some combination of Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Adams taking more minutes from Sefolosha and Perkins. Brooks has been a little slow to embrace the power of Kevin Durant as a small-ball power forward; he uses this alignment in almost every game, and sometimes to close games, but it remains something he doles out only in small doses.
The Thunder don’t need to do anything major, and they’re not benching Sefolosha or Perkins anytime soon. Heck, they’ll need Sefolosha’s defense against teams with multiple wing threats, though Brooks’s move to use Perry Jones as a “utility defender” in crunch time against the Raptors on Sunday was interesting. They just need a slight rejiggering of what’s already here, and they are the best team in the Western Conference already.
Imagine if they do make a trade to upgrade this roster? The rest of the conference has to hope they don’t.