Thunder remain best in the West

Sam Smith of Bulls.com ranks the biggest threats to come out of the Western Conference this season and places Oklahoma City, even without Russell Westbrook for the time being, at the top of his list.

Last week I looked at the Eastern Conference — as painful as that can be — so this week I’ll take a look at the Western Conference, where basically no one should win.

We know from the results thus far the Western Conference is deeper with more good teams. Though the two best teams in the NBA, the Heat and Pacers — at least in my view — are in the Eastern Conference. When you get to the playoffs and the Finals, those teams with their experience and defense should be the favorite no matter whom they meet.

The Thunder was looking like the West’s best until Russell Westbrook went out again, his third knee procedure in a year. So who knows how good they’ll be, even if they are still very good. This team has lost James Harden, Kevin Martin, Jeff Green and now Westbrook and just beat Houston by 30. Impressive. Actually, the larger question in the Western Conference is the opposite of in the Eastern Conference. In the East, it’s who’ll make the playoffs. In the West, it’s who won’t. Perhaps two or three good teams who could or should make it won’t. Though you hardly can blame anyone if you can’t get in the top eight. I don’t see a No. 1 team in the Western Conference, but the numbering system still requires it:

  1. Thunder: I know. I just made the case why they shouldn’t be No. 1, but I have as many reasons for everyone else. They do have the conference’s best player in Kevin Durant, who could get MVP as a result. Their pickup from the Harden deal, Jeremy Lamb, is starting to produce along with some good draft picks. And Westbrook shows he comes back strong.
  2. Clippers: Yes, I know, they are not second now. But this is not a repeat of the standings. It’s the teams most likely to get to the top of the conference based on how they’ve played. The Clippers, you can sense, are getting closer with Doc Rivers’ changes. Blake Griffin is becoming more of a threat and he’s working on DeAndre Jordan. They could be close to a breakout.
  3. Trail Blazers: They still are too much of a jump shooting team. But a really good one. They’ve got quite the scoring and shooting group. They’re among the leaders in fewest points inside, which doesn’t bode well for the playoffs. But like those Suns of a few years back they are tough to stop, and that Suns team was one bad NBA suspension from being in the Finals. Especially in this era, that game can succeed.
  4. Spurs: They have yet to beat any of the top teams they’ve played, winless against the Rockets, Pacers, Trail Blazers and Thunder. They’ll be there given their terrific system of play, coaching and management that gets them ideal role players. But they’ll need another Westbrook injury like last season.
  5. Warriors: They’ve defended so well at times that Don Nelson is breaking out in hives. They’ve got that fabulous perimeter shooting and enough cheap shots from Andrew Bogut to get attention.
  6. Rockets: There’s just something missing. Well, like scoring and some other stuff. They’ve supposedly saved Omer Asik up for a big deal. But that big back loaded salary they used to get him is hitting them back as teams don’t want to take it.
  7. Timberwolves: Here’s the hard part. There are seven teams that have a chance for these two spots. Sorry, Kobe. You’re with the Kings and Jazz. It’s still hard to imagine Kevin Love will miss the playoffs again. They don’t defend much, Love included, but have come close an awful lot and still are hanging in there. They should get some breaks to go their way.
  8. Grizzlies: I just can’t buy the Suns, though they do keep winning. Marc Gasol will return and they probably shouldn’t make it, if only for having the perfect coach for their particular personnel in Lionel Hollins. And they dumped him. But they are getting back to playing their physical style, which is probably better suited for the playoffs if they can get there.

Injuries as prevalent as ever

-- Plenty of good players have been injured before. Magic Johnson missed 45 games his sophomore season with a knee problem and actually was never quite as good as he might have been, though he did pretty well. Jerry West missed 45 games his first five seasons. Michael Jordan broke his foot as a sophomore. Dominique Wilkins blew out his Achilles, though at 32. Bill Walton may have become the best ever center if not for more than 30 operations. But it seems like the almost daily march to the hospital in the NBA is unique. Consider this season top players out now:

Derrick Rose
Russell Westbrook
Brook Lopez
Rajon Rondo
Danilo Gallinari
Carmelo Anthony
Eric Gordon
Al Horford
Kobe Bryant
Marc Gasol
Omer Asik
Luol Deng
J.J. Redick
Pau Gasol
Ray Felton
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Steve Nash
Steve Blake
JaVale McGee
C.J. McCollum

Or players recently out, like:

Deron Williams
Dwyane Wade
Glen Davis
Bradley Beal
Andre Iguodala
Tyson Chandler
Danny Granger
Rodney Stuckey
Trey Burke
Dion Waiters
Larry Sanders
Al Jefferson
Nene
Anthony Davis
Caron Butler
Michael Carter-Williams

There are many theories about this and no real answers, and likely no true solutions. Many of the players and coaches blame it on the schedule, though the NBA has been playing 82 games since 1967-68 and 80 since 1961-62. And without charter flights and when there were back-to-back-to-back sets and back-to-backs on opposite coasts. Some say it’s the speed and power in the game, similar to the effects in the NFL. The size and strength and speed of the players has increased to the point the body cannot take the collisions. No matter the speed. There’s been speculation it’s the shoes, which has often been considered a good thing. But the thinking goes the specialized shoes change the gait and natural foot movement. A theory, of course, not endorsed by shoe companies. Some say it’s the extra basketball with national tournaments in the summer. Many blame the training. They say players now compared with prior eras work out and exercise their bodies in training all year. And the idea is with any machine the more you use it the more prone it is to break down. Plus, when you tone your body to such an extent like NBA players do with certain exceptions you place too much torque on muscles not built for that and it creates breakdowns. I don’t mean to suggest I know the answer. And I have asked often and many. But it is a growing problem that remains unchecked, unresolved and mostly unexplored.

Bynum talented, but not motivated

-- You can almost hear Andrew Bynum saying, “Whooop-de-damn-do” with his suspension by the Cavs. That, of course, was the infamous comments from Derrick Coleman, the 1990’s Andrew Bynum of loads of talent and not much motivation. Like Coleman, Bynum liked to shoot behind the back three-pointers in practice. I once watched Coleman and Chris Morris, a Coleman protégée, practice three-pointers pregame while standing 10 rows into the stands. On those 1990’s Nets no one much noticed. Bynum is a similar, to put it generously, iconoclast, like Coleman, who had a 15-year NBA career because he was so talented. Coleman was like DeMarcus Cousins of this era, too good to be ignored and too erratic to ever win with. So comes Bynum, and the Lakers have won with him, if not relied upon him. Now the Cavs supposedly want to trade him. He’s on the books for $12 million, but can be paid off at $6 million in January. If you keep him beyond July 10, next season is guaranteed. But with that size and low post game, he has to be appealing to Miami as a response to Roy Hibbert. It could cost Miami a package of players among Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier. Would they do that? Worth throwing in a draft pick? Would the Clippers take a shot with DeAndre Jordan? Bynum did appear to like Los Angeles for its excess of handicapped parking spots. He’d probably be too risky anywhere else as most teams likely will wait until the Cavs likely release him in January. The Cavs fell to 10-20 Sunday and don’t appear likely now to make desperate moves to try to get into the playoffs. The Cavs Sunday thus also cancelled their scheduled fan giveaway against the Warriors of a Bynum Fathead Tradeable. Fatheads are depictions of players and not an insult aimed at Bynum. I don’t think so, anyway.

As for the draft lottery process…

-- The ESPN site Grantland last week floated a proposal to replace the draft lottery, supposedly because of tanking (purposely losing for a better draft pick). Sure, it can exist in certain cases, though only because you cannot eliminate the pernicious nature in humanity. Some people will try anything they can no matter the effect on others. It’s OK; that’s the world. No system ever changed human nature. This proposal of teams in a 30-year cycle effectively getting predetermined draft slots is one of the worst things I’ve ever heard, though unsurprising. It’s an American tradition of the rich trying to take advantage of the poor. The way this system could work out is a champion team having a high lottery pick while 30th place picks 25th. Yes, it would take away the incentive to lose for a high draft pick. But basically no one does that. Look at teams like the Suns, Raptors, Celtics. They’re not trying to lose despite appearances to the contrary. So-called tanking never has upset the balance of the league. It was dealt with by the lottery in 1984 and refined afterward and so called tanking hasn’t produced a champion in 30 years. Boston was tanking to get Tim Duncan. Not the Spurs. You don’t fix what’s not broken even though you can come up with a circumstance. There’s always a sense you shouldn’t reward incompetence, a management that messes up its team and keeps getting rewarded with high picks. But a society — and a sports league — owes it to its constituents to give everyone a chance to be competitive. The United States often doesn’t do that with the large gap between rich and poor that keeps getting wider. But it always has tried when at its best. When the Constitution was debated, one of James Madison’s points — the so called Father of the Constitution — was to protect the minority against the majority. No sports league prospers without widespread competition and the destination of a level playing field. The NBA always has tried to accomplish this perhaps more than any other sports league. In most respects the NBA is a much better place because of its lack of bias and improved environment among big and small markets. Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Portland and San Antonio are some of the top teams. New York, Chicago and one in Los Angeles are some of the bottom. That will change. Unusual circumstances have caused some of the differences. But it’s always a better place when the least endowed at the time have a better opportunity to regain their dignity.

NBA news and notes

-- It’s tough to make a case against the Heat not being the league’s best team after this road stretch. The Heat has escaped with a win and lost in overtime. But no team seems as prepared for the close playoff games as they demonstrated against the Spurs last season. Miami stole one over Portland Saturday on Chris Bosh’s three. It’s very impressive to play the West’s co-top team without LeBron James and win. And no one really has become better than James in the fury of the closing minutes willing his team, like James did with two threes and a driving dunk in the last minute to at least get to overtime in Sacramento. It’s truly impressive the way James now has become a knock down late game three point shooter, his three the first big shot that gave Ray Allen a chance to make his winner in last season’s Finals. Though James’ current groin and ankle issues may give him pause about his future in Miami. James appears to be playing into exhaustion, averaging 42 minutes the last three games, with Dwyane Wade having to be rested so often to protect his fragile knees. It may give James pause whether to continue his career in Miami after this season if he has to do so much in order to extend Wade’s career and have him in better shape for the playoffs. ... Quickly becoming a Gregg Popovich favorite, Marco Belinelli has replaced Danny Green in the starting lineup while averaging 10 points in 22 minutes and shooting 49 percent on threes. ... There are many terrific stories with the surprise Suns, perhaps none more than Miles Plumlee with last week 17 and 20 against the Lakers and 22 and 13 against the 76ers, both wins. He’s averaging 10.2 points and 10.2 rebounds in December. ... Congratulations to good guy and great, great shooter Kyle Korver, who extended his NBA record Sunday with a three in his 100th consecutive game. It’s a remarkable record. Korver and the Hawks will be in Chicago Saturday and Korver says he sees some of the 2010-11 Bulls in the Hawks as he told reporters: "I think Thibs came in and completely changed the culture, like, from Day 1, it was a whole new everything. And Bud (Mike Budenholzer) has done the same thing. He is probably a little more laid back with it, just because his personality is a little more laid back. But I think the culture is changing here as well. In Chicago, we obviously had Derrick (Rose) and he had an amazing year. But we had a lot of good pieces that fit together. We didn't get a Big Three in Chicago; we don't have a Big Three here. But in Chicago, we played such good team basketball and played good defense, and we're trying to use a lot of the same things here. We have a lot of really good pieces. We don't have a Big Three. But we have a couple of guys who should be All-Stars this year. They are playing really good basketball."

-- The Pacers’ Lance Stephenson has leaped to the front of the Most Improved derby and is LeBron-esque the last three games with his third triple double of the season and averaging 20.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists. He also raised the specter of Antoine Walker with a shimmy dance after a crossover move that dropped Courtney Lee to his knees. It’s that street ball game that had held back Stephenson, but Pacers coach Frank Vogel said Stephenson heard about the dance from him and won’t be doing that again. The free agent making $1 million could be one of the bigger names of the offseason off his play thus far. ... Call Paul Millsap the Andre Miller of forwards. The Hawks “big man” remains one of the game’s most underrated. Despite being maybe 6-5 or 6-6, he is averaging 21.8 points and 10.2 rebounds the last five games and 19.8 points and 10.8 rebounds for December for the Hawks and averaging about 42 minutes per game the last four as he becomes their leader with Al Horford likely out for the season. ... The Raptors are now 6-2 since trading Rudy Gay, who has become this era’s Orlando Woolridge. Woolridge, the Bulls No. 1 draft pick in 1981, was a very nice guy, a high scoring, frequent shooter not much enamored of defense or passing. The first three times Woolridge was traded the team he left got better and the team he went to became worse. Rudy’s a likeable guy, but on that track. As the Toronto Star wrote last week: “The tank’s off.” That was supposed to be the plan when they traded Gay. But they’ve “surged” to the top of the Atlantic Division with the toughest part of their schedule behind them (only four more Western Conference road games and two against winning teams). The preseason “plan” supposedly was to get in position to draft Canadian Andrew Wiggins. But not having made the playoffs since 2007-08, the view is the fan base would no longer accept giving up a potential division title for a maybe one in 10 shot for an undeveloped teenaged prospect.

-- Deron Williams is having by far his poorest statistical season since his rookie year and being benched in fourth quarters. Jason Terry as well. Though Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are having their poorest ever seasons. And Brook Lopez is out for the year injured. Sure sounds like the coach’s fault. Former Bulls assistant Jim Sann is now working as one of Jason Kidd’s top assistants. Sann is regarded as a top strategist. ... Former Bulls assistant Ron Adams is back in the United Center Thursday with the surprising Celtics, just a game behind Toronto for the division lead when they also were supposed to be “tanking.” ... In an era of injuries, the 76ers Evan Turner is becoming one of the league’s iron men. When he sat out Saturday with a minor knee issue it was just his sixth game missed in four years. ... It was the second time this season Saturday Josh Smith was benched the second half for indifferent play. Of course, many wonder how come just twice. Smith complained to reporters this time. Disrespected, of course. But if you are benched by the mild mannered and player first Mo Cheeks, believe it’s a very recurring pattern.

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