Western Conference Power Rankings: A Closer Look

Here at Saving The Skyhook we run a weekly NBA Power Rankings which details the ups and downs of the NBA season week by week. I’m taking it upon myself to take a more in depth look at the landscape of the NBA, and forecast not just what is going on in the present, but also to assess what may happen later on down the road this season. Today I will be going over the Western Conference picture, and next weekend it will be the Eastern Conference up for evaluation.

15: Sacramento Kings
Fun Fact:
This isn’t so much a fun fact, more of a fun thought, but who do you think Jimmer Fredette is hanging out with on this Kings team? Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I just can’t see the Jimmer having too much in common with DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans or John Salmons outside of being a professional basketball player.
Not-so-fun fact: The Kings best player, DeMarcus Cousins, has been suspended three times this year. Once for confronting San Antonio Spurs announcer Sean Elliott in “a hostile manner”, again for punching Dallas Mavericks guard OJ Mayo below the belt, and most recently for “unprofessional behavior and conduct detrimental to the team.” All signs point to the #5 pick in the 2010 Draft being moved before the February 21st trade deadline.
Overall Position: When I look at this roster I can’t help but shake my head and think, “What moron thought it would be a good idea to put this collection of basketball players on the same team and expect it to work out?”  Former two-time NBA Executive of the Year Geoff Petrie is that moron. Good lord, there isn’t a single player on this team who could even pretend to enjoy distributing the ball. The leading assist man for Sacramento is small forward John Salmons, who is averaging a depressing 3.4 assists per game. I suppose this makes sense considering the Kings have someone acquired four of the most notorious shoot-first point guards coming out of college over the last five years or so (Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas, Aaron Brooks, and Jimmer Fredette, who combined are producing just 10 assists per game). I can only imagine that Sacramento’s practices resemble a fifth grade basketball team’s practice, where little kids are yelling at each other as their running down the court because they don’t think they get to shoot enough.

14: New Orleans Hornets
Fun fact: Eric Gordon is back for the Hornets after missing the first 29 games of the season. Even though in his first two games this year he’s understandably looked a bit rusty (17.5 points per game on 33% shooting), Gordon’s presence should be enough to elevate the Hornets a bit.
Not-so-fun fact: Thanks to the luck of the draft lottery (or David Stern, depending on what you want to believe), New Orleans landed the first and tenth picks of the 2012 Draft and selected consensus National Player of the Year Anthony Davis, and Duke University standout Austin Rivers. It seemed as if the pieces would be in place for New Orleans to make a sleeper run toward the playoffs, but Stern couldn’t rig how healthy Anthony Davis how stay, and how well Austin Rivers would play. Davis has looked great (14.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2 blocks per game), but only played in 19 games thanks to a concussion and an ankle injury. Rivers on the other hand has had a bafflingly poor season thus far by any statistical measure you could find (7.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 34% shooting).
Overall Position: New Orleans isn’t ready yet, and in some ways it’s no fault of their own except their inability to stay completely healthy. With Eric Gordon in the picture all season, and a totally healthy Anthony Davis, New Orleans most likely wouldn’t be sitting at 7-25. But you can only play the hand you’re dealt. It will be interesting to see if David Stern expands the playoffs to all 15 teams per conference and rehires Tim Donaghy to officiate all New Orleans playoff games.

13: Phoenix Suns
Fun fact: Anyone who placed a “Michael Beasley will be a bust in five years” bet, you can now collect your winnings and your license to become a certified fortune teller. This isn’t a fun fact for the Suns, or especially Michael Beasley, but I’m trying to give the audience some love too.
Not-so-fun fact: The Steve Nash effect is indeed real, and without the presence of the bionic Canadian the Suns as a whole, and just about every Suns player who was there with Nash last season has taken a step backwards. Marcin Gortat averaged career highs in both points (15.4 on 56% shooting) and rebounds (10.0) last season, both of which have dropped this season (11.3 points, 8.6 rebounds). The same can be said of Jared Dudley who was the Suns second leading scorer last season.
Overall Position: The collection of players that Phoenix brought in this year (Beasley, Scola, Dragic, O’Neal) haven’t really panned out to the level that Suns fans hoped they would. Dragic has had a noteworthy season so far, but has nowhere near the impact on a team as his predecessor Steve Nash did. The Suns will have to adjust to being relatively irrelevant for the first time since before Steve Nash arrived.

12: Dallas Mavericks
Fun fact:
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that O.J. Mayo is having so much success this year. His first two seasons in Memphis were very similar statistically to the one he’s in the midst of now. Mayo will likely never be mistaken for a superstar caliber player, but his play this year has at least slightly eased the pain of Dallas failing to land one of those big name free agents last summer.
Not-so-fun fact: Has there ever been a quicker disappearance by a former NBA Finals MVP than Dirk Nowitzki? It was going to be tough for Dallas to make a dent historically regardless considering they were a team that got hot at the right time, and Dirk has always been a bit of an under the radar superstar anyway, but the lack of title defense and Dirk’s vanishing act hasn’t really helped their cause either. Dirk eviscerated the Miami Big Three in the Finals and also outdueled Kobe and Kevin Durant in the previous two rounds. Dallas won their first ever NBA Title in surprising and convincing fashion and then… well, last year they got swept in the first round, and this year they are 13-20. Dirk came into the lockout shortened 11-12 season admittedly out of shape, and this year had a knee surgery that sidelined him for the first 27 games of the season. Dirk’s 2011 postseason doesn’t even feel like a distant memory; it sort of feels like a dream. But to prove to you it happened, check out this video which show’s Dirk Nowitzki’s basketball mastery.
Overall Position: The pieces aren’t in place for Dallas to make a postseason run. Even if Dirk can get back to reasonable form, it’s difficult to imagine Dallas making a run towards the playoffs in a very deep Western Conference.

11: Utah Jazz
Fun fact: Utah has a trio of under-30 big men that are averaging a combined 40.6 points and 23.8 rebounds per game. That’s a lot to like, right? Well, here comes the bad news…
Not-so-fun fact: That trio will be broken up by this summer, and most likely by the trade deadline in February. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are both free agents this summer, and all signs point to Utah dealing one of the two by the trade deadline as a way to clear up cap space and give the third member of the trio, Derrick Favors, more minutes. If Utah can swing a deal that can land them some much needed perimeter help, then I can understand that. But if it ends up being a deal that focuses solely on cap space, I’ll remain skeptical.
Overall Position: Utah’s home court remains a tough place to win, but will it even matter? Can Utah remain in the playoff picture after trading one of their two best players? As I said before, I’m skeptical. Utah doesn’t have the kind of playmaking guards necessary to be taken too seriously. And if it’s Jefferson moved and not Millsap, Utah will fall out of the playoff picture.

10: Portland Trail Blazers
Fun fact: Be aware that there is a huge “but” coming up. The Trail Blazers starting five is really fun to watch, and one of the most effective starting units in the league. The two pieces most people were sure of coming into the season were Damian Lillard, who has been as good as advertised and LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a typical Aldridge season (21 points, 8 rebounds per game). The rest of the starting line-up is filled out with J.J. Hickson (3rd in the league with 18 double-doubles), Nicolas Batum (having his best statistical season so far, clearly riding the momentum he built over the summer when he punched J.C. Navarro in his Spanish family jewels) and Wesley Matthews (doing Wesley Matthews things like spacing the floor and making open three’s). It seems like all things are great in Portland, BUT…
Not-so-fun fact: The Trail Blazers bench is headlined by Meyers Leonard, Luke Babbitt, Ronnie Price, Victor Claver and Sasha Pavlovic. For the sake of Trail Blazers fans I wish that I was making a joke, but unfortunately I’m not. I should’ve changed this from “Not-so-fun fact” to “Downright depressing fact.” This becomes more startling when you notice that rookie big man Meyers Leonard is the only bench player who is shooting better than 38% from the field and averaging more than 4.5 points per game.
Overall Position: It’s really hard to imagine Portland making the playoffs with a bench that is so incredibly unproductive, especially when you consider the amount of depth that some teams have that are ahead of Portland in these power rankings.

9: Minnesota Timberwolves
Fun fact: No team has been more banged up than Minnesota this year. I don’t know if you could even make a case for anyone else. Kevin Love missed a good chunk of time, Ricky Rubio is just coming back from a torn ACL, and the Wolves have already lost Chase Budinger and Brandon Roy for the rest of the year. How exactly does this constitute as a fun fact? Well, Minnesota is currently in 8th place in the Western Conference, despite missing so many key ingredients from what is a very interesting roster.
Not-so-fun fact: The fun fact in this case doubles as the not-so-fun fact. Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger are both done, Kevin Love re-injured his right hand, and Ricky Rubio seems to be miles from 100% right now. Still, the Wolves continue to win and remain a game over .500. But there is hardly any doubt that this can’t last if Kevin Love misses any kind of time.
Overall Position:When completely healthy, the Timberwolves are a very intriguing Western Conference contender. The problem is, we won’t see that this year, and if a turnaround doesn’t come quick, we may never see it. Kevin Love hasn’t shied away from voicing his frustrations about the direction this team is going. If Minnesota doesn’t win soon, Love may be on his way out in the summer of 2015.

Dec 26, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) and Minnesota Timberwolves point guard J.J. Barea (11) dive for a loose ball in the fourth quarter at Target Center. Rockets won 87-84. Mandatory Credit: Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

8: Houston Rockets
Fun fact:
James Harden’s hot start to the season seemed to be an aberration after he cooled down as the season progressed into early December, but the best beard in the NBA is back to MVP caliber form once again, scoring at least 25 points in the Rockets last 10 games. Not only has Harden been extremely efficient in this streak, shooting 48% from the field and making 106 out of 122 free throws (87 percent). Right now it doesn’t look like there is a clear winner in the James Harden trade. Oklahoma City is playing at an extremely high level, but James Harden appears to be the superstar caliber of player that the Rockets expected him to be. The rest of the Rockets supporting cast has actually exceeded my expectations so far this year, and I’m not just talking about Linsanity. Omer Asik, Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons have performed tremendously well this season, chipping in an additional 38 points and 23 rebounds. Houston is young and hungry.
Not-so-fun fact: With youth comes inexperience, and in particular, inexperience on James Harden’s part when it comes to leading a team. I have been a huge fan of James Harden and his beard for a while now. My initial reaction to the Oklahoma City trade was that they made a big mistake. I, and many others, thought that James Harden was the stabilizing influence on that Thunder roster. Often times when Durant wouldn’t be taking it to the basket and Westbrook was being a maniac, it was Harden who controlled the offense, got everyone easy shots AND got to the free throw line… seemingly more times than anyone in the fourth quarter last year. I don’t think that anyone can question Harden’s ability to perform like “the man” in Houston. He’s averaging 26.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Did anyone really expect that? And by the way, why isn’t Harden in any MVP discussions? But here is the catch: Can Harden keep it up at this level in the playoffs, when he doesn’t have the luxury of playing with two of the best perimeter players in the world? That’s my worry as a James Harden fan. And don’t let this be mistaken for me “hating” on James Harden. I’m not saying he’s tried and failed at this… all I’m saying is we have no idea if Houston, and Harden, can succeed with all eyes on him.
Overall Position: I certainly hope Houston stays in the playoff picture. Harden, along with a very intriguing young roster make for very entertaining basketball, even if their isolation offense does seem a bit gimmicky at times. Nothing would excite me more than a Houston/Oklahoma City series in the first round, with Harden having a chance at redemption against his former team.

7: Los Angeles Lakers:
Fun fact:
It’s been mentioned by countless analysts and experts, but maybe not emphasized enough because of the Lakers overall record 15-16, that Kobe Bryant is having an unbelievable year even by the incredibly high standards we hold the Black Mamba to. The 34 year old seventeen-year pro is averaging 30 points per game for the season on career best 48% shooting. Anyone who believed that Kobe was past the stage in his career where he could be doing this on a nightly basis is already back at the drawing board figuring out what went wrong, and how someone who has played over 50,000 regular season and postseason minutes is giving father time a battle for the ages. Kobe’s 2012-13 campaign has been strong enough to warrant MVP talk, but he will fall short of his second MVP trophy if the Lakers can’t turn it around. But that is where the problem lies.
Not-so-fun fact: Kobe’s unbelievable start hasn’t really rubbed off on the rest of the Lakers roster, which has been an overall disappointment in comparison to most people’s expectations before the season. After Oklahoma City traded James Harden immediately before the season, most analysts quickly penciled in a Miami/Los Angeles NBA Finals matchup, and really, I have no room to criticize since I did the same exact thing. I overlooked every potential speed bump the Lakers could encounter, just like every analyst did: the coach (now fired), the old age (Kobe acknowledge it as a problem), the injury potential (Nash has missed all but seven games, Pau has been banged up and Dwight doesn’t look completely healthy after back surgery over the summer), the lack of a bench (not quite as deep as everyone expected), and the potential for Kobe to blow up on everyone (the odds of this happening are increasing with every Lakers loss). We’ve seen the one man Kobe show in Los Angeles before, and it didn’t get the Lakers past the first round. The story will remain the same if the rest of the “stars” in Los Angeles don’t start playing up to that label.
Overall Position: Despite all of those speed bumps that the Lakers are hitting, and it seems like they are hitting every single one, I can’t drop the Lakers any lower than seventh in the rankings. Why? There is too much experience, too much size and too much Kobe to make me think that the Lakers won’t make the playoffs and won’t give a serious scare to any team they play in the first round. Sure, right now they look like a mess, but who is the more dangerous team in April; Los Angeles or any of the previous four teams in the rankings?

Jan 1, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets small forward Kenneth Faried (35) reacts to a call in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

6: Denver Nuggets
Fun fact:
Thanks to the scheduling Gods, the Nuggets will be playing 29 out of their last 48 games at home, where they are 10-2 so far this year. How it’s this lopsided I’m not sure, but this little nugget (pun intended) has to make Nuggets fans and season ticket holders excited for 2013.
Not-so-fun fact: Andre Iguodala didn’t get the memo that after you play for Team USA at the Olympics you’re supposed to have a breakout season, not your worst statistical season since your second year in the league. Admittedly, I was way off on Iguodala this year. I fully expected Iggy to put together something like a 20-6-6 season in Denver’s fast pace offense, but I was quite wrong. Rather than elevating his game and becoming the man for Denver, Iguodala has simply fallen in place with the rest of the roster which doesn’t boast a nightly go-to-guy, which may be troubling come playoff time.
Overall Position: Denver gave the Lakers all they could handle last year in the first round, and are probably a better team this year. With 29 home games left compared to 19 road games, the Nuggets have an outside chance of hosting a first round series in the playoffs as long as they continue to win at home at the same rate they have so far this season. Iguodala may not be having the offensive explosion some may have expected, but the Nuggets are ten players deep and have six players averaging at least ten points.

5: Memphis Grizzlies
Fun fact: Memphis is right back to where they want to be: flying under the radar. Despite having the fourth best record in the jam-packed Western Conference, the Grizzlies have managed to avoid any kind of talk of a title run, unlike last year where they were the sexy pick to make it to the NBA Finals, but failed to make it out of round one. Now with everyone focused on the Clippers win streak, the Thunder in the post-beard era, all of the Laker drama, Golden State’s surprise season and Gregg Popovich doing typical Gregg Popovich things, Memphis is just grinding out wins and doing so without too many people noticing. What I’ve noticed is Zach Randolph back in Z-Bo form (a league leading 22 double-doubles), Marc Gasol playing brilliant all-around basketball, and the team as a whole playing top-five level defense.
Not-so-fun fact: The problem with Memphis the previous two years was that they didn’t go into the playoffs, or play throughout the season completely healthy. In 2011 Rudy Gay was sidelined with a left shoulder injury, and in 2012 Zach Randolph missed a good chunk of time with a MCL tear, and wasn’t totally the same in the postseason. Assuming Memphis enters the postseason healthy, it will be the first time in this recent run of success. However, they will be entering with a less experienced bench than in years past. Shane Battier, OJ Mayo, and Greivis Vasquez are out of the picture, and Memphis will need to rely on Dante Cunningham, Wayne Ellington, Marreese Speights, Jerryd Ellington and Quincy Pondexter for production.
Overall Position: I’m not going to hop off the Grizzlies bandwagon just yet. If those five bench players can give Memphis good production in the postseason, then the Grizzlies are poised to make another postseason run. Without that production, it may end up another disappointing season in Memphis.

4: Golden State Warriors
Fun fact:
I called this. I usually don’t like to brag, but I pegged the Warriors making the playoffs this year, and if anything I still managed to underrate them. I picked the Warriors to go 43-39 before the season, grab the 8 seed in the West and for Mark Jackson to win Coach of the Year. Right now the Warriors are only 2.5 games back of the top spot in the Western Conference, baffling for most people who are accustomed to seeing Golden State towards the bottom of the standings, not the top. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Golden State is here though. They’ve done just about everything a team needs to do to go from laughing stock of the NBA to “Whoa, we DEFINITELY don’t want to play them in the first round.” In the last four years, Golden State has selected five rotation players  (Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Ezeli, Green) and made some under the radar free agency pick-ups and trades, including signing David Lee in the much ballyhooed free agency summer of 2010, trading Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut (not that Bogut has done much, well really anything, but getting rid of Monta Ellis was vital), signing Carl Landry and trading for Jarrett Jack. Right there is the 9 man rotation that Golden State will go to war with this postseason. Plus, the Warriors hired a coach that has changed the culture of this organization. This Warriors team plays defense, rebounds the ball and makes extra passes (with the exception of Klay Thompson on this one), something that NBA fans are not used to seeing from Warriors teams of the recent past. Get used to it.
Not-so-fun fact: Frankly, there aren’t too many “not-so-fun facts” about the Dubs. The only possible problem I can foresee other than injuries, is one that I mentioned when talking about Houston. With such a lack of playoff experience on this roster, who steps up big in the postseason? The luxury that Golden State has that Houston doesn’t is that the Warriors have more guys capable of taking the metaphorical conch in that situation than the Rockets do. In Houston, I’d only rely on Harden. Golden State could easily rely on Curry or David Lee, and I wouldn’t even feel too uncomfortable with Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry leading the way down the stretch. But there is still the giant question mark surrounding the unknown.
Overall Position: Get ready to be living in a world where Golden State is making noise in the postseason. That’s my final warning.

3: San Antonio Spurs
2: Los Angeles Clippers
1: Oklahoma City Thunder

I’m ditching the previous format for the final three teams since these are the only three in the Western Conference that I could see myself picking to make the NBA Finals at this point in the season. Here is the fun fact for NBA fans… for the next three and a half months, we’ll get to watch these three teams play brilliant basketball. In the calendar year of 2012 we saw the following: San Antonio go on a run where they won 47 out of 54 games from January 30th to May 29th, Oklahoma City end that streak by winning four straight games against San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals (which also caused everybody on earth to give the Thunder the next ten NBA Championships), and this season we saw the Clippers win 17 straight games, 12 of which were by double digits. To think that from now until late April these three teams won’t be on a dead sprint for that number one seed would be foolish. Sit back, relax and enjoy. It’s going to be a fun ride.