Pre All-Star Report Cards: Western Conference


For the casual NBA fan, All-Star Weekend season is the perfect time to catch up to the happenings of the league and gear up for the playoffs right around the corner.  planetfomo.com is here to help! Grades are based on our reasonable (as we always are) preseason expectations.  You wouldn’t give a four-year-old and an eighteen-year-old the same math test in the same way you wouldn’t put the Atlanta Hawks and the Golden State Warriors on the same grading curve.  Now that we’ve got that straightened out, LET’S GET IT STARTED!


Dallas Mavericks

Current Record: 26-30  Conference Standing: 11th

Spencer:  WIth The Burp King of Westchester, Bill Simmons, and others have mentioned the Mavericks as sneaky picks to “possibly” (hedging) make the western conference playoffs.  If anyone of note had made such predictions last June, we would have kicked them out the bunker. Coach Carlisle has taken the roster and as successfully as possible fit them around the skillset of Luka Doncic.  Players like Maxi Kleber and JJ Barea are performing above and beyond their expectations overall.  

The minus mark is only for the fact that Dennis Smith Jr. (judging by the eye test as well as advanced stats) was not quite able to find his role and mesh alongside Doncic.  Rick Carlisle has a history of just not playing nice with certain players and Smith’s self-imposed exile was an even more embarrassing mess for the team than the Rajon Rondo fiasco.  Grade: B-

Sean: Luka Doncic. The former EuroLeague star’s evolution from heralded rookie to elite-level passer and burgeoning star has obscured many of the Mavericks’ issues.

Dallas is 26th in turnover ratio (13.6), tied for 18th in effective field goal percentage (52.0) and 20th in offensive efficiency (106.1).

That all being said, none of us predicted the Mavericks to surpass their Vegas win total of 34.5, and they have 26 wins 55 games into the season. That demonstrates the value of Luka and coach Jim Carrey Rick Carlisle.  Grade: B-

JimCarlisle


Denver Nuggets
Current Record: 38-18  Conference Standing: 2nd

Spencer:  It would take a major breakdown for the scoring juggernaut Nuggets to lose homecourt advantage and Jokic deserves to at least be in the MVP discussion.  While the Nuggets bench and depth are a bit overrated, and their defense will likely waiver in the playoffs, the team as a whole has exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Grade: A

Sean: The Nuggets have one of the best records in the Western Conference despite dealing with injuries to key players. Nikola Jokic is in the conversation for greatest passing big man in NBA history. I’m pleased to see Mike Malone have success in Denver after being fired prematurely – at least in my opinion – in Sacramento. Grade: A+

Golden State Warriors
Current Record: 40-15  Conference Standing: 1st

Spencer:  There’s been a lot of drama this season.  Draymond Green’s inability and unwillingness to shoot threes has been the talk of the town.  Klay Thompson has had some serious shooting lows, especially at the beginning of the season. Steph Curry has missed about 10 games due to injury.  All that being said they still have the number one offensive rating in the league and the second seed in the west as I write this. The media acts concerned about whether or not the Warriors have lost their edge every season, and manufactures new flaws with the team play.  Chill out. The Warriors will be fine. Grade: B

Sean: Inconsistent performances by Draymond Green and Klay Thompson have colored our analysis of the Warriors through the first half of the season. Despite Green and Thompson’s struggles, Golden State is 40-15 and in the driver’s seat for yet another one seed in the West. And DeMarcus Cousins has only played 10 games. Grade: B+

Houston Rockets
Current Record:  33-25  Conference Standing: 5th

Spencer: After a rocky start with Harden starting the season possibly out of shape, he and the team have been on a serious tear.  If they had their shit together like this in November, they would be first place in the west right now. Now, Harden hits more step-back threes than entire teams and incredibly he hits them at an around a 40% rate. Dealing with Capela’s injury will be a true test for them moving forward.  Grade:  B

Sean: After going 11-14 to begin the season, the Rockets have gone 22-9 over the past 31 games, leaving them in a virtual tie with the Portland Trail Blazers for 4th in the West. Chris Paul’s injury situation is concerning for the team in the aggregate, and Capela hasn’t played in a month. But Harden’s excellent play has allowed the Rockets to remain competitive despite injuries to Paul and Capela.  Grade: B
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LA Clippers
Current Record: 31-27  Conference Standing: 9th

Spencer:  For a team with no star, the Clippers are well-rounded and versatile.  Montrezl Harrell has the strongest argument for 6th man of the year and Doc Rivers will be in the coach of the year conversation if they finish with a playoff spot.  Rookie Shai GIlgeous-Alexander can be a little too passive at times but overall has great instincts and skill. Their offensive rating has dropped significantly since the beginning of the season but it’s more of a regress to the mean situation as opposed to a slump.  The team’s performance is certainly an appealing pitch for a max contract star this summer.  Grade: A

Sean: Heading into the 2018-19 season, the most interesting aspect of the Clippers’ roster was it malleability.

That is still true today, but the Clippers also deserve a lot of credit for hanging tough and remaining competitive in a stacked Western Conference. And they’re doing so without a top 15 player. Los Angeles is hovering around the top 10 in offensive efficiency (108.7). Grade: A

Los Angeles Lakers
Current Record: 28-28  Conference Standing: 10th

Spencer:  In January 2018, the Lakers went on a 10 game losing streak immediately after a Lonzo Ball injury, then pulled it together for a strong post-All Star Weekend finish.  In January 2019, LeBron James’ injury has had a similarly devastating effect.  In year three, Brandon Ingram is still not the player to rely on to lead a team to wins.  This is true even when facing lower-tier teams like the Cavaliers, Knicks, and Nets.

Kuzma is a great scorer but needs to complete his game with better playmaking and defense.  Ball is only aggressive and assertive in short spurts and easily disappears for long stretches of games.  LeBron needed the young core to show growth and consistency this season, but they have been more of a disappointment for Laker Nation.  Can the team pull it together and get back in playoff position?  Grade: D+

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Sean: The Lakers have managed to remain within 1.5 games of the 8th spot in the West after losing LeBron for 17 games. But the front office barely improved their roster at the trade deadline, making their thinning chances of reaching the playoffs even slighter.

Many fans and analysts were optimistic that the Lakers would finish as one of the top seeds in the West before the season began, but the team added a supporting cast in the offseason that few argued was ideal for LeBron, and the pre-James roster was fairly inexperienced.

With all that in mind, I’m probably a bit more bullish on the team’s first-half performance than others. Grade: C+

Memphis Grizzlies
Current Record: 23-34  Conference Standing: 14th

Spencer:  The common refrain from Grizzlies writers and league commentators has been that coach Bickerstaff should play 4th overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. more late in games even if it means his rookie mistakes cost them a few wins.  It’s hard to disagree. In the insanely competitive western conference the Grizzlies are unlikely to make a huge run and at some point, they need to start building for the future. On top of that, Bickerstaff has put out some odd lineups and we’ve seen reports of player on player skirmishes.  The Grizzlies players have exceeded expectations on the court but the coaching has been questionable at best.  Grade: C-

Sean: To me, the Grizzlies are one of the harder teams to grade. Marc Gasol’s performance fluctuated greatly game-to-game before being traded, and Chandler Parsons’ continuing injury issues have left the team in a tough position once again. Memphis also plays in the terrordome that is the Western Conference.

The team is also in the awkward position of giving Jackson ample opportunities – including in late-game situations – while also trying to remain at least competitive enough that the Memphis area continues to tune into, and show up at, their games.

With all these factors in mind, I give the Grizzlies a passing grade – but only barely.

Grade: C-


Minnesota Timberwolves
Current Record: 26-30 Conference Standing: 12th

Spencer:  The way Thibs and Timberwolves management handled the Jimmy Butler trade demand was incompetent, and then for the front office to wait until after Butler and right after some impressive wins to fire Thibs was terrible timing.  Since the Butler trade, the Wolves look like fun “everybody eats” style team. However, Dario Saric is still being misused and Wiggins is still a huge disappointment. There’s a lot of work the team needs to do to build a modern offense around Karl Anthony-Towns.  Grade: F

Sean: The Timberwolves put on a master class in dysfunction to begin the season, and things have barely improved with the exits of Jimmy Butler and anti-rest evangelist Tom Thibodeau.  

Andrew Wiggins refuses to do anything besides take terrible 2-pointers that throw off the team’s offensive rhythm, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ dream in life appears to be to never shoot. If he were playing with four Danny DeVitos, KAT would view himself as the 5th option.

It’s tough to be excited about the Timberwolves’ future without the team’s star players changing their playing styles fairly dramatically. I feel for Minnesota fans.
Grade: F

OKC Thunder
Current Record: 37-19 Conference Standing: 3rd

Spencer:  Paul Goerge’s performance this year puts him in the MVP award conversation and Sam Adams is an Allstar caliber player.  WIth his shooting woes, Westbrook needs to bend a more towards being a distributor for the team. With their defense (top three net rating in the league), size, rebounding (top three in the league) and apparent scoring power, next to the Rockets they have the best chance to defeat the Warriors in the playoffs.  Grade: A-  

Sean: The Thunder are intriguing.

Oklahoma City is 3rd in defensive efficiency (103.2), tied for 6th in rebound rate (51.5) and 6th in turnover ratio (12.0).

Russell Westbrook somehow is on pace to average a triple-double for the third consecutive season. Paul George is an MVP candidate, and the team’s supporting cast is athletic and long.

The Thunder’s shooting struggles will likely derail them during the postseason. They’re 19th in effective field goal percentage (52.0) – the worst among the top eight teams in the West – and there seems to be no end in sight to Westbrook’s uncanny shooting slump.

But I’m looking ahead. The pre-All-Star break Thunder have exceeded expectations and are playing as well as one could expect. Grade: A-

New Orleans Pelicans
Current Record: 25-32  Conference Standing: 13th

Spencer:  Starting point guard Elfrid Payton missed about 30 games earlier in the season and will now miss about another 10. but when on the floor he’s been a solid compliment to Anthony Davis.  Outside of Anthony Davis, this team lacks a lot of talent, but they’re more talented than their record. Davis is again putting up big stats this season while still losing games. Conversations are popping up about whether or not Davis is just stat padding without an impact on winning. We’ll see how true that is once he’s played a bit for his next team.  Grade: D-

Sean: While Jrue Holiday is still on the team, Elfrid Payton appears to have supplanted Lauren Holiday’s husband as the Pelicans’ point guard who misses extended time.

New Orleans is 25th in defensive efficiency (109.9) – but tied for 7th in offensive efficiency (110.5), even with Anthony Davis missing 14 games. That is a testament to Alvin Gentry – a very solid coach who has very little with which to work. Sure, Davis is a star, but after Holiday – and Nikola Mirotic, before he was traded – the Pelicans want for talent.

Now that owner Gayle Benson and general manager Dell Demps have rebuffed a trade package featuring every non-LeBron Laker and each of Los Angeles’ draft picks for the next century for The Brow, the most intriguing aspect of the Pelicans will be seeing how the franchise handles AD’s playing time. Grade: D-

Phoenix Suns
Current Record: 11-47  Conference Standing: LAST

Spencer: Shout out to the only team in the Western Conference who started tanking promptly, prudently and properly this season. Grade: A+

IMG_2762 Suns.jpg

Sean: The Suns are a game back of the Knicks for the worst record in the NBA and rank near the bottom of the league in both offensive (102.4) and defensive efficiency (111.6). While Deandre Ayton has improved since the beginning of the season – when he was about as good at defending the pick-and-roll and opposing big mans as I would be – Phoenix is one of the members of the Probably Should Have Drafted Luka Club (PSHDLC). The discrepancy between the former University of Arizona standout and Doncic could grow even greater in the future, but only time will tell.

That being said, there are reasons to be optimistic about this team’s development. Noted gunner Devin Booker has improved his playmaking skills – forced to handle the ball and initiate the team’s offense as the Suns lack a true point guard. And in addition to Ayton, Mikal Bridges has surged of late, posting a career-high 20 points in a Feb. 2 loss to the Hawks – another member of the PSHDLC (catchy, ain’t it?)  

These positives, along with the team’s lowly preseason expectations, are enough for me to put Phoenix right on the cusp of a passing grade. Grade: D+

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Portland Trail Blazers
Current Record: 33-23 Conference Standing: 4th

Spencer:  This team turned out to be exactly who we thought they would be.  They have more or less the same roster along with the same offensive and defensive schemes.  They let Napier walk in the offseason and replaced him with Seth Curry to play the same role.  They’re on track for yet another early playoff exit, which is what I expected.
Grade: C

Sean: The Trail Blazers have certainly been inconsistent at times, but as projected playoff teams like the Timberwolves and Lakers have struggled, Portland has remained steady.

The team has been mediocre against the Western Conference (19-19) and in 3-point games (3-5), but the squad from the Pacific Northwest has handled business when it should, going 17-7 against teams with sub-.500 records and 14-4 versus Eastern Conference foes.

All in all, Portland has had a pretty successful first half. Grade: B

Sacramento Kings
Current Record: 30-26 Conference Standing: 8th

Spencer:  Before the season started I predicted the Kings would finish the season under 26 wins.  Halfway through the season, they’ve already surpassed that and this is the team’s first time with an over .500 record halfway through the season since 2005.  D’Aaron Fox has proven to be a great young leader and future all-star. The Kings offense is built around his best strength which is his speed.
Grade: A

Sean: Spencer, Marvin and I all predicted that the Kings would fall short of their projected Vegas win total of 26. They surpassed it in just 52 games.

Sacramento is about middle of the pack in offensive (107.5) and defensive efficiency (107.8), which is pretty good considering their young roster.

De’Aaron Fox, the 5th overall pick in the 2017 draft, has improved by leaps and bounds in his second season. The University of Kentucky product has raised his 3-point percentage from 30.7 percent to 36.4 percent – an area of Fox’s game that his detractors often harped on ahead of the draft. Fox is also averaging nearly twice as many assists in Year 2 – 7.1 from 4.4 – while averaging just over three minutes more per game.

It would not be impossible for the Kings to beat out the Clippers and Lakers for the 8th seed. Grade: A

San Antonio Spurs
Current Record: 32-26  Conference Standing: 7th

Spencer:  Popovich is doing a lot with a little.  The team’s shot selection is impeccable. They have the lowest three-point attempts in the league but the highest three-point shooting percentage in the league at an insane 40.6%.  They’re also top three in the league in FG% and the sure do take care of the ball with the fewest turnovers per game. All signs of great coaching.  Grade: B+

Sean: After trading away Danny Green and disgruntled superstar Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs and head coach Gregg Popovich remain solid and steady. San Antonio is currently 7th in the mighty, mighty West, and the team’s supporting cast is performing as well as can be expected.

LaMarcus Aldridge has improved slightly in his 2nd year with the team, which helps compensate for DeMar DeRozan’s reduced efficiency. The former Raptor’s true shooting percentage has dropped from 55.5 percent to 52.8 percent during his first year in the Lone Star State.

While the Spurs undoubtedly have loftier ambitions going forward, the team’s performance this year has been about as good as one could expect.Grade: B

Utah Jazz
Current Record: 32-24 Conference Standing: 6th

Spencer:  The hype was so extreme last season that any anything Utah was going to accomplish was going to be disappointing.  Mitchell’s play seems to be affected by a typical sophomore slump, a worse shot selection, as well as opposing teams implementing new schemes for him.  Coach Snyder’s Jazz have often made a huge improvement in the second half of the season and their schedule is going to be a little more forgiving.  Grade: C+

Sean: The Jazz appear to have righted the ship after starting out the season 9-12. Donovan Mitchell is putting up numbers at levels similar to those of his rookie year, albeit slightly less efficiently.

Led by Rudy Gobert, Utah is tied for 3rd in defensive efficiency (103.2). But the Jazz struggle offensively – they’re 19th in offensive efficiency (106.8) – and it’s hard not to view their failure to acquire Mike Conley as a chilling omen for the team’s chances of being the team that loses to the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Grade: B-

 Enjoy All-Star Weekend and come back next week for our Eastern Conference Grades!

 

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