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Tag:Utah Jazz
Posted on: February 29, 2012 2:15 pm
 

Jazz open to trading Harris and Miles?

Harris is getting shopped? (Getty Images)
Posted by Royce Young

For a moment there, the Utah Jazz looked to be the surprise story of the season. A hot start had them sitting in the top half of the West, which was stunning considering they essentially began a rebuild after trading Deron Williams.

They've come back to Earth some leveling at 15-18 after losing eight of their last 10, which means they could be looking to shake things up. Via the Salt Lake Tribune:
The Jazz remain open to moving starting point guard Devin Harris, league sources said, and reserve small forward C.J. Miles could be made available in the right situation. But Utah continues to take a long-term approach in building its team after the Deron Williams trade last February, and the Jazz won't make a move simply to pull the trigger.
Not exactly a new story as there was word of this in late January, but with the trade deadline approaching, it's certainly more meaningful. Behind Harris? Earl Watson. Behind him? Jamaal Tinsley. So it's not like the Jazz have a young point guard they've been grooming and want to work in.

But Harris hasn't been at all productive this season, averaging just 9.3 points and 4.6 assists per game. This is a one-time All-Star with the Nets, a guy that averaged 21.3 ppg in a season. And here he is as someone the Jazz would be open to move so they could give Earl Watson more playing time.

Still, you know who would probably love Harris? The Lakers. They desperately need point guard help and if they could offer up a first round pick or a young asset, the Jazz might jump at it. But Utah knows the Lakers are needy, which drives the price up.

As for Miles, he's certainly a player with a good amount of trade value. A big, strong defensive shooting guard that can hit from the outside. Playoff teams in search of help at 2-guard (Bulls, Clippers, Pacers) would likely be interested. But the Jazz are likely in the market for a solid draft pick or young asset in return.
Posted on: February 22, 2012 10:33 pm
Edited on: February 22, 2012 10:38 pm
 

Luke Ridnour game-winning buzzer-beater video

Posted by Ben Golliver

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Luke Ridnour hit a game-winning, buzzer-beating floater to defeat the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night at the Target Center.

With the score tied at 98 with seven seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Ridnour inbounded the ball to guard J.J. Barea, who eventually worked it back to Ridnour. Receiving the pass with only a few seconds left on the clock, Ridnour attacked the paint and lofted a right-handed floater over Jazz big man Al Jefferson.

The shot provided the winning margin, 100-98, and sent the Timberwolves bench into hysterics. Ridnour was mobbed by his teammates, including forward Anthony Tolliver, who lifted him into the air. Ridnour finished with 17 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds on the night. The win improved Minnesota's record to 17-17 entering the All-Star break.

Here's the video of Minnesota Timberwolves guard Luke Ridnour hitting a game-winning floater at the buzzer to defeat the Utah Jazz. 


Posted on: February 14, 2012 12:00 am
 

Report Card: LeBron gets ridiculous in Milwaukee

Posted by Royce Young

 LeBron had the kind of night where you mention him with Ewing, Barkley and Duncan. (Getty Images)

Each night, Eye on Basketball brings you what you need to know about the games of the NBA. From great performances to terrible clock management the report card evaluates and eviscerates the good, the bad, and the ugly from the night that was.

LeBron James
In 31 minutes, LeBron basically demolished the Milwaukee Bucks. That's what they get for beating the Heat twice this season, I guess. LeBron went for 35 points on 16-21 shooting with eight rebounds just for fun. As pointed out on Twitter, the only players to do that the last 20 years are Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing.
Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks continue to steadily climb the hill as they picked up a very nice win over the Clippers Monday. Dirk scored 22 but on 5-15 shooting. He did close the game especially well, which he tends to do. The Mavs though got a bit of everything from a lot of different parties -- Shawn Marion had 16, Vince Carter 10, Delonte West 10, Brendan Haywood 10. Not that anyone ever wrote the Mavs off, but now they're actually getting our attention again.
Chris Kaman
The big guy started for New Orleans and did his job putting up 27 points and 13 rebounds in a win over Utah. He was deactivated as the Hornets shopped him around so this does two things: Helps the Hornets win because a good player played well and increases his trade value. The Hornets probably prefer losses to help the lottery ball odds, but Kaman playing well is a very good thing for New Orleans.
Kenyon Martin Martin played his best game with his new team scoring 10 points in 26 minutes while adding four blocks. He's absolutely everything the Clippers need off the bench. He's a big, physical body and if he's in good shape, he'll probably be a 25-30 minute fixture in that rotation. 
Dwight Howard The Magic picked up a nice win over the Wolves, but it certainly wasn't because of Howard. He was in constant foul trouble which limited him to only 11 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes. And as for being a closer: He scored three points in the fourth on three shots. 
Charlotte Bobcats The Bobcats put up a fight against the 76ers, but as you might've assumed, lost. Why do you assume? Because that makes 15 in a row Charlotte has lost. 
Utah Jazz
Maybe the Jazz are coming back down to Earth. Another loss, with this one coming to the dreadful Hornets. Granted, it was the second night of a back-to-back and they won in Memphis the night before, but that's five of seven in the loss column for Utah, with this one being against a terrible team. You can't do that when you're trying to compete for a playoff spot in the West. 
Posted on: February 6, 2012 10:36 pm
 

Report Card: Jeremy Lin carries the Knicks

Posted by Royce Young

It's Linsanity in New York right now. (Getty Images)

It was a milestone kind of night in the NBA as the story was Kobe Bryant passing Shaquille O'Neal on the all-time scoring list, but a couple upsets, a couple overtime games and some big matchups were all part of a wild Monday night.

The New York Jeremy Lin's.

No Amar'e Stoudemire. No Carmelo Anthony, who went out with groin injury early in the first quarter. No problem for the Knicks against one of the West's good teams, the Utah Jazz. Behind a new career-high from Jeremy Lin who had 28 points and eight assists, also new career-high (but also eight turnovers, all in the second half), the Knicks were able to pull out an improbable win over a solid team. Jared Jeffries took five charges (!), Steve Novak randomly had 19 points and the Knicks got just enough from all over to win. This is maybe the type of game you can build on a bit. Backs against the wall and the role guys step up. Great win for the Knicks.

Philadelphia 76ers

Over the last seven days, the 76ers have taken down the Lakers Magic, Bulls and Hawks. I had them as a contender and the Sixers did a good job of making that call look pretty good. Lou Williams was terrific down the stretch against the Lakers Monday and the 76ers put away yet another good win. It's time to wake up about this team. These guys aren't just good. They're LEGIT.


Dwight Howard

Another tremendous game from Howard in a losing effort. It's a shame to see a guy go for 33 points and 14 rebounds in a losing effort, but the assertiveness from Howard was certainly nice to see. Howard took 21 shots, including 17 in the first half. Which moght then show you one of the issues the Magic tend to have -- getting the ball to Howard in key situations. It's not that he disappeared, he just wasn't near the offensive factor.

Kobe Bryant

Kobe passed Shaq on the all-time scoring list and did it in a very Kobe way. He needed 24 to pass Shaq and so he got 24 in the first half. The problem: Kobe finished with 28. He had just four points in the second half and shot 10-26 with five turnovers. A great night for Kobe in terms of history, but not a good night in terms of what transpired in his hometown Philly.


Utah Jazz

Yes, the Knicks winning is the story, but don't overlook the fact that the Jazz blew an easy opportunity to put another win on the board. No Stoudemire, no Melo and the Jazz let Novak, Lin and Shumpert beat them. That's not a good look for a team trying to battle for playoff positioning in the West.


New Jersey Nets

The Nets stink. They're bad. The Bulls probably could've beat them by 60 had Derrick Rose not left the game early with back spasms. The game was over very early as Chicago led 35-14 after a quarter and seemed to be ready to increase that every quarter. The final score, 108-87, doesn't really illustrate what a blowout this was.

Posted on: February 5, 2012 3:43 am
Edited on: February 7, 2012 6:29 am
 

Mike Brown suspended, fined after ref bump

Posted by Ben Golliver

Update 12:08 p.m. Monday, February 6th: Yahoo Sports reports that the NBA has suspended Lakers head coach Mike Brown for Monday's game against Philadelphia. The league subsequently announced Brown had been fined $25,000.

------------------------------

New Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown was very anti-zen during the fourth quarter of a loss to the Utah Jazz on Saturday night.

Brown completely lost his mind during an argument with referee Zach Zarba, earning himself an immediate ejection and potentially a fine and/or a suspension from the NBA league office.

The Los Angeles Times reports the details of Brown's meltdown and his comments after the incident.

The Lakers coach could face a suspension after appearing to bump referee Zach Zarba early in the fourth quarter of a 96-87 loss to Utah on Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena. Brown was upset after watching Utah guard Earl Watson mug Pau Gasol for a steal that led to a dunk by Derrick Favors with 8 minutes, 35 seconds left in the game. The Lakers coach bounded onto the court and received two technical fouls, resulting in his first ejection of the season.

Brown said he apologized to his team but did not think his actions resulted in the defeat.

"I shouldn't have done what I did because it put our team in a deeper hole than it was in," Brown said. "It's not good to do that. It's not setting a good example or setting the right tone for our team."

Lakers assistant John Kuester and forwards Matt Barnes and Metta World Peace had to restrain Brown during his argument with Zarba. Brown told the Times that he wasn't sure whether he had made contact with Zarba during the fracas. 

The Lakers next play on Monday against the 76ers in Philadelphia.

Here's the video of Mike Brown getting ejected for arguing a foul call and melting down gainst the Utah Jazz via YouTube user TheScrappyCocoz.

Skip ahead to the 2:55 mark.


Posted on: February 4, 2012 3:53 pm
Edited on: February 5, 2012 3:47 am
 

Jazz CEO trashes Karl Malone in blog post

Posted by Ben Golliver
Jazz CEO Greg Miller went off on Karl Malone on his blog. (Getty Images)

Things are getting really real in Utah.

This is a long, complicated and hyper-emotional soap opera, so I'll do my best to distill the key details.

Hall of Fame Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan abruptly retired during the middle of the 2010-2011 season after reportedly getting into a locker room argument with All-Star point guard Deron Williams. Everyone involved was really upset, given Sloan's long tenure as one of the most well-regarded coaches in the league. Williams was traded soon after to the New Jersey Nets.

As things unfolded, Hall of Fame Jazz forward Karl Malone rushed to the defense of Sloan and insinuated that the Jazz hadn't done right by Sloan. He later claimed in a Salt Lake Tribune column that the Jazz also had not offered him tickets to the first game of the post-Sloan era, forcing him to purchase scalped tickets for himself.

This particular claim totally set off Jazz CEO Greg Miller, who wrote on Twitter that Malone was "lying" and then doubled-down on his angst by penning a piercing 1375-word blog post in which he aired decades of grievances and family business. In his post, published on his blog GregInUtah.com, Miller calls Malone "high maintenance," "unreliable," "unstable," and said that he would be unfit to serve as a coach for the Jazz big men.

Miller provided a laundry list of Malone's alleged flakiness and then offered his take on the ticket scandal, writing that Malone was using the situation as a stage to lobby for a job with the Jazz.
A year ago, when Jerry retired, Karl rushed to Salt Lake City. He got in front of every camera he could find at the first game following Jerry’s departure. He positioned himself as an authority on Jerry’s departure by saying something like “the Jerry Sloan I know isn’t a quitter. He left because he didn’t feel wanted.” Karl wasn’t in the locker room during the conversations with me and Jerry. Had he been, he would have seen me (and my mom) do everything possible to convince Jerry to stay. By his own admission Karl hadn’t spoken to Jerry since Jerry left. Karl’s comments on the radio and on national television made an already stressful situation worse. Then in his next breath, on national television, Karl asked me to hire him as a coach.

These are just a few experiences I’ve had with Karl that clearly demonstrate that he can’t be counted on. I am not willing to invite the elements of unreliability and instability into the Jazz organization. It would obviously do more harm than good.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported Malone's response, which was essentially: "Oh yeah? Say it to my face."
"We’ve all become very brave when we’re tweeting, texting, blogging. We just write, press send. I don’t have time for that. Don’t tweet it, don’t blog it, don’t text it, give me a little human element. I’m in town two or three times a month. Until I see [Miller] face to face, there won’t be any more comment about Greg Miller. … He’ll see me again.
The paper also reported a statement from Sloan, which, as you would expect, was total class. Sloan said that the team had his back, tried to get him to stay on as coach and that the family conducts itself with integrity.

Meanwhile, Williams, who had been criticized by Malone, emerged as the smartest person in all of this, telling the Associated Press: "I don't respond to people who talk about themselves in the third person."

Miller would have done well to heed Williams' advice himself. Malone is a legend, sure, but he is human and his personality quirks are well-documented. Family business is family business, and ranting for paragraph after paragraph against a valued former employee is simply never the right move for any business owner. It's one of those ancient axioms: you can't defend your reputation by smearing someone else's. You might feel better after venting but your method will be remembered far longer than your words.

It won't be long until regret sinks in. An apology from Miller -- if not to Malone, then to fans of the team for his expression of emotion -- is the likely next chapter of this story.
Posted on: February 2, 2012 5:47 pm
Edited on: February 2, 2012 6:57 pm
 

The Power Forward Generation

Love and Griffin represent the next generation of All-Star forwards. How great can they be? (Getty Images)

By Matt Moore


How good is Blake Griffin? How good can he be?

Is Kevin Love one of those guys you're going to look back and remember when he had trouble getting on the floor in Minnesota and laugh? (Wait, he already is that guy. OK, more so?)

Why is it LaMarcus Aldridge has never been an All-Star, but Chris Kaman has?

Are these guys you can win a championship with? Are these guys legends? What is it we're witnessing, here?

All right, we're 75 words in and already miles ahead of ourselves. Let's back up and start where any discussion of the greatness of current NBA power forwards should start. With point guards.

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We're in the NBA's golden age of point guards. There have been amazing point guards before, and certainly great point guard eras. Jason Kidd, Kevin Johnson, Gary Payton, Isiah Thomas, and of course Magic Johnson, just to name a small handful. But the era we're currently in may top any before for overall talent. You have to go searching long and hard for a team without a quality starting point guard (as long as you're not starting with the Lakers). So it's easy to get caught up in debates over which is the best, in either conference.

But hidden behind that is a debate that began a year ago, has continued for the past 360 days, and which will be set aflame Thursday night as the starters for the 2012 NBA All-Star Game are announced.

Blake Griffin will be announced as the starter. He's certainly worthy of it.

Kevin Love fans will be outraged. They're going to have a point.

LaMarcus Aldridge will barely make the conversation. And that's a crime.

All three players have emerged as the best power forwards in the West and probably in the league. Blake Griffin is the reason the Clippers landed Chris Paul, the reason they are contenders for the first time. Kevin Love may be dealing with Rubio Mania, but he's still the man in Minnesota and the biggest reason the Wolves are within striking distance of a playoffs berth. And Aldridge, who was always passed over by fans for Brandon Roy and then twice for Greg Oden, is the rock holding Portland steady.

It's entirely possible one of them does not check in on Sunday, Feb. 26th, and that's more than a little bit insane.

But moving beyond the ridiculousness of the All-Star Game, the questions about each player and their long-term futures are more relevant. Aldridge is 26, entering his prime. At the moment, he's a better, more complete player than either Love or Griffin. But their ceilings are considerably higher, and even the question of which is better becomes complicated and sticky.

But are any of them legitimately "great" all-time players? Do any of them have the potential to be Hall of Fame guys? Where are they in that pursuit?

We're jumping the gun here, and we're well aware of it. Griffin is only 22 games into his second season. Love was only truly freed from captivity last season. Aldridge is just now entering his prime. There's no way to tell if they'll live up to potential, if they've peaked, if this is the best they'll ever be. We're exploring the question to give credence to the fact we have legitimately great players at this position, and to examine how great they really are.

For starters, let's look at some numbers. Let's start with this season's results for the three in question, plus Paul Millsap who is truly the dark horse candidate this season, and is only really held back by the number of touches he shares (Millsap has the lowest usage rate. I wanted to compare them to some truly great players that played in the same era so I took Dirk Nowitzki's best season -- the 2007 season which was simply incredible regardless of how it ended -- and had to basically pull one of Duncan's 2002-2006 seasons out of a hat.)



In short, Kevin Love looks pretty phenomenal and like he's on track for that. The stunner is that LaMarcus Aldridge would probably be right there if he were just rebounding a bit more. Aldridge is having his most efficient season ever, but his rebounds per game, minutes, and rate just don't add up. Without doing anything else of note, Aldrige suffers here.

But Love is really what shines in this comparison. His rebound totals are clearly boosting him along, but he's become such a terrific versatile scorer. And for a guy whose knock has always been defense, Love is in the 71st percentile in overall points per possession allowed according to Synergy Sports, and 81st percentile in post-up defense.

Griffin's numbers struggle, there's no question there. But how much of it is just youth? He's roughly 100 games into his career. Where does his start match up with the others on this list?





Now that is surprising. Griffin is top-two in points, rebounds, and assists per 36 minutes, and PER, true rebound rate, and assist percentage (those figures factor percentage of rebounds/assists of total possessions while on the floor) in those players' second years, and first in field goal percentage. Not bad, even when you consider the strange career arc of Nowitzki.

But numbers obviously don't tell the entire story.

There is a question when watching these players play if they're truly at that level. Blake Griffin is criticized for his lack of a mid-range jumper. Kevin Love isn't considered the kind of player you can simply get the ball to and ask him to get you a bucket, and his post offense is still a work in progress. They're obviously still forming their games, but the gap between those aspects and what people expect is enough to cause the question of if they will ever get to elite status.

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Is Griffin simply a product of his dunks? There's no question that things like, say, Rest in Perkins this week put him on a different level from a cultural perspective. He's the most prolific dunker in recent memory, and Dwight Howard put on a cape with music. The problem comes when we start to fall for an overreaction to that from a critical perspective.

"He's just dunks."

That's a pretty significant fallacy.

Griffin's leaping ability to collect and put back offensive rebounds is something that cannot be denied. He's a solid passer. His post-game shows glimpses of what is likely to be an incredible array of moves along with the kind of natural touch that you need for a player down low. There's nothing physically wrong with his jumper that isn't correctable, and he's got range to the perimeter, even if he's going to it too much this season.

But it's the drives that will continue to be his bread and butter. He works in the pick and roll, but face-up, you need help to guard him. You just do. You had better bring a few friends. Griffin's explosiveness is largely unheard of, and that's the hidden secret to all those dunks. He's not capitalizing off of blown coverages. He's whipping around, over, through defenders to get to the rim. There will come a point where the hammering Griffin endures will take its toll. It's at that point he'll have to adapt, and whether that loss of explosiveness as he ages changes his game will factor heavily into his legacy.

But you cannot watch games like the two-game tilt for the Clippers against the Thunder and Jazz and not be aware of how he can take a game over. There are only a handful of players like that in the league, and it's that special, immeasurable quantity that really reveals why you have to consider Griffin not just one of the league's best players right now, but a legend in the making.

-------------------------------

Kevin Love can get 30 points and 30 rebounds in a game. He's done it. This should not be overlooked. Being able to produce like Moses Malone is not something you find, even once in a generation. Love's game is a stat-magician's dream. But when you watch him, it's not the numbers that should impress you. It's his ability to make all the right plays.

Love isn't just a perimeter shooter or a guy who nabs the rebound from his own teammate (to be clear, he does a lot of that, too). He's able to measure whether to take the mid-range or drive. When to pass. His outlet pass remains a thing of absolute beauty. His understanding of the floor is something that sets great players apart from their peers. There's a reason Ricky Rubio manages to find Love in huge moments uncovered. It's because Love is crafty enough and able to understand the defense well enough to slip in that possession, catch, and shoot before the defense can react. He's got the range, to be sure. But he's also got the work ethic to improve and the mind to manage basketball. Does this make him among the all-time greats? No, but his rare combination of instincts and efficiency is going to get him there in a hurry.

-------------------------------

And then there's LaMarcus Aldridge.

Neither Love nor Griffin have won a playoff game. They haven't been the man on their teams for a playoff team. They haven't endured the kind of misfortune the Blazers have suffered and navigated their way through it. Aldridge is a poor man's Duncan in a lot of ways. Consistent. Quiet. Rarely emotional, largely unnoticed and brutally efficient.

Aldridge doesn't light you on fire like Love or break you into a million pieces like Griffin. Instead he simply hammers you into submission, with mid-range jumper and post move after post move. It's his curse to have a more refined game, but it's also to his benefit. Maybe neither of the younger guns can fit so easily into a coach's gameplan. Neither is as dependable, and neither know how to confound a defense as well in big moments. They may get there, but to ignore Aldridge's excellence at this point in time is criminal.

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And so it is, that while the debate over the best point guard alive continues (it's Chris Paul by the way; calling Derrick Rose a point guard is like calling an alien from Mars a citizen of Austin, Texas, they're both weird but that doesn't make it the same thing), the West is slammed with power forwards of past greatness and future legacy. But it's important to capture this moment, where we see the signs of both generations merging. Duncan and Dirk riding out the end, with Garnett fading out in the East, as Griffin sets the world aflame with a highlight reel and Kevin Love leaves you shaking your head.

But in the end, it may be Aldridge, underrated, largely forgotten, less dynamic and dominant and more proficient and capable, who goes the furthest this season of all.

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Closing note: You realize this list excludes Pau Gasol (admittedly having a terrible season), glosses over Millsap who would be right there in this conversation if he wasn't sharing touches with 50 other bigs in Utah, and the wide array of superb small forwards in the West? Let's face it, the league is stacked right now.

Posted on: February 1, 2012 1:37 pm
Edited on: February 2, 2012 1:28 pm
 

Who's contending and who's pretending?

Posted by Royce Young

Are the Lakers and Celtics challengers for a championship, or for just a postseason appearance? (Getty Images)

Almost every team has played 20 games so far this season, which is a pretty nice sample size to make a semi-educated judgment on just how good some are. We know there are a lot of competitive teams in each conference. Teams that have a quality roster, a decent record and a chance at the postseason.

But what's coming into focus more and more is who is for real and who is for fake. Not in the sense of who is actually good and who is fool's gold, but what teams should we be really watching for to make a push at a championship?

In the same way there's no reason to waste time saying the Wizards and Hornets are not contenders, I don't need to tell you that the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls are obvious contenders. They aren't just contenders, they're the title favorites as of now. Those three teams have clearly separated themselves a bit from the pack, but that doesn't mean that there isn't another team lingering as a potential title threat. This time last season nobody was really looking at the Mavericks as a team poised to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy.

So let's break down the current field of playoff contending teams and separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Orlando Magic

After an 11-4 start, a good number of people kind of came around from "They have to trade Dwight Howard right now" to "Maybe they should keep him and make a run at it." Now, after a week of complete stinkage, maybe it's time to take another good look at blowing the hinges off the organization and starting over. If you're consistently having trouble getting out of the 60s, you're not going to win a seven-game series against a good team.

Verdict: PRETENDER

Philadelphia 76ers

A 15-6 record and the best point differential in the league is not something to be ignored. A 4-4 road record indicates that maybe the Sixers aren't quite ready to step into the conversation of competing for the East. I'm going to choose to ignore that. The Bulls and Heat are clearly the class of the East, but it's not hard for me to picture the Sixers taking down one in a seven-game series. Their depth, defense and determination will have them right in any game they play.

Verdict: CONTENDER

Utah Jazz

Rewind to last season. Jerry Sloan had resigned and Deron Williams was traded. It was understandable that the Jazz would finish out the season in the lottery. That was the plan. Get younger, find some cap flexibility and plan for the future. Except that didn't work out. The Jazz aren't a franchise that deal with losing much so this season wasn't just going to be one of tanking. But they're overachieving. They have some nice wins on the resume, but a core of Paul Millsap, Al Jefferon and Gordon Hayward aren't making a title push.

Verdict: PRETENDER

Indiana Pacers

I want to believe. I really do. The Pacers are a fun team and their resurgence over the past two seasons has been something else. David West was a nice addition and Roy Hibbert is playing really well. They've built up their resume with some good wins over the past couple weeks, but I don't see how they improved in the area that killed them last postseason -- fourth quarter execution. Danny Granger is a good player but can't shoulder the load of getting tough, key baskets in crunchtime. I can't see them beating the Bulls, Heat or even 76ers.

Verdict: PRETENDER

New York Knicks

I almost didn't even include them in this list. And not for the reason the Bulls, Heat and Thunder aren't in it. Unless Baron Davis has a superpower in that beard, the Knicks aren't getting out of the first round, and that's if they even get there. Serious obstacles are going to have to be overcome before this team actually competes for a championship.

Verdict: PRETENDER

Dallas Mavericks

It appears the championship hangover is finally wearing off. But for a while there, the defending champs had us concerned. They looked flat, uninterested and worst of all, not as good after losing J.J. Barea, Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson. But the Mavs are finding their form a bit and if Lamar Odom can ever finally wake up, Dallas goes eight deep with a nice rotation. And as long as that tall German guy is on the roster, they're a tough matchup for anyone.

Verdict CONTENDER

Houston Rockets

As I was writing down the teams I needed to mention for this, I didn't have the Rockets. And then I looked at the West standings and their record and said, "Whoa, the Rockets are 12-9? When did that happen?" I think they're going to be players at the trade deadline, but as the team stands now, they're position in the West's top eight will probably be short lived.

Verdict: PRETENDER

San Antonio Spurs

Could the Los Angeles Clippers -- the Clippers -- really be contenders? (Getty Images)
You just wait. Gregg Popovich knows what he's doing. Manu Ginobili will be healthy soon and the Spurs are going to go on a run of games in late February or March where they win like 14 of 16 and rocket up to third in the West. It's coming. I know it is.

Verdict: CONTENDER

Los Angeles Clippers

I picked the Clippers to finish second in the West but also wrote that they weren't a contender. I'm confused about the Clippers. But they definitely showed a little something this past week with a win in Denver and a win against the Thunder. Part of the reason many doubted that the Clips were ready to contend was it looked like they needed another piece for some depth. But they may already have it as Mo Williams is making a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year. Two top 15 players, a monster rim protector inside, a solid identity and veteran leadership -- the Clips kind of have it all. Only two things are holding them back -- Vinny Del Negro and a 35-year history filled with miserable failure.

Verdict: CONTENDER

Atlanta Hawks

I'll put it simply: The Hawks made no dramatic improvements to a team that's basically been the definition of pretender and then their best player was injured for pretty much the rest of the season. Their winning record without Al Horford has been a bit of a mirage as they've fortunately found a soft spot in the schedule at the worst time. Playoff team, yes. Title contender? Nah.

Verdict: PRETENDER

Portland Trail Blazers

For about five minutes, the Blazers had everyone talking about them as the prime contender to challenge Oklahoma City in the West. And then they lost their next five of eight and have slipped out of the top eight in the West. There's really not that much distinguishing this Blazer team from the one the was eliminated in last season's opening round. Is Ray Felton an upgrade over Andre Miller? Jamal Crawford an upgrade over Brandon Roy? LaMarcus Aldridge has become a legit superstar, but I don't see him carrying this roster to the Western Finals.

Verdict: PRETENDER

Memphis Grizzlies

I fear the Grizzlies were that classic chic preseason pick that everyone kind of likes that ends up going down in flames. Some would call that the "Houston Texans Disease." But Memphis didn't stumble into the second round of the postseason by accident. They upended the Spurs and then were a seventh game on the road away from advancing to the Western Finals. They're an enigma right now without Zach Randolph, but if he comes back healthy, the Grizzlies could be a nightmare matchup for teams in the playoffs.

Verdict: CONTENDER

Boston Celtics

After all of that, the Celtics are back to .500. They're 10-10 and have eased some of the fears that they might miss the playoffs. But they haven't been able to restore confidence that they're a team that's dangerous in the postseason. Kevin Garnett can't jump, which is a problem. Their offense completely fizzles for long stretches. They're actually relying on key production from guys like Mickael Pietrus and Chris Wilcox. The Celtics aren't bad, but I think ubuntu is on life support.

Verdict: PRETENDER

Denver Nuggets

Can team ball really win? Well, it's winning now and looking pretty darn good doing it. The Nuggets ran into a bad matchup last postseason and the Thunder took care of them in five games. I wouldn't say they necessarily improved this offseason after losing Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith while adding Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer and Andre Miller, but Al Harrington is playing wonderful basketball, Ty Lawson is blossoming and Danilo Gallinari shows flashes of being a star. Winning this way isn't easy, but I wouldn't rule the Nuggets out.

Verdict: CONTENDER

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are 2-7 on the road. They've only scored 100 points three times this season. For any other team, we'd say that's a major red flashing sign that they aren't for real. For any other team, we'd look at their offensive struggles, their chemistry issues and the fact they're looking older than ever and easily write them off. But this is the Lakers, the home of Kobe Bryant and you don't do that. But I'm going to. Point guard is a massive issue, they have no depth inside and I still have absolutely no idea why they traded Lamar Odom for nothing. This team subtracted a key piece from a group that got swept out of the playoffs by the Mavericks and they expect that adding Josh McRoberts and a new coach is going to push them over the top? Unless the Lakers have a big trade coming down the pipe, the Lakers as currently constructed aren't going anywhere.

Verdict: PRETENDER

 
 
 
 
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