As you probably don't remember, way back before the season started, in early October I wrote a fan post describing how the Warriors looked to stack up in the Pacific Division. Obviously, this was done with the caveat of health, because no one forecast Chris Paul's separated shoulder, Andre Iguodala's sprained hamstring, and Eric Bledsoe's torn meniscus. (If any of you are in fact a clairvoyant, A) Why don't you see more jovial stuff? B) Can I have the lottery numbers?) These injuries have all changed and still affecting the race for the Pacific.
Let's break down the Pacific team-by-team ordered by the current divisional standings.
Once again, it's the Clippers, behind Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and a bevy of new additions including coach Doc Rivers, who have taken command of the Pacific Division at 33-16, fourth in the Western Conference. The start of this season saw Paul, widely regarded as the best point guard in the NBA, get off to a blistering beginning. He leads the NBA in assists per game, at over 11 per, and is the conductor of the Clipper offensive and defensive orchestra. Paul knows when to get others involved and when to take over down the stretch, as evidenced by the Clippers' fourth-best Offensive Rating at 107.8 points per 100 possessions. But it's not only CP3 leading the Clippers.
Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have taken strides this season as well, especially Griffin during the extent of Paul's injury. While Griffin gets widely critiqued for flopping, faux-toughness, and most importantly a supposed lack of game other than dunking, his significant progress this season has shown that that's just not the case . An improved free throw percentage, better mid-range shooting, and more polish offensively around the basket have significantly raised his game offensively this year. Plus, he's shooting better and getting to the line more without Paul to choreograph the action, and the Clippers have the BEST OFFENSE IN THE NBA since Paul went down. Some of that is due to schedule - playing Eastern Conference teams will always make a team look better than they really are - but Griffin has made real developments these past few weeks. There are still some issues defensively - Griffin and Jordan are commonly late to help weak-side, and opponents are shooting 62% in the restricted area against LAC, the seventh-highest mark in the NBA - but offensively the Clippers are fine. As long as Griffin keeps playing like this, the Clippers have a real shot to stay at the top of the Pacific; once Paul gets fully healthy, the Clippers are going to be very dangerous.
2. Phoenix Suns
The Suns have become the "NBA's biggest and best surprise" this season, in the thick of the wild Western Conference playoff race when everyone expected them to throw away this season in hopes of getting a star in the draft. Yeah, about that: They've already surpassed their win total from last season and have a better point differential than third-place Portland. At 29-18, the Suns sit a half-game ahead of the Warriors and 2.5 games up on rising Memphis for the sixth seed. Put simply, NOBODY expected Phoenix to be in the center of the West's top eight teams in February. Seriously, not even their own coach, Jeff Hornacek: "I think we'd all be lying if [we said] we're not surprised." Their frenetic, fast-paced offensive style (4th in Pace, 8th in Offensive Rating) reminds some of the "7 Seconds or Less" era with Steve Nash leading the Suns to fifty-win season after fifty-win season in the mid-2000s.
But these Suns are different; Eric Bledsoe, formerly the backup to Chris Paul in Los Angeles, and Goran Dragic, Nash's backup with the Suns, are used to run the offense at the same time - a unique two point guard lineup that's baffled opponents. Dragic, a slitherly lefty, received All-Star consideration, and it's likely that if he had not gotten injured Bledsoe would have garnered the same. The Bledsoe injury is a crusher to the Suns - Phoenix has gone just 10-7 in his absence - but they've beaten the vaunted Pacers twice in that span. Phoenix is playing with house money no matter how the rest of the season progresses. With perhaps four first-round draft picks, a coach that gets his players to buy into a message and act upon it, plus a young core of Bledsoe, Dragic, and center Miles Plumlee, the Suns are set up for future successes quite well.
Man, what can you say about the Warriors? They look like a "legitimate championship contender" at times, with dominant wins over two-time defending champion Miami, Portland, and the Los Angeles Clippers; on other occasions, they look like a team that really might miss the playoffs (Insider $$$) with dispiriting losses against Charlotte, and Washington, Denver, and Minnesota at home. They don't have the luxury that some other teams, like the Heat or Spurs, do in resting their best players or giving away a winnable game here and there. The Warriors, at seventh in the Western Conference, have shown that they can go on a ten-game winning streak in the blink of an eye. It will take a few more long streaks for the Warriors to achieve goals of fifty-plus wins and the vastly important home-court advantage in the playoffs. Currently sitting at 28-18, Golden State must not play down to their competition, especially at home.
The fact of the matter is that the Warriors have succeeded despite offensive inefficiencies, especially when Curry sits. The Warriors are barely in the top half of the league in Offensive Rating, per NBA.com, and have often relied on maddening Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, or Andre Iguodala post-up opportunities because there is simply a mismatch. A post-up is generally an inefficient way to score. When Thompson or Barnes, two players who don't have a refined post-up game and struggle to find open players out of the post, attempt to post up, it stagnates the Warriors offense. At least Curry is finally finding his stroke - finally up over 40% from three on the season after an 8-triple night against Utah. He's done unbelievable this season in increased responsibilities as the fulcrum of the Warriors offense; Curry is the only player in the NBA this season averaging at least 20 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 8 assists per game, per NBA.com.
People can talk about the offense all they want, but the real truth is that he Warriors are dominating defensively. Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, and Andrew Bogut have been real significant in improving the Warriors, who rank fourth in Defensive Rating, per NBA.com, at 99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, on the defensive end of the floor. Bogut, third in defensive rating, has done an amazing job holding down the fort in the paint, 'quarterbacking' and directing the defense from the backside. With the Warriors' defensive capabilities keeping them in (mostly) every game, it's time for the more discussed "New Showtime" offense to get back on track. If the offense can improve to beginning-of-the-season levels, coupled with health, Curry "regressing" to his mean on 3-pointers, and a dominant defense, the Warriors will be a terror in the second half of the season.
Status: Tanking. Losing 18 of their past 21 games, at 16-31 the Lakers must be thankful there's the pot of gold of amazing freshman at the end of a terrible season. Yes, in this NBA teams are rewarded for losing and losing and losing. Marc Stein reports that the Lakers are exploring a trade to get Pau Gasol off their books, and this would also possibly move the Lakers out of the luxury tax as well, though it would take at least one other move to make that happen. There's really no point for the Lakers to even attempt to make the playoffs this season; they aren't good enough to even be the tenth seed, much less make the top eight in a brutal West. Kobe Bryant is injured, Steve Nash is injured and has even had to answer questions about retirement, there's no defense being played under Mike D'Antoni, and it's just a lost season for one of the most glorious franchises in NBA history, something that isn't said all too often. Luckily for the Lakers, there's a light at the end of the tunnel in the form of a talented draft pick. It's up to owner Jim Buss to navigate past the glory days of Kobe as he ends his career (as he should) in Laker purple and gold.
Sacramento has a foundation of young talent: Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, and Ben McLemore are talented players who should develop into some real nice pieces. However, there's not much else here. Rudy Gay has bettered his shot selection, as documented by Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry, since being traded from Toronto, but he won't ever be the best player on a championship contender. The Kings need another player or two to vault them into possible playoff picture in a couple of seasons. This season there's no shot for them to even be in playoff contention, so in the second half of the year they need to see what they have from their young guys, especially McLemore. McLemore might improve to be a dynamic guard the Kings could build around, or he could be an enticing trade chip down the line. Owner Vivek Ranadive, General Manager Pete D'Alessandro, and the rest of the Kings front office are obviously smitten with the über-talented Cousins as a franchise player, but the jury is still out on his maturity level and defensive abilities as a max player. How he develops in those areas will shape whether the Kings are serious playoff contenders in the near future.
Let's get ready for what's sure to be an interesting and exciting second half!