What’s in store for these Western Conference teams after the All-Star break?

 

The 2020 NBA All-Star Game, as always, was about recognizing some of the greatest players in the world. Even more importantly, however, it was about honoring the late Kobe Bryant. That was done to the greatest extent as Team LeBron and Team Giannis both competed like it was a playoff atmosphere. Here I continue honoring Kobe Bryant by providing an in-depth outlook for . .

~ 8 ~ Western Conference teams                 #PlayForKobe

 

Memphis Grizzlies (28-26): 1st in points in paint per game and 1st in assists per game  |  1st toughest schedule remaining

It’s been well over half of the season. Therefore, I would deem it safe to say the Grizzlies aren’t what we thought they would be. No, Ja Morant’s Grizzlies are no pushover. They are far from that. Who’s to say a rebuilding team can’t compete for the playoffs right now? Rebuilding doesn’t need to automatically mean losing a lot of games. Memphis has drawn out the blueprint for that.

Morant is a 20-year-old rookie with less than 50 games under his belt. He isn’t just any ordinary top Rookie of the Year candidate though. You would think the electric point guard would be averaging more than 17.6 points per game. Let’s also note this hasn’t been an occasion of the rookie guard increasing his scoring or assist numbers month after month. Morant is ultra-consistent for his lack of experience and that’s been his standout quality.

Morant has been largely responsible for navigating the ship that’s kept this fountain of youth afloat. Other vital players under 25 years old on this team include Jaren Jackson, Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks. In conclusion, the Grizzlies might be a bit flustered if they fall out of the playoffs but it won’t be the end of the world by any means. This is actually just the start of something great.

 

New Orleans Pelicans (23-32): 1st in field goals attempted per game, 5th in 3-pointers attempted per game, and 4th in 3-point percentage  |  1st easiest schedule remaining

The Pelicans have the easiest schedule remaining based on opponent winning percentage. I repeat, the Pelicans have the easiest schedule remaining based on opponent winning percentage. We already know that, with Zion Williamson in the mix, this team is clearly talented enough to make a run for the postseason. Jrue Holiday did not get traded so it looks like this team is aiming to compete at a relatively high level at this moment.

Holiday’s days as one of the more injury-prone players in the league seem to be well behind him. The veteran point guard has not been named an All-Star since moving from the Eastern to Western conference but he is still unmistakably an All-Star caliber player. Holiday remains an elite perimeter defender on a Pelicans team with well-documented defensive problems.

Brandon Ingram is suddenly beginning to gain a reputation as one of the most respected young scorers in the league. Williamson, who occupies the other forward spot now that he’s healthy, hasn’t made all the national television appearances his team was scheduled for because of him. He has some catching up to do as an immediate impact player and not just a work in progress.

 

Sacramento Kings (21-33): 5th in opponent fast break points per game and 2nd in opponent field goals attempted per game  |  10th easiest schedule remaining

The Kings organization has held high hopes for 2nd pick in the 2018 draft Marvin Bagley but a nagging foot injury has hindered his growth this season. Most of the veteran signings the Kings made over the offseason have not worked out as planned, and that includes Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon, who were both traded for future assets.

The issue with that is the Kings have been collecting future assets for a while and it has only gotten them so far. At this time last season, Sacramento appeared to have finally picked up momentum as a borderline playoff-worthy team. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield made waves as one of the league’s promising young backcourts. The two have not lost anything from an individual perspective but the team’s chemistry has not helped matters.

Coach Luke Walton became so desperate for a change that Hield has actually started serving as the team’s sixth man. I’m not sure if they think Hield can mold himself into a Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford-type off the bench. However, this is certainly a move that’s raised more questions than it’s solved. This team is likely headed toward another lottery appearance but ending the season on a positive note will be crucial.

 

Portland Trail Blazers (25-31): 2nd in block percentage, 3rd in turnovers per play, and 6th in 3-point percentage  |  6th easiest schedule remaining

What’s most disappointing about the Blazers is that they have a first-team All-NBA point guard lighting up opponents on a consistent basis and they still struggle to escape mediocrity. Would it be all that unfair to call their Western Conference Finals appearance last season a fluke? I wouldn’t back up that statement personally but I also think you can make a case that it was more of a fluke than a destined reality.

Rip City just happened to draw some highly favorable matchups – one with an OKC team that was not really built for the long haul and then facing off with a playoff-unpolished Denver team. The Blazers made the conference finals but that was their absolute peak. The truth of the matter is that this team is likely a bottom-feeder without Damian Lillard’s stardom.

So in the midst of this letdown of a season, Lillard and backcourt mate C.J. McCollum are the only players you can’t point fingers at. Everybody else, and I mean everybody (not including the coaching staff) from the front office to the rest of the roster, has a responsibility of helping the team maintain the legitimacy it flaunted last season. How much time does Zach Collins really have and will he live up to his draft hype from 2017?

 

Houston Rockets (34-20): 1st in FT made per game, 2nd in 3-pointers made per game, and 23rd in 3-point percentage  |  8th easiest schedule remaining

For as much as we doubt the Rockets being up to par with the unquestioned contenders (L.A. teams) of the Western Conference, one thing they are never short on is excitement. Clint Capela was just sent to Atlanta in what seems to be the start of an all-out small-ball experiment. Perhaps Capela’s services there were a bit underappreciated too. He had his shortcomings in the playoffs but he’s also just 25 years old.

With players like Robert Covington and Jeff Green in line to spend meaningful time at center, this team getting out-rebounded seems like a foregone conclusion. These are NBA players with strength and athleticism, and because of that, the Rockets will have their nights where they don’t get absolutely slammed on the boards. However, they now put themselves in a position where they’ll need a highly-functioning defensive unit.

As long as the duo is at 100 percent health (or close to it), James Harden and Russell Westbrook shouldn’t have a problem carrying this team to the playoffs. Once the time comes and they actually show up there, it will be a little bit of a different story. Whether it’s Mike D’Antoni on the hot seat, a front office change, or both, the clock is ticking in H-Town.

 

Oklahoma City Thunder (33-22): 1st in opponent fast break points per game, 3rd in FTM per game, and 2nd in opponent FTA per game  |  13th toughest schedule remaining

I figured this would be the most appropriate time to discuss OKC due to the Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade that occurred last summer. Westbrook was beloved in Oklahoma City but it was pretty much always apparent that this team had no serious chance of making the finals since Kevin Durant left for Golden State in 2016. As great as Paul George was last season, this OKC team is just three games worse through 55 games.

Combo guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who was part of the other blockbuster trade which involved PG-13, has been the main beneficiary of the post-Westbrook era in OKC. Dennis Schroder’s career also seems to have been rejuvenated with the roster shakeup that many thought would make the Thunder a no-brainer selection to move back up in the lottery for just the second time in 11 years.

While it’s no guarantee that Chris Paul will end his Hall-of-Fame career in Oklahoma City, he has reminded the NBA world that he is still one of the most gifted point guards in the league regardless of his age. Paul hasn’t been the healthiest player on this side of 30 years old but he is still in fantastic shape. One lesson that we have learned from this season: Chris Paul is a winner and has a proven track record of regular season success.

 

San Antonio Spurs (23-31): 1st in turnovers per play/game and 4th in 3rd quarter points per game  |  11th easiest schedule remaining

The Spurs have made the playoffs for three straight decades. Now this is the start of a fourth decade and it seems inevitable that the Spurs organization will stop playing in early-to-mid-April one of these years. There’s a pretty decent chance that this could actually be the year. There’s no giving them the benefit of the doubt anymore for being the Spurs.

Assuming DeMar DeRozan initiates his $27.7 million player option next season, he and 34-year-old big man LaMarcus Aldridge are signed through the 2020-21 season. However, one could probably come up with more reasons that one or both of them won’t be there through then as opposed to why they will. San Antonio hasn’t plotted a rebuild in many years but might not have much of a choice this time around.

Outside of their franchise players getting old and eventually retiring along with Kawhi Leonard not wanting to spend the rest of his career there, the largest obstacle holding this team back is perhaps the ACL injury Dejounte Murray suffered that kept him out all of last year. The explosive, defensive-minded point guard has not completely won over the trust of Gregg Popovich yet. The Spurs have one of the most unstable rotations in the NBA.

 

Dallas Mavericks (33-22): 1st in offensive efficiency and 1st in 3-pointers made per game  |  13th easiest schedule remaining

Luka Doncic has done such a tremendous job of facilitating the offense that the Mavs are far-and-away the most efficient offense in the entire league. Get this: the gap between them and the second-ranked Bucks is equal to the difference in offensive efficiency between the Bucks and the middle-of-the-pack or 15th most efficient offensive group. That’s pretty good for a team that was expected to hover around .500 at best.

Because he is European and just about to turn 21 years old, I think a lot of people took Doncic’s rookie season for granted. We knew it was something he could build on but who would have known he could actually muster an MVP-like campaign in just his second year in the league? Playing in Europe definitely gave him some distinct advantage that is almost impossible to resemble for any other player.

Kristaps Porzingis has recently started to see an uptick in minutes now that his ACL injury appears to be in the rear-view. I know the Mavs didn’t get Andre Iguodala but their season has been strong enough that there were rumors of him potentially going to Dallas. I only mention that to show the Mavs might be contenders sooner than we anticipated – like maybe even within the next year or so. It’s a cheerful time to be a Mavs fan.

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