The NBA’s Second Half Preview- Western Conference Edition

The NBA’s second half of the season will restart on Thursday night and the next 8 weeks of play should be must watch television on a nightly basis. Each of the teams have right around 30 or so games left on the schedule.

This edition will highlight the Western Conference. The Western Conference has a deep group of teams that could cause some serious problems for the two Los Angeles teams and the Denver Nuggets.

So, let’s look at one key story, player or interesting development that could happen over the next few weeks.

Dallas Mavericks: 33-22 (29 games left)

Do Everything Possible To Avoid Matching Up With The Clippers In The First Round Of The Playoffs

Out of the three teams not in the top 5 in the Western Conference standings, the Dallas Mavericks are the team with the best chance to win an opening round playoff series. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are one of the best duo’s in the entire league and no one hits more three-pointers per game than the Mavericks.

Now even though the Mavericks a solid group of players, a playoff series against Clippers would be a recipe for a first-round exit. Dallas doesn’t have enough wing defenders to guard Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Rick Carlisle could have used Andre Iguodala, DeMarre Carroll or Jae Crowder to help with depth in potential series against them. Only adding Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will not be enough.  

Denver Nuggets: 38-17 (26 games left)

Finding Gary Harris

Denver on paper has a team that can make the NBA Finals. They have an all-around Center who can do everything (Nikola Jokic), a dynamic guard who isn’t afraid of the big moment (Jamal Murray), veterans that do a bit everything (Paul Milsap, Jeremi Grant and Mason Plumlee) and a dynamic 6th man (Will Barton). But the one thing that could hold this team back from playing in June is their starting shooting guard.

Even though Harris is one of the better defenders in the entire league, his offensive output this season has been his worst since his rookie season. He’s having career lows as starter in field goal, three point and two-point field goal percentages. If Harris can’t find his post season form from last season or the form that got him the $48 million dollar contract his signed at the beginning of the 2017 season, the Nuggets championship hopes will fizzle out before Memorial Day.  

Golden State Warriors 12-43 (27 games left)

The Development of Andrew Wiggins Long Range Shot

The Warriors aren’t going to go on a long winning streak over their final 27 games. They have the league’s worst record and they potentially could have two picks in the top 5 in June’s NBA draft. Even though Stephen Curry is expected back sometime in March, there should be no reason why they should endanger risking a chance at the number one overall pick by winning a ton of games.

So, when Golden State is back at full strength for training camp in the fall, the dynamic of Andrew Wiggins long range shot could be the difference between the Warriors being a fourth or fifth seed in the playoffs or being a legitimate NBA championship contender. If he can produce at the same percentage of Harrison Barnes (37.6%) from downtown, Golden State would be a complete team. Wiggins is a career 33.2 shooter from long range.  

Houston Rockets 34-20 (28 games left)

Who Will Be The Backup “Center” in Houston?

Houston has decided not to have a traditional Center as they proceed to enter the playoffs. They traded Clint Capella to Atlanta and have used existing roster spots on acquiring Robert Covington, Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll. None of those players acquired resemble a low post player. Even though Tyson Chandler and Issiah Hartenstein are both over 7-foot-tall and can play the position, head coach Mike D’Antoni has decided to stick with his non-traditional approach as they enter the playoffs.

But with Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert as big men on possible playoff opponents, going in with their best defender (P.J Tucker) as their center at 6 foot 5 could pose a major problem in a seven-game series. Unless they can find a center in the next 10 days or so, Green, Carroll or Bruno Caboclo could be inline for some serious minutes especially if Tucker gets into foul trouble.

Los Angeles Clippers: 37-18 (27 games left)

Is Reggie Jackson The Answer At The Backup Point Guard Spot?

The Clippers entered the season with a question at the backup position. Even with one of the best defensive players in the game (Patrick Beverley) as the starter, a backup option was always needed. Lou Williams has manned the position, but he’s a scoring guard and is better when he is getting baskets. He’s even had to start 8 games this season because Beverley has missed 18 games this season due to injury. They traded for Issiah Thomas and cut him within the same day.

Darren Collison said thanks but no thanks to playing this season and now they brought in the former Piston Jackson to be the missing piece. Jackson like Williams is more of a scoring point guard and is much better at creating his own shot. His defense at times is left to be desired and he’s also a potential injury risk (He’s missed 110 games in the last 3 and half seasons). If he can play in control and make shots easier for Williams and the rest of the second unit, the Clippers might have found the final piece to their championship puzzle.

Los Angeles Lakers: 41-12 (29 games left)

Unleashing Kyle Kuzma

Kyle Kuzma was a late first round selection (27th overall) of the Lakers in 2018 draft and has worked himself into a very good basketball player in his first two seasons of his career. Last season he averaged 18.7 points a game and was selected to the USA’s FIBA World Cup team (He missed the tournament due to injury). Because of that injury he missed the training camp and the start of the season, which led him getting off to a slow start.

On top of the slow start, Kuzma as relegated back to the bench after starting 68 games last season. On a second unit with Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, Kuzma hasn’t been the same aggressive player he was last season. So far this month, he’s averaging 9.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in the 22.7 minutes over the six games he has played in. To unlock the Kuzma of last season, head coach Frank Vogel needs allow Kuzma to get back into the starting lineup. He’s averaging 20.3 points, 5.7 rebounds a game and shooting 5% better when he’s a starter.

Memphis Grizzlies: 28-26 (28 games left)

Getting Dillon Brooks To Score 20 Points In Each Game

Memphis has been the league’s biggest surprise this season. No one expected this group to be this good or even this close to the playoffs this late in the season. With 28 games left to go, Memphis has a 4-game lead over Portland for the eighth spot in Western Conference playoff race. Besides the play of soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Ja Morent and evolution of second-year big man Jaren Jackson, the play of Dillon Brooks was been instrumental in the team’s playoff push.

After missing the majority of last season due to season ending Toe injury, Brooks has returned to the form he showed in his rookie season. He’s averaging a career-high 15.7 points per game and has hit more three-pointers this season than he hit in first two seasons combined. But when he gets 20 or more points in a game, Memphis is almost unbeatable. The Grizzlies are 17-1 when he gets to that magical number, including wins over the Clippers, Nuggets, Rockets and Jazz. Getting to that target number could increase the Grizzlies odds of making the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves: 16-37 (29 games left)

Is Malik Beasley A Long Term Solution As A Building Block?

Beasley turned down a contract extension from the Denver Nuggets in order to prove himself as a starter in the league. Playing on a team that has Gary Harris and Will Barton, forced Beasley into a role of being a spot starter, long range specialist and key contributor. At the trade deadline Beasley was traded to Minnesota in a 4-team and 14 player trade that gave him a chance to become a starter.

In his first 3 games, Beasley shown Timberwolves fans that he has the potential to be a long-term solution next to newly acquired D’Angelo Russell in the backcourt. He’s averaging 22.7 points per game (including 28 against Charlotte last week) and has knocked down 14 three-pointers his opening few games in the twin cities. If he continues this pace, the Timberwolves will have their backcourt of the future.  

New Orleans Pelicans: 23-32 (27 games left)

Playoff Push Or No Playoff Push That Is The Question

There are 27 games left on the Pelicans schedule and they are 5.5 games out of the final spot in the playoffs, but the Pelicans still have a shot at the playoffs. But the question is with a chance to add another potential building block in June’s draft, do you risk it all for a potential series with the Los Angeles Lakers in late April?

With a talented roster and a schedule that only has 9 games against 7 teams over .500 (two games against the Lakers in a 6 day period next week and two games in three nights in March against the Grizzlies), New Orleans a really good chance to gain ground on the teams in front of them in the standings.

Oklahoma City Thunder: 33-22 (27 games left)

Steven Adams, Offensive Rebounds And Second Chances

For the last three seasons, Thunder Center Steven Adams has been at the top of league leaders in offensive rebounds. This year, he’s having his worst season on the offensive glass in in 4 years. He’s on pace to finish with less than 200 offensive rebounds since the 2014-2015 season. His 3.3 per game is tops on his team but is a big drop off from the 5.1 and the 4.9 he’s averaged over the last 2 seasons. The Thunder are the worst offensive rebounding team in the league and every offensive rebound count especially in the middle attempting to make the playoffs.

Portland Trail Blazers: 25-31 (26 games left)

Can Portland Finally Become Fully Healthy?

As the second half begins, the Portland Trail Blazers are 5 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They enter an important matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans needing to win every game possible in order to keep the pressure on Memphis. But the story all season for the Blazers has been wait until after the all-star break. Why?

That’s when key members Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins should make their return to lineup and rotation. The Blazers have been short handed at the power forward and center spot all season and especially after Collins went down in early November. Even though Hassan Whiteside, Carmelo Anthony, Nasir Little and Mario Herzonja have filled in admirably, having two of the better young big man in the league can only increase the playoff chances.

Phoenix Suns: 22-33 (27 games left)

What Is DeAndre Ayton?

What everyone knows is that the Suns have an extremely talented big man in DeAndre Ayton. He’s averaging 18.8 points and 12 rebounds a game since returning from his 25-game suspension on December 30th. His all-around game has improved since his rookie season and he’s on the verge of becoming a breakout star. But there is one potential major problem between Ayton and his head coach Monty Williams.

The player wants to be more of a power forward being able to be on the perimeter and his coach wants him to be center down on the low block. Now if Aron Baynes (hip) and Frank Kaminsky (knee) were not sidelined due to injury, maybe they could experiment. But since both of them are out indefinitely and the only available big men are Cheick Diallo (he’s 6 foot 8) and Dario Saric (he’s a power forward), Ayton might have to wait a bit longer to attempt to prove his worth outside of the paint.

Sacramento Kings: 21-33 (28 games left)

Who’s The Starting Shooting Guard?

Normally the answer to this question is three-point contest champion Buddy Hield. Hield is averaging 20.4 points per game and has turned into one of the best shooting guards in the league. But after the Kings sixth loss in a row against the Pistons on January 22nd, head coach Luke Walton decided to swap Hield for sixth man sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic in the starting lineup.

After the switch something happened, the Kings started winning. They won 6 of the next 8 games including wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat. Even though Hield’s minutes have decreased, his production has increased. Besides increasing his scoring average by 2 points a game, Hield is shooting 9% better from the floor and 13% higher from downtown. On the flipside, Bogdanovic’s numbers have stayed as a starter as he was as a sixth man. Now the question is if the Kings keep winning with this lineup change, will Hield be happy not being a starter.

San Antonio Spurs: 23-31 (28 games left)

Can The Youth Save The Spurs and Gregg Popovich’s Playoff Streak?

Since the 1988-89 season, the San Antonio Spurs have missed the playoffs only twice in the last 31 seasons. Those two seasons was the season before the drafting of David Robinson and the season he missed the entire season due to injury. The ensuing draft (1996-1997), San Antonio drafted Tim Duncan and the rest is history.

Popovich has never missed the playoffs as full season head coach (His first season he took over for Bob Hill 20 games into the season). This year’s Spurs have had only one winning streak longer than two games and have 28 games to make up five games on the Memphis Grizzlies. Even though DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have been carrying the load, the young group led by Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Bryn Forbes have to play at all-star levels in order for the Spurs to continue their playoff streak which is at 22 seasons in a row.

Utah Jazz: 36-18 (26 games left)

Mike Conley And The Playoffs

Conley was brought it to elevate the point guard position and to help the Jazz make a deep run in the playoffs. In beginning, Conley struggled with finding his place in the offense and finding consistency in his jump shot. He looked out of place and it started a bit of panic among Jazz fans across the league. Now as the Jazz gets closer and closer to the playoffs, Conley has started to find his game again.

He’s averaging over 20 points, 5 rebounds and almost 5 assists a game this month and the Jazz are in striking distance of catching the second place Denver Nuggets (1.5 games behind). Utah has 8 games against the top 7 teams in the West in the last third of the season. Now if Conley stays healthy (he’s missed 22 games due to injury) and continues this pace of play, the Jazz will have a great chance to finish as the second seed going into the Western Conference playoffs.

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