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NBA Update: Western Conference
by Larry Ness - 02/21/2011
The Celtics went 66-16 on their way to the team's 17th NBA title in the 2007-08 season, the first season of the team’s current “Big 3” of Allen, Garnett and Pierce. Boston went 62-20 the next year, the East’s second-best record next to the Cavs, who matched Boston’s win total from the previous season by going 66-16 (easily surpassing the best single-season win total in franchise history). The Lakers, who lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals in 2008 went 65-17 in 2008-09, marking the first time in NBA history in which two teams have won 65 or more games in the same season.The Lakers won the title that year, although not by beating the Cavs but rather the 59-23 Magic. The Lakers, despite winning “just” 57 games last year, made it back-to-back titles by winning the team’s 16th NBA title by beating the Celtics (only 50-32 during the regular season) in a seven-game series. The lone 60-win team last year was the Cavs (61-21) but as everyone knows, LeBron “took his talents to South Beach” during the past off-season, making the theme for Miami in the 2010-11 season, “NBA title or bust.”
Teams return from the All Star break on Tuesday to complete the regular season but it’s a misnomer to claim this represents the halfway point of the season. Teams have, on average, completed about two-thirds of their games. The Spurs have been the league’s best team since the opening tip and will host the Thunder Wednesday night, owners of a 46-10 (.821) record. The Spurs have made 13 consecutive postseason appearances and will obviously extend the NBA’s longest active playoff streak to 14 straight this postseason. In fact, the Spurs are “on pace” to win 67 games, easily the best in franchise history. However, it should be noted that the franchise’s previous high of 63 wins came in the 2005-06 season, when the Spurs lost in the second round to the Mavericks.
San Antonio has won four NBA titles since the 1998-99 season with only the Lakers winning more titles in that span (five). The Spurs’ first title came in the strike-shortened ‘98-‘99 season, when they went 37-13 (a projected 60 wins over 82 games). San Antonio won 60 games in 2002-03, 59 in 2004-05 and 58 in 2006-07, the team’s other title years. Popovich stated before the year began that it was his intention to play a “different type of game” this year and he’s been true to his word. The four previous San Antonio championship teams averaged 92.8 (1999), 95.8 (2003), 96.2 (2005) and 98.5 (2007) points per game while this year’s team is averaging 103.5 (just under 11 PPG higher than the team’s first title averaged). Is that good or bad news? The Spurs are allowing 96.3 PPG this season, ranking 10th in the league. A look back at the team’s previous four title seasons reveals that the Spurs ranked first in points allowed in 1999 (88.5), third in 2003 (90.4), first in 2005 (88.4) and first in 2007 (90.1). Only time will tell if Pop’s “offense-first” philosophy will pay off.
The Mavericks have played ‘second-fiddle’ to the Spurs since Duncan arrived on the scene but also own the NBA’ second-longest active postseason streak at 10 in a row. The 40-16 Mavs are six full games behind the Spurs at the break, even though Nowitzki missed nine games in which Dallas went just 2-7. That makes the Mavs 38-9 (.809) with their best player on the floor, a winning percentage which would be better than any other NBA team this year, other than the Spurs. The Mavs will clearly make their 11th straight playoff appearance this year and likely get the West’s No. 2 seed but it’s hard for me to take this team seriously and I doubt I’m alone. The Mavs are best known for their playoff failures, none more brutal than the back-to-back seasons of 2005-06 and 2006-7.
The Mavs finally got past the hated-Spurs in 2006 (winning a Game 7 in San Antonio) and advanced to the NBA Finals after beating the Suns. However, after taking a 2-0 lead over the Heat in The Finals, the Mavs imploded. Leading 89-76 in the fourth quarter of Game 3 in Miami, the Mavs were outscored 22-7 by the Heat to end the game, giving Miami a 98-96 win. The Heat then went on to win the next three games and take the title. The Mavs seemingly recovered from that ‘meltdown’ by posting an NBA-best 67-15 record the following year. However, the Mavs promptly lost their first-round series that postseason to the eighth-seeded Warriors, four games to two. The Warriors became only the third eighth-seed to upset the No. 1 seed and the first since the opening round went from best-of-five to the current best-of-seven format. Looking back into the NBA archives also reveals that the 2007 Dallas-Golden State series (at that time) was the 20th in NBA playoffs history in which one team had at least 25 more wins than the other in the regular season, as the Warriors were 42-20 that year. Not only were the Warriors the first underdog to win such a series but the previous 19 teams had combined to win only six games with none of those teams winning more than one game in a series. I’ll let you bet on the Mavs come the postseason.
The two-time defending champs (Lakers) hardly look as if they are ready to make a run at a third straight title or make a fourth consecutive appearance in The Finals, off the team’s pre-All Star performance. LA owns the West’s third-best record at 38-19 but at this point, catching the 40-16 Mavs seems unlikely, as the Lakers should be more worried about getting caught from behind by the 35-19 Thunder, who last year gave the Lakers a real scare in the first round (LA won in six games). Rumors surfaced a few weeks ago that the Lakers were in talks with the Nuggets about possibly acquiring Carmelo Anthony from the Nuggets but over the All Star weekend (trade deadline is Thursday), all the talk seemed to involve ‘Melo landing in either New York or New Jersey. This year’s Lakers remind me of the current Tiger Woods. Both have accomplished so much that one can’t say “never” but neither the Lakers nor Tiger give any indication that they are capable of returning to past form.
Last year’s Western Conference playoff-field was pretty tight. The Lakers claimed the No. 1 seed with a 57-25 record while just five games separated the No. 2 through No. 8 seeds. In fact, No. 6 Portland, No. 7 San Antonio and No. 8 Oklahoma City all finished at 50-32 with tie-breakers deciding the teams’ playoff seeding. The bottom-four West seeds at the All Star break are the the 32-24 Blazers, the 33-25 Hornets, the 32-25 Nuggets and the 31-26 Jazz. Currently “on the outside looking in,” are the 31-26 Grizzlies (losing a tie-breaker to the Jazz), the 27-27 Suns, the 26-29 Warriors and the 26-31 Rockets. Just 1 1/2 games separate Portland from Utah with Memphis currently only a tie-breaker away from being in and the Suns 2 1/2 games back. A close look at the current playoff field would see just one change from last year, the Hornets (No. 6) taking the place of the Suns (No. 3 last year).
A closer look reveals that there could easily be some changes at the bottom. The Blazers may be a safe bet to stay inside the ‘cut line,’ as both Roy and Camby are expected back soon. However, who is to say that when those players return, they’ll stay healthy. The Hornets have been the league’s streakiest team this year, opening 8-0 (and 11-1) but then losing nine of their next 12. After a 50-50 run, the Hornets won 10 straight from Jan 12 through Jan 26 but enter the All Star break having lost nine of 11 with Okafor missing the last nine games of that streak (2-7), although he’s expected shortly. Again, who knows? I’ll make no comment on the Nuggets because by the weekend, the team could have a completely different roster. Then we have the Jazz, who saw Jerry Sloan retire, Ty Corbin get promoted but little change. Utah was 27-13 back on Jan 14 but has lost 13 of its last 17 (0-3 under Corbin), including five straight at home for the first time since 1982, before Sloan even took over.
The Grizzlies made three consecutive playoff appearances from 2004 through 2006 (eliminated 4-0 all three times) but have a real shot of ending a four-year playoff drought this season with that terrific frontcourt of Gasol, Gay and Randolph plus up-and-coming point guard, Conley. The Suns were the West’s No. 3 seed last year and have participated in the postseason in each of the last seven seasons, so I’d be hesitant to count them out just yet in 2011, but of course, this year’s team has quite a different roster from the one which one 54 games last year. If one were to but real stock in John Hollinger’s (ESPN’s NBA guru) team rankings, he has the Suns at No. 13 in the entire NBA. He also has the 26-31 Rockets at No. 14, well ahead of the Jazz (ranked 22nd). I’ll be back with a look at the Eastern Conference on Tuesday.