New Year’s resolutions for every Western Conference team
By Ben Golliver
With the new year upon us, The Point Forward looks at resolutions for every team. Below, Ben Golliver examines all 15 Western Conference teams. Check out Rob Mahoney’s Eastern Conference resolutions here. (All stats through Dec. 31.)
Dallas Mavericks: Exercise the utmost caution and care in handling Dirk Nowitzki.
The Mavericks, who are 12th in the Western Conference, are balancing delicately on the fulcrum between salvageable and unsalvageable even with Nowitzki in the lineup. Disaster was on the horizon as soon as Nowitzki was shut down early after knee surgery and his slower-than-expected recovery only made the outlook bleaker. O.J. Mayo did what he could to keep the Mavericks afloat, and management explored every possible Band-Aid solution (Troy Murphy, Derek Fisher, Eddy Curry, Chris Douglas-Roberts) without much to show for it.
If a big push can’t be mounted quickly after the All-Star break, the Mavericks’ priorities should shift to self-preservation and development. Nowitzki, now 34, will make $22.7 million next season, the highest salary in the NBA outside of Kobe Bryant and one that fills up an outsized portion of the salary cap under the new collective bargaining agreement’s more restrictive system. Ensuring that he’s ready to go at the start of next season, then, is the top priority if a playoff push fails to materialize in short order. That’s doubly true because the Mavericks enter the summer in a very flexible position; spending to add all sorts of new roster pieces makes no sense without a healthy centerpiece.
Denver Nuggets: Trust the investment in JaVale McGee.
Nuggets management made a series of bold moves in 2012, re-signing Nene, trading him in a three-team deal to acquire McGee and then completing the circle by signing McGee to a four-year deal worth a reported $44 million. Unfortunately, this season, coach George Karl has favored Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and smaller lineups to using everyone’s favorite “Yes, yes, no!” player. Karl isn’t approaching this haphazardly or whimsically. He has a solid playoff team on paper, he wants to see growth, development and maturity from McGee, and he knows the quickest path toward achieving those goals is to make playing time a reward rather than a birthright.
“I don’t think my big guys have a script,” Karl told the Denver Post this week. “Go out and get it. Earn it.”
Most of the signs for a looser leash are here: McGee is among the leaders at his position in Player Efficiency Rating, his per-36 minutes numbers are 20 points and 9.5 rebounds, and he’s shooting 58.6 percent from the field, neck-and-neck with Koufos for best on the team. Unlike Koufos, though, he brings a dynamic and athletic element that can potentially force teams to adjust to his size. Keep in mind, McGee averaged 8.6 points and 9.6 rebounds in 25.9 minutes against the Lakers in the 2012 postseason, a breakout series that is generally seen as instrumental in helping to set his market value. If he could manage that under that pressure and against the Lakers’ twin towers of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, why not treat him as something more than an eighth man this season?
Golden State Warriors: Eliminate the off-the-court distractions.
The Warriors stand as one of the biggest overachievers in the West. David Lee will draw All-Star consideration; Stephen Curry has been great; Jarrett Jack is playing to his full capabilities; the defense is night and day from last season; the young wings are just getting started; and the entire group has handled two big injury absences — Andrew Bogut and Brandon Rush — as well as can be expected.
With so many things going right, why does it seem like there is a constant stream of sketchy and/or embarrassing non-basketball stories coming from this organization? Coach Mark Jackson admits to being extorted by a stripper? The front office gets caught red-handed misrepresenting the nature and severity of Bogut’s ankle surgery? A legal settlement after sexual harassment allegations between a (former) player and a team employee? Owner Joe Lacob is booed mercilessly during a jersey retirement ceremony? All of that drama from 2012 should be left in the past. Hopefully 2013 is a new, cleaner chapter.
Houston Rockets: Get Royce White off the front page one way or another.
The Rockets’ touchy situation with White took another turn last weekend when the 2012 first-round pick refused to report for a D-League assignment for the second time this season. White called the assignment “unsafe” because he believes the Rockets aren’t taking appropriate steps to help manage his anxiety disorder, and he went on to criticize the organization, again, for misleading the public regarding the months-long dispute between team and player over his treatment.
Just when fatigue started settling in, with most everyone ready to move on from the discussion until White finally made his debut, whether in the NBA or the D-League, White’s statement Sunday included a reference to “recent tragedies” involving “mental illness variables” as a reason the Rockets should be more accommodating and proactive in their treatment approach. For many, White’s allusion to recent shootings was genuinely outrageous and inappropriate. Even in the most forgiving and open-minded light, it was an ill-timed and ineffective comparison.
Eventually, enough needs to be enough. The Rockets could outright release him or take the possibility of a comeback this season off the table, publicly or privately. Something has to change because the last four months of the current approach have done only harm, not good, and it’s getting more damaging and personal by the week.
Los Angeles Clippers: Practice a little discretion.
There’s no question where the Clippers are coming from: They’re tired of being second fiddle in L.A. and they want to win big, right now. News flash, guys, you made it onto everyone’s radar: best record in the NBA, longest winning streak in the league, zero losses in December (!), two players set to be All-Star starters, a deep roster that looks like it will match up quite well with the West’s best. Justin Bieber is babysitting Chris Paul’s son from his courtside seat during games; it doesn’t get any bigger than that without a Kardashian involved.
Everyone agrees: The Clippers are a big deal. Now, when it comes to the final few minutes of garbage time blowouts, just milk the clock and launch some jumpers. No need for the off-the-backboard alley-oops or nutmeg dribbles through the legs of defenders. Keep the excellent camaraderie and sideline antics; ditch the unnecessary late-game showboating. Karma is always watching.
Los Angeles Lakers: Invest in some yoga classes for Magic Johnson.
The NBA’s biggest disappointment at the 30-game mark remains the Lakers, who were expected to chug toward a 60-win season but instead are mired at .500. There’s been chaos galore, with injuries to Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, the firing of Mike Brown after five games, a failed flirtation with Phil Jackson, inconsistent play from Dwight Howard and a constantly juggling rotation. If Lakers fans have been on edge and emotional this season, Johnson has taken it to a different level. From multiple televised critiques of various front-office executives, to Twitter meltdowns, to “I told you so’s” about Brown’s failure as a coach, to … well, you name it, the list goes on and on.
There’s no question that Johnson feels the Lakers’ highs and lows more intimately than any other broadcaster or major public figure given his three-plus decades of history with the franchise, but it’s all gotten to be too much. There needs to be another outlet for all that stress, nervous energy and frustration out there for him, or something that might offer a bit of perspective. Anything to avoid Johnson’s telling the world he is in a self-imposed “mourning” period on Twitter like he did when Mike D’Antoni was hired over Jackson.The emotional roller coaster needs improved brakes in 2013 — for the good of all of us.
Memphis Grizzlies: Take a good, long look in the mirror and contemplate life without Rudy Gay.
Life is good for Memphis, which is fourth in the West and poised for a third straight season in the playoffs. While the starting five remains the same, new owners are in place ushering in a new era. While some front-office moves have already happened, the next big item on the agenda list is payroll, and the Grizzlies have more than $74 million committed this season, putting them in the top 10 for payroll while ranking No. 19 in home attendance. Something seemingly has to give, especially with Tony Allen (currently on a bargain $3.3 million deal) set to receive a nice pay bump when he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Memphis’ trying to pay its core four — Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — is a little reminiscent of the situation Oklahoma City found itself in with James Harden. The question becomes: Is there a way to exchange one of those four pieces for multiple assets without taking a step backward? If so, which piece is the most expendable while still possessing significant trade value? The answer to those questions seems to be Gay, whose $16.5 million salary puts him in the top 20 in the league. Most of the guys above him are A-list All-Stars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony; Gay is a very, very good player, but he’s certainly not on that level. Should he move at the trade deadline? Should the Grizzlies take one final run with him this year? Those are important open questions, but ones that need to be asked immediately during the new year.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Find the right way to say goodbye to Brandon Roy.
Roy’s struggles with his knees in recent years have been terribly sad to watch. His comeback with the Timberwolves briefly promised the hope of a new chapter; within five games, hopes were dashed and it was back to the endless cycle of surgery, rehabilitation, setbacks and unknown timetables. Roy can now tell himself he gave it every possible shot. The Timberwolves can tell themselves and their fans that they took a chance on supporting Roy in his comeback and the odds went against them. The fan base can tell itself it has the Ricky Rubio/Kevin Love combination plus an A-plus offseason signing of Andrei Kirilenko to focus on down the stretch. The situation is primed for a classy, quick goodbye here.
If the Timberwolves are serious about their postseason aspirations, the focus should be fully on the players who are available and stand to be major contributors. Roy shouldn’t be pushed out the door, of course, but if the time and circumstances are right, then the Timberwolves shouldn’t hesitate to move on.
New Orleans Hornets: Take advantage of Eric Gordon’s return to ease expectations for Austin Rivers.
Gordon’s return from knee trouble means that coach Monty Williams now has a potential star to add to his backcourt rotation. Holiday presents don’t get much better than that, especially given how many months the Hornets have waited for Gordon. A secondary blessing of Gordon’s return is a lighter load for Rivers, who has been thrown into the fire as a rookie after just one season at Duke and has struggled with his transition to the NBA game. The Hornets didn’t really have a choice other than to ask too much of Rivers and they can’t be surprised in the slightest that his first few months have been rocky. As long as Gordon is healthy, Rivers will be able to shift into a smaller-minutes role, focusing his time on honing his shot selection and improving as a defender.
Writing off Rivers this early would be a mistake even though the early returns haven’t been pretty. Ideally, the second half of the season will see improvements in his shooting percentage and overall consistency. If he can take those steps, Greivis Vasquez, Gordon and Rivers start to look like a fairly nice foundation for a backcourt going into next season.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Start an All-Star campaign for Serge Ibaka.
Kevin Durant is on track to be an All-Star starter, Russell Westbrook is a no-brainer reserve selection and there’s no question who is Oklahoma City’s third-best player after the Harden trade. That would be Ibaka, who is in the middle of a career year with exceptional numbers across the board: 14.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, three blocks and a career-best 56.5 percent shooting, even though he’s expanded his range this season and is taking more shots than ever before.
Ibaka is competing in the most difficult All-Star subset: Western Conference frontcourt players, going against the likes of Tim Duncan, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, David Lee, Zach Randolph, Pau Gasol and others to get a reserve spot. The Thunder organization is so team-first that a real “Ibaka for All-Star” movement is likely best left to Durant and Westbrook, who would be ideal campaigners. His case for consideration is solid, and even if he gets squeezed off so other teams can get one All-Star, it’s the thought that counts (and laying the groundwork for future years doesn’t hurt either).
Phoenix Suns: Play Kendall Marshall.
The last-place Suns are 11-21 and have already survived one wave of hot-seat talk for coach Alvin Gentry and some overseas griping from center Marcin Gortat. Aside from the signing of Goran Dragic, the recent roster moves have all been fairly underwhelming, a series of “meh, meh, meh” with an “oof” thrown in there for Michael Beasley.
The biggest question mark concerns the treatment of Marshall, the Suns’ 2012 first-round pick. With both Dragic and Sebastian Telfair on the roster, it’s understandable he would begin his pro career at third on the depth chart, but Marshall has played just 46 minutes for the season. In other words, the 13th pick has played as much in two months as most of the 2012 lottery class plays in two games (or Blazers guard Damian Lillard plays in one overtime game).
Gentry is likely approaching this one from the “it’s a long season, there will be plenty of time for the young guys once we’re way, way out of the race” perspective, and you can’t blame him given that he’s in the last year of his contract with no extension on the horizon. The development of young talent is bigger than a coach, though, and Marshall is one of Phoenix’s few young pieces that still represents hope. The Suns can’t afford to burn lottery picks and that’s exactly what they are doing with their current all-bench, all-the-time treatment of Marshall. You picked him; time to play him.
Portland Trail Blazers: Deal J.J. Hickson at the trade deadline.
Hickson has been the Blazers’ most pleasant surprise and he’s emerged as a real value, averaging 12.5 points and 11 rebounds while making just $4 million this season. Even with Hickson playing out of his mind, the Blazers are just barely above .500 after facing a very soft December schedule with much tougher sledding to come.
Hickson just isn’t a long-term fit in Portland, not with LaMarcus Aldridge playing a vast majority of the power forward minutes and rookie center Meyers Leonard being groomed as a future starter. There aren’t enough minutes and there aren’t enough dollars, either. There wasn’t much market for Hickson’s services last year, but he’s likely played himself into a multiyear, mid-level type contract for somebody. Portland has other needs and enough dollars already committed to Aldridge and Nicolas Batum to make that type of contract number too rich for its blood. Selling Hickson at the trade deadline for draft considerations without taking back meaningful future money would be ideal for a continued rebuilding plan centered on Aldridge, Batum and Lillard.
Sacramento Kings: Sell the team.
Maybe you were expecting something about finding a way to get through to DeMarcus Cousins. Maybe you are on the “Fire Keith Smart!” bandwagon. Maybe you can’t stand watching a front office craft a roster chock-full of redundant shoot-first perimeter players. When there are problems in virtually every aspect of the organization, that always points back to ownership. It’s not like you really need to pull together hidden red flags with this bunch, though, considering its endless, pointless flirtations with random destinations for relocation and its tragically absurd press conferences and double-talk when it comes to its participation in a new arena deal. This has gone well past the laughingstock stage; please, for the betterment of the Kings fans and the league as a whole, cash out.
San Antonio Spurs: Strategically rest players — again.
One of the early-season highlights was the debate that raged over Gregg Popovich’s decision not to play four key players during a nationally televised game in Miami. NBA commissioner David Stern cracked the whip with a $250,000 fine, citing the Spurs’ failure to communicate their plans to the league office and essentially invoking a “for the good of the game” stance. Stern’s decision went against recent precedent and opened up all sorts of slippery-slope scenarios. Who better than Popovich to explore those scenarios? There’s clearly a “state’s rights” debate to be had regarding a coach’s jurisdiction over his lineups. Assuming the Spurs are cruising toward another playoff spot down the stretch, hopefully Popovich breaks out his full arsenal of resting strategies for Stern and company to mull over.
Utah Jazz: Read the tea leaves and get to work on the next chapter.
The Jazz are a bit further back of the pack than they would like to be heading into 2013, but some of that can be attributed to having played 13 home games and 19 road games. They’re likely due for a little push up the standings over the next month or two. There’s a ceiling on this particular group, however, just as there is for all Western Conference teams with non-elite talent. Utah couldn’t win a playoff game last season, much less a series. Is there any conceivable path to postseason success given the lay of the land in the West this year? Do they really stand a chance of winning more than one game against the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies or Lakers? It’s not likely.
With that in mind, the trade deadline represents an opportunity for management. Up-and-comers such as Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks should be seeing more time down the stretch than they are now. But that won’t happen unless there’s some dumping at the deadline or a clear philosophical shift from coach Tyrone Corbin, or some combination of the two.