Sunday, November 24, 2013

How Deep Is the Western Conference? (Power Rankings, Week 4)

In this week's NBA action, we watched kicking and screaming. We caught a glimpse of what might be, as well as what might have been. And we saw funny insults along with sad injuries.

In the latest power rankings, eight of the top 10 teams reside in the Western Conference. We'll take a deeper look at two of those squads, the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers and the solid Dallas Mavericks.

Here are my Week 4 Power Rankings:
30. Utah Jazz (1-13)
29. Milwaukee Bucks (2-10)
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (4-10)
27. Sacramento Kings (4-8)
26. Boston Celtics (5-10)
25. Orlando Magic (4-8)
24. New York Knicks (3-9)
23. Brooklyn Nets (3-9)
22. Washington Wizards (5-8)
21. Philadelphia 76ers (6-9)
20. Detroit Pistons (4-8)
19. Toronto Raptors (6-7)
18. Los Angeles Lakers (6-7)
17. Charlotte Bobcats (7-7)
16. New Orleans Pelicans (6-6)
15. Denver Nuggets (6-6)
14. Phoenix Suns (6-6)
13. Chicago Bulls (6-5)
12. Minnesota Timberwolves (8-7)
11. Atlanta Hawks (8-6)
10. Mempis Grizzlies (7-6)
9. Dallas Mavericks (9-5)
8. Golden State Warriors (8-6)
7. Houston Rockets (9-5)
6. Los Angeles Clippers (9-5)
5. Portland Trail Blazers (12-2)
4. Oklahoma City Thunder (8-3)
3. Miami Heat (10-3)
2. Indiana Pacers (12-1)
1. San Antonio Spurs (12-1)

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers have run off 10 straight wins, although only two of those came against teams that currently boast winning records. Considering the Blazers' dominance of the NBA's patsies so far, let's just say I'm not thrilled to watch my reeling Knicks travel to the Moda Center on Monday night. 

In adiditon to relatively unimpressive victories over weak teams, Portland's résumé does feature wins over the one-loss Spurs and the contending Warriors. The Blazers have been getting it done with the potent inside-outside combination of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. While it remains to be seen if Aldridge can be The Man on a title contender, he has accepted his role as the team's star. He has played like a franchise player, too, as his current per-game numbers would set career highs for points, rebounds (and rebounding percentage), and steals.

Lillard, meanwhile, is following up his Rookie of the Year campaign with a similarly productive season. On offense, his stats look very similar to last year's. In addition, Lillard's atrocious rookie defense appears to have improved marginally along with Portland's team D. Lillard's defense is still pretty bad, but he owns up to his deficiencies and appears eager to improve. During Tuesday night's Knicks-Pistons telecast, Walt Frazier said he expects Lillard to eventually become the best point guard in the league.* But as a former defensive stalwart, Clyde understands the value of defense and should hold off on such lofty predictions until Lillard can get stops.

*Frazier's statement looks a little less ridiculous as Derrick Rose continues his Grant Hill-like run of bad luck.

In addition to Aldridge and Lillard, many of Portland's role players have met or exceeded expectations. Sideshow Bob-lookalike Robin Lopez has chipped in eight points and eight rebounds a game while taking some pressure off of Aldridge in the frontcourt. Former Marquette sharpsooter Wesley Matthews has been even better, hitting over 52 percent of his three-point attempts and almost 57 percent of his total shots. Opposing defenses usually focus on Aldridge and Lillard, and Matthews has made those teams pay for conceding open looks. He probably won't keep hitting at such a high rate, but if he can play anywhere close to his early-season level, he'll be a legitimate No. 3 option.

Portland shares the Northwest Division with a terrific Oklahoma City team and the much-improved Timberwolves, so they must continue to win at a high clip. If they can grab a top-four seed (no easy task), expect to see the Blazers in the conference semifinals.

Dallas Mavericks

Twilight? What twilight? The aging Dirk Nowitzki has bounced back from the decline we saw last season, his worst in a decade. His current rate stats are at similar levels to two seasons ago, albeit well below his 2002-2010 extended prime.

After going .500 with Dirk and a Pile of Crap last season, the Mavs added Monta Ellis (above left), Jose Calderon (right), and Samuel Dalembert (doing a split!). Those three guys provided lousy consolation after Dallas again missed out on Dwight Howard, but they have done a decent job so far. Ellis has shown much better shot selection in leading the team with 23.6 points per game, Calderon has ably directed an attack that sits in a tie for third place in offensive efficiency, and Dalembert is providing rebounding and serviceable interior defense.

In addition to that trio, Dallas acquired Dejuan Blair to come off the bench. An undersized forward out of the Old Big East, Blair is one of my favorite non-superstars in the league. He grabs about 20 percent of available rebounds, a rate higher than expected for a 6-foot-7 guy with bad knees and worse hops. He's got a beautiful touch around the hoop and in the lane, allowing him to shoot well over 50 percent from the field.   

The Mavs finished 10th in the West last year, but they now look primed for a playoff run. Their season will end well before Dirk's 36th birthday (June 19), but they might not be an easy out in Round 1.

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