Posted: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:16PM; Updated: Tuesday January 23, 2007 5:54PM
More Western Conference grades ...
Los Angeles Lakers
It's a little disconcerting to see a Lakers team winning minus a plethora of superstars. Yes, they have Kobe and Phil, but the rest of the roster is a mélange of Brian Cooks and Sasha Vujacics, of Andrew Bynums trying to stay in the starting lineup, of Luke Waltons and Jordan Farmars, players who respect Jackson's directions and who are schooled in fundamental basketball This is a team that has listened to Jackson, run the triangle as asked and has demonstrated no objections with ceding the spotlight to No. 24. If we non-Lakers fans aren't careful, this team might be, dare we say, likable?
Star Student KOBE BRYANT
Taking seven fewer shots a game but hitting at a career-high clip (47.1 percent). It's amazing what teammates can do for a superstar.
Back of the Class VLADIMIR RADMANOVIC
So much for the notion that $31 million can buy someone to stretch the offense. Radmanovic isn't even hitting one 3 a game.
LOOKING AHEAD The second half will tell a lot about how much this club -- and Kobe -- has grown. Bryant has played the good soldier so far. Will he still be willing to delegate when playoff seeding is at stake? The Lakers will need Walton to keep filling the cracks in the offense and Bynum to keep improving as a post presence to keep Kobe's competitive instincts satisfied; Lamar Odom's return from a knee injury will also help. There's a bit too much artillery in the West for L.A. to overcome, but there is enough on this club to make any team sweat.
While it is easy to pin the Grizzlies' troubles -- and coach Mike Fratello's firing in late December -- on the absence of the injured Pau Gasol for the first 22 games, we suspect Shane Battier's trade to Houston was equally significant. Battier's dirty-work numbers would have helped, and his professionalism would have helped more. Fratello, who micromanaged each possession in an attempt to keep what he felt was an overmatched squad close in games, would likely not have lost his locker room had a respected veteran such as Battier been on hand to work Fratello's system. At the very least, Battier wouldn't have spent his time disparaging Fratello, as many Grizzlies reportedly did. President Jerry West axed Fratello after a 6-24 start and handed over the reins to Tony Barone, who engineered a 180 in the team's philosophy. Out was milking the shot clock and waiting to get play calls from the bench; in was a breakneck pace and a let-it-fly approach. To Barone's credit, the Grizzlies responded -- although a healthy Gasol helps, too.
Star Student MIKE MILLER
Perhaps the only bright spot in the Grizzlies' season has been the play of Miller, who's averaging a career-high 17.2 points and hitting 41.2 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Back of the Class EDDIE JONES
If the Grizzlies would like, I would happily take a quarter of Jones' $15.7 million this season to score 4.3 points a game.
LOOKING AHEAD Color us skeptical about the Grizzlies' transformation from Neanderthal to New World Man. Clearly, Fratello's plodding style wasn't working, but such a radical shift smacks of desperation. It's as if the Grizzlies have adopted the latest craze. But as Miller is learning with every 3 he drains, shooting without conscience doesn't win many games when you defend without conscience, too. Still, there's some value to that in Memphis, where fan interest has been on the wane and player interest was bottoming out. If opening up the offense sells some tickets and wins back a locker room's attention, who's to argue, especially when the postseason hopes were over by Christmas.
Didn't the Timberwolves get the memo? You know, the one that directs them to lose themselves into the draft lottery so Kevin Garnett finally snaps and demands a trade to the big-market team everyone predicts? Instead, Minnesota was sitting in eighth in the West, thanks to a combination of attentive defense and deliberate offense, a recipe that eased the pressure on Garnett but not on Casey, who lost his job on Tuesday. The T'wolves haven't run up big numbers on offense, but Trenton Hassell has harassed opposing scorers while a resurgent Mark Blount lumbered back to life in the low post. If they continue under new coach Randy Wittman, the T'wolves could well ruin the postseason plans of any number of Lakers or Bulls fans.
Star Student KEVIN GARNETT
In the midst of producing his eighth straight season of at least 21 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, it's clear Garnett has done more good for the franchise than VP Kevin McHale has.
Back of the Class MIKE JAMES
When you take a deal for $23 million over four years, you have kick in a little more than 11.6 points a game and shoot better than 41.6 percent. Don't you?
LOOKING AHEAD The T'wolves' start will likely cool any momentum to ship Garnett elsewhere this season. But that's less than half the battle for a Minnesota front office that has squandered much of its goodwill with KG courtesy of bad draft picks, free-agent signings and trades. Of course, that assumes Minnesota wants to keep Garnett rather than sink into irrelevancy by trading one of the league's top five players. It's a lot easier to tease competent performances out of the Blounts and Ricky Davises with Garnett on the floor than without. If Randy Foye keeps improving and if James can produce anything more than the cadaver-esque numbers he's offered so far, Minnesota just might squeak into the playoffs. And that would represent a good first step in rebuilding Garnett's faith in the franchise, which may be all that is separating this club from becoming the next Atlanta Hawks.
New Orleans Hornets
A 4-0 start gave a glimpse of what this team was capable of before injuries to David West, Peja Stojakovic and Chris Paul forced coach Byron Scott to drag out the duct tape. Mixing and matching lineups around Desmond Mason and free-agent signee Tyson Chandler, Scott has slowed down the Hornets to a crawl, the better to play defense, keep games close and hopefully get just enough offense to steal a game or two. Rasual Butler and Devin Brown have made up what they lack in talent with effort. And Chandler has outplayed the man who replaced him in Chicago, Ben Wallace. It has proven to be a good enough scheme to score the Hornets just enough Ws to make the return of West and Paul more than window dressing on a lost season.
Star Student CHRIS PAUL
Not only responsible for running the offense, but he also carried it for much of the first two months of the season.
Back of the Class PEJA STOJAKOVIC
Stojakovic's skills were already in decline when the Hornets handed him a deal for $60 million last summer. How do you think that decision is going down now after Stojakovic left after 13 games for major back surgery?
LOOKING AHEAD One of the few plusses to come from the Hornets' injury woes is the playing time the full roster has received. That should give Paul some options he didn't have before, as well as help make up for the loss of Stojakovic, who could be out for the rest of the year. West's recent return has injected a healthy dose of adrenaline to their offense, which will undoubtedly speed up with Paul at the controls. The Hornets are still a young bunch, but Scott's brand of tough love seems to have rubbed off, which, combined with Paul's return, will make this team a tough out the rest of they way.
What's most impressive about the Suns? It's not having a two-time MVP running the offense. It's not that their most versatile player, Shawn Marion, is perhaps their least appreciated. It's not scoring four more points per game than any other team this season. It's that they've persuaded legions of teams to copycat them without proving their fast-paced style can win a title. Heck, Phoenix's 32-8 start even has some observers criticizing the Spurs for not being athletic enough, and their approach has only won three rings in eight seasons. Despite all the imitators, the Suns are still the gold standard in high-octane offense, a reality they have demonstrated without pity this season. With Amaré Stoudemire getting more explosive and lightning-quick point guard Leandro Barbosa pressing the team's fast-break ethic off the bench, the Suns run from the opening tip to the closing horn, all the while inviting opponents to join them in their track meet. And once an opponent joins in the fun, it finds keeping up the pace a near-impossible task: It likely can't shoot as well, pass as well or get back on defense fast enough. There's no shame in that; few teams can.
Star Student STEVE NASH
As if back-to-back MVPs weren't enough, Nash is averaging career highs in points (19.3) and assists (11.5) and shooting a personal-best 53.1 percent from the field. Award No. 3 may not be far behind.
Back of the Class MARCUS BANKS
Signed for $21 million last summer to help back up Nash, he has provided little but a warm body on the bench for all but 10 minutes a game.
LOOKING AHEAD Phoenix runs with a dedication and efficiency almost no team can handle. But Mike D'Antoni has yet to prove his approach can work in the best-of-seven Finals, or even reach a Finals (and, to be honest, when you win 32 of your first 42 games, anything less than a championship-round appearance is a disappointment). The West is filled with teams as dedicated to their individual systems and as efficient in their execution as the Suns are. Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and the Lakers all win with distinctive un-Phoenix-like styles, and all have seen enough of the Suns not to get drawn into their game. Nor will Phoenix get drawn into theirs. The return of Stoudemire offers the Suns a bit more size and strength to deal with the Tim Duncans of the world. Even more helpful would appear to be an effort the Suns are making on defense, ranking among the upper half in the league in opponents' field-goal percentage. Combined with an offense that is positively revolutionary by today's standards, the Suns may finally be able to spread the scoring gospel on the NBA's biggest stage.