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16.8 Reasons to Keep Watching the 2012 NBA Season, Part 2

The NBA Season is more than two months old. Instead of its normal 82 games, the NBA is playing a lockout-shortened 66 game schedule. Thus, I bring you 16.8 reasons to enjoy the 2012 NBA season. (Part 2.)

(16.8? Yep. Last season I gave you 21 reasons. Since we’re only getting 80% of an NBA season, you only get 80% of 21. The world’s not fair. Sorry.)

Part 1 focused on the Eastern Conference. Part 2, the West.

8. The Los Angeles Clippers are getting a lot of attention this season, and rightfully so. Chris Paul’s arrival to LA’s “other” team combined with the continued emergence of the powerful and highly entertaining Blake Griffin has pumped life into the long struggling franchise that was often the laughing stock of the NBA. With Paul running the offense, Griffin posterizing anyone who dares stand in his way, and DeAndre Jordan protecting the paint, the Clippers are widely considered contenders in the powerful West. Justified? Depends on whom you ask.

Many believe the Clips are indeed a legitimate threat to win the conference title. Though, I’m not one of them. Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league when it comes to facilitating an offense. Blake Griffin is the most powerful and explosive power forward. Still, I can’t see the Clippers getting to the Western Conference Finals much less the NBA Finals. Why? Like everyone else, I’ve seen a lot of the Clippers. They can score, they can rebound, they protect the rim as well as any team in the league. Unfortunately, they lack a third scorer and can rely only on Paul in crunch time. Yes, Griffin is absolutely a superstar and his athleticism allows him to dominate games at times, but that domination rarely occurs in the 4th quarter. He’s too raw right now. His game relies too heavily on his ability to jump over/around/through opposing defenders.

In the 4th quarter, and especially in the playoffs, dunks aren’t surrendered like in the regular season. Easy baskets almost disappear. Griffin will find himself on his backside more often than hanging from the rim. Until he develops a reliable outside shot and an arsenal of moves with his back to the basket, he won’t be able to carry his team late in games like Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, and other greats once did. (Consistency at the free throw line wouldn’t hurt either.) If you need proof, go back and watch the Spurs completely eliminate Griffin from the Clipper offense in the 4th quarter of their February 18th meeting. As soon as Griffin touched the ball, the double team came. You can’t dunk your way out of a double team. Even worse, Griffin struggled to pass out of the double team.

Chris Paul is the Clippers ticket to playoff success and even he will need help from time to time. That’s why the injury to Chauncey Billups was so devastating. As old and overconfident as Billups was, he still provided big game experience and the confidence/arrogance that is often necessary to step up in big moments. Griffin will almost certainly be that player at some point in his career. It’s just not now.

7.  The NBA on TNT crew is perhaps my favorite aspect of the NBA season. If the 76ers or Spurs are struggling, I know Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson and Co. will still be on the top of their games. ESPN has put together an entertaining studio cast for NBA coverage, too, but I hardly watch. Without Barkley’s outrageous comments and EJ’s subtle jabs keeping the panel in check, other studio shows simply aren’t as entertaining. ESPN offers a refined, professional telecast. TNT’s resembles what a group of friends would say while watching a game.

(With that said, I still think TNT screwed up by making Shaquille O’Neal the permanent 4th member instead of Chris Webber. In addition to speaking loud and clear enough to understand, Webber is also wittier, more articulate, and not nearly as immature as Shaq. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed Shaq and Barkley’s constant banter as much as the next guy, I just wish Webber was a bigger part of the show.)

6. Although Kobe Bryant is one of the NBA’s ten best players of all time, he’s going to need some help if he’s to carry the 2012 Los Angeles Lakers to another title. Out of necessity, Kobe has returned to his former days of hoisting too many shots and carrying too much of the offensive load. Without Phil Jackson pacing the sidelines, Kobe has probably been given too much freedom.

What makes Kobe so great (intensity, desire, fearlessness) is also what causes his teammates to shrink from big moments. If they know Kobe is going to take the last shot or kick-start the team out of funk, why risk stepping on the toes of the game’s greatest competitor? Pau Gasol is a world-class basketball player, but when Kobe is dominating the ball like he is this season, Gasol is simply an above average forward.

The Lakers greatest asset isn’t Kobe Bryant. It’s their frontcourt. Even without the exiled Lamar Odom, the Lakers boast the league’s biggest and most talented center-forward combo. If the Lakers could ever convince Kobe to hand the reigns to Andrew Bynum and Gasol, and be more selective about taking control of the game, the Lakers would actually be a contender as is. Instead, Gasol is hampered by trade rumors and uncertainty, Bynum is still figuring out his role, and Kobe is trying to do too much. Sure, the bench is awful and the Lakers backcourt is one of the NBA’s worst, but their size and power down low gives the Lakers a chance. They simply need to ride the right horse. Right now, Kobe Bryant is not that horse.

5. Changes are inevitably coming over the next few weeks. As the trade deadline approaches, the Lakers are expected to make a move that could sway the balance of power in the conference. In fact, there are probably seven teams that are one move away from being outright favorites in the West. Who makes the best move will go a long way in deciding how the playoff seeding breakdowns in late April. While the Lakers are the popular trade participant, the Rockets and Mavericks could both make a major improvement with one move. Of course, what that move is I have no idea.

4. The Memphis Grizzlies are the biggest wildcard in the West. If/when Zack Randolph returns and how effective he’ll be will undoubtedly impact the playoff race. With Randolph, the Grizzlies have the size to bounce any team from the playoffs, Oklahoma City included. Even without Randolph, Memphis has managed to put itself in playoff contention and sits just 1 1/2 games out of the conference’s 4th seed. What’s more, the Grizzlies will have Rudy Gay for the 2012 playoff run. (Gay missed the last few months of the 2011 season and the playoffs.) With Gay, the Grizzlies have a go-to scorer and the most terrorizing trio of wing defenders (Gay, OJ Mayo, Tony Allen) in the league. A trade involving any western conference contender could certainly swing power, but not as significantly as the healthy return of Zack Randolph. (Unless of course Dwight Howard moves west.)

3. For my money, the Western Conference playoff race looks like this: 1. OKC Thunder. 2: TBD. 3: TBD. 4: You get the idea. That’s how insanely competitive the West is right now. Outside of the Thunder, the West boils down to nine teams battling for seven spots (sorry, Utah. I think we’ve seen the last of you until the fall.) Do I really believe the Spurs, Mavs, Clippers and Lakers are in danger of missing out on the postseason? No, but I’m not ready to bet my life that they’ll be there, either.

I think Denver gets in. Either I’m dead wrong about Danilo Gallinari or he truly is a rising star. When he returns and the Nuggets get Nene back; look out. As previously mentioned, the Grizzlies are hanging tough without their best player and should only get better. The Rockets are too balanced and too deep to miss the postseason entirely. Unfortunately, that leaves out Portland and Minnesota. Portland needs some front office direction and Minnesota simply needs another year to grow and gel.

2. Was San Antonio’s strong first half a fluke, or are they really as good as advertised. My answer: The Spurs are absolutely as good as advertised… and flawed, too. Here’s the thing; as long as Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter continue posting double-doubles along with a little production from DeJaun Blair, the Spurs are title contenders. What killed the Spurs against the Grizzlies in the 2011 playoffs (in addition to Manu Ginobili’s injury) was their inability to score in and defend the paint. While Duncan hasn’t gotten drastically better, he hasn’t completely fallen off either. More importantly, Splitter has significantly improved from last season. In addition to being a terrific defender, Splitter is now a capable scorer. The Spurs even run plays for him this season. (Something that seemed laughable just a year ago.) With Splitter and Duncan getting production inside, San Antonio’s shooters will have enough breathing room to fire away. Against Memphis last spring, the Spurs struggles inside allowed the Grizzlies defenders to stick to the Spurs outside shooters.

If you want to nitpick, the Spurs still live and die by the jump shot. Outside of Tony Parker and a healthy Manu, the Spurs don’t have anyone who can create their own shot. Regardless, the Spurs have the depth and youth to contend with the West’s up-and-comers (Denver, OKC, Memphis, LAC) and the experience to handle the old-timers (Mavs, Lakers). As a result, a fifth title for Duncan and the Spurs doesn’t seem as crazy as it did three months ago.

1. The Oklahoma City Thunder is the Miami Heat of the West: Immensely talented, unbelievably athletic, and the favorites to reach the NBA Finals. However, similar to the 2011 Miami Heat, the Thunder lacks experience, depth, and playoff coaching.

Obviously, last season’s run to the conference finals was a big step for the young Thunder. They clearly know what it takes to advance in the playoffs and win a long, drawn-out series. However, young teams often overlook the challenge of getting back to a certain level. Losing in the conference finals doesn’t automatically put you there one year later. With the way the West is shaping up, the young Thunder will probably need to get through at least one of the experienced, proven contenders (Spurs, Lakers, Mavs) before reaching the NBA Finals.

Playoff series’ slow down and favor teams that execute and play defense. OKC often struggles without a transition game, and they get very little offensive production from their frontcourt and bench outside of James Harden. Let’s also not forget Kevin Durant struggled at times last postseason against big, physical defenders. The team’s alpha dog role also became blurred between Russell Westbrook and Durant in the closing moments of tight games. Everything is hunky-dory right now, but these things tend to shift when the intensity picks up.

Thunder coach Scott Brooks could also be matching wits with the NBA’s two best coaches; Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle. Brooks struggled immensely in the Western Conference Finals last season against Carlisle. An inexperienced coach with a veteran roster can be difficult. An inexperienced coach with an equally inexperienced roster is a monstrous task.

I, like almost everyone else, see the Thunder as the most talented team in the West. Their three-headed monster of Durant-Westbrook-Harden is unmatched outside of Miami. I’m old school, though. Being the most talented team doesn’t earn you the crown until you dispose of the wily veterans standing in your way. Oklahoma City will undoubtedly have that opportunity this spring.

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