by Dallas Jackson - 12/02/2005
What is going on out there on the West Coast? Our usual Western Conference powerhouses are being overtaken by perennial doormats? How did this happen? Does Sacramento, Phoenix or the Lakers know that the regular season has started?
If you haven't taken notice to the NBA yet this season, and I know it is hard, the Pacific Division of the Western Conference looks like someone forgot to tell the "good teams" to play. The last place Lakers -- one more time, the last place Lakers-- are 3 1/2 games behind the division leading Warriors and Clippers. Warriors and Clippers? I know we are just 15 games into the season, but still.
Did I wake up in another dimension?
Two franchises not exactly known for good off-season acquisitions or spending money wisely, have done just that to role reverse the division, in the early going anyways.
The Warriors, probably less surprising than the Clips, did have high expectations for this season. With the late season acquisition of Baron Davis and the maturation of Troy Murphy, Jason Richardson and Mike Dunleavy, this team was thinking playoffs from day one. Their patience has paid off, as the Warriors are off to the franchise's best start in 15 years.
At 11-6, Golden State sits atop the division, tied with the Clippers, and they are doing it by winning the games they are supposed to. Their wins have come over teams in the bottom half of the league; the likes of Charlotte, Portland, Utah, Toronto and the Knicks -- twice. Certainly they are improved and can hang with the rest of the conference, but the likelihood of them winning the division is still very, very small.
Baron Davis is playing MVP-like basketball. Stealing a page from Steve Nash's book, the Baron is averaging 15.5 ppg to go with his 9.4 apg and 1.8 steals. If he can remain healthy and continue to distribute, the Warriors should be a lock to stay in contention in the West.
Jason Richardson and Troy Murphy have been consistent contributors for the Warriors since they were drafted together in 2001. J-Rich has seen his minutes and points per game climb each season with the club. While playing with more patience and confidence, Richardson has developed into the clutch shooter the Warriors haven't seen since Chris Mullen. He is taking more shots at a better percentage and getting to the line on a more regular basis.
Coupling that with teammate Troy Murphy pulling in a daily double-double, the Warriors have many bright spots. Murphy, in his fifth season out of Notre Dame, has developed a great post game. He has even added the three pointer to his arsenal, making him very difficult for most power forwards or centers to guard all over the floor. Despite missing most of the '03-'04 season, Murphy came back strong last year averaging a double-double for the second time in his career. His versatility is a strength that the Warriors have and will continue to exploit.
Another aspect of this team I really like is their depth. Golden State currently has five players averaging more than 10 ppg, with two others at 9.2 ppg, and Mike Dunleavy is not included in either figure, as he continues to struggle.
The rebirth of Derek Fischer has been a pleasant surprise for the Warriors. The former Laker cast-off, now in his second year with Golden State, has given the team big minutes and is the fourth leading scorer on the team. Fischer, while coming off the bench, is on pace for his best season as a pro, averaging 11.7 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and he is shooting better than all but one of his professional seasons.
Mickael Pietrus has also has stepped up and is improving every time down the floor. The third year guard from Guadeloupe, is averaging two more minutes per game more than last season, and has responded with more points, boards and a better shooting percentage.
All in all, the Warriors are much improved over most seasons in recent memory. The likelihood they win the division is not very good, especially with Phoenix and Sacramento still on the prowl. I would pencil them in as a seven or eight seed.
The other team currently sharing the division lead, but ultimately will be battling for the seven or eight seed with the Warriors, is the Los Angeles Clippers.
The one thing you could always count on from the Clippers was the draft day special on ESPN, featuring all the terrible picks they have made. So the Clippers have built this team in a less conventional way, bringing in malcontents and making a go of it.
Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley were brought in this off-season to compliment Clippers staples Corey Maggette and Elton Brand. Most experts insisted that both Cassell and Mobley would not be happy in the Clippers organization, however, both have excelled.
Cassell, a traditionally slow starter, has been a man possessed this year. Playing with a chip on his shoulder, Sam-I-Am has gotten the Clips off to a 10-5 start, including impressive wins in Seattle, Minnesota and Washington. He is shooting nearly three percent below his career average, but is converting more than ninety-percent of his free throws. He is also back to seeing minutes that made him an All-Star in Milwaukee. Logging almost 35 minutes a night, Cassell is averaging 16 points and 7.5 assists, and is making his teammates better. He is also playing with a certain humility; knowing he is not the face of the franchise. He doesn't want to be; he simply wants to prove everyone wrong for not wanting to sign him as a free agent this off-season.
Cuttino Mobley is cut from a similar cloth as Cassell. After six seasons in Houston, Mobley was sent to Orlando along with Steve Francis for Tracy McGrady. Within a few months in Orlando, Mobley was shipped off to Sacramento for Hedo Turkoglu. He finished last season in Sacto, and was not re-signed; Mobley had to take his craft to the Clippers. This was a curious off-season move, not because of Mobley's talent, but more of his disposition, and propensity for causing problems. However, adding Mobley has added stability at the shooting guard position, allowing Corey Maggette to slide back to his natural small forward position. Cuttino has been a model citizen so far this season and while shooting under his career averages beyond the arc, is still getting 15 points in 39 minutes a night.
Let's not forget Elton Brand, one of the best and most underrated players in the league, helps this team quite a bit. Brand often goes unnoticed by fans of the NBA, but his numbers rank with those of Tim Duncan. A 20 and 10 guy every year he has been in the league, Brand speaks softly and carries a big stick. A two-way player, Brand not only scores and rebounds but he averages two blocks and one steal per game over his career. This season he is playing 39 minutes per night, shooting better than 55-percent, and averaging 24 and 11 with 3 blocks per game. Brand is on pace for his best season as a pro. This season could compete for MVP.
The thing that will hold the Clippers back is their lack of depth. After the starting five, you are looking at Quinton Ross, Daniel Ewing, Walter McCarty and Chris Wilcox. Ross is the sixth man, but only plays 25-minutes off the bench and gets just 5 points per game. That does not bode well for a team in a conference that will battle back. The Clippers finished last season with a winning record, but missed the playoffs at the end. That could be the same unfortunate tale for this season.
While in the early going the Western Conference looks to be dramatically different from last season, we need to remember that the basketball season is much like a basketball game; you only need to pay attention to the last quarter to find out your winner. Amare Stoudemire will be back in January and the Suns will be able to tread water until then, they will make the playoffs. The Spurs, Mavs and Grizzlies are in. Sacramento will bounce back and make the playoffs. Denver is a lock. So that leaves Minnesota, Seattle, Golden State and the Clippers all fighting for the last two spots. If you ask me now, I'd tell you Minnesota and Golden State make it as seven and eight, but only time will tell.
Dallas Jackson can be reached via email with comments or questions: email@example.com.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's NBA picks service.