NBA

Western Conference Playoffs: Seven NBA Teams On the Outside Looking In

Mike Dunleavy Sr.By Zachariah Blott

The season is over for seven Western Conference teams and their front offices and fans are already looking ahead to next year and wondering if they can improve enough to make a run at the playoffs. Here’s the rundown of how the 2009-10 season is looking for these clubs.

LA Clippers (19-63)

Local Optimism: Poor. Everyone knows the three perpetual truths of LA’s JV team: they were bad last year, they are bad this year, they’ll be bad next year.

Case for Improvement: They look good on paper: Zach Randolph (20.9 PPG, 9.4 RPG), Eric Gordon (16.8 PPG as a rookie), Baron Davis (7.7 APG, the guts to shoot important shots), Chris Kaman (8.0 RPG), Marcus Camby (2.1 BPG), Al Thornton (16.8 PPG). Someday they’ll get over the injury bug.

However… They have tons of guys who are great to use in video games but who do none of the little things that make a team win (see also: the opposite of the Houston Rockets). Everyone shoots bad shots. They need to start over, again, if they ever plan on winning games.

Verdict: Playoffs! At some point in the next 20 years. Maybe. They could have the worst record in the league next year.

Mike Dunleavy Sr. photo credit: Icon SMI

Memphis Grizzlies (24-58)

Local Optimism: Some. Fans like the improved production Coach Lionel Hollins got out of the team after he was put in charge in late-January. The players feel good about the team’s direction and fans expect an improvement from a club that started three rookies this season, but they stop short of mentioning playoffs for the near future.

Case for Improvement: They have several young players who look good on paper in scorer O.J. Mayo (18.5 PPG – tops among rookies), athletic forward Rudy Gay, hard-working rookie Marc Gasol (13.5 PPG and 7.8 RPG after the All-Star game), and slowly improving point guard Mike Conley (shot 41 percent from downtown this year, 4.3-1.7 A-TO ratio). As a team, the Grizzlies improved in every area after Hollins took the helm. They have money to spend this offseason.

However… The group of talent they have just feels like a collection of shiny toys; one has to wonder if they can gel as a team in a way that equals wins. They possess the deadly combination of poor shooting and poor rebounding. The Grizzlies need more frontcourt muscle and help off the bench.

Verdict: No playoffs. They should improve, but I’m curious to see if they are more than a collection of guys you’d like to see play 1-on-1 at the local YMCA. If they add depth to the frontcourt (Blake Griffin?), they could win 30-some games and be in a nice position for the future.

Breaking down the other five Western Conference also-rans, after the jump…

The Maloof Brothers Can’t Be Happy

The Maloof Brothers Photos Credit: Icon SMI

Sacramento Kings (17-65)

Local Optimism: None. At. All.

Case for Improvement: Kevin Martin (24.6 PPG) missed 31 games due to injury. Young big men Spencer Hawes (11.4 PPG and 7.1 RPG) and Jason Thompson (11.1 and 7.4) are quickly improving. Seldom-used Ike Diogu showed by the end of the year that he could be a valuable bench player next season. Your little sister could be their coach and it would be an improvement. They are guaranteed a top-4 draft pick, so they’ve already narrowed their scouting appropriately, not to mention they have the best chance of landing Blake Griffin.

However… They’re bad. Like really bad. Opponents shot a league-high .483 against them, including .406 from deep. They desperately need a point guard, but is Ricky Rubio the answer?

Verdict: No chance of playoffs. A steady point guard, a healthy Martin, and continued improvement in the frontcourt (especially defensively) could get the Kings 20-27 wins in 2009-2010.

Phoenix Suns (46-36)

Local Optimism: Not so bright. Fans want GM Steve Kerr to pack his bags and for the rebuilding to begin, but there are still some people who think the Suns should/can make the playoffs next year. A much higher percentage would like to see Phoenix clean house, starting with Kerr.

Case for Improvement: Steve Nash can still shoot and pass with the best of them. Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Richardson, and Amare Stoudemire are more-than-capable scorers. Interim Coach Alvin Gentry will hopefully be signed as the guy and continue his dedication to the running game they were built for.

However… Is anyone willing, able, or healthy enough to play defense? Most of the key pieces are getting old (Nash, O’Neal), have injury issues (Stoudemire), or are free agents (Grant Hill, Matt Barnes). This roster could be totally retooled next year, necessitating time to gel and find an identity.

Verdict: Possibility of playoffs if Gentry gets the Suns back to being the Suns on offense. Without improvements in the D, however, they could end up around .500 next season. If they truly are a team that’s strictly rebuilding next year, expect a massive drop in the win column.

Oklahoma City Thunder (23-59)

Local Optimism: Decent. Ticket sales are up and the organization talks like the playoffs are impending. Most fans like the team nucleus, but aren’t expecting a quick-fix miracle and will be satisfied if the Thunder continue to grow the right way.

Case for Improvement: They have an exciting core of youngsters—Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook—who all can do a little of everything. They lost 14 games by 5 points or less, which should drop as this group gains more experience. Without anyone on the team averaging more than 6.9 rebounds, the Thunder were still seventh in the league with a +1.41 rebounding differential. Starters Nenad Krstic (center) and Thabo Sefolosha (guard-forward) weren’t present for a combined 95 games. Can wunderkind point guard Shaun Livingston continue his solid play in the summer league and actually play a full regular season?

However… Their defense is terrible. The offense isn’t much better. They turn the ball over a lot and don’t force opponents to do so. They drastically need a big man who can be physical and solid in the paint.

Verdict: No playoffs. They need to improve a lot of areas, and a defensive-minded big man who won’t get shoved around would be a great start. Chalk them up for 28-33 wins.

Kevin McHale: Inexplicable

Kevin McHale Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Minnesota Timberwolves (24-58)

Local Optimism: Not much. The whole organization is a mess, but some fans think Kevin McHale has done a passable job as coach considering Al Jefferson missed the last 32 games (before which the Wolves were 17-33). Most people, however, want McHale and owner Glen Taylor out of town yesterday.

Case for Improvement: Al Jefferson is the truth (23.1 PPG, 11.0 RPG, 1.7 BPG) and hopefully will be OK to go by the beginning of next season. Rookie Kevin Love averaged 10 RPG for the second half of the season and showed an improved shooting touch. They have a hodgepodge of other players who could be important pieces: Randy Foye (16.3 PPG), Sebastian Telfair (9.8 PPG, 4.6-2.0 A-TO), and Mike Miller (career 40.1 percent 3-point shooter, 9.0 RPG over last 11 starts).

However… Taylor will still own the team. They play defense about as well as Michael J. Fox’s team at the beginning of Teen Wolf.

Verdict: No playoffs. They should be fine inside, but they still don’t have a guard you can trust to win some games. Modest improvement in record at best.

Golden State Warriors (29-53)

Anthony Randolph is Special

Local Optimism: Poor. Fans don’t trust the front office after a Lemony Snicket-esque series of bad decisions. The “We Believe” days are ancient history.

Case for Improvement: Rookie power forward Anthony Randolph is a physical freak who can do it all (15 PPG, 11 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 1 BPG in the last month of the season). They still run and shoot 3’s well enough to win some games they shouldn’t.

However… They are like the Isiah Thomas Knicks: they have a ton of guards who are supposed to be good, none of whom can actually lead a team. For all the points they score (108.6), their opponents do just fine scoring more (112.3). They were last in the league in rebounding differential (-5.06). They overpaid everyone.

Verdict: No playoffs. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked to see their record get worse.

Zachariah Blott is an English teacher in Portland, not an Amish Charles Dickens character.

Anthony Randolph photo credit: Icon SMI

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