There’s Always Next Year: West Conference

Chris Paul Injury

Chris Paul Photo Credit: Icon SMI

By Zachariah Blott

The playoffs got rolling over the weekend, and some teams are already getting feisty (KG’s Celtics) and others already have more injury concerns (Utah’s Mehmet Okur tore his Achilles). Sixteen teams have started their quest to keep their seasons going for another two months, but 14 clubs are already done with little to look forward to this summer except the June 24 draft and free agency.

Here’s a breakdown of the seven Western Conference teams on the outside looking in, and what type of outlook they have while everyone else is playing for a banner.

Golden State Warriors (26-56)

The Hope: First of all, congratulations to the Warriors for not tanking the end of the season for higher draft position, going 6-4 over their last 10 games. Stephen Curry turned out to be a phenomenal rookie talent, registering a triple-double, shooting 43% from downtown, averaging 22-5-7 for the last three months, and increasing his shooting percentages and scoring load throughout the year. GS did a great job integrating D-Leaguers into the lineup, and they return all the key pieces (Monta Ellis, Corey Maggette, Anthony Morrow, Anthony Randolph, Andris Biedrins, Kelenna Azubuike) from the most injury-filled season in NBA history, resulting in this first-of-its-kind situation.

But Don’t Forget: When you have that many injuries, you know some of them are harbingers of what’s to come for a few of these guys. Because of all the lineup mix-and-matching going on this year and the good possibility of a new coach, there is not much focus for next year. Who are they going to build this team around? If it’s Curry, you got a few me-first scorers (Ellis, Maggette) who will implode the team and drive fans crazy. What are they going to do with Anthony Randolph, one of the most amazing physical freaks in the league, whose development is behind schedule?

Houston Rockets (42-40)

The Hope: Houston had a winning record with a 6-6 center starting in place of an injured Yao Ming for an entire season. Genius GM Daryl Morey has built a roster of role players who are able to play well together while forgoing personal stats for the sake of the team. The Rockets landed a true number one scorer in Kevin Martin, and it looks like they’ll be able to keep PF Luis Scola and PG Kyle Lowry. Second-round rookie Chase Budinger was a pleasant surprise as a versatile defensive player and providing some pop off the bench. They have Minnesota’s second-round pick (#32 overall), which Morey will get value out of.

But Don’t Forget: It’s obvious the Rockets need a taller interior defender to clean things up at the rim, and Yao Ming has had a string of bad injuries for the past five years. Kevin Martin is not interested in playing defense, and his shooting is streaky and often inefficient. 2010-11 is the Rockets’ last season with their main core under contract, then almost everyone of note becomes a free agent.

Los Angeles Clippers (29-53)

The Hope: Blake Griffin, the 2009 number one pick, “returns” next season, likely to be the Clips’ best player. Chris Kaman turned in one of his best seasons to date (19-9) and made the All-Star team after not even being listed on the ballot; there’s no reason to believe he can’t be just as effective next year. The LA JV team is way under the cap (on the books for only $34 million next year) and has the money to offer a big contract to an impact player plus make a run at decent role-players.

But Don’t Forget: Donald Sterling is still the owner, so nothing but bad karma is bound to follow the Clippers. Baron Davis is the league’s gutsiest player, but he can’t shoot (41% FG, 28% 3FG) and he loves to shoot. Eric Gordon, who has always relied on his athleticism, appears to have already plateaued, doing virtually nothing better than his rookie season. In case you missed it, these are the Clippers, so they will screw up the draft, screw up the head coach selection, and screw up free agency. God, justifiably, does not like Mr. Sterling.

Checking in with Memphis through Sacramento, after the jump …

Minnesota Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves Photo Credit: Icon SMI

Memphis Grizzlies (40-42)

The Hope: Lionel Hollins is a good coach for this squad and just signed a 3-year extension. They have a little bit of room under the cap, so they can add a few veteran contributors in the offseason. Zach Randolph averaged 21 points and 12 rebounds per, single-handedly keeping the Griz in some games. They made a run in the middle of the year, giving the fan base some hope for once. Memphis owns the Lakers’ and Nuggets’ selections in the draft, giving them three total in the first round. The club has zero contracts on the books after next season (depending on which way they go with some rookie contract extensions), so they have the opportunity to pinpoint who’s worth keeping and starting with a blank slate.

But Don’t Forget: Chris Wallace is still the GM, and he’s undoubtedly the worst in the business. Unless they fire him yesterday, lots of money and decent draft picks will certainly be wasted. For all of Randolph’s talents, he is the quintessential team cancer and loser. He’s put up eye-popping numbers forever, but he never wins. He’s been a starter for seven years, and he’s never been to the playoffs during that time; it’s not surprising Memphis wilted down the stretch. O.J. Mayo has exhibited no improvement or new facets to his game since high school – seriously.

Minnesota Timberwolves (15-67)

The Hope: Al Jefferson and Kevin Love are a great rebounding tandem (20.3 per between the pair) and decent scorers. Corey Brewer is a good defender and athletic contributor. Ricky Rubio might be on his way back any year now. The Timberwolves have heaps of cash to throw at free agents, so there’s hope they can land a few big-name guys who can help right away. In addition, they have three first-round picks (theirs plus Charlotte’s and Utah’s).

But Don’t Forget: Minnesota is a giant mess and will have a much tougher time turning it around than New Jersey. The T-wolves aren’t run by Mensa members, playing Love behind Darko Milicic and treating Jonny Flynn, easily the worst of their three first-round PG selections last year and the only one on the team, like a franchise guy. Their defense and offense are horrible, so the front-office better get real smart real fast when adding players this summer. It’s so bad, Minnesota’s beat reporters are spending time discussing what the Lakers would be like if they had stayed up north instead of the offseason.

New Orleans Hornets (37-45)

The Hope: Chris Paul, the best point guard alive, will be back after missing 37 games due to injuries. It turns out his back-up, Darren Collison, may have been the best pure PG among the deep rookie crop. He wasn’t the only first-year player on the Hornets to make a splash: SG Marcus Thornton showed good moves and range, averaging 15 points per on 45% shooting, including 37% from deep. Although starting to fade in their careers, David West, Peja Stojakovic, and Emeka Okafor are solid vets signed on for next year.

But Don’t Forget: Other than the point guard position, there’s nothing special about this overpriced team. They’re locked in for $73 million next year, so there won’t be many significant changes made in the offseason. New Orleans is likely to hire their third head coach within a year, so continuity is an issue. The squad’s defense was bad in 09-10, so something needs to change so that everything isn’t on Paul’s shoulders.

Sacramento Kings (25-57)

The Hope: Tyreke Evans is for real, becoming only the fourth rookie to average 20-5-5 (Oscar, LeBron, and MJ). He showed an ability to get to the line and to excel in crunch time. Tons of young Sac-town talent is still under contract: PG Beno Udrih, PF Carl Landry, C Spencer Hawes, F/C Jason Thompson, G/F Donte Green, and SF Omri Casspi. Also, they have a load of cap space, so they can bring in multiple free agents to help settle everyone down, plus the Kings have a top-six draft pick.

But Don’t Forget: They’re still hovering in that young-talent-we-pray-becomes-real-talent state of flux that simultaneously provides hope and fear (remember this club?). Coach Paul Westphal played around with lineups too much this year, so the Kings are still looking for a reliable rotation. Free agents aren’t clamoring to come to a bad club in a small city, so Sacramento will likely have to overspend to bring in good players. The top of the draft has a few head cases who could disrupt team chemistry.

Zachariah Blott cannot recommend Rick Telander’s “Heaven Is A Playground” enough.

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