06 February 2010
Try as we might to avoid discussing the Lakers every day, we can't help ourselves for one very good reason: Any discussion of other contenders in the West automatically takes us back to L.A. as a reference point.
The theme of the Western Conference this season has been "Will anybody challenge the Lakers?" Support for affirmative answers has been scarce; much like last season, when L.A. won 11 more games than any other team in the conference, the Lakers have opened up a large gap over the competition. That L.A. has done this despite nonexistent point guard production, the loss of Pau Gasol for 17 games and a laundry list of minor dings to Kobe Bryant suggests the Lakers are highly likely to claim a third straight conference title.
Nonetheless, two teams recently have made incursions into L.A.'s advantage in the standings, and with both facing the Lakers in the next seven days, it's time to evaluate their status relative to the conference's standard-bearer.
First up on Friday are the Denver Nuggets, who headed into the season with as legitimate a case as anyone to be able to hang with the Lakers in a seven-game series. The Nuggets took L.A. to six tough games in the conference finals last season and have made two subtle but important upgrades in the backcourt since then, replacing Dahntay Jones with a better shooter in Arron Afflalo and inserting rookie Ty Lawson in place of veteran Anthony Carter.
Afflalo has made 44.5 percent of his 3s, defended commendably and posted an 11.87 player efficiency rating (compared to Jones' 9.07 mark from last season), while Lawson has sparked the second unit with his blazing speed. In addition, his 16.42 PER is a huge upgrade from Carter's 10.86 from last season. Lawson in particular makes the Nuggets tougher for L.A. to handle, as defending quick guards has been the Lakers' Achilles' heel.
These Nuggets also have proved to be more resilient to injury than last season's outfit, even though they basically use an eight-man rotation instead of last season's 10-man lineup; small forward Linas Kleiza left for Europe, and power forward Renaldo Balkman has fallen out of favor. In fact, the Nuggets might be even better were it not for the piddling output from deep reserves Joey Graham and Carter, who have played 964 minutes between them and sport single-digit PERs.
Nonetheless, the Nuggets' hardiness has been especially apparent the past month, as they've played 11 games without star forward and league-leading scorer Carmelo Anthony, and won seven of them. The Lakers would struggle to say the same thing were Bryant forced to miss 11 games.
[+] EnlargeNoah Graham/NBAE via Getty ImagesBeating the Lakers in a seven-game series will be a daunting task for anyone in the West playoffs.
Overall, the Nuggets won 54 games last season, and Friday's Playoff Odds project them to finish with 52. But that data is a bit misleading. Last season, the Nuggets had the point differential of a 52-win team; this season, they have the point differential of a 58-win team but haven't been fortunate in close games.
All of which is to say this season's Nuggets squad appears deeper and better than the conference finalists of last season. Given that the Lakers have a hard time saying the same thing, it only makes sense to give the Nuggets a puncher's chance of emerging from the Western Conference minefield. However, one would like their odds a lot better if their pursuit of a legitimate 7-footer to challenge Gasol and Andrew Bynum came to fruition -- defending L.A.'s bigs has been their undoing in playoff defeats to the Lakers the past two seasons.
That said, there's no guarantee L.A. will face the Nuggets when the conference finals roll around. Their Rocky Mountain rivals, the Utah Jazz, have been arguably the best team in basketball over the past month while rocketing to No. 2 in the Power Rankings -- a tenth of a point ahead of the Lakers.
The confounding part here is that the Jazz are doing it with the same group of players who limped to the finish line last season, going 8-15 in their final 23 games, including playoffs. The same Jazz squad that humbly submitted to the Lakers in five games in the first round of last year's playoffs -- save for rookie Wesley Matthews, who replaced an injured Kyle Korver in the rotation -- now projects to win 53 games and own the conference's second seed in the postseason. That's an upgrade from last season's 48 wins, and as with the Nuggets, the difference in point differential is even more dramatic. Viewed through that lens, Utah goes from a 50-win-caliber team to a 56-win outfit.
At first, Utah's success is a bit of a puzzle -- of the seven returning Jazz players, only Carlos Boozer and Andrei Kirilenko are putting up better numbers than last season, and a couple of the players (C.J. Miles and Mehmet Okur) have been dramatically worse.
The key here is defense, which the Jazz have played only in spurts in recent seasons. Utah still hasn't shed its Jerry Sloan-era proclivity for fouling on every play, ranking 27th in opponent free throw attempts per field goal attempt. However, the Jazz have proved to be very effective in limiting second shots (fifth in defensive rebound rate) and forcing misses (eighth in field goal defense), with the result being the league's ninth-ranked defense.
Those are the full-season numbers, but if you really want to be impressed, check out what they've done the past month. Utah has won 11 of its past 12 games while allowing only two of its past 24 opponents to score more than 105 points -- and those would be the two best offenses in the league, Denver and Phoenix. Ten of its past 15 foes have scored 95 points or fewer; Utah needed nearly twice as many contests -- 28 games -- to accomplish that feat 10 times at the start of the season.
It's a dramatic departure for a club that always has been an offensive team. Matthews has made a difference as a rare rookie defensive stopper, but he's not the only one. Kirilenko seems reborn at the small forward spot, with occasional cameos at his more suitable power forward slot seeming to grease his ascent. Deron Williams always has been one of the better defenders at his position, with the size and demeanor to challenge bigger players when caught on switches. Okur might not be scoring as much, but he's providing toughness and physicality in the middle. And Boozer, although he'll never be mistaken for an All-Defense candidate, has stepped up his game on this end.
The Jazz get their shot at the Lakers on Wednesday, and while it's hard to see Utah making up a yawning seven-game gap in the standings over the final 34 games, the matchup could set the tone for a potential postseason showdown. As with Denver, however, Utah has fallen to L.A. in the postseason the past two years, and in the Jazz's case, it's an inability to defend Bryant that's been their undoing. Matthews' addition might only marginally improve their chances in this respect, as he's only 6-foot-4 and the 6-6 Bryant constantly scores from the post.
A lot of water can and will go under the bridge between now and the playoffs, however, especially if the Nuggets and/or the Jazz can pull off a major trade before the league's Feb. 18 deadline. In the big picture, both clubs are trying to get where L.A. already is. While we've seen recent signs that they're the two teams most likely to break the Lakers' stronghold on the conference title, we've spent most of the season calmly waiting for a legitimate rival to emerge and still haven't been bowled over by the options. Both teams have made encouraging progress over the past month especially, but it just shows how far they have to go to meet the standard being set in L.A.
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