Which way are West teams going?
How important are recent developments in L.A., OKC, Houston and Golden State? We break down four Western squads as Kobe's Lakers face the red-hot Thunder (ESPN, 8 ET) and the Rockets battle the rival Warriors (ESPN, 10:30 ET) tonight.
1. The Lakers are 0-2 with Kobe. Is this meaningful?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Not really. I don't think anyone (other than the die-hard zealots who believe Kobe turns water to wine) expected Bryant to hit a running start, nor for the Lakers to assimilate him seamlessly. There is a feeling out process that's going to occur, and it doesn't happen overnight.
Curtis Harris, Hardwood Paroxysm: Yes. Since returning, Kobe has become even more of a defensive sieve, a growing problem over the past few seasons. But it's not just Kobe to worry about. The Lakers' point guard situation has become a blazing tire fire with Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar all injured.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Yes, it's quite difficult to reintegrate such an offensive focal point right after everyone was sharing the ball. Also, Kobe's defense was miserable in both games. It's hard to blame Kobe, considering he's 35 years old and coming off a surgery that devastates most NBA careers, but the tangible impact was a Lakers team that became gummed up on offense and worse on defense. On the bright side, Kobe's individual offense was good in his second game. It was certainly far better than I would have expected under the circumstances.
Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Sure is. Not because a still-recovering Bryant is torpedoing their season, but because it's a clear representation of what these Lakers are, with or without Bryant. Kobe is just the sugary coating for a decidedly average team that can't defend well enough or stay healthy.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Not yet. Because it's not as though the Lakers were 16-3 without him or anything. It's going to be a process to work him back into the rotation, and even still, we may not be able to properly evaluate it, especially with Steve Blake now out for six weeks. The Lakers aren't in a great position to start with, and Kobe was never going to be able to fix everything, at least not right away.
2. OKC has won 12 of 13. Now the favorite to win the West?
Elhassan: Yes! Until they lose a couple of games and/or someone else goes on a ridiculously hot stretch. The top of the West is crowded, and the playoffs will largely be determined by who draws the favorable matchups and not who was on fire in December.
Harris: No. OKC is more than qualified to win the West, but I don't think any team should be favored to win this tough conference.
Strauss: Yes. Do the Thunder have the best player in the conference? Check. Does Russell Westbrook look wholly healthy coming off his injury? Check. That combination alone makes them the favorite. And if Scott Brooks comes to his senses and stops playing that other combination of Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher? The sky's the limit. As an aside, the Thunder probably have the roster best-suited to beat the Pacers should that be the Finals' matchup. Westbrook easily beat Indiana's top defense in transition last time these teams met.
Verrier: Still the favorite, I'd say. All hail Rip City right now, but that 21st-ranked defense and pillowy opening schedule are harbingers of at least some correction. And while the Spurs are atop the Hollinger Power Rankings, the Thunder still have the front-line talent and young, up-and-coming bench that led me to pick them over San Antone in the first place.
Young: I'm not entirely sure they ever weren't the favorite. Perceptions changed for some because of uncertainty around Russell Westbrook and an inexperienced bench, but fact is, the season after trading James Harden they won 60 games, finished atop the West, had a near historic margin of victory and were the clear Western favorite before Westbrook's injury. Kevin Martin was solid last season, but if they could thrive without Harden, they were always going to be able to continue on without K-Mart, too.
3. Houston stomped Golden State a week ago. Does that matter?
Elhassan: Not as long as Golden State was less than full strength. But it does make for another chapter in an interesting, growing rivalry that began with Mark Jackson ordering his team to intentionally foul the Rockets to prevent them from reaching the made 3-point record.
Harris: No. Houston beating up a Warriors team isn't that noteworthy to me since neither team was entirely whole. Golden State needs a healthy Andre Iguodala, while Houston, apparently, needs to trade Omer Asik.
Strauss: It certainly does. Houston uses a style that currently gives the Warriors fits. The Rockets will play an athletic, 3-point shooting power forward such as Terrence Jones or Chandler Parsons, thus forcing David Lee into an unfavorable matchup. Jones went off in the first quarter last time these teams faced, sparking a blowout that didn't abate. Unless Golden State is willing to bury its starter on the bench, the Warriors will keep having problems against Houston.
Verrier: Against the Iguodala-less Dubs, specifically? Not really. But Houston is a-comin'. Even after nabbing a second superstar, the team never fully switched out of assets-building mode to start the season. But now that the thinly veiled showcase of Asik is over, the Rockets' reality is starting to match the contender visions, with an overwhelming offense and a legitimizing top-10 defense.
Young: It matters if only because it showed how dominant the Rockets can look at times. They're inconsistent and sometimes play down some to their competition. But when at full strength, they can be really good. So much of that is dependent on if the 3-ball is falling, but when it is, look out.
4. The Warriors have won only five of 12. Important in the long run?
Elhassan: This does matter; we know why it's happening (injuries), but in the long run, every loss puts them behind the lead pack vying for home-court advantage in the playoffs. The Warriors can't afford to dig too deep of a hole and end up starting their playoffs on the road in Oklahoma City or San Antonio or other similarly uninviting environs.
Harris: Yes. As noted above, they'll be much better once Iggy returns. However, there's long-term concern because these losses right now are damaging their chances of getting home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Strauss: Sure, if the injuries keep piling up. Golden State needs to bank every win it can, because it has little guarantee of health in the future. The Warriors training staff has a worse record than the team so far, with seven players missing time with injuries. Their only healthy center right now is Andrew Bogut, a guy who rarely stays healthy for long. It's worth noting that the team has disappointed a bit, even when factoring for injuries. Harrison Barnes hasn't improved as expected and Marreese Speights has been a disaster off the bench.
Verrier: Sure, if only because matchups will be so important for Western Conference playoff success. Be wary of any pre-Christmas conclusions, but every playoff-contending team should already be preparing to avoid buzzsaw, first-round pairings with the Spurs and Thunder, and the Warriors currently are heading straight for them.
Young: With Iguodala out, everything is cloudy with the Warriors right now. There have been some flaws shown regardless, but without Iguodala, there's been a severe drop off on the defensive end. In the 12 games with him this season, the Warriors allowed 97.2 points per 100 possessions. In the 10 games without him, it's 103.5. The Warriors are explosive, but injuries have exposed a few depth issues.
5. Going farther this postseason: Rockets or Warriors?
Elhassan: Not to sound like a broken record, but it's going to come down to matchups and health. We've seen time and time again in the West where teams jostle for certain seeds to play more favorable matchups (think of the Clippers intentionally dropping to the 6 seed to face Denver in 2006, or Memphis as an 8-seed versus San Antonio in 2011).
Harris: Rockets. They already have a better record and I have faith Daryl Morey will improve the team further, if he trades Asik. That being said, I suspect neither team goes beyond the second round.
Strauss: Rockets. Of these two teams, they're the offense that actually lives up to the hype. Not only would I pick them to beat Golden State in a series (for aforementioned reasons), but you could see their 4-out, 1-in style causing problems for other teams in the West. For example, San Antonio lost to the Rockets this season because Houston forced Tiago Splitter off the floor.
Verrier: Rockets. Despite how good and deep the West looks, the Spurs and Thunder are already climbing into rarefied air again, which puts a glass ceiling on contenders such as the Rockets and Warriors. One of these teams somehow likely won't make it to Round 2, and given the Dubs' current standing and injury woes, the edge has to go to Houston.
Young: Warriors. With their full complement of players, the Warriors are a nightmare postseason matchup. Because you've got to deal with the fireballs that Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will throw at you, the playmaking of Iguodala and the interior defense of Bogut, trying to beat them four out of seven seems like a hefty challenge.