Go West: L.A.'s challengers mount
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

No question that whoever comes out of the West should win the gold ring. Whether it's Los Angeles, Sacramento or Dallas (or even Portland or Minnesota), this is where the championship hopes of whichever Eastern Conference team prevails will sink below the horizon. As has been the case for the past three seasons, the Western Conference finals will match the two best teams in the league. Yesterday, we ran down the East. Today, we check out how each team in the West is doing so far, compared to pre-season expectations.

Dallas Mavericks (44-14): Overachieving
Barring a debilitating injury to Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki or Michael Finley, the Mavs should hold on to the top seed. This is a considerable advantage only because the Lakers are climbing in the standings and are no longer the eighth seed. The fortuitous probability, then, is that if the Mavs do square off against the Lakers, it won't happen until the conference finals.

Evan Eschmeyer
Don't be fooled by the rocks he's got, Evan's still the NBA's least-talented player.
Even so, the Mavs' variety of zone defenses are baffling when opponents face them only once every several weeks. Under the familiar scrutiny of a playoff series, however, all of their zones will be exploited. "Good teams will pick Dallas' zones to pieces," says a Western Conference assistant coach, "and their man-to-man defense is about as solid as a sieve."

Also mitigating against the Mavericks surviving into the final series is their lack of mean-spirited enforcers. Aside from Evan Eschmeyer (who just may be the NBA's least-talented player), Finley and the energetic Eduardo Najera, the Mavs' are strictly quick, slick and mushy.

The key to beating Dallas is to contain Nash. As another assistant coach says: "Nash puts the salsa on the Mavericks' enchilada, but he's not really strong. We try to bang him around as much as possible so that by the end-game there's no spice left in his game."

Sacramento Kings (41-18): On target
Still soft and finesse-y. Still talented and milksoppish. Still want to run, gun and have fun. Still impatient on defense and impulsive on offense.

How to beat the Kings? Play them hard. Respect their potential to score in bunches. And above all, slow down the tempo. How? Make them play defense for 20 seconds at a time. Gang up on the offensive glass. When they have the ball, contest every pass and every shot, contain the dribblers, and bang every cutter. Make rapid transitions from offense to defense. Get an early lead and force them to play from behind. Make Chris Webber a jump shooter and push him left. Send Mike Bibby to the basket. Take the ball to Vlade Divac's chest.

Still not ready to beat the Lakers.

San Antonio Spurs (39-17): On target
Gregg Popovich is one of the NBA's premier coaches -- so the Spurs are extremely active defensively, rotating with speed and intelligence, and alertly guarding the passing lanes. Opponents must use ball fakes before passing, and must also "see" the defense and resort to the third and fourth options on every set play. Patient and well-organized offensive schemes are also required to dull the Spurs' defense.

Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan is certainly the fire fueling the Spurs.
Tim Duncan, of course, is the fulcrum of San Antonio's offense and must be double-teamed. If he shoots well, however, the Spurs are tough to beat.

Otherwise, the Spurs like to share the ball, run S/Rs, and sometimes fall in love with jump shooting. And it's because they lack a second scorer -- Tony Parker is a situational scorer, not a go-to guy -- that the Spurs are somewhat vulnerable if they have to play halfcourt ball.

More than the Mavericks, more than the Kings, San Antonio has the discipline, the heart, and enough stuff to dethrone the Lakers.

Portland Trail Blazers (37-20): Underachieving
The Blazers offense is extremely limited: They want to run, run, and run some more. When they're not fast-breaking, their halfcourt game is stagnant -- especially exploiting a post-up or isolation opportunity. One-on-one and drive and kick. Period.

Quick shots? Bad shots? Good shots? The Blazers can't seem to tell the difference.

They play an aggressive, harassing defense, but they're too fond of gambling. The Blazers also exhibit a remarkable lack of ball-vision, and their close-outs are half-hearted and sloppy. Add up their poor defensive tendencies, and the result is plenty of open shots for the bad guys.

What works for Portland? Rasheed Wallace's exceptional athleticism, Bonzi Wells' forays to the basket, Scottie Pippen's smarts, Dale Davis' work ethic, and the sheer mass of Arvydas Sabonis. In fact, at 7-3 and 350-plus pounds, Sabonis is the only center in the league who has the bulk and the strength to keep Shaq from simply powering into the lane. Sabonis can absorb the initial contact and enable his teammates to double-team Shaq in good fashion.

What doesn't work for Portland? Their incredible lack of self-control.

The Blazers are a dangerous team, certainly capable of winning the championship. But when it's gut-check time, count on the Blazers to vomit on their sneakers.

Minnesota Timberwolves (38-21): On target
Another well-coached team -- Flip Saunders' playbook is about as thick as the Manhattan telephone directory, which always means a headache for opposing coaches.

Trying to contain Kevin Garnett is an absolute migraine. KG has evolved into a well-rounded offensive weapon, who'd just as soon pass as shoot. How to contain him? Match his overall intensity, muscle him off his favorite spots and contest his shots without fouling. Front him when he posts, pressure the passer, and get help from the weak side.

Kevin Garnett
Kevin Garnett and his T-Wolves are right on point and could be the playoffs' biggest surprise.
Wally Szcerbiak is an outstanding jump shooter with good hands, who must be tagged and sent driving into traffic. Radoslav Nesterovic is a highly-skilled -- but powerless -- big man. Anthony Peeler forces too many shots. Troy Hudson is a shooter trapped inside a point guard's body.

Minnesota's bench shoots too many blanks: Kendall Gill is strictly a runner and defender. Joe Smith is a rebounder. Gary Trent does not like to pass out of the low post.

To be effective, the Wolves' need to take the air out of the ball. To beat them, up the tempo.

At the other end, Minnesota was playing zones before they were legal. They have good quickness and rotate with the utmost efficiency.

Nobody wants to play the Wolves, especially at the Target Center. If Peeler's shots are falling, then Minnesota could be the surprise team of the playoffs.

Utah Jazz (33-24): Overachieving
So far, so good. But from now on is when the long season really starts to drag. Even the games seem longer, the balls are heavier and the sneakers turn to lead. The youngsters are quicker. The traveling more tiresome. Don't be surprised if the Jazz fade in the stretch.

Another reason why this is likely is Utah's overall lack of team speed. This means very few cheapo baskets, and mandates that most of Utah's offensive possessions require maximum body-banging.

Should the Jazz be caught from behind by the Lakers, they'd probably face either Sacramento or San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs and an early exit. The only possible scenario for a post-season curtain-call is for the Jazz to somehow leap over Minnesota and match-up against Portland -- a bunch of feverish numbskulls who could easily be befuddled by Utah's senior-citizen game plan.

In any event, neither John Stockton nor Karl Malone will grow any younger or quicker during the long, slow offseason.

Los Angeles Lakers (32-25): Underachieving
Who are the culprits here?

Who's responsible for the Lakers' sub par performance?
Shaq -- for being 30-50 pounds overweight the past several seasons, a condition which places undue strain on his feet and knees whenever he has to change direction in a hurry. And for delaying his latest surgery so as to avoid the rigors of training camp. As a result, Shaq is noticeably slower -- off the floor, laterally, and even spinning. His rebounding and shot-blocking capabilities, as well as his defensive rotations are now a step too late. Even so, Shaq remains the league's most dominant interior force.

Kobe -- for continuing to diss the hugely successful triangle offense in favor of seeking his own personal aggrandizement. Sure, he's scoring tons of points -- and perhaps that's the only way the Lakers can win these days -- but making spectators of his teammates will ultimately be counter-productive. Also blame Kobe for his risk-taking, head-turning defense that also puts his teammates in constant peril. In any event, it appears that Bryant has gotten exactly what he desires -- the triangle turned into a flat, dead line; an arrow pointed at him.

The team's role players -- for being victimized by gravity, age and a malfunctioning offense.

Phil Jackson -- for being a little too laissez faire this time around. (Here's the latest joke going around the NBA: Jackson named his kidney stone "Kobe" because it wouldn't pass.)

Mitch Kupchak -- for not bringing in a backup biggie or a veteran scorer.

It should also be noted that the most difficult teams to coach are those which are expected to win. And that it's not uncommon for defending champs to be bored by the regular season, and to believe that they can turn on their games whenever they wish.

So where are the Lakers now? Playing at about 80 percent of the effectiveness necessary to win another championship. But peaking at the right time.

Stephon Marbury
Steph's physique deserves some credit for Suns' success.
Phoenix Suns (31-27): Overachieving
Surprise! Surprise! The Suns are about 10 games better than they were a year ago. One big reason is Amare Stoudemire, yet most of the credit belongs to Stephon Marbury and Frank Johnson. The former for his new unselfish attitude, the latter for his tough love and his communication skills. In the weeks ahead, however, Phoenix will be hard-pressed to fend off the Houston Rockets and capture the last playoff slot.

Assuming Stoudemire inevitably collides with the infamous "Rookies' wall" and Shawn Marion's jumper remains too inconsistent, then the Suns will rise or set on how well Marbury can keep his powerhouse physique and mind power intact.

Should the Suns indeed qualify for the post-season go-round, Johnson's first full year in charge will be an unmitigated success.

Houston Rockets (30-28): On target
The Rockets play with energy and emotion at home, and are usually listless on the road. Talented, quick and selfish, Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley have sticky fingers and only look to make touchdown passes.

Rudy T. is always looking for mismatches. When he finds one, he'll call for an iso -- and he'll milk a successful play until it comes up empty. Otherwise, the Rockets like to use S/R with a re-screen, and to take 3s in any and all situations. Their favorite strategy is to let Francis drive and kick.

On defense, the Rockets like to sink, play soft on the wings, and force their opponents to beat them from the perimeter. Despite their overall team speed, the Rockets are sluggish when transitioning from offense to defense.

Houston is a scrambling type of team that utilizes Yao Ming mostly as an afterthought. This is a foolish notion, because when the ball is posted, the feeder will speed cut, squeeze or drift, and Yao is highly adept at making interior passes.

Generally, the Rockets win because of their athleticism, and lose because of their stupidity.

Golden State Warriors (28-30): Overachieving
The most improved team in the NBA, the Warriors' trademark is their rebounding at both ends. Troy Murphy is a position rebounder who has no post-up game but rarely misses an open jumper. Erik Dampier's offense is crude, and he's a below-par passer, but he's still active, aggressive and long-armed in the shadow of the basket. Antawn Jamison is another accomplished rebounder and, with a repertoire that includes face-up jumpers, right handed jump hooks and an occasional 3-pointer, he's also the Warriors' featured scorer. Otherwise, Jamison is soft, and doesn't like to pass or play defense.

Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson are an electric pair of high-flying guards.

For the Warriors, defending is difficult, and scoring is easy. Yet the team's Achilles heel is their perimeter shooting.

Should Eric Musselman goose these guys into the playoffs, he would merit serious consideration for Coach of the Year.

Seattle Supersonics (25-31): Underachieving
Even when Gary Payton was still in town, the Sonics were nowhere.

Ray Allen
The Ray Allen addition won't help Seattle's stormy season.
Subtract GP (one of the finest all-around guards extant), the energetic antics of Desmond Mason, and the lefty-slants of Kenny Anderson. Add Ray Allen (a soft, non-handling shooter who only has eyes for the hoop) and some roster-fill. Remaining behind is Rashard Lewis, a legitmate shooter/scorer. Brent is the best of the brothers Barry -- a two-way driver and shooter with a good right-to-left crossover. Predrag Drobnjak and Vladimir Radmonavic, a matched set of jump-shooting robots.

So where and what are the Sonics now?

A rag-tag team wandering aimlessly through the blighted remains of the season. And a front office in limbo, desperately looking forward to the offseason and the opportunity to lure free agents.

The Supersonics need far more than a compass to find themselves.

Los Angeles Clippers (19-37): Underachieving
The Clipsters are living proof that talent is not enough to win. Andre Miller, for example, who used to be mentioned in the same breath as John Stockton, Gary Payton, et al., is completely miscast as a playmaker on a team of guys who want to make their own plays. Yet it's almost understandable that because so many of the Clippers are free-agents-in-waiting, they're more concerned with the hope of a bright future than with the dismal present.

Don't blame Alvin Gentry, a realist and a workaholic. Do blame general manager Elgin Baylor for assembling such a mismatched squad. And above all, blame Donald (Less Than) Sterling's penny pinching for the mess.

What can the Clippers do? Trade the entire organization -- lock, stock and barrel -- for draft picks and paper clips, then declare themselves an expansion team and start all over.

Memphis Grizzlies (17-39): Overachieving
When Jerry West first announced that Hubie Brown would be replacing Sidney Lowe, old-timers around the league clucked their dismay. How old is Hubie? What does he need the aggravation for? Is he that broke? Hubie must be crazy!

Hubie Brown
Kudos to Hubie for putting the claws back in the Grizzlies game.
Of course he's crazy, but he's also a master motivator. Hubie can reduce every aspect of the game into its component parts better than any other coach in the league.

When a pivot man is fronted, throw the lob pass to the nearest low corner of the backboard and let him go get the ball. Here's how we'll play a double pick. The cutter is always tailgated. The bottom-side defender moves to close the baseline path, then opens it when the cutter circles his way through. The top-side defender halves the two pickers when his partner is shading baseline, then he steps up to bang the cutter and keep him from curling. And when I say 'bang," I mean it.

So kudos to Hubie for putting the claws back in the Grizzlies game. (Are there Grizzlies in Memphis? Jazz in Salt Lake City? Lakes in LA?) And the future does look bright.

Hubie's main task is to domesticate Jason Williams. Earl Watson has a future. Pau Glasol and Mike Miller (if he ever gets healthy) are bona fide point-makers. Lorenzen Wright is an active rebounder and scores enough to justify a starter's portion of PT. Shane Battier is smart and adaptable. Wesley Person is the designated long-range bomber.

Many pieces are missing, and defense is a significant worry. But given Hubie's passionate exactitude and West's ability to wheel and deal, Memphis just might be contending for a playoff spot in the foreseeable future.

Denver Nuggets (12-46): On target
The Nuggets would be a great college team with an excellent shot at winning the NCAA tournament. At the NBA level, they have only one very small consolation: Even though the Cleveland Cavaliers have the better talent and play in a less-competitive conference, Denver has a better record. And even with their abysmal record, Jeff Bzdelik has the Nuggets playing hard every game.

What to do? Keep Vincent Yarbrough and Nene Hilario, back up the truck and unload everybody else. And pray for divine intervention.

Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."



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