Outside looking in: Judging the West’s non-playoff teams

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Not a whole lot has changed in the Western Conference standings, so I’m going to take a short break from discussing the playoff picture and focus on the western teams whose playoff hopes ended this year, some earlier than others.

The Minnesota Timberwolves had another disappointing year. I actually feel bad for the T-Wolves, who would make the playoffs in the east with their 39-39 record. They have a top ten player in Kevin Love, but he might not be in Minnesota for long. Love’s contract expires after the 2015-2016 season, when he can become an unrestricted free agent. If Minnesota’s front office can’t reach an extension with Love before then, (and it’s doubtful they will) it is likely that Love will take his talents elsewhere, possibly Los Angeles, but everything is up in the air at this point. Obviously, the best hope the Timberwolves have for keeping Love is to assemble a winning team. I still doubt Ricky Rubio is the answer at point guard, but they have some nice supporting players, including the underrated Nicola Pekovic, swingman Corey Brewer, and rising rookie center Gorgui Dieng. However, if Love can’t carry a playoff team to the conference semi-finals or better next year, he will be gone.

The Denver Nuggets have had a forgettable season marred by injuries and underperforming role players. The Nuggets’ cornerstones right now are point guard Ty Lawson and forward Kenneth Faried. Both are quality players under age 27, but I don’t think Denver can seriously contend with those two guys as their best players. In order to do that, they need to have a good draft pick in this year’s deep draft, and trade some of their oft-injured players (JaVale McGee, Jan Vesely, Aaron Brooks, etc.) for more reliable assets.

The New Orleans Pelicans’ disappointing year was due in large part to injuries. But fear not Pelican fans; you have potential franchise savior Anthony Davis, who just turned 21 and will be a top three player in the league very soon. Here’s how good The Brow is: In his second year on a subpar team, he’s averaging about 21 points (52% field goal shooting, 79% free throw shooting), 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks per game. He deserves to win Most Improved Player this year, and his offensive game is markedly better. Davis is already a top three defensive player, thanks in large part to his ridiculous wingspan and great instincts. Along with great rim protection, he’s averaging 1.3 steals per game, which is exceptional for a 6’10” guy. And did I mention he’s only 21 years old? The Brow is already playing at an elite level, and has the potential to be one of the all-time greats when his career is over. Now the question for New Orleans is how to build a quality team around Davis. No one liked the Jrue Holiday trade with Philly when it happened last year, and it looks even worse now, with New Orleans most likely giving up their first round pick and Holiday missing almost 50 games this year. But they have plenty of good shooters, and Ryan Anderson’s return will help immensely next season. The Pelicans don’t have much salary flexibility at the moment, but they can only go up from here.

The Sacramento Kings are near the conference cellar again, despite having three players averaging 20 points or more (DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas and Rudy Gay). Those three guys, along with rookie Ben McLemore, are extremely talented individual offensive players, but bad on defense. The Kings are near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories, and they are also last in assists. Simply put, the Kings are not a good team. I really like the big-small duo of Cousins and Thomas as franchise building blocks, but what free agent wants to play in a small media market with a bad teammate (Cousins) who sometimes dominates and sometimes disappears? I see many more years of suffering for Kings fans.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ season has been a nightmare, and it appears next year won’t be much better. The Kobe Bryant-Pau Gasol-Steve Nash trio that was supposed to work wonders played exactly zero games together this year, with Kobe and Nash playing a combined 21 games. All three of these guys have contract controversy: Pau supposedly wants out of L.A., Kobe’s $46 million extension was an insane amount to give a 35-year-old coming off surgery, and 40-year-old Nash might be cut (and therefore probably retire) next year to create salary cap room. Basically it’s one gigantic mess. They may have found some decent role players in guys like Nick Young, Jodie Meeks and Kendall Marshall, but the goal for the Lakers is always to win a championship, not have decent role players. They should have a high draft pick and get a rookie that can make an immediate impact, and don’t count out GM Mitch Kupchak making a big trade or signing. However, the future is in disarray in L.A.

That brings us to the lowly Utah Jazz, who have had a predictably bad year. But the Jazz do have four good guys in place, all of whom are 24 or younger, in Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors and Trey Burke. Hayward isn’t good enough to be a go-to guy on an NBA team, but he is a solid NBA player with good athleticism and underrated defense. Burks is a quirky guard who provides great offense off the bench, but struggles on defense. Although he is turnover prone, Favors is a quality center who could emerge in the near future. Trey Burke has had an inconsistent rookie year (he’s shooting just 38% from the floor), but I expect him to get much, much better; remember, he was NCAA player of the year. All four of these guys will keep getting better in the next few years. Add in a potential superstar from the draft in June, and the Jazz have a very talented (but very young) team. The process to relevance will take some time for Utah, but they have pieces in place to make that happen.

Now, back to the teams that currently matter. There are several matchups between top teams in the West next week, but only three of them truly matter, since the top five teams are already in the playoffs, and the Warriors only need one more win to be in. In short, these games are vital in determining who gets the last two playoff spots: Phoenix at Dallas on Saturday, Memphis at Phoenix on Tuesday and Dallas at Memphis Wednesday. The Grizzlies are one game behind the Mavs and Suns for seventh place, but have two great chances the last two days of the season to get in. The scheduling is perfect too, with each team having a game at home. I’m giddy imagining how great these games will be.