Wednesday December 31st, 2014

With the New Year here, is happy to offer resolutions for NBA teams. Below, proposed resolutions for the 15 Western Conference teams. For Eastern Conference teams, click here. (All stats through Dec. 30.)

Dallas Mavericks: Find a new Brandan Wright.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made the right call in trading for Rajon Rondo, but pulling the trigger also meant parting with a first-round pick and a package of players headlined by Brandan Wright, one of the league’s most successful role players. The long, athletic Wright was shooting an absurd 74.8 percent for the Mavericks prior to the trade while providing solid contributions as a second-unit rebounder and interior defender. Starting point guard is clearly a much higher priority than frontcourt reserve, even if Wright was standing out big time in his role, but the Rondo trade necessitated further action from Cuban to plug his new hole.

New Year's resolutions for NBA teams: Part I, Eastern Conference squads

​Since the trade, Dallas has had to get by on occasion with wacky small ball lineups, particularly in a win over the Thunder when Tyson Chandler was out with back spasms. The Mavericks are on track to have the worst defense among the West’s eight playoff teams, and the West is full of teams itching to exploit that weakness. Chandler, 32, needs more help. Cuban’s best option in the short term might be finding a stop-gap until the summer and reports have linked Dallas with interest to Jermaine O’Neal. This summer will be another busy one for the Mavericks, as both Chandler and Rondo will need to be re-signed, but taking care of that business while also shoring up the interior isn’t asking too much. Golden State (Marreese Speights), San Antonio (Aron Baynes) and Portland (Chris Kaman) have all found affordable, effective backups in recent years. There’s also always the prospect of reacquiring Wright, who will be a free agent this summer.   

•  MORE NBA:'s 10 favorite NBA moments from 2014

Denver Nuggets: Break up the band.

As Denver frustrates observers with another season of streaky play, its management must admit that its core group isn’t talented enough or cohesive enough to achieve relevance in the West. The Nuggets are below-average on both sides of the ball, they haven’t restored their excellent home-court advantage at high altitude from seasons past, and they haven’t had a quality road win in six weeks (they won in Cleveland on Nov. 17). Time isn’t going to fix these problems, especially when a roster that’s lacking in cohesion and a basketball identity is expensive enough that attempting to add talent outright really isn’t an option.

The Nuggets are stuck in the middle and they can’t play their way out of it, so they should sell their way out of it at the trade deadline and over the summer. Ty Lawson is a keeper; everyone else on the roster should be up for discussion, with an eye towards stockpiling extra picks. GM Tim Connelly must understand that the so-called “treadmill of mediocrity” will keep spinning for years into the future if he continues to cling to this ill-fitting mess.     

Golden State Warriors: Move on from David Lee.

First-year coach Steve Kerr found an extraordinarily productive starting lineup when he inserted Draymond Green in place of the injured David Lee and moved Andre Iguodala to the bench in favor of Harrison Barnes. Although Andrew Bogut is currently out, the Warriors’ preferred starters have posted an astonishing +28 net rating together, and the younger Green/Barnes combination has the potential to work even better alongside the Stephen Curry/Klay Thompson backcourt in years to come. Basketball-wise, Green looks like a better fit than Lee. Money-wise, Green is sure to get paid this summer but he’ll still be cheaper than the $15.5 million owed to Lee next season.

Trends: Warriors off to stunning start thanks to NBA's most dominant lineup

​​Golden State has committed enough money to Curry, Thompson, Bogut and Iguodala that some tough choices are coming. The ideal solution, from a timing standpoint, would be to let this full group take its best shot in the West playoffs before addressing things next summer. A second unit featuring both Lee and Iguodala is a luxury that few teams can match, and the Warriors’ insane start should be enough evidence that a deep playoff run is possible. Once the offseason hits, Golden State would do well to dump Lee as cleanly as possible – a la Philadelphia’s trade of Thaddeus Young to Minnesota -- to ensure that Green can be kept around on a multi-year deal that could get surprisingly expensive for a 2012 second-round pick.    

Houston Rockets: Embrace Josh Smith.

The Christmas season brought two big answers for the Rockets: lame-duck coach Kevin McHale was given a contract extension and Josh Smith’s arrival finally brought clarity to a power forward position that had been a question mark filled by a bunch of different faces in recent years. Houston (21-9) has to be thanking its lucky stars: James Harden is in the MVP discussion, the defense has performed at an elite level even though Dwight Howard has missed some time, and now Smith joins up for pennies on the dollar after the Pistons decided to eat multiple years of guaranteed, eight-figure salary.

Josh Smith, through good and bad, will be a difference-maker in Houston

The onus will be on Smith to keep up with the West’s loaded stable of power forwards once the playoffs hit, but he theoretically gives GM Daryl Morey the opportunity to slow the constant roster spin just a bit. With Harden, Howard and Trevor Ariza already locked in for the future with multi-year deals, Smith makes sense as a longer-term solution, from a positional standpoint and also because he will still be cashing checks from Detroit. Retaining Smith would also allow Houston to take a slower approach with young power forward Terrence Jones, a promising talent who hasn’t played since early November due to a nerve injury. Jones is eligible for an extension next summer; retaining Smith past this season could ease the urgency of locking up Jones early. There’s plenty of time for things to play out, but a healthy Jones could even become a really shiny trade chip if Smith is able to thrive in his new digs.  

Los Angeles Clippers: Avoid getting caught up in the over-the-top hand-wringing.

It’s possible for a team to disappoint by falling short of championship expectations and still be really, really good. That’s life for the Clippers. To no one’s great surprise, the discussion around the franchise continues to focus on the weaknesses (a lacking bench, uninspired effort early in the season, an uninspiring small forward corps) rather than the strengths.

And yet their fundamentals remain pretty strong. For the fourth straight year, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin lead a top-five offense that can reach “unstoppable” territory when it clicks on all cylinders. Although the Clippers are the West’s sixth seed, they possess the league’s fifth-best overall point differential and have played a tougher-than-average schedule. What’s more, their go-to lineup of Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is smashing opponents with a +14.6 net rating. These guys should be right there again come May, even if they’ve regularly looked like they are going through the motions and even if their overall defensive numbers have taken a major step back from last year. Doc Rivers will surely be up to something at the trade deadline and during waiver season, as always, but proceeding carefully in the short-term is a fine, if unpopular, approach. Anyway, the Clippers face a decision on Jordan this summer that could be costly enough that it produces ripple effects on the roster. While Rivers should explore his upgrade options, there’s not much sense in courting unnecessary midseason turbulence when the offseason promises to bring a fairly major turning point.  

Los Angeles Lakers: Protect that 2015 pick.

Life is going to come really, really fast at the Lakers once Kobe Bryant eventually retires. The transition period during Bryant’s twilight has been awkward enough that many people will assume that the next chapter will necessarily be better and easier to manage. That’s a bad trap to fall into. The Lakers’ long-term plan is to hope that the strength of their brand creates a magical reloading of superstars, even though they’ve been passed over multiple times by superstars in recent offseasons. L.A. is severely lacking in pieces for the future and the lone bright spot prospect, Julius Randle, saw his development pushed back a year due to a season-ending leg injury.

Trends: Will revamped voting process improve the 2015 NBA All-Star Game?

​The 2015 draft is a critical crossroads for the Lakers as they prepare for the future. They must convey their first-round pick to the Suns if it falls outside the top five, and they really, really shouldn’t let that happen. The bad news is that there are three truly atrocious teams (Philadelphia, Minnesota and New York) below them in the standings and a crowded group of bad teams (Detroit, Utah, Charlotte, Indiana, Boston) that could easily bump the Lakers out of the bottom five. The Lakers seem committed enough to “winning” this season that they could very well shoot themselves in the foot by losing out on a chance to select a second franchise building block to pair with Randle. There have been plenty of missteps in recent years (Bryant’s massive contract extension, the departure of Dwight Howard, the constant cycling of coaches), but struggling through a forgettable season only to lose the pick would be a particularly damaging turn of events, even by the Lakers’ own standards.

Memphis Grizzlies: Start brainstorming new marketing slogans.

Did you know that the last time the Grizzlies posted an above-average offensive efficiency was 2003-04, when Pau Gasol was averaging 17.7 points and 7.7 rebounds at age 23, flanked by the likes of James Posey, Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, Bonzi Wells and Mike Miller? That drought could finally end this year, as Memphis currently ranks in the top 10 on offense, neck-and-neck with established juggernauts like Portland and San Antonio.

The Grizzlies are still “grit and grinding” their way to the top of the Southwest Division, but they’re also “moving and grooving” (consider this a placeholder) thanks to career scoring years from both Marc Gasol (20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds) and Mike Conley (18.3 points, 6 assists). Reliable production from double-double machine Zach Randolph and Courtney Lee have helped too, and flashes from offseason addition Vince Carter offer a bench boost that was missing in years past. Recognition of Memphis’s offensive progress has been muted because the Grizzlies continue to play at one of the league’s slowest paces, but don’t let that mislead you. These guys are still a long way from “Showtime,” but they’re no longer a defense-first, defense-second group either.    

Minnesota Timberwolves: Reassess Flip Saunders’ role (or roles).

It’s no secret that team presidents and coaches have different priorities, as executives are tasked with plotting things on a year-to-year basis while coaches must focus one night at a time. Asking one person to do the same job is difficult in any situation, but particularly in rebuilding situations, where the short-term pain of losing is unavoidable and the temptation to pursue quick fixes is ever-present.

So far, Flip Saunders hasn’t done much to inspire faith in his ability to hold both jobs in Minnesota. His Timberwolves are the West’s worst team, even though he traded a first-round draft pick for Thaddeus Young and weirdly added veteran point guard Mo Williams last summer. Saunders has also struggled to construct a clear identity for his younger players, except to encourage them to avoiding shooting three-pointers whenever possible. A season that began with some hope has mostly been dismal and lacking in defense. Trading veteran Corey Brewer does look like a promising move, as it opens up more minutes for the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad. Hopefully Saunders accelerates his youth movement with further moves prior to the trade deadline so that his roster can begin to come together around its most promising prospects. If that happens, Saunders, 59, must then decide whether he is the right man to coach the post-transition Timberwolves, or whether an eager, fresh-faced coach with more modern ideas might be a better fit for Minnesota’s development plans.  

New Orleans Pelicans: Go nuts with an all-out “Anthony Davis for MVP” campaign

Befitting the Pelicans’ middle of the pack status, things could be better and they could be worse. On the plus side, Anthony Davis is leading the league in Player Efficiency Rating and posting a ridiculous stat line (24.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1.6 steals) that hasn’t been seen since the days of David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. On the downside, Eric Gordon continues to hamper the team’s progress and the Pelicans aren’t meeting expectations on the defensive end (No. 26 in the league despite the presence of Davis and Omer Asik). On the plus side, New Orleans remains in the hunt for the West’s eighth seed for the first time in years. On the downside, those hopes will very likely be extinguished once Kevin Durant returns and the Thunder get going.

Anthony Davis, Pelicans need to evolve together to be title contenders

​​Realistically, the Pelicans could be an afterthought after the All-Star break. That would be a big-time shame considering the magnitude of Davis’ rise. At the very least, New Orleans should make the most of its season by pushing Davis’ case in a wide-open MVP race. Players on lottery teams are always overlooked in this discussion, but Davis could gain more traction than you might expect given LeBron James’ up-and-down year and Durant’s extended injury absence. Why not come up with a slogan, produce some slick extended highlight packages (there is no shortage of clips), buy a giant unibrow billboard in Times Square, and inundate voters with breakdowns of his statistical accomplishments? That could help make up for the Pelicans’ lack of national television appearances and, at worst, it would help put him among the preseason favorites next year. This guy is just too special to go quietly into the 2014-15 night.   

Oklahoma City Thunder: Get lost in year-old YouTube highlights.

Ready for a stat that will remind you just how badly the NBA misses Kevin Durant? The four-time scoring champ had scored a total of 202 points this year before returning to the court on New Year's Eve due to foot and ankle injury. By comparison, he scored 202 points in one week during a torrid stretch last January. The absence of Durant’s multi-dimensional scoring ability has certainly made the heart grow fonder this year, as the Thunder’s offense has fallen from No. 7 last year to No. 22 this season.

Thankfully, the sprained ankle didn't sideline Durant forever, it just felt that way because he missed out on the Christmas Day festivities. To celebrate his latest comeback, spend a few moments enjoying clips like this and this and this from Durant’s MVP 2013-2014 season. Pity the team that draws a rested, hungry Durant in the first round of the West playoffs; there’s still plenty of time for 2014-15 to be the year of the Thunder.

Phoenix Suns: Test the waters on Goran Dragic.

Phoenix should be happy, but not content, with its start to the 2014-15 season. Although the Suns are in the playoff picture for the moment, they will likely be bumped back to “oh so close” status once the Thunder are reassembled. Jeff Hornacek has his guard-heavy roster playing intense, fun and exciting basketball, but there’s still a sense that more talent is needed for the Suns to take the next step.

The Fundamentals: Why the Suns are struggling to take the next step

​Goran Dragic has, unquestionably, been the straw that stirs the drink for the Suns over the last two or three years. The question Phoenix must ask in advance of the deadline is whether he’s worth more to the Suns, or someone else, over the next few seasons? GM Ryan McDonough has two other high-performing guards in Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, and the three-headed approach has taken a bite out of all three guards’ numbers. Meanwhile, Phoenix is thin up front and ranks as a bottom-five team in rebounding rate. Moving out Dragic, a quality piece whose play-making ability and three-point shooting range would be welcomed virtually everywhere, could be a method for achieving some roster balance. There’s also the matter of Dragic’s impending free agency, as he’s sure to draw significant interest on the market next summer. Boston cashed in Rajon Rondo for a first-round pick from Dallas in a somewhat similar situation; might Phoenix be better off, long-term, by fully committing to Bledsoe and selling high on Dragic with an eye towards frontcourt pieces? Dangling Dragic to see what turns up is a logical play, even if McDonough ultimately decides to stay the course.

Portland Trail Blazers: Kick start Nicolas Batum.

For the second straight season, the Blazers are off to a dreamy start. Positive developments are everywhere: All-Star Damian Lillard continues to push his ceiling higher, Wesley Matthews is scorching hot from outside, the team’s defense and depth have taken meaningful steps forward from last year, and Portland has been dominant at home (15-2). The list of weak links is a short one, but it certainly includes starting small forward Nicolas Batum, who has regressed this year in all sorts of meaningful ways.

Batum, 26, has been a consistent performer for four seasons, a guy you can pencil in to knock down three-pointers, move off the ball, defend multiple positions and run some pick-and-roll as a change of pace. His numbers this season (9.3 points, 5 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 40 percent shooting, 26.2 three-point shooting) are down just about everywhere; his shooting numbers and Player Efficiency Rating are both at career-lows. His aggressiveness indicators – free throw attempts, field goal attempts in the paint, offensive rebounds – are also well off last season’s marks, even though Portland has dealt with some minor injuries to starters that theoretically could have led to more opportunities for him. The Blazers and their fans seem to have big ideas about their postseason chances after advancing in the playoffs for the first time since 2000 last year. To achieve those goals, Portland really needs Batum to shake out of his slump, to shoot more confidently, and to get back to crashing the boards like he did last season.  

Sacramento Kings: Ditch the "jazz" idea.

Kings owner Vivek Ranadive explained recently, after the abrupt firing of coach Michael Malone, that he wants his next coach to be a “jazz director.” Like the firing itself, this rationale didn’t make a lot of sense. The team’s franchise center, DeMarcus Cousins, is a budding All-Star who owns the paint with heavy metal ferocity. Sacramento’s next biggest contract belongs to Rudy Gay. It’s unclear what type of music Gay’s game resembles, but it’s pretty much impossible to make out beautiful horns when he sets up for his time-sucking, late-game isolations. Ditto for workmanlike forwards Carl Landry and Jason Thompson. Perhaps speedy point guard Darren Collison and the Kings’ young shooters, Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas, could be complementary jazz pieces, but every NBA coach and owner should know that the tone is set by the team’s top players.

Michael Malone takes fall for Kings' unreasonable expectations

​Rather than trying to immediately instill an entire, specific culture change that doesn’t really fit with either Cousins or Gay, Ranadive should refocus his efforts on targeting a coach who, like Malone, was able to make the most of the available pieces. Otherwise, he runs the risk of losing or marginalizing the talent he has on hand as he pursues a vision that may or may not ever be fulfilled (and that may or may not actually prove to be successful and sustainable). 

San Antonio Spurs: Appreciate Kawhi Leonard.

It’s about that time for the annual war between “The Spurs have to fall off one of these years” and “The Spurs will be fine once the playoffs star.” This year’s discussion adds a wrinkle because the defending champs have slipped to seventh in the West standings and just suffered their first full month with a losing record since February 1999. A host of injury problems and a tough schedule have factored into their performance to date.

By far the most-overlooked major injury of this season has been Kawhi Leonard. Somehow, winning the 2014 Finals MVP at age 22 wasn’t enough to vault him into the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook/Derrick Rose discussion. Sure enough, San Antonio’s struggles have coincided with Leonard’s absence due to a hand injury; the Spurs are 16-7 with Leonard and 3-7. The impact data tells an even more convincing story: Leonard boasts a team-best +12.1 net rating, he improves the Spurs’ offense from 104.1 when he’s off the court to 106.5 when he’s on the court, and he dramatically improves the Spurs’ defense from 105.6 when he’s off the court to a sterling 94.4 when he’s on the court. Leonard doesn’t yet have an official recovery timetable, but this much is clear: his return, much like Durant’s in Oklahoma City, has the power to make San Antonio great again.

Utah Jazz: Try another starting point guard.

Utah entered the season with good reason to believe that Trey Burke would take a step forward in his second year. The 22-year-old Burke got a late start as a rookie due to injury and he had the benefit of a new coach in Quin Snyder who seemed capable of putting his players in better positions to succeed. Instead, Burke’s stats (11.8 points, 5.1 assists) look very similar to last year, his dreadful shooting numbers have fallen off from his rookie year, and his Player Efficiency Rating is well below average. To make matters worse, there’s really no hiding him, as the West’s point guard crop is stocked with All-Star types. Burke’s defensive rating of 111.7 is the worst among Utah’s regularly used rotation players.    

Many have and will continue to call for 2014 lottery pick Dante Exum to taken on an enhanced role. That’s certainly a worthwhile idea as the Jazz continue to work their way towards another trip to the lottery. Waiting on Exum will require lots of patience, and Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey shouldn’t hesitate to explore outside options at the position. Remember, Utah has already committed long-term dollars to Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Alec Burks, and those contracts require progress towards winning. Next summer’s point guard market will include Goran Dragic, Reggie Jackson, and Brandon Knight, among others, but Utah would be wise to poke around at the deadline rather than punting to the summer. Even with Burks lost for the season, there’s a feeling of untapped potential with this roster if it was just able to acquire the right conductor. 

For Eastern Conference resolutions, click here.

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