Saturday January 2nd, 2016

2016 New Year’s Resolutions for all 30 teams

Fifty years ago, Bill Russell’s Celtics defeated the Lakers in Game 7 of the 1966 Finals by a mere two points. Thirty years ago, Boston’s 1986 title team was so loaded that Hall of Famer Bill Walton had to come off the bench. Twenty years ago, Michael Jordan’s 1996 Bulls set an NBA record with 72 wins on their way to the championship.

2016 need not be frightened by those formidable anniversaries. Thanks to the record-setting Warriors – and strong challenges from the Spurs, Cavaliers and Thunder –  the coming new year has a chance to add another memorable to the NBA’s “6” legacy. 

Stephen Curry and company will continue to chase history as the calendar flips, but what about everyone else? Below, find’s proposed New Year’s resolutions for the 15 Western Conference teams. Eastern Conference resolutions are right here. (All stats through Dec. 31.)

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Dallas Mavericks: Avoid backsliding at all costs.

Dallas is (19-14) easily the West’s biggest overachievers. Instead of mucking around with the Lakers and the Timberwolves near the conference’s basement – a reasonable projected fate given their roster turnover and early-season injury questions – the Mavericks are the West’s No. 5 seed, just 1.5 games back of the Clippers. In what looked like it might be the worst season of Mark Cuban’s tenure, Dallas instead has a shot at claiming home-court advantage in the first round for the first time since its 2011 title run. 

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The success is a testament to the strength of coach Rick Carlisle’s offensive system, the continued scoring brilliance of an aging Dirk Nowitzki, huge nightly contributions from Zaza Pachulia (the designated DeAndre Jordan fallback plan) and better-than-expected seasons from Deron Williams (enjoying a nice post-Brooklyn bounceback), Wesley Matthews (who somehow returned from an Achilles injury by opening night), Raymond Felton (who might just earn himself another real contract at this rate), and J.J. Barea (who might have mastered time travel). “I sure miss Rajon Rondo!” joins “This steak is too big!” on the list of sentences that have never been spoken within the Texas borders.

Here’s the rub: Dallas really needs its newfound good vibrations to continue at their current level. If the playoffs started today, the Mavericks and Clippers would square off in a must-see “DeAndre Bowl” first-round series that would surely produce about 457,000 free throws and at least 17 fines from the league office (Cuban, Doc Rivers, Blake Griffin, Lance Stephenson…). While the Clippers (+2.3 point differential) would be favored, the Mavericks (+0.6) would have a fighting chance. The same just can’t be said of a potential matchup with Golden State (+12), San Antonio (+13.5) or Oklahoma City (+8.1) should Dallas slide out of fifth into sixth, seventh, or eighth. In order to avoid fizzling out against much stronger competition, the Mavericks must hold on for dear life.

Denver Nuggets: Keep the faith in Emmanuel Mudiay.

It’s fair to call Emmanuel Mudiay the biggest early-season disappointment of the 2015 draft class. He hasn’t been scrutinized like Jahlil Okafor (whose off-court issues drew lots of unwanted attention) or D’Angelo Russell (whose presumed starting role was sacrificed for Kobe Bryant’s Farewell Tour), but the Nuggets’ teenage point guard has gotten off to a rough start. A really, really rough start.

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By any measure, Mudiay has been one of the least effective players in the league this season. He ranks dead last among rookies in Win Shares, he ranks 315th out of 324 qualified players in PER, he has by far the worst True Shooting % of any player taking at least 10 shots per game, and he ranks 423rd out of 424 players in Real Plus-Minus. The Nuggets’ offensive rating is 4.3 points better and their defensive rating is 2.3 points better when he’s on the bench. He can’t hit an outside shot and he’s struggled immensely with turnovers. On top of all that, he’s missed the last two weeks with an ankle injury. Really, really, really rough.

This is precisely the time to shout, “But he’s only 19!” The Nuggets understood that they would take some lumps by giving Mudiay the car keys, and while those lumps have been severe, they are hardly predictive. Mudiay is playing 29 MPG, and there’s simply nowhere for him to hide on a Nuggets roster that’s in transition. Very few point guards have been thrown into the fire to the degree at his age. Although the Rookie of the Year hype was clearly premature, Mudiay’s combination of size, strength, attack mentality and vision continue to make his future bright. If the Pepsi Center is still half-empty in, say, December 2017 then it will be time to start worrying. Until then, appreciate the flashes.   

Golden State Warriors: Consider bubble-wrapping Stephen Curry down the stretch

Should anyone really be proposing resolutions for the Warriors? Shouldn’t the Warriors, who own the best start in NBA history and have a realistic shot at setting the league’s all-time record for wins, be in charge of doling out the advice? They did, after all, master beautiful basketball, win a title and captivate a global audience last year.

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Stephen Curry missed two games this week with a minor leg injury and the results were stunning, even for those who were braced for a dramatic drop-off. Without Curry, Golden State often looked like a team that had gone through a brutal divorce during a blowout loss to the Mavericks. The care-free confidence and shock-and-awe offense were nowhere to be found. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson both responded well in beating the Rockets without Curry, but the major takeaway from this stretch was a stark reaffirmation of Curry’s status as the league’s MVP.

No other player, not even LeBron James, can match Curry’s drastic positive impact this season. With Curry, Golden State has the No. 1 offense (by a mile) and the No. 2 defense. When Curry is off the court, Golden State’s offense would rank No. 24 in the league and its defense would rank No. 28. With Curry, Golden State has a chance to enter the “Greatest teams of all-time” conversation. Without Curry, the Warriors (-6.3 net rating) are basically the Nets (-6.4 net rating). This week’s Curry-less stretch was a good reminder that the cautious approach to managing Curry’s minutes will be the best approach once the playoffs get closer. Chasing history is tempting, but making sure he’s rested and fully healthy when the postseason starts is easily the franchise’s highest priority. If that means DNPs and losses in early April, so be it. Good news: The Warriors’ careful handling of Curry this week suggests they have a clear-eyed approach to defending their title.

Houston Rockets: Put Dwight Howard in play before the trade deadline.

Dwight Howard’s tenure in Houston hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty expectations that greeted his arrival in 2013, but it’s been better than many people are willing to admit. Howard’s first year saw him land All-Star and All-NBA nods, and he posted monster numbers in a losing effort against the Blazers. His second year saw him play through injuries to post very strong postseason numbers (16.4 PPG, 14 RPG, and 2.3 BPG) as Houston advanced to the conference finals. Importantly, Howard has sacrificed his own offensive game for the sake of James Harden’s development, doing his part to make the best out of their superstar pairing. His spotty availability – not his personality, or ego, or anything else – has been the major cap on his effectiveness.  

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The biggest issue for Houston now isn’t whether Howard has delivered on his current contract but whether he can deliver on his next one. That’s the problem with four-year deals that include player options: judgment day comes awful quick. Despite his health concerns and declining numbers, there seems little doubt that Howard will attract a max-type offer if he opts out in free agency this summer. And, at age 30, he would be foolish not to opt out and lock in huge money for as long as possible.

There are probably better ways for the Rockets to build around Harden, now 26, than paying to keep Howard. They have a number of rising frontcourt pieces – including Clint Capela, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones – and Howard hasn’t consistently proven that he can still be the one-man defensive machine that he was in Orlando. While the Rockets might wind up deciding to roll with Howard for one more postseason and take their chances in July, they should also test the trade waters in February to see what’s out there. Losing Howard for nothing this summer wouldn’t destroy the Rockets like it did the Lakers three years ago, but moving him early to add some flexible longer-term assets has a definite theoretical appeal, especially in light of the team’s incredibly disappointing start. 

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Los Angeles Clippers: Prepare for the same formula to deliver the same results.

For a team that’s often haunted by and mocked for its unreliability, the Clippers sure produce reliable results. In the three seasons that their core four -- Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick – has been together, L.A. has entered the new year with records of 21-12 (in 2013-14), 22-11 (in 2014-15) and 21-13 (in 2014-15). This year, the Clippers have weathered injuries to Paul and Griffin while enduring poor bench play (again), and yet they boast a top-five offense and a passable defense, just like clockwork.

The hole at small forward lingers. None of L.A.’s offseason additions – Wesley Johnson, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute – has truly moved the needle individually. Together, the Clippers’ supporting cast remains at a serious disadvantage against the Warriors (as evidenced by their two meetings) and the Spurs (who look far better than they did during their first-round series last year). What’s more, Clippers president Doc Rivers has a weak hand to play prior to the trade deadline, and his best-case scenario is probably to hope he can pick up someone like Joe Johnson on a buyout. Absolutely no one should be shocked if the Clippers win a playoff series (again) before losing in the second round (again).

If the rest of the Clippers’ 2015-16 season sticks to that script, Rivers will need to decide whether he should ride the same group until the wheels fall off or break up his core group. Opting for explosives could mean parting with Paul, who at age 30 is older than Griffin (26) and Jordan (27) and who possesses significant trade value. Of course, thinking about trading Paul, who has slipped ever so slightly but is nevertheless one of the very best players at his position, is much easier than actually dealing him away. The Clippers’ defining question in 2016 might very well become: Is it time to change for change’s sake?

Los Angeles Lakers: Close the Byron Scott chapter.

Kobe Bryant’s retirement announcement was the best thing that could have happened to the Lakers, at least in the short term. It relaxed expectations for Bryant and his teammates, it shifted the focus off of a third straight terrible season to Bryant’s legacy, and it gave oft-maligned coach Byron Scott some badly needed cover. Every questionable decision from Scott – whether it was playing Bryant heavy minutes early in the season or, more recently, benching D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle – is now explained away with the, “Well, it’s Kobe’s last season” excuse. The veil has been completely lifted: Scott’s top priority has been Bryant, with everybody else ranking a distant second.

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This approach, while somewhat understandable given the unique circumstances, puts Scott and the Lakers’ young building blocks in a tough spot after this season. After watching Scott build the entire show around Bryant, at the direct expense of their development, and Russell and Randle really supposed to trust that Scott is the right guy to oversee their formative years? After receiving the tough love routine this year, and seeing the Lakers fail so spectacularly, are Russell and Randle really going to be in a forgiving mood, much less an open-minded one? After playing for Scott’s fifth straight sub-25 win team, dating back to his Cleveland days, are Russell and Randle really going to buy in to whatever post-Kobe vision he decides to sell? Will they ever see Scott as anything besides “Kobe’s guy”?

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Thinking through these questions is a bit cringe-inducing, isn’t it? The logical solution here is to part ways with Scott shortly after the season, thereby launching the post-Kobe era with a fresh-faced coach who can begin to form relationships with Russell and Randle without any lingering baggage. To get the most out of these lottery prospects, the Lakers need to make Russell and Randle feel like they are the organization’s most important pieces. While that obviously can’t happen this season, the transition must take place immediately once Bryant exits stage left. Scott will only get in the way.

Memphis Grizzlies: Prepare for war to keep Mike Conley.

All things considered, Memphis got off fairly easy last summer when it came to keeping Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies had just won a playoff series and pushed the Warriors in the second round, Gasol had ties to the city and was coming off of a career year, and there were no other major pieces in motion around him. Team and player reached a swift agreement and the Grizzlies moved forward.

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This summer is shaping up a little bit differently. For starters, the Grizzlies (18-16) got off to a mediocre start, as rumors about coach Dave Joerger’s job status and questions about the present and future of the “Grit and Grind” approach percolated. Memphis’s record is significantly better than its point differential, which may even out the rest of the way, and there are serious age issues in play. At 34, Zach Randolph doesn’t look like the same guy, and he was moved to a bench role in December. At 33, Tony Allen has also seen his minutes cut.

There’s also the matter of roster uncertainty: Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Matt Barnes and Mario Chalmers will all join Conley as unrestricted free agents this summer. Memphis’s position is complicated further by the fact that Conley, in his prime at 28, is easily the top point guard on the market in a year where the salary cap is set to rise sharply. He will be in position to name his price and sort through numerous compelling offers.

The Grizzlies can pitch Conley on their track record of success over the last half-decade years, their commitment to winning (Memphis has made numerous trades in recent years to find supporting cast members), their flexibility to retool around the Gasol/Conley pairing and, of course, a five-year max contract. That’s a compelling case, but will it be enough to keep Conley’s other suitors at bay?

Minnesota Timberwolves: Enter the 21st century on offense

Maybe this will be the year! While griping about Minnesota’s lack of three-point shooting has been a constant complaint in recent years, the situation has only worsened this season. The Timberwolves rank dead last in three-pointers and three-point attempts and they rank in the bottom-five in three-point percentage. Consequently, their offense has lagged in the bottom 10 this year even though Ricky Rubio has enjoyed good health, Andrew Wiggins has averaged 20+ PPG, Zach LaVine has taken a nice step forward from last year, and Karl-Anthony Towns has exploded onto the scene as the leading Rookie of the Year candidate. Minnesota has gradually accumulated many of the necessary pieces to become an entertaining powerhouse down the road, if only it can find the right mind to pull the strings.

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While Sam Mitchell deserves credit for stepping up during difficult circumstances following Flip Saunders’ death, the Timberwolves should conduct a full coaching search this summer with an eye towards getting the most out of its young stars. Towns, for example, possesses a pure shooting stroke and the mobility to extend to the three-point line, yet he’s attempted less than one-third as many threes as Kristaps Porzingis, his less-mobile, less-accurate draft classmate. That’s as damning as it gets. Wiggins, one of the NBA’s most promising wings, also continues to underperform from beyond the arc, in large part because he needs more systematic help generating good looks.

Saunders’ 2014 return to Minnesota was marked by an unmistakable nostalgia: his return conjured up memories of the Timberwolves’ best days, he brought back franchise legend Kevin Garnett, and his replacement, Mitchell, also has long-standing ties to the past. The trick for the Timberwolves in 2016 is realizing that Towns and Wiggins are so talented that their future is more promising than anything the franchise has experienced to date. Looking to the past had its purpose as Saunders moved past the David Kahn era and traded Kevin Love. It’s time for the franchise’s sole focus to be on the next 10 years, rather than the last 20 years, and that starts with finding the right forward-thinking coach.   

New Orleans Pelicans: Campaign for an amnesty clause in the next CBA.

The early buzz from NBA commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts has been overwhelmingly positive. Clearly, everyone wins if a lockout can be avoided. Well, everyone wins as long as teams that have made poor contract decisions can wiggle a mulligan out of the proceedings like last time.

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The Pelicans need an amnesty clause – the ability to pay a player’s contract but remove his salary from its books – as badly as anyone in the league. Why? Because they inexplicably gave center Omer Asik a five-year $58 million contract this summer. disliked the deal at the time, and it only looks worse with 32 games worth of hindsight. Asik has been simply atrocious, averaging 2.8 PPG and 4.5 RPG while fulfilling every fear that existed about his fit under new coach Alvin Gentry’s faster-paced system. Once a darling of many advanced stats thanks to his productive rebounding and rim-protecting ability, Asik has slipped badly on both counts, posting career-lows in rebound percentage and block percentage. Meanwhile, he remains a major minus on offense given his limited range and overall lack of ball skill.

While the rising salary cap will help make bad deals look a little better, it’s hard to envision Asik’s contract will ever look palatable. His telltale responsibility is defense, and the Pelicans currently rank 29th in defensive efficiency, topping only the Lakers. There are plenty of people to share the blame for that, including Gentry and Anthony Davis, but Asik can’t expect to get off scot-free when the Pelicans are outscored by nearly six points per 100 possessions when he shares the court with Davis. Realistically, the odds that New Orleans can trade Asik prior to the end of the current Collective Bargaining Agreeement in July 2017 are slim. Their best bet for resolving this situation and moving forward with the next chapter is almost certainly to make a clean break before the 2017-18 season with the help of an amnesty clause. 

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Oklahoma City Thunder: Re-sign Kevin Durant.

No team has had “2016” circled on its calendar longer than the Thunder. After enjoying eight-plus fruitful seasons with Kevin Durant, thanks in part to a five-year rookie extension that didn’t include a player option, Oklahoma City faces its first Decision in July. Will Durant extend his loyalty by signing a long-term deal? Will he keep his options open with a short-term contract that could align his free agency with Russell Westbrook’s? Will he bolt?

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The rumor mill has generally remained quiet, in part because Durant hasn’t fueled the fire and in part because the Thunder have avoided early-season drama, playing to expectations and cruising along in the Warriors’ shadow. While the Thunder could still use more reliability from its second-unit guards, their preferred starting lineup has an excellent +19 net rating overall this season and they are 20-7 (a 61-win clip) when both Durant and Westbrook are on the court. Nobody – not even the Warriors and Spurs – wants to see these guys in a seven-game series.

If there’s cause for stress, it’s that Durant hasn’t divulged much about his criteria for staying put. There’s no clear bar or checklist for GM Sam Presti to pursue, although he’s tried over the last 18 months to assemble a young and athletic cast around his centerpiece. Durant clearly has a bond with Oklahoma, he’s fond of playing with Westbrook and he has a high basketball IQ, so he understands that the Thunder’s sustained success over the last five or six years shouldn’t be taken for granted. Presti will hope that combination of factors, plus a nice postseason run this year, is enough to keep Durant in place. Meanwhile, Thunder fans should draw some peace of mind from the lack of obvious suitors: The Rockets and Wizards have both taken steps backwards this year, and the Lakers and Nets, the large-market usual suspects, are going nowhere fast. Still, only Durant’s signature ultimately has the power to determine whether 2016 will be a year to remember or a year to lament. 

Phoenix Suns: Find a bright spot.

The Suns have been riding the “treadmill of mediocrity” for a number of years, but it feels like someone jacked up the incline setting this year, sending Jeff Hornacek’s team sliding backwards down the belt. Tyson Chandler has disappointed. Markieff Morris has fallen off a cliff, throwing a towel as he descends. Eric Bledsoe has been lost for the season due to knee injury. Jeff Hornacek has seen his coaching staff carved up as the hot seat talk rages on. All told, Phoenix has lost seven straight games entering Sunday, with no real reason to believe things will get better in the short-term.

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This season’s turbulence a direct result of GM Ryan McDonough’s never-ending wheeling and dealing. Phoenix’s main pieces were thrown together haphazardly: both Bledsoe and Brandon Knight want the ball, Chandler is way older than both of them, and Morris’s steady development was seemingly squandered by the abrupt trade of his twin brother, Marcus. Hornacek was dealt a losing hand by management from the outset and the early-season adversity only made things worse.

Even if Phoenix somehow managed to push back into the West’s playoff picture, which is incredibly unlikely at this point, it wouldn’t really qualify as a success given the conference’s top-heavy nature this year. The Suns therefore find themselves looking for a source of distant hope, again. This year’s top candidate: Rookie Devin Booker, a smooth-shooting teenager who recently moved into the starting lineup. Despite modest numbers in limited action (6.4 PPG in 16 MPG), the one-and-done Kentucky product joins Heat wing Justise Winslow as the most promising players taken late in the 2015 lottery. Booker should enjoy all the time he can handle as the Suns stagger down the stretch in search of a more functional and sustainable core group.

Portland Trail Blazers: Protect the pick.

Last year held a wide emotional range for the Blazers: hope (an outside shot at title contention), excitement (buying at the trade deadline), despair (Wesley Matthews injury), sadness (early postseason exit) and, finally, devastation (LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure ended an era and set off a roster overhaul). Portland has picked itself up fairly well: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have formed one of the most productive scoring backcourt tandems, as expected, and a new, budget-friendly cast of characters in the frontcourt has helped avoid a total bottoming-out.

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Surprisingly, the Blazers (14-21) aren’t that far out of the West’s playoff picture, even though Lillard’s Ironman streak was snapped in December after three-plus seasons and even though the team’s defensive efficiency is bottom-10 and likely to remain that way. With the conference’s middle class in shambles, Portland theoretically has a shot at claiming the No. 8 seed, a prize that comes with the right to be swept by Golden State in the first round.

While a playoff appearance would be a testament to coach Terry Stotts’ ability and a nice morale-booster following Aldridge’s exit, Portland has bigger fish to fry in its long-term planning. Namely, it needs to add top-end talent around Lillard or risk spending his approaching prime stuck in purgatory. The small-market franchise’s clearest short-term path to talent is its 2016 first-round pick, which must be conveyed to the Nuggets if the Blazers make the playoffs. That sets up a textbook tanking scenario for the Blazers, who know exactly how this works, given that they crashed hard to improve their draft chances as recently as 2013. Portland’s goal down the stretch should be simple: Win enough games to claim a productive season, but not so many that they shut themselves out of the lottery. The pack of teams chasing the West’s eighth seed is deep and loaded with teams (the Jazz, Timberwolves, and Kings, to name three) who need the playoff stamp more than the Blazers. Let one of them take it.

Sacramento Kings: Avoid overpaying Rajon Rondo.

Sacramento has been witness to the entire Rajon Rondo experience – the good, the bad and the ugly – over the last three months. The incredible passes. The staggering assist totals. The triple-doubles. The promise of elite talent. The baffling night-to-night inconsistency. The limited offensive game. The inflexible demand for the ball. The name recognition. The incredibly abrasive personality. The distractions and controversy. The constant threat of disaster. A below-average offensive efficiency mark. A losing record.

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Given where the Kings were last year, and where they have been for the last decade, perhaps the organization still feels like its offseason acquisition of Rondo was worth it, despite his ugly episode with referee Bill Kennedy and the lack of progress in the standings. Maybe his flashes of hope shine a little brighter due to the fact that the Kings landed him on a one-year, $9.5 million flier. Maybe they view this as a defensible “limited risk, high reward” gambit that hasn’t led to a full-scale implosion (yet). Maybe they still view this season as better than a Rondo-less alternative.

That’s their prerogative. From the outside, Sacramento’s Rondo experiment looks like more trouble than it’s been worth, despite his league-leading assist total. His ball-dominant approach to offense continues to serve himself rather than the greater good, he hasn’t meaningfully elevated DeMarcus Cousins’ game, and he hasn’t improved the team’s culture (quite the opposite). Is this really the right player and person to anoint as a long-term building block? Is this really right guy to commit to with a big-money, long-term deal? Sacramento would be wise to look past the highlights and box score numbers when it weighs its contract offers to Rondo next summer. A major investment, especially a multi-year deal that would reduce his accountability, would be a mistake.

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San Antonio Spurs: Go hard for the West’s No. 2 seed.

The Spurs’ machine smirks at the idea of a resolution. After nearly two decades of dominance, the kinks have been worked out, the tweaks have been made, and the goals have been set, achieved and set again. Kawhi Leonard’s ascendance, LaMarcus Aldridge’s arrival, and good health all around has helped the Spurs cruise through one of the most dominant seasons of the Tim Duncan Era, or any era really. In fact, the Spurs’ +13.5 point differential, if maintained, would be the best mark ever posted in NBA history. The Warriors have some company this year when it comes to chasing history.

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Surely, motivation for this season’s strong start can be found in San Antonio’s disappointing first-round exit from the playoffs last year. Coach Gregg Popovich said recently that the Spurs suffered through “one of our poorest series we’ve ever played” against the Clippers, in a match-up that only took place because San Antonio slipped in the standings with a loss to New Orleans on the last day of the season. There were plenty of lessons from that series: Danny Green’s shooting is absolutely vital, Leonard can’t no-show as a scorer multiple games in a row, and Popovich might be better off letting his guys play rather than messing around with Hack-a-Shaq. The biggest takeaway, however, is probably the simplest one: Even though both teams won on the road during that series, San Antonio sure would have preferred to play Game 7 at home. Does Chris Paul hit his last-second runner over Tim Duncan on the road? Do the Clippers keep it together without an injured Paul earlier in the game if they’re on the road? Does Leonard waver late at home?

With the possibility of a second-round matchup against No. 3 Oklahoma City looming, home-court advantage will be as critical as ever for San Antonio, who is a perfect 19-0 at home this year. So far, the Spurs look well-positioned for a possible sprint with the Thunder for the No. 2 seed: Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have both enjoyed good health, Popovich is getting excellent contributions from a very deep rotation, and Leonard is the only Spurs player averaging more than 30 minutes a night. If the Thunder do make a late-season push, the Spurs would be wise to push back hard. Remember, they enjoyed total dominance at the AT&T Center during their 2014 title run, posting an 11-2 home record with a +14.3 point differential, including three blowout wins over the Thunder in the West finals.

Utah Jazz: Keep holding the fort.

The Jazz (14-17) should be mentioned among the NBA’s biggest disappointments so far this season, though it’s not really their fault. With access to its full opening night roster, Utah is likely the West’s fifth-best team right now, a turning-the-corner, defensive-minded group perfectly positioned to take advantage of the conference’s soft middle. Instead, major injuries to key pieces have intervened: center Rudy Gobert hasn’t played since November and guard Alec Burks is expected to miss an extended period of time following ankle surgery.

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Those absences have forced coach Quin Snyder to juggle like mad, as rookies Raul Neto (who took Trey Burke’s starting point guard job) and Trey Lyles (the Gobert hole-plugger) have logged major minutes. All told, Utah has just one lineup that has logged more than 100 minutes together this season: its opening night starting lineup, which hasn’t played together in more than a month. Predictably, Utah’s defense has taken a huge step back without Gobert, one of the league’s top interior defenders. Before his injury, Utah’s defense ranked 11th. In December, Utah ranked 26th.

Although Gobert still doesn’t have a set return date from his left knee injury, the Jazz should stay focused on the positive in the short-term. There’s little doubt 2016-17 will be better, once Dante Exum returns and the rest of the Jazz’s young core is another year older, but there’s no need to blow off the rest of this season. Utah closed out a 6-9 December with an emphatic home win over Portland, thereby taking a two-game cushion for the No. 8 seed into 2016. The Jazz, after missing the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, would treasure a postseason spot more than most teams in their situation. That goal is actually looking more attainable now than it did back in October, when Phoenix and New Orleans, among others, seemed like strong contenders. Pessimists will point out that the injuries have Utah on track for a rough (read: unwinnable) first-round matchup against Golden State or San Antonio. That’s true, but even an ugly sweep would count as a step forward, especially in light of the trying circumstances.


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