Jazz, Hornets, Lakers Excel Against the Best of the WestDuring New Orleans' 108-96 win over Golden State, ABC ran a graphic that showed how well the top nine teams in the West have performed against each other this year. Only three of those teams have winning records overall against the group: the Utah Jazz (15-9), the New Orleans Hornets (17-10) and the L.A. Lakers (17-11).
The Jazz made it to the Western Conference Finals last year and they started 12-5 this season but after a brutal 5-11 December that featured 10 road games they seemed to drop off of the radar for many basketball analysts and fans. While other Western Conference contenders brought in current or former All-Stars like Pau Gasol, Shaquille O'Neal and Jason Kidd, Utah's only significant move was trading Gordan Giricek to Philadelphia for Kyle Korver on December 29. Giricek and Korver own similar career averages but the Jazz went 19-3 in their first 22 games after acquiring Korver; part of that success can be attributed to an easier schedule but Korver's outside shooting touch also enabled the Jazz to spread the court, giving Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer and other players more room to operate. The Jazz have the best home record in the league but their mediocre road record has relegated them to fifth place in the West. Utah's core players have been healthy all year and, except for Korver, they basically have the same nucleus that made the good playoff run last year; that cohesiveness should be an advantage in the postseason but a big problem for Utah is that the Jazz are much more dependent on home court advantage than the other top teams and they are unlikely to have home court advantage past the first round.
The Hornets are considered one of the most surprising teams of this season but maybe we should not be quite so surprised; last season, Chris Paul missed 18 games and David West missed 30 games. West's extended absence proved to be particularly damaging; the Hornets were 28-24 when he played (.538) and 11-19 (.367) when he did not play. Also, Peja Stojakovic played just 13 games for the Hornets in 2006-07 but this season he is healthy again and he has reemerged as one of the league's best three point shooters. Paul and West each earned their first All-Star selections this season and it is only natural that more on court time together has translated into improved play not only from an individual standpoint but also in terms of the team's overall performance. The Hornets were a bit of a mystery coming into this season because we had never seen the Paul-West-Stojakovic-Tyson Chandler quartet play together for an extended period of time; they started just seven games together in 2006-07 but this season they have started 59 of 75 games, posting a 44-15 record in those contests. At least three of those four key players has started every single game for New Orleans this year.
As I have mentioned before, injuries and trades have effectively turned 2007-08 into three seasons in one for the L.A. Lakers. While Utah and New Orleans have enjoyed great roster stability, the exact opposite has been the case in L.A. The Lakers started out 24-11 with Kobe Bryant and Andrew Bynum providing a nice inside-outside punch. Then Bynum suffered what has effectively turned out to be a season-ending injury. Bryant kept the Lakers above water (6-5 without Bynum, including one game that Bynum missed prior to his serious injury) until G.M. Mitch Kupchak brought in Pau Gasol; the acquisition of the one-time All-Star meant that teams could no longer simply focus all of their defensive attention on Bryant and so the Lakers went 15-4, zooming to the top of the Western Conference standings. Then Gasol sprained his ankle and it was once again up to Bryant to keep the Lakers in contention, leading them to a 5-4 mark before Gasol came back. The Lakers have won both games since Gasol returned and may have to run the table to catch New Orleans for the best record in the West. While the Hornets started their best four players 59 times, the Lakers logged just 35 games with the Bryant-Bynum tandem (Bynum did not even start 10 of those games as he worked his way into being a major part of the rotation) and an additional 21 games with the Bryant-Gasol duo. The Lakers' 17-11 record against the best of the West is even more impressive when you consider that seven of those losses came without both Bynum and Gasol--and Gasol only played two minutes in the March 14, 2008 loss to New Orleans that may ultimately decide the race between L.A. and New Orleans for the best record in the West. Bryant led the Lakers to road wins against Dallas, Utah (snapping a franchise-record 19 game home winning streak) and Golden State despite both Bynum and Gasol being out of action in those contests.
We know that MVP voters are going to take won/loss records into consideration and recently there has been a lot of talk that if New Orleans finishes with the best record in the West then Chris Paul "has" to get the award. Paul has had a great season, he is a worthy MVP candidate and I don't have anything bad to say about his game; unlike two-time MVP Steve Nash, he is not a defensive liability in one on one matchups and unlike LeBron James he is a good three point shooter and free throw shooter. However, Kobe Bryant has long been acknowledged to be the best player in the NBA and for the past three years it was said that the reason that he did not receive the MVP was that his team did not win enough games. This season, Bryant has the Lakers in contention for the best record in the West despite not only dealing with injuries to his best two big men but also seamlessly adjusting to the midseason acquisition of Gasol; most of the other teams that made big midseason deals had to go through some kind of adjustment period, but Bryant and Gasol immediately clicked and Bryant certainly deserves a lot of credit for that because he very noticeably reduced his field goal attempts and sought to involve Gasol in the offense. It seems almost certain that the Lakers and Hornets will finish within a game or two of each other in the standings. Considering all of the obstacles that Bryant and the Lakers have overcome, it makes no sense to select the recipient of an individual award based largely on a one or two game difference in the standings. If Bryant and Paul were considered to be having roughly equivalent seasons and their teams were separated by 10 games in the standings then perhaps that would be a good tiebreaker. However, in light of the fact that Paul's key guys have been on the court with him throughout the season while Bryant's key guys have missed an extended amount of time, it only makes sense to vote for Paul over Bryant if you believe that Paul has had a significantly better season than Bryant has. The very fact that people are talking about using won/loss records as a tiebreaker proves that most observers do not believe that Paul's individual output far exceeds Bryant's, so the whole idea of breaking this alleged tie in such a manner makes no sense.
posted by David Friedman @ 9:36 PM