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Western Conference Midseason Report: A crowded race

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

We are halfway through the 2013-14 NBA season and it's time to grade out how each team in the West is doing:

NORTHWEST DIVISION
By Royce Young

Oklahoma City Thunder: A
(First quarter grade: A+)

After 41 games this season, they're 31-10. After 41 games last season, they were 32-9. And obviously this season has had some challenges and curveballs thrown at them, but for the most part they're on the same torrid pace as last season in which they won 60 games and finished atop the West. They've hit some bumpy parts without Russell Westbrook (a three game losing streak last week), but for the most part, they've maintained and survived, staying right in the mix for homecourt in the West.

Denver Nuggets: C
(First quarter grade: B+)

Is there any more of an inconsistent, infuriating team in the league right now? Currently sitting at 20-20, that feels just about right. One night they're beating the Warriors on the road, the next they're losing to the Cavaliers at home. Schizo, they are. Question is, which direction are they going to go in the second half of the season? Do they have an eight-game win streak in them to push back into the Western playoff picture? Or are they going to lose 10 of 12 and fall firmly into the lottery?

Utah Jazz: B-
(First quarter grade: D)

After the first quarter of the season, the Jazz appeared to be the worst team in the league and the kings of tanking. But in the last 20 games or so, they've turned into a decent, respectable team. Since starting 1-14, the Jazz are 13-14. That's like, respectable. They're a much different team with Trey Burke in the lineup and even though they lack depth and have serious offensive issues, they're able to put 48-minute performances together periodically. After a month, it looked like the Jazz future was dim and built on wishing and hoping. Now, it seems like something is really there.

Portland Trail Blazers: A
(First quarter grade: A+)

Remember: They finished 33-49 last season, and ended things by losing 16 straight games. Forty games in, they'd need to lose 40 of their next 42 to fail not surpassing last season's win total. And here's the best thing about them: Even when it looked like they were about to come back to reality, when things were about to start settling for them, the Blazers went on the road and beat the Spurs and Mavericks, extending a five-game win streak. The Blazers are for real, for real.

Minnesota Timberwolves: C-
(First quarter grade: B-)

Here's all you need to know about the Wolves first half of the season: They have 21 losses. And 12 of those have been by six points (two possessions) or less. They are 2-12 in two possession games. At 19-21 overall, the Wolves have been somewhat of a disappointment, but if only they could close games at a .500 clip, they'd be 24-16, good for a playoff spot in the West.

PACIFIC DIVISION
By Matt Moore

Los Angeles Clippers: B-
(First quarter grade: C)

They're curious because they're winning a bunch of games, but they haven't hit the level of play you want from a contender. They don't seem like a superpower, they seem like the same team they've been. Good, could be great, incredible talent, but lacking in the areas you want from a contender: defense, closing games, and the ability to win when they don't hit shots. Blake Griffin deserves more credit for what he's done this year, though, and there's still time for Doc Rivers to "fix" the defense, if that's possible.

Golden State Warriors: A
(First quarter grade: B)

Their record is compromised by a long stretch without Andre Iguodala, but at full strength, this is a dangerous team. Losses to Denver and Oklahoma City recently have taken some of the swagger away, but if they can peak at the right time, there's no telling how far this team can go. That's not just a cliche, that's a legitimate "this could be the best team in the Western Conference" statement. Steph Curry's actually in a shooting slump, too, if you can believe it, at 38 percent from three.

Phoenix Suns: A++
(First quarter grade: A+)

They've done the most with the least. Jeff Hornacek has helped create a team that shares the ball, plays fundamental basketball, makes the most of their abilities, and can hang with the best teams in the league. The Suns aren't the most talented, they just execute at a high level. Think of them as a poor man's Spurs without the Hall of Famers. They may fade in the second half, but the work already done is crazy. Did we mention they've made Gerald Green into a good NBA player? Miracles abound.

Los Angeles Lakers: D
(First quarter grade: B+)

Kobe Bryant has missed basically the entire season. That's a bad break, and obviously, it's being without their best player. But this team was assembled under some foolish guise of being "competitive" this year, built around a man who calls himself Swaggy P, the corpse of Pau Gasol, Ryan Kelly, Chris Kaman who can't get minutes, and a host of other guys who shouldn't see the floor as much as they do. Yes, the point guard corps has been literally decimated by injuries, but there's got to be a point when you recognize how badly this team is constructed. Let's not even talk about how much worse they got in the brief time Bryant was around. Things are not great in LA. But hey, at least they sucked up a huge amount of their future capspace on a 35-year-old who has played 17 years in this league!

Sacramento Kings: C-
(First quarter grade: D+)

The Rudy Gay trade has brought some interesting results. They cleared out their backcourt in that trade, and the Derrick Williams addition looks good, too. They still need to learn how to win, still need DeMarcus Cousins to get over being a petulant teenager, but there's a heartbeat here. For once, the Kings have something to work towards in the second half of the season besides a pick.

SOUTHWEST DIVISION
By Zach Harper

San Antonio Spurs: A
(First quarter grade: A+)

They continue to be the class of the Western Conference, no matter what Father Time and the rest of the league throws at them. The system works like Skynet and it doesn't matter which scheme you throw at them. If you want to pick nits at what they've done this season, they've only lost games to potential playoff foes and the Knicks. They've lost to the Blazers twice, the Rockets twice, the Thunder twice, the Clippers once, the Pacers once, and the Knicks once. They're losing to really good teams but it's not a real cause for concern. They have the best record in the West and don't look like they're going to slow down at all. Gregg Popovich is a pretty good coach.

Houston Rockets: A-
(First quarter grade: A-)

The Rockets have managed the 10th best defense in the NBA so far this season, which seems incredible considering their personnel. Now that they're getting Patrick Beverley back from his broken hand, that defensive ranking should get even better for them. The combination of Dwight Howard's presence plus James Harden's scoring plus the barrage of complementary weapons the Rockets have puts them very close to the elite teams in the NBA. Could a little more continuity and a defensive spark plug with Beverley have us considering them to be a contender when the playoffs roll around? It's not that crazy of a question.

Dallas Mavericks: B+
(First quarter grade: B)

This is a team we keep waiting to see tail off out of the playoff picture and they're still holding strong. They've feasted on teams below .500 with a 16-4 record and they're managing to put up one of the top offenses in the NBA (107.0 points per 100 possessions, fifth in the NBA) to offset a putrid defense (105.4 points per 100, 23rd in the NBA). Monta Ellis has had a resurgent year, Jose Calderon can't miss, and Dirk Nowitzki's leadership has been brilliant. If they could get any help on the boards (third worst rebounding team in the NBA), they could start pushing toward the sixth seed, rather than hovering around the eighth.

Memphis Grizzlies: B
(First quarter grade: B-)

The Memphis Grizzlies have managed to do what they needed to do in Marc Gasol's absence. As he was recovering from an MCL sprain, they were treading water and staying away from the undertoe. In the process, they may have become stronger because their role players learned how to step up and grab some confidence. The trade for Courtney Lee could bring about some hot streaks (and some very cold ones). Zach Randolph has help again and Mike Conley is playing at an All-Star level. Can they use their new stamina and strength built up to swim ahead and move toward the playoffs?

New Orleans Pelicans: C+
(First quarter grade: B)

The loss of Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson for extended periods of time should all but end their hopes for the playoffs. Even with the unreal performance of second year player Anthony Davis driving them, a point guard trio of Brian Roberts, Austin Rivers, and Tyshawn Taylor is unlikely to be what they need. With Tyreke Evans as the lead guard in some situations, will they have enough passing to keep pushing toward the playoffs? The Pelicans can still keep their draft pick owed to the Sixers but it would have to end up a top 5 pick, which seems unlikely. Good things happening in New Orleans moving forward but they need health and a little bit of luck.

You can view the Eastern Conference midseason grades here.

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