It's Wild Out West for the Worst Teams

The Washington Post
Sunday, March 16, 2008

The separation between success and failure in the NBA never has been greater, with the league poised to have the most 50-win teams (11) in history and the fewest teams with at least 25 wins (five) in 10 years.

The Western Conference could have eight 50-win teams in the playoffs, with a ninth team -- Denver is on pace to win 49 -- forced to become a postseason spectator. That has led to almost nightly beatdowns for the West's downtrodden teams.

Seattle, Memphis and Minnesota are each winning less than one-fourth of their games this season -- and they are a combined 8-68 against the top nine teams in the conference.

"The conference right now is so difficult and unforgiving," Memphis Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace said in a phone interview. "There is no question there is a disparity. Seattle is retooling. We've shifted into a new phase without [Pau] Gasol. I'll admit it's not the easiest time to be going through the transition."

Many teams have gone "all in" in hopes of winning a championship this season, but a select few have decided to fold already. Plus, the better teams in the league have been looting the lesser teams for talent since the end of last season.

Minnesota gave Kevin Garnett to Boston. Memphis gift-wrapped Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers in one of the more controversial trades of the season. Seattle sent Ray Allen to Boston, Rashard Lewis to Orlando, Kurt Thomas to San Antonio, and Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West to Cleveland. Miami planted the "Big Cactus," Shaquille O'Neal, in Phoenix. The New York Knicks didn't send a big-name talent elsewhere, but taking Zach Randolph has actually set them backward while Portland is on track to have its first winning season in five years.

"I don't view it as raiding because we all had our own individual reasons for the deals," Wallace said. The Grizzlies "are kind of on a different landscape than the Lakers. Our present situation wasn't going anywhere."

Wallace added that while the former all-star Gasol has helped boost the Lakers to the top of the West, the Grizzlies aren't any worse than they were with him. At the time of the deal, Wallace said, Memphis was 13th in the West. Entering last night's games, it still was tied for 13th. "Part of our reason for making that deal was looking at the standings every day," Wallace said. "If we had not moved him, maybe -- and I'm being optimistic -- we would've got to 11. It's not like we broke up the New England Patriots the day after the Super Bowl."

For the second season in a row, Minnesota forward Al Jefferson is on the team with the league's second-worst record.

But the drop-off from the 24-win Boston Celtics to the Timberwolves has been considerable, with Minnesota on track win 18 games. "It's a learning process," Jefferson, the centerpiece of the deal that sent Garnett to Boston last summer, said in a telephone interview. "And nobody's going to give you nothing. If you want to eat, you got to work for it."

Jefferson said the rest of the league had better get its licks in now because it won't always be like this. "You look at the good teams. At one point in time, they was in our situation," said Jefferson, one of five players averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds this season. "You got to build and you got to start from nothing. But I feel in a couple of years, we're going to be there. We're going to be one of the top teams in the West, too. We coming -- most definitely."

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