In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, a few games can make difference between having home-court advantage and being out of the play-offs. GM's will be jockeying to collect that needed backup point guard that will hopefully make a two to three win difference. Most NBA analysts tend to overvalue the effect of trading deadline deals in helping a team. (This is why I think the Magic's decision to make moves far ahead of time will eventually pay dividends in the playoffs). But what about players who may make a substantial leap before the play-offs?
Let's take a closer look at West teams who are at .500 or above but who do not seem to be locks to make the play-offs. What young player's improvement could fuel a second-half surge?
1. Marcin Gortat, Suns.
Key Game: Boston, January 28. 19 points, 17 rebounds in a Phoenix win.
Signs of Life: As detailed by Valley of the Suns, Marcin went on a recent tear where he scored in double figures in 8 of 9 games. While Phoenix is still hanging around .500, if Gortat can average a double-double nightly (10.3 ppg and 7.9 rebounds at present), Phoenix could make the play-offs again.
2. Sam Young, Grizzlies.
Key Game: Los Angeles Lakers, February 7. 22 points in a 9-point Grizzlies loss.
Signs of Life: Like Gortat, Sam put together a recent string of good games, scoring 10 or more points in seven of the eight Grizzlies games from January 28 to February 8. The Grizzlies have not coincidentally gone 7-3 in their last 10 games to climb above .500. While the Thabeet Experience may yet hang over the franchise, perhaps it's time to re-evaluate Memphis' grade on drafting and developing young talent.
3. Wesley Matthews, Blazers.
Key Game: None.
Signs of Life: Have a friend who considers himself or herself a die-hard NBA fan? Ask him/her how many 30-point games Wesley Matthews has had this season. It's four, surprisingly. Once supposedly signed for defense, Matthews has had some impressive games. However, the problem for the Blazers is that Matthews has yet to show an ability to take over against good teams. Of course, it's a small sample size so far. If Matthews can find a way to have some great games against the best in the West, Portland may yet avoid the Spurs in Round 1.
4. No one, Jazz.
Key Game: The one in which the Jazz trailed after the first quarter.
Signs of Death: I went through the Utah Jazz roster in hopes of finding some hidden gem or prospects for improvement for this season. I see why Jerry Sloan retired. CJ Miles and Ronnie Price have been around the league for too long to be still considered works in progress, and Gordon Hayward is still a rookie getting used to the league. I would hate to see it, as I grew up loving Stockton and Malone. But don't be surprised if Utah falls out of the play-offs. Even the vaunted home-court advantage is nearly gone, as Utah has already lost 11 games at home this year (17-11).
5. Arron Affalo, Denver.
Key Game: Dallas Mavericks, February 10, 24 points and game-winning shot.
Signs of Life: After not even averaging double-figures last season, Arron went on a tear throughout the pre-season and first few games. Since then, Arron has seemingly cooled off. He reminds me a lot of Wesley Matthews in that before this season, he was considered as more of a defender than scorer. But as Ball Don't Lie pointed out, Affalo has been consistently improving over time. I doubt Carmelo will give this team a second chance. But the future backcourt of Affalo and Lawson makes me think that this Denver team may have a larger window to contend than previously thought.