Dec 28, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) hits a shot over Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (3) and center Chris Bosh (1) during the fourth quarter of the game at the Moda Center. The Heat won the game 108-107. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Western Conference Power Rankings: Middle-Weights

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Handicapping the Wolves Playoff odds early on was an exercise I performed by dividing the fifteen teams out West into three categories — Contenders, Competition and Not Likely Either.

I should mention, since the possibility that I’m biased was raised earlier, I am absolutely, totally and completely biased — more than likely against your favorite team. As a fan of the league’s biggest doormat and punchline for the last ten years (not to mention its infancy), I’m not really obligated to apologize. I’m a Minnesota Timberwolves fan. So, moving on…

Group Two: The Contenders

Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies

There’s only four in this group because I considered the Wolves to be a part of it. Where do they fit, though?

The Blazers were the toughest of this group to peg last year. They succeeded despite having the least productive bench in the league (a pain Wolves fans can now appreciate) dragged by their super productive starting five to improbable success. Improbable because the Blazers carried a negative point differential to a winning record. Improbable because their starting point guard was a defenseless rookie and their starting power forward is often labeled soft due to his mid-range preferences on offense and slightly (SLIGHTLY) anemic rebounding totals.

Coming in this year, the Blazers had bolstered their bench production with free agents Mo Williams and Dorell Wright. They swapped J.J. Hickson’s empty stats for Robin Lopez — a big man with an active body but an even stronger rebounding allergy than Aldridge. Add the improvement Joel Freeland and the bench looks pretty good.

No way did I see Portland among the elite Contenders group. They’ve taken care of the teams they’re supposed to — 17-0 against sub .500 teams — and they’ve won on the road and at home (both 12-3). They most recently lost a heartbreaker to a LeBron-less Miami Heat squad at home to snap a two-game winning streak they began after losing to the Wolves.

Dallas was actually a team I had left for dead. After O.J. Mayo was blamed for quitting on the Mavs last year, they went out and got the man he replaced in Milwaukee, Monta Ellis. Monta has led them in scoring and regained some of the luster he lost after leaving Golden State. Dirk Nowitzki looks rejuvenated. Their big, old rotation is blended with a couple young role players. They’re currently the team ahead of the Wolves for the eighth spot in the West.

Denver is another team that appeared in shambles after last season. Andre Iguodala fled to Golden State (which had to sting a bit after they knocked Denver out of the Playoffs last spring) and Corey Brewer got paid by Flip Saunders to run in Minnesota. Ty Lawson has kept chugging along although the rest of the youth movement (JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried) remains stuck in neutral. Rookie coach Brian Shaw has continued to mine the depth of Denver (ten players averaging 20 minutes) with success. Danilo Gallinari has yet to make his season debut and there is no news as to when McGee will return. I didn’t even mention George Karl and the management upheaval. How are the Nuggest a half game behind the Wolves? (Hint: they’ve beaten them once on the road and at home.)

Like the Nuggets, the Grizzlies had some significant departures. Like the Mavs, the Grizzlies have some older pieces that could be showing significant wear and tear. Lionel Hollins is out, but Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph are still there (and 32 and 33 years-old). Mike Conley’s scoring is up from 14 to 17 points a night without losing fg% (it’s actually up from 44% to 44.8%). It appears as though Hollins exit hurt the Memphis defense without improving their offense. Last year the Griz led the league with 89.3 points allowed, this year they are 7th with 97.3. Pretty significant when the offense is scoring the same 94 points a night as last year. Also, Marc Gasol is injured. Yeah, that hurts.

Portland jumped from the middle of the pack out to the #2 seed. While Dallas sits at #8 with Denver and Memphis at #9 and #11. We’ll see if the Blazers can keep it up and if the Wolves can rise ahead of Dallas or higher.

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Tags: Dallas Mavericks Damian Lillard Denver Nuggets Kevin Love LaMarcus Aldridge Marc Gasol Memphis Grizzlies Mike Conley Minnesota Timberwolves Monta Ellis Portland Trail Blazers Ty Lawson

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