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NBA trends: Is the East closing the gap?

Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine tries to score inside against Hawks forward Paul Millsap and center Tiago Splitter during a game Nov. 9.

Timberwolves guard Zach LaVine tries to score inside against Hawks forward Paul Millsap and center Tiago Splitter during a game Nov. 9.

(Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

News and notes around the NBA:

TRENDING …

East or West?

The Golden State Warriors are the best team in basketball — and the San Antonio Spurs aren’t far behind. But the Western Conference’s recent history of dominance over the East might be coming to an end. While it’s early in the season, the initial returns show 12 Eastern teams with winning or .500 records through Thursday’s games; only nine teams can make that claim in the West.

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Last season, three Eastern Conference teams made the playoffs without winning records (Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets), while the Oklahoma City Thunder missed out entirely as the ninth-place team in the West, despite a 45-37 mark. The NBA seems to be creeping closer and closer to leaguewide parity, albeit with everyone looking up to the Warriors.

Okafor impresses

With all of the NBA focused on Golden State’s red-hot start, the dismal Philadelphia 76ers are essentially the anti-Warriors.

The bright spot for the team is the play of Duke center Jahlil Okafor, whom the Lakers passed on with the second overall pick in June’s draft. Through a dozen games, Okafor is scoring 18.8 points a game, tops among the rookie class, along with 7.5 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. With rookie guard D’Angelo Russell still trying to prove his mettle, Okafor has a number of Lakers fans wondering what could have been.

LaVine’s emergence

Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio was recently hobbled with a hamstring injury, giving Zach LaVine, the 2015 NBA dunk contest champion, a chance to show he’s more than just a high-flying athlete.

Through a four-game span without Rubio, the former UCLA Bruin averaged 21 points and 4.5 assists while making 45% of his three-point attempts. The Timberwolves didn’t win a game over that stretch, but LaVine, the 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft, has shown he’s one of the top players in his draft class. Minnesota has a competitive roster, featuring LaVine and the No. 1 picks in the last two drafts, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Chalmers to the rescue

The Memphis Grizzlies haven’t looked quite like the same bruising playoff contender they’ve been for the last five years, losing six of their first nine games this season. Looking for help, the Grizzlies acquired reserve point guard Mario Chalmers from the Miami Heat. Immediately Chalmers has made an impact, averaging 18.7 points through three appearances — all Memphis wins.

Cousins’ suspension

The Sacramento Kings have already experienced their share of turmoil through this very young season. After a 1-7 start, the Kings held a vociferous team meeting that inspired a three-game winning streak and led to forward/center DeMarcus Cousins’ Western Conference player-of-the-week award.

The peace didn’t last long. Cousins threw a forearm to the head of Hawks big man Al Horford in a loss Wednesday in Atlanta, leading to a one-game suspension for Cousins and a loss in Miami without him the next day — keeping the Kings near the bottom of the standings in the West.

Limping along

The New Orleans Pelicans can partly attribute their miserable start —11 losses in their first 12 games — to injuries. Coach Alvin Gentry has not had a run of good luck in his first season with the franchise, losing forwards Anthony Davis and Luke Babbitt, centers Omer Asik and Kendrick Perkins, and guard Jrue Holiday for multiple games. Some positive news for the Pelicans: Talented guard/forward Tyreke Evans is nearing his season debut, after knee surgery sidelined him during training camp.

LOOKING AHEAD

Philadelphia at Minnesota

Monday at 5 p.m. TV: NBA League Pass.

The attraction here isn’t the woeful 76ers or the slightly improved Timberwolves. Rather, it’s the first regular-season battle between the two best centers from last summer’s draft: Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns. Okafor is a versatile scorer with precise footwork who’s already drawn comparisons to Tim Duncan. Towns was the No.1 overall pick because of his talents as a two-way player and he’s already produced a slew of double-doubles. Towns is 20, Okafor turns 20 next month, and this could be the start of a long rivalry.


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