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Friday, October 16, 2009

2009-10 Western Conference Preview

Last year, I correctly picked seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams. I matched that mark in 2007-08 and went 6/8 in both 2006-07 and 2005-06, putting my four year percentage at .813 (26/32).

Yesterday I posted my Eastern Conference Preview; this preview has the same format, with the following eight teams ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships).

1) L.A. Lakers: Reasons for hope: LeBron James had the most productive regular season of any NBA player in 2009 and deservedly won the MVP but during the playoffs Kobe Bryant demonstrated that he still has the most complete skill set of any player in the league. Bryant's ability to consistently make the midrange jump shot not only opens up driving lanes for him but affects the way opposing teams defend his teammates, enabling the other Lakers to feast on wide open looks because Bryant simply must be trapped in any screen/roll situation (teams can sag off of James because he is not as deadly or consistent from midrange as Bryant is, even though James laudably has improved his three point and free throw percentages). Bryant's attention to detail at both ends of the court--showcased brilliantly in Spike Lee's Kobe: Doin' Work--sets a wonderful example for his teammates; Bryant's work ethic profoundly influenced his Lakers' teammates, mirroring the impact that Bryant had on his Team USA teammates: look at how many of those guys played the best defense of their careers during the Olympics and then carried over that kind of effort to the 2008-09 regular season--Bryant set the tone from the start for Team USA by approaching the coaching staff and asking who they wanted him to "take out" (i.e., smother defensively).

It is fascinating to take a close look at how the perceptions of Bryant's supporting cast have evolved in the wake of the Lakers' 2008 Finals appearance and the 2009 Championship. Pau Gasol made one All-Star appearance in his first six and a half NBA seasons before teaming up with Bryant early in 2008--but since joining forces with Bryant and making the shift from being the offensive focal point to the second option Gasol's field goal percentage has soared from the low .500s to the high .500s, he made the All-NBA Third Team in 2009 and he has even convinced some deluded souls that he is the best/most valuable player on the Lakers. Gasol is a tremendously skilled big man--and I think that he should have made the All-NBA Second Team last season--but it is foolish to suggest that Gasol is better than Bryant. Gasol is perfectly suited--skill-set wise and psychologically--to be the Lakers' second option; Bryant accepts the double-teams, the physical play and the burden of being the focal point of the opposing defense, while Gasol gets to play one on one (or sometimes one on none when he works the screen/roll with Bryant and Bryant gets trapped) and utilize his finely honed skills without having to carry the brunt of the load. The Memphis Grizzlies understood that they would never win a title with Gasol as their best player and that is why they hit the "reboot" button; whether their "reboot" will be successful is an entirely different issue but the point is that Gasol is in a perfect situation in L.A. as the second option behind Bryant.

Gasol's arrival bumped Lamar Odom from second option to third option and that is the ideal role for Odom; Odom's versatility is widely praised but his two most valuable skills for the Lakers are his rebounding and his ability to be a weakside pressure release when Bryant and Gasol run the screen/roll: if Bryant gets trapped and a rotating defender stops Gasol then Odom is available either as a backside cutter or at the free throw line, where he can shoot, drive or swing the ball to a wide open three point shooter. Odom is not as skilled or consistent as Gasol, so Odom is ill suited to be the second option--and anyone who thinks that Odom is the Lakers' best player and/or is well suited to be the first option is delusional.

In contrast to Gasol and Odom, Trevor Ariza's head got a bit swollen by the Lakers' success and the career journeyman convinced himself that he is a star in the making. Ariza proved to be a nice role player for the Lakers in 2009 but the Lakers pulled off a steal by in effect swapping him for former All-Star/Defensive Player of the Year Ron Artest. Playing in Houston this year without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, Ariza will rediscover how difficult it is for a journeyman to score in the NBA without playing alongside someone who draws double teams. Artest was reasonably well behaved last year; his worst offense--no pun intended--was probably his dreadful shot selection, but Bryant and Coach Phil Jackson should be able to positively influence Artest in that regard.

Jackson is a master psychologist who knows exactly which buttons to push (and which buttons not to push). Some fools questioned why Jackson remained so loyal to starting point guard Derek Fisher, but Jackson's faith was rewarded when Fisher came up huge during key moments of the NBA Finals.

Reasons to mope: The Lakers do not have much to mope about--particularly if they stay healthy--but it should be emphasized that they are not as deep as some people think. The Lakers regular starting five is talented--though not more so than Boston's Hall of Fame-stacked crew or San Antonio's trio of All-Star regulars (Manu Ginobili may not start but he is certainly part of their crunchtime lineup)--but Andrew Bynum is injury prone and inconsistent and Derek Fisher is slowing down. Also, the Lakers' bench--specifically Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton--did not perform well last year; in the playoffs, Jackson often had to go with a six man rotation with Bynum starting but only playing nominal minutes before Odom took his place (Bynum averaged 17.4 mpg in the playoffs and no Laker reserve other than Odom averaged more than 16 mpg during the postseason). If Bynum suffers his annual injury and Gasol or Odom tweak an ankle the World Champions will all of a sudden be giving heavy minutes to D.J. Mbenga or Josh Powell.

Bottom line: The Lakers upgraded their roster by swapping Ariza for Artest, they have the confidence that comes from winning a title and Bryant will make sure that they maintain their hunger. The Lakers are well positioned to win the 2010 championship but they will face a strong challenge from the San Antonio Spurs (if the Spurs stay healthy) and if the Lakers get past the Spurs the Eastern Conference champion will also give them quite a battle.

2) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: The Spurs significantly upgraded their talent level, adding swingman Richard Jefferson and reliable power forward-center Antonio McDyess to a roster that includes All-Star caliber players Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Spurs do not have a player who is as good as Bryant but their starting five--or, finishing five to be precise, since Ginobili often comes off of the bench--has no weak links and is at least as talented as the Lakers' best quintet.

Reasons to mope: Tim Duncan is not quite as dominant as he was a few years ago. Coach Gregg Popovich increasingly seems to be pacing Duncan during the regular season in order to keep Duncan as fresh as possible for the playoffs. Ginobili is very injury prone and the Spurs have no one who can replace his energy level/versatility when he is out of the lineup.

Bottom line: If the Spurs stay healthy they can pose quite a threat to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

3) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: As I mentioned in my Dallas preview for Lindy's Pro Basketball, "The high scoring trio that led the Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals--Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard and Jason Terry--is supplemented by future Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd and four-time All-Star Shawn Marion." The Mavericks have the talent and depth to be a championship caliber team.

Reasons to mope: Other than Howard, all of the key players mentioned above are on the wrong side of 30.

Bottom line: A healthy Dallas team is capable of winning 50-plus games and even putting a scare into the Lakers or Spurs--but it may be asking too much for a team so heavily skewed toward the over 30 demographic to survive unscathed from the attrition of an 82 game season.

4) Portland Trail Blazers: Reasons for hope: Brandon Roy is a versatile performer who looks like he will be a perennial All-Star; I like his skill set, his demeanor and his work ethic. LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden anchor a solid frontcourt. Newly acquired Andre Miller is an underrated veteran point guard.

Reasons to mope: Other than Miller the Blazers' key players are young and do not have much postseason experience.

Bottom line: Portland is talented enough to win 50-plus games and pose a challenge to an elite team in a playoff series but the Blazers will not likely beat the Lakers, Spurs or Mavs if those teams are at full strength come playoff time.

5) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: When healthy the Jazz can put four All-Stars on the court: Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur and Andrei Kirilenko. That nucleus led the Jazz to the Western Conference Finals in 2007.

Reasons to mope: Injuries to several of their best players put the Jazz off key last season and those players must stay healthy for the Jazz to once again be an elite team. Despite the Jazz' talent and experience they are a poor road team.

Bottom line: The Jazz seemed to be a team on the rise in 2007 but after a second round exit in 2008 and a first round exit in 2009 it is possible that this group of players has already reached their collective peak.

6) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: The Nuggets have made the playoffs for six straight years and last season they took advantage of the injury travails suffered by the Spurs, Jazz, Hornets and Mavericks to finish second in the West in the regular season before advancing to the Western Conference Finals. Energetic reserve Chris Andersen ranked second in the NBA in blocked shots (2.5 bpg) and helped the Nuggets to become a much stingier defensive team. Chauncey Billups averaged nearly nine fewer ppg than his predecessor Allen Iverson did in 2007-08 when the Nuggets won 50 games but Billups received a lot of credit for helping the Nuggets to become a more mature and more disciplined squad. Carmelo Anthony is a smooth, potent scorer and last season he proved that when he wants to he can play solid defense--but he has yet to commit to doing so on a night in, night out basis.

Reasons to mope: In the couple seasons prior to his Denver homecoming, Billups looked like he was aging, losing a step and somewhat injury prone (particularly down the stretch after enduring the long regular season grind). Did the now 33 year old guard revitalize his career in 2009 or merely enjoy a last hurrah? The track record for 6-3 guards in his age bracket is not great and he is under contract for the next two seasons, with the Nuggets holding an option for the 2012 season. If Billups starts to decline then the Nuggets will be shelling out a lot of money in 2010 and 2011 without getting much in return. Also, it remains to be seen if Andersen can sustain his 2009 level of play. Dahntay Jones, who signed with the Pacers in the offseason, did not put up gaudy numbers but the Nuggets will miss his defense, particularly on the nights when J.R. Smith shoots 3-20 from the field and decides not to guard anybody.

Bottom line: Allen Iverson is not a popular player in some circles, so last season provided a great opportunity for a lot of people to blame Iverson for Detroit's demise while also heaping praise on Billups for "changing the culture" in Denver. Billups played well for Denver but the reality is that the Nuggets only won four more games in 2009 than they did in 2008 and their rise in the Western Conference standings had at least as much to do with the injury misfortunes suffered by their rivals as anything else. It is doubtful that the perfect storm of internal and external factors that carried the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals in 2008 will happen again in 2009, so the Nuggets will not likely match their 2008 win total and thus slip back toward the bottom half of the playoff pool.

7) New Orleans Hornets: Reasons for hope: Chris Paul and David West provide a great one-two punch. Emeka Okafor, acquired in exchange for Tyson Chandler, is a solid double-double performer who provides more offensive punch than Chandler did.

Reasons to mope: The Hornets do not seem to have a clear plan. First they tried to trade Chandler during last season because they did not want to pay him big money, then they had to bring him back when he failed a physical and finally they dealt him for Okafor, a player who has an even bigger contract than Chandler does.

Bottom line: The Hornets do not have enough talent to keep up with the elite teams.

8) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: The Suns have a talented nucleus built around veterans Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Jason Richardson, Leandro Barbosa and Grant Hill, plus they have added some young players who they expect will benefit from mentoring by the team's veteran quintet.

Reasons to mope: As I explained in March, "three things have been consistently true of all of the various iterations of this team:

* The Suns have a lot of individual talent.

* The Suns have never been committed to playing good defense on a consistent basis.

* As a group, the Suns have not demonstrated mental toughness."

Bottom line: After the short-lived Terry Porter coaching experiment, the Suns have forever abandoned the idea of playing solid defense and will simply play a run and gun style featuring Nash at the controls, Stoudemire finishing in the paint and Richardson, Hill and Barbosa filling the wings. That approach will be good enough to produce 45-50 wins and a first round exit.

Daryl Morey has done a good job of using "advanced basketball statistics" to help make the Houston Rockets a better team but with no Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest it will be tough for the Rockets to win 40 games in the highly competitive West.

Since making the playoffs in 2006 after going 47-35, the L.A. Clippers have posted 40, 23 and 19 wins. Notice a trend? The addition of number one overall pick Blake Griffin will be enough to halt that slide but not nearly enough to lift the Clippers into playoff contention.

The Golden State Warriors are a team in turmoil, thanks in no small part to "Captain Jack" (Stephen Jackson). Why has the media spent the past couple years glorifying Jackson and ridiculing Terrell Owens? Owens is a Hall of Fame caliber player who has never been involved in legal trouble, while Jackson is a selfish hothead who is constantly getting in trouble on and off the court. Jackson wants out of Golden State and the Warriors should do everything they can to grant his wish. The Warriors will continue to play a fast paced style and it will be fun to watch rookie Stephen Curry play alongside Anthony Randolph, Corey Maggette and Monta Ellis but no defense plus no rebounding equals no playoff berth.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are assembling a solid young nucleus but they will take their lumps for at least one more year before threatening to claim a playoff spot. It is nice that most commentators have belatedly acknowledged that Kevin Durant belongs at small forward, not shooting guard; of course, I figured that out before Durant played his first regular season game and I provided in depth coverage of just how happy Durant was to return to his natural position after the Thunder fired Coach P.J. Carlesimo.

The Minnesota Timberwolves have done a lot of roster shuffling. Al Jefferson is an All-Star caliber player when healthy and Kevin Love showed some promise but this team does not have enough talent or cohesiveness to make the playoffs.

It is not clear exactly what Memphis' plan is. If the Grizzlies are trying to develop their young players then why did they bring in Allen Iverson? I am not sure and in any case it is more interesting to talk about Iverson's claim that the Detroit Pistons lied to him last season. It may not be popular to agree with Iverson but I think that he has a point, even if he expressed it poorly and probably should not have said anything publicly. When Joe Dumars acquired Iverson Dumars said that the Pistons had become "a little bit predictable" with Chauncey Billups and that Iverson is an "impact player" who provides the Pistons "a different way to attack teams." I expected--and I am sure that Iverson expected--that Iverson would be a focal point for the Pistons offensively, that the ball would be in his hands and he would have the opportunity to attack off of the dribble and either score or else dish the ball to open teammates. Remember that in 2007-08 with the Nuggets Iverson played all 82 games, led the league in mpg (41.8) for the third straight year (and sixth time in seven seasons), ranked third in scoring (26.4 ppg) and finished ninth in assists (7.1 apg). In just his fifth game with Detroit, Iverson produced 25 points on 7-12 field goal shooting and worked the screen/roll to perfection with Rasheed Wallace as the Pistons beat the eventual champion Lakers 106-95 in L.A. I still cannot figure out why Dumars and the Pistons are so enamored with Rodney Stuckey that they felt that they had to put either Iverson or Richard Hamilton on the bench so that Stuckey would be installed as a starter. Stuckey is clearly not better than Iverson or Hamilton, nor are either Iverson or Hamilton used to coming off of the bench so how can such moves possibly be justified if winning is the primary goal? Iverson thought that the Pistons were bringing him in to do what he did against the Lakers, not to come off of the bench behind an unproven player who I think that Dumars and others have vastly overrated. Iverson is hobbled by a hamstring problem right now and such troubles are often the beginning of the end for small guards, so we may never see the real Iverson again but Iverson has every reason to resent how he was treated in Detroit; Dumars essentially rented Iverson to create salary cap room but told Iverson and the public that the Pistons were still trying to be competitive.

The only time that the Sacramento Kings will attract any attention this year is when some "stat guru" writes an article declaring that Kevin Martin is as good as Kobe Bryant but that NBA GMs, coaches, players, media and fans are too stupid/biased to realize this self-evident "truth"--but I will grit my teeth and not respond and the Kings will fade back into obscurity.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:59 AM

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2 Comments:

At Tuesday, October 27, 2009 12:36:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

david....was it guru of the group formerly known as ganstarr that said martin is as good as bryant? you just have to laugh at that ignorant analysis.

 
At Wednesday, October 28, 2009 11:50:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

The ludicrous assertion that Martin is as good as or even better than Bryant has been floated a few different times; I have not bothered to keep track of exactly who has said it each time.

 

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