2010-11 Western Conference Preview
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: The number one reason is the main reason that the Lakers have won back to back championships and have made it to the Finals three straight times: Kobe Bryant. The words that I wrote in last year's Western Conference Preview still apply today (just change 2009 to 2010 in the first sentence):
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 was hobbled by knee, ankle and finger injuries during most of the regular season and all of the playoffs, yet his outstanding 2010 postseason numbers (29.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 5.5 apg, .458 FG%, .374 3FG%, .842 FT%) are not only remarkably consistent with his 2009 and 2008 postseason statistics (30.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg , 5.5 apg, .457 FG%, .349 FG%, .883 FT%; 30.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.6 apg, .479 FG%, .302 3FG%, .809 FT%) but they also stack up well against the numbers Michael Jordan posted during Chicago's second three-peat.
The injuries led to unusual variance in Bryant's numbers from game to game during some portions of the regular season but his final regular season statistics were in line with his production during the past two years, though his three point field goal percentage and free throw percentage both declined a bit--no doubt a byproduct of the avulsion fracture to the index finger of his right (shooting) hand that forced Bryant to alter his shooting stroke.
While Bryant is the focal point of the Lakers' success, the Lakers also benefit from having a marvelous second option (Pau Gasol), a lockdown wing defender (Ron Artest) and a power forward who is an outstanding rebounder (Lamar Odom). Coach Phil Jackson does a masterful job of running the show, knowing who needs a pat on the back and who needs a kick in the butt.
This season the Lakers also have a new reason for hope: their previously lackluster bench has been augmented by offseason acquisitions Steve Blake, Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff.
Reasons to mope: The two-time defending champions do not have much to mope about. The biggest immediate issue is that starting center Andrew Bynum--who gamely delayed surgery and played with an injured knee during the playoffs--will not be ready to go at the start of the season. Bynum has played more than 65 games just once in his five season career and Coach Jackson has publicly acknowledged that if Bynum's body breaks down again this season the Lakers will seriously have to consider permanently reducing Bynum's minutes and role. It seems obvious that a young big guy who annually gets hurt is unlikely to suddenly become durable enough to make it through an entire season while logging starter's minutes. The good news for the Lakers is that they have already won two championships with nominal starter Bynum essentially playing a reserve role (11.8 mpg in the 2008 playoffs, 17.3 mpg in the 2009 playoffs). The reality is that in the games that counted the most the Lakers have not really been quite as big a team as some people suggest; during most of the key playoff minutes in the championship runs the Lakers usually put Gasol at center and Odom at power forward while Bynum watched from the bench. It is strange that some people act like the Lakers regularly deploy Bynum, Gasol and Odom at the same time, because those three players are in fact rarely on the court together.
Bryant also had offseason knee surgery and during the preseason it was obvious that while his mind was willing his body was not yet quite able to play at an elite level. The most important thing is that Bryant is healthy. There is no reason to believe that his shooting woes will continue into the season; he maintained his usual shooting percentages last season despite his myriad injuries, so all he has to do now is knock off a little rust that accumulated while he recovered from the knee surgery.
Bottom line: There are two plausible theories pertaining to the Lakers this season: one suggests that because Bryant is getting older and Bynum is constantly hurt the marathon season will wear the Lakers down and prevent them from winning a third straight title; another suggests that the Lakers--and Bryant in particular--know how to pace themselves so that they finish with an excellent regular season record and yet maintain enough energy to sustain themselves over two dozen or more playoff games. I am inclined to believe that the second theory is more valid. Bryant does not like to dwell on--or even acknowledge--his injuries but after the Finals were over he provided a brief glimpse into his thought process when he said with some exasperation that age did not affect him last year nearly as much as some critics contended; Bryant asserted that his occasional struggles merely reflected just how serious his injuries really were. In this context it is interesting to recall that four years ago Bryant had offseason surgery on the same knee, got off to a slow start and Coach Jackson said something to the effect that the days of Bryant regularly scoring 50 or 60 points were over--but Bryant ended up scoring 50 or more points in 10 games, including four straight (a streak only exceeded by Wilt Chamberlain). Bryant is unlikely to go on that kind of a scoring binge simply because the Lakers rarely need such pyrotechnics now but I suspect that even if Bryant starts slowly he will still end up averaging 26-27 ppg.
Since Bill Russell retired, six teams have tried to three-peat: the 1989 Lakers lost to the Pistons in the Finals after hamstring injuries felled their starting backcourt of Magic Johnson and Byron Scott, the 1991 Pistons were swept by the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals, the 1993 Bulls three-peated, the 1996 Rockets were swept by the Sonics in the Western Conference semifinals, the 1998 Bulls three-peated and the 2002 Lakers three-peated. That adds up to a 50% success rate but it is worth noting that Phil Jackson has a 100% success rate (1993 and 1998 Bulls, 2002 Lakers).
2) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: As long as the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili is reasonably healthy the Spurs have to be viewed as a contender. Richard Jefferson struggled at times during his first season with the team but now he has a new contract and will likely be more comfortable in his role. The Spurs have high hopes for rookie big man Tiago Splitter, the Spanish League standout who they drafted back in 2007. DeJuan Blair and George Hill are young players who are already key members of the rotation and who both figure to have expanded roles as Coach Gregg Popovich carefully monitors the Big Three's minutes.
Reasons to mope: The Spurs have been slowly but inexorably declining in recent years, with their win totals dropping from 63 to 58 to 56 to 54 to 50. Some of that is because Coach Popovich has rested key players to keep them fresh for the postseason but that plan has not really worked the past two years: after winning the 2007 championship and reaching the 2008 Western Conference Finals the Spurs were eliminated in the first round in 2009 and the second round last year.
Bottom line: This may be the last season as a legit contender for the Spurs as they are currently constituted but if the veterans stay healthy and the youthful trio of Splitter, Blair and Hill is productive then the Spurs have a puncher's chance to dethrone the Lakers.
3) Oklahoma City Thunder: Reasons for hope: The Thunder have a marvelous nucleus of young players led by Kevin Durant, whose 30.2 ppg average last season enabled him to become the youngest scoring champion in league history. Explosive third year point guard Russell Westbrook looks like a star in the making. Coach Scott Brooks is not a screamer or an attention grabber but all you need to know about his coaching acumen is that his young team ranked seventh in the league in defensive field goal percentage despite not having a dominant shot blocker or ball thief; that means that he has persuaded the entire squad to buy into the idea of playing good, fundamentally sound defense.
Reasons to mope: The Thunder lack a dominant big man and that leads to matchup problems in slower paced, grind it out playoff games. Durant's production and efficiency dropped dramatically in the playoffs versus the Lakers' Ron Artest. This year Durant needs to prove that he can perform at an elite level in postseason play against physical defenders.
Bottom line: The Thunder are a rising team. They are probably too inexperienced and too small to survive the entire Western Conference playoff gauntlet but they are a threat to knock off anyone.
4) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki is still performing at an MVP caliber level; last season he averaged more points and shot better from both the three point line and the free throw line than he did during his 2007 MVP campaign. Fellow future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd is still a very productive player, while former All-Stars Caron Butler and Shawn Marion provide depth at small forward (Marion can also play power forward when the Mavericks go small).
Reasons to mope: In the four seasons since Dallas' heartbreaking loss in the 2006 NBA Finals, the Mavericks have advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once. They are a team that reliably wins 50 or more regular season games yet makes little postseason noise.
Bottom line: The addition of Tyson Chandler should boost the team's rebounding and interior defense but there is little reason to believe that the Mavs will win more than one playoff series.
5) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: Deron Williams has arguably emerged as the league's best point guard. Carlos Boozer departed in free agency but Al Jefferson should be able to at least duplicate Boozer's scoring and rebounding. The Jazz won 53 games last season, their second best total of the post Stockton-Malone era.
Reasons to mope: Coach Jerry Sloan's teams usually play with toughness and execute well but recently the Jazz have been a poor road team, a fault that makes it difficult to advance very far in the postseason.
Bottom line: Pencil the Jazz in for 50 wins but if they don't solve their road woes they will be eliminated in the first round.
6) Portland Trail Blazers: Reasons for hope: Brandon Roy has made the All-Star team three straight years and has earned consecutive All-NBA Team selections (Second Team in 2009, Third Team in an injury-riddled 2010). If Greg Oden can finally stay healthy he should provide the inside presence that this team has been lacking.
Reasons to mope: The Blazers seem to be jogging in place while some other Western Conference teams have upgraded their personnel.
Bottom line: If Oden does not have a very significant impact then the Blazers are probably headed for a third straight first round exit.
7) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: Steve Nash is still performing his passing and shooting wizardry. Grant Hill has apparently found the Fountain of Youth in the Valley of the Sun. Coach Alvin Gentry discovered a happy medium between the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense and the minimal level of team defense that is necessary to win playoff games.
Reasons to mope: The committee of Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress is not likely to make anyone forget Amare Stoudemire.
Bottom line: The Suns' trip to the Western Conference Finals looks very much like a one year wonder, a la Denver's similar journey in 2009.
8) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: Yao Ming is slated to return for limited duty and his unique combination of size and skill is just what the undersized Rockets need. Aaron Brooks, the 2010 Most Improved Player, is the kind of speedy guard who thrives under the NBA rules that limit contact by perimeter defenders.
Reasons to mope: How far can a team go if its best player is on a strict 24 mpg limitation?
Bottom line: The gritty Rockets are capable of beating any team on a given night but in a seven game series they will ultimately prove to be nothing but cannon fodder against any of the top Western teams.
The Denver Nuggets' window of opportunity has seemingly been slammed shut and boarded up. Carmelo Anthony has made it clear that he does not intend to stay in Denver, Chauncey Billups had very good numbers overall but looked like he was aging in dog years down the stretch, J.R. Smith did not let his plummeting shooting percentages discourage him from firing at will and Coach George Karl is returning from a grueling second battle with cancer. In the tough and improving Western Conference it is difficult to see how the Nuggets will win the 48-50 games that will probably be necessary to snag a playoff berth.
The Memphis Grizzlies are a young team on the rise but I think that they will barely miss the playoffs.
Chris Paul's healthy return will provide a boost to the New Orleans Hornets but they just don't have enough talent to compete with the best in the West on a nightly basis--and Paul's not so thinly veiled desire to leave town could be disruptive, particularly if the team gets off to a slow start.
The Sacramento Kings and L.A. Clippers are both taking baby steps in the right direction--but baby steps won't get you a ticket to the playoffs in the man's world that is the Wild West.
The Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves both have too many flaws to even think about qualifying for postseason play. In the immortal words of former Colts Coach Jim Mora, "Playoffs? Playoffs? Are you kidding me?"
Last season, I correctly picked seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams, matching my 2008-09 accuracy. I also went 7/8 in 2007-08; I went 6/8 in both 2006-07 and 2005-06, putting my five year percentage at .825 (33/40).
posted by David Friedman @ 11:35 PM