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Friday, December 23, 2011

2011-12 Western Conference Preview

Last season, 15 wins separated the top regular season team in the West--the 61-21 San Antonio Spurs--from the eighth seeded 46-36 Memphis Grizzlies, a marked contrast from recent seasons in which most of the West's playoff contenders were closely bunched together; just seven wins separated the eight playoff teams in both 2008 and 2010, while in 2009 only six wins separated the seven playoff teams other than the dominant 2009 Lakers. It is likely that the final Western Conference standings in the compressed 66 game 2011-12 season will once again be very tightly packed, meaning that playoff seedings and homecourt advantage could be determined by how well teams perform in the third game of a back to back to back set--a scenario that does not bode well for teams that lack depth and/or heavily rely on older players.

This preview has the same format as the Eastern Conference preview that I posted yesterday; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA 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) Oklahoma City Thunder: Reasons for hope: The Thunder, led by All-NBA players Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 1996, when the franchise was based in Seattle. The Thunder won 55 games--the franchise's best total since Seattle won 61 in 1998--and captured a division title for the first time since 2005. Late season addition Kendrick Perkins, who should be healthier this season after battling a knee problem last year, provides strength and toughness in the paint, while James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha are a young and talented supporting cast.

Reasons to mope: This current nucleus made its first playoff appearance in 2010 on the basis of strong defensive play, ranking third in defensive three point field goal percentage, seventh in overall defensive field goal percentage and 11th in points allowed; the Thunder slipped to 18th, 15th and 18th respectively in those categories in 2011, so in order to secure the top seed in the West they must recapture their defensive focus and intensity. Durant has shot just .423 from the field and .326 from three point range in 23 career playoff games so he must prove that he can score efficiently against elite defenses in postseason play. Much has been made of a supposed power struggle between Durant and Westbrook and, while this does bear watching, I suspect that this storyline is overblown.

Bottom line: The Thunder have all the necessary ingredients to be a championship team: two star players, a good and versatile supporting cast and the ability to defend all areas of the court; the final challenge for this young team is to put everything together when the stakes are highest and consistently execute at both ends of the court against elite teams in postseason play.

2) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki showed the world what knowledgeable basketball observers already knew: he is one of the few legit franchise players in the NBA, which is a lot different than being the flavor of the week favorite of fans and/or "stat gurus"; many players are described as "elite" or "great" but at any given point in time there are only a handful of truly great players in the NBA, players who are unguardable even at the highest levels of playoff competition and who can carry an appropriately constructed roster to a championship. Nowitzki has been a model of consistency throughout his career but Dallas' collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals followed by the Mavericks' upset loss in the first round of the 2007 playoffs left an unfair and unwarranted stain on Nowitzki's reputation.

Reasons to mope: Tyson Chandler's departure will likely hurt the Mavericks more than it will help the New York Knicks; Chandler will be one defender adrift in a sea of defensive ineptitude with the Knicks but the more disciplined Mavericks are actually trying to play defense and will struggle to replace Chandler's paint presence. The Mavericks will also miss J.J. Barea's grit, quickness and clutch shooting. Barea has never averaged 10 ppg in the regular season and he averaged just 8.9 ppg on .419 field goal shooting during the 2011 playoffs but those numbers just show how deceptive statistics can be when taken out of context; his dribble penetration completely broke down the Lakers during the playoffs and so frustrated Andrew Bynum that Bynum delivered a cheap shot resulting in a five game suspension: Barea hit the Lakers so hard that they will still feel it this season!

Bottom line: The Mavericks replaced Chandler, Barea and Caron Butler (who did not participate in the Mavericks' playoff run due to injury and then signed with the L.A. Clippers after the lockout ended) with Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West. Odom is often praised for his versatility but the one skill set area in which he is truly outstanding is rebounding; the Lakers deployed him at power forward alongside either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum but the Mavericks can only use Odom at power forward if Nowitzki is on the bench or playing center--and the Mavericks are not at their best in either of those situations. Look for Odom's minutes and production to decline. Carter used to be one of the most dynamic slashers in the game but now he is mostly a spot up shooter. West is a versatile, tough player who is not great in any one area but also has no real skill set weaknesses; if his mind is right and his body is healthy he can be a real asset for the Mavericks because he can play either guard spot.

The Mavericks had some good fortune during last season's title run--the top seeded Spurs were knocked out in the first round, while the two-time defending champion Lakers had an injured Kobe Bryant and a seemingly lost in a fog Pau Gasol--but they also demonstrated tremendous toughness, determination and unselfishness. As an aging, one-star team they do not look like a dynasty in the making but they will still be one of the better teams in the West and they have a puncher's chance to repeat as champions; they cannot honestly be considered the favorite by any objective observer--it is obvious that owner Mark Cuban is more focused on clearing cap space for 2012 than he is on putting the absolute best possible unit on the court this season--but if they are healthy they will be tough to deal with in a seven game series.

3) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: The Spurs have three All-Star caliber players plus a great coach and they posted the best record in the West last season, just one game behind Chicago for the best record overall. If they had been fully healthy during the playoffs it is doubtful that they would have lost in the first round.

Reasons to mope: Tim Duncan, while still a very good player, is no longer the dominant force that he was during his prime either as a scorer or as a mobile defender who could both guard the other team's best big man one on one and also play excellent help defense against perimeter players who penetrated into the lane. During the Spurs' championship seasons Duncan always had at least one legit big man playing alongside him but that has not been the case in recent seasons. The Spurs cannot seem to quite decide whether to break up their veteran nucleus or make one last run at a title so they ended up doing neither: they kept their big three intact but did not add any significant supporting parts.

Bottom line: The Spurs will be well coached and well disciplined; they will be better equipped than most teams mentally and psychologically to deal with the compressed season. The Spurs will likely earn a top four seed and if they are healthy they should be able to make a decent playoff run but getting past both Oklahoma City and Dallas is asking a bit much.

4) Memphis Grizzlies: Reasons for hope: The Grizzlies won six out of seven games late in the season to hold on to the eighth and final playoff spot and then pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NBA history by knocking off the number one seeded San Antonio Spurs. The Grizzlies then pushed the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games and they accomplished all of this despite the absence of Rudy Gay, their injured small forward who has averaged at least 18.9 ppg in each of the past four seasons. Zach Randolph provided All-Star caliber play on the block and teamed up well with young center Marc Gasol.

Reasons to mope: Young teams that suddenly enjoy a lot of success can either use this as a stepping stone to build upon or a stumbling block to trip over. The Grizzlies will not sneak up on anyone this season and we have seen some upstart teams have one great season only to fall right back into the Draft Lottery (the 2007 Golden State Warriors immediately come to mind). Only time will tell if the Grizzlies caught San Antonio at just the right time or if that first round series really marked a changing of the guard in the West.

Bottom line: I am not completely sold on the Grizzlies as a legit championship contender but I think that they have a lot more substance than a team like the 2007 Warriors. The Grizzlies need to stick with the hard-nosed play that helped them to be successful while also finding a way to integrate Gay's skills into the Randolph-focused offensive attack. It must be mentioned that the foundation for Memphis' success last season was based largely on the much criticized deal that sent Pau Gasol to the L.A. Lakers; that trade not only brought Marc Gasol to Memphis but also cleared the salary cap space to sign Randolph. A few years earlier, the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to Miami, a deal that helped Miami to win one championship but also enabled the Lakers to reshape their roster and win two championships (plus make a third trip to the Finals). Sometimes a trade can help one team in the short run while helping the other team in the long run; it is way too early to suggest that the current Memphis nucleus will win a championship but the Grizzlies clearly understood that a Pau Gasol-led team would never win a championship and thus they made the right decision to trade him and rebuild their roster around younger, tougher big men. Just three years after that so-called lopsided deal the Grizzlies are already better than the Lakers, something that I doubt any of the so-called "experts" expected when they made jokes about Jerry West supposedly "giving" Pau Gasol to his former team.

5) L.A. Clippers: Reasons for hope: Blake Griffin is not just a highlight machine; he can also rebound, pass and handle the ball. He still needs to develop a reliable jump shot and improve his defense but he already looks poised to become a perennial member of the All-NBA team. Chris Paul is a feisty floor general who can pass, shoot and play tough defense despite his diminutive stature. Chauncey Billups is a clutch shooter who apparently will start at shooting guard but he will likely also get some playing time at point guard, his natural position. If Caron Butler stays healthy he will add toughness and scoring punch. DeAndre Jordan will once again rank among the league leaders in both dunks and blocked shots.

Reasons to mope: It is understandable why people are so excited about the Clippers but this is not a championship caliber team. The Clippers have too many point guards and not enough shooting guards; it is asking a bit much to have the aging, 6-3 Billups chase around starting shooting guards for 30-plus mpg. The Clippers also need to develop some frontcourt depth. While Billups has won a championship and Paul has been to the playoffs, collectively this group has no playoff experience together.

Bottom line: The Clippers missed the playoffs by 14 games last season, which is a significant margin, but Griffin's likely improvement alone would probably have been worth at least 10 games and the addition of Paul and Billups should enable the Clippers to potentially contend for a top four seed.

6) L.A. Lakers: Reasons for hope: It is still possible that the Lakers will pull off a trade for Dwight Howard--and if they are able to get a third team involved in the deal perhaps the Lakers can obtain Howard for Andrew Bynum and other considerations while retaining Pau Gasol's services. A trio of Kobe Bryant-Dwight Howard-Pau Gasol--even surrounded by journeymen--would be more formidable than the Miami Heat's celebrated trio because the Lakers' triumvirate would be bigger and would have complementary skill sets. The only other reason for hope is that the lockout-lengthened offseason provided enough rest for Kobe Bryant's weary body to rejuvenate itself but that hope was at least somewhat dashed in the first half of the first preseason game when Bryant tore a ligament in his right wrist. Bryant will no doubt at least attempt to play through the injury even though from a medical standpoint he should sit out two to three weeks to let it heal properly (by the time Bryant is 50, his mangled fingers and hands will likely rival those of ex-NFL players Anthony Munoz and Chuck Bednarik in terms of disfigurement). Whether or not the Lakers acquire Howard, the Lakers will have no depth and will thus rely more on Bryant's scoring and playmaking than at any time since Kwame Brown and Smush Parker were key rotation players.

Reasons to mope: Although the mainstream media apparently did not realize it, the Lakers lacked depth even before they shipped off Lamar Odom in a salary dump; Andrew Bynum's injury problems made Odom a de facto starter for most of the past three seasons (Odom averaged more than 30 mpg and started 105 games during that period) and the next best Lakers' bench player (Shannon Brown) played fewer than 1000 total minutes in his first three seasons before arriving in L.A. and instantly becoming a key member of the rotation.

The Lakers won back to back championships and made it to three straight NBA Finals primarily because of Kobe Bryant's greatness; Pau Gasol proved to be a reliable second option, Lamar Odom found a comfort zone as the third option and Andrew Bynum's size was valuable in those rare moments when he was healthy but Bryant's scoring prowess, playmaking ability (he drew the double teams that opened up shots for his teammates even on plays for which Bryant did not deliver the assist pass), defense and leadership spearheaded the Lakers' dominance from 2008-2010. During the Dallas Mavericks' four game sweep of the two-time defending champion Lakers we saw what happens to the Lakers when Bryant is unable to take over games at will (i.e., we received a glimpse at what the Lakers will look like--barring a roster upgrade--as Bryant ages and his skills inevitably decline); an ankle injury that many players would not have even played through relegated Bryant from All-NBA First Team caliber to "just" solid All-Star caliber (Bryant averaged 23.3 ppg on .458 field goal shooting versus the Mavericks but his limited mobility slashed his rebounding to 3.0 rpg and his assists to 3.3 apg, both figures well below his regular season averages). Meanwhile, Pau Gasol played some of the worst basketball of his NBA career and Lamar Odom hardly picked up the slack, authoring a very pedestrian postseason after producing one of the better regular seasons of his career.

For many years, so-called "experts" have insisted that the Lakers are very talented and very deep, with some "stat gurus" even proclaiming that Gasol and/or Odom are more valuable than Bryant; in contrast, I have demonstrated that the 2009 Lakers were neither as talented nor as deep as most championship teams of the past two decades, explained that Bryant's impact on his team cannot be fully quantified statistically and pointed out that playing alongside Bryant transformed Gasol from a one-time All-Star into a perennial All-Star by shifting Gasol into a more comfortable role as his team's second offensive option. I have never believed that Gasol is the Lakers' best player or that he is capable of being the best player on a legitimate championship contender and I have consistently stated that the day Gasol truly is the Lakers' best player is the day that the Lakers are no longer true contenders.

Bottom line: Welcome to L.A., Mike Brown; the fans and oddsmakers consider your team to be among the favorites to win the championship and you will be heavily criticized if the Lakers do not prove to be serious contenders but your best player already has a damaged shooting hand that will likely be a problem for the entire season (because Bryant will refuse to rest his wrist it will not completely heal until the summer), your second best player seems to be unwilling or unable to pick up the slack and your third best player was just shipped to the defending champions. Brown is a very good coach and at this point in his career his youthful energy and his focus on defense may make him better suited to guide the Lakers than Phil Jackson, whose hands off approach backfired last season (Jackson is arguably the greatest coach in NBA history but last season was hardly one of the shining moments of his otherwise glittering career)--but Brown has been placed in a very difficult situation in which the expectations are much greater than they should be considering the team's current roster.

If the Lakers acquire Dwight Howard and if Kobe Bryant stays reasonably healthy (i.e., his right wrist does not fall off and his right knee survives the compressed schedule) then the Lakers can make a run at the 2012 title while also positioning themselves to build around Howard in the future as Bryant's role gradually diminishes; if the Lakers stand pat and/or Bryant suffers injuries that cause him to miss significant playing time then the Lakers will not be serious contenders and could even miss the playoffs, a possibility that I mentioned back in May when I bluntly outlined the Lakers' likely future:

If you understand how the Lakers achieved the success that they did from 2008-2010 and you understand what went wrong in 2011 then you can only draw one conclusion: the Lakers as presently constituted are not likely to qualify for the playoffs in 2011-12. If you think that statement sounds crazy then consider the reality that since 2008 the eighth seeded team in the West has won 50, 48, 50 and 46 games; four of the Lakers' five starters started all 82 games in 2010-11, with Odom filling in for Bynum when Bynum was hurt, and the Lakers ended up with 57 wins. If the Lakers keep the current roster intact it is highly likely that they will not enjoy similar health at the top of their rotation and it is also highly likely that Bryant's minutes will have to be further reduced as a concession to all of the mileage that he has accumulated; every minute that Bryant is not on the court is a minute that must be filled by one of the Lakers' ineffective bench players.

The Lakers clearly cannot expect Gasol to eventually become the team's number one option nor is it a good idea to hand that role to Bynum, a player who has yet to make it through an entire season while playing starter's minutes. Artest provides almost nothing on offense and his focus on defense wavers at times; without Jackson on the bench Artest may revert back to being completely uncoachable.


I probably should not have even ranked the Lakers as high as sixth but, despite my misgivings about this roster, I still think that Bryant and Brown will find some way to get this team into the playoffs (I also think that it is possible that the Lakers could acquire Howard after the All-Star break and overcome a slow start to make the playoffs as a low but dangerous seed).

7) Portland Trail Blazers: Reasons for hope: Nate McMillan is an outstanding, defensive-minded coach who has guided this team to the playoffs for three straight seasons despite injuries that have taken out several key players. LaMarcus Aldridge emerged as an All-Star caliber performer.

Reasons to mope: A degenerative knee condition forced Brandon Roy--a three-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA selection--to retire. Greg Oden, who the Blazers selected ahead of Kevin Durant in the 2007 Draft, has suffered his annual injury setback and it is not clear when he will be back in action. The only major addition to the roster is Jamal Crawford, a good player but hardly a replacement for what a healthy Roy could have provided.

Bottom line: McMillan will somehow drag this crew into the playoffs, but they will lose in the first round for the fourth straight year.

8) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: Under Coach George Karl's deft leadership, the Nuggets survived last season's "Melo-drama" and then actually played even better after trading Carmelo Anthony to New York than they did before Anthony's departure, going 17-7 down the stretch to move up to the fifth seed in the West.

Reasons to mope: Although Anthony is somewhat overrated--as indicated not only by Denver's record without him but also by New York's record with him (14-13)--the Nuggets do not have a legit star player and it is one thing to get by for a couple dozen games with no star and another thing to do so for an entire season. Seemingly half of Denver's roster went to China during the lockout (actually, it was just Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith and Wilson Chandler) and while the subtraction of Martin and Smith reduces the intangible but relevant knucklehead factor it also removes two key players from Karl's rotation (Chandler did not receive much playing time); the China guys will be permitted to return to action in March and it will be interesting to see what Denver's record is by that time and how exactly the Nuggets go about adding players to their rotation in the middle of a crazy season with a compressed schedule and little practice time.

Bottom line: I was tempted to leave the Nuggets out of the playoff mix entirely but they did win 50 games last season and they at least gave some signs that there is life after Melo so I cannot completely write them off--but it will probably take 35-37 wins to make the playoffs in the West and there certainly are some other teams that can work their way up to that level and pass the Nuggets.

The Golden State Warriors intrigue me: their young roster could give many teams fits by playing at a fast tempo in this truncated season and they have a new coach (Mark Jackson) who is pledging that the Warriors will be much improved defensively. It would not shock me if they make the playoffs. The Utah Jazz have acquired a lot of potentially valuable young assets but they fell apart during the second half of the season in the wake of Coach Jerry Sloan's resignation and the Deron Williams trade so even though their future may be bright they do not look like a 2012 playoff qualifier.

Much praise has been heaped on Houston General Manager Daryl Morey for his supposedly deft number crunching but the bottom line number is that his Rockets have won just one playoff series since he took the reins in 2007; yes, the Rockets suffered injuries to All-Stars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady but there is little evidence to date that the Rockets have much of a plan in place to lift themselves out of mediocrity and other GMs/coaches with better records than Morey have not received as much time on the job as he has. The main thing that Morey has accomplished so far is to convince some members of the media that he has access to special knowledge about the sport, even if at times the results on the court ultimately do not match his predictions or observations. I actually think that Morey uses statistics more sensibly than most "stat gurus" but sports is a bottom line business and the bottom line is that Morey's teams have not been very successful in the postseason (a fault that is also true of Billy Beane's Oakland A's). Morey just replaced a respected and proven winner (Coach Rick Adelman) with Kevin McHale, a great player who has yet to prove that he is a great coach. I know that the "stat gurus" giddily anticipate the magic that Morey is supposedly about to pull off with all of the cap space he has saved but the Knicks spent years saving cap space only to end up with Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and a .500 team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Rockets' starless roster will likely make a run at the last playoff spot but fall just short, whereupon the "stat gurus" will come out of the woodwork to explain how brilliant Morey is even though his teams have not, in fact, actually accomplished anything tangible.

The New Orleans Hornets--with the help of their principal owner, Commissioner David Stern--managed to obtain some decent assets in the Chris Paul deal (most notably, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and salary cap space) that will be useful in the near future but will not likely enable the Hornets to qualify for the 2012 playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves upgraded at coach (replacing Kurt Rambis with Rick Adelman) and Kevin Love had a breakout campaign but it is doubtful that in one season they will vault from last in the conference to one of the top eight spots.

If anyone knows what Phoenix' plan is please enlighten me.

The Sacramento Kings have been stockpiling young talent for years but have not won 30 games in a season since 2007-08--but if a "stat guru" were running the team I am sure that his media buddies would be regaling us with tales about how brilliant he is; apparently there are two kinds of successful NBA executives: those who win championships (the dominant teams of the past decade or so--the Lakers and the Spurs--do not seem to rely much on "advanced basketball statistics") and those who convince media mouthpieces of their brilliance despite the fact that they have never won anything.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked five of the eight 2011 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2011 Total: 38/48 (.792)

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM

5 comments

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5 Comments:

At Friday, December 23, 2011 12:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don't think Bynum's emergence as the second best center in the league will play a role in improving the Lakers?

 
At Friday, December 23, 2011 2:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Short answer: No

Longer answer:

1) When did Bynum become the second best center in the NBA? I checked the All-NBA, All-Star and All-Defensive Team rosters and could not find his name anywhere, which means that the fans, the media and the coaches do not share your assessment (unless you are suggesting that Bynum significantly improved during the lockout).

2) Even if we accept your questionable premise that Bynum has emerged or will emerge as the second best center in the league, his track record indicates that he cannot stay healthy enough to make it through the entire regular season as the starting center. He has yet to play even just 2000 minutes in any of his six NBA seasons and despite having a relatively limited workload of 24.3 mpg during his career he has only played more than 65 games in a season once.

 
At Saturday, December 24, 2011 2:19:00 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

David,

Can you offer any rational explanation as to why the Lakers traded Lamar Odom to Dallas for basically nothing? I understand he was sulking and asked to be traded after the failed Chris Paul trade, but so what? I'm sure Odom would've gotten over his hurt feelings eventually. Lots of players ask for trades, that doesn't mean the Lakers needed to trade away their 3rd best player for basically nothing. Is there something to this story that the mainstream media is not reporting?

 
At Saturday, December 24, 2011 2:53:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chris:

It is possible--though not likely--that the Lakers can use the trade exception that they acquired from Dallas to help finalize a deal to obtain Dwight Howard but the Lakers probably dealt Odom because the management realizes that they are not legit contenders this year (unless they can acquire Howard) and therefore they need to reduce their payroll while figuring out how to either rebuild the team or else prepare for the post-Kobe Bryant era. You may recall that after the Mavs swept the Lakers Magic Johnson said that the team should be willing to trade anyone but Kobe in order to rebuild and we have already seen that the Lakers were willing to give up Gasol and Odom to get Chris Paul and they obviously would be willing to give up Bynum (and probably Gasol as well) to get Howard. Odom had a good regular season but he faded in the playoffs and probably is not worth what his contract is paying him, particularly since the Lakers are over the cap and thus had to pay luxury tax on his contract as well.

 
At Sunday, December 25, 2011 12:08:00 PM, Blogger Abe said...

What people fail to recognize about the Lakers and the Buss family is that as soon as they see a end to a dynasty they cut back on spending. I see that as the real reason they traded Shaq and let go of Phil the first time. For them the lakers are about making money first as that is their main business.

 

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