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Friday, October 12, 2012

2012-13 Western Conference Preview

Power increasingly seems to be concentrated with fewer NBA teams now. All eight Western Conference playoff teams won at least 50 games in the 2007-08 and 2009-10 seasons but it is possible that only three Western Conference teams will exceed that barrier this season; based on last season's winning percentages in 66 games, five Western Conference teams would have won more than 50 games in an 82 game season but I don't believe that two of those squads--the Clippers and the Grizzlies--will in fact maintain that kind of winning percentage in the 2012-13 season.

Thanks to the acquisition of Dwight Howard, the L.A. Lakers are once again legitimate championship contenders. The Oklahoma City Thunder are young and hungry, eager to win a championship after coming so close last season. The San Antonio Spurs will once again be written off by most of the "experts" before ringing up 50-55 wins and proving to be a tough out in the playoffs. There will be a lot of hype about some other Western Conference teams but those three squads will probably be the West's only 50 win teams and one of them will almost certainly represent the West in the 2013 NBA Finals.

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) L.A. Lakers: Reasons for hope: For the past several years, media members have tended to overstate the Lakers' talent and/or depth but this Lakers' team is indisputably talented and also has more depth than recent Lakers' squads. Kobe Bryant has already said that the Lakers are more talented now than at any point in his career and he is right: the Lakers' five projected starters have each made the All-Star team at least one time and the first forward off of the bench--Antawn Jamison--is a two-time All-Star.

Acquiring Dwight Howard is exactly what the Lakers needed to do to vault back into legitimate championship contention but the Lakers accomplished far more than just bringing Howard into the fold: they signed Steve Nash, who is the first true playmaking point guard the team has had since Nick Van Exel averaged 6.9 apg for the Lakers in 1997-98 (not including the one season Gary Payton experiment). For most of his career, Kobe Bryant played both the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen roles in the Triangle Offense as the Lakers depended on him to lead the team in both scoring and assists. The Lakers did not run the Triangle Offense last season but they still needed Bryant to be both the primary scorer and the primary playmaker; Bryant did his best to carry the team but he has lost a step and the combination of the heavy burden with the slight reduction in his skills/athleticism resulted in a .430 field goal percentage, the lowest mark of his career except for his first two seasons straight out of high school. Things should be a lot different this season; with Howard controlling the defensive boards and then sprinting down court while Steve Nash runs the break, Bryant should be able to play the role that Jordan did after Pippen blossomed: instead of lingering in the backcourt to handle the ball, Jordan could beat the defense down court and set up in the high post or low post for high percentage scoring opportunities. Now, for the first time in his career, Bryant can receive post feeds from a true playmaker and thus he should not have to work so hard to create his own shots, nor should he have to take so many "hand grenade" shots (which resulted from teammates passing the ball to Bryant as the shot clock was about to "explode"). If Bryant were still young and athletic then these upgrades to the Lakers' offense would likely enable him to shoot .500 from the field; that is not a reasonable expectation at this stage of his career but his field goal percentage should bounce back to the .450-.460 range.

Pau Gasol will be comfortable playing power forward and serving as the third option on offense, while Jamison and Jodie Meeks will provide firepower off of the bench, something that the Lakers have not had for several years (sixth man Lamar Odom was a de facto starter because injuries and ineffectiveness prevented Andrew Bynum from playing starters' minutes during the Lakers' championship runs in 2009 and 2010). Howard will improve the Lakers' defense, he will draw double teams on offense and he will feast off of Steve Nash's deft feeds for easy dunks but the most important aspect of Howard's contribution to the Lakers has been neglected by most if not all media commentators: the Miami Heat won the 2012 championship by going small, putting Chris Bosh at center and LeBron James at power forward, and then overwhelming their opponents with speed/athleticism. The Heat cannot effectively use that lineup with Dwight Howard on the court; Howard is athletic enough to check Bosh but Bosh is not strong enough to check Howard; the matchup advantages that the Heat exploited in the 2012 playoffs will backfire against them when they face this new Lakers team. Also, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are not great outside shooters; they rely heavily on scoring in the paint but their driving lanes and post up opportunities will be greatly diminished by Howard's imposing presence.

Mike Brown is a great defensive coach who turned Cleveland into a defensive powerhouse even though several of the Cavaliers were below average individual defenders; now he will be able to build a defense around the best defender in the league (Howard) plus two excellent wing defenders (Bryant and Metta World Peace). Nash and Jamison are below average defenders but Brown will find ways to hide them just like he hid Mo Williams, Daniel Gibson, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Jamison in Cleveland. Despite all of the complaints about Brown's supposed deficiencies as an offensive strategist, the Lakers ranked eighth in field goal percentage last season without having a training camp and without having a legitimate starting point guard or any legitimate outside shooting threats. Brown's last two Cleveland teams ranked sixth and third in field goal percentage, so his teams consistently create high percentage shots. If the Lakers stay healthy they will likely rank in the top five in both field goal percentage and defensive field goal percentage.

Reasons to mope:  If the Lakers had put together this roster five years ago then they would have made a run at winning at least 70 games but Bryant, Nash, World Peace and Jamison are aging veterans whose minutes and health must be monitored. Howard is in the prime of his career but he is coming off of major back surgery so his minutes and health also have to be monitored. The number one concern for the Lakers is that injuries could prevent them from putting their best lineup on the court.

Bottom line: If the Lakers' main players stay healthy then the Lakers have an excellent chance to dethrone the Miami Heat. The media created drama about whose team this is will create headlines but not cause any problems for the Lakers because Bryant will handle the last stage of his career with more maturity and grace than Shaquille O'Neal did; the transfer of power from Bryant to Howard will be much smoother than the transfer of power from O'Neal to Bryant, which will likely enable Howard to win at least one championship alongside Bryant before possibly winning more titles as the undisputed face of the franchise.

2) Oklahoma City Thunder: Reasons for hope: Kevin Durant is the second best player in the NBA. If Russell Westbrook is not already the best guard in the league he is poised to accelerate past Kobe Bryant this season. James Harden is a dynamic sixth man. The Thunder's big man rotation includes a nice mixture of athleticism, size and versatility. Scott Brooks is an excellent coach.

Reasons to mope: The historic pattern in the NBA is for a contender to face some adversity before breaking through and winning a championship: the 1980s Detroit Pistons suffered painful playoff losses to the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers before winning back to back championships and then the Pistons inflicted some painful losses on Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls before the Bulls won six championships in an eight year stretch. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant lost in the playoffs three straight times before leading the Lakers to three straight titles. Bryant's reconstructed Lakers lost to the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals before winning the 2009 and 2010 championships. The 2012-13 season "should" have been the Thunder's year but the retooled Lakers have likely jumped ahead of the Thunder, at least in the short term.

Bottom line: The Thunder had too much speed and athleticism for the Lakers last season but Dwight Howard completely changes the equation; if Westbrook blows by his defender he will have to deal with Howard, while at the other end of the court the Thunder may have to play Kendrick Perkins for extended minutes to check Howard instead of using the smaller, faster lineup that proved to be so effective during their 2012 playoff run.

3) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: The Spurs posted the best regular season record in the NBA in each of the past two seasons. Tony Parker is the best player on the team; Tim Duncan, while still quite effective at times, is comfortably settling into the elder statesman David Robinson role, much like Robinson gracefully ceded his spot to Duncan more than a decade ago. Gregg Popovich is perhaps the best coach in the NBA and he has proven that he can quickly acclimate new players to the San Antonio way.

Reasons to mope: The Spurs are a mature, smart, well coached team but they just are not quite athletic enough to deal with the few teams that are ahead of them in the NBA's pecking order. The Spurs used to be a defensive-minded team but in recent years they have leaned more heavily on their offense, similar to the way that the New England Patriots have evolved--but the Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since becoming an offensive juggernaut and the new look Spurs have not advanced to the NBA Finals since 2007, when they won the fourth championship of the Tim Duncan era while ranking first in points allowed and fourth in defensive field goal percentage (the Spurs ranked 16th and 17th respectively in those categories last season).

Bottom line: The Spurs will be in the hunt and if the Lakers, Thunder and Heat stumble they could win the championship but it is unlikely that the Spurs can beat those teams at full strength in a seven game series.

4) L.A. Clippers: Reasons for hope: If Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups can stay healthy, if Blake Griffin continues to improve and if Lamar Odom contributes anything then this team could score a lot of points.

Reasons to mope: Even if Billups regains his health, he is a declining player: he shot .438 from the field in 51 games for the Nuggets in 2010-11, .403 in 21 games for the Knicks in 2010-11 and just .364 in 20 games for the Clippers in 2011-12 before rupturing his Achilles tendon. Odom lived off of Bryant's double-teams--and had to be constantly pushed by Bryant to play hard--before being exposed last season in Dallas. Odom will perform better this season than he did last season but he will not be a major impact player. The Clippers have still not fully committed to being a defensive-minded team and they rely far too much on a 6-foot point guard; Paul is a great player, a modern-day Isiah Thomas, but Thomas is the only "small" point guard to be the best player on an NBA championship team (Tony Parker won the 2007 Finals MVP but Tim Duncan was still the Spurs' best player, finishing fourth in regular season MVP voting) and it is unlikely that Paul is going to replicate Thomas in that regard.

Bottom line: The Clippers will have a very good regular season before losing in the second round of the playoffs to the Lakers, Thunder or Spurs.

5) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: Adding Andre Iguodala to an already solid nucleus makes the Nuggets even more athletic and should help the team both offensively and defensively. Danilo Gallinari might have been selected as an All-Star if he had stayed healthy. Javale McGee is the X factor; if he develops into a consistent defender and rebounder then the Nuggets could be very dangerous.

Reasons to mope: Much like the Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets do not have an elite player. They are dangerous on any given night against any given team but they will struggle to beat a legitimate contender in a seven game series.  

Bottom line: If McGee improves and combines with Iguodala to turn Denver into a top 10 defensive team then the Nuggets could grab the fourth spot and have homecourt advantage in the first round but it is difficult to picture this squad beating the Lakers, Thunder or Spurs in a seven game series.

6) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: The Jazz have a young, improving nucleus that surprised a lot of people by qualifying for the 2012 playoffs. During the offseason, the Jazz added Randy Foye, Marvin Williams and Mo Williams to the mix.

Reasons to mope: There is not really a reason to mope in Utah, as long as the team has realistic expectations; the Jazz are not yet a legitimate championship contender but they are putting the right pieces in place to become a contender eventually.

Bottom line: If the Jazz continue to develop then they could have a puncher's chance to pull off a first round upset if they get the right matchup but they are not yet mature enough to make a championship run.

7) Memphis Grizzlies: Reasons for hope: The Grizzlies have a formidable frontcourt featuring center Marc Gasol, power forward Zach Randolph and small forward Rudy Gay.

Reasons to mope:  The Grizzlies did not make any significant offseason additions, so they are relying on their core players to continue to improve. That may happen to some extent but not enough to vault Memphis ahead of the conference's top teams. 

Bottom line: The eighth seeded Grizzlies stunned the Spurs in the first round of the 2011 playoffs and they improved to the fourth seed in 2012 before suffering a mild upset at the hands of the L.A. Clippers. The Grizzlies are a solid playoff team but are not quite explosive enough offensively to be a legitimate contender.
 
8) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Hope began disappearing when owner Mark Cuban elected not to retain the services of Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea after Dallas won the 2011 championship. Now Jason Kidd and Jason Terry have also departed. Cuban swung for the fences assuming that he could acquire Dwight Howard and/or Deron Williams but Cuban struck out instead of hitting a home run.

Reasons to mope: The best case scenario--unless Elton Brand and Chris Kaman greatly exceed reasonable expectations--is that Dallas will have a solid regular season before being overwhelmed by a superior team in the first round. That is hardly an exciting prospect for a franchise that is just two years removed from winning a championship.

Bottom line: Dirk Nowitzki is 34 years old. He is still good enough to carry this team to the playoffs but the Mavericks are not a legitimate championship contender and they do not have anyone capable of taking Nowitzki's spot as the franchise player; the Lakers have Dwight Howard as Kobe Bryant's heir apparent, the Thunder have three young stars and the Spurs have Tony Parker but the Mavericks seem likely to drop off of the map as soon as Nowitzki declines or retires.

Kevin Love is one of the top five players in the NBA but he needs more help to lead Minnesota to the playoffs. It certainly would be a feel good story if Brandon Roy is able to come out of retirement to provide some of that help. 

Injuries--most notably to Stephen Curry--held the Golden State Warriors back but Coach Mark Jackson has pointed the franchise in the right direction and the addition of Andrew Bogut should help, provided that both Bogut and Curry stay healthy.

Houston General Manager Daryl Morey is one of the best known "stat gurus" who are running NBA teams. A New York Times article praised him for using "advanced basketball statistics" to discover Shane Battier's true value but Kobe Bryant destroyed Morey's vaunted Kobe-stopper in the 2009 playoffs and in 2011 Morey traded his so-called "No-Stats All-Star" for Hasheem Thabeet, Demarre Carroll and a draft pick. Thabeet played in just seven games for Houston, while Carroll played in five games for Houston; meanwhile, Battier had a key reserve role in Miami's 2012 championship run. Morey has been running the Rockets since 2007; the Rockets made the playoffs in his first two seasons (i.e., with many players he did not acquire) and have missed the playoffs each of the past three seasons. "Stat gurus" insist that intangibles do not matter and that we should only consider the numbers--and the numbers tell us that "advanced basketball statistics" have not only failed to provide any discernible advantage for Morey's Rockets but in fact the Rockets have been a below average team during most of his tenure. Of course, if the Rockets sneak into the playoffs this season we are certain to be barraged with articles telling us just how brilliant Morey is; Bill Simmons will make 100 snarky comments about Isiah Thomas before he will even consider the possibility that maybe Morey is not an above average NBA executive and ESPN's main basketball blogger will produce endless streams of nonsense instead of writing even one article objectively evaluating Morey's Rockets, a team that has won one playoff series in five seasons. Bill Walsh once said that it should take just three years to turn a last place NFL team into a contender and there are many examples in various sports of teams that have quickly turned things around by making shrewd decisions so it will be very interesting to see how long it takes for Morey's Rockets to win another playoff series, let along become a contender.

Tyreke Evans had a very good rookie season but he did not make much progress in his second and third campaigns. The Sacramento Kings' fate likely hinges on whether Demarcus Cousins is the next Tim Duncan or the next Derrick Coleman: will Cousins reach his full potential or will he be content to be a talented enigma? 

Anthony Davis will undoubtedly help the New Orleans Hornets but it remains to be seen if he is the next Bill Russell or the next Dikembe Mutombo; is the slender, defensive-minded center a franchise player or is he someone who can anchor the defense but must play alongside a great all-around player in order to eventually turn the Hornets into a legitimate contender?

The Portland Trail Blazers have hit the reboot button, jettisoning Coach Nate McMillan, Brandon Roy and Greg Oden and stockpiling young talent.

I am still waiting for anyone to coherently explain Phoenix' plan to me.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked seven of the eight 2012 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2012 Total: 45/56 (.804)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:31 AM

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1 Comments:

At Monday, October 15, 2012 2:09:00 AM, Anonymous Raymond said...

I think that MWP is going to surprise a lot of people with his play for the Lakers this season. Plenty of players come to training camp and talk about how they are "in the best shape of their career", but I think that MWP is legitimately in his best shape since the Indy days, which is a scary thought.

 

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