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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

2013-14 Western Conference Preview

The San Antonio Spurs are the NBA's 21st century version of Rasputin: just when you think that they are dead and gone, they prove that they still have a lot of life left. Coach Gregg Popovich rested his key players during the regular season--earning a $250,000 fine from the NBA--but still led the team to the second best record in the Western Conference (58-24) in the 2012-13 season, two games behind the 2012 Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder. When the Thunder lost All-NBA guard Russell Westbrook to a knee injury, that opened a path for the Spurs to advance to the NBA Finals and the Spurs pushed the defending champion Miami Heat to seven games.

Westbrook is expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season and his absence will probably cost the Thunder the top seed in the conference; the Spurs' Big Three (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili)--supplemented by young players Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green--are well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity and seize homecourt advantage throughout the 2014 Western Conference playoffs.

Houston is the most intriguing Western Conference team; if newly acquired Dwight Howard is completely healthy physically and fully engaged mentally then the Rockets could be a championship contender but it is not clear if the Rockets possess the necessary collective mental and physical toughness to make a deep playoff run.

Coaching matters in the NBA and the 2013-14 season should provide at least two vivid examples of this: the Memphis Grizzlies will be markedly worse off without Lionel Hollins, while the L.A. Clippers should be better off thanks to the addition of Doc Rivers. Hollins transformed the Memphis Grizzlies into a physically imposing, mentally disciplined team but the Rudy Gay trade and the subsequent departure of Hollins mean that the Grizzlies are no longer an elite level squad.Vinny Del Negro is not as bad of a coach as some of his critics suggest but Rivers is one of the league's best coaches; Rivers will transform the Clippers into a defensive-minded team that not only can win 50-plus regular season games but can also be a more serious postseason threat.

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) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: The Big Three are still productive and efficient--though Manu Ginobili is clearly declining--while Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green are being groomed to fill larger roles.

Reasons to mope: The Spurs are not as athletic as some of the other top contenders; this hurt them in key stretches against the Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals and it could be a problem again in the 2014 playoffs, depending on the matchups.

Bottom line: The Westbrook injury may very well clinch the West's best record for the Spurs; the Spurs will be able to rest key players and still stay just ahead of the pack, something that would have been much more difficult to do if the Thunder were able to post 60-plus wins. If Leonard can replace Ginobili as a full fledged member of the Big Three then the Spurs could win the championship.

2) Oklahoma City Thunder: Reasons for hope: Kevin Durant will keep the Thunder afloat until Westbrook makes his healthy return. The Thunder are an excellently coached team with a well-balanced roster; they ranked first in blocked shots, second in defensive field goal percentage, third in field goal percentage and sixth in rebounding. Many critics boldly declared that the Thunder would not be the same without James Harden but Harden is not an elite player and the Thunder did not miss a beat after his departure, posting the best record in the Western Conference and the franchise's best single season winning percentage since 1997-98. If Westbrook had not been injured then the Thunder likely would have advanced to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.

Reasons to mope: The Thunder were the second best team in the NBA with Westbrook and they won their first two playoff games with him in the lineup but after his injury they struggled to get by Houston in the first round before losing 4-1 to Memphis. Oklahoma City went 62-20 (regular season and playoffs combined) with Westbrook but just 3-6 without him. The Thunder are not an elite team without Westbrook. Their whole season will be made or broken by how quickly he makes a fully healthy return to action.

Bottom line: A 2014 Western Conference Finals matchup between San Antonio and Oklahoma City could become one of the NBA's instant classic series. The Spurs will probably enjoy homecourt advantage--thanks to Westbrook's injury--but the Thunder beat the Spurs 4-2 in the 2012 Western Conference semifinals despite not having homecourt advantage.

3) L.A. Clippers: Reasons for hope: Doc Rivers will transform the Clippers from "Lob City" into a defensive-minded team that attacks the paint offensively instead of settling for jump shots. Chris Paul is an elite point guard and Blake Griffin has the potential to be an elite power forward.

Reasons to mope: TNT's Charles Barkley has quipped that you cannot win a championship if your toughest player is a six foot point guard and there is a large degree of truth to that offhand comment; Rivers' biggest challenge with this team is not making a specific strategic adjustment but rather changing the players' mindset about how to compete aggressively against elite level teams without committing foolish fouls and/or losing track of the game plan. 

Bottom line: The Clippers will be better with Rivers at the helm but they still are not quite good enough to beat the Spurs or Thunder in a seven game series.

4) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: A healthy, motivated Dwight Howard is the best center in the league; his presence in the paint will immensely improve the Rockets at both ends of the court, assuming that he is mentally and physically at full strength.

Reasons to mope: Howard is the only defensive-minded player in the seven or eight man rotation. James Harden put up big scoring numbers during the regular season but he shot just .438 from the field and he is a limited offensive player who has no midrange game; he either shoots three pointers or else flings his body into defenders, hoping to draw fouls: if his outside shot is off and defenders are savvy enough to avoid contact then he has no backup plan, as demonstrated during the playoffs when he shot just .391 from the field and committed 4.5 turnovers per game. 

Bottom line: Elite teams will guard Howard one on one in the post and crowd Harden at the three point line but not foul him during his forays into the paint. Howard will greatly improve Houston's defense but the Rockets still will not be a top notch defensive team. The Rockets will win more than 50 regular season games but they will not reach the Western Conference Finals.

5) Golden State Warriors: Reasons for hope: Stephen Curry averaged a career-high 22.9 ppg (seventh best in the NBA) last season while ranking first in the league in three pointers made (272) and attempted (600). He ranked third in three point field goal percentage for the third season in a row. Curry also ranked seventh in the league in mpg (38.7), a very encouraging statistic for a player who has been plagued by nagging ankle injuries. Coach Mark Jackson has changed the franchise's basketball culture, transforming a run and gun team into a staunch defensive outfit that ranked third in rebounding and fourth in defensive field goal percentage.

Reasons to mope: Despite their significant improvement, the Warriors were not mentally or physically up to the challenge of facing the tough and wily Spurs in the playoffs. The Warriors are a very good team but they have at least one more step to go before they are a championship-contending team--and that step has more to do with a continued evolution of their collective mindset than it has to do with talent. That said, Jackson has laid out the blueprint for championship-level success and the Warriors are on the right track, even though they might not be quite ready to challenge the conference's top four teams this season.

Bottom line: The addition of Andre Iguodala markedly strengthens the team's overall defense and if Curry,  David Lee and Andrew Bogut can stay healthy then the Warriors could perhaps take the next step and fight for a berth in the Western Conference Finals.

6) Memphis Grizzlies: Reasons for hope: The big man duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol can cause headaches for any team. Tony Allen is a terrific wing defender and Mike Conley has emerged as an first rate point guard.

Reasons to mope: Lionel Hollins is an excellent coach with a championship pedigree as a player; his replacement Dave Joerger has yet to coach a single NBA game. The Grizzlies missed Rudy Gay's shot creation abilities during the playoffs and they will miss him even more over the course of the 2013-14 regular season.

Bottom line: The Gay trade and Hollins' departure are major setbacks for the Grizzlies, who now look like first round playoff fodder.

7) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: The roster lacks a bona fide All-Star but is stacked with a large number of very good players. George Karl annually led the Nuggets to the playoffs but was usually unable to guide them past the first round. New Coach Brian Shaw won championships as a player and as an assistant coach.

Reasons to mope: While Karl can perhaps be faulted for some of the first round losses that his teams suffered over the years (going all the way back to his days in Seattle), this Denver team is simply not good enough to win a playoff series in the tough Western Conference. The idea of trying to win a title with 10 good players but no superstars is intriguing but perhaps not very realistic.

Bottom line: Some commentators are predicting that the Nuggets will miss the playoffs but I see no reason to think that they will slide that much. Andre Iguodala's departure will hurt Denver at both ends of the court--they will obviously miss his defensive prowess but his playmaking skills (he averaged 5.4 apg for the Nuggets last season) are also valuable--but the Nuggets are not going to drop all the way from the third seed to the Draft Lottery unless they suffer a wave of injuries to key players.
 
8) Minnesota Timberwolves: Reasons for hope: The Timberwolves were a .500 club with Kevin Love (9-9) and a .344 club without him (22-42). In the 2011-12 season, the Timberwolves went 24-31 with Love (.436) and 2-9 without him (.182). If Love stays reasonably healthy for the entire season, there is just enough talent around him for Minnesota to snag the West's final playoff spot.

Reasons to mope: Most playoff teams are defined by something that they do very well but the Timberwolves have yet to establish such an identity; last season they ranked 24th in both field goal percentage and defensive field goal percentage. 

Bottom line: The eighth seed in the West will probably win between 43 and 46 games. The acquisition of Kevin Martin should add some punch to the offense and if Love stays healthy then the Timberwolves should be able to stay just ahead of a pack of several Western teams that will be fighting down to the wire for the opportunity to lose to San Antonio in the first round.

Mark Cuban blew up a championship team because he thought that he could sweet talk a superstar into signing with Dallas to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki; that gamble failed and now the Mavericks have been reduced to a generic team struggling to stay above .500. If Nowitzki is healthy for the entire season then Dallas could seize the eighth spot or maybe even move up to seventh but this team does not have enough talent or toughness to make much more noise than that.

Anthony Davis is no Bill Russell--I am not even convinced that he is Dikembe Mutombo--but the New Orleans Pelicans added some top flight backcourt talent (All-Star Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans) and they are a dark horse contender for the West's final playoff spot.

The L.A. Lakers replaced the league's best center with Chris Kaman and made no other notable moves. Kobe Bryant may return from his Achilles injury in time for the first regular season game but it remains to be seen if he can still play at an All-NBA First Team level. Pau Gasol and Steve Nash are well past their primes. The Lakers barely squeaked into the playoffs with Dwight Howard on the court and Bryant having 2006 flashbacks in the second half of the campaign, so it is foolish to expect a playoff appearance from the Lakers sans Howard and with Bryant at less than 100%. Perhaps the Lakers can hang around .500 for most of the season and then make a late run for the eighth seed if Bryant is able to average 35 ppg for the final month of the season but the most likely scenario is that the Lakers miss the playoffs and face some serious decisions next summer.

The Portland Trail Blazers were contending for a playoff spot before losing their final 13 games. They have enough talent to finish in the top eight but that spring swoon gives one pause. Portland ranked 24th in rebounding and 29th in defensive field goal percentage, numbers that do not inspire confidence about their 2014 postseason prospects.

Tyreke Evans' production steadily declined after an excellent rookie season and the Sacramento Kings finally gave up on him, shipping him out to acquire Greivis Vasquez. The Kings are hoping that Demarcus Cousins matures on and off of the court. This team is not talented enough or disciplined enough to make the playoffs.

The name "Jazz" does not really fit in Utah so how about "Tanks"? I am not saying that the Jazz are giving up on the 2013-14 season but it certainly does not seem like they are very interested in contending for a 2014 playoff spot. The 2011-12 Jazz made the playoffs with a young roster (each of the six players who logged at least 1100 minutes was 28 or younger) but four of those players are no longer on the team. Last summer, the Jazz lost their top two scorers (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap) but made no effort to acquire a veteran who can put the ball in the hoop. Gordon Hayward (14.1 ppg) is the leading returning scorer--and that statement screams "Draft Lottery here we come!"

As for the Suns, I will repeat what I wrote in last season's Western Conference Preview: "I am still waiting for anyone to coherently explain Phoenix' plan to me."

**********

Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2013 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2012 Total: 51/64 (.797)

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:40 PM

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