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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."


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


Monday, October 14, 2013

2013-14 Eastern Conference Preview

During LeBron James' first two seasons in Miami, the Heat's regular season winning percentage hovered around the .700 mark--not bad, but not even as good as the record posted by the Cavaliers during James' final two seasons in Cleveland (127-37, .774). In 2012-13, the Heat became dominant, winning 27 straight games--the second best such streak of all-time, trailing only the 33 game run enjoyed by the 1971-72 Lakers--en route to posting a league-best 66-16 record.

Life proved to be more difficult during the playoffs, as both Indiana and San Antonio extended the Heat to seven games, but the Heat won both of those series and successfully defended their 2012 championship. James may never fulfill his vow to lead the Heat to six or seven championships but he has already more than matched reasonable expectations, winning two titles in three Finals appearances since he left Cleveland.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are now seeking their third straight championship; only George Mikan's Lakers, Bill Russell's Celtics, the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls and the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers won at least three NBA titles in a row.

The Heat face two key questions:

1) Is Dwyane Wade a declining player or was his postseason swoon purely a result of an injury that could be completely healed/rehabilitated during the 2013 offseason?

2) Will it be possible to continue to overcome the lack of a dominant post presence?

Several Eastern teams have improved on paper but the Heat are still clearly the best team in the conference. Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs; as usual, I have ranked the teams based on the likelihood that they will make it to the NBA Finals (as opposed to how they will be seeded in the playoffs, which is affected by which teams win division titles).

1) Miami Heat: Reasons for hope: LeBron James is in the prime of one of the greatest careers in pro basketball history. He has eliminated virtually all of his skill set weaknesses, including the most prominent one: his odd tendency to be passive in clutch situations against elite teams during the playoffs (most notably against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and against Dallas in the 2011 Finals). Chris Bosh is an underrated, versatile performer whose agility and length are invaluable defensively and whose shooting touch spreads the floor. Bosh should have a bigger role in Miami's half court offense but even as a glorified Horace Grant-style jump shooter he still has an impact. When Dwyane Wade is even close to being healthy he and James wreak havoc at both ends of the court thanks to their speed and explosiveness.

Reasons to mope: Wade's body seems to be breaking down and it is not likely that he can play at an All-NBA level for an entire regular season plus an extended playoff run. Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra may have to consider resting Wade San Antonio Spurs-style in an attempt to reduce the wear and tear on Wade's balky knees.

The Heat have no post presence defensively and their only post presence offensively is provided by James (Bosh can play in the post but the Heat's offensive system primarily relegates him to a jump shooting role). They survived tough playoff challenges by big Indiana and San Antonio teams mainly because of James' all-around greatness but it will not be easy to win a third straight title if the Heat do not get some productive minutes out of their traditional centers. Perhaps Greg Oden can provide some solid post defense during the playoffs, enabling Bosh to shift back to his natural power forward position.

Bottom line: The Heat's strengths and weaknesses have not changed much in the past several years; they have made it to three straight Finals, they have won back to back championships and, barring injury, they have to be considered the favorites to win the East.

2) Indiana Pacers: Reasons for hope: The Pacers have a nice mixture of youth and experience and size and speed. Paul George is emerging as a star and Frank Vogel has established himself as an excellent coach. The Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games and if Danny Granger can get healthy perhaps the Pacers can end Miami's run.

Reasons to mope: George is an All-Star but he is not an All-NBA First Team caliber player--at least not yet. Most championship teams have at least one such player, someone who can take over the game in clutch situations.

Bottom line: The Pacers have the necessary size and tenacity to pose a formidable challenge to the Heat. It will be interesting to see if the Pacers rest on their laurels or if they take the next step and advance to the NBA Finals.

3) Chicago Bulls: Reasons for hope: Derrick Rose's return will provide a huge lift for one of the league's most anemic offenses. Coach Tom Thibodeau is a defensive mastermind (the Bulls have ranked first, second and ninth in defensive field goal percentage during his three seasons in Chicago) and the boost that Rose provides offensively will enable the Bulls to set up their half court defense after made field goals as opposed to having to defend so often in transition after missed shots (the Bulls ranked 25th in field goal percentage last season after ranking 13th in that category during the 2010-11 campaign, Rose's last healthy season).

Reasons to mope: The Bulls are a gritty, defensive-minded team with enough frontcourt size and versatility to match up with any team in the league but Rose is the team's only All-NBA caliber player. It is not clear if the Bulls' discipline and physicality will be enough to overcome Miami's talent during a seven game series.

Bottom line: If Rose stays healthy the Bulls will challenge for the best record in the East but they have yet to prove that they can beat an elite team in a seven game series.

4) Brooklyn Nets: Reasons for hope: The Nets added Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry to a roster that went 49-33 last season. They are stacked with talent at every position: a three-time All-Star point guard (Deron Williams), a six-time All-Star shooting guard (Joe Johnson), a 10-time All-Star small forward (Pierce), a 15-time All-Star power forward (Garnett) and one of the top young centers in the league (2013 All-Star Brook Lopez).

Reasons to mope: Garnett, Pierce and Terry are well past their primes. Williams has performed sporadically since joining the Nets. Johnson has not averaged 20 ppg or shot better than .450 from the field since the 2009-10 season. Coach Jason Kidd, who replaced P.J. Carlesimo, has an incredibly high basketball IQ but he will inevitably suffer some growing pains in his first season as the bench boss.

Bottom line: Miami's Big Three joined forces in their respective primes and LeBron James is clearly the best player in the league but the Heat still did not win the title in their first year together; the Nets' star-studded lineup does not include a player who is even close to James' level and it is questionable how good this aging team will be defensively. On paper--or five years ago on the court--this looks like a championship team but on the court in 2013-14 the Nets are not better than Miami, Indiana or Chicago.

5) New York Knicks: Reasons for hope: The Knicks jumped out to a 20-7 start last season before finishing with a 54-28 record, second best in the East and New York's first 50 win season since 1999-00. Carmelo Anthony finished third in MVP voting, J.R. Smith won the Sixth Man award and Coach Mike Woodson did a remarkable job with a roster not known for having disciplined players: the Knicks led the league in fewest turnovers committed and they ranked seventh in points allowed.

Reasons to mope: Despite having homecourt advantage, the Knicks fell apart against Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals. During most of the regular season, veteran point guard Jason Kidd served as a steadying influence, counterbalancing the team's significant knucklehead factor, but Kidd slowed down physically in the second half of the season, forcing Woodson to reduce his role. Kidd retired and is now the Nets' coach; the Knicks will greatly miss Kidd's veteran savvy.

Bottom line: The Knicks have a roster that Phil Jackson called "clumsy". Many members of the national media hype up the team's potential and overrate the impact of the one-dimensional Anthony but the Knicks will once again fail to advance past the second round of the playoffs.

6) Atlanta Hawks: Reasons for hope: After annually making the playoffs but not being quite good enough to fight for the brass ring, the Hawks have a new look. The Hawks finished sixth in the East last season but General Manager Danny Ferry hit the reset button and almost completely remade the roster; Ferry knew that the team's old nucleus had maximized its potential and would never reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

Reasons to mope: In order to challenge the Miami Heat and fight for the Eastern Conference title, a team must have a defensive mindset, a post presence at both ends of the court and, ideally, at least one elite level player. New coach Mike Budenholzer, a Gregg Popovich disciple, will try to instill that defensive mindset, but the Hawks do not have enough size or talent to be a serious contender this season.

Bottom line: The Hawks are not a championship level team but the foundation is in place to build in that direction if Ferry is able to acquire a star player and if Budenholzer can instill the San Antonio philosophy that he learned while serving under Popovich.

7) Cleveland Cavaliers: Reasons for hope: The Cavaliers foolishly fired Coach Mike Brown during the summer of 2010 at the height of the LeBron James Decision fiasco but they have rectified that mistake, bringing Brown back to mentor a young, talented roster that needs to learn the defensive mindset that Brown consistently emphasizes.

Reasons to mope: The Cavaliers are relying heavily on several injury-prone players, most notably Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao and Andrew Bynum. If one of those players misses significant playing time then the Cavaliers could once again be headed for the Draft Lottery.

Bottom line: Mike Brown is one of the top coaches in the NBA, Irving has the talent to be an All-NBA player and this team will be markedly improved defensively. Much depends on the health of players who have yet to prove that they can avoid injury but Cleveland's long post-Decision nightmare appears to be over.

8) Washington Wizards: Reasons for hope: If they can both stay healthy, John Wall and Bradley Beal could emerge as one of the league's most dynamic backcourts. The Wizards went 6-4 when both Wall and Beal were in the starting lineup, an outstanding record--albeit in a very small sample size--for a team that went 29-53 overall. The Wizards ranked fifth in defensive field goal percentage; in recent years the team has gotten rid of several young knuckleheads and is heading in the right direction.

Reasons to mope: The Wizards have not made the playoffs since the 2007-08 season and have been one of the league's most dysfunctional franchises for quite some time. It remains to be seen if the team's young nucleus can stay healthy and be consistent enough to lift the team out of Lottery land.

Bottom line: I am tapping the Wizards for the eighth playoff spot partially because I believe in their young backcourt and partially because I have little faith that any of the remaining East teams will scrape together 40 wins.

The Eastern Conference is still weak and a record in the vicinity of .500 will probably be good enough to grab the final two playoff spots. While I expect Cleveland and Washington to barely emerge from the pack, several Eastern bottom feeders could potentially get hot at the end of the season and sneak into the playoffs. The Toronto Raptors showed some signs of life after trading for Rudy Gay and they closed the season by winning seven of their last eight games, though those results have to be taken with a grain of salt because not all of their opponents were at full strength in those contests; new General Manager Masai Ujiri did a great job rebuilding the post-Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets and it will not be long before he turns Toronto into a playoff team, though it probably will not happen in 2013-14. The Charlotte Bobcats finally have a legitimate low post scoring threat (Al Jefferson) but even a 10 win improvement will still leave them short of qualifying for postseason play. The Orlando Magic have some nice young pieces--including Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo and rookie Victor Oladipo--and could be a dark horse contender for the eighth seed but it is more likely that they need to add some more talent before returning to postseason play. O.J. Mayo figures to be Milwaukee's leading scorer this season--and the Bucks figure to win fewer than 35 games. The Detroit Pistons have won between 25 and 30 games in each of the past four seasons. Joe Dumars' bizarre and inexplicable belief in Rodney Stuckey stalled the Pistons and bringing back an aging Chauncey Billups will hardly be enough to restore the franchise's faded glory. The Boston Celtics's Big Three plus Rajon Rondo now solely consists of Rondo; rookie Coach Brad Stevens will probably have a rough adjustment to pro basketball and the Celtics do not look like a playoff team even in the watered down East. Last season, the 76ers traded an All-Star caliber wing (Andre Iguodala) to acquire a center who did not play a single game for them (Andrew Bynum) before heading to Cleveland as a free agent; this season the 76ers traded an All-Star point guard (Jrue Holiday) for rookie center Nerlens Noel, who is still recovering from an ACL injury. It is safe to assume that Philadelphia will not be printing any 2014 playoff tickets.


I correctly picked seven of the eight 2012-13 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

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

2006-2013 Total: 50/64 (.781)

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:23 PM