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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

2014-15 Western Conference Preview

The opening sentence of my 2013-14 Western Conference Preview could not have been more prophetic: "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." The Spurs bounced back from their devastating loss in the 2013 NBA Finals to beat the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals and earn the fifth championship of the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014). Duncan now enjoys a 2-1 head to head advantage versus LeBron James in the NBA Finals and Duncan owns three more championship rings than James does. Duncan has never been as statistically dominant individually as James is and Duncan has not been the Finals MVP during the Spurs' most recent two title runs but numbers do not fully capture Duncan's impact as a defensive stopper in the paint, a low post offensive hub (who can also step outside and hit midrange jumpers) and a true champion who has been an outstanding leader from day one. Duncan long ago made a strong case to be considered the greatest power forward of all-time and I tapped him as a Pantheon level player six years ago but because of his soft spoken demeanor and the fact that he has never posted gaudy statistics it seems like his greatness may never be fully appreciated.

The Spurs stood pat this offseason and they have every reason to believe that their core nucleus of Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is good enough to make yet another title run. Their chief rival, the Oklahoma City Thunder, will have to survive for a significant period of time without Kevin Durant, who has won four of the past five scoring titles. This could be an opportunity for Russell Westbrook to shine a la Scottie Pippen in 1994 and Kobe Bryant in 2003; Pippen and Bryant were wrongly considered to be mere sidekicks until retirement (Michael Jordan) and injury (Shaquille O'Neal) respectively enabled them to demonstrate that they were in fact legitimate MVP caliber players in their own right. Bryant went on a scoring binge in O'Neal's absence and some people may expect Westbrook to try to do the same thing but I think that--while Westbrook will likely bump up his scoring a bit--he will focus on showcasing his all-around game and prove that he can be the best player on an elite team, much like Pippen did when he led the Jordan-less Bulls to a 55-27 record in 1993-94.

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: The Duncan/Popovich Spurs have put together a unique dynasty spanning a decade and a half: they always win 50-plus games, they almost always seriously contend for the championship, they have won five titles--but they have never won back to back titles and they have never fielded a particular squad that would rank among the 10 best single season teams in pro basketball history. Other basketball dynasties have been shorter-lived and captured fewer championships but many of those dynasties either won back to back titles or else notched one season of exceptional dominance. The Spurs' dynasty has been interrupted by--and ultimately outlasted--two distinct Lakers' dynasties that claimed three straight championships and two straight championships respectively. It would be foolish to expect anything less than 50-plus regular season wins and another deep playoff run from the Spurs.

2) Oklahoma City Thunder: "Stat gurus" will insist that James Harden's departure has held back the Thunder and possibly even cost them at least one championship but the truth is that during their first two seasons sans Harden the Thunder have posted the franchise's two best winning percentages since 1998. The Thunder's problem has been that they have not been able to keep their core trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka healthy during the postseason. The Thunder were right to jettison Harden and keep Ibaka but they will never win a championship if they do not have those three players operating at a peak level in May/June. This season is already off to an ominous start even before opening night, as Durant is expected to miss extensive time due to a foot injury. Westbrook will more than hold down the fort in Durant's absence during the regular season and Thunder fans can only hope that come playoff time Durant is in peak form.

3) L.A. Clippers: I have long maintained that Chris Paul will never be the best player on a championship team; Isiah Thomas is the only 6-foot and under player (don't believe the listed heights for Paul or Thomas) who was the best player on an NBA championship team and even though Paul's mindset is very similar to Thomas' there is just some element (besides the obvious element of durability) that Paul is missing. The loophole here, of course, is that Paul could still win a title with the Clippers. After all, during Paul's absence last season we saw that Blake Griffin is hardly dependent on Paul to be a great player and that Griffin is in fact the Clippers' best player. The Clippers do not have quite enough to beat San Antonio or Oklahoma City at full strength but if those teams suffer some key injuries the Clippers could very well win the West.

4) Golden State Warriors: Coach Mark Jackson did an outstanding job building a winning culture in Golden State but he lost favor with management and was shown the door. New Coach Steve Kerr will try to keep Jackson's defense intact while adding some offensive creativity. The Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson backcourt is dynamic and if the Warriors get productivity from Andrew Bogut and David Lee upfront then they will be a very scary team during the playoffs.

5) Portland Trail Blazers: Portland was a pleasant surprise last season, finishing tied for the fourth best record in the tough Western Conference. I don't like the word "overachieve" but let's just say I do not expect Portland to exceed what they accomplished in 2014. This is a good, solid playoff team but not a championship contender.

6) Dallas Mavericks: I am not sure why the New York Knicks were so eager to run Tyson Chandler out of town but the defensive anchor for Dallas' 2011 championship team still has at least a little left in the tank. Chandler Parsons will provide a major offensive boost. If Dirk Nowitzki were a couple years younger, I would rank Dallas as a top three team in the West but Nowitzki is not quite the player he used to be.

7) Houston Rockets: Daryl Morey became Houston's General Manager in 2007. In the past seven seasons, they have missed the playoffs three times while advancing past the first round just once. "Stat gurus" love to criticize traditional-minded NBA GMs and make fun of their roster moves and mock them for failing to take advantage of "advanced basketball statistics." How long, exactly, is it supposed to take for the allegedly immense advantages supplied by the use of those statistics to have an impact on the bottom line win/loss statistic? If a traditional-minded NBA GM had taken over in Houston seven years ago and posted the exact same record that Morey's teams have posted, you can bet that the "stat gurus" in the media would be firing potshots at him. I don't think that Morey is necessarily a bad GM but the idea that he deserves credit for swinging for the fences is a bit tiresome. The Rockets have swung, repeatedly, but all of their roster moves have yet to result in creating a team that is likely to advance past the first round.

8) Memphis Grizzlies: Meet the next Houston Rockets. The Grizzlies were on the verge of championship contention less than two years ago. Then they decided to go all-in with "advanced basketball statistics." That led to a first round exit last season and will likely lead to a first round exit this season. Be prepared to read many stories this season about just how forward-thinking the team's front office is, despite the fact that the team figures to be backward-moving in the standings.

There has been a lot of noise about Kobe Bryant and the L.A. Lakers recently. I wish that I had the time to delve into that subject in depth but I will have to settle for just making a few quick observations:

1) No one should put much stock in an article written by someone with no credibility who can only support his weak thesis with anonymous quotes.

2) Whether or not Bryant's teammates have enjoyed every minute that they spent with him, a large number of those teammates enjoyed career years playing alongside him. That group ranges from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol) to the somewhat less than sublime (Kwame Brown, Smush Parker).

3) Do you think that it is terrible for a player to publicly call his teammates "sissies" during the NBA Finals and for that same player to announce during a regular season game huddle that if his teammates don't want to play hard then they should just stand on the weak side while he shoots the ball every time? If so, then you don't think much of Larry Bird's leadership techniques. What about punching a teammate in the face during practice and riding other teammates so hard to test their toughness that he basically ran some guys off of the squad, if not out of the league entirely? If those leadership techniques don't strike your fancy then you must not like Michael Jordan very much.

Let's be real. Julius Erving and David Robinson won pro basketball championships while being genuinely nice guys on and off of the court--but many of pro basketball's greatest players were not always nice to be around on a day in, day out basis. The difference is that media members liked Larry Bird and Michael Jordan--and, in an earlier era, they liked Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle enough to cover up their off-field excesses. We live in a different era now. Media members are not awestruck by pro athletes, nor do they get to ride on the same planes, trains and automobiles with them. Many media members are jealous or incompetent or just like to write/say provocative things. In 2006, Team USA had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony and laid an egg. Then, in 2008 Team USA added Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd and reestablished Team USA's FIBA dominance. Now, media members take potshots at Bryant and Kidd night and day. Bryant and Kidd are not close to being perfect human beings but it is strange to question their basketball leadership abilities and I take anything that the media says about them (and any other subject) with a huge grain of salt.

4) The 2014-15 Lakers essentially have traded Mike D'Antoni and Pau Gasol for Byron Scott, Kobe Bryant and Carlos Boozer. The Lakers are not a great team or even a very good one but they won 27 games last season and if Bryant stays healthy it is not absurd to think that they could win 30-plus games this season.

5) Bryant is getting old and he is coming off of two serious injuries. I don't think that his skills have declined dramatically but they have declined and the reality is that he probably will not play more than 60-65 games this season. Pencil him in for 25 ppg, expect the Lakers to be at least somewhat competitive when he plays and expect the Lakers to look pretty bad when he does not play.

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Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2014 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2014 Total: 57/72 (.792)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:40 PM

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Monday, October 20, 2014

2014-15 Eastern Conference Preview

The biggest story entering the 2014-15 NBA season is LeBron James' return to Cleveland. James' arrival transforms the Cavaliers into a legitimate championship contender and relegates the Miami Heat to, at best, second tier playoff status. When James fled Cleveland for the sunny shores of Miami, he had not yet fully developed a championship mentality nor had his jump shot or postup game completely evolved. In Miami, James learned what it takes to be a champion and he led the Heat to two titles and four NBA Finals appearances in four seasons. Barring a serious, career-threatening or career-ending injury, the 29 year old 11 season NBA veteran likely has at least three or four elite years left in the tank and perhaps another three or four high level campaigns after that. If James is surrounded by the right talent and guided by the right coaching, he can keep the Cavaliers at or near the top of the league until past 2020.

Perhaps the two next biggest Eastern Conference stories revolve around one returning superstar and one departing star: Injuries have limited Chicago's Derrick Rose, the 2011 regular season MVP, to just 49 regular season games in the past three years. If Rose can regain elite status and maintain his health, Chicago should be the best team in the East. Meanwhile, the Indiana Pacers, who posted the Eastern Conference's best regular season record in 2013-14 before falling to the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, lost All-Star Paul George to a season-ending leg injury and lost valuable--but volatile--swingman Lance Stephenson to free agency. After making back to back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers will be fighting just to make the playoffs as opposed to having realistic hopes of winning a championship.

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) Chicago Bulls: The Bulls finished with the third best record in the East last season and have now added a healthy Derrick Rose plus free agent signee Pau Gasol to the roster. They released Carlos Boozer. The obvious key to the Bulls' championship aspirations is Rose's health. As long as Coach Tom Thibodeau is around, the Bulls will be an outstanding defensive team that annually qualifies for the playoffs but Rose gives the Bulls the necessary offensive spark and superstar dynamic that can put them over the top. Gasol has never been a rugged player but he is a legit seven footer who will add offensive punch and rebounding plus valuable size as a rim protector alongside Joakim Noah. Gasol has yet to win a single playoff game in his career without playing alongside Kobe Bryant but he is ideally suited to being the third best Chicago player behind Rose and Noah. If Rose plays at least 70 games at a high level, the Bulls will win 55-60 games and be a very tough out in the playoffs.

2) Cleveland Cavaliers: The Cleveland Cavaliers have been terrible for the past few years not just because LeBron James left but also because the franchise gutted the front office, the coaching staff and the rest of the roster that helped James lead the team to the 2007 NBA Finals and to the best regular season record in the NBA in 2009 and 2010. James picked a good time to return home, because the Cavaliers have finally rebuilt a legitimate NBA roster. Kevin Love is a scoring and rebounding machine who is also a good passer, though his defense is questionable. Kyrie Irving, the 2014 All-Star MVP, looks like he will be a perennial All-Star. Anderson Varejao has been hobbled by injuries since James left town but he is a high energy player who is an excellent screen/roll partner for James. James is the best player in the league, while Irving and Love could easily both be top 10 players if they are healthy and motivated. James is wise to publicly dampen expectations as opposed to promising to win "Not one, not two..." championships but the Cavaliers have both talent and depth. The two question marks for this team are coaching and defense. Rookie Coach Dave Blatt has had a brilliant FIBA coaching career but now he is in the big leagues and he will face a steep learning curve while undergoing tremendous media scrutiny. Can he devise a championship level defensive scheme for the Cavaliers and can he get Love, Irving and the rest of James' teammates to buy into that scheme? James is an elite defender, though he has slipped just a bit at that end of the court, but NBA defense requires five players to react as one and it requires a good game plan that is well executed.

3) Toronto Raptors: The Raptors surprised me and many other people last season. I fully expected that General Manager Masai Ujiri would turn the team around but I did not expect the Raptors to make the playoffs last year. Toronto lost a tough seven game first round series to Brooklyn but the Raptors have a young nucleus led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and they figure to make a deeper postseason run in 2015.

4) Washington Wizards: Like the Raptors, the Wizards are a young squad that went further than many people expected in 2014. I predicted that Washington would sneak into the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference but I was surprised that they made it past the first round. The John Wall-Bradley Beal backcourt is very dynamic and Washington's frontcourt size causes a lot of matchup problems.

5) Miami Heat: Without LeBron James, the Heat will not make a fifth straight NBA Finals appearance. That is obvious--but what may not be obvious to casual fans is that the cupboard is not completely bare. Chris Bosh sacrificed a lot of his individual game in order to help the Heat be successful but he is a top notch postup threat who can score from anywhere on the floor while also being a major factor as a rebounder and defender. If the Heat coaching staff uses Bosh the right way and Bosh accepts the challenge, Bosh can once again be a 20-10 player and the Heat can win at least 45 games. What about Dwyane Wade? The most that can reasonably be expected from him at this stage of his career is 50-60 games played, decent offense, bad defense and random cheap shots delivered to opposing players. Wade is an undersized shooting guard who has always relied on his formidable athletic ability, so the back end of his career will not be kind to him; he is not going to suddenly become 6-6, nor is he going to suddenly become a consistent postup threat or a consistent jump shooter.

6) Brooklyn Nets: The Nets are an aging, overhyped team. Last year, while many people touted them as a serious threat to dethrone the Heat, I picked them to finish fourth in the weak Eastern Conference. The Nets ended up fifth, though they did have some transitory glory by winning a game seven on the road versus Toronto in the first round before being smashed 4-1 by the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Paul Pierce is gone, Kevin Garnett is running on fumes, Deron Williams apparently left his game in Utah and Joe Johnson is a solid All-Star caliber player but not a superstar who can carry a team to a title. Jason Kidd did the best that he could in his rookie season as a head coach--enduring some unfair and uninformed media criticism along the way--but he lost a power play with management and was replaced by Lionel Hollins, who was foolishly chased away by Memphis two years ago. Hollins will maximize this team's potential but all that amounts to is a first round exit.

7) Charlotte Hornets: Michael Jordan has hardly covered himself in glory as an NBA executive/NBA owner but the Hornets made serious strides last season. Al Jefferson is a low post beast, Steve Clifford turned out to be a surprisingly good coach in his first season and the Hornets made the playoffs just two years after posting the worst record in NBA history. The ceiling for this current roster is well short of legitimate championship contention but there is no reason to think that they cannot once again win 40-plus games and qualify for the playoffs.

8) Indiana Pacers: Yes, the Pacers lost arguably their two best players. Yes, the Pacers face planted down the stretch in the regular season before regaining their bearings and advancing through the weak Eastern Conference playoffs to what once had seemed to be an inevitable showdown with the Heat. Yes, many people criticize Coach Frank Vogel's decisions and Larry Bird's player moves. So why do I still think that the Pacers will qualify for the playoffs? You may have noticed a recurring theme in this article: the Eastern Conference is weak (even though Chicago and Cleveland are legit title contenders). Who am I supposed to select over the Pacers? The dysfunctional Knicks? The dysfunctional Hawks? Some other dysfunctional team? Maybe Phil Jackson will turn around the Knicks but right now the Knicks have a rookie head coach, an overrated best player and a motley cast of knuckleheads, has-beens and never weres. The Pacers have a proven defensive system, quality big men and a recent track record of playoff success. That should be enough for 42 or 43 wins, at least--and that should be just enough to edge out the four or five Eastern teams that will finish with between 30 and 40 wins.

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Note:

I correctly picked six of the eight 2013-14 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2014 Total: 56/72 (.778)

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:12 PM

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