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Friday, October 09, 2015

2015-16 Western Conference Preview

Perennial Western Conference contenders San Antonio and Oklahoma City both fell short of expectations last season. For most of the 2014-15 campaign, the Spurs seemed on track to mount a strong title defense but Coach Gregg Popovich's strategic resting of key players backfired as San Antonio ended up with the fifth seed despite finishing just one game out of second place in the conference. Instead of hosting a first round series against the vulnerable Dallas Mavericks, the Spurs lost a tough seven game heavyweight clash with the L.A. Clippers. I will never buy into the idea that regular season games do not matter; Phil Jackson never bought into that theory--leading the Bulls to 72 and 69 wins in back to back seasons and winning at least 65 games on three other occasions en route to capturing a record 11 NBA championships as a coach--and neither does Bill Belichick of the four-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The Thunder did not voluntarily surrender any games but significant injuries to several key players resulted in Oklahoma City missing the postseason on the basis of losing a tiebreak to the New Orleans Pelicans. Both teams have reloaded and figure to once again be serious championship contenders.

With San Antonio and Oklahoma City out of the way and the L.A. Lakers punching a Draft Lottery ticket early in the season, it was inevitable that new blood would represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals for just the third time since 1998. The Golden State Warriors, owners of a league-best 67-15 record, filled that void very adroitly. Contrary to popular belief, the Warriors did not vindicate small-ball or analytics or Mike D'Antoni's philosophy as much as they reaffirmed the truth that NBA championship teams are almost always very good defensively in addition to having some kind of offensive system that fits their personnel. The Warriors do not have a dominant scorer in the paint but they use dribble penetration and ball movement to collapse the defense and they have an armada of three point shooters who punish slow or non-existent defensive rotations. D'Antoni's formula has never included defense, which is why his teams never won a title and why other run and gun outfits that ignored defense also fell short of the ultimate prize.

If all three of those teams stay healthy throughout the 2015-16 season we could see one of the most intriguing battles for conference supremacy ever, as a defending league champion battles against the previous league champion and a team with the league's best 1-2 punch. This could be a real treat!

Of course, several other teams expect or at least hope to be in the mix, including the Clippers, Rockets and Grizzlies.

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:

1) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs' dynastic run that started in the late 1990s and continues until the present day began with the pairing of an aging former MVP big man (David Robinson) with a young, upcoming big man (Tim Duncan). Robinson displayed a lot of grace and class with the way that he accepted a lesser role for the betterment of the team as the Spurs won two championships (1999, 2003) with a Twin Towers system. Duncan then led the Spurs to three more championships sans Robinson (2005, 2007, 2014) while surrounded by two future Hall of Famers (Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker) plus a variety of solid role players. Kawhi Leonard emerged as the Finals MVP for the 2014 championship team and he has established himself as the third member of the Spurs' Big Three (along with Duncan and Parker) as Ginobili has transitioned from All-Star to role player in the past few years.

Now the Big Three is a Big Four, as the Spurs made their most significant free agent move of the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich era, signing Portland's four-time All-Star/three-time All-NBA selection LaMarcus Aldridge to a four year contract. The addition of LaMarcus Aldridge brings Duncan's career full circle and Duncan will surely embrace the role of second big man to Aldridge the same way that Robinson did with Duncan. Aldridge is not the defender that Robinson was or Duncan is but Aldridge provides the Spurs with their best, most consistent and most versatile scoring option since Duncan was in his MVP-caliber prime more than a decade ago.

If the Spurs stay healthy and do not sabotage their playoff seeding by taking too many games off, they will be the best team in the NBA.

2) Golden State Warriors: The Warriors will not likely approach their 2014-15 regular season win total but they will once again be serious championship contenders. Coach Steve Kerr's back issues are a legitimate cause for concern to some extent but even if he has to miss the whole season (which is not expected to be the case) there is some precedent for a contending team to replace a coach and keep right on rolling. Remember how Pat Riley originally got the Lakers' job? Jack McKinney almost died in a bicycle accident, his assistant coach Paul Westhead won one championship before clashing with Magic Johnson and suddenly Riley--a broadcaster turned assistant coach--was at the helm of one of the sport's great dynasties.

Many people will focus on Golden State's small lineups and large number of three pointers attempted but what interests me is watching the Warriors play defense this season. Will they continue to work hard at that end of the court or will they rest on their laurels? Defense is what separated the 2014-15 Warriors from previous teams that ran, gunned--and failed to win a title.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder: When healthy, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are clearly the best 1-2 punch in the NBA. If Westbrook had been healthy enough to play in just a few more games last season then he would have pushed, pulled and dragged an injury-depleted Thunder into the playoffs in the tough Western Conference and quite possibly added an MVP award to his scoring title. If Durant returns to form and Westbrook remains healthy, the Thunder will give opponents the business and exact some revenge against teams that enjoyed beating the depleted Thunder last year.

I am skeptical about Billy Donovan as an NBA coach, for the same reason that I am skeptical of most coaches who try to jump from the NCAA to the NBA: the NBA game is much more sophisticated than the college game. Donovan would be wise to lean heavily on his staff (including former NBA head coaches Maurice Cheeks and Monty Williams), much like NBA rookie David Blatt did last season (most memorably when assistant Tyronn Lue prevented Blatt from calling a timeout that his team did not have at a crucial moment in a playoff game).

Nevertheless, much like the Cavs made it to the NBA Finals while Blatt learned on the job, I do not think that Donovan's inexperience will prevent the Thunder from advancing in the playoffs if their core players are healthy.

4) L.A. Clippers: It would be tempting to give up on the Clippers as viable championship contenders after they blew a 3-1 lead against a not ready for prime time Houston team that promptly got waxed by Golden State but there is precedent for teams enduring painful setbacks before taking the next step. In 1981, the 76ers blew a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals only to beat Boston in seven games in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. The mid-80s Pistons suffered repeatedly against Boston before breaking through to win two titles. Similarly, the late-80s Bulls had to go through the Pistons before starting their dynasty.

Mind you, I do not think that the Clippers are as talented and tough as any of those teams--but it is possible for a team to overcome a tough loss to reach greater heights.

The Clippers' problem, though, is not so much forgetting about last year as dealing with some harsh present realities. Chris Paul is a great player but he is also overrated and declining; there is just so much that a barely 6-0 point guard can do and the idea that he is a legit MVP candidate stretches credulity. He is not the best player on his team and he will never be the best player on a championship team. Paul monopolizes the ball; it is supposedly harmful when one player shoots a lot but not harmful when one player dribbles a lot but the reality is that if one player shoots a lot AND scores a lot then he will tilt the defense in a way that opens up opportunities for his teammates even if he is not racking up assists. What Paul does is hold on to the ball until he wants to get rid of it, making everyone dependent on him. An even bigger problem, pardon the pun, is that the diminutive Paul annually gets worn down during the playoffs as teams punish him physically. How many times do so-called experts have to see this happen before they realize it is not a fluke?

Blake Griffin is the Clippers' best player. The Clippers need him to not just put up numbers but to control the flow of the game and the flow of a series.

Newly acquired Paul Pierce is well past his time but he fit in well as a role player for Washington last season and, if the Clippers are going to make it to the NBA Finals then they will need for him to play a Bob McAdoo/Mark Aguirre kind of role.

I greatly respect Doc Rivers' coaching ability but it should be noted that his Clippers have more talent and experience than the Clippers had under his predecessor Vinny Del Negro but they have yet to advance further in the playoffs than Del Negro's 2012 team did.

5) Houston Rockets: I do not believe in luck regarding games of skill but the Rockets were lucky last season. The Rockets were fifth in the West in point differential and seventh overall--a reliable predictor of success--yet they finished second in the West during the regular season and improbably overcame a 3-1 deficit versus the L.A. Clippers to earn the right to get waxed by Golden State in the Western Conference Finals.

During Daryl Morey's eight years as Houston's General Manager, the team has missed the playoffs three times and advanced past the first round just twice. If his use of "advanced basketball statistics" is going to translate into some kind of tangible, real world advantage we may not see any evidence of this until he is well into his second decade at the helm.

As I have indicated before, I do not think that Morey is a bad executive but I think that he blew into town with too much hype and too many expectations that have yet to be fulfilled. James Harden has become the poster child for "Morey ball" but what Harden actually represents is what happens when a very good player is given the opportunity to monopolize the ball; each NBA team probably has two players who could average 20-plus ppg if given the requisite minutes/shot attempts/freedom. The ability to average 20-plus ppg means something and I do not think that anyone can do it but I also reject the notion that a player's value can be determined based purely on numbers.

There are some tangible and intangible factors that prevent Harden from being as valuable as some people claim that he is. One tangible missing factor is defense: Harden is still bad at it, despite all of the hype about his improvement. Morey wisely surrounded Harden with good to excellent defenders and that is why Houston's overall defense does not suffer even though Harden's defense is poor. The intangible missing factors showed up in Oklahoma City when he disappeared in the 2012 Finals despite only being the third option on offense and they showed up again during key moments of the 2015 postseason, as I documented.

How far the Rockets go will largely be determined by Dwight Howard's health and effectiveness; it is no coincidence that the Rockets' playoff run coincided with his late season return to action.

6) Memphis Grizzlies: One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. The Grizzlies lack consistent outside shooting, which means that even though they can physically pound some teams during the regular season their big men will have no room to operate during the playoffs. Memphis may finish higher than sixth in the standings but in four of the past five seasons the Grizzlies have exited the playoffs no later than the second round and that trend figures to continue.

7) New Orleans Pelicans: The "advanced basketball statistics" say that Anthony Davis is already a historically great player. The box score numbers and the eye test also speak highly of Davis. I did not expect Davis' offensive game to blossom to the extent that it has but his ceiling is higher than I anticipated and I think it is reasonable to believe/predict that he will not only put up gaudy individual numbers but that he will figure out how to translate statistical dominance into greater team success.

8) Utah Jazz: Utah started slowly in 2014-15 but went 19-10 after the All-Star break. Sometimes such numbers can be deceptive because teams are tanking or resting players for the playoffs but the Jazz' run was based on improved defense and that formula should be sustainable. The Jazz are far from being a championship contender but seizing the final playoff berth is a very attainable goal.

The Dallas Mavericks have reached the playoffs in 14 of the past 15 seasons but the Deandre Jordan fiasco will probably be too much to overcome. I am not at all convinced that Deron Williams will rejuvenate his career and I think that Tyson Chandler's defensive presence will be hard to replace.

The Sacramento Kings have an intriguing talent mixture and Coach George Karl is known for getting the most out of teams with disparate personalities but there is a little too much volatility in the organization for this team to earn a playoff berth.

If Kobe Bryant were five years younger, he could lead this ragtag Lakers team to the playoffs. When Bryant was healthy and his legs were a bit springier he did not need much help to at least qualify for the postseason, as he demonstrated in 2006 and 2007 (the Kwame Brown/Smush Parker era).

Even now, Bryant could possibly push, pull and carry the Lakers to close to a .500 record in the first portion of the season but his body will not likely withstand that kind of workload over 82 games. If the Lakers can generate enough production from the rest of the roster without demanding more than 30 mpg from Bryant then the Lakers could be a dark horse playoff contender.

As for all of the commentary about how no one wants to play with Bryant and how the Lakers would be better off without him, let's be real. Most, if not all, of the only people who have complained on the record about playing with Bryant are lazy and/or soft; Bryant would not want them as teammates, anyway, and they did not do much before or after playing with Bryant.

The issue is not who Bryant is/what Bryant represents but rather that he is old and his body is breaking down. How happy were the Wizards to play alongside an old Michael Jordan who still barked at them like he barked at his teammates during his prime but who could not play at an MVP level for four quarters on a nightly basis?

Regarding the assertion that the Lakers would be better without Bryant, the Lakers stink without Bryant, point blank. Injuries have limited Bryant to 41 games in the past two seasons and the Lakers have been horrible. The last season that Bryant was healthy (2012-13), the team went through three head coaches, Pau Gasol missed 33 games, Steve Nash missed 32 games, Dwight Howard was hobbled by injuries and Bryant carried the Lakers to the playoffs while averaging 27.3 ppg and finishing fifth in the MVP race. Yes, even at that time Bryant had lost some bounce physically but he more than made up for it mentally--and if he can keep his body together there is little doubt that he can play at an MVP level, albeit probably only for 30 mpg and with some days off for recovery.

**********

Note:

I correctly picked seven of the eight 2015 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2014: 6/8
2013: 6/8
2012: 7/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 7/8
2009: 7/8
2008: 7/8
2007: 6/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2015 Total: 64/80 (.800)

Labels: , , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 3:07 AM

13 comments

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13 Comments:

At Friday, October 09, 2015 12:22:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I again mostly agree.

San Antonio's a near mortal lock to be a top 2 West team if healthy.

Golden State's going to be good.

Oklahoma will be good in the regular season assuming health, but they can't play real NBA defense when Kanter and Westbrook share the floor, and struggle when Kanter and absolutely anybody share the floor. Kanter may be the worst defensive center in basketball, and that's going to make it nigh impossible for OKC to beat anybody good in the playoffs unless they bench him, which I doubt first year coach Billy Donovan has the authority and/or balls to do with a guy who just signed a 70 million dollar contract. By committing to Kanter as their starting center for the forseeable future, I believe that OKC has effectively punted whatever championship window they had left. Their best hope may be that if Kanter gets hurt they can survive with Steven Adams, who is at least a competent if unremarkable defender, or with Ibaka playing the 5 in a small ball lineup unleashing Durant at the 4.

The Clippers are what they are at this point.

You and I agree on where Memphis will end up, but we disagree on why. I don't agree that their biggest problem has been a lack of shooting- although, yeah, they could really use some more shooting (although Barnes is at least a minor upgrade there)- but that they can't stay healthy. Even hobbled they gave the Warriors more trouble than anybody last season, but we've had about four or five years in a row now of them not being able to keep their best guys at 100%. Similar to Miami in the East, if everything breaks right for them they're a true contender but the much more likely outcome is that one of their brittle core pieces gets banged up at the wrong time.

I think you're probably right about the rest of the West, though I don't agree that even a healthy Kobe at this stage of his career could keep the Lakers above .500 in the West. It's a brutal conference and they've got zero dependable players. Comparing it 2006/07 is inaccurate; those teams at least had Phil Jackson. The better comparison is the '05 team- which had talent that just couldn't be depended on. Roy Hibbert has his moments and all their young guys are interesting, but even with a healthy Kobe they've got a hopelessly out of touch coach and nobody else they can rely on to play defense- or smart offense- night to night.

 
At Saturday, October 10, 2015 7:54:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

We will agree to disagree about Westbrook's defense.

As for Kanter, he is not a good defender but last year with OKC he averaged 19-11 on nearly .570 FG shooting so he is capable of making some kind of contribution on at least one end of the court. OKC could very well do an offense/defense platoon with Kanter and Adams at the center spot, much like the Detroit Pistons did at small forward with Aguirre and Rodman back in the day. Not that either of the OKC players in question are as good as their Piston counterparts but the point is that a platoon system could possibly be effective for OKC.

I think that Donovan, not Kanter, is the biggest question mark for OKC. The track record for college coaches jumping to the NBA with no NBA coaching experience is not great, though of course the transition can be made successfully and each case has its own particular context.

If you look at Memphis' recent playoff defeats, the inability to shoot well consistently from outside and the struggle to consistently score more than 90-95 ppg are major issues, regardless of who has been hurt, suspended or otherwise unavailable.

I will not spend much ink debating the Kobe hypothetical because I think that a Kobe injury before the midway point of the season will likely make the whole discussion moot (unless Kobe and the Lakers stick to a sensible minutes plan for the 20 year veteran) but I would take former All-Star Hibbert and the young, eager supporting cast that Kobe has now over the woeful supporting cast that he had circa 2006-07. You are of course right that the 2006-07 Lakers had a major coaching edge over the current Lakers, though Scott led the Nets to back to back Finals and also led New Orleans to a pair of playoff appearances.

 
At Sunday, October 11, 2015 3:07:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

I agree that Donovan is a pretty big question mark as well (as is Durant's health), but Kanter's abominable, not merely bad, on defense, and at the most important defensive position. When he played, OKC had the league's worst defense- even when they still had Ibaka next to him. They finished the season ranked the 16th defense in the league, so it's safe to assume they were better than that when he sat (I can't easily find that specific number, but common sense suggests they were probably somewhere around 12th or 13th). It's basically unheard of for a single player to be so inept defensively as to turn a borderline top ten defense into a league worst one, but here we are.

As little as you like "Advanced Stats", Kanter ranked dead last among centers in "Real Plus Minus," and 385th overall. Mark Aguirre was nowhere near that bad. For reference, Kanter's 385th ranked DPM is -2.3; Aguirre's was also negative, but only -0.5. Yes, there are still a lot of variables and noise, but the point is that the Pistons were not turning into the league's worst defense when they played Aguirre, they were merely turning into an average one.

In D-RTG- a stat which we've recently established favors big men- he ranks 152nd out of 162 players who played at least 20 games and 25 mpg. The only centers below him are Jordan Hill and Andrea Bargnani (incidentally, 6 of the 9 players below him on that list play for LAL or NY). The usual D-RTG excuse- my teammates suck- doesn't totally apply here, since Utah was the best defense in the league once he left, and OKC was well above league average whenever he wasn't there.

Opposing players shoot over 61% against him at the rim. He turns whoever he's guarding into Blake Griffin, basically, and he's usually guarding the second most threatening front court player. Away from the rim, they shot 49.8%.. or about what Kevin Durant and Chris Paul shoot from that range. Whoever Kanter is guarding shoots like an MVP candidate.

Maybe it would be different if OKC were built like Houston- four great defenders to cover for one crappy one (though as bad as Harden is he's better than Kanter)- but they're not. They've got one great defensive player (Ibaka), two very good ones (Durant and Adams, who plays the same position as Kanter), one whatever-Westbrook-is (Westbrook), and a bunch of scrubs. They don't have the personnel to cover for a big guy who can't rotate, protect the rim, cover the pick and roll, or in any way disrupt opposing offenses.

Getting away from stats, he's also inept on rotations, too slow to stop drives from even other big men, and too ground-bound to meaningfully challenge most shots at the rim even when he's there. Also, if you watch closely, you'll notice that despite his gaudy rebounding numbers, he's actually got horrible rebounding fundamentals- namely, he doesn't box out for anyone but himself. He's kinda like Lance Stephenson in that he goes for every possible rebound, and gets enough of them for good numbers, but ends up screwing his team in the doing of it.

Bottom line, so far in his career in both Utah and OKC, Kanter seeing the court translates to a league-worst defense. He's Bizarro Bull Russell, and nobody's winning much of anything in the playoffs if he's playing real minutes for them.*

*Unless he improves. Guy's still young, after all.

As for Memphis, you're not wrong that shooting's a problem area; but I think it's a smaller problem area than health. We've seen them beat SA, OKC, and LAC all in the playoffs. They gave the Warriors a scare despite injuries to Allen and Conley. If they managed to keep their best four guys at 100%, they'd be solidly in that SA/GS/CLE/whomever contenders' core, even if they wouldn't necessarily be favorites.

 
At Sunday, October 11, 2015 12:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I agree that Kanter is a defensive liability but I think that OKC can platoon him with Adams to maximize his offensive contributions and hide or at least minimize his defensive shortcomings.

Regarding Memphis, most of the playoff winning you described happened under the previous GM-Coach regime. Beating LAC is of questionable significance since CP3's teams tend to make early playoff departures regardless of their talent level/regular season win total. Also, when Memphis beat OKC the Thunder did not have the services of Westbrook, an MVP-caliber difference maker.

I would classify Memphis as a team that can win a playoff series if everything breaks right but a team that is not good enough to mount a legit championship run unless the entire Western Conference collapses.

 
At Sunday, October 11, 2015 1:22:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

The problem with platooning Kanter with Adams is that then you give up Ibaka; a lineup with Adams and Kanter is playing 4-on-5 on both sides of the ball. It might work against bench units in small doses, but with Kanter figuring to play 30ish minutes a game, I just don't see how OKC can play good enough defense to beat anybody good. Adams is a good, not great, defender, and even Rudy Gobert (one of the best 2-3 defensive bigs in the league last season) couldn't cover for Adams when they played together, nor could Ibaka.

I think it's hard to make a declarative statement on how good a healthy Memphis team is, since they're never healthy in the playoffs- that's a flaw in and of itself, and one that's going to keep them from ever playing in the Finals- but my argument is that THAT'S the flaw they need to address first. It doesn't matter if they add three 40% three point shooters to their bench if their defensive lynchpins and/or lone playmaker keep getting hurt. Healthy Memphis *might* beat anybody in a 7 game series; but no amount of extra wing shooting will allow them to beat a top tier team without Gasol, Conley, Randolph, or Allen.

That said, it's a much harder fix than shooting, and I'm not really sure where they'd even start. Hire a better training staff maybe, or switch to a Spursian minutes limit for their most fragile guys?

 
At Monday, October 12, 2015 12:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

You raise some valid points about Kanter but having two of the top five players in the league covers up a lot of problems. The big question for OKC is if Donovan is up to the task of maximizing the potential of his Big Two while also properly utilizing the talents of the rest of the roster. If healthy, OKC is a legit championship contender but no one knows if Donovan is a championship caliber coach at the NBA level.

I don't think that Memphis has suffered more injury problems than other teams that have gone further in the playoffs. The Lakers won back to back championships with Bynum's knees of glass and Kobe Bryant's dislocated fingers/bum ankles/balky knee. The factors that consistently hold true for Memphis in the postseason are that they struggle to score 90-95 ppg consistently and they struggle to make a shot outside of the paint. Of course, those problems are related and they are the reason that Randolph and Gasol are not as effective/efficient in the playoffs as they are in the regular season; good, smart teams smother those guys during the playoffs and dare anyone else to make an open jump shot. Randolph is a .460-.480 FG% player in the regular season with Memphis but in the playoffs he shoots .400-.420 most years with Memphis (the one year he shot better than that, 2013, the Grizzlies made it to the WCF but got swept there by the Spurs). Gasol owns a .509 regular season FG% and a .449 playoff FG%. Memphis is not built correctly to win a championship. Lionel Hollins said that you cannot have champagne taste on a beer budget and he disagreed with some of management's moves, so he was fired. Hollins knows more about winning a championship than anyone in charge in Memphis; it has been reported that when Hollins was coaching Hollinger came on to the court and tried to coach the players and Hollins basically told Hollinger to get off of the court, which probably sealed Hollins' fate with the team--and closed whatever slim championship window the team might have had.

 
At Monday, October 12, 2015 12:24:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

I don't disagree that Donovan is a major issue. But I don't think *any* coach is winning with Kanter playing 30 minutes a night. To my knowledge, no NBA champion has won playing a player that defensively inept that kind of minutes. It doesn't help that OKC has no bench to speak of, so if their starting lineup can't build a big league- hard to do when you can't defend- they're pretty screwed.

I'm not saying Memphis is more prone to injury than other contenders, only that they're less able to survive them. The Lakers example is apples and oranges; that team was well equipped to survive without Bynum, and obviously there's no one on Memphis at the level of peak Kobe, and Dave Joerger is no Phil Jackson. There's also no Lamar Odom type on Memphis who can soak up those minutes. Memphis built an absolutely killer machine that's dangerously over-precise; remove any one piece, it falls apart. Most truly great teams have a bit more lineup versatility and can therefore survive an injury. OKC's actually the one other team that's similarly constructed from that POV- they've basically got three real NBA players and can't survive the playoffs without any one of them- but most contenders have a bit more to draw on. There are a lot of teams that'd be screwed if they lost one specific player- Kobe's Lakers, Lebron's Cavs- but Memphis is screwed if they lose any of their top four guys. It's a massive, massive flaw and a borderline unfixable one.

But they're still a threat to anybody *if* they're somehow healthy.

 
At Monday, October 12, 2015 2:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You could probably find something with almost every nba champion where 'no other former champion won with ...'. Kanter is a very good nba player, and with a platoon of Adams/Kanter, what a luxury to have if you're OKC. They have 2 top 5 players, plus very solid at the center position and a good cast around them after that. They don't have a great bench, but solid, and can go 12 deep, which is nowhere needed come playoff time.

 
At Monday, October 12, 2015 2:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

I understand the point you are making regarding Kanter but I still think that Donovan is the bigger question mark.

Overall, I agree with Anonymous' point that many NBA champions won with some deficiency that most if not all previous champions did not have. Few teams are so perfectly balanced that all of their players are above average on both offense and defense.

 
At Monday, October 12, 2015 3:29:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

That's understating it a bit. Kanter isn't merely "below average." He's the worst defensive starter in the NBA, and by a lot. It wouldn't matter if Ollie was Greg Popovich (Ok, it might, if he either benched him or taught him defense) you can't win a playoff series if you're spending 30 minutes of it playing 4-on-5 defensively. The worst defensive starter I can think of on a title team is probably Tony Parker. Parker's bad, to be sure, but plays a much less important role defensively (and is backed by a defensive GOAT contender in Tim Duncan) and can usually be hidden on a non-ballhandling spot-up shooter or defensive specialist to minimize his impact. It's much harder to hide a big man, as you can force them into a pick and roll with your best ball handler whether they like it or not.

I don't know who the worst defensive big man to ever start for a title team was (maybe Dirk?), but whoever he was he was a lot better than Kanter.

I find this an odd argument for you to make, based on our past arguments about the Phoenix Suns. You're convinced a team cannot win a title without playing great defense, yet seem to think with a better coach a team that surrenders 1.09 (that's .03 points worse than '07 Suns team from that argument, who were also much better offensively than OKC) points per possession can? Turning every team's offense into the Golden State Warriors seems a poor approach to winning a title.

Put another way, Kanter's D-RTG (a stat that, again, favors big men) is 6 points worse than Amare Stoudemire's in '07. And his defensive teammates- guys like Ibaka, Gobert, Favors, etc. are no slouches. Amare just had Marion and Bell (and worse, Nash and Diaw). If PHX was too bad defensively to win a title, then necessarily so must Oklahoma be, if they're playing Kanter most the time.

That said, if Kanter is deployed off the bench in a 15-20 minute role, he might not be a deal breaker. You just can't survive that many minutes with that bad of a defender up front. It's never been done, and I doubt it ever will be.

 
At Monday, October 12, 2015 5:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, you need to more carefully read David's statements. He never said or even slightly implied a team can't win a title without great defense, though this has been done before. Just because Kanter isn't a good defender, doesn't mean he doesn't bring other qualities, and it doesn't mean OKC will have a bad team defense. Last time I checked, teams usually play with 2 bigs at the same time, too. And good defensive-minded coaches can hide even terrible defenders

Kanter is better than Splitter, starting center for 2014 SA. Bosh isn't that a great defender by any stretch, and that's at his natural position of PF. However, Bosh started at C for MIA in 2012 and 2013. That's just not a very good situation defensively for a team, but MIA figured it out and made up for it in other areas, plus Bosh is an AS-caliber player overall. The 2009 and 2010 LAL had a greatly hobbled Bynum playing center, who did little to nothing in the playoffs. Perkins brought a lot of toughness to 2008 BOS, but that's about it. Oberto on 2007 SA? Come on. And this is all in recent memory. If Adams remains healthy, Kanter won't be approaching 30mpg probably. Kanter remains a very good player, and OKC looks awesome right now.

Kanter is at best, OKC's 4th best player. Nash was deemed PHO's #1 player by most people. Nash also played many more minutes. It's a big difference between your #1 guy/leader compared to a role player. If your leader isn't going to play defense, then why should anyone else? Durant/Westbrook are just a lot better than Amare/Nash were, even in their primes, plus Durant/Westbrook have turned into very good defensive players, and will give forth effort on that end of the court on a consistent basis. Throw in Adams, Roberson, Collison, Ibaka, etc., OKC has lots of guys willing to put in the effort and do a good job defensively; and I'd bet at least some of this has to do with Durant/Westbrook not totally neglecting that end of the court like Nash/Amare usually did, to say the least.

 
At Monday, October 12, 2015 7:16:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Anonymous-

Kanter isn't Oberto or Splitter- both average or above average defenders- he's ATROCIOUS. To the point that it IS impossible to have a good team defense with him; look at Utah. With him, they were one of the worst defense in the league. Without him, they were instantly a top 3 defense. Even on-court with Ibaka, OKC was surrendering league-worst scoring whenever Kanter played; that's not true of any of the guys you listed (also, Bosh is a well-above average defender, though he's not a great rim protector).

My point wasn't Nash, it was Amare. Amare was a big (like Kanter) who was very good at scoring (like Kanter) who had a few good defenders around him in Bell and Marion (like Kanter) and was a very bad defender (though nowhere near as bad as Kanter). David argued that those Nash/Amare teams couldn't win because of their bad defense, but their defense was much better than Kanter's teams. OKC's D last season: 105.5 D-RTG (16th in the league), though they didn't have Kanter for 2/3s of that. They were about 109 with him. '07 Suns? 106.5 D-RTG (13th in the league at the time). Slightly worse than OKC over the course of the season- though better relative to their peers- but much better than OKC with Kanter. If they're not good enough to win defensively, then neither is a team with Kanter playing big minutes. That was my point, not that Kanter was more important than Nash... though he is, on defense, since bigs have a greater responsibility/impact on D and can be more easily targeted by opposing teams. Nash, as bad as he was, was usually hidden on a Bruce Bowen or a Kyle Korver. In the upper echelon of the West, Kanter's going to be asked to guard pick and rolls involving guys like Deandre Jordan and Tim Duncan (with Ibaka on the more dangerous Aldridge or Griffin), and post ups from guys like Zach Randolph. Against Golden State, he'll be asked to chase around Draymond Green or protect the rim (if Ibaka is on Green-duty). You can't hide a bad defensive big the way you can a bad defensive guard.

Your argument presupposes that OKC is better on defense than that Phoenix team... but after the Kanter trade, they weren't; they were significantly worse. They didn't have Durant, granted, and he is a good defender but they DID have Ibaka and Adams- who are bother better defenders who play at higher value defensive positions, and it didn't make a lick of difference. Utah played him alongside Rudy Gobert, and still couldn't stop guys. Kanter is defensive poison. They have to keep him below 20 minutes to have a shot, and playing mostly against bench units even then, because OKC's going to lose the battle against any lineup that can even kinda score whenever he's out there. OKC's problem isn't scoring- they have Durant and Westbrook, after all- it's stopping other teams from scoring; they can't do that with Kanter out there.

 
At Monday, October 12, 2015 8:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with just about everything you wrote except that I would rate Bosh's defense more highly than you do. He can be overpowered in the post by bigger players but he is a mobile defender who can both check stretch fours and also defend screen/roll actions very effectively. Bosh was a good defender for Team USA as well, as I detailed in some of my FIBA-themed articles.

I picked OKC third in the West, so it is not like I wrote that Kanter will be leading them to the title. OKC is a championship contender, to be sure, but I have serious questions about Donovan.

Regarding PHX, you hit it right on the head: D'Antoni and the team's best players never emphasized defense, which is much different than the tone set by Brooks, Durant and Westbrook for OKC. We will see what impact Donovan has.

 

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