2015-16 Western Conference PreviewPerennial 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 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.
I correctly picked seven of the eight 2015 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2006-2015 Total: 64/80 (.800)
posted by David Friedman @ 3:07 AM