2016-17 Western Conference PreviewNo reason to bury the lede: the big story in the Western Conference--and the NBA overall--is that the record-setting 73-9 Golden State Warriors signed 2014 regular season MVP and four-time scoring champion (2010-12, 14) Kevin Durant away from the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that literally came within five minutes of eliminating the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Durant will team up with back to back regular season MVP Stephen Curry, All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green plus 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala to form one of the most deadly and versatile perimeter arsenals in pro basketball history. The Warriors are the first team in NBA history to have two MVPs on the roster who are both 28 years old or younger and just the fifth team to have the three most recent MVPs on the roster, joining the 1987 Celtics (Larry Bird, 1984-86), the 1984 76ers (Moses Malone, 1982-83; Julius Erving, 1981), the 1969 Lakers (Wilt Chamberlain, who won the 1966-68 MVPs as a member of the 76ers) and the 1964 Celtics (Bill Russell, 1961-63). The 1987 Celtics lost in the Finals, the 1984 76ers lost in the first round, the 1969 Lakers lost in the Finals and the 1964 Celtics won the championship.
The Warriors have tremendous offensive firepower and will still be very strong defensively on the perimeter--but they lack rim protection after the departures of centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli.
I expect this Golden State super team to win at least one championship. They should be considered the favorite this year but a championship is no sure thing because the Cleveland Cavaliers can attack the Warriors in the paint exactly the way that they attacked the Warriors in the last three games of the 2016 Finals. It is also possible that due to chemistry issues or injuries or matchups (as indicated above) the Warriors never win a title with this group. The Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio never won a championship (though Chamberlain and West won a title together after Baylor retired) and the Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton Lakers did not win a championship in their one year together. Of course, the difference between the Warriors and those teams is that the Warriors' key players are all young, while Baylor, Malone and Payton were near the end of the line.
Durant is considered a "villain" in some quarters and he will likely be booed in many arenas this season. He did not bungle his departure the way that LeBron James mishandled the "Decision" but Durant did not exactly cover himself with glory, either. Durant has every right as a free agent to sign with the team of his choice. It is foolish to burn his jersey or act like he has committed a crime against humanity--but just like he has a right to make his choice, fans and commentators have a right to be disappointed by that choice and to explain why it would have been nice if Durant had stayed with Oklahoma City and developed a rivalry with Golden State instead of joining forces with the enemy.
In the wake of Durant's departure, Russell Westbrook will likely cut a one man swath of basketball destruction the likes of which we have not seen since Kobe Bryant circa 2006 after the Lakers parted ways with Shaquille O'Neal. Westbrook has the Bryant mentality but he is smaller than Bryant and it is reasonable to wonder if his body will break down under the weight of trying to carry the Thunder in Durant's absence. Westbrook did not miss a single game during his first five NBA seasons before missing a total of 51 games in the next two seasons. Last season he bounced back to only miss two games. Overall, Westbrook has been a very durable player, particularly considering his aggressive style of play, but it remains to be seen if the leg injuries he suffered a couple years ago will leave him susceptible to further problems.
If Westbrook is healthy, a 30 ppg-10 apg-8 rpg stat line is not out of the question. Westbrook could conceivably lead the NBA in scoring or assists or perhaps he could even become the only player other than Nate Archibald to lead the league in both categories during the same season.
However, one thing that even Westbrook cannot do is elevate the Thunder as currently constructed to contender status. The Western Conference team best suited to potentially challenge the Warriors is the San Antonio Spurs.
This preview has the same format as my Eastern Conference Preview; the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the NBA Finals:
1) Golden State Warriors: The Warriors are the most logical pick to finish with the best record in the NBA and to win the NBA championship. They have the most talented starting five, they have a system of play that has already resulted in two Finals appearances/one championship and they have proven that they can be a high scoring team without sacrificing their commitment to play good defense. The arguments for the Warriors are obvious and hardly need to be explained in much depth.
So, let's look at the counterarguments:
1) The Warriors sacrificed depth in order to sign Durant and that could cost them if they suffer injuries/suspensions/foul trouble
The Warriors lost starters Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, plus reserves Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush and Festus Ezeli. That is almost half of their team. Zaza Paculia will likely replace Bogut as the starting center and David West can be a solid backup power forward but the Warriors have drastically altered a second unit that enabled them to build leads and limit their starters' minutes (no Warrior averaged more than 35 mpg last season). It is true that teams typically shorten their rotations during the playoffs but this is still a major overhaul for a group that enjoyed so much success the past two years. If one of the Warriors' stars gets hurt or suspended or is in foul trouble, suddenly the Warriors do not look invincible.
2) The Warriors have little to no rim protection without Bogut and Ezeli
The Warriors ranked second in the NBA in shotblocking last season but 164 of their 498 blocked shots were provided by Bogut and Ezeli. The 6-7 Green blocked 113 shots. Durant blocked 85 shots for the Thunder. Pachulia is listed at 6-11 but he blocked just 22 shots in 76 games for Dallas last year, less than Klay Thompson amassed as the Warriors' starting shooting guard (49). Less rim protection means that the Warriors will give up more points in the paint and, most likely, commit more fouls.
Let's not get carried away; no matter how you slice it, if the Warriors enjoy even reasonable health then they are a mortal lock to win at least 60 regular season games: they have too much talent and they are too well coached to do anything less than that. However, the only meaningful goal for this team is to win a championship and it is on that basis that the success or failure of this season will be determined.
2) San Antonio Spurs: This is about the 10th year in a row that the Spurs' championship window supposedly has closed, yet the Spurs keep winning at least 50 games a year and in most years they make a deep playoff run. Tim Duncan retired and veteran big men David West and Boris Diaw are no longer with the team. The Spurs added Pau Gasol (an All-Star each of the past two seasons) and David Lee, a former All-Star. Gasol cannot replace Duncan's defensive presence or the intangibles of his leadership but Gasol was the second best player on two Lakers championship teams, so he knows how to perform his role effectively in a winning program.
Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge will be the focal points of San Antonio's offensive attack. Gasol is a better rebounder now than Duncan was last year but Gasol is not as stout of a presence defensively.
Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are mere shadows of the players that they used to be but they can still be productive in limited minutes in the Spurs' system.
The Spurs will not match last year's win total of 67 but 60 wins is certainly within reach, as is a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
3) L.A. Clippers: This will likely be the last season for the Clippers as we know them. Chris Paul has never led the Clippers past the second round of the playoffs and that will be the case again in 2016-17, after which Blake Griffin will either leave as a free agent and/or the front office will make wholesale changes in recognition of the reality that this team as presently constructed will never win a title.
The Clippers have the NBA's fourth highest payroll, including three players making over $20 million this season (Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan). At various times, Paul has been called the best point guard in the NBA, the best leader in the sport and a perennial MVP candidate. At one time he was the best point guard in the NBA but he is overrated as a leader and his name has been mentioned more often in MVP conversations than it should be. Paul is a 6-0 point guard who monopolizes the ball, who wears down physically as the season/postseason progresses and whose teams consistently fail to meet reasonable expectations. I respect Paul's grit and toughness but I have also been saying for a decade that he will never be the best player on a championship team. Now, at this stage of his career it looks like he cannot even be the second best player on a championship team.
Griffin is clearly the Clippers' best player but injuries and a questionable attitude have stagnated his growth. This is a big year for him establish himself as an elite player, which he was on the fringes of doing a couple of years ago before he regressed.
4) Utah Jazz: Utah barely missed the playoffs last season and also suffered the indignity of being on the wrong end of Kobe Bryant's 60 point coda but their young nucleus of players--supplemented by veteran additions Joe Johnson, George Hill and Boris Diaw--is poised to make a jump in the Western Conference standings. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are each entering their prime years. Hayward can slash, shoot and handle the ball, Favors scores, rebounds and blocks shots and Gobert nearly averaged a double double (9.1 ppg, 11.0 rpg).
5) Portland Trail Blazers: Portland was the mystery guest in last year's Western Conference playoffs. Few people expected the Trail Blazers to qualify for the postseason but when they got in they made the most of the opportunity, defeating an injury-riddled Clippers team before falling to the powerful Warriors. In the offseason, Portland added Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli to the mix. That is not enough to transform the Trail Blazers into an elite team but it is sufficient to enable them to hold their ground as a top five team in the Western Conference.
6) Minnesota Timberwolves: Minnesota has a ton of young talent, headlined by 2016 Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns, who averaged 18.3 ppg and 10.5 rpg while shooting .541 from the field. The Timberwolves also have a defensive-minded coach in Tom Thibodeau. The Timberwolves may have to take their lumps for a year or two in the playoffs but they will be handing out some postseason lumps pretty soon.
7) Oklahoma City Thunder: An MVP caliber player is generally worth 15-20 wins. One would expect that after losing Kevin Durant the Thunder would drop from 55 wins to 35-40--but there have been exceptions to the 15-20 win rule/guideline. One happened in 1993-94, when Michael Jordan retired right before the season began and the Bulls merely dropped from 57 wins to 55 (though they did lose in the second round of the playoffs after winning the championship in 1993). The Bulls held their ground, at least in the regular season, because they had a second MVP caliber player (Scottie Pippen) and he was able to expand his individual game in Jordan's absence.
The Thunder are in a similar position. Russell Westbrook can score, pass, rebound and defend. He is tenacious and relentless. Westbrook plays every game like it is his last and that energy is infectious. The Thunder do not have enough talent top to bottom to contend for a championship right now but with Westbrook leading the charge they should still be able to qualify for the playoffs. The main concern is that if Westbrook gets injured and misses too many games then the Thunder could post a sub-.500 record while he is out of the lineup.
8) Houston Rockets: Everything broke perfectly for the Rockets in 2015 and they made it to the Western Conference Finals. That was an aberration and it will not happen again as long as James Harden is the team's focal point. Harden has been with the Rockets for four seasons and they have lost in the first round of the playoffs three times. During those four playoff appearances, Harden's field goal percentages were .391, .376, .439 and .410. He also averaged at least 4.5 turnovers per game in three of those four postseasons.
During ESPN's October 4, 2016 telecast of Houston's 130-103 preseason win over New York, Jeff Van Gundy expressed puzzlement that James Harden did not make the All-NBA Team last season. Van Gundy asserted that Harden is a top 10 player and that complaints about Harden's defensive shortcomings are overblown, adding that one could splice together video clips of bad defensive plays by any of the league's top offensive threats. Van Gundy noted that last season Harden racked up the most turnovers (374, an average of 4.6 per game) since the NBA began tracking that statistic in 1977-78 but Van Gundy stated that this is acceptable from a superstar who contributes as much scoring and playmaking as Harden does; what is important, Van Gundy concluded, is for the role players who rarely handle the ball to not make turnovers, so that the team turnover total is low.
With all due respect to Van Gundy--whose analysis is usually on target--I completely disagree with most of his comments about Harden. The All-NBA guards last season were Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson and Kyle Lowry. I would be interested to know who Van Gundy would remove from that list in order to add Harden. I would not only rate those six guards ahead of Harden but I would also put Kyrie Irving ahead of him as well. This is not about numbers but about the ability to have a positive impact on a winning program.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant set the bar very high in terms of shooting guards who scored 30 ppg while also playing outstanding defense. No one expects Harden to reach that level but the excuses that are made on his behalf are ridiculous; scoring 25-29 ppg does not completely relieve Harden of the responsibility to exert any effort/attention on the defensive end of the court.
As for the turnover issue, Van Gundy's larger point is correct. Some of the greatest players of all-time--including Magic Johnson--had high turnover totals that can be forgiven because of the extent of their overall contributions to the offense. Van Gundy is right that what matters is not just the turnover total of the best player but also the team's turnover total. However, Van Gundy neglected to point out that the Rockets ranked 27th in turnovers last season with Harden running the offense! Harden was not absorbing turnovers for the benefit of the team but he was just part and parcel of an offensive attack that was sloppy and careless.
With Mike D'Antoni running the show, Harden may very well post career-high numbers across the board. Harden may even fool the media into voting him onto the All-NBA Team. What Harden won't do is advance past the first round of the playoffs. I said it when Harden chose to go to Houston and I will say it again: Harden gave up the chance to be the third best player on a championship team so that he could chase money and personal glory; that is his right and he has accomplished his goals but the end result of his tenure in Houston will be a bunch of first round exits wrapped around one fluky trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Regarding the rest of the Western Conference, Kobe Bryant supposedly held back the growth of the Lakers' young players last season. Well, as the saying goes, they won't have Bryant to kick around (blame) this season, so it will be very interesting to see how the Lakers perform. My prediction: not very well at all.
Under Earl Watson's direction during the second half of the 2016 season, the Phoenix Suns made significant improvements on the glass and defensively but even if they add 20 wins to their 2016 total they still would not make the playoffs in the competitive West.
Mark Cuban is betting $94 million that Harrison Barnes can become a superstar. Although his game is different, Barnes reminds me of guys like Billy Owens and Derrick McKey: you look at their bodies and their skill sets and think that they can/should be superstars but they just don't have that mentality. Maybe I am wrong and maybe Barnes will average 20-plus ppg while leading Dallas to the playoffs but I suspect that Barnes is going to score 25 points one night and six points the next, finishing the season as a 15 ppg third option.
DeMarcus Cousins tweeted, "Lord give me strength" after watching the Kings' puzzling draft day decisions. Nothing more needs to be said.
Anthony Davis is a great player but he has yet to play 70 games in a season and he does not have much help around him, so the New Orleans Pelicans will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
The Denver Nuggets have a lot of young talent but are not good enough defensively to qualify for the playoffs.
The Memphis Grizzlies finally added some outside shooting by signing Chandler Parsons but Zach Randolph is aging and Marc Gasol is a question mark after suffering a foot injury last season.
I correctly picked six of the eight 2016 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:
2006-2016 Total: 70/88 (.795)
posted by David Friedman @ 8:15 PM