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Sunday, October 08, 2017

2017-18 Western Conference Preview

It did not take much of an adjustment period for the Golden State Warriors to remain dominant after they acquired Kevin Durant last summer; the Warriors rolled to a league-best 67-15 regular season record and then went 16-1 in the playoffs to capture their second championship in three years. Durant was sensational during the postseason and he outdueled LeBron James to win the Finals MVP. During the Finals, Durant averaged 35.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 5.4 apg while shooting .556 from the field, joining Penny Hardaway and Chauncey Billups on the short list of players who shot at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range and at least .900 on free throws in an NBA Finals.

The Warriors' tremendous combination of talent, depth and chemistry has the rest of the league scrambling to keep up. Several teams made huge, potentially risky moves to try to at least come close to matching the Warriors' star power. The Houston Rockets traded a lot of depth to acquire perennial All-Star Chris Paul, while the Oklahoma City Thunder gave up minimal assets to land both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The young Minnesota Timberwolves added veteran savvy and a two-way skill set by bringing Jimmy Butler into the fold. 

The San Antonio Spurs largely stood pat and it has become something of an annual ritual to write them off but somehow every year they manage to win at least 50 games and assert themselves as a legit championship contender.

Russell Westbrook's historic season-long triple double performance earned him his first regular season MVP and propelled the talent-thin Thunder into the Western Conference playoffs. George may still bolt for L.A. after one season and it remains to be seen how much Anthony has left in the tank but if George and Anthony are willing to accept their roles then the Thunder could be a very dangerous team.

Houston Coach Mike D'Antoni has long been something of a point guard whisperer but it will be interesting to see how he tries to keep James Harden and Chris Paul happy, as both players like to monopolize the ball.

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 looked like a potential dynasty in the making before they acquired Kevin Durant. With Durant in the mix, the Warriors often look unbeatable. They struggled briefly during the regular season when Durant went down with a knee injury but ultimately they went 16-4 when he was out of the lineup. It is rare for a team to have two legit MVP caliber players who are both in their primes--and the Warriors are blessed to have not only Durant and two-time MVP Stephen Curry but also All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green plus a solid cast of role players, including 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala (a former All-Star).

Barring significant injuries, there is no legitimate reason to pick against the Warriors to again win the West and to win their third title in four years.

2) San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs had the Warriors on the ropes in game one of last season's Western Conference Finals but after Kawhi Leonard went down with an ankle injury the Warriors cruised to a sweep. The Spurs proved that there is a game plan that can be effective versus the Warriors but even if the Spurs had won game one it is far from certain that they would have been able to successfully execute that game plan three more times; beating the Warriors is kind of like destroying the Death Star: it is theoretically possible but it requires a precise, focused plan targeting a very hard to access weakness.

Leonard appears to be completely recovered from the ankle injury but the Spurs are holding him out of preseason play due to a recurring right quadriceps injury. Leonard's health is obviously critical for the Spurs. If everything breaks right for the Spurs and if the Warriors are slightly off of their game then the Spurs could win the West but the most likely scenario is that the Spurs' season will again end in the Western Conference Finals.

3) Oklahoma City Thunder: Russell Westbrook proved that he could be an All-NBA performer for a perennial championship contender. Then, after Kevin Durant fled Oklahoma City to join the Golden State dynasty, Westbrook proved that he could perform at a historically great level while carrying a bad team to a playoff berth. The next question, as his ever vocal critics are quick to point out, is whether Westbrook can successfully function as the number one option while flanked by two All-Stars. Paul George is an excellent two-way player who seems best suited to being the second best player on a contending team. The question is not whether Westbrook can play with George--Westbrook functioned quite well alongside a much better player (Durant)--but rather whether George can accept his role and flourish within it. Similarly, the onus is not on Westbrook to blend in with Carmelo Anthony but rather on Anthony to accept being the third option offensively while putting forth at least some effort defensively.

The Thunder now have enough offensive firepower to battle on even terms with any team. The key questions will revolve around defense and chemistry--and that is why I cannot rank this squad higher than third in the West.

4) Houston Rockets: James Harden is an All-Star whose skill set and leadership style are not well-suited for him to be the best player on a championship contender. Chris Paul has long been lauded as one of the league's best leaders and fiercest competitors. Unlike Harden, Paul plays hard at both ends of the court--but, at some point, the praise for Paul rings hollow when he repeatedly proves that he is unable to lead talented teams past the second round of the playoffs.

Both Harden and Paul are used to dominating the ball on offense, so that dynamic will be very interesting to watch. Paul is known for barking at his teammates and Harden is known for pouting when he is criticized, so that is another dynamic that bears watching.

The Rockets are going to score a ton of points. On some nights, they are going to look unbeatable--but, ultimately, they are basing their hopes on two stars who are just not suited to being the best player on a championship team. The Rockets will not make it past the second round of the playoffs--and could possibly fall in the first round, depending on matchups.

5) Minnesota Timberwolves: Adding veteran two-way All-Star Jimmy Butler is a move that should be worth at least 8-10 wins in the standings. Chalk up at least another 8-10 wins based on the continued improvement of the team's young core players and this is a team that could threaten to obtain homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Veteran NBA coach Hank Egan once told me that it takes "deep into your second year" before a team fully absorbs the defensive principles of a new coaching staff. Tom Thibodeau is one of the premier defensive coaches in the league and Minnesota figures to make a significant improvement defensively during his second season at the helm.

6) Denver Nuggets: The acquisition of veteran All-Star Paul Millsap solidifies the rotation and should be enough to push this young team on the rise to a secure spot in the West's top eight. Millsap is a perfect complement for Nikola Jokic, who emerged as a star in his second season. The Nuggets likely do not have enough depth or experience to advance past the first round but the franchise is headed in the right direction.

7) L.A. Clippers: Chris Paul never managed to lead the talent-laden Clippers past the second round of the playoffs, so now the franchise is clearly built around Blake Griffin--who was, in fact, always the team's best player, even though Paul has a stronger and more vocal personality. The Clippers are not a championship contender but they never really were one even with Paul in the fold. Assuming that Griffin avoids injuries--the one factor that has been his biggest downfall--the Clippers still have enough talent to make the playoffs.

8) New Orleans Pelicans: Now that Anthony Davis will have the opportunity to play a full season with DeMarcus Cousins plus new addition Rajon Rondo, it will be interesting to see if he is truly a superstar in the making (as many observers believe) or if he is what TNT's Kenny Smith would call a "looter in a riot" (a player who can put up great individual numbers for a mediocre or bad team but who is not able to lift a team to playoff contention). The Pelicans' roster has some chemistry questions and skill set limitations but there is enough talent here to at least grab the final playoff spot and it should be considered a disappointment if this team again fails to qualify for postseason play.

There are some solid teams in the West that just do not have quite enough to qualify for the playoffs in the league's top conference. The Portland Trail Blazers' dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum managed to sneak into the playoffs last season but this season I think that rising teams such as Minnesota and Denver will push Portland just out of the postseason mix.

Lack of shooting has been a problem for Memphis for several years. They barely made the playoffs the past two seasons, only to lose in the first round both times. The departure of Zach Randolph indicates that the team is shifting from the "grindhouse" style to a more uptempo philosophy but this is a flawed and declining team that is no longer among the West's eight best teams.

Before the departure of Gordon Hayward, the Utah Jazz looked like a team on the rise but now they are a team that will struggle to stay in the playoff race.

The rest of the West is in bad shape. 

Mark Cuban bet nearly $100 million that Harrison Barnes could become a superstar. Barnes had a solid first year in Dallas but he will not be leading this team to the playoffs any time soon.

Kobe Bryant supposedly held back the growth of the Lakers' young players during his farewell tour in 2015-16 but Magic Johnson's moves make it very clear that he understands what should have been apparent all along: the Lakers have yet to acquire a legit star and the players that Bryant supposedly held back are role players at best. Without Bryant in 2016-17, the Lakers were still terrible, so Magic Johnson hit the reset button and got rid of D'Angelo Russell, one of the players whose development Bryant had supposedly been stifling. The Lakers have some decent young players but it does not appear that they have any future All-Stars on the roster, unless rookie Lonzo Ball's play eventually equals all of the hype that has been generated about him--and the answer to that will not be clear until he plays real games, not just summer league and preseason contests. 

Phoenix and Sacramento are two rudderless franchises that need significant changes before they will qualify for the playoffs again.

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Note:

I correctly picked seven of the eight 2017 Western Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2016: 6/8
2015: 7/8
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

2006-2017 Total: 77/96 (.802)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:54 PM

9 comments

2017-18 Eastern Conference Preview

The biggest off-season story in the Eastern Conference--if not the entire NBA--was the dissolution of Cleveland's Big Three as the Cavaliers sent the disgruntled Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics for a package of players and draft picks headlined by All-Star Isaiah Thomas. Irving had teamed up with fellow All-Stars LeBron James and Kevin Love to lead the Cavaliers to three straight NBA Finals and the 2016 championship but Irving either grew tired of being the second option or else he did not relish the possibility of being the best player on this particular squad in the event that James leaves Cleveland for a second time.

It is very unusual for two teams bidding with each other for conference supremacy to trade star players to each other. Irving is a tremendous clutch scorer who can get buckets from anywhere on the court but he has yet to prove that he can be the main guy on a championship level team; this is not to say that he cannot do it or will not do it but he has yet to prove his capability in that regard and, in fact, Cleveland's record was very poor when Irving was the best player on the court (both before James returned from Miami and in the games that James sat out since he returned). Last season, Thomas was the best player on the first place team in the Eastern Conference but he is undersized, he is a subpar defensive player and he is still recovering from a serious hip injury that sidelined him for the final three games of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals.

Thanks to the additions of Irving and Gordon Hayward, Boston could very well again post the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics should at least match last season's win total (53), while the Cavaliers may struggle to exceed last season's win total (51); James is known for taking off quarters or even entire games during the season and it is doubtful that at this advanced stage of his career he will exert himself to chase regular season wins just to get the number one seed, particularly while Thomas is out of action.

Of course, the key questions to be answered are "Did this trade help Cleveland possibly defeat Golden State?" and "Did this trade close the gap between the Celtics and the Cavaliers?" We will not get answers to those questions until these teams face off in the Eastern Conference Finals, a showdown that is almost certain to happen for the second year in a row barring injuries to key players or some other significant, unforeseen development.

The Toronto Raptors seem to have peaked two years ago and it is unlikely that young teams like the Washington Wizards or Milwaukee Bucks can gain enough ground in one year to pose a realistic playoff challenge to Cleveland or Boston.

Listed below are the eight teams that I expect to qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs, ranked based on their likelihood of advancing to the NBA Finals:

1) Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James has led two different franchises to a combined seven straight NBA Finals and three championships in the past seven years. Say what you want about the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference during that period or about James orchestrating moves to construct two "super teams," those are still impressive accomplishments--and accomplishments that seemed unlikely in the wake of how he quit versus Boston in the 2010 NBA playoffs and then came up short in the 2011 NBA Finals versus Dallas. James has learned from his failures and grown as a result. The departure of Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas' questionable health could relegate the Cavaliers to the second seed in the East again but, assuming that Thomas is reasonably healthy by the playoffs, the Cavaliers still must be considered the favorite to win the Eastern Conference.

Do the Cavaliers have enough to beat the presumptive Western Conference champion Golden State Warriors? If the Warriors are fully healthy and completely engaged, the answer to that question is probably "No" but it will be interesting to see how Coach Tyronn Lue integrates Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Jae Crowder into Cleveland's rotation. Wade has a strong championship pedigree and Rose is a former regular season MVP who will presumably start at point guard until Thomas fully recovers. Green and Crowder add depth. The Cavaliers appear to have more offensive firepower and more defensive versatility than they did last season but much depends on Thomas' health and on how much Rose and Wade have left in the tank.

2) Boston Celtics: In my 2016-17 Eastern Conference Preview, I ranked Boston third but noted, "The Celtics will likely win more than 50 games this season and if everything breaks right they could even have the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference--but I am not convinced that they have enough experience and enough shooting to beat the Cavaliers in a seven game playoff series." That turned out to be prophetic, as the Celtics did indeed post the conference's best record only to lose decisively to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics almost completely remade their roster in the off-season, which is a bold move for a team that had been just three wins away from reaching the NBA Finals. Irving is younger and healthier than Thomas and Irving already has championship experience, albeit under James' large wings. Hayward is a very good two-way player, so on paper it looks like the Celtics have clearly improved. It remains to be seen if the roster moves will negatively affect the great chemistry and team spirit that the Celtics developed in the past couple years and it also remains to be seen if the Celtics have enough talent/depth to overcome "Playoff LeBron," who has dominated the Eastern Conference for seven straight years.

I think that the Celtics are a year away from winning the East. Their nucleus needs some time to grow together and, of course, if James departs Cleveland next summer then the conference will almost certainly be there for Boston to take starting in 2018-19.

3) Washington Wizards: The Wizards started 6-12 last season and many of Coach Scott Brooks' critics came out of the woodwork. Those critics fell silent as the Wizards went 43-21 down the stretch to claim the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Washington then beat Atlanta 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs and pushed the number one seeded Celtics to seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

In last season's Wizards' preview, I noted that Brooks "has a proven track record of developing young players--including Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden--and that is his primary task here." I suggested that Brooks' coaching would be "worth at least four or five wins over the course of 82 games" and indeed the Wizards improved their record by eight games.

This season, the Wizards will probably neither start as slowly nor finish quite as strongly as they did last season, so 50 wins or a little more than that is a reasonable goal. The Wizards are a rising team and could possibly beat Boston or Cleveland in a seven game series but it is not likely that they could topple both Eastern Conference favorites to make it to the NBA Finals.

4) Toronto Raptors: Toronto slipped from 56 wins in 2016 to 51 wins last season. One might assume that injuries played a role in this decline, particularly since All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry missed 22 games--but it is worth noting that the Raptors went 36-24 with Lowry in the lineup and 15-7 without him.

After advancing to the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, it seems like the Raptors have peaked at a level slightly below Boston and a bit further below Cleveland. Past the midway point of the season, the Raptors acquired Serge Ibaka to fill the void left by Bismack Biyombo, who had departed as a free agent prior to the season. Ibaka posted solid box score numbers but he did not have the impact defensively and on the glass that he did during his peak seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, the Raptors went 16-7 in Ibaka's 23 games with the team, which projects to a 57 win pace over 82 games, so perhaps it is too soon to completely give up on the Raptors.

5) Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo had a breakout season last year, making the All-NBA Second Team and finishing seventh in MVP voting after averaging 22.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 5.4 apg, 1.9 bpg and 1.6 spg. He led the Bucks in all five of those key categories, joining an elite list of "Five Tool Players" that includes Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen and Tracy McGrady. The Bucks have made the playoffs in two of Jason Kidd's three seasons as head coach and they seem to be a team on the rise, albeit a team that does not yet have quite enough talent, depth or experience to win the East.

6) Detroit Pistons: Joe Dumars left a big mess for Stan Van Gundy to fix and that process may be taking a bit longer than Pistons' fans had hoped that it would but--despite a slight setback last season after making the playoffs in 2015-16--the Pistons look poised to be a solid playoff team. The acquisition of two-way guard Avery Bradley should solidify the Pistons at both ends of the court and it is reasonable to expect bounce back performances from Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, both of whom were hampered by injuries last season.

7) Miami Heat: The Heat stunk in the first half of the 2016-17 season and then looked like world-beaters in the second half of the season, finishing tied for eighth in the East only to miss the playoffs by virtue of losing a tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls. The Heat are not as bad as they looked in the first half but they are not as good as they looked in the second half, either. Since the breakup of the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh "Big Three" that led the Heat to four straight Finals appearances and two titles, Pat Riley has failed to acquire or develop a legitimate big-time star who can lead the franchise back to prominence. Riley has gone all-in with the nucleus that spearheaded the 30-11 run down the stretch last season and it will be interesting to see how that turns out--but, ultimately, this team simply does not have enough star power to be a serious contender.

8) Charlotte Hornets: Coach Steve Clifford almost immediately transformed Charlotte into a strong defensive team after he was hired prior to the 2013-14 season but since that time there has been some slippage. Kemba Walker emerged as an All-Star last season but unless Clifford can improve the team's defense it will be difficult for the Hornets to do much better than fight for the final playoff spot. New acquisition Dwight Howard is no longer a superstar but he has a good history with Clifford dating back to their Orlando days, so perhaps Howard can make an impact defensively and on the glass for 25-30 mpg.

As for the rest of the East, Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago are three teams that barely made the playoffs last season and figure to take major steps backward in 2017-18. There is a lot of hype in some quarters about the Philadelphia 76ers but I think that it will take at least one more season under Bryan Colangelo to reverse the damage done by Sam Hinkie's foolish tanking.

The New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic are three franchises that--for different reasons--seem to be adrift and need significant overhauls to be good again.

**********
Note:

I correctly picked five of the eight 2016-17 Eastern Conference playoff teams. Here are my statistics for previous seasons:

2016: 5/8
2015: 5/8
2014: 6/8
2013: 7/8
2012: 8/8
2011: 5/8
2010: 6/8
2009: 6/8
2008: 5/8
2007: 7/8
2006: 6/8

2006-2017 Total: 71/96 (.740)

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:01 PM

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Rest in Peace, Connie Hawkins

Connie Hawkins passed away on Friday at the age of 75. Hawkins is part of the lineage of elite basketball high flyers that began with Elgin Baylor and then continued after Hawkins with Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. The NBA blackballed Hawkins for several years after Hawkins was wrongly implicated in a college basketball point shaving scandal, so Hawkins spent his prime first in the American Basketball League and then with the Harlem Globetrotters before winning the 1968 regular season MVP in the ABA's first season. Hawkins led the Pittsburgh Pipers to the 1968 ABA title, averaging 30.7 ppg in seven games versus the New Orleans Buccaneers. Hawkins averaged 29.9 ppg, 12.3 rpg and 4.6 apg during the 1968 playoffs after averaging 26.8 ppg, 13.5 rpg and 4.6 apg during the regular season. Hawkins was the league's top scorer during the regular season, playoffs and Finals.

In 1969--after years of being wrongly blackballed--Hawkins settled his multi-million lawsuit with the NBA and as a result he was finally able to showcase his talents on the sport's biggest stage. In 1969-70, Hawkins made the All-NBA First Team and finished fifth in regular season MVP voting after averaging 24.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg and 4.8 apg for the Phoenix Suns. The Suns were a second year expansion team but Hawkins led them to the Western Division semifinals, where they lost in seven games to the powerful Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor led L.A. Lakers.

Hawkins made the All-Star team in each of the next three seasons but his body was starting to break down and he only showed flashes of the form that he displayed regularly in his younger days. By 1976, his pro career was over.

Two of Hawkins' trademark moves were the soaring slam dunk and the one-handed pass. Before Hawkins' knees went bad his dunking prowess was on par with anyone who has played the game. Hawkins' passing skills were uncanny; he would hold the ball in his hand like a softball, wave it around his head and then whip a pass to a cutter for an easy layup.

Jerry Colangelo, who brought Hawkins to Phoenix after the NBA lifted its ban, has said that if Hawkins had entered the league as a 22 year old and played out his entire career there then he "could have been one of the top 10 or 15 players to ever play the game." Years of barnstorming and of playing in lesser leagues--before the newly formed ABA gave Hawkins a chance--did Hawkins no favors both physically and in terms of challenging him to hone his skill set.

The injustice that robbed Hawkins of the opportunity to showcase his skills in the NBA during his prime years did not affect how his peers viewed him. For example, Hawkins earned a permanent place as the sixth man in Julius Erving's All-Time Starting Five, high praise coming from one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. Erving has explained that his list--which includes "Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, with Connie Hawkins coming off the bench as my sixth man to play guard, forward and center"--is not meant to disrespect modern players but rather to pay homage to the players who came before him, who built the sport and who inspired him to become the best player that he could become.

Despite the truncated nature of his professional basketball career, in 1992 Hawkins became the first Phoenix Suns' player to be inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame; the voters finally looked past Hawkins' relatively modest career totals and recognized his diverse skill set and his enduring impact on the game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM

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