Western Conference Preview
October 29, 2013
By Bruce Marshall
Eastern Conference Preview
SOUTHWEST DIVISION: Lots of hullabaloo in the offseason involving the Houston Rockets (54 ½), who would have made even Tony Robbins envious with the sales pitch they made to land Dwight Howard. The question remains if big Dwight is going to be worth another ten wins to a side that won 45 last year. We're not sure, especially with questions remaining at PG and PF, and James Harden dinging his knee (although it didn't seem serious) late in preseason. We expect the Rockets to improve, but maybe not enough to get above that aggressive win total. "Under" at Toyota Center.
Get used to the newly-named New Orleans Pelicans (39 ½), as the former Hornets name prepares to be returned to Charlotte next season. That 391/2 is an awfully big jump from last season's 27 wins, but consider the positive dynamics in the Big Easy, which included stealing an All-Star G (Jrue Holiday) from the Sixers on draft night and adding the explosive Tyreke Evans, who needed a change of scenery after a few seasons in Sacramento. This new-look perimeter, along with holdover Eric Gordon, really intrigues, although for the Pelicans to clear that win hurdle and contend for a playoff berth, they're going to need second-year ex-Kentucky C Anthony Davis to stay healthy, which he couldn't do a year ago. With Dwight Howard now in the division, Davis' presence is going to be even more important. But New Orleans will play defense for HC Monty Williams, and a healthy Davis puts the Pelicans in the playoff mix. Look "over," but not by much, in "Nawlins."
It seems a lot longer than 21/2 years ago that the Dallas Mavericks (43 ½) won the NBA title. Other than Dirk Nowitzki, the roster bears little resemblance to the title year. Mark Cuban's goal in the offseason was to lure either Dwight Howard or Chris Paul to Big D, but that didn't work, so the Mavs had to settle for a new-look and slightly odd backcourt combo of PG Jose Calderon and gunner-deluxe Monta Ellis, a pairing that will not impede many attack-minded foes on the stop end. If Nowitzki were in his prime we might be inclined to give the Mavs a look, but last season hinted of real signs that Dirk is now struggling with age and injury, and those dynamics rarely improve with time. Shawn Marion and Vince Carter are not as frisky as they once were, either. This roster will be quite a chore for HC Rick Carlisle to make competitive, so we look "under" at American Airlines Center.
We have to wonder about the direction of the Memphis Grizzlies (50 ½), who have gone all in with the new "metrics" movement championed by their new ownership group and GM John Hollinger, a former ESPN stats guru who was enlisted last December. Hollinger's in-depth stats background and advanced application of "metrics" (mostly lineup combinations) put him at odds with former "old school" HC Lionel Hollins, who was dismissed in favor of Hollinger preference Dave Joerger, elevated from his assistant coach role. Hollins' methods, however, seemed to work just fine, emphasizing defense and a share-the-ball philosophy that brought the Griz to the Western finals last season. But we suspect Joerger will not be changing the formula too much, still banging the ball in the paint to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph while playing what was the NBA's best defense (league-low 89.3 ppg allowed last year). Where Joerger might initiate change is with tempo, as Memphis is likely to push the pace more than it did with Hollins. We'll see if that works. The biggest plus we envision in Memphis is an improved bench, with some of the young Grizzlies like Quincy Pondexter and Ed Davis becoming regular contributors, and ex-Miami sharpshooter Mike Miller does fill a role that Memphis has eventually missed in the postseason the past few years. Conclusion? Matching last year's 56 wins might be a tall order, but clearing 50 ½ looks within reason, so we're going "over" at FedEx Forum.
Undeterred after their near-miss in the NBA Finals last June, the San Antonio Spurs (55 ½) are back for one more kick at the can, and perhaps a last chance to win a fifth title in the Tim Duncan era. The roster has a similar look to recent seasons, with the familiar Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker triumverate at the core, and Gregg Popovich pulling the strings svengali-like from the bench. There have been some minor adjustments in the supporting cast, though we suspect ex-Bull G Marco Belinelli will prove more reliable off the bench than the departed, hot-and-cold Gary Neal. More recent additions to the lineup mix such as Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green emerged as valuable components last season. The Spurs won 58 a year ago, as Popovich routinely rested some of his vets during the regular season in hopes of having them fresh for the postseason. If anything, that strategy might become even more pronounced with Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker all a year older. Which makes projecting above that 551/2 a bit risky. We expect the Spurs to make one more major run at the ring next spring, but are less sure they will be as focused on the regular season, which makes it a pass for us at AT&T Center.
NORTHWEST DIVISION: Turn back the clock to March of 2012, when the Minnesota Timberwolves (40 ½) were in the thick of the West playoff chase. That was before fancy PG Ricky Rubio went down with a knee injury and the campaign unraveled. And while Rubio was slow to regain his old form upon his return last season, PF Kevin Love suffered a string of fluke injuries that sidelined him for all but 18 games of 2012-13. Now both seem healthy again, while the T-wolves have added a potentially useful element in 2-G Kevin Martin, just the sort of spot shooter who can greatly aid both Rubio & Love. In fact, Minnesota now has viable scorers at every position, including C Nikola Pekovic, who emerged when Love was sidelined, while shrewd HC Rick Adelman remains. Bets are off if Love and Rubio go down again, but until then we're looking "over" at Target Center.
Lots of changes with the Denver Nuggets (45 ½), including on the bench where Brian Shaw gets his long-awaited chance at an NBA head coaching gig. But after George Karl squeezed so much out of the roster in recent years, it is fair to wonder whether Shaw can do the same. Especially since the Nuggets let catalyst Andre Iguodola walk in the offseason (as well as Corey Brewer, along with "Iggy" one of the two best defenders on last year's team). And will Shaw be able to connect with PG Ty Lawson and unpredictable C JaVale McGee as did Karl? Considering the many different elements in the mix, and nagging injuries throughout the preseason, a slow start would be no surprise. We're looking "under" at Pepsi Center.
We're not sure any team (outside of Philadelphia) is due for the drop-off they can expect in Salt Lake City, where the Utah Jazz (25 ½) are going to try to stay afloat after losing key frontline components Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to free agency. Which has Jazz backers justifiably upset, as some believe that one or both should have been moved at the trade deadline last February, netting something in return. Instead, the Jazz will line up with Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors on the blocks with little in the form of reinforcement in reserve, while hoping that versatile swingman Gordon Hayward and 2-G Alec Burks blossom into a bona fide stars. We still might have been inclined to give Utah some "over" consideration had top draft pick Michigan G Trey Burke been in the mix from the outset, but he suffered a finger injury late in the preseason that might keep him on the shelf into January. By letting many veterans walk, the Jazz have put themselves in a low-risk, high-reward situation, because even if the season goes pear-shaped, a shot in the lottery for what could be a bountiful draft next June will prove a nice consolation prize. We look "under" at EnergySolutions Arena.
The class of the Northwest remain the Oklahoma City Thunder (52 ½), although they're going to have to proceed for a while without star G Russell Westbrook, out for perhaps two months with a knee injury. Ok City was clearly not the same team after Westbrook went down in last year's playoffs, but (barring another injury setback) he is still likely to be involved in about two-thirds of the regular season, and backup Reggie Jackson is serviceable enough to handle the point without too much distress in the interim. Let us not forget that the wondrous Kevin Durant (28.1 ppg last season) is still capable of taking over any game, and the rest of the lineup (including PF Serge Ibaka) is capable of bearing more of the offensive burden. While Ok City might not get to last year's 60 wins, we think the mid 50s is still a reasonable target, especially with Westbrook eventually to return to active duty. So, we'll look "over" at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
We haven't been getting much consensus from our sources regarding the prospects of the Portland Trailblazers (38 ½), who are alternately praised and cursed by different insiders. The Blazers feel they have upgraded where they needed to from a year ago, mainly with a deeper bench and more good shooters, as draftee Allen Crabbe could come in handy. (One rookie who won't be helping is exciting Lehigh first-round pick G C.J. McCollum, out for the season with injury.) Vet additions such as C Robin Lopez and G Mo Williams could also take some pressure off the trio of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Damian Lillard, who carried too much of the burden from last season. We suspect there could be improvement, but jumping six wins from last year's 33 might be a bit of a reach. Still, we're just going to play wait-and-see with the Blazers, so it's a pass for us at the Rose Garden.
PACIFIC DIVISION: No team made as many solid organizational moves in the offseason as the Sacramento Kings (31 ½), who will see immediate benefit from the new Ranadive ownership group after years of indifferent leadership from the clueless Maloof clan. Adding Shaq as part of the management team also figures to keep the flame lit under C DeMarcus Cousins (who recently signed a contract extension), and preseason was encouraging under new HC Mike Malone. On-court additions such as G Greivis Vasquez and Kansas rookie swingman Ben McLemore should also be a plus, although we would be extra bullish if F Carl Landry weren't going to be out until January with injury. No matter, it's a definite "over" in Sacto.
Hard as it might be for the Hollywood crowd to accept with the Los Angeles Lakers (36 ½), an overload of players either on one-year deals or at the end of existing long-term contracts is confirmation that this season is more about clearing cap space for 2014-15. Although some of the offseason additions (such as Nick Young and Jordan Farmar) could prove useful, the key vet components all have recent injury issues, and even the contributions of Kobe Bryant are hard to gauge whenever he returns from last spring's Achilles tendon tear. We're looking "under" for the Lake Show.
This was unthinkable until recently, but L.A. is now the Los Angeles Clippers' (56 ½) town. And if one believes that coaches make any difference in the NBA, then the Clips' recruitment of the highly-respected Doc Rivers to take the place of Vinny Del Negro would seem to be worth at least a few more wins beyond last season's 56. While Rivers figures to be a plus, so too are some offseason additions which provide more versatility off the bench and, importantly, a capable backup for do-everything Chris Paul in Darren Collison, who will allow Paul a bit more rest during the games and top-notch cover should Paul go down. Spot-shooter deluxe J.J. Redick will also fill an important reserve role as the designated gunner, and frontline additions Jared Dudley, Antawn Jamison, and Byron Mullens give Rivers more depth than Del Negro had to work with last season. We still worry about the durability of high-intensity Blake Griffin, who has had injury problems before, and DeAndre Jordan has his limitations in the post. But there are a lot more positives than negatives with the Clips, so we're looking "over" with at least one of the Staples Center tenants.
The most comparable team to Philadelphia from the Western Conference might be the Phoenix Suns (20 ½), who might have signaled their intentions for this season by dealing away C Marcin Gortat to Washington in the preseason. The culture of this once-proud organization has been turned inside-out by unpredictable owner Robert Sarver, who is well on his way to being mentioned alongside the likes of Bob Irsay and Ted Stepien on any worst-owners lists. The Suns have been in steep decline on Sarver's watch, and we see nothing to stop the descent this season, as new HC Jeff Hornacek has been given little to work with on a talent-depleted roster. Lots of mid-level sorts have been shuffled on and off the roster since last season, and we are hardly convinced that rookies like C Alex Len or F Alex Oriakhi are ready to make any real impact, or vet additions like Caron Butler and Eric Bledsoe are about to help forge a turnaround. At least Hornacek is promising a fast pace, so the Suns might be fun to watch on some nights. We just think they're going to lose...a lot. "Under" at US Airways Center.
On their best nights, the Golden State Warriors (52 ½) are a sight to behold. Especially when Steph Curry's long-range radar (45.3% triples last season) is working, and supporting cast members like Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes (also both better than 40% beyond the arc last season) are bombing away as well. And adding the slashing Andre Iguodala to the mix appears to be a perfect complement to the many spot shooters on the attack end in Mark Jackson's offense. So, there are going to be nights when Golden State looks unbeatable. But we have a couple of nagging questions about the Warriors, especially fragile post presence Andrew Bogut, whose value on defense and the boards makes it almost imperative for him to stay healthy and in the lineup. Keeping fellow frontliner David Lee healthy was also a chore last season. And the contributions of valued vets Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry off the bench a year ago were crucial in the Warriors' playoff surge; they were both on one-year deals in 2012-13 and took their acts elsewhere in the offseason. Golden State has plenty of upside beyond last year's 47 wins, but we're not sure they clear 52 ½, so it's a pass for us in Oakland.
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