Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reading Between The Lines - Hardwood Hype's 2011-12 Western Conference Preview

In the days leading up to a typical NBA season, in addition to the standard curriculum, I turn to the dark arts, comparing my opinions on each team to the prevailing betting line for regular season wins. This allows me to organize my disparate thoughts and “assess the market’s assessment” of a given team heading into the new campaign.

We are currently on the eve of yet another new NBA season, one cobbled together after a harrowing glimpse into a narrowly averted abyss that is simultaneously etched permanently into the forefront of our collective memory and fading rapidly in the rearview. The absence of a traditional offseason- summertime free agency, summer league and month-long training camps- has stuffed five months of preparation and hot-stoving into 16 days (12 down…).

As a result, hoops junkies, no less opinionated than before, but now comically short on prep time, have sprung into action, assessing the potential impact of every signing and trade that was (or was not), forecasting the NBA-readiness of incoming rookies and projecting the development of young players already in the league. I (like you, presumably) have spent the past two weeks immersed in this crash course, reading along- I’ve particularly enjoyed the previews from Ball Don’t Lie; and for great team-specific analysis, check out any of the sites here- learning the whos, whats and wheres, allowing the hows and whys to crystallize

Longer-time readers of the site may recognize this format from last year. However, given a lack of lead time, thanks both to the NBA and my personal commitments, rather than devoting an entire post to each team, the 2011-12 installment, like the NBA regular season itself, has been condensed.

First up, the Western Conference: 

Dallas Mavericks UNDER 44.5 wins. I’m not still bitter about the Mavs’ beatdown of my Lakers last spring. Nor am I particularly interested in “underestimating the heart of a champion.” Dallas will undoubtedly be heard from before all is said and done in the West.

With that said, this is a veteran-laden squad playing a condensed schedule, while integrating a handful of new faces into the second unit and trying to fill the massive defensive void left by Tyson Chandler’s departure. Look for them to top 40 wins, but between these challenges and the occasional need to rest their older guys, 45 may be a bit much.

Denver Nuggets UNDER 34.5 wins. In a season defined by uncertainty and tumult, the Nuggets won an impressive 50 games in 2010-11. This season’s figure represents a 12.5% drop from the 40 victories it will take to replicate last season’s 61% winning percentage over 66 games. While a core of Nene, Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari is certainly solid, the team did little to replace the approximately 34 points and 15 rebounds per game provided by the free agent trio of J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin, all of whom are plying their trade in China until further notice.

Golden State Warriors UNDER 25.5 wins. What a clusterfuck. As I write this, Steph Curry may or may not be having his ankle X-ray’d. And Monta Ellis may or may not be transmitting pixilated images of his dong to team employees. Throw in a rookie head coach, the defensive stylings of David Lee and a free agency campaign that yielded Kwame Brown and little more, and Warrior fans are probably pretty thankful that 2011-12 will be 20% less painful than it otherwise would have been.

Houston Rockets OVER 32.5 wins. By all accounts, the Rockets were every bit as deflated as the Lakers over David Stern’s unilateral veto of the Chris Paul trade. The deal would have landed Pau Gasol in Houston, and possibly led to Nene joining him there soon after. Thing is, neither of their 20-point scorers, Kevin Martin or Luis Scola, appears to be reacting poorly to almost being traded, and both remain in/near their respective primes.

Additionally, Houston goes two-deep at the point (I still really like Dragic) and will benefit from having a definite pecking order that spot. Last year’s team lost Yao once and for all less than two weeks into the season and played nearly half a campaign with an unhappy Aaron Brooks and still wound up with a 43-39 record. It’s not unreasonable to expect a similarly talented and more stable Rockets team to post a .500 record.

Los Angeles Clippers OVER 38.5 wins. Teams with two of the league’s top half dozen MVP candidates simply do not play slightly-better-than-.500 ball. They just don’t. End of story.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a moment and address a couple of other questions swirling around L.A.:

Are the Clippers now better than the Lakers? Nope. I get where the question comes from- the Lakers are aging and in flux, while the Clippers are young, exciting and on the ascent- but no. That could change fairly quickly should the Clips storm out of the gate and the Lakers stumble, but perhaps we should wait until the Clippers have defeated the Lakers (or anyone, really) in a meaningful game before vaulting them to the top of L.A.’s hoops hierarchy.

Did the Clippers overpay DeAndre Jordan? No. Sure he’s foul prone and possesses a somewhat limited skill set, but young, obscenely athletic, low usage (13% career; 11.7% last season) seven-footers are hardly commonplace. Consider that on those rare occasions when Jordan does touch the ball, he seldom does so for more than a second or two, and the result- usually a rebound, blocked shot or a dunk- tends to be positive.

Now, we all remember what playing with Chris Paul did for Tyson Chandler’s career. While DeAndre may not be Chandler’s on-court equal, he plays a similar game, and doing so alongside CP3, he will be spectacular. I wrote a post last year in which I jokingly nominated Jordan as an All-star backup. This time, no laughter. In 2011-12, DeAndre Jordan will not only average a double-double… fuggit, he will back up Andrew Bynum at center on the Western Conference All Star team.

Plus, he’s best buds with Blake.

Is Los Angeles now (or will it soon be) the Clippers’ town? Never. Anyone suggesting such nonsense has either never been to Los Angeles, or is an unsalvageable idiot. Maybe both. But not neither. The Lakers are to L.A. what the Yankees are to New York, only more so. In the early 1990s, with the NFL still in town, the Dodgers and USC football competitive and the Clippers racking up more regular season wins, the Lakers of Vlade Divac, Sedale Threatt and Anthony Peeler, while not the hottest ticket in town, remained relevant locally. Five championships and three Hall-of-Famers later, I’m not sure the Lakers’ grip on the city has loosened much.

Los Angeles Lakers OVER 41.5 wins. Sure it’s been a rough few months in Lakerland- a humiliating effort against the Mavericks, the departure of Phil Jackson, the emergence of Jimmy Buss, getting Stern’d on a seemingly successful trade for Chris Paul, dumping Lamar Odom for next to nothing in the immediate aftermath, and now a new injury for Kobe to make a mockery of (holy shit, this has been a brutal stretch!)- but the doomsday predictions are a bit overdone.

Is it so hard to believe that when healthy, a team led by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum (yeah, yeah) and a collection of capable NBAers, a team with the capacity to add another $8.9 million player via trade, could win three out of every five games? It’ll be close and I wouldn’t go into debt to wager on it, but bet against this team at your own peril.

An interesting side note: fearing I'd be unable to find regular season lines (Thanks to Pinnacle for posting lines when hardly anyone else had, and huge thanks to Ball-o-Holic Zachariah Roberts for altering me to them), I’d begun to craft a different preview, one based on the same premise, but built around an assessment of each team’s odds to win its conference.

In examining those odds, I discovered that the Lakers (as mainstream a team as there is in sports) remain the betting favorites (+175-+200) to return to the NBA Finals. Now, I am a Laker lifer. A diehard. With the exceptions of my family and friends- people with whom I actually share personal relationships- and maybe In-n-Out, the Lakers are what I miss most about Los Angeles.


If you are willing to risk your money (hard-earned, inherited, stolen, whatever) on this team navigating 66 games in under 130 days, then outlasting the Mavericks, Thunder and/or Grizzlies in the playoffs at no better than a 2:1 payout, I strongly suggest you seek help.

Memphis Grizzlies OVER 40.5 wins. Had the Grizzlies simply returned with the core that came within a singe victory of the conference finals, it would be cause for significant optimism. Led by the West’s best big man tandem, a talented and seemingly ever-improving Mike Conley at the point and the league’s best perimeter defender in Tony Allen, the Grizz would be poised to establish themselves among the West’s elite.

Now consider that, outside of the Clippers, no team made a more significant addition this offseason. Remember Rudy Gay? Yep, when the 2011-12 season gets rolling, Gay, a top-five small forward when healthy, will join Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol up front, rounding out the NBA’s best three-man front line.

Bonus financial advice: Forget the whole “8 beating a 1” thing. the performance turned in by the Grizzlies last spring ought to have triggered a feeding frenzy in the gaming community. Alas, despite the positives outlined above and at least one perennial power (the Spurs) seemingly about to relinquish its spot in the top tier, irrational exuberance has steered clear of Tennessee. On the bright side, however, a wager on the Grizzlies to represent the West in the 2012 Finals will net you 10-12 turns on your money, while a truly fair price likely lies somewhere between 5 and 8x.

Minnesota Timberwolves OVER 22.5 wins. To the best of my knowledge, there is no truth to the rumor that David Stern has sent Derrick Williams to the D-League for “seasoning” and amnestied Kevin Love for “basketball reasons.” You might want to double check, y’know, just to be safe.

In all seriousness, I’m not really swinging for the fences here. Between Love, Williams (the #2 overall pick in June’s draft), Michael Beasley, Ricky Rubio, Wes Johnson and Anthony Randolph (even if he’s a bust he’s got at least one good year in him, right?!), there’s enough talent here to win one out of every three games.

New Orleans Hornets UNDER 25.5 wins. I would probably risk my life on this. I may actually attempt to find a bookie willing to take that kind of action.

After all we’ve seen, you think there’s ANY chance Stern lets this team play itself out of a top-three pick?

Oklahoma City Thunder OVER 48.5 wins. If I could wager on only one team to win the Western Conference (and I’ve seen as high as +350!), the crew from OKC would be that team.

This team feature the league’s second-best 1-2punch, consisting of an unstoppable two-time scoring champ and a top-five point guard (who I recently compared to a mischievous puppy) whose physical gifts are on par with anyone that’s ever played the position. And neither has celebrated his 24th birthday.

Additionally, OKC has a clear-cut secondary duo, one of whom (James Harden) is poised to break out as an elite scorer, while the other (Serge Ibaka) is virtual lock to establish himself as one of the league’s elite defenders, and a supporting cast- all of whom know their respective roles- packed with size, toughness and defensive prowess.

So, yeah, the depth and experience of the Mavs is enticing, as is the stockpile of front line talent in Memphis. However, it’s tough to imagine a team this young (and yet experienced), fresh off a conference finals appearance and led by a pair of top-20 guys not having its foot on the gas pedal from Day 1.

Phoenix Suns UNDER 31.5 wins. In Dan Gilbert’s defense (Oof! I’d rather get bludgeoned with a pool cue than utter those four words again), his hard line stance during the lockout was somewhat understandable. There was certainly some good fortune involved in his landing LeBron James in the first place, but once he had him, Gilbert made a concerted effort to build a winner and- perhaps more than he should have- keep his superstar happy. Say what you will about the quality of the Cavs’ personnel moves in recent years, Dan G was not bashful about splashing some cash when he thought it would help his team.

Robert “$6 million in cash > Luol Deng and Rajon Rondo” Sarver on the other hand, another of ownership’s “hardliners,” is just a cheap bastard. After paying a then-record $401 million to acquire the Suns in 2004, he has take one steaming dump after another on his fan base and squandered the back end of his superstar’s prime. The Suns’ cracks, long since visible, have been covered up for years by the greatness of Steve Nash, but have finally spread to the point that not even the iron-willed maestro can keep this squad respectable.

Portland Trailblazers UNDER 35.5 wins. When the least depressing of your team’s health issues involves the phrases “heart condition” and “26 year-old franchise big man,” you’ve had a rough offseason. Thankfully, based on what I have read, the issue with LaMarcus Aldridge’s heart does not appear to pose a threat to either his career or long-term health. Provided this is in fact the case, look for him to return to his transcendent form of a year ago.

Problems arise, however, when we look at the rest of the Blazers’ anticipated rotation. Omit Aldridge and take a look at Portland’s next six players: Nicolas Batum, Marcus Camby, Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews and Gerald Wallace. Pretty good, right? You must be wondering what the hell I’ve got against this bunch. In terms of talent, toughness and experience, this is one solid crew. However, when it comes to explosiveness and offensive creativity, these guys leave something to be desired.

Not to pick at an open wound, but what the Blazers lack is a perimeter threat that can consistently get into the rim, knock down a jumper, create open looks for teammates and drop 20 in a quarter or 30 in a half, when necessary. Sigh… sorry, Portland.

Sacramento Kings OVER 15.5 wins. The Kings will not finish the 2011-12 season within six victories of this figure. It does remains to be seen, however, whether the surprise is to the upside or the downside.

Between Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons and J.J. Hickson, the Kings are actually kinda stacked with raw talent on offense. If the rule limiting the number of basketballs allowed during live play doesn’t derail this bunch, a run at 25 wins is not out of the realm of possibility.

Sadly, however, it probably will. There has already been friction between Cousins and Evans, with the former famously taking a swing at Donta Green in the locker room for his decision to pass to the latter in a late-game situation. Now add to the mix Jimmer and Thornton (for a full season), neither of whom is shy about calling his own number, ball-stopper Salmons and Hickson, and you’ve got a recipe for a smoldering, seven-win debacle.

So why the Over pick? Contrarianism. Pure, unadulterated contrarianism. Markets have an uncanny knack for making the maximum number look foolish at any given time, and my brain cannot conjure a scenario in which this plays out well. Which is a hint that it probably somehow will.

San Antonio Spurs UNDER 40.5 wins. By the end of this regular season, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili will be a combined 70 years old. Tony Parker, incredibly still just 29, as he has in the past, will do his part to keep the Spurs afloat. And stay afloat they will. The likes of Kawhi Leonard and DeJuan Blair (both Hype favorites, especially Leonard) will play roles in the transition from this era to the next, but there is unfortunately no one on this roster under the age of 34 to join Parker in trying to keep the Spurs elite.

Barring catastrophic injury, look for the Spurs to return to the playoffs, but this is no longer a squad equipped to take three out of every five games over the course of a long season, particularly one in which rest will be in shorter supply than usual.

Utah Jazz UNDER 24.5 wins. Now in full rebuild mode, with just $16.4 million (all rookie-scale team options that will likely be picked up) committed for 2013-14 and a bumper crop of top shelf talent available in next June’s draft, the top priority for the Jazz will be to manage its portfolio of young assets. For this franchise, success in 2011-12 will not be measured in victories.

This season will be spent showcasing the talents of Al Jefferson (owed $29 million through next season) and Paul Millsap (~$14 million over the same period) in hopes of finding a taker for either, and determining the NBA-readiness of #3 overall pick Enes Kanter, all while providing Derrick Favors, who looks poised to make a pretty serious leap, with the reps required to do so. Meanwhile, they determine what (aside from an awe-inspiring aptitude for spiking basketballs through iron hoops) Jeremy Evans (a free agent next July) brings to the table, further define Gordon Hayward’s role and fast-track Alec Burks’ inevitable development into a quality NBA two guard.

So, yeah. This season... not really about the wins.

Ok, guys, there's one side of the ledger. Time for me to get to work and come back at you with the Eastern Conference. I'd like to promise that it will be up tomorrow, but the realist in me is say "see you Saturday!"

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