Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Reading Between The Lines Midseason Update - Western Conference

Amid the pandemonium following the whirlwind ratification of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, it was impossible to predict what this season would look like. Given this, I turned to the open market, and a favorite pastime of mine heading into each season – I looked to Vegas (well, Pinnacle, actually), and put forth my 2011-12 Western Conference preview. Now, with half of this frenzied season in the books, I thought this an opportune time to look back and assess my reading of the tea leaves in December:

Dallas Mavericks
Preseason line: 44.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 21-13
On pace for: 41-25

My thoughts then: “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.”

And now: I thought Chandler’s departure alone might be enough to bump Dallas from the West’s top tier. Throw in Dirk’s slow start and Lamar Odom’s failure to launch and the Mavs’ outstanding record is something of a shocker. Even at their current clip, however, the Mavericks are on pace to fall a handful of wins shy of the preseason number. Factor in more rest for their aging core and a growing likelihood that Shawn Marion, this season’s defensive stalwart, will be traded, and 45 wins is a virtual impossibility.

Denver Nuggets
Preseason line: 34.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 18-17
On pace for: 34-32

My thoughts then: “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.“

And now: I was wrong. Apparently the Bird Man provides all the neck tat necessary to power the Nuggets. If Gallo is healthy and Al Harrington is locked in, Denver cruises past 35 wins. The problem, however, is that even in the best of times this team has little room for error. Had Harrington lost his touch (50% FG in Dec-Jan; 37.9% in February) or Gallinari gotten hurt, the Nuggets would have felt the pain. Take both, add a healthy dollop of slumping Andre Miller (~46% FG, 7.2 assts, 2.3 TO/game in Dec-Jan; 40.9%, 6.4 and 2.9 in February) and a 14-5 quickly deteriorates into 18-17.

Golden State Warriors
Preseason line: 25.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 13-17
On pace for: 29-37

My thoughts then: “Throw in [to Steph Curry’s frequent ankle woes and constant Monta Ellis uncertainty] 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.”

And now: You realize in the Eastern Conference, these guys would be two games out of the #6 seed?

I’ll be honest, for a team I’ve watched with some frequency, I’ve really not paid a whole lot of attention to the Warriors in the standings. Come to find out… holy shit, they’re creeping up on .500!

Mark Jackson deserves credit for getting more out of this roster more quickly than I’d expected he would… almost as much credit as a schedule that’s called on the Dubs to take the floor a league-low 30 times thus far, 18 time at home, and 20 in the state of California. And two of the remaining ten… Phoenix.

13 wins in their next 36 could prove a bit tougher than 13 in the first 30.

Houston Rockets
Preseason line: 32.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 20-14
On pace for: 39-27

My thoughts then: “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.”

And now: I have previously referred to the Houston Rockets as “the NBA’s island of misfit toys” and “one big supporting cast.” I stand by these statements, though I’d like to amend that second moniker to read “one big, really good supporting cast.” Whether Kevin Martin and Luis Scola finish the season in Houston remains to be seen, as does whether Kyle Lowry is a bona fide star, or simply a good player capable of lighting up an opponent from time to time, the Rockets have put together a nice collection of professional basketball players.

Not sure they’re built for postseason success, but barring a massive roster shakeup gone awry, the Rockets are one of the West’s top seven teams, and will finish with a win tally closer to 40 than to 30.

Los Angeles Clippers
Preseason line: 38.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 20-11
On pace for: 43-23

My thoughts then: “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.”

And now: DeAndre Jordan has not been elevated to All-Star status and Blake Griffin is unlikely to crack the top 10 in the MVP voting, but clearly the preseason bullishness was not misplaced. Blake is still a 20-12 lock and Chris Paul has lived up to even the most optimistic expectations. Having to rely on Mo Williams and Caron Butler to sustain their stellar play is less than ideal, but this team’s got at least another 20 wins in it.

Los Angeles Lakers
Preseason line: 41.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 20-14
On pace for: 39-27

My thoughts then: “Sure it’s been a rough few months in Lakerland… 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?”

And now: Kobe, Pau and ‘Drew have managed to stay healthy, the rest of the roster consistently produces between one and three “capable NBAers,” and for a few more weeks the capacity to add another $8.9 million player (if not a whole lot more) remains. And with a win at home over the Timberwolves on Wednesday, they will have won three out of every five games.

It just feels a whole lot worse.

Memphis Grizzlies
Preseason line: 40.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 19-15
On pace for: 37-27

My thoughts then: “Led by the West’s best big man tandem (plus a returning Rudy Gay), 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.”

And now: For the second consecutive year the Grizzlies must battle through the loss of a top-12 forward en route to the playoffs. And for the second consecutive year it looks like they’re going to pull it off. Perhaps it’s obscured by heightened expectations, but to play this well in light of losing an elite low post scorer, particularly with this schedule looming, is remarkable.

Though certainly not out of play, the 22-10 needed to reached the 41-win plateau may prove a bridge too far, but look for these guys to leapfrog the at least two (probably not all three) of the Texas teams ahead of them in the Southwest. And come playoff time, with a healthy Z-Bo back in the mix, the Grizz will once again be one of the West’s toughest outs.

Minnesota Timberwolves
Preseason line: 22.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 17-17
On pace for: 33-33

My thoughts then:
“Between [Kevin] Love, [Derrick] Williams, 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.”

And now: Ricky Rubio will not win the Rookie of the Year award this season, but his impact on the Wolves cannot be overstated. A classic playmaker of the highest order, Rubio has combined with an MVP-worthy Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic (Yeah, he gets a mention. Watch him play for a week and tell you wouldn’t trade any center not named Dwight Howard for him) to form a ground-bound Russ-KD-Ibaka.

I’d expected the T-Wolves to play .500-ish ball after the break, following a first half as the league “best bad team.” They’ve totally bypassed step one, and appear destined for good things.

New Orleans Hornets
Preseason line: 25.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 8-25
On pace for: 16-50

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

And now: No.

Oklahoma City Thunder
Preseason line: 48.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 27-7
On pace for: 52-14

My thoughts then:
“If I could wager on only one team to win the Western Conference, the crew from OKC would be that team.”

And now: I got +350. Life is good.

Phoenix Suns
Preseason line: 31.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 14-20
On pace for: 27-39

My thoughts then:
“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.”

And now: C’mon Sarver, you dick. Have some fucking dignity. Trade Steve Nash and start tanking.

Portland Trailblazers
Preseason line: 35.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 18-16
On pace for: 35-31

My thoughts then:
“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…”

And now: According to Basketball Reference and Hoopdata, the Trailblazers rank in the top 12 in Offensive Efficiency (105.4; 8th), Defensive Efficiency (99.6; t-5th), margin of victory (5.4; 5th – beating the Spurs by about a billion on Wednesday night helped here), eFG% (48.7%; 12th), Turnover Rate (13.3%; t-5th lowest), eFG% against (47.5%; t-11th), opponents’ Turnover Rate (15.5%; t-3rd highest), Defensive Rebound Rate (74.5%; t-6th), Assist Rate (20.55%; 10th) and field goal attempts at the rim (27; 5th)… and are just one win above .500.

There is something wrong here. Maybe the shadow cast by Brandon Roy is too great for any backcourt player to overcome this soon after Roy’s departure. Maybe it’s the dearth of trustworthy playmakers on the perimeter. Maybe it’s an unwillingness to commit to doing the dirty work. Maybe this is a team comprised of elite #2/#3 guys, but lacks a true #1. Whatever the case, this a team that excels is in a great many facets of the game, but consistently finds ways to lose games. That’s a troubling trend.

Sacramento Kings
Preseason line: 15.5
Prediction: OVER
Current record: 11-22
On pace for: 22-44

My thoughts then:
“... 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.”

And now: Chalk up another one for contrarianism.

The Kings may only be looking down at a single team in the West, but there is reason for optimism here. Tyreke Evans is playing some nice (if not historic, like his rookie year) ball, Marcus Thornton is one of the most more dangerous streak shooters around and a more consistent and even-keeled DeMarcus Cousins is starting to look like the franchise big man many think he can be.

San Antonio Spurs
Preseason line: 40.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 24-10
On pace for: 47-19

My thoughts then:
“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.”

And now: Yep, picking against a Popovich-led Spurs team is going about as well as one would expect.

Tim Duncan is clearly in decline, Manu Ginobili has taken part in all of nine games, no one outside of the Big 3 is scoring in double digits and legit MVP candidate Tony Parker, seemingly good for 30-10 a night, is averaging “just” 19 and 8. And yet here are the Spurs, piling up W’s at a 70% clip. It’s unlikely that they’ll continue to win as this torrid rate, but if Manu can get back (and back to form) and Pop rests his vets by punting entire games rather than trimming a couple of minutes here and there (something I am a HUGE advocate of), 45+ wins is very much in play.

Seriously, how does this keep happening?

Utah Jazz
Preseason line: 24.5
Prediction: UNDER
Current record: 15-17
On pace for: 31-35

My thoughts then: “Now in full rebuild mode… 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.”

And now: After winning 12 of 19 to start the season the Jazz are crashing back to earth. There is probably too much fontcourt talent on the current roster to avoid another 10 victories, but don’t expect too strong a push in the second half. There is little to gain beyond a short-lived playoff berth in exchange for a mid-first rounder (goes to Minnesota if Utah reaches the playoffs) in a loaded draft.

Don’t be surprised if veterans begin to receive “precautionary rest” for phantom injuries, and Paul Millsap and/or Al Jefferson finish their respective seasons elsewhere.

If you enjoyed this brief stroll down Self Congratulation Lane (or if you didn't - whatever), be sure to check out how my Eastern Conference predictions are shaking out.

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