Thursday, October 18, 2012

Reading Between The Lines - Hardwood Hype's 2012-13 Western Conference Preview

I have yet to unearth a more effective method of crystallizing my own take on each team’s fate that staring down a single question, with (usually) a binary outcome.

Last season, as I have done mentally for several years, and a couple of times in writing, in order to organize my thoughts on the offseason that was and the upcoming NBA season, I turned to the open market. Using the Over-Under lines for regular season victories to “assess the market’s assessment” of teams’ fortunes, I previewed the season that was to be (West and East) – and actually got some right!

Let’s keep this simple, since there are plenty of words to come. I, like you, have spent recent weeks immersed in depth charts, shot charts, game logs, and the treasure trove that is the top-shelf work turned in on a daily basis by the NBA blogosphere Thanks to offshore sports books the web over, Basketball Reference, Hoopdata, the Basketball Prospectus crew, and the tireless efforts of Zach Lowe (currently in 1993 MJ mode), as well as the fine gentlemen at Ball Don’t Lie, The Basketball Jones, SI.com, and too many team-specific sites to mention individually, I assembled some semi-coherent, if long winded thoughts on the Western Conference in 2012-13 :

Dallas Mavericks
2011-12 Record: 36-30 (7th in the West; lost 4-0 in Round 1 to OKC)
Key Additions: O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand
Key Departures: Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Brendan Haywood, Lamar Odom
Likely Rotation: Dirk Nowitzki, O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Brandan Wright, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Dahntay Jones, Delonte West

Thanks to the cost-conscious decision to part ways with Tyson Chandler and the Lamar Odom heist that (generously) didn’t quite pan out, the Mavs’ 2011-12 title defense was dead on arrival. Recognizing this – and after whiffing on Dallas native Deron Williams, Dwight Howard and one-time Mavs’ QB Steve Nash – cost-cutting and judicious spending were the orders of the day. The endgame is simple for Mark Cuban: maximize financial flexibility by limiting long-term, big money commitments and steer clear of the luxury tax (under the new CBA, as of 2013 tax payers cannot take part in sign-and-trade deals) in order to remain a player for any superstar that hits the market. Sound strategy.

Beyond this season (in which they’re on the hook for $65.7 million), the Mavs are committed for $44.5 million in 2013-14 and have no commitments beyond next year. Though change has been a constant for much of the Cuban era, the stage is clearly set for a massive overhaul in Big D, one that, not coincidentally, will coincide with the final act of Dirk Nowitzki’s magnificent career.

What does this mean for 2012-13? A collection of viable NBA talent, made up largely of talented underachievers and stars rapidly approaching their respective “sell by” dates. In terms of on-court results, a core of Dirk, Shawn Marion, Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo (a longtime Hype favorite; this is a make-or-break year for our relationship), Elton Brand, Vince Carter, Rodrigue Beaubois and Chris Kaman ought to keep the Mavs competitive on a nightly basis, but it’s tough to see this hodgepodge as much more than a .500 stopgap. And if these ominous quotes from Dirk mean what (let’s be honest) they probably mean, the Mavs will finish the 2012-13 season with well UNDER 44.5 wins.

Denver Nuggets
2011-12 record: 38-28 (6th in the West; lost 4-3 in Round 1 to the Lakers)
Key Additions: Andre Iguodala, Anthony Randolph
Key Departures: Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington
Likely Rotation: Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller, Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mozgov, Corey Brewer

If you’ve been anywhere around the NBA blogosphere of late, you’ve heard about this situation. The second biggest beneficiaries of the Dwight Howard trade, the Nuggets are being touted as anything from upgraded League Pass darling to darkhorse title contender. I suspect this squad is more the former than the latter. That said, much of the hype is not misguided. This is a really good, brilliantly assembled team.

Since taking over at GM – in the midst of the Carmelo Anthony saga, remember – Masai Ujiri has put on an absolute master class in personnel management. Gotta trade Melo? Fine, get a haul of versatile young talent and dump Chauncey Billups’ contract in the process. Nene hits free agency? Max him out., if for no other reason than to retain a valuable, if overpaid asset. Losing one of your best players for nothing in the name of fiscal responsibility seldom works out well. Sure, overpaying can also be a mistake, but letting good players walk away for absolutely nothing is not a great habit to get into. And who knows? Just months later, maybe you’ll have an opportunity to get younger, cheaper and more athletic at the position. And turning Arron Afflalo into Andre Iguodala while dumping three years and more than $21 million of Al Harrington? Bravo!

Have the Nuggets built a title contender? No. Until they become at least an average defensive team, that conversation stays on the shelf. But this team is a legitimate threat to beat anyone at any time, and has enough talent and versatility to win a good number of games. This is the Daryl Morey method perfected. And they’re going to be a blast to watch. Ty Lawson has game-changing speed, and will be flanked by some combination of Danilo Gallinari, Iguodala, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried (see how I steered clear of the Anthony Randolph landmine? He’s not getting me again).

However, another void that will have to be filled before any talk of contention can begin is inside. Kenneth Faried is the only power forward on the roster, and while his toughness and endless energy are a huge part of who this team is, Manimal’s not yet a legitimate offensive weapon. As for center, the trio of JaVale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov is solid, but has question marks. Koufos and Mozgov are useful NBA big men, but neither is a game changer. And JaVale? Physically one of the most gifted centers in the game, he has the unrivaled ability to introduce the absurd into a professional basketball game. At his best he is an evolutionary Larry Nance. Other times you’d think he was on acid. In a harmless lovable way, though. On balance, this should prove to be a flawed-but-solid, occasionally comical crew.

Can the Nuggets win more than 50 games? Sure. And it’s a safe bet they’ll wind up in the neighborhood. If I had to wager, though, I’d place my money slightly UNDER 49.5 wins, and not feel great about it.

Golden State Warriors
2011-12 record: 23-43 (13th in the West)
Key Additions: Andrew Bogut (acquired via trade last season; has yet to play for team), Harrison Barnes, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack
Key Departures: Kwame Brown, Nate Robinson, Dorell Wright
Likely Rotation: Andrew Bogut, Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush, Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack

I don’t like the Warriors as much as I am supposed to.

Apparently Andrew Bogut’s stellar play on defense will elevate that of those around him, including noted sieve David Lee. Because y’know, Bogut will be healthy for the majority of the season (Oy). And David Lee will now learn to keep someone, anyone, in front of him.

On the other side of the ball, Steph Curry – one of this generation’s purest hoops geniuses – will link up with Bogut, Lee, Klay Thompson, Brandon Rush, Richard “let’s just exercise that $11 million 2013-14 player option now” Jefferson and rookie Harrison Barnes, to spark a dynamic attack befitting the Warriors’ offensive legacy. Because, y’know, Steph’s ankle aren’t made of porcelain anymore. And Jefferson isn’t done. And a paid Barnes is fully focused on maximizing his potential as a pro. And NBA-ready to begin with.

Could happen. That’s just an awfully big parlay to have to hit to ascend to mediocrity. I’ve got the Dubs UNDER 35.5 regular season wins.

Houston Rockets
2011-12 record: 34-32 (9th in the West)
Key Additions: Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Terrence Jones, Carlos Delfino, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White
Key Departures: Luis Scola, Chase Budinger, Marcus Camby, Samuel Dalembert, Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee
Likely Rotation: Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Marcus Morris, Carlos Delfino, Shaun Livingston, Donatas Motiejunas Jeremy Lamb, Royce White

As always, the Rockets boast a number of interesting pieces and the potential to overachieve, but it’s difficult to view this as anything but a throwaway year. And, frankly, I don’t think Daryl Morey would have it any other way.

As currently comprised, the 2012-13 are essentially an upgraded version of the K-Mart-led Sacramento teams of 2006-09. The first two of those three teams did win 33 and 38 games respectively, but required the services of (in addition to Martin) pre-mortem Mike Bibby, near-prime Ron Artest, near-prime Brad Miller, Corliss Williamson (16.7 and 6 per 36 minutes in 2006-07) (my mistake; these are Williamson's per-36-minute stats, based on less than 20 minutes per game), still-kickin’ Shareef Adbur-Rahim and contract year Bencisco Udria. Hardly a contender, but not a rolling chassis either.

Thing is, that’s not what Daryl Morey is after. For some time now, I have been less-than-kind in my assessment of the Rockets’ GM, but I am the first to admit that the route by which he delivered the Rockets to NBA purgatory is not lined with apathy or inaction. With just under $23 million on the books for 2013-14, the Rockets are in position to be players for any star that hits the market, though any big-ticket pick-ups will likely wait until at least this summer. This season is about ping-pong balls and a trip to the basement, in search of an express elevator upstairs.

And yes, I get the whole “looter in a riot” thing – someone(s) on this squad will put up numbers. Thing is, with Luis Scola gone as the result of an ill fated all-in maneuver in Morey’s pursuit of Dwight Howard, Martin (and his ~$13 million expiring contract) unlikely to end the season where he began it, Jeremy Lin squarely in the crosshairs of opposing defenses and no proven offensive threats elsewhere on the roster (OK, I’ll give you Chandler Parsons), identifying the lucky stat-padder (please be Shaun Livingston!) will do little to stem a rising tide of defeat. This team will finish the regular season with UNDER 30.5 wins. Maybe by a lot.

Los Angeles Clippers
2011-12 record: 40-26 (5th in the West; lost 4-0 in conference semifinals to the Spurs)
Key Additions: Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf, Jamal Crawford
Key Departures: Randy Foye, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Mo Williams, Nick Young
Likely Rotation: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf, Jamal Crawford

This season is ALL about Blake Griffin.

Actually, it’s still mostly about Chris Paul. Blake too, though.

And the comedic stylings of Vinnie Del Negro. And the ability of DeAndre Jordan to regain the form that earned him eight figures a year ago. And Grant Hill’s durability in the absence of the Phoenix Suns’ witch doctors (it ain’t just Nash). And the risk that Chauncey Billups and Jamal Crawford will eat into Eric Bledsoe’s minutes and stunt his development. And whether Lamar Odom still has the mental and/or physical artillery left to thrive in NBA.

Now, you can play this game with virtually any NBA team and drum up concern. If the new acquisitions get injured or fail to assimilate into the team’s framework, and the holdovers are unable to perform to their potential, and the coach is ill equipped to cope with it, it will be rough year. Quite the limb I’ve wandered onto, huh?

Thing is, few teams in the NBA better lend themselves to such an exercise than do the Clippers, and few players better encapsulate such hypotheticals than does Blake Griffin. If he expands his game to include a wider array of post moves and a semi consistent jumper (27.7% from 10-15 feet out in 2011-12, 37% from 16-23), if he can make two-thirds of his free throws, IF he can channel some of his mind-blowing athleticism toward defense, IF he can cut down on the power plays he grants to the opposition by flopping and incessantly chirping at the referees… Blake Griffin immediately morphs from a solid, flawed All-Star to one of the NBA top half dozen players and a perennial MVP candidate.

In the final days of Griffin’s mesmerizing rookie campaign, I contended that the 2010-11 iteration is “the least polished Blake Griffin we’ll ever see” and that “in the not-too-distant future he'll establish himself as a perennial MVP candidate, launch an assault on a 30-15 season and displace Dwight Howard as the NBA's preeminent big man.” Admittedly I might have gotten a tad carried away, but the overarching theme holds – there is a lot to like about Blake Griffin, but there are significant strides still to be made.

The same can be said of the Clippers as a team. The biggest question entering last season – the condition of Chris Paul’s surgically repaired left knee – wound up being no question at all, and the Clips notched Ws at a clip not seen in franchise history. This year, if the Clips’ stars align, we are likely looking at 55-win contender in the West. However, as is the case with Blake, there is simply too much that needs to go right for the Clippers to join the West’s top tier. The Clippers are not better than any team they were not better than a year ago, and have probably been eclipsed by the Denver Nuggets to boot.

Like the Warriors, they are chasing an awfully big parlay and will turn in another strong regular season, though one that sees them finish with UNDER 49.5 wins.

Los Angeles Lakers OVER 59 wins
2011-12 record: 41-25 (3rd in the West; lost 4-1 in conference semifinals to OKC)
Key Additions: Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Chris Duhon, Robert Sacre
Key Departures: Andrew Bynum, Matt Barnes, Ramon Sessions
Likely Rotation: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison, Jodie Meeks, Steve Blake, Devin Ebanks, Chris Duhon

In a futile attempt to rein in an already out of control word count, I’ll simply direct you to an existing work on the subject.

Memphis Grizzlies
2011-12 record: 41-25 (4th in the West; lost 4-3 in Round 1 to the Clippers)
Key Additions: Jerryd Bayless, Tony Wroten
Key Departures: O.J. Mayo
Likely Rotation: Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Jerryd Bayless, Tony Wroten, Darrell Arthur, Mo Speights, Hamed Haddadi, Quincy Pondexter

I entered last season with extremely high hopes for the Grizz. While they turned in a strong season (topping the preseason line by half a win), the inability to build on 2011’s surprise postseason run cast a disappointing shadow over the entire 2011-12 effort. In light of the letdown and the excellent summers enjoyed by the Lakers and Nuggets, the Grizz – last season’s chic pick to disrupt the West’s power structure – have morphed rather quickly from up-and-comer to also-ran.

Not here.

While no longer tapping Memphis as a top-two pick to come out of the West, I do expect this team to cement its place, with the Nuggets and (because I am that dumb) the Spurs, in the West’s second tier. And why not? The Grizzlies still boast the NBA’s top 1-2-3 front line – healthy, and with a season in the books together – a solid trio of backup bigs (Darrell Arthur, Mo Speights and Hamed Haddadi), a top-3 perimeter defender, an excellent point guard and had only O.J. Mayo to replace (Jerryd Bayless and Tony Wroten oughta do). With 20+ games against subpar Eastern opposition, and in a division with a more vincible Spurs squad, the declining Mavs, the improved-but-not-yet-good Hornets and the potentially awful Rockets, why shouldn’t the Grizzlies wind up with OVER 48.5 wins?

Bonus financial advice: Looking to back the Grizzlies as more than just 49-game winners? For those willing to cast their lot with Memphis in the Southwest Division, +320- +380 is readily available at offshore books. Care to take it a step further? This, combined with the Miami Heat to represent the East in the Finals (-145) and the New York Knicks to fall short of 47 wins will get you 13 turns on your money. Not that I’d know or anything…

Minnesota Timberwolves
2011-12 record: 26-40 (12th in the West)
Key Additions: Brandon Roy, Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, Chase Budinger, Greg Stiemsma
Key Departures: Michael Beasley, Wes Johnson, Martell Webster, Anthony Tolliver
Likely Rotation: Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio (upon return), Nikola Pekovic, Brandon Roy, Derrick Williams, Andrei Kirilenko, Alexey Shved, Luke Ridnour, Chase Budinger, Greg Stiemsma

There is so much at work here, and yet the more that happens to Twin Cities basketball, the tougher it becomes to sum up.

Last season began as perhaps the most optimistic in a decade for the Wolves. The league’s top rebounder and budding superstar, joined in the frontcourt by the hyperathletic #2 overall pick in the draft and a hoops genius of the highest order… the first non-KG playoff berth in franchise history was not only a distinct possibility, these guys would be a tough out if they got there.

And then, on March 9, Ricky Rubio, their budding maestro, was lost for the season with a torn ACL. The loss was a stomach punch for the Wolves, who, then 21-19 and winners of eight of their last 11, lost that game against the Lakers and fell into an immediate tailspin, dropping 20 of their final 25. It’s worth noting that Kevin Love missed essentially the last eight games of the season, though it’s also worth noting that by this point the damage was done.

Heading into 2012-13, hope once again sprung eternal. Love, healthy and fresh off a gold medal run in London, was the anchor, emerging beast Nik Pekovic back alongside, Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley (Bust and Buster?), now in Phoenix, replaced by still-shockingly-effective Andrei Kirilenko (thanks to whoever set me straight on this on Twitter when I initially mocked the move; apologies for forgetting who this was), Derrick Williams and Chase Budinger. Luke Ridnour would hold down the fort until Rubio’s return, with Russian gunner Alexey Shved backing up… BRANDON FREAKING ROY!

Fucking knuckle pushups.

I’ve tried to steer clear of sentimentality here, and irrational optimism has seldom worked in Wolves fans’ favor, but what the hell? Brandon Roy stays healthy, Shved is NBA-ready, Pek leaves a twisted pile of opposing bigs in his wake, Williams play up to (somewhere near) his draft status, Love heals quickly and Rubio returns at ~80% of peak power. This year, the Wolves will – against all odds – catch the breaks they NEVER do, topping not only an adjusted (for Love’s absence) 38.5-win line, but the original 41.5 it replaced as well.

New Orleans Hornets
2011-12 record: 21-45 (15th in the West)
Key Additions: Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers, Robin Lopez, Hakim Warrick
Key Departures: O.J. Mayo
Likely Rotation: Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Austin Rivers, Greivis Vasquez, Robin Lopez, Xavier Henry, Jason Smith, Hakim Warrick

David Stern just loves when a plan comes together.

Ten months ago, while still de facto owner of the Hornets and desperate to flip the franchise to local buyer (gotta get the stench of Clay Bennett off of you somehow, right?), Stern torpedoed… yeah, I know, you’ve heard this before.

Anyway, take one of the league’s best coaches, given him a top shelf two guard, a highly skilled four well-versed on the finer points of playing alongside an athletic phenom in the middle and, well, an athletic phenom in the middle, and that’s good for more than 25.5 wins. This team is a year, maybe two, from contending for a playoff berth, but not from exiting the gate as the West’s best bad team, en route to “solidly average.” If they’ve got their full complement, look for a ~.500 post-All-Star record.

One question doesn’t keep lingering, however. Given his mastery of the task at hand in NOLA, what kept the Commish from imposing leaguewide collusion against Eric Gordon?

Oklahoma City Thunder
2011-12 record: 47-19 (2nd in the West; lost 4-1 in NBA Finals to the Miami Heat)
Key Additions: Perry Jones
Key Departures: Derek Fisher
Likely Rotation: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, Perry Jones, Cole Aldrich

Summing up the Thunder is more complicated these days than it has been in the recent past. On the one hand they’re an offensive force led by the game’s most fluid and prolific scorer, a renegade savant and a superstar-caliber sixth man that all but won a title last June. They are not only intact but welcoming back their outstanding backup point guard and an out-of-favor (and perhaps actually motivated?) former blue-chipper. Had the Thunder merely encountered “normal LeBron James,” in the Finals, there’s a case to be made that they, and not the Miami Heat would enter this season as defending champs.

The return of Eric Maynor only adds versatility to an already excellent offense, allowing for a terrifying three-guard lineup with both Russell Westbrook and James Harden off the ball. Coming up with the wing defenders required just to slow down two of the Thunder’s perimeter attack is a bridge too far for most teams, never mind having to contend with all three in attack mode.

As was the case a year ago however, when the pace slows, this team will struggle to create inside scoring opportunities. Serge Ibaka is more mid-range shooter (46% from 16-23 feet, per Hoopdata) than post up threat (42.7% from 3-9 feet and 25.6% from 10-15 feet), no one is calling plays for Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison and Durant, while capable, is not best utilized in the post.

One other topic that’ll get a lot of play as OKC makes its way toward goal is that of James Harden’s contract. That he wasn’t maxed out at the first opportunity is a bit silly – I mean, even if the financial squeeze of the luxury tax became too constricting for Clay Bennett, Harden (or Russ for that matter) is as coveted a trade target as there is in the NBA. Doesn’t matter. It’s tough to imagine this team being derailed by an inevitable max deal that is simply a bit late in arriving.

If there are any other questions to be asked of this crew, they’re to be found at the defensive end. Theoretically, the defense is anchored by one of the league top interior duos. However, Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Serge Ibaka – statistically of the best shot blockers ever thus far in his career – is better in help situations than he is on the ball, and a declining Perkins is a shell of his Boston self. One of the league’s best glue guys (Collison) can help, but simply cannot fulfill both his own role and the one that Perkins is paid to be playing.

OKC will undoubtedly rank among the league’s best again, but in a tough Western Conference, the reintegration of Maynor, Perk’s continued decline, a need for perimeter defense from someone other than Thabo Sefolosha and an understandable “let’s just get back to the playoffs” attitude may create enough small obstacles to keep the Thunder UNDER 60.5 Wins.

Phoenix Suns
2011-12 record: 33-33 (10th in the West)
Key Additions: Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Michael Beasley, Wes Johnson, Kendall Marshall
Key Departures: Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Robin Lopez, Channing Frye, Michael Redd
Likely Rotation: Marcin Gortat, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Jared Dudley, Michael Beasley, Shannon Brown, Wes Johnson, Sebastian Telfair, Jermaine O’Neal

The fans of Phoenix need your support. This could get ugly.

Months after parting ways with the veteran backbone of 2010’s surprise conference finalist, including one history’s great shooters and playmakers, and the face of the franchise, a lineup of Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, and Michael Beasley will take the floor for the Suns on opening night.

In a vacuum, these are all, to varying degrees, talented, NBA-caliber players. But where do the wins come from? Scola’s post game, a solid Goran-Gortat pick-and-roll, the occasional offensive outburst from Beasley, these things will keep you competitive, but are not a recipe for wins in more than 40% of your games. The Suns will probably cover a fair number of spreads this season, but will also likely end it with a win total well UNDER 33.5.

By the way, did you know the Suns are paying Jermaine O’Neal $1.35 million this year? Thought that was weird.

Portland Trail Blazers
2011-12 record: 28-38 (11th in the West)
Key Additions: Damian Lillard, Meyers Loenard, Victor Claver, Ronnie Price, Sasha Pavlovic
Key Departures: Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Joel Przybilla
Likely Rotation: LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, J.J. Hickson, Jared Jeffries, Meyers Loenard, Victor Claver, Ronnie Price, Sasha Pavlovic, Joel Freeland

Welcome to NBA Purgatory. One semi-great player, one still-ascending very good two-way wing, a rookie point guard whose very early returns are rather encouraging, a versatile, if offensively overaggressive perimeter role player in Wesley Matthews and a bench anchored by… (!!) contract-year J.J. Hickson!

No? Ok, no.

I’ll admit, out of immense respect for LaMarcus Aldridge, admiration for Nic Batum’s potential Pippenosity and in the aftermath of last season’s Crawford-Felton mutiny-turned-tankjob shitshow, I wanted desperately to toss some love at this version of the Blazers.

But I just can’t do it. Not with a roster that will feature Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland and nothing else in the middle, rely on Sasha Pavlovic for bench scoring and backup Batum with Vic Claver and Luke Babbitt. As with the Suns, I simply cannot build a case for this crew winning more than 40% of its games. For what it’s worth, as LMA and friends fall short of 35 wins, I will be watching, and, more often than not, pulling for them.

Sacramento Kings
2011-12 record: 22-44 (14th in the West)
Key Additions: Thomas Robinson
Key Departures: Donte Greene
Likely Rotation: DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Thronton, Thomas Robinson, Jason Thompson, Chuck Hayes, Aaron Brooks, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw, Francisco Garcia, Jimmer Fredette

It is highly unlikely that this team wraps up the season in the same form in which it begins it.

First and foremost, there is the question of Tyreke Evans. We’ve all heard the statistic that’s come to define rookie ‘Reke’s rookie season: the only player other than Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James to average 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game as a rook. The problem, of course, is that Evans has added little to his resume since his stellar rookie campaign. In 2011-12 he returned from a lackluster, injury-plagued second season, but actually posted near-identical 36-minute numbers (17.3- 4.8- 4.7) as he had in 2010-11, though his shooting did improve to 45.3%, from 40.9%.

However, in 2011-12 Evans was displaced from both backcourt spots, as Marcus Thornton assumed two-guard duties, and the most relevant Mr. Irrelevant in the history of drafting things, Isaiah Thomas, took over at the point. In a vacuum Evans must be considered the most talented of the trio, but it’s unclear what he offers – and at which spot – that will compel the Kings to commit years and millions (I’d guess $8 million per?) for a volume scorer whose need for the ball could alienate the rest of a talented young core. It’s becoming increasingly clear that not only is an Evans-DeMarcus Cousins foundation not the Kings’ future, but that DMC is the young star with whom this team must cast its lot.

Cousins broke out in his second season as a pro, averaging 18 points (though high Usage, 29.7%, and on just 44.8% FG) and 11 rebounds (4.1 offensive!) and posting an All-Star caliber 21.7 PER. 25 times in 64 games he topped 20 points, 15 times he grabbed 15 boards, and 10 times he did both in the same game. He continues to struggle with on-court discipline (4.7 fouls/36 and 13 technical fouls), but was conspicuously free of incident after Keith Smart took over for Paul Westphal. Continued emotional consistency, growth as an offensive player, greater commitment on D and freer reign on the boards thanks to the presence of Thomas Robinson could elevate DMC to the ranks of “franchise player” by season’s end.

Unfortunately, for the purpose of this exercise, last season’s outperformance (22 victories, v. a preseason line of 15.5) has elevated expectation to untenable heights. While there is an encouraging array of young talent here, the uncertainty surrounding Evans – both in terms of on-court performance and future with the franchise – and the establishment of roles for the remainder of the rotation will keep one of my late night League Pass favorites UNDER 29.5 wins.

San Antonio Spurs
2011-12 record: 50-16 (1st in the West; lost 4-2 in conference finals to OKC)
Key Additions: Nando de Colo
Key Departures: None
Likely Rotation: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Patty Mills

Like the rat that just refuses to find its way out of the maze… THIS is the year the Spurs fall short of expectations.

They’ll be just fine mind you, but given certain circumstances I expect the Pop and the gang to cruise into the playoffs with fewer than 54.5 regular season wins.

You might have heard this before.

Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, though still excellent, are still not getting any younger. Because this seems to matter. Tony Parker, a future Hall of Famer not far removed from the peak of his powers, has shown that he is capable of being the offensive catalyst on a 60-win squad. Problem is, year in, year out, as Duncan and Manu continue to not get any younger, Parker has been alongside them, not not aging.

With each passing season, the need for a consistent scoring threat to ease the burden on the Big Three grows. The supporting cast is hardly lacking – Kawhi Leonard is a future STAR (and, in a pure meritocracy, a First- or Second-Team defender for the foreseeable future), “good” Stephen Jackson (the one that lives in San Antonio) provides toughness, excellent passing from the wing and a spot up threat, Danny Green is an effective spot-up shooter, but, until further notice (as OKC confirmed in the Western Conference Finals) simply an effective spot-up shooter, and Gary Neal, Boris Diaw Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and (the declining) Matt Bonner are all viable NBAers – but, despite their irresistible Spuriness, not exactly equipped to assume a significant offensive load.

All of that said, the Spurs will be just fine. The (latest) “demise” of which I speak is unlikely to drop them below 48-52 wins and a top-5 spot in the playoffs. These are after all still the Spurs. They will continue to defend. They will continue to inexplicably create wide-open corner 3 after wide-open corner 3. And Pop (one of my favorite human beings that I’ve never met) is still at the helm. Everything’s cool.

Plus, as long as I am right one time on this, all the times these guys made me look foolish will be buried, right? Right? Sigh.

So… same time, next year?

Utah Jazz
2011-12 record: 36-30 (8th in the West; lost 4-0 in Round 1 to the Spurs)
Key Additions: Mo Williams, Marvin Williams, Randy Foye,
Key Departures: Devin Harris, C.J. Miles, Josh Howard
Likely Rotation: Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors, Paul Millsap, Enes Kanter, Mo Williams, Gordon Hayward, Marvin Williams, Alec Burks, Jeremy Evans, DeMarre Carroll, Randy Foye, Jamaal Tinsley

If the Denver Nuggets are the model for rapid retooling in today’s NBA, the margin by which they acquired the title is not great. In a predicament virtually identical to the one faced by the Nuggets – a locally popular, non-marquee team on a collision course with the departure of an in-his-prime star for glitzier pastures – the Jazz proactively entered “life after D-Will,” embracing the rebuild that now stared them in the eye.

Less than a year and half removed from bidding adieu to their franchise point guard, the Jazz – thanks to some patience, solid scouting and fantastic work in the trade market – rank among the NBA’s most rapidly-improving and best constructed teams. In Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors, Paul Millsap and Enes Kanter the Jazz have, potentially, an absolutely devastating front line – deep, versatile, athletic, and with some interchangeability.

There is certainly a ways to go yet. Al Jefferson is still not a good defender and is getting neither younger nor quicker. Potential interior beast Derrick Favors, his flashes of brilliance arriving with increased frequency, remains raw offensively. Kanter is a solid rebounder and shot blocker, but at this point contributes little offensively. Millsap, reasonably priced and the best inside-outside player on the squad, is a free agent in July.

However, with the support of a deeper, more talented perimeter corps (Mo/Marvin Williams, the improving Gordon Hayward, Randy Foye, Alec Burks and skywalker Jeremy Evans), and given the rate at which this team came together a year ago, don’t be surprised if Ty Corbin gets even more out of this crew than we are expecting. Not only do a regular season of OVER 42.5 wins not seem unreasonable, don’t be shocked to see these guys return to the playoffs as the West’s #6 seed.


Whew! Tired yet? There's half the league in the books. In the interest of quality assurance and physical recovery, I'll be back after the weekend, to round out this look ahead to the coming months of hoop back East...

1 comment:

SportingSempre said...

why is it NBA Purgatory (for Portland) if they wont be able to win more than 20/25 games?

dont you rather bottom out for good picks and develop young guys than be in that semi competitive never ending world of mediocrity?!

i dont get it.