*UPDATE: We’ve revised our Western Conference forecast to account for the breaking news regarding Russel Westbrook’s knee surgery.
We’re getting close. Not but a week or two away from preseason games, NBA fans will soon get a much needed fix after the annual late summer lull in NBA news. Before we see any games, it’s time to forecast their ultimate outcome.
Similar posts about projecting next year’s standings have been wildly disparate. Some are huge on Indiana, while others expect more from Brooklyn and Chicago. That holds in the Western Conference too. Most have heard – perhaps from the mamba’s twitter account – that ESPN has projected the Lakers to finish 12th. Other pundits, still not predicting great things from the purple and gold, nonetheless suspect that removing the D12 distraction is likely to lead to better chemistry and slightly improved results.
Here’s my take on a loaded (again) Western Conference:
1. Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers’ offseason moves played mostly to rave reviews. A championship coach and an influx of dead-eye shooters who also happen to be mature veterans certainly provide ample support for such acclaim. So color me contrarian for coming very close to dropping the Clips to #4.
I like Reddick, and expect even better form Jared Dudley. But that return for a blossoming, if overrated young point guard who happened to be the team’s best athlete (yes, better than Blake) and best perimeter defender gives me cause for concern. Essentially, the Clips have maximized the expected minimum performance level with that move. That is, they’ve shaved off considerable, but uncertain upside to get the peace of mind that flows from knowing exactly what Reddick and Dudley will bring to the table.
Of course, there’s a timing element here too: CP3’s not getting younger, and I firmly believe that we’ve already seen his best basketball. Bledsoe’s development might never have synched with Paul’s window. So here’s what we have:
Starters: (1) Paul, (2) Reddick, (3) Barnes, (4) Blake, and (5) Jordan
Bench: Guards (Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Willie Green), Wings (Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock) Bigs (Byron Mullens, Ryan Hollins).
That’s a tremendous backcourt. In particular, I’d look for Collison to rebound under Paul’s mentoring. But we’re putting a lot of stock into Blake and DeAndre’s development, because the guys behind them, shockingly, are even worse defenders. I simply cannot foresee that group providing sufficient defense in the playoffs to get the Clips past the Thunder.
2. Golden State Warriors. I like this team. Curry gets all the press, but Klay Thompson began to flash signs that he’s nearly as valuable to the Warriors’ plan of attack. Add to those two Harrison Barnes, and the Warriors obviously have great upside. Last year’s playoff performance raised expectations, but so too did it increase the moxie of a young squad that needed experience on a big stage. I think the Warriors had the Spurs, and would’ve beaten them had Curry’s ankle not given out.
Make no mistake, Golden State will miss Jarret Jack’s leadership and Carl Landry’s bench production (adding Toney Douglass will ease the sting), but the Warrior wagon remains hitched to the flimsy ankles of Stephen Curry. If they hold up, the addition of Igoudala makes the Warriors a legitimate contender. If they don’t, a first round playoff exit is in the cards.
3. OKC. The Thunder happens to be my title favorite this year. That remains the case even in the wake of today’s news that Westbrook will miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season. But don’t think for a minute that missing Russ for roughly 1/5 of the season won’t have a serious impact on the standings. While some might color this an overreaction, it underscores just how closely matched I perceive the West’s top four – and to a lesser extent, top six – teams to be. So much so, in fact, that I considered dropping OKC below Houston too.
Why all the concern? I suspect that it will take about 60 games to win the West again this year. The Clippers, Warriors, and Rockets are each capable of doing that with a little luck. While the Thunder should be marginally better equipped to handle Westbrook’s absence after getting a much needed wake up call last season, it simply cannot compensate for losing one of the league’s top five players for any significant period of time. This is no insult to OKC — imagine the Heat without Lebron, or the Clips sans Paul. If Westbrook misses, let’s call it 18 games, I’d expect the Thunder to win about 11, rather than roughly 14 of those games. Those three games are significant, especially when coupled with the possibility that Russ may experience some lingering affects. Furthermore, it’s going to take some time to get the Thunder firing on all cylinders when he returns. All in, I think this costs OKC no less than 6 games, which is enough to tip the scales in favor of the Clips and Warriors.
Like I said, however, I’m not expecting long term consequences from this development. The Thunder are sufficiently playoff tested that I’m confident that it can win a series or two on the road. I’m given pause only by Durant’s wilting on the big stage during the playoffs, which should have been his opportunity to showcase that he, not Russ, is the engine that drives the Thunder. I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore. It’d be unrealistic to expect Durant to carry that depleted squad to a title, but the fashion in which he failed to do so is disconcerting. He must add new dimensions to his game that allows an offense to run more smoothly through him, as opposed to concluding with his admittedly money jumpers. The finals loss appeared to have lit a fire beneath him, yet I’d still like to see Durant exhibit a more fearless determination on a regular basis.
Westbrook is the remedy to all of those issues. A consummate lighting rod for criticism, we finally had a chance to see just how different the Thunder look without Russ. He is the team’s most important player, allowing for the likelihood that he’s not its best. The Thunder draws its personality from Russ, not Kevin. He’s the dominant personality, the ruthless competitor, and the more unstoppable offensive force when he’s flowing. Sure, Durant’s a superior, more polished offensive option, but Durant can be bottled up from time to time. (See Exhibit A, OKC vs. Memphis series). Westbrook can’t. You simply are not staying in front of him. That ability’s often been overshadowed by his erratic play, however, Westbrook reaches heights that few players can match.
With Durant’s trigger finger getting itchy after last year’s disappointment, and the bounce-back I expect from Westbrook, the Thunder need little else to merit inclusion in any conversation about contenders. Fortunately for OKC, it has quite a lot else going, all of which seems to have been discounted this summer.
First, there’s Serge Ibaka. At this point, we know more or less who Ibaka is. For those who expected him to become both a smothering post defender and a potent offensive force, the reality is likely disappointing. Get past those lofty expectations for a moment, and what remains is a top five athlete at the 4, perhaps the league’s best weak side shot blocker, a strong finisher around the rim, and a reliable jump shot with range that grows every season. And by all accounts, Ibaka’s a great teammate and a wanna-be tough guy. So there’s that too (here’s to hoping Stephen Jackson does not, in fact, “get up in his mouth,” which was a terrifying and completely believable threat.)
Then, there’s Reggie Jackson, who’s on the cusp of becoming a vexing problem for defenses trying to contain both he and Westbrook, who’s a just slightly more remarkable athlete. Add to that expected improvement from Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, and the Thunder could boast its most athletic line-up since it swapped Green for Perkins. I’m not high on Steven Adams, but between Collison, Perkins, and Ibaka, the Thunder have more than enough to slow down most front-lines.
All things considered, the Thunder sport the playoff pedigree, regular season prowess, and enough players primed for improvement to make it the West’s clear cut favorite.
4. Houston. Landing a top-15 player in consecutive off-seasons is no simple feat. And it’s not as though Houston acquired a couple of mismatched stars. Harden and Howard aren’t exactly Carmelo and Kevin Love, for instance. So shouldn’t Houston rate considerably higher than fourth here?
The West, as always, is loaded. So that’s part of it. Dwight and Harden simply are not better than Durant and Westbrook. One could make a fair case that they’re roughly on par with the Paul-Griffin combo, but Houston’s supporting cast is markedly inferior to that of the Clips. And largely, that’s the problem for Houston: behind Dwight and Harden, the cupboard’s barer than it should be for a team that had acquired so many assets over the past several years, and relinquished practically none of them to sign Dwight.
Chandler Parson’s a nice piece between Houston’s two cornerstones. His reputation now has become detached from his performance to a perplexing degree, but that doesn’t strip him of his status as on of the better “3 and D” guys in the league. But then it gets dicey. Jeremy Lin? He’s a turnover prone non-shooter, a minus defender, and almost entirely ineffective when he’s not running the pick and roll. That’s a problem if you’re playing with Dwight Howard. Before Rockets fans assail me with a barrage of metrics about Dwight’s effectiveness on such plays, I’d ask you to watch a few D12 highlights from last year. If Dwight ends up with the ball anywhere near the free throw line, odds are that he’ll (1) mishandle the pass; (2) look completely lost after catching the pass and proceed to treat the roll as an ill-fated post-up opportunity; or (3) have the ball stripped while he attempts to either post or gather himself for a shot.
So when you read that Dwight was more effective on pick and rolls than in post ups last year, remember this: it’s all relative. Dwight’s post game is awful. It starts with him dribbling with his head down, then proceeds to one of three outcomes: (1) he gets stripped — a lot, get used to it; (2) he launches an impressive explosion from one side of the key to the other, which results in either an offensive foul, a line drive hook shot that goes in roughly 45% of the time, or Dwight at the free throw line; (3) Dwight at the free throw line.
Those couple of paragraphs probably qualify me as a Dwight hater. That’s only partially true. I’m an unabashed Lakers guy, so no, I didn’t appreciate Dwight’s generally dour disposition throughout the season. More objectively, he has major hiccups in his offensive game that don’t seem to be improving, and in some facets, even appear to be worsening as time goes on. Yet, I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that Dwight’s done, that it was a risky signing, or that his back injury will relegate him to something less than the league’s best center of the past seven years or so. I watched a lot of Dwight last year, and noticed considerable athletic improvement as the season progressed. When he’s locked in, Dwight remains the game’s best interior defender, equally formidable locking guys up in the post as he is swatting shots from all angles. Even when he’s not engaged, he’s the best rebounder in the league, and generates enough points from put backs and alley-oops to remain valuable offensively. This is a long way of saying that Dwight’s not the problem.
Jeremy Lin is. As are Aaron Brooks, Francisco Garcia (if he plays more than 10 minutes a game), Omri Caaspi, and Marcus Camby. There’s just not much there there. Which brings me to my final point: if Morey can turn Omer Asik (who absolutely cannot play with Howard) into either multiple quality players, or one above average starter, the picture will begin to look much different. I have no trouble envisioning Houston finishing second in that circumstance. Yes, the Rockets will ultimately go only so far as Howard and Harden take them, but especially in the regular season, the supporting cast plays a pivotal role in positioning those types of guys to achieve in the first place.
5. New Orleans. Here’s the riskiest pick on the list. What we have from here on down is six teams for three spots, so something – some team – has to give. It’s also the point at which the San Antonio murmuring becomes all-encompassing: how could I downgrade so quickly a team that by all means should’ve won the title last year?
Make what you will of this. I excluded San Antonio from a list of six contenders last year. I was fed up with the: “and you just can’t forget about San Antonio” bullshit spewed by analysts everywhere, every year. After suffering multiple defeats with a nearly geriatric roster, you could forget about San Antonio. Still picking bits of crow from my teeth, I don’t mind saying that the Spurs were incredibly fortunate to face the Lakers without a single backcourt player anyone had heard of (Kobe, Nash, Blake, and even Meeks missed all or major portions of the series), and Golden State without David Lee and with a hobbled Stephen Curry. That caught up to them when the Spurs likely would’ve prevailed had Parker not suffered an underrated injury in the Finals. So I’ll go ahead and make the perplexing argument that despite earning the status of “team closest to winning the title without actually winning it,” the Spurs were in fact one of the weaker Western Conference champion’s of the past decade. More about that later…Let’s get to the Pelicans.
It all hinges on Anthony Davis. Last year wasn’t about his weak supporting cast, but his underwhelming performance. Davis disappeared all too often, yet somehow still finished with a PER of 21.3. If he becomes the more dominant presence that most predicted, it’s hard to argue that the Pelicans won’t be much improved. For all of the grieving about Grevious Vasquez (had to do it), Holiday’s a huge upgrade, and a potential top-ten point guard, which is a greater compliment than it might seem, considering that the list looks something like this: (1) Westbrook, (2) Paul, (3) Rose (4) Curry, (5) Irving, (6) Parker, (7) Rondo, (8) D-Will, (9) Lillard, (10) Wall. That leaves Holiday sparring with the likes of Jennings, Rubio, Hill, Lawson, and Calderon (no, not seriously Mavs fans) to displace the latter two as well as D-Will and Parker as they decline over the next several years.
Then, there’s the league’s most forgotten budding star in Eric Gordon. True, his once tantalizing trajectory has taken a turn in the wrong direction. But it’s equally true that he remains rather easily in the mix of top-five shooting guards, and hasn’t really been healthy or engaged for two years (which is of course part of the knock on him.) Add Tyreke Evans, who I continue to believe will shine outside the dysfunction of Sacramento, and you have one hell of a backcourt.
I didn’t like losing Sideshow Bob, er, Robin Lopez, and expect a considerable fall off from his performance last season to a Steimsa and Withey tag team. Not to be forgotten, however, NO still features Ryan Anderson’s sharp-shooting, and he’ll diminish the opportunity for the aforementioned duo to screw things up. Ready for contention? Probably not just yet.
6. San Antonio. I like Kawhi Leonard, and everything he stands for (whatever that is). I really do. And you couldn’t find a better Spur system player than Danny Green. But I don’t like that Tony Parker’s always injured, Manu Ginobili is DONE, and Tim Duncan probably can’t play more than 28 minutes a night. Reasonable minds could disagree about Tiago Splitter, but if he’s our point of contention, what does that say about that team? What’s the upside here? There’s precious little, and that’s the crux of it. Kawhi can improve, Green can’t (which isn’t an insult; he was that good last year), and the balance of the roster is vastly more likely to regress than improve. That leaves the Spurs at the status quo at best, and that won’t be enough. Since I don’t think the Spurs were that good last year, the margin for error is slim, if not entirely non-existent. I’m writing them off again, at my own peril.
7. LA Lakers. By losing Dwight Howard, LA’s seen the floor crumble beneath it. There really is no telling how bad it could get this year. I suspect few would be truly shocked if Bryant couldn’t carry on his repaired Achilles another injury ravaged supporting cast led by Nash and Gasol, and the Lakers packed it in for the season to finish amongst the worst teams in the league.
It’s not just the floor, however, that’s in a fluid state. The Lakers’ ceiling remains unquantifiable. Thanks to an influx of perimeter talent, LA’s addressed its most glaring weakness from seasons past. For what they lack in reliable output, Wes Johnson, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, and perhaps even Shawne Williams or Xavier Henry make up some of the difference in untapped potential. It’s not crazy to think that Johnson could become Ariza, that Farmar could be 2009 Farmar, and that Nick Young could be the best bench scoring option they’ve had in at least five seasons (which remarkably says very little about Nick Young). If any of those things happen, LA will be better than most people think. If two of them happen, LA’s making the playoffs.
Is it really that hard to picture Kobe returning to some version of Kobe, for Pau to thrive playing his natural position, or for Nash to improve upon a horrid performance? I tend to think that each is more likely than not, if far from certain to occur. All of this is too say that LA’s upside is as fluid as its downside. I won’t follow Metta’s bold predictions, but I will say this: LA has reason for hope, which means that the rest of the west still has something to fear.
8. Portland. I get the arguments for Denver, Dallas. I really do. Perhaps I’m overestimating the fall off from Igoudala, and undervaluing Dallas’s offseason acquisitions. The more shocking omission? Memphis. Tough to keep out the bruising frontcourt of Randolph and Gasol. Signs began to emerge last season, however, that Randolph’s on the decline. I’m projecting that trend to continue. History has shown us that when Z-bo’s not playing well, he’s not behaving well either. After that, as much as I appreciate Conley’s continued emergence as a top tenish point guard, there’s not much else to get excited about on the Memphis roster. I think this is the year it comes apart. Finally, I want to believe that the Wolves can string together a healthy season. But I hate what Denver and Dallas did this offseason, and believe that Portland can at least match Minnesota in talent and is far more likely to stay on the court this seasons. So that’s it. Portland’s my pick here.
Unless the Aldridge rumors prove to be more than just that, expected improvement from Damian Lillard after a stellar rookie campaign pushes them past the other eight-seed contenders. C.J. McCollum should add another dynamic dimension to the backcourt, and the acquisitions of Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams, Dorrell Right, and Robin Lopez represent several of the summer’s best bargains. Assuming that Batum and Mathews deliver solid, if unspectacular campaigns, Portland has its strongest cast in since it prematurely lost Brandon Roy.