A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Predictions, Predictions, Predictions everywhere: The NBA 2011-2012 title sleeper (and, the mama bear and baby bear sleepers)

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English: Tim Duncan to Tiago Splitter of the S...

The Spurs could be this year's Dallas Mavericks (Image via Wikipedia)

In the days leading up to the Christmas day start of the NBA season, I will be writing a handful of prediction articles

My first is on the title sleeper of the NBA season. Last year was the definition of a title sleeper season. Nobody gave the Dallas Mavericks a chance starting the year, nobody gave them a chance even after a great regular season  – I’m embarrased to say I didn’t even list them in my contenders brief before my playoff preview.

It can also be argued that the Bulls were the true title sleeper of last year in that they started out predicted as a mid 40 W pretender  behind the big boys, and made a leap to the top of the mountain and 60 Ws.

Who is the sleeper this year? A team that doesn’t necessarily have to win, but comes close enough to deserve the title. There can be a few. The Denver Nuggets would have a good case with their obviously fantastic upcoming season thanks to an incredibly deep lineup, in a compressed schedule and the perfect high altitude homecourt to beat up on tired legs flying in. Portland, Indiana and Philadelphia should all have similarly good seasons thanks to athleticism and depth advantages over most opponents.

But my choice is…

The San Antonio Spurs

Yes, the Spurs. And this is coming from someone who was playing the “They aren’t real contenders, they don’t have enough” in the middle of their ridiculously good regular season start last year.

Here’s what I believe changed for the Spurs. Their two biggest weaknesses was athleticism on the perimeter and help defensively and on the boards beside Duncan, who’s defensive impact still measured out very well by advanced statistics last year. This year they have rookie Kawhi Leonard who is the perfect, Gerald Wallace-lite type perimeter defender and hustle guy at SF that they’ve needed for years, especially in a compressed schedule. And Tiago Splitter in his second year could be in for a breakout year as a starting C.

The Spurs perimeter bench is outstanding with TJ Ford, Gary Neal and Leonard backing up the starters Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Richard Jefferson. The biggest weakness the team has is a 3rd big man behind Duncan and Splitter, a spot currently occupied by Matt Bonner. This could be where a trade deadline move could come in handy to push them over the top.

This team’s offense is very reliant on its perimeter stars, but so is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s. Like the Thunder the Spurs let the perimeter stars run the show while the big men defend and rebound. With smart plays and passing, size in the middle and a great coach, the Spurs can make a more serious run at the title this year. The key is likely Leonard and particularly Splitter’s play and whether they can be legitimate starting caliber players. If they play well, they can do what Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler did to the Mavericks last year when they gave the Mavs a perimeter defensive and interior size element that had been lacking for seasons on end, which was enough to finally push them from pretender to title winner. The Spurs moves this summer have a chance of doing the same thing.

Now, what do I mean by the mama bear and baby bear sleepers? For me the mama bear sleeper is the team that everyone thinks will be mediocore, but charges out to say, a 50 W season or a 2nd round appearance in a regular year. A good example of this is last year’s Memphis Grizzlies who emerged from the lottery wilderness to make it to the 7th game of the 2nd round. A baby bear sleeper is the team everyone thinks will be horrible, but is surprisingly frisky and competent, perhaps at a 30 to 35 W level. A few years ago in the first post Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson Nets year, the team hung in the playoff picture thanks to Devin Harris’ best year and Brook Lopez having a good rookie season. That’s a baby bear sleeper. Essentially there are 4 levels in the league – Bad, mediocore, pretender and contender. A baby bear sleeper is the bad team who’s mediocore, a mama bear sleeper is the mediocore team who’s a pretender and the title sleeper is the pretender who’s a contender.

My mama bear sleeper? The Phoenix Suns. Yes, the shortened season isn’t good for them considering how much they rely on Steve Nash. But let’s not forget last year was the first time in the Nash era they’ve fallen below 46 Ws.  Starting the season with Hedo Turkoglu and Channing Frye as 2 of their 3 PF/Cs put them on an atrocious defense and rebounding start and then the midseason trade of Hedo and Jason Richardson for Vince Carter left the team struggling to assimilate – and Vince was terrible. The team still posted a top 10 offense, but the defense was so terrible all year that they never started rolling.

I expect this year is different. Marcin Gortat gives the Suns the type of starting C they’ve never had in the Nash era. He can legitimately put up a 15 points, 10 rebounds and 1.5 blocks statline this year. Together with Robin Lopez, the Suns now have above average size at the C position. The team has solid perimeter defenders like Grant Hill, Mikael Pietrus and Josh Childress. With the Cs, I expect this means they have a chance to put up an average ranked defense. Every year that the Suns have played average defense in the Nash era, not only have they been good, but they’ve full on contended. Now that might be out of the question this season because their offense looks as weak as it ever has as they don’t have as much 3pt shooting as usual this year, don’t have Amare, and Nash may be past his prime – But they should still run the pick and roll excellently between Nash and Markieff Morris/Marcin Gortat and will get enough shooting to compliment that.

The Suns should have very good chemistry and have mostly solid continuity from last season’s squad. Alvin Gentry is also a very solid coach. I believe these are the elements for a “surprise!” 47-50 W caliber season.

Finally, my baby bear sleeper is the previously lowly Cleveland Cavaliers. As bad as they were last year, there’s reason to believe this roster is quite solid. The Antawn Jamison, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson frontcourt is very reasonable. Jamison can score and Varejao and Thompson hit the boards and play with energy defensively. Anthony Parker, Omri Casspi and Daniel Gibson are great 3pt shooters, an important element to any succesful team. Finally, Kyrie Irving should be a reasonably solid PG (let’s say 16 points, 7 assists) right away – and Ramon Sessions is one of the better backup points in the league. Byron Scott knows how to coach defense and it seems like this team wants to try on that end more than say, the Washington Wizards.

The Cavaliers system will be simple. The PG drives, the multiple 3pt shooters space and catch and release, and the big men defend and clean up offensive putbacks. A simple system with defined roles and positions means you turn it over less and can survive without much practice in a compressed season and training camp. I believe this is the formula for the Cavaliers playing more like a 30 win team than a 15 win one and they may even be in the mix for a surprise playoff run.

Other teams who I believe will be better than expected:

The Philadelphia 76ers: Many people are jumping on the Denver bandwagon as an ultra deep, athletic team ready to take advantage of a compressed season, but don’t forget about Philadelphia having the same things. Jrue Holliday is also at the top of my list for “all-star breakout years”, like what Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love did last year

The Denver Nuggets & Portland Trailblazers: Both are expected to be good, but I can see them getting as high as 2nd and 3rd in the conference which most wouldn’t expected. They have an all-star caliber big men, great depth, great coaching, and PGs who like to lead fastbreak teams. They could both be dominant defensively and score at an above average rate. Both teams could put tired opponents in a torture chamber.

The New Jersey Nets (pre Dwight Howard) – I expect them to trade for Howard at the deadline, but even before that to play like a top 5 or 6 seed. Deron Williams is one of the best PGs in the league and makes everyone better and the rest of the pieces fall in line: Lopez is the scoring 2nd option (like what Carlos Boozer and David West did for Utah and New Orleans), Kris Humphries is the rebounder, Anthony Morrow is the 3pt shooter, Andrei Kirilenko is the utility do it all wing and Marshon Brooks is the bench sparkplug. That’s enough for a 45 W caliber team in a regular year. Nevertheless I’d be shocked if the Nets didn’t end up with Howard by the trade deadline this year. When given a choice between Brook Lopez, Marshon Brooks, Kris Humphries and draft picks for Howard and Turkoglu or nothing, you take the deal, plain and simple. Look at how well off Utah and Denver ended up, then look at Toronto and Cleveland.

That’s my sleepers. Stay tuned for my awards picks in the next few days.

Written by jr.

December 21, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Posted in Basketball

One Response

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  1. I love that Suns pick.


    December 23, 2011 at 9:16 pm

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