A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Predictions, Predictions, Predictions everywhere: NBA 2011-2012 Western Conference

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Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11

The Thunder are looking to take over the West (Image via Wikipedia)

Here are my predictions for the Western Conference in the NBA:

1. Oklahoma City Thunder – 49-17 (Northwest Division Winner) -The favorite in the Western Conference. The Thunder’s strong play should start on the defensive end with 3 lunchbucket bigs in Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collision and one of the longest and most athletic perimeter rotations in the league with Russell Westbro0k, Thabo Sefolosha, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. They’ll rotate as hard as any team not called the Heat and have the bigs to cover their mistakes. Offensively Kevin Durant has improved his handles and shot creating ability and James Harden looks ready to become a consistent 20 point a game player. Russell Westbrook is Russell Westbrook, some nights dominant, some nights frustrating. The Thunder have as strong “punch you in the mouth” ability at any time offensively as any team not named the Heat, they can turn a 10 point lead into a tied game, or push a tied game to a 10-15 point lead at any time. They’re hungry for the #1 seed and with Dallas’ moves this offseason weakening their team, are the outright favorites in the Western Conference in the regular season and playoffs.

2. San Antonio Spurs – 44-22 (Southwest Division Winner)- Talking about the Spurs has become “boring” after so many years of success. They still have one of the deadliest starting backcourts in the NBA with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili who should collapse the defense and create shots for teammates, the key for any great offense. TJ Ford and Gary Neal provide scoring punch in the backcourt off the bench. Richard Jefferson and Kawhi Leonard provide great fastbreak ability that the Spurs tapped into last year. Leonard may be the key of the team with his perimeter athleticism – One could argue the biggest missing piece for the Spurs recently compared to their glory years has been the absence of Bruce Bowen providing X factor defense on the perimeter.  Up front Tim Duncan still passes the ball well and makes smart if not explosive defensive plays and Dejaun Blair, Tiago Splitter and Matt Bonner provide rebounding, size/post defense and shooting respectively. With an elite backcourt, a smart frontline and a still productive center, they are one of the most complete teams in the league. They won’t beat themselves and will win most of the games they should. It seems like the Spurs don’t have the young legs to compete in the playoffs, but then again, we thought that about the Mavericks last year too.

3.Portland Trailblazers – 43-23 – The Trailblazers are an incredibly solid team. Like the Thunder their success should start with their defense and overall freakish athleticism and length leading to great help rotations. The Blazers appear to be pushing the pace more this season with Raymond Felton and Gerald Wallace’s additions in the starting lineup, making them another “turnover means you’re giving up points” team. Offensively they’re not the most dynamic team in the league, but have a legitimate star post presence in Lamarcus Aldridge, 3pt shooting from Jamal Crawford, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum, and Felton and Wallace’s speed and finishing respectively. They should also hit the offensive glass. The Blazers this year will be an incredibly hard team to play. They’re fast, deep, they rebound, and they can hit you with post abiltiy, shooting or athleticism. Coach Nate McMillan has done a great job maximizing the ability of his roster the last few years and the team’s chemistry and energy level should be great again. I don’t expect the Blazers to miss a beat this year in the regular season.

4. Los Angeles Lakers – 41-25 (Pacific Division Winner) – The Lakers are still relevant. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are still among the most skilled players at their position, Andrew Bynum plays like an all-star when healthy and not suspended, and the Lakers have a handful of good shooters around them like Steve Blake, Derek Fisher, Jason Kapono, Andrew Goudelock, Troy Murphy that can efficiently take advantage of the 3 stars presence. Josh McRoberts is a high energy producer taking Lamar Odom’s minutes. The Lakers can still dominate the post, have a star creator and shooting on the perimeter and Mike Brown should get them playing great defense. Andrew Bynum playing the entire season after his suspension is a must if the Lakers want a top 3 seed, but they should still be a great team in the meantime.

5. Denver Nuggets -43-23 – The Nuggets this year are a model team. They have elite ball movement starting with Ty Lawson and Andre Miller at PG and a team commitment from the rest of the roster. They can hit you from the outside with Lawson, Aaron Afflalo, Danillo Gallinari, 3 of the best shooters at their position, and on the inside from Nene, one of the most efficient finishers in the league – and most of all they’ll push a ton of fastbreak points on tired teams in this compressed schedule. With elite ball movement, shooters, inside finishing and a league best fast break, the Nuggets’ top 5 is much more efficient offensively than they look. The lack of a weak link efficiency wise on the Nuggets reminds me of last year’s Mavericks. The supporting cast including Rudy Fernandez, Corey Brewer, Al Harrington, Chris Anderson, Kenneth Faried, Timofey Mozgov does what they should – They provide elite defensive energy, shoot the ball well, force a lot of turnovers to turn into fastbreak buckets and play together. Denver’s high altitude home court is usually an advantage and in this season, with this fast and deep team, it becomes even more ridiculous. Don’t be surprised if Denver pulls off a 29-4 type record at home this year and surprises everyone by being in contention for the 2nd seed in the conference.

6. Dallas Mavericks – 41-25 – The Mavericks got waxed in their first 2 games of the season, but this team looks too talented to win less than the equivalent of 50 games over an 82 game season – after all, the last time they didn’t do that a guy named Bill Clinton was president. Aside from Dirk who guarantees elite shooting and spacing to help his teammates finish, the Mavericks should eventually be an elite rebounding team with Shawn Marion, Lamar Odom and Brendan Haywood’s abilities, the ball movement should get back to excellent levels with the passing smarts of Delonte West, Jason Terry, Lamar Odom and Dirk, and the West and Terry backcourt hits all valuable 3s on the outside. I don’t expect Vince Carter to provide much and may not be on the team long, he looks out of shape and unmotivated. This is not as an elite team as last year due to the weakened defense and lesser 3pt shooting, but they should still cruise to a 50 W caliber season once they figure it out and get back to playing smart and crisply passed two way basketball.

7. Golden State Warriors – 39-27 – Ok, I may have moved the Warriors up a few spots after seeing how they’ve played so far this season. But has it ever been encouraging. I’m extremely impressed by the David Lee, Andris Biedrins, Ekpe Udoh, Kwame Brown frontcourt – Their length and athleticism has been getting it done defensively. The perimeter is reaching their defensive potential due to their athleticism and length. Stephen Curry (if he stays healthy) and Monta Ellis are hard to stop offensively and Brandon Rush, Klay Thompson and Dorrell Wright are the athletic shooters every team needs. This is simply a talented team. They have a star perimeter pair flanked by outside shooters, interior finishing and defensive length on the perimeter and inside.

8. Memphis Grizzlies – 37-29 – The Grizzlies have a fundamental flaw: They’ve ranked 30th in 3pt attempts the last 2 seasons and this team’s shooting looks like the weakest it’s ever been, with Tony Allen, Rudy Gay and Sam Young taking much of the perimeter minutes, leaving only the inconsistent OJ Mayo to hit 3s. Offensively they’ve simply never been incredibly fluid with Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol all healthy, probably due to this lack of shooting combined with a trio that would benefit immensely from extra space up front. What’s left is a lot of individual efforts to score by their stars, but not a lot of complimentary passing and efficient finishing without the space to get those shots. In the frontcourt they are shallow, with Dante Cunningham and Hamed Haddidi providing backup minutes. At the same time, the Grizzlies may be one of the league’s defensive teams and are reasonably experienced at this point to take advantage of weaker teams. It’s enough to be a playoff caliber team, but they surely expected more after last year’s playoff run. Yet if they get in, the Grizzlies will once again be a brutal matchup for any team with their post ability and defense.

9. Phoenix Suns – 36-30 – The Suns have come out as slowly as any team in the league. They’ve played fine defensively, but have looked like the Larry Brown Charlotte Bobcats offensively. Who knew? The main problem so far is a complete lack of 3pt shooting on the perimeter, usually shooters are Nash’s favorite weapon. Signing Michael Redd may help if he can play, but I expect the Suns response is simply to figure out a offensive style they haven’t played before, based on interior scoring from centers Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez and the underrated Markieff Morris. The Suns still have an elite PG, a nice center rotation and a coach and roster that is experienced and built to handle a slow start like this, so I expect them to turn it around soon.

10. Los Angeles Clippers – 35-32 – Sorry, Lob City. The problem with this team is twofold. First, their defensive talent is extremely weak. Deandre Jordan may be the most overrated defender in the league. He can swat shots, but if you have poor defensive awareness rotating on plays and leave your man to get these blocks, you really aren’t helping. Jordan is still a project as a legitimate defensive contributor at this point until his defensive IQ catches up to his physical talent. Playing Chauncey Billups and Mo Williams at SG was always going to be a concern defensively as well. The team’s entire bench including Mo, Randy Foye, Ryan Gomes, Reggie Evans, and Brian Cook is not only brutally weak in talent, but completely defensively incapable.

But the big reason I don’t believe the Clippers? Chris Paul has not been the superstar player in impact that they gave up the farm for and simply hasn’t been near the player he was in his prime the last 2 seasons. The reason is that his ability to score at the rim have completely fallen off the map with the burst he lost after his knee surgery. According to hoopdata.com, in 2008-2009 Paul scored 2.8 FGM out of 4.4 FGA at the rim and in 2010-2011, that number dropped to 1.3 FGM and 2.1 FGA. This halfing makes complete sense with what I saw out of Paul on the Hornets last season and on the Clippers so far this year – he has become a perimeter orientated PG who makes smart passes and can run the pick and roll, but who’s once dominant ability to attack the rim and create drive and kick opportunities by converting help defense collapsing on him is nearly gone. The Hornets last season ranked 19th in ORTG and 25th in 3PA despite having shooters on the wing like Trevor Ariza and Marco Bellinelli beside Paul – if truly a dominant drive and kick player, I believe both numbers would easily be higher. For example, the 2008 team ranked 5th in ORTG and 8th in 3PA, the 2009 team 12th in ORTG and 14th in 3PA. Paul has always been a small PG, I believe he had just enough explosiveness to be the threat at the rim during those years despite his stature. But now I don’t know if he has that part of his game. The result is that Paul cannot collapse the defense like he once did and cannot convert help rotations into drive and kick open shots for teammates. And the Clippers become a much more mediocre offensive team headlined by Blake Griffin’s finishing and a slewful of perimeter players in Paul, Billups, Mo Williams, Butler, Foye who are talented but primarly 15 feet and out creators. This is fine and well, but I don’t believe the Clippers offense can become full throttle with only one player in Blake Griffin who can consistently create points in the paint – and with a bench who will struggle to score on most nights.

With a merely reasonable offense and a mediocore defense, I don’t expect the Clippers to contend for more than the final playoff spots this year.

11. Houston Rockets – 35-32 – It’s unclear whether the Rockets chemistry has been effected by the nullified Kevin Martin and Luis Scola for Pau Gasol trade, but if they get it going they could have their best season of the last few years. Samuel Dalembert gives them a center presence to go with their good PG Kyle Lowry, good SG Kevin Martin and good PF Luis Scola and shooters like Courtney Lee and Chase Budinger. They have the necessary pieces to score points like they did last year and to defend, but this team is nonetheless still uninspiring and in the tough West, a longshot for the playoffs. The next move is probably to blow up the team and rebuild.

12. New Orleans Hornets – 30-36 – The Hornets have been the surprise of the year so far with a 2-0 start. The most important part of a basketball team is usually the frontcourt and the Hornets have that. Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman and Carl Landry is a solid trio, with Okafor providing defensive energy, and Kaman and Landry scoring. All 3 are veterans who know how to play and they can all rebound. On the perimeter Jarrett Jack is having a solid season as he did in Toronto when given a larger portion of the offense, Eric Gordon only played 1 G but will get it going, and Jack, Gordon and Ariza are all athletes with extra length for their positions, which with the frontcourt make the Hornets a tough matchup on that end. With shooting, interior scoring and overall strong defense thanks to perimeter athleticism and size inside, the Hornets are following the model of a solid, overperforming team. The Hornets will eventually struggle to score and may look to move some of their veteran pieces, but this is a solid, experienced team who will stay in lots of games and not a deep lottery bottomfeeder.

13. Minnesota Timberwolves –  21-45 – Minnesota’s offensive talent has taken a leap up with the additions of Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams, but they still suffer from the same problems they have for years. They’re in major defensive trouble with both the youngest roster in the league and combining Rubio at PG, Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams at SF/PF and Kevin Love at PF, all of whom who have very weak defensive lateral quickness for their positions. Offensively they make bad decisions and turn the ball over and only have one player in Love who is a consistent threat to score at the rim. They lack a guard who can get to the rim and score, and no, the terribly finishing JJ Barea doesn’t count. Minnesota is coming along and I believe in Rubio’s passing – and he’s not nearly as much of a lost cause scoring as his reputation suggests, he’s already hitting 15-20 foot jumpshots and has droven to the rim to score already. But this team isn’t good yet. Not even close. They simply play too poor defense, turn the ball over too much and don’t have the scoring in the paint.

14. Utah Jazz – 16-50 – Other than the Golden State Warriors, this is the team who’s play so far has changed my opinion on them. Devin Harris and Al Jefferson just appear to have no ability to contribute to winning basketball, with ball stopping, poor shots and terrible defense. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are huge but extremely raw offensively and perimeter players like Alec Burks and Gordan Hayward are not ready to be consistent contributers yet. This is an extremely confused team with Harris and Jefferson’s obvious non place in their future and young players just looking for their games consistently. They play poor defense, have no idea how to play with each other offensively with a mix of individual inefficient players and young projects, and don’t look like they’ll have the weapons or heart to make comebacks once they fall down 10 points in a game. The Jazz haven’t had an extended rebuilding period of poor seasons since the early 80s. It’s been a good 30 year run but the NBA grim reaper finally found them, as will it find the Spurs and Lakers one day.

15. Sacramento Kings – 15-51 – The Kings had a surprising win against the Lakers to open their season, but they still look one of the NBA’s 2 or 3 circus teams to me. The problem is they have one of the most ill fitting perimeter rotations I’ve seen. Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw all have similar gameplans on the court. Get the ball, dribble and put up a shot. Without ball movement, it’ll be very easy to bait the Kings into contested midrange bricks or a turnover the entire game. The Kings might as well have “5-15” written on the back of their jerseys. The Kings frontcourt is solid with Demarcus Cousins, JJ Hickson and Chuck Hayes, but the first two are immature and defensively questionable as well. The Kings also play 21 of their first 33 games on the road, so this could get 6-27 type ugly quickly. And with the youth and immaturity of players like Evans and Cousins and Hickson, once the season is lost with a start like that, things could go from bad to worse in terms of defensive effort, willingly to pass it, overall frustration and bad body language, and lack of leadership to follow. Paul Westphal is also on the top of my list for a coach who will get fired. He’s been there a while, the results have been ugly and if this season goes south, I could see them tuning him out.

That’s the Western Conference. I will conclude my series of predictions with a Finals and Champion pick tomorrow

Written by jr.

December 29, 2011 at 1:44 pm

One Response

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  1. Utah Jazz fourteenth in the Western Conference? You must not know much about the efficiency of this franchise; it’s always been very well coached.

    You stated that “this is an extremely confused team with Harris and Jefferson’s obvious non place in their future and young players just looking for their games consistently. They play poor defense, have no idea how to play with each other offensively with a mix of individual inefficient players and young projects, and don’t look like they’ll have the weapons or heart to make comebacks once they fall down 10 points in a game.”

    Now that the regular season is over, I’m interested in hearing your take on the team now. I’m curious, what does crow tastes like….

    Mike Iverson

    April 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm

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