Sunday, September 29, 2013

2014 NBA Season Preview and Predictions, Part II: Western Conference


As always, the 2014 NBA Western conference is going to be very strong and competitive. At this point, I would say the only lock is the Oklahoma City Thunder at the No. 1 seed. But even that depends on the successful return of Russell Westbrook from his devastating meniscus injury. Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and Westbrook are all high-impact players that rely on athleticism and in doing that there is always the heightened risk of injuries.

But we’ll save the rest of the team-by-team analysis for the meat of Part II, my predictions for the way the Western conference will pan out in 2014:

OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz

It would be interesting to see how the standings would pan out if some of these teams were in the East because the new-look Pelicans and (healthy?) Timberwolves would make strong playoff pushes. And Kobe Bryant would find a way to get his undermanned Lakers to limp into the playoffs—somehow, someway. In the West, though, these teams are destined for an early summer in 2014. With the Mamba laying low in the beginning, I don’t expect anything out of Mike D’Antoni…and he won’t disappoint. When Kobe comes back, he will grind out some wins but is that really the best thing for the Lakers franchise (or even Kobe)?

Regardless, the Lakers will miss the playoffs for only the second time in the Kobe era and only the third time since 1976. (Somewhere David Stern is crying in the background at the thought of lost revenue from the NBA’s most popular franchise.)

The Pelicans may have put together something special and will compete for the final spot with Jrue Holiday, The Brow, Tyreke, and Eric Gordon. They may not make it this year, but 2015 is not unreasonable to expect the New Orleans franchise to re-enter the playoff fray.

THIS IS SPARTA YOUR TICKET TO A FIRST ROUND EXIT

8. Portland Trailblazers
Damian Lillard is a mini-Westbrook without the ego—and he’s also the franchise player, unlike Westbrook. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the center of Portland’s organization for many years but Lillard proved in his rookie campaign that he’s readily capable of 30-point shows. In terms of players 23 and under, he’s behind Kyrie, Paul George, James Harden, and maybe John Wall. That's it. But even more so than those other players, Lillard has untapped potential. He will be a perennial All-Star in the NBA. A first appearance on the national stage in the NBA playoffs would be a huge step in that direction. And in all likelihood it would be Lillard vs. Westbrook.

7. Denver Nuggets



It’s easy to sleep on the Denver Nuggets after losing Andre Iguodala, but to do so would be a huge mistake. Their core of Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and yes…JaVale McGee is a strong one. Denver was 38-3 at home—the best record in the league—and the Little Man Who Could, Nate Robinson, will relish that home-court advantage. That strong spark off the bench may not be enough to get the Nuggets another 57-win season, but they will definitely be a playoff team.

6. Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies are one of those teams in limbo. They have been the West’s version of the Atlanta Hawks: always good enough to get a seed in the middle of the conference but never able to make it to that next step, the NBA Finals. Like the Nuggets, Memphis has a very strong core of not-quite star players. Even with the much desired combo of a strong frontcourt (Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol) and backcourt (Mike Conley, Tony Allen), they don’t have that go-to superstar that propels teams to NBA championships. But, as always, the Grizzlies will be right in that 4 – 6 range for playoff seeding.

ANYTHING GOES: THE BIG FREE-FOR-ALL IN THE WILD, WILD WEST

5. Los Angeles Clippers
Lob City, led by Chris Paul, will be fun to watch as always. And with Doc Rivers bringing championship experience to Los Angeles, it will be the second year in a row where the best team in LA is not the Lakers. While everybody rightfully raves about Rivers’ ability to rally an NBA locker room, I still think that there are four teams with player personnel that surpass the Clippers. Blake still has to work on shedding his "soft" label...but he is still a star in this game. In each of Griffin's three seasons in the NBA, he’s averaged over 20 points per 36 minutes on over 50 percent from the field.
J.J. Redick, Antawn Jamison, and Darren Collison were quiet but solid pickups. Redick will help the Clippers space out the floor and Collison will be a great backup to CP3. With their current squad, anything less than a top-5 seed would be a huge disappointment—but realistically if LA clicks, a two-seed is not out of the realm of possibility.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Warriors, like the Indiana Pacers, model how you want to build a deep franchise but both will ultimately fall one spot short of the No. 1 seed to teams with a more loaded front-end. The Heat and the Thunder combine to have the two best players in the game and four of the top ten. Health is the hidden card behind any NBA franchise’s success, but with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the OKC Thunder are clear favorites to win the West. (Edit on 10/14...well not so much now that Westbrook is re-injured. They'll still be in the hunt for a top-5 seed but that "clear favorite" idea I said? Not true anymore.)

3. Houston Rockets
Dwight Howard will add a dominating defensive presence on the inside for Houston. Offensively, however, it remains to be seen how Kevin McHale will integrate Howard into their run-and-gun offensive scheme that relies on quick possessions and a high percentage of threes. And unless Hakeem Olajuwon truly overhauled Howard’s offensive game, the new center still has very limited ability in the post. And his goal may be to shoot 75 – 80 percent from the line, but Howard has to hit 50 percent first.

Chandler Parsons is one of the more underrated players (put up 16-5-4 in 2013) and will emerge as  valuable starter for Houston. McHale will have to work out an effective rotation that involves D12 and Asik and we still haven’t mentioned the best player on the team, James Harden. I’m with Kevin Durant on this one: Harden was snubbed a top-10 spot by Sports Illustrated’s 2013-14 ranking. With a Harden-Howard duo leading the way in Houston, the West should be on alert.

2. Golden State Warriors


You could make a strong argument that each of the Warriors starters (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, and Bogut) are top-five players for their respective positions and there’s no doubt that all are top-10 for their position. The Black Falcon (Harrison Barnes) also has to be a favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award and Draymond Green and Jermaine O’Neal will lead a highly capable group of role players. Golden State is the most well-rounded team in the NBA and Mark Jackson will be sure to get the most out of each of them. It’s been a long haul for Warriors fans, but this team is finally ready to compete with the best in the West.

1. San Antonio Spurs
I’ve been one to say in years past that the Spurs were “too old” and each time I’ve been proven wrong. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have convinced me that there is nothing “too old” when you are literally one shot away from winning the NBA Finals. In that SI ranking, I was originally surprised to see Parker at No. 4 but that’s exactly where he should be. Until Derrick Rose proves that he can return successfully from injury and Steph Curry proves he can stay healthy, TP is the second-best point guard in the NBA today. A dynamic playmaker, Parker is a youthful 31 years old and can create for himself if Pop allocates less minutes to Duncan and Ginobili in 2014.

6 comments:

  1. Appreciate that, Mike! I completely agree that the West is going to be an incredible race to watch as well. As a Warriors fan, I'm probably a little biased toward my team but like I mentioned in the article, I really think that they have the pieces to put together a great run. Moreover, after Westbrook's re-injury, I actually would drop the Thunder at least a couple spots because they aren't looking very good. What would your rankings look like and why do you think the Clippers should be much higher?

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  2. I'm a Rockets writer for Yahoo so I can relate with overrating my favorite team and truly believing it. That being said, I love what LAC did in the offseason, and really think that they'll have the best record in the West because they're young, hungry, and they'll shoot the lights out (love Dudley and Redick on the wings; they're gonna love playing with Paul). These are mine:
    1. Clippers
    2. Spurs
    3. Thunder (the Westbrook thing is scary as hell, but maybe it allows Lamb to get some confidence early in the season).
    4. Rockets
    5. Warriors
    6. Grizzlies
    7. Blazers
    8. Wolves (no defense, but if they're healthy, they're gonna have some serious O; enough to make the playoffs and get trounced in the first round).

    Denver could easily be 8 as you predicted, and I'm pulling for the Pelicans (they'll be fun to watch this year).

    I'll come back to read you, man. Good work. I'm a writer on Yahoo (M. De Moor) and a writer for Hoopshabit.com, basically doing what you're doing here (covering the whole league, under my full name, Mike De Moor).

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  3. I don't think he's coming back after that... Great use of #'s

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  4. Thanks, man. I really appreciate guys like you who not only read but come for the conversation as well. As a sportswriter, that was the original reason I got into this: for the discussion. Now to address your rankings:


    You said that the Clips are young, hungry, and will shoot the lights out. The thing is that that's the exact recipe that the Golden State Warriors have...just on a better level. Curry and Klay Thompson are both top-5 shooters in the NBA and Steph aka Hot Curry aka 30 from 30 is the best shooter in the league. Blake is still too soft to battle with somebody like an Andrew Bogut or Serge Ibaka or even Tim Duncan. A friend of mine also thinks that I underrated the Clips but I just don't see them beating San Antonio, Houston, Golden State, and (maybe) the Thunder.


    The backend of your standings is solid and Denver is a bit of a tough pick but I like the energy that Nate will bring to a team. He and Kenneth Faried are two of the highest energy players in the game that are not only fun to watch but get it done.


    As for your Rockets vs. Warriors ranking...I think it takes more time to click and D12 is too much of a question mark up against a team like the Warriors who has depth and a variety of talent. Howard is going to be a non-factor at the end of games with his absymal free throw shooting (although similar things could be said about Bogut - the difference there is that GS won't rely on Bogut as the Rockets will on D12). I see the Warriors battling for a top-4 spot (if healthy, which is the question mark for any team...just ask OKC) and clicking faster than any team with the chemistry built around the coaching guru that is Mark Jackson.

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  5. Couldn't agree with you more about being a sportswriter; the fun of it is being able to talk with knowledgeable people who can back up their points, argue without being insulting, and realize that it's all about the love of the game.


    Now, to my counterpoint:


    I don't buy that McHale has a system, because all he does is put trust in his players. McHale isn't an X's and O's guy, he's an ego manager who knows how to deal with stars. I don't buy that McHale, one of the greatest post players of all time, will have trouble finding ways to throw the ball into Howard. In fact, I think he's the perfect guy for that. Houston lacked any kind of production from inside last year, and now they have the best center in basketball (brattiness aside, Marc Gasol is just as good).


    Forget about the Clippers for a second, since you're a Golden State guy, what's your take on the Warriors losing Jarrett Jack and Landry? There's no doubt Iggy can ball and that he fits, but Curry played so well next to Jack last year, and I think Golden State, and Curry in particular, will really miss him. Curry isn't a pure point guard, and he's great at coming off screens to create his shots; does Iggy end up playing a little point forward to let Curry roam a little bit? I think losing Jack was HUGE for the Warriors, and I think that alone set them, and Curry, back. Also, Speights is a really frustrating player. He's got all the skills in the world, but there's something missing. He keeps getting moved, which means nobody really believes in him. If Speights has matured a little, and is given a role similar to Landry's, then that'll be huge for the Warriors. Curry always seemed to me like he struggled with PG duties a little (mainly because he's a gunslinger at heart), so I'm real interested in seeing what Curry does early in the season.


    Overall, I think the Clippers are a better team than GS right now. They have a top PG, and they've finally found a couple solutions at the wing who I think are perfect fits. Jordan is an idiot (that's basically a side note here). Griffin needs to take the next step in crunch time, but if he doesn't, maybe they'll find a bread and butter play like running Reddick off a double down screen on the weak side while CP3 and Blake go pick and roll on the strong side. Their second unit is one of the stronger ones in the league (Crawford comes in and runs the show, a bunch of decent rotational wings, and Mullens fits perfectly with that second unit). The Clippers biggest if is their frontcourt depth, especially with an idiot like Jordan as the starter.


    You think we're gonna be seeing a lot of small ball with GS this year? Curry, Thompson, Barnes Iggy and either Lee or Bogut down the stretch? They went small a lot late in games last year.

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  6. Actually hadn't really thought of it that way but if you're right the McHale thing couldn't work. I looked at him more as a guy who's system was based on the run-and-gun style but if he does utilize his knowledge of the post-game maybe something could happen. I'm just not sold on D12's offensive game - his defense on the other hand...well I picked him to win the DPOY in 2014: http://bit.ly/2014nbapicks. Are you really ready to say that Dwight will be more than a space filler on offense?


    And as you know, I'd love to talk Warriors haha...they're definitely the team I follow and watch most closely. I have absolutely no concern that they can fill the holes made by Jack and Landry. I was concerned in the beginning of the off-season - and I thought it would be an off-season of regression - but the Dre (he doesn't like Iggy and I like the Dre nickname haha) move took the cake. Getting rid of Biedrins and Jefferson while picking up Dre was magic. Bob Myers should win GM of the year just for pulling that off.


    I disagree that the Warriors will miss Jack and Landry much. The combos of Steph/Klay/Dre and Barnes either at the 4 or trading places with Dre of course are much better than what they have and the pick-ups of O'Neal and Speights as backup bigs is more than enough. Jack was a more competent version of Monta Ellis in the sense that both jacked up too many shots. Dre will be not only a scorer but also a playmaker who can kick out to Klay, Steph, Barnes, and Draymond Green (a very underrated piece of the organization IMO). Maybe Bazemore can come out of the woodwork this year - he's had tremendous success in the D-league and a lot of fans believe he's more than the team cheerleader but I'm not sold. Would love to be wrong there.


    The other thing is that I really like the Vanilla Towers combo down low - Bogut and Lee. We didn't have Bogut until the playoffs last year and he is 100% according to reports.


    LAC has a great bench too as you mentioned but GS can rely on Barnes to come off the bench with a serious skill-set when people need breathers. Eventually, I feel he can have a point-forward role, too, in the same way that Iguodala does as you alluded too (and yeah, I definitely think the Dubs will rely on him for some of that when Curry sits).

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