I’ll end the suspense now, and give you my prediction for the final standings in the Western Conference:
As you can see, I’ve picked the Warriors and the Clippers to beat out the Hornets and Suns for the final two playoff spots in the West. A sign of mental instability? Perhaps. Reading the tea leaves gets more difficult as you get to the unknown quantities at the bottom of the playoff ladder, and as I admit below, I have let what I would like to see happen influence my analysis to a degree.
Here’s my analysis of the contenders for the final two playoff spots:
I have already posted the reasons why I believe the Warriors can be a playoff team this year, in my Warriors season prediction and The Warriors Bet. Obviously, this is a hopeful pick, and reflects what could go right this season (harmony, health, growth) rather than what could go wrong (acrimony, injury, regression). Please note that I am making this prediction as an intellectual exercise, and for fun. I am NOT betting money on it.
I have found a far easier way to bet the Warriors this year, and those are the kind of bets I like.
Before starting my analysis of the Clippers, I must confess that I have a soft spot for them. It began when I spent a few years in the LA area for professional reasons, and became addicted to the broadcasting team of Ralph Lawlor and Bill Walton. I don’t believe a better team has ever existed in television broadcasting. Somehow they were able to make every single blowout a distinct and hilarious experience. All while pretending to talk about basketball. It was genius.
As a result of the pleasure given to me by Lawlor and Walton, I am unable to watch the Clippers without rooting for them. And I scour them for signs of improvement. And I have been known to make bets on their win totals in the past. And I have lost every single one of those bets.
So when I tell you, as I am about to, that THIS IS THE CLIPPERS YEAR, I won’t blame you if you snicker behind my back, or laugh in my face. Not one bit. I am convinced this is the Clippers year, but if I look at it objectively, I can’t be sure anymore if that’s any different than believing I am Napolean.
Anyway, here are the reasons I’m taking myself way out on a limb and destroying my credibility on this blog:
Baron Davis: Baron was horribly out of shape last year, and frequently injured as a result. He also clashed with coach Dunleavy over his role, probably because he was physically incapable of playing the way Dunleavy wanted. Baron was stung by all the criticism and ridicule he took last season, and has come into camp 20 lbs. lighter and in the best shape of his life. He also, if I can believe what I saw in the Clippers-Warriors preseason games I watched, has a much better relationship with Dunleavy. And according to the great Lawlor, he has a great relationship with newly hired assistant coach John Lucas. Baron is ready to go, and a healthy and motivated Baron Davis is not to be underestimated. He is one of the best two-way players in the league. A force.
Marcus Camby: According to Lawlor, Camby was completely devastated and disheartened by his trade from the Nuggets last year. As a result, he suffered a few “injuries,” was inconsistent on the floor, and had an all-around disastrous season. This season, like Baron Davis, he’s had an attitude readjustment. He’s come into camp in great shape and ready to compete. Camby at his best, even at this age, is a formidable defender and rebounder. Camby and Baron Davis are linchpins of what could be a much improved defense this season.
Blake Griffin: I don’t usually get enthused about the contributions that rookie power forwards can make. Then I watched Griffin play. Granted, it was merely the preseason, but some things simply can’t be mistaken. First of all is the NBA ready body. This guy is ready to rumble. Check out the way he dunked over DJ Mbenga. Second is the freakish athleticism. Third, and this should really be first, is his will to compete. Fourth is his tremendous intelligence. Dunleavy is already raving about how quick he is to pick up the concepts being thrown at him. This kid is a monster, and the effect he can have on this team is incalculable.
The Small Unit: Dunleavy matched up small with the Warriors in their final preseason game together. This was the unit he used: Griffin at 5, Thornton at 4, Butler at 3, Gordon and Davis. How many teams in the league can field a small unit of comparable talent?
And then there’s the rest of the story. Kaman is finally back healthy after two long years, and in the best shape of his life. I’m not a big fan of Kaman, but he’s a big, serviceable piece that can help the Clippers get through the long regular season. Eric Gordon and Al Thornton were revelations last year. Gordon has put on muscle in the offseason, and could be a monster. Dunleavy is using the defensively-suspect Thornton off the bench, and also will apparently give him minutes at the 4. Both are great moves, worthy of Don Nelson. Which brings us to the reason Thornton has been moved to the bench: Rasual Butler. The Clippers stole Butler from the Hornets in free agency. Butler is a dead-eye shooter from the three point line, and a solid wing defender. He is a significant upgrade from Thornton in both areas. This seemingly innocuous move could have a tremendous effect on the Clippers chemistry.
Once again, I am making this Clippers playoff prediction for fun. I am not betting the Clippers to make the playoffs. I will be making a very small bet on the Clippers win total, which I will share with your tomorrow. Call it a sacrifice to the gods.
The Hornets made several off-season moves, none of them good. Most prominently, the Tyson Chandler – Emeka Okafor deal with Charlotte. Charlotte got the better of the deal. Even if Chandler’s injury proves career ending, in which case Charlotte will get the insurance and the cap space. Larry Brown simply couldn’t wait to get rid of Okafor. I remember him making a few comments last year about wishing his center would set picks, and thinking to myself “Uh oh.” I think Brown’s a pretty fair judge of talent. Okafor will slow down the Hornets, his hands aren’t nearly as good as Chandler’s, he can’t finish above the rim — oops no more alley oops — and he’s not the defender or shot blocker that Chandler was when healthy. The Hornets now have two below-the-rim players on their starting front line. Backing them up will be Hilton Armstrong, Darius Songaila and Ike Diogu. I don’t see much help there.
When you add Peja Stojakovich to Okafor and West in the front court, I see a team that is going to make opposing offenses salivate. Stojakovich was never a great defender in his prime. Now slowed by age and injury, he’s an absolute disaster. Chris Paul has gotten a reputation as a good defender, even earning all-defense honors. I’m curious to see what kind of defender he is when he no longer has Chandler to back him up.
On the wings, the Hornets are completely in flux. They lost Butler to the Clippers in free agency. They are apparently going to give Julian Wright, a young knucklehead who has clashed repeatedly with coach Byron Scott, a shot as the starting 2 guard. They do have a solid player in James Posey off the bench, as well as Morris Peterson and Devin Brown. But that’s not a lot.
I don’t think this team is going anywhere. Rumors of Chris Paul’s disappointment in the front office are already slipping out in the media. It could be a long season in Nawlins.
The Suns are a Steve Nash injury away from complete collapse. Is that unlikely, given Nash’s bad back and his advanced age? I think this probability alone is worth leaving the Suns out of my list of playoff teams.
Even if Nash manages to stay healthy all year, I think the Suns will struggle. Yes, they have committed to return to the running style at which they were so successful a few years ago. But it won’t be nearly as effective as it used to, because of the calamitous fall-off in their defense and rebounding. Defense and rebounding? Did the Suns ever have that? Yes, you might be surprised to learn that they did. At the wings. Raja Bell and Shawn Marion were two of the very best defensive players in the league, and Marion was a terrific rebounder as well. They fit perfectly into D’Antoni’s run and gun, but their defense also helped create the point differential that made the Suns so dominant. They’re both gone now, along with Boris Diaw, and the players the Suns replaced them with are simply not very good.
Are you worried about the defensive vulnerability of Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry in the same backcourt? Well, just be grateful it’s not Steve Nash and J-Rich. Stephen Curry may be an undersized rookie, but at least he will remember who he is guarding, and what the game plan is. Those are two of the many things J-Rich has never been able to remember. And Curry has a tremendous basketball IQ that allows him to shoot the passing lanes for easy steals. J-Rich can’t spell IQ.
The Suns frontcourt is Grant Hill, Amare Stoudemire and newly added Channing Frye. Hill used to be a terrific defender, but he is greatly slowed. Stoudemire is famous for his disinterest in defense and rebounding. He is now paired with Frye, who is also famous for his disinterest in defense and rebounding.
The Suns better run really, really fast, and shoot really, really well.