My NBA Western Conference rankings will be far more idiosyncratic than most. First of all, because they are made with absolutely no reference to the schedule, which by all accounts is extremely unfair. Unlike normal years, not everyone plays the same teams the same number of times, at home and away. I’m plenty nerdy, but not nerdy enough to weight all that. (Particularly since I can’t find a bookie willing to give season win totals this year. Bah humbug!)
Second, because my rankings have almost nothing to do with who I think will win the Western Conference.
Confused by that? Well, that’s a product of the NBA’s insane scheduling as well. Due to the huge numbers of games shoe-horned into a compressed time period (Back to back to backs, anyone?), I think this will be one of those years where the veteran teams give just the minimum amount of effort needed to scrape into the playoffs. The young up-and-coming teams are the ones to bet on during the regular season: Bulls, Thunder, Grizzlies, Blazers. Blazers? More on that below.
1) Thunder: Intact, young, fresh-legged. Could easily have the best record in the West. That doesn’t mean they’ll represent the West in the Finals.
2) Grizzlies: #2 in the West? What have I been smoking? Well, they’re young and deep. They got a huge amount of confidence from their playoff run last year. And they didn’t have Rudy Gay for that.
3) Trailblazers: My buzz has apparently not yet worn off. More than any team in the league, the Blazers have remade themselves this year. Gone are Brandon Roy and Andre Miller, two players who contributed to the slowest pace in the league in prior seasons. In their place are Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford. Hmm… methinks this uber-athletic Blazers team should start running! And that’s just what they’re going to do, if the pre-season didn’t lie. Their record depends a bit on the crumbling knees of Marcus Camby, but I kind of like their backup center: LaMarcus Aldridge. And their “small-ball” unit: LA, Gerald Wallace, Nic Batum, Wesley Mathews, Raymond Felton. With Crawford off the bench. One of the best in basketball.
4) Spurs: Ok, back to some sensible picks. Not a young team by any stretch, but they know how to win. Second best record in the West last year. Swapping George Hill for TJ Ford indicates they’re committed to running. What are the odds of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker all remaining healthy? 100-1? Those are roughly the same odds of the Spurs winning the West.
5) Mavs: The Mavs may struggle this year without Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea. But not for the reasons people may think. It’s because of pace. The Mavs were at their best last year when pushing the pace, getting early offense. Brendan Haywood is an underrated defensive center, but he will slow down the Mavs attack. Roddy Beaubois is every bit as fast as Barea, but far less accomplished. The Mavs may struggle this year with the adjustment.
On the other hand, Lamar Odom may help them through that adjustment just fine. One of the smartest players in the league, as well as one of the most versatile, Odom could allow the Mavs to go to a small ball frontline of himself and Nowitzki. Pace returns.
But this is all before getting to the age of their roster. Has to be the oldest in the league, right? I predict the Mavs take most of the regular season off. I wouldn’t be totally shocked to see them slip into the playoffs as the eighth seed. OK, that might be a stretch. But all they need is a toehold.
6) Clippers: One of the best starting fives in basketball, on paper. But also one of the most oddly constructed teams in history. Two second-year guys in the front court. Two ancient warriors on the wings. Ever seen a good team built like that before? The Clips are also paper-thin. Who backs up Jordan and Griffin? Only Gomes behind Butler. Foye and Mo Williams behind Billups and Paul. The Clips look set for their first playoff run in ages… if their ages don’t catch up with them.
7) Lakers: There are so many things wrong with the Lakers this year, it’s tough to count them all. Their chemistry is dead. They’re selling out trying to trade Bynum and Gasol for Dwight Howard. Their most important bench player, Lamar Odom, was given away for nothing. But even before that, they had big problems: Pau Gasol hates Kobe Bryant’s guts. They have a horrible coach. They have a new system that requires a point guard, but guess what, they don’t have a point guard. The compressed schedule will be hell on all of their core players, including their youngest, Bynum. Speaking of Bynum, he’s suspended for the first 5 games of the season.
The Lakers as we know them appear cooked. It remains to be seen whether they’ll be blown up during the season, or after. Either way, I think they’ll just scrape into the playoffs, at best.
8) Denver: Everyone is really high on Denver, but I’m not sure why. Who is their starting power forward, Al Harrington? Nene, Harrington, Gallinari, Afflalo, Lawson. Is that a better starting five than the Warriors have? I would strongly dispute that.
I don’t think most commentators understand just how much the Nuggets are going to miss Wilson Chandler. He was their best defender by far, able to guard anyone from shooting guards to power forwards. And despite his miserable playoff performance, he’s a dangerous offensive player as well. Shoots the three, great dribble-drive, terrific finisher.
Chandler is stuck in China until the end of their season sometime in February. I wonder what will happen then… he’ll be a midseason free-agent. Can only teams that are under the cap sign him? If I were Joe Lacob, I would do just about anything to get Chandler under contract. He could absolutely transform this Warriors team.
So why do I have Denver ranked above the Warriors? Three reasons:
1) They have a better coach.
2) They have a veteran bench, something the Warriors sorely lack. Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez, Chris Anderson. And they have this Mozgov character, who unlike Kwame Brown can actually put the ball in the basket and block shots. Maybe he’ll do something as well.
3) They have spread-fours (Harrington, Gallinari) to complement Nene’s game, and give the Nuggets a formidable small-ball unit. Something Joe Lacob apparently doesn’t believe in, and the Warriors will apparently never again have. Like Denver, Joe Lacob has an all-star center to build around. But unlike Denver, Lacob doesn’t understand what he has in David Lee, nor how to build around him.
Either that, or he plans to blow this Warriors team up. Which is the subject of my next post.
The Rest of the Story:
Remarkably, of the rest of the teams in the West, I think the Warriors are the only team with a chance to compete for the eighth seed this year. I’ll analyze the Warriors chances in a later post. In no particular order, here’s my quick take on the rest of the West:
Suns: I recognize all the players, but can’t begin to imagine how they will play together. Is Shannon Brown their starting two? Alvin Gentry and Steve Nash’s greatest challenge to date.
Hornets: Massive suckitude.
TWolves: The most intriguing young team to watch in the NBA this season. Why? You think I’m going to say Ricky Rubio, don’t you? Wrong. It’s Rick Adelman. The TWolves are loaded with young talent, and Adelman is the first TWolves coach in ages who will know how to put them together. The coach the Warriors should have hired, if they were serious about winning now.
Rockets: This is the year that Daryl Morey falls to earth. Hard. He’s about to learn the difference between Rick Adelman and Kevin McHale.
Jazz: I’m not even the slightest bit curious about this team. A frontline of Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap, combined with Devin Harris at the point, is all I need to know.
Kings: Another intriguing team, now that they seem committed to taking the ball out of Tyreke Evans’ hands. That seems to me to be the message of drafting Jimmer and Isaiah Thomas, and signing Marcus Thornton to a big deal. I really like their coach, Paul Westphal, but he’ll have his hands full with this crew. DeMarcus Cousins and Evans already don’t like each other, and Evans ain’t going to be happy with either his reduced role or the coming Jimmer madness. Fasten your seat belts.