Anyone who tells you they know exactly how the West is going to shake out this season is deluded. This is probably the most wide open the top of the West has been in over 20 years. I give 5 different teams a legitimate chance (10% or better) to finish with the best record. It’s Open Season.
So when I tell you my pick for the top team in the West, you should understand that I’m only giving that team about a 20-25% chance of actually finishing on top. That just happens to be a higher percentage than I’m assigning any of the others.
What might be more interesting to you are my picks against the Vegas Win-Total lines. I’ve had a pretty good record with these historically, including last year, when I went 5-1. These lines are among the very few all year that the Vegas bookies can get egregiously wrong. Mainly because the preseason enthusiasms of the fans can have an outsized effect on them, but also because of the difficulty the experts have in forecasting the effects of new rosters and new coaches.
In reverse order (because, drama), here are my picks for the top 6 seeds in the West:
6) THUNDER (50.5 wins — no bet)
I didn’t give the Thunder a chance in the West even before we got the news that Westbrook was going back under the knife. I just don’t believe they can be anything close to the team they’ve been without a legitimate third scoring option. They downgraded from Harden to Kevin Martin last season, and in this season are further downgrading to… Jeremy Lamb? Does anyone in their right mind believe this 21 yr old, 185 lb. off-guard is ready to compete against the best of the West? I think it’s almost a forgone conclusion that Sefolosha will become their full-time two-guard.
The truth of the matter is that the Thunder are no longer contenders in the West, and won’t be again unless their roster is upgraded. And with this latest injury to Westbrook, that upgrade might have to be bigger than people think. Even if Westbrook comes back ready to go in 6 weeks, if you take away 10% of his athleticism and fearlessness, is he still a great player? Is he even a good player?
Believe it or not, I have my doubts about that. Before his injury he was a selfish, visionless pointguard who couldn’t shoot the three. If you take away from his extraordinary ability to get to the rack and draw fouls, take away his fearless offensive rebounding, take a little edge off his relentless ballhawking… what will we be left with? I wouldn’t be surprised if this Thunder team struggles after Westbrook returns.
Why am I not betting under? Because 50.5 wins is already 9.5 less than they won last year.
5) CLIPPERS (57 wins — UNDER)
Everyone’s consensus pick to win the West, which has me scratching my head. They’ve got Doc Rivers coaching, true. And I really like the Jared Dudley pickup. JJ Redick is a decent ballplayer. And the Clippers are a much better regular season team than playoff team, because Blake Griffin gives a lot of opposing big men the Shaq-flu. So what don’t I like about picking them to lead the West? Let’s count the reasons:
- Chris Paul has Bogutitis of the right knee.
- Chris Paul is paired with JJ Redick in the backcourt — in effect a much smaller backcourt than Stephen Curry/Monta Ellis. Has any one of our esteemed pundits remarked on what used to be the first thing out of their mouths about the Warriors? The difference between perception and reality can be quite amusing in the NBA.
- Paul and Redick are backed up by Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford. Good offensive players, yes, but isn’t it fair to say that the Clippers will have one of the worst defensive backcourts in the entire league? Is that a recipe for success? Particularly given the fact that…
- The big men behind them, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, are poor defenders themselves. No one actually knows why, given their athleticism (intellect is rarely discussed by NBA pundits). And Doc Rivers might help. But it’s clear to me that the Clippers will be the absolute worst defensive team among the contenders in the West. Particularly given the fact that…
- They plan to sit the wretched free-throw shooting Jordan on the pine in the fourth quarter and go with a stretch-four or stretch-five. That’s why they added Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens, right? Hmmm…. are they good defenders?
- The Clippers’ Pacific Division rivals, the Warriors, are going to OWN this matchup. O.W.N. Why am I so certain of this? Because they owned it last year, before the additions of Iggy, O’Neal and Speights. And because Mark Jackson is now in possession of the Rick Adelman book on Blake Griffin: guard him with your center. With no post moves, and a poor outside shot, Griffin struggles mightily when guarded by centers. Adelman tortured him with Darko. Jackson tortured him with the rookie Ezeli and the crippled Biedrins. What might a healthy and nimble Andrew Bogut do to him? As for the rest of the playbook: Lee did a superb job denying Jordan access to the rim. Like Stephen Jackson before him, Klay Thompson used his length to deny Chris Paul the midrange jumper, and the over-the-top pass. It might be Iggy on Paul this season. Game over.
- Chris Paul has Bogutitis of the right knee. Did I already mention that? Because no one else is, and it’s worth mentioning.
4) ROCKETS (54.5 wins — no bet)
This is a hell of a good team, with great depth. If Dwight Howard somehow returns to pre-injury form, they’re the favorites. If he’s just OK, they’ll still be tough to beat. And even if he struggles or gets reinjured, they’ve got Omer Asik behind him.
Daryl Morey has built this team the right way around Howard: with three point shooters galore. Including three stretch-fours. Motiejunas to start — he showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season. The great Chandler Parsons later. And the 6-9″ Omri Casspi.
Our good friend Reggie Williams has been rescued from purgatory. Can he shoot the three? How about Francisco Garcia? There’s no shooting dropoff behind Parsons at the small forward.
James Harden is probably the second most valuable player in the West, behind Durant. (Unless he’s third, behind Curry.) And the Rocket’s improvement will help reduce his minutes and keep him healthy.
Lin has once again spent the offseason retooling his jumper. That’s because both Patrick Beverly and Aaron Brooks are good enough to put him on the bench if his shooting falters. Did I mention this team was deep?
There will be some struggles with the system. Lin and Harden are made for pick and roll, Howard prefers post-ups.
And they do have a glaring hole in their roster: Who is their wing stopper?
But this team will contend.
3) GRIZZLIES (49 wins — OVER)
This team is perpetually underrated for obvious reasons — no superstar, small market — and this season is no different. Consider the fact that they won 56 games last season. Are they worse this season? I’m sorry, I don’t buy the idea that they were a better team with Rudy Gay — and I don’t believe their post-trade record reflected that either.
I also don’t buy the idea that firing Lionel Hollins will make them a worse team, even though he’s being replaced by a rookie coach. In fact, I think there’s a significant chance that firing the utterly incompetent Hollins will make the Grizzlies BETTER. Here’s a few of the positive changes I anticipate:
- Letting Tayshaun Prince shoot the 3. He was 50% from the corners with Detroit last season, but damned if I ever saw Hollins station him there.
- In general, a far greater emphasis on shooting the three, as indicated by the addition of Mike Miller. Was there any team in the league that so badly needed floor spacing as did the Grizzlies last year? And were so firmly denied it by their clueless old school coach?
- Allowing Tony Allen to guard superstar point guards, like Tony Parker. Just to mention one more time the egregious coaching error that caused the Grizzlies to get swept out of the playoffs last season.
- Getting Ed Davis, a promising young power forward, and Jon Leuer, a strong rebounding stretch-four, into the rotation. Hollins literally boycotted these players last season post-trade.
Zach Randolph’s play declined last year coming off knee surgery, which is a concern. But adding the solid Kosta Koufos to an already deep front line bench will be a real boon to both Gasol and Randolph.
If the rookie coach gets it right, the Grizzlies are on the verge of greatness. I think that 49 win line is a joke. This team can win the West.
2) SPURS (55.5 — no bet)
I was the only writer in the world who had the Spurs to win the West last season, and they were leading the pack until Parker went down in the final month. And I’m among the few who have them this high this season. They are so old now, and so increasingly injury-prone, that everyone is reluctant to believe they can excel for another season.
I’m actually in the same camp as the dubious this year, for reasons I’ll get to below. But I’ll give them the respect they deserve by picking them second.
The Spurs’ finish in the West is likely to be a binary outcome, depending on their health. If they remain healthy, they will contend for the top seed. But if they don’t, Popovich is likely to tank them down to the bottom of the playoff ladder. Why? Because playoff seeding matters very little to great veteran teams. Because Pop has nothing to prove by winning regular season games. And because Pop’s paramount concern is getting his veterans into the postseason healthy.
Here are several reasons why I think the Spurs might struggle this season:
- Ginobili’s hamstrings died last year. And with them, his shooting and his defense. This year their shriveled corpses are a year older.
- The Spurs have added Marco Belinelli, who’s now a solid player, as insurance. But I don’t expect Charles Barkley to start shouting his name.
- Tim Duncan performed at an incredibly high level all of last season. There is A LOT of room for his performance to drop off at age 37. Beginning with Popovich giving him more rest. We saw distinct signs of his mortality in the playoffs.
- The injury-prone Tony Parker frequently wears down at the end of the season. This year he’s primed to wear down even sooner. He spent the summer guiding France to the Euroleague Championship. How many times have we seen NBA players break down after grueling summers of international competition? Pau Gasol is simply the latest.
- Last year was a contract year for Tiago Splitter, and he landed a juicy one. Just saying.
1) GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (49.5 wins — OVER)
I can hear the “homer” shouts already. But for those of you so inclined, pause for a moment and ask yourself, just how many times have I picked the Warriors to beat the Vegas line in the Joe Lacob era?
It’s rather remarkable that the first time I pick Lacob’s Warriors to beat expectations, I also happen to feel they’re very likely to end up with the best record in the Western Conference.
Why? Because very simply I think they have the best roster in the conference. Led by a genuine superstar, Stephen Curry. By superstar, I mean a player who completely warps defenses in the effort to contain him, and yet still regularly beats those defenses. In the playoffs.
The kind of player you can count on the fingers of one hand. The kind of player whose extraordinary abilities in all facets of the game make him the third best player in fantasy basketball.
And his supporting cast? Well, let’s consider where this Warriors roster ranks in these significant aspects:
- With the possible exception of the San Antonio Spurs, the highest IQ team in the league. Curry, Iggy, Lee, Bogut: all off the charts. And Klay Thompson well on his way to their level. Probably one of the highest IQ teams in league history.
- Hands down, the best passing team in the league. If Thompson makes the starting lineup, every single starter is capable of averaging over 3 assists/gm. And the starting backcourt of Curry and Iggy could very well lead the league in assists.
- Hands down, the best shooting team in the league. No need to mention Curry and Thompson. But with the additions of O’Neal and Speights, and the newfound willingness to play Barnes at the four, the Warriors suddenly have the rare ability to put 5 shooters on the floor at the same time.
- So long as Bogut stays healthy, one of the best rebounding teams in the league.
- With the addition of Iggy, potentially the best fast-break in the league. This is strictly up to Mark Jackson. It is within his power to make it so. Extraordinary rebounders and outlet passers in Bogut and Lee. Extraordinary speed and finishing ability on the wings in Iggy and Barnes. Extraordinary open-court passing by Curry. Extraordinary ability to bury the walk-up three by Curry and Thompson. Literally unguardable in the open court.
- With the additions of Iggy and Toney Douglas, potentially one of the best defensive teams in the league. Consider this odd line-up: Bogut, Green, Iggy, Bazemore, Douglas. How many teams have the ability to surround an all-pro defensive center with four stoppers? In a computer simulation, that lineup could beat many teams in the league by a final score of 68-66.
- Stoppers at every position, shooters at every position, size at every position, speed at every position. The Warriors have one of the most versatile rosters in the league. They can match up with anyone, in any style.
That is an awful lot of highests, bests, and mosts. I agree with Joe Lacob (you can pick yourself up off the floor now): the reconfigured Warriors quite possibly have the most talented roster in the league.
There are a few significant question marks. The depth at center, for one. As healthy as Bogut feels and looks right now, I don’t for a minute believe he’ll get through the season without a recurrence of his ankle arthritis. (Osteoarthritis never gets cured, never goes away, particularly in 260 lb. NBA players.) The chances of Jermaine O’Neal getting through an entire season healthy are roughly one in a million. And I am extremely skeptical of Festus Ezeli’s return this year.
But consider this, the less healthy those players are, the more Mark Jackson will be forced to play the Warriors’ BEST lineups. I refer of course, to those lineups featuring Lee/Speights at center, and Barnes/Green at PF. Those smallball stretch lineups produced the Warriors’ highest positive point differential last year, and I have no doubt will do so again this year. Especially with the addition of Iggy to reinforce the defense and rebounding.
The Warriors have another big question mark at back-up point guard. And particularly in whether they can replace the veteran second-unit and crunchtime leadership and shooting of the departed Jarrett Jack. Toney Douglas is not known for his decision making and consistency, to put it mildly.
But I’m pretty sure the Warriors can work around this issue. For one thing, they don’t need to put a purely reserve second unit on the floor. They can blend the first and second units. Particularly to start the season, I don’t think that Curry and Iggy should ever both be off the floor at the same time. I think quite often we’ll see Iggy take over the point guard duties, and stabilize the second unit.
And while Jack’s aggressive shot-taking was absolutely essential last season, the Warriors’ addition of O’Neal and Speights — centers that can shoot — and willingness to play Barnes at the four, would make it far less so. The Warriors have absolutely no need to play 3 on 5 this season.
The last major question mark I see concerns the departure of coach Mike Malone, the man who seemed to draw up all of the Warriors’ plays last season. Can Mark Jackson and newly promoted Darren Erman handle the X’s and O’s with the same aplomb they were handled last year? As I’m not an insider, I don’t know the answer to this.
But judging from Malone’s resume before he came to the Warriors, and in particular his complicity in forcing Lebron James to walk the ball up for the Cleveland Cavaliers, there is little doubt in my mind that it was Mark Jackson who was responsible for the overall strategic direction that made the Warriors so good last season: Pushing the tempo, the emphasis on early offense, freeing up Curry, Thompson and Jack to aggressively look for their own shots, and the willingness to play small ball in crunchtime.
I’m a little worried that Jackson might stumble out of the gate, by starting Harrison Barnes at his worst position, small forward, and forcing Klay Thompson into an unnatural sixth-man role. I discussed this issue in my previous post. But I have faith in Jackson to get it right in the end. He earned it from me last season.
Warriors fans, this is the best Warriors team since the Rick Barry era. And this is the weakest Western Conference in over 20 years. It’s ripe for the plucking.
This is the season.
(Part Two of my Western Conference Forecast)