Saturday, December 24, 2011

NBA Preview 2011-12 (Part Two)

Here's part two of my NBA preview, covering the Western Conference. Click here for part one on the East.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder: So many people hopped on this team’s bandwagon in 2010 when the Thunder gave the eventual champion Lakers everything they could handle in the first round. It’s somewhat perplexing that there isn’t quite as much hype this year on the heels of a trip to the conference finals, where Oklahoma City lost again to the eventual champs. If the Thunder makes a similar improvement in 2012, it will win the title. While the climb gets steeper at this level, there’s little reason not to favor Oklahoma City to at least win the West. The Mavs and Lakers both lost key components, and the Spurs, Grizzlies and Clippers are wild cards. The Thunder has stability and youth, and they go 10-deep, assets that the compressed schedule will magnify.

2. Memphis Grizzlies: Their place as the No. 2 team in the West would be a lot more secure if they hadn’t lost Darrell Arthur for the season. Still, injuries will happen to just about every team, and if the worst injury of the season happens to someone who doesn’t start, it’s not damning. The Grizzlies proved last year that they’re capable over overcoming injury, as Rudy Gay, arguably their best player, was absent for their shocking playoff run. They won’t catch anyone by surprise this year, but they don’t have to. The post games of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol were not built on subtlety, and as long as Randolph is plugged in, there’s little reason to expect Memphis won’t pick up where it left off last year.

3. Los Angeles Clippers: They’re the team everyone wants to see this year, and as they establish themselves as one of the elite teams in the West, the enthusiasm will only grow. They seem ripe for at least one more deal, as it would seem illogical to keep four point guards who could all conceivably start in this league, especially when Randy Foye is the best pure shooting guard they have. Still, it’s hard not to get excited about how Chris Paul and an improving Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will mesh together. Caron Butler was an expensive signing, but he does seem like the proper fit as a steady veteran at small forward.

4. Dallas Mavericks: Tyson Chandler was the keystone of the team’s defense in last year’s championship season, and his loss hurts. The Mavs shed plenty of critical role players from last year, too, as DeShawn Stevenson, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and Peja Stojakovic are all gone. Picking up Lamar Odom for next to nothing will help, but it’s not clear how he and Dirk Nowitzki, both power forwards, will fit together. Vince Carter’s name is bigger than his game at this point, so he will have a minimal impact. The Mavs were a No. 3 seed last year before their playoff run, so it’s hard to see them finishing any higher than fourth considering what they lost.

5. Los Angeles Lakers: This is a team seemingly locked into transition mode. Coach Phil Jackson and his triangle offense are gone. Odom’s sense of betrayal following the scuttled Chris Paul trade seemed to be the catalyst for his exit. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum face constant questioning over their future whereabouts. The erosion of the supporting cast and lack of depth will make it harder on Kobe Bryant, a 15-year vet who would already have been challenged by the compressed schedule. With Shannon Brown gone, there’s no obvious backup to Kobe. New coach Mike Brown has a challenge on his hands if he wants to escape the first round of the playoffs, much less win the championship.

6. San Antonio Spurs: It’s hard to get a read on this team. They won 61 games last year but got knocked off by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, a year after pulling their own first-round upset as a No. 7 seed against the Mavs. However you look at it, the Spurs haven’t been to the conference finals since 2008, and there’s little to suggest they’ll get there this year, either. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are 35 and 34 years old, respectively, and Tony Parker, at 29, doesn’t seem like he’s the same, either. They lost sixth man George Hill in a trade for rookie Kawhi Leonard, a move that would raise eyebrows if it hadn’t been made by well-regarded general manager R.C. Buford. Leonard and second-year man Tiago Splitter will have to make significant impacts in order for the Spurs to remain an elite team.

7. Denver Nuggets: It’s a testament to the rebuilding efforts of Denver Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri that they’re still one of the league’s deepest teams even though three key players from last year are stuck in China. If any team is built for three games in as many nights, it’s this one. There are no stars, barring the distinct possibility that Ty Lawson or Arron Afflalo have breakout seasons, but plenty of rotation-worthy bodies. The arrangement worked well during the second half of last season, and it will be enough to get the team to the playoffs again this year.

8. Portland Trail Blazers: Just as the Nuggets have shown resilience in the wake of the Carmelo trade, the Blazers franchise remains in the playoff hunt despite the retirement of Brandon Roy and continued injury woes of Greg Oden. LaMarcus Aldridge turned into a legitimate star last year, and Wesley Matthews justified his $35 million contract. The additions of Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton will be enough to get them back to the postseason in a tough Western Conference.

9. Phoenix Suns: Nice guys Steve Nash and Grant Hill won’t finish last, but for the second year in a row, they won’t make the playoffs, either. The emergence of Marcin Gortat late last year gives the team some hope, but there’s little to like here beyond the graying brilliance of Steve Nash, age 37 and the pluck of Grant Hill, 39, neither of whom will be well-served by the condensed schedule.

10. Golden State Warriors: The key for the Warriors might be how much new coach Mark Jackson reins in the team’s up-tempo attack. Whether he likes it or not, this team is built for speed, at least until general manager Larry Riley, aided by the legendary Jerry West, starts making it over to fit the coach’s defensive style.

11. Sacramento Kings: Is this the year the young talent starts to mature? Tyreke Evans, the 2010 rookie of the year, Tyreke Evans was hurt last season and took a step back. He and DeMarcus Cousins are a year older and, hopefully, wiser, and they’ll have a full season with Marcus Thornton.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves: Another team stockpiling youngsters, the T’Wolves are hoping new coach Rick Adelman can help a few more players exceed expectations the way Kevin Love and Darko Milicic did last year.

13. Utah Jazz: As the preseason shedding of Mehmet Okur demonstrated, the Jazz are in full rebuilding mode. Look for a lot of experiments, like Paul Millsap at small forward, and heavy minutes for Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward.

14. Houston Rockets: What the Rockets may need most this year is Kevin McHale’s sense of humor. It might be a 66-game season, but it will feel much longer for Houston, even though they return many of the same players who overachieved to a ninth-place finish in the West last year.

15. New Orleans Hornets: There’s little doubt the Hornets extracted a heavy price from the Clippers for Chris Paul. It still won’t be enough to make them competitive this year. They got nothing in return for their second-best player, free agent David West, and much of the scoring burden rests on Eric Gordon’s shoulders.


First Round: Thunder over Blazers; Grizzlies over Nuggets; Clippers over Spurs; Lakers over Mavs

Conference Semis: Thunder over Lakers; Clippers over Grizzlies

Conference Finals: Thunder over Clippers

NBA Finals: Heat over Thunder in 7

NBA Preview 2011-12 (Part One)

Update: I realized that at least one Atlantic Division team needs to be among the top four seeds in the East, according to NBA rules. I kept the regular season rankings the same, but I adjusted the playoff matchups.

Who needs "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"? Let's crank up the old blog again for a Christmas Eve NBA preview! The Eastern Conference goes first.

1. Miami Heat: One of the least-notorious shortcomings of the Heat last year was that the team spent the entire year trying to figure out how everyone fit in. Injuries, midseason acquisitions and the challenge of getting three guys used to being the No. 1 option to function cohesively left the rotation in turmoil all the way through the Finals. After a season worth of tinkering, it seemed only appropriate that Erik Spoelstra switched starting point guards for Game 6 against Dallas. This year, there figures to be more stability. Now that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have a better understanding of how to play with each other and, just as importantly, know who else will be on the floor with them, the Heat can fulfill their potential.

2. Chicago Bulls: A match almost a year in the making finally came to pass when Richard Hamilton signed to fill the gaping hole at two-guard in Chicago. If they avoid the injuries to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer they suffered last year, the team that last year had the league’s best record and the youngest MVP in NBA history is poised to improve. It may still not be enough to catch the Heat, particularly if Boozer continues to disappoint as he did in the playoffs last year.

3. Atlanta Hawks: After the Heat and the Bulls, there’s a major drop-off in the East. Since the Celtics and Magic aren’t what they have been in recent seasons, the Hawks suddenly go up a few notches by default. In a shortened season that will reward stability, Atlanta stands to benefit from a core that’s been together since 2008. This is especially true if Jeff Teague carries over his revelatory performance from last year’s playoffs.

4. Indiana Pacers: Everyone’s favorite Eastern Conference team on the rise. And why not? Adding David West and George Hill to a promising young roster is reason for excitement. Plus, Paul George reported to camp 2 inches taller than last year, meaning he’ll be a matchup nightmare as a 6-foot-10 shooting guard.

5. Orlando Magic: The 4-2 first-round defeat to Atlanta last year, in which Dwight Howard scored 46 points in a game the Magic lost by 10 points, said volumes about the potential of this Magic team. They can only go as far as Dwight Howard can take them on his broad shoulders, and that might not be any farther than the first round of the playoffs. If they trade Howard, it’s not as if they’re breaking up a championship team.

6. Boston Celtics: The obituary of these Celtics has been written many times before, and yet they always seem to remain contenders. This time, though, they’re really in trouble. A compressed schedule minimizing the impact of their veteran core, and Jeff Green’s year-long absence robs them of the depth they needed to keep everyone fresh. It’s also a morale-killer that confirms the worst fears about the Kendrick Perkins trade.

7. New York Knicks: If last year’s Heat was supposed to be a three-man team, these Knicks take the idea a step further. Aside from the monster frontline of Carmelo, Amare and Tyson Chandler, there’s really not much else on the roster. Since depth is more valuable this season than it usually is, this is a problem, even if Amare can stay healthy. The Knicks need Baron Davis and Landry Fields at their best to have hope of grabbing a high playoff seed.

8. New Jersey Nets: If Mikhail Prokhorov’s manifest destiny is realized, a playoff appearance could be just the beginning for the Nets. Whether or not they land Dwight Howard this year, they probably still have enough to beat out weak competition for a postseason berth. A full season of Deron Williams and the veteran presence of DeShawn Stevenson, who, like Kris Humphries, signed in the final week of the shortened preseason, should be enough to push this team out of the lottery.

9. Philadelphia 76ers: It’s hard to argue the Sixers didn’t overachieve last year, especially considering the limited contributions they got from Evan Turner, the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft. It’s reasonable to expect him to be better, but it’s just as reasonable to believe everyone else will take a step back. Their stability will help them stay competitive for a playoff spot, but their overall lack of talent will keep them from getting there.

10. Washington Wizards: John Wall is telling us to expect a breakout season from him, and he showed glimpses of his potential in his rookie season last year. No one else comes near his talent level on this team, but you don’t need much to be in the hunt for the postseason in the East.

11. Milwaukee Bucks: The team’s fate may depend on whether Andrew Bogut is finally healthy after his horrific arm injury curtailed a surprising run to the playoffs in 2010. The Bucks are hoping Stephen Jackson will play the same kind of role John Salmons did two years ago to boost their pop-gun offense. Jackson, who has back issues and has already made rumblings about his contract, might not be the guy to lean on.

12. Detroit Pistons: Greg Monroe’s steady improvement went largely unnoticed last season. If he keeps it up, he may get his due as an up-and-coming post presence, but because the rest of roster is bloated with tweener guards and small forwards, it will mean little in terms of wins and losses.

13. Cleveland Cavaliers: Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, the first and fourth picks in this year’s draft, respectively, provide hope in Cleveland. And hope is all they have.

14. Charlotte Bobcats: It says a lot about the Eastern Conference that this reprehensible roster might not be terrible enough to finish last.

15. Toronto Raptors: The team went 22-60 last year, failed to sign No. 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas, and its most significant offseason acquisition might be Gary Forbes. Enough said.


First Round: Heat over Nets; Bulls over Knicks; Hawks over Magic; Pacers over Celtics

Conference Semis: Heat over Pacers; Bulls over Hawks

Conference Finals: Heat over Bulls