NBA Previews: Western Conference
The NBA season starts on Tuesday night, with Boston-Miami being the opener of a TNT doubleheader, and then Dallas-LA Lakers going in the 10:30 PM ET slot. TheSportsNotebook has already run the Eastern Conference section of its NBA previews, and now we’ll focus on the Western Conference. As we did with the East, each team’s Over/Under win total, as posted in Las Vegas, will be listed and analyzed.
Editor’s Note: This preview was published about an hour prior to the announcement of Oklahoma City trading James Harden to Houston for a package keyed by Kelvin Martin.
THE BIG THREE: OKLAHOMA CITY, LA LAKERS, SAN ANTONIO
Los Angeles has gotten almost all the offseason media attention with the free-agent signing of Steve Nash and the trade acquisition of Dwight Howard, but I’m not yet ready to concede this team the Western title. Let’s start with the fact there’s a significant gap to make up between them and the Spurs and Thunder, who were easily the best two teams in the West a year ago.
Then let’s move to the question of how much the addition of Howard will really help, given LA had to trade Andrew Bynum to get him. The Lakers were already second in the NBA in rebound rate. How much better is Dwight going to make them? Nash is a fabulous addition to any team’s offense, but he’s a big defensive liability, something that can also be said of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
This is where Howard is going to have to bail his team out frequently. Their Over/ Under number on wins is 58, and that’s a little higher from where I’m prepared to go. Los Angles is improved and a legitimate title contender, but I don’t see the Super Team that everyone else seems to.
Oklahoma City still has the highest win total projection in the West, clocking in at 60.5 and coming in as a team hungry to show that last year’s losing experience in the NBA Finals was what they needed to take the final step. You know about how good Kevin Durant is, and how the same goes for Russell Westbrook. What I want to see is Kendrick Perkins increase his dominance on the boards. Perkins has been a good rebounder since he was acquired from Boston in February 2011, but he hasn’t been great. And he’s capable of being great.
James Harden is a question mark—he’s going through a contract dispute with the front office, and while he’ll be on the floor, this is the kind of thing that disrupts a player’s focus and ultimately team chemistry. It’s also a question mark about how badly he disappeared in the Finals, but the meaning of that can wait until spring for further analysis. If Harden struggles, the Thunder may need some more offense from athletic defender Thabo Sefolosha and power forward Serge Ibaka, a shotblocker supreme, but not a scorer. I’ll go Under on the win total.
San Antonio isn’t getting the same kind of respect as the other two teams are, and frankly I think that’s probably accurate. But the Spurs did lead the league in wins last year and they had ripped off ten straight playoff victories before OkC suddenly turned the tables on them in the conference finals. Given the season-long performance and the track record of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, San Antonio deserves to be kept in the upper tier of teams until they play their way out.
But I think they will play their way out. The age of their core players is showing and while head coach Greg Popovich does an extraordinary job in getting production from 10-11 players, that’s just enough to be a championship level team. San Antonio’s win number is 55.5 and while that sounds about right, I’m going to give slight benefit to the Under.
So I’ve gone Under on all three teams in the West’s upper-crust. That must mean teams down lower are going to outperform expectations, even if they don’t alter the structure of the conference race. Let’s move on to the top challengers.
THE CHALLENGERS: MEMPHIS, LA CLIPPERS, DENVER
Chris Paul gave the Clippers a new sense of identity and a player who could take control of the game at key moments. He’s the best point guard in the game right now and the two-guard spot alongside him looks stronger with Jamal Crawford, and if Chauncey Billups can come back from his Achilles injury as expected, it will give the Clips a nice veteran presence with some championship experience (2004 Detroit).
Blake Griffin needs to be more consistent to move into true superstar territory, but there’s no denying his ability to put up points and get rebounds. DeAndre Jordan provides a quality defensive presence in the middle, with Caron Butler being a good subordinate scorer on the wing. Los Angeles took a risk in bringing in Lamar Odom—the former Laker has been a key part of championship runs in 2009-10, but he also, by all accounts, quit on Dallas last season. We’ll see how he feels about his new team. The Clips have a win number of 49.5, and while I’ve got my question marks I think they’re a good bet to win 50 games, so I’ll take the Over.
Memphis lost a seven-game series to the Clips in the playoffs last spring. It was disheartening, because the Grizzlies blew a 27-point lead in Game 1 at home and then lost the finale at home. It’s tough to lose a Game 7 in your own building and the fact Memphis did has to make you wonder about their killer instinct.
From a personnel standpoint, you have to wonder about their backcourt. Mike Conley does a good job running the show and he kicks in some scoring, but the two-guard spot needs to produce, with O.J. Mayo having left via free agency. The frontcourt is well-balanced across with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph on the interior and Rudy Gay at small forward. Their projected at 49 wins, and like LA, I think Memphis is a good bet to win 50, with further psycho-evaluation of their intangibles to be done at playoff time.
Denver has done a terrific job re-tooling after they shipped out Carmelo Anthony to New York. The Nuggets are team that hits the boards hard, led by Javale McGee at center. Danilo Galinari is a high-quality scorer at small forward, and Kenneth Faried is solid at power forward.
The backcourt is tremendously upgraded, with Andre Iguodala brought in from Philadelphia to run with Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, the point guard duo who do an exceptional job running the offense. Corey Brewer provides quality depth. I was thinking Denver might slide under the radar after coming in as a 6-seed and losing a seven-game series to the Lakers in the first round a year ago, but no such luck. Their win total is posted at 51.5, but even given that, I’m still going to the Over.
THE BOTTOM OF THE BRACKET: DALLAS, UTAH
Based on win projection numbers, the Mavericks and Jazz are expected to have room to spare in filling out the final two spots in the Western Conference playoffs. Dallas will be without Dirk Nowitzki into November, but as long as they have cushion for making the playoffs, that might not be a bad thing, At this stage in his career, Dirk doesn’t need to start too early.
And even while Dallas said goodbye to Jason Terry, they brought in Darren Collison from Indiana and Memphis’ Mayo to be their new backcourt, and in both cases I like the additions. Vince Carter and Shawn Marion are good enough at the small forward slot and when Dirk is back this will be a pretty decent team, even without a center. Certainly good enough to have a winning record and with a win total of 41.5, that’s all they need to go Over.
Utah is tough on the front line, with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap leading up a team that finished third in the NBA in rebound rate. Derrick Favors is effective in the rotation and Marvin Williams can chip in from scoring from the wing, as can two-guard Gordon Hayward. Utah has changed out the point guard spot. Devin Harris is gone to Atlanta and veteran Mo Williams is in.
The win total is at 44. That’s another number that sounds right, but given the uncertainty in the backcourt, I’m going to get a little bit under. I’m not persuaded that Utah is better than Dallas.
PLAYOFF CHALLENGERS: PHOENIX, PORTLAND, GOLDEN STATE
Phoenix lost Steve Nash and their win total is a meager 33—the same number of games they won last year in a season shortened by 16 due to the lockout. But the Suns added Luis Scola at power forward, and have a quality center in Marcin Gortatt and decent scoring options from the wings in Michael Beasley and Jared Dudley.
So can they get a point guard? No one will ever run an offense like Nash, but the combo of veteran Goran Dragic and an exciting rookie in Kendall Marshall—whose injury probably cost North Carolina a spot in the NCAA final (at least) a year ago—will make up for some of what was lost in Nash. And a point about Nash from above needs to be reiterated—he does not play defense, so perhaps the Suns can make up lost ground in this area. Suffice it to say I’m going Over 33 on the wins.
Portland has a couple good forwards in Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, while Wesley Mathews can score from the two-guard spot. The Blazers badly need both a point guard and center though. I give them an outside shot at the playoffs and go Over on their 33-win projection, but it’s probably still not enough to play deep into the spring.
My inclusion of Golden State as a possible playoff team might raise some eyebrows. And maybe I am crazy, given this is a franchise where the fans booed the owner lustily on a night they were retiring Chris Mullin’s number. But the Warriors have a quality player at every spot—Andrew Bogut at center, David Lee at power forward, the potentially explosive rookie Harrison Barnes at small forward and Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry at the guards. T
The problem is that last year this was the worst defensive team in the NBA. If they can upgrade to merely terrible, rather than mind-numbingly brutal, the Bay Area could sniff the 8-seed. Either way, they’ll win more than the 36.5 the sportsbooks say.
THE REST: MINNESOTA, HOUSTON, NEW ORLEANS, SACRAMENTO
Each team’s win number is in parentheses…
Minnesota (38.5)—If they had Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio healthy, this team would be right in the mix of the playoff conversation. But Love’s out at least 10-15 games, and Rubio might not be back until the first of the year after that terrible ACL injury that derailed this team a year ago. It’s a sad situation for a franchise that can’t seem to get a break, but I’ve got to go Under.
Houston (28): The Rockets were in the playoff mix to the bitter end a year ago, with Kevin McHale doing a solid coaching job. But the backcourt’s been changed out, Scola’s gone to Phoenix and I’m not convinced that Jeremy Lin is going to be the answer at the point. Having said that, do I think they can go at least 29-53 after finishing over .500 a year ago? Yeah, and that would put them Over.
New Orleans (26): Anthony Davis is in the house and with him the excitement. The Hornets have productive two-guard Eric Gordon and another high draft choice in Duke’s Austin Rivers. They’re way too young, though I’ll still say they scrape out the Over.
Sacramento (31): I like Demarcus Cousins in the post. I like the draft choice of Thomas Robinson to help out down low even more. But I like nothing else and there is no way this team wins 31 games. I go Under and by at least five games.