Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Western Conference Predictions

The Real Deal Holyfield (Toss a Coin)

(1) San Antonio- Tim Duncan. Manu Ginobili. Tony Parker. Bruce Bown. The random guy they’re playing at center this year. Best team in basketball. Do I really need to say anything more? They led the league with a +8.4 point differential last year—more than a full point higher than the next closest team (Phoenix). I love watching them play, but I understand why people don’t find them interesting—there’s nothing new to say, and no drama surrounding them. Maybe Duncan should grow his hair out and dye it green just to see how the media reacts. They just play top-flight, winning basketball. I’d actually be surprised if they end up with the best record (since it doesn’t seem to be a priority for them), but I just can’t see a reason not to pick them to finish first. [58 wins]

(2) Houston- I’m weighing the continued maturation of Yao, the splendor of McGrady, the theft of Luis Scola from the Spurs, the defense of Shane Battier, and the re-acquisition of Mike James and Steve Fancis against the loss of the miracle worker Jeff Van Gundy. Rick Adelman’s teams generally perform very well in the regular season, but Houston’s success last year was based on being one of the very best defensive teams in the league and the loss of JVG is definitely going to hurt them in this area (just remember how badly the Knicks fell apart a few years ago when JVG left them mid-season). Still, the Rockets are loaded. [58 wins]

(3) Phoenix- It’s hard to top Phoenix’s Big 3 of Nash, Stoudemire, and Marion. I’m not a huge Amare fan, but there’s no doubt that his hands and finishing ability are a great fit with Nash. And Marion is a great fit anywhere (as long as his pouting over not being “The Man” doesn’t interfere with his fantastic play). It’s also hard to keep playing your top players the number of minutes that Phoenix’s top guns have been playing the last few seasons. They have arguably even less depth this year than the previous two years, so we’ll see if they can continue to log the heavy minutes without breaking down. They remain a running team with the addition of Grant Hill, but I’m not sure I’d still consider them a team of 3-point shooters. It sounds like all I’m doing is bad-mouthing the Suns, but you know what? They’re still going to win close to 60 games this season. [58 wins]

(4) Dallas- I don’t think they’re going to have any problem bouncing back from last year’s crushing playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors. They have one of the league’s most efficient offenses as well as one of the five best defenses in the league. They had the third best point differential last season (+7.2), and they basically return the same group. They’ll be fine. The 67 wins last season were a bit of a fluke based on their point differential, so don’t be surprised if their win total drops by a decent chunk even though they’ll probably be basically as good as last year. [58 wins]

So Close and yet So Far

(5) Utah- It isn’t Utah’s fault that they’ve become good at the same time that the league is boasting four teams that have the potential to be juggernauts (just like it wasn’t Stockton and Malone’s fault that their Utah Jazz teams peaked at the same time Michael Jordan’s Bulls were peaking). They’re probably as good as the top three teams in the Eastern Conference (maybe even better), but they just aren’t in the same tier as the top four teams in the West. Maybe Deron Williams makes “the Leap” this year, maybe Andrei Kirilenko figures out a way to better fit in with the team as a small forward, and maybe someone fills the void left by Derek Fischer’s departure to give the Jazz a top quality shooting guard. It will probably take all three happening to boost the Jazz into the top ranks of the Western Conference. More likely, one of the three happens and the Jazz have the “misfortune” of being a really good team and racking up a whole bunch of wins, but then needing to play a really, really good team and getting bounced from the playoffs in the first round. Sorry, Utah. [52 wins]

What about us?

(6) Memphis- Last year, Memphis was absolutely horrible, losing a league worst 60 games with a -5.1 point differential. But the season started with Gasol injured, and by the time he returned to the line-up the Grizzlies had already dug themselves a hole from which they couldn’t get out. Two years ago, Memphis was the fourth best team in the Western Conference, winning 49 games with a +3.7 point differential. The off-season acquisitions of Mike Conley, Juan Carlos Navarro, and Darko Milicic, plus the services of Gasol (and Mike Miller) for the entire season make me expect that last season is going to become a fading memory in Memphis very quickly. [47 wins]

(7) Denver- They score a lot of points, but I don’t think they really worry any of the top teams. No one would be surprised if this was the year Iverson’s body finally broke down or if Camby misses significant time with an injury. Barring that, Denver will be again what they’ve been the last two seasons—a fun team to watch that squeaks its way into the Western Conference playoffs. It’s possible that Carmelo becomes the efficient scorer for the Nuggets that he is with Team USA, but somehow I doubt it. [45 wins, again] [After writing this prediction, it came to my attention that Kenyon Martin is apparently healthy again. If he regains his pre-injury form (from back when he was with the Nets), then I'd bump Denver up to Utah's level. Also, Chucky Atkins got hurt, but I didn't think he was that good so I don't think his injury matters.]

(8) LA Lakers- If Kobe gets traded, then all bets are obviously off and we can forget that I ever made a prediction for the Lakers. If he isn’t traded, then I think the Lakers will find their way into the playoffs again. And, with Kobe on the team, they’ll be the team that no one wants to face in the first round because of Kobe’s potential to explode. That said, the Lakers big issue will be defense. They actually had one of the most efficient offenses in the league last year, but they couldn’t have stopped a high school JV squad (well, maybe a bad one). You’ll laugh, but having a healthy Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm (along with a slightly more mature Andrew Bynum) should actually make a big difference here. On the other hand, Odom’s lingering shoulder trouble could make a big difference in the opposite direction. The Lakers could implode and find themselves out of the playoffs, or they could bring it defensively and find themselves just a hair below Utah. I’ll split the difference. [42 wins]

(9) New Orleans- They’ve been on the verge of the playoffs the last two seasons, and it looks like they’ll be on the verge of the playoffs again this year. I haven’t really seen them play, so it’s hard for me to comment on them. Tyson Chandler anchors them defensively, and he had a very solid summer with Team USA. Plus, a few of their key players will hopefully be healthier this season (Chris Paul, Peja Stojakavic). Add it all together, and you have another season where they’ll be in the mix right to the final whistle. But I can’t pick everyone to make the playoffs, and they’re the odd men out. [41 wins]

(10) Sacramento- Two years ago, they were a solid 8th seed with 44 wins and a +1.5 point differential. Last season, they were pretty bad—winning only 33 games. What happened? Well, Bibby and Miller had bad seasons. Just as importantly, they had some bad luck—despite a point differential of -1.8, they lost 6 more games than New Orleans which had a -1.6 point differential (and they only won 1 more game than Portland which had a -4.3 point differential). I expect Bibby and Miller to bounce back (although I’ve never really been a big Bibby fan), and I expect the odds to at least even out a little bit. Unfortunately for them, the top of the Western Conference is loaded, and even a .500 record won’t get them into the playoffs. [41 wins] [Bibby is now expected to be out for the first two months of the season with a hand injury. I don't think it's a devastating blow since I've tended to think Bibby was overrated, but it might be enough of a blow to eliminate their chances at the post-season.]

It was nice while it lasted

(11) Golden State- Sam, weren’t you paying attention last year? Didn’t you see us knock off Dallas in the playoffs? Yes, I did. Then I watched Utah crush Golden State in the second round. And then in the off-season I watched Golden State trade away Jason Richardson for 10 cents on the dollar. The Warriors are really going to miss Richardson. And they’re also really going to be hurt by all the coaches in the league having had a chance to watch the playoff series against the Jazz. Everyone learned that if you slow the tempo down against Golden State, your big men will be able to abuse Golden State on the offensive glass. By mid-season, whichever small player is playing the bulk of his minutes at power forward in Nellie’s small ball offense is going to be incredibly sore. [35 wins]

I’ve heard the NBDL is looking for some teams

(12) Minnesota- Celtics West takes the floor in Minnesota this season, and it’s going to be a bit rough. That said, I’m probably a little bit higher on their prospects than most people, but most likely because I became invested in a number of these players from watching so many of their games the last few years in Boston. Al Jefferson is very, very good—an all-star if he had remained in the East, but probably destined to be overlooked in the West this season. I’m also much higher on Telfair than just about anyone else I know or have heard discuss him. With the players on the Timberwolves’ roster, I’d put the ball in Telfair’s hands and tell him to push it and get his teammates open looks in transition. Go small with Telfair, Foye, Green, Smith, and Jefferson (with Brewer coming off the bench), and see what you can create. You won’t get many (any?) defensive stops, but you’ll be fun to watch! I’m higher on this team than most, but I’m not crazy. [25 wins] [Since I made my prediction, the Timberwolves have traded Ricky Davis and Mark Blount for Antoine Walker, etc. I don't think this trade really matters for their record this year, and I also don't think Walker is going to be with the team in a few weeks. So what does that all mean for this prediction? Who knows!]

(13) Portland- The difference between this year’s team and last year’s 32 win (-4.3 point differential) team? They traded away Zach Randolph. Oh, and they reacquired Steve Blake. The trade of Randolph made sense with the expected arrival of Oden, but now that Oden is injured the Trailblazers are going to be in serious trouble. The only way they don’t drop in the standings is if all of their young players take big steps forward. I’m not saying it won’t happen with Aldridge and Roy, but I’m not sure which other young players are going to step up with them. This year will be a step backwards, but that will just set them up to take two huge strides forward next season. [23 wins]

(14) Seattle- Sam Presti, the Sonics new GM, comes from the Spurs so he gets the benefit of the doubt, but I have no idea what he was thinking this offseason. They lost Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen for basically nothing (sorry, I don’t think Jeff Green will be a difference maker in the pros). Durant will score a bunch of points this year, but I expect his shooting percentage to be in the low 40s because there won’t be anyone to take the pressure off of him. Plus, the looming specter of the move to Oklahoma City (if it isn’t thwarted by a pending lawsuit) means that the team is probably going to be playing a lot of home games in a mostly empty arena. I think it’ll be a long year in the Emerald City. One bright spot? I like the Kurt Thomas signing (I guess I should say trade), but I’m not sure what he’s doing on this team other than serving as trade bait when the trade deadline approaches. [22 wins]

(15) LA Clippers- Chris Kaman was the fifth best starter on the Clippers when they had their successful season two years ago, and he’s a really good player for your fifth spot. This year, he projects to be their second best player (assuming he bounces back from his poor performance last year). That is not a good sign if you’re a Clippers fan. Cassell and Mobley are old, Shaun Livingston still isn’t back from injury, and I don’t even want to talk about the injury to Elton Brand, which just seemed arbitrarily cruel on the part of the sports gods. The Clippers are going to be the Corey Maggette and Chris Kaman show, and that means it’ll be a long year for L.A.’s “other” team. [20 wins] [I stand by my prediction, but I came across this post over at Clips Nation which makes a strong argument that the Clippers don't deserve to be ranked 15th in the Western Conference (the writer suggests a ranking of 12th would be much more realistic). I think he makes some good points, so go read it.]

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