Monday, October 27, 2008

How the West Was Won

It’s BAAAaaaCK! The National Basketball Association throws up its first jump balls tomorrow night. Basketball racks are filled with new leather. Sneakers are ready to squeak across the floor. Headbands and wristbands and rubberbands are being snapped on. Manana, opening tip of the new 08-09 season will feature last year’s Western Conference champs (Lakeshow) verses this year’s up-and-comers (Blazers). And since we’re WestCoast Slant, who gives a crap about what’s going on out east (just kidding: Lebron/KG, Redd/Rose).

This past week I did my “Only Upside” predictions. And, well, I don’t think that’s how it’s all going to shake out. So, here, in the following post, I will give you my own personal, humble thoughts on this year’s Western Conference. Because the NBA, especially the WC, is so deep where even the bottom-feeding teams have talent and could upset on any given night, I have come up with a new theory. It follows the line of thinking that a team must not only have a great set of starters, but must also field (or is that court?) an elite bench. A deep squad with a great bench sets the bar of a championship contending team. Last year’s Celtics ended up being deep, as did the Lakers. In order to climb the mountain (The mighty Sierras, not the wussy Appalachians) out here on the left coast, the elite teams are going to need to run at least 9 deep. So, with that in mind, here are my 2008-09 standings/predictions.

(Ed. Note…Word of the day: notwithstanding; phrase of the day: Defense wins championships)

1.) L.A. Lakers
This team will be much improved defensively, not only for the additions of Andrew Bynum and Trevor Ariza, but also when you figure that Kobe will be able to focus even less on offense, and dedicate his energies towards defense thanks greatly in part to the team’s depth. Even if you factor injuries (a real possibility with Bynum’s knee, Kobe’s hurt pinkie, Lamar Odom’s body and Pau Gasol’s back), the Lakers are deep enough to withstand any injury to any player, Kobe Bean Bryant included. They’ve got Chris Mihm as their 4th big off the bench. While Chris Mihm ain’t a starting center by any long stretch of the imagination, he masqueraded as one for two seasons, and put up respectable numbers. And he’s their 4th big. Josh Powell also got run with the Clips last season and averaged a double-double per 40 minutes. So, it’s okay if AB or Pau misses some time. Then there’s the glut of small forwards, Luke Walton (the team’s 10th player), Trevor Ariza, Vladimir Radmanovic and Odom and the glut of wings, Sasha Vujacic, Jordan Farmar, and even Sun Yue (who happened to play pretty well in the Olympics). Let’s get two things straight, Jordan Farmar has shown the ability to be a feature player, even on this stacked Lakers squad, and Ariza is looking more and more like superman every single game he plays. Sure, they can’t win the whole thing without 24, but they can certainly survive him going out for 12 weeks to get his pinkie repaired. There’s even upside to that scenario. Much like the Manu Ginobili situation, if Kobe has to take 12 weeks off to get his pinkie fixed, he’ll have the most vacation he’s had in three years. A well-rested Kobe for the playoffs? Raise that 15th banner Dr. Buss.

2.) Utah
Sure they’ve got 8 potential free agents going into next off-season. Sure, their best player is starting the season with an injured ankle. Sure Jerry Sloan has never won a championship before. Despite all of these well-known facts, this Jazz team is loaded and full of talent. First and foremost, they have the best point guard in the league. People will argue that Chris Paul is better, some say way better. They mainly point towards his phenomenal stats that outshine Williams: 17.3 to 11.4 win shares; 52.2 to 43.6 assist percentage; 28 to 20 PER. Paul averaged more points, more assists, more steals and more rebounds. Yadda yadda yadda. To me, it’s like comparing Shane Battier with Josh Howard. They both are the same size, play the same position, they even played the same amount of minutes and around the same amount of games last season. Josh Howard scored more points, averaged more rebounds and had a way higher PER. But, would anybody argue Shane Battier’s importance to his team as being less than Josh Howard’s? There would be a great deal of people who would argue the complete opposite. In my opinion, Williams is every bit as good as Paul despite what statistics might tell you. Deron’s a legitimate MVP candidate. As for the rest of the team, Mehmet Okur had a horrible year battling injuries last season, though he came around after the all-star break. He’s fully healthy and looking to regain his, cough, all-star form. Carlos Boozer is fresh off a gold medal stint with Team U.S.A. and though he didn’t get much burn, the opportunity to play and learn with the elite of the NBA, as well as his impending free agency, should light a fire under him. He’s a 20 and 11 guy. Then there’s Ronnie Brewer, who is one of the most underrated players in the league. He’s a terrifying finisher at the rim, a master pickpocket, and a solid and still improving defender who has Michael Jordan athleticism. And he’s 23. Add to that mix the shooting prowess of Kyle Korver and Deron is surrounded by a perfect supporting cast—much like Chris Paul. As awesome as Andrei Kirilenko can be, he is not a good fit at small forward with that starting lineup. He can’t space the floor and he’s away from the basket too much. With him coming off the bench, he’ll be leading a squad where he'll get to play some powerforward and his shot blocking and ability to create will be a huge boost. Three seasons ago, Kirilenko was putting up PERs in the 20s and was anchoring the Jazz. This season, he'll be able to do that with the bench team. And that second unit is stellar. Paul Milsap would be starting for half of the other teams in the league. Jason Collins, who is a horrific offensive player, is a Chandler-like defender in that he uses body positioning to frustrate opponents. Matt Harpring is a consummate professional and middle-class man’s version of James Posey. He’s got a nasty bite to him too. Not to mention upside guys in Kosta Koufos, Kyrylo Fesenko and Miles. The Jazz have the better, deeper team and a coach who has done it all save win the big one. They are young (no starter over 29) and they are hungry and supremely talented and deep. That’s why they will win their division and why they will contend for a title.

3.) Houston
A lot has to go right for this team, and for some reason, I feel like this is their year for things to go right. Yao had a long summer, but, like the two teams above, the Rockets, more than ever before in the Ming Era, are more than capable of withstanding his absence. In fact, dare I say it, they might even be better without him—especially if Mount Mutumbo joins the squad mid-season. Luis Scola has proven that he’s a stud. He’s coming off the bench right now. Carl Landry is a stud in training. He’s coming off the bench right now too. Chuck Hayes, hard working, physical, defensive ace—yup, coming off the bench. Rookie Joey Dorsey? Athletic defender in college. Bench guy. Sure, they’re all short for their position, but they all excel regardless (Daryl Morey’s stat-oriented GMing going on). Then there’s the addition of Mr. Crazy-in-the-head, who will be joining, by far, the most talented team he has ever played on. Even if T-Mac or Yao go down, this squad would still be as talented as those Pacers teams that Artest was a part of. Those teams, of course, were very, very good defensive teams (thanks to Artest and Jermaine O’Neal). Defense is what wins championships, and there isn’t a single weak defender on the team outside of Brent Barry (though he’s a smart team defender) and Yao Ming (and he’s really, really tall if you haven’t heard). Artest is an all-NBA talent when properly motivated and he’s in the perfect situation to succeed. He’s joining a world-class defense (22 game winning streak), a ready-made championship contender and while a new, extended contract would be the absolute worst idea, in this one season, where he is a free-agent-to-be, playing with his favorite coach, he’s almost as sure of a bet as any to perform at a premium level. Again, defense wins championships, and this team has the best in the business.

4.) Portland
Okay. Maybe this is kind of high. Maybe I’m trying to drink the Cool-Aid before the powder’s had any time to suffuse the water. Maybe I’m not giving proper due to an up-and-coming team like New Orleans or a veteran squad like San Antonio. Even still, if you have not noticed up to this point, I tend to favor teams with depth, and this team’s got depth in bunches. Not only did the Blazers almost make the playoffs last year, despite not having Greg Oden and losing Brandon Roy for several stretches of the season, the team added four rotational players this off-season: Nicolas Batum, Jerryd Bayless, Oden, and Rudy Fernandez. All of these guys are super talents. Bayless carried Arizona last year and torched summer league. Batum has impressed coaches so much, that the 19-year-old is being talked about starting in place of the injured Martell Webster. Oden is a beast, though he’s had an up-and-down preseason. And Rudy, quite simply put, is going to be awesome. He’s looked stellar in preseason, and he lit it up in the Olympics and he was one of Europe’s best players last season. Let the good news keep coming…he’s only 23. With Bayless and Fernandez on board, the seasonal Brandon Roy injury will not hamper the team too much and when on the court, Roy should continue to solidify himself as one of the best wings in the game. Not only that, they have the best backup center in the league in Joel Przybilla, who could be an excellent starter and was starting last year. Travis Outlaw’s a starter masquerading as a sixth man. Ike Diogu’s per 40-minute numbers suggest all he needs is time to play to be really good. With Channing Frye being out for a while, he’ll get that opportunity. Frye and Webster will both return mid-season to help fortify the team. They’ve got a great coach in Nate McMillan who always makes more out of less. With Nate the coach, it’s always been, “imagine what he could do with more.” This year? He’s got more. No one will be surprised if this team is a top-four team. I’m just one of the few who is putting it in writing that they will be.

5.) Phoenix
Amare’s penchant for freak injuries has me a bit worried. Because the whole season basically revolves around him, and because he’s already suffered the eye injury, adding pinkie woes does not bode well. Even still, the injury is apparently not serious, and STAT should remind everyone why he has that nickname. Plus the new specs give him free reign to attack the basket mercilessly (even more so if that’s possible). I’m thinking plenty of MVP votes and his rise to top power forward in the league—with all due respect to Tim Duncan. The Suns are right in the middle of the pack as depth is concerned. If things go well, Shaq plays 68 plus games and Grant Hill and Steve Nash remain healthy, this team looks very deep. Robin Lopez, Matt Barnes, Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw are all solid to very good with upside. Besides injury potential, the most troubling thing about the Suns is backup point. Goran Dragic has shown some things so far, but only a few things. Sean Singletary too, but, he’s small and presents all of the same defensive struggles that Steve Nash has, just without the tremendous offensive upside. The potential for Shaq or Nash or Hill to go down at any point makes this team one of the biggest wild cards. They can be great, or they can fall out of the playoffs entirely. My guess is somewhere in between. They’re built for the playoffs anyway (Hack-a-Shaq notwithstanding).

6.) San Antonio
The Spurs are, well, the Spurs, and what spot they finish in during the regular season won’t matter at all unless they face the Lakers in the first round. And even with that match-up, Lakers fan would all be sitting in puddles of their own, well, you get the point. Over their near decade of dominance, nobody never, ever wants to see the Spurs in the playoffs. That being said, this is not a very deep team. Their bench is Kevin Martin on heroin thin. They are, however, a very old team (average age of 29.5 by far and away the eldest squad in the entire association), and a team whose best offensive playmaker, Manu Ginobili, is out for at least the first month of the season. San Antonio’s defense should maintain a high level, but as was seen last season, the offense, on too many occasions, sputtered and died. Losing your most dynamic offensive player (Manu), while also letting your best outside shooter walk (Brent Barry), is not a great way to rectify that problem. George Hill and Roger Mason will help, a little bit. But I still fail to see how this team scores enough on a consistent basis to warrant anything higher than a 6th seed. At the same time, I can’t drop this team any lower than a 6th seed seeing as they still have the best coach and best bigman of this decade. If any more injuries strike, however, especially to Tony Parker or Duncan, this team could swiftly fall out of the playoffs due to the West’s incredible depth. Then again, Manu taking off the first month and half or more, means he’ll be coming back fully healthy for the playoffs. And that’s Darkwing Duck Dangerous.

7.) New Orleans
Seventh!?! Yes. Seventh. I love Chris Paul. World class, MVP-caliber player. Love Byron Scott. Coach of the Year. Love Cajun food. Shrimp and gumbo! And New Orleans has been my number one travel destination in the United States for the past 15 years (Katrina notwithstanding). But none of that changes my feelings that this is a team just waiting to fall flat on its face. The Hornets main weakness is its thin bench. So, here we have the ultimate loser in my theory that a deep bench is what puts teams over-the-top in today’s NBA—especially the West (You can check trader Jays for a possible solution to this problem). The NO has NO bench. They’re bench would get murdered by any of the benches of the top 5, and San Antonio, while actually having a thinner bench, gets the nod because, well, they’ve been beating the odds for 9 straight years now. New Orleans did it once. Also, it will be hard for any of the starting five to play better than they did last year. David West, Tyson Chandler, and Chris Paul all had career seasons. And while Chandler and Paul are young and still improving, an early ankle injury to Tyson and Paul’s extended summer, seem to point towards dips in productivity. Also, everybody is assuming Paul is going to improve on last year’s performance, but, seeing as how he had the greatest statistical season by a point guard, um, ever, that’s probably not the case. Add to this the fact that West has been an every-other-year player, and the Hornets seem to me to be a classic case of a team getting hyped too much and then falling prey to over-expectations or injuries, or both (see 05-06 Clips). Sure they’ve added James Posey, and he’ll definitely help them both with his leadership and enthusiasm, but he effectively knocks out the Hornets best bench player in Julian Wright. He also makes Rasual Butler completely irrelevant. There's Devin Brown, but he plays a similar position. What's worse, signing Posey for their midlevel meant that they didn't address their biggest need. They don’t have a single serviceable backup big—and no, Hilton Armstrong doesn’t meet those requirements. I’d go out on a limb and say that Josh Powell, the Lakers fifth bigman, is better than Armstrong right now. Behind him they have Melvin Ely and, uh, Sean Marks. No joke. So, while the starting five is legit and championship caliber, even if they stay healthy the whole season, the weak as Napoleon Dynamite’s brother of a bench is what is going to do this team in. Oh yes, I forgot, the Hornets also play in the league’s toughest division and, in order to have what has become a must have for most teams—home court advantage—they’ll have to stay ahead of San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. That’s why they drop to seventh. If an injury to Paul, Chandler or West occurs, I could see this team dropping out of the playoffs all together. New Orleans, you see, they mirror their own favorite son, Lil Wayne. Hot as all hell right now with exceptional skills, perhaps best in the business skills, perhaps take-home-a-championship skills, but sorely lacking in any sort of depth.

8.) L.A. Clippers
Okay, if you thought my Portland prediction was wacky, here’s one that might surprise you even more. I really like this team. Sure, injuries to either Baron Davis or Marcus Camby (both of whom, I might add, are currently mildly injured) would derail this scenario faster than Jennifer Aniston pulling off Clive Owens pants, but I can’t help but love their potential. Sure, there’s a lot not to like. Injury-prone players is the main thing (BD, Camby, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman). A star who doesn’t mesh well with his coach is another (BD in Dunleavy’s structured offense, ugh). The influence of Ricky Davis on his teammates when they go out…yeah, absolutely terrifying. That being said, Camby plus Kaman plus Baron makes a formidable defense. I’ve said it before, but Camby was the defensive player of the year two seasons ago, and adding him to one of the best defensive point guards (when motivated) along with a hulking caveman blocking and rebounding monster, should have the other teams in the league fearing coming to Los Angeles regardless of who’s lacing them up in Staples that night. In fact, the Clips could easily move up the ladder (or down of course) if their defense gels as fluidly as my vision foresees it. Add to this defense the best draft class (Gordon, DeAndre Jordan and Mike Taylor) outside of Portland, and there’s a nice blend of veterans and rookies with potential and a surprisingly deep bench (Cuttino Mobley, by season’s end, could find himself as the 9th rotation guy. And if Cat is your 9th guy, that’s pretty good). Finally, despite Dunleavy’s penchant for being a controlling, micro-managing coach, he has double the incentive to do whatever it takes (including letting Baron take free reign of the offense) in order to make this team work. He is after all, the new GM who handpicked this roster while simultaneously running Elgin Baylor shamefully out the door. If the Clips ascend to a top-five defense, there’s no telling how high they can climb because defense wi…yeah, yeah, like Larry H. Parker, you know the story.

9.) Dallas
I don't think J-Kidd is done, but I don’t think this team has the right pieces to make project Jason work. If Kidd were to be traded for, oh, I don’t know AI, then Dallas and Denver would automatically move up a couple of spots and into the playoffs with the potential to be even better than that. AI is just what this team needs—a tough-as-thugs, stud offensive player who can create for himself and carry the team when Dirk is off. Kidd is the opposite of that. But he’s perfect for the shoot-first mentality of every single Nugget. In Denver, Kidd wouldn’t need to play any defense, and his offensive skills would enhance every single player on that roster including Renaldo Balkman. Unfortunately, as of right now, that scenario has not happened. Therefore, I don’t see how this team scores enough points even if Kidd does his best Nash impersonation and makes Dirk more efficient. In the end, Kidd can’t shoot, so the offense won’t be as good. And he’s too old to guard even mediocre points in the West at this stage of his career, so the defense struggles as well. And the staple of the Mavericks serious title runs under Avery Johnson was their defense. And, about that bench. Well, they’ve got one for sure. And it’s deep. It just doesn’t make too much sense. Devean George (ugh), Antoine Wright, James Singleton, Shawne Williams, you can even throw in Jerry Stackhouse and Gerald Green (who is a potential stud breakout player this year mind you), all seem very, very much superfluously redundant. Meanwhile, outside of DeSagana Diop and Erick Dampier, Brandon Bass at 6-8 is the only other big and he sort of fits into that repetitious group previously stated before. All in all, this team still has enough talent and veteran moxie to earn a playoff birth, I just think too highly of the Clippers.

This NBA commercial would feature the Nuggets all standing around together (sans Nene) and it would be awesome: “The NBA, where body art happens.” The artistic Nugs look to be an even more explosive offensive team than a year ago. J.R. Smith, Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony will hover near or above an average of 70 points per game. Nene’s going to show people that you don’t need both your nuts to be an absolute stud—on offense anyway. George Karl is going to prove my cousin right that he is one of the most overrated coaches of all time (that one Sonics final notwithstanding). Hmm…I think I see a SmushPot article coming up. Denver will either become the new SSOL Suns and shoot their way into a low playoff seed by averaging 115 points per game, or they’ll descend into fits of anger and frustration and completely fall apart. Either way, look for explosions.

11.) Minnesota
How many things have to go both wrong and right for this team to make the playoffs? My count? 7. And those are broad-all-encompassing factors. 1.) Denver needs to implode. (See above why that is a very realistic possibility). 2.) The Clips need to…again…get decimated by a bunch of injuries (see Clippers comments). 3.) Al Jefferson needs to, A.) play both ends of the court and B.) continue to dominate the post on offense and average 23 and 11 (part A, eh…part B, almost for certain). 4.) Kevin Love needs to be a legit NBA player (We’ll see. He’s lead-footed in the slow way, like if dropped into a river he’d sleep with the fishes). 5.) Randy Foye needs to be a legit NBA player and build off a pretty impressive pre-season (reasonable). 6.) Dallas needs to fall off a cliff caused by: Kidd living up to all the rumors of his demise; Josh Howard folding under the added pressures of negative media spotlight; Dirk, for an entire regular season, playing like 06-07 playoff Dirk. The bench playing exactly like each other and adding nothing differently then the next guy. And Mark Cuban hitting the panic trade button and swapping Josh Howard and Desagana Diop for Zach Randolph (Hey, no one thought Shaq for Marion either). And finally, 7.) Corey Brewer and Rashad McCants need to somehow fuse together and become one whole complete player. He’ll be called Corey McCants and he’ll dominate at shooting guard averaging a tidy 21 points and 6 assists while simultaneously locking down the opposing teams best perimeter player. I’m thinking at most, 6 out of the 7 will happen. Sorry Minny.

12.) Golden State
It’s too bad, because, like Marlon B, they “could’ve been a contenda.” Well, in contention for a playoff berth anyways. But Monta Ellis had to go cruising with his MoPed and derail those hopes. However, a youth movement is in full effect. Andris Beidrins (stud), Anthony Randolph (stud 2 be), Brandan Wright (questionable stud 2 be), Kelenna Azubuike (nice), Marco Bellinelli (?) and C.J. Watson (looking nice), oh yeah, and Marcus Williams (exactly like Marbury and in Nellie’s doghouse), are all 24 years old or younger. Stephen Jackson believes in his heart that this team is still a playoff team. Can’t say I agree with him, but Nellie Ball has been known to upset. Plus, even though he’s already hurt…(toldja) Corey Maggette will put up ginormous numbers and should warrant a spot on the all-star team. Unfortunately, because there are over a billion people in China, he’ll probably miss out as three Rockets (two small forward/shooting guard types) are likely to be voted as starters meaning that the other deserving guy(s), just ahead of Maggette (Melo and maybe Rudy Gay if another SF is taken) are voted in by the coaches.

13.) Sacramento
Sorry Kings fans, not much to like here other than Mr. New School Reggie Miller (a.k.a. Kevin Martin). K-Mart will challenge for the scoring title and if justice exists, will make his first all-star team (another reason why Maggette won’t make his first all-star team). Beno Udrih will prove ESPN’s John Hollinger wrong and live up to his new contract. There’s a lot to look forward to down the road with rookies Donte Greene and Jason Thompson, but at this current juncture, don’t expect too much. The rest of the team is made up of solid, but hardly spectacular players. Most everyone but the hardest of hardcore Kings fans can all agree that Sacto is in full rebuilding mode. Even still, Reggie Theus (Hang Time!) knows how to extricate water from rocks and he’ll have this team overachieve.

14.) Memphis
I’m not going to lie. This is my favorite lottery team (although Minny’s intriguing and I like Kevin Martin). But being my favorite and being good are two completely different things. Case in point, I’ve loved the Clippers for my entire adult life. Rudy Gay is very good. Marc Gasol is good. Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Hakim Warrick and Kyle Lowry all have the tools to be good. But alas, the Grizz won’t be very good…Yet. Of course, on any given night, they will be exciting and an absolute blast to watch (check for more than a few 120-plus-point games), but their interior defense is suspect, to say the least, and they have a glut, a big fat glut, of guards that can’t all find playing time. Their bench has youth and talent (Darrell Arthur, Javaris Crittendon, Lowry, Hamed Haddaddi) and some useful though flawed veterans (Marko Jaric, Quinton Ross, Greg Buckner) but is further than the moon away from elite. The Grizz will lose close to 60 games being that they reside in the league’s toughest division, but they’ll at least be fun to watch. Trust me, I’ll be watching them.

15.) Oklahoma City
Too much youth. Too much inexperience. Not enough NBA-savvy players—Joe Smith notwithstanding. Kevin Durant will wow at times and he’ll put up a great sophomore season, but one guy can’t carry a team even if he is a 6’9 Michael Jordan reincarnated (not sure about all that) and while Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green are the future, they aren’t the present. Plus, this team has no legit center right now. They’ve got thirty bigman projects, any of which might break out given consistent playing time, but this team will struggle to win every single night KD doesn’t drop 40 plus (while shooting the lights out) because they can't play any defense (though Westbrook should help that out a bit). And, because defense wins championships, this team won't be winning any until they get a post player or two or three who can defend. And as for their bench, let’s just put it this way, the Lakers bench could beat this team’s starters 7 times out of 10. Nuff said. With Durant, Westbrook and Green, OKC’s future looks bright, but as for this season, the Thunder will make about as much noise as their lame, pathetic logo…

So, that wraps up the 15 teams. Let’s have a great season people. The NBA is on the right track to overtaking baseball (yawn…) and challenging king Football (pride always comes before a fall). Here’s to a great 08-09!

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