Predicting the best of the Eastern Conference isn’t too difficult but the west is a different story. With seven 50+ win teams, the conference is oozing with realistic contenders but the best of the best was clearly defined by the end of the year. Three teams led the west in and those same teams also had the most impressive SRS ratings: the Spurs, the Clippers, and the Thunder.
Is there any reason to think that the Big Three will be diminished or that someone will make the big leap? The Spurs are not young. The Thunder already have injury problems. The Clipps whole season rests on Chris Paul, who has never been the picture of health. As for the “leap” teams, Golden State is a prime candidate. Ultimately, there are too many good teams to really know exactly what will happen. Nevertheless, here are our best stabs at the coming season:
1. Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin is the young(ish) player with the best shot of taking a significant step forward. At 24 going on 25, Griffin looks like a beast entering his prime. Add that to Paul and the rest and this Clipper team could and should win 60 games. As noted above, Paul’s health is an x-factor. There is much talk of his knee issues but last season was the first time since 2009-10 that he missed 20 games in a season. The trend line is up here and this could be the year that Clippers finally win one.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC seemed like the heir apparent but Kevin Durant’s foot (not to mention a litany of other recent injuries to other players) raises some questions. If KD is not 100% all season or even if he just misses six weeks and comes back healthy, the Thunder may not have the home court that is needed run the gauntlet in the west.
3. San Antonio Spurs: There are no indications that the Spurs should totally lose it but at some point it happens to the best of us (see Nash, Steve). While there is no reason to believe the Spurs will have some the older players collapse, the long post season last year and the collective age both will be hurdles to a repeat. Incidentally, here is what the Spurs have done after title years in the past:
-1999-00: 53-29, lost in First Round (7 wins less than previous season)
-2003-04: 57-25, lost in Second Round (3 wins less than previous season)
-2005-06: 63-19, lost in Second Round (4 wins more than previous season)
-2007-08: 56-26, lost in Conference Finals (2 wins less than previous season)
4. Golden State Warriors: Thought the Warriors were considered a fun offensive squad, they really were a tough defense-first team, featuring Stephen Curry and a decent supporting players last season. The hope is that Steve Kerr can make the offense very efficient AND keep the defense where it was. In addition, there is room to grow on offense. Klay Thompson (whom I absolutely would’ve traded for Kevin Love), does not rate as above average offensively yet. The subjective eye test does indicate that he is better than that but his isn’t super young so a big improvement should come soon if it is going to happen.
5. Houston Rockets: The Rockets are set up to contend as well, though losing Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, and Omer Asik for the shot to sign Chris Bosh/Carmelo is a setback. Houston should be near the Second Round again but one of the Warriors or Rockets could be very disappointed in April/May. For the Rockets to improve significantly, the player to watch is Terrence Jones, who is still very young and has steadily improved each season.
6. Memphis Grizzlies: The grind will continue. Same formula should work, really tough defense with middling offense. It’s all done at the league’s slowest pace. The most hopeful indicator for Memphis is that Marc Gasol missed significant time last season and they still won 50 games. Ff everyone else produces as he did last year and Gasol plays 82 games, the Grizz could top last year’s 50 wins and be a pain for whomever draws them in the playoffs.
7. Dallas Mavericks: Trying to milk the last productive years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career is really all Dallas can do at this point. Dirk played near peak performance last year, though he did it differently than he did in the old days. Nowitzki shot a career low 6.4% of his shots within three feet of the rim but a near career high 32.2% from 10-16 feet. So, Dirk doesn’t really take it to the basket and initiates a lot of shots posting people from the elbow. Nowitzki has evolved his game while staying pretty much as effective as ever. For the team as a whole, however, the problem is defense (22nd last year). They have fixed this a little by grabbing Tyson Chandler (for Sam Dalembert) and letting defensive sieve Jose Calderon go (for Raymond Felton and Jameer Nelson) but the net gain will be small.
8. Portland Trailblazers: Like Dallas, Portland is built around a jump shooting power forward. Unlike Dirk, LaMarcus Aldridge is younger and really not a three-point guy at all. Aldridge shot 41.5% of his shots from 16-24 feet, which topped his career high 38.5% in 2012-13. Even more impressively, Aldridge shot a career best 44.2% from that range. Despite his long range shooting, Aldridge got to the line at his highest rate as well. I suspect Aldridge may not be able to continue shoot quite that well from so far out, which could be the difference between a high playoff seed (like last year) and fighting to sneak in as a lower seed.
9. New Orleans Pelicans: The Pelicans probably have the greatest range of outcomes of any team in the conference. The depth is weak and the decision to lock up Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans to big contracts looks terrible. Still, bad signings hurt less when you have Anthony Davis, who is close to becoming the best player in the league soon. Depending upon his maturation, New Orleans only needs some decent complementary players to contend. Assuming Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday stay relatively healthy, 45 wins is possible.
10. Phoenix Suns: How can you have Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic, and Eric Bledsoe for the poijnt? Really takes you back to 1996-97 when the Suns roster featured a rookie Steve Nash, Kevin Johnson, and Jason Kidd. Back then, Phoenix ended the log jam by keeping Kidd and trading Nash to Dallas for Martin Muursepp, Bubba Wells, Pat Garrity, and a first-round pick (who ended up being Shawn Marion). KJ retired shortly thereafter. As good as Dragic is, he will likely be traded. Bledsoe and Thomas are locked up for at least four seasons and Dragic has an opt out after the season that he is sure to take. Phoenix will be solid again but all the intrigue will revolve around this point guard situation.
11. Denver Nuggets: Less than the sum of their parts. Denver has invested quite a lot in Javale McGee and Danilo Gallinari, who may not be healthy any time soon. Meanwhile, the team has regressed on almost all fronts since George Karl was let go. Now, Denver feels like a decently talented team with enough solid players but no major strengths. Nothing done this off season has addressed any of this. Kenneth Faried is a nice player but hasn’t defended at center well (and J.J. Hickson is worse). In short, this will have to get rebalanced and there is little reason to suggest management is up to the task.
12. Sacramento Kings: Hard team to figure. The Kings profess to want to contend and have some cash to spend. DeMarcus Cousins is a nice start and Rudy Gay can help a team like this that need scoring. After that, things get weaker. Isaiah Thomas was the second best King last season but Sacramento let him walk for a moderate contract and replaced him with Darren Collison. Collison was a little cheaper (about $5 million per year) but for about $1.5 million per year more, they could have had the significantly better Thomas. This weak backcourt will be the King’s undoing.
13. Utah Jazz: The Jazz were a terrible team in all facets of the game last year: slow paced but with the added bonus of terrible offense and worse defense. A new coach might help improve this team a little but the growing pains will continue. Quinn Snyder’s real goal is to develop Trey Burke, Dante Exum, and the rest of the young core.
14. Los Angeles Lakers: The Kobe Bryant controversy is a bit silly. Yes, he seems like a pain to play with but the team has been on the downswing for a while. It was perfectly rational for Dwight Howard to ditch L.A. for a much better Houston team when he did, regardless of what he thought of Kobe personally. Stars will play with Kobe if the team wasn’t terrible. Unfortunately for Bryant, the Lakers are terrible. As much as people are down on Mike D’Antoni, Byron Scott’s comments since taking over do not make him look like an upgrade. The only strategy that makes sense here is to tank real bad and hope that a good draft pick plus cap room enables a quick rebuild.
As for what to expect from Kobe at age-36 coming off of two major injuries? He was a 23 PER player at age-34 but he has barely played since then. There are very few two guards who were starters at age-36 and played well:
–Manu Ginobili, 2013-14: 20.0 PER
-Johnny Green, 1969-70, 18.4 PER
-Vince Carter, 2012-13, 17.8 PER
-Paul Pierce, 2013-14, 16.8 PER
-Reggie Miller, 2001-02, 16.5 PER
-Jeff Hornacek, 1999-00, 16.3 PER
-Walter Davis, 1990-91, 15.5 PER
-Ray Allen, 2011-12, 14.8 PER
Alex English, Dominque Wilkins, and Paul Pierce could have made the list but aren’t really shooting guards, so we left them off. As for the rest, Manu’s previous season is the best for an age-36 two guard, which could give the Lakers some hope that modern players age better. On the other hand, Ginobili’s minutes are always monitored carefully and Scott will no doubt ride Kobe a little harder. As for the rest, Green was the only player to actually put up peak numbers at an advanced age. The rest were effective players who were slowly declining. The player most compared to Kobe, Michael Jordan, was retired at age-36 but did comeback at 38 and had a higher PER (20.8) than even Ginobili. MJ, however, was an off-the-charts talent and even Kobe doesn’t quite compare to him. Bryant will probably effective but not near the player he was a few years ago.
-L.A. Clippers over Oklahoma City 4-3
-Cleveland over Chicago 4-1
-Cleveland over L.A. Clippers, 4-2
MVP: LeBron James
Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker
Most Improved Player: Is a dumb award