As pretty much everyone has noted, the 2011-12 is the second abbreviated season and we are all trying to draw parallels to the first such season, 1998-99, to better understand what we might expect this time. The lessons people have taken from good old 1998-99?
-Older teams will struggle in the compressed schedule with fewer days off but youth will abide
-Teams that have played together before could possibly hit the ground running, while teams with lots of new parts might struggle
-Depth is really important
Before turning to 2011-12 we should test how true all of the above statements actually were back in 1998-99. Sure, most of these things are true in the abstract but can we attribute the happenings of 1998-99 directly to older teams/thin teams/new teammates struggling? I’m not so sure. Let’s look at some of teams that fell or rose dramatically in the fateful 1998-99 season and see why the jump/dip happened:
–Orlando Magic: The Magic missed the playoffs in 1997-98 at 41-41 but jumped out to an nice 33-17 record thanks to a deep team and great coach Chuck Daly, who realized how good Darrell Armstrong was and gave a lot of run to players who were untested rookies (Michael Doleac and Matt Harpring) or previously taken for granted role players (Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, Derek Strong). It wasn’t an offensive gem but the great depth and coaching created a boring but effective slow-paced defensive unit. Indeed, the depth allowed defense to remain effective even when the scorers Hardaway and Nick Anderson left the floor.
–Philadelphia 76ers: Philly was an anemic 31-51 in Larry Brown’s first season in 1997-98. Year Two the Sixers were much improved at 28-22. Brown had the same formula as Daly in Orlando, ride the scorer in a slow-down offense (in this case Allen Iverson) and make sure everyone else really defended well. Brown gets bonus points for seeing how effective Matt Geiger, Theo Ratliff, and Eric Snow could be.
–New York Knicks: There is a common mythology that the Knicks were surprisingly bad in 1998-99 in the regular season and not up to usual snuff. Remember, though, that the 1997-98 also eked into the playoffs at 43-39 and that the 27-23 record in 1998-99 wasn’t far off that performance level. Sure, the Knicks struggled with new personnel but Jeff Van Gundy had to deal with a few issues: (1) Patrick Ewing became very old all of a sudden in 1998-99 and (2) Van Gundy took a while to warm up to newcomer Marcus Camby, who had replaced the beloved tough guy Charles Oakley. Had this been a regular 82-game season, the Knicks probably would’ve played Camby more and hit their stride before the playoffs and looked like a pretty solid team.
–Chicago Bulls: The Bulls fell apart because Michael Jordan retired and Scottie Pippen left town and the Bulls did little to replace them. Nothing too complicated there.
–New Jersey Nets: The Nets were the trendy breakout team after John Calipari accumulated young talent (Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles, and Sam Cassell) and had a respectable playoff showing in 1997-98. The Nets, however, weren’t nearly as talented as some thought. Keith Van Horn was good but people thought he was going to be the player that Dirk Nowitzki ultimately became. Sam Cassell, the true glue of the team, was also injured early. Cassel’s injury, Calipari’s emotional implosion, and outsized expectations nuked the team’s hopes pretty early.
–Seattle SuperSonics: Seattle was a serious contender from 1992-93 to 1997-98 but fell to 25-25 after they lost coach George Karl (he was replaced by Paul Westphal). Without Karl (and with Westphal) the defense totally fell apart (dropping from 10th in defense in 1997-98 to 26th in 1998-99). Also, Vin Baker came back from the work stoppage way overweight and never really was a good player again.
There were plenty of old teams that had nice seasons. Utah (with oldsters John Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, and Karl Malone) was its usual dominant self (37-13) and Houston (old Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen, and Charles Barkley) actually improved from the struggles the previous season. Both Utah and Houston lost in the playoffs but to teams that were not just younger but better on talent (Utah beat a great Sacramento team and then lost to a deep and talented Jail Blazer squad, while Houston lost to Kobe and Shaq).
It seems that what mattered in 1998-99 was not necessarily age and depth (though both were issues) but quality of coaching. Great Coaches like Daly and Brown hit the ground running and adjusted to the new circumstances to make sure their systems (particularly defensively) were still effective. Middling coaches like Westphal and Calipari were less prepared. So when we look back, coaches were a huge difference maker and may yet be so this year. Obviously, this isn’t a 100% rule for the future but favoring teams with good coaches is a good idea. This is complicated by the fact that people don’t always agree who the “good” coaches are. Is Erik Spoelstra a good coach? I think so but he doesn’t quite fit into the Daly/Larry Brown category of clear Hall of Famers right now. Of coaches on the clear Hall of Fame path still coaching, George Karl’s presence in Denver could very well be an advantage during this crazy season. On the other hand, Mike Brown might be a good coach but he is walking into a real tight spot.
With all this in mind, let’s leave 1998-99 and return to the present with our NBA predictions for the current season:
1. Miami Heat: Still the class of the conference. Depth is still an issue here but when you have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, you are going to be good. The Finals loss hurt but this team was excellent and the Big Three had great years. They will be the class of the conference and seem poised to snatch up some of the players returning from China around playoff time to bolster the roster. I expect a title.
2. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls are for real and should waltz to a division title. They are now also Miami’s only viable rival right now in the East. They have some good players but they rely heavily on Derrick Rose and any slump or even minor injury would really hurt their chances to catch Miami for home court. Getting Rip Hamilton will improve the sorry two-guard slot but remember that Hamilton is 33 and is not a cure all. Backcourt depth is also still an issue.
3. Boston Celtics: The title window is probably closed now but I thought it was closed two years ago, and they very nearly won it all. The core is old but they generally come out of the gate very hot and have enough talent to take the East again. Kevin Garnett may be 35 but he was still very good last year and should have another year or two left. They look vulnerable to an early knock out in the playoffs (very similar to the 1998-99 Rockets) if they run into an explosive young team in the first round of the playoffs.
4. Orlando Magic: There are no serious contenders after the Bulls and Heat in the East and here we just have a bunch of interchangeable teams. We don’t know if Dwight Howard will be traded but, if not, he should be enough for a pro-rated 50-win season and the playoffs. Obviously, this could change but we will assume he stays for now and that the Magic agitate for a sign-and-trade after the season (especially now that Brook Lopez is hurt).
5. Atlanta Hawks: I expect the Hawks to fall a little bit. Joe Johnson is older, Jamal Crawford is gone (and replaced by Tracy McGrady) and the team was worse than their overall record indicated. Despite all that, the East is too weak for us to think that a front court of Al Horford and Josh Smith won’t be good enough to be near the top of the lower tier playoff teams. Even so, I concede that you could randomly shuffle teams 5 through 9 in the East and come out with just as likely a playoff seeding scenario.
6. New York Knicks: I’m not nearly as high on the Knicks as some people but when you start with Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler, you have a pretty good team and enough talent to compete with other so so teams like Milwaukee, Philly, and Indiana. New York should come out strong but the backcourt is needs a serious upgrade.
7. Philadelphia 76ers: Doug Collins has his weaknesses as a coach but his teams usually defend and are prepared. This is a good recipe for a lockout season. They are on par with the Knicks and could jump them in the standings too. They should probably use their front court glut (Andre Iguodala or Thaddeus Young) to help with the hole at two guard (I’m not sold on Evan Turner as a two).
8. Indiana Pacers: They have amassed cap room and some good young players but the talent is not exactly overwhelming. Danny Granger is a star but Tyler Hansbrough, Darren Collison, Roy Hibbert, and Paul George? Good but not great. Similarly, I like the David West and Geroge Hill deals as value signings. Still, having a ton of pretty good players who all play the same position is not the same as having a huge glut of talent. In addition, I’m not convinced that Frank Vogel qualifies as the great coach that will parlay this group into a hot start needed to get home court in the first round of the playoffs.
9. Milwaukee Bucks: Defense may help win titles but if you can’t frigging score at all, you will struggle. The Bucks were the worst offensive team in the NBA last year and a third-ranked defense couldn’t overcome that problem. I like Mike Dunleavy and Stephen Jackson is decent but neither is a great scorer or much of an improvement over John Salmons. Unless Brandon Jennings blossoms into a scorer the Bucks likely won’t put up enough points to get in the playoffs.
10. Washington Wizards: We now reach the leg of the East that probably won’t even contend for a playoff slot. Despite a ton of talent last year, the Wiz looked clueless in all facets of the game last year. John Wall is only 21 and will continue to develop. The front court potential of Jan Vesley, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee may make us drool but the fact is that they are inconsistent and make bad decisions. Washington will continue to try to develop this group but also be aware that if Blatche or McGee have high perceived, they may want to pull the trigger on a deal to add some more talent in the backcourt, as the frontcourt is crowded and Blatche and McGee could go from valuable to worthless really quickly.
11. Detroit Pistons: Not a terrible roster but Joe Dumars has been too impressed with his own finds. You can’t pay every single pretty good player you have, especially if they all play the same position. Extending Tayshaun Prince and Jonas Jerebko, individually, makes some sense…but extending them both? Now they have those two and Charlie Villaneuva, as well as Rodney Stuckey and Ben Gordon at guard. This is recipe for mediocrity unless someone can get flipped for a positional need. At least Lawrence Frank will give them some long needed stability at coach.
12. New Jersey Nets: This is a team in limbo. Presumably Deron Williams will keep them quasi-competitive but the injury to Brook Lopez will hurt and they only exist right now to get ready for Brooklyn in 2012-13. If they somehow nab Howard, they will be a playoff team now but it hasn’t happened yet and, instead, the projection is much more pedestrian. In any case, ownership is willing to spend so something will happen during the season or summer to make 2012-13 more fun.
13. Toronto Raptors: Putting all the eggs in the Andrea Bragnani basket hasn’t worked so far. Nor was Toronto’s refusal to dump Jay Triano, despite years of awful defense. Dwane Casey at coach should at least make the defense better but the personnel is not conducive to defense under best of circumstances. Without much young talent (first rounder Jonas Valanciunas is still in Europe), the Raps’ should have two goals: (1) continue to see if Bargnani and Ed Davis can be key members of the next good Raptor team or pump up their value to trade for more young talent and (2) install a bona fide defensive system.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers: A year has passed since LeBron blew town and the Cavs have succeeded in finding a few potentially good young rookies in Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. Dan Gilbert has also succeeded in whining so much that people actually like LeBron better than him, a remarkable feat considering how douchey James acted in the summer of 2010. But all will be forgotten if Gilbert preserves cap room and develops the rookies. In either event, this will not be a good team and another high draft pick beckons.
15. Charlotte Bobcats: The most interesting players here are Tyrus Thomas, Bismack Biyomobo and Gerald Henderson. Expect some serious boredom and losses in 2011-12.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: I hate to pick the trendy team as the best in conference but OKC is young and talented and the West is pretty wide open right now. The Thunder have some issues to deal with (improving defense) and developing the youngsters but they have as much talent as anyone and with a small trade tweak could be quite good. Another note, many have been wondering if James Harden will breakout as a scorer this year and turn the team into a dynasty. Harden is a very solid all around player but you don’t often see a two-guard score much when coupled with a shoot-first point like Russell Westbrook, especially after Kevin Durant takes must of the shots to begin with. Rather, Harden’s minutes will get more minutes and continue to improve but he will be a nice all-around cog and not a 20+ ppg guy this year unless shots are dramatically reallocated. This doesn’t mean that Harden can’t help the team improve but he is and will be a two-guard who can be effective without scoring too much.
2. Dallas Mavericks: The 2010-11 Mavs were not the best Maverick team of the last decade but they were good and had the right timing. This timing was vital since the window is probably now closed for them. The top four players in minutes played last year (Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Dirk Nowitzki, and Shawn Marion) are all at least 33 years old and the next two players in minutes (Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea) are gone. Despite all this, The Mavs are well-coached and a durable lot. They should have a solid regular season and will fight with fellow oldsters the Spurs for the division. I suspect that things will be tough by playoff team but they are good as anyone in the regular season.
3. Los Angeles Clippers: This is obviously the most fun team in the NBA right now with Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. The best point in basketball, as will Griffin’s continued development, will help this team make a huge imporvement. I’m less than enthused about Vinny Del Negro at coach. He isn’t a bad coach per se but he has made curious decision in both Chicago and L.A. that make me wonder if he can handle prosperity. Still, the talent coupled with the lack of other viable options in the Pacific should get the Clipps the division title.
4. Denver Nuggets: When we mentioned coaching as a key factor during the last lockout, George Karl comes to mind. He is precisely the type to have a deep and well-prepared team in a helter skelter lockout season. Even without some good players from last year (J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler), the Nuggets have plenty of depth at the point (Ty Lawson and the always underrated Andre Miller) plus Nene up front. This is recipe for a good team in the regular seasons (and possibly the playoffs too if they get the right match ups).
5. San Antonio Spurs: A mixed season last year for the Spurs. They showed they were still good and competitive but blew one final shot at a title, losing to a younger and more athletic Memphis team. Despite the age of the core, there is one thing to be put in perspective: Tim Duncan had the worst year of his career and still put up a PER of 21.9. TD is not young but good big men have a long shelf life and, assuming health, the Spurs with Duncan and Manu Ginobili will be in the thick of the race to come out of the West.
6. Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers are too good to totally collapse but they are most definitely on the decline side. Kobe Bryant was actually as good as always but his odometer is running high, Lamar Odom is gone (for nothing in return), and they have a new coach with a totally new system. This sounds like all the makings of a disappointing season. The Lakers can contend with most teams in the West but unless they make some moves (Dwight Howard?), a quick playoff exit is coming.
7. Memphis Grizzlies: There is a lot to like in Memphis with the young talent but I’m skeptical of a team that relies heavily on Zach Randolph. Randolph has been awesome his last two years with the Grizz but he is turning 30 and has never put together two really good seasons in row before, let alone three (PERs of 21.2 and 22.6 respectively the last two years). Another key that Memphis may not be able to maintain is the defense, which went from awful to pretty good, thanks to Tony Allen (who was benched early but was surprisingly effective later on). The Grizz are a playoff-level but I think they will stay in neutral, as opposed to making the jump to bona fide contender.
8. Portland Trailblazers: The year has started out very poorly ,as Brandon Roy is now officially done as a player and Greg Oden is not looking ready any time soon either. Still, Blazers are well-coached and execute their slow-paced offense effectively and have respectable talent (LaMarcus Aldrdige, Gerald Wallace, Raymond Felton, Wes Matthews, and Nicolas Batum). They probably will never have the contender run that seemed to beckon a few years ago but a lower seeded playoff appearances will have to do for now.
9. Houston Rockets: Houston is all set with cap room and support players to bring in a star to morph into a good team. Alas, finding that star has been elusive. An attempt to bring in Pau Gasol was shot down by the NBA, so now the Rockets will have to stick to a Kevin Martin-based offense and all sorts of solid players like Luis Scola, Sam Dalembert and Kyle Lowry. The Rockets will be around the playoff periphery but will follow just short. The real action will be after the season, when the Rockets try to use their cap room to get the coveted front court star they haven’t had since Yao Ming retired.
10. Phoenix Suns: The future is seriously bleak. Ownership has made some really crappy signing decisions and the only move that now makes sense is trading Steve Nash. If Phoenix keeps him, they will still be around .500. There really is no reason to keep Nash now but ownership seems totally clueless how to value and convert assets, so Nash may rot in Phoenix in mediocrity for another season.
11. Utah Jazz: The Jazz have done a nice job of flipping vets for prospects and they still have some talent to be decent right now. The best veterans Devin Harris, Al Jefferson, and Paul Millsap are enough to go for a playoff run but I expect Utah will trade at least some of them to add to the core and reduce salary cap and to give minutes to prospects like Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves: Team slogan: “Not as bad a team as one would think but still not good.” The Wolves had the number one pace in the NBA last year but didn’t defend or score well. With Rick Adelman now in town, they will probably play a pace that suits their talent (pounding with big frontcourt players). All eyes will be in Ricky Rubio, whom David Kahn has basically leveraged his entire tenure on. Rubio is a serious question mark but Adelman has done a great job of developing young points almost everywhere he’s been. This doesn’t guarantee success for Rubio but provides an environment for him to bloom if he does ultimately have the skills.
13. New Orleans Hornets: New Orleans is not without talent either but the flux with ownership will probably make the team underperform relative to ability. The only player who has any chance of being a key member of the team in two years is Eric Gordon and all other good players will probably be auctioned off for draft picks and youngsters. If you think owners complained about the Chris Paul trade, imagine how they’ll feel when the NBA decides where to send Chris Kaman and/or Emeka Okafor. Conspiracy theories will be abound.
14. Golden State Warriors: Mark Jackson wants to install a defensive system. Fine but the personnel doesn’t really suit that: David Lee, Monta Ellis, and Steph Curry don’t guard anyone. Jackson will have to overcome the rookie coach learning curve, realize that the team doesn’t fit his vision of playing style, and reset the roster to fit what he wants from his team. Jackson might do this ultimately but they will rack up losses now.
15. Sacramento Kings: There is some young talent here but the talent here didn’t really play well last year. The Kings were a bad defensive team and a worst offensive team. Even if Tyreke Evans bounces back and DeMarcus Cousins develops, there is no indication that this will resolve the lack of depth and bad defense.
Conference Finals: Heat over Bulls and Thunder over Mavericks
Finals: Heat over Thunder
MVP: LeBron James
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving
NBA First Team: Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Dwight Howard
Coach of the Year: Vinny Del Negro (on improvement not necessarily merit)