Continuing our first round fall out column, we turn today to the Western Conference…
1. San Antonio Spurs: That definitely smarts. The Spurs managed a last gasp heroic regular season only to be beaten soundly in the playoffs. The loss to the Grizz wasn’t just a random upset either. It took about half of one game to realize that Memphis was at least the equal of the Spurs talent-wise. The real pain though was watching Tim Duncan, who just isn’t the player he was. TD is still very good but he showed a total inability to hit his old step back jumper or to create much offensively outside of point blank put backs. Without the old Duncan on offense, the Spurs are just not a real threat.
So, do the Spurs blow it out or double down with more vets? A double down with more vets will be more fun but is unlikely to end with a title, unless the vets that are imported are really good. Essentially, the Spurs are now where the Rockets were back in 1996, when they had some good but declining stars and were at a the same crossroads. The Rockets took a shot at another title, trading young Sam Cassell and Robert Horry for an old Charles Barkley and it failed because the vets (Hakeem Olajuwon and Barkley) couldn’t stay healthy anymore. The Spurs are in a slightly different situation because some of the core is younger (Tony Parker) but they will take the same shot the Rockets did. I’m not sure how San Antonio will do this but clearly a real small forward and power forward are key elements to taking that shot (Richard Jefferson looks done as a starter). It’s sad to see the Spurs in decline phase but basketball mortality is a fact of life. Hopefully, the Spurs get one or two more runs in the playoffs before the wheels fall off but the odds are against them.
As an aside, did you notice that none of the first round series went seven games? I wondered how unusual this was. In my own memory, I don’t remember too many seventh games in the first round but I thought I’d check it out and see the actual numbers since the NBA went to a seven game series in the first round in 2002-03. Here are the year-by-year results of seven game series in the first round:
2002-03: 2 (Detroit over Orlando, Dallas over Portland)
2003-04: 1 (Miami over New Orleans)
2004-05: 2 (Indiana over Boston, Dallas over Houston)
2005-06: 1 (Phoenix over L.A. Lakers)
2006-07: 1 (Utah over Houston, 4-3)
2007-08: 1 (Boston over Atlanta, 4-3)
2008-09: 2 (Atlanta over Miami, 4-3 and Boston over Chicago, 4-3)
2009-10: 1 (Atlanta over Milwaukee, 4-3)
This is actually the first year that we haven’t gotten a seventh game in the first round. Many of these seven games series aren’t particularly memorable of late. Both of the 2002-03 series are remembered because Detroit came back from 3-1 down and for Portland rallying from 3-0 down before losing. Similarly Miami-New Orleans was Dwyane Wade’s coming out party. As for the rest, only Kobe’s battle with Phoenix in 2005-06 created much stir.
2. New Orleans Hornets: The Hornets had reason to be proud in forcing the Lakers to a sixth game in their series. The Hornets’ entire effectiveness, though, came from the amazing Chris Paul. The rest of the team is less impressive. What’s worse, the Hornets are pretty much locked into the rest of the lineup. Emeka Okafor was solid at center but not worth the cash he makes (which makes him untradeable). Trevor Ariza just can’t score at small forward and neither Marco Belinelli or Willie Green are starting material. David West is coming off of a knee injury and can be a free agent but is unlikely to opt out because he probably will want another year to re-establish his value before embarking on free agency.
On top of all this, the Hornets are owned by the NBA, which is looking for a buyer. Any new buyer will have to deal with with upgrading a static starting lineup, declining attendance in New Orleans (this was their third straight season with a decline in attendance), and with Paul (who will be a free agent after next season and can hold the franchise hostage unless the new CBA changes team rights). So, unfortunately, making the Lakers struggle may be the Hornets’ swansong with Paul before the franchise hits another dark period.
3. Portland Trailblazers: Despite the Blazers’ ability to amass talent and compete, they still have not won a playoff series since 1999-00. There is core talent here with LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, and Nicolas Batum. The rest of the lineup raises questions. At point, Andre Miller has been surprisingly good since signing but he is 35 and has a team option at $7.8 million. The option is below market value for an above-average point but the Blazers have been non-committal so far on what they will do. I think it is a no-risk proposition and that it is a little early to hand the job to Patty Mills but clearly Portland wants to think about it. The Blazers do want Greg Oden (a restricted free agent) back, if only because of the time and money invested. Oden hasn’t been healthy but his numbers have been great when he has played and he’s still only 23. If Oden can come back and play, it totally changes the Blazers’ outlook from good playoff team to possible contender but I’m sure Blazers fans are not holding their breath on that score.
Finally, Brandon Roy is the elephant in the room. His heroic playoff performance in Game 4 won’t be forgotten but that one brief moment flies in the face of the rest of the season, which has shown him to be hampered by knee problems. The Blazers should not be relying on Roy to be their starting two guard going forward, even though he is due almost $50 million over the next three seasons. How do balance Roy’s expectations and salary with his likely production won’t be easy.
4. Denver Nuggets: Denver is stacked with players but have many decision to make. Nene, J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, and Wilson Chandler are all free agents. Denver has stated it wants to keep Nene, who is the building block for the future, and probably will. The other three are less clear. Smith can score but has quite a few moments where he takes bad shots or does something dumb off the court. I don’t think Denver knows what they want to do with Smith but I imagine they will let the market develop and keep him if the bidding is favorable to them. Chandler is an extra trinket because the Nuggets already have Danilo Gallinari but, like Smith, they will keep him if the price is right. Finally, I think Martin is gone. Martin plays hard and is a good defender still but he has played more then 66 games in only three of his seven seasons in Denver and has only been okay when he did play. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great signing.
enver must also balance the rest of the roster. They have two good points in Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton, a few good small forwards (Gallinari, Al Harrington, and Chandler, if he is re-signed). The only two guard here is Smith, so it seems clear that a trade should be in the offing from the glut positions.