1. Denver Nuggets: When you look back at the past decade of Denver Nuggets history, yet another first round loss might seem like stagnation. The Nuggets have made the playoffs each of the last nine seasons but made it past the first round only once (2008-09 when they lost to the Lakers in the Conference Finals). But there is progress. Really! Trading Carmelo Anthony and Nene has gotten Dener some nice young players (Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Javale McGee and some other parts) and has reset the clock on Denver. Throw in a great draft pick in Kenneth Faried and Denver is still oozing young talent.
The cap situation is fairly stable too with Gallinari locked in at a good price and Faried and Ty Lawson still on rookie contracts. This will allow the Nuggets to re-sign McGee, who is a question mark but is young enough that to have a tom of upside and it young enough that he won’t be immovable if he doesn’t develop. The other decision will come with Andre Miller, who has aged really well and was a big part of the team. Given his age and willingness to stay in Denver, Miller should be back on a cheapish contract. None of this makes Denver a title contender but they are now in place to convert some of depth for a star if one becomes available by trade. If not, they still have a 48-50 win team.
2. Dallas Mavericks: It wasn’t the weakest title defense we’ve seen but this wasn’t too impressive. Dallas floundered early and was ultimately swept by a young Thunder team. The popular wisdom is that Dallas punted on the title defense because they didn’t want to overpay for Tyson Chandler, who has had some injury issues in the past. Rather, Dallas planned to get by with patchwork short-term signings and then go for Dwight Howard and Deron Williams in the summer. The plan looks worse in retrospect than it was at the time. Chandler was a great defensive presence but a repeat seemed unlikely. In fact, the Mavs’ defensive efficiency was totally unchanged from 2010-11 (the Mavs were 8th both years). Rather, the fall off came on offense when the efficiency plummeted from 8th at 109.7 in 2010-11 to 22nd at 103.3 this year. How did this happen? Let’s take a look the per/36 minute stats of the major players from each season:
-PG, Jason Kidd: 8.5 pts, .361 FG%, .340 3-FG%, 4.8 rebs, 8.9 asts, 14.4 PER
-SG, Jason Terry: 18.2 pts, .451 FG%, .362 3-FG%, 2.1 rebs, 4.7 asts, 15.9 PER
-SF, Shawn Marion: 16.0 pts, .520 FG%, .152 3-FG%, 8.8 rebs, 1.8 asts, 17.0 PER
-PF, Dirk Nowitzki: 24.2 pts, .517%, .393 3-FG%, 7.4 rebs, 2.7 asts, 23.4 PER
-C, Tyson Chandler: 13.1 pts, .654 FG%, 12.1 rebs, 0.6 asts, 18.4 PER
-G, JJ Barea: 16.6 pts, .439 FG%, .349 3-FG%, 3.4 rebs, 6.8 asts, 14.8 PER
-C: Brendan Haywood: 8.7 pts, .574 FG%, 10.2 rebs, 0.5 asts, 11.7 PER
-G: DeShawn Stevenson: 11.9 pts, .388 FG%, .378 3-FG%, 3.3 rebs, 2.4 asts, 9.8 PER
-PG, Jason Kidd: 7.8 pts, .363 FG%, .354 3-FG%, 5.2 rebs, 6.9 asts, 13.1 PER
-SG, Jason Terry: 17.1 pts, .430 FG%, .378 3-FG%, 2.4 rebs, 4.1 asts, 15.7 PER
-SF, Shawn Marion: 12.6 pts, .446 FG%, .294 3-FG%, 8.7 rebs, 2.4 asts, 15.0 PER
-PF, Dirk Nowitzki: 23.2 pts, .457 FG%, .368 3-FG%, 7.3 rebs, 2.4 asts, 21.7 PER
-C, Brendan Haywood: 8.8 pts, .518 FG%, 10.2 rebs, 0.6 asts, 12.9 PER
-G, Vince Carter: 14.4, .411 FG%, .361 3-FG%, 4.8 rebs, 3.2 asts, 13.6 PER
-G, Rodrigue Beaubois: 14.8 pts, .422 FG%, .288 3-FG%, 4.7 rebs, 4.8 asts, 15.3 PER
The list shows us that the Mavs suffered a general offensive decline from all returning players. Haywood actually improved a little bit with more minutes and Carter and Beaubois probably were more effective collectively than Barea and Stevenson (Barea was good but Stevenson couldn’t score at all). Putting aside efficiency, we see that Marion had the biggest fall on offense. Indeed, this was Marion’s worst effective field goal percentage of his career and quite a fall from last season. Combine this with the age issues all over the roster and Lamar Odom crapping out spectacularly and Dallas went from title contender to decent playoff team.
Even with all these things going wrong, Dallas played OKC pretty tough for a few games before falling apart. Had they drawn Memphis, the Clippers, or the Lakers and Dallas might’ve actually won a series in the playoffs. Still, none of this changes the fact that the Mavs weren’t winning a title again with or without Chandler this year and things could get real ugly next year if they were locked into the 2010-11 roster for a few more season. Now the Mavs have some salary cap (albeit not enough to sign Williams AND Howard unless they can dump Marion). Things are tough though. Dirk is signed for two more seasons but Kidd and Terry are free agents and will both probably be gone. The Mavs will have to have a Plan B if Williams isn’t coming to town or Dallas could decline even more next year. Even if they do sign Williams (assuming Howard doesn’t come along) the Dallas roster needs to improve depth.
3. Memphis Grizzlies: I agree with Lionel Hollins that the 2011-12 Grizzlies should be considered a success. They lost painfully in the playoffs (blowing a huge lead in Game 1 and losing Game 7 at home) but this team had the best winning percentage of any Grizzly team ever. (Oddly, this is not the best Memphis team by SRS. Both last year’s team and three playoff teams from the mid-2000s scored higher under SRS. So, I guess you could say this was the “worst” Memphis playoff team ever by SRS, even though the five Memphis playoff teams are not separated by much).
The Grizzlies’ rebuild has always confounded me. They have amassed some good players but have gotten here in a weird way. They dumped Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown and the rights to Marc Gasol, who ended being much better than anyone (including the Grizz) could’ve ever hoped. They then picked up Zach Randolph, whose contract and attitude where both toxic, and he ended being great and a changed player (in a good way). They also traded the pick that was Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo. On top of that, they re-hired Hollins, who had been 18-46 in two prior stints as coach. Does that sound like a recipe for success? Well, I guess it was. The Gasol trade may have been lucky but they hit on most of their draft picks the last few years and Hollins has done a really nice job turning Memphis into a tough defensive team. (The Grizz also scored by trading Shane Battier for Rudy Gay and in signing Tony Allen on the cheap). The question is where the Grizz can go from here. They are capped out with Randolph, Gay, M. Gasol, and Mike Conley for the next three seasons. This means O.J. Mayo is probably gone as a free agent for nothing (after Memphis flirted with trading him for years). Instead, the transactional goals will be modest as Memphis will just seek to get Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur re-signed cheaply and hope to hitg on a draft pick to add some more depth. Memphis will likely be a tough second tier playoff team again next year but whether they get bumped in the first round or the conference finals will depend greatly on how much their competitors improve.
4. Utah Jazz: Jerry Sloan is probably not too happy that his old school team has been turned into an offense first team (6th in offense but only 19th in defense). Still, Tyrone Corbin has done a nice job using the talent he has and focusing on Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in the post, even if they don’t guard much. Squeezing a playoff appearance out of this core is a nice short term reward for fans but long term the Jazz plan may not contain either Jefferson or Millsap. In fact, the Jazz have no contracts committed after next season to any vets. Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, and Alec Burks are the only players likely to be on the roster, as they will still be on their rookie contracts and Jefferson, Millsap, and Devin Harris are free agents after next season. With Favors developing as a player, it doesn’t make sense to commit to both Jefferson and Millsap and one of them will have to be traded. Harris also might be a goner, as he has established himself as a nice guard but not a star. Add this all together and the Jazz’s 2012-13 season is in flux. They could make the playoffs and be competitive if they keep the core together and Favors and Hayward improve but if Jefferson/Millsap and Harris are traded the Jazz could fall back into the lottery. That’s okay, though, because the Jazz have some nice young talent and myriads of cap room. The future should be bright.