The Western Conference powers have been gradually shifting. The old powers seem to be fading but still dangerous and the new power brokers that emerged in the 2007-08 playoffs look pretty significant too. I happen to agree with the opinion put out by David Stern and others that the West has regressed a bit against the East. No longer are the best teams clearly in the West. In fact, the tough teams are getting more evenly distributed as the Detroit/Boston duo is as tough as any two teams out West. Top to bottom, however, the West is still better. In the end, believe that NBA title will come back to the West. Let’s take a look…
1. Utah Jazz: This just in…the Jazz are good again. But the Jazz are not the same old grind-it-out Jerry Sloan team. For the first time since 1992-93, the Jazz were faster than 15th in the NBA in pace factor. Behind Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, the Jazz were primarily an offensive team (first in the NBA in points per possession) and only a decent defensive team (12th in points allowed per possession). This is still a tough bruising Sloan team but they don’t have the shot blockers they used to in the old days. Going with Boozer and Mehmet Okur up front creates tons of points but having a Greg Ostertag to play for 20-30 minutes per night might actually be useful in filling that void. Even so, the Jazz are the best team in the division and the only question is whether their offensive based front court can knock off the tougher and more well-rounded front courts in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Houston, and New Orleans.
2. Portland Trailblazers: Portland has it all going for them. They have a a ton of good young players and potential cap room coming up in 2009-10. It’s a nice situation to be in but certainly not fool proof (just ask Chicago). There are tons of good young players but how many are definite stars? Brandon Roy seems on his way to an Eddie Jones career, which is a great start. LaMarcus Aldridge looks like a nice player too, though not necessarily an All-Star. If some of the other young guys pan out, this could be a really good team really fast. Indeed, Travis Outlaw looks like another good scorer and I like both Jerry Bayless and Rudy Fernandez to develop. Finally, we have Greg Oden. He’s the real lynchpin. Unless Oden turns into a star, this is just another nice little team. Oden is only 20 and should be, at least, a very good center if he stays healthy.
For our purposes, we have to wonder what the Blazers can expect from Oden in 2008-09 (Oden will be 21 in January). Just to have some context, here’s what other centers taken in the lottery (top three) were doing in their age-20 seasons (since 1990):
–Andrew Bogut, 2004-05: still in college
-Dwight Howard, 2005-06: 36.8 mpg, 15.8 ppg, .531 FG%, 12.5 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 17.2 PER
–Emeka Okafor, 2002-03: still in college
-Darko Milicic, 2005-06: 13.9 mpg, 4.8 ppg, .509 FG%, 2.7 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 15.2 PER
-Yao Ming, 2000-01: playing in China
-Kwame Brown, 2002-03: 22.2 mpg, 7.4 ppg, .446 FG%, 5.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg, 13.6 PER
-Tyson Chandler, 2002-03: 24.3 mpg, 9.2 ppg, .531 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 15.8 PER
-Pau Gasol, 2000-01: playing in Spain
-Michael Olowokandi, 1995-96: in college
-Raef LaFrentz, 1996-97: in college
-Tim Duncan, 1996-97: in college
-Marcus Camby, 1994-95: in college
-Shawn Bradley, 1992-93: in college
-Shaquille O’Neal, 1992-93: 37.9 mpg, 23.4 ppg, .562 FG%, 13.9 rpg, 3.5 bpg, 20.1 PER
-Alonzo Mourning, 1990-91: in college
A 20-year old lottery pick center in the NBA is still a very rare occurrence. Only Shaq really tore up the NBA at that age, though it seems likely that Zo and Duncan could’ve put up big numbers had they been in the NBA at that age. Still, it seems that most centers were not near as good at 20 as they would end up being (even Shaq’s numbers shot up by age-21 and 22). So, we have to conclude that no matter how good Oden ends up being, his rookie season will be below that standard by a decent amount. Oden should be good but it’s unlikely that he’ll be good enough to jump the Blazers up to the elite but the playoffs may be a realistic option for 2008-09.
3. Denver Nuggets: It’s a bummer. The forces of finance and time are going to break up a pretty good team. The Nuggets were a fast paced fun team for several years now. They peaked last year at 50-32 but a bitter sweep at the hands of the Lakers (the Nuggs fifth straight first round exit) plus luxury tax exposure convinced the Nuggets to trade away Marcus Camby for essentially nothing but cap relief. In addition, the Nuggets are probably going to lose Allen Iverson, who is still quite good but aging and expecting a big money extension. The team has talent in Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith but the core is disintegrating and the team is very likely to fall out of the playoffs and have to rebuild.
We could see an ugly season. Indeed, when George Karl teams fall apart, it always looks ugly. In Seattle, Karl was at war with the front office when he left and his finals days in Milwaukee were also not pretty either. Karl is sure to be unhappy that Camby is gone with nothing in return and that AI is likely either to be traded or let go after the season. This only adds up to even more reasons for potential unhappiness and chaos. On top of that, I do think that had Denver brought back Camby and made one more run, they might’ve finally made the playoff impact they’ve dreamed to make. It is also ironic that Karl doesn’t have a single playoff series win in Denver, when he took a worse team in Milwaukee to a Conference Finals in 2000-01. Like we said, timing is everything. In the tough Western Conference of the late 2000s, Denver just couldn’t make a dent that the otherwise would’ve in another era.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves: Pulling the plug on the Kevin Garnett represented a horrible failure where a team could not build around one of the best players in the NBA. Clearly ownership had to be embarrassed over its consistent inability to find good players around KG after 2004. Even so, management gets some credit for realizing that they had to start over. Sure there are some vestiges of the ugly decisions (the Wolves have taken the obligations of Brian Cardinal and Jason Collins to rid themselves of some of their other albatross contracts) but the team is very young and not untalented. Al Jefferson is a nice starting point for a new team. I’m not sold on Randy Foye, Rashad McCants, or Ryan Gomes but it will at least be fun to see if they and Kevin Love can develop into a decent core. But the fun will not translate to wins or even a whiff of a playoff run but at least they have the train turned in the right direction.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Putting aside the trauma of the move and questions about ownerships ability to avoid disseminating embarrassing e-mails to the general public, the Thunder are proverbially, if not literally, in a good place. Sam Presti has done a great job of amassing young player, draft picks, and cap room. As an inevitable result, however, the team is not what we’d call good. The hopes of this team rests with very young players: Russell Westbrook (age 20), Kevin Durant (age 20), and Jeff Green (age 22). Durant will clearly be an All-Star sometime soon but he’s not enough to make this team competitive at this point. Green is another interesting case. Objectively, I thought he looked very talented last year but his stats were pretty ugly. The team will just have to ride this out, make some nice draft picks in the future. In the present, this will be at the worst team in the West and perhaps the whole NBA.
1. Houston Rockets: I’m not quite as thrilled about the Rockets as many others are. Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, their two best players, are aging and frequently hurt. But this is a legitimately good team outside of even Yao and T-Mac. They play defense well (2nd in the NBA last year) and are well-coached under Rick Adelman. Assuming the Rockets can improve their scoring a bit, the Rockets can be quite competitive. There are a ton of variables here between Yao, T-Mac, Ron Artest, and the point guard situation but the Rockets are fortunate to be peaking at a time when the rest of the division (well actually Dallas and San Antonio) have issues. The Rockets should be about as good as the 2004-05 and 2006-07 editions. Check how painful it was for Houston to compete with the Mavs and Spurs over that time:
San Antonio, 59-23 (won title)
Dallas, 58-24 (lost in 2nd round to Phoenix)
Houston, 51-31 (lost to Dallas in the first round)
San Antonio, 63-19 (lost in Conference Finals to Dallas)
Dallas, 60-22 (lost in NBA Finals to Miami)
Houston, 34-48 (did not make playoffs)
Dallas, 67-15 (lost in first round to Golden State)
San Antonio, 58-24 (won title)
Houston, 52-30 (lost in first round to Utah)
New Orleans, 56-26 (lost in 2nd round to San Antonio)
San Antonio, 56-26 (lost in Conference Finals to L.A. Lakers)
Houston, 55-27 (lost in first round to Utah)
Dallas, 51-31 (lost in first round to New Orleans)
The division has just been so deep that the Rockets have been unable to make any dent in the playoffs. As you’ll see below, we think the Mavs and Spurs are due for down years, while the Rockets should stay relatively stable. This gives the Rockets a nice opportunity to actually make a run. The team still will need to find points from somewhere but at least the division won’t be quite the same war zone that it had been.
2. San Antonio Spurs: We’ve seen some really pessimistic predictions on the Spurs. I agree that they have some problems here. Manu Ginobili is hurt and the team is slow and old, with five key players over 33. Throw in the fact that Tim Duncan is 32 and you worry that the Spurs are crumbling before your eyes. Not quite. TD at age 32 has quite a few good years left and Tony Parker and Manu (when he returns) make an All-Star backcourt. But the bench just looks so old and slow that I can’t see the Spurs having the depth to win 55-60 games without running the Big Three into the ground. This does not mean that we are looking at the Detroit Pistons circa 1991-92, where an old slow team will barely eke into the playoffs. No, the Spurs are still a legit 50-win team but their role as perennial title favorite has, at least temporarily, moved elsewhere. The Spurs should not be ignored but they don’t have the horses to really hang with the top top teams unless they fix that bench.
3. New Orleans Hornets: Unlike the Spurs, the Hornets have quite a bit of youth and explosiveness, they also have the best point guard in the NBA in Chris Paul. It’s hard to overstate how good Paul has been (he’s basically above average in almost every area of the game). The front line is also tough with David West and Tyson Chandler, who has defended quite well but hasn’t blocked as many shots as one would’ve thought. Still, I can’t help but feel that the Hornets were somewhat over their heads last year. Paul and West should both be All-Stars but there are no other sure things. Chandler has to stay healthy and play at this current level. Peja Stojakovic also looks he will continue to slip as a player (he has been steadily and prematurely declining for years). This adds up to a bit of a regression in the regular season to the 50-win level. A modest regular season decline does not mean, however, that the Hornets are not a playoff contender. The Paul/West/Chandler core is quite formidable and has the potential of beating any team in a short series come playoff time.
4. Dallas Mavericks: Dallas is not a bad team but the choices they made at the end of last season (trading young Devin Harris for an older Jason Kidd and giving big money to DeSagana Diop) smell of a desperation and adversely impact their future. Sure, getting Jason Kidd circa 2002-03 would’ve made a huge difference here but now Dallas made itself ten years older at the point (and much more expensive too). Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry are already over 30 and the key support is really fading (Erick Dampier is 33 and is due $33 million over the next three seasons and Jerry Stackhouse looks like he’s close to done at age-34). I don’t foresee the huge collapse here but the downward pressure on the franchise is palpable. You can see a near future where many of the players who were assets during the Mavs title runs will become immovable liabilities. Were not quite there yet but the end is in sight unless Dallas pulls off something really impressive on the trade/free agency market.
5. Memphis Grizzlies: There are some good little pieces here. Rudy Gay will be 20 ppg guy and there are also some other potentially good young players (O.J. Mayo, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol). The bottom line here is that the team has weak attendance, is hemorrhaging money, and is looking to cut costs. While I can’t blame ownership for wanting to sell the team (and save money in the short term), it does not make for a successful basketball team and only causes the disaffection of the fans to snowball. In fact, things have always been tough in Memphis for the Grizz. Take a look at the team’s year-by-year attendance numbers since heading into the South:
2001-02, 23-59 record, 591,030 tickets sold (25th in NBA)
2002-03, 28-54 record, 611,322 tickets sold (24th in NBA)
2003-04, 50-32 record, 622,723 tickets sold (25th in NBA)
2004-05, 45-37 record, 691,362 tickets sold (19th in NBA)
2005-06, 49-33 record, 647,533 tickets sold (26th in NBA)
2006-07, 22-60 record, 600,836 tickets sold (30th in NBA)
2007-08, 22-60 record, 523,578 tickets sold (29th in NBA)
Memphis is not a big market and there may not be the disposable income there that other cities have. Moreover, the dip in tickets could also be a result of general economic contraction in the United States. Even accepting all those facts, the attendance numbers here are putrid. Memphis has never really been able to attract much in the way of fans, even in the best of times, and they immediately lost their modest attendance peak of 2004-05 (the decline occurred even before the team regressed to lottery team). For what it’s worth, Memphis has never even surpassed the best attendance mark the team did in Vancouver (704,489 in 1995-96, 14th in the NBA). The Grizz probably won’t be moving any time soon because it’s unlikely the NBA would even consent to another move so shortly after the first move but things are looking pretty bad in Memphis both on and off the court for 2008-09.
1. Los Angeles Lakers: Going into the playoffs last year, the Lakers looked like the best team in the NBA that was peaking at the exact right time with not much in the way of weaknesses, with the notable exception of below average work on the offensive glass. Throw a healthy Andrew Bynum back into the mix and a developing Jordan Farmar into the core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom and this looks like the best team in the NBA. I don’t personally like Kobe of Phil Jackson but it’s hard not to see this team winning it all.
2. Phoenix Suns: With Dallas and San Antonio, this is the third of the aging troika. Steve Nash is 34 and finally showed some signs of declining last year. He’ll still be an All-Star but he’s ceded best point guard status in the Western Conference to both Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Despite this, the Suns would still be pretty dangerous had they not traded one of their stud forwards in Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq was much better than expected in Phoenix but even this surprise wasn’t near the value that Marion offered. I realize Marion may have been a locker room problem but Shaq, at age 36, is not the right return. His foul rate has really spiked, indicating that he just can’t keep up with the young guys anymore.
Even with the slow older Shaq, the Suns are potentially dangerous. Amare Stoudemire is just hitting his prime and had great numbers last year (26.7 pts/36 minutes). How will this all blend? The hope of management is that the defense, which was always not great (16th in the NBA) will improve and they will turn into a more conventional power. But worrying about team balance shouldn’t have mattered when the team was already a title contender. Really, the Suns should be going for a title right now with the same core that they’ve had for years. The revised core is an incomplete team in its own way and will be in the playoffs but is no longer the dynamic threat that it was just a year ago.
3. Golden State Warriors: Who has had a worse off season than the Warriors? They lose the point guard they absolutely wanted to keep in Baron Davis and they lose Monta Ellis to an injury that occurred while he was breaching his contract. Now Ellis is suspended without pay and the fallout revealed a potential dispute between management and GM Chris Mullin, who also may be on his way out of town. The remainder of the Warriors now is a whacky unbalanced Don Nelson team straight out of the late 1980s. Stephen Jackson, Corey Maggette, and Al Harrington are all really small forwards yet will be getting tons of time (and shots) on the court together. There is no real point guard on the roster (even if Ellis was healthy he isn’t really a point either). I imagine that the Warriors, who were a fast paced offense-only squad (2nd in pace, 4th in points per possession, and 22nd in defense per possession), will be even more extreme offense-based team this year. This will make the Warriors fun to watch and fun to play but not really good enough to be a playoff team.
4. Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers off season hasn’t been great either. The hope was to put together a tough veteran squad by nabbing Baron Davis, and pairing him with Elton Brand and their other vets (Cuttino Mobley, Tim Thomas, and Chris Kaman). But Brand seemed very much to want to leave town. He was ready to go the second the rules allowed similar to his signing with the Heath back in 2003 when he was a restricted free agent. The Clippers regrouped by nabbing Marcus Camby for nothing to get a bona fide forward, if not someone as good as Brand. But all this ignores the obvious point. No matter who plays power forward for the Clipps, the team won’t be great. A Brand-led Clipper team was really only a .500 squad because of the lack of options at shooting guard and small forward. Now, without Brand, things will be really ugly.
5. Sacramento Kings: Like the Nets, the Kings appear to have finally embraced the idea that they aren’t going to be very good for a while. Ron Artest has been jettisoned for Donte Greene. But things are not pretty in the short term. Older players like Brad Miller and Mikki Moore, who were brought in to help the team contend are pretty superfluous to a rebuilding effort. They also have Kenny Thomas (acquired as a fraction of the contracts taken on to dump Chris Webber) and the now-retired Shareef Abdur-Rahim due big money through the end of next season. It’ll be very hard to contend until this money is off the cap. In the meantime, the Kings have not helped themselves by overpaying for their marginal starter at point Beno Udrih. To make matters worse, so of the supposedly young players aren’t actually that young or that great (Francisco Garcia is 27 and John Salmons will be 29 this season). No, the actual young players to watch are Greene and Spencer Hawes. I don’t love Hawes or Greene but this year will be about letting Kevin Martin shoot a lot and seeing if either of these guys will be part of the next good Kings team. If the Kings don’t attempt to develop the youngsters, their season will be a failure, whether they win 20 games or 40 games.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Utah Jazz
3. Houston Rockets
4. San Antonio Spurs
5. New Orleans Hornets
6. Phoenix Suns
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Portland Trailblazers
Los Angeles Lakers over Utah Jazz
Los Angeles Lakers over Detroit Pistons
PG: Chris Paul
SG: Kobe Bryant
SF: Carmelo Anthony
PF: Amare Stoudemire
C: Tim Duncan