Sunday, December 25, 2011

Jeremy Conlin's NBA Preivew (Part III)

Okay, no more screwing around. The NBA season starts TODAY. As in, less than three hours from now.

If you missed Part I of my preview (the lottery teams), you can find it here.
If you missed Part II, (the playoff teams), you can find it here.

For Part III, let’s blow through all the rest of my picks for the upcoming season, broken into two groups – what I think and what I know.

I THINK Chris Paul will win the 2012 NBA MVP Award

Level of certainty: 50%

I’m not sure how happy I am about this one. My guess is that he’ll win it, and that there will be a fairly convincing argument to support that, but the media narrative that leads up to Chris Paul winning the MVP isn’t going to match up with the eventual result.

What I mean is, I could absolutely see a bunch of MVP voters explaining their pick by saying “Chris Paul is the MVP because he made the Clippers relevant and competitive in LA with the Lakers,” or “he probably should have won the MVP in 2008, so this season seems like a fair time to make up for that,” or other similar crap that really doesn’t mean anything. Players should be judged based on what they actually do on the court, not on how the things they do on the court are perceived by fans and by the media. That’s how we end up with Karl Malone winning the MVP in 1997 or Allen Iverson winning the MVP in 2001, or even Kobe winning it in 2008 or Derrick Rose winning it last season. In each of those four seasons, the media narrative trumped any basketball-related argument for who should win the MVP, and that’s stupid.

As for the other usual candidates, I can’t see LeBron or Wade winning it, because they play on the same team. Ditto for Durant and Russell Westbrook (and if James Harden makes a leap this year, that’ll hurt them even more). Howard probably won’t because there’s a chance he gets traded during the season, and even if he doesn’t, his team probably won’t be good enough to give him serious consideration (another stupid reason, but whatever). Kobe won’t win it because he’s going to keep declining in terms of impact and production. Rose probably won’t win it because I can’t see the voters giving it to someone in back-to-back years unless they’re dominant on a level like LeBron was in 2009 and 2010.

That really just leaves Chris Paul and Dirk. Dirk has a shot simply because, if he has a season good enough, there will be voters who will give him votes simply in an effort to retroactively give him last year’s MVP award. I should make it clear that I don’t agree with this line of thinking (as a matter of fact, I can only think of a few things that I agree with less); it’s effectively saying “Dirk probably should have gotten more votes in 2011, so I’ll vote him as the 2012 MVP instead, even though he (probably) and his team (probably) aren’t as good as they were last year,” which makes so little sense that it actually makes my brain hurt. I’m bringing this up because it’s GOING to happen, as annoying as it is.

However, what I described above won’t happen enough to win Dirk the award, so I think we can cross off Dirk. In that case, we’re left with just Chris Paul, and maybe one dark horse candidate that might emerge if a team wildly overachieves, like if Deron Williams somehow drags that sorry New Jersey squad to a 5 seed in the East. This year, I don’t think a dark horse will emerge, and that will leave us with just Chris Paul.

Assuming Paul has a season in line with last year, I’m totally fine with that. Last year he was 6th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, which put him higher than Durant, Westbrook, Rose, and Dirk (if only by a miniscule margin), and 4th in Win Shares while dragging an forgettable team with a rookie coach to the playoffs in a tough conference. If he produces at a similar level for this Clippers team, they should be one of the top four or five teams in the entire league, which will be enough to get him the award.

I THINK That Kyrie Irving Will Win The Rookie of The Year Award

Level of certainty: 60%

This is such a crappy rookie class that I don’t really know anything. Williams and Rubio are probably better players, but they won’t get enough minutes to make a serious impact. The guys that will get enough minutes (Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight, Enes Kanter) aren’t as good as Irving. So Irving seems to get the nod by default.

I KNOW The Miami Heat Will Win The Eastern Conference

Why? Because what exactly has changed in the landscape of the Eastern Conference? Like I wrote in Part II of the preview, Chicago lost in the Eastern Finals because everything revolved around Rose creating shots in crunch time. That didn’t change. All Rip Hamilton does is give them an extra weapon, but what they need is an extra soldier who can wield that weapon. Adding a player that can’t create his own offense isn’t going to put them over the top against Miami, who are completely capable of taking away Derrick Rose.

Boston is a year older, and that series wasn’t even close to begin with. If anything, Boston got worse (because of age) and Miami got better (because of adding Shane Battier and ditching a bunch of dead weight from last year).

Orlando and Atlanta are also moving in the wrong direction. For all we know, Dwight Howard and Josh Smith could be playing for other teams by the time May rolls around.

Indiana and Philly are both good and getting better, but they’re still at least a year away. They just don’t have the horses to run with Miami for seven games.

That leaves New York. Other than Miami, they have the highest ceiling of any Eastern Conference team. The addition of Tyson Chandler gives them a defensive anchor that they sorely lacked last year, and he also represents the lynchpin of the defense that completely flummoxed LeBron in the Finals last season. However, the rest of the personnel around Chandler this year doesn’t even come close to matching what Dallas had last year.

For New York to offer a serious threat to Miami, Chandler would have to provide almost a 180-degree turnaround to a defense that was 22nd in the league last season, AND they would need Baron Davis to reclaim his past glory and become an All-Star caliber point guard. Considering Davis is now 32, hasn’t been in shape or played good basketball in three full seasons, and is currently recovering from a herniated disk in his back. It’s not happening. The East is Miami’s to lose.

I THINK The Oklahoma City Thunder Will Win The Western Conference

Level of certainty: 85%

I’m pretty confident in this one, but not 100% sure. They certainly have the best team in the West, but the conference just seems so wide-open to me. Everything is going to depend on matchups, just like they did last year. If we had swapped the matchups in last year’s Western Semifinals, and had LA play Oklahoma City and Memphis play Dallas, my money is that LA and Memphis would have played in the Western Finals. But that’s just the way things go.

I like OKC this year because I think having a healthy, svelte-looking Perkins for a full season is going to take their defense to another level. They ranked 9th in defensive efficiency in 2010, but that regressed to 15th in 2011. This year that should bump back into the top 10. Perkins is going to be defending the other team’s primary post threat, which will allow Serge Ibaka to roam around like a free safety (the same way KG did in Boston in 2008 and 2009). Perkins is the best 1-on-1 post defender in the league, so anyone that plays next to him becomes an even more dynamic defensive player. Ibaka will be all over the place, especially on the weak side covering up for anyone else’s mistakes.

The other reason I’m riding the OKC train this year is James Harden. As Sebastian Pruiti covered in his column for Grantland, Harden is one of the most efficient players in the league when he’s in screen-roll scenarios to either side, at the elbow extended. He runs into trouble when he’s running screen-rolls at the top of the key. My guess is that this year, Harden and Westbrook will be playing together a lot more, which will put Harden in a lot more side screen-rolls (as he won’t be responsible for initiating the offense himself).

My only concerns are (1) the constantly-mentioned Westbrook-Durant “rift.” As of right now, I’m dismissing it as a bunch of poppycock, but if the situation does start to deteriorate, it will be bad news, and (2) how wide open the West is this year. I do, however, think we can cross off the following teams:

Sacramento, New Orleans, Utah, Phoenix, Minnesota, Houston, Golden State (obvious reasons).

Portland – they do a lot of things good, but they don’t do anything exceptionally. Teams like that never make it past Round 2.
Denver – similar to Portland, and similar to their problems last year. Depth will be great in the regular season, but you need horses in the Playoffs. Denver doesn’t have any real horses.
Dallas – I think the losses of Chandler and Dwayne Casey irreparably damage their defense. Odom provides them with versatility, but they won’t be able to get consistent stops

However, the following teams are still in it:

San Antonio and the Lakers – as bleak as things may look, I’m still not counting them out. If they make it to the Playoffs healthy, they could easily pull off a run like the 2010 Celtics where they win three straight series in which, at first glance, it seems like they have no business winning.

Memphis – The Randolph/Gasol combo is just so tough to deal with. The series went seven games last year, and now Memphis will have Rudy Gay. That could swing it. And lastly…

The LA Clippers – I have no idea what this team’s ceiling is. That’s what scares me about picking anyone else. If those two preseason games are any indication, this team is going to be borderline unguardable when they have Paul, Billups, Butler, Griffin, and Jordan on the floor together. Paul will run a high screen-roll with one of the bigs, Butler and Billups will spread the floor, and the other big will dive to the rim as a trailer. How do you guard that? However, I’m dubious that they’ll be able to put it all together in their first year together. They seem like a team that’s built for next year.

So here is my breakdown of Western probability:

OKC – 85%
LA Clippers – 8%
San Antonio – 2%
LA Lakers – 2%
Memphis – 2%
The Field – 1%

I KNOW That The Miami Heat Will Win The NBA Title

The matchups against all the Western Conference contenders favor Miami. They’re also more likely to end up with home-court advantage in the Finals, because the top teams in the West are packed tightly together, while the East has a few elite teams and then garbage.

Of course, those things were both probably true last year, so what do I know.

Dallas’ zone defense was a major factor in last year’s Finals matchup. So was having three different guys (Kidd, Terry, Barea) capable of breaking down Miami’s defense off the dribble. Right now, I don’t see any teams in the West that would be able to cause those problems for Miami. The guys that made the zone defense work were Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion. There aren’t any teams in either conference that can mimic that personnel. There might not even be any team in the entire league that can, other than maybe Chicago, but their coaching staff would be too stubborn to switch defensive schemes that drastically (and furthermore, I’m operating under the assumption that Miami making the Finals again is a foregone conclusion).

Memphis would have enough size to take advantage of Miami inside, but so did Boston and Chicago last year, and those were cakewalks for the Heat. The worst matchup for Miami would be the Clippers, because they’d be able to dominate the boards with Jordan and Griffin, and they’d have a point guard that knows how to attack any defense in Chris Paul. However, as I said earlier, I don’t think making the Finals is a realistic achievement for the Clippers, at least not this season.

That would leave just one team standing.


Do you hear that? A train is coming. It’s 2011-2012 NBA Season. You’d better get on before it leaves without you.

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