Friday, December 23, 2011

Jeremy Conlin's NBA Preview (Part II)

If you missed Part I of my NBA preview, you can find it here or on the front page. In Part I, I covered all of the lottery teams, so in Part II, I’m going to cover my 16 projected playoff teams.

After I went through and predicted the records of all 30 teams, I realized that of last year’s 16 playoff teams, the only one that I picked to miss the playoffs was New Orleans, and that was only because they traded their best player. Most seasons there are at least three teams that reach the playoffs that weren’t there the year before – last season there were five (New York, Philly, Indiana, Memphis, and New Orleans), so let’s just say that my prediction of a 94% retention rate among playoff teams has about a snowball’s chance in hell of coming to fruition.

Either way, let’s power through it. Like I did in Part I, I’ve listed each team’s record, as well as what that record would correspond to with an 82-game schedule. I’ve organized the teams in the order of ascending record, but because these are the playoff teams, I’ve also included what that ranking corresponds to in terms of my prediction for playoff seedings.

16. Atlanta (33-33)
Translated to 82 games: (41-41)
#8 Seed in East

On one hand, the Hawks went 10-17 after the All-Star break last year and finished with the scoring differential of a 39-win team, not a 44-win team. Since then, they lost Jamal Crawford and replaced him with Tracy McGrady.

On the other hand, they upset Orlando in Round 1, played pretty competitively with Chicago in Round 2 (including a win on the road in Game 1) and saw Jeff Teague blossom into a legitimate starting point guard.

In other words, there are reasons to expect some pretty severe regressions, but there are also reasons to be optimistic. I’m going to split the difference and pick them to finish about where they did last season.

15. Indiana (35-31)
Translated to 82 games: (43-49)
#7 Seed in East

Why does everyone think Indiana is going to blow the doors off the East this season?

Let’s get this straight. Indiana was 37-45 last season. Their only notable roster additions were David West (who tore his ACL in March) and George Hill (who is a good third guard and nothing more). Meanwhile, they lost three guys from their rotation, two of whom were actually good (Josh McRoberts and Mike Dunleavy). To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that David West with a surgically repaired knee (that isn’t even close to 100% yet) is better than Josh McRoberts. I’m really not. Compare their numbers (Per 36 Minutes) from last season:

McRoberts: 12.0 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 2.4 B/SPG, 54.7 FG%, 60.8 TS%, 16.0 PER
West: 19.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 2.4 APG, 1.9 B/SPG, 50.8 FG%, 55.8 TS%, 20.4 PER

So West scores more (but less efficiently), and rebounds less, generates fewer assists, and is worse defensive. Also, David West TORE HIS ACL less than nine months ago, and can probably only play about 25 minutes a game for the first few months of the season. Are we sure he’s THAT much better than McRoberts?

So again, a team that finished 37-45 and made no real noticeable roster upgrades is supposed to improve by the shortened-season equivalent of 15 wins? It’s not like they’re the 2010 Thunder who had Kevin Durant rounding into MVP-caliber form. Assuming West is an improvement over McRoberts (questionable), and George Hill is an improvement over Brandon Rush (more conclusive), and we see improvement out of Paul George and Roy Hibbert (some, but probably not substantial), where does that leave them? They aren’t that much better, right? I’m bumping them six wins from last season, and that’s all you’re getting out of me.

14. Portland  (36-30)
Translated to 82 games: (45-37)
#8 Seed in West

On the NBA Tragedy Scale (ranging from 1 to Len Bias), Brandon Roy’s retirement ranks somewhere between a 7 and Grant Hill’s ankle problems. In a way, it’s almost a good thing that he retired, because I think both sides just needed a clean break, as it was clear that he wasn’t going to be a part of Portland’s future plans any longer.

Now they’re moving on without him, and it looks like they have a pretty good team. They have all the makings of a squad that can push tempo and take advantage of teams on tired legs (which there will be plenty). Trading Andre Miller for Ray Felton was a no-brainer decision, but it remains to be seen whether Nate McMillan will let them run. During McMillan’s tenure as head coach, Portland has finished 28th, 29th, 29th, 30th, 30th, and 30th in the NBA in pace factor. With Ray Felton at point guard and so much athleticism at seemingly every position, it would seem criminal if this team had to play a slow, plodding pace. I’m penciling them in for a slight regression from last season because I think their roster isn’t suited to play the style that they’ll probably end up playing, and guys like Felton and Jamal Crawford might have trouble adjusting.

13. Philadelphia (37-29)
Translated to 82 games: (46-36)
#6 Seed in East

They brought back basically the entire team they had last year, only Thaddeus Young, Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner, and Marreese Speights should all improve from last season.

That being said, I don’t like how they didn’t address their biggest offensive need (shooting) or their biggest defensive need (size). Doug Collins also has a history of having teams turn on him fairly quickly (especially young teams), so if things start poorly for Philly, the honeymoon phase could end real quick.

I think all of the players that I mentioned above will see improvement, but I’m not sure that the team is going to see a corresponding improvement. It’s a funky team and not all of the pieces fit together in any coherent way, so things could get a bit chaotic as some guys develop and others regress.

12. Denver (39-27)
Translated to 82 games: (49-33)
#7 Seed in West

Denver was 32-25 with Carmelo last season, and 18-7 without him. Prorated to 82-game records, they were a 46-36 team with him, and a 59-23 team without him. That’s what happens when you receiver four legitimate rotation players in exchange for one guy. Now, I had to scale their record back a bit, because Wilson Chandler, J.R. Smith, and Kenyon Martin, each of whom saw significant playing time in the playoffs last year, are stuck in China until March. They’ve been replaced by Rudy Fernandez, Ronnie Brewer, and two rookies (Jordan Hamilton and Kenneth Faried), so I would expect some regression there.

I’d also expect some regression because of the Andre Miller/Ray Felton swap. Denver loves to play at breakneck pace, which Felton is much better suited for, but I would expect that Ty Lawson will see a bump in minutes to ensure that the offense stays up-tempo.

Here’s Denver’s trump card – their depth is going to help them on three different levels this year. First, the most obvious example – having depth is better than not having depth. Secondly, they’re a deep team that plays their home games at altitude, so when other teams are sucking wind even worse than normal, Denver can just sub in guys and not see any real regression. Third, they’re a deep team that plays their home games at altitude during a season with a compressed schedule. Teams would already be gassed just from playing at altitude. But a gassed team playing at altitude that also happens to be playing their fifth game in six nights? Game over. Denver should clean up at home this season, which they’ll ride all the way to the playoffs.  

11. Boston (40-26)
Translated to 82 games: (50-32)
#5 Seed in East

Is there anything new to write about this team? It’s going to be the same nucleus for the fifth straight year. The loss of Jeff Green will hurt their depth, but their bench isn’t any worse than New York’s or LA’s or Miami’s. However, because of their age, the goofy schedule will probably hurt them more than any other team in the league, so there’s going to be some regression.

It will be interesting to see what happens with this team going forward. GM Danny Ainge has no qualms about shaking up his team if he doesn’t like what he sees, and my guess is that he knows that, given the landscape of the East, the Celtics don’t have a realistic shot at the title this year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rondo traded for a few small pieces (with a young point guard involved, obviously) to try to set them up for a free agent run next summer.

10. Orlando (40-26)
Translated to 82 games: (50-32)
#4 Seed in East

The dumbest ranking of the year, because if they trade Dwight Howard during the season, their team falls apart. This is a bit of a dilemma for Orlando, because Howard is going to walk away this summer regardless, and everyone knows this. Making matters worse is Brook Lopez’s foot injury, which takes away Orlando’s preferred trade partner until Lopez is healthy, which might not be until after the season.

So, let’s operate under the assumption that Howard stays in town all year. If that’s the case, Orlando will still be a strong team. Ryan Anderson will (hopefully) play more, Redick will see a bump in minutes with the departure of Gilbert Arenas, and odds say that Quentin Richardson will likely shoot better than 34% from the floor.

Defensively, they’ll be near the top of the league simply because of Howard. Over the last three years, they’ve been 3rd, 3rd, and 1st in defensive efficiency without even really one other above-average defensive player. If Howard is at his best, Orlando can still hang their hat on defense, which will be enough to get them into the playoffs.

9. LA Lakers (41-25)
Translated to 82 games: (51-31)
#6 Seed in West

The LA rollercoaster is slowing down. I would have dropped them in the standings even BEFORE they gave away Lamar Odom for nothing, but after that trade, I just can’t see them keeping up with the rest of the conference.

They have three good players. Two of them are 31 or over, the other has two bad knees and is suspended for the first five games of the season. Everyone else on the team ranges from “barely above league average” to “unmitigated disaster.” They have no depth, a new coach, and Kobe is already banged up with a torn ligament in his wrist. I just see red flags all over the place.

The only thing that could save LA’s season would be a trade for Dwight Howard, but at this point it’s pretty clear that (1) LA isn’t willing to give up Gasol AND Bynum to get him, or (B) Orlando is afraid of Bynum’s knees and doesn’t want to take that risk, or (C) both.

If they get into the playoffs healthy, obviously anything can happen, but I see the Lakers seriously struggling in the regular season.

8. New York (42-24)
Translated to 82 games: (52-30)
#3 Seed in East

Every time I wanted to push this team closer to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference, I kept coming back to the fact that they were 42-40 last season, and only 14-14 after the Carmelo Anthony trade. Sure, they swapped Chauncey Billups for Tyson Chandler (which will improve their defense), but their depth isn’t any better (Mike Bibby, Jared Jeffries, Renaldo Balkman, and Jerome Jordan are prominently involved in their rotation) and they won’t have a natural point guard until Baron Davis is in playing shape again (which will be a while). When Mike D’Antoni doesn’t have a point guard, things go badly.

The other thing that concerns me is that D’Antoni has a long, storied history of running his players into the ground. This season, with the schedule the way it is (the “compressed schedule” horse has been dead for two weeks, but I can’t stop beating it – it’s something that has to be factored in – that’s just the way it is), and Amar’e already having balky knees, that could spell trouble.

7. San Antonio (43-23)
Translated to 82 games: (53-29)
#5 Seed in West

It’s amazing how many times people write off San Antonio. Everyone wrote them off last season and they finished with the #1 seed in the West (and very well could have made the Finals had Ginobili not sprained his elbow a week before the playoffs started). Now it seems like everyone is writing them off again because they’re “too old.”

Well, don’t look now, but this team isn’t that old. DeJuan Blair is 22. James Anderson (last year’s #1 pick who tore his ACL) is 22. Kawhi Leonard, the #15 pick in this draft, is 20. Cory Joseph, San Antonio’s other 1st-rounder this year, is also 20. Gary Neal is 27, but this is only his 2nd NBA season. Tiago Splitter is 26. They have young legs at every position that will help them spell minutes for the geriatrics during those tough stretches of the schedule.

If not for the compressed schedule, I would have pushed the Spurs even higher, but knowing Gregg Popovic, he’s liable to just not bring Ginobili or Duncan on one of those short “@Phoenix, day off, @Utah, @Denver the next night” trips, so I dropped them a few spots.

6. Dallas (43-23)
Translated to 82 games: (53-29)
#4 Seed in West

A lot of people that I have been talking to seem to think that Dallas is still the best team in the West. I’m having a lot of trouble believing that. They swapped DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler for Vince Carter, Tyson Chandler for Lamar Odom, and J.J. Barea for a (still injured) Rodrigue Beaubois. If you ask me, those are all steps backwards.

They’ve gotten significantly worse defensively with the loss of Chandler and defensive guru Dwayne Casey (the addition of Vince Carter isn’t helping things either), and they didn’t inject any youth into an aging team about to confront a severely compressed schedule. They’re deep and they’re versatile, but I just can’t see them having the horses to compete with the top three teams in the West.

5. Memphis (44-22)
Translated to 82 games: (55-27)
#3 Seed in West
Memphis should ride the momentum they found in the playoffs last year into a lot of success this year. As for the people saying that Rudy Gay’s return will screw up their chemistry, I would beg them to go back and watch the tape from the Oklahoma City series and count how many wasted possessions they had when they couldn’t get the ball to Randolph or Gasol and were stuck with no alternative when their perimeter guys couldn’t create offense.

The injury to Darrell Arthur will hurt their frontcourt depth, but they’ve bolstered their backcourt depth with the addition of Josh Selby (who has real sleeper potential), and Xavier Henry should improve over his train wreck season last year. An injury to either Randolph or Gasol would be curtains, but if they stay healthy, this is a top-3 team in the West.

4. LA Clippers (46-20)
Translated to 82 games: (57-25)
#2 Seed in West

Oh yes, I’m all-in on this Chris Paul Clippers team. I’ll be a bit worried in the playoffs, because they don’t match up well against a few of the other teams in the West, mostly because their lack of a natural shooting guard – Ginobili would eat them alive if they squared off in May. But for now, I really think they’re the 2nd-best team in the West. We’ve already seen it in the preseason games –the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin pick-and-roll game is going to be the most dynamic in the entire league – better than Wade and Bosh, better than LeBron and Bosh, better than Rose and Boozer, better than Terry and Dirk. Only teams like Miami and Chicago, who have impeccable screen-roll coverage, will be able to contain them.

Defensively, they’re still a work in progress. Any perimeter player with size that can create off the dribble is going to kill them. They don’t have much depth up front, so if DeAndre Jordan gets in foul trouble (which he does – 4.5 fouls per 36 minutes last year), they’ll be left without anyone to protect the rim unless Trey Thompkins makes an immediate impact.

Also, there’s the whole Vinny Del Negro part, but I don’t see that catching up to them until the Playoffs, if it does at all.

3. Chicago (46-20)
Translated to 82 games: (58-24)
#2 Seed in East

I don’t see Chicago being that much different than they were last season. Yes, they upgraded their shooting guard, but not in the right way. They already had swingmen that could knock down open shots – Keith Bogans shot 38% from three and Kyle Korver shot 41.5%. What they needed (and still need) is a perimeter player that can create off the dribble to take pressure off of Derrick Rose.

Look back at all the successful teams of the last seven or eight years. They all had multiple perimeter players that could penetrate, play pick-and-roll, and create shots for teammates. San Antonio has Parker and Ginobili. Boston has Rondo and Pierce. Miami has LeBron and Wade. Dallas has Kidd and Terry, and they had Barea and Devin Harris mixed in in past years also. The only exception to this rule is the Lakers, but they ran the triangle, and that’s not an option for Chicago because it would completely shackle Derrick Rose.

One of the biggest things that held back LeBron’s Cleveland teams, and even the Steve Nash Phoenix teams (to an extent) was that everything depended on one guy creating every shot in crunch time, and that’s not a model that will work.

Chicago will be in the mix because of their defense, but if they run into Miami again, it’s probably going to be the same result. Wade or LeBron will be able to swallow up Rose, and Chicago won’t have a Plan B.

2. Oklahoma City (48-18)
Translated to 82 games: (60-22)
#1 Seed in West

First of all, I’m tired of the Durant/Westbrook relationship being compared to Avon and Stringer from The Wire. There is absolutely no chance that Durant hires Kobe and Ron Artest (I don’t know, you try coming up with an NBA equivalents of Avon and Brother Mouzzone) to murder Westbrook in an abandoned office building. It’s not happening.

I’m expecting big things out of OKC this year. Growing pains happen, and teams either grow out of them (like Jordan and Pippen) or say “fuck it, we’re winning anyway” (like Shaq and Kobe). There really aren’t any examples of two stars failing to coexist to the point that one had to be traded. There was Shaq and Penny, but Shaq still walked away on his own (and wanted to play in a big market anyway), and there was the Jamal Mashburn/Jimmy Jackson rift, but at that point, come on, it’s fucking Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson. It’s not even close to being the same magnitude.

Assuming Durant and Westbrook figure out how to play together, and we see big improvements out of James Harden (I’m expecting HUGE things from him this year) and Serge Ibaka, OKC should be a juggernaut in the West.

1. Miami (52-14)
Translated to 82 games: (65-17)
#1 Seed in East

Here’s why Miami is going to go ham on the entire NBA: They aren’t going to screw around with their chemistry any more. Last season, three different point guards and there different centers started at least 11 games for the Heat last year, which seems insane when you consider that they didn’t have a major injury at either position. Carlos Arroyo started 42 games for Miami last year, and he got waived after the trade deadline to make room for Mike Bibby. Zydrunas Ilgauskas started 51 games in the regular season, and then didn’t even get on the floor against Chicago or Dallas in the playoffs.

This year, they’re going to start Chalmers and Joel Anthony alongside Wade, James, and Bosh, with Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, James Jones, Mike Miller, rookie Norris Cole, and Random Big Man X (Eddy Curry? Dexter Pittman?) filling out the rotation. That’s pretty much set in stone. Chalmers should benefit from being the starter, as he shot over 9% better from the floor last season when he was in the starting lineup, and seemingly gained a lot of confidence over the course of the Dallas series.

The other reason? That hiccup at the start of last season when they started 9-8 isn’t going to happen again. They have a full year under their belts, so they aren’t going to have to be learning to play together on the fly like they were last year, which clearly was affecting them in a few games (opening night against Boston and the overtime game against Utah both come to mind). This year, the open the season with a pretty easy schedule – they have Charlotte, Minnesota, Charlotte, Atlanta, Indiana, Atlanta, New Jersey, and Golden State all in a row between December 28th and January 10th. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them sweep those 8 games and ride the momentum from there. 

Coming tomorrow: Part III

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