Friday, October 25, 2013

I Like This Team - A Glass-Half Full NBA Preview (Part III)

Miami is the favorite in the East, but they still have to go through Paul George and the Pacers. (Flickr)
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

This is Part III (the last one!) of I Like This Team. It was the only fair thing to do after slinging fistfuls of mud around last week. Parts I and II of my nice version can be found here and here.

As you might have noticed, at the end of each team's section, I've been offering a best-case scenario prognosis for the season. Going from team to team, the outcomes outlined in those best-case scenarios could vary greatly. However, now that we've reached the 10 best teams from last year's regular season, one might expect that the best-case scenario for each (or at least, the majority) of these teams is an NBA title. Given that as the case, I've made a point to be as specific as possible as to what exactly would lead them to said NBA title, at least in the instances where that really is their best-case scenario.

In any event, let's kick things off with one of the more intriguing teams this coming season:

Golden State Warriors

In the realm of NBA dork-ery, the Warriors made the biggest move of the offseason when they swiped Andre Iguodala away from Denver. Iguodala is like LeBron-lite, in that he’s a tall, lanky swingman with great ballhandling and passing skills who can defend up to four positions. He’s the NBA’s version of a Swiss army knife because his flexibility allows his team to utilize him in so many different ways. With Iguodala on the roster, Golden State can play small (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes, Lee/Bogut), standard (Curry, two of the Thompson/Iguodala/Barnes trio, Lee, Bogut), or even a ridiculous big lineup (Iguodala at point guard, Thompson, Barnes, Lee, Bogut). When you throw Draymond Green into the mix, the Warriors can basically assemble lineups by pulling names out of a hat. It’s that level of depth and flexibility that led to Denver winning 57 games last season with no central “star.” With Curry on board for Golden State, 57 wins might not just be realistic, it may be easy.

Best-Case Scenario: Andre Iguodala spends the season setting up Curry, Barnes, and Thompson, and consistently shutting down the opponent’s best perimeter player every night. Andrew Bogut enjoys his first full healthy season since 2011 and honors the occasion by putting together his best defensive season yet, contending for the Defensive Player of The Year award.  Marreese Speights replaces Carl Landry seamlessly, and Festus Ezili discovers that it’s easier to finish around the rim when you catch the ball first. The Warriors win 63 games and clinch the No. 1 seed in the West, and cruise home court advantage all the way to the NBA title.

Indiana Pacers

So here’s a team that won 49 games last season (not overly impressive), but came within a game of knocking Miami out of the playoffs (very impressive). It’s a team centered around Paul George, one of the fastest-rising stars in the league, and it’s a team that’s adding Danny Granger seemingly out of the ether. Last year’s starting lineup was one of the best five-man units in all of basketball – the only thing holding them back was their bench. Their bench should improve in spades this season with the return of Granger, but also the additions of Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, and C.J. Watson (all upgrades over their respective alumni). They also picked up Solomon Hill in the draft, a four-year player at Arizona with a good shooting stroke and good athleticism. If he can give them anything, their depth turns from a from a weakness to a strength.

Best-Case Scenario: Granger embraces his bench role, and along with Scola et al, props up the Indiana bench admirably. The defense remains elite and the Pacers blow through the Eastern Conference bracket, setting up a re-match with Miami. Roy Hibbert continues to be a matchup nightmare, and an improved Paul George and healthy Danny Granger are able to exchange blows with LeBron and the Heat. Indiana upsets Miami and advances to the Finals, but the energy expended in the Eastern Finals leaves them sluggish. The Western Conference bracket is just as treacherous and they end up in a coinflip series for the championship.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets were already comfortably a playoff team, and just added three well-traveled playoff warriors (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry) and a jack-of-all-trades forward who would fit well on any team (Andrei Kirilenko). Their backup point guard is most famous for a devastating knee injury that saw him miss the better part of three seasons, but he was a legitimately productive player in Cleveland last season and has looked very good so far in preseason. Their starting five is populated by proven star-caliber players, but if their bench can hold up, this team could be a nightmare come April and May.

Best-Case Scenario: Jason Kidd in his rookie season at the helm manages his veteran’s minutes perfectly. Kirilenko, Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche, and Mason Plumlee all pitch in spelling for Pierce and Garnett, and the Nets cruise into the playoffs as a mid-seed in the East. Once there, they offer shades of the 2010 Celtics, a prideful veteran team refusing to succumb to the young upstarts like Indiana and Chicago. They advance to the Finals and match up against San Antonio in an old-school hoops fan’s wet dream. KG finally gets the better of Tim Duncan and the Nets win the title Prokhorov promised.

New York Knicks

Everyone seemed to pan the Andrea Bargnani trade, but in terms of on-court performance for the coming season, Bargnani is probably an upgrade for the Knicks. He’ll certainly help them this season more than any of the picks they gave up, and while he doesn’t have one signature skill the way Steve Novak does, he’s a more dynamic offensive player with a better skill set. If Amar’e Stoudemire can’t play substantial minutes, it will help to have an offensive player who can shoulder some of the load while Carmelo Anthony isn’t in the game.

Iman Shumpert looks to be greatly improved, and they added Metta World Peace, Beno Udrih, and Tim Hardaway Jr., which should improve the back end of their bench. Their offense is largely dependent on making a lot of threes, and while they lost their two most accurate shooters from a year ago (Novak and Chris Copeland), their roster this year, top to bottom, has more shooters than it did last year.

Best-Case Scenario: Carmelo Anthony continues to thrive as a power forward on offense. Tyson Chandler returns to his 2012 defensive form, and along with the returning health of Iman Shumpert and the addition of Metta World Peace, the Knicks piece together a top-10 defense. Andrea Bargnani plays like he did in 2012, with a robust foul rate and stomach-able jump shooting, helping to keep the Knicks offense together when Carmelo sits. Amar’e is (relatively) healthy by the time the playoffs roll around, and their high-variance offense leads them as far as the Eastern Finals.

Los Angeles Clippers

Chris Paul is the best point guard in the world. Blake Griffin, somehow, is now one of the more underrated players in basketball. The “all he does is dunk/can’t shoot” narrative has officially swung so far that now many people have blinders on to the fact that he’s a high-skilled forward with amazing footwork and arguably the best passer of any power forward or center in the entire league.

One of the few offensive weaknesses the Clippers had last season was merely adequate shooting from the wings (as opposed to brilliant shooting like Miami or San Antonio or Oklahoma City had). In fact, the Clippers finished (barely) below league average in three-point shooting last season – 35.8% compared to a league average of 35.9%. With J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley taking minutes previously occupied by Chauncey Billups and Willie Green and Caron Butler, the Clippers should have ample space with which to operate on high screen-and-rolls.

The defense is still a work in progress, but ditching Vinny Del Negro and bringing in Doc Rivers will certainly provide an upgrade there – the Celtics have had no worse than the 6th-best defense in the league since 2008.

Best-Case Scenario: Simply the upgrade from Del Negro to Rivers nets advancing two additional rounds in the postseason. After that, any potential defensive foibles seem trivial, as Chris Paul is able to orchestrate a nearly unguardable offense. The Clippers cruise to a title, and Paul is elevated from a historical footnote left in LeBron’s wake to a true pantheon all-time great in his own right.

Memphis Grizzlies

Too much is being made of the Grizzlies not addressing their weaknesses (namely: shooting). All that really matters are these following facts:

1. After the Rudy Gay trade, Memphis went 27-10.

2. Prorated to a full season, 27-10 is the equivalent of winning 60 games.

3. The Grizzlies are returning EVERY relevant rotation player from last year’s team.

The top-7 players (minutes-wise) from last year’s postseason run are back. The No. 8 (Darrell Arthur) was flipped for a guy better than him (Kosta Koufos). No. 9 is Keyon Dooling (who cares if he’s gone?). No. 10 is Ed Davis, who is back and is likely to see a bigger role this season.

Everyone is back. On top of that, they added Mike Miller (shooting!), Nick Calathes (6-6 point guard from Florida who tore up Europe last year) and Jamaal Franklin (insane rebounding guard) to fill out their perimeter depth to match their ridiculous big man rotation. Memphis is deep, and they’re still an elite team.

Best-Case Scenario: The regular season is same old same old; Memphis wins 50-some odd games and easily makes the playoffs. After keeping him locked up behind a “BREAK IN CASE OF PLAYOFFS” screen, they unleash Mike Miller and his shooting provides a newfound space for the Grizzlies offense. All of a sudden, Randolph and Gasol have room to operate and an offensive explosion carries the Grizzlies to the title. 

Denver Nuggets

People are acting like the sky is falling in Denver, but that just isn’t true. They’re returning seven of their top 10 players from last year, and it’s not like they’re replacing the departing guys with D-League riff-raff. They traded Kosta Koufos for Darrell Arthur, who played key minutes for a team in the Western Conference Finals last year. They lost Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer, but brought in Nate Robinson, Randy Foye, and J.J. Hickson. Last year’s first round pick, Evan Fournier, will also see an expanded role this season.

In other words, Denver is going to be worse, but not THAT much worse. And it’s not like the team last year was barely in the playoffs – they won 57 games. When you return the majority of a core that won 57 games, you’re going to have some success, even if it’s just accidental.

Best-Case Scenario: The Nuggets juggle their moving parts admirably, and Ty Lawson plays at an All-Star level, keeping the team together until Danilo Gallinari returns from his injury. The team is up and down for much of the season, but is able to slide into the playoffs. In a Round 1 rematch with Golden State, Denver gets their revenge, upsetting the favored Warriors, getting key contributions from different players in each game. They fall to San Antonio in Round 2, but the season is deemed a wild success.

San Antonio Spurs

Same team, different year. As long as they have Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Popovich, and 9 other healthy bodies, they’re going to win 50 games and make the playoffs. Luckily, this year, they have a rapidly improving Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green alongside a productive big man in Tiago Splitter. As they slowly take the reins away from the big three, they’ll transition over to Leonard, Green and Splitter, and whoever else they have waiting in the wings.

In the short term, Duncan and Parker should still be just fine, and Ginobili will be around for as long as his body holds up. He was up and down in the Finals last year, but the spin on that would obviously be that he held up well enough for the Spurs to reach the Finals in the first place. Now the Spurs have Marco Belinelli to round out their perimeter depth, and he’ll be worth his weight in gold shooting corner threes all season.

Best-Case Scenario: An exact replica of last season, only Kawhi Leonard makes his free throws and/or Chris Bosh doesn’t make a miracle rebound to set up a Ray Allen three. San Antonio came as close to winning a title without actually winning it as is humanly possible. There’s no reason why they can’t do it again but have luck fall their way this time.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti doesn’t do things randomly. He let Kevin Martin walk in free agency because he knew he had Jeremy Lamb waiting in the wings. He also drafted Andre Roberson, who has drawn comparisons to Kawhi Leonard, and not undeservedly. Oklahoma City has options off the bench.

The only real question is if they can stay competitive through the first month of the season while Russell Westbrook heals from his off-season surgery. They went 2-4 without him in the playoffs last season, but that was against top competition that was able to tailor specific gameplans to slow down Durant. During the regular season, opponents don’t have that luxury, and the Thunder will have the luxury of a few cupcake games against Phoenix, Sacramento, and Utah, among others, to buoy their record for the first handful of weeks. Once Westbrook is back, Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Roberson, and fellow rookie Steven Adams will provide the young legs off the bench necessary to chase the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

Best-Case Scenario: Lamb’s D-League production from last year (21/5/3, .583 TS%, 23.5 PER) is indicative of true NBA ability. He does an admirable Kevin Martin impersonation with slightly worse shooting but far superior defense and is a contender for the 6th Man award at season’s end. Russell Westbrook returns from his injury as good as new and returns to terrorizing the rim with vicious attacks. Durant improves as a passer and defender, continuing to blur the line between himself and LeBron James. The Thunder lock down the No. 1 seed in a competitive Western Conference and lay waste to their competition on their way to a rematch with Miami. This time, it’s Oklahoma City’s bench that out-plays Miami’s, and Durant wins his first Finals MVP.

Miami Heat

This team has LeBron.

Best-Case Scenario: Come on, you already know this one.

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