Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Way-Too-Long NBA Preview (Part II)

Chris Paul is ready to lead the Clippers to Los Angeles relevance.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

I began the end of the SuiteSports 2013-2014 NBA Preview yesterday with Part I of the Way-Too-Long Preview. This is Part II, the final installment.

Because the season starts today.

All the previous publishings can be found on the sidebar on the right-hand side, or you can just plow ahead with the 15 teams I didn't cover yesterday. Again, there is no secret code to be unlocked to derive meaning from the order. I pulled them out of a hat and then made sure my Finals pick was at the end. That's it. Now read it.

Because it's basketball season.

Los Angeles Lakers
2013 Record: 45-37
Over/Under Wins: 36.5
Odds to Win Championship: 40/1

Scouting Report: The Lakers’ odds to win the championship are hysterically funny. Compared to, say, the Pistons, their over/under line for wins is actually four lower (Pistons are at 40.5), but their odds to win the title are significantly lower (Detroit is at 75/1). This basically means that people are still betting on the Lakers to win the title in greater numbers than those betting on Detroit or other teams projected in that win range, like New Orleans (39.5; 100/1) or Atlanta (39.5; 150/1). Lakers fans, man. Gotta love ‘em.

This season will be a rough one for the Lakers. Kobe is still out indefinitely, and Steve Nash seemingly aged 200 years in 45 seconds last year. Pau Gasol regressed HARD, but it’s unclear how much of that was because he was playing out of position for most of the season. In any event, the Lakers simply don’t have the top-end talent to prop up the riff-raff at the end of the roster like they’ve had in recent years. The track record for players coming back from Achilles injuries is pretty bad (just ask Elton Brand or Chauncey Billups), so I wouldn’t expect much from Kobe, either.

Prediction: 34-48, 12th in Western Conference

San Antonio Spurs
2013 Record: 58-24
Over/Under Wins: 55.5
Odds to Win Championship: 14/1

Scouting Report: I don’t know how they do it. Every single year it seems like they show up with a random guy that just fits flawlessly into their system. First they pulled Danny Green and Gary Neal out of nowhere and turned them into valuable rotation players, and now they have Marco Belinelli, and if preseason is any indication, he’s going to shoot about 90% from three this season.

As they move forward, they’re going to start playing through Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter more and more, and Parker and Duncan less and less – they’ve already started taking the reins away from Ginobili. But right now they’re still in the happy middle where Leonard and Splitter are good enough that they are highly valuable, and Parker and Duncan haven’t begun any type of precipitous decline.

Their near-flawless system and near-perfect execution will carry them in the regular season. Whether they can do the same in the playoffs or the rest of the conference caught up with them remains to be seen.

Prediction: 57-25, 1st in Western Conference

Golden State Warriors
2013 Record: 47-35
Over/Under Wins: 51.5
Odds to Win Championship: 16/1

Scouting Report: This will be the most fun team in the Western Conference, and if they stay healthy, one of the best. Adding Andre Iguodala gives them the same lineup flexibility that helped Denver win 57 games and grab the No. 3 seed last season.

At the end of the day, the success of the Warriors will come down to how healthy Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut are in the postseason. Curry was able to stay healthy last year after missing 40 games in 2012, and while Bogut has missed 104 games in the last two seasons, he was healthy and effective in the postseason, and other than a brief bout with back spasms, has been healthy in the pre-season as well. They’re an incredibly high-variance team with all the threes they shoot, which means they could rip through the entire conference with torrid shooting, or they could flame out in a first round upset. One way or the other, it’ll be fun to watch.

Prediction: 51-31, 6th in Western Conference

Orlando Magic
2013 Record: 20-62
Over/Under Wins: 23.5
Odds to Win Championship: 500/1

Scouting Report: In all honesty, I could see Orland winning anywhere between 15 and 40 games this season, probably the biggest range for any team that doesn’t have serious health questions associated. If Victor Oladipo takes to the point guard position quickly, and the Harris/Harkless/Vucevic frontcourt takes a leap forward, they could actually fight for a playoff spot. If none of those things happen, they’ll probably suck.

The good news for Orlando is that they’ll unquestionably be the most watchable crappy team this year. Phoenix and Philadelphia are outright tanking and will probably shelve any player even remotely helping them win. Boston, Los Angeles and Charlotte are just depressingly bad. Orlando, however, has some intriguing pieces that could turn into franchise building blocks down the road. That probably won’t help them very much this season, though.

Prediction: 25-57, 13th in Eastern Conference

New Orleans Pelicans
2013 Record: 27-55
Over/Under Wins: 39.5
Odds to Win Championship: 100/1

Scouting Report: I wrote about the New Orleans rebuild this summer, and most of my thoughts carry over to now. I’ve never seen a team get the No. 1 pick, and then a year later push all of their chips to the center. Most teams opt for a slow build, carefully building their team like a house of cards. The Pelicans path would be roughly akin to dumping the cards out of the box and hoping they stack properly.

The best-case scenario for this team, if Jrue Holiday returns to his All-Star form, Eric Gordon is healthy, and Anthony Davis takes a huge defensive leap, could be as high as 55 wins. I don’t quite see it. There’s a win-now mandate in New Orleans, but I think they’re still a year away.

Prediction: 40-42, 9th in Western Conference

New York Knicks
2013 Record: 54-28
Over/Under Wins: 49.5
Odds to Win Championship: 25/1

Scouting Report: The addition of Andrea Bargnani is worrisome. Yes, he’s a more dynamic offensive player than Steve Novak, but he’s not as good a shooter, and playing him next to Carmelo and Tyson Chandler forces Carmelo into the small forward slot, a place where he isn’t nearly as effective as he is when he plays power forward. Yes, Carmelo could end up playing as a nominal small forward but playing in the same role he did last year (with Bargnani relegated to standing in the corner), but there are questions as to how effective that will be if Bargnani can’t space the floor as effectively as Novak could.

The Knicks found success last season on shooting an absurd amount of threes (most in the league) and making a high percentage of them (fourth-best). They can continue to hoist threes at an alarming rate, but it’s unlikely that they’ll make as high a percentage of their attempts. That regression on offense should drop them down the conference ladder a few spots.

Prediction: 48-34, 5th in Eastern Conference

Phoenix Suns
2013 Record: 25-57
Over/Under Wins: 20.5
Odds to Win Championship: 300/1

Scouting Report: Trading Marcin Gortat for Emeka Okafor (who is out indefinitely with herniated disc in his neck) was the official white flag of the season. The Suns have no interest in competing this season, and could end up with as many as four picks in next summer’s draft: their own, Indiana’s via the Luis Scola trade, Minnesota’s via a three-team deal when they sent Robin Lopez to New Orleans and received Wesley Johnson (top 13 protected), and Washington’s from this trade (top 12 protected).

The only thing to really watch for this season is how Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe mesh. Dragic was signed under the old regime, but is still a good player on a fair contract, so it’s not like he has one foot out the door. But if the Dragic/Bledsoe combo doesn’t work out, it seems like Dragic would be the odd man out and the new management would build around Bledsoe, Alex Len, and whoever comes in the next draft. 

Prediction: 19-63, 15th in Western Conference

Charlotte Bobcats
2013 Record: 21-61
Over/Under Wins: 26.5
Odds to Win Championship: 500/1

Scouting Report: It’s nearly impossible that a team can have four lottery picks from the last three drafts and still be seem hopeless, but Charlotte is pulling it off. Their “core” consists of Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo, and Cody Zeller, which is the type of core that loses 60 games. Zeller has promise, he’s a high-skill forward with underrated athleticism (mostly because he’s white and people never give white big men proper credit for athleticism), but there just isn’t much around them otherwise

Al Jefferson is a “name” player, and is certainly a good offensive player, but he definitely can’t carry an offense and he’s an abysmal defensive player. He’ll improve them ever so slightly, but thankfully not enough that they’ll end up surrendering the protected pick they owe to Chicago. They’ll be able to roll that over for at least one more year.

Prediction: 24-58, 14th in Western Conference

Atlanta Hawks
2013 Record: 44-38
Over/Under Wins: 39.5
Odds to Win Championship: 150/1

Scouting Report: Over the last two years, they’ve lost Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, but they’ve been able to replace them, not with single players, but in the aggregate. Johnson and Smith soaked up a lot of possessions, but they weren’t overly efficient with them. Now that those possessions will be distributed amongst Jeff Teague, Lou Williams, Paul Millsap, Elton Brand, and Al Horford, there will be a more economical and a more efficient allocation of touches.

Where they’ll miss Smith is on defense. He was their best and most versatile defender, and they ranked 9th in the league in defensive efficiency last season. Millsap and Brand are both capable defenders, although neither would qualify as particularly good ones, so there will be some regression on that end. On balance, the overall talent of the team is about the same as it was last year, but as the top of the conference gets better (particularly Brooklyn and Chicago), some of those wins will come out of Atlanta’s column.

Prediction: 41-41, 8th in Eastern Conference

Chicago Bulls
2013 Record: 45-37
Over/Under Wins: 56.5
Odds to Win Championship: +550 (11/2)

Scouting Report: The Derrick Rose-Jimmy Butler-Mike Dunleavy-Taj Gibson-Joakim Noah lineup is going to be absolute fire. They have shooting, they have an explosive scorer, they have a wing stopper, and they have the best defensive big man combo in all of basketball (unless you want to count Dwight Howard and Omer Asik). If the Bulls want to finally get past Miami, that’s the lineup they need to ride.

The return of Rose means the return of Chicago’s offense, which was painful at times last season. And if Tony Snell can contribute sooner rather than later, the Bulls could go 11-deep. Having home-court advantage will go a long way towards toppling Miami (the 2011 Eastern Finals notwithstanding), and the return of offense along with superior depth should get them there.

Prediction: 58-24, 1st in Eastern Conference

Denver Nuggets
2013 Record: 57-25
Over/Under Wins: 45.5
Odds to Win Championship: 50/1

Scouting Report: Teams that win 57 games one season usually don’t miss the playoffs the next. On the other hand, teams that win 57 games one season usually don’t fire their coach and part ways with two very important cogs. Andre Iguodala skipped town for greener pastures in Oakland, and Kosta Koufos, the secret to their big man rotation, was traded away on draft night. On top of that, Danilo Gallinari has a torn ACL and will likely be out until at least the All-Star break in February.

If you look at last year’s roster from top to bottom, then do the same for this year, you’ll notice that Iguodala, Koufos, and Corey Brewer (the three best defensive players on last year’s team) have been replaced by J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye, and Nate Robinson (three put-a-burlap-sack-over-your-head bad defenders). Denver’s 10th-ranked defense from a year ago should plummet into the 20s. With Gallinari out, George Karl fired, and a bunch of new pieces with weird fits, their 5th-ranked offense from a year ago should also regress noticeably. They’ll stumble into at least 25 home wins just by showing up, but returning to the playoffs, let alone winning another 50 games, is far from probable.

Prediction: 39-43, 11th in Western Conference

Portland Trail Blazers
2013 Record: 33-49
Over/Under Wins: 38.5
Odds to Win Championship: 150/1

Scouting Report: Portland spent most of last season with a passable starting unit, but a dreadful bench. They’ve since ditched the weak link of their starting lineup (J.J. Hickson, to be replaced by Robin Lopez), and upgraded just about every reserve spot. Dorell Wright gives them a skilled wing that they didn’t have last year (hence Sasha Pavlovic playing over 500 minutes), and they have three young guys in Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, and C.J. McCollum who will hopefully be able to play their way into relevance.

At the end of the day, however, there are just too many teams in the Western Conference. They’re roughly as good as a handful of other teams (Dallas, New Orleans, Denver, Minnesota, etc), but there isn’t anything that separates them from the pack. Those five teams will all be within a stone’s throw of each other, but Portland seems like they’re on the wrong side of the playoff bubble.

Prediction: 40-42, 10th in Western Conference

Minnesota Timberwolves
2013 Record: 31-51
Over/Under Wins: 41.5
Odds to Win Championship: 100/1

Scouting Report: A few different statistical projections picked Minnesota to win 50 games last year. Instead, they lost 50. Most of that was due to historically bad luck with injuries, a fluke that should correct itself this year. Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic have all been given a clean bill of health, and they’re joined this year by Kevin Martin, who will give them the true long-range threat they were sorely lacking last season.

Health plus shooting should give them a top-10 offense, or close to it. The worry for this team is defensively, because they feature two decidedly minus defensive players (Love and Pekovic) at two very high-leverage positions in today’s NBA. Kevin Martin’s impeachable defense isn’t helping either. They could end up like a throwback 80s Nuggets team, with all offense and no defense, but it should be good enough to slide them into the playoffs.

Prediction: 42-40, 7th in Western Conference

Los Angeles Clippers
2013 Record: 56-26
Over/Under Wins: 56.5
Odds to Win Championship: 9/1

Scouting Report: Even if it’s for only one season, the Clippers have without a doubt seized the torch from the Lakers. The 2012 Clippers finished a game behind their neighbors from across the hall, and the 2013 Clippers, while better than their LA counterparts, couldn’t compete with the constant circus surrounding Kobe, Dwight Howard, Mike D’Antoni, and everything else. This year, however, the Clippers are the only show in town.

And they’re a GREAT show. In J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, they have versatile wing players that actually have the requisite size and speed for their positions, something the Clippers’ wing players from a year ago did not have. They also ditched Vinny Del Negro for Doc Rivers, one of the biggest coaching upgrades imaginable. And at the center, they still have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, two offensive savants that make everything easy for the rest of the roster.

The Clippers will have the league’s top offense, or come damn close. The question is how effective Doc Rivers will be at instituting the defensive scheme that churned out top-10 defenses for the Celtics year after year after year. They may have the scheme, but if they don’t have the talent to execute it (Kevin Garnett ain’t walkin’ through that door), it could be their undoing come playoff time.

Prediction: 55-27, 3rd in Western Conference

Miami Heat
2013 Record: 66-16
Over/Under Wins: 61.5
Odds to Win Championship: +210 (21/10)

Scouting Report: I spent many words talking about this season’s Heat team yesterday over at Hickory-High, but I have a few more here.

Losing Mike Miller hurts them. It seems like a rather preposterous thing to say, but he’s a shooter that they needed. Those 1000-odd minutes will have to either go to the Birdman/Oden combo (which means they’re playing another big instead of another shooter), or they’ll have to go to (gulp) Michael Beasley. It won’t be enough to submarine the team, but there will be some regression. Wade being on the wrong side of 30 will cause some of the same problems.

By the time the playoffs roll around, it won’t matter. We all know what Miami is capable of in that realm. But they aren’t rolling off 27 wins in a row again. Not this year.

But it won’t matter. They’ll become just the fourth team ever to appear in four straight NBA Finals. They’ll become just the fourth team to three-peat. And LeBron will become the fourth three-peat MVP, and the fourth to win five awards overall. It’s a year of fours for Miami.

Prediction: 57-25, 2nd in Eastern Conference, NBA Champions

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