Evil is coming.
photo via blogimages.thescore.com
Hello again, Pounders. Well, we've just made it through another week of offseason doldrums, and here is the second half of my conference rankings post, as promised. This is definitely the more difficult conference to pick a favorite, and the playoff race could be much more crowded than in the East. So where do the Spurs stand after their hated rivals made major waves in the offseason? Hit the jump to find out.
The Triumvirate of Terror
Terror, that is, for any team that has to face these three. Unless they're playing each other or Miami, these first three teams should be heavily favored in each game they play. The 2013 Western Conference Finals are highly likely to be played between two of these three teams.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (65-17)
Yeah, I know. I don't like it any more than the rest of you, but come on. This team was already an outside threat for the title last season, and they just had the second-best offseason of any team this century. They actually improved their frontcourt depth, while adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Speaking of the two big additions, I've never been more scared of any other pick-and-roll duo in my life (Nash/Pau Gasol might be 2nd on that list). On top of that, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks give them additional outside threats that can stretch any defense to its breaking point when on the floor with any combination of Dwight, Pau, Nash, or Kobe. The only thing that might hold them back is Mike Brown, but all he really has to do is sit back and allow Nash to run the offense, while he concentrates on making sure his defensive schemes are implemented correctly. And unlike Bynum, Howard is an excellent PnR defender... yikes. I might hold out some hope that it will take a while for this team to jell, causing them to struggle at first. But the pieces just fit together too well to ignore, and I'm afraid we're dealing with a juggernaut here.
2. San Antonio Spurs (62-20)
The league's top offensive team in 2011-12 might actually improve further this season, with the continued development of Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and one of Cory Joseph or Patty Mills. If Nando De Colo sees a decent number of minutes, he could rev up the offense even more with his ballhandling, shooting and court vision. But, as we all know, offensive performance is not the Spurs' problem. Getting important stops is the Spurs' problem. And with those purple and gold freaks' added firepower, that deficiency is going to stand out more than ever. Without a significant upgrade to the frontcourt defense (the 4 spot, to be more precise), I just can't see the Spurs being able to defend the rim and keep up with the perimeter threats of the other triumvirate members. But they'll be able to put on a show at the other end, and that should earn them plenty of easy regular-season wins, just as it has the last two seasons. And if former Spurs exec Danny Ferry can be coaxed into handing over Josh Smith, that last piece of the puzzle will be in place, and the Spurs should be able to hang with the other contenders, even in the postseason.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (61-21)
The power struggle among the top 3 teams could easily end with last year's conference champs (the refs?) on top, but I see them having to deal with something that hasn't happened to them in the last 3 seasons. Injury trouble. Unlike the Spurs, this group is ill-equipped to handle an injury to one of their stars, and it would cost them some games if it happens. I could also see them getting a little complacent after their trip to the finals. They won't have that problem in the postseason, but a young team like the Thunderclusters might struggle to maintain their focus over the course of a full-length NBA season. The Lakers and Spurs possess veteran leadership that should keep them from having those lapses, but I can't really say the same for OKC (they even had one last season that allowed the Spurs to take the top seed). Hence, in the regular season, I think they'll end up the worst of the 3. But I still fear them in the playoffs.
4. Denver Nuggets (56-26)
This team has a very unbalanced roster. That could be their downfall, or it could be the thing that makes them a frightening matchup. You could make an argument that their three best players are Andre Igoudala, Danilo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler. Trouble is, all three of those guys are a natural fit at the same postion (SF), and that's without mentioning Corey Brewer, Jordan Hamilton and Quincy Miller. Even with George Karl announcing his plan to play Iggy at SG, I'd expect this team to field a lot of unconventional small lineups to take advantage of their wing talent and force their opponents to match. That strategy could backfire against the likes of the Spurs and Thunder, but should be highly effective against most other opponents. I don't see them in championship contention, but these guys could definitely play the role of spoiler (I'm looking at you, Lakers).
5. Los Angeles Clippers (53-29)
Feel free to disagree with me, but I think Lamar Odom is going to recover from that horrible season in Dallas now that he's back in LA as a super sub. And playing with Chris Paul might help, too. Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe and a healthy Chauncey Billups enable them to field more of those speedy 2-and-3-guard lineups that give their opponents fits. Adding Grant Hill, even though he's going to be 40 soon, should shore up their depth behind Caron Butler, but their frontcourt may be even worse defensively than the Spurs. If Blake Griffin develops a jumper and/or defensive skills, this team could vault into contention, but until then, I'll pencil them in as a team that's just about as good as they were last year.
6. Dallas Mavericks (52-30)
For a while there, it looked like the Mavs would strike out and end up in the lottery. They lost their two best guards in Jason Kidd and The Nutpuncher, and whiffed on Deron Williams. Then they pulled Chris Kaman and Elton Brand off the scrap heap, traded for Darren Collison and signed OJ Mayo. I also love their drafting of Bernard James, and think he will be a great fit in their frontcourt. Donnie Nelson was patient, and had several contingency plans in place. Even though the Mavs aren't exactly our favorite outside team around here, you have to admire the way their front office pulled themselves out of the grave this summer. Dirk Nowitzki and company won't be missing the playoffs any time soon, and getting rid of Terry might actually make them more likeable.
7. Utah Jazz (51-31)
Both Marvin and Mo Williams seem like marginal improvements over last year for Utah, but they're going to need more than marginal improvement to make the playoffs again, provided the teams chasing them are healthy. I think they'll get that improvement from within - Derrick Favors is turning into a monster in the paint, while Alec Burks and even Gordon Hayward could make some big strides this season for the JazzHands. With their newfound depth and a solid defensive lineup, these guys aren't going to give up their playoff position that easily. What might be more difficult is deciding whether to keep Paul Millsap and/or Al Jefferson after this season.
8. Memphis Grizzlies (48-34)
For the last couple of years, the Grizz have been a team that throws efficiency to the wind in favor of playing keep-away. They force more turnovers and get more offensive rebounds than most other teams, and they also play tough, hard-nosed defense. It's a style much closer to the Eastern Conference playoff teams than most of their Western counterparts. I actually love the way they play. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done pretty damned well. With that said, I think they'll miss their 6th man, OJ Mayo. He was one of the few guys they had that could make it rain from the perimeter, and Jerryd Bayless is not good enough to replace his production. That forces the Grizz to rely even more on their post tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, making them more one-dimensional. This should still be a playoff team, but given the improvement of other teams in the West, it may come down to the wire.
--------------non-playoff teams below--------------
9. Minnesota Timberwolves (47-35)
Remember when KAAAAHN used to hoard point guards? Then when he hoarded forwards? His new thing is hoarding pale guys. But at least this time he's getting skilled players who play different positions. I love the moves to get Budinger, Kirilenko, and Shved (who I think is going to take the league by surprise). I'd love the Brandon Roy signing, too, if I thought his knees would last longer than half a season (please prove me wrong, B-Roy). Mix in the new guys with Rubio, Love, Pekovic, and an improved Derrick Williams, and it might be difficult to keep this team out of the postseason. But with so much talent on the teams in front of them, that may be exactly what happens.
10. Golden State Warriors (42-40)
Anyone want a darkhorse team? I got yer dark horse right here. There's a lot of good players on this roster, and they really balanced the team out pretty well through trades. Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry are obviously the stars, but Carl Landry, Festus Ezeli and Jarrett Jack were excellent pickups as well. Trading Dorrell Wright away opens up a starting spot for Harrison Barnes, and if the last half of Klay Thompson's rookie season is any indicator, this team's starting backcourt is pretty well set for the foreseeable future. For the first time in a while, this team might just be on the right track. Good thing we sabotaged them by sending them RJ, or this team could give us fits.
Maybe Next Year
11. Portland Trail Blazers (35-47)
So these guys have given the Spurs fits over the last few years, but this new Portland squad is radically different. During the Roy/Oden years, the Blazers leaned on their defense and Nate McMillan's slow-it-down style. New coach Terry Stotts traditionally fields teams in the upper half of the NBA in both pace and offensive efficiency, and he's been given appropriate tools to do the same thing in Portland. Mainstays LaMarcus Aldridge, Nic Batum, and Wes Matthews all possess the athleticism to play a fast-paced style, but the biggest change comes in the form of the guy bringing the ball up the court on offense. Rookie point guard Damian Lillard was the NCAA's leading scorer last season, using his combination of speed, athleticism and shooting ability to destroy most opponents assigned to guard him. Luke Babbitt, Elliot Williams, and Victor Claver can all shoot the lights out as well, and they just picked up Euroleague's leading rebounder, Joel Freeland, to back up (or start over?) rookie Meyers Leonard at Center. This team is going to score... a lot. Which only serves to increase the contrast between the two conferences.
12. Sacramento Kings (33-49)
What a mess the Sacramento Kings are. In 3 years, this franchise could be playing their home games in any number of places from Seattle to Virginia Beach (not kidding, they're going to make a proposal to the Maloofs). On top of that, it's quite obvious the
assholes in charge owners don't care about putting a winning product on the floor. They've had the league's lowest payroll for several years running, and they've gone through several coaches without addressing the real problem: bad management. However, you can only draft in the top 5 every year for so long before you start having actual talent on your team. Thomas Robinson has actual talent. DeMarcus Cousins is a monster in the paint. Even though Aaron Brooks is a little overrated, at least they finally have a guy who is clearly a point guard, instead of the clusterf2k of combo guards they've employed in the past. Simply by virtue of finally clearing up who plays which position, this team's fortunes should be a little better than they have been. Just not enough to sniff the playoffs.
13. Phoenix Suns (29-53)
What happens when you take away a player who won 2 MVP awards and caused your team to overachieve for about 7 straight years, given the talent he was working with? Well, it ain't pretty. Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, and Martin Gortat are all solid players, but the guy who orchestrated all of those better-than expected seasons is gone. In his place is rookie Kendall Marshall, who led the NCAA in assist percentage last season, but can hardly replace Nash. Big free-agent acquisition Michael Beasley is the ultimate tweener, whose statistical contributions are wiped out by his inability to defend either forward position. Put simply, this team is going to be baaaad. Which is a shame, because I'll miss all the tense battles that used to happen between the Spurs and Suns.
14. Houston Rockets
Sacramento's clusterf2k hasn't got anything on these guys. Houston currently has 19 players under contract, 13 of whom have been known to play forward. Gee, I wonder if Daryl Morey might be seeking trades. The rumored deal sending Patrick Patterson to the Spurs never materialized, but Pop and RC are smart enough to wait until Morey gets more desperate to talk trade with him. Signing Jeremy Lin to replace Kyle Lowry is a lateral move at best, but they did find a solid pair of centers in Omer Asik and Donatas Motiejunas. Other than those guys, there's not a whole lot of defense on this roster. Kevin Martin is still the most one-dimensional "star" in the league, and sending Scola away was just plain dumb. However, they did have solid draft position (3 top 18 picks), and they picked up a future pick guaranteed to be in the lottery from Toronto (though they might not actually get to use that one for a while). Dork Elvis now gets to rebuild from scratch and hope that he's not stuck in Mediocreville any more.
15. New Orleans Hornets
Dell Demps is following the Sam Presti Blueprint For Success (TM) very closely. He already got a #1 pick, but he's still tanking to create a young core. Trading away the only true point guard to let a rookie SG play the position? Smart. Sending away Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, and Carl Landry while bringing in much more limited frontcourt players? A stroke of tanking genius. Not only did he make sure the team is terrible again this year, he cleared a ton of cap space for next summer to go along with that almost-guaranteed lottery pick. As long as that is what Demps was trying to do this summer, he has definitely succeeded.
As always, feel free to dissent in the comments section.
A cruise missile will be with you shortly. We will gladly accept your criticism.