Part 2 of the Big Ass NBA Preview takes a look at our projected Western Conference playoff teams. If you missed Part 1, click here for a preview of the rest of the West.
(8) DENVER NUGGETS
Last season: 50-32 (2nd Northwest, 5th West)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Oklahoma City in first round 4-1
Dan says: The Nuggets were a team that surprised a lot of people (myself included) last season, with a late surge after trading away their superstar Carmelo Anthony. For what it’s worth, I think that attitude and effort play a bigger role in basketball (and in particular, the NBA) than any other sport, and the Nuggets had plenty of attitude last year. Think about it: if you’re left on the Nuggets after the trade, then you’re part of a team that Melo didn’t think was good enough, and wanted away from. If you came over from the Knicks, then your previous team didn’t think very highly of you either. EVERYONE on that team had a lot to prove, and they went on a mini-rampage, and probably outperformed their true talent level. The problem is, there’s no way that all holds over for this season. However, I still think this is a talented team that can do some damage in the West.
The roster looks nice on paper. Re-signing Nene was big, although I’m still not sure exactly WHAT I think of Nene. My mind tells me that he’s a good player, and I’m pretty sure he’s a good player, but I never watch a game and think to myself “Wow. Nene is really taking over. What a stud.” Regardless, the Nuggets are better off with him on the roster right now, than without. Assuming that Arron Afflalo re-signs, the Nuggets have a nice little inside/outside game going with those two. The big question mark is what the Nuggets are going to get from Timofey Mozgov, the 7-foot-1, 250-pound Russian. George Karl has said he plans to start Mozgov at center, moving Nene to the 4. Mozgov was impressive, at times, as a rookie last year (mainly in New York), but if he can develop and provide a consistent force on the inside, especially on offense, it’ll give Denver a pretty dangerous inside game. Also, don’t you just kind of want a 7-foot-1 Russian dude named “Timofey” to succeed? I do. Aside from those three, as I said, the roster looks “nice on paper” with names like Cory Brewer, Rudy Fernandez and Danilo Gallinari on it, but none of those guys have really established themselves as consistent players in the league. They’ve all shown flashes, but I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable counting on any of them for production on a nightly basis. There’s also Chris Anderson, who is a nice player, but probably gets way more attention and notoriety than he should because, well…because he looks the way that he does.
All in all, the Nuggets have some nice pieces, but no true “star” and you need at least one star to win in the NBA. The Nuggets will be competitive and shouldn’t be overlooked, but their ceiling appears to be a visit to the second round of the playoffs. The losses of J.R. Smith and Keynon Martin to, um…China are really going to hurt this team on the defensive end.
Worth watching: Mozgov really intrigues me. It always seems to take international players a few years to truly adjust to the NBA game, but I liked what I saw from Mozgov last year. In a league devoid of many true centers, a 7-footer who can score is one of the most valuable commodities out there. Will Mozgov ever be a star? Probably not. But it should be fun to watch his development.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-10, SF-8, DK-9, CL-7, TF-8, JB-10
(7) PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS
Last season: 48-34 (3rd Northwest, 6th West)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Dallas in first round 4-2
Dan says: The poor, poor Trailblazers. Rarely do I ever feel truly sorry for a professional athlete, no matter what he has to go through, because let’s be honest: These guys have lived incredibly privileged lives (for the most part) and rank pretty low on any sane person’s list of individuals who deserve sympathy. But man, did my heart break when I heard about Brandon Roy’s retirement, due to his knees. Roy seemed like one of the truly good guys in sports, a loyal player (remember, he stayed for four years at Washington, even though he easily could’ve come out early and been drafted) and was a great player, when healthy. It was just another shocking, but not so shocking, loss of a potential star due to injuries for the Blazers, who have been snake bitten in recent years. Besides Roy, Greg Oden is out for at least part of the season and, let’s be honest, who really expects to see him play in 2012? Not me, that’s for sure.
LaMarcus Aldrige broke out and looks to be on his way to superstar status. That being said, the man does need help. The somewhat surprising signing of Jamal Crawford gives the Blazers a solid, veteran presence that can be counted on to contribute on a regular basis, and helps solidify the backcourt that features Raymond Felton, and not much else. Gerald Wallace gives some nice support in the frontcourt and Marcus Camby is apparently just going to play forever and pretty much be the same player, but to me, this team is one superstar and a bunch of nice players who are going to be asked to do more than they probably should be doing. I’ve also made it this far without mentioning Aldridge’s heart condition (Will it be a problem? Who knows. It’s a scary thing to think about) and the fact that the Blazers don’t even have a GM right now. So…there’s that.
The Blazers won’t be terrible, because I think Aldridge is a true star and he has a solid supporting cast, but I can’t see Portland being better than a middle-of-the-pack team in the West with the current construction of the roster.
Worth watching: Raymond Felton has quietly progressed pretty nicely as a point guard, and has had his best two seasons as a pro in the past two years. I still contend that assists are a bit of an overrated stat, because it depends in part on the players around you, but after getting out of the black hole that is Charlotte, Felton averaged 9 assists per game with the Knicks (after a previous career high of 7.4). His numbers dropped after he was traded to the Nuggets, but he didn’t start a game there and played reduced minutes, so that’s to be expected. Felton is a guy that I’ve always liked, going back to his days at North Carolina, and I hope he can continue to progress and turn into a bona-fide NBA point guard, rather than just a popular trade chip.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-8, SF-6, DK-8, CL-8, TF-6, JB-7
(6) LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Last season: 32-50 (4th Pacific, 13th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: I’m obligated by the American media to mention Chris Paul within 15 words of any sentence including the word “Los,” “Angeles” or “Clippers,” so with that and the obligatory glowing statement about Paul (considered the best point guard in the game, dragged a fairly mediocre Hornets team to the playoffs last year with only David West and a bunch of players best described as “supporting cast,” averaged just shy of 16 points and 10 rebounds, makes all his teammates better) out of the way, time for the bad news:
Acquiring Paul, and by association, legitimacy, did not come cheap. The price: Eric Gordon (22.3 PPG), Chris Kaman (12.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG while averaging only about half a game), Al-Farouq Aminu (last season’s 8th overall pick) and a first round pick from Minnesota, which figures to be a lottery pick.
Fortunately, the Clips restored some of that depth by winning an amnesty claim on Chauncey Billups, signing Caron Butler to play the 3 AND matching an offer sheet on DeAndre Jordan, keeping them from suiting up 2011 second round pick Trey Thompkins as the starting pivot. Randy Foye, Mo Williams the highly-touted-yet-unpolished
Drew Eric Bledsoe are all available to come off the bench as well, so the Clips are well-equipped in the backcourt.
The frontcourt is thin though. Ryan Gomes failed as a starter at small forward but may improve in a diminished role; beyond that it’s Thompkins, Travis Leslie and Brian Cook. In other words, two rookies and a guy who’s made a career at the back end of the rotation. Blake Griffin is the most electrifying player in the game, but he’ll also have to be the most durable. He averaged 38 minutes a season ago, and it doesn’t figure to go down a whole lot this season unless GM Neil Olshey can deal for help in the post.
All of that means the Clippers don’t figure to be in the championship discussion unless they add some depth up front, but a return to the playoffs (their first trip since 2006) seems very likely. If Griffin’s highlight reel was impressive last season, teaming up with Paul could turn every game into a slam dunk contest. Remember all those Lakers-Clippers games that didn’t matter in years past? They’ll matter this year.
Worth watching: Besides Blake Griffin dunking 10 times every game and probably breaking at least one backboard, and the “Chris Paul in Hollywood” or “CP3 versus Kobe” storylines that we’re bound to hear about ad nauseum, another intriguing subplot to the Clippers’ season is how Billups adjusts to playing the 2-guard. Billups seems to think he and Paul will be co-point guards, but if he thinks he’s bringing the ball up court, he’s got another thing coming. Billups is 35 and, for the first time in his career, is going to be asked to play almost exclusively off the ball. How he responds to not running the offense (and how he plays in a new role) will have a huge effect on L.A.’s success this season.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-6, SF-5, DK-6, CL-6, TF-5, JB-4
(5) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Last season: 46-36 (4th Southwest, 8th West)
2011 Playoffs: Beat San Antonio in first round 4-2, lost to Oklahoma City in second round 4-3
jonnyd says: After that playoff run last season, how can the Grizzlies not be optimistic heading into this season? Shane Battier left via free agency and joined the Sithlords down in South Beach, and he will be dearly missed. Battier’s defense and to a lesser extent, shooting were key to the success of this team. On a brighter note, Marc Gasol decided to stay with Memphis and so the team’s frontcourt of Gasol and Zach “Zeebo” Randolph that led the team on its unexpected playoff run remains intact.
Oh, and the Memphis team that upset the Spurs and took the Thunder to seven games? They did that all without Rudy Gay, who separated his shoulder late in mid-February and required season-ending surgery. Losing Gay was a blessing and a curse. Missing one of their lead scorers, the team adopted a more balanced offense that translated into more wins. The Grizz will need to find a way to keep that balance while utilizing Gay’s talents if they truly want to improve this season.
Worth watching: This is a young team coming off an exciting playoff run last year and there’s a lot to look forward to, but there are also a lot of questions. Will this team be able to step up defensively in Battier’s absence? Will Rudy Gay be the focus of the offense again? If not, will he be able to deal with a lesser role in the offense? I have a feeling that Memphis will have games when they figure it out and some when they don’t. If they can put it all together, look for them to be the team that no one wants to face in the first round of the playoffs again.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-5, SF-7, DK-5, CL-5, TF-7, JB-3
(4) SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Last season: 61-21 (1st Southwest, 1st West)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to Memphis in first round 4-2
jonnyd says: The Spurs, everybody’s favorite group of old guys who play fundamental basketball, won a lot of games last year and then got Zeebo’d out of the first round of the playoffs by Memphis. Make no mistake though, this is a good team. They are also an old team. Key to their success will be the health of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. If those three can stay healthy and fresh enough through this hellish shortened season (which is doing older teams like the Spurs and the Celtics no favors) they will very likely secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. San Antonio could also make a run in the playoffs, but like last year, will have trouble with bigger teams.
The Spurs acquired forward Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State in a trade from Indiana in exchange for George Hill. Hill was not a minor part of the Spurs rotation, so that leads me to believe that they have faith that Leonard will be able to jump in and contribute right away. For the most part, I agree with their optimism. Leonard is an athletic guy who knows how to play defense (which Gregg Popovich will no doubt love) and most importantly, isn’t old. He could inject some much needed youth into this team.
Worth watching: Do the Spurs have one last run in them? As I just mentioned, how Leonard performs and is implemented into the Spurs rotation will be a factor to the Spurs success, but staying healthy and fresh is paramount. The core of this team doesn’t have many competitive years left, so it will be interesting to see if (and how) they respond to that urgency. Ginobili and Parker are hard to stop and fun to watch, especially the reckless abandon that Manu plays with.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-3, SF-4, DK-4, CL-4, TF-3, JB-5
(3) LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Last season: 57-25 (1st Pacific, 2nd West)
2011 Playoffs: Beat New Orleans in first round 4-2, lost to Dallas in second round 4-0
Sean says: The Lakers managed to have a lot go wrong despite the limited window for transactions brought on by the extended NBA lockout. The fallout from David Stern’s indefensible rejection of the Lakers’ deal for Chris Paul included Mister Sensitive (Lamar Odom), who was included in the rejected deal, requesting and being granted a trade out of Hollywood. How that broken deal affects Pau Gasol, who was also thought to be on the move, remains to be seen. But count me among those who believe that deal being voided was actually good for the Lakers. Yes, they lost Odom—but losing Gasol and him would have been a huge blow to their depth. The Lakers were also rumored to be in the market for Dwight Howard, a deal which almost certainly would have involved Andrew Bynum and other players, but that too didn’t happen. Essentially, the Lakers may have avoided a Miami Heat depth chart nightmare when neither trade came to fruition.
Not that their depth doesn’t raise its own issues. For instance, do the Lakers look for another 2-guard with Sasha Vujacic gone to Europe and 2011 second-round pick Andrew Goudelock as Kobe Bryant’s backup? It’s not as if Kobe is getting any younger, after all. Will Bryant’s personal issues affect his play on the court? And will
Ron Artest Metta World Peace fall victim to the amnesty clause? Matt Barnes and Luke Walton are other small forwards on the roster (as well as Jason Kapono when they absolutely need a three) but is any a better option than World Peace? Maybe; Don’t-Call-Me-Ron had career lows in points and rebounds last season, as well as his worst season shooting the rock since ’05-’06 and second worst of his career.
Still, the Lakers look very much like the team that suited up in the playoffs last season, and while that didn’t end particularly well, the Lakers aren’t in any danger of missing the postseason this season and still have the benefit of playing in the Pacific, where only one team showed much improvement this offseason (and even then, at the cost of some depth). The Clippers are getting plenty of love and are expected to compete. But somehow, I still see the Lakers coming out of the Pacific on top.
Worth watching: In Odom’s absence, Josh McRoberts will get the call and a chance to prove his play in Indiana (7.4 points per game, 5.3 rebounds per game in just over 22 minutes per game) was more than just a flash in the pan—over the course of a full game, all of those numbers compare rather favorably with Odom. He’ll fit in nicely with head coach Mike Brown’s commitment to defense, and while he can’t make up for Odom’s scoring or versatility, at 6-10” he can at least make it tough on opponents at the other end.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-4, SF-3, DK-3, CL-3, TF-4, JB-6
(2) DALLAS MAVERICKS
Last season: 57-25 (2nd Southwest, 3rd West)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Portland in first round 4-2, beat L.A. Lakers in second round 4-0, beat Oklahoma City in Conference finals 4-1, beat Miami in NBA Finals 4-2
jonnyd says: Don’t be surprised if the Mavericks suffer from a small case of Championship Hangover to start the season. Notable players not returning this year are Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and Jose Barea. But don’t fret, Mavs fans, Dallas stole Lamar Odom from the Lakers and also signed Vince Carter and Delonte West! …Yeah, I’m not convinced either. Picking up just one of these players over the offseason is a bit risky, but all three? These three are among the more dramatic, touchy players in the NBA. There’s definitely potential for upside to these signings but I don’t think we are looking at a repeat this year.
That said, this is still a team whose roster looks more like a fantasy team than most others. It will be interesting to see how well the Mavs travel with the target on their back that comes with being the reigning champion. Sure, they’re a perennial 50-win team, but now when they come to town they’ll be introduced as the champs. They’ll be prepared against as the champs. Not everyone is built to deal with the amount of attention (and scrutiny) that comes with being number one. This is, however, a veteran team, so I don’t see there being too many complications.
Worth watching: I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it or not, but the Mavericks won the NBA championship last season. Expect them to get a lot of television time these next few months. As always, there are a lot of big names on this roster. Dirk Nowitzki in clutch time is about as automatic as it gets, and after 13 seasons, it still doesn’t get old to watch him just take over late in the game. Don’t expect to see Vince Carter hanging by his elbow on the rim, but instead sit back and enjoy a few faked injuries (holding one hand and grimacing, classic Vince) and whatever the opposite of hustle is.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-2, SF-2, DK-2, CL-1, TF-2, JB-2
(1) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Last season: 55-27 (1st Northwest, 4th West)
2011 Playoffs: Beat Denver in first round 4-1, beat Memphis in second round 4-3, lost to Dallas in Conference Finals 4-1
Dan says: To say that this is a “championship or bust” season for the Thunder is probably overstating it just a bit, but it’s hard to see anything less than an appearance in the Finals not ranking as a major disappointment for this team. The Thunder are THAT good. Kevin Durant, if not the best basketball player on the planet right now, isn’t outside of the Top 2 (for my money, it’s still LeBron). At the very least, he’s the best scorer in the game right now, and since, you know, you win basketball games primarily by scoring more points than the other team, it’s always a good thing to have “the best scorer in the league” on your team. I’d say the biggest question mark on the Thunder right now is Russell Westbrook. Some of his performances and the “attitude” he showed in the playoffs caused the talking heads to wonder if he can shelve his ego a bit and defer to Durant. Apparently, everyone asking those questions only watched like two games all of last season. Yes, he can. And he has. Russell Westbrook is a GREAT player. Not a good player. A GREAT player, right now. He and Durant combine to form arguably the best 1-2 punch, offensively, in the league. Just because Durant is the better player doesn’t mean that Westbrook isn’t right to try and take over games for stretches here and there, because he’s capable. Yeah, Westbrook has a little bit of an attitude problem, but I truly believe that Durant is one of those rare athletes that guys just gravitate to. Everyone loves and him and no one wants to let him down. So, when it comes down to it, Westbrook knows that Durant is “the man” and will act as such. Think about it: If Kevin Durant came up to you and punched you in the face, would you even be mad? No. You would think, “Well, damn. I must’ve deserved a punch to the face.” Because that’s just the type of guy that Durant is. No team with KD is ever going to have locker room issues or chemistry problems. Westbrook is fine. Just leave him alone.
Beyond Westbrook and Durant, James Harden seems poised for a truly breakout season. The funny thing is, he isn’t even a starter (yet) but he might be the key to the Thunder’s championship aspirations. They need a third consistent scorer, and they need it to be Harden. And he’s more than capable of being that guy. Granted, he has the worst beard ever (or best, I suppose, depending on how you look at it), but don’t be shocked if James Harden introduces himself to the NBA in a BIG way this year. Kendrick Perkins is another key for the Thunder, as they’re hoping he can recover his offensive game as his knee heals up. After being acquired from the Celtics last season, Perkins provided a solid defensive presence but never really got his offensive game going, which can be attributed to playing with a bum wheel. The Thunder can win without him giving them much on offense in the way of scoring, but if he can get going and put up points on a consistent basis, wow. Watch out. Speaking of defense, Serge Ibaka is awesome. That’s as far in depth as I’m going with this analysis of him. Just watch him. He’s awesome. A shot blocking stud. The Thunder aren’t the deepest team in the world (although Harden is coming off the bench, for now), but Eric Maynor, Nick Collison and most of the top reserves fill their roles nicely.
Worth watching: I was going to try and get cute here, and give you some “deep” insight of something to watch, but you know what? Screw it. Watch Kevin Durant. The man (he’s younger than me. Can I call him that? The kid?) is a transcendent talent and a scoring savant with one of the most unique skill sets we’ve ever seen for a guy his size. Far too often, we watch great players in their prime and don’t appreciate them until their careers are over. Don’t make that mistake. Watch Kevin Durant try to become, indisputably, the best player on the planet right now.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-1, SF-1, DK-1, CL-2, TF-1, JB-1
Tomorrow: The Eastern Conference preview kicks off with a look at the teams outside of the playoff picture.
Photo Credit: Associated Press