Predicting and Seeding the 8 Western Conference Playoff Teams
Now that the season has commenced and teams have begun to take form, we can get a true gauge on what to expect for each team this season. With a 66-game season teams with youth will have a significant advantage over teams with experience. Younger teams will not feel the effects of four games in five nights the way an older group would. So we should expect teams with younger rosters to be successful this season.
Some squads will win more games than expected based solely on the fatigue of their opponent. This will pave the way for unexpected playoff runs and the demise of previous champions. It is time for a changing of the guard in the Western Conference. The changes that are certain to take place will breed skepticism. The familiar champion will be replaced by unknown commodities.
The abbreviated season will serve as an expressway of sorts for teams driving towards a new beginning and teams headed towards unfamiliar endings. Age in conjunction with the opponents whose players are just simply better will be the downfall for the San Antonio Spurs and teams alike.
The standard 82-game season normally separates the real from the fake, with the emphasis being consistency. However, a 66-game season minimizes the consistency element and places the focus on talent. This season will provide an intimate view of whom we should buy and who should be shipped to the outlets for reject inspired discounts.
While most make predictions without a full scope of the circumstances, it is always more prudent to assess teams once all the circumstances have transpired. In short, once the real bullets start flying, we can then differentiate the soldiers from the civilians.
Here is your list of combatants.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Current Record: 2-3
Key additions: Rick Adelman (Head Coach), Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams, J.J. Barea
The T-Wolves enter the 2011-12 season as a group of supremely talented individuals who struggled last season playing like a team. Most of those struggles began with head coach Kurt Rambis, who has been replaced be veteran head coach Rick Adelman. Rambis never could get the Wolves to play inspired basketball and seemed overmatched in competition and failed to inspire his troops.
Adelman conversely has a proven track record as a coach. In his 22-year career Adelman has only had three losing seasons. He has won with veteran teams in Portland, a fairly young group in Sacramento, and an injury riddled team in Houston. Adelman will get the most out of this collection of stallions.
Accompanying the coach in Minnesota is a plethora of talent, beginning with Kevin Love. The 6’10" power forward showed his mettle last season and should continue his ferocious rebounding pace. With the addition of Spain point guard Ricky Rubio, the Wolves will look to play an up-tempo style that will allow fellow rookie Derrick Williams to flourish.
The Wolves will be one of the younger teams in the league and the lockout shortened schedule which features multiple back-to-back games will serve them well. The addition of Adelman should offset some of the anticipated rookie mistakes Rubio will have. This will be one of the NBA surprise teams who should be fun to watch.
7. Golden State Warriors
Current Record: 2-3
Key Additions: Mark Jackson (Head Coach), Kwame Brown
The Warriors are another team many are not sure what to expect from. Golden State has talent and were given a gift by the NBA. They will play 13 of their first 20 games at home, which is huge for a team that will be handing the keys over to third-year guard Stephen Curry. The former Davidson standout will be leaned on heavily by first-year coach Mark Jackson.
Coach Jackson’s cupboard is not bare by any stretch. He has a young stud in Curry and an under the radar player in Dorell Wright. You combine those two with a serviceable David Lee and the Warriors have a good nucleus, which should allow them to compete for a playoff spot.
What Jackson does at point guard position will be telling for this Golden State group. Monte Ellis has proven to be a black hole at the position and appears to have studied at the Rick Barry school of passing. How Jackson handles the shoot first guard and who he designates to be the floor general will ultimately decide where this team goes.
Expect the Warriors to jump out of the gate on fire and tail off towards the middle of the abbreviated season. Golden State will win enough games early to make the playoffs and will end the four-year Warriors playoff drought.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
Current Record: 2-2
Key Additions; Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul, Caron Butler
The Clippers won the Chris Paul sweepstakes and landed when healthy the second best point guard in the game, with Deron Williams being the best. Paul brings an expertise at the point guard position the Clippers have never had, but he also brings leadership to a youthful group. CP joins a Los Angeles Clippers club that is still learning how to play as a unit.
LA’s second team has one of the best starting fives in the NBA and should have no problem making the playoffs. The question is just how deep will the Clips go in the playoffs? Expectations are high for a team that is still learning how to win games, yet alone a playoff series.
Another red herring for this group is the 2-guard spot, which is currently occupied by Chauncey Billups. The addition of Chris Paul made Billups available but to date no moves have been made to solidify the second guard spot. The decision to place Billups at the 2-guard position is tragically flawed.
The lack of explosion and athleticism at the point, 2 and 3 will hurt the Clippers. The western conference is full of athleticism and whether it is the boys in Portland, Oklahoma City, Golden State or Memphis, most forwards and guards in that conference can fly.
Nevertheless they should be exciting to watch and the organization should be applauded for their aggressiveness during the offseason.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Current Record: 1-3
Key Additions: N/A
The Grizzlies are the forgotten horse in the race. Memphis won 46 games last season and seemed poised for a 50 win game season this year until the lockout struck. The Grizz will still be one of the league’s most improved teams. Memphis comes back a year stronger and wiser. They still boast one of the best front lines in the NBA and should remain as one of the top teams in the Western Conference.
In Zach Randolph the Grizz have arguably the best power forward in the game and he should lead the charge for Memphis. This is one of the few teams who can play an up-tempo style or a half-court game and have no significant drop-off.
Unlike in the Pau Gasol years this current group of players identifies with the city and its residents. This group of players surprised teams with their defensive intensity last year ranking first in forced turnovers. Expect the Grizz to pick up right where they left off once the season starts.
A player to watch is third year forward Sam Young. The former Pitt Panther has been consistent his first two years in the league but year three should see a significant jump in production. The injury to Darrell Arthur opens the playing time door for the hardworking Young. The forward’s energy and toughness will give Memphis’ bench a taste of true grit as they march to back-to-back playoff appearances.
4. Los Angeles Lakers
Current Record: 3-3
Key Additions: Mike Brown (Head Coach)
The Lakers added no new players of consequence this season and in the eyes of many regressed when they traded away perennial tease Lamar Odom. The facts are the Purple and Gold still have size and have one of the best coaches in the game. You add an experienced Kobe Bryant and they should still be a tough out for most teams.
Their point guard play can only be described as abysmal. Los Angeles looked slow and methodical as they were swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks last season. Instead of adding Leon Powe, Reggie Evans and perhaps even a Marcus Banks the Lakers choose to get even slower and even more methodical. The addition of Troy Murphy, Josh McRoberts, and Jason Kapono are all denial acquisitions. These players do not address the glaring need for this team which is foot speed on the perimeter.
Those negatives aside, the Lakers have skill in Gasol, size in Andrew Bynum, and toughness in Derek Fisher. Head coach Mike Brown is a tireless worker who should not have a problem putting a plan in place for success. The Lakers are one of the few teams that go into battle with two legitimate seven-footers who can play the game. That factor alone will make them and keep them competitive.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
Current Record: 3-1
Key additions: Jamaal Crawford, Raymond Felton, Nolan Smith
The 2011-2012 season will be a great year for the Portland Trail Blazers because of two words: LaMarcus Aldridge. He is the next great NBA superstar, yet outside of the city of Portland he is unrecognizable. In a sport where a known devil is more respected than an unknown angel, Aldridge’s angelic game has gone virtually unnoticed. While true basketball purists are fully aware of Aldridge and his talents, most casual fans are clueless as to just how skilled the power forward actually is.
Aldridge’s game is complex and difficult to defend. He plays by the old John Wooden adage “be quick but don’t hurry.” The forward is never out of place on offense and is one of the best pick and roll players in the game. The young gunner has developed a knack for reading the defense and finding the open lane in which to operate. The alley-oop has become a staple in his game and is a testament to his strong fundamental play. Patient and precise best describes Aldridge’s game. He does not have the explosion of Amar’e Stoudemire or the feather touch of “the Dirk”, but he is just as potent.
The Blazers have a talented young lineup that features a point guard in Raymond Felton who is capable of getting the ball up the floor and taking advantage of Aldridge’s ability to run the floor and find holes in the defense. Felton was beginning to come into his own in New York before being traded to the Denver Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony deal. He should assume the role of starting point guard and give the Blazers some stability at the position.
Joining LaMarcus for a full season is athletic small forward Gerald Wallace. The former Crimson Tide player will keep defense from loading up against Aldridge. Wallace will put pressure on the defense from the wings and his activity around the basket will force teams to account for him at all times. Wallace is a proven scorer whose individual success has yet to result in team success. However, teamed with Aldridge and Felton, he should bring about a new list of results.
Every year a player elevates his game to unforeseen heights. Every year there is a new gunslinger that arrives and takes over the terrain—a player who always had the talent and now has the opportunity to take command. Aldridge is that player and the Blazers will be that new gang that rides into town.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Current Record: 5-1
Key additions: None
Oklahoma City is a good basketball team with good talent. Kevin Durant is one of greatest scorers the game has ever seen, Russell Westbrook is Hall-of-Fame special, and Serge Ibaka is tremendous. To date they appear to be one of the best teams in the conference and are poised for a strong playoff run. However, they are flawed.
In a conference that features several racecar style offenses the Thunder will be hampered by the station wagon that is Kendrick Perkins. While the Thunder should not display any problem scoring, the fluidity with which they scored was compromised with the Perkins addition. Defensively O.K.C has been forced to remove Perk from the lineup at critical moments to get stops.
Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed have been terrific for the Thunder thus far and should continue to be so.
We have discussed ad nauseam how Perkins slows the Thunder down and how Durant has had more turnovers than assists every year he has been in the league. Regardless, the Thunder are a good team who should have plenty of regular season success. The question for this group is how far they will go in the playoffs.
1. Dallas Mavericks
Current Record: 2-4
Key additions: Lamar Odom, Delonte West, Vince Carter
Since 2000 the Dallas Mavericks have won at least .60 percent of their games and there is no reason to believe that will change this season. Dallas’ slow start was to be expected based on their age and lack of explosive players. Yet one should also expect at least two double-digit winning streaks to take place around midseason.
The loss of Tyson Chandler will hurt them, but head coach Rick Carlisle will find a way to negate that loss. Carlisle has long been one of the best coaches in the game and this season he will again be tested mightily. The coach has a veteran group who have displayed a disinterest early in the season. Their lack of energy early is understandable given their championship accomplishment last season, but cannot be permissible by Carlisle.
The Mavs have always managed to win games because of execution on both ends of the floor. The lockout shortened season will not change that and they now feature a second one-on-one scorer in Vince Carter. Carter can still fly, albeit not as high, and is more than capable of scoring 20 a night. Jason Kidd, Lamar Odom, Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are all skilled players who maximize their high basketball IQs.
Basketball intelligence, Nowitzki, experience, and overall talent should propel the Mavs to the front of the pack once again. Expect the Mavs to once again win about .60 percent of their games and hold the top seed going into the second season.