NBA Playoffs: What Each First-Round Casualty Can Improve for Next Season
The first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs is in the books, with the conference finals having just kicked off.
Round 1 had it all: blowouts, buzzer-beaters, sweeps and intense seven-game series.
The eight teams getting all the attention right now fought through the opening round. They're ones still pushing towards a Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.
However, I will examine the eight other teams—the ones that suffered either disappointing or devastating first-round losses. I will look at what happened, explaining why they couldn't finish off their opponents and suggest potential changes each team can make for next season.
These can include moves in free agency, trades or on-court adjustments.
Dallas Mavericks (Lost 4-0 to Oklahoma City Thunder)
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Last June, the Dallas Mavericks were crowned NBA Champions. Just seven months later, the Mavs were the first team knocked out of the 2011-12 playoffs, getting swept by a Thunder team that they defeated 4-1 en route to glory in 2010-11.
Easy: Dallas owner Mark Cuban let four of his team's most valuable assets walk in free agency instead of trying to re-sign them, and in the end, Cuban did little to replace them.
This year, Dallas lacked the post defender and slasher that every team needs, and it showed down the stretch of Game 1, 2, and 4. Dallas could have won these games by stopping Russell Westbrook or James Harden on their way to the rim, or by finding somebody to stretch the OKC defense and get Dirk Nowitzki or Jason Terry a good look at a three.
Now, I find this laughable because two of the free agents that left the Big D this past summer fill those very voids.
Tyson Chandler, perhaps the second most important player on their title squad, was not re-signed and went to the Knicks, where he won the 2011-12 Defensive Player of the Year award. Dallas' center woes continued as they rotated in a couple of below-average players in Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi.
The slasher role that was empty could have been filled by J.J. Barea, one of the unlikely heroes of last year's team who signed with Minnesota this offseason. Delonte West, Barea's replacement, is more of a jump shooter than a driver.
Howard is going to remain in Orlando for another year; but even if he did leave the Magic, it seems more likely that he would join D-Will in Brooklyn, the Nets' new home.
Dallas better hope that either Howard or D-Will come aboard, or else they will be kicking themselves.
I'm not saying that retaining Chandler, Barea, Deshawn Stevenson and Caron Butler would have lead to a repeat; but playing the hope game is never smart.
The team has some missing pieces, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Mavs. They got their ring and must now add a pricey free agent. Otherwise, it may be time to think about rebuilding.
Utah Jazz (Lost 4-0 to San Antonio Spurs)
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But there were still many positive signs from the 2011-12 season for Tyrone Corbin's men. The team has great size, and if Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors all produce, they will be tough to stop.
Gordon Hayward is blossoming into a great young 2-guard and will one day become a feared NBA scorer.
With four guys in the lineup that can put the ball in the hoop, what the Jazz need is someone to get them the ball in the right position.
Devin Harris is a very good basketball player as he is ultra-quick and is great at getting to the rim. However, Utah have enough scorers. They need a true passer. The perfect fit for the Jazz would be Steve Nash, a veteran, a leader and a soon-to-be free agent, who could also give Jefferson and Millsap the ball consistently.
Nash doesn't seem as if he is ready to leave Phoenix, but if he does, Utah could be a prime suitor.
Aside from adding a true point guard, Utah may find it useful to deal away one of their young big men; one of the three mentioned above or Enes Kanter.
They could add a more accomplished perimeter scorer, which right now they lack (Josh Howard and Favors start at the 3), and give away someone that they really don't need.
Other than those one to two moves, the Jazz seem set. Of course, they are not even close to being NBA championship contenders, but Corbin has done a great job and, with time, they could become a force to be reckoned with.
Orlando Magic (Lost 4-1 to Indiana Pacers)
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Orlando suffered one of the toughest seasons of any NBA team. For the entirety of the season, Dwight Howard demanded a trade, as General Manager Otis Smith looked around for a good deal to get his superstar big man out of Orlando (or at least it seemed.)
Then, just a day prior to the deadline, Howard announced that he would like to stay in the Sunshine State for another season, signing an amendment and waiving his right to opt out in the summer.
Rumors then surfaced that "Superman" had said he would not play for the Magic unless head coach Stan van Gundy was replaced. Van Gundy said he knew that Howard did not wanted him around, although the center adamantly denied that.
Finally, Dwight hurt his back, missed the end of the season and now no one knows what his next career move will be. The Magic struggled mightily without Howard, losing 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs to the Indiana Pacers. Orlando was in control of the No. 3 seed for much of the season, but without D12, they tumbled to sixth.
So, obviously, the first order for the front office is to solve the whole mess between star and coach. The easy move would be to fire Van Gundy and try to sign Howard long-term but I would propose otherwise.
Stan is a great coach and should remain in Orlando, whereas Howard was a distraction all season. They could acquire some great talent through him (either Brook Lopez or Andrew Bynum) and rebuild from there.
Smith and the Magic have built a solid group of players around Howard, as the role players include Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen "Big Baby" Davis. Turkoglu has a whale of a contract given his skill-set, so it would also be beneficial to dump Turk along with Howard if they deal him.
Nelson is a good player, but with a top big man almost surely to be in the fold for 2012-13, they need a point guard who is really pass-first. They could potentially get Andre Miller or Goran Dragic out of free agency.
Orlando needs to aboard on radical changes—getting Howard out of town being the biggest—in order to restore order. If Howard is around next season, the whole season will be a distraction so better to get rid of him sooner.
Orlando may not be as big a threat, but they will get enough pieces to be a playoff presence in the near future.
This is a half-rebuild plan because Orlando would still acquire a "franchise player" in the deal, but they would be taking an "in with the old, out with the new" approach.
New York Knicks (Lost 4-1 to Miami Heat)
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The Knicks were one of the NBA's biggest disappointments last season. They entered with hopes of winning the Atlantic division and challenging Miami and Chicago in the East, but instead, they tumbled to the seven seed and were thoroughly outplayed in a five-game loss to the Heat.
The Knicks fixed their biggest problem from last year, defense, by signing Tyson Chandler. He eventually became the KIA Defensive Player of the Year, upgrading defensive-minded assistant Mike Woodson to head coach mid-season.
However, New York still struggled. Their two superstars, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, are still ball-stoppers on offense; neither has quite grasped the understanding of defense.
Also, injuries hampered the Knicks' season, as Melo missed 11 games, Stoudemire missed 20 including one in the playoffs and point guard sensation Jeremy Lin missed 31, including the entirety of the Heat series.
The Knicks were also down to a fourth-string point guard by the end of game four, having lost Lin, Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis all to knee injuries.
Still, the season was not expected to be so bad.
It doesn't seem as if Melo and Amare will learn to co-exist as neither can play without the ball in their hands, so it is time for this short-lived experiment to end.
Both stars are under contract for at least two more seasons, so a more sensible option is to trade one of them. Earlier in the season, the Philadelphia 76ers showed interest in Amare, and a guy like Andre Iguodala or Evan Turner could be a good fit in the Big Apple.
Carlos Boozer, Emeka Okafor, and Rudy Gay are also potential pieces that could be acquired for either STAT or Carmelo.
Jeremy Lin did a terrific job for a while running New York's offense, but no one knows how consistent he is, or even whether or not he will be in NY next season.
Goran Dragic, who was a revelation in Houston this season seems like an interesting choice as someone who can consistently get the ball to Anthony and/or Stoudemire. The Slovenian is a free agent this up-coming offseason.
The Knicks are one of the league's biggest enigmas, as we don't know how well they can co-exist with more time playing together. Either way, the every day Knicks fan needs to accept that either they will have to make a blockbuster deal or give it some time before this team meshes.
Chicago Bulls (Lost 4-2 to Philadelphia 76ers)
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What an unfortunate end to the year for the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
They were without 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose for 28 games over the course of the season in which they were still able to defend their regular-season Eastern Conference crown. D-Rose was seemingly finding his groove in game one of the first-round series, when Tom Thibodeau decided to play his injury-prone star late in a game that was presumably already over (Chicago led by 12 with just over one minute left).
Rose tore his ACL, was ruled out for the playoffs and pretty much turned off the light on any Bulls championship hope. To make matters worse, starting center Joakim Noah went down with an ankle injury in game three, rendering him unavailable for the final three games of the season.
Then, the Bulls were about to steal game six when CJ Watson, Rose's replacement and an 80 percent free throw shooter, made an ill-advised pass to Omer Asik, a 45 percent free throw shooter late in the game. Asik, Noah's replacement, missed both shots as Chicago went on to lose by one point.
That loss to Philly brings up a lot of offseason uncertainties in the Windy City.
True, one could blame the struggles on injuries, but even so, I have trouble seeing the Bulls give Miami that much of a fight in the conference finals.
At full strength, Rose is still one of the premier talents in the NBA and also when healthy, first-year Bull Rip Hamilton looked very good giving Thibodeau's offense another option.
Luol Deng is their glue-guy and a great on-ball defender. Sometimes it would be good to see the Duke alum take more of the scoring upon himself and stop deferring often to D-Rose.
In the frontcourt they seem set, with Carlos Boozer and Noah at the four and five spots. The bench is also beyond solid with energy man Taj Gibson and sharpshooter Kyle Korver providing good minutes in relief of the starting five.
Boozer struggled at times in Chicago, and fans seemed intent on dealing him to New York or LA and bringing in Stoudemire or Lakers big Pau Gasol. Since all three are struggling to find a niche in their current homes, a move could be beneficial, but it is certainly not needed for any of these teams.
One move that should be made instantly is to replace Watson, who despite impressing is his time at the helm, can't lead a team chasing a championship, which the Bulls will do, even if Derrick misses significant chunks of time in 2012-13.
An intriguing option is current Nuggets backup Andre Miller, who returned to Denver after stints in Philly and Portland. Miller may be content back in Colorado where he played from 2003-06, but he would be a good fit, and another veteran presence for the Bulls.
Beyond that, all Chicago can do is keep playing good defense and grow a little more effective on the other end so that next year they come prepared. Best case scenario, they end next season with the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Atlanta Hawks (Lost 4-2 to Boston Celtics)
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The Hawks front office seem content just being good and not great. They have made the playoffs for five years running, but have yet to advance past the second round once there.
The so-called big three of Joe Johnson, Al Horford, and Josh Smith portray this perfectly. All three are good players, even All-Stars, but none are MVP candidates.
The fourth consistent starter, Jeff Teague, showed flashes of brilliance and was honestly a breath of fresh air when watching Atlanta, but he is not a game-changer.
True, Horford, arguably the best player on the squad missed the large majority of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Atlanta was still basically the No. 4 seed as they had a better record than Boston, but since the Celtics won their division, they were given the 4 seed. (Atlanta still had home-court advantage.)
Even with Al, the Hawks wouldn't have done much better than fourth, and definitely wouldn't have been able to beat the Heat of a 100-percent Bull squad.
They did squander their best chance at a conference final birth, because had they beaten Boston they would have gone into the showdown with the Sixers as the favorite.
Now it's up to GM Rick Sund to decide if he wants to keep living in the top half of the conference or really make a push to becoming an NBA force.
A quick fix will not provide this.
For starters, they need to let Josh Smith and Al Horford play their natural forward positions, meaning that they must bring in a true center. Samuel Dalembert is the only half-good fit in this year's free agent class.
The change has to be more drastic. I think that it would be a dream it the Hawks could move Johnson, who, even though he is arguably the third-best shooting guard in the NBA, is very overpaid. However, his contract makes him tough to move.
In theory, the Hawks, who were barely thrown around in the Howard sweepstakes, could move two of the three guys and get Dwight. Preferably, the Hawks could retain Horford and have a starting lineup of Teague, Redick (from trade)/free agent SG, Marvin Williams, Horford and D12.
Now, that is a true championship contending team, and a blockbuster deal like that may be tho only way for the Hawks to climb into the upper-echelon of the NBA.
If not, they will continue sinking in this mediocrity until their abundance of talent leaves and they go back to the times of the early 2000s.
Denver Nuggets (Lost 4-3 to LA Lakers)
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The Denver Nuggets turned quite a few heads in giving the favored Lakers a two-fisted battle in a tough seven-game first round series. Sandwiched by two poor performances at the start and end of the battle, the Nuggets bigs gave All-Stars Andrew Bynum and Paul Gasol all they could handle on both ends of the floor.
The lineup is an odd mix of players, with a speedy point guard (Ty Lawson) who sets the tone for the NBA's highest-scoring attack, and wing players that aren't very well known but get the job done (Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo). Down low there's a plethora of big men who aren't really stars, or bench warmers who are either too small (Kenneth Faried), too raw (Kosta Koufos, Timofey Mosgov, Javale McGee) or too one-dimensional (Al Harrington)
However, George Karl did a great job to bring a team of New York castaways and well-developed young guns together and complete a very successful season.
After the Carmelo Anthony experiment failed, both with Allen Iverson and Chauncey Billups at his side, Denver was cast off, like many of their players, and were seemingly going to rebuild. Not so. Since dealing Anthony and Billups to the Big Apple for a large group of players, Denver has 56-35 record, one of the best in the League during that span.
Denver is almost in a dream situation. They are rebuilding, getter younger, and moving along from the 'Melo days, but still playing great basketball.
The explosive run-and-gun offense is tough to stop and they are beginning to get more disciplined on the defensive end (except for McGee).
A better scorer at the 2-spot to complement a great perimeter D is probably next on Karl's wish list, but for now, they will be happy just fighting, pushing the ball and stunning opponents.
The "rebuilding" experience will be quick and when everything is set and everyone is finally developed, no one will be surprised to see the Nuggets make a deep run in the postseason.
Memphis Grizzlies (Lost 4-3 to LA Clippers)
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Had the Grizzlies been able to hold onto some late-game leads, they would be prepping for a game in San Antonio tomorrow night instead of heading back to Memphis dejectedly after another seven-game playoff bow-out.
Memphis let a 28-point Game 1 lead evaporate and lost by one. They also lost game three by one and game four in OT, while leading in more than 60 percent of the first 197 minutes of the series—yet found themselves down 3 games to one.
Despite strong efforts in game five and six, the offense disappeared down the stretch in the final game, which they lost by 10.
This is another squad that looks set, with Mike Conley having a breakout year, Rudy Gay stayed healthy for the year, and, when both were fit, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol dominated down low.
Randolph missed much of the season, and he and Gay didn't co-exist particularly well because each has missed parts of the past two seasons.
Although many are pushing for the departure of OJ Mayo, the USC alum is a great player to have coming of the bench to provide insta-offense.
The deals thrown around for Mayo are lackluster for Memphis, as no one is willing to give up too much for a relatively unproven player.
Memphis however, is over the hump that many of the previously mentioned teams are still struggled to climb.
The Grizzlies are legit title contenders, even with their current roster; after all, they were just one game away from a Western Conference Finals date with the Dallas Mavericks last year, and, after that, who knows what might have happened.
The Grizzlies don't need to abide any major changes this upcoming offseason as they are already a team with a bright future.