NBA Playoffs 2013: 5 Bold Predictions for the Western Conference
Two weeks ago, I gave you my five bold predictions for the Eastern Conference playoffs. Now, it's time to head out west.
The Western Conference boasts six very strong teams, as does the Eastern Conference. After the top six, it's a bit of a crapshoot, and I wouldn't hold out any hope that the seventh or eighth seeds will get out of the first round.
But what will the top six look like?
The Los Angeles Lakers acquired 38-year-old point guard Steve Nash in July. Then, they swapped Andrew Bynum, a 2015 second-round pick and a 2017 first-round pick (along with some other pieces) primarily for disgruntled center Dwight Howard in a four-team blockbuster trade (per ESPN Los Angeles).
Howard, also known as "Superman," is a defensive dynamo and a powerhouse in the paint. He also shot a CYO-basketball quality 49.1 percent from the free-throw line last season.
And he skipped his own youth basketball summer camp in Orlando, because, according to Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel, "he is rehabbing his back after an out-patient herniated disk procedure that was done 3 1/2 months ago. He was scheduled to be back with the Magic a few days after having the surgery in April, but he hasn't been seen in Orlando ever since."
Back issues have a way of lingering, and Lakers management will keep their fingers crossed.
According to Pregame.com, the Las Vegas Hotel's SuperBook ("the world's largest race book and Las Vegas' largest sports book") put the Lakers' odds of hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy at 5-2, with Miami's odds at 9-4. Last year's Western Conference champs, the Oklahoma City Thunder, are 9-2.
But just as in last year's playoffs, I see the Thunder staying on top of the West. Here's how the seeding will break down: 1. Oklahoma City Thunder, 2. Los Angeles Lakers, 3. San Antonio Spurs, 4. Los Angeles Clippers, 5. Memphis Grizzlies, 6. Denver Nuggets, 7. Utah Jazz, 8. Houston Rockets.
Again, to borrow the motto of ESPN NFL columnist Gregg Easterbrook, "All Predictions Wrong or Your Money Back."
And here are my bold predictions for Western Conference playoffs.
The Spurs Will Be One and Done
Gregg Popovich is a fantastic coach and Tim Duncan is a great center, but the San Antonio Spurs are too old and will lose in the first round to Denver.
The Spurs owned the top seed in the conference last season and stormed into the Western Conference finals having won 18 straight games. They took the first two from the Thunder and appeared to be ready to steamroll their way to the NBA Finals. Then OKC reeled off four consecutive victories and the Spurs were toast.
Ultimately, the Thunder's youth, talent and depth were too much for the Spurs. While San Antonio simply plays excellent basketball, they just don't have quite enough to take another title. Duncan is 36 years old and Manu Ginobili is 35. Tony Parker is only 30, but he's got 11 years of NBA wear and tear on his body.
The Spurs stood pat this offseason and did not make any significant moves. That is something they will regret and their window for winning another championship will slam shut this season.
They lack size (their roster lists centers at 6'7" and 6'8") and they lack elite scoring. They'll be headed home early in these playoffs, and Denver won't be done surprising people.
Nuggets in six.
The Clippers Will Be out in the First Round
The LA Clippers and Lob City are an exciting team to watch. Chris Paul is a great point guard. Blake Griffin can fly high.
But that's about it. They will lose in the first round to Memphis.
The Clips were fairly active in the offseason and they brought in some household names in Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and Grant Hill. They also re-signed Chauncey Billups. These four offer a wealth of experience. It just may be too much experience.
Hill is 39, Billups is 35 and while Odom is only 32, he seemed to have rapidly aged in the course of his trip from Los Angeles to Dallas. The Mavericks listed Odom as inactive for the final month of the season despite being perfectly healthy.
Crawford is 32 as well, and has seen his scoring numbers decline for the last three seasons. He's never been a strong shooter either, averaging 40.8 percent from the field over his career and just 38.4 percent last season.
The Clippers may have the best point guard in the league in Chris Paul, but the roster rapidly thins out after him.
Blake Griffin's poster dunks are certainly spectacular, but his free-throw shooting is not. He averaged 52.1 percent from the charity stripe last season, and many opponents adopted a hack-a-Blake strategy.
Center DeAndre Jordan is an even worse free-throw shooter, averaging 44 percent from the line in his career. It's difficult to win close games late when the players in your frontcourt can't hit their free throws. The Clippers are entertaining, but they won't make much noise in the playoffs and they'll be no match for the Grizz.
Memphis is six.
The Lakers Are Awesome, Awesomely Flawed
The Lakers had a very eventful offseason.
And it will be an eventful postseason, where they will lose in the second round to Denver.
The Lakers are mortgaging their future for the present. They sent off two first-round picks to acquire future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash.
Then, they ended America's long national Dwightmare when they acquired Dwight Howard from Orlando. They gave up their own disgruntled center, Andrew Bynum, along with another first-round pick. The real coup of the deal was that they managed to retain Pau Gasol.
So with Kobe Bryant turning 34 years old this summer, the Lakers are making a run at another championship or two while Kobe still has something left in the tank.
Kobe averaged 27.9 points per game last season but shot only 43 percent from the field, the lowest shooting percentage of his career since he became a starter in 1998. Of course, having Steve Nash at point guard instead of Ramon Sessions and Steve Blake will help.
Dwight Howard has now been paired with two Hall of Famers in LA. But he wanted to go to Brooklyn and only Brooklyn (via ESPN.com). Poor him.
The Lakers were dismissed in five games by OKC last year because they lacked depth and athleticism. They still lack that.
Kobe and Nash are getting older and slower by the minute, and Dwight's back could start barking again at any moment. Plus, teams can always just hack-a-Dwight and be happy it's not Kobe who's threatening on offense or Nash who's taking the free throws.
As for Pau Gasol, he was great for Spain against Team USA in the gold medal game. It was a nice change from his disappointing playoffs.
After averaging 17.4 points per game in the regular season, Gasol averaged just 12.5 points in the playoffs. He suffered through an abysmal Game 6 against Denver, posting just three points on 1-of-10 shooting with three rebounds.
While having Howard in the middle will help take some of the pressure off Gasol, the persistent criticism that he's not physical enough will remain.
The Nuggets took the Lakers to seven games in their first-round matchup in 2012. They will finish what they started last year, and take down Kobe, Nash and D-12 in 2013.
Nuggets in seven.
The Grizz Are a Great Team, Just Not in the Playoffs
The Grizz will lose in the second round to Oklahoma City.
I root for Memphis every year, and every year they make an early exit. They remind me of a Western Conference version of the Pacers. They're an exciting team, but they are missing some key components.
The Grizz have some nice starters in Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley. They retained depth on their roster by re-signing Marreese Speights and Hamed Haddadi.
They brought in Jerryd Bayless from Toronto, but lost O.J. Mayo to Dallas. Tony Allen will attempt to replace Mayo as the starting shooting guard, but he has averaged more than 21 minutes per game in just two seasons over his eight-year career.
Memphis dropped a tough seven-game series to the Clippers last year, losing two of the first three games by one point, including Game 1 when the Grizz managed to blow a 27-point lead in the second half.
They have not made any significant improvements in the offseason, and while the stinging memory of last year's playoffs will drive them past the first round, they won't have enough to overcome the Thunder. OKC in five.
The Nuggets Will Shock the World by Getting to the Semis, but Will Stumble
The Nuggets will make the Western Conference finals...but lose to OKC. Sometimes Cinderella doesn't end up with Prince Charming.
The Nuggets took the Lakers to seven games in the playoffs last season, proving their toughness. Now that they've added Andre Iguodala through the four-team Dwight Howard deal, they will be able to boast some much needed defense.
Last season, Denver led the NBA in scoring, averaging 104.1 points per game. But they gave up 101.2 points. Only Sacramento gave up more points. Even the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats played better defense, and they were the worst team in NBA history.
Iguodala was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2011, and he should've been on it again in 2012 but Kobe Bryant made it on reputation. He also finished seventh in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
The Nuggets have some very talented players who don't get much hype. They have Ty Lawson and Andre Miller who can score, distribute and bring some tough defense.
Their frontcourt is stout as well, not only boasting Iguodala, but also one of the league's better centers in JaVale McGee. And they have Kenneth Faried, who posted similar numbers to McGee's (11.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in 25.2 minutes) in his rookie season (10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in 22.5 minutes).
Not to mention, Danilo Gallinari. The Italian Stallion brings all-around ability with his 6'10" frame.
They also added 6'11" power forward Anthony Randolph from Minnesota. He joins forwards Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer and center Timofey Mozgov to give the Nuggets one of the biggest and deepest benches in the league.
This size is what will get them past the Lakers who have their own big tandem in Howard and Gasol.
But the Nuggets don't have enough to make it past the Thunder. Their magical run will come to an end when they run out of gas in the Western Conference finals. OKC in five.
An NBA Finals Grudge Match
The Thunder are still the most talented team in the league.
They have the NBA's best scorer in Kevin Durant and one of the best scoring point guards in Russell Westbrook. Now that they have locked up Serge "Iblocka" Ibaka for a few more years (per ESPN.com), the West will have a dangerous squad to worry about in OKC for years to come.
2013 will see a rematch of last year's NBA Finals, with the Thunder taking on the Miami Heat again.
Who will win? Stay tuned for my preview of the NBA Finals in September.