Scene’s NBA Western Conference Preview

click to enlarge Scene’s NBA Western Conference Preview
For all the talk about the strength of the Western Conference, there’s been remarkably little change the last few years. We’ll take a look at how it stacks up, and return tomorrow with the Eastern Conference.

When you break it down, we’ve been talking about the same six teams the last four years: San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Memphis, with the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State and Houston emerging during the last three. Dallas, Portland, Phoenix and New Orleans have flirted with the playoffs but generally haven’t advanced. Little of that seems likely to change.

The Barrel’s Bottom

Any thoughts of playoffs need to begin with next year.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves (3-year win total: 87). After finally turning it around in the front office by handing the keys to coach Flip Saunders, the Timberwolves climbed out of the ex-GM David Kahn’s basement bachelor pad purgatory. They’re still the saddest case in the West, but probably have a brighter future ahead than the Lakers. Their booty from the Kevin Love trade, Andrew Wiggins, was an effective player in his first year (16.9 ppg) and has room to grow. All indications are that seven-foot 2016 first pick Karl-Anthony Towns is the real thing. But the Wolves still lack a perimeter scorer and someone who can get his own shot. While Rubio’s sick A/T (8.8 assist, 1.7 TO) potentially means open shots, they still don’t have a lot of knockdown shooters outside of Kevin Martin. The Wolves finished 26th in 3pt shooting. The addition of 6-10 Serb Nemanja Bjelica who shot 35% in Europe from 3 across his career, will help, but until they find an effective off-guard and some outside shooting they’ll be pining from daylight. Another Top 10 draft pick can’t hurt. To make matters worse, Coach/GM Flip Saunders passed suddenly during a battle with lymphoma leaving the reigns to Coach Sam Mitchell (156-189 in one 4.25-year stint for Toronto) who typically gets his teams to play hard, but lacks tactical chops.
Reasons for Hope: Towns and Wiggins are legitimate players and potential cornerstones.
Reasons to Despair: Rubio (25) running out of time to learn how to shoot (36% FG last year); still no primary scorer, go-to player.

14. Los Angeles Lakers (104). When you’re paying 37-year old Kobe Bryant and 28-year old lumbering center Roy Hibbert $40 million, or $5 to $6 million more than you’re paying the rest of the team, you probably know you’re in for some tough times. While 19-year old D’Angelo Russell might have a bright future, there are questions about his shot (39% FG in preseason), and the learning curve for many rookies is steep. Having missed his entire first season, Randle will be enjoying those same hilly climbs. He still looks wrong for the NBA age – bulky forward who doesn’t block shots and no 3-game. He’s Zach Randolph with defter passing ability. (Remember how long it took Randolph to find a proper home?) Lou Williams and Nick Young are first class gunners, so it could be fun seeing them compete with Kobe for shots. Jordan Clarkson (6’5”) is tall enough to play shooting guard but he’s more of a scorer than shooter (31% from 3). More questions than answers here.
Reasons for Hope: Hibbert still rebounds and blocks shots; squad several scorers; Metta World Peace still produces occasional chuckles
Reasons to Despair: Lakers pick next year may very well end up in Philadelphia; it’s only Top-3 protected.

13. Denver Nuggets (123). Just two years ago Denver had a 57-win team that had made the playoffs several years in a row. Then for no real reason they fired the reigning Coach of the Year George Karl. As if to punctuate how serious they were about losing they hired Brian Shaw. While there are useful pieces here, it’s mostly a disaster at this point. Mercifully the front-office has brought in a batch of wholesale replacements judging from the Nuggets preseason. Their frontcourt boats a dramatically foreign feel with holdover Danilo Gallinari, last year’s first round pick Jusuf Nurkic and new additions Nikola Jokic and Joffrey Lauvergne. They’ve got young guards in underrated wing Will Barton, last year’s other first rounder Gary Harris, and 19-year-old point guard Emmanual Mudiay. Wilson Chandler (28) and Kenneth Faried (25) are veteran holdovers but Faried’s not a stretch 4 and Chandler is more valuable to a contender. Look for one or both to change addresses before the season’s done. Lots of youth that will suffer while it learns.
Reasons for Hope: Very athletic frontline, young backcourt
Reasons for Despair: No discernible plan in assemblage of talent, extending Gallinari and Chandler on team going nowhere fast

12. Portland Trailblazers (138). They’d won more than 50 games the last two seasons, but cornerstone LaMarcus Aldridge bolted and the Trailblazers threw it into rebuild. They got what they could for Nicolas Batum and landed Mason Plumlee from the Nets where his post game didn’t fit well with Brook Lopez. Plumlee looked to be putting it together at 25 last season, and could be a replacement for Aldridge. They let Robin Lopez walk in free agency and replaced him with seven-foot 2012 first rounder Meyers Leonard who’s three-point shooting ways fit perfectly the way the game’s moving. They also acquired Charlotte’s developing big man Noah Vonleh who is only 20, and maybe a year or two away, but looks like a player. Damian Lillard is still on hand but will probably become even less efficient with offenses turned primarily toward stopping him. Free agent departure Wes Matthews is replaced by another long-moldering draft pick, 2013 first rounder C. J. McCollum. SF Maurice Harkless has looked very good, getting a fresh start after being buried on the Magic bench. He’s lacking in offensive abilities but brings energy, defense and an apparently improving 3-stroke. Al-Farouq Aminu is another hard-nosed defensive/energy player with good length while Ed Davis and Chris Kaman are the requisite vets with something in the tank. If everything goes right they could make the playoff fringe, but in all likelihood the number of new pieces involved will require at least half the season to integrate. Like the Jazz, this could be the second half story people are talking about in 2016.
Reasons for Hope: Quickly turned into rebuilding project and got younger
Reasons for Despair: Questionable where scoring comes from beyond Lilliard

11. Sacramento Kings (85). It’s a player’s league, without a doubt. The days when coaches used to micromanage every play set are over, and in large part talent wins out. But nobody gets far without good coaching. It’s part of what separates first round exits from the NBA’s elite 8. Don’t sleep on the Kings. They have even less wins than the Wolves, but were moving in the right direction before management gave Mike Malone the heave-ho. The Nuggets are likely on their way back as well with Malone as their coach, though the swim back from that Island of Misfit Toys will be much further. Karl is an autocrat but he gets results. He’s actually got a decent squad too. Rudy Gay will be moving to the 4 ala Paul George on occasion as well as playing the SF alongside DeMarcus Cousins who is now showing off his 3-ball and will also be playing the 4. First rounder Willie Cauley-Stein will give them great flexibility and backup big Kosta Koufos is a pretty good rim protector (46.8% ≈ Hassan Whiteside/John Henson/Draymond Green). Who knows what you’ll get with Rondo, but he’s a proud man and if he can get past his own moody stubbornness he has the ability to lead what promises to be a fast-paced attack for one of the first times in his life. (Dallas was more pick & roll which isn’t Rondo’s strong suit.) Remember, Karl had the Nuggets playing like the Warriors before that was a thing. Belinelli has a chance to shine, freed from San Antonio’s deep/restrictive rotation. If everything goes to hell with Rondo, Collison is more than capable of taking the reigns. Former first Ben McLemore needs to show something soon. Former Cav Omri Casspi has surprised in preseason. Still unclear who plays the 3 when Gay moves to the stretch 4.
Reasons for Hope: Good mix of veterans, skill up front
Reasons for Despair: Depth beyond Collison & Koufos lacking, Karl has already clashed with Rondo & Cousins during first three months.

Playoff Fringe

These teams might make the playoffs but stand little chance of advancing.

10. Utah Jazz (90). Last year Utah was where Sacramento is now, with a solid core that just needs some time to gel and grow together. For the Jazz, a big part of that was cutting the cord on high draft pick Enes Kanter. Kanter’s great offensive skills are matched by matador defensive skills worthy an orange traffic cone. Kanter’s unsightly 57.1% FG allowed at the rim is matched in the opposite by his replacement Rudy Gobert with 40.5% rim protection. Amazingly the Jazz went from playing with the leagues worst defensive big to the best, a life-changing moment like finally getting the monkey off your back or discovering you’re still married to a Kardashian after all. Gobert – Favors – Hayward is a young talented frontline that still has room to grow and improve. They like Alec Burks (24) at SG, but he’s not a great shooter, playmaker or scorer. They were high on last year’s rookie Dante Exum as a PG, though he might fit better at SG; notably he tore up his knee and is out for the season. That leaves Trey Burke as the point guard after a battle with 23-year old Brazilian Raul Neto. Burke came in with a chip on his shoulder and had a great preseason in which he shot very well – something that’s been missing thus far in his game. He’s crafty quick and may surprise people this year. Another guy like that is 6-8 second-year wing Rodney Hood from Duke. He’s looked good in stretches and could take the 2 position from Burks. He’s got the skills but has struggled at times to stay focused and/or healthy. It’s a good starting and a strong defensive unit. After the all-star break the Jazz allowed 94.8 points/per 100 possession. That’s nearly 5 points better than Memphis, the next toughest team during that stretch. During that same time they were 19th in scoring, which is what the problem is – nobody is a volume scorer, though sometimes Burke thinks he is. Haywood probably could be a good second banana but they need a primary guy.
Reasons for Hope: Good core, great defensive unit
Reasons for Despair: Lack go-to scorer and playmakers, bench depth lacking.

9. Dallas Mavericks (140). They went from contenders to pretenders with one move. They could’ve kept Tyson Chandler but instead rolled the dice with the fiasco that was DeAndre Jordan’s brief Mavericks tenure before he had it annulled. They added underrated veteran big Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee which is like a comedy pairing of Paul Reiser and Sam Kinison. They signed Wes Matthews who’s the type of player that does all the little things to make your team better, and they’ll have Chandler Parsons back with Dirk Nowitzki. Whether they can producer 48 minutes of decent point guard play out of Devin Harris, JJ Berea, Raymond Felton and Deron Williams is the question. With everyone going big we even saw the Mavericks trying Dirk at center in preseason where his defense was less German than French. Perhaps Stretch 4s 6-11 Dwight Powell or Charlie Villanueva can show enough to make them effective with Dirk. It’s the direction the league is going and Carlisle is as good a coach as there is when it comes to maximizing personnel. Still, the Mavericks don’t seem to have enough mature talent and athleticism to compete this year.
Reasons for Hope: Parsons/Matthews/Nowitzki is a formidable core three
Reasons for Despair: Rest of team suggests the “Factory Seconds” bin at area outlet mall.

8. Phoenix Suns (112). For a team that plays such a wide-open style, it’s a little surprising that the Phoenix Suns were 20th in 3-point FG percentage (34.1%), just below the Jazz and Kings, ahead of the Grizzlies and Heat. That’s not a good place to be in today’s world where the best teams are the one that can hit from distance and help spread the floor that way. Brandon Knight (31%) and Eric Bledsoe (32%) are not long-distance marksmen. Indeed, last year’s five best 3-point shooters (Isaiah Thomas, Anthony Toliver, Marcus Morris, Goran Dragic, Gerald Green) have moved on. That doesn’t bode well for a long run, but despite their poor distance shooting the Suns have guys who simply can score in Bledsoe, Knight and TJ Warren. Defensive-minded players PJ Tucker, Alex Len and Tyson Chandler will try to improve their league 20th defensive rating while greater familiarity may improve the offense and the -.5 points per game differential. Mirza Teletovic adds some 3-point range and young guys like Archie Goodwin and Warren feel on the verge of showing something. Perhaps their undersized backcourt of combo guards Knight and Bledsoe can find the right mix, but for now it appears a still-brewing work-in-progress.
Reasons for Hope: Good collection lot of talent
Reasons for Despair: Unclear if talent fits together, lack accurate 3pt shooters

7. New Orleans Pelicans (106). It wasn’t too long ago Cleveland knew what it was like to have the best young player in basketball, a burgeoning talent for whom the sky’s the limit. How many championships did that net? Pelicans have the same issues. They put some decent talent around Davis, and perhaps new coach Alvin Gentry can energize the team the way he helped Steve Kerr do with the Golden State Warriors. He’s bringing the same offense, though why you’d want to take Anthony Davis away from the basket is a bit of a puzzler. Still, Davis is shooting 3s, and Ryan Anderson finally seems to be back from the backbone scare-off a couple years ago. Asik – when healthy – plays defense and rebounds allowing Davis to roam more at the 4. It’s worth wondering whether those three and back-up seven-footer Alexis Ajinca represent enough frontcourt depth. SG Eric Gordon has never lived up to his promise and now sixth man/sparkplug Tyreke Evans is down with a knee injury. Jrue Holiday is an underrated player but is still coming back form knee surgery. Norris Cole provides some veteran depth but the bench still looks very thin for a playoff team. Still, having the best young player in the league can cover for a lot of sins, as we know.
Reasons for Hope: Davis is perhaps the NBA’s most dominant player
Reasons for Despair: Outside Davis, team’s talent doesn’t have much upside

Core Contenders

If things fall right any of these teams could win the Western Conference.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder (164). The Oklahoma City finished 23rd in 3pt shooting percentage. The top 6 teams were (in order) Warriors, Hawks, Clippers, Pelicans, Cavaliers, Spurs, featuring (arguably) the five best teams from last year. For years Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have outperformed the talent around them. Now that they’ve finally gotten more talent, the question is whether it’s the right kind. While there’s no quibbling with the core trio of Ibaka/Durant/Westbrook, the decision to match Enes Kanter’s contract reeks of desperation. As mentioned above he’s the worst big defender in the league. Not that he should feel out of place. The entire bench is composed of players whose defensive skills are questionable at best: Steve Novak, Kyle Singler, DJ Augustin, Dion Waiters. They’re outfitted for a track meet but with the way they play D, it’s like they’re always running in the outside lane. At least Steve Kerr proved it was possible for a new coach to take a team all the way.
Reasons for Hope: Tremendous core trio, offensively skilled bench
Reasons for Despair: Reserves defensively flawed, esp. Kanter who barely defends rim better than a tersely worded letter.

5. Houston Rockets (155). It feels like Houston’s ready to come together, but it’s still unclear whether the Rockets can win with their style. They shot five more 3s per game than the next highest team (Cleveland with 27.5 per game), yet shot several percentage points worse. They can afford to do this because they have the second highest foul-shooting rate, and were fifth best in the league in creating turnovers. They were also sixth-best in offensive rebounds. So if you can give yourself more opportunities, it doesn’t matter so much that you’re only a middling shooting team from distance. Bringing in Ty Lawson to take up some ballhandling from James Harden and provide another playmaker will help. Nobody else on that team can create their own shot. Lawson is a defensive liability (36th percentile defending pick & roll) and a much worse defensive player than Patrick Beverley and that could hurt more than the offense they gain. There’s a lot of talent and interesting pieces between Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Clint Capela. While anything can happen, it feels like the Houston backcourt defense won’t be good enough to slow down the West’s top talent.
Reasons for Hope: Deep, versatile bench, explosive scorers in Lawson, Harden
Reasons for Despair: Harden’s partner’s an even worse defender than him.

4. Golden State Warriors (159). There’s a pernicious prejudice in sports prognostication to expect the last season to repeat itself. Not that it’s likely, especially in a season so devoid of bad fortune. The Warriors won 67 games in part because they’re a great team. But the utter lack of injuries was another big factor. It’s hard to expect that to repeat itself particularly after a long playoff run. They’re the defending champion and they return everyone. They play a deep squad, are great 3-point shooters and last year played great defense. Whether they’ll be able to muster the same defensive intensity is a question. They didn’t during the preseason. Having never advanced that far before, the Warriors seem more prone to falling into a false sense of comfort/security. Compare that to a team that went to the Finals or Conference Finals, and lost. Will the Warriors have that same hunger? For a variety of reasons, including the relative hunger of their Western competitors, we think not.
Reasons for Hope: Defending Champs, Return whole squad, No injuries
Reasons for Despair: Luck always, eventually, runs out and they’ve been beating the house for a while.

3. Memphis Grizzlies (161). Memphis has been remarkably consistent posting the fourth most wins of any Western Conference team the last three years. They’ve kept their core and quietly added to it. They’re a team that everyone overlooks, but with the whole league suddenly zigging in the direction of Stretch 4s and the 3-point line, perhaps the fact that Memphis zags will finally serve them best. You have to like that the core of Mike Conley (28), Marc Gasol (30) and Zach Randolph (34) have spent so long together. You also have to like the way the Grizzlies took it to the Warriors before Tony Allen’s injury left them unprepared to stop the Warriors Frick & Frack brothers. They somewhat solved that by bringing in Matt Barnes (35), who despite his age is a tough wing defender and gritty to boot. He’ll backup the softer, ever vaguely disappointing Jeff Green at the 3. Green seems capable of so much more than he ever puts up but he’s still a long versatile guy built to cover stretch 4s and capable of beating people off the dribble as well as shooting from range. With his long arms he could be a great defender, but he’s good at most things and great at none. Adding Barnes probably helps in subtle ways by allowing them to not rely on Green. Courtney Lee is a fine player who never seems to get his due, but still shot 40% from 3, got a steal a game and maintained a 2-1 assist/turnover ratio. Tony Allen is a defensive terror who sealed up Stephen Curry like an oil drum during the playoffs, before going down injured. They’ve added to their core with underrated big Brandan Wright who had one of the league’s best PERs and FG% as a backup before leaving the Mavericks in the Rondo trade. He’s a fine reserve big, and a more nimble, pick & roll ready big than ex-backup Kosta Koufos. Vince Carter (38) keeps on ticking somehow, and they’ve got a passel of young athletes in bigs Jarnell Stokes, Jarrell Martin and guards Jordan Adams and Russ Smith. If one of them can turn into something (or they add another solid player) they should have enough talent/bodies to make a championship run. They need things to fall their way the way things did for the Warriors, but their size in a league going the opposite direction might keenly counter the prevailing trend.
Reasons to Hope: Top six return, Wright’s solid addition
Reasons to Despair: Could be close to aging out of opportunity

2. San Antonio Spurs (175). Still not sure why I have the Spurs second. They seem so damn good. But that’s one reason. Prevailing wisdom with regard to sports team can often be dramatically wrong. While I love the talent on this team, have you looked at the ages of this team? If they win it won’t just be a triumph for Coach Gregg Popocvich but the AARP. The age of major rotation players – Duncan (39), Ginobili (38), Parker (33), West (35) – and key reserves like Boris Diaw (33), Rasual Butler (36) and Matt Bonner (36) – make you wonder if this softball instead hoops. Even new recruit LaMarcus Aldridge is 30. He, Danny Green (28) and Kawhi Leonard (24) form their new young core with Patty Mills (27) and Ray McCallum (24) keying the backcourt. There’s even a random 7’3” nearly 300-lb. foreign player (Boban Marjanovic), as is the Spurs’ way. The way they went out – in the first round to the Clippers – has made them even hungrier, and they have to feel those last rays of their championship hopes about to disappear over the horizon. But old players get hurt and would be hard to recover from losing a Duncan, Parker or even West, given their lack of depth in the middle. There’s just too many miles on the tread to believe they can make it deep into playoff season without a debilitating setback, even with Popovich’s deep rotations and frequent days off. There’s a reason why Father Time’s undefeated.
Reasons to Hope: One of league’s best teams got best FA (Aldridge) without losing anyone important
Reasons to Despair: Good smart players but drawing on a diminishing pool of athleticism that could hurt with game’s ever increasing pace and length of season.

1. Los Angeles Clippers (169). The main reason why I chose the Clippers over the Spurs was the belief that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (in a contract year) want it this more than anything. Sure the Spurs are hungry, but how hungry can you be when you’ve hit the buffet three times already. Paul sees the sands slipping from his hourglass, without a Finals appearance despite being the league’s best point guard for several years. The 30-year old Paul is dying for this chance. Meanwhile Griffin’s game continues to grow each off-season. He seems dedicated to becoming a Hall of Famer and the best power forward in the game. (Davis will have something to say about that.) And Redick may be the best long distance shooter this side of Kyle Korver. Paul Pierce brings championship experience and the cold-blooded moxie to bury game-winning daggers, and De Andre Jordan is nothing less than the best defensive big in the league. Add to that a solid cast that includes aging sixth man/instant offense Jamal Crawford, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson coming of the bench, and you have one of the deepest squads in the league. A lot depends on Stephenson’s ability to mesh with the offense. He’s a terrible three-shooter which could impact spacing, but everyone else is pretty good at filling it up. The big doubt is whether Austin Rivers is up to backing up the point, or if this is a case of father’s love proving a blind spot. Chances are it won’t matter, and Stephenson is a decent ballhandler (but not playmaker/passer) in a pinch. This is the maybe the deepest team in the league with a proven coach, who’s been to the summit. Paul, Griffin and Jordan represent as tough an offensive/defensive trio as there is in the West, and something to rival LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The question is if the toughness is there. Did shitting the bed against the Rockets awaken their nascent desire or showcase their enduring weak character? I believe it was a turning point, and if it wasn’t it may yet be in the other direction if it fails. If the Clippers fall badly short again, does Griffin return?
Reasons for Hope: Griffin already looked locked in during summer, deepest talent ever
Reasons for Despair: Inkling that Coach Doc Rivers overrated and Clippers not the Brady Bunch

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