Shaking Out The West

Kurt —  September 17, 2007

I’m a little late to the Greg Oden “woe is us” party, but I genuinely feel bad for the guy. Really, is there any basketball fan that didn’t feel saddened by the news that Greg Oden will be out for next season? Even those who wrote hubris-filled “I told you so” columns felt bad. Anyone who loves basketball wanted to see what Oden — paired with so much great young talent around him — could do in Portland.

And we still will. I think the brilliant Shoals was the first to mention this (that I read), but here is a teenager whose game is more about defense, rebounding and back-to-the-basket scoring. Is it possible he’s never be quite as explosive as before the surgery? Yes. Would that dramatically curtail his game? Not so much. Plus, at his age he should bounce back well.

But all of that is two or three years away — what about this year? My first reaction is that without the defensive anchor in the middle Portland becomes a bit of a donut (insert Zach Randolph joke here), and while they will win more than 32 games, they are not quite a playoff threat.

So, where does that leave us in the West? Well, here’s a rough sketch, pre-traning camp breakdown.

The Big Three

San Antonio. They are the defending champions, they were second in defensive rating and fourth in offensive rating in the league — and they basically have the same squad back. So by default they are the favorites. My guess, losing Jackie Butler doesn’t hurt them much. (Yup, that’s a big statement, but I feel strongly about it.) Think about this: Next year they get better by adding Tiago Splitter to the mix. Ugh.

Dallas. Had the best record in the NBA last season, then got a bad playoff matchup and got tossed early. Yes, there is a blueprint on how to beat them, however not many teams have a Barron Davis to help do it. Dallas had the second best offensive rating in the league and a surprising fifth best defensive rating. They are still very good and still a contender.

Phoenix. I didn’t love their off-season. Yes, Grant Hill > Kurt Thomas, except when you’re trying to defend Dirk or Duncan. So maybe they are better in the regular season but take half a step back in the playoffs. Their defense got better but was still 13th in the league, and losing Thomas doesn’t help that. Bottom line: if Steve Nash’s back feels good come the playoffs, they still are contenders.

The Next Tier

Houston. If everything comes together for the Rockets, they can compete with the big three. But that means a healthy T-Mac and Yao for the majority of the season (and for the playoffs). I like the additions of Luis Scola and Steve Francis and how they fit in with the existing pieces. More importantly, the addition of Adelman on the bench helps this team win by opening up the offense. I think they will be in the mix with the big three, but until they prove it I keep them here.

Utah. This is a good physical team with a top point guard that didn’t do anything earth shattering in the off-season. That means they are still a good, physical team with a top point guard. Remember, this team was third in the NBA in offensive efficiency last year (trailing only Dallas and Phoenix) and their defense could get better if AK-47 shows up focused. The Jazz won 51 games last year and they are going to win a lot of games this year too.

Teams With No Margin For Error

These teams will likely make the playoffs, but it doesn’t take much (injuries, chemistry issues) to knock them out of the running.

Denver. Bringing in Chucky Atkins gives them a good outside shooter to complement the slashing of Iverson and the inside/outside game of Carmello. But with Iverson/Melo/Atkins on the floor, who is playing defense? Marcus Camby is just one man. They were ninth in the NBA in defensive efficiency last year, but can they maintain that level? I think not, but if they can they are a force.

Lakers. This could be a good team — if they play defense much better than last year, if they can stay healthy along the front line, if the Farmar/Fisher/Crittenton combo can be a good point guard situation, if they execute the offense and don’t try to go one-on-one too much. That’s a lot of ifs. Just like last year, a potentially good team but can they maintain that level of play for a season?

One Playoff Spots, Six Teams

I think any of these teams could get the final playoff spot (or slip past one of the two above if they falter). I’ve put them in my early order of likelihood, but all of these teams could be better or worse than suggested here — these teams will likely all be fighting it out for a trip to the post season.

New Orleans. Despite Chris Paul running the show this was a horrible offense last year, 23rd in the NBA. This year they get Peja back from injury and add Mo Pete to shoot from the outside. They get better, but imagine if Tyson Chandler could score….

Golden State. Last season’s playoff run (and the last month of the season) was magical and so much fun to watch. It was also a fluke — it happened because Baron Davis and Jason Richardson were healthy at the same time (and they got the perfect playoff matchup). Now Richardson is gone and Marco Belinelli may be good but he can’t make up for the losses. I think they take a step back, but I’ll still love to watch them play.

Sacramento. They add Mikki Moore to bring some youth and athleticism to an older front line, they bring in a new coach, and they still have Mike Bibby and Speedracer. They could be better than last year, I think they will be, but good enough to make the playoffs?

Memphis. Mike Conley runs the show and the combo of Gasol and Darko Milicic could bring some scoring to the front line. I think Rudy Gay will thrive in the more open offensive system of Marc Iavaroni. While everyone talks about Portland and Seattle as teams of the future, Memphis could be quite good in a couple years. But probably not playoff good this year.

Clippers. They still don’t have a great point guard, and now whoever does handle the ball can’t just toss it in to Elton Brand. This could be a tough season for the Clippers, but they do have some good, professional players still on the squad and they won’t roll over.