2015-16 NBA West Preview: Part II

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, October 31st, 2015


By Jay Croucher

Continuing our NBA season preview, today we take a look at purgatory in the West, a place that has already dragged Dante Exum’s ACL into the inferno.
These are the teams mired in respectability – good enough to contend for the playoffs, not good enough to contend for the title. There’s a sadly declining former champ, a veteran workhorse, two young up-and-comers, and whatever the hell is going on in Phoenix.
Let’s start in Texas, via Germany.

10. Dallas Mavericks
Last season:  50-32, seventh in the West
Key arrivals: Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams
Key departures: Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis, Rajon Rondo
Key arrival then departure: DeAndre Jordan
It’s easy to forget that the Mavericks won 50 games last season. Lost amidst the Rajon Rondo turmoil, an embarrassing, uncompetitive playoff series to defeat to Houston, and DeAndre-gate is the fact that Dallas was really good last year.
They had the fifth best offence in the league, a higher ranking than either of their Texan neighbours, the Spurs and Rockets.    The problem was that they couldn’t defend fairy floss, and with defensive anchor Tyson Chandler now playing for a playoff contending rival, that weakness is only going to be exasperated this year.
The Mavericks have question marks at virtually every position. Can Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews recover from potentially career altering injuries? Will Deron Williams stop being a cry-baby? Is JaVale McGee ready to re-enter the real world?
The biggest question though is one that has never had to be asked: does Dirk Nowitzki have anything left?  The big German is no longer a superstar. In Dallas’s title year the Mavs were an astronomical 16.8 points per 100 possessions better with Nowitzki on the court. Last year they were just 1.5 points better with Dirk.
At 37, Nowitzki is now a defensive catastrophe. He’s too slow to guard power forwards and he doesn’t have the defensive presence to play centre. Dallas had a respectable 11th ranked defence with Dirk off the floor last year – with him on it that ranking plummeted to 21st. The past two years in the playoffs the Mavericks have been annihilated on defence at almost farcical rates with Dirk on the floor.
Number 41’s offensive gravity means that he’ll still be a plus player so long as he can shoot – which he should be able to do until he’s 50. But he’s not a star anymore and his weaknesses are catching up to him with the speed that his legs no longer have.
Nowitzki’s fall combined with the health question marks and the general ‘Pall of Deron’ make the Mavs a playoff outsider. The infrastructure and Rick Carlisle will keep them competitive but Dirk won’t be able to get them over the line like he has in years past.
Predicted record: 37-45

9. Phoenix Suns
Last season: 39-43, 10th in the West
Key arrivals: Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic
Key departures: Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris’s respect for the organisation
The Phoenix Suns are the definition of NBA purgatory. They’re not bad enough to have a meaningful rebuild through the draft and they’re not good enough to make any noise in the playoffs. The Suns quietly had a disastrous 2014-15 season, losing all-NBA guard Goran Dragic and somehow believing it was rational to trade Isaiah Thomas and a valuable Lakers draft pick for Brandon Knight. Thomas for Knight straight up is debatable, add in the pick and it’s a debacle.
Phoenix went all in on LaMarcus Aldride in free agency and came up snake eyes. Their new focus is repairing the situation with another power forward, incumbent starter Markieff Morris. Morris carried himself through the off-season with the maturity of an 11 year old who was told that he wasn’t allowed to sit with his brother in class anymore because they were too loud (or in the Morris’s case, too preoccupied with assault charges).
The talented Suns forward puffed and pouted and demanded a trade but has since backed down. He’s reported to camp and by all accounts everything is fine.
Given all the noise that he made it seems unlikely that this is all just water under the bridge. And if Morris loses patience with the Suns they might be screwed because the only other power forwards on the roster are Mirza Teletovic, coming off a pulmonary embolism, and Jon Leuer, coming off still being Jon Leuer.
There are worlds in which the Suns are really good this year. Tyson Chandler provides much needed interior defence and leadership, Knight and Eric Bledsoe make for a fascinating backcourt and TJ Warren and Alex Len have plenty of upside.
But the team lacks any transformative passing, small forward candidates are uninspiring and with the Morris situation and coach Jeff Hornacek entering the final year of his deal, there seems to be too much potential for implosion.
Predicted record: 39-43

10. Utah Jazz
Last season: 38-44, 11th in the West
Key arrivals: Trey Lyles
Key departures: The health of Dante Exum s ACL
You already knew that Utah’s second half of last season was really good. But did you know it was historic? The Jazz closed the 2014-15 season going 19-10 after the All-Star break and they did it with the league s best defence. But it wasn t just the league s best defence  it was the best defence in more than a decade.
Post All-Star festivities, the Jazz kept teams to 94.8 points per 100 possessions. In other words, they made all their opponents significantly worse than the Sixers on offence.
Rudy Gobert might already be the best rim protector in the league and Derrick Favors is an athletic monster next to him. Together they make the most formidable defensive frontcourt in the NBA and it s not especially close. But can this defence be sustained? Probably not.
The loss of Exum hurts. At 6 6 2 Exum was a key part of the tallest starting line-up in the league, informing its lengthy defence at the point of attack. Over the course of the whole season with Exum on the court the Jazz had the second best defence in the league. With him off it they fell to 21st (a lot of that however can be attributed to Exum playing 69 per cent of his minutes alongside Gobert).
As good as he was on defence, Exum was an offensive liability.
If the defence even approaches the level of last season s second half the Jazz are a lock for the playoffs. Given the presence of Gobert and Favors, that seems realistic, and combined with their standing as the best rebounding team in the league, the Jazz will be a nightmare to play all season.
Predicted record: 44-38

7. Memphis Grizzlies
Last season: 55-27, equal 4th in the West
Key arrivals: Matt Barnes, Brandan Wright
Key departures: Kosta Koufos
Can they score enough? It s the same question every year with the Grizzlies. The defence is going to be great, we know that.    The Grizz had an elite defence again last season, ranking third in the league, but the offence lagged behind at 13th. In the playoffs they couldn t get anything going against the stellar Warriors D, scoring at a rate that made the Knicks look like the peak Steve Nash Suns in comparison.
Zach Randolph enters this season 34 years old. Tony Allen and Marc Gasol will turn 34 and 31 during it. We ve already seen their best. It s hard to see this teams scope for improvement.
Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright were nifty pick-ups and Jeff Green simply can t be any more awful than he was last year. But it s hard to imagine that the upgrades that they provide will be enough to catapult this team into contention.
The Grizzlies will grit and they will grind and there will be a moment in the playoffs where their relentless, admirable endeavour will have some more talented team questioning itself, just as Memphis has done to Golden State and Oklahoma City the past two years. But then those teams will remember that they have Steph Curry or Kevin Durant or James Harden or Anthony Davis, and the Grizzlies will remember that they do not.
Predicted record: 50-32

6. New Orleans Pelicans
Last season: 45-37, eighth in the West
Key arrivals: Alvin Gentry
Key departures: Monty Williams
On his new HBO podcast, Bill Simmons made the essential point about the Pelicans.  Nobody expected LeBron James’ Cavs to make the Finals in 2007.    Nobody expected Kevin Durant and Oklahoma to win 50 games and make the playoffs in 2010 having won just 23 games the year prior. Nobody expected Michael Jordan to be giving the Pistons hell in the late  80s when he was only 24.
All of those guys and their teams arrived ahead of their time. The point is, if you believe that Anthony Davis is the next generational superstar of the NBA, and there is every reason to, then you have to have faith that his team is going to make an unexpected leap.
Davis is going to be the best player in the NBA this year. He’s ripe. Last year as a 21-year-old he put up a 24-10 on 54 per cent shooting (81 per cent from the line) with three blocks a game and 1.5 steals. He is one of the three most efficient scorers in the league at the rim and from mid-range. The guy is a superhero.
The problem is that he plays in a conference full of lots of other stars wearing capes. And those guys have Robins. Omer Asik is not Robin. He s not even Robin Lopez.
But the Pelicans do have talent. This isn’t LeBron James dragging along Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic. Tyreke Evans is a devastating driver and finisher. The reborn Eric Gordon was second in the league in three point percentage last season, above Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. If Jrue Holiday can get healthy (a big if), the Pelicans have an All-Star point guard.
In Alvin Gentry and Darren Erman the Pelicans have offensive and defensive masterminds as coaches. They ll extract everything out of this group.
Are the Pelicans winning the title? No. No matter how good Davis is, no team is winning the title with Evans as its second-best player. But don t be shocked if they win a playoff round, which in this Game of Thrones scene of a conference will be enough to put a crown on the Brow for now.
Predicted record: 50-32

5. Los Angeles Clippers
Last season: 56-26, third in the West
Key arrivals: Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Wesley Johnson, Pablo Prigioni
Key departures: The Ghost of Spencer Hawes
In Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have a triumvirate which automatically vaults them into the elite. You could put me and Drake beside those three and they would still win 50 games.
JJ Redick is crucially important to the team too, with his elite shooting a vital source of spacing and offensive oxygen for a team that can sometimes looked cramped with Griffin and Jordan down low. The question is, who is the fifth guy alongside them at crunch time? Who plays small forward?
The obvious candidate is Paul Pierce, whose shooting stands to make the best offence in the league even better. But Pierce, at 38, can’t be counted on to guard the elite wings in the West. Which raises the big question with the Clippers: who on Earth do they have to guard Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard?
Redick’s job on Harden in the playoffs was admirable but noticeably wore him down as the series went deeper. Wesley Johnson is being touted as the starter, which is a problem because Wesley Johnson isn’t good at basketball.
Frighteningly, the answer might be Lance Stephenson. He is a credible defender, having shown he can get in LeBron James’s face – or his ear – and do a capable job. The problem is that he’s coming off the worst shooting season in NBA history by some metrics.
If Stephenson can get back to 2013-14 levels, the Clippers can win the title. If last season was a sign of things to come though, heartbreak likely awaits the Clippers in the playoffs once again.
Predicted record: 56-26

4. Houston Rockets
Last season: 56-26, second in the West
Key arrivals: Ty Lawson
Key departures: Josh Smith
Houston is going to be significantly better than last season, which is ominous because they just came within three wins of the Finals. Their most obvious strength is their big three: Harden, the MVP runner-up, Dwight Howard, still an elite centre when healthy, and Ty Lawson, an All-Star calibre point guard.
But the Rockets’ case goes deeper than those three, figuratively and literally. This team has the best depth in the entire league. They go 11 deep in genuine rotation players. Unlike the T’Wolves, there is a method to the madness of the Rockets’ deep roster – the team is constructed with length and fast-twitch muscle fibres intent on causing athletic mayhem.
Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Terrence Jones, KJ McDaniels, Clint Capela, Patrick Beverley and Lawson – there’s so much length, bounce and activity in this roster that it’s frightening. The Rockets beat the Clippers because they jumped passing lanes, won loose balls and got out in transition.
Those elements of the game are usually indicative of desire but for the Rockets it’s as much about genetics.
All these players were born to hustle – they’re long, fast and they spring. In an age where the NBA is getting smaller and more athletic, Houston is the perfect prototype. They will give older, more deliberate teams like the Spurs and Clippers fits all season.
Questions persist though. Lawson needs to prove that he can get his act together, and the playing time share with Beverley is awkward. The recent revelation that Howard played through the playoffs with a torn MCL and meniscus shows how tough he is, but more to the point it shows how fragile his body continues to be.
During the playoffs Howard being off the court had a more adverse effect on the Rockets than Harden being off it. With Howard manning the middle the Rockets had the best defence in the league; with him on the bench they fell out of the top10.
Harden is the team’s best player but without Howard the Rockets are second round fodder at best this season. Given that Howard hasn’t been properly healthy since 2011, he’s enough of a doubt to knock the Rockets a tier below the next three teams.
Predicted record: 57-25

3. San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 55-27, third in the West
Key arrivals: LaMarcus Aldridge, David West
Key departures: Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli
The Spurs have some concerns. Tim Duncan will turn 40 in the playoffs and it has to end sometime, right? (Okay, maybe it doesn’t.) Tony Parker looked terrible at EuroBasket, and considering his age (33), his injury history – he hasn’t played 70 games in a season for five years – and the fact that he’s coming off the worst season of his career and a dismal playoffs, he might just be done.
San Antonio were better with Parker off the court last year, and their defense was remarkably worse with him on the floor. If Parker is finished, that’s a real problem because the Spurs don’t have much else in the way of perimeter creation.
Patty Mills is a fantastic player but he’s a bench spark plug, not a floor leader to go head-to-head with Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Mike Conley. Manu Ginobili can’t be counted on anymore. Kawhi Leonard hasn’t shown that he’s ready to take on the responsibility of being a primary creator. Every time Danny Green puts the ball on the floor a young child weeps.
At the same time, the Spurs were one of the three best teams in the league last year by point differential and net rating and they just added one of the league’s five best big men for nothing.
Sceptics are concerned that Aldridge’s tendency to play Carmelo ball is antithetical to the Spurs’ free-flowing pinball style, but in reality Aldridge is the least of San Antonio’s problems. Aldridge is a superstar and a high character guy by all accounts – the best coaching staff in the league will find a way to incorporate him.
The defence, with Green and Leonard manning the perimeter and Aldridge and the eternal Duncan patrolling the paint, should be excellent. The offence will hum, and when it slows, Aldridge will be there to bail them out with talents the Spurs haven’t had the luxury of since 2007 Duncan.
Depth is the concern though, because this team doesn’t have a back-up centre or anything inspiring on the wing off the bench. Whether they’ll be able to compensate for the lack of depth won’t depend on Aldridge – it will depend on the same guys it always does: Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
Predicted record: 57-25

2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last season: 45-37, ninth in the West
Key arrivals: Cameron Payne, Healthy Kevin Durant
Key departures: Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones
Oklahoma City is the most interesting team in the NBA this season and with all due respect to other fascinating situations like the Spurs and Heat, it’s not especially close. Kevin Durant, who might go down as one of the 20 greatest basketball players of all time when he’s done, is a free agent at the end of the season. This is it for OKC.
The problem is that the Thunder are a mess. Sure, this mess has more raw talent than any team in the league, but it’s still a mess. If you just removed Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter from this team, it feels like they’d be better.
When you have two transcendent ball dominant superstars like Durant and Westbrook they need to be surrounded by glue guys who don’t need the rock – Danny Green, Harrison Barnes, Courtney Lee, Iman Shumpert and so on. Waiters and Kanter are only glue guys in the sense that when they get the ball it sticks to their hands and doesn’t leave. Waiters is a defensive liability and Kanter might be the worst big man defender in the entire league.
Regardless, when you have a core of Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, you’re a lock to approach 60 wins if they stay healthy (the Thunder won 60 and 59 games the two post-Harden seasons before Durant’s injury).
The past four seasons that Durant has been healthy the Thunder have finished fourth, second, second and sixth in offence.    The defence was also in the top five during his two most recent full seasons. When healthy, this team is really, really good.
The Thunder have succeeded in the past purely as a result of their ludicrous talent. Talent does win in the NBA, but in this conference it’s not sufficient by itself. Scott Brooks wasn’t able to maximise the Thunder’s talent and now the biggest question in the NBA this year is whether Billy Donovan can succeed where he failed.
Between Donovan’s lack of NBA experience, Durant’s return from a crippling injury and the Waiters-Kanter black hole, there’s too many question marks to anoint OKC the favourite. Which leaves us with a team that is almost comically devoid of questions.
Predicted record: 59-23

1. Golden State Warriors
Last season: 67-15, first in the West
Key arrivals: Jason Thompson
Key departures: David Lee
The Warriors of last year’s vintage were one of the six or seven greatest teams in NBA history by most metrics. By unofficial metrics they were also one of the luckiest.
That’s not to diminish their title – it’s hard to build a case that any team but Golden State deserved to win – but it is to acknowledge that repeating won’t be as easy.
The Warriors’ luck with health was two-fold – they avoided injuries and their opponents fell victim to them. The Rockets lost half their team at various stages, Conley broke his face, Wesley Matthews tore his achilles, Durant went down, Parker became a shell of himself, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love played virtually no part in the Finals.
Remarkably, Golden State’s six closest contenders were all crippled by health problems. And no, Marreese Speights straining his calf in the playoffs does not make it even.
If Golden State stays healthy they’re the best team in the league until proven otherwise. This team was leaps and bounds better than the competition last year – it felt surprising when they were playing the starters in fourth quarters, such was their dominance.
Given their age and history, Andrew Bogut and Andre Igoudala are the two prime candidates to go down at some stage. The question is though, will it matter? Bogut effectively didn’t play in the second half of the Finals and the Warriors were just fine without him.
Festus Ezeli is primed to take a leap, and could even leapfrog Bogut in the rotation for certain match-ups like he did in the Finals. Igoudala, everyone’s favourite Finals MVP, is more important, but he’s only 31, and will be managed accordingly.
Inevitably, the Warriors will deal with more adversity this year than last year. The top of the West got better and so did the Cavs. But the Warriors have no holes and there was such a gap between them and the rest
of the league last season that they could regress slightly and still be the best team in the league.
Predicted record: 61-21



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