The Inbounds: How the West will almost-but-not-actually be won

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Parity has become something of a naughty word around intelligent conversation about the NBA. Because parity is another word for “competitive balance” and that was the word the owners and league used to justify killing off 20 percent of the season last year. (When in truth the hard cap wouldn’t help a damn bit with that.) And when you start attacking something like that, you can attack all angles of it. One way that’s particularly en vogue is the idea that people don’t actually want parity. They want dominant teams. And that’s certainly correct for the casual viewer. But the real ideal, I think everyone can agree, is two dominant teams in both conferences, and competitive teams filling out the rest of the playoff spots, with two-to-three teams right there for the eighth spot who aren’t total and complete jokes. It’s impossible, because how are the dominant teams going to be dominant if they can’t completely dismantle the eighth seed? But we were pretty close last season, with the Jazz a pretty good team that just had no shot at taking out San Antonio.

Parity is fun. Because that first weekend of the playoffs, with dual quadruple-headers, you get eight competitive games. You want every series going seven, with every game tooth and nail. That’s just good sport.

And we’re pretty likely to have it this year. If we assume Miami, Indiana, Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York in some order, you’ve still got Milwaukee (who’s going to be deceptively cohesive), Toronto, Atlanta (and we have no idea what Atlanta-minus-Joe is going to look like), and Detroit (no, I’m not kidding). (I have no idea about Chicago. They could be a top three-seed they could miss the playoffs. I have no idea. Check back with me in January.)

But the West is where it breaks into wide open spaces like a Southwestern desert or a mountain range.

The Lakers, Thunder, and Spurs will be in the top three spots barring injury, it’s pretty safe to assume that. San Antonio is one where you’re tempted to throw them back into the pack of wolves to fight for their lives, but we always doubt San Antonio, and they always exceed regular season expectations (as opposed to the mid-2000’s when they would meet disappoint in the regular season and then exceed postseason expectations). As good as Los Angeles and the Thunder are, it shouldn’t shock anyone to see the Spurs nab the top seed in the playoffs again, just as it shouldn’t shock anyone to see them bounced in any round, first through Finals.

But after that?

Memphis, Denver, the Clippers, Dallas, Minnesota, Utah, Phoenix, Houston, Golden State are all in the mix for spots No.4 through No.8. That’s assuming the Kings can’t put things together (the talent is there, the experience and cohesion is not), that Anthony Davis isn’t that good, and Portland’s still recovering from whatever happened last year. Think about that. I have to put up pretty strict “this possible-but-unlikely event cannot happen” rules jut to keep the entire Western Conference out of the playoff picture.

There’s two divisions of those remaining teams. The “Only If The Reactor’s Core Explodes Are They Missing The Playoffs” and “Some Things Will Have To Go Right.” Let’s explore, and start by determining if they’re better than they were last year.

“Only If The Reactor’s Core Explodes Are They Missing The Playoffs”

Denver: Did they get better: Absolutely. People will talk about the offensive step back with Iguodala in and Afflalo out, which completely ignores the fact that George Karl has assembled a top five offense nearly every year and that Iguodala is anything but an offensive zero, and that it’s not only possible but likely that Gallinari, Hamilton, Chandler, Fournier, Brewer, or Miller will take a step forward in shooting. Meanwhile, they’ve got JaVale McGee entering the second year in a system where he’s asked to do less defensively but more of what he excels at, and better perimeter containment with Andre Iguodala. They have depth, they have a strong team concept, and had a high number of things go wrong last season, yet still made the playoff as the sixth seed. There are those slotting the Nuggets in as high as the third seed, which I would lean towards, were it not for the Spurs postulate stated above.

Memphis: For years, the Grizzlies’ biggest weakness has been the bench. The starters go out, and disaster erupts. Leads would vanish, deficits would stretch, the offense would stagger drunkenly off a cliff. Last year, they improved in that area with Marreese Speights filling in for Arthur, and Dante Cunningham adding length and versatility, while O.J. Mayo was the spark. Mayo and Cunningham are gone, but Speights is back, with a healthy Darrell Arthur (or as close to healthy as you can get), and they’ve added Jerryd Bayless as the firebug combo-guard. Josh Selby showed wonders during Summer League. It’s Summer League. But if Selby can just be decent, the Grizzlies have a strong second unit, which means a team that fought through a lot of injury issues and still landed the fourth seed could be even better.

Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are both coming off offseason surgery. But the Clippers get back Chauncey Billups and add Jamal Crawford to replace Nick Young. Eric Bledsoe will be healthy, and another year better. DeAndre Jordan is the biggest “must get better” player on the team. The Clippers may be more likely to backwards, but they’ve still got Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

“Some Things Will Have To Go Right”

Dallas: If you want to use that term “on paper” there’s not a better one than the Mavericks. They have playoff-starter caliber guys at every position. They’ve got experience, they’ve got youth and energy, they’ve got a Hall of Famer, they’ve got depth and a terrific coach. So what could trip them up? In short, there’s just a lot we don’t know know about them. How is Collison going to mesh? Can Mayo take a step forward? Can Shawn Marion and Vince Carter hold it together another year? How’s Elton Brand’s health? Which Chris Kaman are we getting? You can ask these type questions about any team in the league. You just can’t ask them as loudly or as forcefully in most cases. Dallas could prove to be horrible “Island of Dr. Moreau” type disaster experiment, or yet another “Huh. Whaddya know, Donnie pulled it off again.” We just don’t know.

Timberwolves: I would have to think the Wolves have to be equal odds to Dallas for making the postseason. Kevin Love’s the best power forward in the league, Ricky Rubio, if he can bounce back to at least 75% is in the top-half of point guards in the league. They have a lot of risks, like Brandon Roy. But they’ve also got depth, a great coach, and were right there before Rubio’s injury last season. AK47 doesn’t hurt and the rest of the bench has improved.

Utah: Made it last year. Didn’t get demonstratively worse or better. If anything, the depth is slightly improved. What worked last year should work this year. One or two outlier years from guys and they’re right there.

Phoenix: I have the most questions about the Suns, since if you look for “who’s going to take a lot of shots on that team?” and the answer is “Michael Beasley” you’re usually in trouble. But Goran Dragic can be an absolute killer, Luis Scola had a step back year but is still crafty as get out and Marcin Gortat is whatever you consider Marcin Gortat to be. The Suns are this year’s “Two-Face” because they could be absolutely terrific and admirable and awful in the same game.

Houston: There’s a lot of talk that Houston could be the worst team in the West next year. Even with the inexperience of the rookies, your core is Jeremy Lin-Kevin Martin-Chandler Persons- Patrick Patterson- Omer Asik. I’m not here to sell you on that team as a contender. I’m here to say there’s every reason to believe that if even one of the rookies is “pretty good” that that’s going to be a team within reach of the playoffs. Lin can be a disaster and they still survive. Asik can be awful and they still survive. They need some things to go their way, but they also need a lot to go wrong for them not to be in contention for a seed.

Golden State: Let me put it this way. If we factor injury concerns, the Warriors could miss the playoffs and even be a bottom-three team in the West. If the Basketball Gods get off their players’ cases and let them have their careers? There’s no reason the Warriors can’t get the fourth seed. With Dallas we have no way to know how they’re going to fit together. With Golden State, we don’t know if they’ll be allowed to. The players fit together when healthy. The coaching is a concern for putting the pieces together in the right order. But just as you can’t count on these players because of injury, you can’t count out this team because you want to predict how the body will react.

We’re looking at a West that could see absolute mayhem. Last year it took till the last three days of the season to decide the playoff order. We could have just as intense a race this year. And if you can’t get excited about that, despite the gap between these teams and the top, then you’re watching sports wrong.

Russell Westbrook threw it down all over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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A rough night for the Thunder will not stop the Russell Westbrook highlights.

The Thunder had another poor game and fell to a Hornets. Westbrook tried to push the team back, but the Thunder defense that has kept them in games all season was not good enough against Charlotte, and the OKC offense was once again up and down.

Westbrook had 30 points on 22 shots on the night, and none of them were as impressive as this transition throwdown on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Jahlil Okafor excited about fresh start with Nets

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NEW YORK (AP) — Jahlil Okafor finally got the fresh start he wanted.

Okafor was the consensus No. 1 high school player in his class, won a national championship at Duke, and averaged 17.5 points and seven rebounds in his rookie campaign for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Then things changed drastically.

Okafor struggled with injuries and a logjam at his position in his second season.

“When I first got drafted there, we already had Nerlens (Noel) there, Joel (Embiid) was there, so we’re trying to have three starting centers on the same team,” Okafor said Monday at his introductory news conference with his new team, the Brooklyn Nets.

“It just never really was the right fit.”

The 76ers traded Okafor along with seldom-used guard Nik Stauskas and two draft picks to the Nets on Thursday. Philadelphia got forward Trevor Booker from Brooklyn.

Okafor also had off-court problems during his time in Philadelphia. He got a speeding ticket for driving 108 miles per hour and was suspended by the 76ers for two games after in an altercation outside of a Boston nightclub with a heckler.

“Speeding obviously is illegal,” Okafor said. “I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do. I guess you just learn how the page can turn on you and how everything can flip. I can’t really say I learned anything, because you know going in that’s not right. You just learn from your mistakes, but (it was) a tough thing that I went through, I got past, and I’m looking to better times now.”

Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 draft, joins D'Angelo Russell, the second overall pick in the same draft class, on the Nets.

“We’re just very excited to get on the court together,” Okafor said. “You never would’ve thought the number two and number three picks would be playing on the same team a few years after, but like I said, everything happens for a reason and I’m really excited.”

Russell also had problems on and off the court with the team that drafted him. He was criticized for recording a video of former Lakers teammate Nick Young that aired sordid details about Young’s private life. The Lakers gave up on Russell and drafted Lonzo Ball as his replacement.

“I feel like we’re similar in that we have a lot to prove,” Okafor said. “I know he’s working his (butt) off as well. Right now he’s rehabbing, trying to get back on the court. I think we both have a chip on our shoulder and we have a lot to prove. We’re definitely similar in that regard.”

Okafor understands he has areas to improve, mainly defense and rebounding.

“I’m not a perfect player,” Okafor said. “I’m 21. There are things that I need to work on, that I have worked on and that I’ll continue to work on.”

He’s excited about fulfilling his potential with a new team.

“I feel really motivated right now, but I’ve always been motivated,” Okafor said. “This is the first time where people are against me in a sense because I’ve always been the hyped-up guy. It’s something new for me to experience, so I’m glad that I am experiencing it.”

 

Report: Celtics’ Marcus Morris to miss “extended time” to let knee heal

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Marcus Morris missed the Celtics’ first eight games of the season in an effort to get healthy. Upon his return he’s been solid, first as a starter, then coming off the bench, but his left knee continued to be an issue.

Morris was out Sunday when the Celtics beat the Pistons, and he’s going to miss more time trying to get a troublesome left knee right, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

How much time is “extended time?” Probably at least a couple of weeks.

Morris has averaged 12.1 points and 5.5 rebounds a game this season, with a true shooting percentage of 52.5, which is right around the league average.

This could mean more run for rookie forwards Semi Ojeleye and Daniel Theis, both of whom have played well in limited minutes.

Tristan Thompson expected to return to Cavaliers Tuesday, come off bench

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson could play for the first time since Nov. 1 on Tuesday against Atlanta.

Thompson has been sidelined with a strained left calf. The team initially said Thompson would be out for up to four weeks, but he said Monday that timeline was inaccurate and that his injury was more serious. Thompson did not divulge any other details about the injury.

Coach Tyronn Lue says Thompson will not start when he returns, meaning Kevin Love will remain at center. Thompson says he’s fine with a reserve role and made it clear he’s willing to do whatever Lue needs.

The Cavaliers have won 14 of 15 and their defense has improved dramatically over the past month.

Thompson says he’ll have the same mindset on the floor as always and “just be myself. Being myself has worked out pretty well for me.”