Western Conference looks like a gauntlet, East not so much

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
2 Comments

Since 2000, 25 NBA teams have missed the playoffs despite holding a better record than a playoff team in the opposite conference.

Of those 25 slighted teams, 24 have been in the Western Conference.

Expect that list of shorted West teams to grow this season. There are 12 Western Conference teams in our power rankings before the eighth Eastern Conference team.

Conference imbalance is usually measured two ways – by teams at the top of each conference and by teams near the No. 8 seed.

The overwhelming 2019 title favorite is the Warriors, who play in the West. If they threepeat, they’d give the West 15 of 21 championships since Michael Jordan retired.

But zoom out just a little further, and the placement of contenders looks more balanced. In fact, three of the top five teams in our power rankings – Warriors, Celtics, Rockets, 76ers, Raptors – are in the East.

Yet, look near the playoff line, and the West dominates. If the season plays out according to our power rankings, the Trail Blazers, Timberwolves, Mavericks and Grizzlies would all miss the playoffs despite being better than the Pistons, the No. 8 team in the East. Of course, the season won’t match our preseason power rankings, but the difference in conferences at this point in the standings looks stark.

Last year, the West tied a record with 10 winning teams. That’s hard to pull off, but several losing Western Conference teams last year – Lakers, Grizzlies and Mavericks – should be far more competitive this year. None of the 10 winning teams are locks to fall off.

That will likely leave at least one Western Conference team joining the list of teams that missed the playoffs despite holding a better record than a team in the other conference. Those teams since 2000:

  • 2018 Nuggets (46-36)
  • 2016 Bulls (42-40)
  • 2015 Thunder (45-37)
  • 2015 Suns (39-43)
  • 2014 Suns (48-34)
  • 2014 Timberwolves (40-42)
  • 2013 Jazz (43-39)
  • 2013 Mavericks (41-41)
  • 2011 Rockets (43-39)
  • 2011 Suns (40-42)
  • 2011 Jazz (39-43)
  • 2010 Rockets (42-40)
  • 2009 Suns (46-36)
  • 2008 Warriors (48-34)
  • 2008 Trail Blazers (41-41)
  • 2008 Kings (38-44)
  • 2006 Jazz (41-41)
  • 2005 Timberwolves (44-38)
  • 2004 Jazz (42-40)
  • 2004 Trail Blazers (41-41)
  • 2004 Warriors (37-35)
  • 2004 SuperSonics (37-45)
  • 2003 Rockets (43-39)
  • 2001 Rockets (45-37)
  • 2001 SuperSonics (44-38)

In a more holistic view, the West appears poised to dominate the East once again.

Based on each team’s over-under,* East teams project to win just 44% of their games against their West counterparts. That’d be a greater conference disparity than the last few years but in line with this era.

*The over-unders give teams 10 extra wins across the league. So, I subtracted a third of a win from all 30 teams for this projection.

Here is the East’s annual winning percentage against the West, actual results in blue and this season’s projection in orange:

image

Of course, Eastern Conference teams will have an opportunity to show they can hang. I expect the Celtics, Raptors and 76ers to be quite competitive. The Bucks and Pacers could make noise. I wouldn’t even rule out a team like the Wizards, Heat, Pistons or Hornets rising.

But the safe bets are the Western Conference Warriors winning the title, the competition being much more fierce to make the playoffs in the West and the West holding a decided overall advantage.

UPDATE: Pistons reportedly agree to massive deal to make Monty Williams new coach

2023 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Denver Nuggets
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

UPDATE: The Detroit Pistons — specifically team owner Tom Gores — got their guy.

The Pistons backed up the Brinks truck and agreed to terms with former Suns coach Monty Williams to be their next head coach, something first reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports, among others.

It will be interesting to see how much power Williams will have over player personnel moves in addition to being the coach. Williams reportedly was planning to take a year off from coaching after being let go by the Suns, but he got an offer he could not refuse.

Gores had interviewed the other top candidates, Charles Lee and Kevin Ollie, and decided to make one more big run at Williams before giving one of the first-timers the job. Pistons GM Troy Weaver and Williams worked together back in Oklahoma City. Williams is a defensive first coach known for discipline, and those things were on the top of the Pistons’ coaching wish list.

Williams is one of the most respected coaches around the league, but he did have clashes with players on the roster in Phoenix, most prominently Deandre Ayton. The chemistry in Phoenix that looked so good when Williams took the Suns to the Finals seemed much more fractured by the end. New owner Mat Ishbia reportedly never warmed to Williams, and that combined with the second-round exit for a team with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker was enough to make the change.

Now Williams has a new home — and a massive payday.

——————————————————————

Not long after Dwane Casey left the bench and moved into the Pistons’ front office, the Pistons called Monty Williams and tried to make a big money offer to entice him to come, something reported at the time by Marc Stein. Buzz grew around the league that Williams — who was let go by the Suns after they fell in the second round — was going to take a little time off from coaching before jumping back into the grind.

The Pistons have gone through their coaching search — reportedly with former Bucks’ assistant Charles Lee and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie as the frontrunners — but before picking one of them the Pistons are going to make one more run at Williams, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Pistons are preparing to offer Williams in the range of $10 million per year, league sources said, which would put him among the league’s highest-paid coaches. Detroit has been hopeful over the past several weeks that Williams would consider accepting the job, sources added…

If Williams declines the proposal, Lee, a Bucks assistant since 2018, is expected to emerge as the likely choice, league sources said.

This report was echoed by Stein, who added details.

The offers have been consistently estimated to me at $50 million over five years or even $60 million over six years. Sources say that two of the Pistons’ previously reported finalists for the post — Bucks associate head coach Charles Lee and former UConn coach Kevin Ollie — were only summoned to meet face-to-face with Pistons owner Tom Gores for a second time after Williams turned them down the first time.

The phrasing from Charania — “Detroit has been hopeful… that Williams would consider accepting the job” — is no accident, that’s a sign of what they expect to happen.

If you were the owner/PR staff of a struggling team — one that the lottery gods just knocked down to fifth in the upcoming NBA Draft — and you were about to hire a deserving but not well-known coach to lead your franchise, leaking about the big offer you made to the big name coach is smart spin. If Williams takes the money, the Pistons land a top-flight coach. If Williams says “no thanks” then you can tell the fan base you tried.

The Pistons entered last season hoping to make a run to the play-in, but those hopes were dashed when Cade Cunningham was injured a dozen games into the season and missed the rest of it. With Cunningham back along with Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Bojan Bogdanovic and the No. 5 pick, expectations of wins will greet whoever is the new coach.

New York Knicks part ways with GM Scott Perry

New York Knicks Introduce New Signees
Dustin Satloff/Getty Images
0 Comments

When Scotty Perry came on board with the Knicks, they felt like chaos personified off the court, and on the court their best players were Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.

That era seems like another lifetime ago. Perry, first with former team president Steve Mills and then with the next president Leon Rose, brought professionalism and stability to the New York Knicks not really known in the James Dolan era. The Knicks may not yet be contenders, but they have built a 47-win team behind Jalen Brunson with 11 first-round picks in the next seven years (to use or trade for a star). The Knicks are well-positioned for the future and Knicks fans are as optimistic as they have been in decades.

Which is why it’s news that Perry and the Knicks are parting ways, something reported by multiple sources, including Ian Begley at SNY.tv. Perry’s contract was up.

It will be interesting to see where the Knicks go from here. Former Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was added as an executive last season. The Knicks could give Rosas the full-time position or promote another front office member, such as assistant general manager (pro scouting) Frank Zanin or assistant general manager (college scouting) Walt Perrin. Brock Aller already has a vice president title (Vice President, Basketball and Strategic Planning), so it would be an odd transition for him to move to general manager.

Perry should have interest around the NBA should he want to return to a front office job. He will have options.

New York heads into the offseason poised to chase a star free agent, should the right one become available. They also have a clean cap sheet without bad contracts weighing them down, which anchored the Knicks in the standings for years.

Perry deserves some of the credit for that.

PBT Podcast: NBA Finals preview, plus Nurse to Philly, and Bucks as opera

0 Comments

The NBA Finals are here and it’s not the matchup anybody predicted: The Denver Nuggets vs. the Miami Heat.

In this latest PBT Extra podcast, Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson break down that Finals matchup and if the Heat have any chance of slowing down Nikola Jokić. First the pair talk the Heat’s Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics and what this says for the future of the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown era in Boston.

After the Finals, in Corey’s Jukebox, Corey compares the Bucks and the recent hiring of Adrian Griffin as the team’s head coach to the famed Mozart opera Don Giovanni — and that’s not a complement to Milwaukee.

Then the duo get into the news around the NBA: What does Bob Myers leaving mean for the Warriors? Is Nick Nurse a good hire in Philadelphia? And what the heck is Eric Lewis thinking?

You can watch the video of some of the podcast above or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Five things to watch in Heat vs. Nuggets NBA Finals (with betting tips)

0 Comments

Nobody had this Finals matchup on their bingo card (well, except ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez, who called this matchup before the season).

The Denver Nuggets were the best team in the West all season and kept improving as Jamal Murray got healthier and gained more confidence in his surgically repaired knee. Still, they entered the playoff facing doubts because we hadn’t seen them play at this level in the postseason since the bubble. The Nuggets answered all the questions.

Miami barely made the playoffs at all, having to come from behind in the fourth quarter of the last play-in game to beat the Bulls. But otherworldly play from Jimmy Butler, players like Caleb Martin stepping up, and a relentlessness no team in the East could match, sees them in the Finals after coming one shot short of this mark last season.

Who will hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy?

Here are four things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) What is Miami’s defensive plan against Nikola Jokić?

Nobody has a good answer for stopping — or often even slowing — Nikola Jokić.

It’s been the case for three years now, but especially in these playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers had the best defense in the NBA after the All-Star break and the best defense through the first two rounds of the playoffs, all anchored by an elite defender in Anthony Davis. Jokić averaged a triple-double of 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists a game against them and the Nuggets torched them.

The challenge in guarding Jokić is nobody can do it all that well one-on-one, but the second the help comes — if it comes from where he can see it in particular — he carves a team apart with his elite passing skills.

Miami’s best option to defend Jokić — and what they did in the team’s regular season matchups — is to put Bam Adebayo on him and not send much help. Adebayo is not stopping Jokić one-on-one, but he’s strong and agile enough to make him work for it. Plus, if Jokić is primarily a scorer the Nuggets’ offense is less dangerous — if he scores 35+ points but with five assists the Heat can win; if he has 25 points but 12 assists the Nuggets win handily.

That strategy comes with risks, primarily foul trouble for Adebayo, but also it removes him as a roaming help defender (one of his strengths). The Lakers started with Davis on Jokić but had relative success with others taking the primary job — Rui Hachimura, LeBron James — which allowed Davis to double and help on others. Who on the Heat can take on that assignment? Caleb Martin or Jimmy Butler? Too small. Maybe Cody Zeller or Haywood Highsmith off the bench, but the Heat hurt their offense with those two out there, and neither is exactly an elite defender.

Expect heavy doses of Adebayo, with the Heat strategy being to front the post and make passes into the Joker difficult, and then live with him as a scorer but try not to let him get rolling as a passer. When Jokić is in pick-and-roll actions with Jamal Murray or on the move, expect a team defense to collapse on him.

That all sounds good, but Jokić figures defenses out, which brings us to how the Heat flummoxed the Celtics.

2) Can Denver solve Miami’s Zone?

Miami ran more zone than any team in the NBA this season (in fact, more zone than any team in more than a decade). It works for them because it’s not a conventional zone, they have active defenders out top who push out high, then they have an elite defensive decision-maker and rim protector in the back with Adebayo. More than anything, the Heat play zone with the intensity of man-to-man (something few teams do at any level).

Denver had an impressive 121 offensive rating against zone defenses this season, according to the NBA tracking data at Second Spectrum (for comparison, the Kings had the best offense in the NBA this season at 119.4). The Nuggets have had the best offense against a zone defense in the regular season and playoffs.

One key way to beat a zone is to get the ball to a good passer in the soft middle of the zone, around the free throw line — the Nuggets have Jokić. Denver is also loaded with shooters who can and will knock down shots over the top of the zone (don’t expect a Celtics-like regression in shooting).

Miami will run some zone as a change-up, but it won’t work as a steady diet as it did against Boston.

3) Aaron Gordon on Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler is a tough cover because he is too strong for guards to stop from getting to his spots but too quick for most forwards to stay in front of.

Denver will bet Aaron Gordon is quick enough to at least give Butler trouble (he’s done well these playoffs against Kevin Durant and LeBron this postseason). Gordon has the advantage that Butler is not a natural 3-point shooter, so he doesn’t have to play up incredibly high on him, and Gordon is strong enough to handle Butler’s physicality.

Butler is going to get his, but if Gordon can make him work for it, be physical, and start to take his legs out from under him a little, it’s a huge advantage for Denver.

4) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations

Game 1 Over Trend: Game 1’s are usually strong bets for the Over. All four Game 1’s of the second round went Over the opening total and both of the Conference Finals went Over the total in this postseason, so Game 1’s are on a 6-0 run to the Over. In the NBA Finals, four of the last five Game 1’s went for 227 or more points. Denver averages 122.0 points per game in three Game 1’s during the postseason and Miami averages 120.0 points per game in three Game 1’s. The total opened at 218.5 and is up to 219.5, so the Over looks like a solid bet.

Game 1 Favorites of -5.5 or More: Since the start of the 2013 postseason, NBA Finals favorites of -5.5 or more points have gone 14-3 on the ML and 12-4-1 ATS. Denver opens as a -8.5 point favorite. Home teams are on a 5-0 ML streak and 4-1 ATS in Game 1’s with an average margin of 14.0 points per victory. The Nuggets’ spread has a lot of value historically, despite -8.5 being such a large number.

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)

5) Wild card role players: Martin and Vincent, or is it Michael Porter Jr.

Role players always make a difference in the Finals.

Miami needs that to happen to have a chance. Caleb Martin was almost the Eastern Conference Finals MVP averaging more than 17 points a game and will have to play at that level again. How much Gabe Vincent meant to this team was obvious in Game 5 against the Celtics when he was out. Max Strus and Duncan Robinson also will be critical — and need to defend well enough to stay on the court — if the Heat are going to make a run.

For the Nuggets, Michael Porter Jr. is a walking matchup nightmare at 6’10” and with the ability to get red hot from 3. Teams tend to put a guard on him — and Miami likes to play small — and Porter Jr. just knocks down shots over the top of them. He could win Denver a game this series just with his shot.

Prediction: Nuggets in 5. This is not a knock on an impressive Miami team and run to the Finals, they earned their way here. Denver is just this good. LeBron said this was the best team he has played against since coming to Los Angeles, and that should tell you all you need to know. The Finals will be a coronation for Jokić.