On last week’s HoopsHabit Hangout show, my fellow HH writers and I talked about the Pacific Division with team previews and predictions for the upcoming season. Fans of the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers, feel free to watch!
The Denver Nuggets had said their top priority during the offseason was to resign Andre Iguodala. But Iggy turned them down for a smaller contract with the Warriors. Here’s my HoopsHabit post on how and why it all went down.
Pulling a typical George Karl In The Playoffs move, the Denver Nuggets fell to the No. 6 Golden State Warriors behind Stephen Curry’s monster third quarter performances. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on how the Warriors were able to win without David Lee
Now that the playoffs are just a few hours away, let’s take a look at the high-octane first round matchups in the Western Conference and make some predictions about the keys to each series and who will advance to the next round.
(1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (8) Houston Rockets
The big headline here is obvious: James Harden, who has developed into a superstar for the Houston Rockets after being traded just a week before the start of the season, will face off against his old team in a potentially high scoring series in the first round. And most people are pretty excited about the way things worked out with the Rockets and Thunder squaring off while the Lakers moved up to the seven spot to play a long-time playoff rival in San Antonio. But I was actually really bummed the Rockets lost and dropped to the eighth spot in the West. Why? Because the Oklahoma City Thunder will likely advance in four maybe five games. This series will not be close. I know people fall in love with the stories that accompany playoff series, and I would love to see Harden come out firing and exact revenge for being given away so unceremoniously. But this is Harden’s first year being the go-to guy for his team, which he’s acknowledged himself. Just watch the last few minutes of the Rockets-Lakers game the other night if you have any doubts that Harden still has room to grow and needs to be more confident and clutch when his team struggles down the stretch. Oklahoma City owns the season series against Houston 2-1, which makes it seem like Houston has a remote chance here. But in the two victories, the Thunder won by an average of 26 points. In the one defeat, OKC lost by three. That doesn’t leave me very optimistic that Houston has a realistic chance of unseating the top seed in the West.
Keys to the series: Defense. Since Kevin Durant and company actually play defense and lead the league in blocks, the Rockets’ high-powered offense won’t be able to overshadow their weak defense in a seven-game series. The Thunder have another advantage because they know how Harden plays and Thabo Sefolosha is perfectly capable of limiting him even if he does get hot. And we haven’t even mentioned Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook yet. Do the Rockets have anyone even remotely capable of stopping these two from averaging 30 points a game? Is Jeremy Lin going to be able to stop Westbrook’s penetration? Does anyone have the size on the wings to slow down KD? The answer to both those questions is no. Harden and the Rockets’ 3-point barrage may carry them to one fluke victory, but I fully expect this series to disappoint many people’s high expectations.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder in 4 games
(2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (7) Los Angeles Lakers:
I wanted a Rocket-Spurs matchup. San Antonio is banged up and has had a hard time stopping James Harden this season, which could have extended the series and even lead to a possible upset if the Rockets caught fire and the Spurs continued to limp along. But I will say that a Spurs-Lakers postseason series is always good for the NBA’s ratings. Unfortunately, the Lakers’ recent hot streak doesn’t give me a lot of confidence they can knock off the Spurs in this first-round matchup. Yes Tony Parker hasn’t looked like himself lately and yes, Manu Ginobili’s health is as frail as a 70-year-old woman these days, but if they can manage these injuries, I don’t think the Lakers can compete here. As vulnerable as San Antonio seems right now, a Lakers team without Kobe Bryant has a very small chance of winning this series without help in the form of Spurs injuries and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol absolutely dominating the interior like we haven’t seen all season. Tracy McGrady may finally get his first playoff series win.
Keys to the series: Coaching, injuries and intangibles. Mike D’Antoni got coach of the month in the Western Conference for the month of April. I find that hilarious, because the Spurs have a HUGE advantage on the coaching front in this series. I’m calling this right now: Gregg Popovich will win a close game for his team (or Mike D’Antoni will lose one). As far as injuries are concerned, this series will hinge on whether or not Tony Parker and Tim Duncan can stay healthy. Steve Nash’s health may be a factor here, but if Parker and Duncan play like they have for the majority of the season, Nash’s presence won’t make much of a difference other than having a negative impact on the defensive end trying to stop Parker. As far as intangibles are concerned, this refers primarily to Steve Blake. Blake has been on fire recently, but can we expect that to continue against a quality team for a seven-game series? If LA wants to shock the world, Blake and guys like Jodie Meeks, Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark have to step up and knock down threes. I don’t see that happening consistently enough to make up for Kobe’s absence though.
Prediction: San Antonio Spurs in 6 games
(3) Denver Nuggets vs. (6) Golden State Warriors:
There’s legitimate concern that Denver is vulnerable with Danilo Gallinari out and Ty Lawson barely getting over that lingering heel injury just recently. But the Nuggets and all their interchangeable parts are built like Medusa: you cut one head off, three more take its place. They are the only team in the NBA that could challenge the Clippers for the title of “deepest bench in the NBA” and their up-tempo offense and home-court advantage will be too much for the young Golden State Warriors. Stephen Curry may take a game or two on his own, but the Nuggets went 38-3 at home this year. THEY DON’T LOSE AT HOME. Denver won the season series 3-1 and the one game they lost was by one point on the road.
Keys to the series: Home-court, experience and shot selection. As well as Mark Jackson has done since taking over the Warriors and even though Golden State’s hot shooting may help them win a game or two, don’t forget that this is the first playoff series for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Harrison Barnes. Denver has been here before and looks poised for a playoff run even without Gallo. Then add in the fact that Denver doesn’t lose at home and that they lead the league in scoring (106.1 ppg) and fast break points (20.1 ppg) and it’s hard to see Golden State pulling off the upset. The Warriors score in transition as well, but most of those buckets come from threes, which don’t always stay consistent in the postseason. Denver scores in the paint and plays defense, two areas that are huge in the playoffs.
Prediction: Denver Nuggets in 6 games
(4) Los Angeles Clippers vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies:
This should be the best matchup of the first round, with the Grizzlies and Clippers going head-to-head for the second year in a row. Lob City advanced in a thrilling seven-game series last year and the teams are just as evenly balanced as they were last year. This is a classic matchup of offense vs. defense. The Grizzlies play stifling D and have an advantage in the interior with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, but the Clippers are deep, fast and have the leadership of Chris Paul to guide them. I expect this to be a pretty close series and there will be plenty of lapses in scoring, but the majority of theses games will be exciting to watch down the stretch and come down to the wire.
Keys to the series: Tempo, bench production and turnovers. The Clippers want to get out and score in transition. The Grizzlies need to get out and score in transition. Chris Paul is a master of managing a game’s tempo and will play a huge role in this series against Memphis’ stifling defense. The Clippers have a lot of bench options for scoring like Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, but they need to score on the Grizzlies’ D for that to be an advantage. Blake Griffin also needs to do more than just dunk, but that will be difficult considering his limited post game and the dominating interior defense he’s up against. The Grizzlies need Jerryd Bayless to continue to play lights out on the offensive end and they need to turn the Clippers over so they can score on the fast break. If Lob City limits the turnovers and can score more than 90 points per game, this will be a tough series for Memphis.
Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers in 7 games
In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:
Winners: New Orleans Hornets
No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.
Winners: Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.
Winners: Portland Trail Blazers
The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.
Winners: Golden State Warriors
Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.
Winners: Milwaukee Bucks
With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.
Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder
They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.
Losers: Brooklyn Nets
This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.
Losers: Phoenix Suns
It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.
Losers: Los Angeles Lakers
I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.
Losers: Charlotte Bobcats
Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.
Question Marks: Boston Celtics
There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?
Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks
After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.
Question Mark: Indiana Pacers
The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.
Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves
With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.
Question Mark: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.
Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers
Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.
In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:
- Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
- Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
- Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
- Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
- Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
- Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
- Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
- Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
- Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
- Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
- Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
- Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
- John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
- Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
- Royce White – Houston Rockets
- Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
- Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
- Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
- Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
- Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
- Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
- John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
- Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
- Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
- Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
- Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
- Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
- Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
- Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
- Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
- Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
- Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
- Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
- Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
- Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
- Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
- Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
- Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
- Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
- Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
- Kim English – Detroit Pistons
- Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
- Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
- Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
- Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
- Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
- Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
- Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
- Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
- Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
- Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
- Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
- Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
- Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
- Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
- Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
- Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers
The Sixth Man of the Year Award is an interesting NBA award because while it might be very revealing about a season, that doesn’t necessarily mean it says a lot about the recipient’s career or even the recipient’s team that year. For example, Lamar Odom won the award last year as a Laker; but LA was swept in the playoffs and now Odom hardly sees the floor as a Maverick. However, this year there are four main candidates that have made their case known as the Sixth Man of the Year Award, exemplifying great team and individual play while coming off the bench. And if the award goes to who I believe should win it, the Sixth Man of the Year Award will not be awarded to a one-year-stint-of-a-player. Here are the main candidates:
1) James Harden – In my mind, James Harden is a lock for the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Similar to former award-winner Jason Terry, Harden comes off the bench because he prefers doing so, despite the fact that he easily could start for his team. Harden is averaging 17.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, and 3.8 apg and is the third-leading scorer for the West-leading Thunder. He leads the offensive attack while the starters get a breather, making the Thunder a constant threat to make a run even without Durant or Westbrook in the game. His 3-point shooting, knack for attacking the basket and his epic beard have helped him become a fan favorite in Oklahoma City. Little talked about is his much-improved defense that has helped lock down scorers and quietly given his team multiple victories. Harden leads the NBA in points off the bench and has transformed himself into the third member of OKC’s Big Three. I really don’t see this award going to anyone other than the black King Leonidas.
2) Lou Williams – Williams is probably Harden’s closest competition for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He leads the Sixers in points at 15.8 ppg while chipping in 3.5 apg as well. Williams has also been Philly’s best offensive threat in close games in the 4th quarter this season. Like Terry and Harden, Williams has developed a flow coming off the bench with fellow bench factor Thaddeus Young, but unfortunately for Williams, his stats don’t measure up to Harden’s. The whole “leading scorer of the Sixers” thing sounds nice on paper, but you also have to consider that this Philly squad only averages 93.8 ppg, which is 22nd in the league.
3) Jason Terry – You can never really count Jason Terry out of the running as Dallas’ big-time sixth man. The Jet is putting up 15.3 ppg and 3.5 apg, shooting 38% from beyond the arc and coming up big in the fourth quarter for an inconsistent Mavs team. Dallas’ inconsistencies plague Terry in his case for winning this award again, as the Mavs look like world-beaters one night and old, frail men the next. However, you can’t ever count out this 2008-09 Sixth Man of the Year, who might have just enough magic left in the tank to help the Mavericks make another unpredicted playoff run.
4) Al Harrington – Harrington has been a pleasant surprise for Nuggets fans this year, averaging 14.4 ppg and 6.5 rpg off the bench. The Nuggets really should be more successful than their record and current standing in the West suggests, but injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Nene (while he was still there) created problems in Denver. Harrington was relied on heavily during that stretch and proved to be a valuable asset off the bench that the Nuggets still take advantage of regularly.
Honorable mentions: Thaddeus Young 12.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg (Sixers), Jamal Crawford 13.8 ppg (Blazers), Mike Dunleavy 12.2 ppg (Bucks), Nate Robinson 10.5 ppg 4.1 apg (Warriors), OJ Mayo 12.1 ppg (Grizzlies), Anthony Morrow 12.6 ppg (Nets), Leandro Barbosa 11.7 ppg (Pacers)