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!
With Kobe Bryant still recovering from his Achilles tear, Steve Nash’s unreliable health and Pau Gasol’s future in L.A. uncertain, the Lakers are in danger of falling apart. Here’s my HoopsHabit article on why they need to sign Dwight Howard to a new deal.
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 move that has one city up in arms, another city rejoicing and the rest of us straddling the border between sympathy and excitement, the Maloof family is nearing a deal that would send the Sacramento Kings to Seattle. Yahoo! Sports reported yesterday that the deal was nearly complete and that the Kings would be sold for approximately $500 million to a group led by investor Chris Hansen and Microsoft chairman Steve Ballmer. ESPN has reported that the deal is not close to being done and that the Maloofs are still uncertain about whether or not they even want to sell the team, but considering their poor track record for doing all they can to prevent the franchise from leaving Sacramento, it’s hard to picture the deal not going through. There’s still a chance for Kings fans to keep their team in town, but what happens if the deal does go through?
There are a few angles to this news, and I feel everyone needs to be aware of them all. For Seattle basketball fans, this is tremendous news. The downright despicable way the SuperSonics left the city for Oklahoma City means they have a right to be happy that they may be getting their beloved franchise back. And of all the basketball cities in the country, no one deserves a new NBA team more than Seattle. When you combine a loyal fanbase with a rich basketball tradition that may soon be restored and returned to Seattle with the unfortunate events that led to the Sonics’ exit, it’s hard to deny them the right to be excited. And as an NBA fan who felt a lot of disappointment for the city and the league in general when Seattle’s basketball team was gone, the news that basketball may be returning is news to celebrate, even if it certainly isn’t the way anyone would have liked to see it.
However, as awesome as it would be to see the SuperSonics’ franchise and history restored, NBA fans who don’t reside in Seattle would be wise to avoid openly celebrating just yet. This move would have really excited me if it didn’t come at the expense of another great basketball city with equally despicable owners. In the same way Sam Presti crapped on the entire city of Seattle, so too have the Maloofs crapped on Sacramento every step of the way as the city has fought to keep its team where it belongs. From the Virginia Beach talks to the new plan drafted by Sacramento that was suddenly and inexplicably turned down by the Maloofs, Kings fans have every reason to resent their owners.
From a history and records perspective, this constant mixing and moving and relocating of NBA franchises we’ve seen over the past few years brings up a fair amount of conflict. Would the SuperSonics get their history back or would Oklahoma City keep it? Should the SuperSonics adopt the Kings’ history and records as their own like OKC did? What would we do with the Kings’ history if Seattle does get the Sonics’ history back? And where should the jerseys of Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Chris Webber, Mike Bibby, Kevin Durant and the rest eventually hang? In my opinion Sacramento should hold on to the Kings’ records for the future, Oklahoma City should have their own records and the Thunder should give Seattle’s history back, but that’s a conversation that will likely be way more convoluted than it needs to be.
In recent years, the Kings have been a terrible team with young talent was never fully realized, inconsistent coaching and a star player with major attitude problems. But the rich history of Kings basketball and the loyal fanbase that have fought for their team (despite the fact that their team has been appallingly bad for years now) speaks volumes about how great a basketball city Sacramento is. Who can forget Mike Bibby, Vlade Divac, Chris Webber and the Kings team that took the Los Angeles Lakers to the edge in a disappointing and controversial seven-game series for the 2002 Western Conference Finals? If not for some terrible (and probably corrupt) officiating in Game 6 and horrible free-throw shooting in Game 7, the Kings would have contended for a championship! It’s only natural to be happy to have one of the NBA’s loved franchises back, but we should also realize that if this move goes through, the Sacramento Kings are the new Seattle SuperSonics in the sense that we’ll ALL be nostalgically wanting them back soon enough.
Which brings me to you, Seattle basketball fans. I’m not going to go as far as calling you hypocrites like others have done, but it’s time to point something out. If this deal goes through and you end up getting your beloved Sonics back, it’s time to let go of your hatred for the Oklahoma City Thunder. You can still resent Presti and the people responsible for moving your franchise away in the first place, but you had no right to be angry at the Thunder, at Oklahoma City fans, at Kevin Durant or at anybody else during this whole time. No one’s saying you should have supported the Thunder, but blaming them for the move was just looking for a scapegoat to deal with the pain. And if you get the Sonics back, you DEFINITELY don’t have that right. Because even though it wasn’t your decision to take the Kings away from Sacramento, you of all people know how it feels to hate another city for taking your team away. Do you feel responsible for the Kings leaving? Do you feel guilty or deserving of Sacramento’s anger because you will have their team now? No? Then now you understand why your anger at Oklahoma City was never entirely acceptable.
Likewise, Sacramento fans, don’t resent the city of Seattle for the move. Unfortunately, you now understand what they went through and that the real blame lies with your insufferable owner. However, the city of Seattle should give you hope. Not because anyone expects you to cheer for the new team there, but because if Seattle can get their team back, maybe one day down the road Sacramento can too. I truly feel sorry for Kings fans. It doesn’t matter that they’re at the bottom of the Western Conference and have been there are the better part of the last decade. The Kings were a great franchise and even if they hadn’t been, any one of the 30 NBA squads leaving their city for another would be regrettable. I hope that Sacramento will keep its drive for an NBA team alive, because just like the SuperSonics, maybe one day the Kings will come home again.
In this second segment of “What’s Up With…?” we’re taking a look at a team that was supposed to contend with Oklahoma City and Los Angeles in the Western Conference: the Denver Nuggets. At 11-11, the Nuggets are currently clinging to the eighth spot in the West and they aren’t struggling nearly as much as their fellow, supposed contender in the Los Angeles Lakers. However, this season has been pretty disappointing for Denver fans thus far and the question has to be asked this year just like I asked early on last season:
What’s up with the Denver Nuggets?
In taking a look at why Denver is struggling so much to start this season, there are three main problems that I see. There are minor problems, such as Danilo Gallinari’s largely inconsistent shooting and Kenneth Faried’s production falling off the map recently. But the first major problem has been Ty Lawson. Lawson has started to turn his season around with a couple of dominant performances, but there’s no denying he started off in a bit of a slump this year. After averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals last year, this was supposed to be Lawson’s breakout season. Instead, Denver’s point guard has seen dips in his points and rebounds, averaging 14.7 points, 7 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 2 steals. Not scrub numbers by any means, but not a breakout year either (and keep in mind those averages were slightly raised by more impressive performances in the past week). What happened to the dynamic and lightening-quick point guard that decimated the Lakers in the postseason last year and almost send Kobe and company home early? He’s looked timid at times and almost reluctant to take the same jumpshots he was consistently draining last season. Lawson looks like he’s breaking out of his slump, but if he regresses at all, or even takes a night off, Denver will continue to struggle.
The second major problem is the trade the Nuggets made over the offseason, a trade that a lot of Denver fans were excited about. In exchanging Arron Afflalo and Al Harrington in the very unbalanced Dwight Howard deal that sent Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia, Denver was supposed to get back a defensive presence and a decent amount of offense in Andre Iguodala. But with Iggy in a Denver jersey, the Nuggets are 26th in the league in points allowed, giving up 100.7 points per game. To his credit, Iguodala has adjusted his game to fulfill whatever Denver needs from him on the offensive end (namely, scoring), but the balanced game we saw from him in Denver is gone while Afflalo’s having his best season so far down in Orlando. Many thought Iguodala would be the piece to elevate Denver to title contenders in the West, but instead, it’s looked like Iggy has disrupted the team’s chemistry with inconsistent offense.
The final problem is one that I’m surprised to see myself write, but it seems that George Karl doesn’t have a firm grip on his team’s success anymore. When Denver fans, some of the most loyal basketball fans I’ve seen, are complaining about Karl, you know something’s not right. Just a few years ago, this man inspired them when he beat cancer. This is the man who’s turned the Nuggets into a consistent threat in the West. But unfortunately, those days look like a thing of the past. Again, we could be overreacting here; the Nuggets are at .500 and still have 75 percent of the seaon left to fine-tune. But it’s in the subtle things that you notice how poorly Karl has coached this season. It’s in his refusal to start JaVale McGee, a guy who’s been incredibly efficient in limited minutes and could be an All-Star if Karl took the time to develop him over Kosta Koufos. It’s in a couple of bad losses (Phoenix, Orlando, Los Angeles) and a really underwhelming 0-3 start to the season. It’s in the team’s inconsistency that borderlines bipolarity. And it’s in that angry expression that’s constantly on Karl’s face when his team is struggling, a look that he wears while sitting on the bench and saying nothing. Karl needs to take a more hands-on approach with this group and that’s evident to anyone watching the lifeless disdain on his face whenever the opposing team goes on a run. I believe Karl is a tremendous coach and that he’ll turn things around, but he needs to take a different approach to get wins and appease Denver fans.
Like the Lakers, the Nuggets still have time to turn things around. To their credit, they have looked a lot better in recent games, but they’re still 3-5 in their last eight games. In their defense though, Denver’s had one of the tougher schedules in the NBA (UPDATED: one of my friends, an avid Nuggets fan, brought it to my attention that Denver has only played six home games this year. It’s hard to win games when 16 of your first 22 are on the road). But it’s hard to tell how good the Nuggets can be because twice this season they’ve put together a nice string of games with four wins in a row, but both times they’ve gone on to drop their next three in a row. Because of how close the race in the West always is, the Nuggets have a very good shot at keeping their playoff spot and an even better shot at moving up the chain if they start meshing. But like the Lakers, the time for saying, “We’ve still got time to fix things,” has just about wrapped up. Time will tell if Lawson’s recent resurgence is for real, but the Denver Nuggets haven’t looked like a contender in the West just yet.
It’s been a very up-and-down NBA season so far, with only a few teams rising to the top and looking like real contenders for when May rolls around. The rest of the pack either looks like bottomfeeders or are too inconsistent to really gauge how their season will turn out. But in looking deeper into that inconsistency, we might be able to make some sense out of the league’s most disappointing teams so far this season. In this series of posts, we’re going to take a look at why certain teams that should be contending are currently struggling. First, we have to start with the most underwhelming team in the NBA that constantly begs the question:
What’s up with the Los Angeles Lakers?
Kobe Bryant. Dwight Howard. Steve Nash. Pau Gasol. Ron Artest. Antawn Jamison. Those are the Lakers six best players. HOW THE HELL IS THIS TEAM NOT INSTILLING FEAR IN EVERYONE BY NOW? We gave the Lakers the benefit of the doubt when the incompetent Mike Brown was running his silly little Princeton offense, but there’s no excuse for the Lakers’ current 9-13 record. Granted, that’s not a terrible record, but it’s certainly not acceptable when you’ve got multiple Hall-of-Famers in your starting lineup. Whether or not you believe Mike D’Antoni is the solution and whether or not you think Phil Jackson would have been a better fit, the Lakers should not be struggling this much still, especially considering that they’ve fared worse under D’Antoni than Brown.
In the Lakers’ defense, injuries have prevented them from reaching their full potential or even develop chemistry yet. But with Kobe and Dwight on the floor at the same time, it’s hard to make too many excuses. Everyone keeps saying, “Once Steve Nash comes back, you’ll see!” or “They still have plenty of time to work things out!” But unfortunately for LA, Nash’s return isn’t going to fix the Lakers’ extensive problems on the defensive end. If anything, it’ll make those problems worse. Gasol’s injury would be another way to deflect how poorly the Lakers have played so far this year, but he really hasn’t done much when he’s been on the court. Gasol prefers playing closer to the basket but D’Antoni’s system has him shooting elbow and baseline jumpers. His complaints about adjusting to the system and the tendinitis that’s been ailing him all season spurred Kobe’s now infamous “put your big boy pants on” quote, one that speaks volumes about the team’s lack of unity, chemistry and yes, leadership.
You can disagree all you want, but Kobe is not the leader the Lakers need right now. And before you write me off as another Kobe hater, let me say that I’m entirely aware of how much more efficient he’s been this season, how he’s leading the league in scoring and how he’s the youngest (that’s YOUNGEST, not FASTEST) player to reach 30,000 points. Without Kobe, this team would have an even worse record. Then again, is Kobe’s leadership what this new, struggling team needs? Watch five minutes of a Lakers game and you can see the pure disdain on Kobe’s face every time Dwight Howard misses a free throw or every time someone misses a defensive assignment. For years, Kobe’s used the same kind of unrelenting, competitive, yelling-at-your-teammates leadership we saw out of Michael Jordan for the first half of his career, and so far, that’s gotten him five championships. But they were all with the best coach in basketball history. What happens now that Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson aren’t around to console teammates not strong enough or not accustomed to Kobe’s verbal beatings and melting staredowns?
Kobe may be leading the charge on the offensive end with more efficient scoring, but the Lakers are 1-10 this season in games in which Kobe scores more than 30 points. ONE. AND. TEN. I don’t care what anyone says, that kind of scoring is not effficient from a team perspective. I still believe the Lakers have time to figure things out, I think that Nash’s return will brighten the gloomy mood in LA right now and I know this team has too much talent to continue struggling like this. But the clock is ticking and saying, “We still have time to work things out,” isn’t as true when a quarter of the season’s already gone by. Gasol and Nash need to get healthy and a solution for Hack-A-Howard needs to be found soon, but the bigger problems are Kobe’s “Eff You I’m Just Gonna Do It Myself And Shoot My Way Into 30+ points” mode and an embarrassing defense. One of those things is fixable, but with D’Antoni and Nash at the helm, that defense might be a lingering problem. D’Antoni’s irritable answer and overreaction to the question of defense certainly helps illustrate how lost this team is on that end of the floor.
I’ve given the Lakers the benefit of the doubt so far. When every journalist in the country was ready to freak out that LA wasn’t winning games so early in the season, I held off. But after tonight’s embarrassing loss to Cleveland, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this is not a good basketball team. Kobe went for 42 points and Dwight Howard had 19 points and 20 rebounds, but NOBODY ELSE contributed. Having Steve Blake out has forced Chris Duhon to play the point, but there’s no excuse for Jordan Hill and Antawn Jamison to be so overwhelmingly average. The Lakers are facing problems with injuries, their bench and their defense, three areas that are hard to overcome, even with Ron Artest playing some pretty solid minutes. It’s still not impossible for this team to be a contender come April and May, but if this type of play continues, they’ll be lucky to make the playoffs.
After the Lakers engaged Phil Jackson in talks for the past few days, they made a surprising decision to hire Mike D’Antoni instead. The negotiations with Jackson allegedly broke down, but one source said Jackson was ready to accept the job until he was told the Lakers had already chosen D’Antoni. The Lakers have said they believe D’Antoni to be a better fit for the current roster and there were lingering concerns about Jackson’s health and ability to travel to away games. There were also concerns about Jackson’s triangle offense, which had been very successful with Kobe and Pau Gasol in the past, but might not be effective for Nash and Dwight Howard.
D’Antoni is known for his fast-paced offense and his time in Phoenix with Steve Nash and the high-powered Suns. However, D’Antoni’s career took a turn for the worse in New York as he was unable to properly manage Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. Now in LA, D’Antoni will get the chance to team up with his old point guard Nash and some other enticing superstars like Kobe Bryant and Howard.
Lakers fans should be happy that D’Antoni will be able to properly utilize Nash since LA’s star point guard will now be able to run the pick-and-roll to his heart’s content, but the D’Antoni hiring won’t solve all of the Lakers’ problems. There’s still the issue of how Kobe and Nash will share the ball since both need it in their hands to be effective. There are still health concerns as the team waits for Nash, Kobe and Howard to be fully healthy again. The Lakers will still have problems defending quick and explosive point guards. And even with a defensive-minded coach in Mike Brown, the Lakers struggled mightily on the defensive end. D’Antoni has never been a good defensive coach and abides by the philosophy of high-powered offense outweighing the need for consistent defense. It’s true that the Lakers do have two good defensive players in the post with Howard and Gasol, but one thing’s for sure: if you want to beat the Lakers, you’re going to have to outgun them and outscore them. Because with D’Antoni at the helm, this offense will start to turn around and put up big numbers. It’s just the defensive end that could be a cause for concern now.