2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

Spurs Sweep Jazz

Al Jefferson and the Jazz gave San Antonio everything they could handle, but it still wasn’t enough to avoid elimination by the top-seeded Spurs thanks to Manu Ginobili’s breakout performance on the offensive end. Utah fought hard to get the Game 4 win at home and put together a late rally, but the Spurs kept their distance and finished their sweep of the Jazz with an 87-81 victory.

Manu Ginobili, who had been virtually non-existent in the scoring column through San Antonio’s first three playoff games, finally had a productive offensive night, leading the Spurs with 17 points. The Jazz stayed in the game due to Al Jefferson and Devin Harris, but also because Tony Parker and Tim Duncan had poor shooting nights, finishing a combined 8-for-24. In fact, San Antonio’s starting five all struggled from the field, but their bench picked up the slack, outscoring Utah’s bench 57-10. Jefferson had 26 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Jazz while Devin Harris chipped in 19 points and seven assists. Derrick Favors, who moved into the starting lineup, had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Paul Millsap helped take care of the boards with 19 rebounds, but could only put up 10 points on the offensive end.

Al Jefferson led a late Jazz rally, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Utah from being swept by the balanced San Antonio Spurs.

It was San Antonio’s balance that overwhelmed the Jazz in Game 4, as Ginobili, Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal all reached double digits in scoring off the bench. The timing of Ginobili’s offensive burst was impeccable, as he hit consecutive 3-pointers to silence Utah’s rowdy crowd after the Jazz had cut the lead to three in the third quarter. From there the Spurs built up at 21-point lead that proved to be insurmountable despite Utah’s late rally. But the Jazz were extremely close to extending the series and sending it back to San Antonio for Game 5 behind that late run, putting themselves in position to win by doing almost everything they needed to. They outrebounded the Spurs 57-43. They only committed 12 turnovers. And they had eight blocks compared to San Antonio’s four. But in the end, three major factor prevented them from coming out on top.

First of all, they missed nine free throws. If you want to unseat the top seed in the West, you need to take advantage of free points when you have the chance. Second, they got absolutely nothing out of Gordon Hayward, who basically disappeared from this series after Game 1. Hayward made the Jazz a potentially dangerous matchup entering the postseason, but he had zero points on 0-of-7 shooting in an elimination game. And speaking of poor shooting, the Jazz’s third blunder was failing to make a single 3-pointer at home in Game 4, finishing 0-for-13 from downtown. Utah has struggled with their 3-point shooting all season, but this area really hurt them as San Antonio shot nearly 50 percent from beyond the arc, hitting 10 of their 22 attempts. So while Utah was able to exploit the Spurs down low, their inability to convert from long range prevented them from getting a win.

Looking ahead, the Spurs will face either the Los Angeles Clippers or the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round. At this point, LAC has a 3-1 series lead and will likely be San Antonio’s next opponent. If the Clippers advance, the key matchups will be obviously be Tony Parker against Chris Paul and Tim Duncan against Blake Griffin, but the series will ultimately come down to the two benches. The Spurs have a clear advantage in their bench production over the majority of the league, but if LA can get something out of their reserves and Paul and Griffin outplay Parker and Duncan (which isn’t out of the question), it could be a close series. On the other hand, if the Grizzlies somehow come back from a 3-1 deficit and advance to the next round, the Spurs should beat them pretty handily. This isn’t the same dangerous Memphis squad as last year, Zach Randolph is still up and down, the Grizzlies are having problems getting anything out of their bench and San Antonio will want revenge for last year’s upset. Fortunately, the Clippers should advance barring a complete meltdown over the next three possible games, so we should be treated to a high-octane second round matchup between the top-seeded, experienced Spurs and the dangerous, entertaining Clippers.

If the Clips advance, we have a good second round matchup on our hands. But if Manu Ginobili plays like he did in Game 4, San Antonio will move on easily.

Spurs Look To Sweep Jazz

Devin Harris and Al Jefferson finally came to play for the Jazz, but Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs still got the win and increased their series lead to 3-0 with a 102-90 win in Utah yesterday. Parker took over in the fourth quarter and finished off a desperate Utah side that was down by only five with about eight minutes to play. The Utah crowd was looking for any signs of hope in their matchup with the number one seed in the West, but Parker and the Spurs’ execution in the game’s final quarter dispelled any hope the Jazz had in staying competitive in the series.

Parker had 27 points, Tim Duncan had 17 and Daniel Green pitched in 14 while Stephen Jackson contributed 13 off the bench. Tiago Splitter had 10 points and 8 rebounds after missing Game 2 with a bruised wrist. Al Jefferson finally had a great game with 21 points and 11 rebounds, but Paul Millsap had another poor offensive outing with just nine points. Devin Harris also had a much better offensive night with 21 points and five assists, but Gordon Hayward finished with only four points. Going up against an offensive juggernaut like the Spurs, the Jazz needed to be able to score in bunches to stay competitive, which is why Hayward and Millsap’s performances were especially devastating. Now San Antonio will likely get the sweep unless we see a near-perfect game from Utah’s starters, and if the Jazz do get a Game 4 win at home, Popovich and company will finish them off in Game 5 in San Antonio.

Tony Parker silenced the crowd and gave the Spurs a 3-0 lead.

What is especially concerning for other contending teams in the West is that the Spurs have been steamrolling opponents and Manu Ginobili hasn’t even had a significant impact on the offensive end yet. Ginobili had six points but he also had 10 assists, which shows that he doesn’t need to score to be happy. As long as he’s contributing and helping his team win, he’s good to go. The thought of a team full of role players all satisfied with their assignments that plays well together and is coached by Gregg Popovich is a pretty intimidating concept, and Ginobili’s lack of scoring is just one example of that. Popovich’s coaching was also on fully display, including a beautifully drawn-up play right before halftime that ended in a Matt Bonner 3-pointer, giving the Spurs the lead and effectively crushing any momentum the Jazz might have had going into the half with a lead.

Jazz fans can only be so upset about the possibility of being swept in the first round. This is a young team with a promising future that had the unlucky task of facing the top team in the West right off the bat. Jefferson, Millsap, Harris and Hayward are a decent core that needs to learn how to show up night in and night out, but it’s a start. Utah will also need to build up their supporting cast to get more out of their bench in the future (even with Derrick Favors and Alec Burks combining for 26 points in Game 3). Utah hasn’t played extremely well in the series, but they need some time to develop before people start taking them seriously. But even though the chance of being swept by this impressive Spurs team is pretty good right now, Utah fans can look forward to a pretty optimistic future.

Jefferson had a good game, but the Jazz will still likely be swept.

San Antonio Spurs: Best In The West?

The Spurs made their intentions of sweeping extremely clear in a complete 114-83 rout of the eighth-seeded Utah Jazz yesterday. Utah looked like a dangerous team entering the postseason, especially when one recalls that the Spurs were in the same position last year before falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. But so far, San Antonio has been absolutely dominant. So now the question stands: does Utah have any chance in this series against the Western juggernaut that is the San Antonio Spurs?

To get to the point, the answer is “no.” But let’s take a more in-depth look at why the Spurs have been so dominant this far. Aside from Utah not having any guards that are an offensive threat and playing pretty poor basketball, there have been three main factors in San Antonio dismantling the Jazz so far:
1) Tony Parker has been playing like an MVP candidate
2) Manu Ginobili is healthy and is playing with energy
3) The Spurs bench makes this team truly unstoppable by consistently contributing every night.

Tony Parker is the biggest reason why the Spurs are steamrolling the Jazz so far.

Tony Parker has been able to pick Utah’s defense apart so far. He’s getting to the rim, getting to the free throw line and when the Jazz’s interior defense actually does prevent him from scoring, Parker has been able to find open teammates like Tim Duncan on the inside and a plethora of 3-point threats on the outside. Meanwhile, Manu Ginobili finally looks like himself again after struggling with injury problems for the majority of the season. Ginobili is attacking the basket and in two home games, his ability to fire up the crowd with some flashy passing and drives to the rim is priceless. But Ginobili’s injury actually was a blessing in disguise; when he was out, the Spurs’ role players all had to step up. They haven’t stepped down since. The Spurs have nine active players who averaged at least 7 points per game during the regular season: Parker, Duncan, Ginobili, Patrick Mills, Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair, Daniel Green, Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard. And that number would be 11 if you include the injured Tiago Splitter and Richard Jefferson before he was traded away. Utah has had a hard enough time defending Parker and Tim Duncan, but you throw in another full lineup of guys who can score, play defense and launch 3-pointers and it’s no surprise this series has been a blowout so far.

The Jazz are struggling with their own problems of course. Devin Harris and
Gordon Hayward haven’t played like the guys who made this team so dangerous just a few weeks ago; Al Jefferson hasn’t had a standout game; Paul Millsap disappeared in Game 2; and Utah just doesn’t have enough depth to contend. But this has been a case of the Spurs asserting their dominance and imposing their will rather than the Jazz failing to show up; San Antonio is just too good and they’ve played like it so far. Who knows? The Jazz might have been able to compete in a different Western matchup, but the Spurs have too much experience, talent and depth for this to be anything other than a massacre so far. The Thunder have looked extremely good against an experienced Dallas team and the Lakers are a threat in the West as well, but the San Antonio Spurs are playing extremely well and definitely have to be one of the top candidates for the title of Best in the West.

Stephen Jackson is one of many role players who does his part night in and night out for San Antonio.

Tony Parker and the Spurs Take Game 1

After the top-seeded Spurs made history last year by losing to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs last year, there were concerns that a similar situation might arise this year with the dangerous Utah Jazz in town. But Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs squashed those sentiments right away with dominant performances in San Antonio’s 106-91 Game 1 win.

It was the first time the Spurs have won their playoff opener in four years and they did so in convincing fashion. The Jazz hung around in the first half and looked like they might be able to keep up, but Tony Parker added more validity to his MVP considerations with total control over the flow of the game. Parker finished with 28 points, eight assists, four rebounds and one steal. Tim Duncan chipped in 17 points and 11 rebounds and Manu Ginobili fired up the crowd with a few flashy and athletic plays (even though he missed a wide open fast break dunk in the first half). But what made San Antonio’s victory so impressive was their display of depth. Ginobili only had seven points, but everyone except Patrick Mills and James Anderson scored in this game. Matt Bonner hit three 3-pointers, Stephen Jackson was once again a spark off the bench and Boris Diaw, who started in DeJuan Blair’s place, had nine points on 4-of-5 shooting. The Spurs got something out of everyone and pulled away in the third quarter with a barrage of 3-pointers and an MVP performance from Parker.

Tony Parker put on an MVP performance for San Antonio in Game 1.

However, there are still some positives to take out of this game for Utah and the Spurs aren’t home free just yet. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap bothered some shots at the rim with their length and the Jazz finished with eight blocks compared to the Spurs’ two. Parker ended up abusing the Jazz defense with his penetration, but if Utah can contest more shots at the rim, they will stay competitive in the series. Also, Millsap, Jefferson and Gordon Hayward were able to score pretty effectively; Jefferson and Millsap shot high percentages in the paint and even though Hayward’s shots weren’t falling, he got to the free throw line 12 times and didn’t miss a single one. And on the San Antonio side, Tiago Splitter left the game with a sprained left wrist and did not return. His status for Game 2 is currently unknown although an MRI has been scheduled. Even though the Spurs are extremely deep, they would eventually miss their seven-footer as they advance deeper into the playoffs.

Utah still has a chance to keep this competitive, but they definitely need a road win before taking care of business at home. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have to keep doing what they’re doing down low, Hayward will need to shoot better from the floor, but a critical piece is Devin Harris. Harris made the Jazz such a dangerous team entering the playoffs, but he disappeared today, finishing with just seven points on 3-of-9 shooting. If Harris shows up for a game and makes himself a threat, the paint opens up for Jefferson and Millsap. But if he disappears again, Utah’s only perimeter threat becomes Gordon Hayward, who makes his living off of hustle plays and 3-point shooting. The Jazz could definitely use some bench scoring (looking at you, Derrick Favors) and Josh Howard can’t go scoreless. But the most vital aspect of this series for Utah is Harris; unless he picks his game back up, the Spurs will cruise to a first-round playoff win.

Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap did okay, but they need to pick it up and get something out of Devin Harris to contend in this series.

Western Conference Playoff Predictions

It’s finally that time of year: the 2012 NBA Playoffs! The matchups are set, so let the debating begin! With games starting tomorrow, here are my playoff predictions. Eastern Conference predictions are soon to follow, but for now, let’s take a look at the first round matchups in the Western Conference.

#1 San Antonio Spurs vs. #8 Utah Jazz – Everyone is loving the Spurs right now. Maybe because the Thunder didn’t finish the season on a strong note, maybe because people were throwing Tony Parker in the MVP conversation as San Antonio took over the one spot in the West, and maybe a combination of all those things. But let me remind you: just like this year, the Spurs had one of the best records in the NBA and entered the playoffs as the top seed in the West last year. And they lost in six games to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. Now it did take a particularly dangerous Memphis team to do it, but the point is, the Spurs are not safe just because they can rack up regular season wins. The Jazz aren’t as dangerous as that Grizzlies team was last year, but they’ve been playing well recently and their youth could either guide them to victory (like the Grizzlies) or it could be their downfall due to a lack of playoff experience. Although I still think San Antonio is overrated, the Spurs will advance, if only because Utah doesn’t quite have the firepower to dethrone them. But don’t be surprised if this series is actually competitive thanks to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap’s youth and athletic ability in the paint against Tim Duncan.

Prediction: San Antonio in 6 games

Tony Parker has an advantage over Devin Harris and will use it to lead the Spurs to the second round.

#2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. #7 Dallas Mavericks – The Mavericks ousted the Thunder from the playoffs last year and you’re not going to tell me Oklahoma City has forgotten it. The fans are going to be fired up in OKC and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook should be able to sort out their recent struggles against this unimpressive Mavericks squad. Jason Kidd is a good defender but I don’t think he can hang with Westbrook’s athleticism for a seven-game series. The same goes for Shawn Marion guarding Kevin Durant. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry might be able to sneak in a win or two at home, but the Thunder are just too good for the aging Mavs, even if James Harden doesn’t return at full speed. If OKC can get offensive production out of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins, Dallas is in serious trouble. The Mavs have plenty of playoff experience, but have never looked like a quality contender this year, so the nod has to go to KD and Westbrook to clean their game up and move on to the next round.

Prediction: Oklahoma City in 5 games

Durant and the Thunder have struggled recently, but Dallas doesn't pose enough of a threat to unseat the scoring champion and his team.

#3 Los Angeles Lakers vs. #6 Denver Nuggets – The first two series won’t be extremely competitive, but with Ron Artest (I’m still refusing to call him Metta World Peace) sitting out, the balanced Nuggets have a chance against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee will have to play extremely good defense against Andrew Bynum to have any chance. We all know Kobe will likely get his 20-30 points every night, but if Denver can limit Bynum and possibly frustrate him (we’ve all seen what happens when Bynum gets riled up), the Nuggets will make it competitive. Danilo Gallinari will be another factor in the series: if he shoots the ball well, Denver is dangerous. The final major factor in this series is Pau Gasol. If Gasol has big games, he might be able to make up for any poor performances from Bynum, especially if LA’s bench doesn’t mess things up. This should be a good series, but I’ve got to give the edge to the Lakers. Overcoming Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol is a little too much to ask of this balanced Nuggets team.

Prediction: Los Angeles in 6 games

Will Kobe be able to lead LA to the finals once again? It all starts with a brutal first-round matchup against the very balanced Nuggets.

#4 Memphis Grizzlies vs. #5 Los Angeles Clippers

On paper, it doesn’t take a genius to assert that the four/five matchup will be the most competitive, but in this case, the fourth and fifth seed actually do deserve to be where they’re at and should give the audience one hell of a first-round playoff series. On the one side, you’ve got playoff and crunch-time champion Chris Paul along with the athletic freak-of-nature Blake Griffin, and on the other you’ve got Rudy Gay, a resurgent Zach Randolph and the rest of Memphis’ role-playing lineup. This series will come down to how much Mo Williams and Randy Foye contribute, whether or not Mike Conley can put up big numbers on offense and whether or not the Grizzlies’ impressive defense can hold CP3 when it matters most. Earlier in the week, I had the Clippers winning in seven, but after seeing them stumble over the finish line and concede home-court advantage to Memphis, I’m taking the Grizzlies in seven. LAC’s supporting cast disappeared this week and Chris Paul missed a game with a mild groin injury. If that injury continues to bother him and if their supporting cast doesn’t pick their game up, this series is too easy for the Grizzlies.

Prediction: Memphis in 7 games

I wanted to give Chris Paul and the Clips the edge, but if Memphis has home-court, we might see more postseason magic from Zach Randolph.

Western Conference Standings Update

For Easter, we focused on the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, there’s no clever way of saying today is going to be about the West, so let’s just jump right in. The standings have shifted dramatically night in and night out over the past few weeks, and though I’m confident my Western Conference playoff predictions will be close, win streaks by the Rockets, Grizzlies and now even the Nuggets need to be factored in. So here we go:

Oklahoma City Thunder – Despite dropping a home game against the Clippers, the Thunder should stay confident and cruise to the number one seed. After taking the top seed in the West, the Spurs had lost two straight before ending the Grizzlies’ win streak last night. So as long as OKC continues to do what it has done all year, the Thunder will remain the dominant favorite of their conference, even if they are only a half game ahead of the Spurs right now. Durant and Westbrook have been trading good games back and forth; once they get back on the same page there should be no problems. Also, keep an eye on James Harden; this Sixth Man of the Year has been extremely mediocre lately and the Thunder will go far if he can pick his play up.

The Thunder will need this guy to pick his game back up if they want to win it all this year.

San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs were looking like they could be a huge surprise and take the top seed in the West….until Gregg Popovich pulled a Gregg Popovich, resting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, his three best players, and generating a huge discussion on whether or not resting starters down the stretch is “cheating the game.” While I didn’t exactly see it that way, it’s also true that this is the time of year for a team to be peaking and playing its best ball, so resting the starters kind of hurts that momentum (no wonder they came out flat against the Kobe-less Lakers). So even though they’re only a half game back, that’s why San Antonio lost those two games before beating Memphis last night. Knowing Popovich, he will probably rest his starters for the playoffs once it’s clearer what seed they’ll get. Which is why they won’t take the top seed and probably will fall flat in the postseason, Spurs-style.

Will Popovich continue to rest his stars and risk them not being in peak form come playoff time?

Los Angeles Lakers – Inexplicably, the Lakers keep winning without Kobe Bryant on the floor. Los Angeles squeaked out one win (why didn’t God punish Metta World Peace for that ridiculously stupid last-second pass against the Hornets??) and then had an impressive win over the Spurs. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are playing lights out right now, even if Bynum is still a head case. The Lakers have a one and a half game lead over the Clippers at the moment, and I think they will maintain that margin unless Chris Paul puts up 30 points a night for the rest of the season.

Bynum has been playing excellently without Kobe on the floor, but he's still a liability because of his temper.

Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers lost to the streaking Grizzlies, but responded well with a win on the road against the West-leading Thunder and then again against the Timberwolves. It’s tough to figure this team out; they’re good enough to compete with anybody, but without Chauncey Billups on the court, Chris Paul is going to have to do too much down the stretch every night for me to give the Clips a ringing endorsement. LAC will need someone else to step up, and with the Grizzlies only one and a half games back, the Clippers could fall to the fifth spot. Either way though, they should be preparing for a matchup with Memphis in the playoffs.

Chris Paul and his continuing ability to be clutch for the Clippers will determine how far they can go.

Memphis Grizzlies – Memphis has won seven of their last 10 games and has succeeded in putting some temporary distance between them and the rest of the pack in the lower half of the West. Rudy Gay’s phenomenal play and Zach Randolph starting to find his rhythm is the reason for the Grizzlies’ win streak, which has put them in the fifth spot and only a game and a half game behind Los Angeles. Whether or not they overtake the fourth seed is irrelevant, because at this point, it looks like we will be seeing a Clippers-Grizzlies first round matchup.

Rudy Gay is the driving force behind this surging Grizzlies team.

Dallas Mavericks – The defending NBA champs have seen some struggles in the past few weeks and are now only a half game ahead of Houston and Denver, who are at 10 games back. However, Dallas owns the tiebreaker and is currently sitting precariously in the six spot. I’ve gotta give the edge to the Mavs here; they have the experience in Jason Terry and Jason Kidd as well as the leadership in Dirk Nowitzki. Unless Denver continues to play on another level for the rest of the season, the Mavericks are favorable to take the sixth seed.

Dirk and the Jet will look to make some noise in the playoffs with their championship experience.

Houston Rockets – The Rockets put a nice little string of wins together thanks to incredible play from backups Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee before dropping a game to Utah on Wednesday. Lowry surprisingly returned to the court on Sunday, but he’s not quite up to speed and I think it’s safe to say his return threw off the team chemistry a little bit. The Rockets are currently sitting in the seventh spot, but don’t be surprised if Denver and possibly even Utah give them a run for their money.

Goran Dragic is a huge reason why the Rockets are in the playoff hunt right now.

Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets haven’t panned out exactly like I though they would this year, but with Gallinari back, Denver is a completely different team. Kenneth Faried has filled in since Nene left, Ty Lawson is an effective point guard, Arron Afflalo has been on a hot streak and the Nuggets have an abundance of role players  who all consistently contribute. With Denver, Houston, Dallas, Utah and Phoenix all vying for the six, seven and eight seeds, I see Denver winning more games than everybody except Dallas the rest of the way.

Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo will try to show the world how good Denver can be.

Utah Jazz – It was easy to pick the Jazz as making the playoffs when they had a six-game win streak going, but I don’t think they can outwin Houston or Denver to make the postseason. They did just beat the Rockets and are only one and a half games back, but Devin Harris’ inconsistent play is going to prevent this team from reaching its potential. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are great, but only Gordon Hayward has been playing consistently well in the backcourt.

If only Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap could get some more help from the backcourt.

Phoenix Suns – The Suns are perfect at teetering between a playoff squad and a team that is going to come up just short. Unfortunately, Phoenix can’t win the big games when they need them the most and that fact alone will keep Steve Nash and company away from the postseason. It’s disappointing considering how dramatically improved this team has played in the second half of their season, but the Suns will probably come up short again, even with Grant Hill returning to action today.

Sorry Suns fans. It doesn't look like Nash and Hill will get a look at a playoff run this year.