Give And Go: What could stop five contenders from cracking conference finals?
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: digging into five would-be contenders that finished outside the NBA’s final four in 2013, and what might hold them back in 2014.
1. With Russell Westbrook back, the Thunder could well be the Western Conference favorites. What could get in the way of their second trip to the NBA Finals in three years?
Ben Golliver: After preaching the Thunder’s gospel for most of last season — I’m still not sure everyone realizes just how amazing their regular season scoring differential was — you won’t find me changing my tune. I would summarize my thoughts on Oklahoma City in this order. One: As good as the Spurs were, they don’t make the Finals if Westbrook is healthy. Two: Kevin Martin was a very valuable, but not irreplaceable, rotation piece. Three: The Thunder’s offense will find a way to be elite as long as Kevin Durant and Westbrook are both available. Four: It’s really a shame that Mikhail Prokhorov doesn’t own this team, because the core is so good that the extravagant extras his limitless bankroll would offer could produce the Heat-killing machine that the basketball world is ready to see.
Oklahoma City has upped its winning percentage every year since Durant’s rookie season, and it’s possible that 2014 finally sees the end of that continual improvement simply because the bar was set high at 60 wins in 2012-13. Even if that does happen, it’s difficult to envision the Thunder’s taking a meaningful step backward when they return such a large portion of last year’s balanced, deep and athletic unit. Put me in the group that believes only a major injury at an inopportune time in the playoffs will stop them from winning the West.
Rob Mahoney: While the Thunder deserve preference as the West favorite, I hesitate to embroider their logo on a “WESTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONS” T-shirt just yet. Losing Martin will hurt. It takes a very particular player to oscillate between acting as an ideal complement to two high-usage superstars and working as a primary creator when asked, but Martin filled that role beautifully for OKC and played a part in most of the team’s top lineups. With him gone, I’m not sure that I’m quite ready to trust Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson to the degree to which coach Scott Brooks will now be required.
Durant and Westbrook are fantastic, and the team’s core is more than capable enough to solidify the Thunder as a top-flight contender despite Martin’s departure. But there’s just enough reason for doubt to leave the West’s playoff outlook as something of an open question. As many as six teams look to be contenders, and the Thunder appear to be first or second among them in championship viability. But it’s one thing to accept the transition (and downgrade) from James Harden to Martin, and another entirely to assume consistency in the transition from Martin to two shaky young players.
2. Chicago will likely be a credible contender with Derrick Rose’s return, but what might come to separate the Bulls from a chance to take the Eastern Conference?
Mahoney: Miami is the easy answer here, and the definitive one. Everything that the Bulls accomplish will be measured against the defending champions, and rightly so; obstacles loom no larger than the Heat, who have both improved their roster and their ability to execute their game plan since last meeting a Rose-led Bulls team, in the 2011 conference finals. Chicago still has the potential to trouble Miami in a seven-game series, and to take the conference throne if all goes according to plan. But the actualization of that plan begins with Rose being Rose, a development we can’t quite take for granted, given the length of his absence and the reasoning behind his ever-tentative return timeline.
Both are particularly relevant because the Heat will load up on Rose in a potential postseason matchup, a tactic that worked rather effectively two years ago. If Rose isn’t able to drive and shoot with confidence to beat Miami’s defensive pressure on the perimeter, he’ll have to — at the very least — heighten his awareness as a playmaker. With their pick-and-roll traps in that 2011 series, the Heat held Rose to 35 percent shooting and forced him into 3.8 turnovers per game. Miami’s D has only become that much more ferocious since then.
Rose is capable of beating that first line of defense with smart passing and selective attacking, and it’s quite possible that his initial playoff matchup with the Heat was simply the kind of trial that all young players experience. But he’s yet to put it all together in a way that could help Chicago sustain scoring against such an aggressive, scrambling defense, and for that reason I’ll remain slightly skeptical of the Bulls’ chances to take the conference.
Golliver: So much bandwidth has been spent on Rose injury non-updates and outraged responses to his year-long absence that I dare say many have forgotten just how tremendous the Bulls were when he was on the court. A quick reminder: When Rose played, the Bulls were a combined 94-26 (.783) during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons. Put in simpler terms: Chicago went 68-14 in Rose’s last 82 regular-season games.
Yes, a number of the rotation players have turned over in the interim, including Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson, but the emergence of Jimmy Butler and the additions of Marquis Teague and now Mike Dunleavy during Rose’s absence should be taken very seriously. Based on the proven track record of the Tom Thibodeau/Rose/Joakim Noah/Luol Deng/Taj Gibson/Carlos Boozer combination, I would start the Bulls at No. 2 on the East pecking order, behind only the Heat.
That brings us to the question of whether Chicago is positioned to defeat Miami in a seven-game series. The answer would seem to be “yes” rather than “YES!” at least until Rose has proved that he is at or near 100 percent and all of the Bulls’ bigs make it to the playoffs in good shape. The Bulls have their heart, toughness, team-first, defense-first ducks in a row, but they have also always seemed one dynamic perimeter scorer short of cracking Miami’s defense. That elusive piece appears to linger as the two teams get ready for what will be a must-see opening-night showdown.
3. The Nets win for having the splashiest (and most expensive) summer. Is there something besides age and age-related injuries that could be their undoing, or is that over-thinking their outlook?
Golliver: Many of the Nets’ summer wrinkles are exciting. Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett should be nice complements on offense while offering lots of paint-filling, rim-protecting size and length on defense. If Deron Williams won’t bring his A-game without excuses for Jason Kidd, then he won’t bring it for anybody. Andrei Kirilenko seems like one of the most qualified players in the league to provide depth and sop up minutes if the plan is to limit the regular-season wear and tear on Paul Pierce and Garnett. Nobody even mentions Jason Terry, who surely relishes the thought of making people pay for overlooking him.
The biggest question mark is simply whether they can do what the Celtics did in 2008, when Boston put everything together in time for the playoffs after acquiring Garnett and Ray Allen the previous offseason. Kidd’s coaching inexperience is a major variable — up there with Garnett’s ability to withstand the season at 37 — this year, given that the clock isn’t just ticking on this team’s championship window, but the battery is already rapidly approaching zero percent. The Nets must approach this season as if it’s their last, best chance, and it’s tough to do that when the coach is getting up to speed and important new players are being incorporated. My biggest fear with the Nets is that this is a core that could use a year to jell, a year that Father Time simply won’t allow.
Mahoney: This should be a terrific offensive team with no assembly required, and a quality defensive unit in due time. I just think one of (at least) two better teams in the conference will beat the Nets. The gap between Brooklyn and Indiana might be smaller than people think, but Miami and Chicago are potent enough on both sides of the ball to score in droves while derailing much of what the Nets figure to do well. Indiana could well be, too, but it enters the season with that burden of proof after ranking 19th in points per possession last season, 22nd in effective field-goal percentage and 27th in turnover rate.
Kidd, for all of his talents and accomplishments, was at his best when designing blueprints on the fly. He was a transcendent architect, and in many cases was allowed to elevate basic systems with his creativity and vision. I just wonder how that might translate to his style as a coach, where beating the coverage of teams like the Heat and Bulls requires detailed game planning on top of heady improvisation.
If done right, Brooklyn’s offense could be incredibly difficult to stop, with a flurry of ball movement and built-in contingencies. But it might also be too easy for the Nets to get by on talent alone, without leaning on the kind of ingenuity that could make this team rather remarkable. Beyond that, even a fully actualized Nets team should still pale in comparison to the two pillars of the Eastern Conference.
4. Last season, the Knicks won their first playoff series since 2000 before losing to the Pacers. Their major summer additions don’t appear to be game-changers. Did they miss their best shot at a deep run last season now that Chicago, Brooklyn and Indiana have all improved on paper?
Mahoney: It was certainly a better shot compared to this season. Much of the ball-moving, mismatch-creating engine that fueled the Knicks success last year has now been compromised. The acquisition of Andrea Bargnani and the full-time integration of Amar’e Stoudemire adds two poor-defending ball-stoppers to the mix, all while possibly spelling the end of Carmelo Anthony’s tenure as a big-minute power forward. That cuts right to the heart of what made the Knicks a top-three offensive team last season and takes for granted the subtle mechanics that allowed the team to thrive.
Anthony was so spectacular in part because of the infrastructure around him. The Knicks created a quality offensive foundation because the savvy Kidd complemented the sometimes bull-headed Raymond Felton, plenty of shooters were available to play off of Anthony and the floor balance was there to slot Anthony as a big man and sneak J.R. Smith into the lineup more often. (That foundation, however, caved when several role players, most notably Smith, imploded in the playoffs.) This is a pretty swift departure from that design, and one that will all but require New York to have at least two huge defensive liabilities on the floor at all times among Anthony, Stoudemire and Bargnani. Even a height-of-his-powers Tyson Chandler won’t be able to clean up that mess, leaving the Knicks as a likely below-average defensive team without the explosive scoring potential of last season.
Golliver: They missed their best shot. The Knicks stand out from so many of the other contenders in terms of how inefficiently they have handed out their salaries. In the East, Miami, Chicago, Indiana and Brooklyn have a combined zero contracts greater than $10 million going to guys who aren’t key, reliable, big-minute rotation players. (Same thing in the West, by the way, with the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers.) Sure, there’s some serious overpaying going on with players such as Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson and Chicago’s Boozer in this mix, but no one else has a deal nearly as problematic as that of Stoudemire, whose $21.7 million salary has helped handicap New York during the last two offseasons.
Stoudemire was productive in brief flashes last season, but he played fewer than 700 minutes because of two knee surgeries, and he was a non-factor when he tried to launch a postseason comeback. The best franchises tend to be efficiency machines (scoring-wise and spending-wise) and Stoudemire, unless he’s capable of unexpectedly reviving his career, is the equivalent of a monster-truck-sized flat tire.
With no means of fixing this problem, the Knicks added Bargnani and his $11.9 million salary this summer as an expensive, temporary patch job. Bargnani isn’t good enough to provide even an approximation of what a healthy Stoudemire could, and he makes little sense in a big-man pairing alongside Stoudemire. We’re now talking about upwards of $33 million that could surely have been spent way more effectively.
Overall, this financial inefficiency won’t prevent New York from having an entertaining and successful season behind Anthony, Chandler and Smith. But think of how many moves the Knicks couldn’t make because of Stoudemire’s contract and think about how much better off they would be if they could swap him out for a few well-fitting reserve big men. New York belongs in the mix of teams with a shot at the conference finals, but Stoudemire is the fatal flaw to their hopes of winning the East in such a competitive climate.
5. The Clippers overhauled their roster and hired a proven coach, but is that enough to put them in the West’s first tier sight unseen?
Golliver: Nope. The “over-the-top” move was the lost DeAndre Jordan-for-Garnett trade. If the Clippers make that move and add one beefy reserve to their frontcourt, I’m all in on their chances in the West. Everything else — hiring Doc Rivers, obtaining veteran shooters J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, locking up Chris Paul without major incident, snagging Darren Collison on the cheap and drafting another shooter, Reggie Bullock — was superb. I just don’t think it’s a stretch to say Jordan simply isn’t good enough come playoff time, especially when the other options are Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens. Blake Griffin isn’t a legitimate option as a small-ball center, leaving the Clippers with the same concerning interior shortages that existed last season.
If matchups break nicely, I could see the possibility of Paul’s first trip to the conference finals. But I just can’t see the Clippers getting through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Memphis as is. There’s a decent chance that the Clippers will sit atop the “They need a make a move!” list come trade deadline time. Could they flip Jamal Crawford for some help inside?
Mahoney: I agree. Even if we give Rivers the benefit of the doubt in quickly building up the Clippers’ team defense, they have exactly one dependable interior player at this point. Jordan, after all, doesn’t just need some focused instruction to hone his defensive play; he also becomes a liability in competitive games because of his woeful free-throw shooting and limited shooting range. If Jordan were less willing to bite on pump fakes, more versatile on offense and more consistent in the timing of his defensive rotations, the free-throw problem might be less of an issue. But as it stands, it’s yet another reason why his presence complicates matters more than it should.
I don’t see how even Rivers could immediately transform a flaky all-around player into the kind of rock that a team with so shallow a frontcourt rotation would need. Mullens is not very good and Hollins is a fringe NBA player. Yet here both are, set to play important minutes for one of the better teams in the Western Conference. The improvements elsewhere on the roster will make the Clippers a wonderful regular-season team and a solid enough playoff opponent. They’re just a step or two removed from the conference elite.