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.