Give And Go: Evaluating Lakers, Celtics, Nuggets and other teams on playoff bubble
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: Assessing the chances of five playoff teams to return to the postseason.
1. With Dwight Howard gone and Kobe Bryant possibly set to miss a portion of the season, do the Lakers have any shot of making the playoffs in the loaded Western Conference?
Ben Golliver: I would be shocked if the Lakers make the playoffs. I base that stance almost entirely on their defensive shortcomings. Last season, L.A. ranked No. 18 in defensive efficiency, the worst ranking among Western Conference playoff teams. Barring a miracle, this season will be even uglier, as the Lakers lost starting center Dwight Howard and starting small forward Metta World Peace, two former Defensive Player of the Year winners who stood as L.A.’s top two performers on D last season.
Although Howard was limited by injury and the 33-year-old World Peace isn’t what he once was, the pair finished second and third among Lakers in minutes played and put up the two best defensive ratings among L.A.’s top 10 players. That was just enough — just enough — to ensure that an outstanding offensive season from Kobe Bryant didn’t go to waste with a lottery trip. Put aside for a moment the fact that it’s unlikely Bryant will be able to recreate his season of 27.3 points, six assists, 5.6 rebounds and a 23 Player Efficiency Rating as he comes off Achilles tendon surgery. How in the world can newcomers Chris Kaman and Nick Young be expected to approximate what Howard and World Peace did defensively last season?
Kaman’s minus-4.6 net rating was the worst among Mavericks who played at least 300 minutes last season, and Young’s minus-5.2 net rating was second worst among Sixers who played at least 600 minutes. This wasn’t some anomaly, as their career defensive rating numbers have consistently been mediocre or worse. What’s more, Kaman and Young played fewer than 25 minutes a game last season, and both will likely be asked to do more than that on a Lakers team that had one of the league’s worst benches last year and probably got worse this offseason.
GOLLIVER: Grading Lakers’ offseason
A formula for a Lakers’ playoff trip looks like this: 2014 Bryant picks up exactly where 2013 Bryant left off; 2014 Steve Nash transforms into 2011 Nash; 2014 Pau Gasol transforms into 2010 Gasol; and players such as Young, Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and Wesley Johnson all have career years from three-point range. That could potentially create a framework where a Mike D’Antoni offensive machine does more than enough to make up for a lackluster defense. But I’m … skeptical … that formula will come to fruition.
Rob Mahoney: That’s the thing: the losses of the Lakers’ better defenders will be compounded by their replacement with miserable ones. Out go Howard, World Peace, and Earl Clark, and in come Kaman, Young, and Johnson, not to mention an increase in playing time for Nash (a lacking defender, even relative to Blake) and Gasol (who is better defensively than he showed last year, but still lacking in terms of lateral movement). Coverage at every position is set to be a mess, and things look even more dismal when you consider that things that L.A. did well (avoiding fouls) or moderately well (defensive rebounding) last season hinged on having Howard lurking in the lane. Without him around as a rotational defender/scapegoat, the Lakers should be another half or full step slower with their help D and fairly lacking in terms of team rebounding. Such is the minimal cost of losing a superstar talent, even if Howard did turn in the most disappointing season of his career due to injury.
Still, I’m not ready to write off the Lakers entirely for the playoffs, even while acknowledging that their defense should be disastrous. There’s just too much offensive potential there; Bryant’s injury could help reset the balance of L.A.’s lineups, and frankly I refuse to believe that Nash and Gasol are as limited as they seemed last season. The 2012-13 Lakers were a team plagued by frequent injury and miserable chemistry, and with better luck on the former and time to rectify the latter, I see both Nash and Gasol having bounce-back years as valuable offensive components. Their best days are behind them, but Nash is still a brilliant shooter with superb command of the offense, and Gasol still is a high-low post threat who can alter games with his interior scoring and passing. Coupled with the assumption that Bryant will still be able to manage a solid season after returning from a torn achilles, that could leave the Lakers with some tremendous offensive potential.
Yet that only gets the Lakers so far, and where I grow more skeptical is in their relation to the rest of the Western Conference bubble teams. We can pretty safely pencil the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Warriors into the playoffs, thus leaving just two hypothetical spots. Vying for those openings along with the Lakers will be the Nuggets, Mavs, Timberwolves, Blazers, and Pelicans. Of that group, there are at least three teams more likely to make the postseason than L.A., and that’s before accounting for any potential surprises in the field. The Lakers have a shot, still, but one dampened by surely miserable defense and a deep field of playoff-caliber teams.
2. The Celtics have broken up their veteran core but won’t face particularly stiff competition for the final playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference. Can Boston be counted out entirely?
Mahoney: I think so, largely because I’d doubt that the Celtics have any interest in being even remotely good this season. Boston has a chance to jump-start its rebuild with a lottery pick if it endures a season in the Eastern Conference basement, and that has to be an attractive possibility given the loss of other core pieces and the unpredictability of Rajon Rondo. Even with future draft picks in tow courtesy of deals with the Nets and Clippers, the Celtics would be best served by using this season as a developmental opportunity without much concern for the attainable mediocrity that would put them in the thick of the playoff race.
GIVE AND GO: Flaws in five potential contenders
In theory, one could easily see the Celtics being passable enough to outclass the flawed bunch competing for the yet unclaimed playoff spots in the East. But even that outcome would require a compliance on Boston’s part that seems unlikely, particularly in light of reports intimating that Celtics GM Danny Ainge would likely start working the phones for potential trades if his team wound up being better than expected. Boston intends to be bad, while leaving the likes of Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, Toronto, and Milwaukee to duke it out for the right to be obliterated by a contender in the first round of the postseason.
Golliver: There’s no good reason to count out anyone in the East besides Philadelphia, Charlotte and Orlando. This question really amounts to: “Can you Be Milwaukee?” I would hope that at least 13 teams in the East — including the Bucks! — are beginning the season with the goal of meeting or passing that standard of perpetual mediocrity. Wanting to Be Milwaukee, succeeding at Being Milwaukee for a number of months and making it through an entire season of Being Milwaukee are three entirely different scenarios, and I don’t envision the Celtics passing through to that third and final (arguably pointless) stage.
With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry traded to the Nets, it’s fair to ask what will emerge as the calling card for the group that remains. A below-average team in terms of offensive efficiency for each of the last three seasons, Boston now faces the task of replacing its top two scorers while the third, Rajon Rondo, is rehabilitating from a season-ending knee injury. That could get really ugly. A team that was once defined by its disciplined, intense team defense, the Celtics now grapple with the downgrade from Garnett to, gulp, Kris Humphries, rookie Kelly Olynyk and other assorted scraps in the middle. That could also get ugly.
Hanging over this roster in transition is the fact that management surely views its veterans, aside from Rondo and perhaps Jeff Green, as contracts rather than players. Such players as Humphries, Gerald Wallace, Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee and Keith Bogans (signed to a goofy deal just to make the trade with Brooklyn work) are all available in varying degrees. Even a surprisingly strong start could be purposefully sabotaged by a midseason sell-off.
Being Milwaukee for a whole season would involve an MVP-caliber bounce-back year from Rondo, a sensational debut from first-time NBA coach Brad Stevens (the subject of a wonderful Sports Illustrated profile by Tim Layden), a season of consistent quality from Green and a quiet deadline period from general manager Danny Ainge. That’s not impossible, but I definitely prefer Washington, Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland over Boston in the race to Be Milwaukee.