In Part 2 of our NBA Offseason Preview, Dustin examines the Western Conference and if any team can run with the Thunder next season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder surprised many analysts and fans alike with their quick ascension to the top of the Western Conference this season. Once there though, they found themselves pummeled in the NBA Finals, losing in just 5 games to the Miami Heat. They’re not the only team in the conference in need of some help with the roster. Let’s go team-by-team through the conference and see if we can try and figure out ways each team can find themselves more competitive come the 2012-2013 season.
1. San Antonio Spurs (50-16): Team Needs- SG, C and a good eye doctor
Taking a page out of just about every sports movie in the past century, the Spurs are the team of wily old veterans that everyone writes off as too old to contend for an NBA championship. Well, everyone except the Spurs, who defied the odds and odds makers as they finished the shortened season as the number one seed overall. Many declared that the condensed year would be the undoing of the team of older players, but the team seemed unaffected as a surprising blend of youth and wisdom rattled off 20 straight wins including sweeps of both the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers in the first two rounds of the playoffs. However, all of the flaws and worries critics became glaringly obvious against the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Manu Ginobili suddenly looked less like a possible sixth man of the year candidate and more like a 34-year-old coming off of back-to-back injury plagued seasons and their front court showed that they just couldn’t keep up with the likes of Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. The team has a number of players entering free agency this year, including Tim Duncan, but while it’s unlikely Duncan would ever leave, the rest of the roster is not so certain. The only true center on the current Spurs roster is Tiago Splitter, which should speak for itself. With the league getting youthful, the Spurs need to keep their young players in order to stay competitive during the inevitable rebuilding phase. The team will likely have to part ways with Stephen Jackson, Matt Bonner and maybe even Ginobili but young players like DeJaun Blair and Kawhi Leonard seem ready to anchor the frontcourt with Duncan. They’d be best served to make cap space to pursue a free agent like Brandon Roy, who’s eyeing a return to the league or even try to build a package around Ginobili or Gary Neal to try and get a guard like OJ Mayo who can provide a spark off the bench and bring a little more youth to the team.
*Special Note- Only the Spurs could have the great season they had only to have it almost wiped completely away after Tony Parker nearly lost his eye by being at the unfortunate scene of the Chris Brown/Drake nightclub throw down. Parker had a piece of glass pierce 99% of his eye and he almost went blind in the eye, which could prevent Parker from playing for France in the Olympics and may even cut into his availability next season for the Spurs.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19): Team Needs- Veteran Scorer and 1 more year
Heading into the NBA Finals as the favorites, many compared the team to the ’91 Chicago Bulls and saw this as the beginning of a new dynasty in the league. Then the wheels fell off and the conversation went back to “They’re just not old enough or experienced enough to win it yet.” A lot of the blame for their struggles fell on the shoulders of sixth man of the year James Harden and his magical disappearing act as he shot just 18-48 through the 5 games and seemed outright confused at times. It’s easy to blame Harden since his shooting woes were the biggest headline but all three of the Thunder’s stars had troubles, Russell Westbrook at times was brilliant but also had games where he shot 4-20 and downright cost them games with careless turnovers and an inability to find an open Kevin Durant, frustrating all involved to the point that they just couldn’t hang with the Heat anymore. When Harden isn’t firing on all cylinders and running the second unit, the team struggles to score. Part of this may be fixed with the hopeful return next season of Eric Maynor, who missed the entire 2011-12 season, but it remains to be seen if he can play at the level he was at before. The Thunder would be better served to add a little more veteran experience in the form of a Chauncey Billups or Ray Allen if he’s not already packed for Miami. They need a proven scorer that has logged big minutes in important games to provide a spark should Harden’s shot not be falling or Westbrook be trying to prove his worth with ill-advised attacks at the basket while Durant remains too modest to demand the ball, even when it’s obvious he wants to. The team tried this by adding Derek Fisher to the bench for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs and while the 37 year-old point guard was serviceable in limited minutes, it’s unlikely he’ll be back with the team next season. The Thunder could also use an update at center, Kendrick Perkins is effective on defense but doesn’t provide any offense, and he seemed unable to run up and down the court at times. Moving Serge Ibaka over to center and planting Nick Collinson in the starting lineup at the power forward position could provide a little more athleticism and some more scoring. With Harden and Ibaka’s contracts both expiring this season, the Thunder have decisions to make if they want to preserve their youthful foundation.
3- Los Angeles Lakers (41-25): Team Needs- Starting PG, SF and a bench
It took me a little while to think of the perfect way to describe watching the Lakers this season, but I think I found it. Watching the team this year was a lot like watching a ‘Friday the 13th’ movie; you know the killer is going to strike, you know it’s going to be brutal and there’s nothing you can do because in the end, wigs are going to get split. Look no further than their second-round playoff matchup against the Thunder, in Game 4 they held a 7 point lead with a minute remaining, my fellow editor and Lakers-hater Cameron Heffernan then boldly said “They’ve got this in the bag.” He seemed bitter about the admission but all the while, I just wasn’t sold. I knew Kobe Bryant would go down shooting and refusing to let his team lose, but the rest of the team just didn’t seem as interested. The Thunder in fact went on to win that game, and then close out the series the very next game as again, Kobe seemed to be the only one on the team concerned with winning, the rest of them just seemed excited about the imminent vacation. That is what I’ll remember most about watching the Lakers this year, the team hit an odd impasse; Kobe didn’t trust his teammates enough because they hardly stepped up, but the team hardly stepped up because Kobe would still take as many shots as he saw fit and rarely pass to them. At the trade deadline they seemed to make a big coup, getting Cleveland Cavaliers backup PG Ramon Sessions for almost all of their non-used players like Luke Walton. But what started as elation quickly turned to disgust as Jason all but machete Sessions’ budding confidence in the playoffs. Sessions also opted out of his contract, making him not even a one and done, but a 2 and a half month experiment and done. Sessions would be good to keep on the bench as a backup though, but it seems no starting point guards are even remotely interested in coming to LA. Steve Nash has said it’d be too weird after all the heated games against them, Brandon Roy has said they’re not really on his radar and it’s a longshot they could land Deron Williams who’s said to have narrowed his destination to either Brooklyn or Dallas. I personally have been saying I would like to see Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum be traded for a John Wall or Kevin Love to get some more versatility on the team but Cameron takes joy in reminding me that no one would be dumb enough to go for that sort of deal. So, with that dream dashed, it’s time to take my hope elsewhere: Milwaukee free agent Brandon Jennings. He’s a perfect fit in he doesn’t fear taking big shots and could prove a solid aggressive counterpart to Kobe and with him, we have home court advantage as Jennings grew up in Compton and cheering for the Lakers. It’s a very long shot but at this point, it’s what the team needs. Also, adding on a free agent like Jamal Crawford or Jennings’ teammate Ersan Ilyasova or Kris Humphries should the team choose to part with Gasol or Bynum could help as the current SF and PF situations are spotty at best with Matt Barnes and Metta World Peace failing to produce and Josh McRoberts filling Luke Walton’s comfy spot at the end of the bench. Basically, the rest of Kobe’s time in LA could be filled with these up and down seasons and early exits because horror movies always get a sequel.
4. Memphis Grizzlies (41-25): Team Needs- Starting SG and PF
The Grizzlies find themselves in an interesting spot this offseason, picked by many to repeat their success from the 2010-2011 season; they underachieved in the playoffs as the Clippers eliminated them in the first round. Rumors have it that the team is heavily interested in acquiring center Marc Gasol’s brother Pau from the Lakers and a move like that could be exactly what they need. The Grizzlies are also reportedly shopping SF Rudy Gay, and a deal for Pau and Gay could be imminent because it helps both teams. I would also expect the Lakers to inquire to Memphis’ sixth man O.J. Mayo, who is entering free agency this season. The team would miss him in his absence, but if they acquired Gasol and kept center Zach Randolph coming off the bench, they would at least keep a formidable presence with the second unit. Getting a free agent like Eric Gordon, Nick Young or Shannon Brown could really bring some scoring relief to the backcourt of Mike Conley and Tony Allen. If they deal Gay they could even look at players like Nicolas Batum or Gerald Green, players that can play not only the SG but also the SF position. The Grizzlies consistently have a talented team, but they seem to be almost the Atlanta Hawks of the West; a team full of talented players that for whatever reason just can’t seem to take the next step together, a few good moves this offseason could give them the jolt they need.
5. Los Angeles Clippers (40-26): Team Needs- SF, SG and a Coach
After six years of playoff futility, the Clippers enjoyed a trip back to the postseason and even made it to the second round where they were swept by the Spurs. So far since then the team has made positive steps toward returning to the playoffs again next year. As of right now, PF Blake Griffin announced that he plans to sign a five-year extension to stay with the team and they just completed a trade involving veteran Mo Williams that saw them acquire former sixth man of the year and Kardashian husband Lamar Odom. They team is hoping Odom can put his disastrous stint with the Dallas Mavericks behind him and experience a return to form. The only spot that seems uncertain is the announcement that PG Chris Paul is holding off on signing an extension to stay with the team. Paul’s hesitation seems to be due to his skepticism towards head coach Vinny Del Negro and his ability to lead the team and design plays in close games and clutch situations. Obviously, keeping Paul should be the priority for the team as his presence immediately made the team a playoff contender. Team owner Donald Sterling is notoriously cheap so it isn’t completely out of the question that Paul simply refuses to sign an extension and become a restricted free agent, but hopefully the popularity and attention they received this past season is enough to convince him to spend the money on resigning veteran SG Chauncey Billups, whose absence to injury last postseason proved damning to the teams’ playoff hopes. If Billups chooses to move on, the team can court Jamal Crawford or J.R. Smith to provide the irrational confidence and help the backcourt. As far as coaches go, if they can’t resign Billups, maybe they can convince him to stay with the team and make him head coach because the team seemed to listen to his words more than Vinny’s late in games. The whole of the Clippers’ success though hinges on Chris Paul resigning with the team so look for the team to make some more waves this offseason in an attempt to entice Paul to stay.
6. Denver Nuggets (38-28): Team Needs- A Closer
It’s pretty clear now that the Denver Nuggets were the winners in the Carmelo Anthony trade. They have enough talented players that their second unit could possibly be a starting five for half of the poor teams in the league. Kenneth Faried fully lived up to his nickname ‘The Manimal’ in his rookie season and looks poised to become a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Danilo Gallinari has also emerged as a good leader for the team and one of the few players prepared to score at will. The only thing they don’t have is a guy that can take over games in the fourth quarter, honestly, if they had one superstar caliber player, they would’ve likely beaten the Lakers in the first round, the team has that much youth and talent. There’s no real free agents who could provide that to them so the team will have to make some sort of trade. Offering a package trade of Arron Afflalo and Andre Miller to the Grizzlies could possibly land them Rudy Gay depending on how interested the team is in dealing him, or to Sacramento where the Kings are reportedly thinking of moving Tyreke Evans. Evans has struggled finding his place with the Kings, often playing PG when his pure scoring abilities are better suited to have him playing the two spot. If the Nuggets can acquire him, there’s no limit to the play that Coach George Karl could get out of him. How could Evans not be thrilled by the idea of finally going to a contending team where he knows in the last two minutes of a close game, the plan could very well be ‘Just go nuts Tyreke, score at will’?
7. Dallas Mavericks (36-30): Team Needs- PG and C
Just one season removed from being NBA champions in 2011, the Mavericks suddenly find themselves on the cusp of a complete overhaul. Rumors have it that free agent PG Deron Williams is interested in signing with them, his hometown team. The Mavs are also hopeful that signing Williams would also pique the interest of Magic C Dwight Howard, who as of now has requested a trade to Brooklyn where the Nets are attempting to resign Williams. It seems unlikely that Dallas can even get one of these highly coveted free agents, but acquiring both would make them an instant contender in the West. If they’re unable to get Williams, the team needs to still look to update their PG situation. Jason Kidd is a free agent this year and while he is still a serviceable passer, his shooting has steadily declined the last few seasons. He and SG Jason Terry are both unrestricted free agents and honestly, the priority should be to ensure that sixth man and pure scorer Jason Terry is back next season as he is the leader of the second unit. Dallas can try and pursue a veteran PG like Steve Nash or they can lean on Mark Cuban’s flair for the dramatics and attempt to sign…Jeremy Lin. Imagine the ‘Linsanity’ of Lin and Dirk Nowitzki running the floor together with Lin’s ability to create high percentage shots for other players. Add in Dwight Howard to that and the team stays contenders the rest of Dirk’s career.
8. Utah Jazz (36-30): Team Needs- PF, SF
Much like the Nuggets, the Jazz are a team loaded with talent, but lack the go-to guy who can push them past the first round and into contention. The team has plenty of talented guards with Devin Harris, Earl Watson, Raja Bell and the newly acquired Mo Williams, but are lacking in the F position. With Al Jefferson and Derrick Favors as the only two centers, and Enes Kanter the only true F, heading into just his second season. The team could look into signing free agents like Kris Humphries, Carl Landry or even Michael Beasley. It’s odd but that’s what killed the Jazz in their series against the Spurs; they were out muscled in the paint by San Antonio’s length, so adding a PF like Humphries who can battle for rebounds and score 15-20 points a game, can help a young player like Kanter develop his game a bit more without the pressure of being a starter at a position where every team has talent. The Jazz have the talent and with a few key additions, they can possibly get a higher seed in the playoffs to get a more favorable matchup in the first round but with teams like the Thunder and the Clippers filled with young talent, and the Spurs still staying competitive, the Jazz may just have to play the waiting game just a few more seasons.
Honorable Mentions- Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trailblazers and the New Orleans Hornets
Rather than sit here and go further over 3000 words, I’m just going to wrap this thing up with a quick summary of the other teams and what their hopes are this offseason to better their chances:
The Rockets are rumored to be looking into acquiring Pau Gasol or getting Steve Nash to choose to come to the team. They just missed getting to the playoffs and if they go through with trading PG Kyle Lowry, they can likely get some good pieces, possibly Gasol can get them in contention.
The Minnesota Timberwolves had their playoff bound season rudely interrupted by the exploding ACL of dazzling rookie PG Ricky Rubio. Rubio and Kevin Love both changed the culture of the team and made them one of the most exciting teams to watch up until Rubio’s injury. If he returns to the team at the level he was before the injury, the team should be able to pick up where they left off. They’ve also apparently been interested in getting Pau Gasol from the Lakers while maintaining the Love/Rubio nucleus. A move like that could easily tip the scale and get Minnesota back in the playoffs for the first time since the Garnett days.
I’m going to include the Portland Trailblazers in this only because I heard this morning that they offered 58 million dollars to Pacers’ restricted free agent C Roy Hibbert and he’s apparently interested in signing with the team. A move like this wouldn’t completely undue years of ineptitude, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction as Hibbert is one of the best young centers in the game and would immediately add a defensive presence as well as one in the low post and paint.
Lastly, the New Orleans Hornets lost Chris Paul last season in the infamous ‘TradeGate’ and then just about every game they played, but the future looks brighter already. The team added players in the draft that make them instantly better and definitely in the conversation that they can make the playoffs as at least an 8 seed. The drafting of Anthony ‘Trademarked the UniBrow’ Davis and Austin Rivers gives them both, a dominant center should Chris Kaman leave in free agency and a young scorer who even on instinct often makes the right play and can score in a hurry. Look for the Hornets to build plenty of buzz this season.
Yeah, that’s right. 3,450 words and I end it on a horrible pun about the New Orleans Hornets. Anyways, this concludes Part Two of our HefferBrew NBA Offseason Crystal Ball, thank you much for reading all of Hefferbrew’s coverage of the NBA Playoffs and NBA Finals. Continue to check out our site for more entertainment, sports and other news coverage and opinions by two men who see things the way the fans do.