Just a couple of weeks ago, Dallas shaped up as a lottery team, Phoenix had lost its franchise player, Houston appeared to be in “Dwight Howard or bottom out” mode and Minnesota was in a stand-off with Portland over Nicolas Batum. Now things have been fleshed out a bit, and if you’ll indulge some premature team projection: Holy cow, the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff race looks exciting already.
Indulge me further and allow for the assumption that the Spurs, Thunder, Lakers, Clippers and Grizzlies retain their status as postseason teams. And let’s assume that New Orleans, Sacramento and Portland are lottery bound.
I’m not 100 percent comfortable with such early assumptions about those eight teams — injuries, trades and surprises happen — but I’m comfortable enough to proceed for the purposes of this summertime exercise. That leaves seven really intriguing teams fighting for three playoff spots. Here’s a very rough and early ranking of those teams:
• Dallas Mavericks: The 2011 champs, who finished seventh in the conference last season, get the slight nod here, based on the presence of Dirk Nowitzki and perhaps the most creative coaching staff in the league. The Mavs’ defense held strong last season despite the departures of center Tyson Chandler and assistant coach Dwane Casey, but the vaunted offense collapsed. An infusion of scoring depth on the inside (center Chris Kaman), the wing (shooting guard O.J. Mayo) and off-the-dribble from the perimeter (point guard Darren Collison) should elevate Dallas’ offense from bottom-10 status to at least league average and probably better. The lockout season also messed with Nowitzki’s conditioning and health, and though he still performed like a star, the 34-year-old probably still has one more year left at an even higher level.
A true backup small forward for Shawn Marion and a reliable fourth big man would be nice, but rookie Jae Crowder and Vince Carter can help fill the former void, and someone from the combination of Crowder, rookie Bernard James and Brandan Wright will provide solid minutes behind the trio of Nowitzki, Kaman and power forward Elton Brand. Some coaching staffs would struggle to integrate all these new pieces, but this one won’t.
• Denver Nuggets: Another playoff incumbent (No. 6 last season) gets the benefit of the doubt, and it could easily outperform this ranking if center JaVale McGee somehow plays all season like he did for much of the team’s first-round loss to the Lakers. I covered the Nuggets’ offseason and future cap outlook in depth here, so I won’t belabor it now. McGee is a huge question mark, especially in relation to the stable Nene (at least when the departed center was stable and healthy enough to play), and the Nuggets were significantly better with McGee on the bench after the trade deadline. But they were still a net-positive team with McGee on the court in that stretch, and their scoring margin was much better with him in the lineup during the playoffs.
Add in the fact that the Nuggets slumped mostly when several players were out with injuries (especially forward Danilo Gallinari) or gutting through them (forward Al Harrington), and I’m confident that this group is a solid playoff team again. One potential caveat: Denver has to get better on defense in order to make a leap, and without continued improvement from McGee, it’s unclear how that happens in a meaningful way. Power forward Kenneth Faried should understand help-and-recover big-man concepts better in Year 2, though.
• Minnesota Timberwolves: This technically puts the Wolves in the eighth spot, and you can consider this a splitting-the-difference ranking. If point guard Ricky Rubio is healthy from his ACL tear on a relatively early timetable, Minnesota — which on Friday completed the Andrei Kirilenko signing and Wesley Johnson salary dump, the latter part of a three-team trade with Phoenix and New Orleans — projects as a clear playoff team. Remember: This team was neck-and-neck for the No. 8 seed in 2011-12 before a heap of late-season injuries, including the capper to Kevin Love, and it contended despite an empty wing rotation, the presence of Michael Beasley and the semi-late discovery that center Nikola Pekovic is way, way better than Darko Milicic.
Look, $10 million annually on a two-year contract is a bit high for Kirilenko, who will have to play significant minutes at small forward with Love and Pekovic entrenched as the starters down low. It’s also unclear if Minnesota had any NBA bidding rival for Kirilenko, though we have to assume that the player’s longtime agent, Marc Fleisher, told the Wolves what they’d have to pay to get the 31-year-old forward out of Russia.
Kirilenko mostly played small forward in Utah, and with his long arms and rangy perimeter skills, he should be able to fill that role in Minnesota for heavy minutes. But in 2010-11, it was clear that age had robbed him of some quickness, and he couldn’t help and recover as cleanly on the perimeter as he could in his prime. He was still a well-above-average player, however, and he was probably the best player in Europe last season during his lockout respite from the NBA.
Kirilenko should fall into 10 points a game by cutting in coach Rick Adelman’s system and taking intuitive passes from Rubio. His outside shooting and off-the-bounce game come and go, but Kirilenko is a good passer (a key for an Adelman big man) who earns an above-average number of free throws, and he’s a monumental step up from every wing player Minnesota featured last season. His ability to play power forward will allow the Wolves to use more small lineups, though it presents a playing-time roadblock for last year’s No. 2 pick, Derrick Williams, another combo forward.
The Wolves sacrificed Johnson, the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft, and a first-round pick to clear the cap space to sign Kirilenko, whose deal, while short, stands in the way of max-level cap room next summer. More to the point: This is a team that has already whiffed with first-round picks on Jonny Flynn, Ty Lawson (who was traded to Denver for a pick that became Luke Babbit, and then Martell Webster), Randy Foye, Wayne Ellington, one big cascading 2011 first-rounder and now perhaps Williams. The Wolves also dealt the 18th pick in last month’s draft to Houston for small forward Chase Budinger.
The signings of Kirilenko and Russian combo guard Aleksey Shved will be big, with Shved providing some insurance for a strange gamble on Brandon Roy’s health. But without any high first-round picks on the horizon and no record of attracting star free agents, what’s the long-term prognosis for growth here as Love’s new contract — which includes a player opt-out after the third year — starts ticking? What if Rubio settles in as a good-but-not-great point guard?
• Utah Jazz: The incumbent No. 8 seed now stands as one of the league’s most intriguing teams, with a pile of young talent and several basic rotation questions that coach Tyrone Corbin has to answer. In theory, Utah’s big offseason moves should work. Marvin Williams and Foye shore up a wing rotation that was nearly barren beyond Gordon Hayward and a fun infusion of DeMarre Carroll chaos. Both newcomers are at least average defenders and three-point shooters. Though Williams has two years left on his deal, Utah’s cap sheet is clean enough to withstand it.
Mo Williams, who has replaced Devin Harris, fits the type of point guard who could work in this Jazz offense. Utah, a post-heavy team low on traditional point-guard stuff like high pick-and-rolls, needs spacing and outside shooting from its ball-handlers — things that Williams can supply. The dynamic cuts that Williams worked with Clippers big men at the elbows last season — especially dribble hand-off action — should fit beautifully here.
But in the big picture, offense was not the Jazz’s problem. Utah ranked seventh in points per possession and just 20th in points allowed per possession last season, and the new acquisitions don’t figure to move the needle there much as long center Al Jefferson is on the court as a flat-footed human turnstile against the pick-and-roll. The in-house solution would seem to be more minutes for big man Derrick Favors, a budding defensive ace. But Favors was still a very raw offensive player even at the end of last season, his second. Most of Utah’s bench units were miserable scoring units, and Favors was part of that. But the 21-year-old will get better on that end, and giving him more time is the easiest way to improve Utah’s defense. Does it come at Jefferson’s expense? Or as part of the seldom-used but wickedly effective super-big lineup, in which Paul Millsap slides to small forward alongside Favors and Jefferson? That lineup further squeezes the wing, where Corbin has to make sure Marvin Williams’ presence doesn’t compromise minutes for the ever-improving Hayward.
Lots of small questions, and one big one: Can this team guard anyone?
• Golden State Warriors: That last question has applied to the Warriors for most of the last three decades, and it still does, even with center Andrew Bogut here. Simply put: This team is a total unknown, with precisely zero reliable backups for big men Bogut and David Lee. The Warriors will kick the tires on free-agent power forward Carl Landry with the mid-level exception, but that’s no guarantee, especially because they still have to strike a deal with swingman Brandon Rush. If they miss on Landry, they’ll need to sign a lesser player or hope someone from the group of Andris Biedrins, 21-year-old Jeremy Tyler and rookies Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green steps up, and that Lee and Bogut stay healthy.
The theory here is spot-on. Bogut is a transformational defensive player, and the shooting with which the Warriors can surround him is frightening, especially if rookie small forward Harrison Barnes settles in as a quality starter. If Barnes struggles, Rush can slide to small forward, as he often did last season. Bogut and Lee should mesh well on offense, too. Both can work the pick-and-roll as scorers and passers, and Lee, in particular, has developed into a good enough one-on-one player to function outside the pick-and-roll.
But we have to see them play first, and to see if point guard Stephen Curry’s ankle holds up. A full 629 of Curry’s 732 minutes last season came with the now-departed Monta Ellis, as have the huge majority of meaningful minutes in his career. Let’s see what he can do with a heavier ball-handling load, Klay Thompson on the wing and two quality big men. I can’t wait to watch this team play.
• Phoenix Suns: After losing Steve Nash in a sign-and-trade deal with the Lakers, signing Goran Dragic to a four-year contract that pays $8.5 million annually was a good move for a solid two-way point guard. And power forward Luis Scola, even in decline, brings a much-needed dose of one-on-one shot creation for a team whose wing players generally provide none.
I’m not convinced, however, that the Suns can guard well enough to play .500 ball, which they’ll need to do to make the playoffs. Dragic is a huge upgrade, and Marcin Gortat is a hardworking if unspectacular presence in the middle. But small forward Grant Hill is gone, and defense on the wing and from power forward is going to be a huge problem. That’s especially the case if Beasley has to play major minutes at small forward, with Scola, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris all in line for power-forward minutes.
Like the Nuggets, the Suns have now committed a lot of future money to midsized deals — except the players on those contracts aren’t quite as good as Denver’s. The Suns remain pretty flexible, though. After dumping Hakim Warrick in the Robin Lopez/Wes Johnson trade with New Orleans and Minnesota, they could create an estimated $12 million in cap room next summer. But even so, they could have as much as $52 million on the books for the summer of 2014, factoring in Gortat’s cap hold. That would put them about $10 million under the projected cap — flexible, but not quite as flexible as you might like from a rebuilding team.
• Houston Rockets: They make the list after narrowly missing the playoffs in three consecutive seasons, but they look more like a lottery team than a real postseason contender. I’ve written enough about this fun group already this summer, so let’s be brief: Point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik have produced at very solid rates in limited minutes, and if they carry over 85 percent of that production into permanent starter-level minutes, they’ll just about play up to their contracts. Asik, at $8 million per year over three seasons, is a bit of an overpay, but he looks ready to become one of the league’s half-dozen best big-man defenders and rebounders. Those are valuable commodities.
Beyond that, Houston has a defensively challenged shooting guard whose production dipped last season (Kevin Martin), some nice second- and third-year players and a bunch of rookies who looked great in summer league. The big show awaits, and it is unforgiving.