Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Rest of the West

The Western Conference is a bit crowded in terms of fringe playoff teams that would probably make the post season if they were in the East. Almost all of these teams have a good amount of talent, but not all of them are in the right situation. Allow me to elaborate.
(Here's a look back to last year's edition)
Could the Warriors rise up in the West?

9. Houston Rockets
If T-Will's athleticism translates elsewhere, watch out.
The Rockets were the team perhaps that was most disappointed at the failed CP3-to-Lakers trade because it would have landed them Pau Gasol and a bit more cap space that would have allowed them to sign Nene to pair with him in the front court. It was exactly what the Rockets have been building towards with their acquiring of assets over the years and a desperate need for a center. Now? This is a team of nice pieces with no one an elite two-way player. Kyle Lowry broke out when given his opportunity last year and is a feisty defender and crafty passer but only an average shooter. Kevin Martin, on the other hand, is an extraordinary deep shooter who also gets a high number of free throws but is a weak defender. And so goes most of the roster unless new coach Kevin McHale can transfer his post moves to Hasheem Thabeet "Space Jam" style. The good news is that they have a lot of young players with some room for growth, and I especially like the potential of Terrance Williams, Patrick Patterson, and Goran Dragic. Hopefully a new blockbuster deal can be struck that will alleviate playing time concerns and reward smart GM's like Daryl Morey for gathering assets.

10. Golden State Warriors
The rookie coach has high aspirations.
This is the worst case scenario for the Warriors: out of the playoffs but unable to keep their top-7 protected draft pick in the loaded 2012 draft. It is yet to be seen how far rookie head coach Mark Jackson could take this team or if he could get his players to buy into working hard on the defensive end. A strong coaching staff around him, particularly assistant Mike Malone, certainly helps. The problem is that his top three players (Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, and David Lee) are poor defenders, so you have to wonder if one of them has to be traded for the team to take a substantial step forward. I hated the draft pick of Klay Thompson as he is a redundant shooting guard who lacks strength to defend, was inconsistent in three college seasons, and only rose in the draft due to individual workouts. After the lockout, I liked the idea of what management was trying to do to improve defensively but not the means of going about it. They used the one-time use amnesty clause to remove Charlie Bell's small expiring contract in order to clear as much cap-space as possible to pursue a center. After being teased by Tyson Chandler, they made DeAndre Jordan a huge offer sheet even though everyone in the league knew the Clippers would match. They eventually settled for Kwame Brown on a virtually risk-less one year, $7 million contract...which is essentially what Samuel Dalembert signed for in Houston albeit with a team-option for a second year. Brown is what he is as a backup center: a strong interior defender and rebounder with almost no shot blocking or scoring prowess. Getting Ekpe Udoh (a draft pick I wasn't high on last year but has grown on me) healthy will also improve the defense, and he'll even add some interior scoring but without much rebounding. Taking a flyer on Jeremy Tyler (a 2nd round pick I really like along with Charles Jenkins) as the fifth big man allowed them to make a late trade of Lou Amundson for Brandon Rush. The Rush addition provides an actual wing defender, and I've always liked his game dating back to his Kansas days. Here's to hoping that the front court rotation will indeed be stable and get positive contributions from a healthy and confident Andris Biedrins. The addition of Ishmael Smith provides a decent backup point guard since Jenkins is probably more of a scoring combo guard. I don't see any of these additions having quite the same impact as I predicted Dorell Wright would have last year, so, barring a trade, this team's playoff aspirations depend on a rookie head coach bringing about internal improvement.

11. Phoenix Suns
Is Nash going anywhere?
Oh how the mighty have fallen. I don't understand what they're doing here after essentially dismantling the team that made the 2010 Conference Finals. Steve Nash is now in the last year of his contract, so you would hope that he would be traded to a contender to start the rebuilding process. However, Nash isn't the type to demand a trade, and veteran Grant Hill strangely re-signed for a one year, $6.5 million deal. This team is going to try to make the playoffs, and it will barely stay afloat around .500 thanks to Nash's mastery of the offense. Unfortunately, there are no longer any dynamic scorers around Nash, and the defense will be average at best. I'm a big fan of center Marcin Gortat's all around game, but he'll likely be in a time share with young Robin Lopez. Channing Frye is a decent role player as a stretch big man, and Jared Dudley is a tough defender who can shoot, but if they are your 4th and 5th best players than you probably have a problem. Perhaps the younger guys like Lopez or rookie Markieff Morris can step up, but they aren't likely to ever be stars. Unfortunately, management has not shown any reason to have hope for smart moves to be made in the near future that would benefit Nash.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves
Fun times are ahead in 'Sota.
Believe it or not, GM David Kahn has assembled some talent on this roster. That doesn't mean that it hasn't been mismanaged, but this team is going to surprise people this season. Getting Rick Adelman to coach instead of the inept Kurt Rambis is a huge improvement in itself, and you would hope that all the young players on the roster will improve as they mature. Furthermore, Ricky Rubio has finally arrived from Spain and #2 overall pick Derrick Williams is going to be a stud. I expect Rubio to be like a bigger, slight slower Rajon Rondo; he's a brilliant passer with great anticipation and flash who can't shoot very well. He's going to be very fun to watch and will make his teammates better. Hopefully this will help Michael Beasley's shot selection and allow Wes Johnson and Anthony Randolph to best make use of their talents. The problem is that, position wise, a lot of this talent overlaps with Johnson, Beasley, Williams, Randolph, and their best player, Kevin Love, are all forwards. This can be remedied with Johnson playing the 2, and Love spending some time as an undersized center. That type of lineup would be deadly with Adelman's corner offense but struggle defensively. Love has trimmed his body down, so he should be more mobile on defense and continue to improve. No matter what, this team will be fun to watch.

13. Sacramento Kings
Can Tyreke be a distributor?
Another example of a lot of talent that doesn't fit together. This team is composed of one on one scorers with Tyreke Evans, DeMarcus Cousins, Marcus Thornton, John Salmons, J.J. Hickson, and rookie Jimmer Fredette. Newly signed Chuck Hayes is a great veteran to help mentor the young guns in his selfless, defensive ways. When fully healthy, Tyreke can penetrate the defense at will and create for others, and Jimmer never had teammates this good to pass to, so maybe there's hope. Furthermore, Cousins is loaded with talent as a passer in addition to his scoring, but he needs to get his head on straight. We saw how devastating Zach Randolph was in the playoffs in the right situation, and there is certainly a comparison to be made there. I love Thornton's ability to light it up, but there's not a shot he doesn't like, much like the rest of his teammates. Unfortunately, I don't trust coach Paul Westphal to get this squad disciplined.

14. New Orleans Hornets 
The Hornets got about as good a haul for Chris Paul as they could have hoped for in their position, and it's the right way to go about rebuilding. They'll probably sell off more pieces as the season goes on in order to cut salary and gather assets, but I still think they'll win more games than expected and go around 26-40. As a result, they'll still have two lottery picks (their own and Minnesota's via the Clippers trade) in this loaded draft, but they probably won't be as high as initially expected. The team is now built around Eric Gordon, one of the best young shooting guards in the league who will put up big scoring totals and create for others. The front line will be stout with Emeka Okafor, Chris Kaman, Carl Landry, and Jason Smith, but Jarret Jack isn't near the type of point guard CP3 is to get them the ball. Trevor Ariza will also help the defense but will hurt the offense with his shooting, and young Al-Farouq Aminu is likely to be a similar contributor. Coach Monty Williams will have his defense compete and keep them in games, as well. Thus, they're at the bottom of the deep Western Conference, but they're in much better shape going forward than a lot of clubs.

15. Utah Jazz
Favors leads a nice group of young talent.
The Jazz may not win much this season, but I love where they are headed. Thanks to Deron Williams, the rebuilding overhaul is in great shape with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks---four top-12 picks from the past two drafts. In addition, they have the Warriors' first round pick (top-7 protected) along with their own likely high pick in this star-studded draft. They have already started to sell off some of their veteran big men, such as Mehmet Okur, in order to clear salary and opportunity for Favors and Kanter, so Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson may be next. Both are strong scorers and rebounders with deficiencies on defense, and capable big men are always in demand. C.J. Miles is a nice scoring wing while Raja Bell is an aging defender, and both could be shopped in order to open up minutes for Hayward and Burks to hone their potential as two-way players. Devin Harris doesn't have anyone waiting in line, so hopefully he'll play a consistent season with both his much needed scoring and distributing. This team's future can go any which way, and Kevin O'Connor is one of the better GM's in the league to guide it.

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