WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
|To preview the upcoming NBA season, Clippers radio announcer Brian Sieman and Clippers Insider Eric Patten exchanged emails over the course of a few days. They continued their discussion by moving on to the Western Conference, beginning with where the Clippers fit in.|
We can chat about the East more later if you want, but the bottom line is that there are three teams that can make noise (Miami, Indiana, and Chicago). The rest in my opinion are pretenders. There will some surprises (Washington and Cleveland), but their time is more in the future then the present.
So, how can Doc help at 56-game winner from a year ago? One of the thousands of ways is that all the pieces will work WITH each other, both offensively and defensively. Last year we saw a team click for 41 games en route to a 32-9 start, but they floundered the final 41, going 24-17. I think it's because the offense became dependent on iso plays from CP (Chris Paul), Blake [Griffin], and Jamal [Crawford] to bail them out too many times. Obviously, those guys can get the job done, but when you get to the Playoffs it is/was a different story. Defensively, there was also a lot of gambling that was always disruptive. Most of the time is was for the opposition, the other times it was for the Clippers (not in a good way). Doc told me that his defensive schemes are not complicated, as long as everyone does the same thing. We've seen them buy into it, now it’s a matter of getting comfortable with the execution. It won't be consistently crisp for a while, but it will get there.
One of the other more notable ways Doc aids the Clips is how he has handled DeAndre Jordan. He's pumped new life into his career and that has translated into boundless energy on the floor. When Doc came here, he immediately sung the praises of D.J. I honestly thought that it was to build up perception in order to get more value in a potential trade. I love D.J., and have seen every game he's played. I felt at the end of last year he needed a fresh start somewhere. As it turns out, he got it, here in L.A. I'm happy for the guy, and am very optimistic for his future. I remember that "funny" thing you said to me: "It's just what the Doctor ordered"... I gave you a courtesy laugh.
Thanks for that. Let's be honest, when Doc says DeAndre is the key to the Clippers being a great team, he's not saying it for effect. It's true in almost every sense of the word “great.” The way he played in the preseason (24 blocks, active, talkative, energetic), looks a lot like when I saw him in July at Team USA. I could tell he was re-energized then and it has shown up big time since then. If he put up similar numbers to last season (8.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg and 24.5 mpg), the Clippers would still be really good. Chris Paul seems to have a fire under him that is burning hotter than any of his previous two seasons... and that's not to take anything away from the way he played previously AT ALL. And I think the continued improvement of Blake, the potential for J.J. Redick to fit perfect in an offense that he'll see countless wide-open looks, and a bench that could have more firepower than a year ago, all lend itself to the Clippers being in the mix in the West. DeAndre takes them from being one of the best six teams to a leading contender to win the conference.
I know what people think. We are both employed by the team and are around them as much or more than anyone so we certainly must be biased. But being as objective as possible, and realizing there are definitely pitfalls for the Clippers, I think they are definitely capable of advancing to their first NBA Finals. Where do they fit in a crowded West? Well, they actually are probably as close to the San Antonio Spurs as any other team. We have seen over the last decade and up close in the postseason two seasons ago, what kind of machine the Spurs are. The Clippers are not there yet, but Rivers and the core of Paul, Griffin, Jordan and the role players that fit around them make worthy adversaries. That said, I don't see the Spurs taking a step back this year. They will be a top three team, probably best in the conference. Whatever age takes away from Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili will almost certainly be made up for by the emergence of Kawhi Leonard. I was talking with Isaac Lowenkron in our latest LobCast (shameless self-promotion!) and compared Leonard's place in San Antonio to Rondo's place with Boston's Big 3 in 2011-12. Remember Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were still major contributors but Rondo was becoming the best player, the star. It wasn't so much a Big 4 as it was Rondo taking over as the head of a new Big 3. That could be the case with Leonard, who would be entering the trio and Ginobili taking the role of, gulp, Allen. Ginobili, a nightmare on the perimeter and one of the sneaky best players of the decade, as role player is scary... even if he's 36.
You are an advocate of Popovich and the Spurs, especially since everyone knows how scared you are of him. :) What has made them so good in Duncan's twilight years? And who else is in the upper echelon of the West?
D.J.'s biggest relief is no longer needing to worry about his free throws. Last year, his fate on the court as far as playing time went, was tied to his ability to make free throws. We know how that went, and it was a source of frustration that affected his overall demeanor. Doc has said from day 1, DeAndre will be in in the fourth quarter regardless of his efficiency at the stripe. I asked D.J. how big of a relief it was to hear that, and he admitted it was a huge thing. Imagine your biggest headache at work that you had to deal with every day and all of the sudden it's gone. The Clips will need D.J.'s ability to survive out West, but I really believe like you, that the Clips have a great shot at their first ever NBA Finals.
You bring up the Spurs as a potential road block, while the Big 3 are older, they have help. You're right, Leonard is a beast, and ready to take on more responsibility. That is bad news for the rest the NBA. Don't overlook Marco Belinelli there either. He hit some big shots last year for Chicago. He'll have opportunities again this year. Their system is run to perfection and it’s tough to figure out a way to beat them four times in seven games. And, of course, Pop and I are tight, can't wait to get to San Antonio for a wine tasting or him cursing at me during our media scrum. One of those two things will happen. I don't see anything different from the Spurs this year or apparently anytime soon. They say Father Time is undefeated. He might need 3 OTs to knock out the Spurs....
My question is out West is: How good will the Thunder be? I feel like I'm in the minority on this, but I say they struggle a little. Meaning, they don't own the West like they have the past few years. They'll win their division, and be a top four seed, but as we sit here today, I don't fear them. We know what they did two years ago with James Harden and now they lost his replacement, Kevin Martin, to free agency and his replacement is??? Reggie Jackson? Maybe. He's going to be a solid guy in the league. But he's a rung below Martin, who was several rungs below Harden. That means Serge Ibaka will have to pick up more scoring, which I think he can do. Still, I respect the ability of Durant as an offensive weapon as much as anyone in the league. I'm sure Westbrook will regain his form by spring, but they aren't as frightening to me as they were two years ago. They do have some moves they can make with trade exceptions and expiring deals. I think Sam Presti is as bright of a mind as there is in the NBA so they'll never be counted out this early in the year. Am I crazy for thinking this? OKC not that scary?!?! I feel like I'm really going to regret typing that last paragraph in a few months....
Well, OKC doesn't seem that scary, also because Westbrook is out at the moment. I think they are vulnerable, but if he is back at full strength they still have essentially the best two players on the court any given night. If one of the young guys (Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, etc) pan out THIS season... the Thunder are going to be a problem for everyone. Losing Harden and then Martin a year later is seemingly impossible to overcome but much like you being unwilling to write off the Spurs, I cannot do that with OKC just yet.
Their biggest problem to me will be possibly getting leapfrogged by the rest of the West contenders early without Westbrook and having to play catch-up just to stay amongst the teams with the best records. Fortunately, for them they play in a division with three teams with some uncertainties (Denver, Portland and Minnesota) and one bound for the lottery (Utah). Of that bunch, I think Minnesota has a chance to be a problem. The addition of Martin is really underrated and I think people forget about Kevin Love because he missed so much time last year. I was speaking to a media member for our annual predictions survey and they were putting together All-NBA predictions and literally said." Oh man, almost forgot K-Love.” The dude is a beast and if he stays healthy this year could be his best yet. It sounds like he's in great shape and seemingly has a ton to prove.
Still, outside of the Thunder, the Northwest doesn't have any teams I think are threats to win the conference. The Southwest, on the other hand, is loaded. We already talked about San Antonio, so what do you think of Houston, Memphis and even NOLA? And where does Golden State fit in the Pacific?
The Southwest is the most loaded of all the divisions, by a mile. Three of those teams (SA, Houston and Memphis) are Playoff bound, and a possible fourth (New Orleans) is a team that I think will get in there too, IF they stay healthy. I’m looking at you Eric Gordon.
Let’s start with the Grizz. Aside from some of the patrons at Fed-Ex Forum, I really like this squad. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are huge, but the question will be: How big of a learning curve will there be for first time head coach Dave Joerger. I suspect he’ll be fine, but there will be some bumps in the road. As we saw last year, a game here and there can cost you home court out West. I’ll admit I was shocked when they knocked our beloved Clippers out of the Playoffs. I never in a million years thought they had enough fire power. I became a believer real quick, however. They’ll be a force. How big I don’t know yet. If they can get 60 games out of Mike Miller, and Kosta Koufos continues to develop they really could be scary to deal with.
I like Houston, too. I’m not the biggest D12 fan, but I’m not a fool to think he isn’t the best center in basketball. Now Harden has additional help, even though he did just fine without it last year. They’ll continue to shoot a lot of threes. They averaged 28.9 attempts last year, which was first in the league and were No. 2 3-point makes. The Howard factor down low will make them tough to defend. I do suspect that they’ll have an issue at point guard. I’m just not sold on Jeremy Lin as a starter (or anything other than an average NBA player at best), and Aaron Brooks hasn’t been overwhelming the last few years (he did average 19 points per game in 2009-10). I think they’ll be good, not great. That said, you’ll need to be solid to beat them. It won’t surprise me if they make a move during the season that puts the in the elite out West. They know they’re time is now and they have a front office that can wheel and deal with the best.
Dallas to me isn’t anything overly special. I’ve always love Dirk Nowitzki, but they whiffed big this summer. Biggest acquisitions? Devin Harris and Monta Ellis. Jose Calderon isn’t a bad pick up, but you’re still having Dirk carry the load. He needs help at this stage. I don’t see them as a real contender.
As for the Pacific, It’s the Clips’ to win. But the Warriors will be there and pounce on any potential misstep by the Clippers. Last year, everyone (mostly me) overlooked the series vs. GSW, wrongly too. It was either early in the year, or a back-to-back, or the team didn’t take them seriously. That will change this year. This might be as entertaining of a series that we will see this year. There was a different energy between these two teams last year. I hope we see it again. If Bogut can play, and Curry stays healthy, we’ll see them in the Playoffs. However, I do think they’ll feel the loss of Jarrett Jack A LOT. He was my second place vote for 6th Man (Jamal Crawford was No. 1) and was a big reason for their success. It’s a good thing the first point of emphasis for the Clippers during training camp was defending the three, Golden State led the league at an astounding 40 percent (the only team 40 percent-plus).
At the end of the day, this is going to be one wild ride. The good teams out West are not just good, but title worthy. Clips, Spurs, Grizz, OKC can all do something special if the chips fall properly and they stay healthy. For the third straight year we can say this is the best Clipper team in franchise history, and the most anticipated season ever. I’m ready.