Friday, December 23, 2011

Challengers in the West

Staff writer Alexander Dardick analyzes the threats the Clippers face in the Western Conference.

The Clippers’ goal this year should be no less than home-court advantage in the first round (which, at the very least, would be securing at least the fourth seed by the end of the regular season). And although the team has certainly set its sights on a formidable playoff run, there are plenty of other teams who are seriously contending for one of those four spots. Here’s a breakdown of the Clippers’ biggest threats:

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers are a very intriguing team. Their under-the-radar beginning to this season is a stark contrast to the beginning of last year’s playoffs, when they were widely viewed as one of the league’s hottest teams.

While there have been some changes to the roster since then, the negative impact of those moves may not be as bad as might seem. Brandon Roy’s role had been dwindling and dwindling for awhile, and his permanent departure from the team will probably not make that much of a difference to the team on an game-to-game basis. Rudy Fernandez, who is also not on the team any longer, is a crowd favorite, but his contributions can be replicated. Raymond Felton, a new addition to the team, has several deficiencies, but he can be capable enough to be a solid complement to the rest of the talented players on the squad. Plus, while Andre Miller (who the Blazers swapped for Felton) can play well at times, no one has ever accused him of being a fun guy to be around, and nor is he any sort of emotional leader. And, with another new addition: we all know what the Rhino, Craig Smith, can do. (And let’s have a moment of silence—and maybe the Clippers can get a black band on their jerseys to remember him…thank you.)

What the Blazers now feature is a very strong and unique wing rotation consisting of Wesley Matthews, Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, and Jamal Crawford.  This combination gives the Blazers everything, whether it be scoring, intensity, or hard defense. Then you move on to LaMarcus Aldridge, a fringe all-star who was controversially left off the team last year. All he did last season was take a giant step towards becoming one of the most effective low-post players on offense. Behind him is Marcus Camby, and – assuming Marcus still has just a little left – we all know what Marcus can do for a team. Furthermore, Nate McMillan is undeniably one of the best coaches in basketball. I’m not saying the Blazers should be picked to finish first in the West, I’m merely saying they have a lot of talent and are maybe being overlooked more than they should be. And they certainly have the ability to challenge the Clipps for a spot in the top four by season’s end.

Houston Rockets

The Rockets are a lesser version of the Blazers in that they boast many quality players but no superstars.  While a rotation of Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin, Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, Luis Scola, Patrick Patterson, and Jordan Hill is certainly respectable, it just would come as a relatively large surprise if they turned into an elite unit.  Also, who knows if the change from Rick Adelman to Kevin McHale was for the better?  Most likely the Rockets’ best hope is to make the playoffs and be a frisky opponent to a higher-seeded team, and are thus not much of a threat to the Clippers’ aim for home court advantage.

Memphis Grizzlies

Perhaps the biggest “X-factor” of this year. I see the Grizzlies as having the largest potential variance of any team in the league in terms of where they finish.

The Grizzlies were playing fantastic basketball towards the end of last season and throughout the playoffs. However, a large driving force behind this late-season success was their overall intensity and focus, especially on the defensive end, and it’s hard to maintain that type of focus and dedication throughout an entire season. Furthermore, it’s easy to play well and be fired up when you’re the underdog who no one’s paying attention to. Adding expectations brings a whole new dimension to the equation. This is something to watch out for—it’s not as easy when everyone’s expecting you to be one of the best.

The same might apply to Zach Randolph, who may lose sight of the smart play that sparked the best season of his career now that people are expecting him to play (and score) like the franchise player he’s paid to be; Tony Allen hasn’t exactly been a model of consistency throughout his years in the NBA; and, the loss of Darrell Arthur must not be ignored as he was a very important part of their success last year when he was playing well. How will Rudy Gay fit in? Will he come in trying to be the leading scorer of the team and thus disrupting the rhythm the team found towards the end of last season?  Another important question: how will Tony Allen, Randolph, Marc Gasol, and company respond to adversity this year?  If they don’t come out of the gates playing at the level they’re supposed to, do we believe that these guys have the fortitude, toughness, and sanity to turn it around?

Then again, what if they haven’t lost a beat of that energy they had in the playoffs? What if Rudy Gay comes in and only provides them another weapon on offense without really causing harm to the team’s offensive flow? It’s certainly possible.  Is Lionel Hollins the man to turn the Grizzlies from playoff surprise to playoff contender? We’ll find out.  Clearly, the Grizzlies could either be serious contenders or quickly fall behind the mre established teams in the conference. Because of their overall unpredictability, the Grizzlies remain a team the Clippers need to pay attention to as a threat to their goal of finishing top four in the conference.

Dallas Mavericks

We Ditched Our Ugly German Player...
The Champions certainly have gone through some changes from the roster who beat the Heat in six games last season. They’ve lost in some areas (Barea, Chandler) and gained in others (Odom). While they were absolutely exquisite in their play throughout these last playoffs, it’s just hard to think the addition of Odom makes up for all they lost. Though Dirk is ageless, their key components are all a year older. This team just doesn’t project well to the high concentration of games in the short span of this season. Most all signs point towards a fatigue-driven decline.

What can never be discounted is the confidence and swagger that winning a title will have instilled in this team—something that should not be taken lightly. They also have one of the best coaches in the league in Rick Carlisle, who is certainly capable of steering this veteran team through the rigors of the shortened season. It’s also worth considering that few would’ve chosen Dallas as a title favorite before last season, or even before last season’s playoffs. But really, despite their experience and reigning championship, there are other teams who should be better than them this year.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The prohibitive favorites. What is there really to say? We know what the Thunder are about: Kevin Durant is a phenomenal player; Russell Westbrook is a phenomenal competitor; Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, et al., have the ability to be a very effective supporting cast. The Thunder are known for playing hard, and if everyone takes a step up and keeps developing (and has developed through the off-season) then they should be close to what they’re advertised to be. There are concerns about Russell Westbrook and KD’s compatibility, and about whether or not the team can get over the hump, and bla bla bla, but I think the Thunder can put these concerns to bed with the exceptional play that their talent should produce.  I’ll be asking Santa and Chanukah Harry for a Clippers/Thunder Western Conference Finals, thank you.

Los Angeles Lakers

Haha. They Lakers really shouldn’t get their own section. There’s really no need to go into it, as the Lakers’ prospects this season look bleak barring a major move—basically, unless Kobe has the most unexpectedly great season of his life, it’s hard imagining this team making any real noise this season.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs have incognito started rebuilding. Their trade of George Hill for Kawhi Leonard and Davis Bertans signals an eye towards the future. The Spurs will let Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Gregg Popovich have all the time they’d like, but it does appear that the Old Spurs have just turned into a bunch of old Spurs whose title hopes have faded like yesterday’s sun. Then again, you never know with the Spurs. But at this point, it kinda seems like we do.

The Others

I know Denver has a collection of above average players, but I just don’t see them as a significant threat.

Rick Adelman should help Minnesota.  I know HiptoClipp’s own, Adam Levine, thinks they could sneak into the playoffs. That’s almost definitely their ceiling.

As for everyone else, I’m pretty comfortable writing off New Orleans, Golden State, Utah (even though they have a number of talented players in the frontcourt), Phoenix, and Sacramento.

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