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2015-16 NBA preview: Western Conference Part 2, the middle class

Anthony Davis is on his way out of the New Orleans Pelicans. (Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons)
Expert
15th October, 2015
8

Continuing our NBA season preview, today we take a look at purgatory in the West, a place that has already dragged Dante Exum’s ACL into the inferno.

These are the teams mired in respectability – good enough to contend for the playoffs, not good enough to contend for the title. There’s a sadly declining former champ, a veteran workhorse, two young up-and-comers, and whatever the hell is going on in Phoenix.

Let’s start in Texas, via Germany.

10. Dallas Mavericks
Last season: 50-32, seventh in the West
Key arrivals: Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams
Key departures: Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis, Rajon Rondo
Key arrival then departure: DeAndre Jordan

It’s easy to forget that the Mavericks won 50 games last season. Lost amidst the Rajon Rondo turmoil, an embarrassing, uncompetitive playoff series to defeat to Houston, and DeAndre-gate is the fact that Dallas was really good last year.

They had the fifth best offence in the league, a higher ranking than either of their Texan neighbours, the Spurs and Rockets. The problem was that they couldn’t defend fairy floss, and with defensive anchor Tyson Chandler now playing for a playoff contending rival, that weakness is only going to be exasperated this year.

The Mavericks have question marks at virtually every position. Can Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews recover from potentially career altering injuries? Will Deron Williams stop being a cry-baby? Is JaVale McGee ready to re-enter the real world?

The biggest question though is one that has never had to be asked: does Dirk Nowitzki have anything left? The big German is no longer a superstar. In Dallas’s title year the Mavs were an astronomical 16.8 points per 100 possessions better with Nowitzki on the court. Last year they were just 1.5 points better with Dirk.

At 37, Nowitzki is now a defensive catastrophe. He’s too slow to guard power forwards and he doesn’t have the defensive presence to play centre. Dallas had a respectable 11th ranked defence with Dirk off the floor last year – with him on it that ranking plummeted to 21st. The past two years in the playoffs the Mavericks have been annihilated on defence at almost farcical rates with Dirk on the floor.

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Number 41’s offensive gravity means that he’ll still be a plus player so long as he can shoot – which he should be able to do until he’s 50. But he’s not a star anymore and his weaknesses are catching up to him with the speed that his legs no longer have.

Nowitzki’s fall combined with the health question marks and the general ‘Pall of Deron’ make the Mavs a playoff outsider. The infrastructure and Rick Carlisle will keep them competitive but Dirk won’t be able to get them over the line like he has in years past.

Predicted record: 37-45

9. Phoenix Suns
Last season: 39-43, 10th in the West
Key arrivals: Tyson Chandler, Mirza Teletovic
Key departures: Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris’s respect for the organisation

The Phoenix Suns are the definition of NBA purgatory. They’re not bad enough to have a meaningful rebuild through the draft and they’re not good enough to make any noise in the playoffs. The Suns quietly had a disastrous 2014-15 season, losing all-NBA guard Goran Dragic and somehow believing it was rational to trade Isaiah Thomas and a valuable Lakers draft pick for Brandon Knight. Thomas for Knight straight up is debatable, add in the pick and it’s a debacle.

Phoenix went all in on LaMarcus Aldride in free agency and came up snake eyes. Their new focus is repairing the situation with another power forward, incumbent starter Markieff Morris. Morris carried himself through the off-season with the maturity of an 11 year old who was told that he wasn’t allowed to sit with his brother in class anymore because they were too loud (or in the Morris’s case, too preoccupied with assault charges).

The talented Suns forward puffed and pouted and demanded a trade but has since backed down. He’s reported to camp and by all accounts everything is fine.

Given all the noise that he made it seems unlikely that this is all just water under the bridge. And if Morris loses patience with the Suns they might be screwed because the only other power forwards on the roster are Mirza Teletovic, coming off a pulmonary embolism, and Jon Leuer, coming off still being Jon Leuer.

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There are worlds in which the Suns are really good this year. Tyson Chandler provides much needed interior defence and leadership, Knight and Eric Bledsoe make for a fascinating backcourt and TJ Warren and Alex Len have plenty of upside.

But the team lacks any transformative passing, small forward candidates are uninspiring and with the Morris situation and coach Jeff Hornacek entering the final year of his deal, there seems to be too much potential for implosion.

Predicted record: 39-43

8. Utah Jazz
Last season: 38-44, 11th in the West
Key arrivals: Trey Lyles
Key departures: The health of Dante Exum’s ACL

You already knew that Utah’s second half of last season was really good. But did you know it was historic? The Jazz closed the 2014-15 season going 19-10 after the All-Star break and they did it with the league’s best defence. But it wasn’t just the league’s best defence – it was the best defence in more than a decade.

Post All-Star festivities, the Jazz kept teams to 94.8 points per 100 possessions. In other words, they made all their opponents significantly worse than the Sixers on offence.

Rudy Gobert might already be the best rim protector in the league and Derrick Favors is an athletic monster next to him. Together they make the most formidable defensive frontcourt in the NBA and it’s not especially close. But can this defence be sustained? Probably not.

The loss of Exum hurts. At 6’6′ Exum was a key part of the tallest starting line-up in the league, informing its lengthy defence at the point of attack. Over the course of the whole season with Exum on the court the Jazz had the second best defence in the league. With him off it they fell to 21st (a lot of that however can be attributed to Exum playing 69 per cent of his minutes alongside Gobert).

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As good as he was on defence, Exum was an offensive liability – a total zero. As bad as he might be, Trey Burke will be an upgrade on offence, offering the illusion of shooting at the very least.

If the defence even approaches the level of last season’s second half the Jazz are a lock for the playoffs. Given the presence of Gobert and Favors, that seems realistic, and combined with their standing as the best rebounding team in the league, the Jazz will be a nightmare to play all season.

Predicted record: 44-38

7. Memphis Grizzlies
Last season: 55-27, equal fourth in the West
Key arrivals: Matt Barnes, Brandan Wright
Key departures: Kosta Koufos

Can they score enough? It’s the same question every year with the Grizzlies. The defence is going to be great, we know that. The Grizz had an elite defence again last season, ranking third in the league, but the offence lagged behind at 13th. In the playoffs they couldn’t get anything going against the stellar Warriors D, scoring at a rate that made the Knicks look like the peak Steve Nash Suns in comparison.

Zach Randolph enters this season 34 years old. Tony Allen and Marc Gasol will turn 34 and 31 during it. We’ve already seen their best. It’s hard to see this team’s scope for improvement – it’s much easier to see how they get worse.

Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright were nifty pick-ups and Jeff Green simply can’t be any more awful than he was last year. But it’s hard to imagine that the upgrades that they provide will be enough to catapult this team into contention.

The Grizzlies will grit and they will grind and there will be a moment in the playoffs where their relentless, admirable endeavour will have some more talented team questioning itself, just as Memphis has done to Golden State and Oklahoma City the past two years. But then those teams will remember that they have Steph Curry or Kevin Durant or James Harden or Anthony Davis, and the Grizzlies will remember that they do not.

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Predicted record: 50-32

6. New Orleans Pelicans
Last season: 45-37, eighth in the West
Key arrivals: Alvin Gentry
Key departures: Monty Williams

On his new HBO podcast, Bill Simmons made the essential point about the Pelicans – the teams of transcendent superstars always make a leap the year before we expect them to. Nobody expected LeBron James’s Cavs to make the Finals in 2007. Nobody expected Kevin Durant and Oklahoma to win 50 games and make the playoffs in 2010 having won just 23 games the year prior. Nobody expected Michael Jordan to be giving the Pistons hell in the late ’80s when he was only 24.

All of those guys and their teams arrived ahead of their time. The point is, if you believe that Anthony Davis is the next generational superstar of the NBA – and there’s every reason to – then you have to have faith that his team is going to make an unexpected leap.

Davis is going to be the best player in the NBA this year. He’s ripe. Last year as a 21-year-old he put up a 24-10 on 54 per cent shooting (81 per cent from the line) with three blocks a game and 1.5 steals. He’s one of the three most efficient scorers in the league at the rim and from mid-range. The guy is a superhero.

The problem is that he plays in a conference full of lots of other stars wearing capes. And those guys have Robins. Omer Asik is not Robin. He’s not even Robin Lopez.

But the Pelicans do have talent. This isn’t LeBron James dragging along Daniel Gibson and Sasha Pavlovic. Tyreke Evans is a devastating driver and finisher. The reborn Eric Gordon was second in the league in three point percentage last season, above Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. If Jrue Holiday can get healthy (a big if), the Pelicans have an All-Star point guard.

In Alvin Gentry and Darren Erman the Pelicans have offensive and defensive masterminds as coaches. They’ll extract everything out of this group.

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Are the Pelicans winning the title? No. No matter how good Davis is, no team is winning the title with Evans as its second-best player. But don’t be shocked if they win a playoff round, which in this Game of Thrones scene of a conference will be enough to put a crown on the Brow for now.

Predicted record: 50-32