Preseason Playoff Picture: Western Conference

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Dirk NowitzkiIn a teleconference last week, we asked NBA analysts Chris Webber and Greg Anthony to pick a Western Conference team which missed the playoffs last season but will make the playoffs this season.

“Dallas, mainly because of Dirk Nowitzki,” Webber said. “He’ll be back healthy. What he does, with spacing, getting guys involved … We take his game for granted.”

“I would go with the Pelicans,” Anthony said. “I think that’s a team that could make sizeable leaps and surprise a lot of people.”

Both those teams are certainly among the half-dozen in the hunt for what appears to be two postseason spots up for grabs in the West. Those spots belonged to the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets, who also remain in the running despite taking some backward steps in the offseason.

Without getting into seeding specifics, the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets look like mortal locks to be playing in May.

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Preseason playoff picture: Western Conference

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Think your team is making the playoffs in the West this season?

If you don’t live in L.A., you sure about that?

If your team is the Dallas Mavericks or Utah Jazz, you shouldn’t be so sure.

The Western Conference has six teams that are postseason certainties and four teams that are locks for the lottery. That leaves five teams vying for two spots.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets are in. Each of those teams has a depth of talent that is too big to fail.

The Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Hornets and Houston Rockets are out. The Blazers and Kings are too young, while the Hornets and Rockets aren’t even trying to compete – at least this season.

That means the Mavericks and Jazz – playoff incumbents from last season, neither of whom won a postseason game – will be trying to hold off a trio of upstarts in the Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns.

Five teams, two slots.

Who gets them? Here’s the breakdown.

mavs small logoDALLAS MAVERICKS: The Mavericks may be the greatest unknown quantity in the West. They conceivably could land anywhere from as high as fourth to as low as 10th. If Dirk Nowitzki decides to come to camp in shape to reclaim his status as a top-10 player and one-year rentals Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison play for the team and not their next contract, Dallas could challenge for the Southwest Division title.

But Dallas also has no depth at center behind Kaman, who has missed 152 games over the last five years. The point may wind up in the hands of the erratic Delonte West given that Collison lost his starting job in Indiana last season and the perennially not ready Roddy Beaubois might be the softest player in the NBA. And five of their rotation players are 30 or older, including four starters.

Last season, the Mavs walked the tightrope of remaining competitive while planning their future. They will be taking a similar stroll this season.

VERDICT: In, but not with any bravado.

warriors small logoGOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: The Warriors missed the playoffs by 13 games in a 66-game season. That seems like too much of a leap for a team whose culture – and if you think this isn’t a factor, you’re kidding yourself – includes one postseason appearance since 1994. But before you write them off, consider that the Warriors were on the fringe of the race at 18-21 before losing 18 of their last 23 games, a nosedive driven by the injured Stephen Curry and the trade of Monta Ellis for Andrew Bogut, who already was done for the season.

This campaign has a lot invested in the health of Curry and Bogut, which are no sure things. Jarrett Jack is a nice insurance policy for Curry, but the safety net for Bogut – who has missed 130 games over the last four years – is not as secure. The Warriors also need Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes to be serious candidates for Most Improved Player and Rookie of the Year, respectively – which they probably will.

Golden State arguably has a playoff-worthy 10-man rotation. But no team has greater health questions among its top two players. Can Curry and Bogut both play 75 games? That’s how simple it is for the Warriors.

VERDICT: Out. Too many ifs, not enough gifts.

wolves small logoMINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: The Timberwolves were 21-19 in early March when rookie sensation Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL, triggering a total collapse that not even the broad shoulders of MVP candidate Kevin Love could bear. Rubio is not expected back until January, so it is on the frontcourt of Love, Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic to keep the Wolves in the hunt. They might be up to it.

GM David Kahn’s offseason overhaul made a believer of Love, who likes that the “bad blood” – likely Michael Beasley and Darko Milicic – are out of the locker room. But there are issues in the backcourt, where J.J. Barea and Luke Ridnour have to man the point until Rubio’s return and huge question marks Brandon Roy and rookie Alexey Shved will split the 2-spot. And Derrick Williams has to play like the second pick, not the 22nd pick.

VERDICT: In. Love is the best player among these five bubble teams, and he has enough around him this time.

suns small logoPHOENIX SUNS: As part of a makeover that came up short of top prize Eric Gordon, the Suns are counting on a lot of good, young players – Goran Dragic, Michael Beasley, Wesley Johnson, Markieff Morris – with very little collective taste of the postseason to get better. They also need one of their veterans to step forward as a leader. You have to wonder who that will be. Luis Scola? Jermaine O’Neal?

The trade of Steve Nash was more than a move toward the future. It left the Suns without a true star, which is not exactly a tried-and-true formula for making the playoffs (although Philadelphia and Denver bucked the trend recently). As a .500 team last season, Phoenix missed the playoffs. It’s hard to say they’ve gotten better, although they are moving in the right direction.

VERDICT: Out. Unless they move to Phoenix City, Ala. and play in the East.

jazz small logoUTAH JAZZ: By now, you’ve probably figured out that we don’t have the Jazz making the playoffs. That may seem absurd, given their postseason appearance last season and the trio of established players they added this summer. But they seem somewhat vulnerable at a couple of positions.

Is Marvin Williams really the answer at small forward, or is he just going to be in Gordon Hayward’s way? Can Randy Foye put up his customary numbers for a winner? Is Mo Williams that much of an upgrade over Devin Harris at point guard, or will he be watching defensive-minded Earl Watson in crunch time? And although everyone loves Utah’s collection of bigs, there are only four of them. If one of them gets hurt – or if the final year of Al Jefferson’s contract becomes a trade chip – the Jazz are woefully shallow in the frontcourt.

VERDICT: Out. The Jazz do play two of their last three games against the Wolves, though, which should be very interesting.

COMING SOON: The East’s playoff picture

(RELATED: Offseason report cards, team by team)

(RELATED: Offseason moves and analysis, team-by-team)

Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

Hamilton: Tyson Chandler should be considered for Defensive Player of the Year

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NEW YORK — Old guys are resting, young teams are angling, and Kobe Bryant is dreaming of another championship. It’s that time of year: the NBA’s playoffs are upon us!

And thanks to the Milwaukee Bucks losing to the Indiana Pacers on Thursday night, the Knicks (33-29) officially clinched a berth in the NBA’s postseason party. At the very least, Knicks fans can be assured of four more games after the Knicks conclude their regular season in Charlotte on April 26, even if we’re yet to learn whether they will square off against the Celtics, Pacers, Heat or Bulls.

This time of year is renowned for playoff discussion but considerable time is also spent on arguments as to which of the league’s elite deserve accolades in the form of the NBA’s annual season-ending awards.

You’ve probably read accounts about how Tyson Chandler has changed the defensive culture of the Knicks. As Jamie O’Grady pointed out in the New York Times’ Off the Dribble Blog, the Knicks are 11th in the NBA in points allowed per game – up from 27th last season. And speaking of last season, the ‘Bockers were ranked 26th in points allowed in the paint; this season, they are a much more respectable ninth.

The improvement is a result of a team-wide effort to defend. But anyone that follows the Knicks knows that Chandler is the diesel engine that motors the Knicks’ defense.

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Chandler about his defensive contributions to the team and what winning Defensive Player of the Year would mean to him.

“It would be huge for me,” he told me. “It would signify a lot of hard work being recognized as well as the hard work of my teammates.”

Over the past decade, the NBA’s awards have been dominated by players on winning teams. Most voters subscribe to the notion that only the league’s most successful teams (e.g. top four seeds in each conference) “deserve” to have any individual award winners.

Rubbish, I say!

And that’s the same way I felt back in 2002 when Jason Kidd lost one of the NBA’s closest MVP races to Tim Duncan. Duncan led the Spurs to a 58-win season and won the award over Kidd, whose arrival in New Jersey was the primary reason the Nets doubled their win total to 52, one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NBA history.

After the ballots were cast, Duncan’s Spurs lost in the second round while Kidd’s Nets made their first trip to the NBA Finals. Maybe it was poetic justice.

Even still, to me, that was a travesty, and I’ll always remember it. But I can’t necessarily say it was unfair. “Most Valuable” is a subjective term. And as the years have gone by, the question as to what it means to be MVP has not become any clearer. Kevin Love will probably receive some votes this year, and he’s headed to the draft lottery. That’s simply because some voters value individual statistical production while others care more about wins and losses.

At this point, I do not think that Chandler is going to win, and I can understand why. Although he may not be Defensive Player of the Year (especially since Chris Sheridan himself confided to me that he does not plan on voting for Chandler for first place), he’s probably the NBA’s Most Valuable Defensive Player.

If those two things seem like they’re the same, they’re not. Unfortunately, due to an overall dearth of responsible accounting and metrics, the NBA’s statistics do not lend themselves to accurately portraying defensive dominance.

That’s something Chandler and I agree on. “I think people get caught up so much with blocks and statistics and what a person averages.” He said. “To me, that’s not necessarily the best defender.”

And therein lies the problem. This new era of statistics and advanced metrics have revolutionized the way we watch and think about the game. Too often, we seek to resolve arguments as to who “can” and “can’t” do something based on averages or percentages. Easily accessible box scores and running numbers gives anyone a voice in any argument.

For example, LeBron James is shooting 53.3 percent from the field while Kevin Durant is shooting 50.1 percent. Does that make James a better shooter than Durant? Of course not.

So forgive my refusal to anoint Serge Ibaka with the defensive distinction merely because of his league-leading 3.6 blocks per game. Chandler, ranked 16th in the league, blocks only 1.5 shots per game.

But here’s the difference: Ibaka usually has Kendrick Perkins beside him. Ibaka is free to roam and come off the weak side in an attempt to block shots. Going after those blocks is a risk and it’s one too great for Chandler to take as often as he’d like.

“To me, a lot of the time when you go after blocks, you take yourself out of position,” he said. “I’m a little different, I like to not take myself out of position and just challenge shots, make ‘em miss, and let my teammates get the rebounds.”

It’s just another example of how everything Chandler says and does while on the court is about the team. He once famously said “You don’t just play with your teammates. You play for your teammates.”

So no, I don’t think this is all a coincidence.

But what I do think is that the NBA needs to redo and rethink the way in which it officially keep track of individual players’ defensive statistics.

I’d like to see the following :

  • Forced Misses: When a defender is guarding an offensive player who misses a shot
  • Forced Turnovers: When a defender causes an offensive player to turn the ball over via a bad pass, traveling violation or offensive foul
  • Deflections: When a defender separates the offensive player from the ball without causing a turnover (in other words, the defender pokes the ball away but the offensive team retains possession)

I want to know who leads the leagues in those categories. Because I think they’re more telling than steals and blocks. And I also happen to believe that Chandler would be among the league leaders in all three.

In the Knicks’ last three wins (at Nets, Celtics, Wizards), based on my count, Chandler had 21 forced misses, seven forced turnovers and nine deflections. I tracked those stats because I knew that a lot of the effort plays he makes – plays that ultimately make a huge difference – are invisible in box scores.

As basketball fans, we are trained to watch the ball. Very few of us are interested enough in the intricacies of the game to watch a particular player for five consecutive minutes when that player doesn’t get the ball or when that player’s activity causes the player he is defending to not get the ball.

Worse, NBA stats that are supposed to prove defensive superiority are flawed. For the most part, steals result from playing passing lanes and shooting gaps. Blocks often come from the weak side, and rebounds (considered by some to be a defensive stat) can be poached by a point guard when his power forward does a good job of boxing out an opposing big.

Too many of us judge “good” defenders by how many steals and/or blocks they average per game.

Defense is more about team, and the stat-conscious might jeopardize valuable points in the hunt for numbers. Chandler, however, is the antithesis. He is content with playing his position on the court and doing a lot of his defensive dirty work behind the scenes when nobody is watching. It’s not about individual glory.

“Coach Woodson and his staff watch tons of game film and I try to do my own scouting and watch teams,” Chandler told me. “He throws out the game plan and if I saw something I’ll kinda pull him to the side and we’ll talk about it and we might try to find a way that we know will make the team understand it.”

And scouting opponents prior to games isn’t all Chandler does to make the Knicks’ defense click. During games, he’s actively coaching defense on the floor.

“I want my teammates to feel comfortable out there,” he said. “I want to let them know where they’re supposed to be and what’s coming. I feel like if your teammates constantly hear you talk and they constantly hear a voice, they won’t feel like they’re out there by themselves.”

For a championship-starved city, Chandler is a breath of fresh air. The big money, riches, and the championship ring he won with the Dallas Mavericks haven’t affected his desire to win. He knows that it takes a team to win, and both team and winning are more important than any individual accolades.

“Bill Russell was one of the great position defensive players. He got a lot of blocks but he kept a lot of blocks in play,” Chandler told me. “But I think he was even better at just challenging shots and making guys miss. That’s what I want to do most.”

From scouting to coaching, playing, and idolizing, Chandler is there for his teammates.

And while those attributes might not be quantifiable from a statistical standpoint, Chandler is probably the NBA’s Most Valuable Defensive Player, even if he’s not Defensive Player of the Year.

Moke Hamilton covers the New York Knicks for SheridanHoops.com and is the Deputy Editor for CHARGED.fm. For the latest on the New York Knicks and all things NBA, follow him on Twitter.