Dallas has had the title for two days (Game Six and series overview), and already we’re hearing about what the Heat need to change to win it all next year, what the Lakers need to change to rise again, who Dallas returns and if their core will be too old to repeat, changes LeBron doesn’t want to make, etc. We got odds for the 2012 Championship (Heat, Lakers, Bulls, Thunder all before Mavericks), so I guess it’s time to start considering what adjustments each contender needs to make in order to improve their run at the title next season.
Finish in 2011: NBA Champs, 57-25 in regular season
Issues and Adjustments for 2012: The following Mavericks are free agents this summer: Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, JJ Barea, DeShawn Stevenson, Brian Cardinal, Peja Stojakovic. It’s clear they absolutely need to re-sign Chandler and Barea considering how important both were throughout the playoffs and Finals, but Dallas is already on the books for $61 million and we won’t know for a while what the new CBA will allow as far as teams re-signing current players while going over the cap. The Mavs won’t find anyone at the 26th spot in the draft to make up for the loss of either of these two, so they’re kind of in a tight spot to replace the league’s second-best defensive center and their only athletic playmaker outside of Jason Terry if the new CBA includes a hard cap. If that happens, they’d likely have to rely more on Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi at center, more on their zone defense to keep opponents shooting from the perimeter and out of the paint that Chandler protected this year, and more on Jason Terry to create off the dribble. I would also expect to see them try to make a trade in the offseason, maybe something like Shawn Marion and Corey Brewer plus some picks for another playmaker – hard to say at this point with no ideas what the new CBA holds. Dallas would be at a clear disadvantage to Western foes LA, OKC, and SA who all have everyone signed for next year if the CBA limits who they can bring back. If the CBA allows them to re-sign who they got, then Cuban should do what it takes to keep Chandler, Barea, and probably Butler, Stevenson, and Cardinal and run things just like they did this year. Kidd is brilliant and changes his game accordingly as his body slows down, so I don’t see their age being an issue if they can retain the change-of-pace youngsters they got.
San Antonio Spurs
Finish in 2011: First-round exit, 61-21
Issues and Adjustments in 2012: They’re old, got it. Let’s be honest, though, they only lost in the first round of the playoffs because their two best players—Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili—were hurt. If those two were at full strength, the Spurs certainly would have faced the Mavericks in the Western Finals, and who knows from there. The team has the intelligence and guile to play well in any style, and they have a defense and a counter for virtually anything other teams throw at them. They return everyone except the retiring Antonio McDyess next year, so the new CBA won’t screw up their core for 2012. Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair will have to play more minutes at center, but that’s a “problem” most other teams would accept wholeheartedly. With the core aging and needing rest before the playoffs, expect Gregg Popovich to expertly find more minutes for George Hill, Gary Neal, Splitter, and James Anderson. That’s frankly it – get more minutes for the youngsters and play everything out exactly like this year when they were the best in the West. Barring their two best players being injured for a second consecutive post-season, there’s no reason to doubt the Spurs make a serious run next spring.
Los Angeles Lakers
Finish in 2011: Western semi-finals, 57-25
Issues and Adjustments in 2012: They have the talent to keep putting up great regular season win totals because they play in a terrible division, but it was clear in their second round demolition at the hands of the Mavericks that the Lakers completely lack athleticism outside of Shannon Brown and have no perimeter defenders who can slow down opposing PG’s or wings who are even vaguely decent. It’s also clear that if Pau Gasol isn’t completely dialed in, the team can’t compete – they had trouble with the Hornets in Round One, for goodness sake. The signs of late-game troubles were evident all season (old legs), plus their inability to routinely look good against good teams was there but often overlooked and swept under the rug once they went 17-1 after the All-Star Game. Phil Jackson was the one guy holding the egos and team system in check, and he’s gone, plus they return everyone at a ridiculous $94 million and have no draft picks until late in the second round, so any changes have to come through adjustments in philosophy and trades. For starters, the team’s offense runs much better when Kobe Bryant takes on more of a distributor’s role and isn’t just looking for his own points (they have three big men who all shoot around 55% and can overwhelm virtually any other frontcourt), so I suggest Mike Brown tries this. Kobe is gunning for the all-time scoring record and has a funny way of forgetting his team has an offensive system, so I doubt it will happen, but it could. There’s a lot of talk about trades happening to bring in more dynamic players, but the only pieces that other teams want are the three big men (Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom), and LA’s biggest strength is that trio. If the Lakers could move one of them along with a bloated salary or two for a couple of young, athletic perimeter players that Kobe can get along with and maybe even pass to, this team could return to prominence quickly.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Finish in 2011: Western Finals, 55-27
Issues and Adjustments in 2012: If you want to see the most beautifully orchestrated team salary in league history, check out what the Thunder’s front office has done. They return EVERYBODY next year and Durant’s income takes a huge jump since it’ll be his fifth year in the league, and their team salary drops 15% to a rather low $49 million. Plus they lose almost nobody for the following year, as well, while keeping salaries low. I like that they’ll have a hopefully healthy center grouping in Kendrick Perkins, Nazr Mohammed (thanks for catching the oversight, Sherman), and Cole Aldrich (shot 53% and had some of the team’s highest rebounding and blocks rates for the season in limited rookie minutes) next year, plus Serge Ibaka is still developing. Eric Maynor is looking like a great back-up PG and second-year SG James Harden came up big in the playoffs, so what’s not to like about OKC moving forward? Unfortunately the answer is their star PG, Russell Westbrook. He had trouble making shots in the playoffs (39% FG, 29% 3FG), but he still took only two less than Durant (345 to 343) who was hitting from everywhere at a much higher percentage. Westbrook is an All-Star PG and should adjust to this accordingly, especially since it was obvious to everyone watching their games, but he didn’t. In fact, his not-that-great Assist-Turnover rate (8.2-3.9 during the regular season) got really bad in the playoffs (108-78). Coach Scott Brooks has to get through to Westbrook that his job isn’t to be a low-efficiency hero. If he does and the team’s D improves with Ibaka’s development and the Perkins-Mohammed-Aldrich combo holding down the middle for a whole season, OKC could return to the Western Finals and be able to play a smarter brand of basketball that translates into a Finals appearance.
Portland Trail Blazers
Finish in 2011: First-round exit, 48-34
Issues and Adjustments in 2012: I know it’s unlikely that the Blazers will be considered title contenders in 10 months, but we are talking about the only Western Conference team to win more than one playoff game against the Champs. They return everyone next year and are likely to offer Greg Oden a qualifying offer and be the oft-injured center’s employer again in 2011-12. Imagine if Oden is able to play even just the second-half of the season; their potential to be the poor man’s Mavericks is pretty high. Marcus Camby and Oden are the defensive middle-men (Chandler/Haywood). Lamarcus Aldridge is the mid-range shooting big man (Dirk – obviously a stretch, but just hear me out). Andre Miller is the savy, veteran PG (Kidd). Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and Brandon Roy are the group of wings who give you a little of everything on both sides of the ball (Terry/Stevenson/Butler). Gerald Wallace is the athletic SF who puts his nose into things on D and will fly down the court on the fast-break (Marion). I know it’s unlikely, but if Oden can become a great 5 (which he has been when he’s played) who runs 20-25 minutes a night by April, if Roy stays healthy enough to be a late-game closer off the bench, if Aldridge keeps scoring 22-25 ppg and improves his rebounding, if the team can further take on Wallace’s all-out persona now that he’ll be around for a whole season, if they add a back-up PF who is an interior bruiser that offers a counter to Aldridge’s finesse game, and if they can find even an averagely efficient PG who provides the athleticism Miller lacks, (whew, got all that?) then this team could have a Dallas-like surprise run through the playoffs. I know that’s a lot of if’s, but only the last two require new players, and one of them could be filled perfectly if Kenneth Faried falls to them in the draft at the #21 spot, which isn’t entirely unlikely. Consider their 98 wins over the last two seasons, realize they took the Mavs as far as Miami did in the playoffs, and keep in mind they can’t possibly be more injured next year. Throw in the wonders Wallace does for a team’s mental toughness, and Portland doesn't look like a totally ridiculous idea for a contender. At least think about it.