San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs’ best three players (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan) will be 30, 35 and 37 by the time the 2013 NBA playoffs start. That is a fact. The Spurs have finished with the best record in the Western Conference two years in a row. That is also a fact. It seems that every year, the same narrative surrounds the team: will this finally be the year that the Duncan-led Spurs fall off? The answer to that question is likely the year that Duncan retires. As one of the ultimate team-first players, it’s unlikely that he’d come back year after year if he didn’t think he was still capable of helping San Antonio win games. And with Gregg Popovich back behind the bench for his 17th season and a supporting cast mostly intact from last year’s 50-16 squad, the Spurs seem primed to contend for their first Finals berth since 2007. San Antonio had the league’s best offense last season (league-leading 111 Offensive Rating after ranking second the year before; they also led the league with a 53% eFG) and with Parker and Ginobili creating space for shooters like Matt Bonner, Danny Green and Gary Neal, they should be a threat to score both inside and outside. Also watch out for first-year Frenchman Nando de Colo and backup point guard Patty Mills, who impressed in a 16-game stint last season (10.3 ppg, 2.4 apg, 0.6 steals per game, 49% FG in just 16 minutes per game). When it clicks, the Spurs’ offense is basically unstoppable (witness the first two games of the Thunder series in last year’s playoffs), and though it can be stopped by disciplined, athletic defenders (which the Thunder and Heat both possess), it’s too much for most NBA clubs to handle and will lead the Spurs to a bunch of wins in 2012-13. The biggest question is whether that precise offense and team unity is enough to overcome a serious injury (Ginobili missed 32 games last season) and/or a high-scoring, athletic team such as Miami or Oklahoma City. The Spurs came up just short last season, and with an offense that figures to keep humming and a coach who knows how to rest his guys for the playoffs, they open 2012 on the shortlist of title contenders.
Could Make Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
Memphis Grizzlies: There were positives and negatives in 2011-12 for a team that many pegged as a darkhorse Finals pick. Memphis posted a .621 winning percentage, the franchise’s highest in its 17-year existence. But the Grizzlies also lost in the first round of the playoffs a year after coming within a game of the Western Conference Finals. A large portion of the blame falls on the shoulders of the inconsistent Zach Randolph, who couldn’t stay healthy and underperformed when he did see the court. He missed 38 games in 2011-12, the fifth time in the last eight seasons that he’s played fewer than 70 games (obviously he couldn’t have played 70 last season, but the point still stands). The frontcourt should receive a boost with the return of Darrell Arthur, who missed all of last season, and Marc Gasol is still a beast down low. Memphis will probably look to run more of the offense through Gasol (and Randolph, if he can regain his form) now that O.J. Mayo’s in Dallas, which could boost a squad that ranked 19th in the league in Offensive Rating. Rudy Gay and Tony Allen form a menacing defensive pairing that helped the team rank seventh in the NBA in offensive rating. One major problem area that the team did not address in the offseason was three-point shooting. Collectively, Memphis shot 33% from three, 26th in the league, and their top draft choice, guard Tony Wroten, shot just 9-of-56 (16%) from deep in his one season at Washington. You don’t have to be a great three-point shooting team to succeed in today’s NBA, but you do need to be a capable one, especially in the playoffs, and Memphis isn’t anywhere close to capable right now. Memphis should be good enough to win 50-55 games, but in a top-heavy league, they don’t have enough to mix it up with the conference’s elite.
Dallas Mavericks: If Houston hadn’t gotten rid of Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry and Courtney Lee in a desperate attempt to woo Dwight Howard, they’d be in prime position to take over third place in this division. So for now, I’ll have to go with a Dallas team that could go in several different directions this season. The dream scenario: new additions Bernard James and Jae Crowder provide an immediate infusion of defense, rebounding and energy and form the perfect complements to the aging Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, who provide Dallas with multiple scoring options in the post. All four new guys take the pressure off Dirk Nowitzki who, after a post-championship letdown, realizes that he wants to win another title and morphs back into the scoring machine that dominated the 2011 playoffs. Darren Collison and Rodrigue Beaubois’ young legs allow the Mavs to run the fast break more often than they did with the declining Jason Kidd, while O.J. Mayo makes fans forget about Jason Terry by scoring in a variety of ways and setting up his teammates for easy baskets. If all that happens, the Mavericks will be thinking championship. Unfortunately, there’s a reason why the Mavericks were able to add so many new pieces: their old teams thought there was something wrong with them. In some cases, they’re right – Brand struggled to score last season, especially in the playoffs, and Mark Cuban isn’t playing him for his defense. Mayo isn’t a very efficient player and Memphis improved over the last two seasons when they stopped running so much of their offense through him. Kaman suffered through a dreadful season last year in New Orleans (career-low 45% FG, which is miserable for a seven-footer), but the hope is that a new environment (and more competitive team?) will see him bounce back. James and Crowder should provide legitimate help—James is a long, capable defensive player, even though he turns 28 in February, while Crowder looks and plays similar to Kenneth Faried. The upgrades should make Dallas better than the ugly 2011-12 squad, but ultimately, they’ll go as far as Nowitzki will take them. At this point, that could mean second place in the division, but probably no further than the second round of the playoffs.
Houston Rockets: I don’t know if Daryl Morey’s time is up in Houston, but the clock has to be ticking at this point. This will be Morey’s sixth season as Rockets general manager, and during that time, he’s drawn praise for fielding a decent team without a true superstar and without overpaying role players. Morey tried to acquire as many assets as he could, with the hope that when a key piece became available, he’d be able to strike. If only it were that simple to contend in today’s NBA. Dwight Howard came and went, and now Houston once again finds itself in the middle of the NBA pack. They missed the playoffs in each of the past three years, yet the highest the Rockets picked was 12th in 2012 (and that only because of a trade with Milwaukee). I can’t exactly fault Morey for taking a risk and decimating his roster for a chance at Howard (letting Lowry, Lee and Scola go) because the two ways to become a contender in the NBA are to swing a trade for a superstar or bottom out completely and pray that some high draft picks pan out. But Houston’s ownership can’t be happy about a team that has declined since Morey took over in 2007 (win totals starting in 2007-08, including a prorated number for 2011-12: 55, 53, 42, 43, 42). Now the Rockets are left with a ton of role player and not much else. Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lin will be counted on to lead the team in scoring, but neither is a No. 1 player. They’ll get their points, but a lack of supporting options probably mean that those baskets will require a lot of shot attempts. Houston used its three first-rounders this year to add Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb and Royce White. White and Lamb have both had success on winning teams, and could flourish in the right system – but both have questions about their level of effort, and if Houston is around .500 again, can they be counted on to stay mentally focused? White is the best prospect of the three, a do-it-all 6-foot-8 forward from Iowa State. But there are questions surrounding White too, as it’s unclear how much exactly his anxiety disorder and fear of flying will impact his NBA performance. Lithuanian Donatas Motiejunas, who starred in summer league, and NCAA assists leader Scott Machado are two more intriguing prospects, and if Morey is committed to building Houston into a winner, his best approach might be to convince coach Kevin McHale to give big minutes to his rookies so that the Rockets can find out what they have. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be much, the end result could be a high draft pick, which at this point is preferable to another 42-win season.
New Orleans Hornets: The Hornets will be bad again in 2012-13, but they’re moving in the right direction. Lucking into Anthony Davis obviously helps, and though he won’t be able to dominate in the NBA right away as he did in the NCAA, he’s everything you want in a center. He’s a defensive menace and his offense is super-efficient because he doesn’t demand the ball or force shots. At 6-foot-10 with insane length, he could end up as a Kevin Garnett-type defensive player if all breaks right, which would virtually guarantee New Orleans becomes a contender if it can boost its miserable offense (28th in the league in Offensive Rating). Ryan Anderson will certainly help in that category, particularly in his ability to take and make threes, as New Orleans attempted the fewest three-pointers in the league last season (12 per game; Anderson’s Magic squad launched a league-leading 27 per game). Jason Smith flies under the radar, but he’s not a bad backup for Davis, but the small forward spot (Hakim Warrick/Al-Farouq Aminu) is pretty bad. A healthy Eric Gordon also figures to make this team much more competitive, and the team also added new blood at point guard when it drafted Austin Rivers at No. 10 overall. Critics are split on how well Rivers will fare at the NBA level. His pedigree and skill level are impressive, but he won’t find it as easy to create his own shot in the NBA, and though his three-pointer to beat UNC last season made for a great video clip, the fact that his 2-seed Duke team fell to 15-seed Lehigh should raise a red flag. Hornets coach Monty Williams is a keeper, and the hope is that he’ll be able to help Rivers with his decision making. The problem with that is that Rivers father, Doc, is one of the game’s best teachers—if he wasn’t able to correct Austin’s decision-making before college, will Williams be able to in the pros? If Davis can add some bulk (and, more importantly, a jump shot) in the next few years, the Hornets will be on track to contention. Until then, their best hope is to collect some assets and maintain flexibility under the cap so that when the time strikes for a free agent/trade acquisition (James Harden, Stephen Curry or Josh Smith, perhaps?) the Hornets will be able to make a play. Until then, passing the Rockets is a possibility, but breaching the division’s top three is probably out of reach.
Top 5 Players
C: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
F/C: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
F: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
G: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
G: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs