This week, ESPN unleashed the 2016 edition of their Western Conference Standings Summer Forecast. At least to this hoops aficionado, something stank in Denmark. Though their top three prediction feels accurate, the win totals do not. And the rest of their top 8 seems woefully short-sighted. I think they're badly underestimating the Grizzlies and the Clippers (two of the WC's three biggest threats to the Dubs if everyone stays healthy), and mildly underestimating the Thunder and Timberwolves. They are overestimating all three Texas teams to varying degrees, too.
So I'm going to unpack ESPN's early bird top 10 Western Conference finishers -- where they're ranked, where they should be ranked, and how I think they would finish if the playoffs started today. I mean, you know, assuming the players were in game shape, and not, you know, hosting barbecues (*cough cough* Z BO *cough cough*). There will of course be a special emphasis on just how wrong ESPN is about your Memphis Grizzlies. Because they are quite, quite wrong, you see.
ESPN's projected record: 67-15
My projected record: 69-13, 1st in the West, will win the Finals
Last season: 73-9, 1st in the West and all-time, lost in NBA Finals 4-3
Even with the growing pains of integrating a relatively ball-dominant sharpshooter into the mix, and even having lost five role-playing contributors, the Golden State Warriors figure to win a whole lot of games, especially since their two chief rivals last season have only gotten worse this summer. I see two other squads rising to the occasion somewhat and finishing with significantly improved records in the West's top four. But I don't see anyone unseating the Dubs in the West.
Zaza Pachulia (I feel like "Patches" is a natural nickname, has anyone done that yet?) may cede a little defense and passing dexterity to the dearly departed Andrew Bogut, sure, but he'll also be able to string 20 healthy games in a row together on a regular basis, and score more buckets off put-backs since his knees still work. He's also faster, and a totally competent defender, by the way. I'm not sure David West has much left, and he's no Marresse Speights at this point. But they just added Kevin Durant. And growing pains or not, they're going to win this year, barring some smart trades (more on this in a second).
ESPN's projected record: 57-25
My projected record: 56-26, 4th in the West, will lose in the Conference Quarterfinals
Last season: 67-15, 2nd in the West, lost in Conference Semifinals 4-2
ESPN is woefully overestimating Big Spain's big brother, much as it may pain me to say it. Their thoughts: "The main addition is Pau Gasol, who made the All-Star team each of the last two seasons and is one of three players to average at least 15 points and 10 rebounds per game in each of the last two seasons. The others? Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins."
Despite his gaudy stats, 2017 Pau Gasol won't be 2016 Tim Duncan. Duncan was a leader, and still a great defender even playing a fraction of his typical minutes during his final season. In Pau's final Bulls season, his refusal to accept a bench role killed Joakim Noah's confidence and poisoned both players' relationships with Chicago management. Pau's empty-calorie blocks belied his total defensive apathy; and he missed a surprising amount of put-back bunnies over smaller (but more mobile) defenders.
I'd much rather have a motivated Boris Diaw than a somewhat-motivated Pau Gasol. San Antonio lost to the sheer athletic size and mobile moxie of Oklahoma City at the one and five spots, and they responded this offseason by... failing to secure Memphis's own $153 million man (or any other point guard upgrade), and adding a 36 year old "finesse" center with lead feet. Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge can't guard everybody, you know. They'll have a respectable regular season and get out-hustled again come spring.
ESPN's projected record: 52-30
My projected record: 58-24, 2nd in the West, will lose in the Conference Finals
Last season: 53-29, 4th in the West, lost in Conference Quarterfinals 4-2
Although coach/GM Doc Rivers brought back every single one of his free agents not named Jeff Green, and although he only added Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, and Marreese Speights, I still think the Clippers are one of two Western Conference teams to pose the biggest threats to the behemoth that is the Big Four. Chris Paul is one of the best three point guards in the NBA today (behind Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook), a psychotic defender and keen passer who is still remarkably quick. Blake Griffin, the Clippers' second-best player, looked like a top-five player in the 2015 playoffs, flashing point forward promise as LA eked out a first-round victory over 2014's defending champion Spurs.
After breaking his hand in punching an equipment manager in the face and suffering a few additional injury hiccups throughout the season, Griffin splintered the Los Angeles locker room. He remains one of three big trade candidates this offseason, along with players on ESPN's projected #6 (see below) and #13 (the Kings) Western Conference teams. Despite all that drama, plus a dumb deadline trade for Jeff Green (go Grizzlies), the sweet pick-and-roll music made by CP3 and future Olympic champion DeAndre Jordan led the Clippers to a 52-win record this past year.
So who's the other team that could pose a serious (-ish) threat to Dubs dominance? Read on. I think you'll be pleased to find out that team's identity, though.
ESPN's projected record: 46-36
My projected record: 42-40, 7th in the West, will lose in the Conference Quarterfinals
Last season: 44-38, 5th in the West, lost in Conference Semifinals 4-1
Beyond retaining many of the improving young role players responsible in part for the Trailblazers' overachieving 2015-16 campaign, Portland didn't do much to suggest their on-court product would take much of a leap this year. The additions of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli may shore up their depth some, but those guys are hardly game changers, and adding another health-challenged center must already be causing migraines up and down the city where young people go to retire.
Internal development from their youth movement will be the big engine behind any serious uptick in wins and a legit "return to contention in the West."
5. Utah Jazz
ESPN's projected record: 45-37
My projected record: 44-38, 6th in the West, will lose in Conference Quarterfinals
Last season: 40-42, 9th in the West
The Jazz are a dark horse to really bug Golden State this season, but they are not the other team that I think poses the biggest threat to the Bay Area bombers' return to the Finals. ESPN accurately calls the pride of Salt Lake "[a] methodical squad," noting that they "ranked third in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break while playing at the league's slowest pace." The Stifle Tower, all 7'2" of him (with a 7'8.5" wingspan!) -- a great defender already in just his third season -- can block anything in his path (his 2.21 blocks a night was the 3rd-best such average league-wide last season) and pulled down 11 rebounds per game (5th-best). Derrick Favors is no slouch himself, especially on offense. Both players are young and have room to develop further this season.
Like Memphis, they are a defensive-oriented squad spearheaded by their big men, but unlike the Grizzlies, Utah is much younger. Gobert and Gordon Hayward (who, at 6'8" and 225 pounds, can log some time as a stretch-four) have serious All-Star breakout potential this year. Their additions include 3-and-D point guard vet George Hill quarterbacking the offense, shooting ace Joe Johnson joining Hayward on the wing, and versatile big The French Baguette (a lot of Jerry Lewis fans on this year's Jazz). Gobert missed 21 games during a crucial spell last season with a Grade 2 MCL sprain, dooming Utah to this year's lottery. But this year, finally, should actually mark the moment when Quin Snyder's Jazz make the cut. Why don't I have Utah ranked higher than they are, if they have dark horse GSW-stopper potential? Well, they have yet to actually make the playoffs with their Gobert/Hayward/Favors core. And George Hill is no Mike Conley.
ESPN's projected record: 44-38
My projected record: 47-35, 5th in the West, will lose in the Conference Semifinals
Last season: 55-27, 3rd in the West, lost in Conference Finals 4-3
Both ESPN's and my projections are hugely predicated on the premise that Russell Westbrook returns to the Chesapeake Energy Arena this fall. And that is no sure thing, as it looks like Sam Presti and Clay Bennett are pressuring #RussBeingRuss to make a decision regarding his future this summer, a year ahead of his free agency. A Russell Westbrook trade could be a landscape-altering move, with clear candidates in the West abounding. It's probably safe to assume that Memphis is out of the running. Honestly, I would happily flip Conley and, say, Wade Baldwin IV, Jarrell Martin, Jordan Adams (obviously), Deyonta Davis, and two future unprotected first round picks for Russell Westbrook. I mean, come on people, it's Russell Westbrook.
Among playoff hopefuls, all three Texas teams could use him (although Dallas probably lacks the assets to make a deal work), as could the Jazz, Timberwolves, Kings (but good luck trading Presti 20 billion power forwards, Divac), and Pelicans. My favorite deal would be Westbrook to the Jazz, because that squad (assuming they could keep at least Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert in the trade) could be just the right kind of Golden State kryptonite this season. A young, athletic squad, with good shooting outside of Westbrook and Gobert, good passing from guys like Westbrook, Hayward, Diaw and Johnson, and serious length all over the place.
Realistically, the Jazz would probably have to surrender one of their three young core guys, plus plenty of recent draft picks, to make this happen. If you were Sam Presti, would you settle for a package of Derrick Favors (still just 25!), Dante Exum, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, and a future unprotected first-rounder or two? Maybe, right?
ESPN's projected record: 43-39
My projected record: 55-27, 3rd in the West, will lose in the Conference Semifinals
Last season: 42-40, 7th in the West, swept in Conference Quarterfinals
I appreciate that ESPN is factoring the Grizzlies’ not-insignificant injury history into their estimations, but even still, it’s hard to see Memphis being beset by such bad luck again. ESPN themselves noted this in their own ranking!! "A total of 28 players recorded a minute for the Grizzlies last season, an NBA single-season record," comes the report. ESPN justifies the diss by citing "age and health" as the big detriments to another 50-win season. The site's double-standard age-ism has clouded their Grizz judgment, but has apparently had no ill effects in their estimation of the Spurs' anticipated finish.
Granted, Gregg Popovich and company manage their older guys' minutes better than anybody, but last year's Dave Joerger Memphis vintage handled that department pretty well, too. Most of the injuries were not the result of an overextended roster. 30/31 year-old center Marc Gasol averaging 34.4 minutes a game was probably the only exception to that rule, and now that he's recovering from a serious foot surgery, it's going to be tough for Beale Street brass to justify playing him any more than 30-32 minutes a night. No one else on the roster logged 32 minutes or more in average time on-court last season. The next-highest after Gasol were 31.4 (Conley) and 29.6 (Randolph).
Barring a breakout from Wade Baldwin or something, nobody on this squad should average more than 32 minutes a night, and Memphis now has the depth to make that happen without losing too much balance. Staggering the minutes of good passers like Conley, Parsons, and Gasol will be a big boon for David Fizdale. One of those three guys should be on the floor at all times.
Slotting Memphis so low, with such a similar record to such an anomalous season, feels really short-sighted, no? Lot of recency bias here from those Connecticut hooligans, despite a lot of offseason movement. The Grizzlies limped to a 42-40 record and another playoff berth last year on the backs of Zach Randolph, the Eighth Grader, and a patchwork line-up of D-League journeymen. Their best player last season, Marc Gasol, missed 30 games. Their second-best player, Mike Conley, missed 26. Their fourth-best player, Tony Allen, missed 18. Their fifth-best player, Courtney Lee, missed 31. Even Randolph lost 14 games to injury. From 2010-2015, the Grizzlies won an average of 63% of their games, equivalent to 52 victories in an 82-game season.
In the Grizzlies' prior two healthy seasons (Gasol's knee sprain in the middle of the 2013-14 season cost him 23 games that year), they won 55 (2015) and 56 (2013) contests. And now they have Chandler Parsons who, when healthy, is a better wing than anyone they had in those two seasons (with all due respect to Courtney Lee). Assuming Memphis's core four can stay relatively healthy, and even factoring in potential moderate declines from their starting 4/5 contingent, they should get right back into 54-57 win territory. In a freshly-depleted West, anything in that range should get them a top-five finish this season.
It would be nice to see any of the Grizzlies' more athletic young pieces step up this season (Baldwin, JaMychal Green, Deyonta Davis... DJ Stephens?), but it won’t be imperative to reaching my anticipated win total. The Fiz Grizz’s Big Four of Conley (who’ll be just 29 by the season opener), Parsons (28 by the opener), Randolph (35), and Gasol (31) figure to have a bounce-back season health-wise, and Chandler should help ease Randolph’s minutes burden to start the season, while Davis and Wright will hopefully do that for Gasol.
Starting 2-guard Tony Allen turns 35 in January, although Joerger was already beginning to ease off his minutes tallies last season. The loss of Courtney Lee may uncomfortably reverses that trend, but here's hoping Allen doesn't get too far past 27 minutes a night. Back to the young guys -- Baldwin had a solid Summer League showing, despite shooting just 28.6% (yikes) from the field. As always, though, Vegas Summer League performances run the risk of being nothing more than desert mirages.
Some of you may grumble at my way-too-early playoff prognosis for the new Glam 'N' Grind (Grind 'N' Shine?) squad. Well, this is where that youthful depth becomes integral. Either the kids step up in a big way, or they show enough promise to at least sucker another team into taking some of them back in a win-now swap move. Regardless of how we feel about ESPN's disrespectful projections, there is no doubt the window for this roster, as currently comprised, is closing. Chandler Parsons may buy the Grizz some time, but even he is no spring chicken -- those knees are showing some wear and tear already. The Grizzlies need at least one more key cog to really challenge Golden State. Even without that piece, they are the second contending team in the West with the elements in place to pester the Warriors.
The Grizzlies play an old-school, ground-and-pound game, and we saw how much they pestered the Warriors in Steve Kerr's first season heading the NorCal behemoths. Making the Warriors play at half-court speeds, and forcing Draymond Green and, uh, Zaza Pachulia to tag-team Marc Gasol (Durant will probably have to take Parsons and log spot minutes guarding Randolph), will bother them. The long-limbed Grizzlies will hack Stephen Curry down low, and any time a team plays the two-time MVP physically, it throws him off his game. The big missing piece for Memphis though? An affordable, young, athletic 3-and-D shooting guard. So... Avery Bradley or JJ Redick, please.
ESPN's projected record: 41-41
Alex's projected record: 35-47, 10th in the West
Last season: 41-41, 8th in the West, lost in Conference Quarterfinals 4-1
I have no faith that the Houston Rockets will crack the top 8. James's Hardenaires sport a roster that is virtually all-offense, all the time. The notable exceptions are good defenders Patrick Beverly and Trevor Ariza, plus Clint Capela, an okay defender in limited minutes last season -- it's hard to project that he can be even a 2016 vintage of D12 on either end of the floor). Beyond that, they have a severely overrated coach, Mike D'Antoni, who has been fired before each of his past two contracts expired. To D'Antoni's credit, he seems to have overcome a crippling mustache-growth addiction to get to this point. At least, for now.
Houston's biggest offseason on-court additions, starting power forward Ryan Anderson and backup shooting guard Eric "They Called Me 'Mr. Glass'" Gordon, are injury-prone, one-way players (although ESPN is quick to point out that both players "averaged 15.0 points and 2.0 3-pointers per game last season in New Orleans"). Still, they will no doubt see their offensive numbers balloon as D'Antoni's Seven Seconds Or Less offense inflates them. It's hard to see Houston topping out beyond 35 wins this season. The sheen is starting to come off the Darryl Morey Experience in the Lone Star State, ladies and gentlemen.
ESPN's projected record: 40-42
Alex's projected record: 38-44, 9th in the West
Last season: 42-40, 7th in the West, lost in the Conference Quarterfinals 4-1
On paper, I think I like the Rockets' roster better than that of ESPN's cleverly-monikered "Dallas Warriors" (the Mavs added Bogut, Harrison Barnes and a Curry). I'm only giving Dallas the (meaningless) 9-seed because of the significant qualitative differences between Dirk Nowitzki and James Harden as team leaders and Rick Carlisle and Mike D'Antoni as roster-adaptable head coaches.
ESPN's projected record: 39-43
Alex's projected record: 41-41, 8th in the West, will lose in the Conference Quarterfinals
Last season: 29-53, 13th in the West
Although ESPN anticipates the Wolves to post "[o]ne of the biggest projected win increases next season," they still have Minny's Finest finishing out of the top 8. A Tom Thibodeau-coached and -managed team led by the last two rookies of the year, featuring the guy many saw as the third best prospect in this year's draft, Kris Dunn (taken at #5), has serious playoff potential. To be fair, ESPN had them finishing just two losses worse than their expected 8-seed, the Houston Rockets, so they are aware that these Baby Wolves could really take a big leap. A fun note from their panel: "Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds per game in his rookie season -- the last five rookies to do that before him were Blake Griffin, Elton Brand, Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal." Just imagine what the 20 year-old is going to pull off in year two.
(Stats provided by basketball-reference.com, NBA.com/stats and ESPN.com/nba/statistics )