As we move through the last few weeks of July and continue to desperately cling to any basketball in the NBA Summer League and the upcoming 2012 Olympic Games, it's hard not to conjecture about how the player personnel moves will affect Western Conference standings in this coming season.
With a full summer league, training camp, and no lockout interfering with player focus on improving their game, which teams seem poised to make a jump, and which teams seem like they might take a fall?
First, here are the Western Conference playoff standings from last year (66 games):
The Spurs, once again, somehow elbowed their way to the top of the conference (though it ultimately didn't do them much good), while the Nuggets capitalized on the faltering Mavericks to secure a 6th seed and yet another unsuccessful bid against the Lakers.
This season, I think we might see some movement in the top four, and definitely in the bottom four playoff seeds. Of course, prognosticating this far in the future about playoffs that are still almost a year away is fraught with the risk of being laughably wrong, but that's part of the fun of predictions and later analysis, isn't it? Here are the moves made by the Western Conference playoff teams to date (and the team I think will replace the Utah Jazz in the 8th spot):
San Antonio Spurs:
-Re-signed Patty Mills to 1 yr/unknown
-Re-signed Tim Duncan to 3 yrs/30 million (player option)
-Re-signed Boris Diaw for 2 yrs/9 million
-Re-signed Danny Green for 3 yrs/12 million
OFFSEASON MOVES: C+
MOVEMENT: DOWN (3rd in West)
San Antonio largely reinforced its existing core. They also retained the services of Danny Green and the diminutive Patty Mills. Tim Duncan's extension will likely see him retire as a Spur. Although it would be foolish to consider the Spurs anything other than a contender with Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard, I do see them slipping a bit as age continues to take its toll on Duncan and Ginobili.
Oklahoma City Thunder:
-Signed Hasheem Thabeet to 3 yrs/3.65 million
OFFSEASON MOVES: C
MOVEMENT: UP (1st in West)
Purely a backup move, as Thabeet has never panned out from his 2nd overall pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2009. Though enormous at 7'3", Thabeet has hands even stonier than Timofey Mozgov and never quite figured out what to do with a basketball once he did catch it. With Serge Ibaka and Cole Aldritch in front of him, Thabeet will likely only see garbage time. As a team, OKC has been very quiet, but given that they made it to the Finals, I can't see many moves being made. This season, I think they'll be the top seed in the West, barring major injury.
Los Angeles Lakers:
-Traded 2 first round, 2 2nd round picks, and cash to Suns to sign Steve Nash for 3 yrs/28 million
OFFSEASON MOVES: A
MOVEMENT: UP (2nd in West)
Steve Nash is still one of the best point guards in the game, despite his advancing age, and having him feeding the ball to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol will be terrifying. Even though the Lakers' bench is still atrocious and Nash can't play a lick of defense, it's going to be a very potent collection of talents. Oh, and they still have that Kobe Bryant guy.
-Re-signed Darrell Arthur to 2 yrs/9-10 million
-Re-signed Marreese Speights for 2 yrs/8 million
-Signed Jerryd Bayless for 2 yrs/3 million
OFFSEASON MOVES: C-
MOVEMENT: DOWN (7th in West)
While the Memphis Grizzlies retained Arthur and Speights, the impending departure of the dynamic O.J. Mayo has to hurt the chances of the Grizz in the West this year. I still love their bruising front line in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Hamed Haddadi, but they have a dearth of talent on the wings and are going to be hard-pressed against teams that can hit outside shots. I think there is going to be some hangover effect from losing in humiliating fashion to the Los Angeles Clippers as well.
Los Angeles Clippers:
-Re-signed Chauncy Billups for 1 yr/4.3 million
-Extended Blake Griffin to 5 yrs/95 million
-Signed Jamal Crawford for 4 yrs/21.35 million
-4 team deal with Mavs, Jazz, and Rockets to trade Mo Williams to Jazz for Lamar Odom from Mavericks
-Used Amnesty on Ryan Gomes
-Signed Grant Hill 2 yrs/unknown
OFFSEASON MOVES: B
MOVEMENT: DOWN (6th in West)
The Clippers retained Chauncey, extended Blake Griffin (who just recently underwent yet another knee surgery), signed Jamal Crawford, and picked up "Mr. Kardashian" Lamar Odom from the Mavericks. Oh, they also somehow pried Grant Hill away from the Phoenix Suns' medical staff long enough to sign him to a 2 year contract (terms to be disclosed).
Vinny Del Negro is still their head coach. Enough said.
OFFSEASON MOVES: C+
MOVEMENT: UP (4th in West)
As we all know, the Nuggets have been very quiet, re-signing Andre Miller, signing rookie draft pick Evan Fournier, and attempting to bring back free agent JaVale McGee to a reasonable contract. They haven't made big splashes a la the Lakers or the Mavericks, which speaks a great deal to the confidence GM Masai Ujiri and George Karl have in the assets already on the team. Rudy Fernandez departed, to nobody's great surprise, and Wilson Chandler, Al Harrington and Danilo Gallinari should (hopefully) be completely healthy by the start of the season. With a full offseason, summer league, and training camp, I think this squad can reach the second round with home court advantage. Karl's job depends on it.
As of the amnesty deadline on July 17th, the Nuggets have released Birdman and signed enigmatic Anthony Randolph to a 3 year, $6 million dollar contract. While I, like many fans, am sad to see Bird go, it was clear that he was at the end of his Nuggets career and simply did not have the physical tools to compete in the NBA any longer. Godspeed, Bird, where-ever you land.
On July 18th, the Nuggets have reportedly re-signed JaVale McGee to a reported four-year, $44 million dollar contract. In the words of poster kyclef, this is the rare right contract for McGee - it's not too little, it's not too much, and lest we forget: Nene is making $52 million over those same four years. Another great move by Masai.
-Signed Chris Kaman for 1 yr/8 million
-Signed Elton Brand via amnesty bid for 1 yr/2.1 million
-Traded Ian Mahinmi to Pacers for Darren Collison/Dahntay Jones
-Amnestied Brendan Haywood
-Signed OJ Mayo
OFFSEASON MOVES: A-
MOVEMENT: UP (5th in West)
Despite losing out on the Deron Williams sweepstakes to the Brooklyn Nets, the Mavericks have quietly put together an excellent collection of offseason moves. Claiming Chris Kaman and Elton Brand (off the amnesty waiver) to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki and Rodrigue Beaubois creates an imposing frontcourt. I'm not sure how much Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones will be able to replace Jason Terry's production, however (Mayo should start for Dallas). They also managed to jettison the corpse of Brendan Haywood, who is scouting retirement teams that won't ask him to shoot free throws.
OFFSEASON MOVES: A
MOVEMENT: UP (8th in West)
Although the Suns lost the best player they've ever had (sorry, Sir Charles) in Steve Nash, they gained a bevy of excellent players in Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and Michael Beasley. Scola is still a monster in the post, and Dragic has shown that he's capable of being a starter-quality point. "Super Beas" might never figure it out between the ears, but he's still a quality player and should right in to the Suns' uptempo style. I think the Suns made the right moves to restore themselves to the Western Conference playoffs, but only barely, and will still get mashed by the Thunder. Unfortunately, having what might be the cheapest owner in the league in Robert Sarver will always hamstring the competitiveness of the Suns.
So, in my humble opinion, here's what my crystal ball reveals as far as playoff seeding goes at the end of April, 2013:
1. Oklahoma City
2. Los Angeles Lakers
3. San Antonio Spurs
4. Denver Nuggets
5. Dallas Mavericks
6. Los Angeles Clippers
7. Memphis Grizzlies
8. Phoenix Suns
I think the Jazz are going to be a lottery team this year and simply don't have the pieces needed to compete in the tough Western conference. The Grizzlies are going to fall the most, and perhaps might also miss the playoffs barring another excellent run with Randolph and Gasol. The Mavericks will remain competitive despite losing Terry and missing out on Deron, as Dirk with Brand and Kaman is still an excellent collection of bigs. Nash on the Lakers HAS to have them moving up unless something catastrophic occurs, and it's likely the Spurs will retain their consecutive playoff streak.
Let's see if I can give Nuggstradamus a run for his money!