In my post last week, I wrote about the reasons why the Western Conference playoffs are going to be so interesting, with one of the main factors being that the conference is loaded with teams who have bona fide playoff rosters. This week, my three random thoughts will focus on the six teams who are on the postseason bubble out west–the Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Jazz, Clippers, Grizzlies, and Pelicans, and which one of them has the best shot to upset the conference royalty.
As long as Kawhi Leonard comes back relatively soon, I believe that Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, and Oklahoma City are locks for the postseason. For symmetry’s sake, along with the fact that they are probably the conference’s fifth best team, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be excluded from this week’s discussion.
All-Stars aren’t Enough
The Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans have built their teams with a similar recipe, but the ingredients could not be more different. The Blazers are built around two guards, both of whom are primarily scorers and prefer to do their scoring from the perimeter. They completed their ‘big two-and-a-half’ by dealing for Jusuf Nurkic at last year’s trade deadline, giving them some kind of presence in the middle. These three guys are supported by a cast of role players, mostly versatile athletic wings who can hit the occasional open shot, or rim-running big men who protect the paint. None of them create their own shot, and there is virtually never a time that Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum are not on the floor, and when either run of them are, the offense will always run through them.
The Pelicans had a team that was essentially Anthony Davis and a bunch of role players, before they flipped a bunch of those role players for DeMarcus Cousins. Now, the team is centered on two uniquely versatile bigs, perhaps the two best in the league, both of whom can impact the game in myriad ways. Beyond that, the team has Jrue Holiday, who is slightly above average as a starting point guard, and a bunch of other pieces that can hardly be classified as role players. Even more so than Portland, the Pelicans rely on their two all-stars to carry the entire load on offense.
Thus far, neither team has been particularly impressive, with Portland sitting at 5-4, including a dramatic late win against the Lakers on Friday, and New Orleans struggling at 3-5, despite exceptionally strong starts from both Davis and Cousins. The two bigs are averaging approximately a combined 57 points, 25 rebounds, and nine assists per game, numbers that are even skewed downward a little bit because Davis exited one of the games very early with a minor knee injury.
Although it is exciting to have two elite talents on your team at once, these teams stand no chance to overcome the West’s super teams, who combine multiple stars with quality depth and, often, great coaching. All four of those guys can fill up the stat sheet, but dependence on two stars and very few other reliable players is not a recipe to defeat the Western Conference’s elite. Simply because of their overwhelming size, the Pelicans could form an uncomfortable matchup for the Warriors, but the team has not shown enough consistency to create any real fear in potential playoff opponents.
Both these teams are in tough spots for the long run. They are both clearly one more relatively big piece away from contending. McCollum, Lillard, Holiday, and Davis are on expensive long-term contracts, and Cousins will unavoidably join them if he re-signs with New Orleans. This means that their ability to maneuver in the future is rather hamstrung, especially if they hope to keep their cores intact.
I believe that both these teams are going to struggle to make the playoffs, and if they get there, they have little to no shot of making any noise against the big dogs. Moving into next summer, they will need to make important decisions, and it would not come as a huge surprise if either or both of these franchises decided to blow it up by the start of next season.
The League is in an Identity Crisis
As the NBA grows into a more analytic-focused league, many teams have transitioned into offensive-focused, pace-and-space, and primarily three point shooting teams. Four of the five best teams in the league last season by record were also four of the top five in three point attempts.
As the league has grown into this more uniform style of play, teams with unique styles of play or identities are disappearing. Most of the great teams are offensive juggernauts who run, spread the floor, and move the ball quickly. Most of the teams that don’t play this way have become somewhat irrelevant, and most of them don’t have their own characteristics by which they can be distinguished. There are very few competitive teams who aren’t either predicated on these ideals or led by a unique NBA star who can compensate for any other shortcomings.
Two teams in the Western Conference this season that have gotten off to strong starts based not on a high-octane offense, but on a defensive identity that aims to slow opponents down, grind the pace to a halt, and make up for somewhat deficient offenses. What makes these two so impressive to me is that they have managed to combine the strong defense that their rosters are built for with elements of the modern NBA in order to increase their potential for success.
The Memphis Grizzlies are, once again, one of the league’s most surprising teams. They have beaten both the Rockets (twice) and Warriors en route to a 5-3 record. Their defense ranks third in the league, giving up only 96.3 points per game, and teams shoot a league-worst 41% from the field against Memphis.
The Grizzlies have been the recognized as among the toughest and best defensive teams in the league for a number of years now, and although the personnel has changed, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are still around to carry the grit and grind culture. Last season, the team brought in former Miami Heat assistant coach David Fizdale to coach the team, with the aspiration that the Grizzlies could adapt to the modern era: Playing quicker, shooting more threes, and simply scoring more points.
Fizdale did implement some new wrinkles, as Gasol developed into an outside threat, hitting 104 threes after knocking down only 12 in his first eight seasons in Memphis. The Grizzlies also moved long-time power forward Zach Randolph to the bench, giving him a sixth man role in which he eventually thrived. Then, the organization cut ties with Randolph completely as he left town in the off-season, as did “Grindfather”, six-time NBA all-defensive team selection Tony Allen.
These moves permitted the team to move along with the small ball trend that was sweeping the NBA, along with ridding themselves of one of the league’s worst perimeter shooters. Memphis’ changes haven’t yielded much statistical change, as they ranked second to last in points scored and third in points allowed in 2016-17. This year, the Grizzlies rank 25th and third, respectively. The Grizzlies have maintained these results because they have created a culture of a hard-nosed, defensive-minded team, and as long as the pillars of this team remain, that identity will not change.
Utah remains poised to take Memphis’ title as the NBA’s premier defensive squad. They ranked first in points allowed per game last season, and have started well again this season, so far finding themselves just ahead of the Grizzlies and trailing only Boston, giving up 96.0 points per game. Utah’s defensive strength lies, of course, with Rudy Gobert, the league’s most influential rim protector. By surrounding him with length and players that can switch between different positions seamlessly, the Jazz have become a nightmare to score against.
The Jazz, though is even more offensively challenged than their counterparts in Memphis. Points were hard enough to come by last season when the offense was led by all-star Gordon Hayward, but now that he has left for Boston, the team doesn’t really have a go-to guy on offense. As a way to combat that, Utah has preached ball movement, and their offense with littered with guys who are comfortable sharing the ball. Ricky Rubio has been a revelation so far this season, particularly with his outside shooting, and if rookie Donovan Mitchell can continue to develop at the rapid pace he has shown, Utah might find themselves with a reliable scoring threat.
Strong defense always makes for uncomfortable matchups in the postseason. If the Jazz or Grizzlies meet up with one of the conference favorites, which they likely will given that they should be in the lower half of the Western Conference playoff picture, fans can be sure that they will give up a good fight. Ultimately, for these two teams, the talent gap is too wide, but it is good to know that teams short on offensive firepower can still find room in this league if they can develop an identity and stay true to it.
Meet the NBA’s Dangerous ‘2k’ Teams
The next two teams have been two of my favorite teams to watch thus far this season, and are two of the third-tier Western Conference squads that I believe will be most dangerous come playoff time. I have dubbed the Los Angeles Clippers and the Denver Nuggets as the NBA’s ‘2k’ teams. Why? Because they are, as far as I know, the only two teams that could realistically and logically be built via an NBA 2k fantasy draft. Here’s how the round by round picks would go for each squad:
- Blake Griffin/Nikola Jokic
- DeAndre Jordan/Paul Millsap
- Danilo Gallinari/Gary Harris
- Patrick Beverley/Jamal Murray
- Lou Williams/Will Barton
- Austin Rivers/Kenneth Faried
- Milos Teodosic/Emmanuel Mudiay
- Montrezl Harrell/Wilson Chandler
(By the way, I actually simulated an NBA 2k fantasy draft, and every player listed fell within one round of where I have them.) So what does this mean? It means that the Clippers and Nuggets both have extremely balanced teams and that the offense can come from a number of different places, even if they both have stars who usually have the ball in their hands and serve as the primary threat.
These are two very well built teams that are versatile and employ creative offenses. The Clippers are 5-3, and have had one of the best offenses in the league to date. Blake Griffin has been able to show his full potential with Chris Paul gone, and he has excelled as the team’s focal point. He is a matchup nightmare against almost anyone, as he is quick enough to take centers off the dribble and he punishes smaller forwards on the low block. Griffin has been both one of the NBA’s most effective scorers as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls and in post-up situations. He has also displayed more confidence as an outside shooter, and he has hit multiple three pointers in every game but one this season.
Outside of Griffin, the Clippers also have Danilo Gallinari, a 6’11’ three point shooter who can handle the ball like a guard. He too creates mismatches all over the floor, especially because of his ability to easily shoot over shorter small forwards. That means that four of LA’s five starters are capable of bringing the ball up the court, making it possible to push the pace and create confusion and mismatches for the defense.
Doc Rivers’ guards also complement each other quite well, with Lou Williams providing scoring, Milos Teodosic (when he returns) playmaking ability and Patrick Beverley defensive tenacity. The team is deeper and more balanced than it was during the Chris Paul era. Paul is still among the league’s best players and a master of the point guard position, but without him to dominate the ball, the Clippers have played quickly and freely, and each player has filled their role impressively through eight games. Defensively, Los Angeles will remain competitive so long as they have DeAndre Jordan and Beverley, who are arguably the best on that side of the ball in their respective positions.
The Nuggets similarly run an offense that is predicated on speed and decisive ball movement. More than perhaps any other team in the league, their scoring comes from varied sources. Jokic and Millsap are the centerpieces, but they have six guys averaging double figures this season. The 5-4 Nuggets’ offense has failed to replicate last season’s impressive offensive output, but once Millsap and Murray find their touches, the scoring totals should improve. Like he showed in Atlanta with Al Horford, Millsap has the ability to play well with another good passing big, and his partnership with Jokic has shown early promise.
The offense should succeed because both big men can punish one-on-one defense in the post. If they can force defenders to help, they both have passing ability, and they are complemented by guys who can score both in and outside the paint. If the second half of last season is any indication, when this offense hit its stride it will put up points in bunches.
The Nuggets struggled mightily last season on defense, giving up over 111 points per game, good for fourth worst in the league. While they will likely be far from elite this season, Millsap adds an extra dimension because he is solid defender both on the perimeter and inside. The absence of both a rim protector and lockdown outside guy, though, will make stops hard to come by.
These teams combinations of real stars with a solid amount of help from the supporting cast makes these two teams dark-horses to make a run in the postseason. While the Warriors are virtually impossible to beat in a seven games series, the Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder will not want to see Los Angeles or Denver come May. I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or both of them win a round in the playoffs. Blake Griffin is the league’s most underrated superstar, and the Nuggets ability to put so many points without a clear go-to scorer is virtually unmatched in the league. These are both important traits in the playoffs, especially as underdogs. I’m keeping my eyes on these guys.