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Windows in the West

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As Clipper fans, we have quite a lot of experience surveying the landscape in the off-season, looking for signs of future opportunity.  The NBA playoffs are the ultimate zero-sum game - there are eight spots available, and like a hopeful at an overcrowded night club, not only do you have to impress the doorman, you also have to wait for someone else to leave before he'll let you in.

The last couple of off-seasons, the Clippers chances of returning to the playoffs didn't look good - not just because the team didn't seem to make enough positive changes, but also because the rest of the west figured to be pretty good - more or less as good as ever.  Indeed, from 2007 to 2008, only the Warriors dropped out of the West playoff picture - and they won 48 games!  It took a 17 game improvement, from 39 wins to a conference second 56 wins, for the Hornets to displace them.  A similar situation played out this season - Phoenix missed the playoffs, while still winning 46 games, and it took a 13 game improvement, from 41 wins to 54, for Portland to push them out.  Surveying the situation the last couple of years, it's looked pretty bleak for the non-playoff teams in the West.  Basically, you need a young all star, almost an MVP candidate, like Chris Paul or Brandon Roy, to get past the playoff bouncer.

So even in the most optimistic views the last couple of seasons, it's been unlikely that the Clippers could join the party.  And there wasn't much optimism, not with Elton Brand's injury in summer 2007, followed by his defection in summer 2008.  But more importantly, the good teams in the West just didn't look like the were quite ready to leave the party.

But that may be changing.  Three teams were eliminated in the first round in the West while winning one game each, and those series were arguably even more one-sided than the 4 games to 1 results imply.  Moreover, it's not without good reason that those teams lost their series - they have issues that appear to bring their long term success into question.

New Orleans - The Hornets were completely embarrassed by the Nuggets in round one.  They managed to win one game by 2 points - losing the other four by 19, 15, 58 and 21 for an average margin of defeat of 22 in the five games series.  To be certain, injuries contributed to their futility in the series, not to mention that Denver is a buzz saw right now.  But although most of the team was dealing with one injury or another, Tyson Chandler was the only member of the team to actually miss a game, and he only missed one.  

More importantly, the Hornets are at a crossroads this offseason.  Chris Paul's maximum extension kicks in this summer, pushing their payroll above the luxury tax threshold at over $76M.  And this is a team in the smallest market in the NBA, with an owner having financial trouble.  The Hornets tried to get rid of Chandler's contract in a straight salary dump, despite the fact that they were in the midst of a playoff race, back in February.  That deal was canceled by the Thunder over concerns about Chandler's turf toe - and although he's been struggling with a different injury, the Thunder are looking nonetheless prophetic in shying away from the injury-prone center.  It's clear that the Hornets will try desperately, regardless of what it does to their basketball chances, to shed payroll this summer.  With Paul, David West, Chandler and Peja Stojakovic all making at least $9M next season, at least one of them will have to go.  It won't be Paul, and there won't be much market for Stojakovic or Chandler - facts that have stoked rumors that the relative bargain West, an All Star at $9M per season, may be dealt during the summer.

Utah - It's not particularly shameful to lose a playoff series 4 games to 1 against the Lakers.  LA was after all by far the best team in the Western Conference this season.  The fact that Utah dropped all the way to the 8th position, forcing their inevitable defeat against the one seed, is probably the bigger concern.  The last couple of off-seasons, you would have put Utah on the list of 'up and coming' Western conference teams - with one of the best point guards in the league in 24 year old Deron Williams and an all star at power forward in 27 year old Carlos Boozer.  But a 48 win season had to be considered a disappointment after 54 wins the prior year, and injuries don't seem to explain the drop off.  In fact, the Jazz were as healthy has they had been all season in the final month, yet they limped to the finish line losing 11 of their final 18 games. 

And like the Hornets, the Jazz have some pretty significant money issues to deal with this summer.  Three key players have contract options - Boozer, Mehmut Okur and Kyle Korver.  Meanwhile, Paul Millsap, who played like an all star in Boozer's absence this season, is a restricted free agent.  At their option contract levels, and without Millsap accounted for, next season's payroll is already above $70M - meaning that if the Jazz bring back this roster they'll be paying the luxury tax, something that seems almost unimaginable in small market Salt Lake City.  It's hard to know what's going to happen - Boozer has said in the past that he would opt out, but is now saying he plans to stay in Utah.  Still, we know what the word of a Duke power forward is worth.  At any rate, it seems unlikely that they can or would keep both Boozer and Millsap, both making big coin while playing the same position.

San Antonio -The Spurs problem is more straightforward: they're getting old.  For season after season, they've relied on their big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.  And season after season, they've seemed to be able to place role players around the big three and get enough productivity to contend for championships.  But the big three are getting older (and more signficantly, injury-prone), while the role-player magic may be running out.

It seems like we've been saying it for years, but the supporting cast in San Antonio always looks suspect.  Still, when they won the title in 2003, they had a young Stephen Jackson, and Bruce Bowen was 31.  In 2005, Bowen (33), Brent Barry (33) and Robert Horry made significant contributions to their title team, and Rasho Nesterovich was a serviceable seven footer who allowed Tim Duncan to play the four.  The 2007 title team featured Michael Finley (33), Bowen (35) and Barry (35) as the fourth, fifth and sixth leading scorers, not to mention the 36 year old Horry hip-checking Steve Nash in the playoffs.  

Throughout the regular season this year, it seemed like the team was getting an inordinate amount of productivity out of fringe NBA players like Roger Mason and Matt Bonner, while Finley (35), Bowen (37) and Kurt Thomas (35) were among the ten oldest players in the entire league.  But the playoffs are different.  In their series against the Mavs, Parker was unbelievably good (he's still only 26) and Duncan was his usual level of great (he's 33, but his style of play should allow him to be very effective for several more years) - but everyone else was terrible.  With Ginobili missing almost half of the season and all of the playoffs with a recurring ankle injury, the Spurs didn't have enough - not nearly enough - to compete.

Don't count the Hornets, Jazz or Spurs out - not by a long shot.  They've all got young, really talented point guards, and multiple all stars on their teams.  Ginobili may bounce back from his injury, and based on past history, the Spurs might certainly be able to put a supporting cast around their still big three.  Chris Paul is one of perhaps five players in the league that any coach would want to build around.  And the Utah roster will likely remain deep and talented, even if they lose a piece or two.  But for the first time in a while, the cracks are beginning to show in these playoff teams.

The other first round loser remains on the rise nonetheless.  Portland is the youngest team in the league and is clearly going to be better next season through a natural maturation process. 

But even the West teams who are still playing would seem to have some issues.  Dallas bounced back some this season, but Jason Kidd is a 35 year old free agent, Josh Howard has had ongoing ankle issues, and the team is already pretty thin.  Houston is playing well without Tracy McGrady, but has him and what's left of his knees on their books for over $20M next season and Ron Artest is an unrestricted free agent.  Denver has looked close to unbeatable in the playoffs, and their top five players are locked up - but their next four are all free agents, and Stan Kroenke is unlikely to go back above the luxury tax threshold after working so hard to get under it.  Their issues are compounded by the fact that they don't hold the 'Bird' rights for Chris Anderson and Dahntay Jones - so they'll have to use their cap exceptions just to keep some of their key pieces.  And it's not like the 46 win Suns are expected to be back on top next season, with three starters in their mid-30s.

All of this would be ever so promising, if the Clippers had realistic reasons to be hopeful about next season.  But while the roster would seem to have enough talent to at least be in the mix for some of these possibly vacant playoff spots, there was really nothing in the team's performance all season to make one believe they will be.