The NBA closed out its 2012-2013 season with what was probably the best Finals in recent memory, and then launched right into an offseason with an unpredictable, trade-filled Draft night that featured the Boston Celtics tearing down the last remnants of their dynasty by sending their two aging cornerstones, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, to Brooklyn. (Hey! That’s where I live! In a basement, even!)
The free agent period then saw a flurry of activity that made the Western Conference even more brutally competitive than it had been previously. Now that the dust has mostly settled, I thought I’d take a look at the aftermath. This won’t be as comprehensive as the piece done earlier this week by Grantland’s Zach Lowe, the best basketball analyst in the business, who summed up what all 30 teams accomplished (be it for good or ill) this offseason. Rather, I’ll just look at a couple of questions that interested me.
Are the Houston Rockets now better than my beloved Golden State Warriors? And where do both stand in the Western Conference?
The consensus answer to the first question seems to be “yes,” as the Rockets added Dwight Howard, the league’s top free agent (given that the Clippers, once they got Doc Rivers, were a lock to keep Chris Paul). Many analysts have asserted that the Howard signing makes the Rockets one of the top two or three teams in the West, and a title contender. However, I’m not so sure–and I’m not even sure they’re better than the Dubs. Last year the Dubs finished 47-35, sixth in the conference, while the Rockets were 45-37, tied for seventh. Any astute analyst would point out that the Rockets scored 3.5 points per game more than their opponents, while the Dubs had a positive differential of just 0.9–numbers indicating that the Dubs overachieved and the Rockets were the better team.
However, the Rockets were bounced quickly out of the playoffs by OKC, while the Dubs upset Denver before falling to San Antonio in a tight second round battle. I recognize that playoff performances are subject to small sample size wonkery, and of course the quality of those first round matchups was wildly different, but I think it’s important to consider those playoff results, because they do tell us something about the teams, in particular the Dubs. Specifically, the Dubs put up that 47-35 record largely without Andrew Bogut, who missed much of the year with injury and was hobbled when he did play. Bogut’s return to prominence was a huge factor in the team’s playoff run. Obviously it’s treacherous to be dependent on two players (Bogut and Steph Curry) with chronic ankle issues, but if the Dubs can get 70 games out of Curry and even 60 out of Bogut, I think they can improve on last year’s regular season record. And I haven’t even mentioned that David Lee was hurt for most of that playoff run, which allowed the Dubs to discover that Harrison Barnes can be a serious weapon as a small-ball power forward.
And there’s another reason that the Dubs should improve: They signed Andre Iguodala, the second best free agent on the market.
Iguodala fits the team perfectly–he’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, he thrives in the open court, and he’s a good distributor who can play on the ball a few minutes every game, allowing Curry to run around off screens, which should mitigate the loss of backup point guard Jarrett Jack. I was in shock when I found out the Dubs had cleared the cap space to sign Iguodala (they got the tanking Utah Jazz to take the execrable contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins in exchange for a couple of draft picks that will probably be low in the first round anyway). Then, even better, the Dubs convinced Denver to sign-and-trade Iguodala, a move which got the Dubs a salary cap exemption they were able to use to fill out their bench with Jermaine O’Neal, Marreese Speights, and Toney Douglas. None of those guys are world-beaters, but the depth will be important for a frontcourt that, in addition to worrying about Bogut, also lost Festus Ezeli to knee surgery.
Meanwhile, the Rockets added Dwight Howard, who is still widely considered the best center in the game, but who also has gone through at least two years of weirdness, injury, and diminished play. He’s still one of the best players in the league, but you could easily argue that he’s already past his peak. The Warriors were involved in the Howard sweepstakes, but I, for one, was relieved they’re not the team that gave him $88,000,000. He’ll obviously help the Rockets’ defense and rebounding, but he’s going to a team that runs an offense similar to the one he was so unhappy in with the Lakers. James Harden is great, but should we really be THAT excited about the Rockets? Their backup center, Omer Asik, is pissed that he’s now a backup and wants to be traded. Chandler Parsons is good, but people are a little too excited about a guy who was just a slightly above player according to the stats from 82games.com. (Warning: If you’re a basketball geek, you shouldn’t click that link unless you have a lot of time to kill.) Their point guards are Jeremy Lin (who I love, but it’s pretty clear he’s a third guard more than he the superstar of the Linsanity days) and Patrick Beverley (best known for being the asshole who tore Russell Westbrook’s meniscus).
I think the Rockets improved themselves, and they’re certainly a 50-win team now. But are they a 60-win team now? I don’t see it. Meanwhile, after their second round loss to the Spurs, I said that I thought the Dubs could win 50-55 games and contend for the Western Conference Finals next year. That assessment may have been a bit rosy, but in light of the improvements they made, I see no reason to downgrade it.
So, look at the Western Conference landscape now. You have the Spurs, who will win 55-60 games because they’re the Spurs. You have OKC, still the home of Durant and Westbrook. You have the Clippers, who won 56 games last year, and now got themselves a real coach, kept CP3, and added a couple of solid players in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley (I like what the Clips did, and man, I cannot wait for those Clips-Dubs matchups next year). Memphis canned their coach, but kept the core of their team together. The one top 5 team that’s likely to fall off is Denver, who lost Iguodala and coach George Karl. Basically, we’re probably looking at a fight for seeding from 3-6 between the Clips, Grizzlies, Dubs and Rockets. A very, very good team will be the 6-seed in the Western Conference playoffs next year. And the playoffs … Man, is that gonna be fun. My favorite football team, the Niners, are a Super Bowl contender this year, and yet I’m somehow more excited for basketball this coming season than I am for football.
Also, the Lakers are gonna suuuuuuuuuuuuuuck (cue Nelson Muntz). Man, is that gonna be fun.
Bonus Question: Who won the Celtics-Nets trade?
The answer, so for as I can see, is both teams. At the same time, I think both teams also lost the trade. Allow me to explain.
For the Celtics, it was time to tear it down. The glory days were over, and Pierce and KG can’t carry a team for a whole season anymore, especially not when Rajon Rondo is going to miss a chunk of next year recovering from knee surgery. It made sense to tank for this year’s draft lottery, which is getting hyped as the best since the LeBron-Darko-Carmelo-Bosh-Wade (one of these things is not like the others) draft of 2003. It also made sense to get all those distant future draft choices from the Nets, because Brooklyn is already an old team that’s probably going to be a complete shitshow in a couple of years, meaning that the Celtics may be looking at extra high lottery picks in their future.
The downside is, they traded the two most iconic players the team has had since Larry Bird, one of whom was a guy who really should have retired having played every game of his career as a Celtic. I think if I was a Celtics fan I’d understand this trade, but I’d still kinda feel like Danny Ainge took a shit on me.
For the Nets, it made sense because they were already all-in with their current roster, the gutless squad that got crushed in an elimination game, at home, by a Bulls team with no Derrick Rose and a hobbled Joakim Noah. Their billionaire Russian owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, doesn’t care about the salary cap or luxury tax; he just wants to win now, especially with the new arena and the fledgling Brooklyn fan base. And this trade will make them better in the short term: A crunch time lineup of Lopez-KG-Pierce-Johnson-Williams is pretty sick. And signing Andrei Kirilenko to an under market deal for depth was a great move (even if I do think the contract negotiations between Kirilenko and Prokhorov probably played out like the knife fight scene in Eastern Promises (that link’s probably NSFW)).
The downside is, as nice as that crunch time five looks, I don’t think the team’s ceiling is as high as they’d like to believe. They’re not better than Miami. They’re not better than Chicago if the Bulls have D-Rose back at 100%. They’re probably not better than Indiana. Yes, they probably leapfrogged the Knicks for the City Title (we could be set up for a pretty entertaining first round Nets-Knicks series next year), but they still look at best like a 4-seed who’s a second round out for one of the real title contenders. And the cost of that ceiling is the future: A couple of years from now, the Barclay’s Center is gonna be the basketball equivalent of a meteor crater, with the carcasses of all those dinosaurs All-Stars scattered around it.