Marc Stein has released his first Power Rankings of the 2012-13 season. A quick scan down to the middle teams shows support for something that I have been thinking to be true about this Western Conference playoff landscape: There will be four teams fighting for two playoff spots. They are the Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors and, yes, our very own Minnesota Timberwolves. If you follow Stein’s writing, you know that he loves Dallas and, like many others in the NBA media, quickly took to the Rubio-led Timberwolves of 2012. It comes as no surprise then, that he has them ranked slightly ahead of Utah and Golden State. Stein ranks the Wolves 14th–8th best in the West. He has Utah and Golden State ranked 16th/9th and 17th/10th respectively. He has Dallas ranked 10th overall, 6th in the West, ahead of Memphis, which he ranks 11th/7th. His Dallas bias got the best of him there. While the Mavs could surprise and do well in a Post-Jet & Chandler World, there’s no reason to expect them to finish ahead of the Grizzlies.
Why only two spots? Because there are six [barring major injury] playoff locks. They are the Lakers (2nd ranked by Stein), Thunder (3rd), Spurs (4th), Clippers (5th), Nuggets (9th), and Grizzlies (11th). If anybody has an argument for one of those six not making next year’s playoffs other than, “What if Chris Paul gets in a motorcycle accident?!” I’d like to read it in the comments section. Of the six, I think Denver is the most unpredictable, mostly because of the recent commitment to JaVale McGee. But even if JaVale flops, the Lawson-Iggy-Gallo-Faried core is too formidable to miss the playoffs entirely. The Grizzlies are underrated by Stein there — they are serious contenders to win the Western Conference. Their curb-stomping of the 2011 Spurs wasn’t a fluke–they nearly beat the Thunder right after it, taking them to seven games. The Grizz are for real.
Why four teams for those two spots? Most of the others are flatout rebuilding. This includes New Orleans (20th), Phoenix (24th), and Houston (26th). Sacramento (29th) doesn’t really know what it’s doing. I stupidly predicted them to surprise in a good way last year, and they were awful. This only leaves Portland. I’m not sure what they’re doing. Check out their depth chart. If Lillard and Leonard log big minutes, that sounds like rebuilding. But can a team that also starts Nic Batum, Wes Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge really be considered a rebuilder or tanker? In this Western Conference, I think the answer is yes. I don’t expect Portland to contend for a playoff spot.
So what about these four teams? Stein says of the Mavs:
After missing out on D-Will, Dallas never dreamed it could offer only one-year deals to the rest of the free-agent pack and still come away with Mayo, Kaman, Brand and Collison. The problem? The West is suddenly super deep again. And now Dallas has to score in Free Agency 2013.
Dallas barely made the playoffs last year, going 36-30. That’s a 45-win pace. Does that get it done in 2012-13? I doubt it. So will they improve? Jason Terry became O.J. Mayo. Likely downgrade. Jason Kidd became Darren Collison. Likely upgrade. Will Brand and Kaman stay healthy? Who knows. Dirk was admittedly out of shape when last season began. He partied after the 2011 championship. A lot. Chances are, Dirk will play a better full season of hoops than he did last year. Maybe even a return to MVP candidacy. I think there are enough questions with Dallas to keep them out of the “lock” group, but enough fire power with Dirk to have them atop the foursome of playoff hopefuls.
Percentage chance Dallas makes playoffs: 80
Stein says of the Wolves:
When was the last time the Wolves were this interesting? Probably 2003-04 when they went to the West finals before trading away Sam (I Am) Cassell. We’re still not quite sure how soon Rubio will be back from knee surgery, but K-Love and his overhauled supporting cast are must-see regardless.
The Wolves were 21-20 after that earth-shattering loss to the Lakers when Ricky went down. That’s a 42-win pace. That won’t be good enough this year. How many wins does the influx of wings (Roy, Shved, AK47) add? How many losses does Ricky’s early absence add? If we assume that it’ll take until January 1 for Ricky to be back in the starting lineup, that’s 27 games. We all saw how bad things were without him last year. The reason that I expect things to be less bad this year is that Adelman has a full training camp to prepare an offense that is less dependent on point guard creating. He’ll figure something out.
Percentage chance Minnesota makes playoffs: 50
Stein says of the Jazz:
In the early days of the Pop era, Utah was the franchise San Antonio always tried to emulate. Now the Jazz have imported Dennis Lindsey from the Spurs’ front-office mafia to help figure out who on the frontline stays or goes (Jefferson? Millsap?) to make way for Favors and Kanter.
Utah had the same 36-30 record that Dallas did, barely making the playoffs. A reason to expect improvement would be that Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are young and showing signs of becoming very good players. In their piece on pick-and-roll pairings, Beckley Mason and Brett Koremenos listed Hayward-Favors as an “emerging pairing” for 2012-13:
Make no mistake about it, Favors — a Stoudemire clone — is going to be an absolute force in any pick-and-roll no matter who is handling the ball. But don’t sleep on Hayward. The third year guard has an enviable combination of size, handles, shooting ability and willingness to pass that very few wing players can match. He could function in much the same way as Hedo Turkoglu did in his Magic heyday. Putting these two together won’t make Jazz fans forgot about Stockton and Malone, but they have a chance to be quite good in their own right.
(You might recall that the Wolves fell below their expected draft spot in 2010, missing out on Favors by one spot. They then selected Wes Johnson, five spots before Hayward went to the Jazz. To quote Bill Simmons, excuse me while I light myself on fire.) Back to the Jazz’s playoff hopes: Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are still in their prime. Ty Corbin, one of the six dozen former Timberwolves employees now coaching in the NBA, seems to know what he’s doing. Utah will fight hard for a playoff spot.
Percentage chance Utah makes playoffs: 50
Stein says of the Warriors:
New management has overhauled so much, but the expectation that something (most likely health) will go awry lives on. So let’s see if the Dubs — deepest roster since 2007′s We Believe squad — with Bogut, Curry and D-Lee ready to the start the season — can hush the doomsayers for once.
Health is the biggest question that the Warriors face. Curry’s ankles. Bogut’s mangled arm. They need those two in the lineup for 75 games minimum. Another question is whether Mark Jackson can coach. He had no experience when he took the job, and his first year didn’t go so well. A question that I have is, what kind of leap might Klay Thompson make this year? He’s being compared to Reggie Miller (insider article) and in the little I’ve seen of him, I’ve been really impressed. He has a great understanding of using screens to get open for his shot. And his shooting stroke is flawless. He’s tall. Lots of good things going on with Klay. Wouldn’t surprise me if he has a few seasons of efficient 20 points per game. Maybe even this season.
Percentage chance Golden State makes playoffs: 20
What do y’all think?