Truly a WILD WEST in NBA Playoffs

 HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREVIEW

by Mathew Hurley, Managing Editor

As promised we're back with two days of NBA Playoff previews here in the NOTEBOOK. We've decided to focus on the West first for two reasons. First, it's the most exciting of the brackets with SO MANY clear and dangerous threats to the Lakers. Secondly, the Saturday schedule has three games from the East...so it made sense to focus on the East Saturday.

If you were with us through MARCH MADNESS, you know we focused on two-point defense. Though the stat is hugely important in the NBA in terms of separating the best from the rest, it's not going to help us much this year because the Western contenders are so even!

WESTERN CONFERENCE TWO-POINT DEFENSE
1...Phoenix .475
2...San Antonio .476
3...Oklahoma City .476
4...Utah .481
5...LA Lakers .482
6...Denver .487
7...Dallas .488
8...Portland .498

If you round everyone to the nearest percentage, you have the top five teams all at 48%, with the next two at 49%, and Portland straggling at 50%. To us, the stragglers are meaningful. We do consider the relative weaknesses of Denver and Portland to be important indicators for the postseason. Dallas is playing tougher since they traded for toughness, and is probably up with the top five in terms of what to expect from this point forward.

So, two-point defense allows us to "disqualify" a couple of teams from championship consideration. Or, at least count them as longshots. And, frankly, we're skeptical of anything that says Phoenix plays great defense even when we respect the stat!

We've talked a lot about defensive efficiency this year and last. That's points allowed per possession. This may give a better overall sense in the NBA because some foul-happy teams hurt themselves by putting opponents on the free-throw line. Others are poor at guarding the perimeter, which hurts their ability to shut people down.

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE DEFENSIVE EFFICIENCY RANKINGS
Los Angeles Lakers: 5th in the NBA
Oklahoma City: 8th
San Antonio: 9th
Utah: 11th
Dallas: 12th
Portland: 13th
Denver: 16th
Phoenix: 19th

Phoenix drops down to 19th, and dead last among the Western playoff teams. That feels better. This just isn't a year to put much weight on two-point defense in the NBA. Efficiency is the better indicator. The Lakers jump to the top of the pack, fitting for a top seed playing for a coach who's always emphasized defense. San Antonio is top 10, which is standard for their current dynasty.

We've given Oklahoma City a lot of credit for this stat already this season. Please be aware if you're new to NBA handicapping this year that the Thunder are in the playoffs because of DEFENSE, not because Kevin Durant won a scoring title. The league markets stars. Defense wins championships. Durant happens to be a star on a team that plays very strong defense.

Again we see Portland and Denver bringing up the rear, which is why we're not very enthusiastic about their chances in the first round, or beyond should they advance to the second. It should be noted that some of the softer West defenses caught a break when the Lakers and Thunder drew each other in the first round.

The full mantra we repeat to you endlessly over the years is DEFENSE AND REBOUNDING WIN CHAMPIONSHIPS! Let's look at rebound rate...

WESTERN CONFERENCE REBOUND RATE RANKINGS
3...San Antonio
4...Utah
6...Oklahoma City
7...Portland
8...LA Lakers
13...Phoenix
21...Denver
24...Dallas

The Spurs dynasty continues. Five teams are in the top eight of the whole league, and any of those teams can use this category to control a big game. That gives Portland some hope to be competitive after the early bad news about defense. Phoenix takes another hit in terms of what "championship" basketball means. Denver is still failing to come near the profile. Dallas will be better than that in the playoffs, but the trade didn't really make them an elite team in this category.

So far we've been looking at full season rankings. Normally, that's all it takes to get a read on everyone heading into the playoffs. You'd prefer a big sample size to draw conclusions from after all. The problem this year is that recent form isn't necessarily lining up with all the indicators!

Here's what we mean on a team-by-team basis in seed order...

ANALYTICAL MONKEY WRENCHES:

The LAKERS have been playing their worst basketball of the season in recent weeks. Kobe Bryant's finger hasn't healed. Ron Artest can be a poison during times of trouble, as well as a guy who launches up ill-advised treys at the worst possible time. The Lakers may not be in as good a shape as their defense and rebounding stats suggest.

The MAVERICKS toughened up with a late season trade, and have been playing with confidence in big games. They're definitely better right now than those full season stats would suggest in terms of playoff potential. Now much better is the big question.

The SUNS have been on fire in recent weeks, with both Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire seeming to adopt a "Now is the Time" mantra. For the aging Nash, it may be his last shot to reach the finals. For Stoudemire, it's time to prove to the league he's an all-around star rather than just a dunking machine.

The NUGGETS have been in a near free-fall of late, as least compared to what others in the West have been doing. The absence of George Karl on the sideline has been a huge problem in big games. The players just don't have any faith in Adrian Dantley. As a result, there's been a power struggle on the floor between Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony that's proven disastrous in crunch time.

The JAZZ were as hot as the Suns coming down the stretch. But, star player Carlos Boozer injured his rib cage a few days ago. Utah isn't a threat without him. They're a BIG threat if he's anywhere near normal health.

The BLAZERS look like one of those teams that will outsmart and outhustle weak opposition, but fade down the stretch in big games vs. powers. That .498 defense on two-pointers is about to be a bigger negative than it was in the regular season.

The SPURS haven't been healthy all year! They've posted solid stats in the indicator categories anyway. If Tony Parker returns to normal, and Manu Ginobili can stay off eggshells, the seventh seeded Spurs could legitimately be the team best positioned to go the distance.

The THUNDER are extremely inexperienced. Experts have always said that playoff basketball is different than regular season basketball...and a lack of experience is a big negative. They may not play to the caliber of their regular season stat rankings as a result. It's one thing to compile stats in regular season games when you're young, energetic, and healthy. It's another to do that in the postseason when everyone but you is getting calls from officials.

The Jim Hurley Network concluded the regular season on a 36-20 run and we're ready to roll into the playoffs! Click here and learn how you can be a part of a two-month long winfest that will end with YOU pouring the champagne in mid-June and your man weeping on the sideline in frustration!

What does all of this leave us with? Let's sum it up in seed order...

#1 SEED LA LAKERS
The Lakers team we've watched the past few weeks has NO SHOT to win the West. They really have to pick up their game again, living up to their full regular season production. Championship experience will surely help a lot. It's possible that the plus or minus of what Ron Artest becomes will determine their fate.

#2 SEED DALLAS
Mark Cuban said the Mavs can beat anybody when they put their mind to it. We're less optimistic than he is about the team's chances...but more optimistic than what the stat indicators would suggest. The pieces are in place to be a serious threat. A lack of depth is likely to become a big deal as the grind takes its toll. And, a killer first round draw in San Antonio may make all that moot.

#3 SEED PHOENIX
Great recent form and a horrible playoff profile. Who knows what it means?! Phoenix at its best just missed reaching the championships a few years ago. What we're seeing now sure looks like Phoenix at its best. We'll give them the benefit of the doubt in the first round.

#4 SEED DENVER
Barely a playoff caliber team lately. Sideline turmoil and a bad profile suggest big trouble ahead. The Nuggets may have caught a break when Carlos Boozer got hurt though.

#5 SEED UTAH
No way to know until Boozer's status has cleared up. They could easily be one of the top three teams or bottom three teams on that element alone.

#6 SEED PORTLAND
A nice team that's fun to root for...but they're just a little bit behind the contenders in everything that matters.

#7 SEED SAN ANTONIO
If you only look at today's indicators, the Spurs look more like a #1 seed than a #7. They still have the same franchise philosophy that won the West in the past, with many of the same key players. Can they stay healthy?

#8 SEED OKLAHOMA CITY
An awkward mix here...with a stat profile that would suggest a #3 seed, but a lack of experience more in line with the 27th or 28th best team in the league! You gotta love it when kids play basketball the right way. We love the future of this franchise...and we're certainly open to the possibility that the future gets here quicker than anyone expects. The Lakers will have their hands FULL in this series unless the refs put Kobe on the free throw line 20 times a game.

You regulars know we can't post our official selections here in the NOTEBOOK. That information is for paying customers only. If you'd like to sign up for our playoff package, call 1-800-323-4453. Game day selections can also be purchased here at the website with your credit card.

We'll preview the East in the same fashion we used today in our Saturday report (though there may not be eight monkey wrenches in the way!). Be sure you're back with us for that. And, don't you ever forget that when championships are on the line, you need WORLD CHAMPION HANDICAPPER JIM HURLEY!
23
Nov

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