Know thy enemy: Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves
The Western Conference is a brutal place, cold and unforgiving, where quality teams must scratch and claw and gauge each others eyes out like George "The Animal" Steele (left) simply to find a spot in the postseason. But while most of the competition is sinew and gristle, there is a soft, chewy, delicious underbelly on this side of the Mississippi, best represented by three teams that managed to win a combined 64 games in the 2007-08 campaign: The
Seattle SuperSonics Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Oklahoma City Thunder (20-62, 15th in the conference, fifth in the Northwest Division)
Key additions: Desmond Mason, Joe Smith, Russell Westbrook
Key subtractions: Luke Ridnour, Francisco Elson, Donyell Marshall
First things first: Thunder = Worst. Team. Name. Ever. I'm already dreading the weather-related headlines when they play Miami.
GM Sam Presti is to be congratulated for shaping a positive future for the Thunder. Anyone who can turn Kurt Thomas into three first round picks is doing good work, to say the least. As for the present? OKC opens a day after Halloween, but there isn't a costume on the planet scarier than the hardwood horrors the Thunder will give their new fans (who, given the excitement at having pro spots in town, likely won't care). Oklahoma City is led by the young twosome of Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant at the two- he'll be a better fit as a forward down the line- Georgetown product Jeff Green at small forward, and have a decent third piece in power forward Chris Wilcox.
Beyond that, the best thing you can say about these guys is that they're tall. Not that it helps them much. The ThunderSonics were terrible inside offensively, and while they managed to tie for second in total rebounds per game, they were fifth in rebounds allowed, leading to a very ordinary differential. Meanwhile, they couldn't shoot from two (44.4%), or from three (33.3%, third worst in the NBA, 3.8 triples per game, worst in the W.C.). They didn't defend (106.3 a night, fourth worst in the league), couldn't force turnovers, and struggled to get to the line.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln...
There are other illustrations of how bad OKC was last season, but I think you get the point. The important thing to know is that the Thunder, bad as they were last year, could very well be worse this season. Even money for the worst team in the league, I'd say. Mason and Westbrook add a little D, but neither is much of a shooter, and without Wally Szczerbiak and Delonte West, traded away midseason in '07-'08, they actually have less to offer from outside. Durant has to grow up fast and Green needs to blossom if this bunch is to reach even mediocrity.
Seriously, look at this roster and explain how the Thunder are supposed to win NBA games with any sort of regularity?
PROJECTION: Worst in the conference, worst in the NBA.
Good Blog: They're new at this, but should you need to learn more about the Thunder (why?), give Oklahoma City BBall a shot.
Memphis Grizzlies (22-60, 14th in the W.C., 5th in the Southwest Division)
Key Additions: OJ Mayo, Marko Jaric, Antoine Walker, Darrell Arthur, Mark Gasol, Hamed Haddadi
Key Losses: Juan Carlos Navarro, Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal, Jason Collins, Kwame Brown
Fair to say you're probably not very good when the words "Antoine Walker" and "Key Additions" are in the same sentence. I kid- okay, I don't- because Walker wasn't the key figure in the post-draft deal that sent Kevin Love and Mike Miller to Minnesota for Mayo and warm, expensive bodies. Given their glut of backcourt talent, there's no question that Love was a more natural fit in Memphis than Mayo, but GM Chris Wallace thinks he's found himself a star to line up with up-and-coming swingman Rudy Gay at small forward.
He'd better be right.
Personally, I'd have stuck with Love, who looks like a more solid pro than I'd have forecast six months ago. Plus, they lost Miller, who is a very good player. That leaves the Grizzlies with incredible imbalance on the roster. A backcourt stuffed to the brim with Mayo, Mike Conley Jr., Kyle Lowry, former Laker Javaris Crittenton, with guys like Jaric gumming up the works as well. Gay is an athletic slasher who came into his own last year and is the real deal as a scorer, but isn't versatile enough to carry a team on his own, and is another outside-in guy.
That leaves the Grizzlies very weak on the interior, especially defensively. Hakim Warrick can jump and finish offensively, but can't do much on the other end but block the occasional shot. He certainly can't defend PFs on the block, given his No. 2 pencil-thin legs and reedy upper body. Darko Milicic continues to disappoint, and like many observers who have seen signs and waited for him to fully develop as a player... I've given up. Pau's lil' bro looks like he could be a solid pro, but it remains to be seen whether he's got NBA athleticism and can be someone who discourages penetration. That he's the likely starter at center is less a testament to his skill and more to Memphis' lack of options in the post.
The Grizz aren't good. They're not even ordinary. Actually,
they're pretty damn bad, and any team playing with discipline against
them should find some success. But Memphis is very young and extremely
athletic. Teams that get loose and let them run could find some
trouble. There will be plenty of nights where Memphis struggles to
score since they lack consistent shooting, but will be effective when
they can penetrate and get to the rim. Those will be the nights the
Grizzlies can steal a win, because there will be very few evenings
where they stop anyone.
PROJECTION: A few wins better than last season with flashes of promise... but still pretty bad. If not for OKC, they'd be the worst team in the conference.
Best Blog: 3 Shades of Blue is one of the best team blogs around.
Minnesota Timberwolves (22-60, 13th in the W.C., 4th in the Northwest)
Key Additions: Kevin Love, Mike Miller, Rodney Carney, Jason Collins, Brian Cardinal
Key Losses: Antoine Walker, Marko Jaric, Michael Doleac, Kirk Snyder
The Wolves should be better this season, if for no other reason than a quick glance at the lists above show the players they brought in are far better than the ones they gave up. There is nothing particularly devastating about losing Walker and Jaric. (By the way, am I the only one a little surprised at how Jaric has fallen off a competitive cliff? Back in his Clipper days, I thought he might be a decent player. Maybe Adriana Lima made him soft. Still, between her and his big money contract, Jaric is a hard man to pity.)
Love may never be a superstar, but he projects as the type of player who can make a good team better, and if he's able to defend at the pro level will have a lot to offer. Miller is a similar player in the backcourt- a great ingredient whose skill set helps those around him succeed. Both can shoot, which will help extend Minnesota's offense and give Al Jefferson, a beast in the middle (at least on one end), more to operate. Toss in a banger like Craig Smith, and the Wolves have some solid players up front.
Injuries helped make guard play a mess in Minnesota last season, as Randy Foye (right) played only 39 games, leaving Sebastian Telfair more minutes than he should get. This year, if Foye can stay on the floor, combined with Miller and Rashad McCants, at the very least the Wolves ought to be able to shoot. All three of those guys can bomb. Love and Miller ought to help Minnesota move the ball better, too, which should let them improve on one of the league's lowest per game assist numbers, too.
Minnesota's biggest problems will be on the defensive end. Jefferson is a great scorer and rebounder, but can't defend to save his life. Love is a rookie with questionable size and quicks. Foye hasn't established himself as a stopper. Overall, they have a lot of young and somewhat mismatched parts that will make it tough to stop the ball, something they absolutely did not do last season. But despite issues defending the goal, Minnesota should be an improved team this year. Not playoff good, but better. It's worth remembering they splatted out of the gate in 2007 with a 6-34 record over their first 40 games, and improved from there.
Given their improved personnel, the Wolves ought to continue that trend. They still won't be good, but if everyone stays healthy, Minnesota will be able to score in bunches, and use guys like Ryan Gomes, Corey Brewer, Smith, Carney and McCants to make a reasonable rotation. Show up and play, or they'll bite. Get it? Wolves? Bite?
Projection: Still well in the lottery, but if things break right a low 30s win total is very possible.