The final entry in the New Western Conference Landscape series, which observes how free agency changes will effect the teams the Grizzlies see in conference play next season. This installment focuses on the “best of the rest,” the teams that showed the most ambition (or stupidity) this offseason.
Where to begin? Many thought the Clippers would go nowhere with Vinny Del Negro at the helm, including the Clippers, apparently. With Celtics coach Doc Rivers running the show, expect to see a much more sophisticated squad with better game planning in tight situations, less prone to meltdowns like we saw in Game 6 of this year’s playoff series.
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin still form the core, although without VDN as the scapegoat, Griffin will probably be exposed as the weakest link on this championship contender. Eric Bledsoe is thankfully gone, along with Lamar Odom, Chauncey Billups, and Grant Hill. J. J. Reddick and Jared Dudley at the 2 and 3 will add killer 3-point shooting to an already powerful offense, but neither can replace Bledsoe’s lock-down defense. Jamal Crawford will see big minutes off the bench again this year.
Unless Doc Rivers is wise enough to keep Ryan Hollins off the floor as much as possible, Z-Bo will continue to use him as a door mat to the basket. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince will be great matchups for Reddick and Dudley on defense, and Mike Miller, Jerryd Bayless, and Quincy Pondexter should be as effective as ever against the Clips’ subpar perimeter defense. The Chris Paul-Mike Conley matchup is, I think, one of the best PG contests in the league currently, and one of the hardest to predict the outcome of. Gasol should easily outskill Jordan at Center, and together with Randolph, effectively bottle up the “lob city” offense.
This will be another epic series this year. These teams match up like puzzle pieces, each with strengths where the other has weaknesses. As much confidence as I have in Joerger, Rivers’ experience may give the Clippers back their upper hand in this rivalry.
As good as Curry was in last year’s playoffs, he could be even better on this new Warriors team. The Dubs shed serious cap space – jettisoning Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, and a handful of others – to bring in a few small parts (Toney Douglas, Mo Speights, and Jermaine O’Neal) and one big one (Andre Iguodala – “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”). They were unable to land Dwight Howard, but still got great defense in Iguodala and refocused their offense around rising superstar Steph Curry. Even on Curry’s best nights, GSW wasn’t always able to scrape out a win – he dropped 32 in a loss against Memphis on Feb 8 – but they traded roster depth for offensive versatility this offseason, hoping to surround Curry with more options on the off chance his shot ever dries up. Memphis swept Golden State 3-0 in 2012-13, but these Warriors will have new confidence and new schemes next year. Expect a close series.
The Thunder should feel more threatened by the Grizz than ever. Sure, they return point guard Russell Westbrook from injury, but the fallout from the James Harden deal continues to resonate in OKC. Three-point specialist and sixth man Kevin Martin is gone to Minnesota, leaving the Thunder without a go-to outside shooter (again). They’re paying Kendrick Perkins (coincidentally, the name Zach Randolph gave to his teddy bear) $18 million over the next two seasons because they can’t afford to amnesty him. Annoyingly, Derek Fisher returns to lead the young Thunder bench – he was a thorn in the Grizzlies’ paw in the playoffs. This series will be more competitive than last year’s conference semifinals, but the Grizz will actually have better 3-point shooting off the bench (pinch me) with Mike Miller and Quincy Pondexter, and Zach Randolph should continue to dominate in the post once he finds his groove.
Portland spent much of last year under the radar, with ROTY Damian Lillard serving as the team’s periscope. What might have been a better-than-good squad featuring Lillard and PF LaMarcus Aldridge was woefully unsupported by a weak bench. The Blazers fixed all that and more in the offseason, drafting Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum to backup Lillard, signing Dorrell Wright in free agency as a bench swingman, and scooping up PF Thomas Robinson from the Dwight-minded Houston Rockets. They also beefed up their front court with NOLA big man Robin Lopez in a 3-team deal with Sacramento and New Orleans. The Blazers are now collectively older and more experienced, with a strong front court to compliment a rising star point guard and a more supportive bench that will likely turn close losses into close wins. Memphis took the series last year 3-1, and I believe they can do it again, but it will be against a much more solidly constructed team.
The Nuggets are a good example of how the Grizzlies offseason could have gone much worse than it did, even for those who believe Lionel Hollins should still be drawing up midrange isos for Rudy Gay. Denver eventually brought in much sought-after Brian Shaw to replace the dearly departed George Karl, but they let valuable assets go in Corey Brewer, Andre Iguodala, and Kosta Koufos, getting only Darrell Arthur and J.J. Hickson in return. This isn’t even a rebuilding roster… it’s just half-baked. The Nugs even lost GM Masai Ujiri to Toronto, a loss some feel will be more impactful than the loss of Karl. I expect to hear next that the city of Denver is being moved to the flat plains of Wyoming, robbing the Nuggets of their “mountain air” advantage. The Grizzlies should have it all over the reeling Nuggets next year.