The same western conference teams have made the playoffs the last two years with the exception of the Pelicans taking the Thunder’s spot last year by a game – and the lists would have been identical if not for significant injuries to Oklahoma’s two all stars. These top teams have formed up like the roller derby blocker line of the Rat City Rollergirls – impenetrable almost. Whereas a major physical catastrophe was required to move one of the eight out and let a new boy in last year, the 2015-2016 season offers a glimmer of hope to the rest that they might move into the spotlight even if just for a second. Let’s get the obvious out of the way though; the Blazers, having lost most of their starting line up in free agency, are resigned to a re-build and will not return to the playoffs this year. Equally obvious is the replacement of the Blazers by the Thunder who, unless Durant does not return to health, are back in the hunt. So where is the break for one of the lower 7 teams to slingshot through the wall? – Dallas that’s where.
The 50-32 Mavs finished 7th in the west last year but will be a different team at the start of the new season. They still have Dirk, but Dirk is not the Dirk of old… he’s just old. At 37, Nowitzki is starting to drift. He played less than 30 minutes a game last year for the first time since his rookie season and his shooting percentage took a significant drop in 2014-15. Snaring DeAndre Jordon would have gone a long way toward propping Dirk and the Mavs up and keeping them in the etched-in-stone 8, but the big boy was drawn back to LA by Doc River’s Jedi mind powers and a barrage of emojis it seems. Cuban has settled now for a much dicier line up. In fact, looking at it makes your head sort of tilt like a perplexed German Shepard. When Jordan was swept back with the rip tide to LA, Cuban jumped at Wesley Mathews – a good free agency but wait, he had his severed Achilles tendon screwed back on recently. You know, that large cord that keeps your foot attached to the rest of your body – sort of important. Then Cuban added once-great but recently incredibly-average Deron Williams. The Mavs now have more point guards than a county-rec under-six-foot league team. Gone are Monte Ellis (G), Tyson Chandler (C), A-F Aminu (F) with Chandler being the greatest loss and not adequately replaced by the likes of ZaZa Gabor and DaLambert. We think the Mavs are ripe for the picking.
But who will take their spot? Not the Kings, they can’t seem to get off of the DeMarcus Cousins coke train. The Nuggets have thrown in the towel for the next few years. The Wolves will be greatly improved but not close to the 45 wins it will take to break in. And everybody but Bill Plachke knows that the Lakers are lottery bound again. Plachke, long time sports writer for the Los Angeles Times and member of ESPN’sAround the Horn, recently bet the host of a Utah sports radio program that the Lakers would have a better record than the Jazz in the 15-16 season. Bill must be focusing too much on baseball or not getting out of LA much any more. He either is forgetting or, worse, just doesn’t know that the Jazz won 38 games last year and 19 out of the last 30 to end the season. Sure Kobe will return to the court on opening night but who knows how long he’ll stay there. Kobe’s a warn-out wreck physically and although the hodgepodge of players that Kupchak has given Bryant to bully around this year should get them more wins than last year, they’re still way out of the playoff race. That leaves the Jazz and the Suns.
We think the 2015-2016 Mavs are 5 games worse than their predecessors. Now, are the Jazz or the Suns 7 games better than last years’ teams? The Suns lost Goran Dragic last year in a mid-season trade with Miami for draft picks and traded Marcus Morris this summer to clear cap room for better stuff. They whiffed on Aldridge but free agent Tyson Chandler was a big get. So the Suns now have Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and P.J Tucker at the guard spots (only heaven knows who’s going to play what), T.J Warren and Markief Morris at big forward (Thorton just signed with Houston), and Eric Len backing up Chandler at center. If it weren’t for Chandler we say give it to Utah easy. But lets take a look. The Jazz lose nobody of importance – the mid-season trade of Kanter was an addition by subtraction it seems for the upstart Jazz. They retain Dante Exum and Trey Burke at point, Alec Burks (back from missing most of last season with a shoulder injury) and surprisingly-good-for-his-rookie-year Rodney Hood at off guard, Derrick Favors at power Forward (and a bit of center), and the Frenchman Rudy Gobert at the rim. Exum will likely continue to start and although he could make a big jump from his listless rookie season the edge still goes solidly to the Suns at the quarterback position. But the Jazz have three very good 20-plus PER players in Hayward, Favors, and Gobert, and talented youth and depth at the other with Burks and Hood at off guard. Chandler and Bledsoe are as good as anybody the Jazz have, but we give the edge here to the best defensive team in the league in the last third of the season – Utah. A year of experience together in their new coach’s system will be just enough to get them from last year’s 38 wins to 45 in 2016 and that will be enough to get by the Mavs and the Suns. Rejoice Jazz fans – a four game sweep and quick exit from the playoffs await you come May – but at least you’ll be there.