2014 NBA Playoffs: Western Conference Preview, With a Dose of NBA History


San Antonio Spurs (1) vs. Dallas Mavericks (8)

History

In an interesting twist, the Spurs franchise started in Dallas, as the Chaparalls, with the ABA in 1967. In 1973, they moved to San Antonio and became the Spurs. With the 1976 merger, the Spurs entered the NBA. Twenty division titles in thirty-eight NBA seasons showcases the Spurs consistency. George Gervin, Kevin Durant’s predecessor, was one of the premier scorers of the late 1970’s. The Spurs were thrown into the Eastern Conference with the merger, and it wasn’t until 1980 that San Antonio and Houston moved to the Western Conference. As we consider the imbalance of the two conferences since 2000, imagine an Eastern Conference that always included the Spurs.

The mid-1980’s were the only dry years down near the Alamo. David Robinson brought San Antonio back to life and the Spurs were back, going from a 21-win team to a 56-win club in 1989-90. Robinson and Sean Elliott led those Spurs teams throughout the 1990’s until an injury-riddled 1996-97 year resulted in then-GM Gregg Popovich taking over as coach early on in a season that ended with 20 wins, five more than the tanking Boston Celtics.

One ping-pong ball bounce later, the Spurs were gift-wrapped Tim Duncan as the unanimous number one overall choice in the 1997 draft. The Spurs have remained in the upper echelon of the West ever since, winning several championships, starting in 1999, and continuing on in 2003, 2005 and 2007. In last year’s finals, they came within one shot of winning yet another. Ahead of the curve in regard to international scouting, the Spurs swiped Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker late in the draft. Their even-keeled triumvirate of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili have been through it all. As ever, they are led by the ageless and amiable Gregg Popovich.  They now have the rising Kawhi Leonard to help lead them in the future. Former Spurs assistant coaches now dot the NBA coaching landscape. Other franchises try and emulate the Spurs.

The Dallas Mavericks, like many of my friends, myself and my wife, were born in 1980. The NBA continued to expand westward and southward, and the Mavericks gave Texas a third team. From the very beginning, the Mavs played an up-tempo style, pushing the pace under Dick Motta, the precursor to coach’s Paul Westphal and George Karl. In the franchise’s fourth season, the young Mavs were led by Rolando Blackmon and Mark Aguirre. Detlef Schrempf was drafted 8th overall in the 1985 draft and the Mavericks now had the balance they’d needed. The mid-to-late 1980’s brought 50-win seasons.

In 1988, with the help of phenom center Roy Tarpley, who earned the Sixth Man of the Year award, the Mavs came within one game of winning the Western Conference, before dropping Game 7 to the Lakers. Injuries took the Mavs down soon after. Fat Lever’s knee. Roy Tarpley’s struggles with substance abuse and then a knee injury, short-circuited his career. The Mavericks were a lackluster team for most of the 1990’s, winning only 13 games in 1993-94. Don Nelson welcomed the arrival of Dirk Nowitzki in 2000, and the Mavericks became relevant again immediately. The 2001-02, Nelson and Nowitzki propelled the Mavericks into becoming the top offense in the NBA. The Mavs won 57 games, but folded in five games to the Sacramento Kings, led by the passing trio of Webber-Divac-Stojakovic. The next year, Dallas upped the total to 60 wins, and beat the Kings, before losing the Western Conference finals to the rival Spurs.

The Mavericks finally got to the Finals in 2005-06, by edging the Nash-led Phoenix Suns in the West Finals. Facing Dwayne Wade’s Heat in the Finals, the Mavericks took the first two games, before dropping a heartbreaker in Game 3, 98-96. The Mavs would go on to lose by a single point in Game 5, and the series ended in another nail-biter, a three-point loss that clinched the series for Wade, Shaq, Antoine Walker and company. This series was Wade’s pinnacle of his career. He averaged 35 ppg, while penetrating at will. Still a stunning number, Wade took 97 free-throws over the course of those six games.

Dallas followed the Finals loss with a remarkable 67-win regular season in 2006-07. Then came the Golden State Warriors and one of the more indelible playoff upsets in recent memory. The “We Believe” Warriors took out a shell-shocked Mavs team in six games. In the ensuing years, several solid seasons ended in early playoff disappointment. In 2010-11, Rick Carlisle led the Mavs to 57 wins, and the defensive stalwarts Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion and an aging but effective Jason Kidd helped provide Nowitzki with the balance his teams had always lacked. The Mavs made the NBA universe happy be knocking off the newly-developed trio in Miami in six games. Dirk got his revenge on Wade, and the Mavs had their taste of glory.

Travel won’t be an issue for San Antonio and Dallas in this all Texas clash.

This Year and a Prediction

Wow. I didn’t mean to write a recent NBA history book. Now that I’ve emerged from that rabbit hole, how does this year look? The Spurs remain quietly dominant. Just going about their business by playing their entire roster, and keeping their elder statesman out of harm’s way. Not a single player averaged 30 minutes per game. Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills both took steps toward stardom. Has a team ever won 62 games more easily? The Mavs, meanwhile, were not expected to win more than 40-45 games. Instead, they came through with 49, edging out the upstart Suns, thanks to a highly effective Monta Ellis, who paired well with Nowitzki and Vince Carter. The surprising breakthrough of the long-armed Brandan Wright helped Dallas off the bench. This series will be over quickly. The Spurs won’t mess around. Determined to rest his starters, Popovich will probably threaten to leave the team if they don’t sweep Dallas.

Darko Index Predicts: Spurs in 4.

 ***

 

Houston Rockets (4) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (5)

History

The Houston Rockets came into the NBA by way of San Diego, in 1967. Four year later, they were in Houston, where Rockets belong, because that’s where NASA is. They won the West in 1981 and 1986. In both years, the Rockets lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals, each in six games. The Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984. Ralph Sampson and Olajuwon were known as the twin towers, because they were both exceedingly tall. Injuries to Sampson and substance abuse issues with their guards wiped Houston from the top of the West for several years. Olajuwon brought the Rockets franchise back to relevance in the early 1990’s. In 1992-93, the Rockets won 55 games and made a dent in the playoffs, by beating the Clippers in the first round.

The next season, Houston began “launching” (oh the puns) with Vern Maxwell, Kenny Smith and Mario Elie leading their long-range offense. In the 1993 Playoffs, Houston started their run by beating Clyde Drexler and the Blazers. They ended the season by beating Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks in a memorable seven-game series. Houston repeated the following season, giving them back-to-back championships by sweeping the young Shaq-led Orlando Magic in four games. Houston had some success in the mid-to-late-1990’s, but fell to the Sonics in 1996, and to the Jazz in 1997. Stockton-to-Malone, Stockton-to-Malone, Stockton-to-Malone. What a drab offense those Jazz teams ran. Houston fell into a malaise in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, too good for the lottery, yet not good enough to get out of the first round. In 2009, behind the combo of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, they matched up with the Blazers again, surviving that series before losing to the Lakers in seven games.

The James Harden era began in 2012. The Rockets landed center Dwight Howard last summer. Harden, Howard and Chandler Parsons have Rockets fans hopeful again.

Portland fans have had a remarkable run of success over the years with their franchise. Between 1976 and 2003, the Blazers missed the playoffs only once. On the other hand, the Blazers lost in the first round of the playoffs in 18 of those 26 years. What a brutal stretch for those same fans.

The Blazers won their only championship in 1977. A 49-win regular season made Portland an underdog in the West Finals. Blazermania swept the Pacific Northwest as the Bill Walton-led crew upset Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers in four straight, before outlasting the Philadelphia 76ers in the Finals.

1989-1992 brought more Blazer obsession, with Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter, and Jerome Kersey bringing 59-wins, 63-wins, and then 57-win seasons. The Super Nintendo basketball game Bulls vs. Blazers came out in 1992.

After years of steady but uninspiring 44-50 win seasons, the Blazers were again contenders in the late 1990’s. The 1999-2000 team won 59 games. The lineup was loaded, with Sabonis, Rasheed Wallace, Pippen, Steve Smith and Damon Stoudamire. That group came within one game of the NBA Finals, before collapsing in epic fashion to the Lakers. Since then, the Blazers have not won a playoff series.

The Blazers are now entering a new era, led by sharpshooting point guard Damion Lillard and the last bastion of the mid-range game, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. This year’s Blazers are easy to get behind, with the versatile Nic Batum at small forward and Wesley Mathews occasionally lighting It up from deep as well.

I interviewed my friend Michael Heald earlier in the year, about Portland and this included some Blazers history. https://darkoindex.com/2014/01/08/qa-part-one-old-friend-michael-heald-on-the-city-of-portland-and-its-blazers/

This Year and a Prediction

The Blazers were one of the best stories in basketball over the first two months of the season, starting off 24-5. Regression was coming, as the three-point shooting numbers were unsustainable, and the schedule had been exceedingly generous early on. The Blazers stumbled but regained their trajectory and finished with 54 wins. However, a 13-10 record in their final 23 games isn’t inspiring a ton of confidence. Like Golden State and Dallas, the Blazers feasted on sub-.500 opponents, going 33-6 in those matchups. On the flipside, they went 21-22 in plus-.500 match-ups. The Rockets, meanwhile, went 25-19 in those plus-.500 games. The Rockets peaked much later in the season, going 25-11 over their final 36 games. This match-up is fairly even, as most 4 vs. 5 matchups are. Both teams have weaknesses. It may come down to three-point shooting, and Dwight Howard’s ability to stay out of foul trouble.

Darko Index Predicts: Rockets in 7.

***

 

Los Angeles Clippers (3) vs. Golden State Warriors (6)

History

The Clippers have been the West Coast’s version of the Nets. Living in the shadow of their brethren. The Clippers have always been either ignored or disgraced over their history. The franchise was born in Buffalo in 1970, made its way out west to San Diego in 1978 and landed in Los Angeles in 1984. Since 1984, the Clippers have made it to the playoffs on six occasions. The Clips advanced to the second round in 2006 and in 2012. That is a teaspoon of success, if you’re measuring.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have given the Clippers their first 50-win season in franchise history. Clippers fans couldn’t be happier that this year coincides with the worst season the Lakers have ever endured.

Golden State has seen glory days throughout the decades. The franchise originated in Philadelphia, as the Philadelphia Warriors, in 1946. This team joined the NBA in 1949. The team drafted Wilt Chamberlain a decade later. You may have heard of him. He was very tall and scored 100 points in a single game. He also claimed to have had sex with 20,000 women.

Unfortunately, the NBA was in its infancy, and there was no video footage of this game, nor of all Wilt’s sexcapades. If there were clips of the basketball, most of them would look the same. Some little guy in tight shorts passes to the behemoth in the middle (Chamberlain was 7’1” in an era of much shorter NBA players than today), who then leaps and casually tosses in a four-foot finger roll or a lay-up. Not to dismiss Wilt’s greatness, but he simply towered over everyone he played against. Even Bill Russell (6’9”) was four inches shorter than Wilt.

The Warriors moved to San Francisco in 1962, stayed for nine years and then headed out to Oakland, renaming themselves the Golden State Warriors, in 1971. Golden State had a great run in the 1970’s, led by Rick Barry, Butch Beard and Jamaal Wilkes. Barry, who famously shot his free-throws underhand, averaged over 30 ppg in 1974-75, the year the Warriors claimed their first and only NBA championship. The Warriors, coached by Al Attles, won 48 regular season games. In an era preceding the three-pointer, Barry was one of the better shooters of the era. Other Warrior greats include Nate Thurmond, Mitch Richmond, Chris Mullin, and Tim Hardaway.

From 1988-1994, the Warriors briefly flirted with success. The up-tempo stylings of Coach Don Nelson led the Warriors to advancing beyond the first round in 1989 and 1991, but the “Run TMC” era ended in bittersweet fashion. If you want to stretch it to include some recent Warriors, Baron Davis was about as beloved as any Warrior for a nice stretch including 2004-2008. This year’s edition of the Warriors are the first team to get back to the 50-win plateau since 1994.

Stephen Curry brings a new level of optimism to the Bay Area faithful as the Warriors franchise moves forward.

This Year and a Prediction

The loss of Andrew Bogut seriously hampers what might have been a very evenly matched series between the Clippers and the Warriors. Bogut’s defensive expertise on the interior, combined with Andre Iguodala’s lock-down perimeter defense have elevated Golden State’s defense into a top-5 crew when healthy. Now that Bogut is sidelined with a fractured rib, the Warriors will have to go small, inserting the unheralded and versatile Draymond Green into the frontcourt. Power forward David Lee, whose offensive abilities are often overshadowed by his defensive liabilities, has been dealing with lingering shoulder issues. Young wingman Klay Thompson, already a weapon with his outside shot, has developed into a well-rounded offensive player whose defensive exploits are already well-known. The Clippers have Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and a litany of above-average shooters surrounding them. Defensively, DeAndre Jordan has matured and complicates the opposing penetration. I would love to say the Steph Curry can average 35 points per game, and will get just enough defense from Iguodala, Green, and Thompson to make this a very compelling series. I would love to say the Warriors shouldn’t be counted out. I would love to say Warriors in 6, but it seems like too much to ask without Bogut. Doc Rivers is a great coach. Mark Jackson is a very good motivator, but he doesn’t always make the wisest in-game adjustments.

Darko Index Predicts: Clippers in 7.

***

 

Oklahoma City Thunder (2) vs. Memphis Grizzlies (7)

History

I don’t have the mental capacity to keep researching and writing at the moment. The playoffs start tomorrow, so here’s the quick and dirty version. The Thunder were mercilessly stolen from Seattle and brought to Oklahoma City. The fans are loud in OKC, so they call themselves Loud City. I like how they stay standing until the first Thunder basket of every game. The Seattle franchise was a proud one. They originated in 1967, and lasted until they were stolen in 2008. They won a championship in 1979, won conference titles in 1978, 1979, and in 1996. The mid-1990’s Sonics were wildly entertaining. Gary Payton was wildly entertaining. Shawn Kemp was an earlier, nastier version of Blake Griffin. The Sonics were incredibly fun to watch. So fun, that they would be stolen and relocated in 2008.

Kevin Durant is the history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook picked up the wildly entertaining torch from Gary Payton. With Durant and Westbrook, Serge Ibaka is determined to make some new history in Oklahoma City.

Memphis was originally in Vancouver, which is why they are called the Grizzlies. Vancouver’s brief fling with the NBA lasted from 1995-2001. Those teams never won more than 23 games. It’s a shame. Vancouver is such a beautiful city. It really deserves another chance. I’m not sure what happened there. Shareef Abdur-Rahim is about all that anyone seems to recall about the Vancouver Grizzlies. Only three years after moving to Memphis, the Grizzlies won 50 games, Safe to say Hubie Brown knew what he was doing as the coach. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies never got out of the first round of the playoffs in those early days. Since 2010, the Grizzlies have been remodeled and remain one of the toughest defensive teams in the Association. Stalwarts Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph provide the “Grit and Grind” frontcourt, but the heart and soul of Memphis remains Tony Allen, one of the nastiest perimeter defenders of the last five years in the NBA. Point guard Mike Conley has continued his upward trajectory over the last few years.

This Year and a Prediction

With Marc Gasol, Memphis went 40-19. Without Gasol, the Grizzlies were 10-13. With Russell Westbrook, the Thunder went 34-12. Without Westbrook, OKC went 25-11. What does this prove? Marc Gasol is absolutely essential to the success of the Grizzlies, while Kevin Durant can show his MVP abilities (for at least 36 games) with or without Westbrook. Memphis will not be able to stop Durant. They may be able to slow down Westbrook, who is still less than 100%. The improvement of Ibaka’s jumper and the three-point shooting of Derek Fisher, Caron Butler and Jeremy Lamb will make it much tougher for Memphis’ stifling defense to continuously put them in a position to win. Zach Randolph will have to deal with Perkins and Collison down low. When Randolph is negated, the pressure on Mike Conley and Mike Miller will rise. OKC is just too deep and versatile defensively and Durant can get his own shot. Many close games, but it will be awfully tough for Memphis to upset OKC.

Darko Index Predicts: Thunder in 6. 

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