Although the Western Conference is down to four teams, seven teams never even had a chance to make it this far at the start of the Playoffs – they simply didn’t make the post-season. These clubs and their fans are already looking ahead to next year and wondering if they can improve enough to make a run at the playoffs in April, 2012. Here’s the rundown of how the 2011-12 season is looking for these franchises.
Golden State Warriors (36-46)
Local Optimism: Poor. They don’t trust GM Larry Riley. They don’t trust the new ownership group. They are confused by new coach Keith Smart getting canned after a single season, a season in which they improved by 10 wins. Fans are seeing things as “same old, same old,” which is bad.
Case for Improvement: Their pace is still fun to watch and creates some crazy point totals and runs at times. Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis are certainly one of the more exciting backcourts in the NBA, and David Lee and Dorell Wright fit into this style of play just fine.
However… Nothing stands out as really good or ready to be really good with this club. Mix in misguided management and already hated new owners, and you got some problems. Oh yeah, their defense is terrible.
Verdict: No playoffs. Smart was certainly moving things in the right direction, but now it’s time for a new direction. They’re unlikely to get anything helpful in the draft, no good free agents will go there, Curry might have already plateaued (virtually no improvement from rookie season), and last year’s first rounder—Ekpe Udoh—isn’t a franchise changer. If they pick up a defense-first coach, their fast breaking ways will likely be gone, which isn’t good for a team with an undersized yet speedy backcourt and only one good defender in the frontcourt who is healthy (Udoh).
Houston Rockets (43-39)
Local Optimism: Not much. Fans feel like they’re perpetually stuck as the West’s #9 team, and the tide is starting to turn against GM Daryl Morey for how he handled Rick Adelman’s firing (and for trading Shane Battier).
Case for Improvement: Morey has shown he can make things happen. The team will have some money to spend this offseason (re-sign Chuck Hayes, not Yao Ming unless he’s super cheap). The Rockets’ offense was great this past season. A core of Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, and Chuck Hayes (hopefully) is a good one for a non-playoff team that finished over .500 in the most killer of all divisions. Patrick Patterson.
However… The team needs a new defensive identity, starting at center and coach. Their collection of better-than-average players makes some think they could turn into the next 2004 Pistons, but that club was such an anomaly the Rockets realistically need to be thinking about finding a true game changer if they plan on doing something in the West other than making a guest appearance in the playoffs.
Verdict: Possibility for playoffs. They have a lot of nice pieces that work together fairly well. A few defensive players who won’t hurt the offense (not Hasheem Thabeet) would go a long way toward improving this club and getting them into the playoffs. Or Morey might turn out to be too cute for his own good.
LA Clippers (32-50)
Local Optimism: Bad. They love Blake Griffin and see Eric Gordon as a near-All Star, but they know owner Donald Sterling is the biggest a-hole in the NBA and will never get this club going straight.
Case for Improvement: Blake Griffin. Eric Gordon. They’re in LA and have money, so theoretically free agents would want to go there.
However… Sterling is still alive, so they’ll suck. Chiefly because they overvalue way too many guys and pretend they’re only one piece away (I saw one of their broadcasts this year in which the local announcer couldn’t believe LeBron didn’t more strongly consider signing with the Clips since they have one of the league’s top-10 guys at the other four positions – wow). Not much is working for this club, a common theme for 30 years.
Verdict: No playoffs. It’s nice they broke the 30-win barrier for the first time in five years, but they have a ways to go to win enough games to make the playoffs in the West. They’ll certainly be better with a healthy Gordon, but they were still only 25-31 when he was playing.
Minnesota Timberwolves (17-65)
Local Optimism: None. At. All.
Case for Improvement: Kevin Love will get healthy, so hopefully they won’t lose 15 straight again.
However… Owner Glen Taylor might be the worst in the business. GM David Kahn might be the worst in the business. When that’s the top of your franchise, you have no chance.
Verdict: No playoffs for a while. Taylor and Kahn are an absolutely lousy duo that guarantees common sense solutions will never be made. If they don’t get Kyrie Irving with the #1 pick (which they probably wouldn’t do because they “have” Ricky Rubio), this draft was probably a waste since they won’t take Enes Kanter because he’s a PF and Derrick Williams will get buried behind Love and Beasley.
Phoenix Suns (40-42)
Local Optimism: Not much. Fans expect owner Robert Sarver to screw things up for the sake of making money for himself, although some fans are quite pleased with what they saw from Marcin Gortat.
Case for Improvement: They’re in an absolute trash division and have a decent starting lineup. If Steve Nash and Grant Hill (needs to be re-signed first) can hang on a little bit longer, and the defense magically improves on the back of Gortat…
However… They need to get younger and better athletically while following the lead of Nash and Hill. Got that? The defense has become completely disastrous, and the franchise continues to move further and further from the core that made them great 5 years ago.
Verdict: Not very likely. It’s hard to see what’s going to get this club over the top as team-leader Nash pushes into his upper-30’s. It is possible, though.
Sacramento Kings (24-58)
Local Optimism: Let’s just say they’re happy to still have professional sports in Sacramento for another year.
Case for Improvement: They are WAY under the cap. Tyreke Evans has a summer to get himself together after a tough year personally. Marcus Thornton showed up in a big-time way in late-February.
However… Which Evans will show up next year? Will DeMarcus Cousins ever get his head on straight? What’s up with Omri Casspi? Bad offense, bad defense.
Verdict: No playoffs. No one’s even talking about the actual team right now with all the discussion being about their future in Sacramento, but it’s not pretty. Evans took a step back from his rookie season, and there were some questions before then about his ability to be a franchise-changing PG. Everyone else is a hodge-podge of “maybe this guy could do something.”
Utah Jazz (39-43)
Local Optimism: None. Owner Greg Miller is considered a massive failure after taking over for his late father three years ago, and GM Kevin O’Connor and coach Tyrone Corbin aren’t thought of much better by fans.
Case for Improvement: Having a trio of interior strong guys in Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Derrick Favors certainly sounds nice. Rookie SF Gordon Hayward started to show more promise by the end of the season.
However… It’s clear there’s a severe lack of leadership going on in this organization, starting with Miller whose entire life has been nothing but a big ride on his father’s coattails. Well now Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan are gone, the interim coach who went 8-20 is signed for three years, and no one expects anything of this offseason.
Verdict: No playoffs. They’re in the second-hardest division without their HOF coach and All-Star PG. And again, management is poor.