Hollinger: Why much of the Western Conference is likely headed for an unhappy offseason

It’s going to be an interesting offseason, y’all.

Saturday night’s nationally televised Warriors–Lakers battle wasn’t just the precursor to the Most Highly Rated Play-In Game of All Time, or the inspiration for “Is There Too Much Replay?” think pieces. It also was the takeoff point for what could be an offseason of turmoil in the Western Conference.

As we head to the final month of the season, playoff positions are finally delineated with a little more clarity. And as that happens, the question we knew was coming is finally in position to smack us in the head: If so many teams in the West are all-in for this year, and only two can achieve what would be considered “success” in that scenario (a conference finals run, at bare minimum), what happens to the rest?

The Lakers and Warriors are good examples, but not even the best one. While those two are clearly on borrowed time — keeping optimistic faces while riding out the last stages of the primes of LeBron James and Steph Curry just as surely as the networks that broadcast the game are — they at least have some credible argument that a better version of their respective teams awaits.

The Lakers will have three first-round picks they can put in play at the draft, and the words “Los Angeles” on the jersey assure they’ll be at the front of the line for any star looking to relocate. Golden State, meanwhile, might be the only team in today’s discussion that has actual young players worth talking about (Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski) and has tradeable firsts of its own.

Both teams are likely fighting an uphill battle, between the combination of the aging of their best players and the team-building limitations that now face expensive rosters. Also, neither built its squad this season boasting, “We can hold off Houston for 10th, I’m sure of it!” They’re not going to be happy bowing out in a Play-In or the first round, as seems incredibly likely at the moment, and it’s irrational to think no dominoes would fall as a result. At the same time, this isn’t quite an all-or-nothing year for either of them.

But if that’s the case with the Lakers and Warriors, then what of the Phoenix Suns? Or the Dallas Mavericks? Look at the current standings and we’re facing the rather unreal scenario that the four teams in the West Play-In Tournament are A) all over next year’s projected luxury tax line and B) have already traded a combined 10 future draft picks and six swaps, with exactly zero coming back to them. Is “all-in on average” the league’s new big trend?

Let’s start with Dallas, which like most of these teams is boxed in by the tax, with two max-contract guards and five other guys who make at least $10 million next year. The Mavs aren’t set up with a lot of expiring money, either, although they can still trade first-round picks in 2025 and 2031 on draft night and might need to just to stay afloat in this conference (and, um, to keep Luka Dončić’s eyes from wandering).

Dallas is a slightly encouraging 11-6 since trading for P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford but only has five home games left and probably needs to sweep a two-game set in Sacramento to move up to sixth and avoid the Play-In.

Even so, the big picture outlines of the Luka-Kyrie Irving pairing haven’t changed: the Mavs don’t have much teeth on defense and have everyone standing around watching Dončić offense. Their shot making gives them a puncher’s chance in a Play-In or a series — witness that ridiculous lefty Kyrie floater to beat Denver on Sunday — but it’s tough to ride just that for multiple playoff rounds. And going forward, how exactly does this get better given the cards in their hand?

Dallas’ situation is glorious compared to that of Phoenix, of course. No team is more all-in than the Suns, who got smoked by a Giannis-less Milwaukee Bucks team on Sunday to fall into a tie for seventh with Dallas. (Ancillary question beyond the scope of today’s piece: How is Doc Rivers so good when his team is short-handed and so meh the rest of the time?)

The Suns have traded every pick and swap they can — some of them twice — and will be blocked from doing much of anything with their roster in the offseason beyond re-signing Royce O’Neale due to the second-apron constraints in the new CBA.

The point of doing all that wasn’t to be pleasantly above average, with the league’s 11th-best net rating. Sure, they’ve had some injuries, but Kevin Durant and Devin Booker have only missed 21 games combined — pretty good given their recent history. The issue is that the supporting cast just isn’t good enough, especially if Durant can’t summon the 2021 playoffs Holy Terror version of himself any longer.

Yes, the peak version of this team still scares people, and you can still talk yourself into upside scenarios (snag the No. 6 seed, face a wounded Minnesota team in the first round, profit?), but the Suns’ best player is 35 years old, they’re in hock on draft picks through 2030 and they owe a declining Bradley Beal $57 million in 2026-27. The best year from this team was supposed to be this one.

Or what of the LA Clippers? They’re ahead of the Play-In teams but hardly in much better shape relative to expectations given their exorbitant expenditures. Can they even win a first-round series against New Orleans, which has beaten them three times this season? That wasn’t exactly the plan when they put this together. (Props to Steve Ballmer, by the way, for caring so much that he’s just going to spend whatever. He has more money than God and is out there two hours before every game watching Amir Coffey go through warm-up drills.)

The Clippers are deep in the tax and don’t control their own first-round pick through 2030. Their best players are 32, 33 and 34, and they may have no choice but to pay two of them this summer and keep trying to push this rock up the hill. (Keep an eye on Paul George, by the way. Presumably, if there was a max extension sitting around for him, he would have signed it by now; I think it’s fair to say a couple of cap-room teams in the East are, um, “monitoring” this.)

USATSI 22787184

Paul George can decline his player option and become a free agent this offseason. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)

That’s to say nothing of the West’s other hopefuls. Minnesota is very tenuously in the “happy” camp right now, pending how its first round of the playoffs goes (the Timberwolves haven’t won a series in 20 years!) and the state of Karl-Anthony Towns’ knee. But the Wolves are all-in for this year and face major tax and draft-pick issues going forward. Denver has its ring and could get another, but the Nuggets are spending into the tax and are deep in win-now mode with the best player in the league on their side.

Conversely, who in the West is likely to enter the offseason somewhat happy? Oklahoma City, obviously, regardless of how the playoffs turn out. New Orleans still has assets to make moves, including unprotected firsts from the Lakers and Bucks, and is pretty darn good right now, with a svelte-ish Zion Williamson flying up and down the court and multiple elite wing defenders. If the Pelicans can figure out their centers, add one more threatening shooter and convince Brandon Ingram that 3s are worth more than 2s, they can be frightening.

Finally, I’m not sure Sacramento would be happy to lose in the first round, but let’s at least celebrate the quiet miracle of The Artist Formerly Known As Kangz becoming a completely normal basketball team, one for which we can write things such as, “They can be a top-four seed next year with a couple smart moves,” without breaking into hysterical laughter.

Nonetheless, the Lakers and Warriors on Saturday were just scratching the surface of the big picture in the West: A lot of franchises paid a lot of money and gave up a lot of draft picks to end up with pretty ordinary teams. It’s hard to imagine that leading to a quiet offseason.

State Geekery: Virginia made the tournament? Really?

I spent a lot of time the past two weeks evaluating college players at late-season games and conference tournaments, getting in my reps ahead of draft prep season. Between that and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, that also makes me eminently qualified to weigh in on the NCAA Tournament bracket.

In all seriousness, as somebody who watched Virginia a lot, I was sort of shocked my alma mater got into the field. Like … really?

Selection committee members were leaking before Sunday that this was the strongest bubble group in years or some babble, but … if you took this team … no, it wasn’t. Quality-wise, this was pretty clearly an NIT team. That the Cavaliers got in, at the end of the day, actually showed how weak the other potential claimants were for that final bid.

I do think, however, that the tournament selection process itself illustrates a very interesting tension: whether the committee should be using predictive measures or just results-based ones. On the one hand, the result on the court has to be the thing that matters, right? On the other hand, is it fair to, say, sixth-seeded Clemson to pretend that New Mexico is just an 11th seed, or is it fair to top seed Connecticut to draw Auburn — fourth in the nation in KenPom.com rating! — as a likely regional semifinal opponent?

That tension is most obvious in the case of Virginia. The Cavs had by far the worst predictive metrics of any at-large tournament selection. However, they were without a doubt one of the most fortunate teams in college basketball, with every loss by double figures until their season finale (when the karma gods smacked them with a banked 3 at the buzzer in regulation before losing in overtime) but a 9-0 record in games decided by six points or fewer. Virginia finished 23-10 with just a plus-4.0 scoring margin; in KenPom’s “luck” rating, only South Carolina was higher among at-large tournament hopefuls. (The least lucky, by the way: Duke, Michigan State and Auburn.)

However, the committee can’t go by what it “knows;” it has to follow the rules set out for it. Predictive metrics all think Virginia has no business being in the tournament, and I have zero expectations of success against Colorado State on Tuesday, but Virginia’s resume had wins over Texas A&M and Florida and precious few losses anywhere. The losses that did happen were all by 90, but again, binary win-loss results have to matter for the games to have meaning. Sure, we can watch the Pitt game – the Panthers walked into Charlottesville and smoked the Cavaliers — and “know” Pitt was better, but Pitt didn’t have as good a tournament resume as Virginia.

In a similar vein, having three bubble teams from the Big East all get denied — Providence, St. John’s and Seton Hall — was perhaps not shocking when looking at their relative lack of so-called resume wins (and also the injury to the Friars’ Bryce Hopkins, which the committee is allowed to consider).

I would also argue that putting two of the doormatiest doormats in the history of the doormat industry in a league with just 11 teams hurt the Big East’s metrics. Georgetown and DePaul went 0-40 against the rest of the conference. ZERO and FORTY! The Detroit Pistons are like, “Wow, that’s pretty bad.”

USATSI 22787871

Virginia players look on from the sidelines during the final seconds of overtime against N.C. State. (Amber Searls / USA Today)

So, Virginia got in over those three and Oklahoma and a few others that were almost certainly better, but didn’t have the game outcomes to back that up. That most of the big public bracket experts predicted 67 of the 68 field members indicates that the selection committee executed this part pretty faithfully. It’s a sign of a transparent process when outsiders can replicate your work. If we’re going to gripe, we should instead spend it on seeding, where the committee did appear to lose the plot a bit. Putting Iowa State as the “worst” No. 2 seed, and in the same bracket as UConn, was indefensible.

The committee seemed to give last year’s darlings the benefit of the doubt, too, even though that isn’t supposed to factor into the process. Florida Atlantic played with its food all season and lost to lowly Temple in the AAC tournament but somehow got a No. 8 seed; meanwhile, San Diego State landed a No. 5 while the champion of its conference, the aforementioned New Mexico Lobos, were just a No. 11. (New Mexico is actually favored in its first-round game against Clemson.)

New Mexico is one of the few upsets I’d feel comfortable calling, however. As much as we gripe, seeding and selecting teams has become massively better in the last two decades thanks to improved metrics, whether predictive or retroactive. Oregon over luck-fueled South Carolina would be the only other first-round upset I’d be comfortable calling.

Alas, my favorite sleeper — a deep, talented Auburn team that I just saw win the SEC — got dropped into a bracket with UConn, which means almost certain death. I have UConn as the most likely champion, which won’t shock you; I’ll take Houston, Arizona and Tennessee as my other three Final Four teams. (I know, boring.) Creighton would be a solid pick but has no bench; Duke has talent, but I’m worried it will get handled by Houston.

Regardless, the randomness of a single-elimination tournament swamps anything predictive metrics can tell you, so maybe my Wahoos can make a run after all. But I find the process of Virginia being there at all pretty fascinating.

Prospect of the Week: Cam Matthews, 6-7 senior SF, Mississippi State

I already wrote a book about most of my favorite March Madness prospects, but one player I got eyes on over the weekend for the first time was Matthews, during my trip to Nashville for the SEC tournament.

Listed at 6-7 and 230 pounds, Matthews might not measure quite that tall at the NBA Draft Combine, but he is solidly built and a good athlete who clearly can hang with threes and many fours at the NBA level.

Matthews made that point emphatically in the first half of Friday’s upset win over Tennessee:

He ended up shooting 7 of 7 in the game, and while that was atypical, he has become a much better offensive player in his senior season, shooting 69.2 percent on 2s and handing out nearly six assists per 100 possessions.

However, it’s his defense and athleticism that would seem more likely to get him drafted in June. Matthews averages 3.7 steals per 100 possessions for his career, an unbelievable rate for a player of this size, and does it on a team that isn’t going crazy pressing or anything. He also holds his own on the glass with a career 12.2 percent rebound rate.

The question, obviously, is the offense. Matthews rarely shoots 3s for a Bulldogs team with a, shall we say, retro playing style, and while his shot doesn’t look broken, he’s a 57.8 percent career foul shooter. Matthews shows some playmaking ability and can be a factor in transition, but he also has a high turnover rate, and his overall scoring volume is still pretty low. He’d be a fifth option in the NBA and needs to make some progress even to be effective in that role.

Nonetheless, athletic forwards in this size profile don’t grow on trees, and dice rolls on developing players of this ilk into better shooters become pretty prevalent toward the tail end of the second round. Of all the players I saw at the ACC and SEC tournaments, Matthews probably made the strongest impression relative to where I’d previously ranked him.

(Top photo of Kyrie Irving and Devin Book: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top