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It's hard to put these sorts of columns together without appearing unduly harsh — trust me, I've tried not to — and we're well aware that public representatives of NBA teams aren't going to sit at a podium with shrugged shoulders when asked if the playoffs are a reasonable goal for their squads in the upcoming season. What are they supposed to say?
So when a coach, GM, or team president go on record as having postseason expectations for their lottery-level squads some two months before training camps even start and eight and a half months before the 2012-13 season ends, you have to give them a break. Kind of. You also have to point out that, while the Golden State Warriors (with team GM Bob Myers doing the talking), Washington Wizards (with Randy Wittman springing eternal) and Minnesota Timberwolves (David Kahn lololololol) have improved during this offseason, for each of these teams breaking into that playoff bracket will be no easy feat.
Still, should they be dismissed entirely?
First, let's hear from the particulars. Here's Kahn, as interviewed by Bob Sansevere of the Pioneer Press:
BS: If this is the team you go into the season with, are you feeling good about competing for a playoff spot -- or even more than just a playoff spot?
DK: If we stay healthy. We learned the hard way last year what that means. Last year, we were fighting for a playoff spot, and through two-thirds of the season things were moving on a nice incline. And all of a sudden, the world came to an end in a matter of a few weeks (after rookie point guard Ricky Rubio suffered a season-ending knee injury). If we stay healthy, we should be competing for a playoff spot.
And Myers responding to the words of new signee Carl Landry, in discussing his team's chances with Marcus Thompson II of the Contra Costa Times:
"At this point in my career, I want to play for a team that's not playing for a draft pick," [Landry] said. " ... This team definitely has the talent to be a playoff team -- and not just an eighth seed or a seventh seed."
"I'd be disappointed (if we don't)," Myers said via conference call. "I don't want that to turn into me saying we're a playoff team. But I would say that we're going in that direction. ... We expect to compete. We expect that we have a group that has the ability to be in the playoffs."
And finally Wittman, surveying things in a talk with Michael Lee of the Washington Post:
"You always want to believe in the playoffs. I think, you're always striving for that. We've got to go out and we've got a tough start to the schedule and that's going to be one of my main emphases with our guys is going into camp and understanding that, when we come out, we're going to go on the road a lot and we've got to be ready for that. We've got to be ready for a good start and keep that momentum that we have."
(Before we dive in, all three interviews are expertly-done and fine reads for reasons that go far beyond the quotes we just pulled. Go click through to a few more tabs and give them a look. Especially with absolutely nothing of interest going on in the NBA right now.)
Kahn's assertion, regarding last season, is the most accurate. Myers is the most hedging, and Wittman's is the most wistful (or, as some have taken it, weakest in its "you always want to believe ???"-tone). All three have their merits.
The Minnesota Timberwolves were two games above .500 when they entered play with the reeling Los Angeles Lakers on March 9th. Kevin Love was a late scratch before that contest, Ricky Rubio was lost in the second half with a torn ACL, and the Wolves limped to a 5-21 mark to end their season. The group couldn't even be accused of tanking, because its lottery pick went to New Orleans as a result of a series of trades that may or may not have involved this woman's husband (go ahead, another tab). Love also missed time towards the end of that run after suffering a scary concussion, which we know is redundant but also accurate.
Not unlike Kahn's stance. If the Wolves stay healthy, they'll be right there. But this is presuming we see any of the Rubio we saw last season, and assuming the moves made to chop away payroll in the hopes to add Nicolas Batum (who still ended up in Portland) take away from the team's depth. We think Rubio will need until 2013-14 to fully come back, even if he does play half of the upcoming season. And though the team cleared off quite a few players while only really adding Andrei Kirilenko, any upshot in production from the small forward position will be a massive upgrade on the weakest team at the wing that we've seen in years.
The problem is projecting. Using last year's numbers, it'll take 45 wins to assure an eight seed in the West, and though the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks (who tied for that seed last year) have had fitful offseason, it's hard to see the Wolves (whose winning percentage last year points to a 33-win season) vaulting that far — as much as we respect the games of Love, Nikola Pekovic, and Kirilenko. And as much as we'd like to see Rick Adelman's offense in the postseason again.
This is the same frustration that the Golden State Warriors will endure. This is a team full of pretty good players, especially when you consider Andrew Bogut's return to full health (please? Please?) and any potential (here comes the sportswriter talk) addition by subtraction that the breakup of the Monta Ellis/Stephen Curry might provide. Might provide.
Bogut, as it has been throughout his star-crossed career, will have to be the tipping point. He will have to be the focus defensively as Mark Jackson's team attempts to improve upon their 27th-ranked showing in defensive efficiency from last season. It's true that Bogut's injury past is more the result of bad luck than chronic frustrations that can't be overcome, and it's true that trading small for big is usually a good thing, but it's also true that the pressure will be on.
And that, like the Wolves, the Warriors (who won, prorated to a typical season, 29 games last year), will have a tough time making that 16-game leap.
Somebody's going to have to screw up, out West, for these guys to vault. The Wizards are hoping that a few Eastern teams — most notably the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic — have already cleared the way with a series of screwups.
Jeff Van Gundy already thinks that hitting home with a .500 season is a reasonable big win for the Bullies, and we don't know what the Orlando Magic roster will look like on opening night or in the third week of February (outside of the fact that they really, really want to be the Spurs). It is entirely reasonable to clear up two spots in the Eastern bracket, or at the very least consider them open to be contended with; in spite of Chicago (playing 2012-13 mostly without Derrick Rose and then sometimes with a limited and recovering Derrick Rose) taking the East's top seed last year and Orlando potentially playing more than half of this upcoming season with the second best player in the NBA.
Washington counters with newfound depth. We didn't disagree with the moves they made this summer, even if they don't hold much potential-wise. Washington was going to be on the books for massive salary no matter what, so moving around deck chairs to secure some veteran help for point guard John Wall was probably a sound enough move for us to get over the fact that this team won't be winning any conference titles with this core.
With Nene pairing with Emeka Okafor to help as Jan Vesely learns on the fly (emphasis on "fly," bro), Bradley Beal ready to help at shooting guard and Andray Blatche wasting possessions on someone else's time (if not someone else's dime), things will improve. This is a club that can move in, with 44 wins as the Eastern benchmark for the eight seed and Philadelphia (last year's eighth seed) trading Elton Brand's production for that of Kwame Brown, the Wizards might have a chance that rides a little stronger than Wittman's words.
New playoff faces, even if they end up on NBA TV, are always a good thing. And though we enjoy watching the Mavs and Jazz and have obvious affection for Chicago, we're not going to assume that things hold tight. These teams aren't far off. Improved wing play from Minnesota, Bogut's badass ways in Golden State, and more patience and care on Washington's side (to say nothing of, yeah, Philly essentially trading Elton Brand Kwame Brown and Chicago being fored to do the same with Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich) could make these mid-summer proclamations somewhat prophetical.
And, for each team's frustrated owners, profitable.
We'll catch up to things in April, pals.