2009-10 NBA Previewapolooza: Western Conference
The West has for almost ten seasons now, been the marquee conference of the NBA. Since 1999, a team from the West has won eight of the past 11 NBA Championships, including two separate mini-dynasties in San Antonio and Los Angeles. Despite last year’s NBA Champion coming from the West in 2009, many are picking a team from the East to make it to the very top. To simply assume this however, ignores the gauntlet that is the Western Conference of the NBA. Ahead, we have the preview for all 15 teams and finally a prediction of how the upcoming NBA post-season will pan out.
For the Eastern Conference preview, click here. Or don’t. Commie.
Who could win the NBA title? No one from this division has a chance.
Who will still be making noise come playoff time? Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz
Which team will be the fun team (if not the successful one) to watch? Oklahoma City Thunder
Which team will be mathematically eliminated by December? Minnesota Timberwolves
I don’t really understand the Andre Miller signing. You don’t give that kind of cash to backcourt bench help, but that is exactly what the Blazers seem intent on doing to start. Miller needs minutes to stay happy and sitting behind Steve Blake will not sit well with him. The Blazers are two deep at just about every position and are led by top 3 shooting guard, Brandon Roy. Roy leads a group of young (and they will be for a while) talents who still are looking for chemistry and cohesiveness after their sound beating by the Rockets in the first round last season. Coach Nate McMillan has to continue to help his young players forge an identity and even more, to finally give Greg Oden an idea of the kind of player he can be. I have the Blazers finishing first in the Northwest Division but not finishing any higher than the three-seed, and ultimately sputtering before reaching any kind of real title contention.
We can all agree that the Denver Nuggets mightily overachieved last season. Don’t believe me? Somehow, the Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals while letting opposing offenses score over 100 points a game (while not scoring much more than 100 per game on offense themselves) while also being in the top six in team turnovers per game. The Nuggets relied heavily on Carmelo Anthony and newcomer Chauncey Billups to help lead them last season and will do so again this year. For Denver, the same questions remain: Can they win if Nene suffers his yearly major injury? Will J.R. Smith keep his head on straight enough, to avoid more trouble than the seven games he is already missing to start the regular season? Will this be the year that the team tunes out George Karl? Is Carmelo gritty enough to will his team to victory when it matters most? He’s proven that he can do it consistently in the regular season, but Nuggets fans are ready for him to take the post-season leap that both Wade and James have.
The Utah Jazz come back as basically the same team as last season, minus some role players and adding some rookies. This is positive and negative for them all at the same time. Carlos Boozer is back, which is going to be awkward for all parties involved this season, after Utah made a very public and ultimately futile attempt to deal him in the offseason. Utah will run the same backcourt of All-World point guard Deron Williams and versatile shooting guard Ronnie Brewer. Andrei Kirilenko still mans the small forward position and with him comes the same flashes of utter brilliance, as well as the multi-game stretches of disappearing acts he is so apt to pull. Mehmet Okur is aging but still provides versatility at center for the Jazz, though his value is greatly diminished when Boozer isn’t healthy. Simply put, the Jazz have to come together as is this season, or consider blowing it up. Kirilenko is unlikely to be wanted back when his contract expires, and there will be no use for Okur at the prices he will want if Boozer leaves. The Jazz have quite a few weapons, including great long distance shooting off the bench in Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles. But they are a weak-willed team that struggles to really go toe-to-toe with the best of the NBA’s Western Conference.
Most fans can agree that the team to watch this season (perhaps not because they’ll be a sleeper but because they’ll be exciting) is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Led by Kevin Durant and joined by trusty sidekicks Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, the Thunder will be entertaining not just for the points they throw up, but because of Durant and his immense talent. The word on the street is that the easiest expectation to make, will be the downright dominance of Durant in the 2009-2010 season. In rookie James Harden, the Thunder add a pure scorer at the shooting guard position, who should show up on numerous highlight reels. Westbrook is one of the best athletes in the game. Green is consistent and steady, a necessary counter-balance to the run and gun mentality of Westbrook and Durant. Down low is where the Thunder really show weakness. Nick Collison is barely serviceable as a backup big, but will start for the Thunder. Nenad Kristic is washing up quickly and rookie B.J. Mullens from Ohio State barely showed a pulse in school, but the Thunder hope he can unlock the vast potential they see in him in the pro level. In this killer West, no playoffs for the Thunder, but watching them grow will be a treat.
Minnesota fans can understand when I tell you that I barely wanted to write about their team. I’m pretty sure they barely want to read about them as well. Kevin Love‘s devastating hand injury this pre-season was telling for several reasons. One reason is that Love is one of the bedrocks of the new order being created in Minny, so his absence will be palpable. The other telling discovery is that when a fan base deems their year lost because of KEVIN LOVE, you know exactly where your team stands and how deluded the idea of success was to begin with. The Wolves traded their two most productive players for a player who may never play for them in Ricky Rubio. The Wolves will miss the steady play of Randy Foye and the marksman ability of Mike Miller. Craig Smith getting dealt for cap reasons was another big hit. Minnesota will start two point guards in the backcourt with Johnny Flynn and free agent signing Ramon Sessions. Neither is a great shooter, but ball handling won’t be a big issue with the Wolves. Ryan Gomes thanks the basketball gods for his starting chance alongside talented center Al Jefferson, the only “star” that Minnesota is close to having. New coach Kurt Rambis will be making many phone calls to Phil Jackson in LA for advice, as this will prove to be a very long season.
Who could win the title? San Antonio Spurs
What teams could succeed or struggle and neither would surprise? Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets
Which team has to wonder if God has it out for them? Houston Rockets
What team is just happy to still be in Memphis? Memphis Grizzlies
If one ever questioned where Spurs GM R.C. Buford fits on the hierarchy of front office executives in the NBA, one need look no further than the 2009 off-season. Admit it, after the Spurs limped out of the playoffs, you assumed their window had mostly shut. Don’t feel bad. Everyone had thought it at one point or another. But then Buford gets swingman Richard Jefferson from the Bucks for Bruce Bowen, Kurt Thomas and Fabricio Oberto and suddenly the Spurs looked loaded as guard Manu Ginobili appears to be fully recovered from offseason ankle surgery. The Spurs are the clear-cut choice in a division that might prove to be the best in basketball, and are easily capable of hanging with their fellow Western power in Los Angeles. Future Hall of Fame forward Tim Duncan is back to do what he does, quietly helping win ballgames. Tony Parker must show that the improvements made in his game last season weren’t a fluke and also that he can thrive with three other players who will want the shots as much as he does. The deep bench includes second round steal DeJuan Blair, Michael FInley and a cast of talent that might go 12 deep.
You’re going to hear a lot of hype coming into this season regarding the Dallas Mavericks, and some of it may well be warranted. But if you ever hear that they should be considered an equal partner in the, “Gang of Five” Lakers, Spurs, Cavs, Celtics, Magic), then go ahead and turn the channel or click off the page or turn off your radio. The Mavericks have improved, no question, from their boring flim-flam of a team in 2009. But just how much? Shawn Marion comes in to provide the finisher to point guard Jason Kidd’s alley-oop passes. Marion is a great on-ball defender and a terrific slasher, but he will suffer the same fate he did in Miami and Toronto. That is, he can’t flourish in a half-court offense, which is exactly what the Mavericks play. Drew Gooden is a serviceable center, but will be undersized against most quality bigs in the West. Superstar Dirk Nowitzki gets to stay at his natural power forward position, but even at seven feet tall, he can’t block shots – something the post-defense deficient Mavericks need badly against teams like the Lakers and Spurs. Dallas has the potential to really make a big statement in the 2010 playoffs if all their moves prove to be, “best-case scenarios”. If not, this will be another mid-seed floundering to a first round loss.
New Orleans is a hard team to figure. A few years ago, this team was at one point the potential No. 1 seed in the West and looking unbeatable. That team then faltered, which gave way to the surprising Lakers taking the top seed and a trip to the Finals. The Hornets haven’t really made much of a fuss since then. New Orleans is led by the best point guard in basketball, Chris Paul, who has a knack for quietly filling up the stat sheet with points, assists and steals. Unfortunately for the Hornets, there is no real second star on the club. David West is good, but lacks star ability and consistency. Peja Stojakovic has reduced himself down to a glorified spot-up shooter. Emeka Okafor was traded by Charlotte for being nothing much more than a role player and that will certainly not change in New Orleans. The squad has a nice down-low presence and good forwards. The wings provide little to the attack, as Morris Peterson and James Posey are limited in their talent and production level. The bench will be of no help this season. Look for Byron Scott’s club to finish in the mid-to-late part of the playoff seedings this summer.
There is something very intriguing about the Rockets. In many ways, this team reminds me of the 1992-1993 Lakers squad, a team with no stars (save for an aging James Worthy) and no hope, yet took Phoenix to the brink in their first round best of five series. This team faces similar obstacles. It’s almost comedic to lose your two superstars (Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming) in one offseason, but that is exactly what happened to Houston this past summer. The Rockets will bring out a lineup that includes Aaron Brooks, Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza, Luis Scola and either Chuck Hayes or rookie David Anderson. Hayes is the better player right now, while Anderson is the more traditional center. Hayes, unfortunately, is 6’6” and looks it against other centers. Gone as well is the toughness and scoring punch of Ron Artest, who traded teams with Ariza this season. The Rockets will have to rely on the coaching abilities of Rick Adelman to give them any kind of hope for this season, as he has quite the wire act to pull off with the roster he has. But even with all that, this group of role players are so good, I think they might be able to hold the fort for McGrady’s return in January and pull off a playoff spot.
And as we get to the cellar of the Southwest Division, it must mean that we’re walking in Memphis. Go ahead and explain this team to me. You have two young guards in Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo who need touches to score and improve their game. What would you do? Stay away from Allen Iverson. Memphis did not, signing, “The Answer” to play this season. You have Marc Gasol, a serviceable center on the cheap who lets you focus elsewhere. Who would you not draft? Certainly not a project that won’t be a viable player for at least several years. Oh, they drafted Hasheem Thabeet. Its now going on years that the Grizzlies front office has been mocked and scorned for shipping away Pau Gasol. But if you really want to bang your head on something, take a gander at what Gasol is making this season and what newcomer and constant cancer Zach Randolph is making this year. Did you see? About exactly the same! It’s a nightmare in Memphis and the team has little to no direction, as they try to forge an identity with bloated overpriced parts getting in the way of their only viable talent. I have to move on, this team depresses me too much. My condolences to Rudy Gay, Conley and Mayo for having to live like this.
Who could win the title? Los Angeles Lakers
Who will score A LOT of points? Phoenix Suns
Who might surprise the world and be a playoff team? Los Angeles Clippers
What Nor Cal teams will comprise the cellar of the Pacific? Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings
The Los Angeles Lakers are raising their tenth banner in Los Angeles and their 15th as a franchise overall. when they start the 2009-2010 season. Kobe Bryant finally quieted the doubters and naysayers, winning the title without a fellow superstar by his side. Instead, he won his fourth title with the help of one of the best supporting casts in basketball. The Lakers bring back All-Star forward Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Derek Fisher and Andrew Bynum. Joining the Lakers this season instead of Trevor Ariza is Ron “Crazy Pills” Artest, one of the most enigmatic players in the game. Coach Phil Jackson returns with the challenge of getting a free-spirit like Artest to buy into the Laker way, as well as getting his teammates comfortable enough to thrive with him like they did with Ariza last season. Ariza had a nose for the big moment and it remains to be seen if Artest has a similar pedigree. The Lakers bench suffered last season (ironic, since their bench mob dominated but then was crushed in the 2007 finals vs. Boston) and needs bounce-back seasons from several players if the Lakers hope to keep up with other NBA powers. Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujajcic need to revitalize their 2007 touch. D.J. Mbenga and Josh Powell will be asked to spell Gasol and Bynum, and Odom will be getting $10-million a year to be the supersub he was last season. Look for L.A. to finish first in their division and a high seed in the West.
There is no doubt that Pheonix will score the ball. In fact, their victories will be more than most with the same talent because they are so adept at running the “Seven Seconds or Less” offense instituted by former coach Mike D’Antoni. The Suns return aging super point Steve Nash, as well as one of the best bigs in the business in Amare Stoudamire. Stoudamire is smack dab in the middle of his prime and entering a contract year, which could promote some better play as he auditions for a long term deal. Jason Richardson is a pure scorer but not a defender of any kind. The Suns have little else down low after Stoudamire but will trot out the poor man’s Brook Lopez with his twin Robin Lopez and Louis Amundsen. Grant Hill is back for another season to try to balance out a very one-dimensional basketball team. The Suns will win many games they shouldn’t simply because there aren’t as many teams as you think that can put up 120 a game like the Suns potentially could do. It’s a tried and true method to win a lot of games that don’t matter, but ultimately fail against the top competition. The Suns could compete for a mid to low seed, perhaps higher if other midlevel West teams falter.
I can’t help it. I have to make my big prediction now. I predict that the Clippers will get the eighth seed in the playoffs and then get soundly swept. But did you hear that first part? Playoffs! PLAYOFFS? PLAYOFFS??? Yes, the Clippers have the talent and the cogs to make a playoff run. Let me be honest with you, I really like Blake Griffin. I think his injury this week was devastating because it pauses what could be a potentially great story. But what really has me optimistic has been the shrewd trades and signings made by Mike Dunleavy this off-season. I can’t believe I said that. Dunleavy found a sucker to take Zach Randolph, traded Quentin Richardson for very underrated forward Craig Smith and Bassy Telfair. Dunleavy also got Rasual Butler for pennies on the dollar from the broke New Orleans Hornets. All these moves combined with the great drafts Dunleavy has had the past few seasons leads this author to believe that the Clippers could do something related to the post-season this year. Of course, this is the Clippers… so the Griffin injury could merely be the tip of the iceberg. But it will be fun to watch this team, no matter which way they end up going.
The Golden State Warriors got the NBA fandom all in a knot with their electric first round against the Dallas Mavericks in 2007. They then promptly crapped all that goodwill out the window with a lot of in-fighting, poor front office leadership, and the ego of coach Don Nelson. Nelson has so many different lineups and looks that his own team can’t even keep up with what he is thinking most of the time. Monta Ellis and rookie guard Stephen Curry are already fighting and captain Steven Jackson was stripped of his captaincy and demanded a trade after feuding with Nelson in the pre-season. Besides that, not too bad! Anthony Randolph is the breakout stud very few people are talking about still. Andris Biedrins continues his reign as the best center almost no one knows about. The Warriors still have the pieces to be the exciting team that everyone remembers from a few years ago. Unfortunately, they will not be allowed to keep an identity long enough to flourish in it. This Warriors team will need regime change before they can move forward from here.
Let’s go out on a limb and say that the Sacramento Kings are the worst team in basketball. They ended the season that way, and one thinks that rookie Tyreke Evans (while very good) won’t be enough to break them out of the cellar. The Kings are the last team in the league, both in talent and in this preview. The backcourt is the strength, with Evans and scorer Kevin Martin manning the shooting guard spot. The Kings will play two tweener forwards up front with Andres Nocioni and Jason Thompson trying to build on an impressive first season. Spencer Hawes gets yet another season to prove that he belongs in the pro level. His performances to date suggest he is not athletic enough and over matched in the NBA game. New coach Paul Westphal has a huge challenge ahead of him to try to get this team not only out of the cellar, but to simple respectability.
Here’s the NotInHD.com prediction for how the playoffs will shake down:
Boston over Wizards
Cleveland over Orlando
Boston over Cleveland
Spurs over Blazers
Lakers over Nuggets
Spurs over Lakers
201o NBA FINALS:
Celtics over Spurs