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Sunday, October 30, 2005

NBA Western Conference Preview, Finally


This is an interesting place, this Western Conference. All the Free-Agent moves from last year and the injuries/comebacks of this year has made it almost impossible to predict what will happen, as some teams will mesh and others will fall apart over the course of the season. That won’t stop me or any of the other sports idiots out there from making predictions, though. Failing’s half the fun.

The biggest questions by far in the NBA relate to Unstoppable Offensive Force Amare Stoudamire and the Phoenix Suns – Will he come back from his injury this year? If so, when? Can the rest of the team win enough games early to get them a playoff spot? If they do make the playoffs, can they contend like they did last year? Nobody knows, but my suspicion is that the answers are: probably, at the end of the year, yes, and it depends on what you mean by contend. But I’m just a guy eating carrots and getting his sports information from the internet, so don’t go by what I say.

In the West there are: 1 great team, 3 near-great teams, 2 good teams, 7 ok teams, and 2 bad teams. These are their stories (dun-dun).


15)New Orleans/Oklahoma City/Parts Unknown “Hornets”
Do they have Hornets in Oklahoma City? Nobody knows. Anyway, after their trade of Jamaal Magloire for the Bucks’ Desmond Mason, they have no frontcourt players to speak of. If they started their 5 best players, they would have a starting lineup with Chris Paul, Speedy Claxton, JR Smith, Desmond Mason, and PJ Brown, with Chris Andersen dunking off the bench. That team would get outrebounded by 20 a game and lose 140-120 most nights. They’ve got a good nucleus of small players, and if they can add some bigs later they might have a future. That doesn’t help the people of Oklahoma City, however, who will see their only experience ever with NBA basketball end in a 20-win season and mocking derision from the rest of the league. But hey, they’ll probably score a lot of points. They would have won 10 more had they kept the moosey Magloire.

14) Portland Trail Blazers
Here’s the problem with Portland: They’re best player, PF Zack Randolph, hates everyone and everything, and would seemingly be content to be an average player who makes a lot of money and doesn’t show up for player meetings. He is your classic head case. On top of that, he’s a ball hog who doesn’t play well with others. I picked them to finish high last year based upon his raw talent, but he just spent the year getting high instead. If they weren’t paying Zach all that money, they’d do better to start Pryzbilla and Theo Ratliff. But since they’re committed to rebuilding around the big lug, they need one of their 20 guards and wing players (Jack, Blake, Dixon, Miles, Telfair, that little Webster guy, etc.) to make the leap to greatness this year. None of them will, and Randolph will cause the team to implode despite the best efforts of Nate McMillan, who is already wondering what was so bad about Seattle anyway.


13) Los Angeles Clippers
I’ll admit it: I totally forgot Sam Cassell was on this team. Their starting five of Cassell, Cut Mobley, Corey “overrated” Maggetteee, Elton Brand, and Chris Kaman can compete night-in night-out with most teams. Teams like this make it impossible to pick the West. Cassell, as always, is the most important guy. If he goes after a 17-point 9-assist season, the Clips could surprise everyone and make the playoffs. If he goes after a 20-point 6-assist, season, they might lose 50 games. I’m picking closer to the latter, because there’s just a cloud of…something over this team that prevents them from ever pulling off a sustained rebuilding project. Ok, it’s not “something,” it’s owner Donald Sterling’s cheapness. 13th place is what he gets for trying to rebuild around that muscle-bound Duke schizo Maggetteee. And I don’t think a bench that features something named Zeijko Rebraca, raw Shaun Livingston, forever spare Chris Wilcox, and this generation’s Brad Lohaus (Walter McCarty) will help them, either.

12) Golden State Warriors
The sexy surprise pick for the playoffs this year, the GS Warriors are in many ways a bundle of run-and-gun goodness. Baron Davis is a fantastic point guard who knows how to run a team, Jason Richardson can run all day, and Troy Murphy can offend inside. I’m a non-believer in Mike Dunleavy, Jr. and Adonal Foyle, however, and Derek Fisher is pretty much done without Kobe around to make him look adequate. So they’ve got one great player and two good players, and then…I don’t know. If their rookies can contribute and they find someone to clog the middle at all, they could sneak into the playoffs if other teams have injuries. Otherwise, I just don’t see it. I think their great finish last season was a fluke. And if Baron Davis goes down again, yikes. 10 wins, tops.

11) Los Angeles Lakers
What? Too low? Phil Jackson is going to lead them back to the L.A. facelift promised land? Kobe’s going to rediscover superstardom and passing? Lamar Odom’s going to morph into Scottie Pippen? The triangle offense is going to turn players like Chris Mihm and Smush Parker into adequate NBA starters? Devean George is going to finally be cut, because he’s terrible? Kwame Brown’s going to turn into a good player because the Wizards were just “keeping his great talent down?” Am I crazy? Kobe’s the next Jordan – how can he finish 11th? Well, they did last year, and the only thing that’s changed from then to now is the coach, Mr. Jackson. Actually, the talent pool has gotten more shallow with the departure of Caron Butler and Sucky Atkins and the addition of Kwame “The Cancer” Brown. Kwame hated playing with Jordan – how’s he going to like playing with Kobe? They’re probably going to start a guy named Smush at point guard. What, God Shammgod wasn’t available? This team won’t even make the playoffs if Kobe does rediscover superstardom and passing.

10) Minnesota Timberwolves
Remember a few years ago, when Minnesota kept finishing 5th in the West and never making it past the first round because they didn’t have enough talent to go with Kevin Garnett? Yeah, Minnesotans will discover that those years weren’t so bad after all. The gambit they took to bring in Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell has failed. They were the best team in the West for exactly one year, got injured during the playoffs, and choked themselves to death the next year. Now Sprewell and Cassell are gone, and the Garnett-aires are made up of many of the same guys who were there before this whole mess started. The injury-prone Troy Hudson and Wally Sczerbiak will provide needed help if available, but other than those two you’re talking about a bunch of spares and failed bits from other teams. One intriguing player they picked up in the draft is Rashard McCants, the best player on the NCAA Champ North Carolina team of a year ago. For some reason, I think he’ll make a bad pro. There’s just something about him that just isn’t right. I’ll probably live to regret writing those last two sentences. Anyway, as competitive as K. Gar the Horrible is, he’s got to be just pulling his hair out right now. That’s why he’s always bald.

9) Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz picked Deron Williams from Illinois with the 3rd pick in the NBA Draft, which is odd. Chris Paul is clearly the more dynamic and talented player, so why did they decide to take the solid but unspectacular Williams? Nobody knows. What people do know, however, is that the 2nd best forward tandem in the West (Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos “The Alky” Boozer )is back from injury and that makes the Jazz a way better team than they were last year. It’s hard to explain the greatness of Kirilenko to people who don’t know basketball. When he’s not sitting on the bench in an NBA-approved outfit, he’s the most well-rounded player in the league. Around the Forwards of Fun are a bunch of white and near-white guys who are ok role players. It’s odd that the lily-white denizens of Salt Lake City would have a basketball team with so many white guys, isn’t it? Somebody should investigate this. I pick them 9th because of the presence of The Alky, who so wronged the Cavaliers last year that the basketball gods may not let the Jazz make the playoffs again until he’s dead or off the team. I bet he learned how to be a two-timing jerkface at Duke, where bearded mountain man “Christian” Laettner teaches a class in such things.

8) Memphis Grizzlies
The ‘Sleaze seem to be on the verge of falling apart(at least that what the Coastal media says), but we all need to slow down a bit and remember who their GM is before we put them in the basketball casket and start shoveling basketball dirt on it. It’s Jerry West, who is a genius. Look at their roster for a second. You’ll see they still have Pau “Put Some Corn in Your Tank” Gasol, Shane Battier, Brian Cardinal, and Mike Miller. You’ll also see they have added Bobby Jackson, Damon Stoudamire, Lorenzen Wright, Eddie Jones, and talented rookie Hakim Warrick from Syracuse. They are once again loaded – it’s up to Mike Fratello to make it all work. I see them being talented but a little soft, and they should be able to reproduce what they’ve done the last couple of years but no more. Time will tell if Jerry West can bring a title to the Elvis area. In fact, I just heard time say, “Not this year, but they will make the playoffs again.”

THE ?????? TEAM
7) Phoenix Suns
Nobody could have anticipated the rocket-like rise of the Phoenix Suns last year or the MVP season of Steve Nash. He and Amare Stoudamire became Stockton/Malone II: This time, the big guy’s actually not overrated. It was amazing. Stoudamire’s preseason injury casts a huge shadow over the entire NBA, and every good team will feel uneasy until he’s either back or they know he will never be back. But that’s not the only guy they lost – in fact, they lost more of their 7-man rotation than they retained this summer. The only guys left who played significant minutes for the Suns last year are Nash, Shawn Marion, and Jimmy Jackson. In Stoudamire’s place stands Kurt Thomas, a decent forward who exactly ½ as good. He’ll have to hold down the offensive fort until Stoudamire comes back, which could be anywhere from 4 months to never. It’s a crazy situation, but I’m picking them to make the playoffs because I believe in Nash and Marion, and it’s not like the teams behind them are breathing down their neck. Plus, the Lakers and the Timberwolves probably have worse supporting casts, and they don’t have any basketball messiahs coming. All I know is, if Amare’s all the way back in June, nobody’s going to want to face these guys in the first round of the playoffs.


6) Sacramento Kings
The Kings are a lot like the ‘Sleaze in that they’re a talented and deep team with no superstar to define them. Chris Webber is gone, and with him his inability to rise to the moment. Unfortunately, they brought Shareef Abdur-Rahim in to replace Webber, and with him his inability to play on a good team. They pursued Shareef after he failed a physical for the Nets, so the guy could keel over at any moment. Mike Bibby, however, is great and clutch, and if Peja regains his prior form they will once again be in the thick of the playoff race. The starters will probably be Bibby, Bonzi Wells, Peja, Shareef, and Brad Miller. All of those dudes are solid. The Maloof brothers will be pleased. The bench has Corliss Williamson, Brian Skinner, and a rookie I like --“Bring Me the Head of” Francisco Garcia. They have no depth at guard, which will prevent them from being a real Western power. Sorry, Maloof brothers.

5) Seattle Supersonics
You may not realize it, but the Seattle Supersonics were actually the third-best team in the West last year. No, for real. And the only people they lost between then and now were a pair of workmanlike but ultimately fat power forwards who are easily replaced. I mean, the Knicks signed one of them, so how good can he really be? Mikki Moore, Danny “Mean Guy” Fortson, and Nick Collison should be able to do what Seattle needs them to do, namely hit people, rebound, and stay out of the way of the talented players on the team. Ray Allen is always magnificent, and Rashard Lewis is a nice partner in crime for him. Kobe-Odom only wish they were this good. Flip Murray, Luke Ridenour, and Vlad “The Impaler” Radmanovitch should also provide enough offensive help to keep this team rolling this year, at least until they meet the 4 better teams in the conference. My only concern is the coaching situation, as they forced out a superior coach for no apparent reason. That’s the kind of basketball sin that rarely goes unpunished, so I’m picking them 5th with a doubting heart.


4) Denver Nuggets
They’re the number 4 team in the West, but they plan on starting Voshon Lenard at shooting guard. Not only that, but also they have 3 good point guards who are definitely too small to play shooting guard. The magnificent frontcourt of Carmelo Anthony (primed to make a leap to absolute superstardom, I think), Kenyon Martin (who will be playing mad this year because his college coach was fired, I think), Marcus Camby, the big Brazilian Maybner “Nene” Hilario (I refuse to just call him Nene when I can bust out Maybner Hilario as well), and oft-injured Eduardo Najera can only do so much with Voshon and the Midgets doing their thing in the backcourt. And watch out – this is a George Karl-coached team that had some success last year, so you never know when they’re going to just blow up and start hating him. That is, unless Mr. Karl learned not to be a big jerk from his stint in Milwaukee, something I highly doubt. Once a big jerk, always a big jerk. Seriously, though – with the volatile Martin, the young Anthony and the lack of a shooting guard, Denver could totally fall apart. I’m not going to actually predict that, though.

3) Houston Rockets
In Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, they now have the best inside-outside combination in the league. Their pick-and-rolls are awesome, mostly because they’re both so tall and skilled, it makes you wonder how anyone is going to stop them, ever. Somehow, the two teams above them will find a way. They added to their ranks PF Stromile Swift, an athletic guy who’s also “long.” This might be the longest team in NBA history, in fact. All they need now is Tim Thomas and Paul Pressey, and they’ll be all set. Swift’s presence ensures that Ryan Bowen won’t play, which is also awesome. They traded for a real NBA starting point guard (albeit a crazy one) when they traded for Rafer “The Wafer”Alston. They’re talent is almost super-talent, but here’s my one concern: toughness. They may be long, and athletic, and skilled, but are they tough enough to take this thing all the way to the title? I mean, none of the guys I mentioned have a rep for being able to deal with adversity – especially Rafer the Wafer. It will be fun to watch them try this year, but ultimately San Antonio is just too good and too deep.

2) Dallas Mavericks
Sometimes you have to go with your gut, and that’s what I’m doing with this pick. Here are Dallas’ problems: Their point guard (Jason Terry)is actually a shooting guard and everybody knows it, they’re trying to get Dirk (Nowitski)to be a post-up player when everybody knows he’s better suited to the wing, their Center has hands of stone and therefore nobody passes him the ball, they’re defense is only sporadically good. So what’s my problem that I see these guys as being better than Denver or Houston? First of all, Dirk is an MVP candidate, and he’s developed some impressive moves the past couple of years that nobody can stop. Of course, he stopped himself with his own incompetence during the playoffs, but don’t worry about that. He and Josh Howard comprise the best forward tandem in the league. Jason Terry and The Jerry Stackmouse comprise one of the best backcourts in the West. Dampier and the newly-thin Lasagna Diop aren’t that great, but they’re a better center tandem than any teams in the West save Yao in Houston. Shaq is no longer in the conference, people. Plus, they’ve got a deeper bench (Wauwatosa’s own Devin Harris, defensive specialist Doug Christie, Diop, Keith Van Horn, and Marquis “Feaky Eyes” Daniels) than anyone in the conference save San Antonio. Still think they won’t finish second? Well, if Avery Johnson can coach (and we know he can talk a good game), they will.


1) San Antonio Spurs
It would be hard for any basketball person with eyes to deny the Spurs their preseason #1 ranking. I mean, they won it all last year (albeit in seven games against a Detroit team that wasn’t really trying), and didn’t lose anyone meaningful over the off-season. More importantly, they got some serious firepower off their bench when Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel decided they wanted to win a championship with San Antonio, too. I’m afraid that probably will happen. Parker and Ginobili are foreign, quick, and freaky with the basketball in a good way. Tim Duncan is a superstar because he’s so fundamentally sound, and will probably get over that whole mental free-throw thing this year. Bruce Bowen is the ultimate defensive stopper, and makes clutch threes to boot. Oh, and the problematic center position got better as well with the addition of Nazr “Nozzie” Mohammad. Their defense is sound, their offense is better than you think, and they seem to have those championship intangibles that everybody talks about. They’re a practical shoo-in for the title. But if Duncan gets hurt, it’s all over. Just remember that. Plus, their championship attitude goes away during the playoffs sometimes for no apparent reason. But if they play like they can, there’s nobody that can beat them.

1 San Antonio over 8 Memphis
7 Phoenix over 2 Denver
3 Seattle over 6 Sacramento
4 Dallas over 5 Houston

San Antonio over Dallas
Phoenix over Seattle

San Antonio over Phoenix

San Antonio over Detroit, again.


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