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NBA Preview: Part 2 - Western Conference
by Mike Maloney (NBA)
Posted on October 31, 2006, 8:36 PM

Welcome to Part 2 of my NBA Preview, covering the Western Conference. For my analysis on the Eastern Conference, you can read that here.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

NORTHWEST

DENVER NUGGETS (45-37) Denver is in a tough spot. Theyíre a slightly above average team, thanks mostly to Carmelo Anthony, who continues to fly under the radar playing for a team like the Nuggets, while Dwyane Wade and Lebron James continue to get most of the attention. Denver has a potentially good team with Kenyon Martin, Andre Miller, Marcus Camby, and JR Smith rounding out the lineup. However, K-Mart was hurt last year, and his numbers were down across the board. Camby had a resurgence last year, posting a career high in rebounds, and second highest points average. However, at 32, one has to expect Cambyís numbers to follow a downward trend, so donít expect his impressive numbers to continue. J.R. Smith is a question mark, playing in New Orleans the past two years, but not progressing as expected. The Nuggets still have a chance to squeak out a division title, but they probably shouldnít expect to get out of the first round.

UTAH JAZZ (43-39) The Jazz have been reeling since Karl Malone and John Stockton left, and theyíre close to regaining their momentum. Center Mehmet Okur has really come into his own, averaging 18.0 ppg and 9 rpg last year. Carlos Boozer has shown to be a valuable pickup from the Cavs in the power forward position, and Andrei Kirilenko at small forward round out a very solid, young frontcourt. Gordan Giricek is an average shooting guard, and Deron Williams is unproven at the point. Utah did a nice job of drafting Ronnie Brewer and Dee Brown, but they probably wonít be making much of an immediate impact. Expect to see this team at the top of the division come 2008, but for this year theyíll be just short.

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (36-46) Maybe 36-46 is generous for the Wolves. Kevin Garnettís loyalty to this franchise is admirable, but one has to wonder why he hasnít jumped ship yet. The man has been with the team since 1995, and in that time he has won two playoff series. Heís only 30, but heís certainly not getting any younger, and considering how much money Minnesota has paid him, money canít be whatís keeping him there. He has to want a ring, and itís just not going to happen in this city. There are a bunch of average players surrounding him, so donít expect much from the T-Wolves this year.

SEATTLE SUPERSONICS (32-50) Seattle is in a similar position as Minnesota. Ray Allen has been a staple of the Sonics since being traded in the 2002-2003 season. Before that, he was a staple of the Milwaukee Bucks. Heís a career All-Star with no title, and not much of a team in place to help him out. The Sonics are a mess, and a change of scenery could be nice for them. There isnít much of a bright future for the Sonics at the moment.

PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS (25-57) I learned something today. I learned that Jarrett Jack, Travis Outlaw, Zach Randolph and Joel Przybilla are listed as starters for the Blazers. That brings the total number of Blazer players I can name to 7. There isnít a whole lot to be said about Portland. The team is terrible, Zach Randolph led the team in scoring with 18.0 ppg, they traded away a decent player in Viktor Khryapa to pick up LaMarcus Aldridge, who has a lot of potential, but probably nothing worth trading up from the #4 to the #2 pick in the draft. Donít expect any improvement from Portland this year.

PACIFIC

PHOENIX SUNS (55-27) Two words. Amare. Stoudemire. The Suns were very close to making it to the NBA Finals last year. Theyíll have a tougher task this year with a returning, experienced Mavs team, and a Spurs team with a healthy Tim Duncan. The Suns are going to need Stoudemire to have a shot at winning the Western Conference. Steve Nash is 32, and reportedly has had some back issues in the offseason which, for someone as active as Nash on the court could turn into a big problem. Fortunately for Phoenix, they also have Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, Shawn Marion, Kurt Thomas, and Leandro Barbosa. Even if the Suns donít reach their potential, they should have a relatively easy time winning their division, and then itís a matter of hanging in their in the playoffs. How far they get their will hinge on whether Amare can completely recover from his injury last year or not.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS (45-37) The biggest story for the Lakers in the offseason was Kobe Bryant changing his number from 8 to 24. That maybe be a good thing or it may be a bad thing. L.A. didnít make many changes in the offseason, once again returning a lineup of Bryant, Smush Parker, Vladimir Radmanovic, Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown. However, the Lakers really showed the ability to perform as a team in the second half of the season, including an almost upset of the Suns in the playoffs. There is no reason why this team canít equal their performance from last year, especially with Kobe Bryant at the helm and Phil Jackson on the bench.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (44-38) The Clippers are a hard team to get an accurate read on. Elton Brand and Corey Maggette should come out and continue to perform. The big question mark has to be Sam Cassell. After having a fantastic season last year, one has to wonder if heíll be able to put up a repeat performance given his age (36). With Phoenix and the Lakers likely to improve upon their performances from last year, look for the Clippers to stumble a little and drop a few games, but still make it into the playoffs.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (39-43) At some point in time, the Golden State Warriors might turn back into a decent team, as they were so long ago. They have some talented players right now in Jason Richardson, who went on a tear last year averaging 23.2 ppg, along with Baron Davis and Mike Dunleavy, who is still trying to improve his game. They will miss Derek Fisher a bit, as heís a good veteran to have around. The Warriors are still hovering around that playoff bubble, and they wonít burst it this year, as there are just too many other talented teams in the West right now; but maybe a few years down the road if they can continue to improve.

SACRAMENTO KINGS(38-44) Ah, how the mighty have fallen. Ron Artest is a headcase, and seemed to enjoy having Rick Adelman as a head coach. So of course the Kings management does the most logical thing and fires Adelman, almost begging Artest to cause problems this year. Bibby seems to be entering his prime, which is too bad because he doesnít really have the team to help him out. Brad Miller is a question mark, having suffered numerous injuries over the past few years. Heís 30 years old, but constantly looks like heís about 34. Peja Stojakovic is gone. Bonzi Wells is gone. This team is in a state of flux, sort of rebuilding, but still trying to hold onto part of its identity, and this will lead to another disappointing season for the Kings.

SOUTHWEST

SAN ANTONIO SPURS (57-25) The Spurs won 63 games last year, and Tim Duncan wasnít completely healthy, either. Now that Duncan is healthy, the Spurs will look to get back to the NBA Finals this year, and itís certainly a possibility. They are by no means a lock, as they donít have much in the way of a center, and some of their backups are getting old (Brent Barry, 34, Michael Finley, 33, Robert Horry, 36). Look for the Spurs to start out hot, but it will be difficult for them to keep up the pace for all 82 games, and it will be key for them to be rested and healthy heading into the playoffs in order to overcome the Mavs and the Suns and reach the NBA Finals.

DALLAS MAVERICKS (55-27) The Mavs will be a force to be reckoned with once again in 2006-2007. Devin Harris, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, and DeSagana Diop all return, along with Jerry Stackhouse and Erick Dampier off the bench. Nowitzki has been great, really emerging as the leader of the team now that Steve Nash is gone. Dallas has a solid offense, but plays good defense as well, and they should go far once again this year. Similar to the Spurs, they are by no means a lock, as there are several very good teams in the West who could all conceivably make it to the NBA Finals.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (43-39) The Grizzlies should have another solid year. Pau Gasol will be missed for the first part of the season, but Memphis has added some nice talent in Stromile Swift, and Rudy Gay in the draft. Expect the Grizzlies to struggle a bit out of the gate without Gasole, but look for them to be motivated in the second half, and go on a nice run to end up in the playoffs.

HOUSTON ROCKETS (40-42) Houston is tough to figure out. Tracy McGrady can be an excellent player at times, but suffered from back problems all season last year, which is not an easily healed ailment. Yao Ming started to show the dominance that everyone has been expecting from him since he first broke into the NBA. Aside from McGradyís health, the key to Houston doing well will be how the other role players on the team perform. Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Juwan Howard, and Bonzi Wells will all have pressure on them to perform, or else the Rockets are in for a very average season.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (37-45) On the bright side, Chris Paul is a stud, and should continue to put up big numbers for the Hornets. David West will look to continue to prove to everyone that he can succeed as a starter. On the flip side, New Orleans lost a veteran and great locker room presence in PJ Brown, traded to Chicago for the under-achieving Tyson Chandler. Chandler has a lot of charisma and energy, but lacks an offensive game, and is owed a lot of money on his contract. The team also signed Peja Stojakivic to a large contract, hurting their flexibility to sign more talent. Despite the moves that New Orleans made in the off-season, their record probably wonít improve much, if at all.

EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFFS

SAN ANTONIO over MEMPHIS Ė Pretty much by the numbers here. San Antonio will just be better in all facets of the game.

PHOENIX over UTAH Ė Phoenix is a quick team, and Utah wonít be able to match their speed. Utah still needs time to develop into a team that can make it past the first round, theyíre not there yet.

DALLAS over LOS ANGELES (CLIPPERS) Ė This is almost the same team that made it to the NBA Finals last year, so going out in the first round this year is not an option. The Clippers donít have an answer to Dallasí great backcourt, nor for Dirk Nowitzki in the front court.

LOS ANGELES (LAKERS) over DENVER Ė A bit of an upset here as Kobe takes over and leads his team to the second round. This team is really starting to understand the triangle offense, and it will be showing by the end of the year.

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SAN ANTONIO over LOS ANGELES (LAKERS) Ė The Lakers might have the ability to beat the Spurs in a 5-game series, but in a 7-game series, the Spurs will be able to pound L.A. constantly and pull out a victory.

PHOENIX over DALLAS Ė Amare Stoudamire will do what he needs to to show up in the playoffs. Steve Nash, sore back or not, will play as well as he can and the Suns will barely edge out the Mavs.

SAN ANTONIO over PHOENIX Ė I just really want to see a boring, defensive-minded Chicago/San Antonio Finals.

And in case you haven't figured it out, I'm picking Chicago over the Spurs in 6, because it's my column and I can pick whoever I want.

Thatíll do it. Iím sure Iíll be wrong about everything, but hey, it was fun to read, right?




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