2006-2007 Western Conference PreviewLast year, my Eastern Conference and Western Conference previews each correctly picked six of the eight playoff teams. I thought that the Spurs would be the best team in the West in 2005-06 but injuries to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili slowed them down and by the time they faced the Dallas Mavericks in the second round I wrote that very little separated the two Texas powerhouses. I predicted that the Spurs would prove to be "thismuch" better but of course Dallas narrowly prevailed. Tim Duncan appears to be in good health entering the 2006-07 season, as do Ginobili and Tony Parker, so I look for the Spurs to not only be the best team in the West but to claim their fourth NBA title of the Duncan era. I recently posted my 2006-2007 Eastern Conference Preview; here is my Western Conference preview:
1) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich. The Spurs have three of the top individual players in the league and one of the game's great coaches. That has proven to be a championship winning formula in the past as long as Duncan is healthy. Reasons to mope: Ginobili is known as "El Contusion" for a reason: his relentless, no holds barred style leads to a lot of bruises. On paper, the Spurs look deep but guys like Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley all have a lot of mileage on their odometers. The Spurs need their big three to stay healthy throughout the season and especially during the playoffs. Bottom line: Tim Duncan has yet to win back to back championships but three titles in the past eight seasons suggest that it might soon be time for the Spurs to hoist another banner.
2) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki, his disappointing Finals performance notwithstanding, has been a playoff stud throughout his career: his 25.1 ppg, 10.8 rpg and .406 three point shooting in the postseason exceed his excellent career regular season averages. Coach Avery Johnson has set NBA records for being the fastest to reach various win plateaus and he has instilled a hard nosed defensive mentality in a team that some people used to consider to be soft. This team was one decent fourth quarter away from taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals, so the talent to win a championship is obviously there. Reasons to mope: This team was one decent fourth quarter away from taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals--and proceeded to lose that game and the next three contests as well. You don't get seeded into the 2007 NBA Finals based on past performance. Will Dallas' tantalizingly close run to an NBA title fuel the Mavericks' hunger to complete the task this year or will they struggle to sustain the effort and focus that are necessary to survive the 82 game regular season marathon that is a prelude to the playoffs? Bottom line: It would not surprise me if the Mavericks won the 2007 NBA title but they were in a dead heat with the Spurs for most of last season and I think that the Spurs will beat them this year.
3) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: Two-time MVP Steve Nash is choreographing the show and he has an excellent supporting cast, including fellow All-Star Shawn Marion. Reasons to mope: Amare Stoudemire may never completely regain the explosiveness he once had. He provided an inside presence that the Suns have not been able to replace and was a nightmare matchup even for All-NBA Team and All-Defensive Team stalwart Tim Duncan. Bottom line: Phoenix is a fun team to watch and as long as Nash and Marion are healthy they will always be a contending team, but without Amare Stoudemire they just don't have quite enough to win the Western Conference.
4) Los Angeles Lakers: Reasons for hope: Kobe, Kobe, Kobe. With Mr. 81, 35.4 and 24 (his new jersey number), anything is possible. The Lakers took the favored Suns to the brink of elimination last year and now players such as Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown and Smush Parker will be more comfortable in the triangle offense and better equipped to execute in pressure moments. It sometimes takes players a full season to begin to understand how to run the offense smoothly. Free agent pick ups Vladimir Radmanovic and Shammond Williams will provide three point shooting and point guard depth respectively. Reasons to mope: Lamar Odom shows tantalizing glimpses of what he is capable of doing but he is a career underachiever who has never made the All-Star team because he does not consistently play at a high level. Without Kobe Bryant's productivity and will, this team would have struggled to win 25-30 games last year. Bottom line: Last year I picked the Lakers to win at least 45 games and make the playoffs--and they did just that. Few people think that the Lakers can grab the fourth seed and home court advantage in the first round but--if Kobe remains healthy--the Lakers will do just that.
5) Los Angeles Clippers: Reasons for hope: This team really seemed to turn the corner last year after years of making early reservations for the Draft Lottery. They have a bona fide star in Elton Brand, a clutch, veteran point guard in Sam Cassell, several solid veterans and a promising point guard for the future (Shaun Livingston). Reasons to mope: The Clippers have no track record for sustaining greatness--or even viable playoff contending status. Cassell is aging and if he gets injured or has trouble accepting that Livingston's playing time is bound to increase then the Clippers boat will be sunk (again). Bottom line: This is a solid playoff team that is not quite good enough to contend for an NBA title.
6) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: When Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are in the lineup together Houston wins about two thirds of its games, which would translate to at least 55 wins in an 82 game season. New addition Shane Battier will help defensively and has the ability to make open three pointers, spacing the court for T-Mac and Yao to operate. Recently signed Bonzi Wells can provide scoring and rebounding. Reasons to mope: The Rockets were simply dreadful last year without T-Mac, even when Yao was healthy; their winning percentage without McGrady may have threatened the 1972-73 Sixers' mark of 9-73 if projected over a full season. McGrady has been plagued by a balky back for quite some time, so the likelihood of him making it through an entire season unscathed seems remote. Bottom line: Wells gives the Rockets a potent third option when the team is at full strength and he should be able to pick up some of the slack if T-Mac has to sit out a few games to rest his back. If T-Mac actually stays healthy for all or most of the season, the Rockets will finish higher than sixth.
7) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: Carmelo had his best season yet in 2005-06, making the All-NBA Third Team. Marcus Camby is a force defensively and on the glass. J.R. Smith may provide the three point shooting that the Nuggets desperately need to take pressure off of Anthony and the team's post up players. Reasons to mope: The 32-8 run to close out the 2004-05 season is a distant memory. The chemistry on this team seems explosive in a number of areas, most notably between Coach George Karl and disgruntled power forward Kenyon Martin; there is also the question of whether or not Anthony will develop the rest of his game to complement his tremendous scoring ability. Bottom line: Karl has led the Nuggets to two playoff appearances and two quick postseason exits. There is no reason to expect anything better this year.
8) Sacramento Kings: Reasons for hope: When he is healthy and focused, Ron Artest is one of the best players in the NBA. Mike Bibby is an excellent point guard. Brad Miller is showing some signs of age but he is still a good high post center. Reasons to mope: The Kings lost free agent Bonzi Wells, a key contributor last season, when he rejected their offer and signed with the Houston Rockets. It is not clear that new coach Eric Musselman can get any more out of this unit than the fired Rick Adelman did. Bottom line: There is enough talent here for this to be a very good team, but putting them in the top eight is my riskiest choice for one reason: Ron Artest--I'd like to put an asterisk by the Kings and not have this selection count against me if he misses more than 20 games for non-basketball reasons such as league or team suspensions or promoting a CD.
There are some other decent teams in the West that could sneak into the playoffs if teams 6-8 stumble. The Memphis Grizzlies were a playoff team in 2005-06 but Pau Gasol might miss as much as half of the season because of the injury that he suffered in the FIBA World Championships; I think that his absence will be too much for them to overcome, particularly in the Western Conference, where last year's eighth seed won 44 games. Golden State has a lot of talent and it would not be shocking to see Don Nelson guide this team to the last playoff spot, particularly if Baron Davis can stay healthy. The Hornets collapsed down the stretch last year but are a fashionable "sleeper" pick this year. Frankly, I just don't think that they are as good as any of the first eight teams listed above, so--barring Ron Artest going off of the deep end--I don't see them making the playoffs. The Utah Jazz made few changes to a roster that missed the playoffs by only three games. It is certainly not out of the question that they could make the playoffs but I see no reason to believe that they have gotten better than the teams that were ahead of them. Minnesota only won 33 games last year but Randy Foye and Mike James--the team's only significant additions--are supposed to be worth the 10 or so additional wins to make the playoffs? I don't think so. Seattle made no changes worthy of note, so don't expect the Sonics to do much better than last season's 35 wins. As for Portland, the Trail Blazers should lease the Clippers' old seat at the Draft Lottery with an option to buy--the Clippers won't be needing it for a while and Portland figures to be making the cross country trek for the next few years.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:02 AM