2007-08 Western Conference PreviewLast year, I correctly picked six of the eight Western Conference playoff teams. My two mistakes were choosing the L.A. Clippers and the Sacramento Kings instead of the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors (rest assured that I am not picking the Clippers or Kings to make this year's playoffs). Yesterday I posted my Eastern Conference Preview. This preview will follow exactly the same format, meaning that the following eight teams are ranked based on their likelihood of making it to the Finals and not necessarily in the order that the teams will be seeded during the playoffs (which is affected by which teams win division championships).
1) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: I could try to be original here but instead I will simply quote what I wrote last year, which still applies perfectly now: "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: The Spurs have won four titles in the Duncan era but have yet to capture championships in back to back seasons. The bench players are aging a bit. Face it, there is not much to mope about if you are a San Antonio fan. Bottom line: The Spurs have to be considered the favorites to win this year's championship. That does not mean it will be a walk in the park--winning titles is rarely if ever easy--but there is no good reason to pick anyone over the Spurs.
2) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki had a tremendous season last year and, contrary to public perception, he has generally lifted his game during the postseason (22.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, .381 three point shooting in his regular season career; 25.2 ppg, 11.1 rpg, .376 three point shooting in his postseason career). Last year's first round loss was an aberration, both for him and for this team, and Dallas will likely make a deep playoff run this year. Josh Howard continues to improve and Avery Johnson has been an excellent coach overall, though his mentor Don Nelson outmaneuvered him in last year's playoffs. Reasons to mope: The loss in the 2006 Finals and the shocking loss in the first round last year hang over this team like that permanent dirt cloud hung over the cartoon character Pigpen; he could never stay clean for long and Dallas will never cleanse its own dirt cloud until the Mavericks win a title. Bottom line: Many people wondered how the Mavericks would respond after their collapse in the 2006 Finals and Dallas answered with one of the greatest regular seasons in NBA history. Expect a similarly strong response this year, culminating in a dramatic rematch of the playoff series with the Spurs from two years ago.
3) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: Steve Nash choreographs a wide-open offense and he has two great finishers in Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. Speed demon Leandro Barbosa is a matchup nightmare and Raja Bell is one of the best defensive guards in the league. If Grant Hill stays healthy and can keep up with the frenetic pace for a whole season then he will add another dimension to an offensive attack that is already too much for most teams to deal with during the regular season. Reasons to mope: The Suns are not good enough defensively to beat the Spurs (or probably even the Mavs) in a seven game series. They also sometimes lose focus in crucial situations (such as when two key players left the bench during an altercation, violating a long-standing NBA rule that every player and coach knows about). The Suns did not retain the services of Kurt Thomas, the team's best low post defender. While their racehorse style suits their personnel, their inability to be effective in a half court game down the stretch in playoff games has proven fatal throughout the Nash era. Marion expressed a desire to be traded, a tangible indication of just how delicate the chemistry is on this team. Bottom line: The Suns will win about 55 games and advance in the playoffs until they face the Spurs or the Mavs.
4) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: Coach Rick Adelman and newly acquired power forward Luis Scola should both greatly ease the burden that has long been shouldered by Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Reasons to mope: Whenever McGrady gets hurt the team looks terrible--and his always balky back is unlikely to get healthier as he gets older. Houston lost a game seven at home in last year's playoffs, which is uncommon in the NBA; McGrady and Yao both put up good numbers in that contest but other than Shane Battier the rest of the team disappeared in the biggest game of the season. Bottom line: This team should be in the hunt for the best record in the West and is good enough to beat anyone in the playoffs other than the Spurs.
5) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: Carlos Boozer had a breakout season and Deron Williams emerged as one of the league's best point guards. Last year's run to the Western Conference Finals could be a springboard to even greater success in the coming seasons. Reasons to mope: A few chemistry problems bubbled to the surface during the loss to San Antonio. Boozer and Williams questioned the effort put forth by some of their teammates. Andrei Kirilenko, who was likely one of the players who that criticism was directed at, feuded with Coach Jerry Sloan and has expressed a desire to leave Utah to play in his native Russia. Bottom line: Utah squeaked by Houston and benefited from Dallas being upset. Don't expect to see the Jazz in the Western Conference Finals this season.
6) Golden State Warriors: Reasons for hope: A healthy Baron Davis spearheaded a high-powered offense that struck so much fear into the hearts of the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks that the Mavericks changed their starting lineup before game one of their first round series. Like Phoenix, this team plays a style that is difficult to deal with during the regular season. Reasons to mope: Golden State's success depends on the health of several players who have been less than stable--mentally or physically--during their careers. Golden State's shot selection is awful and their defense, while aggressive and opportunistic at times, is not completely sound. Bottom line: This is a difficult team to read, one that could just as easily win 50 games or 35. Split the difference and pencil Golden State in for 44 wins--and a first round exit.
7) Denver Nuggets: Reasons for hope: The dynamic scoring duo of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson will be together from the start of the season. Marcus Camby is one of the best defenders and rebounders in the league. Reasons to mope: Defense has not been a strong suit for this team in recent seasons and there is no reason to expect that to change now. Denver will either have to shift Iverson to point guard or else have a very small starting backcourt. Bottom line: Carmelo Anthony is well on his way toward stringing together a Kevin Garnett-like run of first round playoff losses.
8) L.A. Lakers: Reasons for hope: Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA and as long as he is on the court the Lakers at least have a chance to be competitive. The departure of Smush Parker should be worth a few wins and a lot of peace of mind. Before injuries decimated the frontcourt, the Lakers had one of the better records in the West. Reasons to mope: The Lakers' good start had a smoke and mirrors quality because the schedule was front loaded with home games. The Lakers do not have enough depth to withstand injuries or foul trouble. If the team starts poorly then there will be a lot of rumors about Bryant possibly being traded and/or Coach Phil Jackson deciding to retire. Bottom line: Lamar Odom has not yet been an All-Star and, despite his obvious talent, it is unlikely that he ever will become one. The Lakers did little to upgrade their roster; there is maybe a 10% chance that everyone will stay healthy, everything will break right and the Lakers will win 50 games but the most likely scenario is that it will take another great season from Bryant just to get this team into the playoffs.
The New Orleans Hornets have narrowly missed the playoffs the past two years. They will again be in the mix for the eighth playoff spot but the two teams right in front of them--the Nuggets and the Lakers--have stars who can carry a team by scoring 40 or 50 points and that will again prove to be the difference.
While the top West teams are very strong, it is likely that several West bottom feeders will have fewer than 30 wins. Injuries have decimated the L.A. Clippers, who will likely have a season similar to the one that Memphis did last year in the wake of Pau Gasol's injury. Gasol's return means that Memphis will probably not have the league's worst record--but the Grizzlies may very well be in contention for that dubious distinction. Portland's injury problems--most notably to number one overall pick Greg Oden--have been well documented and the Blazers will have another lottery pick to pair with Oden by the time he returns to action in 2008-09. Seattle replaced two All-Stars with two raw young talents, meaning that the Sonics' record will go down before it goes up. You may have heard that Minnesota made a few changes; Kevin Garnett is gone and so is any chance that the Timberwolves will win 30 games. The Sacramento Kings switched coaches but did little to improve the roster; yes, you can chalk them up for less than 30 wins, too.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:20 AM