2008-09 Western Conference PreviewLast year, I correctly picked seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams. My only mistake was choosing Golden State over New Orleans; the Warriors won 48 games but missed the playoffs, while the Hornets enjoyed a 17 win increase thanks to All-Star level play from Chris Paul and David West plus Peja Stojakovic's return to health and Tyson Chandler's strong inside play at both ends of the court. Yesterday I posted my Eastern Conference Preview; this preview has the same format, with the following eight teams 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) L.A. Lakers: Reasons for hope: Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA, Phil Jackson is the best coach in the NBA and Pau Gasol is a versatile big man who is much better as a sidekick than as the go-to guy--which is why his field goal percentage shot up after he was traded to the Lakers from the Memphis Grizzlies, where he spent many years as the primary offensive option. If Andrew Bynum stays healthy then he can provide a physical presence in the paint at both ends of the court. Derek Fisher may have lost a step but he is a proven clutch performer who is a good shooter and solid defender. The rest of the roster is a bit overrated by the general public but still very good; youngsters Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar provide a spark off of the bench, but they are inconsistent. Reasons to mope: Casual observers may have thought that the Lakers have an embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt with Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom but the reality is that those three players cannot be on the court together for significant periods of time due to their overlapping skill sets. Bynum can only play center. Gasol can play power forward or center, so he and Bynum should be a good tandem after an initial adjustment period--but Odom, who thrived as the power forward/third offensive option alongside Bryant and Gasol last season, cannot play small forward for a full season. Odom should come off of the bench and anchor the second unit from the power forward spot but he is in a contract year and does not want to "suffer" such a reduction in status. The number one issue for the Lakers this season will be sorting out Odom's role in a way that does not mess up overall team chemistry or cause him to become even more inconsistent. Bottom line: Unless Bryant or Gasol miss significant playing time, the Lakers have an excellent chance to win 55-60 games (and possibly more). They are a legitimate championship contender but if the Odom situation is not straightened out they could have some rough moments down the stretch of the regular season and/or in the playoffs, when the importance of every possession and every game is greatly magnified.
2) New Orleans Hornets: Reasons for hope: Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA. He is not only a very skillful player but a tough, gritty competitor who significantly improved his shooting and his defense last season. David West is an All-Star power forward whose skills are still underrated because many people think that his production is entirely dependent on Paul. The addition of James Posey will improve the team's perimeter defense, the weakness that cost them in their game seven loss to San Antonio when Manu Ginobili was the X factor. Reasons to mope: Peja Stojakovic rejuvenated his career after missing almost the entire 2007 season due to injury but if he gets hurt the Hornets will struggle to replace his outside shooting. Teams that foolishly trap Paul get burned by his dribble penetration and passing but after the Spurs reverted to the conventional matchup of Tony Parker on Paul--with Bruce Bowen hawking Stojakovic instead of chasing Paul--and stopped trapping the Hornets were not as effective; will Paul and the Hornets have an answer for that strategy the next time they play an elite team in the playoffs? Complacency could also be a bit of a concern for a young team that improved so much in one season. Bottom line: The Hornets have an excellent chance to contend for the Western Conference title.
3) San Antonio Spurs: Reasons for hope: As long as Tim Duncan is healthy, the Spurs will be an upper echelon team. He not only provides a double-double on a nightly basis but he anchors San Antonio's stingy defense. Tony Parker is unstoppable at times due to his blazing speed and ability to finish at the rim. Manu Ginobili provides scoring, playmaking, defense and clutch play. Gregg Popovich is an outstanding coach whose teams are always disciplined and well prepared. Reasons to mope: Ginobili's health and durability are major question marks. Several key rotation players are well past 30 years old. Bottom line: Unless injuries derail them, the Spurs will be right in the hunt for the Western Conference title.
4) Houston Rockets: Reasons for hope: Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are both MVP caliber players when they are healthy. Newly acquired Ron Artest is capable of being the best defensive player in the league. Luis Scola had a solid rookie season and figures to be even better this year. Reasons to mope: McGrady and Yao simply cannot seem to stay healthy--physically. Meanwhile, Artest's mental health is a question mark--and that is not meant to be a joke by any means. Bottom line: Every year, I feel like doing two previews for Houston--one assuming that Yao and McGrady are finally healthy and another one figuring that they will each miss 15 or more games. This year, I feel like doing three or four Houston previews, combining those factors with possible Artest scenarios ranging from 80 games played and a Defensive Player of the Year award to getting suspended for some act of rage and/or foolishness. I suspect that by the end of the season it will all add up to 50-55 wins, much like the previous two years. Honestly, this team could win anywhere between 40 and 60 games depending on what happens with the top three players.
5) Utah Jazz: Reasons for hope: Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer comprise one of the top duos in the league and they have a lot of talent around them, including former All-Stars Andrei Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur. Reasons to mope: The teams ahead of Utah each have a legitimate MVP-level player who can take over a playoff game or a playoff series. For Utah to advance to the NBA Finals, either Williams or Boozer will have to prove to be capable of performing at a similar level not just in the regular season but also in the playoffs. Bottom line: Utah is a hard nosed, physical team but seems to be lacking that little extra something that is necessary to get past the elite teams in the postseason.
6) Phoenix Suns: Reasons for hope: The Suns played very well down the stretch after acquiring Shaquille O'Neal. They beat their nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs, twice in the regular season and led most of the way in game one versus the Spurs in the playoffs. Amare Stoudemire thrived at power forward playing alongside O'Neal. New Coach Terry Porter will emphasize defense and half court offensive execution. The Suns' window of opportunity to win a championship has probably closed but this is still a dangerous team. Reasons to mope: The mental toughness of this team has to be questioned; the Suns tend to make excuses when they come up short in the playoffs, as opposed to acknowledging their shortcomings. The Suns proved during the regular season that with O'Neal in the paint they could compete with the Spurs and yet they never recovered in the playoffs after their meltdown late in game one. Bottom line: The Suns are capable of winning 50+ games and putting a real scare into one of the top contenders before bowing out of the playoffs.
7) Portland Trail Blazers: Reasons for hope: This team has a ton of young players who have tremendous upside, including Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and, of course, rookie center Greg Oden, who missed all of last season due to injury. Rookie guard Rudy Fernandez is a veteran of FIBA play who could have an immediate impact. Reasons to mope: Although there have been young teams that came out of nowhere to win a championship--including the 1977 Trail Blazers--the usual pattern is that young teams have to make step by step progress in the postseason. Oden's health is also a question mark until he proves that he can make it through an entire season injury-free, something that he has not done since high school. Bottom line: Portland has the talent, depth and youthful exuberance to not only make the playoffs but cause some real headaches for the upper echelon teams, much like Atlanta did to Boston in the Eastern Conference playoffs last year.
8) Dallas Mavericks: Reasons for hope: Dirk Nowitzki is still an MVP-level player. Jason Kidd may have lost a step but he still can pass, rebound and make timely three pointers; his leadership is very valuable, too. New Coach Rick Carlisle will help the Mavericks improve their defensive execution. Reasons to mope: Josh Howard is an All-Star level talent but in the past year or so he has had some kind of meltdown that has resulted in him concentrating on too many things other than becoming a better basketball player. Also, there is good reason to wonder if this team has ever overcome their epic collapse versus Miami in the 2006 Finals. Bottom line: The Mavericks are good enough to make the playoffs but that is about it; much like Phoenix, their championship window of opportunity has closed.
The Denver Nuggets squeaked into the 2008 playoffs, albeit with 50 wins, but without Marcus Camby to erase their numerous defensive shortcomings they figure to drop out of the playoff picture.
The L.A. Clippers added Baron Davis and Marcus Camby but subtracted Elton Brand, who missed most of last season due to injury. They will obviously improve on last year's win total and could make a run at the last playoff spot if everything breaks right--mainly Davis and Camby staying healthy.
Now that Ron Artest is gone, this is "go time" for Kevin Martin in Sacramento: his fans believe that he can be an elite level NBA player and this season he will certainly have the opportunity to prove or disprove that notion. Unless he has markedly improved his skill set this offseason--which is highly unlikely--he remains a slender, one dimensional player who will score a lot of points, probably miss 10-15 games due to injury and not have a significant impact beyond his point production.
The Minnesota Timberwolves will be a lot better this year. Al Jefferson is an excellent post player and rookie Kevin Love will surprise a lot of people: he can shoot, pass and rebound and will be a nice complement to Jefferson. Mike Miller will space the court for those guys with his three point shooting, while Randy Foye and Ryan Gomes are solid players. This is not a playoff team but 35-40 wins are not out of the question.
The Golden State Warriors' all-offense/little defense style was an entertaining novelty in 2007 and they certainly stunned the Mavericks in that year's playoffs, largely because the Mavericks stubbornly insisted on trying to slow the game down. However, the Warriors fell just short of the playoffs last year and hardly figure to be improved after the departure of Baron Davis and the serious injury suffered by Monta Ellis.
Kevin Durant ranked 92nd in three point shooting percentage among the 93 NBA players who attempted at least 200 long range shots last season. He improved a lot in the final weeks of the season but there is no way that he will even come close to leading Oklahoma City to the playoffs this year.
The Memphis Grizzlies decided that they would not win a title with Pau Gasol as their franchise player, so they traded him in order to start over from the bottom up. They were right that Gasol cannot be the main guy on a championship team and they certainly reached bottom after getting rid of him. This year their hopes rest mainly on Rudy Gay and rookie O.J. Mayo. In other words, they will still be at the bottom. Gay is talented but he is not a franchise player, while Mayo is overrated; he can score but he is not a franchise player, either, and it is not clear what else he will contribute other than scoring.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:15 PM