2005-06 Western Conference PreviewThis article was originally published in two parts at Suite101.com on October 12, 2005 but those links have been taken down so I have combined both parts here as one article.
2005-2006 Western Conference Preview, Part I
I could post the complete rosters and statistics for each team, but I suspect that most readers of this article fall into one of two categories: (1) you visit NBA.com regularly and know the name of every team's 12th man or (2) you are a casual fan who is just looking for the bottom line: who I think is going to do well and who I think should book reservations for Secaucus, New Jersey in time for the 2006 Draft Lottery. So, without further ado, here is how I see the Western Conference stacking up in 2005-06.
Note: Division winners receive the top three playoff seeds regardless of the records of the other teams, so since the Spurs and Rockets are in the same division they cannot be seeded one and two. I am listing the teams based on how I perceive their chances to win the NBA title, without regard to playoff seeding.
1) San Antonio Spurs: Quite simply, this team is stacked. The NBA champions added Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel and Fabricio Oberto, a 6-10 teammate of Manu Ginobili's on Argentina's national team. If Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili stay healthy it is hard to see anybody beating the Spurs in a seven game series.
2) Houston Rockets: Houston also had an excellent offseason, adding Stromile Swift, Rafer Alston, Derek Anderson and Lonny Baxter. The dynamic duo of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming is the key to everything for the Rockets and the two superstars played well together down the stretch last year. Their chemistry only figures to improve this season. The only down note is the questionable health of Bob Sura, who provided a lot of toughness and energy last year.
3) Dallas Mavericks: Coach Avery Johnson is trying to remake the Mavericks into a defensive-oriented team. The loss of Michael Finley to the already powerful Spurs is sure to hurt. Dirk Nowitzki gets a lot of criticism for a player who regularly puts up 25-plus points and 10-plus rebounds. As long as he maintains that kind of production Dallas will always be a factor.
4) Denver Nuggets: Denver was the hottest team in the league in the second half of the season after the hiring of George Karl as head coach. There is no way that the Nuggets will maintain that torrid pace for an entire season, but expect to see a career year out of Carmelo Anthony and steady play out of the point guard duo of Andre Miller and Earl Boykins. The key for the Nuggets is the health and productivity of Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin. To beat Dallas, Houston or San Antonio it is vital that they provide an answer for Nowitzki, Yao or Duncan.
5) Phoenix Suns: Amare Stoudemire just had microfracture surgery on his knee and is expected to be sidelined for the first four months of the season, a devastating blow to a team that failed to retain the services of Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson, two key members of the rotation last year. Even if the offseason had gone perfectly for the Suns they would have been hard pressed to match the record they posted in 2004-05. Now everything revolves around how quickly—and how completely—Stoudemire recovers from his knee surgery. The best case scenario is that Stoudemire returns in time for the second half of the season and is in peak form by playoff time. If that happens, Phoenix—regardless of their regular season record—could become a very dangerous team. The worst case scenario is that Stoudemire's knee ends up like Penny Hardaway's or Jamal Mashburn's, in which case Phoenix—regardless of their regular season record—will go nowhere in the postseason.
One of these five teams will win the Western Conference in 2006 (it will be the Spurs unless Duncan or Ginobili suffers a severe injury). Check out Part II to see who will earn the other three playoff berths and to find out if it is true that the Draft Lottery Studio will be renamed after Los Angeles Clippers' owner Donald Stirling.
Kobe and Phil have reunited—will it feel good? Can Seattle stay alive in the playoff chase after enjoying surprising success in 2004-05? Quick, read Part II of the Western Conference Preview before I make another reference to a 1970s song lyric!
Western Conference Preview, Part II
In Part I we looked at the Western Conference’s contenders. Part II examines the pretenders--those who will make cameo appearances in the postseason and those who won't even make it that far.
6) L.A. Lakers: As I mentioned in my Eastern Conference Preview, I don't buy the notion that the NBA is a "player's" game in which coaching doesn’t matter. Phil Jackson will absolutely have a significant impact on this team. Don’t forget that the Lakers were solidly in the top eight in the West before Kobe Bryant sprained his ankle. Bryant was never completely right after that, the team was further rocked by a mid-season coaching change and when Lamar Odom went down with an injury the life seemed to go out of the team. This team will win at least 45 games.
7) Sacramento Kings: Sacramento is no longer a championship contender, but any team with Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic and Shareef Abdur-Rahim should not miss the playoffs. As always, defense is a question mark for this squad, but their offensive fire power will be more than sufficient to keep them over .500.
8) Seattle SuperSonics: Seattle was one of the surprising teams in the league last year. Coach Nate McMillan left to take the Portland job and it will be interesting to see if new coach Bob Weiss can get similar results out of this group. I think that this team, like the Chicago Bulls in the East, overachieved a little bit and that they will fall back a bit this season.
Secaucus Here We Come!
Of the teams on the outside looking in, Golden State probably has the best chance to grab a playoff spot. Golden State excited its fans by winning some games down the stretch after the Warriors were out of postseason contention—the Cincinnati Bengals used to do that too, only to revert to their losing ways when the next season began. The Bengals seem to have gotten out of that rut this year, but I wouldn't bet on Golden State doing so just yet. The Warriors do have some young talent but I think it will take one more year of seasoning—and Baron Davis staying healthy--before they reach the playoffs. Memphis made the playoffs last year but their roster got a lot older after making several offseason moves; it is unclear if the Grizzlies actually got better.
The rest of the West is a mess. Two questions simply cannot be avoided: (1) How many frequent flier miles have the Clippers racked up over the years from their annual treks to Secaucus? (2) In the interest of fuel conservation shouldn't the Draft Lottery simply be moved to Clippers' headquarters?
While the Clippers' annual trips to New Jersey provide comic relief of sorts (except to Billy Crystal and three or four other Clippers fans), there is nothing funny about the Hornets' situation. The franchise just moved from Charlotte to New Orleans and now Hurricane Katrina has forced the team to relocate temporarily to Oklahoma City. They will be sentimental favorites but even if they somehow double last year's 18 wins they still won't be in the playoffs. Utah actually looked fairly decent last year before do-everything forward Andrei Kirilenko got hurt. Still, even a fully healthy Kirilenko will not be able to keep the Jazz in the top eight in the West for an entire season. Minnesota went from Western Conference finalist to complete train wreck; for that team to miss the playoffs with no major roster changes is inexcusable. The Timberwolves got rid of Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, both of whom seemed to be causing a lot of the team's chemistry problems, but it is questionable if the overall talent level of the roster has been significantly upgraded. Portland has gone from once being a model franchise to looking something like Clippers Northwest.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:45 AM