Wednesday, November 10, 2004

2004-05 Western Conference Preview

11/10/04
By Anthony Peretore

15. Seattle Supersonics
Trust me, this team will be atrocious. Sure they’re 3-1, but with Ray Allen halfway out the door, Rashard Lewis fighting a foot injury, and just far too many white players, this team is a stone’s thrown away from being unbearable to watch. The Sonics showed up on opening night and lost by 30 (TO THE L.A. FRICKIN CLIPPERS!) How can a team lose by 30 on opening night? Were they tired after five months of rest? Is there any reason for optimism this year after losing this badly to the worst franchise in professional sports history? Their lone bright spot is Allen, a stud trapped on a high school JV team. Potential breakout star Antonio Daniels, after several impressive performances last season (career-high 14 assists in February), is stuck behind unproven point guard Luke Ridnour (potential Hinrich clone) on the depth chart. Center, the one position that should have been addressed this off-season, was actually made worse when the Sonics drafted 7’2,” 104 lb. red head, Robert Swift with the 11th overall pick. I don’t care if this is a 30 and 15 guy down the road, you have to pass on him just based on his appearance. Now Seattle must choose between Swift, Vitaly Potapenko and Jerome James for the starting center spot. Gross.

14. Golden State Warriors
When has bringing a college coach to the NBA worked in the past 10 years? Not with Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Lon Kruger, well, enough said with Lon Kruger. New Head of Basketball Operations, Chris Mullin (and his buzz cut; you’re 45 years-old dude, get a normal haircut) has not had a great start to his front office tenure. His moves this off-season include: 1. Hiring ex-Stanford coach Mike Montgomery to replace Eric Musselman. Expecting professionals to respect a lifelong college coach is asking a lot, 2. Signing center Adonal Foyle to a 6-year $42 million contract when he could have re-upped Erick Dampier for a year less at the same money, and 3. Drafting yet another European project (Biedrens) when there’s enough talent here now to win. As for the starting five, 2-guard Jason Richardson, if under control, is one of the more exciting young players in the league and can be a viable weapon alongside Speedy Claxton (who did a solid job replacing Nick Van Exel at the point last season). Forward Troy Murphy is back after an injury-riddled 2003-04 season and if healthy, should have no trouble posting nightly double-doubles once again. Question marks surround swingman Mike Dunleavy, who showed very little promise in his second season, averaging a mere 11.7 PPG in 69 starts. Then there’s Foyle and his career averages of 4.6 PPG and 5.2 RPG; enough said. With an abundance of youth and far too much Adonal Foyle, this team is destined for a 30-win season.

13. Los Angeles Clippers
Someone should look into see if Elgin Baylor is receiving bonuses to let this team rot. The Clippers have not reached the playoffs since 1997 and after a promising 39 wins in 2002 L.A’s B-team has accumulated a mere 55 victories the past two years. The Clips have a solid core of players in Elton Brand, Corey Maggette and Bobby Simmons (yes, I wrote this after his 30-point effort on opening night) and when Kerry Kittles returns in a month or so, he should provide veteran leadership the team’s been severely lacking. The main Clipper cancer lies at the point guard position. Marco Jaric just stinks and rookie Shaun Livingston is no where close to being ready for the pros. In my eyes, the rave reviews over the spidery 6’7,” 19 year-old seem a bit premature after he posted rather unimpressive numbers during his senior year in high school. L.A has high hopes for the youngster, but his ability to lead the Clippers to the playoffs is years away. An extremely thin bench and a potential bust in center Chris Kaman add to the team’s glaring weaknesses. The Clippers are the Bulls of the West, constantly cycling through promising youth to end up in the same spot: the Lottery.

12. New Orleans Hornets
Seems pretty unfair that the old Charlotte franchise gets the shaft when the expansion Bobcats enter the league. New Orleans could go from a 5 seed in the East to potentially missing the playoffs entirely in the West. This season, the Hornets will have more ups and downs than a Peter North movie. The positives: 1. Proven winner Byron Scott is aboard as head coach, 2. Jamaal Magliore was the starting center for the East All-Stars last February, and 3. Forward David West and rookie guard J.R. Smith, two future studs, should get ample PT this season. The negatives include: 1. Losing Jamal Mashburn for the entire season, 2. Baron Davis’ trade demands, and 3. Starters David Wesley and P.J. Brown are aging faster than Tom Hanks. This season for the Hornets will be a litmus test of how dominant the Western Conference competition is compared to the East.

11. Portland Trailblazers
On paper, is this team not a NBA Title contender? They have a great defensive center (Ratliff), an emerging superstar power forward (Randolph), an All-Star small forward (Abdur-Rahim), a solid veteran backcourt (Stoudamire and Anderson) and a fairly deep bench (Miles, Van Exel, and Patterson). Coach (and best potential porn name in the league) Mo Cheeks simply hasn’t found the right solution for team chemistry. There is no reason to doubt Portland can win 50 games, but lack of discipline and perpetual immaturity has brought the team’s progression to a screeching halt. It’s easy to crack on all the drug, gun, and battery charges these players have racked up, but it’s about time these guys grow up and win some games. They have all the pieces to go deep into the playoffs without the lack of desire to get there.

10. Memphis Grizzlies
Why the hell would GM Jerry West move from the star-studded hills of L.A. to the Skoal-filled hills of Tennessee? Simple, to turnaround one of the worst NBA franchises and prove he is the best front office guru in the history of the game. After winning only 28 games in West’s first year, the Grizzlies snatched the six seed in the loaded Western Conference last season by winning a franchise-record 50 games. Surprisingly however, West did absolutely nothing to improve the Grizz this summer. With a rotation that goes ten deep, there was not much to improve, but with the Western Conference only getting stronger, it is tough to imagine Memphis improving on their sixth seed or even make the playoffs. For now, the Grizzlies remain here at 10, but after West trades (Prediction!) Stromile Swift, Jason Williams and three picks for Jason Kidd, look for Memphis to creep up fast.

9. Los Angeles Lakers
I know, Kobe’s going to lead the league in scoring with 36 PPG, draw comparisons to Jordan and lead his team into the second round of the playoffs. That all sounds great, but there’s only one problem; it’s not going to happen. Sure, they may get Jason Kidd, but for what? Sasha Vujacic and Lindsey Lohan? (I’d do it) Until that trade goes down the team is stuck with Chucky Atkins at the point, an potential disaster for this young Laker team. Forward Lamar Odom’s breakout season in Miami a year ago can be attributed in large part to Pat Riley constantly riding his back and putting out his special cigarettes, something Rudy T. and Mitch cup-check cannot be counted on to do. Odom’s poor play thus far in 2004 makes it feasible to assume that he may not become accustomed to playing second fiddle to Kobe. Center Chris Mihm has looked great early on but remember that he failed miserably on two rather weak teams in Cleveland and Boston. Free agent acquisition Vlade Divac should give the team a significant boost when he returns, but by then it may be too late. There had to be one team in this 9 slot, and with all the tumultuous possibilities in L.A, it seemed appropriate to place the Lakers here. Sorry.

8. Phoenix Suns
This team is going to score 150 points a few times this season, mark my words. They have spanked their first three opponents by a combined 72 points, averaging 110.6 points per contest. The coaching staff finally realized Jake Voskuhl worth (absolutely nothing) and that the further he is from a basketball court, the better off they are. With Voskhul on the pine, Coach Mike D’Antoni has chosen to start a rather small lineup with perennial All-Star in the making Amare Stoudemire (only 6’10”) at the “5.” Despite the height disadvantage, this team has enough athleticism to run any opponent out of the gym, evidenced in their first three games this season. Point guard Steve Nash will be the best white guy in the desert since Dan Majerle (how the hell is that pronounced Marley?) and may end up leading the league in assists per game. With Amare, Shawn Marion, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson (and Brandy) all starting, this offense will undoubtedly be the best in the league. If they learn how to play D, look for the Suns to creep even higher than the 8 seed. GM Bryan Colangelo should be considered the front-runner for Executive of the Year.

7. Dallas Mavericks
This team has had more turnover in the past few years than Paris Hilton’s sheets. Starters Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley remain, surrounded by their weakest supporting cast in years. Jason Terry and Devin Harris should do a sufficient job at the point, but the loss of Steve Nash will be the team’s ultimate downfall. Another problem destined to haunt them is their logjam at the shooting guard and small forward positions. Finley, Terry, Marquis Daniels, Josh Howard, and Jerry Stackhouse are all going to fight for minutes which will undoubtedly lead to some internal strife. Mark Cuban’s decision to sign center Erick Dampier rather than Nash may actually transform Dallas into a better defensive unit (with less pressure on Dirk to handle much of the dirty work down low). As usual, look for the Mavs to score a bunch of points, but frequent defensive lapses, lack of PT for their wings, and Don Nelson still in town should result in this team on the golf course after the first round.

6. Denver Nuggets
Originally, the signing Kenyon Martin this off-season seemed like a logical move for Kiki and co. KMart brings intensity, playoff experience and a mean streak to a rather young Nuggets team. However, after much deliberation, I think Denver is better suited with Nene, a quieter, role player, who didn’t mind Carmelo, Miller and Lenard taking all the shots. Martin will want the same touches he got in New Jersey and if he doesn’t get it, it could create havoc in the Denver frontcourt. Carmelo stepped up as the leader of this team last season and with KMart now in town, his leadership role and team-oriented attitude may be altered. ‘Melo needs to worry less about 4:20 and make certain this team doesn’t do a 180. Another heavy burden facing the Nugs is the injury to Lenard and that there is no possible way Marcus Camby can play in 85% of the Nuggets games again this season (right?). Camby missed 106 games in the two seasons before last and if and when he goes on the shelf, the Nuggets playoff chances may go with it.

5. Sacramento Kings
For some reason everyone, including myself, has this team slipping. For some reason, the Kings did better without Webber last year, yet chose to keep him aboard. For some reason they are not giving rookie Kevin Martin enough PT to prove he should be starting over the aging Doug Christie. For some reason they couldn’t get the Peja-for-Artest deal done this summer. For some reason he’s still on the team and disgruntled after Sactown let his boy Vlade go. (Are they just friends because they are both white, Serbian and sport dark chest hair?) For some reason this team hasn’t won a NBA Championship in the past three years and for some reason they will fall short again, even with Shaq out of their way…for some reason.

4. Houston Rockets
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the key to this team’s success will be Bobby Sura. Shocked? Well, anyone is better than a combination of Charlie Ward and Tyronn Lue at the point. Plus, Sura had a monster final two months of the season in Atlanta last year and once he comes off the IL, look for JVG to start him at the 1 right away. For T-Mac and Yao to thrive together they must have a playmaking point guard to create an up-tempo offense. They have the wing-scorer (McGrady), the inside presence (Yao), a veteran 3 (Jim Jackson), and two solid 4’s (Juwan and Mo Taylor) to go fairly deep in the playoffs. There is no reason to think this team can’t win 55 games with arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league.

3. Utah Jazz
If I didn’t have full-time job (unlike some people I know), I would have had this preview out last week with my East one. Unfortunately, no one will believe I had the Jazz pegged as my three seed prior to tip-off last Tuesday. Well, even if I didn’t, why the hell would I put the Jazz this high based on just four games? I wouldn’t. Look at their team. They have all the tools of a championship contender and no selfishness to hold them back. Starting five: Carlos Arroyo almost single-handedly beat Team USA this summer. Matt Harpring (although Giricek is starting now) was averaging 16.2 PPG and 8.0 RPG before bowing out to injury last season. Andrei Kirilenko (Mr. Intangible) is redefining the 3 position by filling every category imaginable on the stat sheet. Carlos Boozer is being called the next Karl Malone and rightfully so. Curtis Borchardt and Mehmet Okur are the best white men center tandem in a while (Smits and that other guy?) and their bench is stock full of hard working journeymen. Jerry Sloan is arguably the best coach in the game today and don’t be surprised if this team goes all the way, if not this year, most definitely the next.

2. Minnesota Timberwolves
No, the T’Wolves will not make it to the Finals and I can almost guarantee they never will with the personnel they have now. KG, as we all know, is an absolute monster in every aspect of the game. The problem is, besides Sam Cassell, Minnesota has put a handful of bums around him. Kevin McHale has experimented with all types of talent but injuries, laziness and poor playoff performances have left the Wolves reeling for answers. Latrell Sprewell wants out. Trenton Hassell is well, Trenton Hassell. The Zerb can’t stay healthy for the life of him (and neither would I if that was my wife) and is it just me or does the Kandi man look homeless? He hasn’t shaved in four months, his socks have a brownish ting and he just looks like he smells like a litter box. You know something is wrong when you’re losing minutes to Ervin Johnson (the one with self-control). It’s simple enough; this team peaked last year. They aren’t getting past San Antone (shoot, I blew the surprise) and don’t be surprised if Utah turns out to be better. However, one should never underestimate KG, the perennial MVP favorite for the next ten years.

1. San Antonio Spurs
Sure, I made the safe pick, but only because it’s the right pick. Something just wasn’t right last year with Tim Duncan. It was as if KG got him a bottle of Cris and some hot hood chicks in exchange for the MVP award. He was too laid back. Add to it his poor performance in Athens and either this guy has something up his sleeve or he’s absolutely dropped off the superstar table; I’ll go with the former. Also, Coach Popovich finally has Manu Ginobili starting which should make this team at least five games better. The guy is an international stud and coming off the bench last season was like Mike Seaver playing Boner Stabone; he just wasn’t playing the right role. Tony Parker is legit but needs to dish more. He only averaged 5.5 APG last season, a total that should have been much higher for a team that won 57 games. The key will be free agent acquisition Brent Barry who will provide a little bit of Parker and Ginobili off the bench. Barry is a great combo-guard who will go from playing 40 minutes a night to flourishing as the Sixth Man of the Year. Look for Popavich to get this team rolling early and often and for Duncan to snatch back that MVP award.

Final Prediction: Spurs in 6 over the Pistons.

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