Wednesday, September 28, 2005

30 Reasons to Get Fired Up For the 2005-06 NBA Season - #13

The Rockets and the Suns are two of the early favorites to reach the Western Conference Finals, and subsequently get smoked by the Spurs.

#14 - The Search For San Antonio's Kryptonite

I'm doing my best to avoid making any predictions during this 30 day countdown, but I think I can come right out with one forecast that probably won't come as a shock to most of you-- the Spurs are going to repeat as Western Conference Champions. Actually, scratch that. The Spurs are going to easily repeat as Western Conference Champions. There, I said it. The writers and analysts won't let you believe this during the season. After all, how much fun can a conference race be when there's little suspense? The Spurs might not blow away competition during the regular season, but they know damn well by now that nothing truly counts until the Playoffs begin in April.

On the other hand, there's not a team out West other than San Antonio that can realistically look beyond the 82 games, and that's why the Western Conference is going to be a lot of fun this season. Although there's a handful of squads that should prepare themselves for a season that extends into May, the West is overwrought with depth this season. Every team but New Orleans/Oklahoma City and Portland are thinking Playoffs right now, and each can make a legitimate case for having the firepower to get there. There's also fives teams that can make a strong argument for being the best club not from San Antonio-- Dallas, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, and Sacramento. At least one of these teams has to pose a problem for the Spurs this year, right? Let's take a closer look to see which of these teams matches up best with San Antonio, because in essence, isn't that the question we should be asking when examining the Western Conference? Not who can beat San Antonio, but who can even challenge them?

Yes, it's true. Finley now plays for the "other" team.

Dallas (1-3 vs SA in 2004-05)
-The loss of Michael Finley to (of all teams) the Spurs has to be an emotional blow for a team that has been trying to get over the hump for the last half decade. Not only was he arguably the team's most consistent player, but he was also the backbone of this franchise for a long time. And to lose him to the rival Spurs? That has to hurt more than we can realize. The Mavs also did little to improve this offseason (Doug Christie and DeSagana Diop were their only significant pick-ups), instead hoping that their younger guys (Daniels, Harris, Howard) can take further strides forward in their development. There is reason for optimism however-- though it was barely noticeable in the Playoffs, Avery Johnson had this team playing tougher defensively once he took over as the permanent head coach. Avery will continue to try to embed a defensive emphasis on the Mavs, I'm just not sure the team has the make-up to play the type of defense it's going to take to battle San Antonio in a 7 game Playoff series. From a depth standpoint, Dallas is still one of the more loaded teams in the NBA. But put their frontline next to San Antonio's, and they're finished.
Odds of taking down the Spurs: 10 to 1

Denver (3-6 vs SA in 2004-05)
-A lot of people (including Anthony) thought the Nuggets could take down the Spurs in the 1st Round of last year's Playoffs, especially after they slugged out a rugged Game 1 victory in San Antonio. Ultimately, the Nuggets just proved to be too young and inexperienced for the Spurs, and were wiped out of the Playoffs in the next four games. The Nuggets bring back everybody and also welcome the return of Voshon Lenard, and the additions of Julius Hodge and Linas Kleiza via the draft and Earl Watson via free agency. More importantly, they'll have an entire training camp to fully adapt to George Karl's coaching styles, which could lead to anything considering how dramatic his influence was on the team when taking over last winter. On paper, this team matches up better with San Antonio than any other. With Watson added to the backcourt, they have a defensive-minded point guard that should frustrate Tony Parker. They also have plenty of depth at every position, mainly in the frontcourt where Camby, Nene, and Martin can dictate the physicality of any game. And best of all, the Nuggets can really switch it up. We saw them run teams out of the building on numerous occasions last year and they could defend in the halfcourt when they were pressed into a situation. They were one glaring weakness was their ability to score a basket during crucial moments down the stretch of games. George Karl is definitely going to address that this off-season, probably by trying to instill the utmost confidence in Carmelo Anthony. If you want to beat the Spurs, you need to have a guy that can take over for you down the stretch. 'Melo has to step it up.
Odds of Taking Down the Spurs: 5 to 1

Things won't be so lovey dovey in Houston once the Rockets run into the Spurs in the Conference Semifinals.

Houston (2-2 vs SA in 2004-05)
-The Rockets are a lot of people's pick to be the second best in the West this season as the T-Mac/Yao duo enters year two. Houston had an outstanding off-season, scooping up highly sought-after free agents Stromile Swift and Derek Anderson, drafting the underrated Luther Head, and keeping vets Jon Barry and Dikembe Mutombo in tow for another season. Jeff Van Gundy now has one of the deepest backcourts in the NBA and a sidekick for Yao in Swift that should thrive playing alongside the big fella. GM Carroll Dawson has also done a terrific job surrounding T-Mac and Yao with seasoned veterans who are concerned only with winning. The hope is that they can all accept their roles and aid the young stars' quest to understand what it takes to be a champion. Nevertheless, Houston still should have problems with San Antonio. For starters, Swift is going to prove to be a terrific weakside defender and an even better finisher on the offensive end, but there's a lot of questions concerning his toughness and desire to put all his talent together for the better of the team. I'm just not sure a Swift/Yao combo is ready to take on an Horry/Duncan combo during crunch time. The latter will do whatever it takes to win-- Swift and Yao don't yet know what it takes to win. Ultimately T-Mac should be the difference in whether the Rockets provide a test for the Spurs. I thought he was ready to take the Jordan-esque leap last year in willing his team to a series victory against the Mavs, but he simply couldn't push the team beyond their limits. If he seriously elevates his game to the next level, I think he can carry the Rockets with him. A series victory at this point would be a tremendous (yet necessary) accomplishment for T-Mac. Taking down the defending champs is probably too much to ask right now.
Odds of Taking Down the Spurs: 6 to 1

Phoenix (2-7 vs SA in 2004-05)
-Phoenix dominated the regular season last year, amassing 62 wins in securing the NBA's best record. Then as everyone expected, they ran into a San Antonio team that they just did not match up well with. Sure enough, the Suns quickly flamed out of the Western Conference Finals without much of a fight. This summer Bryan Colangelo and Mike D'Antoni made the bold decision to retool a 62-win roster, mainly in part to combat the Spurs. Gone are Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Steven Hunter, and Jake Voskuhl. Into the desert come Kurt Thomas, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, James Jones, Briant Grant, Eddie House, Lucas Tischer, Pat Burke, and Dijon Thompson. Colangelo has addressed the Suns' need for depth, rebounding, and defensive-minded players. Yet he's also simultaneously taken away parts from a team that were necessary to run the of style play that suits his two best players, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. What identity are the Suns going to have? Though they improved in the areas they needed to, they still don't have the talent the Spurs do. Or the experience. Or the chemistry. Or the depth. Or a chance.
Odds of Taking Down the Spurs: 11 to 1

Sacramento (1-3 vs SA in 2004-05)
-Chad Ford let the cat out of the bag a couple weeks ago when he predicted the Kings would finish #2 in the West. It's a bold prediction, but he could very well be right. Geoff Petrie continues to work wonders in Sacramento, reeling in Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Bonzi Wells, Jason Hart, and Francisco Garcia this summer. The Kings now boast arguably the best combination of talent, experience, and depth of the five challengers-- three components that are major strengths for the Spurs. They also have a go-to clutch player in Mike Bibby. Problem is, the Kings are still lacking in the department where the Spurs excel the most-- defense. Can you see this team locking down San Antonio in the last five minutes of a crucial Playoff game? As we learned with the Suns last season and actually the Kings themselves in the last 5 or so years, you can't simply outscore teams come Playoff time.
Odds of Taking Down the Spurs: 12 to 1


At 10:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice analysis. At a slow moment today, I put together the teams I thought would make the playoffs next year and was surprised that the eight teams in the East are fairly obvious (with Cleveland bumping the Celtics), with the top teams jockeying for position as true contenders (the Detroit/Miami/Indiana triumverate) being the interesting part. In the west, there's only one championship contender, but then it's the bottom part that's truly fascinating. With the teams you mention near locks for the playoffs (though I'd cut Sacto out), you have Golden State, Utah, Seattle, Minnesota, Memphis, and Los Angeles looking for three positions at 6-8.

The trouble with San Antonio is what they showed in the playoffs last year: they're so damn versatile. They can slow it down, speed it up, can run, can plod. About the only thing that jars them is physical, borderline play. And, as always, a hot perimeter team. With the additions, they may be even better. The lynchpin figure here might well be Oberto. He gives them a very smart, savvy, tough interior presence who is a great interior passer.

Some thoughts...

Houston has it tough. So does Dallas, for that matter, since neither can enter anywhere above 4th in playoff seeding, due to the divisional spoils for leaders. They could very well meet up as a 4-5 matchup, even though they both could be stronger than Denver and Phoenix.

Sacramento looks soft, boy. They're like the porcupine that automatically reveals its soft underbelly the second a conflict starts. They're very weak inside - the Miller, SAR, Peja front line is incredibly weak on defense with little muscle and no shot blocking. They might run with some teams, though no where near the 2004 Suns level. And they'll get waxed by teams with interior presence.

Out of everybody, I see Houston as the heir apparent to the conference after SAS declines (in a few years). TMac and Yao are young enough and they've made some good moves. But they're not there yet.

Denver will be tough, again, and has the strength to muscle the Spurs and try to beat them down again. Yet they didn't correct their biggest problem, which was a lack of outside shooting. I'm interested to see if they pick up where they left off last year.

At 11:33 PM, Blogger BBallBlog said...

[[Sacramento looks soft, boy. They're like the porcupine that automatically reveals its soft underbelly the second a conflict starts. They're very weak inside - the Miller, SAR, Peja front line is incredibly weak on defense with little muscle and no shot blocking. They might run with some teams, though no where near the 2004 Suns level. And they'll get waxed by teams with interior presence.]]

They always have been soft inside. Vlade/Webber were never any good on defense and the Kings still won 50+ a year. I'm not comparing Miller to Vlade by any stretch of the imagination, but a healthy Rahim and a healthy Miller are better defensively than an aging Vlade and a pre-surgery Webber on defense, easily.

The real question is their backcourt. Bibby's not very good on defense and Bonzi Wells is pretty average. I suspect they'll play a switching defense like they've always done when opponents try to create mismatches.

At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't Seattle actually San Antonio's kryptonite last season? If they were fully healthy in the Conference Semis (Rashard was playing hurt), they could have possibly taken that series. Every single game was a battle. I'm sure Seattle will take a step backwards this year, mostly because of the loss of Nate McMillan. I think people are placing too much emphasis on the losses of Daniels and James.


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