Monday, October 31, 2005

Paul's Complete 2005-06 Predictions and Projections

Shaq and the Heat will finish atop the Eastern Conference standings yet again.

As promised, here are my Eastern Conference projections...

New Jersey 47-35
Philadelphia 44-38
New York 40-42
Boston 33-49
Toronto 22-60

Indiana 55-27
Detroit 53-29
Cleveland 46-36
Milwaukee 42-40
Chicago 40-42

Miami 56-26
Washington 43-39
Orlando 34-48
Atlanta 18-64
Charlotte 18-64

And of course, my Playoff predictions...

1st Round


Miami over Milwaukee in 5
  • Heat just too talented for the Bucks. Not an easy 5 games though.
Detroit over Cleveland in 6
  • Pistons have a major edge in experience. The Cavs will advance year.

New Jersey over Philadelphia in 7

  • A classic 1st round match-up between two teams that went neck-and-neck all season long for the Atlantic Division title before the ailing knees of Chris Webber forced him to miss the last month of the season. A worn-down Sixers team can't handle the non-stop New Jersey pace in a decisive Game 7.

Indiana over Washington in 4

  • Wiz no match for physical and determined Indiana team.


San Antonio over Minnesota in 4

  • KG willed the Wolves to the Playoffs, but notching a series win proves to be too tough a task.

Houston over Dallas in 6

  • Oh, sweet revenge!

Phoenix over Sacramento in 6

  • The Suns enter the Playoffs in a fury thanks to the triumphant return of Amare Stoudemire. Sacramento has no answer for Phoenix's potent offensive attack.

Denver over Golden State in 5

  • A raucous Arena crowd is enough to secure the Warriors' first Playoff win in 14 years.

Conference Semifinals


Miami over Detroit in 7

  • Unfortunate for Miami that they draw Detroit instead of a Jersey team that they completely own (a folly in the NBA's Playoff system). Regardless, the Heat exact revenge in a rugged 7 game series thanks to the healthy Shaq/Wade combo.

Indiana over New Jersey in 6

  • Indiana's suffocating defense shuts down Vinsanity and Jefferson in an ugly 6 game series win.


San Antonio over Houston in 5

  • Houston's just happy to be there. Maybe next year.

Denver over Phoenix in 7

  • Denver's frontline is able to keep Amare in check and Earl Watson puts the lockdown on Steve Nash in the deciding Game 7.

Conference Finals

San Antonio over Denver in 5

  • Don't get me wrong-- I'm sold on Denver being a very tough out in the Playoffs. The Spurs are just that good.

Miami over Indiana in 7

  • I'm not buying into this "too much talent" bullshit in Miami, not as long as Shaq and Wade are involved. As long as these two are healthy, Miami is better than anyone in the East. Homecourt could be the difference here.

NBA Finals

San Antonio over Miami in 6

  • A long lay-off coupled with a fatigued Miami team enables the Spurs to take the first two in San Antonio. The Heat make a statement with a dominant Game 3 win, but the Spurs, thanks to the heroics of Nick Van Exel, pull off an enormous comeback victory in Game 4. Spurs then close out Heat back at SBC in a hard-fought Game 6 thanks to a monster game from Finals MVP Tim Duncan.

Is there anyone who honestly believes someone can knock off the Spurs?


Most Improved Player

1) James Jones, Phoenix - Reggie Miller took him under his wing the last two seasons in Indiana. You're going to see this pay-off in a major way now that Jones has all the opportunity in the world with the Suns.

2) Josh Howard, Dallas - I'm not a huge fan of giving this award to young players who "progress" the most, but Howard stands out because he's about to make an unexpected leap into All-Star status.

Sleeper) Smush Parker, LA Lakers - Can you give this award to someone who's barly even been in the league the last two seasons? Smush has impressed in the preseason and could have a major impact on the Lakers.

6th Man of the Year

1) Ben Gordon, Chicago - I wouldn't be shocked if Gordon eventually forces Skiles to get him out there when the game starts. With nothing but praise being bestowed on Gordon over the last month, there's no reason to believe he won't be even better this season.

2) Caron Butler, Washington - It appears that Eddie Jordan is going to stick with Jeffries in the starting lineup, meaning Butler will likely be the first man off the bench. His game suits Jordan's system very well as shown in his stellar preseason play.

Sleeper) John Salmons, Philadelphia - There's going to be plenty of available minutes for Salmons as he appears set as the primary back-up to Kyle Korver and Andre Iguodala. If he performs at a level anywhere near where he did over the last month, he could be one of the league's best 6th men.

Coach of the Year

1) Larry Brown - It's a difficult award to project because you're basically picking the coach of the team that exceeds expectations the most. The Knicks are receiving considerable attention as a Playoff team in the East which is simply a factor of LB being their coach. If they actually make it there, he'll receive due consideration.

2) Dwane Casey - Casey's hiring was long overdue and I believe he'll have a tremendous effect on the success of the 'Wolves this season.

Sleeper) Mike D'Antoni - No coach has ever taken the award in consecutive years, but if D'Antoni were to lead the Suns to another Pacific Division crown, the man might very well deserve it again.

Executive of the Year

1) Carroll Dawson, Houston - He's made all the right moves over the last year and should have the Rockets positioned as the 2nd best team in the West before season's end.

2) Geoff Petrie, Sacrameto - He's quietly transformed a contender into a team capable of making some serious noise all without having to take a significant step back.

Sleeper) Larry Harris, Milwaukee - I still feel the Bucks are a year away from making serious strides, but an appearance in the Playoffs this season could warrant him some mentioning.

1st Team All-Rookie

Deron Williams, Utah - Should secure the starting point guard spot before too soon and lead the Jazz back into respectability.

Chris Paul, New Orleans - Will have every opportunity in the world to run this team no matter how much they sputter.

Charlie Villanueva, Toronto - I'm not afraid to admit when I'm wrong-- Villanueva is thus far making us all look like total idiots.

Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee - He'll eventually work his way into the lineup and will greatly benefit from having Magloire around to ease some of the pressure.

Ike Diogu, Golden State - We didn't get a chance to see him this preseason, but don't let that fool you. Diogu is going to be a major player for the Warriors.

2nd Team All-Rookie

Marvin Williams, Atlanta - It might take him some time to develop, but he'll be putting up solid numbers by the second half of the season.

Joey Graham, Toronto - Like Villanueva, he's going to receive a considerable amount of burn. I think he's one of the most ready to contribute.

Rashad McCants, Minnesota - If McCants doesn't merit at least 2nd Team All-Rookie status, the 'Wolves could be in a bit of trouble.

Raymond Felton, Charlotte - Very impressive during the preseason. Felton should be implemented into the starting lineup by the New Year's.

Danny Granger, Indiana - The Pacers will encounter their fair share of injury problems throughout the year and Granger will pounce on every opportunity he's given.

Rookie of the Year

1) Chris Paul, New Orleans - Even with Speedy Claxton pushing him for PT, Paul still should see in the range of 35-40 minutes per game. He'll shine once he settles in-- the acquisition of Desmond Mason won't hurt.

2) Deron Williams, Utah - Williams was by far the best point guard on the Jazz during the preseason. If Sloan awards him the starting spot, that alone tells you how good this kid is. I think he has the potential to make the biggest impact of any rookie, but his numbers might not stand out the most.

Sleeper) Ryan Gomes, Boston - It could only be a matter of time before Danny Ainge decides it's safe to send Paul Pierce packing with the impressive Gomes waiting in the wings.

1st Team All-Defensive

Tim Duncan, San Antonio - First team in 6 of 8 seasons. No reason why he shouldn't make it this year.

Ben Wallace, Detroit - Contract season or not, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is coming with it no matter what.

Kevin Garnett, Minnesota - He'll lead the league in rebounding once again and be the anchor of an improved Minnesota defense.

Ron Artest, Indiana - The best defender in the league is a lock for this team as long as he stays out of trouble.

Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers - Was not named to an All-Defensive team last year for the first time since 1999. That will change this year thanks to the improved team defense of the Lakers.

2nd Team All-Defensive

Andrei Kirilenko, Utah - Should lead the league in blocks and rank high in steals.

LeBron James, Cleveland - His being a shut-down defender could be the difference in the Cavs being a 50-win team.

Marcus Camby, Denver - One of the best defensive big men in the league even if he's not even close to being one of the toughest.

Bruce Bowen, San Antonio - Might lose some minutes to Finley and Van Exel down the stretch, but is still the best perimeter defender in the league.

Andre Iduodala, Philadelphia - Get used to seeing his name up here.

Defensive Player of the Year

1) Ron Artest, Indiana
- Has stated that he's not going to change anything about the way he plays despite being an obvious target for officials. I like Artest to have his best season ever, meaning a 2nd Defensive Player of the Year Award.

2) Ben Wallace, Detroit - It's difficult to place Wallace any lower than second given his recent dominance of the award.

Sleeper) Josh Howard, Dallas - He's about to completely break out and it all starts with his efforts on the defensive end. If Dallas maintains 50+ win status, it's going to be because they're a better defensive team led by their catalyst Howard.

Can AI claim a 3rd All-Star Game MVP?

Eastern Conference All-Stars


G- Allen Iverson, Philadelphia - He deserves to start almost every year whether he gets voted in or not.

G- Vince Carter, New Jersey - He almost never deserves to start, but he's a lock to get voted in.

F- LeBron James, Cleveland - 'Bron will be starting in this game for at least the next decade.

F- Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana - Grant Hill narrowly edged out Jermaine last year, but I think Jermaine will claim to spot this year due to Hill's injury to start the season.

C- Shaquille O'Neal, Miami - If last year's voting was any indication, Shaq should already have booked a hotel in Houston by now.


Dwyane Wade, Miami - The second of many All-Star appearances to come.

Jason Kidd, New Jersey - Kidd was only left off last year's team because he missed almost all of November and December.

Ron Artest, Indiana - It'll be interesting to see how many votes Artest gets. He'll make the team either way.

Ben Wallace, Detroit - 4th straight All-Star appearance, 3 DPOYs, 4 All-NBA Teams-- is this a budding Hall of Famer?

Gilbert Arenas, Washington - Tough break for Stephon Marbury, Chauncey Billups, and Steve Francis-- there's just too many point guards in the East.

Dwight Howard, Orlando - Lack of quality power forwards in the East makes it a little easier for Howard to claim a spot.

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Cleveland - He never really deserves it, but the last spot is almost always used on the next best big man.

Western Conference All-Stars


G- Tracy McGrady, Houston - The NBA is hoping and praying that the two Rockets are elected starters once again when the All-Star Game comes to Houston in February.

G- Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles - Steve Nash might make a run at T-Mac and Kobe in the voting, but it's more or less unlikely.

F- Tim Duncan, San Antonio - No reason to believe he'll relinquish his starting spot in the West.

F- Kevin Garnett, Minnesota - Ditto.

C- Yao Ming, Houston - The real question is, will Yao again shatter the record for most votes?


Steve Nash, Phoenix - Don't expect a let-down year from this guy.

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas - Dirk is a lock to make the team every year, but I doubt he'll ever start an All-Star Game.

Baron Davis, Golden State - His first full season in the Western Conference will result in his first All-Star apperance with the West.

Shawn Marion, Phoenix - Quietly, but surely, becoming a perennial All-Star.

Pau Gasol, Memphis - Cross him off the "Best Players Never to Make the All-Star Team" list.

Ray Allen, Seattle - He's no lock, but how can you leave him off?

Mike Bibby, Sacramento - Last year Popovich picked the players he felt most deserved a spot without much consideration to their positions. He'll do the same this season in taking Mike Bibby, the team's 4th point guard, over the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Elton Brand, Jason Richardson, Andrei Kirilenko, and his own, Manu Ginobili.

1st Team All-NBA

Tim Duncan, San Antonio - There's no safer prediction in the league.

Kevin Garnett, Minnesota - Might have his best season ever.

Shaquille O'Neal, Miami - A given with Amare out until at least February.

Tracy McGrady, Houston - Will be even better than he was during the second half of last season, and you know what that means...

LeBron James, Cleveland - I don't expect his status as an All-NBA First Teamer to slip for a long, long time.

2nd Team All-NBA

Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas - He might have just as good a season as last year, but he's not keeping KG off the 1st Team this time around.

Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers - It's hard to believe Kobe fell to 3rd Team status last year. Don't expect that to happen this year.

Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana - I'm banking on O'Neal garnering 'Center' status (just like LeBron's 'Guard' status and Kobe's 'Forward' status, which is nonsensical criterion anyways) with him slated to play in the middle to start the season. He'll have a big year.

Steve Nash, Phoenix - I was Nash's harshest critic last year when it came time to choose an MVP, but you'll see me be one of his biggest supporters this season if he can keep Phoenix among the elite.

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia - Anything less likely means Philadelphia disappoints this season.

3rd Team All-NBA

Ron Artest, Indiana - The Defensive Player of the Year will narrowly beat out

Vince Carter, New Jersey - Did you know Vinsanity has been named All-NBA only twice in his career (2nd Team in '01, 3rd Team in '00)?

Ben Wallace, Detroit - Big Ben narrowly edges Yao to make his 5th consecutive All-NBA Team.

Baron Davis, Golden State - With much apology to Jason Kidd, Ray Allen, and Gilbert Arenas.

Dwyane Wade, Miami - It might be difficult for D-Wade to duplicate last year's numbers, but if Miami stays atop the East, he'll get the nod.

It promises to be a fun season in Houston where 2005-06 MVP Tracy McGrady leads the Rockets into the NBA's elite.


1) Tracy McGrady, Houston - A month ago I took T-Mac, and I'm not ready to back off my pick just yet (despite some injury concerns to begin the season). The situation is ripe for McGrady, and I just think he's ready to pounce upon the opportunity.

2) LeBron James, Cleveland - I was very close to swapping T-Mac and 'Bron, but I really do feel McGrady has the slight edge in my eyes (I'm not just being stubborn and going with the chic pick like so many writers do). Nevertheless, if I had to throw money down, give me LeBron.

Sleeper) Baron Davis, Golden State - Baron has since slipped a bit on my MVP radar, but that doesn't prevent him from being a sleeper candidate. If he stays healthy and leads Golden State into the Playoffs, he'll get some consideration.

Friday, October 28, 2005

2005-06 Western Conference Preview: Part 2

Surprise! Tim Duncan and the Spurs will reign supreme in the Western Conference yet again.

8. Minnesota Timberwolves

Kevin Garnett is going to bounce back in a big, big way. Sure his numbers last season were typical KG (22-13-6), but the 'Wolves underperformed beyond anyone's expectations. That won't happen this season. Look for Garnett to will his team to the Playoffs this season-- anything more than that might be too much to ask ... Looking for your prime example of addition by subtraction? Look no further than Minnesota. Gone are Cassell and Sprewell, the two notorious cancers on the 'Wolves from day one of last year. Aside from being a distraction in the locker room, Cassell and Sprewell are both well past their prime. Cassell battled injuries all season long and couldn't guard Sue Bird when he was on the floor; Sprewell lacked the explosiveness that has characterized his game and he only showed up on occasional nights. Minnesota will be just fine with Marko Jaric, Troy Hudson, and Wally Szczerbiak inheriting more run ... Eddie Griffin has a real chance to bust out this year with the Wolves hurting for some athleticism and scoring punch in the frontcourt. Don't be surprised if Dwane Casey employs a similar perimeter-oriented offense in Minnesota as was used last year in Seattle. Griffin can stroke it from inside and out and could draw comparisons to Vladimir Radmanovic on the offensive end. Defensively, he's head and shoulders above his Seattle counterpart ... Two other factors to consider: 1) Jaric can defend both guard positions very well and will give Casey the option of using either Hudson, McCants, or Hassell during crunch time. Each guy gives you a different look and can be a real asset depending on the matchup. 2) It's a contract year for Michael Olowokandi, meaning the 'Wolves might actually have a center that gives them something.

From a talent standpoint, the Wolves really didn't improve much from a year ago. Jaric was an effective combo guard with the Clippers, but he's extremely injury-prone and looked shaky this summer during the Euro Games. Rashad McCants could be a nice addition if he shuts his mouth and just plays basketball. And besides that? I mean Niko Tskitishvili, Richie Frahm, Lionel Chalmers, Bracey Wright, and Dwayne Jones-- they're not exactly difference-makers. If KG goes down, we could be looking at the league's worst team ... Congratulations, Kevin McHale. You wanted to clean up the image of this team and got rid of two jerks in Cassell and Sprewell, yet you signed Jaric, who reportedly acted like a real asshole during the Euro Games, drafted McCants who has been red flagged since his first day at Chapel Hill, re-signed one of the NBA's notorious lunatics in Eddie Griffin, and failed to move me-first ballhogs Szczerbiak and Hudson. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the 'Wolves imploded once again ... What happens if this team gets off to a rough start? How long before KG says the 't' word? Let's be serious, Garnett isn't getting any younger and the Wolves don't appear to be gunning for a title in the near future. Would you blame him if he requested a trade?

Prediction: 43-39

7. Golden State Warriors

The Warriors closed last season on a 15-5 tear including a number of blowouts and wins over elite teams. Chris Mullin did the right thing by not tinkering with a team that seemed to click. Now it's on the shoulders of Mike Montgomery and Baron Davis to ensure that they continue right where they left off ... The backcourt of Baron Davis and Jason Richardson is explosive enough alone to win this team a number of games. When these two are in sync, this is not an easy team to defend. Throw in an increasingly steady Mike Dunleavy, a double-double machine in Troy Murphy, two streaky bench studs in Mickael Pietrus and Derek Fisher, and the impact of Ike Diogu on the post, and the Warriors are going to have the firepower to outscore any team on any given night ... If you're looking for a team that's going to thrives thanks to great team chemistry, the Warriors are it. 7 members of Mike Montgomery's 10-man rotation have played only for Golden State during their careers, and Baron Davis and Derek Fisher are two Playoff-tested vets who are very well-liked around the league. After finishing last year so strong, the entire team has been focusing on the upcoming season all summer long with a common goal on their minds-- the Playoffs. With a cupcake schedule to start the season, expect the Warriors to come out swinging and rekindle that fire that fueled them last spring ...Zarko "Chewbaccarpa" Cabarkapa has a dope nickname!

While the Warriors have depth at every position, an injury to Baron Davis is a frightening thought. There's simply no denying his impact on the Warriors at the end of last season-- he's truly the engine that drives the team. If he goes down, the equilibrium will become off-balanced. And when that happens, well, it might not be pretty ... As much firepower as the Warriors have, specifically in the backcourt, the frontcourt still leaves much to be desired. Troy Murphy does more of his scoring from the perimeter and Adonal Foyle-- I'm not even going to touch that. Baron Davis will ultimately determine whether this team gets to the Playoffs or not, but it could be on the shoulders of the youngsters Diogu and Andris Biedrins as to how far the Warriors can really go ... I'm extremely confident that if the Warriors avoid the injury bug, they'll compete hard for the Playoffs. However, I give them little chance of advancing any further than the 1st Round. Outside of Baron and Fisher, this is still a very young and inexperienced ball club, and they're going to also need to learn how to play some defense at some point. Regardless, I think all anyone from the Bay wants is to host a Playoff game for the first time since 1994.

Prediction: 43-39

6. Phoenix Suns

The Suns made more personnel changes in the offseason than anyone despite finishing with the league's best regular season record a year ago. The goal in mind for Bryan Colangelo and Mike D'Antoni was to build a team that would match up better with the Spurs. Thus new additions Kurt Thomas and Briant Grant will give the Suns a tougher, more experienced frontline; Raja Bell and Boris Diaw will improve the team's perimeter defense; James Jones and Eddie House will provide the outside shooting void left behind by the departed Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson. So while maybe the starting five for Phoenix took a hit, this is a deeper team that should be able to provide a tougher test for the Spurs than they did in the Conference Finals. And I'm telling you right now, Raja Bell, Boris Diaw, James Jones-- you might not be familiar with these guys, but they can ball ... The Suns continue to drop on people's boards with the loss of Amare Stoudemire until at least February, but I believe some are overlooking the value of Steve Nash to this team. The reigning MVP made this team go last year and there's no reason to believe that he can't be just as effective with his new teammates. Kurt Thomas is one of the best pick-and-rollers in the NBA and should have his best season ever playing alongside Nash. Bell, Jones, and House are all just as good, if not better shooters than Richardson and Johnson-- Nash will create just as many open looks for them. Just remember that this is Nash's team and he's fully capable of achieving what he did last season ... Here's some food for your thought-- last preseason the Suns steamrolled through opponents en route to a 7-1 record, warranting a great deal of "sleeper" status on the way. This year they're doing much the same, having won 5 of 7, 4 in blowout fashion. I know it's only preseason, but it might be worth keeping in mind ... If the Suns can stay above .500 by the time Amare returns, watch out. Not a single team in the West outside of San Antonio has an answer for him.

While I like the idea behind building the team to compete with the Spurs, you have to worry about how the Suns match up against everyone else-- the 13 other West teams that they completely dominated last season. Are they quick enough to play the same style uptempo style that fueled them last year? Does this team have enough weapons to simply outscore their opponents? Can D'Antoni really teach the Suns how to play halfcourt defense when they need to? We'll soon find out ... Obviously the loss of Amare Stoudemire is huge, but if he can return in his usal form by February, the Suns should be fine. That's a huge 'if'. We all know the history of microfracture surgery and it's not exactly comforting. Besides, February seems like an optimistic return date and it will likely take him at least a couple of weeks before he regains game conditioning. I'm guessing the Suns are going to have to manage without the real Amare as early as March and as late as never ... Five players in D'Antoni's rotation are 29+ years old, meaning their bodies are more susceptible to injury. The Suns can survive an injury to Bell, Grant, and Jim Jackson, but if either Nash or Thomas goes down, this team is in serious trouble ... Big-ups if you can guess who the two biggest players on the Suns roster currently are-- Pat Burke and Jared Reiner. Yikes.

Prediction: 48-34

5. Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks bring back roughly the same team that won 58 games last season minus one glaring omission-- Michael Finley. It's not that the team is going to necessarily miss Finley on the court, but he's been one of the faces of Dallas Mavericks basketball for the last 9 seasons. It was a move that the organization had to make, an opportunity to ease their luxury tax situation dramtically. And who can blame them? When you have Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels, Jerry Stackhouse, Devin Harris, and Keith Van Horn anxiously waiting to inherit Finley's floor time, you really don't have to worry much about missing him ... After Avery Johnson took over full-time for Don Nelson late last season, there was a noticeable edge and toughness to this team that was never there before. Avery preached defense and hustle to the Mavs and that ultimately allowed them to sneak by Houston and into the Conference Semifinals. Don't underrate the additions of Doug Christie, DeSagana Diop, and Josh Powell. Although Christie appears to be on his last legs, Diop still hasn't gotten his feet wet, and Powell is essentially a nobody, each will contribute to better overall team defense. That's what it's going to take to advance further than last season ... Many people doubted Dirk Nowitzki's ability to succeed without Steve Nash, but Re-Dirkulous went on to enjoy his finest season to date. In his 7th year, Dirk averaged career-highs in PPG, APG, BPG, and 3PT%. Those expecting a let-down are fooling themselves-- Dirk continues to improve and will enter this season with a chip on his shoulder after that Game 6 debacle against the Suns ... Having Avery Johnson in place to start the season could provide immediate dividends for the Mavericks. Avery was able to alter the landscape of this club in the middle of the season, which is a tall order for any coach taking over for a team in the latter stages of the year. Now with a full training camp and preseason under his belt, expect Avery to further the adjust the team to his style and teachings.

The most apparent weakness the Mavericks had last year was its lack of leadership and it was displayed clearly in the Game 6 defeat to the Suns. Nowitzki was yelling at teammates, people were pointing fingers-- it was just plain ugly. That has to change immediately. The loss of Michael Finley, though he wasn't exactly an outspoken leader for this team, could damage the character of this team. Either Dirk is going to have to step up and become a more mature leader this year, or someone like Josh Howard or Jerry Stackhouse is going to have to assume that role ... Not only did Dirk fail to step up as a leader in last year's Playoffs, but he also was unable to kick his game up a notch (21.3 PPG, 35.2% FGs, 28.7% 3PTs, 8.6 RPG, 2.4 TPG vs Houston). Jeff Van Gundy put Tracy McGrady on him for much of the series, who though smaller, frustrated Dirk with his quickness and athleticism. For Dirk's sake, let's hope no other coaches were watching ... The Mavs are still one of the most talented teams in the West, but they did nothing to improve in the offseason like San Antonio, Houston, and Sacramento did. That doesn't exactly bode well for a team trying to push towards the Finals ... You know what's really scary? The Mavs might very well end up with the West's 2nd best record, yet have to deal with being the #4 seed once again and facing the West's 3rd best team in Houston. And with San Antonio presumably running away with the West's best record, a win in the opening round would pit Dallas against the Spurs. That's always fun.

Prediction: 52-30

4. Houston Rockets

The only thing that could prevent Houston from notching 50 wins this season would be a severe injury to Yao Ming or Tracy McGrady. The Rockets are just too talented to slip up.
Carroll Dawson had a superb offseason, beginning with his signing of Stromile Swift from Memphis. There probably isn't a more ideal frontcourt mate for Yao than Swift, who will punctuate on Yao's double-teams with explosive dunks, and provide weak-side help on D that will result in monstruous dunks. Prepare the highlight reels. Dawson also added combo guard Derek Anderson from Portland. Anderson and draftee Luther Head should provide immediate help in the backcourt with their speed and athleticism on both ends of the floor. And finally, Dawson made one final stroke to complete his masterful summer by acquiring Rafer Alston for Mike James in a deal with Toronto. The team's only weakness heading into training camp was its lack of a true point guard that could distribute on the break and run an offense against a tight half court press. Alston brings exactly these abilities to the table ... Tracy McGrady showed distinct flashes that he was ready to kick his game up to 'MVP' status in the 2nd half of last season and against Dallas in the Playoffs last spring. And then the Rockets got embarrassed by 40 points in the deciding Game 7 at Dallas. This will be the season when McGrady finally plays like the team's goals are more important than his own. T-Mac will win the MVP this season. Mark my words ... Let's not forget about our boy Yao who also seems poised for a big year. For the first time since coming to the U.S., Yao will have gotten some rest during the summer. Though he's missed only two games in his career, there have been questions abound concerning his conditioning and it's shown. A relaxing summer and the aid of Swift on the block should result in The Dynasty's best season yet.

As good as Stromile should be with this team, there's still some concern regarding his ability to bring it every night. Folks in Memphis will tell you about the nights when Swift was barely noticeable on the floor, and others when he dropped hints of being one of the most talented power forwards in the league. Jeff Van Gundy will do everything in his will to get the very best out of Swift, but Stro's got to want it ... T-Mac's explosion in the 2nd half of last season had a lot to do with why the team played so well, but there was also this other guy named Bob Sura that helped turn things around. Sura asserted himself on every single possession, on both ends of the floor, and that really had a chain reaction on the Rockets. Now Sura is out for at least a few months after knee surgery, and he may not be coming back at all. The Rockets will miss both his and Mike James' emotional sparks. Derek Anderson and Luther Head are going to have to fill these roles ... I'd be shocked if the Rockets finished with any worse than the 3rd best record in the West. They're just too deep, too talented, too versatile, and too well-coached. That said, Houston still won't be ready to take down San Antonio this season. Although they match up favorably with just about everyone else in the West (though Denver's physical play could pose them problems), the Spurs are stronger upfront physically, and have much more experience. The Rockets will undoubtedly move forward this season, but they're still a year or two away from being a true contender.

Prediction: 54-28

3. Sacramento Kings*

Just when you think the Kings are headed back to mediocrity, Geoff Petrie goes out and has one hell of a summer. The Kings GM swooped in and snatched up Shareef Abdur-Rahim after his deal fell through with the Nets, acquired a starting 2 guard Bonzi Wells for a backup combo guard in Bobby Jackson, a true backup point guard (Jason Hart) to fill a role the team has lacked since their lottery days, and drafted a jack-of-all-trades stud in Francisco Garcia. SAR and Bonzi should combine with Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, and Brad Miller to give the Kings a balanced and potent starting lineup ... It's safe to expect the Kings' top two player, Bibby and Stojakovic, to have outstanding seasons. Bibby was sensational after taking on a more central role for the team in wake of the Chris Webber deal (20.8 PPG, 7.8 APG, 1.8 SPG after the ASB). Though the Kings are still expected to run the Princeton offense, the ball should continue to go through Bibby on most possessions. Stojakovic is entering an ever-important contract season in which he'll attempt to resurrect his once max-contract level of play. With the additions of Abdur-Rahim and Wells, two players who will draw attention to the post, Peja should see plenty of open looks from the perimeter. Look for his scoring average to head back up to the 23-24 PPG range ... The Kings enter the season with as much Playoff experience as any team in the West aside from San Antonio. Unlike Houston and Denver, Sacramento's big-time players know what it takes to advance far in the Playoffs. Keep this in mind when April rolls along ... Rick Adelman has won 50+ games in 9 out of 14 full seasons as a head coach. For all the flak he takes in not being able to push his teams to a title, he gets the job done in the regular season. I'd be astounded if this team were to freefall, as some are predicting.

There's some concern as to whether Abdur-Rahim and Wells are suited for the motion offense. Webber and Christie were both outstanding passers who could also spread the floor with their shooting. Neither SAR nor Wells have been known for their passing, and their range doesn't quite extend to the 3-point line. Adelman might have to make a few tweaks to the offense to adjust to his new players' strengths ... I like Sacramento's depth a lot, but when the time comes for this team to play some serious halfcourt defense, which 5 is Adelman going to throw out there? . And what if he blows out his knee? Geoff Petrie won't be looking like such a genius after all ... Abdur-Rahim has played 672 games without making a Playoff appearance. If the Kings fail to reach the postseason this year, there's something really wrong with this guy ... Has a Rick Adelman team ever overachieved in the Playoffs? Failure to reach expectations may result in the Maloofs parting ways with their long-tenured head coach ... Bibby, always thought to be one of the NBA's premiere clutch players, had a miserable series against Seattle in the Playoffs. The Kings aren't going anywhere in the Playoffs if he doesn't raise the level of his game.

Prediction: 50-32* - Pacific Division Champion

2. Denver Nuggets*

The Nuggets were dominate last season once George Karl took over, going 28-6 before running into the Spurs in the Playoffs. After a hard-fought Game 1 victory at the SBC Center, the Nuggets were overwhelmed by the experience and defense of San Antonio and proceeded to drop the next four. Kiki Vandeweghe brings back just about everyone from last year plus defensive wizard Earl Watson to shore up the backcourt and draftees Julius Hodge and Linas Kleiza to give an already-deep team even more depth. Don't be fooled into thinking that Denver's NBA-best 25-4 record after the All-Star Break was a fluke-- this team is for real ... Carmelo Anthony struggled mightily last season until Karl took over. It was then that 'Melo became more assertive on offense and started to attack more, thus his production (22.2 PPG up from 19.9; 8.9 FTA up from 6.8 ) increased noticeably. Karl has made it a point to work 'Melo into becoming a more well-rounded player, one worthy of carrying his team far in the Playoffs. Look for Anthony to have a breakout season ... Denver is the only team in the Western Conference with the ability to frustrate San Antonio. The Nuggets are physical and have a nasty edge to them that we saw in their Game 1 victory at SBC. With more experience playing together, and another year for 'Melo, Kenyon Martin, and Nene to improve, Denver should provide a tougher test for the Spurs this spring ... Tony Parker ate Andre Miller alive during the Playoffs last year and that more to do with why Kiki signed Earl Watson than anything else. Watson is one of the league's premier defensive point guards who makes up for his lack of size with his tenacity. Just another reason why Denver could pose problems for the Spurs come Playoff time.

The one major knock on Denver entering the offseason was their lack of perimeter shooting. While having a healthy Voshon Lenard back will certainly help, Kiki failed to address this pressing need without any urgency. He drafted Julius Hodge ahead of Louisville-marksmen Francisco Garcia, and failed to aggressively go after Cuttino Mobley, instead signing backup Earl Watson. Denver should have plenty of offensive firepower to plow through opponents during the regular season, but you just can't put a price on reliable outside shooting in the Playoffs ... Denver is one of the deeper teams in the NBA, but there's no telling what could happen to this team if the injury bug hits them like it has with a number of their players in the past. Marcus Camby has missed less than 10 games just once in his career; Kenyon Martin is still dealing with lingering knee problems; Nene missed 27 games last year with a hamstring injury; and Voshon Lenard made only one appearance after injuring his achilles tendon on opening night last year-- at the 3-Point contest during All-Star Weekend. An injury to a combination of any of these guys could expose some of the Nuggets' weaknesses ... Denver caught a lot of people by surprise last year after George Karl took over. It was difficult to prepare for a team that featured an entirely different look. That's not going to be the case this season. Opposing teams know that Karl is just going to keep pushing the ball to take maintain their edge in athleticism over every other team in the West. If you can control the tempo on Denver and force them into a halfcourt set, they won't be nearly as effective offensively.

Prediction: 54-28* Northwest Division Champion

1. San Antonio Spurs*

What's not to like about this team? After winning their 2nd championship in 3 seasons, the Spurs enter the season with their best team yet. The additions of Michael Finley, Nick Van Exel, and Fabricio Oberto give the Spurs even more depth and Gregg Popovich the option of presenting so many different looks that San Antonio matches up favorably against any team in the NBA ... Tim Duncan isn't the most talented player in the NBA, but he is the most effective, the most humble, and the most consistent-- that makes him the most valuable ... San Antonio's 2nd and 3rd best players, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, are still improving. Yikes ... Nobody in the West plays the kind of defense that even approaches the level of D that San Antonio plays. When the going gets tough, the Spurs just turn the defense up a notch and you can just forget about. Game over ... Did I mention that the best team in the NBA got significantly better? ... Gregg Popovich opened up the offense more last season and the result was a more enjoyable viewing experience for onlookers. With Finley, Van Exel, and Oberto now on board, look for Pop to open things up even more since each of these guys excels in the full court game. If you enjoy greatness, you'll love watching this team.

It's not easy to repeat as a champion, even the Spurs will tell you that. Everyone's going to be gunning for the reigning champs and that will make repeating this season even tougher than reclaiming the crown last year ... The only thing that will prevent the Spurs from pummeling through competition to another Western Conference Title is an injury to Tim Duncan. On second hand, TD wasn't 100% last year and the Spurs still stormed to the Finals ... San Antonio is capable of winning at least 65 games, but Popovich knows the NBA season is not a race, but a marathon. He'll limit everyone's minutes during the regular season even if it means the team doesn't end up with homecourt advantage throughout the Playoffs. That's about as pessimistic as it gets with this team. We could very well be looking at the best NBA team since the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls.

Prediction: 60-22* Southwest Division Champion

2005-06 Eastern Conference Preview: Part 2

This is the year of Jermaine and the Pacers

8. Washington Wizards

Several times last season, I couldn’t help but wonder why Gilbert Arenas was still running the point for this team. He seemed much better suited for the 2, since all he did was bomb 3’s from 35 feet or constantly slash to the hole to draw contact. Rarely did he ever pass the ball, unless it was an outlet pass to a wide-open teammate or when he got triple-teamed in the paint. So after losing Larry Hughes to free agency, what does Washington do? That’s right, they brought in two veteran point guards, Antonio Daniels and Chucky Atkins, subsequently sparking the beginning of the Arenas at the 2 era. So here’s a guy who scored over 25 PPG last season manning the 1, and now gets to shift over to the 2 and fire away even more. He has instantly transformed into my sleeper pick for the scoring title. In addition, obtaining Caron Butler from the Lakers to fill Hughes’ void was a very solid move. Butler has underachieved throughout his career and perhaps an opportunity to shine in the Nation’s capital is all he needs. Plus, the pressure from incumbent 3’s, Jarvis Hayes and Jared Jeffries, should spark his game even further.

There are a ton of question marks surrounding this team. For instance: is Arenas taking between 25 and 30 shots a game a good thing? Remember that he only managed to shoot 43.1% from the floor a year ago. Can Daniels be trusted to run the point on a full-time basis after sharing the Seattle load with Luke Ridnour? Also, what’s thinner, Jeffries’ waistline or Washington’s frontline? Will Etan Thomas even be able to see the court through his mop of hair this season? And who will back up him and Brendan Haywood? Calvin Booth? Michael Ruffin? Peter John Frank Douglas Richard Hal Gregory Ramos? While I have the Wizards penciled in here for now, don’t be surprised if Chicago, New York, or Boston ultimately takes their place.

Prediction: 42-40

7. Philadelphia 76ers


Okay, so doctors are saying that Iverson’s knee problems shouldn’t be a problem this season. Also, team officials are rejoicing over the fact that Chris Webber managed to play 34 minutes the other night without experiencing any pain in his quad. So now that both players appear to be healthy, the lingering question remains of whether or not these two can co-exist. Honestly, I believe it is going to work this year. Iverson just turned 30 and has to realize that his better days might be behind him. This may in fact be his best chance at a title and in order to make that happen he’s going to sacrifice shots in order to get C-Webb more involved. I strongly believe that a Sixer offense flowing through Webber is one that can compete with anyone in the league. That however, is all up to Iverson.

“Earlier this month, Iverson was diagnosed with chondromalacia, a softening of the cartilage under the kneecap, but he and the Sixers are optimistic that it won't be a lingering problem.” I don’t know what’s funnier, imaging Iverson trying to say that word or the Sixers really believing it’s not going to be a problem this season. I’m actually dying thinking about AI coming home to his family and being like,” Yeah, dey said I got condom malice in my knee, but it aint nuttin to werr about.” If he misses any more than 15 games, count this team out for the postseason. There is no way they can rely on John Salmons or Olu Famutimi to pick up the slack.

Prediction: 44-38

6. Milwaukee Bucks


Okay, so I didn’t have them at 6 before Thursday’s Mason-for-Magloire trade went down. But I did have them penciled in the top-8—obviously since they didn’t appear on Monday. So how good can this team be after this transaction? Well honestly, is there anything this team doesn’t have? Solid, pass-first point guards (Ford and Williams), a legit outside scorer (Redd), an excellent defensive wing (Simmons), an all-around good 4 (Bogut), a bonifide center (Magloire), and a solid bench (Williams, Charlie Bell, Toni Kukoc, Joe Smith, Dan Gadzuric, and Jiri Welsch). Call me naïve, but with all of this talent that GM Terry Harris has brought in, am I alone in predicting this team as a legitimate sleeper come Playoff time? Guess we’ll find out…

The problem with putting so many new faces in the same place is that they are all looking to prove their worth rather than emphasize team play. Magloire really didn’t play much last year and will undoubtedly be looking to boost his stock with his contract up this summer. Simmons, after just one productive season, could prove to be a one-hit wonder. Ford (although not really new), faced spinal injuries over the last season and a half and who knows if he’ll be able to withstand an 82-game schedule. Bogut absolutely dominated the college circuit a season ago, but is he really ready to bang with the Shaqs, Yaos, and Ben Wallaces of the pro game? And finally there’s Bell, a player who hasn’t—just kidding, no one gives two shits about Charlie Bell.

Prediction: 44-38

5. Cleveland Cavaliers

C’mon, is there any ceiling whatsoever for LeBron James at this point? The guy could turn in a 50, 12, and 12 game and I honestly wouldn’t think twice. And now as if his talent wasn’t enough to carry the Cavs into the postseason, the team acquired Larry Hughes to help shoulder the load and perhaps conserve James for the stretch run. Also brought in were Damon Jones and Donyell Marshall, two savvy veterans, Playoff tested, and ready to help get this team ascend to the upper-echelon of the conference. In addition, the re-signing of Zydrunas Ilgauskas was a move that surprisingly flew under the free agency radar this summer, despite Big Z being a 17 and 9 center, a player of rare form in this league. Together these moves have seemingly solidified a starting lineup that a season ago fell short of helping LBJ reach the postseason. Not only should the first five more ferocious, but the bench: Eric Snow, Marshall, Anderson Varejao, and Luke Jackson appear to be capable of rivaling the league’s best. Anything short of the second round for this team should be considered a disappointment.

Whenever you have a talent like LBJ gracing your team uni, it’s always risky to add certain types of players for fear that the two won’t be able to co-exist. And while it appeared that Hughes and former teammate Gilbert Arenas remained on good terms a season ago, one wonders if Larry and LeBron will be so fortunate. Also, the battle for minutes at the 4 between Marshall and Gooden could become quite distracting. We all know that Gooden isn’t the friendliest player when things don’t go his way and so what happens if he struggles early on? And what if new Head Coach Mike Brown sends him to the pine for Donyell? How will that smooth over?

Prediction: 47-35

4. Detroit Pistons

Any time a team can reach the Finals in consecutive years there isn’t much room for anything but optimism. This is a Playoff tested ball club that has seemingly gotten even stronger this offseason. Detroit has done an excellent job of adding both veterans: Dale Davis and Maurice Evans, and youth: Jason Maxiell and Alex Acker. Also among the “new talent” should be Carlos Delfino and drum roll please…Darko Milicic. Delfino missed a hefty portion of 2005 with various nagging injuries, but this season hopes to solidify a backcourt that can become shaky at times (i.e. Arroyo and Hunter). Darko on the other hand, has absolutely shit the proverbial bed thus far in his two-year career. While LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade are all helping to carry their teams to new levels, Milicic is merely being counted on to carry Ben Wallace’s duffle bag on road trips. And while we hear how incredible his game is in practice, we have yet to see that translate to impressive minutes in real games. Oh shit, this is the optimistic section. Well, with Larry Brown now pacing the sidelines in MSG, perhaps this is Darko’s chance to shine under the watchful eye of Flip Saunders. The former Wolves’ coach has made a point of giving Milicic an extended look this preseason, hoping that it will lead to a boost in confidence, and in turn, production. If these two can provide a boost off the pine along with the new rookies and vets, I think we’ll see the Pistons in the Finals for a third straight year.

This team cannot reach the Finals three years in a row, can they? Both Wallaces have eclipsed 31 years of age, Rip Hamilton’s face is one blow away from crumbling, and most importantly, they have to venture on with a new Head Coach in Flip Saunders. Without Larry Brown’s elite expertise in the X and O department and savvy play calling in big games, this may be the season that another team represents the East in the Finals.

Prediction: 48-34

3. New Jersey Nets


No sense in breaking down the prospects of this team’s success again. Check out the article I wrote for the “30 Reasons” segment a few weeks ago.

If the Nets really thought that Jason Kidd’s knee was 100%, then they wouldn’t have brought in Jeff McInnis this summer. Like Paul has said several times, there is no player in the history of professional sports that has returned from a serious knee injury to maintain his former level of play. Any sign of that hinge breaking down and Lawrence Frank is going to make Kidd come out faster than Sheryl Swoopes. NJ needs Kidd, there’s no two ways about it. If he can’t play at an All-Star level, I have a hunch some other Atlantic team will be in this spot.

Prediction: 48-34

2. Miami Heat


Most experts believe that adding head cases like Jason Williams and Antoine Walker will ultimately lead to more distraction than success. But remember how Shaq physically broke down in the latter stages of last season? And can Wade, in just his third professional season, be counted on to progress on his implausible “leap”? With players like Toine, Williams, James Posey, Gary Payton, and a full season of Alonzo Mourning, Ron Jeremy and co. will finally have the depth to let Shaq play less than 35 minutes a game. Wade won’t have to be Superman on every possession, and youngsters like Udonis Haslem won’t have to dominate the paint for more than 25 minutes a night. Depth is good, depth is always good. Especially when you have a player like Shaq, still the most unstoppable player in the League, but only when 90-100% healthy. This season the Heat will certainly be cautious with the Diesel and make sure he’s rearing to go come May.

As a Celtics fan, no one knows exactly what Walker and Payton bring to the game at this stage of their careers better than I do. Walker’s shot selection is something we have discussed countless times on this site, and a topic I really don’t need to touch on it again. And while he remains one of the more intense competitors throughout the league, the Heat don’t need another leader in the locker room. Then there’s Payton, a guy 37 years of age, who still thinks he should be the starting point guard of Team USA. So with J-Will getting starters minutes and GP rotting away on the pine, how long will it be before GP becomes a distraction? Believe me, when things are going well, these two can be very influential in a team’s success. But as soon as losing streaks begin to mount, they’ll be the first two pointing fingers and deflecting the blame off of themselves. Are those guys you can really count on down the stretch?

Prediction: 58-34

1. Indiana Pacers

Remember after the Malice in the Palace went down almost a year ago? I recall most of our sentiments to be, “Damn, Indy is DONE!” But that wasn’t really the case now was it? Rick Carlisle did an incredible job of getting his players on the same page and determined to make the postseason. And after knocking off the Celtics in a Game 5 on the road, then giving the Pistons a run for their money in the first few games of the EC semifinals, Indy showed they are perhaps the most mentally tough team in the NBA. So let me ask you, with Ron Artest returning, Sarunas Jasikevicius backing up the oft-injured Jamaal Tinsley, and Danny Granger bolstering an already stacked bench, can anyone knock off the Pacers? And though it may sounds nuts, the x-factor for this squad come Playoff time may just be the play of Jonathan Bender off the bench. If they can count on the 6-11 forward to provide quality minutes in replace of (or right next to) Jermaine O’Neal, that frontline may be impossible to stop. (This was Paul’s theory, one that continues to grow on me)

Artest missing practically a full season of play could start to hinder him come midseason. Anytime you’re away from your profession for a year’s time, one has to expect to encounter a few bumps in the road. Besides that, the health of that frontline, preferably O’Neal, remains the single most important issue surrounding this club. If Carlisle can count on guys like Scott Pollard and David Harrison to provide some relief for JO, then they should be all set. But it seems every year that the big man starts to wear down during the closing months of the season. Indy hopes that trend will come to an end in ’06.

Prediction: 59-23

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Breakdown of Milwaukee/New Orleans Trade

Magloire should give the Bucks the beef upfront to bang with the Eastern Confernce big boys.

In a mildly surprising move, the Milwaukee Bucks will acquire Jamaal Magliore in exchange for Desmond Mason, its 2006 1st Round Pick, and cash considerations in a deal that is expected to officially go through later this evening. Let's take a look at the ramifications for each team:

-At first sight, this deal might be shocking to many since GM Larry Harris had already bolstered the Bucks' frontline this summer by drafting Andrew Bogut #1 in June and re-signing Dan Gadzuric. But apparently the Bucks are serious about making a push in the Eastern Conference this season, and in acquiring Magloire, they have the size and talent upfront to battle with Miami, Detroit, and Indiana. My only concern for Milwaukee is that their three new big men are all essentially true centers. Word out of Bucks camp is that Terry Stotts was planning on employing a full court game for the team, but by throwing a combo of Bogut, Magloire, and Gadzuric on the floor, they might be a bit slow. Nevertheless, they match up very well with the East's best, though they're still lacking the experience to make a major push in the East.

-Losing Mason shouldn't hurt too much since newly acquired Bobby Simmons is fully capable of handling the brunt of the minutes at the 3 as it is. And Stotts still has the impressive Charlie Bell, Toni Kukoc, and Jiri Welsch to choose from to spell Redd and Simmons at the 2 and 3. From a salary cap standpoint, both Mason and Magloire's deals last through 2006-07 and each made roughly the same amount of money-- which is why the deal was able to happen. Milwaukee is probably on its way to the Playoffs this year, meaning the draft pick they'll lose is more than likely to be in the 15-20 range.

Grade: B+

New Orleans/Oklahoma City:
-Magloire was unhappy in New Orleans and reportedly made it clear to the organization that he wanted to be traded as quickly as possible. The reason why we never heard a lot about it was because he went about it professionally, by talking to the organization rather than expressing his frustration to the press. I'm guessing the team had been placing calls to see what they could get for Magloire before the season started and this was the best offer they found. Mason should slide right into the starting lineup at the 3 and fill a glaring gap for the Hornets that was nearly held by Rasual Butler, Bostjan Nachbar, and Arvydas Macijauskas. While the price of a swingman in the NBA doesn't come close to that of a center, the Hornets were in a position where they apparently had no choice but to trade Magloire. Mason will be a great fit alongside Chris Paul and J.R. Smith where he should score upwards of 20 PPG and be a valuable asset to any fantasy team that wasn't expecting too much from him this season.

-The Hornets are obviously now hurting in the frontcourt. Look for P.J. Brown to shift over to the 5, where he played a lot last season, and Chris Andersen and David West to compete for minutes at the 4. Andersen is a vastly underrated player in this league and West is expected to show some improvement this season, but neither is going to be able to make up for the size and offense that Magloire brought to the table. New Orleans should to struggle to win 20 games, but at least they'll position themselves well to draft a big man (Andrea Bagnani, LaMarcus Aldridge?) in next year's draft. And it won't hurt that they'll have Milwaukee's pick in the middle of the first round either. This is a rebuilding team, and while they may have taken yet another step back with this trade, they at least got something valuable to them in return.

Grade: B

2006 NBA Video Games

I came across a bunch of pictures from the new 2006 NBA video games last night and thought I'd share them with you. Man, have we come a long way from Mario and Luigi or what? I think I can see LeBron's nose hairs in one of these pics. Check it out...

(Note: the majority of these are NBA 2K6. I'll note otherwise when appropriate)

Even the shoes look real...

Live's T-Mac over a violated Kobe

KG over Big Ben

Ronnie in the now old-school Pacers jersey

Live's LeBron throwing down a ferocious dunk

Live's version of B-Diddy

Franchise picking up his dribble for no reason, very realistic

VC throwing down on a black Jim Abbott

Gerald Green providing an early Slam Dunk Contest moment

They even threw a Bullet's throw-back on Arenas

Not sure what the hell Brand is doing here

I have yet to play any of these, but you can be sure Santa's fat ass will be bringing me at least one. I bought Live last year and really enjoyed it, so maybe I'll try 2K6 this year. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

2005-06 Western Conference Preview: Part 1

It could be another long season for Zach Randolph and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Going right along with how Anthony brought to you his Eastern Conference predictions, I present the lottery teams from the Western Conference in descending order. You'll notice right off the bat that I'm projecting a lot of parity in the West with all but two teams being legitimate contenders for the Playoffs. Of course there's still a certain team from Texas (guess who?) that stands head and shoulders above the rest, but you're going to have to wait until Friday to learn where they and the rest of the Playoff teams stand.

15. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets

The Hornets were a better team last year than their 18-64 record would suggest. After starting the season an abysmmal 2-29, New Orleans would go on to win a respectable 16 of their next 41 before dropping their final 9 ... 2003-04 All-Star Jamaal Magliore returns to the lineup after playing in only 23 games last season, and along with P.J. Brown and Chris Andersen, gives the Hornets some size and toughness in the frontcourt-heavy Western Conference ... Chris Paul and J.R. Smith form one of the league's most dynamic young backcourts that should only continue to improve as the season progresses and the duo develops experience playing alongside one another ... Remember our jokes last year about how a Tiffany concert could sell more seats at New Orleans Arena than a Hornets game? Look for there to be a tremendous amount of fan support at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City this year, the site of 35 Hornets home games. Oklahoma in an underrated hotbed for hoops and fans will flock in massive amounts to check out the team no matter how rough of a season they have. This should enable the Hornets to win more than 11 home games this season.

Based on talent alone, the Hornets are the worst team in the West. Though the frontline should be able to hold its own and the backcourt has a great deal of promise, the Hornets just won't be able to compete with the majority of Western teams on a nightly basis ... The organization made hardly a peep in the free agent market this summer as they instead decided to remain patient and take a wait-and-see approach, perhaps targetting next summer as the time to become more aggressive. Thus Byron Scott's delectable choices of Rasual Butler, Bostjan Nachbar, Arvydas Macijauskas, and George Lynch at small forward ... As good as Paul and Smith will be together for years and years to come, featuring a backcourt so young never makes things easy to start a season. Though the tandem could put up some impressive numbers together, they're going to get killed defensively by bigger, more experienced backcourts ... The four oldest guys on the team-- Magliore, Brown, Lynch, and Speedy Claxton, will all likely be sought after in trades throughout the season and there's really no reason for the Hornets to hesitate pulling the trigger on any deal. Magliore is the most likely candidate to pack his bags, and though his value could reel in some nice pieces, it's unlikely new GM Jeff Bower accepts anything besides young prospects and draft picks, or salary cap room.

Prediction: 21-61

14. Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has an outstanding potential-filled base of young talent at each position-- Sebastian Telfair and Jarrett Jack at the point; Martell Webster and Sergei Monia at the 2; Darius Miles and Travis Outlaw at the 3; Zach Randolph and Viktor Khryapa at power forward; and Joel Przybilla in the middle. Telfair and Webster are both expected to start in the backcourt, and should incur as much excitment in the league as the duo of Paul and Smith playing for the Hornets. The starting frontcourt in Miles, Randolph, and Przybilla has the talent and size to compete with even the better frontlines in the West ... Nate McMillan comes to Portland with the reputation of being a defensive-minded, no-questions-asked coach, which is exactly what this franchise needs. If McMillan can teach the kids how to play some defense and keep the questionable personalities in order, this Blazers team might be a lot closer to competing that most anticipate ... Randolph will be the Blazers' go-to-guy from the very start, a facet the team sorely missed last season as he played in only 46 games ... Although they're not exactly seasoned veterans, you have to like the additions of Jarrett Jack, Steve Blake, and Juan Dixon in the backcourt to replace Damon Stoudamire, Nick Van Exel, and Derek Anderson. These are 3 guys that not only have their heads on their shoulders, but they play the game the right way. For a team trying desperately to revamp its entire complexion, they did a good job of picking the right guys.

As much potential as the Blazers bring to the table, they're simply not ready to compete in a very deep Western Conference. Nate McMillan will eventually steer this team in the right direction, but I'd be shocked if he can get this group of kids to play the defense it's going to take to win 30 games ... Zach Randolph and Darius Miles-- I don't care who their coach is, these two clowns are still both major question marks. McMillan won't tolerate either player's attitude, not to mention their propensity to disappear on the defensive end constantly ... The make-up of this roster is a far cry from what McMillan succeeded so admirably with in Seattle last year. The Blazers are almost entirely devoid of shooters, they don't have anyone that has a clue how to pass aside from the point guards, and there's nobody on the roster that has ever been a "role player" for the sake of the team. How in the hell is McMillan going to teach this team how to play "team" basketball? It's going to be a long season in Portland, but at the very least, this young team should show some flashes of promise.

Prediction: 23-59

13. Utah Jazz

Remember when Ant picked them to finish 3rd in the West last season, and I had them 4th? Me neither. I've totally erased that from my memory. Nevertheless, we did and the Jazz went on to crash headfirst into a brick wall after storming out of the gate. Once Andrei Kirilenko went down, the Jazz's lack of quickness and athleticism were exposed and the team's season essentially went down the gutter. AK47 looked sensational last month at the Euro Games (17.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 3.3 SPG, 2.8 BPG) and leading scorer Carlos Boozer, who was lost for the season last February, also returns and is expected to be healthy. You want reason to be optimistic about the Jazz? Look no further than a health Andrei Kirilenko and Carlos Boozer ... Critics lauded GM Kevin O'Connor for his work last summer in signing Boozer and Mehmet Okur and drafting two potential steals in Kirk Snyder and Kris Humphries, but the results didn't exactly show off the work O'Connor had done. Look for that to change this season, as O'Connor has once again flexed his managerial skills during the summer. Trading up to draft Deron Williams, a heady, defensive-minded point guard who should fit right in with Jerry Sloan's system, was a move that got things off to a terrific start this off-season. O'Connor also went on to draft Robert Whaley and high school kid C.J. Miles, both of whom performed exceptionally during Summer League ball and are expected to make the Utah's opening night roster. O'Connor also sneakily acquired Greg Ostertag in a trade, a deal that gives the team a big shot blocker and a little more personality and toughness. And finally, O'Connor plucked out two diamonds in the rough to shore out the roster in August-- the underrated Devin Brown from San Antonio, and back up point guard Milt Palacio from Toronto. Both have reputations of being team-first players willing to work hard on both ends of the floor. Jerry Sloan has to be pleased with the make-up of the Jazz heading into the season.

While I love the acquisitions of Williams, Brown, and Palacio to add some quickness to the backcourt, you have to wonder whether Jerry Sloan is prepared to adapt his system to an increasingly fast-paced brand of Western Conference basketball. Sloan prefers a physical half court game with a strong emphasis on defense, but it's difficult to dictate the pace when your personnel is still a notch below most Western teams, and especially when you're on the road (hence only 8 road wins last season). I don't expect the Jazz to get completely run off the floor as much as they did last year (31 of their 56 losses were by double digits), but I still think they're going to have problems against quicker, more athletic teams ... Kirilenko is a fascinating talent worthy of all the appraisal he takes in, but it's time he take that next step up to go-to guy. The Jazz are still without a closer that can win them ball games in the 4th, and AK47 appears to be the top candidate to fill that role. He has to make the leap if the Jazz are going to make the Playoffs ... If either Kirilenko or Boozer again suffers a major injury, the Jazz are going to be in serious trouble. Kirilenko makes up for the defensive limitations of Boozer and Okur-- the frontcourt got absolutely tormented last year after he blew out his knee. And on the opposite end, the team relies heavily on Boozer to pose as a post threat and crash the offensive boards.

Prediction: 37-45

12. Los Angeles Clippers

Clippers fans have more reason to be optimistic heading into the season than they have in a long time. Despite losing Bobby Simmons, Marko Jaric, and Mikki Moore this summer, the prospects look awfully high for a team that hasn't finished with a record of .500 since 1993. Sam Cassell, Cuttino Mobley, and Walter McCarty are the trio brought in to replaced the departees, and they will give the Clippers more offense and more experience ... Cassell, though he was a problem last season in Minnesota, could be exactly what this team needs. He's reached the Conference Finals with three different franchises and has earned a reputation as a mentally tough point guard that loves to have the ball down the stretch. For a team that lost 23 games by 5 points including 6 overtime losses, expect Mike Dunleavy to be thrilled to have a clutch guy like Cassell to turn to ... Another reason the Clips struggled so much in the 4th quarter of games last season was their lack of outside shooting. In comes Cuttino Mobley, a guy who's never taken a shot he didn't like. Mobley can be a bit streaky from outside, but like Cassell, he loves to take the big shot ... Elton Brand is a 20 and 10 rock for this team and should continue to be, and it's probably safe to assume Corey Maggette will once again increase his averages across the board as he has every year since entering the league. The wildcards for the Clippers are the young man running the point, Shaun Livingston, and the goofy-looking guy in the middle, Chris Kaman. If these two improve as much this season as many anticipate, you can go ahead and write the Clippers into the Playoffs. It's that simple.

Health and toughness were major concerns with Livingston and Kaman last season. If these two face similar problems this season, you can go ahead and write the Clippers into the lottery. It's that simple. Livingston's back injury which will sideline him the first four weeks of the season isn't exactly a warming sign that he's going to be able to hold up until the spring ... Cassell and Mobley could very well be terrific additions to this ballclub, but between these two and Corey Maggette-- who's going to pass up a shot? Is Elton Brand ever going to see the ball? This is why Shaun Livingston is integral to the Clippers' success-- rather than everyone fighting for the ball, they'll have a dynamic passer ensuring that everyone gets their looks ... Once again the Clippers enter the season with a very thin bench. Donald Sterling always refuses to open his wallet when it comes to rounding out the roster, and so the Clippers lack sufficient depth. Perhaps they can pick out another D-League gem a la Bobby Simmons and Mikki Moore, otherwise the likes of Yuta Tabuse, Quinton Ross, and 18 year old Yaroslav Korolev could be forced into major minutes at some point during the season. Yikes.

Prediction: 38-44

11. Los Angeles Lakers

After Rudy T stepped down last season, the Lakers completely lost their identity and eventually quit playing for Frank Hamblen once things took a turn for the worse, thus you have to love the though of Phil Jackson back on the bench. No coach has ever defined the notion of "players coach" like Phil and so you can expect the Lakers to be a more focused and disciplined team throughout the season ... I know I've mentioned it before, but people tend to forget that the Lakers were right in the thick of the Playoff race before Kobe injured his ankle and had to sit out 15 games. As key as Lamar Odom is to the success of the Lakers, this is Kobe's team and they'll live and die with their superstar. If I'm a Lakers fan (which I most definitely am not), I'd feel pretty comfortable knowing Kobe Bryant is coming off a down year and has Phil Jackson back on the sidelines. Look for Kobe to have a monster season ... Kwame Brown is a key addition if only because he can slide into the power forward slot and allow Lamar Odom to play point forward and focus less on cleaning up the glass and defending opposing 4s, and more on running the triangle and getting the offense in sync. However, Brown could be a major addition to the Lakers if he can start living up to his potential ... Although it's only preseason, Smush Parker has been a revelation for the Lakers thus far. Phil Jackson was enamored with his size and defensive abilities enough to declare him the team's starting point guard way before anyone anticipated a decision. Parker is going to have to be solid for the Lakers to run an effective triangle.

The Lakers frontcourt got killed last year and I don't expect that to change this season-- even with the addition of Kwame Brown. Though they have a great deal of size between Odom, Brown, and Chris Mihm, they still lack the discipline and awareness to slow down a tougher, more polished opposing frontline ... Did I mention Smush Parker is starting at point guard? I don't care how well he's played and that the triangle offense doesn't demand a stud point guard, we're still talking about Smush Parker. If he was so impressive, why wasn't he in the league in the first place? ... Although there's some talent on the Lakers bench, they don't exactly address the team's starting lineup issues. Stanislav Medvedenko, Brian Cook, Jumaine Jones, and Andrew Bynum aren't going to enter the game and do some work on the boards or anchor a strong defensive push. Sasha Vujacic and Aaron McKie aren't guys that can come in to play tempramental basketball and protect the ball. And while Devean George and Luke Walton should be effective within the triangle, they basically play the same position ... The Lakers open the season with a brutal schedule that could have them sitting in last place by the time December rolls around. 10 of their 13 games in November are against teams that were .500 or better last season.

Prediction: 38-44

10. Memphis Grizzlies

In 14+ seasons as a head coach, Mike Fratello has failed to register 40 wins just twice-- and we're talking about a guy that had only coached the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers before taking over in Memphis last season. The Czar is underappreciated amongst the general public, but those more familiar with him recognize his ability to get the very most out of his talent, and as an exceptional teacher of the game. Those of you expecting Memphis to take a nosedive this season better look elsewhere-- Fratello simply won't allow that to happen ... The Grizz lost five rotational players from last season's Playoff team-- Jason Williams, James Posey, Stromile Swift, Earl Watson, and Bonzi Wells, replacing them with 3 vets in Damon Stoudamire, Eddie Jones and Bobby Jackson, each of whom has made a trip to the Conference Finals. Of all the players on last year's squad, only Williams and Wells had ever advanced beyond the 1st Round of the Playoffs-- you don't want these jerk-offs being your "experienced" players which is why Jerry West placed an emphasis on acquiring headstrong vets like Stoudamire, Jones, and Jackson. You have to like these pick-ups considering Memphis hasn't won a Playoff game the last 2 years ... Pau Gasol, Lorenzen Wright, and Mike Miller, three projected starters, are all in make-or-break seasons. Gasol has been under-fire for failing to push his game to the next level. He should greatly benefit from having more supportive teammates around him as well as being the direct focus of the offense. Miller will likely have more room on the perimeter now that defenses can focus entirely on him with Stoudamire, Jackson, and Jones to worry about. And Lo Wright enters a vital contract season that could earn him a huge contract if he posts solid numbers (13 and 9 is within reason). As we witnessed in Seattle last year, players often exceed expectations when there's more to play for than just Ws.

From a talent standpoint, the Grizzlies are not only a step below last year's team, but they're also thinner than most of the teams projected above them. The 3 acquisitions still have some juice left, but these are not the same players they were 3-5 years ago ... The Grizzlies finished dead last in rebounding in 2004-05 and got hammered on the boards during to a small Phoenix team in the Playoffs, yet Jerry West did not address this issue during the offseason. I hope he's not expecting Jake Tsakalidis to step it up big this season ... The Grizz also welcome in draftees Hakim Warrick and Lawrence Roberts, both of whom played exceptionally at the Pro Summer League. So despite losing five guys, Jerry West also brought in five. How is Fratello going to spread out the minutes? Is he going to be able to find run for the team's best athletes, Dahntay Jones and Warrick? ... Fratello is also going to have problems replicating the team's impressive team defense from a year ago. He lost two of his best on-the-ball defenders in Watson and Posey and his top shot blocker in Swift. Damon Stoudamire has always been a liability on the defensive end and Eddie Jones is far from the shut-down defender he once was. The Czar better be prepared to open up the offense more than he's used to.

Prediction: 39-43

9. Seattle SuperSonics

Although it doesn't quite feel like it, the Sonics are bringing back roughly the same team that won the Northwest Division and threatened the Spurs in the Conference Semifinals.
The losses of Antonio Daniels, Jerome James, and Nate McMillan might sting, but only slightly if Luke Ridnour can step up his game and Mikki Moore can fill the void in the middle. Bob Weiss was an assistant under McMillan on last year's team, so it's safe to expect the Sonics to come out with a similar look as last season ... Ray Allen is in the prime of his career and Rashard Lewis appears to be on the verge of entering his. Believe it or not, but there aren't many teams in the NBA that can say their top two players are playing the best basketball of their lives ... Nick Collison really stepped up his game as the season progressed and was a revelation for the team during the Playoffs. He should eventually force Weiss to play him close to 30 minutes a night and become a major factor for the Sonics.

I truly believe the Sonics can overcome the losses of Daniels and James without a sweat, but I'm not as sure about the loss of Nate McMillan. While Bob Weiss won't change much as far as how the team plays, I can't imagine that the team won't miss Nate McMillan, the man. Very rarely in the NBA does a coach serve as the heart and soul of a team-- McMillan was the heart and soul of the entire organization. Bob Weiss has some humongous shoes to fill ... The Sonics somehow put aside everyone's personal contract situations to enjoy a successful season last year. They'll face a similar scenario with Vladimir Radmanovic, Reggie Evans, and Ron "Flip" Murrary all playing on one-year tenders. Is Weiss going to be as effective as McMillan in convincing these guys to play for the sake of the team rather than to pad their stats? If they get off to a rough start, you can forget about it ... Vitaly Potapenko is being penciled in as the team's projected starter to begin the season and while that's a problem in and of itself, the big fella is also dealing with hamstring problems that have kept him out of every preseason game. His backup, the newly acquired Mikki Moore, has also missed every game with an injured knee. Either Weiss goes small-ball and starts Nick Collison or Danny Fortson, or we might be looking at a starting lineup featuring either Robert Swift (umm) or Johan Petro (uh-oh) ...

Prediction: 42-40