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


At 2:00 AM, Anonymous L_Euphoria said...

With J-Will out of the roster, the Grizzlies might be opting to play conventional basketball, not streetball, like what did the Kings did years before.

But this might indicate that Wade is given a more offensive role, as he might play as a shooting guard. And O'Neal might enjoy the run-and-play style of J-Will.

At 5:08 PM, Blogger Ryan Kinkade said...

T-Wolves in the playoffs I see!! Well done!! Many of those ESPN "experts" were saying as low as 13, with most saying 11th or 12th! What the crap is that... they don't know KG if they think the Wolves will finish 13th in the West.

At 10:08 AM, Blogger larry bird said...

Looks like your Jazz prediction might be way off again this year. However with such a strong western conference I see your reasons for putting them so low.


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