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


At 5:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey guys... im pretty bored so im going to actually write in for once...Paul i like your western conference preview, but i think you are selling seattle a little short.. This was a team that had the best record in the NBA for a good part of the season last year and lets think about whats happened to them.. they lost Antonio Daniels and Jerome James... personally I think jerome james sucks and the daniels loss isnt all that big when you realize that they still have flip murray and will just play luke ridnour more minutes... in addition, they picked up mikki moore who was a decent backup in LA last year and petro doesnt look all that bad.. not to forget that they still have collison, who i personally think will be a productive nba player, and swift. Im not sure about swift but seeing where they picked him in the draft he cant be all that bad... they lost mcmillan which i think was their biggest downfall, but Bob Weiss isnt all that bad of a replacement.. the bottom line is that they still have Ray Allen and Rash, two stars that can absolutely light it up. THey have one of the best passing point guards in the NBA, and hopefully will have a healthy Vladmir Radmamanaonrorvic, which they did not last year. So the question is.. how much worse off is this team than last year?? im saying not that much, and if you remember correctly, they gave the spurs a run for their money in the playoffs... watch for the sonics to make it to the playoffs over the Wolves, which is just terrible because KG and Minnesota fans deserve better


At 5:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

sorry... i havent checked your site in a few days and I just realized that this was part TWO of the preview and that you had already outlined Seattle.. but I still think they will switch spots with Minny


At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

I thought you were so down on Phoenix. What happened?

When are you guys going to make your playoff predictions? We all know the regular season doesn't even really matter that much. I'm guessing Paul had San Antonio and Indiana, and Ant has San Antonio and Boston. Ha!

At 12:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff. I agree with most of your predictions, both of you. I think Ant had Milwaukee a little too high, even with the acquisition of Magloire. They're still a young and inexperienced team. I also think Jersey deserved some more wins. They have the talent to win 50 no doubt. As for the West, I agree with the dude in that Seattle could definitely sneak into the playoffs. I don't think Minnesota gets left out though, I think it's the Warriors. I got them 11th or 12th actually. Good shit though.

At 3:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you guys still picking teams for over/under regular season wins? I really want to do it. Just not sure who...

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Anthony Peretore said...

Hey man, we posted our predictions for over/unders a few weeks ago. Check the archives.

At 4:40 AM, Blogger michael said...

thought you guys might enjoy this:

bruce lee bowen movie poster

i would have done it on the board, but no one checks it, man

At 12:03 PM, Blogger YaoButtaMing said...

How do you have the kings over the rockets? The rocket's bench is solid this year and i'm not sure the Kings' chemistry is going to give them a 52+ win season.
just my opinion :)

At 1:00 PM, Blogger Paul Benedict said...

Yaobutta-- I don't think the Kings are better than the Rockets. I think Houston is the 2nd best team in the West, but because they're in the same division as San Antonio, they're likely to end up with the 4 seed. Look at the records-- I was predicting the seeding, not ranking the teams based on who's best.


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