We're back for part two of the 2010-2011 NBA preview. Last week we took a brief look at where the teams of the Eastern Conference stand. This week it's the Western Conference.
If the Eastern is the New Era of the NBA, then consider the Western Conference the classic old guard. Whereas the East has gone the way of super-trios, massive free agent spending, and hybrid lineups, the West is still about balance, depth, and prototypical players at every position. Seems to work pretty well for the back-to-back champs.
The East is rising, but the balance of power still heavily favors the West. Seemingly every team this side of the Mississippi improved in some way. And the Lakers? You can bet they're not scared of Miami
Well, the DUST chip didn't exactly get the Mavericks a game changer. Tyson Chandler is an upgrade from Erick Dampier, make no mistake, but does he change the fortunes of a team that bowed out meekly to the (formerly) geriatric Spurs in the playoffs? Not really.
Where the Mavs still have a problem is on the wings. Shawn Marion is past the point in his career of being a top tier athlete and defender, and his offensive production has drastically dropped off since leaving Phoenix. Caron Butler is as productive as ever, but out of position thanks to Marion and without any reliable backup. The Mavs do have an overload of small guards....perhaps they should consider starting Barea or Rodrigue Beaubois and bringing Marion off the bench.
Everything depends on the health of Yao Ming. And yet, less depends on it than before. Yao is back to full basketball activities, but also doubting his long term future, and his season-long health is always up in the air. That's why the Rockets have invested some serious cash in retaining Luis Scola and bringing in Adelman-vet Brad Miller. This should keep Yao's minutes down and hopefully keep him healthy for the playoffs. Or cover the team if he doesn't make it.
Otherwise, the Rockets have a fantastic team assembled. The trade for Kevin Martin last year gave them a high-scoring shooter who compliments point guard Aaron Brooks well. They kept sparkplug backup Kyle Lowry, drafted the versatile Patrick Patterson, and someday both Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger will both break out and prove themselves as great pro players. The Rockets have a strong team for both the present and future.
It's business as usual in Memphis for the Grizzlies. First they resign Rudy Gay to a massively overpriced contract, then proceed to try and stiff Xavier Henry on his rookie one. In all fairness, Gay has the talent to be worth that money...but will he ever find the drive to get there? I'd say there's about a 0.00001% of that happening with the Grizzlies.
The team also needs to figure out what to do with Hasheem Thabeet, who has the potential to be a steel curtain on defense, as well as find a backup point guard since the "OJ Mayo for point guard" campaign appears over.
Mostly what I notice is that the Grizzlies as an organization don't have the right staff to maximize their players' talents. Conley, Mayo, Gay and Thabeet all have the potential to be much, much better than they are, but don't seem to get any direction or support in getting there.
I hereby dub the bugs "most aimless team in the NBA". They seem to be going in 20 directions at once, and yet no direction at all. Chris Paul has openly expressed (some say demanded...) his desire to play elsewhere, which is the latest and greatest trip up for a franchise that has been stumbling for two years now. Demolished by the Nuggets in the 2008 playoffs, then a slew of trades that sent away players that formed the Hornets' identity...Tyson Chandler, Rasual Butler, Mo Peterson. Throw in the firing of head coach Bryon Scott, followed by the "firing" of interim coach and general manager Jeff Bower after he proved that Scott wasn't the problem, and you get to the present: a team that dangerously resembles the Phoenix Suns, cutting costs at every corner and stranding their all star point guard without any help as a result.
At this point, trading Paul might be the best thing the Hornets can do. They have a group of young talent in Collison, Thronton and Wright that they can move forward with, and getting Paul, West and the aging Peja Stojakovic off the books would wipe the slate clean for team and get them out from any expectations and Paul's unhappiness.
It would appear that rumors of San Antonio's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Just when it seemed like age had finally, really caught up with the Spurs, they blast apart the Mavericks in the playoffs and follow it up by restocking over the summer.
The big addition, of course, is Tiago Splitter, who has been basically indisputably the best big man in Europe for two years running now. I'm not very conspiracy theory about the contract...my guess is the Spurs sold him on the same thing they sold Richard Jefferson on: get a long term deal in place now before the CBA burns everything to hell.
What Splitter brings the team is exactly what they needed...a young, legitimately 7 foot center who can take pressure off of Tim Duncan. With Splitter, the coach Pops can limit Duncan's minutes to the under-30 per game he's wanted to for a couple of years now without fearing the team falling apart. Duncan can now play the David Robinson role Robinson played when Duncan first entered the league. Pops can also use DeJuan Blair much more effectively, as Blair's height will be less of a liability and his blue collar game can be more focused.
The Spurs also resigned Jefferson to a long term deal, and he should show big improvements now with a full season of work behind him in San Antonio. He adds needed athleticism and defense to their wing rotation. The Spurs will be thrilled if James Anderson can prove capable of starting at shooting guard, which would send Manu Ginobili back to the sixth man role he's most accustomed to. And with Anderson and George Hill, the Spurs are much less vulnerable to injury from Ginobili or Tony Parker as well. San Antonio was still rolling last year, and figure to be even better now.
On paper, the Nuggets have a powerful team, covered at all positions and with great support coming in off the bench. The team is balanced and athletic, with a good system and one of the best scorers in the league.
But as we all saw in the playoff loss to the Jazz, the team cannot survive without the right kind of coach. Will George Karl return? He says he will, but cancer is nothing if not unpredictable. Without him, the Nuggets are a rather aimless group, unable to stick to their system or generate cohesiveness inside the locker room.
Carmelo Anthony has yet to sign an extension....a strong signal he's not terribly happy and heavily weighing the possibility of free agency next summer.
I know I know, I have Love coming off the bench. Some of you have him starting, and that's fine, I won't argue it. My reason for penciling him in as a sixth man are because it seems like that's the role Rambis tried to groom him for last season, Rambis' comments after the year ended seemed more "it shouldn't matter to you if you start or not", and because I don't think the team would have invested so many expensive resources into acquiring Johnson and Webster without intending for them to start.
The team also has a lot more quality depth than listed, with Wayne Ellington, Anthony Tolliver, and hopefully Sebastian Telfair as proven veterans also on the bench, and rookies Lazar Hayward and Nikola Pekovic hoping to prove themselves too.
What the Wolves have this year is a roster that fits what Rambis and Kahn are trying to do. The roster is stocked with athletes who can score and have much more defensive potential that last year's squad. There's a much more ideal balance to the team, and excitement as well. Johnson and Milicic are both likely to be a lot better than expected, and whether Love starts or not, he's now in a very prominent role and will play the minutes fans have been wanting.
This is the hottest young team in the league, with great depth and balance and a player who could be the very best in the world in a couple of years. The Thunder came out of nowhere last season, then used the postseason to prove they were legit. Of all the teams the Lakers are looking over their shoulder at, the Thunder just might be the team that worries them the most.
Like the Wolves, the Thunder have a lot more quality depth than is being listed. Their bench also includes Mo Peterson, Daequan Cook, Eric Maynor, and rookie Cole Aldrich. Yes, Aldrich and/or Serge Ibaka are likely going to start for this team sometime in the future. But for now, we're talking about a 50 win team that pushed the world champions to the limit in the playoffs. Don't fix what ain't broken.
The Laker series, despite the loss, will make this team extremely dangerous this coming season. In it, they proved to themselves they aren't solely reliant on Kevin Durant. Meaning this isn't the LeBron James Cavaliers. The supporting cast here has always had what it takes to go toe-to-toe with anyone in their own right, and now they know it.
Despite all the chaos surrounding this team last season, they were a tough out and should get into contender status this year. Greg Oden's health is in serious doubt, the front office has been remade, and several key reserves were lost, but this team has found more than capable replacements for everyone on and off the court.
Andre Miller and Brandon Roy were finally figuring out how to play alongside each other when Roy went down with injury. Expect the two to fully learn to compliment each other this season. Marcus Camby came in and played tremendous basketball at the end of last season, giving the team the kind of defense and rebounding Oden was struggling to, as well as veteran leadership Oden couldn't. The presence of two veterans of Miller and Camby's caliber really boosts this team.
Beyond that, the team also has promising swingman Nic Batum, and signed a solid backup for him and Roy in Wes Matthews. Dante Cunningham provided some solid play last season filling in for all the injured players, and the team acquired a peerless shooter in Luke Babbit in the draft.
Finally, the team hired ex-Sonic/Thunder executive Richard Cho as their new General Manager. Cho has more of a background in the money and legal side of basketball than the talent side (he was essentially Sam Presti's version of Tom Penn), but he's a bright guy with a fantastic work ethic. The team has been having President Larry Miller handle a lot of the talent evaluations lately anyway, so it appears the Blazers will keep on rolling, and with a lot fewer ego clashes.
Although Canis Hoopus holds a somewhat....ehem....mixed opinion of Al Jefferson, I think everyone can respect what the Jazz did this offseason. Jefferson is a perfect replacement for Carlos Boozer, and his inefficiencies should go a long way towards being solved in Jerry Sloan's flex system. Jefferson is a beast in the low post, and for the first real time in his career, opposing teams can't safely load their defenses against him.
The Jazz also picked up veteran shooting guard Raja Bell, a perfect fit for the roster and system. Bell is a solid shooter and a tough defender who makes losing Wes Matthews an afterthought.
I'd expect the Jazz to test if Gordon Hayward can start at the small forward spot. That would give the Jazz more versatility off the bench, and CJ Miles is better suited to play both the 2 and 3. I also wouldn't be surprised if Sundiata Gaines takes over the backup point guard role. With Boozer's impending departure, it appeared the Jazz's small window of contendership was closed. Credit the team for throwing it back wide open.
The Warriors have done something unexpected this summer and assembled something that looks kind of like a real NBA lineup. Guard-guard-forward-forward-center? What happened to Guard-guard-guard-guard-forward? It's like hell froze over or something....
The Warriors certainly lost a lot of firepower this offseason. No more spaghetti Maggette. No more Kalenna Azubuike. No more Magic Randolph. No more Anthony Morrow. But what they lose in scoring punch, they'll make up for with new-found balance and size. David Lee is a perfect player for the system here, and capable enough that Don Nelson won't mind playing an actual power forward at power forward. Dorell Wright isn't anywhere near the scoring force that Maggette is, but he's athletic and rangy and a strong defender.
The team could still very much stand to unload Monta Ellis. Steph Curry does just about everything he does and more (and better), and as long as the team is on this "prototypical" kick, might as well get a shooting guard with shooting guard size....
A lot of that lineup is guesswork. I really don't know what the plan in for LAC beyond Baron Davis and Blake Griffin. There are a lot of players.....Rasual Butler, DeAndre Jordan, Al-Farouq Aminu...who could be higher in the rotation than Smith or Foye or even Gomes.
Speaking of which, what's with the ex-Timberwolf obsession? The Foye/Gomes/Smith era(s) didn't exactly get us a lot of wins...
Obviously the Clippers are pinning a lot of hope on Blake Griffin. The guy is...physically and talent...ed....ly....?....incredible. Amare Stoudemire with the post game of Carlos Boozer and the rebounding of DeJuan Blair. If he's healthy, the Clippers could be a real force out west. Assuming, of course, they don't fall apart for no reason like they usually do....
I had to laugh at John Hollinger when he put the Lakers in his "offseason losers" category. Really? Not only are these is the two-time NBA champs, but they managed to solve their two biggest weaknesses over the summer on a very limited budget.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak isn't exactly Kevin Pritchard when it comes to GM genius, but he's got three things going for him that add up to one fantastic situation: his team constantly wins, plays in a city that everyone loves, and he's a master of the mid-level exception. Last year he got Ron Artest. This year, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes.
Blake gives the Lakers something they haven't had in years...a reliable backup point guard. Who might, in fact, be starting by the end of the season. Either way, he's a better fit and a more pure point guard than Shannon Brown, and won't go off course (read: off playbook) like Jordan Farmar. Barnes gives the team a reliable backup wing player. The team won't have to cross their fingers on Luke Walton's health or Sasha Vujacic's absurdity anymore. Although this is Vujacic's contract year....he might be moderately useful...
In any case, a team at the very top of the NBA that got better during the summer can't at all be considered "losers".
It's a shame the Suns never saw fit to accrue talent like this when Amare Stoudemire was still around. If they had, they might have actually won a couple of rings here and there.
At least credit the Suns for not insulting Steve Nash and Grant Hill by completely tearing the team apart over the summer. Phoenix made some great trades and signings, picking up talent and depth they've lacked since 2005.
I do project Hedo to start at the 4. I don't know if he actually will, but given the roster and the system, it makes the most sense. The Suns will need to play position-by-committee to make up for Stoudemire's absence....a tactic that usually doesn't work well....but they at least have talent for the position. One could say that rebounding will be a problem, but keep in mind that Stoudemire didn't exactly clean the glass himself, and the Suns still finished 6th overall in rebounds last year. If nothing else, basketball in the Valley will be exciting again this year.
I have been told by literally every single Kings fan I've spoken with that DeMarcus Cousins will not be a starter to open the season. Some believe he will be by the end, but why rush it? Dalembert and Landry are proven veterans who have the big man bases covered, and Jason Thompson is solid in his own right as well.
What the Kings do need is guards. Udrih and Evans are literally the only guards on the entire roster right now. The Kings will probably spend time playing Garcia and Donte Green as shooting guards just to see if it can work at all, but this team most definitely needs more depth in the backcourt.
But with the size and strength of their frontcourt, this team is going to be a tough out. They need to develop a real system and balance the floor better, but there's a mass of talent on the roster that will translate into a respectable number of wins.