NBA Preview 2007-08: Western Conference

The projected records are based on projected minutes and production from projected starters for each team. Those numbers are then calculated into points and a record. Some of these will be wildly wrong. Some I don’t even agree with, but I’m putting them out there and we’ll see what happens. In general this system tends to overrate the veteran teams and underrate the younger teams. For that reason if your team falls into one of those categories, take this all with a grain of salt.After the records, I’ll write a little blurb defending or apologizing for the projected record and looking at different angles on each team. The West looks like it will remain fairly static for at least another year, though I feel the top 3 teams will all slide back toward the pack a little bit. Unlike the East, which has several talented, young teams in need of either a final piece or some direction and a weak elite group of teams, the top of the West is still pretty well defined and there don’t appear to be more than one or two teams capable of crashing that group.

15. Minnesota 22-60: The Timberwolves do have some of the characteristics of a surprise team. A new coach working with a youthful, remade roster is always somewhat of an unknown. But in this case I don’t see the T’wolves pulling off a surprise the way Chicago and Toronto have in recent seasons. Randy Wittman didn’t make a huge mark during a 2-year stint in Cleveland and I doubt a team that boasts Antoine Walker, Michael Doleac, Al Jefferson and Juwan Howard as their inside rotation will play the type of defense necessary for such a surprise. More likely this team will run through some young players and decide where and if they’ll fit for the post-Garnett run. There are some intriguing young players here too, but the only one who has proven anything is Jefferson. The rest of the team is shaky and has the potential to be historically bad if none of them can play. There’s no proven PG on the roster and the rest of the backcourt is very inexperienced. The veterans who are still around compose some of the most unproductive, overrated players in the league and the team would probably be best served by just letting them walk. Also still around is GM Kevin McHale who made some seriously bad moves in the final years of the Garnett era and needs to get back his A-game if this team is ever going to get back to the playoffs.

15. Portland 24-58: There seems to be good, happy feelings surrounding this team, but right now they’re just a group of young players that have proven very little. Some are promising, but only Roy and Jack are proven commodities. Aldridge has some promise and one of the many SFs might emerge as something more than a reserve. But right now the Blazers’ season looks like one where the team will be auditioning players for roles in Greg Oden’s supporting cast, and that sounds like a rebuilding year. Also hurting Portland is they gave away their most productive player from last season, Randolph, for very little in return. It was probably a good move in the long run to rid the team of him and his baggage as the new era begins, but there will be an immediate negative impact. In the long run things look pretty good, though it’s still very early for this bunch. Oden will arrive a year late, but should become the dominant player they expected when they drafted him. He won’t be another Sam Bowie, so Blazer fans should be patient and not panic while Kevin Durant wins the rookie-of-the-year award. With a roster that’s thick with good, young talent, a contender will eventually emerge here. But it won’t happen until ’09 or ’10. I do think they’ll finish better than the 24 wins I have them down for, but they won’t get much past 30, if at all.

13. Sacramento 26-56: A team that’s on the way down. The still employ a decent perimeter trio in Bibby, Artest and Martin, but their inside game is one of the weakest in the league. Their three main players, Miller, Abdur-Rahim and Thomas all have dropped off significantly in production and all are at an age where it’s likely permanent. Draftee Spencer Hawes will be little if any help this season, as he’s injured going in and was a long-term project anyways. With Bibby out for a couple of months and Artest suspended for the first 7 games, the start of the season could be downright ugly. Teams with only mediocre talent to begin with rarely recover from an ugly start. I could see this becoming a fire sale in January. The new coach, Reggie Theus is an odd hire. He has more experience as an actor than a coach. His coaching career consists of two very successful seasons coaching mid-major New Mexico State and a couple of years as an assistant at Louisville to his credit. He’s coming into a terrible situation here, one that probably needs to be torn down and rebuilt. But one never knows with coaches. And I generally prefer a coach who’s an unknown quantity to a known mediocrity.

12. Golden State 31-51: The Warriors are a wild card. They dealt one of their top 2 players from last season for a rookie who probably won’t help much in 2007-08 and that’s the main reason their projected record is so low. Their best player, Baron Davis has sat out 83 games over the past 3 seasons. The team is full inefficient, but athletic scorers and slashers who will likely play a fast-paced offensive game and possibly lead the league in scoring. Only one player on the team, Andris Biedins, could be considered a good rebounder for his position and the team is likely to finish last in the league in rebounding because of this. On paper, the 31 wins looks about right. But we also have to look at Don Nelson and his history. In the past Nelson’s coaching stints have gone something like this: Nelson is hired by a team that’s down on their luck. He spends the first couple of seasons making trades and drafting players to get the team he wants in place. He leads that team to the playoffs, but never the finals. His teams are usually known more for being entertaining than a threat to win anything important, but are prone to pulling off big upsets in the playoffs. I’m not sure if that’s the same script we’re going to see play out here. In Milwaukee he always had a talented roster with the likes of Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Paul Pressey, Junior Bridgeman, Terry Cummings, Picky Pierce and Bob Lanier. His first run in Golden State featured Chris Mullin, Mitch Richmond and Tim Hardaway and in Dallas he had Nowitzki. This current Warrior roster just doesn’t match up with the teams he’s put together in the past. The biggest star is Baron Davis who is very good when he’s healthy. The other players are an erratic bunch that just isn’t very impressive talentwise. I’m not saying Nelson won’t make it work for 45-50 wins. It would be foolish to bet against him considering his history. But between Davis’ injury history, the overall inefficiency of the rest of the roster and the weak rebounding I just can’t predict anything but another lottery appearance for the Warriors.

11. Seattle 36-46: The Sonics’ braintrust looks as if they’ve taken the blueprint for young teams that come out of nowhere to shock the experts and win 45-50 games and applied it to their 2007-08 unit. They redid their rotation, stockpiled a few young centers, drafted a potential superstar and brought in a new coach who is almost certain to improve the team defense. For that reason this team is the league’s top darkhorse to surprise everyone by crashing the playoffs and possibly winning their division. The most important factor is Kevin Durant. He’s a player who brings historically great college numbers and should become an impact player fairly quickly. The Sonics have smartly sent out both Lewis and Allen, leaving the lead scorer’s role for Durant immediately. The supporting cast is promising. There are no great players, but the past few seasons have seen the Sonics stockpiling young players to the point where they’re deep enough at PG, PF and center that production from those positions shouldn’t be a huge concern. The second reason I like Seattle’s chances to surprise is new coach PJ Carlesimo. Normally I’m not in favor of recycling coaches with little or no success on their resume. Carlesimo is an exception though and could be the perfect fit here. A look at his history shows a potentially good coach who was done in by tough circumstances. In Portland he kept a team that was in transition competitive and in the playoffs while playing in a deep, competitive conference. In Golden State he was done in by the Latrell Sprewell incident. What’s important about both teams is team defense improved dramatically under Carlesimo’s watch. One of the main characteristics of teams experiencing sudden, unexpected improvement is a dramatic improvement in team defense. Carlesimo has a history of delivering such improvement and the Sonics, despite having been defensively-challenged for a few seasons now, have the young inside players to make such an improvement. For those reasons, the 36 wins might be low. To me this team looks ready to burst into the playoffs and start off on a journey that could have them joining the league’s elite a few years down the road.

10. LA Lakers 40-42: This is with Kobe staying and obviously that’s something that doesn’t appear likely at this point. Even if he does stay the season, it can’t be a good thing for the team after all that’s been said and done. They’re also a team in the process of transitioning to a running game. Since they’re going to be doing this out of the triangle, no one is really sure how this will go.  Of the non-Kobe players on the team, only Odom, Bynum and Crittenton look like anything more than role players to me. With Bynum and Crittenton being so young and inexperienced, that puts the team in a tough spot. The wild card here will be Phil Jackson. One of the troubling things about last season was the way the team unraveled at the end. That’s something that just doesn’t happen to Jackson-coached teams and it makes me wonder if his time has passed. If anyone can guide this team during the Kobe drama that’s sure to dominate the early part of the season it’s Jackson who has been dealing with off-court drama and winning championships most of his career. For that reason, nothing this team does in 2007-08 would surprise me. But if Jackson has lost some of his edge, the season could get ugly. It’s impossible to guess where this team will finish right now, because we have no idea what the team will look like. I’m guessing Kobe stays for at least the beginning of the season, with the teams’ performance deciding whether or not they just give up and dump him for six dimes on the dollar or hold out to see if Chicago struggles out of the gate and gets desperate enough to part with equal value. If everything goes right, 50 wins is possible. But with all the questions and a serious lack of talent on the roster other than Kobe, I have serious doubts that this team is headed anywhere but the lottery and possibly into 20-something win territory.

9. New Orleans 42-40: This is a pretty good team and they could be better than this if they can find a consistent scorer at SF. That was supposed to be Peja Stojakovic, who signed before last season. Peja played in only 13 games because of injuries and is now 30, so his window of being their savior here is going to be open for only a couple more seasons. If he is healthy and can pop in 20 PPG, it would be huge for this team. Considering his back was acting up in preseason, he would have to be considered iffy at this point. They already have one of the league’s best PGs in Chris Paul and best rebounders in center Tyson Chandler. David West is a decent PF and Mo Peterson is a usable sniper. The only missing piece is the scorer. That’s what Stojakovic does well, and if he can get back to where he was from ’01-’05, the Hornets should move up in what is basketball’s toughest division. One player to watch here is rookie Julian Wright from Kansas. He’s a forward who scored very high in my ratings, though he really doesn’t have a clear position. If Stojakovic is out for any extended period, Wright might get an extended shot and could surprise some people with how good he is. But he’s not exactly a top scorer and without one of those, the Hornets will struggle.

8. LA Clippers 43-39: Brand is out for roughly half the season. That’s going to hurt and it will probably keep this team from the playoffs, despite the fact I have them ranked #8. There are still enough good players to keep this team afloat and in the playoff hunt while Brand heals. Brand’s absence will also give rookie Al Thornton a chance to shine. The Clippers need something to kick them up another notch though and that didn’t appear to be happening with or without Brand. This team has stepped up in recent seasons from being a perennial lottery contender to being a mediocre team in a strong conference. But I don’t know if that’s been because of a smart management plan or that they just stockpiled enough good players by drafting in the lottery so often that they were able to push themselves to the .500 level, but now they seem stuck there. With the same management group still in place, I doubt this team will ever get past the mediocre stage and will eventually be done in as this group of players starts to lose a step. They might make the playoffs this season, but that will depend more on whether or not Seattle, Golden State, New Orleans and the Lakers stay down than anything the Clippers do.

7. Memphis 46-36: The Grizz should get back to where they were a couple of seasons ago. They have Gasol around for the entire season and he’s as good as ever. They filled some holes on the team with smart signings. They drafted a young PG who should be perfect for running the Phoenix-style offense new coach Marc Iavaroni will be putting in. This system should work well with this group. They have a couple of promising young PGs in Conley and Lowry, with the only issue there being getting Stoudamire out of their way. In Gay, Warrick, Miller and Navarro they’re deep with athletic wing players who can shoot. They remain a little thin inside with only Stromile Swift and Darko Milicic to go with Gasol, but that situation will be lessened in a fast-paced offense where they can get away with playing Warrick some at PF. In general this is a talented bunch that’s led by a promising new coach. They have the potential to surprise and finish even better than this. Like New Orleans, being stuck in the Southwest doesn’t help their cause, but it’s also a situation that could push this team even higher in the future.

6. Denver 47-35: Iverson and Anthony should be both interesting and entertaining. They’ll score a bunch of points, sell a lot of jerseys, commit a lot of turnovers and generally disappoint by winning around 45 games. These two players just aren’t a particularly good match. Unlike Boston where the 3 superstars can all pass and Garnett and Pierce are good defenders, Iverson and Anthony are both erratic passers and sometimes pesky, but below-average defenders. In order to succeed, such players need to be surrounded by a supporting cast of steady, low-mistake, defensive-oriented grinders. And there should be a pass-first PG in there somewhere. The Nuggets have Camby and Najera to fill the grinder role, though it should be noted that Camby will be 34 in March and could start to decline at any time. The only true PG on the roster is Chucky Atkins, who just isn’t all that good. The mix here just isn’t right and that’s something that has been a problem for Iverson his entire career. As good as he is and as hard as a he plays, he remains an incredibly difficult superstar to build a team around. That problem is magnified when he plays next to a Carmelo Anthony who has some similarities to Iverson as a player. Right now Denver doesn’t have the right mix around their stars and that makes them a team whose high end is about 50 wins and being a scary round 2 opponent for the elite teams.

5. Utah 48-34: The move by the Jazz to near-elite status last season was mainly fueled by an incredibly productive season from Carlos Boozer. Boozer’s scoring and rebounding numbers were right up there with the best PFs in the league. He’s only done it for one season, but considering he’s 26, it’s possible that this is the level he’ll be at for the next few seasons. It’s also possible his injury-prone ways will return and the Jazz will slide back to being a .500 team. But assuming they’re healthy, the Jazz are a scary team in the West. They have a young backcourt in Deron Williams and Ronnie Brewer that might be the best defensive pair in the league. They have a strong group of forwards and they should easily rule the Northwest division in the 2-3 seasons before the Sonics and Blazers eventually ride their young superstars into the elite class. The Jazz also have an X-factor in Kirilenko. If he can get back to where he was a few seasons ago, or if they can bolster their roster by dealing him away, a jump into the elite class isn’t out of the question.

4. San Antonio 51-31: This team is very old. The core trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are all still young enough to keep them in the championship mix, but the rest of the team could easily unravel. For that reason I just don’t see it happening for them this year. I said the same thing last year and they won another title, but that doesn’t change the fact that the supporting cast on this team is dangerously old. There’s also the fact that they’ll be dealing with any complacency that comes with winning a championship and the loss of any edge could slide this team behind the hungrier Denvers, Utahs and Memphises of the league and precariously close to the lottery. Last year the Spurs won their 4th championship by hanging tough and sticking together while the other elite teams fell apart. I doubt they’ll be as fortunate to have Dallas and Phoenix both fall apart this playoff season and I have serious doubts this aging team will be able to match up with those teams in late May.

3. Houston 52-30: The Rockets are a good team who are a legit threat to win it all. They made some nice moves in the offseason, bolstering weak positions at PG and PF. Mike James, Steve Francis and Luis Scola all come with questions. Especially Scola and the mediocre rebounding numbers he posted in Europe. But there’s no question they’re all upgrades on Alston and Howard. They’ll all help, but what the Rockets really need is for Yao and McGrady to stay healthy. Last season Yao was easily the best center in the league when he played. If he keeps things at this level and stays healthy, there’s a decent chance he’ll dominate the league and win multiple championships and MVPs over the next few seasons. As for McGrady, it’s pretty clear his competitive fires don’t burn with the same intensity of a Kobe or MJ. But he would still make a great #2 to a dominant Yao. Like Yao he needs to stay healthy to make it happen. Rick Adelman as coach? He hasn’t been able to get talented teams over the hump in the past and that worries me. But he does know how to win and with the top of the West sort of muddled and just waiting for some team to seize it for the next couple of years, before the focus of basketball switches to the Pacific Northwest, I can’t see him as a huge impediment to Houston becoming that team. There are some question marks here, but this is certainly a team to watch.

2. Dallas 55-27: The Mavs seem to be frontrunners for Kobe Bryant and that’s a situation that will change the whole look of the league. If they are able to team Kobe with Nowitzki, they become something close to prohibitive favorites to win their first championship. Even if this match doesn’t happen, the Mavs are still very much in the championship mix. The core that won 67 games last season is back and all are still at an age where no serious decline will take place. That made some puzzling moves in the offseason. Bringing in Eddie Jones who’s pretty much finished was pointless and the deal for Trenton Hassell also made little sense. It’s like they were tweaking something that didn’t really need a tweak. If either player becomes a significant part of the rotation, it will hurt the team’s chances. The Mavs have been through two seasons of playoff disappointment. That could strengthen their resolve and bring them a title this year, or it could numb them while they await the inevitable choke in 2008. I’m not sure, as this team can be difficult to get a feel for. If the championship doesn’t happen in 2008, it’s a good bet the owner will try to seriously shake the team up in order to get there in 2009.

1. Phoenix 58-24: I can’t help but wonder if the window slammed shut for this Suns team over the summer. The team gave away some useful assets in order to avoid the luxury tax. In doing so they chipped away at their overall talent and their ability to trade for help during the season. The most glaring need is inside depth and I doubt Brian Skinner will do much more than jump into Kurt Thomas’ numbers, while offering less defensively. They brought in Grant Hill, but all he does is exaggerate some strengths and that’s if he can stay healthy. In the draft they owned a couple of first round picks and could have added a couple of big bangers who would have offered some help, but instead added another SF in Alondo Tucker who will be of little if any help. Don’t get me wrong. This is still a talented team that will challenge for the title. The only real concerns are Nash being 34 and whether or not they’ll be foolish enough to deal Marion. Nash is the type of PG who should be able to keep his effectiveness for another couple of seasons, though finding a decent reserve would have been nice. The rumored Marion-Kirilenko trade would only serve to slide the Jazz into the Suns place in the league’s elite and vice-versa. I can’t believe the Suns would seriously consider such a deal. With those two present and healthy along with Stoudemire and a great supporting cast, the Suns should be right there. The problem I have with them is a team in this position should be using every resource possible to strengthen their team. The Suns didn’t do that over the summer and that could cost them the championship.

Final analysis: If there is a trade involving Kobe Bryant or Shawn Marion, everything is changed, but this is how things stand on 10/27/07. It’s going to come down to the Mavs and the Suns. I like what Houston has going and the fact that they have the look of a team on the verge of a mini-dynasty, but they also have some big question marks. I’m not ready to pick them until I know more about whether the stars can stay healthy, McGrady can win a playoff series and Adelman can get a team over the hump. I feel the Spurs had their last hurrah in 2007. They’re too old to keep up with the other elites and could fall all the way to the lottery, if things really go haywire and the middle-level west teams all step up some. No other team looks like a championship contender, but Utah, Denver, Seattle and Memphis are my picks to join the top four in the playoffs. As for the champion, I’ll take Phoenix, just like I did last season. I don’t like many of the things they did this summer, but they still have the best team in basketball. They’re situation is a little more desperate than Dallas, with Nash likely having only a season or two remaining as an elite player, and they have whatever karma comes with the feeling they got a raw deal from the league last year. In the finals, they’ll beat the Celtics in a surprisingly competitive and spirited 7-game series, complete with highlights and memories of the classic ’76 finals and Gar Heard’s big moment.

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