Sunday, December 25, 2011

2011-2012 Western Conference Preview

PACIFIC DIVISION




Golden State Warriors

I would argue that a compressed schedule will help an up-tempo team, but the new coach Mark Jackson has vowed to remake them into a defensive team. I’m not sure how he can do that, short of trading Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and David Lee for Dwight Howard and a good wing defender. Like their neighbors in Sacramento, the roster is a mess of weird players. Curry is arguably the best young shooter in the league and led all pros in free-throw percentage at 93%. Dorell Wright turned out to be the kind of wing player Miami wanted and led the league in three point makes; he’s also one of the few Warriors competent at defense. Biedrins was a promising center who is more a joke now, but reports indicate his dedication is back. Udoh could end up averaging two blocks a game off the bench in 24 minutes.

Unfortunately, the organization is known for letting its talent either escape or wither. They have a knack for finding D-league players, but Reggie Williams left for the Bobcats and Brandon “Second All-time in Three-Point Percentage” Morrow went to the Nets.  The new owners don’t appear to be the saviors of the Bay Area, and they are doomed to another season of pain.

I don’t have much to write about the Warriors, which is really quite sad. Their acquisition of Kwame Brown and signing him for seven million dollars is all you need to say. Thankfully, it’s for only one year, but coach Mark Jackson will play him huge minutes because his large body incorrectly implies great defense. The best move forward for the team is to trade Ellis for a delusional GM in exchange for first round picks and young player(s). The odds of that happening are low, despite how obviously horrible a backcourt of Curry and Ellis is.

Prediction: 29-37
Random prediction: Biedrins will average double digits in rebounding for the second time in his career but will fail to eclipse the same mark in points.

LA Lakers

The salary dump: the NBA’s karma cuts both ways. The Lakers were lucky to steal Pau Gasol when Memphis decided he was too expensive (or at least that’s what they claim; I think someone was drunk and made the wrong phone call.) Then LA dumped Odom when the luxury tax became too punitive. It has to be one of the strangest and most lopsided moves, however. One, the Lakers make a ton of money from huge TV deals and a national brand; was he really too expensive? Two, did they have to trade him to a contender, especially in the west? I’m sure there are many teams who would want Odom. Three, they didn’t even get anything back from the trade – a draft pick that’s effectively nothing. They couldn’t get a one-year rental on someone? A real draft pick? The rights to a good international player? And lastly, they took themselves out from serious championship contention at a time when their window with Kobe Bryant as a star is likely closing. They don’t have any frontcourt depth and had to sign Josh McBobs to avoid playing Luke Walton serious minutes.

The Lakers suddenly have a gloomy future, as least for them. They could be bailed out by a big free agent signing, but Kobe’s stupidly large contract will make that more difficult. He will be paid 27 million next year and 30 million in two years. Depending on how revenues change in the future, that could be nearly half the way to the luxury tax. I don’t think even the most strident Laker fan can argue he will be worth that much money in 2014 and -15; the only practical defense is from a marketing perspective. I’m especially skeptical because I think he’s one of the league’s most overrated players in recent history. Yes, he’s good, but he’s been a consistent all-star instead of being absolutely dominant like O’Neal, Jordan or even LeBron James. That’s another argument for another day, but basically his albatross of a contract and their newfound reluctance to pay heavy tolls in luxury tax will be their undoing.

The lone bright spot for the Lakers is Bynum, and any basketball fan knows why that’s a terrible kind of hope. It’s like they’re waiting for Godot: the Bynum that reigns on high over all western centers has not arrived; instead they have an injury prone big man. I’ll agree that his potential is as high as any big man – he’s a legitimate seven feet tall, and maybe taller, he rebounds and picks up blocks better than most, he has flashes of brilliance where he completely owns the paint, he’s a competent free-throw shooter for his size, and he just has that feel for that game that so many centers lack, like his knack for passing that’s been underutilized as soon as he realized he was unlikely to get the ball back from Kobe. For the sake of the game, I hope he has a full season and makes the all-star team, but the chances are as small as space on the LA freeways at rush hour.

The Lakers were slipping last season, and without their sixth man their fall will accelerate. As the most entitled team in the league, they have less to worry about than most because they can be bailed out as they have in the past like getting Shaq. The grind of the densely packed season will knock a few wins off their mark, as they have the greatest drop-off of talent from their top guys to the rest of the cast this side of the Celtics. As a Blazers fan, I will enjoy this season.

Prediction: 37-29

Random prediction: Josh McRoberts will become an instant Laker fan favorite with his powerful dunks.

LA Clippers

Fan reaction to the rejected LA-Houston-New Orleans trade was apoplectic. It’s fun to hate the man in charge, David Stern, but the trade only made basketball sense to the Rockets. Chris Paul would have been wasted on the Lakers, watching Kobe Bryant play one-on-one and take fade-away jumper after fade-away jumper. The Hornets would be stupid to rebuild post-Chris Paul with two power forwards in their early 30’s and the defensively flammable Kevin Martin, who’s not too young himself. Instead we have Chris Paul on a Clippers team with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, who surprisingly led the league in dunks last year on a per possession basis. (Howard led in total dunks with the Clippers tandem following in alphabetical order.) That is a gift for every basketball fan.  I’m not sure what the record is for alley-oops thrown in a single season, but Chris Paul will probably break it even in a short season given he stays healthy. Andre Miller may have that record from last year when he connected with Aldridge so many times that it became a boring but effective play.

I’m not sure why they didn’t include Eric Bledsoe in the trade given that the Hornets would be lacking at that position and the Clippers already had Mo Williams and Billups to go along with Chris Paul. Hopefully Mo Williams will be moved for a shooting guard so Bledsoe doesn’t get buried on the bench. Billups has always been a combo guard and never put up impressive assist numbers, and his outside shooting will be the perfect complement to the Chris Paul and Blake show. I derided the Butler signing in another post, but his spot-up shooting will be put to use. I would have been relatively okay with his signing if it had come after the trade because the Clippers weren’t going to compete before the trade and the veteran would have simply taken time away from their developing youngsters.

In the playoffs, the Clippers will face problems when other teams exploit their weaknesses. One right now is perimeter defense, where Butler is coming off a major knee injury and Billups and Williams are combustible. Chris Paul can defend well in most situations and will probably lead everyone in steals again, but they’ll need to be able to stop bigger wings too. Eric Bledsoe may actually be pressed into that role against shooting guards; they obviously need more help. Someone like Ginobili could destroy the team. Their lack of frontcourt depth is another problem. Behind Blake and Jordan they have basically nothing but marginal players. Memphis, in particular, would plow through them. If they were a smarter team, they’d sign someone like Fes, Utah’s foreign exchange student who specializes in owning the paint defensively and collecting rebounds, and use him when needed. They don’t need to hit a home run; they just need to find a quality bench player who preferably has room to improve. Think of the opposite strategy Miami has with its centers.

Although I attempted, the Clippers’ season is hard to predict. They don’t feel like a complete team and will likely add a couple new players. Depending on who they get and who they lose, they can either be a merely exciting playoff team or a contender. Their success also depends on how Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan develop defensively, as both were disappointing given their athleticism and size. However, the main reason I’m lukewarm on them this season is that they hired Vinny Del Negro as their head coach and Donald Sterling still owns the organization. Those are not the two guys you want leading your team.

Prediction: 43-23

Random prediction: Chris Paul will break the single season alley-oop record, which someone like the Elias Sports Bureau will uncover after many Griffin-Jordan dunks.

Phoenix Suns

This team needs to be blown up with some nitroglycerin. They will not compete with this version of the Nash Suns. Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Barbosa, Jason Richardson, Boris Diaw, and Shawn Marion are gone. It’s time to move on. I’m sorry, but it is. Nash, Grant Hill and Gortat can’t beat the Bulls, Heat, or the Clippers. They have a few good young players, but now it’s their opportunity to get back as much value as they can for their productive veterans before they retire.

I’m afraid the season will pass, they’ll make no major trades, and miss the playoffs with a record that ensures a middling draft pick. They made no moves to visibly improve, and Aaron Brooks will be trapped in China for a while. As Gortat and other young players will improve, Nash and the other veterans will likely decline. They need a miracle to be one of the top-four teams in the western conference this year or next, and with a ton of cap space next year they could make a run into free agency. I’m not sure if Dwight Howard or Deron Williams want to play in Arizona, and I believe they used their miracle already when they signed Steve Nash after his exit from Dallas and he decided to improve his game after he turned 30.

I understand that it’s hard to let go. Nash and Phoenix fans have a lot of good memories. They took the league by storm and helped usher in a faster pace and more scoring. They had heartbreaking playoff defeats, but they would return the next year and threaten the history books with a run at the greatest offensive team of all time title. Sure, they had missteps, like the Big Cactus Shaq experiment, but many teams would trade for their success in the last decade. Phoenix and Nash are at different paths in their lives right now, and it would be best for both parties if he left before he hits free agency next year.

Prediction: 30-36

Random prediction: Steve Nash will be contacted by Michelle Obama to help her campaign of healthy eating in the US.

Sacramento Kings

The Kings definitely have talent, but it’s unclear if that talent can be harnessed into real basketball games. Tyreke Evans is the type of slashing shooting guard, strangely pressed into the role of point guard despite a 6’ 6” solid frame with passing skills lacking, who could one day make an all-star team with his high scoring average and decent peripherals like rebounds. He also has a lot of potential defensively, but it will be hard to cultivate those skills on a team like Sacramento. DeMarcus Cousins is in the mold of Rasheed Wallace or Zach Randolph: precociously talented low-post scorers with a wide array of skills unfortunately coupled with what coaches call attitude problems. The highly touted centers who have failed their potential have done so either because they actually possessed no talent besides height (Darko, Kwame Brown) or injuries destroyed their physical gifts (Greg Oden, with Andrew Bynum on the cusp.) It’s hard to imagine someone with his skill and size not making at least one all-star team.

While the west coast has seen a lot of player movement, the Kings have made a series of small moves that have been terrible to middling except for attempting to sign defensive ace Chuck Hayes, who as it turns out to recent reports will sign with the team after another NBA cardiac scare. Aldridge has been out of commission a while after another problem with his Wolff-Parkinson-White disorder and Jeff Green is gone for the season after heart surgery for an aortic aneurysm. The fans will likely latch onto Jimmer and his potential as the Mormon Ben Gordon. He has the size of a point guard but is at least a combo guard, and may actually be the best backcourt mate for Evans as they complement each other well: Evans can handle the bigger guards and the tougher match-ups, and Jimmer can spread the floor for Evans’ drives to the basket.

The roster is a reasonably interesting mishmash of players, but none are imposing. They have Marcus Thornton, a bench scorer who could be usurped by Jimmer. John “No, Not Pronounced as that Fish” Salmons is an over-the-hill wing player who relies on his athleticism. Travis Outlaw wasn’t good enough for the New Jersey Nets, and plays better as a 4 but will get few opportunities there. JJ Hickson had his field-goal percentage plunge roughly ten percent last season. The team also has no real point guard, mostly because they are insistent that Tyreke Evans is a point.  I’m not sure when management will finally realize this, but until they do the Kings will remain the worst passing team in the league. The rookie Isaiah Thomas is a letter and a couple inches in height away from helping in this regard.

As a last note, a team still in rebuilding mode suffers through a paradox: to become good you need star players, preferably young, but when your upside bubbles to the surface as real NBA skill you lose better chances to draft those young stars. The Kings will continue to improve, but they have to consider how far their rising ship will ascend. Will the Evans-Cousins team become first round fodder that eventually fades back into the lottery, or can they at least have the success of the Webber-Stojakovic Kings?

Prediction: 22-44

Random prediction: Cousins will have a game with six turnovers, six missed shots, and six fouls.



NORTHWEST DIVISION



Denver Nuggets

Before Carmelo Anthony left for New York, I commented on how Denver was an amazing offensive team despite Carmelo’s mediocre efficiency. They traded him for a handful of players, one of them Gallinari who’s an Italian small forward who’s a great three point shooter and surprisingly shot six free throws for every ten field goals, leading all small forwards including Anthony. Defensively he’s in some ways an upgrade because Anthony was too much of a star to exert much effort there. What happened after the trade is that Denver improved, and this season even with a couple players trapped behind enemy lines in China their depth will serve them well among all the back-to-back-to-back’s. I don’t think they could beat Chicago or Miami in the finals, but they are a dark horse candidate this year despite not having a recognizable star.

The Mavericks made the mistake of giving up Rudy Fernandez for nothing so they could play a decrepit Vince Carter more minutes, and as a Portland fan I can’t wait to see how they use him in Denver, where they hope to push the tempo and fire away. He could be used alongside Andre Miller, as Rudy is strangely great at defending point guards. It’s probably because of his weight, and Rudy and Corey Brewer are possibly the lightest shooting guard duo per vertical inch in NBA history at 185 and 188 lbs, respectively, with listed heights of 6’ 6” and 6’ 9”. They also have Afflalo, who they decided to sign for 8.6 million a year. I guess Bill Simmons was his agent this year, because I have no clue why people think he’s so good. There is no evidence he’s a defensive ace (his defensive plus/minus numbers are disappointing, and few serious scouts see him as one.) It would be best for the team if they flipped him for a frontcourt player, as Nene will have a lonely season in the paint with the Birdman Chris Anderson and Timofey Mozgoz the other notable big guys.

If this is the Nuggets’ year to shine, then draft pick Kenneth Faried will be less Reggie Evans and more Jeff Foster, an underrated frontcourt player who can control the glass and protect the rim. He will without a doubt rebound, but it remains to be seen if the rest of his game is polished enough to be a helpful rotation player. The Nene contract was too large, but it was likely either overpay him or get nothing in return, the Sophie’s choice every team has to make with their stars. He’s a great scorer, but his rebounding moves him a notch below the elite frontcourt players of the NBA.

The point guard position will be fun to watch with the speedy Ty Lawson likely starting; hopefully he can shoot more will maintaining his stellar percentages. Andre Miller will have another strangely healthy season where he shakes off his bad conditioning habits to pass four players to the tenth position on the all-time assists leaderboard. Some people are surprised he hasn’t fallen off a cliff yet productivity wise given that he’s a point guard who lacks a good jump shot, but that’s mistaking the most common strategy for the mechanism: what helps players age gracefully is a low-impactful playing style, and for guards the most common one is a shooting touch, but Andre has a crafty post game where he abuses smaller guards and is one of the best passers in the game, skills that don’t erode with time like speed. He can’t jump, but that’s maybe way his knees have held up so well because he can’t even leap high enough to put significant stress in his legs.

The Nuggets will be one of my favorite teams to watch, and they have a chance to post the top record in the west despite not having any players who were all-stars previously. If they are at the top or near, I imagine Nene or maybe Gallinari will make the all-star team because the media will be retroactively explaining how the no-stars Nuggets became one of the best in the west. With only one hole where Kenyon Martin played, Denver will use its depth to storm the lockout shortened season.

Prediction: 45-21

Random prediction: Nene will be an all-star because the coaches and the media will need to justify Denver’s record.

Minnesota Timberwolves

I’m not sure what to make of this team. Will they ascend, finally buoyant enough after years in the lottery with a full cache of young talent? Kevin Love had a break-through season, but that wasn’t enough to win more than 17 games. His teammates were terrible, but most of them are still there and I know they’ll find a way to play Darko 25 minutes a game despite his poor skills in the game of basketball. They have who could be the best player of his draft class in Derrick Williams, but it’s crowded at the forward positions. They’re adding Rubio, but his shooting prowess is Rondo-eque, and they decided to pay an extremely short shooting guard nearly 20 million dollars. The silver lining – Rubio is almost a Rondo clone because of his defense and passing skills, which are superior, and Rondo is an all-star who has a championship; Barea and Rubio can play together in the second unit where the Spanish phenom is big enough to check 2’s.

In a crowded west with dying giants like the Lakers and Spurs, Minnesota could be posed to compete at the right time. The emphasis is on “could,” because for all we know Kahn will trade Love and Anthony Randolph for a rental of Deron Williams. I don’t think this will be the season where they approach 0.500 basketball when so many of their young players are still learning how to play and Kevin Love’s unusual combination of 15 rebounds and 40% three-point shooting wasn’t enough to pull them out of the cellar. I’m not even sure how he could improve, but apparently he’s in the best shape of his life. Hopefully that will translate into better pick and roll defense and more blocked shots. He could be devastating as a center because of his three-point range, making opposing big guys leave the paint. If Anthony Randolph turns out to be the next coming of Marcus Camby with his rebounding, shot-blocking and surprising ball skills, those two would end up being one of the top frontcourts in the league.

With Rubio’s lack of shooting touch and Love’s defensive deficiencies, it’s a team that needs careful roster management with the right personnel to complement the best players. Kidd and Terry work well together because Terry can check opposing point guards while Kidd is big and smart enough to defend 2’s well. Minnesota will need the same strategy for Rubio. I don’t think the team will make the correct choices and could waste a few talented players like they did with Kevin Garnett. It’s unfortunate because Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Anthony Randolph, and Michael Beasley have a lot of potential, and the team has a history of sticking with bad management (the Kevin McHale era.) It’s a loaded draft next year, and if they’re lucky they’ll be bad enough this year to land their missing piece.

Prediction: 25-41

Random prediction: Rubio will have a game with ten rebounds, ten assists, and zero made field goals.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder were the youngest team last year weighted by each player’s minutes. The majority of the team is under 25 years old, and a calendar year can make a world of difference to their abilities. Last year Westbrook took the leap, although not in an optimal way: he ended up shooting more than Durant per possession, even though the latter was a more effective scorer. The last point is related to Durant’s problem of freeing himself up for a shot, but part of the blame rests on Westbrook’s itchy trigger finger and mediocre skills at setting guys up. Durant expanding his game would certainly help his team, but he’s already doing more than enough and the other players need to improve. They’re one of the youngest contenders in league history, and during a weird season they could reach the finals.

As far as the future is concerned, Oklahoma City is set up as well as any other team with Durant and Westbrook signed to long-term deals along with the “elder” sage Nick Collison (only 31) and Thabo Sefolosha. Their two most important role players, however, are Ibaka, who could use his athleticism and length to become one of the best defenders in the league (he’s not there yet despite his impressive block totals,) and Harden, already a sharp-shooting guard who can complement the duo of Durant and Westbrook. They don’t have depth like the Pacers or Nuggets do, but they have enough different weapons after pilfering the Celtics in a trade to get Perkins that they can match up well with nearly any team. The only piece they’re arguably lacking is a major perimeter stopper; Sefolosha is great but not first-team great and his offense is terrible, which stops him from racking up major minutes. Their new post defender Perkins will be interesting to watch this year, as he lost over 30 lbs and some worry that he won’t be able to defend Howard anymore, but basketball players rarely lose anything from dropping weight unless they’re rail thin.

With the Lakers faltering, the Spurs still quietly good but likely to rest their veterans, and the Mavericks as old any team, the Thunder are poised to take the western title crown. Some pundits hesitate to give them credit because of their age, but basketball is about simply outscoring the opponent. In actuality, their age is what will help them this year as they will improve while the older teams get worse, especially with the compacted schedule. I’m not guaranteeing that Oklahoma will finish with the best record in the west because of how closely competitive the top teams are, but I think they have the best chance.

Prediction: 46-20

Random prediction: Ibaka will lead the league in blocks per game with close to 3.5 and will receive heavy consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, even if he isn’t deserving.

Portland Trailblazers

(Important note: I’m a Blazers fan, and may believe in them too strongly but will try to remain objective.)

The Blazers were very good even with little production from Roy and Oden, so it shouldn’t be a surprise this year if they’re very good again. Roy played 1310 minutes of subpar basketball while Oden didn’t even get a single minute. Oden, in particular, was the dark horse for the Blazers. If he were to put together a relatively healthy season at the quality of basketball he’s shown, Portland could contend with any western team. He’s shown that he’s an elite rebounder with a rebound percentage above 20, which is impressive for even bench guys who only concentrate on that. He blocked 2.3 shots a game two years ago in only 24 minutes. His offensive game, while rough, was still very effective in a Dwight Howard bulldozing through the opposite sort of way. However, the difference with Oden is that he’s a great free-throw shooter clearing 70%, and consequently his true-shooting percentage was 65 in limited minutes last year and the season before 60. That’s enough lamenting about what could have been; this Blazer team still has a lot of talent.

The Blazers have a varied and multi-faceted attack. Andre Miller is gone, and in his place is Felton, a capable ball-handler, a decent outside shooter (Miller was a terrible long-range shooter and left the paint clogged too often,) and a good defender who’s a few years younger. Wesley Matthews is a good defender, though not great, but he’s at 40% for his career beyond the three-point line and can bully his way into the lane and draw fouls. Gerald “Crash” Wallace is still a nightmare on weak-side defense, and finishes at the rim enough to justify his weak outside shooting. Batum slumped on his percentages after a stellar rookie year, and strangely has terrible +/- defensive numbers, but he’s young with arms like Inspector Gadget and can team with Wallace in a small-ball forward line-up that can destroy others in transition. Aldridge is a big man with a soft touch from outside, and is underrated on the defensive end. His ability to play huge minutes at power forward and center will help the Blazers, who are lacking in frontcourt depth. They also added sixth man Crawford, who will replace a lot of the scoring that Roy left behind. It’s a versatile team that, like many NBA franchises, are only missing a decent center, as Camby closer to 40 than 30 years old.

I would be more confident with the rotation if they had added more than Craig Smith and Kurt Thomas to the frontcourt. Smith, “The Rhino,” will be fun to watch, but his use should not be extended to heavy minutes. At this point in his career, Kurt Thomas is a third-string center, but I imagine he’ll be the first big off the bench most nights and even start, because coaches have a soft spot for veterans. If Portland had a good GM, like they did recently with Kevin Pritchard or Rich Cho, they could have found a bigger steal than Craig Smith, but they’re operating with an interim general manager and I can’t imagine they’ll get healthy interest for the job after coldly dumping Pritchard but making him run their draft after he was fired, or axing Cho even if he was the most qualified for the job because Paul Allen didn’t get along with him (I can’t think of anyone who would, honestly.)

I imagine this year will be a pleasant surprise for Blazers fans, because their varied depth at least in positions 1 through 4 will do well in a compressed schedule, and the lack of a dominating western team at the top two or three seeds could lead to an upset and a second round visit for Portland -- yes, the Thunder, Mavericks, etc. are still good, but not overwhelmingly so. Next year Camby and Felton come off their contracts, and Roy’s huge deal is voided. The only long-term contracts are for Aldridge and Matthews, and they should have a huge amount of cap space even without Gerald Wallace opting out of his last year ($11.4 million.) I don’t think Howard will come to Portland, but if he did the Aldridge-Howard-Wallace/Batum frontcourt would immediately become one of the most imposing in the league. I can dream, but the Blazers will probably get a couple decent free agents if Paul Allen doesn’t find a way to destroy the management even further.

Prediction: 38-28

Random prediction: Crawford for sixth man of the year.

Utah Jazz

Utah post-Jerry Sloan has been largely forgettable. They are without their all-stars Deron Williams and Boozer, and Malone and Stockton are only memories. They have a frontcourt that’s impressive on the surface, but in reality it’s too cluttered and using both Jefferson and Millsap in heavy minutes is defensively irresponsible. They have intriguing young players who have yet to realize their potential. In other words, they’re a mediocre team in the middle of a rebuilding project.

Replacing Deron Williams is next to impossible. Devis Harris used to be an exciting young point guard who was quietly a defensive ace, but after some time in the backwoods of the New Jersey Nets he forgot how to defend and concentrated on scoring. As for other star power, Al Jefferson is supposed to be their superstar, but after years and various injuries it’s more likely he’s something the Jazz don’t want to admit – a high volume, middling efficiency scorer who destroys any value he has with poor defense.  However, their next generation is promising. Derrick Favors has the athleticism that sends Dwight Howard or Kevin Garnett to the top of the draft, but also the kind reminiscent of disappointing studs like Tyrus Thomas and Shawn Kemp. Their future largely depends on him.

For this season, I’d recommend shipping out some of their aging assets before they lose more value, and at least one of the Millsap and Jefferson pair. It’s nearly impossible to get matching value back in a deal, but right now those players are taking playing time away from their younger guys who are arguably more effective and at their best keeping the Jazz from better lottery picks. They’re not going to contend with this crew, and they could bottom out this year depending on who they move and how guys like Hayward and Kanter progress.

Prediction: 26-40

Random prediction: Enes Kanter will be a bust.



SOUTHWEST DIVISION



Dallas Mavericks

After winning a title and essentially trading Chandler for Odom, the Mavericks are once again neglected in the media. They’ll miss having a good defensive center, but an Odom-Nowitzki frontcourt will be devastating offensively and they will have cap room next year. This season won’t be a terrible title defense like Miami’s last one, but they’re not out for blood like Boston was. They have enough depth to weather the weird schedule, and will likely play small line-ups whenever the match-ups allow them to unless they pick up a decent center. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if they force a center into their starting line-up because they’ll worry not having one will drag them down, but in fact playing a subpar player of any position will have the effect they’re trying to avoid.

The success of Dallas is hinged on the amazing offensive play of Dirk Nowitzki, a consistently efficient scorer who’s a match-up nightmare as a seven-foot jump shooter who can take fellow seven-footers off the dribble. He sets up in the middle of the floor, making double teams dangerous as the floor opens up, and Dallas has always surrounded him with shooters. This year is no exception – Kidd, Terry, Carter, Roddy, even Odom, and new arrival Delonte West are great from long-range. Dirk shouldn’t slip too much due to age; his playing style is built for low impact on the body and his shooting skills and huge frame won’t deteriorate as he goes further into his 30’s. The problem with the Carter signing, however, is that Dallas traded a first round pick for Rudy Fernandez, and then traded Rudy to clear space for Carter. Right now, Vince Carter is not significantly better than Rudy, who’s eight years younger. Rudy’s even a better dunker presently.

Dirk has been great for over a decade with alarming consistency, meaning his supporting cast will make or break this season, as it’s been for every season. Roddy Beaubois is their x-factor, but one should also watch Brandon Wright, who has shown huge potential but never stuck the landing while playing in Golden State and New Jersey. With Kidd’s ability to guard shooting guards, Roddy can forget about feigning interest as a point guard and attack the basket.  Vince Carter will probably end up being a mistake because he’s a guard who’s relied on his athleticism all his life and is in his mid-thirties. If you lower your expectations and think of him only as a spot-up shooter from deep, then he should attain success. Aging shooting guards like Michael Finley and Jerry Stackhouse had to make similar sacrifices to keep playing in the NBA.

I’m not down on Dallas’ chances, but the west is loaded with teams who are “weak” contenders, and both the Heat and Bulls should be better. I’m afraid Dallas won’t be able to find another decent center, and will by habit start the next best center they have, Brendan Haywood, even when going up against opponents who don’t have a big center worth guarding. They’ll drop a spot in the standings because of this, but when they play without a useless big man like Haywood or Mahinmi they’ll be as good as last year.

Prediction: 42-24

Random prediction: Mark Cuban will make negative public comments about Kim Kardashian, and it will be funny.

Houston Rockets

Houston could have had a Nene-Gasol frontcourt with a bevy of nice role players surrounding them. Instead they’re a near 0.500 team too good for a high lottery pick and too bad for a playoff run. The organization’s skill at finding bargains and talent has put them in this precarious position. Attempting to move Kevin Martin and Luis Scola was the right thing to do, as Kevin is terrible defensively and Scola is a smallish power forward in his early 30’s.

This is a hard team to predict because they could make a major trade during the season. I think they’ll be patient, however, and could do something smart like play Kevin Martin heavy minutes to showcase his scoring and increase his trade value. They have plenty of assets, and it’s only a matter of time before the shrewd organization lands a superstar. It’s not like Houston is in the far-flung backwoods in Montana. In terms of their wealth on the wings, they have the underrated Lowry, a bulldog point guard, and the former volleyball player Chase Budinger who will start at SF while making under $900,000 this year. Courtney Lee is the exact kind of role player so many great teams covet – a defensive plus shooting guard who shoots around 40% from three’s.

The Samuel Dalembert signing, however, is vexing in terms of a long-term strategy, but is logical when looking at the short view. He’s a center who will control the boards and rack up blocked shots and was one of the most coveted free agents. I’m not sure why he didn’t sign with Miami – well, not exactly, because it was about money – as he would have been a Haitian hero and might have won a championship. Rounding out their frontcourt rotation, Patrick Patterson had a solid rookie season, and he’ll platoon with Jordan Hill as two young power forwards who appear to be good rotation players. They have tallest player in the league still with Hasheem Thabeet, but he appears to be a bust. Lastly, Scola’s post game is always a pure basketball joy to watch, and the Argentine be following his best pro season yet.

The media are not thinking highly of Houston right now since they’re in basketball purgatory relegated to first round exits or barely missing the playoffs, but I’d rather have an organization that can find and manage talent than one that’s so horribly run they eventually pick up a mass of talented young players, like Minnesota. I wish a major free agent expressed interest in playing in Houston, because they have the tradition of Olajuwon and smart management who won’t make mistakes like signing Glen Davis for $20 million or trading Gortat for Turkoglu. They won’t make the playoffs, but they’ll be one of the most active teams in the trade market.

Prediction: 31-35

Random prediction: They’ll wait until the summer of 2012 to make a big splash in the trade and free agent market

Memphis Grizzlies

After a surprising run in the playoffs, the Grizzlies still have a lot to prove. They remain intact, yet they’re in a competitive conference where only a few games will separate first from eighth. The least “western” team in the conference, they’ve been largely forgotten the franchise’s entire life, and even after a Cinderella run beating some of the best teams in the west they’re not receiving much ink. Also, at what point can Utah and Memphis trade names? Does a second-round pick have to be included?

Thankfully, they’ll have Rudy Gay back, who made a stronger commitment to defense and less of one to bad shots. Zach Randolph is in the best shape of his life working out with a new trainer. Tony Allen will get a full season to show how he’s the best perimeter defender in the game. They have one of the best starting five’s in the game with the weak link being Mike Conley, a speedy young point guard who’s accurate from long-distance. Their depth, especially after losing Darrell Arthur to injury, will push them out of a comfortable playoff seed. Hamed Haddadi was fun to watch in garbage minutes, but the Iranian giant should be used sparingly, not as one of the first big men off the bench.

Unfortunately, depth and a stacked western conference will keep them from the top spot, but in the playoffs they could again plow through opponents with a frontcourt of Randolph and Gasol. There may actually be a lot of upsets in the playoffs because this regular season more than most aids deep teams, but in the playoffs you can run your best guys huge minutes. They’ll have a quiet season, and could knock off someone like Denver or even Oklahoma City in the first round.

Prediction: 36-30

Random prediction: Rudy Gay will make his first all-star team and could cement his status as one of the go-to forwards for the game now that Carmelo is in New York.

New Orleans Hornets

I don’t want to talk anymore about the trade that almost was, but getting Gordon and Minnesota’s pick is a much better deal. Some media argue that just letting a guy go is the better strategy (i.e. getting nothing) so you can bottom out and get one of the top picks, but this way they have two nice picks in the next draft and a guy who’s already a great young player. The Chris Paul era is official over, and it’s not because they’re a small market; it’s because they made bad decisions in surrounding the point guard with a cast devoid of talent

Even David West left, and the remainder of the team is assorted flotsam and jetsam. Trevor Ariza likes to pretend he’s an outside shooter even with some of the worst percentages in the game. Jarrett Jack is now their starting point guard, but he can barely play the position and would be a shooting guard if he was a couple inches taller. Carl Landry is still an effective player, but as a small power forward he’s going to use the rest of his prime on a lottery team in rebuilding mode. The most interesting part of the team is that they have one of the best center tandems in the game. Both 29 years old, Okafor and Kaman are both great defenders and excellent rebounders with rudimentary post skills. I would expect Kaman and his expiring contract will be traded to a contender, or maybe a playoff bound team looking for a one-year rental so they can stay active in next season’s free agent market.

As with too many teams, this season the Hornets are playing for the ping-pongs balls of the NBA draft. It’s an unfortunate time to try to sell the team, and if they get the number one or two spot in the draft David Stern will come under even more fire. Their bright spot this year is that Eric Gordon has a chance to make the all-star team if he continues to improve and uses the freedom from his subpar cast to raise his scoring average.

Prediction: 18-48

Random Prediction:  Eric Gordon sneaks onto the all-star team despite paltry team record since Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony defected to the eastern seaboard. David West also left, eliminating another competitor for the 12th man.

San Antonio Spurs

Last season is like a distant memory after the lock-out, but the Spurs finished with the best record in the west and were only one game behind the leaders in the east, the Bulls. I don’t expect them to repeat their success when the compressed schedule will cause Popovich to rest his aging veterans to even more extreme lengths. I think they’ll be content to cruise to a four-seed and unleash hell in the playoffs.

The Spurs have made no major moves, and when one considers their record last season it’s hard to fault them. Every year people expect them to finally slip, but they have yet to do so. In fact, they won the championship the year of the last lockout, and Duncan has stayed with the team since them and the team has been a contender virtually every year since then. The biggest change this year will be a heavier use of Tiago Splitter, the coveted Brazilian big man who finally played last year in limited minutes. His problem is a lack of a midrange jump shot that most Spurs big men must possess if they want to share time with Tim Duncan. With McDyess gone and DeJuan Blair still missing his ACLs, Tiago “Log” Splitter will probably average 20 to 25 minutes. The Spurs may improve if he takes some minutes from Blair, who has conditioning problems and plays terrible defense. James Anderson, who missed most of last year with a foot injury as a rookie, will also contribute, and has shown he has NBA range. Additionally, with the keen eye for talent the Spurs have they may have found a diamond in the rough with Kawhi Leonard, a Shawn Marion type who can rebound like a power forward and finishes at the rim well.

Tony Parker is still in his 20’s and Ginobili is aging well, while Duncan is gracefully reducing his role, and as a result the Spurs are still one of the top teams in the NBA. Tim Duncan’s large contract ends this season, and with the power of the amnesty -- Richard Jefferson next year, most likely -- they could retool with a big free agent signing. Marquee guys have shown an inclination to flock to big, warm cities, which is unfortunate because few are well run. Guys spend most of the season travelling to other cities, and they can live where they want in the off-season, so I don’t see the need to live on a warm beach. I thought they would value good basketball, but maybe I’m na├»ve. Whatever happens, don’t bet against the Spurs, an organization that deserves its championships. From one lock-out to another 12 years later, they have sustained excellence like no other team. Their last season below a 50 win pace in 82 games was in 1996-97. If you adjust the shortened lockout season of ‘99 to 82 games Tim Duncan has never known a season worse than 50 wins, and this year will be one more.

Prediction: 42-24

Random prediction: The Spurs will have another rookie or related player from out of nowhere who will be a steal, most likely Kawhi Leonard.

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