The basketball season began last night and five Western Conference squads opened up their season. Houston, Dallas and the L.A. Clippers began the year in the L column while the defending champion L.A. Lakers and Portland got started on the right foot against conference foes.
Will the Lakers be accepting another ring during next season’s opener? Can the Trailblazers take the next step toward being a top team in the conference? Are the Clippers really going to be good?
TSB blogger Andy Weise breaks down the Western Conference for you, dear readers, before the season moves into full swing.
By Andy Weise
1. Lakers (61-66 wins) – Could the Lakers really improve after winning a title? The biggest news of the offseason had to be when the Lakers signed Ron Artest and still kept Lamar Odom. While Trevor Ariza basically switched spots with Artest, keeping Odom was the important piece after big money was already tied into Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Lakers are basically the same team minus the Artest/Ariza swap but guys like Derek Fisher aren’t getting any younger. Everyone always said Kobe couldn’t win a ring without Shaq but what about without Fisher? Fisher runs Phil Jackson’s offense and provides the right piece that allows this team to go deep into the playoffs. Think about this, since 2001 only one time has Fisher and the Lakers (he didn’t play in Los Angeles from 2005-2007) not made it to the NBA Finals and that was in 2003. Crazy, huh?
X Factor: Well I just spent a bit covering Fisher but the X Factor is actually the combination of Lamar Odom and Ron Artest. You know Kobe and Gasol will do their thing. Artest has to keep his head on straight and Odom needs to continue his dominance as a sixth man.
2. Spurs (57-62 wins) – A rarity happened last year: The Spurs were eliminated in the first round the playoffs. That hasn’t happened in almost ten years and we’re talking about a team that has won plenty of championships during that period of time. Tim Duncan is 33 and Manu Ginobili is 32 so that window to win with those two isn’t going to last forever for the Spurs. So how do you improve a team that is already well over the cap? Put together some expiring contracts and trade for Richard Jefferson, then add some veteran big guys. Jefferson gives the Spurs another dynamic offensive player as well as a defensive stopper. He’ll guard Kobe and ‘Melo in the playoffs and allow Ginobili to focus on offense. The Spurs added Antonio McDyess who knows the grind of the season and shot blocker Theo Ratliff adds muscle against the tougher teams in the NBA. Don’t sleep on Roger Mason Jr. either; Another guy under the radar the Spurs turned into one of the better role players in the NBA. Mason had 11 games last year where he scored over 20 points, he will fill in where they need it.
X Factor: Richard Jefferson will have to find ways to fit in with the Spurs but if they all want to return to the finals he will need to look at teams like the Lakers and Celtics to see how some players have sacrificed personal stats for the better of the team.
3. Nuggets (54-59 wins) – I’ll admit I was a doubter last year when the Nuggets sent Marcus Camby to the Clippers in a salary dump. I thought it was only the matter of time before Carmelo Anthony said get me out of here but it ended up being Joe Dumars who gave the franchise a huge lift. Chauncey Billups made Pistons’ fans remember what Mr. Big Shot can do – lead a team to the conference finals, which he usually did in Detroit. Kenyon Martin and Nene actually stayed healthy and J.R. Smith while erratic showed that he’s got as much talent as almost anyone in the league. George Karl went from hot seat to a nice safe comfy cushion and the Nuggets look to take a step further this year. The problem? The Lakers and Spurs both made upgrades and the Nuggets lost Linas Kleiza and added Ty Lawson. Chris Andersen is a solid backup but the rest of the second unit is extremely questionable.
X Factor: Can J.R. Smith take another step and mature as a person and basketball player?
4. Mavericks (52-57 wins) – On paper this is a pretty good team. You have Jason Kidd back after flirting a bit with the New York Knicks and the trade bringing in Shawn Marion shows the Mavericks are trying to stay competitive with Dirk Nowitzki still. Josh Howard and Jason Terry provide some good scoring but the Mavericks took a chance on signing Marcin Gortat to an offer sheet only to see it matched by the Magic. The Mavericks will once again send out Erick Dampier at the center spot but you’ll most likely see a lot of small ball the way the Suns used to play with Marion at the four. The Mavericks also grabbed a couple veteran bigs that will help out in the playoffs in Tim Thomas and Drew Gooden. The Mavericks continue to be a good team but they don’t have enough to beat the Spurs or Lakers in a seven game series.
X Factor: Shawn Marion, the guy has proven success in running offenses and with Jason Kidd in the driver’s seat, Marion has to relive his Phoenix days.
5. Blazers (50-55 wins) – Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge are signed to extensions so Blazers fans can sleep a bit easier knowing the two top guys for the franchise are going to be around for awhile. That situation could have gotten ugly and it still could get ugly when guys like Rudy Fernandez and Greg Oden look for paydays in the future. The Blazers upgraded big time getting veteran point guard Andre Miller but he wasn’t the team’s first option. Getting Hedo Turkoglu might have put this team into the upper echelon of the Western Conference but once Hedo realized Toronto was willing to offer the same deal, he took the international route over Portland. The Millsap signing didn’t make much sense to me unless the Blazers were looking to deal Aldridge (maybe?) so when the Jazz matched, the Blazers were able to go out and get what they really needed: a floor general in Miller.
X Factor: Greg Oden needs to stay healthy and needs to outplay Joel Pryzbilla who is a good backup but he’s just that, a backup. Oden has to hold down his starting spot.
6. Jazz (48-53 wins) – Paul Millsap and Carlos Boozer enter this season in a weird situation. Boozer is in the final year of his contract and Millsap just got resigned to money you don’t normally want to pay a bench player. Boozer helps the Jazz this year but long term he’s no longer in the plans for this franchise. Mehmet Okur signed an extension and will be around for a little longer and Deron Williams is a stud (have to write that every article when your boss is a fellow Alum to D-Will). The Jazz could make or break its season based on what happens with the Boozer/Millsap situation and how good Ronnie Brewer can become. Brewer was a bit of a surprise last year giving the Jazz a two guard that can actually do something on the floor, maybe the first since Jeff Hornacek. AK47 is still around but that contract is still pretty ugly.
X Factor: Will Carlos Boozer play this year and stop worrying about his future? Will he and Millsap workout together?
7. Hornets (46-51 wins) – Chris Paul is a stud and the New Orleans Hornets have to continue to build around him now before he gets frustrated and ends up like other past bitter superstars: demanding a trade to team up with other superstars. David West gets a new frontcourt buddy this year in Emeka Okafor. I don’t care what anyone says, the Bobcats trading Chandler straight up for Okafor was a terrible move. The other two spots in the starting lineup are sort of up for grabs. You have Peja Stojakovic who never plays a full season along with Julian Wright battling it out for the small forward spot. Peja might actually get the nod for the sixth man here as a way to hopefully keep him healthy, for once. Morris Peterson and James Posey are the guys at the two guard and Posey being a closer rather than a starter gives way to Mo Pete. Byron Scott is on the hot seat if this team fails to make some noise this year.
X Factor: Paul, West and Okafor will show up but this team needs some of the wing players to step up. Will Peja stay healthy and have the deadly shot? Will Posey rebound after a disappointing Hornets debut season?
8. Clippers (43-48 wins) – Lottery sweepstakes always help the top team when there is a clear No. 1 prospect entering the draft. Blake Griffin will be a cornerstone for the Clippers franchise for hopefully the next 10-15 years and the two drafts before this year’s landed the Clippers Eric Gordon and Al Thornton. The Clippers have finally put a lot of nice pieces together along with aging veterans Baron Davis, Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman. Yes, Kaman is only 27 but the guy is injury prone so it’s hard to count him as a young gun. Blake Griffin’s knee injury will set the team back a bit but I still think the Clippers are a playoff caliber team if everything comes together. They also made a nice trade with my Timberwolves to land them Sebastian Telfair and Craig Smith, two solid backups for any team in the league. Of course another guy on the bench is Ricky Avis (he used to be Davis but he never played defense so they took the D out of his last name).
X Factor: This time can do some damage but Baron Davis has to be healthy and leading the charge.
9. Suns (40-45 wins) – Steve Nash signed an extension in the offseason, kind of surprising but in the end he’s more comfortable playing in Phoenix than chasing a ring elsewhere. Shaq is gone and Amar’e Stoudemire returns after all the eye issues, and don’t forget: Stoudemire is a free agent at the end of the season. Most in Phoenix would assume if they don’t make the playoffs that Amar’e will head east to play with the Knicks. Jason Richardson didn’t provide the sparkplug the Suns thought he would and Leandro Barbosa is good but he only played 24 minutes a game. The Suns can only go small lineup so much so they drafted Earl Clark, a combo forward that should see plenty of action. They return Grant Hill for another season (will he be able to play until he’s 45 because of all the years he missed?) and Robin Lopez will be the starting center. The best days are likely behind Phoenix with Steve Nash at the helm.
X Factor: Jason Richardson. Stoudemire and Nash will get theirs but Richardson needs to emerge as a guy scoring 24 or 25 points a game.
10. Warriors (37-42 wins) – Will Don Nelson retire already? The guy seems so apathetic towards the game of basketball sometimes. The Warriors have talent but does everyone really want to be here? Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson both at times have privately (and sort of publically) asked for trades, Anthony Randolph didn’t seem to be on the same page with Nelson and Corey Maggette was the worst signing of the 2008 offseason. So what’s good about this team? First off you have to appreciate Andris Biedrins a little bit. The guy is going to give you a double-double and while he did miss some games last year, he only missed 6 total the two years before that. Rookie Stephen Curry will fit the mold Nelson likes and if he can continue to bulk up, his transition to the NBA could be a good one. This team just needs to figure itself out and get rid of the people who don’t want to be there: Nelson, Jackson and maybe others too.
X Factor: Anthony Randolph could be a superstar in the making. He needs to ignore the distractions that are happening with the Warriors and focus on becoming the best basketball player he can be.
11. Thunder (33-38 wins) – The Thunder have something some of the younger teams in the Western Conference don’t have: A #1 option superstar. Kevin Durant has so far turned out to be the savior to a franchise that a couple years ago had very little to cheer for. The Thunder has continued to add nice pieces in Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the last two drafts. Durant has another forward he can depend on in Jeff Green to help him out and the Thunder have two intriguing pieces in B.J. Mullens and Shaun Livingston. If those guys pan out along with the further development of everyone else, look out. It’s no surprise that Sam Presti (former Spurs Assistant General Manager) has built a good looking roster so far. Of course it didn’t hurt that the Sonics, err I mean Thunder, landed Durant. Durant even seems to want to stay in OKC once his rookie contract is up, a rarity for losing franchises.
X Factor: Durant’s supporting cast. As long as the effort and improvement is happening during the season, Kevin Durant will feel the season is a success. There needs to be improvement by all the young guys and it needs to show in the record at the end of the year.
12. Rockets (30-35 wins) – Everyone knows this season was going to be a downfall for the Rockets after learning that Yao Ming’s postseason injury will keep him likely for the entire season. One thing hasn’t changed: Tracy McGrady is hurt as usual. Ole’ T-Mac is finally in the last year of his contract, over $20 million and Houston likely not bring him back. The Rockets replaced Ron Artest with NBA Finals surprise stud Trevor Ariza but Ariza is no savior, let’s remember he played with Gasol, Bryant, Odom, etc. The opportunities for guys to step up this year are available and big men Luis Scola and Carl Landry will do their best. Don’t forget this team still has Mr. Dependable Shane Battier. He might not be the flashiest player but he is certainly a reliable one.
X Factor: How can it not be Trevor Ariza? We will find out early what type of player Ariza is with no T-Mac and no Yao.
13. Grizzlies (27-32 wins) – After getting O.J. Mayo in a draft day trade with Minnesota last year, one would start to think that Chris Wallace (Not Biggy) is finally onto something. He’s got Marc Gasol, Mayo, Rudy Gay, Mike Conley Jr. and a few other decent pieces and then with the second pick in the draft he adds Hasheem Thabeet. The problem for the Grizzlies is it was too high to take Jordan Hill but instead of waiting to play with cap room next summer, they traded for Zach Randolph. Later in the offseason, somehow Allen Iverson was passed over by 29 other teams plus countless foreign teams and signed with the Grizzlies too. Randolph is a good player stat-wise but has been a headache everywhere he’s been. Iverson has a chip on his shoulder because no one wants him anymore but he’s also past his prime. Even Notorious wouldn’t like this job too much.
X Factor: Rudy Gay is a restricted free agent next year and the thing that people always bring up with him is effort. Memphis is a historically losing franchise and Gay needs to decide if he wants to head up the turnaround or follow other past Grizzlies and play elsewhere.
14. T’Wolves (22-27 wins) – No Ricky Rubio, no problem? Not quite. The Wolves are playing for a high lottery pick and cap flexibility for 2010 but it hurt when Rubio didn’t come over to begin his NBA career. Enter the guy picked after Rubio: Jonny Flynn. Insiders with the organization say the Flynn will be the leader of the team by the end of the season and while Kevin Love and Al Jefferson start out the season injured (Love out, Jefferson with day-to-day injuries), Flynn needs to be the guy that gets as much experience as possible. Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes need to prove they are capable players rounding out the starting lineup and Kahn’s September free agent Ramon Sessions needs to provide the scoring punch that the team doesn’t have now that Mike Miller and Randy Foye are wearing Wizards’ uniforms. Time will tell how Kurt Rambis will do with this young unit though he won’t talk too much without mentioning the plans the team has for next season.
X Factor: The Wolves have tried point guard after point guard the last five years. Drafting Rubio, Flynn and signing Sessions means something better work out. Flynn will get the first shot and most have faith he can do it.
15. Kings (18-23 wins) – The Kings landed Tyreke Evans in the draft and are hopeful he can be a big time franchise guard. He will start the season as the point guard but not everyone is sold on him at that position. They have another nice piece in Kevin Martin with some nice young talent in big guys Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson. Beno Udrih didn’t improve in his second year with the Kings and that resulted in the Evans pick. The strange thing about this team is the coaching hire of Paul Westphal. Westphal hasn’t been a head coach in the NBA since 2000 and some are questioning how serious ownership is about the Kings. One player I like on this team is Andres Nocioni because of his gritty play but this season will be a success based on the young guys mentioned above improving as well as guys like Donte Greene and Francisco Garcia. Hey, even Sean May is getting a shot with the Kings this year.
X Factor: Kevin Martin can score but can he do anything else? He looked OK when Mike Bibby and Ron Artest were around but once they were gone this team fizzled.