By Andy WeiseÂ
8. Dallas Mavericks (2007-08:Â 51-31; 2008-09: 43-48 wins)
Avery Johnson took the fall for the lack of success the Mavericks had following the Jason Kidd trade. The Mavericks were clearly looking for more success when they dealt Devin Harris and other pieces for Jason Kidd. The problem? The Mavs were 16-14 after the Kidd trade. Dirk Nowitzki begins his 11th season with the Mavericks and my guess is heâ€™s the next guy to take the heat if the team doesnâ€™t improve. Josh Howard is a mess, Jason Terry, Erick Dampier, and other vets like Jerry Stackhouse and Devean George are not getting any younger or better. DeSagana Diop, also involved in the Harris/Kidd trade, is now back with the Mavericks following a five year, $30 million deal. By the way, Diop has never averaged more than 3 points a game, averages just 4-5 rebounds and plays about 15-18 minutes a game. So why the full mid-level for five years? Unreal.
7. Portland Trail Blazers (2007-08:Â 41-41; 2008-09: 46-51 wins)
Now hereâ€™s a team on the rise in a Western Conference that has a lot of aging veterans. Greg Oden will finally see the court in a game that matters; spring 2007 was the last time that happened. LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy have proved themselves as very good NBA players and when you add a playmaker like Rudy Fernandez, the Blazers are definitely a team that will continue to improve and become a postseason mainstay for the next decade. General Manager Kevin Pritchard deserves a lot of credit for putting this team together. Of course, a little luck with the lottery helped him land Oden, but other trades, drafts and signings have helped him nab a good supporting cast in guys like Travis Outlaw, Martell Webster, Channing Frye, Steve Blake and Joel Przybilla. Another guy I like on this team is Jerryd Bayless, the Blazers acquired draft pick. Many thought Bayless could go #4 to the Thunder but when he dropped, the Blazers got lucky landing him in a draft trade with Indiana. Can a team have too much young talent? Portland might. Oh and they could be under the cap enough in 2009 to afford a max free agent. Scary!
6.Â Phoenix Suns (2007-08:Â 55-27; 2008-09: 48-53 wins)
The Suns are going to be a different team this year because of their major change â€“ Mike Dâ€™Antoni out, Terry Porter in. Clearly Kerr and Dâ€™Antoni wanted different things when the trade that sent Shawn Marion out for Shaquille Oâ€™Neal occurred. No longer could the Suns run like they did with Marion. Oâ€™Neal is only effective in the half-court offense (I think itâ€™s been that way for at least 10 years) but Oâ€™Neal did one thing very well: free up Amare Stoudemire to dominate. The Suns have a two year window now with Oâ€™Neal and Steve Nash both free agents in 2010. Oâ€™Neal has already said he will retire and Nash has entertained the idea of heading to Toronto to play in his native country. Amare also has a player option so the Suns could easily be back in the dumps within a couple years.
Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw are solid role players, but Barbosa was more effective in the run-and-gun offense. Grant Hill could fall apart at anytime so the team signed Matt Barnes who was serviceable at Golden State. Robin Lopez AKA Sideshow Bob is the center of the future so he has two years to learn as much as he can from Shaq. Suns are in a win-now mode.
5. San Antonio Spurs (2007-08:Â 56-26; 2008-09: 49-54 wins)
Age is starting to catch up in San Antonio. Manu Ginobili is out for a good chunk of the season and if the Spurs start out slow, theyâ€™ll be playing catch up most of the season. Tim Duncan is 32 and canâ€™t be getting much better at his age. Tony Parker is still the key for the team though. While he seems like heâ€™s been around forever, he turned just 26 in May. He still might be the quickest player in the league with the ball and that will continue to create opportunities for teammates. Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen are still around at 35 and 37. Fabricio Oberto is 33 and key reserves Kurt Thomas, Jacque Vaughn and Ime Udoka are all over 30. So can the veteran presence really carry this team to another title?
I donâ€™t think so. At some point the Spurs need to start putting some pieces together for the future. I like the signing of Roger Mason Jr. but comparing a team like Boston to the Spurs, the Celtics at least have guys like Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe and Tony Allen. I donâ€™t see any special youth on the Spurs and Duncan isnâ€™t going to be around forever.
4. New Orleans Hornets (2007-08: 56-26; 2008-09: 53-58 wins)
Chris Paul leapfrogged into the NBAâ€™s elite player circle last year and will continue to improve as each year goes on. Is that possible? Of course. The Hornets return virtually the same team but lost key backup point guard Jannero Pargo. They added James Posey, the leagueâ€™s new Robert Horry (key vet who goes to any team that wins titles). The frontcourt compliments the superstar in Paul. With Tyson Chandler, Peja Stojakovic and David West all staying healthy, this team became the Westâ€™s biggest surprise last year. No surprise as Peja finally stayed on the court and the other two proved theyâ€™re at the All-Star level of play in this league. If thereâ€™s one area where theyâ€™re thin, itâ€™s front court depth. If West or Chandler go down, this team could drop 3-4 spots in the rankings. Melvin Ely? Sean Marks? Hilton Armstrong? Hmmm.
3. Utah Jazz (2007-08:Â 54-28; 2008-09: 54-59 wins)
Is Jerry Sloan really still coaching? After all those years with Stockton and Malone, he got lucky landing Deron Williams along with the signings of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur. With Williams, the man-crush of this siteâ€™s founder, signing an extension before the seasonâ€¦the attention turns to Boozer after this year. Will he stay? Rumors have said he could bolt for Miami. At this point, I donâ€™t know why you would want to leave the Jazz basketball-wise. With guys like Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Matt Harpring and Andrei Kirilenko at the two and three positions, you have a real good team. Is it enough to win a title? That remains to be seen. I think Utah could be a team like the Suns that will always have good teams but never enough to win it all.
If Brewer can become a dominant two-guard (the position where they always suffered Stockton/Malone era, (Unless you really thought Jeff Malone and/or Jeff Hornacek were anything special) this team will be special. Remember who was always guarding Jordan? Bryon Russell? Come on now.
2. Houston Rockets (2007-08: 55-27; 2008-09: 55-60 wins)
Tracy McGrady canâ€™t get a team out of the first round so what do the Rockets do? Add Ron Artest, a player that when you put everything together (offense and defense), he might be one of the top five players in the league. Laugh all you want, but this guy is one of the toughest defenders and on any night can drop 25 points. Yao Ming is back from injury, Luis Scola proved to be a nice power forward and Rafer Alston just needs to hit open shots and get the ball to the playmakers. Houston is definitely my â€œsexyâ€ pick for the West right now. Shane Battier will fill in if McGrady gets hurt again or Artest decides to take off a month to release another CD. At least Houston has Rick Adelman, a coach Artest really seemed to enjoy playing for.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (2007-08:Â 57-25; 2008-09: 60-65 wins)
The Lakers had all the momentum going into the NBA Finals last year and then Bostonâ€™s defense completely shut down Kobe and Co. Andrew Bynum is back and will be a force under the middle while allowing Pau Gasol to go back to his natural position of power forward. Kobe is Kobe. He is the best offensive player in the league and wants that one ring without Shaq. Lamar Odom is getting pushed back more and more in the plans of this team and I think the Lakers missed out big on not getting Artest for Odom. That trade would have been great for the Lakers and probably would have made Phil Jackson a happy coach. L.A. lost Ronny Turiaf but if Bynum stays healthy that would easily offset his loss as the team still has complimentary backups in Luke Walton, Sasha Vujacic, Vladimir Radmanovich, Chris Mihm and Jordan Farmar. I donâ€™t know how the Lakers donâ€™t get back to the Finals if they stay healthy, but we shall see what happens.
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