Yesterday, we discussed the horrors of my picks from this time a year ago (highlights include the Grizz in and the Lakers out of the 2008 playoffs). So you know by now that the next several paragraphs will feature yours truly speaking authoritatively over future events about which I truly have very little idea and over which I can exercise exactly zero control.
You've been warned. Off we go with the 2008-09 regular season projections for the Western Conference.
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15. Oklahoma City Thunder
What's good: This Kevin Durant fellow seems like he might be all right. The Thunder definitely won't finish any lower in the West in their first season in Oklahoma City than the Sonics did in their last in Seattle.
What's bad: Columbia Missourian hoops reporter Bill Powell turning on the Lakers-Thunder preseason tilt last week and within seconds happily exclaiming, "Hey, Earl Watson looks just as bad in blue as he did in green!" Russell Westbrook was a nice pick at the point, but he is likely to have his share of bumps in the road in his rookie season, and the rest of the supporting cast still just isn't very good. There is a reason this team failed to crack the top 20 in either offensive or defensive efficiency last year, and there isn't yet much of a reason to believe that they won't do the same this year. How the team reacts to the move to Oklahoma City is anyone's guess.
What happens: Good crowds watch bad basketball. The pieces are collecting (Durant, Westbrook, Jeff Green), but they need time to develop, and the rest simply aren't there yet. It's also hard to imagine all the upheaval with the franchise over the past year could be that much of a help to this group. The Thunder and their ugly jerseys will be a key player in the lottery.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
What's good: Al Jefferson officially put the rest of the league on notice with his performance in 2007-08, in which he averaged better than 21 points and 11 boards per game. He's only 23 and likely to keep growing as a player. Randy Foye returns at full health after playing just 39 games a season ago. Sebastian Telfair surprised folks with his better-than-usual-for-Bassy play at times last year. Kevin Love enters the fold to complement Big Al in the frontcourt, and Mike Miller should provide a nice shooting touch and veteran presence. It's quite difficult to imagine Corey Brewer making less of an impact than he did as a rookie.
What's bad: Sebastian Telfair is one of this team's positives. For all his offensive potency, Jefferson can't (or won't?) defend a chair. The same goes for a lot of the guys on this team (Telfair, Miller, possibly Love), which is why the Wolves finished 27th in defensive efficiency a season ago: They weren't (and aren't) very good at guarding people. Funny how that works. This is a very young team, and only one prospect (Jefferson) is a blue-chipper for sure. Brewer should improve, but there is no guarantee there or on Love as an NBA player.
What happens: Teams score at will in the paint against Jefferson and Love. The defensive efficiency remains really bad. Corey Brewer makes a nice jump forward in his sophomore season. The Wolves lose significantly more often than they win.
13. Memphis Grizzlies
What's good: The young firepower on this team has a chance to be scary good before all is said and done: Mike Conley Jr., O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay are likely to make quite a trio. Gay has established himself as this team's best player, Mayo has the athleticism and skill set likely to make him an immediate impact guy and Conley has a year of experience under his belt. If Marc Iavaroni can get these guys to share the ball effectively, they are going to put up plenty of points.
What's bad: The Grizzlies have four point guards on the roster and haven't really figured out what they're doing with any of them, though the guess here is that Conley will be the franchise guy going forward. Darko Milicic underachieved badly in year one of his new three-year deal (after I pronounced that he would silence his critics). Like most bad teams, they don't play a lot of defense. Also, how much does Marc Gasol weigh? Is he officially pushing three bills yet?
What happens: They play quite a few high-scoring games and lose most of them.
12. Sacramento Kings
What's good: The best thing about the recently discovered loss of my archives back at Taking it to the Rack is the deletion of the dumbest thing I ever wrote: A collection of silly comments about Kevin Martin with a headline that involved the word "chucker." That guy can fill it up, as evidenced by the fact that he led his team in total points last year despite only playing in 61 games. He did that scoring on an absurd 61.8 percent true shooting.
Meanwhile, Beno Udrih had a bit of a break-out of his own last season at age 25, and John Salmons can play when he gets the opportunities. Having Ron Artest's personality out of town likely won't hurt, and there is already plenty of early excitement about rookie Donte Greene from Syracuse.
What's bad: When it's all said and done, they're still surrounding Martin with the likes of Mikki Moore, Beno Udrih and John Salmons. Compared to some of the teams we're going to deal with shortly, they just aren't that good.
What happens: They will get their share of surprise victories at ARCO Arena when Martin shoots the lights out and the rest of the pieces fall into place, but they'll have plenty of nights when they don't have a chance. This team isn't the terrible bunch I thought it was at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, but there just isn't much room for them up ahead in a crowded conference.
If Only Their Best Player Hadn't Gotten Hurt Riding a Moped
11. Golden State Warriors
What's good: Few stories around the NBA are more intriguing than that of Stephen Jackson's character makeover during his time in Oakland. He has become the heart and soul of this team, and he comes off his best individual season still hunting for a contract extension. Foul-drawing machine Corey Maggette joins the fold as a free agent, and the Dubs still have Don Nelson. Little else in the league is quite as exhilirating to watch as Nellieball, and the Warriors will undoubtedly continue to run and light up the scoreboard this year.
What's bad: Their best player (and $66 million investment) got hurt riding a moped this summer and then got suspended for lying about it. Monta Ellis won't play until mid-December at the earliest. In a conference in which 50 wins was the minimum requirement for the playoffs a season ago, Ellis' prolonged absence will likely be too much to overcome. Further, Warriors boosters (and generally speaking, I'm one of them) can talk all they want about all the deflections and weak-side steals this team gets, but at the end of the day, they still finished 23rd in defensive efficiency a season ago. They're not good at that end of the floor.
What happens: Ellis' absence short-circuits them through the turn of the calendar, and even if they manage a decent run after that, it will be too little, too late.
On the Outside Looking In Come Springtime
10. Denver Nuggets
What's good: Well, I guess it's supposed to be nice that they don't have Marcus Camby's burdensome $19 million salary (that expires in 2010 anyway!) on their payroll anymore. Also, this group (read: Iverson, Anthony, Smith, Kleiza, Martin, Nene) have the physical talent and explosiveness to go for 200 points on any given night.
What's bad: They're probably going to need to hit that 200 mark to win most nights. There has been plenty of talk this summer about how Marcus Camby's contributions on the defensive end were overrated, that he was a weak-side defender who could stuff the box score with boards and blocks but do little else. Seems like a stretch. Camby might not have been the world's greatest individual defender, but the guy's presence made a big difference in the paint for this team, and the idea that the Nugs will somehow improve at that end without him strikes me as ludicrous. Expecting players like Anthony and Iverson to suddenly decide to pick up their defensive effort because they don't have a 'safety blanket' behind them seems like a reach with little supporting evidence. Not buying it.
It also doesn't help that most of the folks named in the offensive firepower comment above are also established knuckleheads in this league. It's possible to survive with one or two of those guys. It's very difficult to do so with a team full of them.
What happens: George Karl repeatedly throws his team under the bus in press conferences and wonders why they aren't executing his instructions well enough on defense. J.R. Smith, now getting guaranteed money, loses his focus, and a distraction-littered season ends early for the Nuggets.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
What's good: They brought in a local product who happens to be one of the game's top point guards to complement their finally fully healthy stalwart power forward. The 26-year-old center (Chris Kaman) is entering his prime after a breakout season in which he put up 15.7 points, 12.7 boards and 2.8 blocks per game. The Clips snagged Marcus Camby on the cheap from cost-cutting Denver this summer. Al Thornton's rookie year points per game by month: 6.3, 8.1, 13.2, 17.4, 15.7, 14.9.
What's bad: The stalwart power forward isn't actually in the fold anymore, having jettisoned the team for a better offer in Philly (salutations, David Falk!). Camby and Kaman are both centers at this point, and there's no guarantee that they will mesh all that well offensively, although this team should certainly guard the interior well. Baron Davis' ability to thrive in the running game may be neutralized by Mike Dunleavy's preference for the slowdown.
What happens: Davis loves playing in his hometown, and this team is much better than the one that was decimated by injuries a season ago. But as Bill Powell points out, this team had a healthy Elton Brand and Corey Maggette (to go with Sam Cassell) two years ago, and it still missed the playoffs. It has Davis and Camby now but neither Brand nor Maggette, and the conference may be more competitive now than it was in 2006-07. The Clips hang tough in the hunt, but the facts that they still have a lot of injury-prone vets and that their new cast members will need time to get used to playing with each other will keep this team from putting up enough victories to earn a berth.
8. Portland Trail Blazers
What's good: This has to be considered the best stable of young talent in the game at this point, right? The 2006-07 Rookie of the Year (Brandon Roy) enters his third season and his second as a captain after another steady sophomore campaign. The league's most heralded young big man of the last decade (Greg Oden) finally makes his professional debut. The Blazers have a lengthy power forward who only figures to keep getting better in LaMarcus Aldridge, a rookie combo guard waiting in the wings (Jerryd Bayless) and one of the world's best international players in swingman Rudy Fernandez.
Nate McMillan had these guys playing way over their heads last year without the big fella from Ohio State, and even if Oden isn't dominant right away, he will almost assuredly be a presence from the get-go. The guy is going to be a force at the defensive end for as long as he can stay on the court (conditioning and fouls will be issues), and the offense will come. Roy and Aldridge are already young veterans, and this group will play hard team basketball on a night to night basis.
What's bad: Questions remain at small forward. Martell Webster will be out until December with a foot injury, and the team isn't sure how to address that. There was talk of moving Fernandez to the three, using sixth man Travis Outlaw as a starter, or possibly starting draft night acquisition Nicolas Batum. Fernandez is really a two, Outlaw is best used as instant offense off the bench, and Batum's ability is relatively unknown. The good news here is that Webster wasn't any world-beater either, so perhaps they won't be much worse off than they would be if he were healthy. But the position is still an issue either way. My Blazer fan pal Acks spends most of his days envisioning a run at Danny Granger next summer. As for now, I heard Darius Miles was available.
What happens: Oden will have his ups and downs, and like many young teams, the Blazers will run hot and cold throughout the year. But McMillan's steady hand and the fact that this team is filled with legitimately hard-working players focused on the task at hand will help the Blazers sneak in to the playoffs.
7. Dallas Mavericks
What's good: Jason Kidd has had a full offseason and training camp in Dallas, and he enters the season as a fully integrated part of the system. For all the knocks he has taken since his MVP award and ensuing playoff series against Golden State in 2007, Dirk Nowitzki is still a big-time scorer who does a bit of everything for his team. Josh Howard hasn't (to my knowledge) engaged in any public acts of idiocy in more than a month. Out is Avery Johnson, whose time had passed, and in is Rick Carlisle, a coach with a fairly successful track record (.571 career regular season winning percentage) in his own right.
What's bad: Kidd may be integrated, but he also enters the season as a 35-year-old. Meanwhile, though Carlisle has a good track record, it was a bit confusing to see the removal of Avery Johnson (a move largely speculated to have come based on his nature as a control freak) followed with the hiring of a coach also known for keeping a tight rein on his players. Carlisle promises plenty of running this year, but it's hard to forget Tom from Indy Cornrows telling me last year about "the shackles Rick Carlisle threw on fast break opportunities" while he was in Indiana. Howard is fast becoming one of the league's loopier individuals, and the rest of the cast isn't getting any younger (Jerry Stackhouse, Jason Terry) or can only provide so much in the first place (Erick Dampier, DeSagana Diop).
What happens: As unexciting a situation as we have in the West. The Mavs have sufficient talent to get themselves back to the playoffs, but there doesn't seem to be enough here to merit expecting more than that. Their window of possible dominance appeared to slam shut in Golden State in May 2007, and full health from Kidd should be a requirement even for a return to the playoffs. And while we're not generally into compounding our regular season errors with foolish playoff predictions in this column, it's hard to see Dallas as currently constructed matching up with any of the West's top five teams and coming out on top in the first round.
6. Phoenix Suns
What's good: It never hurts to have a two-time MVP and one of the game's most explosive young bigs. This team had reached a point where it was clearly not going to get over the hump with Mike D'Antoni's defense-free system and Steve Kerr's personnel, so credit the Suns for making a change to defense-minded Terry Porter. This team has also started to invigorate its future prospects with the addition of 22-year-old point guard Goran Dragic from overseas and 20-year-old Stanford center Robin Lopez.
What's bad: They're still paying Shaquille O'Neal $40 million over the next two seasons. Four of their key players are 32 (Raja Bell), 34 (Steve Nash) and 36 (O'Neal and Grant Hill) years old, and there is no telling just how well these guys adapt to their new system. The personnel still isn't great defensively, and not running quite as much could stunt the growth of the offense at the outset, though we're confident the likes of Nash and Amare Stoudemire will ultimately adapt on that end.
What happens: They jump a few spots in defensive efficiency and fall a few spots in offensive efficiency and essentially amount to the same sort of team they were a season ago. These guys can roll it up against the East, and their offense will still give them a chance to win every night in the West. But the age, the decreasing usefulness of O'Neal and the fact that they just may not have the players to ever really become a top-line defensive team will prevent the Suns from hopping back into the West's upper echelon.
Cream of the Crop
5. San Antonio Spurs
What's good: In Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, they still have the core of a team that has won three titles this decade. They are extremely well-coached, they don't beat themselves and they are smarter than everyone else.
What's bad: Depth and age. This team looked too old and worn down by the time it ran into the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in June, and it hasn't done much to address that beyond adding gunner Roger Mason Jr. from Washington. Ginobili is 31 and has health concerns. Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley return at ages 37 and 35 respectively. The Western Conference may just have too much power across the board to allow this team to make it through three rounds to the finals.
What happens: Gregg Popovich continues his standard practice of preparing to be refreshed for the playoffs rather than worrying about seeding. He'll rest his three stars as much as he can (particularly Duncan and Ginobili), and the team that cares the least about its regular season results will coast to the playoffs with ease once more. That they will finish third in their own division just won't mean much to them.
4. Utah Jazz
What's good: The Jazz have two of the league's best young players in Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, and they return all the key pieces of an offense that topped the league in efficiency a season ago. Jerry Sloan is right up there with any coach in this league.
What's bad: This team has been completely unable to defend shooting guards over the last two years. Whether they will be able to change that remains up for debate. Who knows when Andrei Kirilenko will regain his consistency?
What happens: So long as Williams' ankle injury doesn't linger, they cruise to the Northwest Division title.
3. Houston Rockets
What's good: They bring back all the key pieces of what was a powerhouse defense a season ago, finishing second in all of basketball in defensive efficiency. Shane Battier emerged as one of the league's premier perimeter defenders, and this team added another top-notch defender and 20-point scorer to go with two stars who one can only imagine are hungrier than ever for some playoff success. In year two under Rick Adelman, this team may find the high-octane offensive stride it expected a year ago.
What's bad: That perimeter defender and 20-point scorer that they brought in (Ron Artest) is a legitimate lunatic. Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming don't have spotless health records. While Jeff Van Gundy may profess to love him, and he has improved in recent seasons, Rafer Alston gives the Rockets a decided disadvantage at the point against the other top teams in this conference.
What happens: Perhaps the most intriguing team in the West, the Rockets bank on a contract year filled with good behavior from Artest, and for the most part, they will get it. The Rockets will continue to play suffocating defense, and Battier's versatility and attitude will make him one of the league's top sixth men. Lots of regular season success for the fellows from Houston.
2. New Orleans Hornets
What's good: They have Chris Paul, and everybody else doesn't. The continued production of Peja Stojakovic, the growth of David West and Tyson Chandler's monstrous weakside defense don't hurt either. And, of course, they poached the Celtics' beloved sixth man, James Posey.
What's bad: Very little. They finished in the top seven in offensive and defensive efficiency a year ago, and they have rid themselves of reserve chucker Jannero Pargo. A little more production from Morris Peterson at the two wouldn't hurt, and the Hornets will need youngsters Julian Wright and Hilton Armstrong to take a step up off the bench this season.
What happens: Paul turns in a second straight MVP-caliber campaign, and if the Hornets stay healthy, they take their second consecutive Southwest Division title.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
What's good: They are the reigning Western Conference champions, and they have the league's reigning MVP, for starters. Pau Gasol begins his first full season in the City of Angels, and he does so alongside one of the game's most promising young bigs in Andrew Bynum. It may take some time for them to gel in the frontcourt, but we're talking about one of the league's most productive big men of the past few years and an athletic youngster who does a bit of everything. These guys are good. Really good. The point guard tandem of Derek Fisher and Jordan Farmar provides steady play at both ends of the floor as well.
What's bad: What exactly is going to happen with Lamar Odom? How much of having his role bounce around can his psyche take? Will Vladimir Radmanovic ever guard anyone?
What happens: Like them or not, this Lakers team is really good. If fully healthy, Bynum proves the hype legitimate, Kobe runs around doing Kobe things, and the Lakers prove themselves the class of the West once more.
So there you have it. We've made our (assuredly misguided) picks for the Western Conference. Now it's your turn to join the prognostication misery parade. Feel free to let us know why we're wrong and to give us your break down of the Western Conference in the comments below. The Eastern Conference preview comes tomorrow, but until then, in the words of immortal NFL pool commissioner Paul Farash...