The ULOT NBA 2008-09 Season Preview: Western Conference

If there’s one thing I know well, it is the world of professional basketball. A fan since I can remember, I’ll be here to guide you through the season and tell you what’s going to happen, or at least what I think is going to happen. Last season was one of the best regular seasons in recent memory and the playoffs weren’t too bad either, with a few surprisingly good series (Atlanta pushing Boston to seven games) and one battle that will go down in basketball lore (Pierce v. LeBron James in game seven in Boston of their series, evoking memories of Bird and Dominique). The majority of elite teams still reside in the Western Conference, but as the last two of three champions have shown (Miami and Boston), teams from the East still have to be respected. After a busy off-season that saw some marquee players move to other teams, other conferences, and in one case, another country, this season looks like it should be just as entertaining. Some teams are looking to make that next big step forward while other teams seem to just be waiting for next year already. Teams are listed in order of their predicted finish in their division and an asterisk (*) denotes a playoff team.

NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW: By far the best conference top to bottom. While they are good teams in the East, the top 8 of the West is clearly superior.

Northwest Division-There’s a big divide between the top two teams in this division and the next three. They should be the only two competing in April.
• *Utah Jazz– Deron Williams will have to settle for being the second best point guard in the league, but any team besides New Orleans would gladly take him. A great combination with Carlos Boozer, this team was good enough to win the division last year and they didn’t change much. They competed with the Lakers admirably last year, but given the Lakers are now getting a healthy Bynum, you have to wonder if they should have looked to trade forward Andrei Kirilenko for another scoring threat on the perimeter. They still should be good enough to win the division, but my only concern is that will not be enough to advance any further than the second round like last season.
• *Portland Trailblazers– Easily the “bandwagon team” of the upcoming year, many people are expecting big things from this team. Greg Oden will be making his debut from having microfracture surgery last year and early reviews from his workouts are gushing. If that wasn’t enough to raise expectations, rookie Jerryd Bayless tore up the summer league to the tune of 28 points a game and was named the summer league MVP. However he is going to have to become a more accomplished passer to earn solid playing time. Also coming this year is Spanish sensation Rudy Fernandez who let the world (and Dwight Howard) know his presence with a viscous dunk in the gold medal game (he also has pretty good range as evidenced from that game). LaMarcus Aldridge is coming into his third year after a strong first two and along with Oden forms an incredibly strong front court with great shot blocking ability. Team leader Brandon Roy, former Rookie of the Year and coming off his first All-Star Game last season, is entering just his third season. This team is incredibly young and incredibly talented. This is going to be a strong defensive team that will control the paint and has a great perimeter defender in Roy. The only concern is health given Oden’s history already before he’s played a professional game and Roy’s past nagging injuries. It is hard to keep down expectations for this team given they were .500 last season and have just added talent and experience, and while I don’t think they’ll make a deep playoff run (but wouldn’t be too surprised). With seven current roster members who could be free agents next year, expect a mid-year deal to bring in a veteran player. This team should make the playoffs however and should be a force to be reckoned with in the NBA for the next decade. If they stay together and healthy, expect multiple titles for this team.
Denver Nuggets– This team has squeaked into the playoffs the last two years and been knocked out in the first round rather easily. I was very excited when they traded for Allen Iverson and thought it would have put them into the contender category of the West. Unfortunately it has not worked out. They put up a lot of points but they give up almost as many. So what do they do in the offseason? They trade their only defensive player in Marcus Camby for essentially nothing in order to dump his salary and begin rebuilding. Take this as an admission that the Allen Iverson/Carmelo Anthony experiment was a failure. They’re still going to score a lot, but they’re going to allow even more which is a recipe for a losing season and a trip to the lottery. The Nuggets could easily implode as Iverson and Anthony are strong competitors who want to win and have no interest in a rebuilding effort. George Karl is the first coach I see either quitting or being fired this season. Look for Iverson or Anthony, most likely Iverson, to be on the trading block come the deadline.
Minnesota Timberwolves– A good young nucleus for this team. Al Jefferson seems like the type of player you can build around, even though I feel he might be a little undersized at center. Mike Miller will be a great way to loosen up the double teams on Jefferson because you cannot afford to leave him open. Along with Miller, they also acquired Kevin Love when they traded the rights to O.J. Mayo on draft day. While I still feel Love and Jefferson are power forwards, Jefferson’s athleticism and versatility allows such a move. They won’t win much but they will compete and this team is a point guard away (depending on how Randy Foye develops) from making the next level within the next few years.
Oklahoma City Thunder– The artists formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics, this team is very young, but still a few years away. Kevin Durant is the kind of player you would buy a ticket to watch and I don’t think he’ll disappoint this year. The reigning Rookie of the Year should continue to improve, as should second year Jeff Green and current rookie Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City showed a couple years ago they could support a team when they hosted the New Orleans Hornets after Hurricane Katrina. While that team was contending for the playoffs, let’s see if they can support a team that is in the rebuilding process.

Southwest Division– The strongest division in the conference and league by far. This will be very competitive and the difference between the top 3 in this division could easily be under 5 games.
• *New Orleans Hornets– This was the “surprise” team of the NBA last year, although it wasn’t too much of a shock because unlike two years ago, they stayed relatively healthy last year. This year no one should be surprised by what the Hornets do. Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA (led the league in assists and steals last year) and even though it seems hard to believe, I think he will be even better. David West is one the most underrated players out there and gives a great inside game to compliment Peja Stojakovic’s outside game very well. Tyson Chandler is a great defensive presence and tough defender. Their big off-season move was signing (and probably overpaying) James Posey, a sixth man on the last two title teams. He brings great outside shooting and defense so while they grossly overpaid, he will be a welcome addition. After the Conference Finals last year, this squad will be disappointed with anything but a championship.
• *Houston Rockets-This team could either be incredibly successful or absolutely implode depending on if Mt. Ron erupts. Ron Artest is in a contract year so I expect him to be on his best behavior, but you never really know with him. This projection is clearly based on sustained health, as both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady have long histories of injuries, but if healthy this team will make a lot of noise. Also, Artest is a great insurance policy to step in as a second option if McGrady has to miss time to take pressure off Yao and vice versa. Their offense and defense have both been upgraded tremendously with the addition of Artest, not to mention they already have Shane Battier who is a great on the ball defender himself. They’ll push the Hornets for the division crown.
• *San Antonio Spurs-The Spurs have been a mainstay in the West for the past decade. Anytime you can trot out Tim Duncan, the best power forward to play the game, you’re going to win some games. The Spurs have won titles in ’03, ’05, and ’07. Can they keep the trend and do it again in ’09? Probably not, as age and health is becoming a major factor now and Manu Ginobli had off-season ankle surgery. His health is crucial to this team’s success, and he’s already listed as out until at least mid-December. As long as they have Duncan and Parker they’ll still be tough, but this dynasty is finally coming to an end.
• *Dallas Mavericks-Remember in 2006 when this team was up 2-0 on the Heat and seemingly cruising to a Game 3 victory and a sure title? Well they blew a big 4th quarter lead, lost the series and since then it hasn’t been much better. Ousted in the 1st round the past two years, most notably in 2007 when they had the best record in the league and lost to the Warriors in 6, this team has a lot of question marks. The Jason Kidd trade last year reeked of desperation and did not work out at all and now he’s a year older (36) and still cannot shoot. They should make the playoffs because Dirk Nowitzki is still good, but they lack pieces everywhere else to really compliment him. Josh Howard, best known for professing his love for smoking pot and not “celebrating” the national anthem because, to quote him, he’s black is not someone that should really be trusted as a reliable 2nd option.
Memphis Grizzlies– They are a very young and athletic team, but they aren’t that good right now. At the very least they should be entertaining as they traded for O.J. Mayo on draft day and have Marc Gasol from Spain’s silver medal team coming over. He looked pretty solid in Olympic play so it will be interesting to see how his game is going to transfer over. Rudy Gay has shown he can play in this league and if they can keep this young nucleus together of Mike Conley, Mayo, and Gay, they should become competitive in the West within the next couple of years. The thing that scared me most about this team was their attempt to trade for New York Knicks malcontent Zach Randolph, someone who would have both hurt cap space and development of their young players. That’s not the kind of influence you want on a team like this and if I’m a Grizzlies fan I’m a little concerned this is what management was trying to do with what could be a promising young team.

Pacific Division– Pretty much one contender in this division. I don’t think it will be too competitive as everyone will be chasing the Lakers.
• *Los Angeles Lakers– This team was good enough to finish 1st in the West and make the NBA finals last year. And that was without Andrew Bynum after January 13th. Ron Artest was on their wish list in the off-season but they couldn’t swing a trade because the Kings are one of their biggest rivals and they thought giving up Lamar Odom would have been too much. This team is going to win a lot of games and be an incredibly tough out in the playoffs. Kobe Bryant (a.k.a. The Black Mamba, a.k.a. The Doberman) is the best all-around player in the NBA and can be counted on in clutch situations. They’re going to need Pau Gasol and Odom to be tougher, especially in the playoffs after the Celtics showed they back down if you pop them in the mouth. However a healthy Bynum gives this team the inside toughness and scoring they lacked last year. If Bynum is full strength and can give them what he did last year, this team is scary good. I expect him to continue the great play he showed last year, make the all-star team, and give the Lakers their trademark dominant big man in the mold of Chamberlin, Abdul-Jabar, and Shaq. I’m not saying he’s a Hall of Famer like the previously mentioned big men, but Bynum is going to dominate the middle for a long time to come. Showtime is back.
• *Phoenix Suns– A lot of talent, but after they traded Shawn Marion for Shaquille O’Neal, they traded their famous identity of a run first team. Shaq is well past his running days but they don’t really have the defensive personnel for the half court game (Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire are atrocious one-on-one defenders). They struggled initially with Shaq, then went on a nice run to close the year, but then fluttered out in the playoffs. Also, Mike D’Antoni left after the Spurs bounced them in the first round last year so it will be interesting to see how they adjust to new coach and a new style of basketball with Terry Porter. Nash recently said the team still doesn’t have an identity, but it’s working on one. The West doesn’t lend itself to lengthy adjustments so they will need to get their act together and establish an identity early. Steve Nash is no longer the best point guard in the league but is still damn good, but he’s only getting older so injuries become more and more of a concern (Shaq and Grant Hill aren’t exactly known for staying healthy all year either). Amare Stoudamire is a stud and will put up huge numbers next to Shaq, but I’m not expecting nearly as many wins as years past.
Los Angeles Clippers– Let’s just say this is the season of what could have been for the Clippers. After making a huge splash in free agency and surprisingly snagging Baron Davis, it was assumed Elton Brand would sign a new deal and this team would be able to compete in the West. However, Brand had a nasty falling out with Clippers management and left for Philadelphia. They were able to get the Nuggets to essentially give them Marcus Camby, and while it improves their defense and plugs a gap, it will not come close to making up for the loss of Brand. Al Thorton looked very promising last year so he will definitely be leaned on for more scoring along with Davis. They’ll be more competitive than last year (remember, Brand missed almost the whole year with a torn Achilles tendon), but I’d be surprised if they could get to .500.
Golden State Warriors– Free agency was a real punch in the mouth for the Warriors. No one thought Baron Davis would opt out and then he did and left almost immediately. Shocked by this, the Warriors made a failed run at Elton Brand and then had to settle for overpaying another Clipper, Corey Maggette. He’s no Baron Davis, but he’ll help. They had an outside shot at the playoffs until Monta Ellis injured his ankle in an offseason moped accident and will be out until December/January. I don’t see Marcus Williams being able to fill the huge scoring void left by Ellis. The West is just far too competitive to go a lengthy time without your best player. Don Nelson has worked magic in the past and is one of the best coaches in terms of getting the most out of his talent, but he won’t have enough talent to work with. They’ll be very fun to watch and put up a ton of points every game, but I expect another visit to the lottery.
Sacramento Kings-I’ll start with the positive. Kevin Martin is a tremendous talent. He can get to the basket and doesn’t ever really take bad shots. Ok. That’s about it. Without Ron Artest, Martin is now “the guy” and their 2nd best player is now between Brad Miller, Francisco Garcia, and Beno Udrih. None of these players should be a 2nd option so don’t expect much. Shareef Abdur-Rahim would have been on the list of potential 2nd options but he retired in the offseason, but he wouldn’t have been much better. At least they’ll have a high draft pick in 2009.

Next: Eastern Conference Preview along with the title prediction and award winners.

–M. Night Crawler

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