It’s season preview time, everyone! Yesterday, we looked at an overview of the Eastern Conference, and today we’re tackling the Western Conference. If you missed yesterday’s post, you might want to check out last year’s Season Preview Primer to get acquainted with some of the non-traditional statistics I’ll be using in these previews. After today, I’ll be starting on the individual team previews.
1: LA Lakers – I’m not as high on the Lakers as everyone else is, despite their status as returning champs. Swapping Ariza for Artest is going to hurt them, not necessarily because Ariza is a better player, but because Artest isn’t going to be content as a role player like Ariza was. He’s just not a great fit with this team, even before you factor in that he’s a raving lunatic. Still though, they have a tremendously talented roster, and the Kobe/Gasol duo is as good as it gets.
The Old and the New
2: San Antonio Spurs – Just when you think the window is going to close on the Spurs, they pull off an A+ offseason and prop it open a bit longer. They brought in a fourth reliable scoring option (Jefferson), an excellent veteran big man (McDyess) and drafted a power forward who can contribute immediately (Blair). Duncan is aging and we don’t know if Manu can stay healthy, but they’re deeper than they’ve ever been, and might be the league’s best team if they can stay healthy.
3: Portland Trailblazers – I’m still not sure whether or not people properly realize how good this Blazers team is. They’re young. They play at a slow pace. Greg Oden got his career off to a slow start, and not enough people recognize that Brandon Roy is a legitimate superstar. All that kind of obscures the fact that Portland is really, really good, and only getting better. If Oden becomes the defensive presence we know he can be, there’s no reason this team can’t contend in the West.
4: Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets played over their heads last year, and I think we’re going to see them fall back a bit this season. That’s not to say that they weren’t good, but they had 4 more wins than their point differential predicted, and they were able to get quality contributions on the cheap from guys like Birdman, Dahntay Jones and Linas Kleiza. On the plus side, Billups is still great, and Nene finally played up to his massive potential. If this team is going to contend for a title, it’s going to have to come from Melo stepping up his game, and I don’t really think that’s gonna happen.
5: Utah Jazz - If the Nuggets played over their heads, the Jazz were the exact opposite. They’ve had basically the same roster for three years now, and with Carlos Boozer coming back, there’s no reason to think they can’t go back to their 07-08 form. They’re not good enough defensively to be a contender, but as long as they don’t trade Boozer, they’re a dangerous matchup.
6: New Orleans Hornets – The Hornets should be a bit better than they were last year. Okafor is a clear improvement over Chandler, and they’ve added some much-needed frontcourt depth with Ike Diogu and Darius Songaila. I also can’t imagine Peja shooting as poorly (for him) as he did last year again. Still, unless Julian Wright makes a massive jump, there’s just not enough help here for Chris Paul.
7: Dallas Mavericks – Dallas is hoping that playing with another visionary point guard can rejuvenate Shawn Marion, who has played very poorly once separated from Steve Nash in Phoenix. If The Matrix can return to form and help Dallas improve on their 17th ranked defense, they can make some noise, though it’s not likely they’ll be challenging for a title.
Race to Eighth
8: Phoenix Suns – Think Mike D’Antoni is feeling a little vindicated right now? After hearing for years about how he didn’t care about defense, he leaves and the new “defense-oriented” Suns plummeted from a middle of the pack 16th to an abysmal 26th in defensive rating. The team seems to be turning back to their roots this year, and with a healthy Amare there’s no reason to think they can’t at least make the playoffs. If they want to do any better than fight for the 8th seed though, they’ll have to get contributions from Robin Lopez and Channing Frye.
9: Oklahoma City Thunder – It was obscured by a terrible first month and little publicity, but Kevin Durant made a massive leap forward last year. Sam Presti continues to surround Durant with young talent, and though I think there are still some roster balance issues (they desperately need a defensive-minded center), there is a ton of talent here. If Durant continues his ascent and Russell Westbrook can improve on a promising but inconsistent rookie year, the Thunder have playoff potential (seriously).
10: Houston Rockets - I think I’m probably more excited about seeing how things play out in Houston than I am about any other team. This is a group that has done big things in the past without Yao and T-Mac in the lineup. They’ll still be good defensively, and the Brooks/Scola pick-and-roll combination is really underrated. Really, I just want to see what happens with a team that has only one player taller than 6′9.
11: LA Clippers – There is a massive amount of talent on this roster. If I thought they could stay healthy and play to their potential, I’d pick them as my 8th playoff team. However, this team will only go as far as Baron Davis takes them, and he is neither the beacon of health nor consistency. Could they be good? Absolutely. But they’re the Clippers, and I’m not betting on it.
12: Golden State Warriors – It’s a shame nobody in Golden State cares about defense, because there’s some real talent on this team. Unfortunately though, Stephen Jackson chucks up too many bad shots, and to say that the team plays matador defense is an insult to the matador. On the plus side, Anthony Randolph looks like he’s heading for a breakout season, and Stephen Curry might average 20 a game in this system.
13: Memphis Grizzlies – Allen Iverson. Zach Randolph. Chris Wallace. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 Memphis Grizzlies! Ugh. If they trade for Ricky Davis ad midseason, it might be the greatest collection of malcontents since the Jailblazers.
The Dungeon beneath the Basement beneath the Cellar
14: Minnesota Timberwolves – Poor Minnesota. There was some serious potential for this team, and then what was shaping up to be a promising offseason just went to hell. This team could probably even make some noise this year if it weren’t for the fact that they traded Randy Foye and Mike Miller for the rights to draft a guy who may never play for the Wolves. As is, their three best returning players are all power forwards, and they’ll have to lean heavily on their rookies in the backcourt. On the plus side though, they did steal Ramon Sessions for a discount price at the end of the summer.
15: Sacramento Kings – I actually think there’s some talent on this team, and I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about their future if Ricky Rubio was the point guard of the future instead of Tyreke Evans. Still, You could do worse than Hawes and Thompson in the frontcourt, and a healthy Kevin Martin is still an elite scoring threat.
(This is replacing my usual list of the best player at each position because, frankly, that list is boring)
3 Players Who Are Better Than You Think
1) Joel Przybilla, POR – Przybilla probably isn’t going to repeat his 62.5 FG% again, but that’s not really what they need him for anyway. He’s one of the league’s best rebounders (he would’ve been 1st this year and 2nd last year in RB% if he’d played enough to qualify), and is also still an above-average (if not great) shot-blocker. Sure, he’s limited offensively, but there aren’t a lot of guys who rebound and defend at his level. Assuming Greg Oden plays well enough to be the starter, Przybilla might be the best back-up center in the league.
2) Emeka Okafor, NOH – Okafor has been kind of forgotten since being the 2nd pick behind Dwight Howard, but a lot of that has to do with playing for a crappy Charlotte team. He’s not ever going to the best player on a team, but few guys are. What he is, is an excellent defensive player and rebounder, and a more competent offensive player than you think. Last year he posted a 112 offensive rating with a 19% usage rating, which is definitely above-average offensively. He’s entering his prime, and this year he actually gets to play with an elite point guard. Don’t sleep on Okafor, I think New Orleans really stole him away.
3) Kelenna Azubuike, GSW – Speaking as someone who road Azubuike to a fantasy title after picking him up off wavers, believe me, the kid can play. There aren’t a lot of other shooting guards who rebound at a high level, rarely turn the ball over, and knock down 45% from deep. As with a lot of players on Golden State, he’s capable of having a big night and pouring in 30, but he’s also an extremely talented role player who does two things, shoot and rebound, that are essential to a team’s success. Is he great? No, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing for Azubuike to be starting on your team.
2 Low Profile Pickups Who Could Make an Impact
1) Antonio Mcdyess, SAS – I’m not sure people realize just how effective a player McDyess has been over the last few years. As he’s lost some of the physical gifts that made him an explosive scorer earlier in his career, he’s really refined his skills and found a niche as a role player. He’s among the league’s best mid-range shooters, and he’s still, surprisingly, an elite rebounder. It’s not like he’s playing limited time either, he played 30 minutes a night last year in Detroit. He can play either frontcourt position, and adding him to Matt Bonner, potential-filled Ian Mahinmi, and rookie DeJuan Blair, the Spurs have a deeper frontcourt surrounding Tim Duncan than they’ve had in some time.
2) Aaron Afflalo, DEN - If you’re taking notes, here’s how you do it. Get great value from a minimum salary player (Dahntay Jones)? Check. Allow another team (Indiana) to overpay said player? Check. Trade for a cheaper, younger version of said player (Afflalo)? Check. I don’t think Afflalo is quite as versatile a defender as Jones is, but he’s an excellent defender at the shooting guard position, and is a much, much better shooter. He’s only 24, and while he’s not going to be a star, he’s still got some growing to do, and should be plenty serviceable as a backup guard.
1 Player Ready to Make “The Jump”
1) Ramon Sessions, MIN – Kevin Durant is the easy choice, but he already kind of broke out last year. I don’t trust Don Nelson enough to pick Anthony Randolph. Instead, I think Sessions is really going to get an opportunity to showcase his talent this year. He was ridiculously overlooked in Milwaukee last year, when he should have been starting all season. This year, he’s the only real veteran in that Minnesota backcourt, and should get plenty of burn. He’s not a great shooter, but he gets to the rim and draws fouls at an extremely high rate, rebounders very well for a point guard, and he’s a good distributor as well. Given the chance to play and run a team, I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.
BallerBlogger contributing writer ‘xphoenix87′ is a college student who dreams of one day writing about sports for a living. Since that’s not gonna happen, he’ll do this instead.