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The 2004-5 NBA Season Preview: WESTERN CONFERENCE

By Lleyton S. Duotang3

Indeed, another NBA season is upon us - or as the busy NBA marketing department would like to say - Happy Basketball New Year!

Yet again, the Western Conference holds the overall balance of power in the NBA, with so many talent-laden teams.  For instance, the New Orleans Hornets, who would have made the playoffs if they weren’t cruelly realigned from the Eastern Conference, are now my pick to be the worse Western Conference team.  But not to knock the East: As I specified in my season preview of the Eastern Conference, the West really only have two teams, San Antonio and Minnesota, that I would consider elite while the East has three.  All in all, this will result in a promising and entertaining Finals series.

Like I said, San Antonio and Minnesota will finish 1-2 in the West in that order.  Barring some upset, which is never ruled out, they should meet in the Western Finals, with San Antonio coming up on top.  With Shaq gone to the East, there really isn’t anybody in the conference that will give Tim Duncan any trouble.   

The rest of the playoff positioning in the West are up for grabs.  I do feel that Dallas, Houston, Utah, Denver, and Sacramento are locks for the playoffs, leaving Phoenix, the Lakers, the Clippers, Golden State, Portland, and Memphis vying for the last playoff spot.  Woah, tough conference!  In the end, I think that the Grizzlies will narrowly get that much sought-after eighth seed.   

LSD3’s Western Conference Rankings

15.  New Orleans Hornets (25-57)

A perennial playoff team for the Eastern Conference, the Hornets will take some time to adjust to their new, and tougher, conference, and even tougher Southwest division that also features San Antonio, Houston, Memphis, and Dallas.  Overall, it just feels like an off-year for the Hornets, who essentially have the same group of aging players for the past few years. 

Baron Davis is probably the best point guard in the league right now and Jamal Magloire is a rising star – that is, he was when compared to his Eastern brethren, but I suspect that Magloire will not see the same kind of success playing against tougher, stronger Western opponents.  But I do like the fact that new head coach, Byron Scott, is making Magloire more of an offensive option.  However, these two players are entering the season disgruntled with their situation – Davis ha requested a trade, and both players have griped about the team not allowing their personal trainers in the team’s practice facilities.  Past these two players, are the aging regulars of P.J. Brown (35 years), David Wesley (34), and Rodney Rodgers (33), who will struggle against the generally faster, up-tempo Western Conference game.  The Hornets thin bench gets even shakier with Darrell Armstrong (36) and George Lynch (34). 

The one potential surprise for the Hornets could be their draft pick, J.R. Smith, who was selected 18th overall straight from high school.  A phenomenal athlete who has shown flashes of brilliance during the preseason, Smith could provide a much-needed boost if he develops faster than expected – but that could be unrealistic this season.   

14.  Seattle Supersonics (26-56)

Many analysts believe that for the Sonics to be successful, their star, Ray Allen will have to be trigger-happy, hoisting as many shots as he sees fit.  I disagree with this notion.  If the Sonics intend to be compete for a playoff spot, Allen will have to be undoubtedly the team’s focal point – but I believe the team’s success hinges on how effectively he distributes the ball to get balanced scoring from the rest of his peers, particularly Rashard Lewis, Vladimir Radmonovic, and Ronald Murray.  Since this is unlikely going to happen, I’m predicting a miserable season for the Sonics, one that will jeopardize Nate McMillan’s head coaching position. 

This is a team that lacks a legitimate point guard and center.  The Sonics have two athletic point guards in Luke Ridnour and the underachieving Antonio Daniels.  However, both players do not have a reputation for being a good floor leader, and have a penchant for taking ill-advised shots.  That is why Ray Allen will be running the offense most of the time.  The acquisition of thug, Danny Fortson, and the return of Nick Collison, who missed all of last season after breaking his leg, should toughen up Seattle’s interior.  They should improve on being the league’s worst rebounding team last season. 

The Sonics have two long and lanky weapons in Lewis and Radmonovic, who are both 6-10.  Radmonovic has proven that he can hit the 3-pointer just as well as Allen and Lewis, and needs to have a larger role within the Sonics offensive scheme for the Sonics to be successful – although only him and I seem to share this opinion.  Don’t worry Vlad, I got your back.  But in all honesty, you can’t deny that if both this sizable players added more post-up scoring to balance their perimeter shooting, and put more of an effort in rebounding, then the Sonics could be better than what people expect.  Once again, unlikely to happen.             

13.  Golden State Warriors (35-47)

With Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, Chris Mullin wrapping up lucrative 6 year, $70-million and $58-million contract extensions to Troy Murphy and Jason Richardson respectively, and signing the Laker’s back-up point guard, Derek Fisher to a 6 year, $37-million deal, and back-up center, Adonal Foyal, to a 6 year, $42-million deal, the Warriors are at least assured to be a solid sub-par team for the next 6 years.  Chris Mullin was a great player in the NBA but I question his ability to run this team.  Now the Warriors won’t have enough room in their salary structure to pursue better, proven players in the next few summers. 

I will admit that the Warriors can be good.  They have young talented players and a deep bench, but they lack good team chemistry and consistent performances.  While only only a few players in the game rival Richardson’s athletic ability, I associate him with being an erratic performer who takes too many shots, has too many turnovers, and is too high on himself.  With Murphy, no complaints, I really like his game.  He’s a tough rebounder and doesn’t demand too much on the offensive end, happily picking up the scraps.  The focal point of the team should be Mike Dunleavy Jr. who is entering his third year.  He has the tools to be a great all-round player in the game but like Richardson, lacks the consistency to make the Warriors competitive for the whole season.  Once he does figure it out, then the Warriors will be playoff bound – just not this year.    

It will be up to new head coach, Mike Montgomery, formerly the coach of NCAA powers, Stanford, to turn it around.  Montgomery has never coached at the professional level, and was reported to be very open to his player’s suggestions on how the team should play.  Although the gesture was commendable, Montgomery needs to assert his will more to a team that has traditionally lacked discipline.     

12.  Los Angeles Clippers (37-45)

C’mon Donald Sterling, do something!!!  Well I guess you kinda have with the long-term extensions given to Elton Brand and Corey Maggette before last season, and the unsuccessful wooing of Kobe in this past offseason.  OK, You’ll get an ”e” for ”effort”, but yet again the Clippers will be out of the playoff hunt.  I do like Brand’s and Maggette’s game.  Both players are 25, and are solid foundations to build the franchise on.  But they will need a good supporting cast.  By all indications, I think the Clippers are on the right track…but you always feel that something is not going to work out, being the Clippers and all. 

They’ve got a rising star in Chris Wilcox, who is going to have a breakout year this season – called it.  They’ve got their point guard of the future in 6’7” Shaun Livingston, who was drafted with forth overall straight from high school this past summer.  By all accounts, he is legit, and seems to be learning the game at an accelerated pace.  However his frail body and his unprepared mentality for the psychological games from the opposition will make him not much of a factor this season.  And Bobby Simmons will get the chance to provide a spark from the bench.         

Historically, the Clippers failures can be traced back to their careless disregard for defense.  If Mike Dunleavy can get his athletic players to focus on defense, then the team will be competitive.  Also, I think that the Clippers would be more successful if they played a slower, half-court game.  They have players that can break down their opponents in one-on-one situations and draw the double team in Brand, Maggette, and Wilcox.  Oh wait, they’ll need effective perimeter shooters to make this work – Kerry Kittles?  Marko Jaric?  Unless Rick Brunsen is going to be out there for significant minutes (a problem in itself), you’ll have to scratch this idea.   All apologies.  Also, apologies on behalf of the Clippers for their season.  

11.  Portland Trailblazers (40-42)

With Zach Randolph signing a contract extension, the Blazers have wrapped up their franchise player, at only 24 years of age, for years to come.  Randolph reminds me of Moses Malone, a player who is not particularly athletically-gifted, but has an instinct of being at the right place at the right time for both scoring and rebounding opportunities.  For the Blazers to make the playoffs, Randolph should be receiving even more looks from the inside, but that will prove difficult on a team with Damon Stoudamire, Nick Van Exel, and Derek Anderson, all of whom have the knack of hoisting too many 3-point shots at inopportune times. 

I’ve always been a big fan of Theo Ratliffe, and if remains healthy, the Blazers can gamble on defense knowing that he’ll be in the paint to intimidate any penetration.  Shareef Abdul-Rahim remains the x-factor.  Since arriving in Portland in a mid-season trade last season, he has been in basketball limbo – not fully knowing what his role is on a team loaded with other capable small forwards (Darius ’Head Bonking’ Miles and Ruben ’Gimme the Ball’ Patterson, not to mention Qyntel ’Dog-Fightin, Gun-Toting’ Woods and Travis ’Not Bo’ Outlaw).  There is no questioning Abdul-Rahim’s scoring ability, but his defense, or lack thereof, has transformed him from his once ’untouchable’ status to now ’expendable – but hard to trade because of his salary’ status.

10.  Los Angeles Lakers (41-41)

Kobe has gotten his wish – the Lakers are now officially his team – no more sharing the spotlight.  Good on you Kobe, you’ve managed to get a more dominant player in Shaq traded, and a coaching legend in Phil Jackson to quit.  You have single-handedly transformed the team from its usual perch of NBA championship favorites to one that will not make the playoffs.  There I said it. 

Kobe is talented enough to get his lion-share of points without Shaq, although he’ll be working a little bit harder to get those points as all opposing teams will focus on him.  Once teams realize to redirect their defensive attention on Kobe’s supporting cast, that will inevitably become the Laker’s demise. 

Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, and Brian Grant came over from Miami for Shaq.  Chris Mihm and Chucky Atkins came over from Boston for Gary Payton.  The success of Laker’s season will rest on the performance of Odom and Mihm.  Odom played marvelously last season, finally realizing the potential that made him so highly-touted coming out of college.  He will need to get even better this season and stay injury free as the Laker’s second option.  Mihm will have the undesirable position of filling Shaq’s loft shoes.  All he needs to do is play significant minutes and clog up the paint.  This could be harder said than done considering his past problems with injuries and inconsistency.

9.  Phoenix Suns (42-40)

I like what Coach Mike D’Antoni is doing – making the Suns the most offense-orientated, running team in the league.  And who better to manage the offense than newly acquired Steve Nash.  Nash was not offered more money from Dallas’s owner, Mark Cuban, because Cuban felt that it was a matter of time before Nash, who plays at breakneck speed at all times, would come down with a major injury.  In a sense I also have the same concern for Nash, despite him missing only 4 games over the past 3 seasons – one gets the sense of impending doom whenever Nash scrambles and crashes to the ground.  Make no mistake, for the Suns to be successful, Nash will have to stay healthy, and play more minutes than he did in Dallas – a team that limited his minutes out of fear from injury and fatigue. 

Nash will have just as many offensive options as he did in Dallas, albeit a little more unpredictable, and a little less refined.  Shawn Marion, Amare Stoudamire, Quentin Richardson, and Joe Johnson are all crazy athletic and proven scorers, and can prosper in this running offense.  But the team knows that the future of the team is Amare Stoudamire, entering his third season at the ripe old age of 22 years.  With all the hype surrounding his draft mate, Yao Ming, people seem to forget that it was Amare who won that year’s rookie of the year, it was Amare who has been developing his game faster, and it will be Amare who will have a far more productive career – despite the lack of accolades.  Despite posting impressive numbers, there is still plenty of room for his improvement, a testament to his God-given ability.  He could still be a dominant force on the defensive end once he learns how to defend the post and read the opponent’s offensive scheme better.  He still needs to become a better passer out of the double team, but once he does, it will open up even more opportunities for the Sun’s plentiful perimeter shooters.

10.  Memphis Grizzlies (43-39) 

The surprise team of last season, is looking to improve on their 50-win season.  With essentially the same team, bolstered by the addition of tough competitor, Brian Cardinal, the Grizzlies are a team that goes 11-deep, having arguably the best bench in the game.  Coach Hubie Brown was able to manage his player’s minutes effectively since they were winning – really no complaints if you win.  However, if the Grizzlies start to lose with more regularity, and I predict they will, then you’ll be hearing some discontent on the bench from players who are not use to playing lesser minutes (namely Bonzi Wells, Mike Miller, and Lorenzon Wright).  This will exacerbate the problem.       

But for the Grizzlies to improve, they will need Pau Gasol to assert himself more.  While in the past, Gasol has been hesitant in accepting this role – he has been gracious in supporting his teammates, he, and his teammates, need to know that he is the key to their success.  He will also need to be more of a defensive presence in the middle, and as an athletic 7-footer, there should be no excuse for him not to.  Look for Stromile Swift to be this year’s Erick Dampier – he’ll post some solid numbers on route to a big contract for the coming offseason.               

7.  Sacramento Kings (44-38)

How the Kings have fallen from the team with enviously optimal team chemistry to one that has been embittered with bickering this past summer.  The loss of Vlade Divac, the glue that held all the team’s personalities together, was understated.  Peja Stojakovic, who should be the team’s primary option (enough guff Webber!), demanded a trade after finding out that the Kings weren’t going to sign Divac to a new contract.  The King’s team chemistry in the past truly made them collectively better than they were supposed to be.  After going through successes and adversity in the past, I believe that they will have no problem in finding a way to triumph over the team’s current problems, and succeed again.  Note to C-Webb: Shut Up, the team was better when you weren’t playing, and sucked when you came back.  You may be the team’s undisputed vocal leader, but alienating the team’s best player (Note to C-Webb: Not You) is not berry smart.    

With Vlade gone, Brad Miller will have the chance to play a larger role in the team’s offensive scheme.  Miller is as tough and fundamentally sound as they come, and will respond to a larger role with ease.  Bobby Jackson is back from injuries that caused him to miss a good chunk of last season.  If he stays healthy and reverts to his old self, circa 2002, then the Kings are looking good.  Mike Bibby will continue to be clutch.  The Kings will need someone from the bench to shoulder some of the load from their overplayed starters.  That someone could be rookie Kevin Martin, who averaged near 25 points a game in college. 

6.  Houston Rockets (47-35)

Houston fans are salivating over what could go down in NBA History as one of the best duos ever in Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady.  Although coach Jeff Van Gundy quickly dispels all that propaganda mumbo-jumbo, citing that until the Rockets actually accomplish something somewhat worthy (i.e. advance past the first round of the playoffs), then enough of that meaningless talk.  Besides it’s a team game.      

Yao and T-Mac are well suited to play in Van Gundy’s defense-oriented, bore-me-to-tears half-court offense.  Maurice Taylor and Juwan Howard are solid power forwards who will provide a fair bit of stability to the team as the third scoring options.  Both Yao and T-Mac consistently draw the double team and are effective passers so one of the keys to the Rocket’s success will be how accurate their perimeter player’s shots are.  So who are the Rockets past the formidable twosome?  We’ve got Jimmy Jackson (too erratic), Charlie Ward (decent but not great), Tyronn Lue (see Charlie Ward), which gives Bostjan Nochbar and Scott Padgett the prospect of rising to the occasion.  Egats. 

5.  Utah Jazz (49-33)

Other than perhaps Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan, Andrei Kirilenko is the best all-round player in the game at 25 years of age.  He is secured for the next 6 years with a max $87-million contract extension, but by market standards, it was a steal for Utah.  Kirilenko is a 5-tool beast.  He can put the ball on the floor and penetrate or pass, he can shoot from long-range, he’s got quick hands for steals, he can rebound, and he can block shots….my oh my, can he block shots with such consistent flair.  He was the only player to rank in the Top-20 last season in points, rebounds, steals, and blocks.  His ability is jaw-dropping, and now he can even pay more focus more of his energies on offense and roaming the defense and playing the best help defense in the game, thanks to the Jazz’s addition of Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur who should pick up the rebounding slack. 

The Jazz overachieved last season, and now with the additions of Boozer and Okur, expectations are high in Salt Lake City.  There hadn’t been so much excitement here since the glory days of Stockton and Malone.  And you’ve got to expect that there is no reason for the Jazz to meet, and even succeed, those expectations with Jerry Sloan at the helm.  It will be his job to make sure his players don’t get too complacent with all the hype surrounding them this season. 

Boozer was a great pickup.  He instantly gives the Jazz a tough interior presence who tenaciously rebounds and scores the bulk of his points via offensive rebounds.  Okur is a bit of a gamble, but one that the Jazz were willing to risk, given the lack of talented 7-footers in the league.  Okur, who played sparingly in Detroit behind the Wallaces, can stretch defenses with his precision long-range shooting.  However, he remains unproven on defense, and it remains how sturdy he’ll be after playing extensive minutes.  Then there’s Matt Harpring, who continues to display that hard work will get you everywhere.  With Kirilenko, Boozer, Okur, and Harpring, the Jazz have one of the best front courts in the league. 

4.  Denver Nuggets (50-32)

Adding Kenyon Martin alone boosted the Nuggets into the upper echelons of teams in the league.  K-Mart gives a deep Nugget team the necessary ingredients of toughness-to-the-point-of-bullying and a legitimate scoring threat from the inside.  The former ingredient will do wonders in the playoffs where the Nuggets will instantly become the more physical intimidators.  Who would really want to mess with Martin, Ne ’look at my huge Brazilian arms’ ne, and Marcus ’I’ve got no problems giving you a sucker-punch’ Camby.

The Nuggets budding superstar, Carmelo Anthony, will need to keep improving on his impressive rookie season.  He’ll need to focus after losing some luster from his Olympic whining experiencing, and his publicized pot and bar fight incidences.  Andre Miller still needs to find his form when he was in Cleveland, and led the league in assists.  He has plenty of scoring options to pass too in Denver, so if he’s smart, and I think he is, he’ll lay of pulling the trigger so much.      

The Nuggets will continue to run thanks to the personnel that allows them to do so, and also because of their deep bench.  With Earl ’The Energizer Bunny Personified in Human Form’ Boykins, Rodney White, and Voshon Leonard all capable of scoring a lot in limited minutes, the Nuggets will continue to be one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA. 

3.  Dallas Mavericks (54-28)

Despite being talent-laden at every position, the Mavericks are still my surprise team of the West.  Surprising in the respect that they’ll win 55 games rather than say, 45 – and in the process, becoming the best Maverick team in the last few seasons.  Sorry Steve Nash, the Mavericks will still be as offensively potent without you, but will be infinitely better defensively, which increases their chances of playoff success.   

The Mavs will be a better defensive team primarily because of the acquisition of Erick Dampier.  Although many critics question his ability, I have always thought that Dampier would be a force ever since his collegiate days at Mississippi State.  He just happened to be a late-bloomer, and more importantly he needed minutes.  While Dampier won’t post eye-popping numbers, he does provide many services that can’t be measured by stats: his presence in the minutes will deter many would-be penetrators; he will block or alter many shots; he will take some of the rebounding load of Dirk Nowitzki; he doesn’t ask for much at the offensive end, which is blessing considering Dallas’ gluttony of scorers; and he runs the floor extremely well for a big man, and is as feared finisher on the fast break.  

Along with accomplished players, Nowitzki, Dampier, Michael Finley (who still remains as underrated a player as any in the league), Jerry Stackhouse, and Jason Terry, the Mavericks have a bright future with talented youngsters Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels, and Devin Harris.  Harris, who was taken with the 5th

pick overall in the last NBA draft, has been particularly impressive on the defensive end.  His nimble hands and lateral quickness has effectively shut down the opponent’s point guards during the preseason.  If he it keeps up, then the Mavericks will forget Steve Nash more quickly then expected.   

2.  Minnesota Timberwolves (58-24)

Is there anyone more driven in the league than Kevin Garnett?  Well maybe one other, but we’ll get to him next.  The reigning MVP had a taste of playoff success battling the L.A. Lakers in the Western Finals, but eventually losing in 6 games.  Garnett will continue to put up MVP-like numbers and is back with essentially the same team.  He’ll have his scoring partners back in Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, plus a healthy Wally Szczerbiak, Michael Olowokandi, and Troy Hudson.     

Troy Hudson will prove pivotal to the team’s success with Sam Cassell aging and becoming more injury-prone.  You can pinpoint the T-wolves playoff failure when Cassell was injured and there was nobody suitable to replace him.  The Wolves also signed troubled but talented forward, Eddie Griffin in the off-season.  If Griffin can perform even at half his potential, then the Wolves will have another solid player coming of the bench, and a much needed shot-blocking presence.  Michael Olowokandi is another enigma.  After signing a profitable contract prior to last season, he all but disappeared during that season (injuries) and the playoffs (no excuse).  If he can stay healthy, and find and relish his role on the team, then the T-Wolves will provide stiff competition for San Antonio in becoming the Western Conference’s representative in the NBA Finals.    

1.  San Antonio Spurs (60-22)

Although Shaq may be the most dominant player in the game, Tim Duncan is the best player.  He deserves all the credit he receives – there is no other player (except for maybe Kevin Garnett) that makes the team around him better.  Duncan and the Spurs are the preseason favorites among the majority of NBA analysts to win the championship this year. 

The core of the team remains in tact with young Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili receiving new contracts.  Parker is improving every season, and this could be the year where he moves up into the elite point guards of the league.  All he needs to do is concentrate on distributing the ball more effectively and reduce his turnovers, which is easily achievable without sacrificing his offense.  Ginobili is a creative player who is most successful when slashing his way to the basket.  He, Bruce Bowen, and Duncan combine to give the Spurs an intimidating defensive presence. 

What makes me think that the Spurs will reach the Finals is the key addition of Brent Barry.  Barry makes this great team superior.  His versatility will enable him to mesh seamlessly into Coach Gregg Poppovich’s system.  He’s as deadly a three-point shooter you’ll find in the league, and his underrated dribbling and passing skills, will allow Parker and Ginobili to get some much needed rest on the bench.  His value will become apparent when playoff time rolls around.