Here it is, the 2009-2010 Western Conference preview. Read on to find out the fate of the defending champion Lakers, the new-look Spurs, the sneaky Nuggets, along with other squads.
Want more NBA previews? Click below for my Eastern Conference preview.
1. Portland Trail Blazers
2. Denver Nuggets
3. Utah Jazz
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
It’s game time for the Blazers.
Portland has a superstar (Brandon Roy), a talented big man (LaMarcus Aldridge), two dependable point guards, and a great sixth man (Rudy Fernandez); now the only question remaining is Greg Oden.
Who wouldathunk that Portland’s most inconsistent player would be a former No. 1 pick? If Oden averages 10 and 10 for a full season, the Trail Blazers could knock off any team in the West.
If his minutes fluctuate and he goes in and out of the lineup (much more likely), Portland will have a higher mountain to climb.
Another key for the Blazers will be the small forward position. Nicholas Batum, Travis Outlaw, and Martell Webster will all compete for minutes. Nate McMillan will need to find the most dependable of those three by season’s end, because it’s very hard to go with three different guys at one position during the playoffs.
Andre Miller is off to a bad start, allegedly saying that the media is out to get him in his new home. He says he deserves the starting point guard spot, but coach Nate McMillan has already stated that the job is up for grabs. This could be something to watch for.
Predicted Record: 56-26
Denver was last season’s Cinderella team after acquiring Chauncey Billups. The veteran point guard was arguably the most important player in the NBA, as he propelled a team destined for a first round loss all the way to the second seed in the West and a Conference Finals appearance.
Most analysts think Denver is capable of replicating that success, but I disagree. J.R. Smith is out for the first seven games of the season, and it could take a few more contests for him to get back into game shape.
Without Smith in the lineup, Denver loses a potent member of the offense. The Nuggets were also much less injury prone than in past seasons. Nene missed just five games in 2009, and Kenyon Martin was able to stay in the lineup too.
I’d say the chances of getting lucky in the injury department two years in a row are pretty dicey.
I’m not worried about the loss of Dahntay Jones, because Denver brought in Arron Afflalo, who plays a very similar type of game. Linas Kleiza bolting for Europe, however, doesn’t bode well.
Kleiza was a great scorer off the bench, and the Nuggets brought in no one to replace him. In fact, they made few moves at all this off-season. The Lakers went all-in and signed Ron Artest, the Spurs spent far over their luxury tax to grab Richard Jefferson, and the Mavs traded for Shawn Marion.
It no longer works to sit around and not make moves during the off-season. Even the defending champs need to make moves to stay competitive.
The Nuggets didn’t choose to take that route. They will still be one of the best teams in the West, but a legitimate shot at a championship evaporated when they failed to bolster their roster.
Predicted Record: 52-30
There are only blues tunes being played in Utah right now. The Jazz aren’t coming into the season with a whole lot of confidence, mostly because of Carlos Boozer’s contract distractions.
Boozer unexpectedly stuck around even though it was widely believed he would opt for free agency, and his decision cost the Jazz dearly in the luxury tax department.
Soon after, he asked to be traded, and Utah was unable to grant that request. Adding to the Boozer whine-fest 2009, the all-star power forward feels he is the incumbent starter, and has already written off backup Paul Millsap, who is fighting for the starting four position.
Basically, all these distractions aren’t helping Jerry Sloan at all.
Utah still has Deron Williams, who should be an all-star by now. Mehmet Okur is one of the most underrated bigs in the league, and can shoot threes as an added bonus.
Ronnie Brewer is a great perimeter defender, and so is Andrei Kirilenko, who also has the coolest nickname in the NBA (AK-47).
The Jazz bench is a shadow of its former self, however. Matt Harpring no longer provides the same hustle and defense that he used to, mostly because he’s coming off two major surgeries. He might even be forced to retire. Ronnie Price and rookie Eric Maynor are fighting for the backup point position, but neither will make an impact this season.
The backup center position is held by Kosta Koufus, who is a virtual unknown even amongst some of the most diehard NBA fans. At least the Jazz still have Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap, but they are extremely weak in other key positions.
Utah also plays in the tough Northwest division, which is definitely no cakewalk. I expect the Blazers and Nuggets to be the Jazz’s superiors all season long. Utah will sneak into the playoffs, but it will be a short trip.
Next off-season will likely resemble that of a soap opera, as a new chapter in the Carlos Boozer saga will unfold.
Predicted Record: 48-34
On paper, the Thunder look like an explosive, exciting team. Kevin Durant will be in the top five in scoring this season (you can mark it down now), Russell Westbrook looked spectacular as a rookie, and Oklahoma City still has NBA-ready youngster James Harden along with Jeff Green. So why aren’t the Thunder a playoff team?
Number one, they have literally no one else capable of making contributions. Thabo Sefolosha is a good defender, but that’s the only other role player of note.
When your starting center is Nenad Krstic, you’ve got problems.
Secondly, the Thunder play in the Western Conference. In the East, they could sneak into the playoffs as the eight seed. In the West, the only teams OKC is without a doubt better than are the Timberwolves and Kings.
If the Thunder groom their “big four” and slowly bring along B.J. Mullens, they could be a dangerous team in the next few years.
Predicted Record: 36-46
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the worst team in the NBA for 2010.
New GM David Kahn is understandably trying to change things up on his quest to make Minnesota respectable again, but so far, his moves have been inexplicably terrible.
He drafted two point guards, and ran the better of the two out of town for two more years. He can say that was all part of his master plan, but I don’t buy it at all.
To add insult to injury, Kahn brought in yet another point guard, Ramon Sessions. I think Sessions is one of the most underrated players in the league, but this is a terrible fit.
You’ve just committed to Johnny Flynn, so instead of giving him starter’s minutes, you bring in Sessions? Now neither guy will get to play the minutes they desire.
At least Kevin Love and Al Jefferson are still in town, not to mention Minnesota has a great shot at the first pick in next year’s draft.
Predicted Record: 22-60
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Phoenix Suns
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. Golden State Warriors
5. Sacramento Kings
The defending champions went with an interesting strategy this summer. Instead of going for youth, they dropped Trevor Ariza and picked up Ron Artest.
For this season, I suspect things will work out fine and dandy. Artest’s defensive abilities have become overblown during the past few seasons, but he can still lock down opposing studs.
Looking at the big picture, there are some major issues with LA’s off-season moves. One, they didn’t address their gaping hole at point guard.
Derek Fisher is now entering his 56th season (or so it seems), and Jordan Farmar hasn’t proven to be much of a starter. Shannon Brown showed glimpses last year, but I wouldn’t trust him with lots of minutes.
The second problem with LA’s off-season stems from the Ariza-Artest swap. The Lakers may (and I stress may) be better this season, but long term, they’re taking a major risk. Artest has never lasted long in any of his NBA homes, while Ariza was making a name for himself in the playoffs.
Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum are great role players to base around Kobe Bryant and Paul Gasol. It could be argued that Kobe wouldn’t be capable of winning a championship without guys like Odom and Bynum. I’d say Pau Gasol is the reason LA is the best in the league. His consistent 20 and 10 every night gives Kobe a reliable partner in crime.
Even with LA’s point guard situation in shambles, Phil Jackson and company will be in the running for the best record in the NBA. They have to be considered the favorites for a title until proven otherwise.
Predicted Record: 63-19
The Suns are a shadow of their former selves. Steve Nash is on the decline, Shaq is gone, and 60-win seasons with the best offense in basketball are far in the past.
New coach Alvin Gentry will try to bring Phoenix back to the good ol’ days, and I foresee mixed results.
Amare Stoudemire is returning from a variety of bizarre injuries, but he should be good to go in 2010. With the Suns returning to their run n’ gun offense, he could be in for a monster fantasy season.
Steve Nash might have an improved stat line too, but Gentry won’t hesitate to limit the former MVP’s minutes and give him games off. The problem with such a strategy is that Phoenix has no viable backup, as Goran Dragic is first in line for the job.
The rest of the Suns roster is solid, but unspectacular. Leandro Barbosa is one of the better sixth men in basketball, not to mention a great three-point shooter. Jason Richardson will get his share of Sportscenter-worthy dunks, although his best days are behind him. I really like Jared Dudley’s hustle and work ethic, but it remains to be seen how much he will play behind Grant Hill.
The center position, quite frankly, is a mess. Amare Stoudemire might get some time at the five, but Phoenix would much rather play him at the four.
That leaves Channing Frye, the injured Robin Lopez, and Louis Amundson (also known as Anderson Varejao 2.0) fighting for minutes. None of those guys are impressive.
Still, Phoenix should return to the postseason. Nash and Stoudemire thrive in a fast-paced offense, and they have enough weapons around to score well over 100 points a night.
Predicted Record: 47-35
The Clippers failed to make the playoffs despite what appeared to be one of the best looking teams in the NBA on paper.
I honestly believe Mike Dunleavy is the worst coach in basketball, and if he can’t help LA reach the postseason with the addition of number one pick Blake Griffin, owner Donald Sterling may have no choice but to fire him (although that’s what I thought last season too).
Baron Davis won’t play another 82 games until he’s in another contract year, but he’s still one of the better PGs around. Eric Gordon exploded onto the scene in his rookie year, and has the potential to be a 20 points per game scorer by this season’s conclusion.
Griffin will use his pure athleticism to be one of, if not the best, rookies in the NBA. And Chris Kaman plus Marcus Camby form a twin towers tandem that most teams can only salivate over. So why won’t LA hit 40 wins?
It starts and ends with Mike Dunleavy and injuries. Dunleavy proved to have little idea of how to play so many talented guys last season, and the Clippers failed to develop any sort of chemistry. Perhaps the biggest issue is staying healthy.
Davis has a hard time doing just that, and both of the Clippers big men (Chris Kaman and Marcus Camby) are twigs when it comes to avoiding injuries. I could see Blake Griffin missing time as well, since he is constantly bruising inside the paint.
Los Angeles did bring in some nice reserves, like Sebastian Telfair, Craig Smith, and Rasual Butler. They still have Al Thornton and DeAndre Jordan, but at the end of the day, the Clippers lack direction.
They need a better coach, they need to make up their mind about which big man to hold on to, and whether they are going to base this team around Gordon and Griffin, or try and rely on the veterans like Davis and Camby.
Predicted Record: 35-47
Golden State will likely go head-to-head with the Knicks for the most points per game title, but that doesn’t mean they will be a playoff team (and the Knicks won’t be either).
From an outsider’s perspective, it looks as if Don Nelson is barely even coaching anymore. He lets the Warriors run wild, not play defense, and score 110 points a game.
Such a strategy has yet to result in a championship, so I’m not sure why Nelson is trying it. Every player on the Warriors team can make a contribution one way or another, and Golden State certainly has a ton of scorers.
If Monta Ellis and rookie Stephen Curry can mesh, they will be one of the highest scoring backcourts in the NBA. Anthony Randolph has the raw potential to be one of the most explosive players in the Western Conference, but whether or not he turns that potential into performance remains to be seen.
Andris Biedrins is the perfect center for Golden State’s offense, and deserves more credit for his development.
Stephen Jackson is a whole other story. He wants out. Right now. It’s unclear if that first request will be granted, but that’s a dark cloud hanging over the Warriors if Jackson is still playing through the regular season.
Predicted Record: 34-48
There’s good news and bad news for Sac-Town’s 2010 outlook. The good news is the Kings will be better than last season. The bad news is they will still be one of the worst teams in basketball.
I expect Tyreke Evans to come in and have a major impact. The rookie will likely get starters minutes, and can seemingly score at will. Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson are rising big men, and Hawes is on the verge of a breakout season. Those three young guns have a bright future in the NBA.
The Kings also have Kevin Martin, who is one of the best scorers in the association. Problem is, he’s never on the court enough to make a name for himself. That probably won’t change this year.
After you get past Evans, Martin, Thompson, and Hawes, things go downhill big time.
Beno Udrih is a huge bust, and there’s little to no depth on this Kings team.
Everything is starting to come together in Sacramento, but this is going to be a long-term rebuilding process. In two years, this is likely a playoff squad after adding another two lottery picks.
For now, the young Kings will be relegated to the bottom of the Pacific division.
Predicted Record: 26-56
1. San Antonio Spurs
2. Dallas Mavericks
3. New Orleans Hornets
4. Houston Rockets
5. Memphis Grizzlies
San Antonio has one of the best front offices in sports, a fact that can hardly be disputed. This off-season, GM RC Buford decided to take the Spurs far over the luxury tax limit in order to make one more shot at a championship during the Tim Duncan era.
He brought in the versatile Richard Jefferson, basically stole rookie DeJuan Blair, and signed veterans Antonio McDyess along with Theo Ratliff to play the five.
Duncan admits that at the age of 33, he’s entering the last stage of his career. So is Manu Ginobili, who was hampered by injuries last season.
If those two guys can conserve their energy in preparation for the postseason, the Spurs will be on a very short list of teams capable of winning a title. They still have Tony Parker, one of the best points in the business, along with role players like George Hill and Roger Mason.
Don’t forget Gregg Popovich, either. “Pop” is one of the best coaches in basketball, and his influence on the Spurs is monumental. San Antonio will be the number two seed in the West, and go head to head with the Lakers for a Western Conference title.
Predicted Record: 58-24
The Mavericks had an interesting off-season, to say the least. They resigned Jason Kidd, traded for Shawn Marion and Kris Humphries, and added Drew Gooden, Quinton Ross, along with Tim Thomas.
Now, the questions is where do all these guys fit?
Jason Kidd will certainly have even more weapons at his disposal, but how are important pieces like Jason Terry, Josh Howard, and Shawn Marion going to get the touches they need to get going?
Marion is a spectacular athlete, but I’m having trouble envisioning where he fits into the Mavs lineup. Put him at the three, and Josh Howard (who happens to be in a contract year) loses major minutes. Stick him at the four, and coach Rick Carlisle will have no choice but to put the less-than-physical Dirk Nowitzki at center.
Speaking of the center position, Dallas has little to be optimistic about. Erick Dampier may end up starting again, which is utterly ridiculous. The Mavericks’ plans fell through after trying to acquire Marcin Gortat, and I guess they decided to sit on Dampier for one more season.
I wish Dallas luck stopping any of the East’s big men.
Despite these lineup issues, most teams would kill to have so many talented players on one roster. Rick Carlisle seems like a great strategist, and he should be able to figure something out.
If he can, Dallas has the potential to be amongst the league’s elites. Let’s not forget, Dirk Nowitzki is still one of the best players in basketball. He might not come up clutch when the playoffs roll around, but there are few players who can score like he can during the regular season.
Mark Cuban always makes it entertaining in Big D, so no matter what happens, the Mavs will be a fun team to watch.
Predicted Record: 52-30
The Hornets made one move worth noting this summer: swapping Tyson Chandler for Emeka Okafor.
Okafor brings a completely different type of game to the table, with his bruising, post-oriented moves. Whether or not he can become Chris Paul’s new alley-oops partner is a question mark.
Paul is the best point guard in basketball, so that’s obviously one big advantage the Hornets have going for them. David West is also a consistent 20 and 10 big man, which takes pressure off Paul to create offensive opportunities.
James Posey didn’t have quite the effect New Orleans was hoping for when they brought him in, but he’s likely the starting shooting guard for 2010 and will have a chance to redeem himself. Julian Wright has apparently made enough strides to beat out Peja Stojakovic for the small forward position, and if he is a successful defensive stopper the Hornets will have a much deeper team.
New Orleans added a few more hustle guys and rookie Darren Collison, but none of them will have much of an impact. The team the Hornets are prepared to throw out on the court is good enough to make the playoffs, but not compete for a title.
Predicted Record: 50-32
The Rockets will be better than most think. Let’s not forget, this group of guys hung in there with the Lakers in the playoffs, even after Yao Ming went down and Ron Artest was running late to game seven of the series finale.
Yes, Artest is gone, but Trevor Ariza is in, and T-Mac is apparently recovering nicely from a variety of injuries.
We’ve heard that status report before, but look for McGrady to do well as he attempts to revive his career. Ariza’s stats should skyrocket with his expanded role in the offense.
Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola will see increases in their points per game too. Houston has all the role players to be a playoff contender, even in the West. If they do make it to the postseason, it will be a short appearance, but for a team missing their best player, that’s not such a bad outlook.
Predicted Record: 44-38
Think of the Grizzlies as last year’s LA Clippers: full of talent, but not able to develop any chemistry.
A backcourt with both Allen Iverson and O.J. Mayo makes me question how either will get to put up shots like they want to, especially since Memphis also has Rudy Gay and super-ball hog Zach Randolph.
I’ve long thought that Randolph is a team-killer, and the verdict is certainly out on Iverson.
This will be an important year for A.I. If he sulks in a role off the bench with limited minutes, there may be no more jobs for him. I foresee a solid 15-to-17 points per game season, but it’s obvious that “The Answer” is on the decline.
I’m convinced that as long as Chris Wallace is the GM for the Grizz, no playoff appearances will come.
Anyone willing to trade Pau Gasol for nothing loses a lot of respect in my book. Still, Memphis is too talented to not win at least 30 games. Things won’t get much better than that though.
Predicted Record: 34-48
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Portland Trail Blazers
4. Denver Nuggets
5. Dallas Mavericks
6. New Orleans Hornets
7. Utah Jazz
8. Phoenix Suns