If last year was any indication, the Wild Wild Western Conference is where the real showdown is going to be. Important personnel additions are making sure that things won’t be settling down in the West any time soon, and just like the days when cowboys roamed the West the winner could very well be decided on who has the quickest draw. (I’m sure no one could have pulled the trigger on dumping Kwame faster than MitchKupchak did). Although the East contains one of the odds-on favorites to win it all, the West still has the better teams from top to bottom.
Although the East may have improved with some of the personnel moves over theoffseason, I still have this attitude towards the respective playoff races. In the West, it’s still about who can play well enough to earn a playoff spot. In the East, I’m still of the opinion that it’s all about who can suck the least. I still think that the 8th seed in the East will be a sub .500 team.
If you’re like me and eat up NBA previews like a bag of Doritos on an empty stomach, then you’ve read your fair portion of them. You’ve also probably noticed that the same five teams appear in varying orders- the Lakers, Jazz, Spurs, Rockets, and Hornets. I would not be the least surprised if any of those 5 teams ends up with the West’s best record. But as we’ve come to expect from the West, the 8th seed has just a good as shot as any to beat the top seed. I find that part a little more interesting and a little more fun to predict. When the race is so close, it would be interesting to see which lower seeded teams get a shot to pull off a stunner.
So, I’ve narrowed it down to six teams vying for the final three playoff spots. It’s a Bloodsport out there in the West, so let’s see which teams will earn an opportunity to pull a Frank Dux on the grand stage and which ones get to be Ray Jackson laying in the hospital while Frank takes the tournament.
6. DALLAS MAVERICKS
The Avery Johnson era was the classic example of the coach that players don’t necessarily like playing for but will listen to so long as they’re winning. It’s no secret that Avery took the Little General moniker a little too literally, and expected his players to adhere to his very specific orders. When the war is going your way, everything is fine. But God help you if you’re losing, because your soldiers will learn to drown out your orders. Of course, this process was expedited by the landmark defeats during the Wade free throw clinic also known as the 2006 NBA Finals and the upset in the first round of the 2007 Playoffs. Everyone saw it coming. No one can be expected to overcome a monumental defeat without suffering damaging repercussions. Look what happened to the British. The American colonies whacked them upside the head and now the British Empire is practically just an island in Western Europe.
Enter Rick Carlisle. He’s not the Savior that’s going to help deliver the O’ Brien trophy to Mark Cuban. But he’s a proven winner. He’s an X’s and O’s guy who has consistently coached highly competitive teams. He’s coached 6 seasons and has only missed the playoffs once. With chess pieces like Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, and Jason Kidd at his disposal, the Mavericks should become a disciplined half-court team by season’s end. Without the General’s barking orders limiting his effectiveness, expect to see a slightly rejuvenated Kidd run the offense, getting better looks for Dirk and Josh.
7. PHOENIX SUNS
With a flip of a switch, the Suns turned from the “7 seconds or less” offense into Shaq’s retirement community. Could Grant Hill have been the trendsetter there? In homage to Seinfeld, I’m going to refer to them as the Del Boca Suns until Shaq’s retirement in 700 days or so and counting.
Shaq is a shell of his former dominant self. At this stage he’s a taller Tractor Traylor. He can be effective in spurts but certainly lacks the ability to dominate for 30 plus minutes a game anymore. Their bench has certainly thinned out, and they won’t have the offensive spark off the bench they once had if they continue to start Barbosa. Their personnel certainly suggests that they should be playing a more half-court style, because of their which ultimately suits them because they have good perimeter defenders in Barnes and Bell. If Diaw can somehow recapture his mojo, this could be a dangerous team.
It’s certainly a transition period for the once run and gun Suns. They will make it into the playoffs, though. The NBA is a Superstar driven league afterall. As long as Amare and Nash play a majority of the season at the level they’ve been playing at, there’s no reason that they shouldn’t guide the Del Boca Suns into the postseason. The fact that they have the puzzle pieces to become a very good half-court team is promising. If new coach Terry Porter can turn this Suns team into a disciplined half-court team, Diaw can return to form, and they can get more scoring production from Nash, this could be one of the top teams in the West. But I don’t have reason to believe any of the that is going to happen, so I’m keeping them as a West Coast underdog.
8. PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS
I’m really wary of picking the consensus up and coming team. We’ve seen it in the NFL so many times, where a team predicted to be the breakout team of the year fails miserably. But if you’ve read my ROTY prediction, you can see why I might be easily talked into the Blazers. They got Brandon Roy in the backcourt and a towering frontlineof Aldridge and Oden. What’s not to like?
Chemistry. There’s a lot of new faces on this Blazers roster. There’s a lot of uncertainty after this year beyond the Roy, Aldridge, and Oden triumvirate. There’s going to be a lot of young guys vying for a spot in the 10 man rotation. I don’t see the chemistry year needed to reap sustained success just yet.
Depth. The backup point guard is rookie Jerryd Bayless. I see them having a difficult time protecting leads because of the lack of scoring off the bench.
They still show signs of a young team. They’re going to lose a lot of the close games because of their weaknesses. But I think they’ll actually squeak into the playoffs. And here’s why. The Aldridge and Oden front line is going to turn other teams to rely on their jump shots. A majority of the teams in the West don’t have the great combination of great post presence plus reliable perimeter shooting to keep the defense honest.
The Ray Jacksons
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
I can understand the logic behind letting my man, Baron Davis, walk during the summer. They had two young, up-and-coming stars in Biedrins and Ellis so I can understand how the priorities shifted from keeping a contender to building for the future. After all, BD is aging and has a history of injury. SO WHY THE HELL WOULD THEY LET HIM WALK, AND OFFER MAX CONTRACTS TO GILBERT AND ELTON, TWO PLAYERS WHO PRETTY MUCH MISSED THE ENTIRE 2007-2008 SEASON WITH INJURY!!! Plus, their big acquisition in Corey Maggette is a guy who has NEVER played a complete 82 game season. You’d think with a cranium like that, Chris Mullin would have some sound logic.
BD was the guy who made the Golden State system work. When the 3 ball wasn’t falling or the offense slumping, he was the guy who could create his own shot AND create for his teammates. Where are you going to make up for BD’s 7 to 8 assists per game? In Moped… oops… Monta Ellis? Marcus Williams? I don’t think so. Most importantly, BD was the “character” guy on that team, the guy who led by example, and was the guy who was the balance to a starting lineup consisting of a participant in the most notorious brawl in NBA history. He will be sorely missed by the Warriors this year, especially withMonta Ellis missing some time due to injury. And when he comes back, you’re entrusting a guy who lied about crashing a Moped to steer the ship. Good luck with that.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Like I said, BD is my man. His style of play and his charitable contributions off the court are inspiring. But he may not find the same kind of success that he had in Golden State. Don Nelson’s system was the key to bringing out the best in BD. Golden State was essentially the D’Antoni Suns with less discipline and a much lower shooting percentage. But they were still one of the most entertaining teams to watch because they could put up the points.
What I’m getting at is that I don’t think Baron Davis will be able to run the floor as he may have been accustomed to in Golden State because their second option on offense is the plodding Chris Kaman who prefers to play with his back to the hoop. Baron Davis will have to adapt to a half court style, which may see result in a statistical decline since a) he’s not a great free throw shooter b) he doesn’t have a reliable jump shot (Kaman’s going to be getting attention down low, so he’ll have to score more from the outside) and c) the Clippers just don’t attack the hoop (suggesting a decline in assists).
I think Chris Kaman is one of the promising front court players out there and can put up All-Star numbers. He demonstrated by putting up career bests in scoring, rebounding, and blocks without Brand by his side. He should continue to get better. They’ve also added Marcus Camby to strengthen their interior defense and rebounding.
But here’s the crux of my reasoning as to why they won’t make it into the playoffs next year. They won 23 games last year. In the competitive Western Conference, they would need, in the very least, a 20 game improvement in the win column. Do I think the addition of BD and Camby, as well as Kaman’s improvement, can account for that? It would’ve been close but for the fact that they added Ricky Davis. He easily subtracts at least 8 games, pretty much sealing the deal. Ricky Davis is one of the guys carrying a black cloud with him wherever he goes. He’s an awesome athlete, has good size, and can score in a variety of ways. But for whatever reason, it has never translated into team success.
Damn. These guys made me look like a fool. I picked them to finish with one of the best regular season records last year. So what went wrong? It’s apparent that Melo and AI can still light up the scoreboard, but not necessarily create better opportunities for each other. Their team defense was atrocious, despite having defensive specialist, Marcus Camby, as the anchor. And K-Mart basically started showing that his quality of play was identical to the nickname he was given. Without a legitimate low post scoring presence, the Denver Nuggets perimeter players were basically competing with each other to see who could get hot.
They’ve lost their defensive specialist and never really added anything substantial to their lineup. AI trade rumors have already begun. Look for them to slip into the Lottery this year.