Southwest Division (predicted order of finish and record)
New Orleans Hornets (61-21) – A team that came to life last year with a great young nucleus is clearly a legitimate threat to take it a step further than they did last season and reach the NBA Finals. Chris Paul is the game’s best young guard and a potential MVP candidate. Complemented by David West, Tyson Chandler, and a championship ingredient in recent years, James Posey, Paul will lead Byron Scott’s New Orleans team to a division title. If their young players take the next step in terms of maturity, the Hornets will avenge their conference finals loss of last year.
Houston Rockets (56-26) – I think this year is the one where Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming finally shed their first-round ghosts of their careers and really do big things in the Western Conference. Ron Artest gives Houston yet another strong perimeter defender and a solid third-scoring option to form their own version of a ‘Big Three’. As long as Houston can avoid injury to their stars, something they have not been able to for the past few years, Rick Adelman’s team is as good as anyone in the West, and without a doubt a team that can win a title this season.
San Antonio Spurs (52-30) – With not many years left for the Spurs to win a championship, 2008-09 may be the year they really take a shot at it. Their trio of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili should be at full strength whenever Manu returns, and if they make some acquisitions around the deadline, the Spurs should be right back in the mix to win this division and make noise in the playoffs. Even if they roster doesn’t dazzle you as currently constituted, don’t count out San Antonio. Right now, they’re far from favorite, but only a fool would stick a fork in them.
Dallas Mavericks (48-34) – They aren’t the championship threat that they were just a few years ago, and frankly they’re not even a lock to make the playoffs this year. They missed their opportunity for a ring, similar to the Kings of the early 2000’s. However, Nowitzki, Howard, and Kidd make up a formidable trio that can threaten to win fifty plus games. A change at coach with Rick Carlisle should bring about new culture in Dallas, and as long as this team can throw this much veteran talent out there, I’ll hold off on writing an obituary for this Maverick squad.
Memphis Grizzlies (23-59) – Even though this team is stacked with young athletes, Memphis has a long way to go to once again become the playoff team they were just a few years ago. Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo will undoubtedly pile up the points, but don’t expect them to pile up the wins because of the lack of a proven supporting cast. Marc Iavaroni will have a hard time getting this team to play an organized offense or defense of any kind, as the Grizzlies will suffer through immense growing pains this year.
Northwest Division (predicted order of finish and record)
Utah Jazz (57-25) – Utah will be overlooked once again, but the Jazz are a legitimate championship contender in the ever-deep Western Conference. The West’s top point-differential team returns their entire squad; they’re all in their 20’s and have played long enough together to finally jell and make noise in the playoffs. Deron Williams is phenomenal at the point, and if Boozer and Okur can really play well in their contract years, this team will run away with the Northwest and win at least two rounds of postseason play. Don’t sleep on Utah this season.
Denver Nuggets (46-36) – Similar to what the Nets have done in the East, the Nuggets have made moves to make their scoring star the featured player. Carmelo Anthony can light it up with the best of them, and if Chauncey Billups can assume the true point guard role that Denver has been missing for a number of years, Denver will beat out teams for the eighth spot in the West. Their defense has been spotty, which may be a concern for George Karl’s squad this season, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because of their recent success.
Portland Trail Blazers (42-40) – The expectations for Portland are high after a surprising 41-win season, and I’ll argue that they’re unreasonably high. Aldridge and Roy are a great inside-outside duo, but Oden has been injury-prone recently and the Blazers lack a true point guard that’s ready to contribute. Should Portland avenge these two major problems, and if their young depth can become suitable third and fourth options for Nate McMillan, Portland should blow by Denver for second place in the division and possibly make the playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves (28-54) – This division is a wash after these top three teams, but it’ll be interesting to see the development of the young Timberwolves. They did make some major strides in the offseason towards future success, but they may live to regret their trade of O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love. Al Jefferson is a solid young big man in the middle, and their young depth is endless. They played decent ball in the second half of last season, and if their young players play smart and under control, Minnesota could make some strides.
Oklahoma City Thunder (21-61) – One look at their roster will make anyone cringe, as this franchise’s new beginning in a new city doesn’t look very promising. They’ve done a decent job in getting younger, but this season is all about establishing new identity. Durant, Green, and Westbrook should be an exciting trio for years to come, but the rest of the roster is basically dead wood. Don’t expect this team to rack up more than the twenty wins they achieved last year. This appears to be the NBA’s worst team.
Pacific Division (predicted order of finish and record)
Los Angeles Lakers (59-23) – The defending conference champs come into this season with one of the most talented rosters in the NBA, with Kobe, and the great duo in the middle of Bynum and Gasol. The supporting cast and the bench are as good as any and I don’t think their mild collapse in the finals will affect them whatsoever this season, but they may need to acquire a better point guard to really put them over the top. They’ll fight for the top seed in the West, and even if they don’t achieve that goal, they have a tremendous amount of talent, making them a legitimate championship threat, and one of the clear-cut favorites to win it all this season.
Phoenix Suns (50-32) – They fit into the same category as San Antonio and Dallas, as this team is surely on the decline, but still very dangerous. They have plenty of weapons left in Nash, Amare, and an aging Shaq. They’ve improved their bench like no other recent Suns team, and changed their coach, giving them hope for different results than they’ve had recently. Their defense will be a lot better, and with the best inside-outside duo in the game, Phoenix will make the playoffs. They will be a threat to win a round of two as a lower seed. They aren’t dead, but if they struggle this year, we might as well bury Phoenix.
Los Angeles Clippers (41-41) – Los Angeles’ other team made some big moves this offseason, most notably acquiring Baron Davis and Marcus Camby. They have some young talent, such as Al Thornton and rookie Eric Gordon, which could help them in possibly sneaking into the postseason. This team may have playoff potential, but the West is far too deep, along with the fact that chemistry might be a problem with so many new players. Players on their roster have had injury problems, as it seems like the high expectations for the Clips won’t be fulfilled this season.
Golden State Warriors (37-45) – The uptempo Warrior style of the past few years was fun while it lasted, but this team is bit depleted after losing Baron Davis to L.A. and losing Monta Ellis to injury. Stephen Jackson looks to be the featured player for Don Nelson this season, and though I like the signings of Maggette and Turiaf, Golden State just isn’t as good as they’ve been recently. The one thing that ensures their lottery-bound fate this year will be their defensive struggles. Both the division and conference are very deep. Don’t look for positive results in the Bay Area this season.
Sacramento Kings (31-51) – With Bibby and Artest gone, it’s time for sharpshooting swingman Kevin Martin to a shine, since there isn’t much else on the roster. This team was 26th in the league in total defense with Artest, so those numbers certainly won’t improve. The rebuilding process is in full force under second-year coach Reggie Theus, who will be a good coach in this league, as the Kings are certain to the be Pacific’s cellar-dweller. They’ve gone from a championship contender to one of the least talented teams in the talented West.
All Western Conference First Team
C - Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix
F - Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
F - Tracy McGrady, Houston
G - Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers
G - Chris Paul, New Orleans
All Western Conference Second Team
C - Yao Ming, Houston
F - Tim Duncan, San Antonio
F - Josh Howard, Dallas
G - Deron Williams, Utah
G - Steve Nash, Phoenix
All Western Conference Third Team
C - Pau Gasol, LA Lakers
F - David West, New Orleans
F - Carmelo Anthony, Denver
G - Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
G - Chauncey Billups, Denver