If everything goes well, here's who's going to be playing in May. Rounding out the only upside column, the top 8 teams.
8. Dallas Mavericks:
Kidd is being hated on by many people due to his pathetic showing in the Olympics. He looked very, very old. And, in truth, he is very, very old. But he’s still Jason Kidd, still one of the best point guards of all time (top 10) and still a triple double threat each and every night. He’s the prototypical point who makes everyone around him better. No matter what the Dallas organization is thinking with adding and signing all of these tweener guard/forward types, the fact remains that George, Wright, Bass, Stackhouse, Singleton, Howard and Green can all run and for the most part finish. That’s all Kidd needs really. Horses to run with. Howard should rebound from a ho-hum showing when Kidd initially came to the team last year. He’ll regain his near all-star form. His offseason antics aside, he’ll learn how to play off Kidd and realize how much easier he makes everything. Terry and Stackhouse supposedly have shown up to camp in great shape as opposed to other years (I’m talking to you Stack) and people forget how effective both of them can be when they are healthy. Gerald Green is one to keep an eye on. He’s a great catch and shoot guy and who can forget him blowing out that candle in the dunk contest? He’s got crazy athleticism, a pure shooting stroke and vast upside. His head and his work ethic are all that keeps him from blossoming into something special. Kidd and Rick Carlisle will hopefully be able to get through to him. Plus, Green’s never played with a point guard the caliber of Kidd. Telfair doesn’t quite live up to that billing. Of course Dirk is still the best finesse big in the league. He’ll put up great overall numbers again, something like 24 and 9 with great percentages. Despite what many believe, this team is still dangerous, just not elite. Kidd, if he plays like the Kidd of old and not an old Kidd, could push this team back into the elite discussion. Adding Diop, despite the huge price tag as well as the coaching of Carlisle (Detroit and Indiana both had stout defenses without super talent) will put this team back into the upper echelon of good defenses. They should make the playoffs off of talent and veteran savvy alone.
7. San Antonio Spurs:
The Spurs have the best coach in the league and the proven nature of a stable, well-built organization, so, despite missing Ginobili to injury for the first quarter or more of the season, the Spurs won’t drop too far down in the standings. Even still, it might be surprising to see them in the 7th slot in the “upside” column, but there is no way around losing one of your key players for that long and not dropping, and as we’ve already relayed, upside does not include miraculous comebacks. Nor does it include finding the fountain of youth. Thomas, Bowen, Duncan and Finley are all super old. They are also crusty veterans who are smart and know their limitations as well as their strengths. There is some hopeful youth, however. Ime Udoka and Roger Mason will get a chance now to show what they can do in extended minutes. Ditto for Ian Mahimi and Salim Stoudamire. Mason is Barry’s replacement. He’s younger and a better athlete and defender though not as deadeye from beyond the arc. Enter Stoudamire who can really shoot the rock. Mahimi will work for minutes as the backup big. He faired well in the D-League and he’ll be learning from the hard-nosed, gritty, veteran in Thomas, the best power foward of all time in Duncan, and the guile-filled, flop-master Oberto. Couldn’t ask for a better set of teachers. And let’s not forget Pop. The Spurs will continue to have one of the best defenses in the league as long as Bowen and Duncan are healthy and playing together. Parker will take a mighty leap forward and put himself above Steve Nash as the third best point guard in the West. He’ll average around 24 points this year with 7 or 8 dimes. Top 5 defense, top coach, top organization = not falling out of the playoffs despite losing the team’s most dynamic player. This team’s got a boatload of veteran experience and savvy, but not a lot of youth and upside.
6. Portland Trailblazers:
Oden will be a huge beast of a presence in the middle on defense and completely transform the team. Pryzbilla, who was a wiz on the boards and did a great job filling in for Greg, will be his backup. Scary. Aldridge will put up some big numbers with Oden taking up space down low. He’ll get easier rebounds and block opportunities as well thanks to Oden. Think 21 and 8 with over 2 blocks. Roy’s going to have another all-around great year. His knee will round into shape by the time the season starts, and with a bruiser in the middle, he’ll take less punishment as well, preserving his body for a hard playoff push. Blake, with Oden and Aldridge, is the perfect point guard for the team due to his ability to stretch defenses and his penchant for rarely ever turning the ball over. Outlaw is freaky athletic and Webster is a middle-class man’s version of Outlaw, but with a better shooting touch. Those two will both improve this year. The Portland bench will include rookies Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez who both have the capability of being game changing talents (check summer league for Bayless and the Olympics for Fernandez). Roy’s a great defender. Oden will dominate the middle. Outlaw and Aldridge will be able to use their length and athleticism to get blocks and steals. Coach McMillan is a master zone defensive strategist and an underappreciated coach. Thanks to Oden’s massive presence, this team will be tough to score on and with Roy’s ability to take over games, this team will be able to find ways to score on the opposite end. The Blazers basically has two starting quality units and will use both to keep injury-prone guys like Oden and Roy fresh for their playoff run. They are the anti-Spurs—a team full of youthful upside, but not a lot of experience.
5. New Orleans:
CP3 will have another incredible year and be in the running for the MVP once again. Think 20 and 12 with 2.5 steals. His ability to be, well, unstoppable, puts him in the conversation for best player in the NBA—right there with Kobe and Lebron. Peja should have another stellar season, playing about 70-75 games, thanks to the addition of James Posey who will help give the oft-injured SF a breather as well as add championship cred to a team sorely lacking in veteran leadership. He makes the bench deeper capable of playing the 2, 3 or 4. He’s also a great rebounder. Julian Wright is going to have a breakout sophomore year, despite only a modest bump in minutes (he’ll probably see some time at the 4). He’s turnover prone, but his defense, ballhandling, length as well as another year in the league will help offset that problem. Devin Brown, though not as prolific a scorer as Jannero Pargo was last year, is a much better all-around talent and will contribute in a lot more areas than just instant offense (like JP every couple of games). He’s a good rebounder as well for his position adding to the boarding wizardry of Tyson Chandler and to a lesser extent, David West who will slightly improve their games. West will score a few more points and Chandler will lead the West in rebounding. Think 22 and 9 for West and 12 and 13 for Chandler. Ely is back at full strength, Armstrong has another year of maturity and Sean Marks is a solid clubhouse guy looking for playing time. Throw in a bounce back year from my boy, Mike James, and the Hornets suddenly have a pretty formidable bench this season. They slide to fifth because even with that bench producing at full bore, it still isn’t as good as the four teams above, even with one of the best coaches in the league running the team.
4. Utah Jazz:
Deron Williams is going to solidify his status as the league’s 1A point guard to Chris Paul. He’ll average 21 and 12 with great percentages and be the engine for a very dangerous, young and talented squad. He should get some MVP votes this year. Carlos Boozer is primed to have a good season due to his impending free agent status (he’s planning on opting out of his deal) and if that weren’t motivation enough, his almost non-existent playing time during the Olympics should also add fuel to his fire. Think another 20 and 10 campaign. Even if he doesn’t match or exceed last year’s stats, Kirilenko and Milsap will more than make up for any drop-off. Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Miles and Ronnie Price will all be another year older and better. Brewer especially is going to have a big season. He should average around 2 steals and his jump shot will be markedly improved forcing teams to play him honestly. This will open the lanes for Deron and Boozer and to a lesser extent, Andrei Kirilenko to go to work. After a season full of ups and downs, Kirilenko saw he couldn't do it alone with the Russian national squad during the Olympics, Holden aside and will finally embrace his third/fourth option status. He’ll get back to averaging nearly 2 steals and 2 blocks and will be a stat sheet stuffer on a nightly basis. Just call him the White Matrix (he doesn’t have Marion’s hops). He’s a great passer and can score some too and will put up a league leading five 5X5s this year. And if he continues to come off the bench like he has been during the pre-season, look for him to have an even bigger season. Also, Memo Okur will bounce back after foregoing his duties to the Turkish national team this summer. He’s completely healthy from the injuries that plagued him last year (back and Achilles). He’ll also help spread the floor with his shooting. Think 17 and 8. Okur has a penchant for hitting big shots, and now that he’s fully healthy, he’s going to be one of the main reasons the Jazz contend for a title this year. Kyle Korver will be dangerous as well. With a full offseason and training camp with the Jazz, his 3-point shooting will rise once again back to above 40 percent thus proving even more of a dangerous threat. With a healthy powerful starting lineup, another tough playoff run under their belts, and one more year of maturity for a starting squad whose best player is 24 and whose eldest is 29, this team has all the ingredients to run the gamut of the West. The Jazz is balanced, very young, athletic and led by one of the best, most consistent coaches in the NBA. They get bumped by the Suns because they don’t have the championship cred of O’Neal or the sheer dominating force of Amare, though, D Will is hands down better than Nashty.
3. Phoenix Suns:
Been down about this squad since they tore down the SSOL squad (the most fun team to watch since the Showtime Lakers) and made it into a halfcourt nightmare with Shaq O’Neal. That being said, they are my favorite darkhorse team. Fully, 100 percent healthy, the Suns automatically shoot to the top of the west. Amare Stoudemire has been working all summer on his D, having found a new passion for the less “sexy” aspect of bball. He should be the anchor to the Suns newly improved, Terry Porter inspired defense. His explosiveness is back to where it was pre-surgery. He’s going to average 29 and 10 with 2.5 blocks and challenge for both the scoring title and the MVP. Shaq, fiercely motivated by his offseason from hell and talk of his demise, will play 68 games. Grant Hill and Steve Nash, 75-78. Rookie Robin Lopez, with his non-need for the ball and penchant for rebounds and energy, will be the perfect compliment to Amare. Dragic, while not offensively gifted (can’t shoot or pass really, but damn he can handle the rock), will emerge as a useful defender against CP3, TP and Deron out West while Singletary will fill in the offensive backup point guard duties (the duo will split about 18 minutes). Porter will light a fire under Barbosa and Diaw and get them to play more aggressively on both sides of the court. Diaw will do his 10, 6, 6 thing while Barbosa will push his scoring near the 20 point threshold. Nash’s shooting numbers will remain at a high level, with the potential to be even higher due to defenses packing it in to guard the Amare/Shaq tandem. Matt Barnes covers any holes created by a Hill injury or a Diaw no-show. He adds toughness and veteran savvy. Hill, with reduced minutes, will put up another solid season and be ready for the playoffs. Basically, Amare is going to play out of his mind this year. He’s going to emerge as the best power forward in the league…period. His MVP-caliber year, added depth (that will actually be used and developed by Porter) and a healthy season from everybody else puts the Suns in the top 3. Their starting five puts them above the Jazz despite the Jazz being deeper.
2. Houston Rockets
Despite Tracy McGrady’s early injury woes (arthritic shoulder, slow recovery from knee surgery) the Rockets are poised to be the second best team in the league. There is that rock solid, scarily suffocating (say that three times fast) defense, made even tougher, and a hell of a lot crazier, with the addition of Ron Artest. Due to his impending free agency, the fact he’s playing for his favorite coach, and the knowledge that this is a championship caliber team, Artest should finally “get it” and manifest his top-ten ability. With less pressure to do everything, T-Mac will remind the league about the days when people were saying he was the best player and not Kobe Bryant. Yao Ming (also recovering from surgery) should be able to rest more this season due to the 12-man depth this team has. Because of this, the Rockets are also, largely, injury-proof. Artest can easily compensate for any time T-Mac misses (imagine the defense with Artest and Battier playing the SG and SF spots) and we’ve all seen how well this team can play without Yao. Besides, the Rockets have one of the deepest benches in the league (Francis, Hayes, Landry, Head, Barry, Battier/Scola and possibly Mutumbo). Plus, don’t sleep on the defensive contribution potential of DJ Strawberry (if he makes the team) or rookie Joey Dorsey. The Rockets partially addressed their outside shooting concerns with the sharp-shooting and veteran savvy of Brent Barry. Then there’s Rafer Alston, who, rightfully or not, has so much negativity surrounding him. I don’t understand why. He’s very good at managing games, he had a better assist/turnover ratio than starting point guards Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, T.J. Ford, Derek Fisher and Mo Williams, and he can flat out defend. Sure, he shot under 40 percent the last couple of seasons, but with Artest taking away a lot of those extra shots, Alston will be more of a setup man. Besides, Aaron Brooks is coming along better than nicely and there’s also the wild card “addition” of Steve Francis (injured all of last season) who is only 31 and two seasons ago was averaging 16 and 6. If Alston struggles, Brooks, or perhaps even Francis can act as a backup plan—both with quite a deal of upside. The Rockets get ahead of the Jazz because of their defense and the Jazz’s penchant to foul almost every time down the court (plus, Deron’s ankle injury could get them off to another slow start). The world saw how much better a dominating defense is over a brilliant offense in last season’s finals and nobody can mess with the Rockets D. That includes the Celtics. With the toughest pair of wing defensive specialists in the league, 12-man rotational depth, an excellent coach, and three bona fide superstars the Rockets have the most upside out of any team in the West, save…
Los Angeles Lakers
Okay, I flip-flopped on this decision for a while, even had Houston at the top before I decided to redo all the projections. But, in the end, I can’t keep them from this top spot. Jinxes be damned. This team has too much talent and too much upside to place any lower than number one. First and foremost, they have the best player in the league on their team. Okay, if you don’t think Kobe is the best in the entire league (that mantle has finally and rightfully been placed on Lebron), he’s most certainly the best in the west. Chris Paul is right there, but when it comes down to it, Kobe is the ultimate on offense and defense when he needs to be. CP3, while an elite pick-pocket, can’t play the necessary lockdown defense to qualify him for “best player” status. Besides, Kobe’s going to have a breakout year in terms of efficiency. His overall numbers will go down (26 ppg, 4 rpg, 7 apg) but his shooting percentages will be better than 50 percent for the first time in his career. Upside? I’m thinking 55 percent. He’ll also average over 3 steals a game and could challenge for defensive player of the year if he decides to be that lockdown wing defender L.A. sorely needs. He’s got plenty of offensive firepower In addition to #24, the Lakers have the winningest coach in NBA history (tied with Red Auerbach) who is hungry to pass the Celtics legend—famished in fact.. The Lakers get to mess around with their version of the twin towers in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol who have looked good playing together in the preseason. Bynum’s sheer length and size and Pau’s skills, as predicted by Tex Winters, have been and will continue to work out perfectly. Add to this bunch Vladimir Radmanovic who has suddenly found his head and Derek Fisher who has always had his on straight (save for that one miserable season in Utah). The rest of the roster is the deepest in the league and that is saying quite a bit looking at some of the other teams in the Western conference like Utah, Houston and Portland (there’s also the Celtics and Pistons in the East). If Lamar Odom does indeed come off the bench, the second unit would consist of him, Trevor Ariza (looks downright awesome so far), Sasha Vujacic, and Jordan Farmar, who, is already better than Fisher and has run the second unit to perfection. The second unit brings speed and can full court press. It’s a deadly combination of length and skill in the starting five and youth, speed and hustle from the second unit. Your team isn’t that good if Luke is your starting small forward (see 2005-06 season), but it becomes the best in the league when he’s the ninth or tenth guy off the bench. Speaking of bench guys, Chris Mihm, yes, that Chris Mihm, looks like his old starter self. That certainly doesn't mean he should be starting on any team, but he’s playing like he did when he was a starter. And he’ll be the fourth or fifth big off the bench. Josh Powell is filling Ronny Turiaf’s shoes and his jersey as well. He brings energy and hustle off the bench and though not as good of a shot blocker or as charismatic, he’s a much, much better rebounder, especially on the offensive glass. The Lakers depth also makes them extremely versatile able to go big, small, quick, defensive-minded, pure athleticism, etc. etc. In the end, depth, length, the Triangle, skilled players, Gasol + Bynum + Phil + best closer = title favorites and best in the west. Anything less than a championship for this team will be an utter disappoint.