NBA: 2008-09 Season Preview: Western Conference

I’ve always loved previews, especially ones that require me to forecast months and months of the future with some research and instinct.

Please note: rankings are by projected finish in division, with projected finish in conference listed in parenthesis.

Northwest Division

  1. (3) Utah Jazz: I really like Carlos Boozer, and I like how the Jazz are turning themselves into a copy of their great mid-’90s teams and the Spurs of this century. Carlos Boozer can’t be Tim Duncan or Karl Malone, but Deron Williams has scoring skills that John Stockton never did and can play the new breed of bigger, strong point guards. Andrei Kirilenko is still useful and versatile, Mehmet Okur and Ronnie Brewer are two of the Association’s most underrated players, Morris Almond can score in spurts, C.J. Miles is a good energy guy, and, better yet, this team has been to the playoffs a few times now with this core. It may take a few years, but this team will be in a Finals before Williams and Boozer part ways. (And I didn’t even mention Paul Millsap.)
  2. (6) Portland Trail Blazers: Ticket them for glory if you will. It’s easy to call this team an updated version of last year’s Hornets, but there’s no one player on this roster as good as Chris Paul, and there’s too much talent to mix in for the Blazers to immediately be as good as the Hornets were from Day One of last year. Brandon Roy is going to have to play a combo guard spot. Rudy Fernandez is a great international player who will need time to adjust to the NBA. Jerryd Bayless is going to be an athletic sixth man and scorer. Greg Oden’s going to be winded after short spurts until midseason. LaMarcus Aldridge is going to have to carry the team at some point in this season. And yet, because Roy’s really, really good, because Sergio Rodriguez is the real deal, because Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster provide the depth, because Oden will have a fear factor about him by February, and because Nate McMillan is really a good coach, this team is going to go from tantalizing and dangerous to playoff outfit over the course of this season.
  3. (11) Minnesota Timberwolves: The Boston Celtics West are basically a bunch of young, good guys arrayed around Al Jefferson and Mike Miller. Jefferson’s a beast inside, and he’s going to be an All-Star this year or next, but Miller’s a gunner who shoots in streaks. Kevin Love is a good power forward with fantastic instincts, but he will struggle against bigger, faster players. If Corey Brewer and Rodney Carney can both catch up with the speed of the NBA game, this team is going to be able to shut down a lot of wing players. It’s not going to be an easy season by any means, and this isn’t a playoff contender, but the T’Wolves are improving.
  4. (12) Denver Nuggets: You want turmoil? Put the ultra-competitive Allen Iverson and the laid-back-like-a-Barcalounger Carmelo Anthony on a team that doesn’t really have the capability to play defense, outside of maybe Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith, trade away its best inside player (Marcus Camby), and let the wear and tear affect both George Karl and the team for three years. Yeah, this squad isn’t winning 40 games.
  5. (15) Oklahoma City Thunder: Outside of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, and Russell Westbrook, there isn’t a single player on this team I would want. Joe Smith and Desmond Mason are old and far removed from their primes; Johan Petro and Robert Swift may never have theirs. It’s a young team that will take its lumps in the West on a daily basis this year, and one that will struggle going forward.

Pacific Division

  1. (2) Los Angeles Lakers: I’m sure Andrew Bynum will have no problem getting back into the speed of the NBA game after almost nine months of not having to be in game form. I’m sure Lamar Odom will forget all about the playoffs. I’m sure Derek Fisher has some more in him. I’m sure Jordan Farmar is going to improve this year. I’m sure Phil Jackson can coax some production out of the reserve small forward spot that Vladimir Radmanovic, Sasha Vujacic, Sun Yue, and Trevor Ariza will share. I’m sure Pau Gasol isn’t going to start pouting when Bynum requires more touches. And I’m sure Kobe is fully recovered from one of the most draining seasons of his career, his Olympic stint, and his still-damaged finger, and won’t panic and whine to the front office if the Lakers start slow. This is a stacked roster, but I wonder what the Finals did to them, and I wonder if Kobe will be as superhuman this year.
  2. (7) Los Angeles Clippers: So what if Elton Brand is on the other side of the country? It’s not like this team was going to do anything with him that they hadn’t already done. Baron Davis gives them a point guard they haven’t had since Shaun Livingston’s knee exploded, Marcus Camby gives them a little bit of psychosis inside, Eric Gordon gives them a Cuttino Mobley clone, and Cuttino Mobley gives them late-career Ron Harper for a few months. So what if Al Thornton and DeAndre Jordan are going to be frustratingly young and green, and Chris Kaman may be a bit tired after playing rather fruitlessly for Germany this summer? Baron Davis, baby! Baron Davis!
  3. (8) Phoenix Suns: These Suns are either in the midst of an identity crisis or horribly disfigured after a car crash, and maybe both. Steve Nash is getting older, Boris Diaw’s getting wider, Shaq’s not getting younger, Amare’s still not quite familiar with this “defense” you speak of, and Leandro Barbosa has taken steps back from where he was in past years. Raja Bell isn’t exactly a stud, and there’s nothing to suggest that Matt Barnes will save the franchise, that Grant Hill’s fully healthy, or that Robin Lopez is going to immediately be a good NBA big man. This team is somewhere on the same trajectory Ava from “Grey’s Anatomy” took; the three-person cross-section that watches that show and reads this blog remembers how that ended.
  4. (10) Golden State Warriors: If you’re treading water in the West, you’re losing a spot in the shark pool in a split-second. Corey Maggette’s going to be a scorer like Baron Davis was for the Warriors, but there’s no way to replace Davis’ facilitation skills and defense, however limited, with persona non grata Monta Ellis, DeMarcus Nelson, and Marcus Williams. Losing Mickael Pietrus makes more room for Marco Bellinelli, who’s on the cusp of bust status, and Andris Biedrins, who could show signs of offense any day now, but they lost a lot when Davis bolted, and the way he did it isn’t a good thing, either. Stephen Jackson, this is your team. (That should scare all of us.)
  5. (13) Sacramento Kings: It seems like the whole world has jumped on the Kevin Martin Bandwagon. I’ll make room for you all: Martin’s one player on a team that tossed its other good player to Houston in the off-season and will rely on Spencer Hawes and the reanimated corpse of Brad Miller inside this year. Sure, Martin’s good, but he’s one guy.

Southwest Division

  1. (1) New Orleans Hornets: I’m bullish on them this year, and not just because I’m a fan. I think Chris Paul is the closest thing to Michael Jordan that we’ve seen since he left: not physically, no, because he’s more Isiah Thomas with the brio of Steve Nash, but mentally, with a pathological competitiveness that he uses to drive everyone around him to be better. David West was good before Paul; now, he’s a 20-10 threat. Tyson Chandler was all gangly arms and rebounding; now, he’s turning into an offensive force. I like the James Posey signing, and I love Julian Wright off the bench as a moth-like stopper and third offensive option, and while I’m not a huge fan of either Morris Peterson’s or Peja Stojakovic’s defense, I’m not about to deny that their three-point shooting is as important to this team as West’s proficiency from 20 feet. The depth isn’t great, but this is now a battle-hardened team, and they’ll scrap to the top of the West this year.
  2. (4) Houston Rockets: It’s unfair that this team is the one that gets Ron Artest. He we had a team everyone thought was soft, and in need of a third scoring option, and they get him for what’s basically a first-rounder. Tracy McGrady gets a scoring sidekick, the defense gets a kick in the pants, and everyone starts calling the Rockets a title contender. I’m not ready to go that far, but I think this team is clearly the best one in Texas on paper. Don’t think that Yao Ming will get injured again: he’s due for one good, healthy year, and Luis Scola’s going to continue to take pressure off of him inside. Oh, and McGrady has the sort of season that gets MVP hype, then, finally, gets them out of the first round.
  3. (5) San Antonio Spurs: For the first time in the playoffs last year, the Spurs just looked old. They were good, solid veterans against the Suns and the Hornets in the playoffs, and then the Lakers made them look instantly decrepit. Perhaps it’s because there’s just too much mileage on the tires for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili; maybe it’s because Tony Parker isn’t as good as we think he is. Maybe it’s because the supporting cast is getting older, too: Parker’s 26, and the only player under 30 who’s likely to see more than five minutes a game. I can understand paying respect to the dynasty, and I know 2009 is an odd-numbered year. But there’s got to be a tipping point. It happens in January.
  4. (9) Dallas Mavericks: This team will crash like some other mavericks in American life. Jason Kidd was exposed in the playoffs, and every other point guard in the league should watch the clinic Chris Paul conducted in that series. Dirk Nowitzki is 30, and he’s got another Olympic summer behind him. Jason Terry has lost a step; same with Jerry Stackhouse. Josh Howard may continue his regression, and the microscopes others have trained on him won’t help. If this team has to look to its younger players, who are they? Brandon Bass? Gerald Green? There’s not a lot behind the top line, and if this team is to win a title at any point in the next ten years, this might be a good time to start revamping the core.
  5. (14) Memphis Grizzlies: Merging Memphis and Charlotte and putting a team in Nashville wouldn’t work, Commissioner? You’re going to force people to pay money to see O.J. Mayo average 20 a night for a team whose prettiest aspect is Marko Jaric’s fiance? This team is going to maybe touch 20 wins, and that’s only because the Grizz get to play the Eastern Conference, too. A grisly season it will be.

Western Conference

  1. New Orleans Hornets
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Utah Jazz
  4. Houston Rockets
  5. San Antonio Spurs
  6. Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Los Angeles Clippers
  8. Phoenix Suns
  9. Dallas Mavericks
  10. Golden State Warriors
  11. Minnesota Timberwolves
  12. Denver Nuggets
  13. Sacramento Kings
  14. Memphis Grizzlies
  15. Oklahoma City Thunder
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