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A New Review: Western Conference

Breaking down the NBA in a brand new way

By Adam Hoff
Guest Star: Jack Wang

I love the NBA. LOVE it. Yet I hate writing the NBA preview column every year. It winds up being 6,000 words spread out over two columns and it leaves me feeling (to quote Dave Chappelle here) bombed out and depleted.

This year, in an effort to bring some joy back to the proceedings, I brought in my friend and NBA expert Jack Wang to break it all down with me. We decided to go sports bar style and just debate each division back and forth. This way, we can pay lip service to the truly horrible teams and boring divisions and focus on what we want to discuss. Your favorite player got left out? Too bad. Not enough attention paid to the Sonics? Get over it. Just kidding. Kind of.

Here’s the first ever edition of the Sports Bar Preview. Today we hit the Western Conference and tomorrow we will post the Eastern version. (We are going in reverse of the sun, obviously. Who doesn’t?)


Northwest Division

Adam:
Let’s start with predicted order of finish.

I've got:
1. Utah
2. Denver
3. Minnesota
4. Seattle
5. Portland

And now some initial thoughts, to kick us off. This is the worst division in the West, quite easily. Denver is the proverbial favorite because they won the division last year and supposedly have all their front line players somewhat healthy, but I like Utah. Deron Williams could make the biggest jump among second year players, which would be enormous for the Jazz. Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer are pretty worthless defensive players, but they provide nice inside-outside scoring and rebounding while AK-47 cleans up on the weak side. Kirilenko might be the best player I've ever seen at closing out on a three-point shooter and still making it back to the basket once the ball has been reversed. He gets from the block to the arc and back quicker than anyone, with the possible exception of Josh Smith (when he's trying). Obviously, there are health concerns in Salt Lake City as well, but if they lose a big guy it actually serves to alleviate a logjam and won't hurt them all that much. The key for Utah might be how fast Ronnie Brewer comes around and becomes a viable option at the two, because the other guys blow.

As for the scraps in this league, I see Minnesota imploding in about six weeks, Seattle failing to stop anyone (again), and Portland generating some good feelings as the Brandon Roy Era begins, but failing to win many games.

Go.

Jack: First off, Heroes is the best new show on TV.  The twists and turns during tonight’s episode were the best of the season so far.  Save the cheerleader...

Okay, onto the important stuff.  I can't argue with this being the worst division in the West, but I have Denver ending the season on top here.  From all accounts, Carmelo has found a new focus, and their frontcourt has intimidating size and presence.  I think J.R. Smith will fit in nicely here, and if George Karl can keep Andre Miller away from the buffet line, they can improve 5-to-6 wins from their record of a year ago, which will put them at around 50 wins.  Utah will be right behind them, but their biggest weakness is backcourt depth.  If Deron has an off night, which could be pretty common for a second-year guard, they will have to rely almost exclusively on Boozer and Okur to create their own offense.  So my list looks like this:

1. Denver
2. Utah
3. Minnesota
4. Seattle
5. Portland

Minnesota might sneak up on people and make some noise, although any team that starts Mark Blount at center not only won't win, but doesn’t deserve to win.  Just start Eddie Griffin already.  We all know he makes mistakes (particularly behind the wheel of his SUV), but at his best, he is five times as good as Blount, and at his worst, only about half as bad.  As for Seattle: people will pick up decent fantasy rebounds from Nick Collison and Sene.  That's all you need to know about their frontcourt.  And Portland.  Nothing to say, except they're going to suck.

Adam: Utah shored up their backcourt depth a bit by adding Derek Fisher, who is only terrible until you compare him with Keith McLeod and Milt Palacio, who constituted the guard depth last year. I also like that they have Harpring for those days when they need some extra offense, and I wouldn't count out the possibility of C.J. Miles making a contribution. He's very athletic and the word is that he made some nice progress over the last few months. As for the Creamy Nuggets, if you are counting on J.R. Smith, think again. He's arguably the worst defensive player in the league, which means that George Karl will give him, oh, two fourth quarters before he never sees the court again in the last 15 minutes of a game. There is a chance that former Pepperdine Wave and Adam Hoff H-O-R-S-E victim Yakhouba Diawara might be Denver's two guard in crunch time. Now, I love Khoub to death and couldn't be happier to see him in the NBA, but if they are planning on winning games with a former power forward from a .500 WCC team as their best option at shooting guard, they aren't winning an NBA division – even one as bad as the Northwest.

The Wolves can compete if they begin the Randy Foye Era as soon as possible. If that means giving Ricky Davis the Gillooly Treatment in the parking lot, so be it. And I agree about Griffin. Minny needs to get its talented young players up to speed as quickly as possible, just in case these guys have a high enough ceiling to give KG what he needs to compete. Kevin McHale joins Isiah and Mullin and a host of other former great players that I wouldn't trust with one of my turns in Monopoly. The three of them are among the worst GM's in the history of their profession.

Feel free to respond and then we can move on to a better division, which is pretty much all of them.

Jack: Wow, I didn't think you would throw down the Yakhouba Diawara hammer until at least the third response.

Though JR Smith may not be able to guard my grandmother, Gordon Giricek may actually be just as bad.  That's how Kirilenko (and Camby) get all these help-side shot-blocking opportunities.  And no one is saying the Nuggets are counting on Smith for anything more than as a shooting threat, a role he can play.  The Nuggets' star is Carmelo Anthony, who will approach 30 points/game this year, while Utah's star is a defensive specialist with limited offensive weapons in Kirilenko.  That may be the biggest difference between them.

No argument regarding Minny.  Moving on up ...


Pacific Division

Adam:
Again, the picks:

1. LAC
2. Phoenix
3. LAL
4. Sacramento
5. Golden State

Hard to picture the Kings actually missing the playoffs when they have Artest for a full season (provided he doesn't murder someone), but this division is stacked. Plus, with Bibby sidelined because of "mallet thumb," they are already behind the eight ball. I've got the Clippers taking another step forward this year and passing Phoenix, because I think the Suns are going to have serious Amare issues. Getting him acclimated will cost them a ton of games early, but obviously be worth it late if he can round into shape. The Lakers are intriguing because they were pretty dangerous in the playoffs, but I'm not sure they have the personnel to play that way all year. It doesn't help that all their big men begin the year dinged up. I'm shocked they didn't bring in a big point guard to replace Smush. I guess they are okay with the Diaw Massacre (via Nash-Boris Diaw pick-and-rolls that put Parker into inopportune switches) being repeated in April. Golden State? People seem to think Nelson is going to turn them around, but didn't the Mavericks get a whole lot better after he left? That team is a disaster.

Questions: Can Brand repeat his MVP level performance from last year? Will Kevin Martin be the steal of every fantasy draft (tons of threes and a remarkably high percentage last year as a starter)? Is Chris Mullin even worse than Isiah as an exec (think before you answer, there is a case to be made)? And do the Clippers have the ugliest point guard combo in NBA history?

Feel free to answer or not.

Jack: As with the Northwest, I have the same lineup as you except for a switch at the top.  Amare's going to take a while to round into form, but without him last year the Suns still had 7 more wins that the Clippers.  Now that Nash cut his hair, I don't mind saying that he's the best point guard in the NBA anymore, and once Amare finds his stride, I have to believe that they will be even better than they were last year.  So factoring in a slight dip in the beginning and an uptick at the end of the season, I still see the Suns improving a little bit overall.  The Clippers are a good team and will probably win 50 games, but watching them, I never got the impression that the players really had a strong sense that they were running a coherent system.  Bring in a top flight x's and o's coach and the Clippers could win it all, but Dunleavy costs them a few close games per year.

Apparently, the Lakers will try to run the team-oriented game that won them three games against Phoenix in the playoffs last year, where instead of having Kobe take 30 shots a game, the scoring is more distributed and more players make a contribution.  Unfortunately, it's the same system that lost them four games against Phoenix.  The plan is sound, and Phil is a master at getting the most out of his players, but look at the personnel.  The only significant change is the addition of V-Rad, who is going to play the entire season with a torn ligament in his shooting hand, which he already blames for his 26% 3-point shooting in the preseason.  Even Smush can shoot that well.  So all in all, the Lakers are basically relying upon the improvement of Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum to take them to the next level.  The last time a franchise put their eggs in Kwame Brown's basket, Kwame broke down and cried.  I also just read that Jerry Buss thinks Lamar Odom can get 40 triple-doubles this year.  If that doesn't scream delusional optimism, I don't know what does.

Sacramento won't score more than their opponents, which, last I checked, means they will lose.  They don't have enough scoring punch at the shooting guard/small forward/power forward positions, and Bibby can't carry the scoring load for that team.  He tried to last year, and ended up with the worst shooting percentage of his career.  With Bonzi Wells gone, they'll find it even harder to score.  Time to rebuild.

I am rooting against the Warriors, because if they are bad for one more year, I can get in on cheap season tickets.  They have enticing talent, but they are missing the one key ingredient for a successful Don Nelson-coached team: Shawn Bradley.  This alone relegates them to the lottery again.

1. Phoenix
2. LAC
3. LAL
4. Sacramento
5. Golden State

Adam: Can't argue with the point about Dunleavy. I don't know what I was thinking.

Let me just skip ahead to the Kings, which is where we disagree ... kind of. We both have them fourth in the division, but I retain some optimism, while you clearly think they suck. To put it bluntly, I think you are wrong about Sac-Town's inability to score. Let's go to the lineup:

PG - Bibby. Granted, he's out to start the year, but he's a very reliable scorer for a lead guard.

SG - Martin. He averaged 14 a game as a starter last year and should see a big boost this year, especially coming off his breakout performance in the playoffs. I think he goes for at least 17 a night. Easy.

SF - Artest. He only scored 16.4 a game as a member of the Kings last year, but that was still an upgrade over what Peja was giving them. People think of Tru Warrior as a defensive player (which is valid), but a great deal of his value is as an offensive weapon. In his last full season, 2003-04, he averaged 18.3 points per for the Pacers and was their go-to scorer in the playoffs. He isn't much of a shooter, but he can operate on the low block and is a fairly adept passer.

PF - Rahim/Kenny Thomas. Abdur-Rahim scored more points per 48 than Bonzi last year and Thomas had more offensive boards per 48 than Wells. Since those were Wells' two best skills, the Kings should be able to replace him. Don't forget that Abdur-Rahim was absolutely torching Duncan in the first round of the playoffs last year.

C - Miller. Good for 15 points a night and is able and willing to dish the ball as well.

From just the top six players the Kings should get about 92 points a game. Throw in the other three guys and they will be fine.

But I still don't think they make the playoffs.

Got anything else on this division?

Jack: Leaving the statistical inaccuracies of your calculations aside, nothing else.


Southwest Division

Adam:
Time to get to the kingpin division.

1. Dallas
2. San Antonio
3. Houston
4. New Orleans
5. Memphis

From the ground on up:

Memphis seems to get worse every year yet win the same number of games. But not this time. The division is too good for the Grizzlies to survive Gasol missing the first two and a half months. Plus, unless my eyes are deceiving me, they are still rolling out a Mighty Mouse and Eddie Jones backcourt. That would probably work if they were competing for the Phase III Condo Association title at Del Boca Vista, but not here. It seems like Jerry West is trying to reload on the fly, given the Battier-for-Gay trade and accompanying picks (Kyle Lowry and Alexander Johnson). This makes sense, given Gasol's youth, but it could make for a long year. If the Grizzlies are smart, they will surround Mike Miller with all the kids (Lowry, Gay, Johnson, Swift, and Warrick) and see what they have before Gasol gets back. The worst thing that can happen is that they suck but develop some talent and boost the trade value of some disposable pieces. Instead, they will try to compete with their Geriatric All-Stars and stunt the growth of their prospects. Genius. It's like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays took over an NBA team.

The Hornets were a great story last year, but they won't come as close to making the playoffs this time around. They were fortunate that Houston and Utah both crapped the bed in 2005-06, and since that won't happen again, there are already two more teams better than New Orleans. Chris Paul is a sensational player, but they are really putting his powers to the test. They threw huge contracts at Peja and Tyson Chandler in the apparent belief that their franchise point guard can perform miracles. I'll say this: if he turns Chandler into a real NBA center and resurrects Peja's career, he should be the MVP.

For Houston it all comes down to health. Duh. If McGrady is back (no pun intended) and over his emotional troubles, the Rockets could compete for a title. If they find a way to cut Rafer Alston, that is.

The Spurs are the Spurs. A bunch of complainers that somewhat get cast as good guys. I'll never figure it out. But they should be good. Again.

As for the Mavs, they seemed to move a lot of guys around in the offseason, but the core remains the same. Dirk is an MVP candidate, Josh Howard has supposedly added range to his jumper, Stackhouse is still around to clothesline opposing stars, and the Quick Unit backcourt of Terry and Harris should present problems. So why does it feel like they missed their chance? I'm not sure, but it does.

Spit hot fire.

Jack: I would disagree with you just for the sake of argument, but for once there is nothing wrong with your rankings.  But just to be different, I'll go from first to worst instead, which is incidentally a much better strategy when hitting on girls at clubs.

It does "feel" like Dallas is missing just that little something that would get them the title, but I can't put my finger on it.  After being oh-so-close last year, they seem poised to take the next step, and I'm willing to attribute my skepticism to the difficulty of grasping the thought of THE MAVERICKS AS NBA CHAMPIONS.  It will be tougher this year, and last year might have been a better opportunity, but the experience will help them.

The fact of the matter is that it may be the Spurs who have slipped below elite status.  I know what everyone says: they're the best-run organization in the NBA.  But there's no denying that the Spurs have inched backwards the last couple of years.  Losing Nazr will hurt them a lot, since having him last year meant that Duncan could rest throughout the regular season.  Parker seems to have been bitten by the injury bug this year, having sprained his ankle after breaking his finger this summer. Plus, San Antonio’s best backups are on their last legs.

Even assuming Houston avoids the injuries that it had last year, the Rockets have two big problems Jeff Van Gundy and Rafer Alston.  JVG's style may have fit the 90's Knicks, but it's a new league now.  And how does Rafer still have a job?  Wouldn't it be better to have McGrady initiate the offense and put Luther Head at the other guard spot?  He's a much better shooter.  That being said, I love the Battier and Wells acquisitions and think that if all goes right, Houston could go all the way.  But that's a lot to ask, so I'll stash them here, and allow for the possibility that they could present huge problems for a few teams come playoff time.

Get that MVP engraved "Chris Paul," because New Orleans will make the playoffs.  Chandler's going to be rejuvenated, David West will continue his solid play, and Peja will regain is 2003 form at the request of his smoking-hot wife.  Take a look at her picture and tell me you could disappoint her.

Word has it that Jerry West is thinking about bailing soon, and I don't blame him.  This team has played above and beyond their capabilities the last few years, but they'll fall off the map this year with the loss of Pau.  It was sad to see Eddie play the last part of the year.  I still remember him dunking on everyone as a rookie out of Temple.  Now we're treated to 30% shooting and no defensive stats.  It should've been better for you, Eddie.

Adam: Wow, the Hornets in the playoffs, huh? I think that would have been possible if they had done a better job in the draft. Taking two big men that can't contribute was a huge mistake, especially given their lack of a presence at shooting guard. Desmond Mason? No thanks. Not to mention that their only backup that is even remotely good is Bobby Jackson and he is A) old, B) fragile, and C) unable to get many minutes at the point, where he is most effective. They aren't deep enough and when Chandler suffers his inevitable fall-into-the-crowd-and-get-up-holding-the-lower-back injury, they are going to be screwed. I do like West though.

Interesting thoughts on the Spurs. I hope you are right.

The Rockets are the most intriguing team in this division. As mentioned, you have the T-Back Watch going at all hours, so that is fun. There is the evolution of Yao, which has been slow and steady like a Tom Glavine fastball. Plus, there’s the obvious excitement of watching Beetlejuice and Skip to My Lou coexist (prediction: Van Gundy "accidentally" runs over Alston with his car). It is mind-boggling that Houston failed to bring in another point guard this offseason. Obviously, this all started when they foolishly traded Mike James for Alston last year, but the situation just gets worse. Is Bob Sura alive? Maybe he's an option? That Greek dude? Not unless the Rockets are set on having the league leader in turnovers on their roster. Don't laugh, but John Lucas could be this team's point guard by season's end.

The rest of the rotation is interesting as well. Three of their four best players (T-Mac, Wells, and Battier) play the two and the three, which means that they are going to have to get creative. There has been talk of playing Battier at the four, which seems to make sense. He can make things tough on power forwards with scrappy post defense while, in turn, stretching the opponent on the offensive end by jacking threes. Plus, while Battier would be undersized at power forward, Wells is a big two guard, T-Mac has length at small forward, and Yao clearly has plenty of size. They still wouldn't be going "small" really. Throw in the fact that virtually no NBA teams have two good post players these days and there isn't much to worry about. Whatever the case, Van Gundy needs to make sure that his four best players are getting the majority of the minutes.

Okay, finish this thing off and we'll call it a night. Tomorrow: the East.

Jack: The forgotten story of last year's Hornet's was the suspension of the Birdman.  Once Chris Anderson left the team, the spirit was gone.  Really though, I agree with all your criticisms.  I just think Paul will make it work.  His ability to get his teammates open shots in the halfcourt and on the run will make his teammates appear much better than they are.  If they can come together and play some decent defense, they will be fine.  And also I consider them to be a great potential location for a midseason KG relocation.  Did I forget to mention that I incorporated that into my evaluation?

Good thoughts on the Rockets.  They'll definitely be interesting to watch this year.  Yao finally seems ready to assume the mantle of best center in the league, and during a recent interview he seemed much more at ease and confident about his ability and his place in the league.  Also Yao is the most popular celebrity in China, and Houston's success could mean great things for the NBA overseas.  Although if Houston mucks it all up, then China could get angry and end up refusing to join the UN in sanctioning North Korea, resulting in global nuclear instability.  So basically, Rafer Alston is responsible for the fate of the free world.  Let's hope Houston does well.

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