It is really hard to believe how much better than the Eastern Conference the West has become. I don't understand how the balance of power could shift so violently, for so long. In a league with a salary cap and a myriad of administrative and gameplay rules designed to encourage parity, there has been a clear difference between the conferences for, by my count, a decade.
Of course, we are entering 2007-2008, the tenth anniversary of Jordan's last championship. Many have argued that Jordan's individual excellence masked what was a declining East for years, and I think there's some truth to that. Certainly, 1997-98 was a rough year for the conference - the Atlantic division only had one team with more than 45 wins, and while the Central had four 50 win teams, two were paper tigers (the old Hawks teams that lost in the second round every year and a Hornets team that was an afterthought). In contrast, the West had 55 and 60 win teams in the Midwest Division (along with the only year of KG/Stephon excellence in Minnesota at 45-37) and two 61 win teams and a 56 win team in the Pacific. These teams included: the Payton/Kemp Supersonics; a Lakers team featuring Shaq, Kobe, Eddie Jones, and Nick Van Exel; a Suns team with Antonio McDyess (a rising star with a 40-inch vertical leap at the time), Cliff Robinson (also good), and Jason Kidd (and Steve Nash); the best Jazz team ever; and a Spurs team that had David Robinson and Tim Duncan both averaging 21 points a game. Wow.
The East still had some non-Bulls talent. On the Heat, 'Zo was playing a very high level that led to some top-5 finishes in MVP voting and was complimented Jamal Mashburn and Tim Hardaway in their respective primes. The Knicks were still a physical, beat-you-up team (with Ewing averaging 20 and 10). The Pacers played exceptional team basketball and came through in the clutch. These guys were probably not as good as the above-mentioned teams on the West, but they still had character and on any given night could give any good Western team a very hard time. Today, that is not the case.
This all brings me to the final entry of my Western preview, which, by my count, has seen me discuss only one team that I really think is terrible (the Grizzlies). That changes today. Let's get right to it:
This is the most interesting team in the West. Unfortunately, "most interesting" doesn't often lead to "NBA championship".
The big problem here is that there is no point guard. Last year, Steve Blake provided some pretty decent play at the 1 despite negligible statistical contribution, but now it appears that the only point guards on the roster are Anthony Carter and Chucky Atkins. Of course, this could lead to the "let's use Allen Iverson as a point guard" line of thinking, which is always tantalizing, but using AI at point probably has small probability of success. I don't think using Allen Iverson as a point guard will work in the playoffs, but he certainly does provide options, because he is a good defender and passer. Perhaps they can use him as an early season stopgap and try to swing a midseason deal to land another Steve Blake-ish guy to run the show. They should have signed Brevin Knight.
Every other position for the 'Nugs is seriously good. JR Smith and AI are two exceptional shooting guards who compliment each other well. (They also have two of the best-named backups in the league, Yakhouba Diawara and Von Wafer.) Carmelo Anthony and Eduardo Najera are great SFs who also compliment each other perfectly. (Carmelo looked really, really good in summer league, by the way - even better than last year.) Nene Hilario and Kenyon Martin (if he can return at even 75%) provide athleticism and muscle at power forward. Marcus Camby is the best defensive center in the league, bar none.
I don't understand why this team doesn't get itself a good point guard, because they really have too much talent to put on the floor at once. There are bad teams in need of talent with good point guards (like the Grizzlies, who have three good PGs) that the Nuggets could easily trade with. I hope this happens and that George Karl can continue his coaching resurgence. (Remember, he is the same guy who screwed up a team with Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, and Glenn Robinson. Not many people realize this, but that core had more than 42 wins only once under Karl.)
There's a part of me that thinks this team is so ripe for chemistry issues that a very deep Western Conference will sink them. However, they have the third-best player in the league with a good frontcourt, and that in itself should get them to the playoffs with a 7 seed. If they can make it work, they could beat the Spurs in a playoff series. If they can't, they might not even win 40 games.
Here is a team with a lot of problems. Let's try to think about the good, first.
Randy Foye will be a solid point guard and he has good backups in Telfair and Jaric. (Okay, in Telfair.) Gerald Green (or Rashad McCants, for that matter) is a good, young, athletic guy with an excellent jumper that seems to have unlimited potential. Corey Brewer should be a pretty decent small forward, and if he's not good right away, Ryan Gomes should be able to fill in. Al Jefferson will be the stud of the team but is probably not good for more than 18 and 12 (a qualifier you don't hear every day) and Theo Ratliff, if he can stay healthy, actually looked decent in preseason and is a good defensive center.
This team isn't going to make the plyaoffs, but I don't think they're going to be the worst team in the league, either. They are filled with young players and Randy Wittman (a terrible coach, I think) will be able to give guys a lot of playing time and figure out who can flourish and in what situations. In some ways being a very bad team and losing Kevin Garnett may be a sort of cathartic experience for these guys - for years, they were a disappointment, and now the burden of expectation is lifted. They will surely pick up another good draft pick this year, and if Randy Foye or Corey Brewer turns out to be better-than-expected, they'll be better than more than a couple of teams in the East. Also, as a bonus, any team with this many young guys will provide some exciting highlights and be pretty fun to watch for both their successes and failures. [For the sake of the fans of the Timberwolves, I chose not to mention Antoine Walker. I doubt he'll see floor time.]
Portland Trail Blazers
Here's a team that gets lots of publicity for doing a good rebuilding job, but for my money, they're not that much better than Minnesota. They have an above-average young point guard in Jarrett Jack (backed up by the affable Steve Blake), they have a very good but not nearly dominant shooting guard in Brandon Roy, and then they have a bunch of guys that are completely inconsistent and screwed up. Martell Webster, Travis Outlaw, LaMarcus Aldridge, Channing Frye, Joel Przybilla....these guys are supposed to get it done? I know Greg Oden's injury was a stroke of bad luck but even if he had been on this team, Jack/Roye/Oden doesn't sound that much better to me than Foye/Brewer/Jefferson.
This looks like the worst team other than the Grizzlies, and perhaps the 'Wolves. If LaMarcus Aldridge can get it together (and I think that will take another year), there's a chance of some sparks flying here, but they're still a team that is completely lacking in personnel. Also, they have Raef LaFrentz, who is unbelievably still on his contract and will earn $12,440,787.00 this year. That's 12 million, in case you think i mixed up the decimals. I once insulted Raef LaFrentz while sitting behind his wife at a Boston Celtics game and, though I felt bad at the time, I think that in retrospect it was well-deserved. Sorry, Raef, and sorry, Trailblazers. You suck.
I am not a big believer in big-time college scorers coming to the NBA and helping right away. There are notable examples of success but in the bigger picture it seems that even if they can score, it's hard for them to do it on teams with winning dynamics. (Glenn Robinson is a good example of this.)
It's for this reason that I don't think Kevin Durant will affect the Sonics in any meaningful way. He's kind of a mix of the two players he's replacing (Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis), except they score 50 points a game, and he'll score 25 a game at best.
The thing is, Seattle does have a decent team. Luke Ridnour is an effective point guard with an accurate jump shot. Either Damien Wilkins or Jeff Green should provide hustle, defense, and scoring acumen at small forward. Chris Wilcox and Nick Collison are both very good power forwards, and Robert Swift and Kurt Thomas are not that bad at playing center. (Okay, Robert Swift sucks, but if you've seen him recently, you can't help but think he might be sort of good. He looks even cooler than Cherokee Parks!)
There's some decent bench depth with Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Earl Watson, and the prerequisite BAC (Big African Center), Mouhamed Sene, is supposed to be a superb shotblocker.
The team could threaten for a playoff spot if it wasn't for the problems ownership is creating with its fans. I think there's a legitimate chance this team could find themselves without a homecourt advantage, just like the last-years-in-Charlotte Hornets. Can a bunch of young players with a suspect coach (my least favorite person in the NBA, PJ Carlesimo) and a depleted fan base get a playoff spot in the West?
Frankly, no. Not even close. But I think they'll be better than they should.
Jerry Sloan. Defense. Teamwork. Mormons. These things have been a staple of ironically-named Jazz basketball for almost 20 years and I don't see them changing soon. The only major change will be the emergence of a shooting guard to fill Derek Fisher's role. The early starter is Ronnie Brewer, but Gordan Giricek and CJ Miles should also be in the mix. Brewer is one of those shooting guards who is athletic and a decent mid-ranger but who can't hit threes or shoot foul shots (kind of like DeShawn Stevenson, who got run out of town). Considering the Jazz lack much of a threat from the three point line, this seems dangerous, as it will allow opposing teams to drop down and double-team the horse of this team, Carlos Boozer.
Andrei Kirilenko might be able to fix that situation, but it's anyone's guess where his head is at. (Probably in Russia, frankly.) You would think a Russian would enjoy playing for an the NBA's most authoritarian regime. Time will tell how that works out, and it's impossible to predict.
I think the Jazz should get in with the fifth seed and get knocked out in boring fashion. They just don't have the weapons, and I think Deron Williams will have an off year this year now that people know he is talented.
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