Monday, October 27, 2008

Southwest Division Preview

1. New Orleans Hornets: The obvious choice for first place I suppose, although it wouldn’t surprise me if people are really high on the Rockets right now. And yes, Houston is a lot better with Ron Artest there, but the Hornets are one of the top three teams in the League. With their core still intact and new addition James Posey, the Hornets are legitimate contenders for the title. Last year we truly saw how good they really were, and with Chris Paul was getting MVP consideration, defenses will try to smother him. But would that bother CP3? When he is double-teamed, there’s always a great shooter somewhere on the court, like Peja, Posey, Mo Pete, and power forward David West has a pretty good range too. If that doesn’t work, Tyson Chandler might be hovering around the rim waiting for that lob, or the promising Julian Wright will be cutting through the lanes to finish an easy two. This team is really something, so who will beat them? Will this be the third Finals trip in Byron Scott’s young career?

2. Houston Rockets: Honestly I think I might’ve placed them too high, but the Spurs are getting older, and the Rockets have all the material to at least win more regular season games than San Antonio. When you have two stars in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, you throw Ron Artest into the mix, what do you get? I don’t know either. Will there be games that Artest is the only healthy player of all three? How tired is Yao already? Is there a part of T-Mac’s body that doesn’t hurt? But if you’re a Rockets fan you might not think too much about these things, and you just hope to go deep into the playoffs. Another bright spot is Luis Scola. He might not give you 30 points every night, grab 20 rebounds or block five shots, but he’s active, crafty and has a high basketball IQ. A perfect fit for this team, one where three players will probably carry the bulk of Houston’s offense, and Scola will be depended on to do the dirty work. But it’s too early to tell how far they will go with this “new” team, we’ll re-evaluate in month or so.

3. San Antonio Spurs: It’s the same old Spurs, although they made a smart move getting Roger Mason to come over. Mason really played well in stretches for the Washington Wizards last season, and now with Manu Ginobili probably out until December, Mason could see a lot of minutes early on. The others? We know them, and we know what they can do. Bruce Bowen is still a premier defensive player, and behind him is another Bowen in the making: Ime Udoka. So all things considered the Spurs are still good enough to compete for the title. The aforementioned Ginobili, with Tony Parker and superstar Tim Duncan will lead the NBA’s oldest team into the playoffs, but back to the Finals might be a bit too much.

4. Dallas Mavericks: Too bad the Mavs are in one of the most competitive divisions of the whole League, because is there anyone out there who thinks that they will finish above the Hornets, Rockets or Spurs? Sure, they still have a lot of talented players, but so does the rest. Jason Kidd is still a great passer, but defensively he has lost a step. Dirk, although still good, wasn’t in MVP form last season, and Josh Howard also needs to get back to his all-star level of play. New coach Rick Carlisle is a good choice to run things, but don’t expect them to be higher than the 6th spot in April.

5. Memphis Grizzlies: There’s a new Gasol in town. Same shaggy hair, same scruffy beard, different playing style. Marc Gasol has a wider body that his brother and former Grizzly Pau. Marc is more of a banger, a true power forward, or, in today’s NBA, he might end up playing center if Darko Milicic doesn’t get the start. The Grizzlies might not win many games, but they will certainly be exciting to watch with Mike Conley as their point guard, who has O.J. Mayo on one side, and the versatile Rudy Gay on the other side. Trading Mayo for Love (and Mike Miller) was a great deal, and although Mayo will have his share of difficulties by playing so much as a rookie, he’s the real thing. And since Rudy Gay already is a star, they could be one Ricky Rubio away from achieving a winning record again in Memphis.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pacific Division Preview

1. Los Angeles Lakers: Since Kobe hasn’t had a lot of rest during the summer, I’m wondering if Phil Jackson keeps something like that in account. The good thing is now that Andrew Bynum is back, the Lakers really have a complete team. I’m not too sure if Odom coming off the bench is a great idea, and I would like to see who will be the starting small forward on opening night. Will Phil start Radmanovic, or the athletic but injury-prone Trevor Ariza? Whoever it is, it might not matter too much, because Kobe, Pau, Mountain Drew and Fisher are back this season for one thing: winning the championship. Jackson’s tenth, doesn’t that sound nice?

2. Phoenix Suns: New coach, some new faces, same great passer. With Terry Porter on the sidelines you will see a new playing style in Phoenix. Oh yes, they might still run because Steve Nash is your point guard, but Porter also preaches defense, and Shaq is probably better suited in the half-court game anyway. Shaq however, is a pretty good passer himself, so it’s nice he can dish it to Goggles Stoudemire or back to Nash, who is still a dead-eye shooter. The Suns also had a very nice pick-up in Matt Barnes. When he actually was in the rotation at Golden State in his previous two seasons (and with Nellie you never know what to expect), Barnes showed that he could do a little bit of everything, whether it was getting some steals, shooting the 3 or slashing to the hole. It wouldn’t surprise me if he became the team’s full-time starter with Grant Hill coming off the bench. Another season, another roster full of good players, but Finals material? I wouldn’t mind seeing them getting there, because of Nash, Hill and Shaq, but it will be tough.

3. Los Angeles Clippers: I really like the Clippers’ depth. They’ll need it, because with new stars Baron Davis and Marcus Camby you never know how many games they might miss because of injuries. Then again, if they do manage to stay healthy, and with Kaman and Thornton as the other starters, I like their chances. They drafted shooting guard Eric Gordon, and also still have veteran combo guard Cuttino Mobley on the roster, and added Ricky ‘Buckets’ Davis, so there are plenty of shooters on the team. Health will determine if this Clipper team will get back to the playoffs, or back to an early vacation once again.

4. Golden State Warriors: When will Monta Ellis exactly come back? And when he does, at what state? And who will be the point guard during this period of at least 30 games? All we know is that Stephen Jackson and Corey Maggette have the green light to shoot, and to shoot a lot. But who will score from the inside? Biedrins is a great defender, but not known for his extensive collection of post moves, and Al Harrington can score, but rather does it from outside of the painted area. So on some night when the ball just doesn’t want to go in, good teams can rely on their defense. The Warriors? They just have to rely on the fact that none of their players will ride mopeds for the rest of their contracts.

5. Sacramento Kings: At least they have Kevin Martin.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Northwest Division Previw

1. Utah Jazz: Deron Williams. The best point guard in the NBA not named Chris Paul. The Jazz will always be competitive with him and Carlos Boozer on the floor. I always liked Boozer’s game; a guy with a lot of offensive weapons, and he’s paired with Mehmet Okur, a center who’s more than capable of hitting shots from 20 feet and beyond. In the pre-season small forward Andrei Kirilenko came off the bench, so it’s interesting to see what Jerry Sloan will do when the regular season gets underway next week. Will he continue to start C.J. Miles and at small forward, with the athletic guard Ronnie Brewer rounding out Utah’s starting line-up? This team has some veterans, some young guys, but didn’t do a whole lot in the off-season. Sloan is a great coach, so there’s a pretty good chance the Jazz will win this division (the only true competition here is Portland), get back to the playoffs and get kicked out in the second round by either the Hornets or Lakers.

2. Portland Trail Blazers: As a fan of the game it’s no secret that this is a team to get excited about. Health remains a concern, with Martell Webster out for a while, and we have to see if Greg Oden’s knee can hold up during the grind of an 82-game season (with probably 10-15 extra games in the playoffs?). But the depth of the Blazers is exceptional: Roy, Aldridge, Blake, Outlaw, Aldridge, Batum, Przybilla, Bayless, Fernandez, Rodriguez, I mean, come on! This is ridiculous, this is an outrage, with so much talent on one team, Nate McMillan is one lucky coach. The Blazers are once again a proud franchise, will go back to the playoffs, and we all will enjoy the ride for hopefully many years to come.

3. Denver Nuggets: Every time I read something about the Nuggets, it’s George Karl saying that everybody is so positive, committed in playing defense, and are playing with a chip on their should because the media writes them off. I can imagine Melo and AI being frustrated since the trade of Marcus Camby, and being the players that they are, they will try hard to prove people wrong who are saying they can’t win. But who will man the middle? Nene had a lot of injuries throughout his career, and even battled cancer last season. I really hope he is now 100% healthy, and together with Kenyon Martin (speaking of injuries….) I hope they can provide what the Nuggets need now Camby is gone: boards and blocks. If the Nuggets make the playoffs this season, it will definitely surprise me.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves: This team could win one award this season if it actually existed: highest number of undersized shooting guards on one roster. They could’ve solved that problem if Kevin McHale didn’t trade their original draft pick O.J. Mayo to the Grizzlies. But he did, but now has power forward Kevin Love in return. So at least that’s two big guys under the basket for the Wolves, with him and Al Jefferson getting a lot of minutes at the power forward and center position. Ex-Grizzly Mike Miller came along in the Mayo trade, a great shooter but it’s not enough to keep up with the rest of the West. For the Timberwolves there’s only one rule: there’s always next year.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder: There’s enough talent on this team to win some games, especially when the team is lead by young star Kevin Durant. And let’s not forget Jeff Green, Nick Collisson and Chris Wilcox. Joe Smith is a proven veteran who will have a good influence on the younger players, but let’s be honest here: they won’t win right now, fans will lose interest quickly because they don’t have the patience to see what will happen in the next couple of seasons, and within five years this franchise will move to another city. Yes, I’m a pessimistic person.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Southeast Division Preview

1. Orlando Magic: What is there not to like about this team? When you have Flight Howard on your roster, excitement is guaranteed, and some wins too. The Magic finished at the top of their division last season, but with the emergence of the Hawks you have to wonder if they’re able to do it again. They didn’t have any big off-season acquisitions, although Michael Pietrus is nice player to have on the wing. 2007/2008 proved to be the best season for Hedo Turkoglu so far, and add Rashard Lewis to this line-up; it’s safe to say the scoring department is pretty much covered. With these three stars Orlando will have a shot to be the division champs, but I’m not too impressed with the supporting cast. Jameer Nelson is a decent point guard, but it was nice to have Keyon Dooling backing him up, being a very good on-ball defender. Now that’s he’s gone, Orlando signed veteran Anthony Johnson as a back-up, but what about the rest of the bench? Will J.J. Redick ever see the court? Is Howard the only good big man they have? The Southeast Division will be a lot more competitive than last year, no doubt about it.

2. Atlanta Hawks: In the pre-season Acie Law has showed flashes of brilliance, so with him and Mike Bibby manning the point is a luxury to have. Makes me wonder though, if Law keeps up this level of play, will that make Bibby expendable? It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s dealt during the season for a center to play next to young big man Al Horford, who probably will be the starting center on opening night. The Hawks managed to keep stat-stuffer Josh Smith, and Joe Johnson is still there to lead all of these young guys. The pushed the Celtics to seven games back in May, so the quality is there. The question is: how much can they get better with pretty much the same roster as last season?

3. Washington Wizards: I don’t know what to say or think about the Washington Wizards anymore. I’m giving them the benefit of doubt by placing them in the third spot. The “Big Three”, Arenas, Butler and Jamison are good enough to compete with any “Big Three” in the League. Sadly enough, they can’t stay healthy at the same time. And this year it’s no different, with Gilbert out ‘til December. Last season, center Etan Thomas was out all year due to heart surgery, he’s back though, and that’s a good thing, because starting center Brendan Haywood will probably miss six months with a wrist injury. Let’s hope that by the end of 2008, we at least have a chance to see how good Gil, Jamison and Butler can be together. If they can remain healthy from then on, they will end up higher in this division.

4. Miami Heat: Did I rank them too low? Depends. If I was Eric Spoelstra (who is the first coach in the NBA that actually looks younger than me, which is frustrating) I would go with a small line-up. I’m not sure who their starting point guard will be, it might be Chris Quinn, but I really like what I’ve seen from Marcus Banks so far this pre-season. The other guard is of course Wade, then you have forwards Marion and Beasley, and at center Udonis Haslem. They will probably get annihilated by teams like the Spurs and Lakers, but the Heat doesn’t have a lot of options anyway. They drafted gifted point guard Mario Chalmers, who will see a lot of action in his first year (unless Shaun Livingston returns to pre-injury form), but when I look at the rest of the team, I’m wondering: who will provide that scoring punch off the bench?

5. Charlotte Bobcats: I really dislike the hiring of coach Larry Brown. If you look at his résumé, it’s safe to say that he will leave the Bobcats as soon as they have a winning record, or if some players frustrate him, he’ll leave anyway. Right? Right. Luckily, the relatively young roster of the Bobcats has some bright spots which should win them some games. For instance, a guy like Gerald Wallace fills more holes than Ron Jeremy. He can play multiple positions, scores, rebounds, blocks shots and gets some steals too. He has one problem: his health. Another shot blocker and rebounder is Emeka Okafor, but he still isn’t the franchise player everybody envisioned him to be. Raymond Felton is a good point guard with a questionable shot selection, so the lone star on this team is Jason Richardson, who probably still is wondering if he’ll ever get a taste of the playoffs again. During the summer Charlotte hasn’t made a lot of improvements, so one can only wonder: is another year experience combined with the knowledge of Larry Brown enough to get back at .500?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Central Division Preview

1. Detroit Pistons: A lot of people probably expect Cleveland to finish first in the Central Division. But with a new coach in Michael Curry, and the ever improving young bench, the Pistons will have an edge over the Cavaliers, although it will be an interesting battle all year long. Curry, a former defensive specialist himself, will hold his players accountable, which former coach Flip Saunders allegedly did not. Curry said Amir Johnson will get the starting nod along with the usual suspects; Billups, Rip, Prince and Sheed at center. That means veteran forward Antonio McDyess will come off the bench, providing leadership to the über-athletic Jason Maxiell, Kwame Brown and the very talented guard Rodney Stuckey. The core of the team might be getting older, but with such a deep rotation they should be competitive throughout the season, and end up first in this division. I would like to see a rematch against the Celtics in the Conference Finals in 2009; who wouldn’t?

2. Cleveland Cavaliers: Mo Williams mo’ problems. For opponents, that is. I know a lot of people think Mo Williams isn’t the solution to the Cavs’ problems, but he sure is part of that solution. Finally a guy who is a legitimate scorer, a pretty good point guard who can run with LeBron. But the thing with the Cavs is that every season their roster is always missing something. Adding Williams was a great move, and I liked how well Delonte West performed in last season’s playoffs. But what about the rest? Wally Szczerbiak should not be a starter. Nice to have him shooting 3’s as a sub, but since he doesn’t defend, he should come off the bench. Pavlovic is inconsistent, Daniel Gibson is a great shooter, but not really a point guard, and too small for playing the shooting guard position. Ben Wallace is getting older, and provides zero offense. Big Z, Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a more than decent center, but you can’t ask 40 minutes out of this guy anymore. So that leaves us with? Anderson Varejao? That’s not enough. Yes, a superstar like LeBron James will take you to the playoffs, or maybe even to the Finals, but a championship is out of reach.

3. Milwaukee Bucks: With this roster they deserve to be in third place (in this blog I mean), and if the Bucks somehow manage to miss the playoffs, we should all point a finger at new coach Scott Skiles. The Bucks are a great mix between veteran and young players. Acquiring Richard Jefferson from the New Jersey Nets will take the pressure off Michael Redd to be the main scorer every night. Andrew Bogut is quietly emerging in one of the best centers in the East, and can only get better. Wit Maurice Williams now gone, Ramon Sessions will probably start at the point guard position, and it will be interesting to see if he’s able to carry the team through a whole season. Charlie Bell is also a guard who can play, but he might be the forgotten man in the rotation, which is a shame. Rumors are Francisco Elson (one of two Dutchmen on this team!) will start, with Charlie Villanueva coming off the bench. Milwaukee also has promising rookie in Joe Alexander, so again: they have to make the playoffs, or else this season is a waste.

4. Chicago Bulls: I don’t know what to make of this team. Promising? Ready to implode? Playoff material? The latter should be the case, but last season was such a disappointment, I really wonder what new coach Vinny Del Negro will do to get them back on track. In Derrick Rose the Bulls have a great young point guard who will be asked to do a lot for this team. Where does this leave Kirk Hinrich? I’ve read that he might switch to the 2-spot, but will that work? And what about Larry Hughes? Since they also have Thabo Sefolosha on the roster, will Hughes get traded when February comes around? Then again, who would be willing to take on his contract anyway? Speaking of guards and trades, where will Ben Gordon be in February? A lot of questions surround this great franchise, but with Rose, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Andres Nocioni and even Joakim Noah, they should still be able to win more games than they will lose. But playoffs are not a certainty in Chicago anymore.

5. Indiana Pacers: As of right now, Jamaal Tinsley is still a Pacer. But when he’s gone, a new era has started in Indiana. Artest, Jackson, O’Neal, all gone. You might want to call it rebuilding, but the foundation is already there. One of the better and maybe underrated small forwards of the NBA is Danny Granger, obviously the one player Larry Bird wants to build around in the near future. Getting T.J. Ford on board was a smart decision. Let’s just hope we never have to see Ford getting carried off the court again. My heart stops a split-second when I saw him lying motionless on the court in the past, absolutely horrible. But when he gets it going, it’s hard to stop him, he’s that quick. Mike Dunleavy jr. really blossomed since being brought over from Golden State to the Pacers, but other that, this will be a long season for Pacer fans. And with “season” I mean the regular season, because with all those improved teams in the East, it will be difficult for them to crack the top eight.