Sunday, August 5, 2007

Let's Show These Dudes How We Do It On the Westside

Cuz you and I know it's the best side.

I know I'm a little late with this early Western Conference preview, but, with a girlfriend and friends plus an early start on the weekend, it just wasn't gonna happen.

Anyway, what can you say about the West that hasn't been said about the American League in baseball. Totally dominant, save for the 2004 Finals.

It features the league's best player (Kobe Bryant), the league's best team by far (San Antonio), the league's most exciting teams (Phoenix, Golden State), even the NBA's best two rookies in years (Greg Oden, Kevin Durant).

But the recent rise of the Cleveland Cavaliers as an Eastern Conference powerhouse behind one superstar and a bunch of JV players, a bunch of West stars have been planning their escape from Alcatraz to the East.

So without further ado, your early-August Western Conference preview:

-Dallas: Quite fitting that we start with the 67-win team which stormed through the 2007 regular season, featured the league MVP (Dirk Nowitzki), peaked in late March, and flamed out in the first round at the hands of the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors. Disappointment is an understatement. The team returns this season almost the same way it ended last season. They re-signed vet Jerry Stackhouse to go along with the core of Dirk/Josh Howard/Jason Terry/Desagna Diop/Devin Harris. The team drafted forward Nick Fazekas and signed guard Eddie Jones from the Heat. None of those moves will vault them back to title favorites, but they will keep them as main contenders.

-Denver: The Nuggets showed potential greatness last year despite many setbacks and changes to the roster. First, forward Kenyon Martin was lost for the season. Then, star Carmelo Anthony got suspended for 15 games in December after the brawl (cat-fight?) in MSG. Lastly (and most importantly), was the addition of future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson that could possibly propel the team to the upper stratosphere in the West. With no first rounders this summer, the Nuggets return the same core from last year, along with Nene, J.R. Smith, and Marcus Camby, who was featured in a slew of trade rumors since the end of 2007.

-Golden State: 2007's Cinderella squad comes back strong for next season. The team traded away former franchise cornerstone Jason Richardson to Charlotte for the number 8 pick, Brandon Wright, who should help out the Warriors' horrid rebounding and inside defense (unless he's traded before next season; a possibility). A healthy Baron Davis and a mature Stephen Jackson will take the snake-bitten Warriors back to the postseason for an unprecedented second time. (Wooow!)

-Houston: *sets bias aside* The Rockets have improved dramtically since that devastating game seven home loss in the first round against Utah in April (believe me, I was there). They addressed every need on their roster, and not with just third-tier players. They needed a creative point guard that can score and defend, then went and got former franchise (literally) player Steve Francis and drafted Aaron Brooks (possibly the sleeper of the draft) in the first round. They needed an athletic, versatile power forward that could defend, then went and traded for Luis Scola (the Argentina MVP that killed the U.S. in the Olympics) from the Spurs. They needed a backup for Yao, and got the young, athletic Jackie Butler in the Scola deal. With T-Mac, Yao, and Battier, Houston's recent additions should immediately elevate them (us) to the next level in the crowded (South)West.

-L.A. Clippers: Well, at least nobody got killed. The Clippers have had a truly forgettable last 5 months. First, there was prodigy Shaun Livingston suffering a quite possibly career-threatening injury; then, the Clips missed the playoffs after almost making the West finals in '06; then they watched Baron Davis led G.S. to the second round, the same Baron Davis they had a chance to trade for the year before; then, to top it off, Elton Brand goes down during a simple daily workout with a ACL injury. It's tough in LA these days. The only good news, if any, is that first-rounder Al Thornton will have a lot more opportunities to show his talents with Brand out. Expect another lottery season for the Clippers and a shot at Memphis' Derrick Rose, USC's O.J. Mayo, Indiana's Eric Gordon, or North Carolina's Tywon Lawson.

-L.A. Lakers: With Lamar Odom, Kwame Brown, Andrew Bynum, and Luke Walton plus the re-signing of former Laker Derek Fisher, and the drafting of 19-year-old Georgia Tech freshman guard Javaris Chrittenton, it's a wonder why Kobe Bryant doesn't want to return to Lakerland with that core intact. If that's not a championship-contending team, what is? *releases sarcasm button* I assume Kobe watched closely as the primes of the careers of Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett were wasted by bone-headed GMs that couldn't put enough talent around their high-priced superstars and decided he wouldn't be next. Although he probably won't get his way this time, it doesn't mean he's wrong. The Lakers are still a playoff team, just not a contender in any kind of way.

-Memphis: After a season that saw Memphis go from playoff squad to cellar-dwelling lottery team (the Grizzlies had the worst record in the league in '06-'07), the team added an influx of talent for this season. The Grizz drafted point guard Mike Conley, Jr. with the fourth pick in June, then signed former second overall pick F/C Darko Milicic. Conley and Milicic add to a group of young players that showed promise last season (Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, Hakim Warrick). Plus, the team still has star Pau Gasol, who, despite many rumors, hasn't been traded, yet. They're still a long way from playoff contention, but they're on the way.

-Minnesota: The good news is that Minny finally has a lot of young talented pieces to go around their best player. The bad news is that their best player is no longer cornerstone Kevin Garnett, but unproven young forward Al Jefferson, who the T-Wolves received from Boston in the blockbuster 7-for-1 player deal last week (Minnesota also got Gerald Green, Ryan Gomes, Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, and two first round picks). The Wolves also drafted NCAA champion Corey Brewer (one of the most NBA-ready prospects) and feature lead guard Randy Foye and third-year swingman Rashad McCants. That's alot of talent. Plus, they weren't going to go to the playoffs anyway, so they should benefit from all the youthful assets (or be like the Celtics and have a bunch of inexperienced players and no direction). And, of course, Kevin McHale is still the GM, so there's a high possibility for screwups.

-New Orleans: By all accounts, the New Orleans Hornets are supposed to be going for their third consecutive postseason appearance. But ever since 2005 (when Chris Paul was drafted), the team has been ravaged with injury after injury to key role players and even Paul himself. In both of Paul's two seasons, the Hornets have been good enough to be in the playoffs. This summer New Orleans addressed their biggest need, scoring. They drafted versatile forward Julian Wright and signed Morris Peterson from Toronto. Jannero Pargo re-signed and they're expected to try to get John Lucas III from the Rockets, just in case CP3 goes down. With Tyson Chandler emerging and Peja Stojakovic coming back healthy, the Hornets should a dangerous team in 2008.

-Phoenix: The window of opportunity is getting smaller and smaller in the Valley of the Sun, with Steve Nash's aging body, Amare Stoudamire's uncertain future health, and the cost-cutting deals that have forced the Suns to unload first round picks and players in order to avoid the luxury tax. James Jones is gone; Kurt Thomas is gone. The team, in my opinion, should have packaged Amare for Garnett this summer, as Garnett would have improved the team's playoff chances with his post play and inside defense and rebounding. Phoenix tried to dangle Shawn Marion to try to get KG to no avail. The Suns are still a lock to get at least to the 2nd round, but will need another move to uproot the Spurs as title favorites.

-Portland: Any summer that gets you the number 1 pick, a future perennial All-Star, a dominant defensive big man, and legitimate 7-foot franchise center all in one in Greg Oden is a good summer. Actually a great summer. Oden joins a very talented core of players, led by 2007 Rookie of the Year in Brandon Roy. Big man LaMarcus Aldridge will team with Oden in the middle for a formiddable 1-2 punch. And the team also got sharpshooting swingman James Jones from Phoenix and signed Steve Blake last month. The Blazers are also hoping to get more contributions from former first rounders Martell Webster and Travis Outlaw. Coach Nate McMillan sure has alot of good players on his hand, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

-Sacramento: The Kings have been anything but in 2007. They missed the playoffs and looked dreadful doing it. Guard Mike Bibby and forward Ron Artest faced countless trade rumors all season long, and those rumors surely won't go away with the team's sad state. The team features a budding star in Kevin Martin, which is Sac-town's only bright spot. Expect Bibby or Artest (or both) to be gone sometime soon.

-San Antonio: What more can you say about the champs? They're the NBA's version of Groundhog Day. The good news for the other 29 teams is that the Spurs simply do not repeat. They just don't. More good news is that the Spurs really didn't do much to change the roster. They do keep the 3-time title core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginoboli, though. That's always good.

-Seattle: Well, they give up their franchise cornerstone in Ray Allen, and traded forward Rashard Lewis (getting rid of his massive new contract). All this after they drafted the new franchise cornerstone (and future superstar; it's a mortal lock) Kevin Durant, the number 2 pick and easily the best player in the draft. Durant will get the ball instantly, and most likely be the Rookie of the Year. The Sonics also got Jeff Green(the number 5 pick) and Delonte West(in the Allen trade) to compliment Durant. The team also got Kurt Thomas from the Suns to add frontcourt toughness. Seattle has a great future ahead of them, but they're nowhere close. Pencil them in for the Rose/Mayo/Gordon sweepstakes.

-Utah: The Jazz are in a good place. They have a great core that features a great point guard (Deron Williams), a great big man (Carlos Boozer), and a versatile center (Mehmet Okur), and a wide cast of role players. They drafted the deadly shooter Morris Almond with the 24th pick and were relieved of Derek Fisher's contract after he asked to be released. If Almond becomes a reliable scorer and defender in Jerry Sloan's system and the Jazz pick up more inside scoring after Boozer, they could be a serious Finals contender after coming close last year. (Utah lost to San Antonio in the Western Conf. finals)

Playoff Teams:
Spurs, Mavericks, Rockets, Suns, Nuggets, Jazz, Hornets, Warriors (contingent on if the Lakers trade for another star)

Finals Team:
Rockets (no bias; we're that good)

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