NBA Preview – Western Conference

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Southwest

1. Memphis – Losing O.J. Mayo was addition by subtraction, and bringing in Jerryd Bayless gives them a nice one-two punch at the point with Mike Conley. The frontline is nasty, and Zach Randolph figures to be even more productive now that he is healthy. Rudy Gay can shoot them out of games, but his talent is undeniaable. The bench isn’t great, but Lionel Hollins is one of the best coaches in the league. The division will come down to the wire, and the Grizz will edge out the Spurs by a couple of games.

2. San Antonio – Status quo for Pop’s crew, as they return the big 3 plus important role players Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard. But it’s too much to expect Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, both in their mid 30s, to play 70 games and be fresh enough in the playoffs to beat other elite (and younger) teams in a long playoff series. They will likely go after a big name at the deadline (Josh Smith?) to boost a conference title run. As it stands now, OKC is a better team and last spring’s collapse has to be in their heads.

3. Dallas – Gone are staples Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, replaced with Darren Collison and Mayo (with Roddy Beaubois rotating in). That’s a push at best. Dirk Nowitzki is in his twilight, and coming off a knee injury. Still, Rick Carlisle will find a way to mesh the new backcourt with incoming vets Chris Kaman and Elton Brand. If Collison has a career year, they have the bodies to push the Spurs for second place. I don’t see it happening, but 45 wins is realistic.

4. Houston – Three new starters in Jeremy Lin, James Harden, and Omer Asik have Rockets fans excited about 2012. Harden will get 40 minutes a night and immediately becomes the go-to guy. That reduces the pressure on Lin as he has time to develop his game further. Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons are nice pieces, but nothing special. It would be nice to get something this year out of rookies Terrence Jones and Royce White. Nobody on the roster has played more than three years in the league, so expect flashes of brilliance and ineptitude.

5. New Orleans – The backcourt is loaded with potential in Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers. When healthy, Gordon is a dynamic player and efficient scorer. Experts are split on Rivers; I think he will be fine, but he wont be an impact player this year. Greivis Vasquez is a solid combo guard off the bench, and Ryan Anderson will give the second team some scoring. #1 overall pick Anthony Davis doesn’t have to be great, just a presence on the defensive end and the boards. Gordon playing 70 games should turn out 35 wins, which is a considerable improvement.

Northwest

1. Oklahoma City – They moved James Harden in exchange for veteran two-guard Kevin Martin and promising rookie Jeremy Lamb. They also drafted forward Perry Jones III, but he is a project and doesn’t figure to see a lot of time this season. For all of Kevin Durant’s immense talent, he just turned 24 years old and I expect him to be even better this season. The wildcard is Russell Westbrook. At times he looks unstoppable and the most explosive PG in the league. The problem is, he is prone to acting childish and often looks like he has no idea what the position is all about. When his lightbulb finally goes on, this team can realize its full potential and win multiple titles. Until then, Miami is a better team.

2. Denver – I spoke at length about George Karl’s team after they swapped Andre Iguodala for Aaron Afflalo. In short, the Nuggets have a very deep and talented team coached by a future Hall of Famer. I would like to see Danilo Gallinari raise his game a notch, however. They will win at least 50, and will be a team nobody wants to see in the playoffs.

3. Utah – Last season wasn’t the disaster that most had predicted in the first full year without Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams. Tyrone Corbin managed to get them into the playoffs with average talent. It will take an even better job by Corbin to get them back to the playoffs this season. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are nice pieces inside, but they need Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter to improve considerably. The guards are below average. A .500 team.

4. Portland – New coach Terry Stotts inherits one of the youngest groups in the league, and the team is led by the underappreciated Lamarcus Aldridge. Versatile swingmen Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum fill out the starting five along with rookie PG Damian Lillard and C Meyers Leonard. Lots of potential in that unit, but not a lot off the bench behind them. Aldridge needs another All-Star alongside him before this is a playoff team, but they will be better this season.

5. Minnesota – The Timberwolves have even more question marks than the Celtics. When will Ricky Rubio return and how effective will he be? Can J.J. Berea and Luke Ridnour replace his production? Will they be in too deep of a hole to climb out of by the time they get Kevin Love and Rubio back? Are they going to get last year’s lottery pick (Derrick Williams) to be a significant contributor? What does Brandon Roy have left? One thing is certain: they have a great coach in Rick Adelman. But this season looks like a washout.

Pacific

1. Los Angeles Lakers – another team that I wrote about after the Howard acquisition. In summary, they have ridiculous starting talent on paper. But you can’t add big pieces and just assume that the chemistry will be good. Steve Nash is 38, Kobe Bryant is on the downside of his career, and Howard’s back is newly repaired. They have enough to win the division, but it will be a dogfight. No way they beat OKC in the playoffs.

2. Los Angeles Clippers – I like the move to bring in Jamal Crawford to replace Mo Williams; Crawford is an underrated scorer and should free Chris Paul in crunch time. A lot is made of their success hinging on the health of Blake Griffin. I’m more worried about whether he has bothered to improve his face-up and low-post game. The pounding of the ball into the ground with your head down and back to the basket has to end. Until it does, every 4 in the league can guard him in the half court offense. A 50-win team, regardless.

3. Golden St – I really don’t know what to make of the Warriors. They have a budding star (Klay Thompson), a talented PG (Stephen Curry), and are stocked with valuable role players (David Lee, Carl Landry, and Jarrett Jack). By most accounts, Mark Jackson is headed for a long and prosperous career as a head coach. So why do I have them as an under .500 team? I’m tired of hearing about them as the breakout team every preseason the last 18 years. They were 23-43 a year ago. They’re lucky I don’t have them behind the Kings in the division.

4. Sacramento – If the NBA was a league without referees or coaches, Sac-Town would be ferocious. Raw talent is abundant up and down the roster. Imagine: Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans streaking down the wings; Isaiah Thomas pushing a frantic pace; Jason Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins beating other bigs up and down the court; and Jimmer Fredette bombing threes. I would pay to see that. Too bad nobody else would. They have no leaders, no go-to scorers, and most importantly no chemistry. Another frustrating season in Northern California.

5. Phoenix – How Alvin Gentry had the Suns playing .500 ball last year is beyond me. They have even less talent this season. I like Goran Dragic, but they are asking a lot out of this kid. On top of that they drafted Kendall Marshall with their first pick, so Dragic is looking over his shoulder. Major minutes are going to marginal players: Jared Dudley tries really hard but is limited athletically; Michael Beasley has million dollar talent but a 10 cent head; Luis Scola is a gamer, but is a liability on the defensive end; and Wesley Johnson looks like a bust. I don’t see how they avoid 50 losses.

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