By Shawn Kirsch
Rick Carlisle is taking over this spirited bunch, and eager to prove that Avery Johnson was the cause of their problems, they’ll be bringing their A game all year long. Nowitzki has been the face of this franchise for a decade, but he is no longer the de facto leader. Kidd is here, and ready to make his presence felt. Long known for having the ability to will his team to victory, Kidd will enable his teammates to get shots they aren’t accustomed to. However, outside of Josh Howard, there isn’t a stellar defender on this team. DeSagana Diop is a decent shot blocker, but doesn’t bring much of anything else to the table. If Carlisle, in one year, can whip this team into a solid defensive mindset, the versatile offensive capabilities of most of the roster should take care of itself. The Mavericks will again provide a tough matchup for anyone, but in their desperation move to acquire Kidd, their window may have passed if they can’t get it done this year.
The biggest splash of the summer may have been made when Houston acquired Artest, and head coach Rick Adelman knows all too well what he’s capable of. However, something has to give. There are only so many touches for the oft injured Ming and McGrady, and Artest won’t be happy unless he gets his share as well. Team defense should be ratched up a notch with Artest on the wing though, making it tough for anyone to score against this group. It will again be painful for Spurs fans to watch Scola put up very solid numbers, and Barry will provide a shooting touch off the bench. Despite having the talent to advance far into the playoffs, it seems as though chemistry will be the downfall of this team.
Memphis, you are the weakest link. In a division populated with championship caliber teams, this is the obvious pick for won’t make the playoffs. This team will have no trouble finding someone to take care of the ball, with a roster sporting Conley, Jaric, Lowry, and Mayo. They will prove to be a popular trade talk team, as other teams look to find backups for their established point guards. The post is a glaring weakness here, with rookies Hamed Haddadi and Marc Gasol coming in above 7 feet, and Milicic at an even 7. With Milicic yet to live up to his potential, they will be seeing what the newcomers can offer in the NBA. The underrated Hakim Warrick will have ample opportunity to show his rebounding skills though, as Antoine Walker has joined this team, and will provide a plethora of missed shots. If your fantasy team will need rebounding, this could be a good roster to look at. Another rebuilding year in Memphis, but long term potential is obvious.
New Orleans Hornets
The scariest team in the southwest gave the Spurs a run for their money in last year’s playoffs. Led by otherworldly stud Chris Paul, this is a team that can get down the floor and light you up, and then shut you down at the other end. CP3 showed that with a mix of lob passes, drives, and kickouts, he is nearly unstoppable. But with the loss of Pargo, it seems as though the backup job is unfilled, but that may have already been taken care of with the addition of Jared Jordan. Jordan has proven to be a passing wizard, but we’ll find out soon enough how well that translates out of college. Chandler will continue to be a one man wrecking crew in the post, with a shot blocking prowess to be feared, and David West can seemingly score from anywhere on the floor. Meanwhile, a similar tandem will rock the perimeter, as newcomer Posey is a solid defender, and Stojakovic still has the potential to erupt on any given night. As much as I hate to say it, Byron Scott might be coaching the west’s representative in this year’s championship.
San Antonio Spurs
We’re all quite familiar with the show in south Texas. Duncan and The French Flash will be an inside-inside punch on offense, and once Ginobili returns, one of the league’s most feared slashers will cause opponents far and wide to cry foul. It’s a given that they will perform, but the rest of the roster is more curious. Can Bowen still lock everyone down at 37 years old? Can Hill become the backup guard Popovich envisions? Will Udoka take his game to the next level? Can Bonner fill the shoes of Horry (of 2 years ago)? Does Finley have anything left? Will Oberto play like he did in the Olympics? Is Mahinmi ready to be the sidekick and backup that Duncan needs? How fast will Mason pick up on the Spurs system? Will Stoudamire shoot like he did in Atlanta, while playing within the team atmosphere rooted deep in the culture? This team will be made or broken by the role players. If the big 3 don’t need to put up 80 points every night to win, it will be a good start. If a newcomer can prove to be capable of initiating the offense and creating their own shot, it will be a huge help. If everyone can get back to the business of playing rock solid defense, instead of the holes that exposed themselves late last year, it’s practically guaranteed. Perhaps the best thing San Antonio has going, is it will be an odd year.
By Shawn Kirsch