By Shawn Kirsch
Best of the West
We’ve already read about the Hornets and Spurs, but what about these 3 powerhouses of the west?
Utah Jazz: Williams showed a little bit more of his skill set in the Olympics, and Boozer was an asset off the bench. Back home, Williams doesn’t have to share the spotlight, and Boozer doesn’t have to play second fiddle to Bosh and Howard. Okur provides a lot of diversity in his game, and Millsap rounds out the post with bench play many teams would kill for. Korver is a sharp shooter who can roam around the outside, and Brevin Knight will provide veteran leadership off the bench. If Kirilenko can return to the level he achieved several years ago, with numbers that make his fantasy owners shout with glee, this team could upset everyone and run the tables. Jerry Sloan, who should’ve won coach of the year a long time ago, has called this his most talented team ever. Price needs to continue his development, and the rest of the bench needs to be ready to produce. If the group can stay together, we could see a string of playoff appearances rivaling those of Stockton and Malone, albeit with more success.
Los Angelas Lakers: Can Bynum and Gasol play together? If the answer to that question is yes, we could see what I will call, Robinson and Duncan lite. They would form one of the most talented front courts in the league, and the resulting sagging defenses will allow players such as Farmar, Fisher, and Vujacic to fire at will from the perimeter. With the return of Bynum though, Jackson is struggling to find a place for Odom to play. It might come to be that a trade has to go down, maybe for a package of picks from Orlando, who need another versatile talent. LA made a big run through the playoffs last year, aided by a couple of easier matchups, and an injured Ginobili. To make another run like that this year, their bench will need to provide a lot more punch than they have been. A healthy Trevor Ariza will be a big help in that. There seems to be something I am forgetting about this team too, hmmmm. Oh, Kobe.
Phoenix Suns: This team took a turn no one expected when they shipped out Marion for Shaq. The Big Space Occupier claims he will make Spurs pay for the hack a Shaq from the playoffs, but unless he has returned to the nimbleness from his Orlando days, I would like to know how he’ll make that happen. Stoudemire continues to improve, but he still needs to realize the importance of defense before he can be truly dominant. Nash is a star point guard until proven otherwise, which might be this year. With a slower pace, his assists will go down, as will his scoring. He made a name off of the transition game, and now he’ll have to work harder to make something happen on offense, so somebody better get ready to give him some rest, because he’ll need more minutes on the bench. Barbosa, Bell, and Diaw all need to continue refining and improving their game, but more importantly, their feel for each other. In a more structured offense, the looks won’t come as easily to them either. Phoenix seems to have made solid draft picks in Dragic and Lopez, who could each provide some help off the bench early on this year. Terry Porter’s most difficult job may be keeping the Big Cactus happy, who will find it hard to survive without enough water during conditioning.
Beasts of the East
Boston Celtics: The reigning champs return with The Truth, The Kid, and Jesus. While it’s almost enough said right there, we don’t dare leave out Rajon Rondo. Rondo has steadily improved his first 2 years in the league, and he just might break out in a big way now, in year 3. Miles is being given a shot with this crew, and early reports indicate he might have a productive year off the bench. Powe proved to be underrated last year, as did Glen Davis. However, the post is still an issue. Perkins has been ok, so they’ll need O’Bryant to step up to the challenge and give some bench production. They’ll again be an early season favorite, but Doc Rivers will need to find a way to keep his vets motivated, and his youngsters improving.
Detroit Pistons: There is a roster shakeup happening, as it is said that Amir Johnson will be taking a starting position this year. While seemingly insignificant at first, he is a mere 21 years old. If he can play starting minutes with the established veterans, and not have a detrimental effect on their chemistry, it could prove to be the move that returns Detroit to the kings of the east. The Pistons core will continue to do their thing, but all eyes will still be on Rasheed, as his actions usually determine whether this group meets success or not. Maxiell is expected to continue his solid production of the bench, but Afflalo will have to take his game to another level this year, as will Herrmann. Michael Curry has a solid crew to work with in his first year as head coach, we’ll see what he can do with them.
Philadelphia 76ers: This young crew welcomes Elton Brand with open arms, and it will bring them to the next level of championship contention. Teaming with the shot blocking Dalembert, this will be a front court you won’t want to play against. Miller will enjoy his new favorite target in the post, while still having the runners he is already accustomed to. Iguodala and Young will need to be efficient on offense, and solid on defense, as Brand should be the first option every trip up the floor. After 5 years, it’s time that Green shows this team he has something to offer, and Marshall needs to return to the level he provided several years ago in Toronto. Hopefully, Marreese Speights can bolster the post off the bench, because Ratliff isn’t getting any younger, and will be limited in what he can still provide this athletic group. Maurice Cheeks has a lot of potential to play with, and with any luck, this team will dethrone Boston and Detroit.
Toronto Raptors: Colangelo continues to put his stamp on his team, bringing in JO to pair with Bosh, who owned the post in Beijing this summer. Calderon has the point all to himself this year, so it will be up to Ukic to simply maintain while he catches his breath. Kapono should be raining threes with all the attention focused on the post. Bargnani seemed to have regressed last year, and he’ll need to change that this year, as they’ll be counting on his versatility off the bench. Much like the Suns did under Colangelo, this team will put up points in bunches and have a weak bench, but differently, their low post defense will be solid. If the perimeter can uphold their end of the deal, some exciting things could happen for this group in the playoffs. Sam Mitchell is still here, the job is his to lose.
Cleveland Cavaliers: The team edges out the Magic, but only because they have recent success in the playoffs. James will continue to enable this team to do things they shouldn’t be able to do, and much like the Spurs, the role players will determine their success. Wallace and Ilgauskas hold the potential to lock down the post, but Ilgauskas will need help doing it. Wright will have to be ready to go every night, as he’ll get the chance to play. Varejao is the most active banger they have, and will be on the court just as much as Wright will, if not more. Snow will probably be relegated to cheerleading duty, as West and Gibson take care of ball handling duties. With so many uncertainties on the bench, there are some rookies who will get opportunities. Jawad Williams, Darnell Jackson, and J.J. Hickson all have the potential to shake things up on this team, and if they do, it could provide enough of a talent level to give James second thoughts about leaving this town.
Indiana Pacers: The loss of O’Neal isn’t as big as some may perceive, because he’s already been gone for long stretches, and they’ve survived. The big question is, who will run the post? A quick roster scan reveals Murphy, who tends to move outside, McRoberts, who hasn’t shown anything yet in the pros, Hibbert, who’s a rookie, Foster, who is on the downside of his career, Croshere, who also tends to play outside, and Maceo Baston, to which you probably just said “Who?” This team needs to figure out who will play down low, and provide a solid, commanding presence. The outside is taken care of, as TJ Ford, Jarret Jack, and Travis Diener can handle the point. The 2 and 3 spots will be handled by Granger and Dunleavy, although Daniels has the talent to relegate Dunleavy to the bench. Rush will be fighting for minutes as a rookie, but he has a lot that he can offer off of the bench. This team won a lot of games last year, and if they can answer their question on the blocks, they could upset someone in the playoffs.
Portland Trailblazers: The Jailblazers no more, this team is stocked with an outrageous amount of talent, and as good as they have been, they’re about to get better. Aldridge, Frye, Outlaw, Roy, and Webster. These 5 played a large role in the success of last year, in big ways and small. As good as they were, they now add Jerryd Bayless and Greg Oden. That’s 7 different guys that you can plug any variety of players from around the league in and out of and still be quite successful. LaFrentz is the only one on the roster to have 10 years of experience, in fact, of the 17 players currently on the roster, the years of experience averages out to less than 3 years. This is a young team that is only getting better, likely to enter the playoffs this year, and be a heavy favorite in them for years to come. They made a wise move hiring Nate McMillan, and the dividends are starting to show.