By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
With The Season Coming Up, Who Will Meet The Spurs In The NBA Finals?
SAN ANTONIO – Okay this op/ed is going to be like how Larry Bird used to intimidate the three point shooters during the All-Star weekend. Let’s look at the facts as so many pundits have put them out in their preview primers and let’s really dissect what the season will be like. The San Antonio Spurs are the team to beat and they just didn’t get better, they got deeper. Gone is Tony Massenberg, Glenn Robinson, Linton Johnson III, Devin Brown and Mike Wilkes from last year’s team. Replacing those players are Argentina’s Fabricio Oberto, Shaun Marks, Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel. Gone is the weakness of offensive punch on the perimeter in stretches and in its place are two more outside gunners who can complement whatever line-up Gregg Popovich wants to throw into the fray. But what of the other teams in the league? Is there anyone who can come up and make a decent challenge to what is now being considered the New England Patriots of the NBA? Here’s BASN’s complete breakdown of the NBA, where the teams will finish, who will be a contender, pretender or just sitting on the sidelines with this year’s NBA Preview.
THE WEST IS STILL DOMINANT EVEN WITHOUT SOME TOP PLAYERS The Western Conference may be dying down a bit but don’t let the lack of superstar power fool you; this is still a tough conference to play in and if last year was any indication you could have ten teams vying for eight spots. So if the Spurs are going to be the top dogs in the conference, who comes in behind them? Let’s look at the Western Conference by each division and dissect this year’s teams.
The Northwest Division: Denver the team to beat There’s something to be said about what team will come out of this division this year. The Portland Trailblazers and Minnesota Timberwolves have new head coaches with Nate McMillan now in Portland and Dewayne Casey in the land of a thousand lakes. You also have Bob Weiss now as the head coach Seattle. You also have some key additions/subtractions in this division, but let’s look at each team and see where they may end up at year’s end.
Denver Nuggets (1, 54-28): Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and Carmelo Anthony will have a full year with George Karl and that should prove to be interesting in this division. Karl has all the pieces he needs to truly solidify himself for coach of the year honors and this team should fair well in what is considered a weak division this season. Most improved player candidate could very well be Andre Miller or Camby and a strong consideration for sixth man honors should go to NeNe if he puts up solid numbers.
Seattle Super Sonics (2, 50-32): Talk about a change in the summertime. Nate McMillan bolts for Portland to escape the issues of being around Howard Shultz and non-committal. Then you have Jerome James go to New York over the summer plus you see Antonio Daniels head to Washington, D.C. Yet despite all of that turmoil, the Sonics could very well end up finishing behind the Nuggets. Weiss’ biggest challenge is going to get the team to count on newcomers Vitaly Potepenko and Robert Swift. With Ray Allen coming back for another season, this should be a fun team to watch if they can just play fundamental basketball.
Utah Jazz (3, 50-32): The Jazz and Jerry Sloan are hoping to do some serious rebounding from a disappointing season that included injuries to key players and personal issues for the coaching staff. Carlos Boozier should be very healthy and with the edition of Devin Brown, the Jazz is hoping to finish in the middle of the pack when it comes to the Western Conference. This team can be surprisingly good in stretches so don’t be surprised if they are in many of their games this season. Memet Okur needs to continue his stellar play and become a second option for this team as they did struggle mightily in the offensive sets at times.
Minnesota Timberwolves (4, 42-40): Flip Saunders is gone so Kevin McHale will only be able to blame himself when this team underachieves again. Without Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell, it will be up to Kevin Garnett, Eddie Griffin and Wally Sycerbiak to lead this team into a positive direction. With the distractions gone, maybe Garnett will get a chance to become a true team leader. Then again, hasn’t this been said so many times during his career when he first got to the Timberwolves some ten years ago? So it definitely is now in the hands of McHale. If this team falters or underachieves, don’t expect him to be the general manager next season.
Portland Trailblazers (5, 39-43): How bad are the Trailblazers this year? The good thing is that they have a disciplinarian in Nate McMillian? The negative is that there is still going to be some strife on this team because players just aren’t happy. McMillian will need to keep a tight leash on this group of players. Ruben Patterson’s recent comments about the team didn’t upset too many folks but you don’t want that type of negative talk coming from who is now one of your big name players. With Derek Anderson and Nick Van Exel both gone, maybe leadership will come from guys like Patterson, Zack Randolph and even Charles Smith. Of course having such raw talent like Sebastian Telfair, Jarret Jack and Martell Webster won’t hurt this team either but they are a long ways off from the playoffs right now.
The Pacific Rim: Sacramento and Phoenix But With Questions Galore The Pacific division is going to be interesting because where else can you get Hollywood glitz along with old fashion glamour. Will the Phoenix Suns come out of this division as the top team again or will Sacramento be able to make another run for conference supremacy. And what of Los Angeles? Can the Lakers and Clippers both come out of this division or will one be waiting at the alter this year? Here’s my prediction on how these five teams will fair.
The Phoenix Suns (1, 55-27): Amare Stoudamire will return to the line up in March and much like what Derrick Fisher was a few seasons ago for the Lakers, Stoudamire will be fresh for the playoffs. New faces on the team include Boris Diaw who came over from the off-season trade of Joe Johnson. Mike D’Antoni will see that he will need Diaw and Raja Bell to really step up to fill the shoes of Johnson and also that Shawn Marion will need to become that dynamic player that many have touted him to be.
Sacramento Kings (2, 54-28): Cuttino Mobley will have to become a dynamic player on a roster that has been seriously depleted by moves, injuries and other factors. Bobby Jackson may have left for Memphis but Brad Miller and Peja Stojokovic are more than capable of helping out in leadership roles. But Rick Adelman will probably become head coach to really feel the heat of being fired before the ship is righted after the all-star break. The Kings should be pretty much okay as long as Michael Bibby, Corliss Williams and Brian Skinner help out the other three mentioned with just consistent play.
Los Angeles Clippers (3, 50-32): Fifty wins from the Clippers? Yeah it possible if Mike Dunleavy gets this team to start believing that they are winners and not perennial losers of old. With Cory McGhettie and Elton Brand still being the main focal point, the Clippers can surprise a few teams and make a push for that eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles Lakers (4, 44-38): A 40 win season is a good start for this bunch as Phil Jackson comes back to try and work some serious fairy dust on a franchise that has seen it’s spotlight be snuffed out just two seasons ago. Kobe Bryant doesn’t have anyone to blame for bad play and he has to now get a group of young guys to believe in what Phil is preaching. Lamar Odom should learn a lot from Scottie Pippen and Kwame Brown will need to grow a tough skin and a good set of steel “you know whats” if he wants to get rid of the stigma of being just another bust in the league.
Golden State Warriors (5, 39-43): Mike Montgomery comes into his second season trying to get a bunch of young guys to play hard and make some noise. Mike Dunleavy, Jr. got a nice fat contract that he needs to now live up to. Problem is that very few Duke players live up to the billing they receive. Jason Richardson needs to be leader of this team along with Baron Davis. Thirty-nine wins isn’t a tough stretch but if this team plays hard every night and take it to their opponents each night, who says they can’t be a spoiler for a few teams this year.
THE SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE – The Dogfight Begins/Ends Here This is where Dodge City resides in the Western Conference and the basketball world knows this. Who can give the defending champs a run for their money this season as the San Antonio Spurs strike out to defend their 2005 crown. Here’s where its dog eat dog and there are no friends whatsoever.
San Antonio Spurs (1, 62-20): The Spurs will match their franchise wins this year and that’s not because they are the best team on paper but because from every single individual on the roster, they are out to prove a few NBA experts wrong and try to be one of the few teams to win back to back titles. Gregg Popovich has assembled a roster that could be compared to some of the championship squads of seasons long past. Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel are nice additions because both veterans know they are role players from the very start. The scouts added Argentina’s Fabrico Oberto to the mix and with a healthy heap of bench play from Robert Horry and Brent Barry, those five players will be able to mesh well with the starting five of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Bruce Bowen, Nazr Muhammad and Tony Parker.
Houston Rockets (2, 58-24): Derek Anderson came back to the state of Texas and is now teammates with the very player who almost ended his season in 1998. The Rockets are looking to give the Spurs fits as they shored up their inside presence with Juwan Howard and the return of Dikembe Mutumbo. Don’t be surprised if Rafer Alston turns out to be a Most Improved candidate at the end of the season. Under Jeff Van Gundy, “Skip To My Lou” may be as exciting as Stephon Marbury was in his younger days. Of course for all of this to take place, the bench and team stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming must come ready to do battle.
Memphis Grizzlies (3, 54-28): Hakim Warrick may be the bright spot for the Grizzlies this year as they will once again try to make a push to get out of the first round of the playoffs. Coach Mike Fratello is hoping that Damon Stoudamire is ready to be a true leader because with the additions of Bobby Jackson and Eddie Jones, this team may have the leadership that had been lacking for so many seasons. A six-man candidate that could surprise a few is Brian Cardinal from Purdue. He’s a sleeper and he’s the type of player that Fratello likes. The Grizzlies will finish up in a position to give somebody a serious run in the first round of the playoffs.
Dallas Mavericks (4, 50-32): The one thing that the Dallas Mavericks have going for them is that with Avery Johnson in his first full season, this team will play hard every night. That will bode well for a very young team and for a coaching staff that will need to exact every bit of effort from the roster to try to stay in the playoff chase. Eric Dampier needs to step his game up or make way for DeSagana Diop. Marquise Daniels and Josh Howard will need to be leaders along with Jerry Stackhouse, Dirk Nowitzki, Doug Christie and Keith Van Horn in order to get to the 50 win mark.
New Orleans Hornets (5, 41-41): The New Orleans Hornets will struggle this year and it will be more of the fact that this is a young team rather than the logistics because of Hurricane Katrina. Byron Scott and his coaching staff will see some flashes of promise this season as Chris Paul will learn to be a professional and veteran Speedy Claxton will show the team what hard work is all about. Also look for J.R. Smith to figure out that he needs to be a more complete player than in his rookie year.
THE EASTERN CONFERENCE – Beast of The East Tries To Rise From The Ashes The Detroit Pistons will not make it back to the NBA Finals without going through this conference. This conference is continuing to be the proving grounds for teams that put together rosters that can bash each other one night but yet run and gun with the more open style offenses of the Western Conference. So what can the East bring to the table? Check it out.
THE ATLANTIC DIVISION – Probably the most competitive divisions going The Atlantic division still is one of the hardest divisions to play in but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be won. Look for some different styles of play in this division as these five teams try to battle for the division title.
New Jersey Nets (1, 55-27): The Nets are going to be the cream of the crop in this division and not by default. The Nets have assembled a roster with enough veterans on it that will help the younger players mature and work hard to achieve the common goal. Jason Kidd returns again to lead this squad but he now has help from Vince Carter. Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins add to the mix as Lawrence Franks tries to stay ahead of his cross bay rival in this division.
New York Knicks (2, 52-30): The Knicks are hoping that with Larry Brown at the helm, this may be the final piece to help start rebuilding this team back to days when Patrick Ewing was the center of attention. Larry is going to need all the Madison Square Gardens karma he can find as this team is not without issues. Even without Allen Houston, the payroll is very bloated and thus for Brown to succeed to a 52 win season, he will need to utilize the off-season acquisitions of Eddie Curry, Quentin Richardson and Jerome James. Stephon Marbury and Anfernee Hardaway are now going to have to be the senior leaders on this team. Bench play is going to be the key if the Knicks want to be the other team coming out of this division. Brown may not be able to duplicate the success he had in Detroit but he can definitely keep this team in the hunt for a top playoff seed.
Boston Celtics (3, 49-33): What made Boston a fun team to watch last season should carry over if the players just let the game come to them. Al Jefferson was definitely a surprise but he will only get better. Paul Pierce now has free reigns to lead this team with the departure of Gary Payton and Antoine Walker. Glenn “Doc” Rivers knows how to coach talent but his biggest test is going to be the management of his bench in a division where bodies do fly and wins are hard to come by.
Philadelphia 76ers (4, 40-42): Maurice Cheeks may have escaped the crazy house of Portland but that doesn’t mean that he’s escaped a pressure cooker. Yet all isn’t bad even though this team could finish a few games under .500. The fact that Cheeks has a roster of young talent to go alongside a very mature Allen Iverson is crucial. Also look for Chris Webber to take on more leadership responsibilities with Iverson and try to lead this team down a winning road that has eluded them the past few seasons. One player to look at is Steven Hunter. Hunter could be in the running for several individual awards this season if he plays strong.
Toronto Raptors (5, 38-44): What can Sam Mitchell expect from this year’s team? Better than what he got last season that’s for sure. Chris Bosh is the new franchise player for the Raptors and Jalen Rose is the perfect mentor to help Bosh become the leader of a young team that is loaded with talent. Yet that doesn’t equate into many wins this season as this division is just too tough to compete in and with other teams on the rise, the Raptors will just have to bide their time and methodically get better. Rookie of the year candidate Charlie Villenueva may not have that stellar of a year but he will definitely be a contributor while Maurice Peterson gets more comfortable in Mitchell’s offense.
THE CENTRAL DIVISION Here’s where things can get real interesting in a hurry. Three teams will be vying for the top seed in the conference while another team will be coming into it’s own. As for Milwaukee? Well Andrew Bogut is a bright spot.
The Indiana Pacers (1, 60-22): A more mature Ron Artest. A more determined Jermaine O’Neal. A more focused Stephen Jackson. Sure this sounds great but in reality this is probably exactly the mindset that Rick Carlisle instilled into this team before training camp began. The Pacers will be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference with Artest coming back and focused to being a professional that everyone thought he could be. O’Neal and Jackson are ready to also become the leaders of this franchise with the retirement of Reggie Miller. Sixty wins for this team isn’t a pipe dream as they do have the roster to take on the top teams in their conference each and every night.
Detroit Pistons (2, 55-27): Flip Saunders hopes that this coaching stint is more than a short hop at the diner as he takes over a team that has made consecutive trips to the NBA Finals. However don’t expect them to break out the bubbly just yet as the Pistons will have to some philosophical issues to contend with and that is mainly how Saunders wants to run the ship. With that said Pistons’ fans will see an exciting team this season that will make them proud and they will finally get a chance to see just why Darko Milichek was picked two seasons ago.
Cleveland Cavaliers (3, 50-32): The Cavaliers were poised to have a great run when Paul Silas was let go but now with Mike Brown at the helm, this franchise could really go somewhere. Cavs’ fans may not think this important but when you have a general manager and a coach working hand in hand, championships will be won. Danny Ferry and Brown both come from the San Antonio Spurs and were there when that team won its first title in 1999. Ferry’s history as one of the Cavs’ best players bodes well in keeping LeBron James in the area. Look for this team to be exciting as James leads this team to their first playoff appearance quite some time. Executive of the Year honors and Coach of the Year accolades could also be the icing on the cake for this franchise this season.
Chicago Bulls (4, 47-35): The Bulls were exciting last season in the playoffs but with Eddie Curry in New York, this team has taken a step back and may or may not make a serious playoff push. With that said, Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon will definitely help Tyson Chandler make this franchise exciting again. Head coach Scott Skiles will have use his bench a lot to win some ball games this year as this will be a hard season to just ‘waltz’ into a playoff position with a fairly young squad.
Milwaukee Bucks (5, 38-44): As I’ve stated somewhere earlier, the highpoint of the Milwaukee Bucks will be Andrew Bogut. Terry Stotts will see his team make improvements but right now with T.J. Ford coming back from spinal surgery and Michael Redd trying to lead this team, Stotts will have to work hard to get his players to believe they can be in every single ball game. This team may not win 40 games but don’t be surprised to see them miss a few wins by less than six points this season.
SOUTHEAST DIVISION – It’s South Beach and who else?
The Miami Heat are the kings in this division but are there any contenders there that can make a strong push for a lower seed playoff spot?
Miami Heat (1, 60-22): The only other team in the East that will win 60 games, the Heat have re-loaded and re-tooled to make a strong push for an NBA championship. Head coach Stan Van Gundy saw Eddie Jones leave but over the summer the team acquired James Posey, Jason Williams, Gary Payton and Antoine Walker. Van Gundy should be able to pace his squad as his two super stars, Shaquile O’Neal and Dewayne Wade, have ample back up on the bench.
Washington Wizards (2, 50-32): The Washington Wizards should have a relatively quiet season as their main headache, Kwame Brown, has left the franchise. Eddie Jordan can now concentrate on playing a roster that is eager to get into the playoffs again with Gilbert Arenas, Antonio Daniels and Antoine Jamison leading the charge. Etan Thomas could be a serious sixth man candidate or even Most Improved Player this season.
Orlando Magic (3, 45-37): Brian Hill hopes that this season the Magic can be a competitive ball club and they should be with a good nucleus surrounding second year player, Dwight Howard. The key for the success of this team this season is going to be the minimization of injuries to key players. Grant Hill is crucial to this formula because he is still able to give this franchise 20 ppg. while helping Steve Francis guide this young squad to a first round playoff berth. Key bench play needs to come from Jameer Nelson and Kelvin Cato. Even Bo Outlaw is crucial this season.
Atlanta Hawks (4, 40-42): What does $70 million get you these days? How about butts in seats and a record that is two games below .500 as compared to what it was last season. That is what the Atlanta Hawks will give impatient fans this season. This is a positive step in the right direction as Johnson looks to make this team his along with rookie sensation Marvin Williams. Josh Childress and Josh Smith will come into their own and don’t be surprised to even see Royal Ivey start making sizeable contributions towards what could be Mike Woodson’s best season to date as a head coach.
Charlotte Bobcats (5, 30-52): Emeka Okafur will be in for another trying season with the Bobcats as Bernie Bickerstaff tries to bring a winning tradition to such a young franchise. Bickerstaff will need to push for his veteran ball players to step up and take the reins of games if he wants to guide this team past 30 wins this year. The addition of Jake Voskul should help in the interior paint but players like Melvin Ely and Gerald Wallace need start earning those paychecks. Shaun May could be a bright spot for fans as he tries to get himself acclimated to playing in front of his ‘home’ crowd night in and night out.
WHERE THEY’LL END UP COME JUNE Now with all of that said, who’s going to make it into the playoffs and who is going to sitting at home reaching for the bag of potato chips? In the Eastern Conference I see things shaking down like this: 1) Indiana 2) Miami 3) Detroit 4) New Jersey 5) New York 6) Cleveland 7) Washington 8) Boston Indiana would defeat Boston 3-1, Miami would sweep Washington, Detroit would prevail over Cleveland in seven games and New York would actually defeat the Nets. Miami would defeat New York in the following round while Indiana would defeat Detroit. In the conference finals we’d have Indiana and Miami going at it with Miami winning in seven games.
For the Western Conference, I predict the following teams would make the playoffs: 1) San Antonio 2) Denver 3) Houston 4) Phoenix 5) Sacramento 6) Seattle 7) Los Angeles Clippers 8) Memphis In the first round the Spurs would sweep the Grizzlies. Denver would be stretched to six games before defeating the Clippers. Houston and Seattle would battle to seven games with the Rockets winning while Phoenix will dispatch of Sacramento quick. In the second round the Spurs will meet the Suns in the playoffs while the Rockets will be facing Denver. The finals would be Denver versus the Spurs with the Spurs winning it all in this conference.
Suffice to say what many readers wanted as an outcome for the NBA Finals will take place as the Heat will take on the Spurs and the Spurs will come out victorious in seven games.
And there you have it, this year’s BASN NBA preview. If you have gripes, suggestions complaints, or just general statements, e-mail me at the e-mail address below.