Stampler's NBA Preview Spectacular, Part IV: Best of the West

This is a very weird day for me. Another Spurs season is about to start, and it's the furthest thing in my mind. The Giants are about to play Game 1 of the World Series. I'm physically shaking and it's very hard to type. I also have about a billion words to write on the pathetic 49ers in the next ten days, for work, so I'd be happy if the NBA season could be postponed til January.

So this happened to me....

A few months ago I went to Reno to put down some long term sports bets. I bet on the Philadelphia Phillies at 5-to-1 and the Spurs at 20-to-1. I thought the Phils were an absolute lock. They had fabulous starting pitching, a fearsome, powerful lineup that's deep 1-8, and they were on a roll. I was counting my money.

Then, three weeks ago, we moved. I put my betting slips (which also contained $160 worth of scattershot football bets) in the pocket of my sweatpants and forgot all about it.

Right about the time I was driving home from Game 1 of the Giants-Phillies NLCS, happily celebrating the Giants win, I realized why I had tiny fragments of paper in my laundry basket.

Oh shit.

$200, in the toilet.

As you know, the Phillies wound up losing to the Giants and I couldn't be more thrilled. Those of you who believe in omens will think that this means the Spurs season is doomed before it even started.

But no, it's not the same thing. The Phillies were favorites while the Spurs are anything but. It's apples and oranges.

What I'm trying to say is I'll happily sacrifice $400 if the Spurs somehow pull off a miraculous fifth title. And if not, well at least we had the four and y'all can blame me for screwing it up.

A word of warning, the Youtube clips will be all-Manu all the time. Do with them what you will.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

PG         Derek Fisher            Steve Blake

SG        Kobe Bryant              Shannon Brown      Sasha Vujacic

SF         Ron Artest                 Matt Barnes         Luke Walton          Devin Ebanks

PF         Lamar Odom           Derrick Caracter

C          Pau Gasol                Theo Ratliff      Andrew Bynum

Ginobili Dunk on Lakers (via falcons180)

On paper, as scary as it is to admit, the Lakers look even better than last year. Steve Blake, who used to look like "Dewey" on Malcolm in the Middle, is all grown up now with a goatee, and now he's a dead ringer for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. He's a definite upgrade over Jordan Farmar, who doesn't know how to play and thinks he's way better than he is. Matt Barnes is a fighter - sometimes literally - and he'll make them better defensively.

Then you've got the mainstays, who are pretty damn good in their own right.

I think by now we can dispense with the notion that Kobe Bryant is their best player. He's not. He's just not. Their best closure for sure. Their best shot-maker, their fiercest competitor and all that, but as far as game in, game out best player is Pau Gasol. He was in the regular season and he got jobbed of the MVP in the Finals (foreign second banana clearly outplays face of the franchise superduperstar, still doesn't win MVP, where have we seen that before?). I won't fight you to the death if you think otherwise, mainly because I can't fight and I don't care, but just realize if you think otherwise, you're wrong. Bryant was their best player in the Conference Finals against the Suns, but for the other 99 games, Gasol was the man.

What I love about Pau's game is that maybe more than any other star player in the league, including the Spurs big three, he is so finely in tune with what he can and can't do. He never forces anything. Every shot he takes looks it's going in. He plays intelligently and he has no weaknesses. And he's A LOT tougher than people give him credit for. Some critics call him soft, but I think that's a combination of xenophobia and racism. The guy's just skinny and gangly. He's not going to push Glen Davis out of the way. For my money he's the best big man in the NBA.

Lamar Odom floats in and out, but he's like a rich man's version or Robert Horry, in that he's the ultimate X-factor. He does a little bit of everything and has tons of skill, but he's not as clutch as Big Shot Rob was. Better rebounder though, for sure. Still, he's miscast as a starter and he'll get worn down if Andrew Bynum doesn't return to the lineup soon. I think by now people have to accept Bynum for what he is. He's never going to turn into a star. He doesn't want it bad enough and he's way too injury prone. Even when he does have good games, it's over blown because so much of opponents' attention is on Kobe and Gasol. I think at this point most of his teammates, and even the coaching staff, view him as a necessary evil; someone who takes some minutes from Gasol and Odom so they're not toast by March but not a guy they count on in any way.

Ron Artest and Derek Fisher were a combined 4-of-22 last night, so they're already in mid-season form. I've given up ripping Fisher at this point. There's just no use. Every year the guy performs like one of the ten worst starters in the NBA, a complete liability on every level, and then he shoots like 93% in the playoffs. He's very similar to Horry in that regard, but thankfully no one is making Hall of Fame declarations about him, maybe because he doesn't have a catch nickname or that he's been on one team the whole time. Artest meanwhile continues to weave in an out between being charming and insane, like a drunk driver on a tweeting binge. He can guard stocky, physical threes as well as anyone, so Phil Jackson doesn't seem to mind at all that he takes ten terrible shots a game. It seems to be an understood part of the package: Either let the guy shoot and live with the results or you get nothing from him on either end of the floor and you're even worse off.

Shannon Brown mixes incredible athleticism with a decent three point stroke, but he's streaky. Luke Walton is a good teammate, but at this point he's more of an assistant coach than a player. Sasha Vujacic is the luckiest son of a bitch who ever walked the Earth.

Whether the Lakers win or not will mostly depend on Kobe's knee. He's got a lot of mileage on him and he's gone to three straight Finals and an Olympics. Eventually it has to give out, right? I mean, I'm not hoping for an injury or anything, but you think eventually the odds will catch up with the guy. He's in his 15th season and has played more minutes than Duncan. I think Phil Jackson would love to tell him to sit out the first half of the season, but Kobe won't ever go for it because he wants the scoring record and also he values home court advantage more than Jackson does.

I look at this and it just makes me want to throw up. Yet, how can anyone rationally argue it? I tell myself the Spurs have a puncher's chance, but everything has to go right and Kobe's knee has to be really bothering him.

Three Fearless Predictions:

1. Kobe plays about 70 games, finishes out of the top-five in MVP voting.

2. Gasol however, finishes fourth, behind Howard, James and Durant.

3. After last year's honeymoon, Artest has an "incident" and gets himself suspended for a few games.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

PG         Russell Westbrook   Eric Maynor     Royal Ivey

SG         Thabo Sefolosha     James Harden  Daequan Cook

SF         Kevin Durant              Morris Peterson

PF         Jeff Green                   Nick Collison     D.J. White

C          Nenad Kristic               Serge Ibaka      Byron Mullens   Cole Aldrich

Manu Ginobili blocks kevin Durant - Spurs vs Thunder - Feb 25, 2010 (via SPORTSREMIXNET)

As Wade, Bosh and LeBron have joined forces to become an Axis and Evil, and the country has grown weary of the Lakers and Celtics, the Thunder's bandwagon continues to fill up, almost by default. As loathe as I am to side with Simmons, I admit they are an entertaining side to watch and I can't really fault any who cheer for them. The whole team is filled with likable players, and Durant's actions both on and off the floor this off-season (the bastard was sensational in the World Championships) have won me over. He really does seem to be the whole package; a once in a generation talent who "gets it" and isn't a gynormous douchebag. He even gave Manu a shout out on Twitter after that block last year. Somehow I doubt James would do that.

Durant seems to be extending his range further and further by the week and now he's like one of the best jump shooters in the league, which at his size, length and leap make him unguardable. However, I think he's in danger of falling too in love with the jumper. He is still 6'11 and needs to be playing close to the basket and getting to the line. Drilling threes is nice, but he'd be better served putting on some weight and learning a couple low post moves. He also needs to be more committed to defense, to set a better example for his teammates.

Russell Westbrook is a dynamic young point and it'll be interesting to see if he and Durant have any issues as far as who the team leader is. There's no question who's the better player, but sometimes the guy with the ball wants to be the dominant personality. Durant isn't the kind of guy who's going to upset anyone, but at the same time he was the clear leader of the World Championship Team and I think he'll want to be one in Oklahoma City as well. Unlike Kobe, LeBron and Wade, he's not always going to have the ball, so it should be an interesting dynamic.

Meanwhile, I'm sure Jeff Green is feeling under-appreciated himself. Not only is he definitely marginalized beneath Durant and Westbrook, but the likely development of James Harden threatens to take him a notch lower still. Green definitely has the talent to be more than the typical garbage man power forward (he can knock down threes quite well) but he too represents a potential problem. The team may fall victim to "The Disease of More" before even winning anything, and it'll be up to Scott Brooks to keep them focused.

Harden I think will take a major leap this year and become a major weapon off the bench. The role suits him perfectly because the Thunder have more than enough scoring in their staring lineup already, and Thabo Safolosha fits better there as a lockdown defender. Also Harden is unselfish and has the right temperament.

Eric Maynor had a solid freshman campaign and he'll continue to be solid in the handful of minutes he gets as Westbrook's understudy. Nick Collison gets rebounds and some hustle points and he'll be a good mentor for Cole Aldrich.

Nenad Kristic is more skilled offensively than Serge Ibaka, but the Thunder aren't hurting for scoring options. I think Ibaka, who's the better defender and rebounder, will eventually take his job and reduce Kristic to a second option on the bench behind Harden.

So count me among the many who give the.Thunder "second favorite team" status, as in, if my club can't win it all, I'm pulling for them. That being said, while I think their franchise takes another step forward by winning their first playoff series this year, I think much like the NOOCH in 2008, I think the veteran, versatile and battle tested Spurs will upset them in the second round to the delight of absolutely no one among casual fans and the national basketball media. ESPN may refuse to air the highlights in protest.

Nah, just kidding. Those folks won't even be aware of a Spurs-Thunder series. They'll be too preoccupied with Celtics-Heat and whoever the Lakers are playing.

Three Fearless Predictions:

1. Durant actually puts up worse stats than last season, but only because his teammates play better and he sits out more fourth quarters.

2. Harden finishes in the top-five in Sixth Man of the Year voting.

3.  Ibaka replaces Kristic in the starting lineup by the All-Star break.                   

3. San Antonio Spurs

PG    Tony Parker        George Hill         Garrett Temple

SG   Manu Ginobili      James Anderson    Gary Neal

SF    Richard Jefferson    Bobby Simmons  Alonzo Gee

PF   Tim Duncan        Matt Bonner

C     DeJuan Blair       Antonio McDyess   Tiago Splitter

Top 50 de Manu Ginobili en la NBA Por Chasky y Santi (via Chasky33)

That covers everything up to 2008. The past two years can be summed up here.


Obviously the central question with the Spurs is whether they can squeeze one last effective season out of Tim Duncan. Count me firmly among the camp who want to see him sit on SEGABABAS, or at least for whichever of the two games is against the easier opponent. I think Duncan will surprise some people by having his best defensive season in years because I expect 2010 to be the year where he'll transition fully into the defense/rebounding phase of his career a la David Robinson in 2002-2003. With Tony, Manu, Jefferson, Hill and Blair there's more than enough scoring threats on the team and Pop's new emphasis on running and getting early offense tells me he doesn't want to involve Duncan as much in the attack. Even in the half court I see Timmy playing more in the high post or the wings and letting Blair and Splitter be the guys banging down low.

I think Duncan will approach games playing it by ear and he may look to be more involved in the scoring in the second and third quarters if the offense starts haphazardly in games, but otherwise, don't be surprised at all if he's our third or fourth leading scorer on most nights.

What more can I possibly say about Manu Ginobili that a thousand YouTube clips haven't said for me? I found this quote from a recent Simmons column amusing, because it shows how fabulously out of touch he is about the Spurs (a team who he's said he's a "junkie" for but who he rated as the 14th-highest club in his "must watch" rankings, behind the Clippers, Kings, Jazz, and those thrill-a-minute Mavericks).

I'm expecting a randomly fantastic season from Manu Ginobili. He's never really had a career year; 2008 (31 mpg, 19.1 ppg, 40 3P%) was the closest. Total fantasy sleeper. He'll go five rounds later than he should.

What a nitwit. Yeah, it's totally realistic for a 33-year old who's gone balls out for the past 15-years to have a career season. He's never had one, except for those three month stretches in 2008 and 2009 where he was one of the top three players in the league, and the '05 playoffs where he was the best player. I'm thinking he'll average 38 points on 61% shooting, with 11 assists, 9 rebounds and 4 steals a night. Might be good enough to get him All-Star consideration.

Geez. I think by now we've learned that Manu can be exceptional for finite stretches but not a whole year. You'll get two months of All-World, and and six months of merely "awesome." It's Pop's mission to preserve him so those two months come in May and June instead of February and March. To that end the guy who's a likelier bet to have a career year is Tony. If Simmons knew a thing about the Spurs, he'd realize that, but he has a severe Tony bias and hates him because he's French.

(Yes, I know me accusing someone of an anti-Tony bias is like Ron Artest calling Gilbert Arenas crazy, but still).

The other article I found interesting was this from Buck Harvey, where he is point blank stating that it's Ginobili's team now from a leadership standpoint. While I agree with it on some level, I don't know if it's practical. Duncan's still the most respected Spur and he's still the best player. Tony will score the most points. I'm not sure a player can lead from the bench and I expect Manu to return there before long because the first unit has more than enough scorers and not enough shots to go around and the bench will need him as a stabilizing force. Also, Manu has traditionally a slow starter (his preseason stats were nothing special) so I don't know if he'll be able to practice what he's preaching.

When I think of Manu as the team's leader, I think of those stretches where he's clearly the team's number one option, and I don't want to see that Manu until May.

Tony Parker has to come back with a vengeance. Has to. Everything is set up for The Wee French Dribbling Machine to succeed this year. He's fully healthy, he's on his walk year, and both his coach and his teammates are looking for him to score the hell out of the ball. Tim and Manu both want to preserve themselves for the postseason, but won't sacrifice wins to do so. The better Tony plays, the more they'll be happy to ride him. I would think Tony will be back to averaging 20 points a game and leading the team in scoring, but we can't have a situation like we had in 2009 when Manu was down where he went full A.I. and loafed on defense to conserve energy. He needs to be be engaged at both ends. If he makes it easy for opposing teams to get into their sets and lets his guy go wherever he wants, then whatever he provides on offense is nullified. We'll know how serious Tony is about winning by watching him in his own end.

From everything I've read, Richard Jefferson has looked notably more comfortable and confident in the preseason. If we're ever gonna make a title run with him, this has to be the year because at 30, his athleticism is slipping and unlike Manu, he won't be able to compensate with his brain. Jefferson has to drive hard to the basket without hesitation and he has to take (and make) threes. We need 15 points a night from him, by hook or by crook. On the other end, he has to help on the rebounds first of all and not have the brain farts that were so commonplace last year. I'm not expecting him to shut down anybody, but he can't be a sieve.

I'm fairly skeptical about Jefferson, I always have been. He doesn't strike me as a Spurs type of player. My one glimmer of hope with him is that he came into last season unclear about his contract situation and without any idea of what to expect. Now he knows Pop, he knows the guys and he's got a four year deal in his back pocket. The fact that he worked hard with Pop in the off-season told me something, but Pop also made it known that he was willing to ship him out if he wouldn't, which tells me that Jefferson has yet to earn his trust. He'll be on a short leash in games and if he falters at all, he'll be riding the pine in favor of the three guard lineup.

Just please, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, no Tinyball with him at the four.

DeJuan Blair is someone I'm expecting big things from his second year. He's lost some fat, he's learned the league, he knows Pop's offense and defense and what to expect. He's figured out what works and what doesn't. I'm happy that he's added a jumper in the off-season but I'll be happier if he can actually make it once these games start. I don't want him to be far from the basket though. Offensive boards are still his biggest asset. Blair is a much better passer than I expected, so offensively he's probably the most complete player we've had along Tim since The Admiral.

It's defense where Blair concerns me. He just doesn't have the size to compete and I don't think he and Duncan can work together back there effectively. Blair needs to be on the second unit with Manu and I'd rather have him be a beast for 20 minutes than a decent starter for 30. His skill-set makes much more sense as a reserve, at least until Duncan retires. I'd give him a handful of starts for SEGABABAS but that's it. I'll be surprised if Blair is starting by January, and if he is, that means something gone very wrong with either Tim or Tiago.

Three reserves whom we know what we're going to get from them are George Hill, Matt Bonner and Antonio McDyess.

Hill had a solid sophomore campaign, with several brilliant stretches, but the challenge for him will be consistency and aggressiveness, at both ends of the floor. I really don't know what to make of him. Sometimes I think he thinks too highly of his skills, other times I think he's one of the most insecure players in the league. He earned a rotation spot by being a fierce defender but he seems to have gotten away from that to focus on offense. He needs to get back to playing like his job is on the line on that end of the floor. On offense I think he's too jump shot happy. He needs to go to the basket more. As far his passing and point guard skills go, I've pretty much given up on that. He's a two, and in that vein, I think he'll be back in the starting lineup before long.

Bonner's strengths and weaknesses are well documented. I like that he works on his dribble drive game every off-season and keeps adding moves to his arsenal, no matter how clunky or awkward they look. He's not satisfied with just being pigeonholed as a three point specialist. Defensively he's a lot better than people give him credit for, but opponents think they can score at him, which is half the battle and refs give him zero respect. The biggest fault for Bonner, as always is his rebounding. He has to work harder there considering the minutes he's getting, but he just doesn't have the knack for it.

McDyess showed occasional flashes last season in between long stretches of zombie-like play. I think Pop will want to keep him fresh for the postseason, so don't be surprised if he takes a DNP-CD every other game or every third game, with Splitter playing a lot more in those spots. Pop's not going to rotate five bigs during a game. McDyess rebounds alright, but his defense is spotty and if he's not knocking that jumper down, he's pretty worthless on offense.

Tiago Splitter joins the team at long last and I'm pretty excited about him, even though he's missed all preseason with an injury. I think Pop has been more accepting of young players the past couple of seasons anyway, and he'll be even more generous with Splitter because his experience overseas is fairly in line with Ginobili's history. Splitter doesn't have too many moves on offense, but he can execute the pick and roll and is fairly nifty around the basket. Defensively he's got length and like Duncan he knows how to stick his arms straight up to bother people. As long as he rebounds aggressively on defense, he'll play.

I'd expect Pop to take it easy on him at first, but eventually if everything goes as planned, Splitter should enter the starting lineup by the new year. He was drafted to compliment Duncan defensively, not to be an energy bench guy. That's more Blair's specialty.

The Spurs also drafted James Anderson, who I'm told plays shooting guard, which made me happy because the current one BLOOOOOOOOWS. Seriously though, how much he plays, whether it's 20 minutes or none is entirely up to him. If he sticks his nose in there on defense and shows he's not afraid to shoot on offense, then he can be the backup small forward and play quite a bit. If he impersonates Dick Jeff from last year, he'll sit. That simple.

The 11th-14th men on the roster are all borderline NBA players at best and guys who I can't imagine doing anything to help us win games. Who knows how much if any of them will play, if at all? I used to be fairly optimistic about even the fringe players on the Spurs, thinking that they'd develop into solid rotation players if just given a chance, but I've either grown out of that mode of thinking or this group in particular does nothing for me. Hopefully they'll prove me wrong and I'll be on their bandwagon by November.

Bobby Simmons will have the first chance to be the backup three, and a part of me is rooting for him to fail because I don't want The Sports Guy to make any "my long lost brother" jokes. He's got decent size, but I'm not so sure about his lateral mobility, how fast he'll understand the system or if he can offer anything at all on offense. His best days are well behind him, and he's a guy who was never that good in the first place.

Gary Neal can shoot it, has a good stroke and plenty of experience, but you wonder if the stage will be too big for him at this level. He's too short to play much as a natural two and two slow to go against opposing points. My guess is if he ever does see the floor, it'll be with Manu as the primary ball handler and shot creator.

Garrett Temple showed last year that he can be a solid backup point, but that was back when no one knew who he was and didn't have any film on him. He's been pretty terrible in the preseason and Pop's going to be hesitant to use him unless there is an injury emergency, however as long as he hustles on defense, he should have a place on the roster.

Alonzo Gee is more athletic and has the potential to be a good defender, but none of these young guys we pick up off the street ever seem to amount to anything, so I have zero expectations whatsoever.

Three fearless predictions:

1. Tony Parker is the only Spur who makes the All-Star game.

2. Blair and Ginobili go to the bench by January, in favor of Splitter and Hill.

3. will not introduce a "Spurs Index" despite my email campaign.

4. Utah Jazz

PG         Deron Williams       Ronnie Price   Sundiata Gaines

SG        Raja Bell              C.J. Miles         Othyus Jeffers

SF        Andrei Kirilenko     Gordon Hayward  Jeremy Evans

PF        Paul Millsap

C          Al Jefferson        Kyrylo Fesenko      Francisco Elson    Mehmet Okur

Watch Manu hit a lot of free throws, in SPANISH.

Manu Show vs Utah Jazz (08-12-2007) By Santi (via videosdelbasquet)

With Carlos Boozer off to Chicago, Deron Williams will get to show everyone that whatever success the Jazz had was almost entirely attributable to him anyway. I think this is the year he really breaks out and claims the title of best overall point guard in the league, even if he isn't the defender that Rajon Rondo is. Still, Williams doesn't really have any holes in his game and there isn't anything out there he can't do. I think he'll find Boozer's departure liberating in a way because now it becomes unquestionably his team.

I wonder though if the trade off for Al Jefferson will hurt the team's chemistry. I believe Jefferson is the superior player, but his skills are too similar to Millsap's, so I don't know how they'll play together. Boozer was more comfortable shooting mid-range jumpers and spacing the lane. Really what the Jazz need is for Mehmet Okur to recover from his ruptured Achilles tendon as fast as possible and get back to shooting threes and giving his power forwards room to operate. Both Jefferson and Millsap should perform better with him than working in tandem, where they'll get in each other's way. For the time being I imagine Jefferson will try to accommodate Millsap by playing more on the wings and in the high post, but he's never struck me as the accommodating type.

Kirilenko keeps on keeping on, blending into the background and giving the team a little bit of everything. He's usually the fourth option on offense, a bit like Shawn Marion, but he's far more skilled. He's one of those guys that would be better if he were more selfish, but he's just not wired that way. That switch never clicks on for him to take over games the way it does for Manu. He's content to just fill up the box score, do his part, and you never get the sense that it bothers him too much if they lose.

Raja Bell was signed to replace Ronnie Brewer, but at this point I'd rather have Brewer. Bell's coming off a bunch of injuries and I think he's washed up. If he has anything left, I'd be surprised. I think his backup, C.J. Miles, will figure heavily into the rotation, and rookie Gordon Heyward will be force fed minutes too. I don't think Heyward will be scared or intimidated, but his body and skill-set have to catch up to his guts. Specifically he's got to put on some weight and get more consistent with his jumper. I think he made a mistake coming out early, but maybe he didn't want to deal with the lockout limbo, and Utah will be a nurturing environment for him, even if Jerry Sloan reads him the riot act in practice daily.

The Jazz definitely match up better against some teams than others. I think they're built to handle Dallas and Oklahoma City, but they would struggle with the Lakers and the Rockets, teams that rely on guards to score. How quickly they gel initially and again when Okur rejoins the mix will determine if they can earn home court for any round of the playoffs. They have a great team on paper, but not only will they need Jefferson to show he's fully recovered from his injuries, but they need him to be great in the playoffs when he's never been in that situation before. It's asking a lot.

Three Fearless Predictions:

1.        After two weeks of  watching Jefferson play, no one in Utah will miss Carlos Boozer.

2.        Deron Williams will be robbed of First Team All-NBA honors when the writers vote for Kobe and Wade, a pair of shooting guards, over him.

3.        Gordon Hayward will be a fan favorite, but not a Jerry Sloan favorite. 

5.  Dallas Mavericks

PG      Jason Kidd          Rodrigue Beaubois   Jose Juan Barea

SG     Caron Butler         Jason Terry       Dominique Jones

SF     Shawn Marion        DeShawn Stevenson

PF     Dirk Nowitzki          Brian Cardinal  Alexis Ajinca

C      Brendan Haywood   Tyson Chandler    Ian Mahinmi

Manu Ginobili AMAZING 37 points vs Mavericks (via cherny2004)

My theory on the West is fairly simple: I think it's every bit as top heavy as the East, if not more so. In the East there's a clear top three, then the fringe contenders in Milwaukee and Chicago, and then some a group of five teams (Atlanta, Philadelphia, Charlotte, New York, Washington) that can jostle to become quick playoff fodder. In the West, I think there's one elite club, an upper middle class of three (us, Thunder, Jazz) and then after that the teams between 5-11 are fairly interchangeable depending on health, momentum and random bounces of the ball.

All of this is a fancy way of saying, unless they pull off some crazy trade for a superduperstar in advance of next season's lockout, the Mavericks will once again win somewhere between 48 and 54 games before making a quick first round exit. They are absolutely harmless. The Spurs showed the league the blueprint to knocking them out last season, and I expect anyone who's decent and who paid attention to have similar results.

Dirk Nowitzki aside, the Mavericks are extremely limited in what they can do in the half court because no one can create shots for themselves or others and no one can dribble. Caron Butler and Shawn Marion are absurdly unskilled for players of their salary levels, and both have lost sizable chunks of their athleticism. Jason Kidd is a shell of himself. He can't get to the basket, he can't shoot off the dribble, and he can't guard fast guys. His lone offensive weapon these days is the three, and it can be taken away. I imagine there can't be many starting 1-3 combinations in the league who are as easy to game plan in the half court. Where the Mavericks make hay is with Nowitzki, obviously, as he's still one of the most dominant and unguardable players in the league, though I think putting physical 6'7" types on him who can dig in underneath bothers Dirk than guys with size.

At center some analysts have lauded the Mavericks for dumping Erick Dampier and being able to acquire Tyson Chandler, but I don't see it as much of an upgrade. Chandler's best days are behind him and I'm extremely skeptical he can even regain the magic he had with Chris Paul in 2008. He's always been a fragile player, mentally as well as physically, and putting him in a situation where he's in a platoon will not bring out the best in him. He'll just see it as an excuse to check out, figuring he's not valued or needed. His partner in crime, Brendan Haywood, is certifiable and the kin of player who only plays for himself. He showed in the playoffs a startling lack of awareness as far as game situations, the clock, team fouls, the score, etc. He's a brute who's not particularly skilled and he doesn't have a set of teammates who will be wiling or able bring out the best in him. Both guys are above average to "good" as low post defenders, but so few teams these days pounding it inside and more and more bigs looking to shoot 15-footers, it's not as big of a strength as past seasons. Neither is particularly adapt at being a help defender, which is more important.

One advantage the Mavs do enjoy are their trio of quick guards of the off the bench. Rodrigue Beaubois especially, and to a lesser extent Jason Terry and J.J. Barea can all give people fits. Terry is despicable, but he gets on hot streaks every once in a while. Beaubois is lightning quick and can get to the rim. Barea is a pest and he's fearless. The only way to reduce the impact of these guys is to take advantage of their size on the other end and post them up or go to the basket against them. The Mavericks have a glaring hole at both backup forward spots, so expect plenty of three guard lineups for them with Nowitzki at center. Butler will probably wind up playing more minutes at the three than as a two guard.

Again, just limit your turnovers, get back in transition, take care of your defensive boards and the Mavs will go meekly. They don't have the talent to compete with teams who play intelligently.

Three Fearless Predictions

1.    Mark Cuban will make another big splash at the trade deadline and it will again not work.

2.    After another first round exit, Nowitzki will publicly wonder why he ever re-signed with Dallas.

3.    Beaubois will start to really eat into Kidd's minutes and Kidd will let everyone know he's not happy with it.

6. Houston Rockets

PG       Aaron Brooks           Kyle Lowry      Ishmael Smith

SG       Kevin Martin             Coutney Lee    Jermaine Taylor

SF       Shane Battier          Chase Budinger

PF       Luis Scola              Chuck Hayes    Jared Jeffries   Patrick Patterson

C         Yao Ming                Brad Miller       Jordan Hill

Ginobili Dunks on Yao (via WarningWizard)

Big props to Tony for the turnover that made it all possible. One of my favorite Manu dunks ever. If you pay attention you see the guys on the Rockets bench cringing and going "Ooooooh!"

Yao has always been one of my favorite players in the league, the sucker that I am for global hegemony, and I sincerely hope that he makes it through 82 games healthy and has one last comeback season. When he's right he's still one of the most talented and dominating players in the league, and there's no way the Rox miss the playoffs. In fact, my pick is based on the assumption that he'll play 65-70 games and about 25 minutes a night. If he manages to play 75 games and, say, 28 minutes per, then Houston could easily be a fifth seed.

Outside of Yao, the biggest upgrade on the team figures to be Luis Scola, who took his game to another level during the World Championships. His 17-footer is fairly automatic now and my guess is he'll play well enough to earn serious All-Star consideration (though he won't make the team because of the NBA's well-established anti-Argentine bias). Battier is an unselfish player who does a little bit of everything, but I think his defense is a bit overrated. Then again, I think everyone's defense is overrated.

In the backcourt they have Kevin Martin WHO I WOULD TRADE STRAIGHT UP FOR MANU RIGHT NOW and Aaron Brooks who is all kinds of speedy. That's four starters who can score between 15 and 35 on any given night, and a fifth guy in Battier who you don't want to leave open from three. Defensively, these guys will have problems though.

Even the bench is loaded. I won't do the cliche announcer thing and say that Lowry-Lee-Budinger-Hayes-Miller could "start for half the teams in the league," but they would hold their own with the Warriors or T-Pups. Even Jordan Hill has shown some promise and Ishmael Smith, I'm assuming is the first Amish-American in the NBA, so kudos to him for being a pioneer. It's going to be a fun team to watch as long as everyone stays healthy, but ultimately I don't think they're rugged enough to make much of a dent in the playoffs.

Three fearless predictions:

1. Yao will win Comeback Player of the Year

2. Scola will lead the team in scoring.

3. Somehow every Spurs-Rockets game on League Pass will feature Houston's announcers, which will lead me to throw things against the wall.

7. Phoenix Suns

PG Steve Nash            Goran Dragic      

SG Jason Richardson  Josh Childress   Matt Janning

SF Grant Hill             Jared Dudley

PF Hedo Turkoglu   Hakim Warrick   Earl Clark  Gani Lawal

C   Robin Lopez      Channing Frye     Garret Siler

Ginobili posterizes the Suns (via woutakasinistra)

Good times. I especially like the look Joe Johnson gives at the end during that close up, where he's like, "Who the fuck is this guy?" Obviously there are lots of fun Manu-Suns moments, so I also like this (last three minutes), and this and this.

So anyway, congratulations to the Suns. These bastards finally beat us in the playoffs, and they did it because they turned the tables on us. For so long our secret edge on them back when Yosemite Sam was coaching 'em was that we had a bench and they didn't. D'Antoni would just play like six guys until they dropped. Last year we were the ones short on depth and it killed us. Hopefully Blair and Hill will be more ready to contribute this time around and Splitter, Bonner and Anderson will chip in too.

Not that it'll matter against the Suns mind you. I'm obligated to stick up for Hedo since he's my countryman an' all, but he is NOT Amar'e Stoudamire. While STAT might be one of the best bigs ever at moving without the ball, Turkoglu is completely useless without the rock in his hands. He is not a standstill shooter, as he showed in Toronto, where he was horrid and not popular with the fans.  While I'm sure he's excited to be a Phoenix Sun, I don't know if it will work out him. You show me a team that has Turkoglu as its starting power forward and I'll show you a team that's gonna get slaughtered on the boards and abused inside.

Nash is still amazing, but at 36, and without that automatic pick-and-roll partner, you have to wonder if this is the year the wheels fall off. On defense they'll go right at him when they're not going at Turkoglu. Hill's even older, but he's still decent, but hardly someone who's a threat to good teams. Richardson is who he is. He'll knock down some threes and have a few flashy dunks, but he's more or less useless in the half court because he can't dribble and doesn't have a mid-range game. Lopez is serviceable and nothing more.

While their starting lineup is decidedly below par in the stacked Western Conference, the Suns make up for it with a great second unit. Goran Dragic has the skills to develop into a special player. Childress can do a little bit of everything and he's back in the league after spending two years cavorting with Mediterranean babes. I've always liked his game, going back to his Stanford days. Dudley has better lateral movement than one would think and he's a pretty solid defender, and he can knock down some threes when he's feeling it. I always thought Warrick would be a star and the fact that he hasn't shows why I'm not an NBA scout. Frye is Matt Bonner with a higher melanin count.

Like the Rockets, I don't see this Suns team playing defense anywhere near as well as they'll need to to challenge the great teams, but also without Amar'e they're gonna lose 20 easy points a lot. Nash will have to work a lot harder to get the team points and I don't think opponents will be as willing to let him score as they were in past seasons. The Suns will really need Dragic to step up to save their season.

I still project them to be a playoff team, because they play hard for their coach and have good chemistry, but they're no threat.

Three Fearless Predictions:

1. They'll be neck-and-neck with the Warriors for poorest rebounding margin in the league.

2. The locals will not be enamored with Hedo for very long.

3. Dragic will finish in the top-five in Sixth Man of the Year voting.

8. Portland Trailblazers

PG        Andre Miller        Armon Johnson       Patrick Mills

SG        Brandon Roy     Rudy Fernandez

SF        Nicolas Batum   Wesley Matthews   Dante Cunningham  Luke Babbitt

PF      LaMarcus Aldridge   Fabricio Oberto

C         Marcus Camby       Greg Oden      Joel Przybilla

Ginobili Jams on Blazers (via thebigfish22)

There was also this one, shot by a fan at the game, of his layup from underneath Aldridge's armpit. Excellente! 

A lot of pundits are high on the Blazers, but i don't get it. They gave up on Martell Webster and Jerryd Bayless, and both of those guys were valuable contributors last year. Their center, Marcus Camby, and point guard, Andre Miller, are a combined 70 years old. Consider me skeptical that the former can still be an elite defender and that the latter can stick with the young jitterbugs he'll be facing nightly. Aldridge seems destined to be "pretty good" and that's all. Forever a second banana on a fringe playoff team. He's a guy who just doesn't bring it every night. Roy's a helluva player, but he's got a tricky knee, so I'm not sure how much better he can get.

The one starter of theirs who does interest me is Nicolas Batum. God would be he perfect on the Spurs. He might be the best defensive small forward in the league right now, even better than Shane Battier, and he's great from the corner on threes. Not only is he an evolutionary French version of Bruce Bowen, but he'd be even better in San Antonio than he is on the Blazers because he was born to play under Pop's system and Tony would be around to give him a smooth transition. I don't get upset when superstars around the league like Kevin Durant aren't Spurs, but not having Batum really bothers me. He was picked 25th by Houston in 2008 and traded to Portland, one slot ahead of us. I like George Hill, but we might have won a ring last year with Batum.


On the bench our old pal Fab Oberto signed there, but at this point in his career he can't have much left. Old man Oden is back and supposedly healthy, so we'll see how much he can chip in. It amazes me he has so many injuries. I mean I think we all saw that in that cellphone pic that he has a spare third leg, so you'd think he could just rotate them regularly to always have a fresh pair. If Oden can ever stay healthy they won't have to rely on Camby and that could make a difference for them. 7-foot David Beckham is still around, but I'm not sure if he's recovered from his injury from last season.

Rudy Fernandez could be a difference maker as well as a backup swingman, but supposedly he's miserable there and wants out. Between Wesley Matthews and  Dante Cunningham, they'll need one of them to replace what Webster gave them, and I'm not sure that they can. They need Patrick Mills to stay healthy and be a Nate Robinson sparkplug for them, minus the crazy.  

Overall I just don't see what the fuss is about with these guys. They're old at the wrong spots, they don't have enough scorers or shot creators, and the bench isn't great. They'll be lucky to make the playoffs and that's all.

Three Fearless Predictions:

1. Rudy Fernandez will be traded by February.

2. They will rue the day they fired their former GM Kevin Pritchard, even if he did draft Oden over Durant.

3. Now that Pritchard is gone, the Spurs will quietly inquire about Batum's availability.

This is fan-created content on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff at Pounding the Rock.

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