Some Eastern Conference observations before I preview the Northwest division...
I know they got waxed pretty badly by an up-and-coming Magic squad last night on the second night of a road back-to-back, but I think the Bulls' annihilation of the Heat on opening night spoke volumes about where those two franchises are headed. Kirk Hinrich was definitely the best player on the floor in Miami, drilling threes, doing a more than respectable job of checking Flash, always making the right decision on the break, and shredding The Glove's ankles on a crossover. Once Scott Skiles figures out that Nocioni should start and get 35+ minutes a night, (P.J. Brown? Get serious) the Bulls should really take off.
The guy who's really been an eye opener is the 2nd of their two first round picks, Thabo Sefolosha. So far he's averaging 12 points, (on 82% shooting) 3 rebounds, and 2 steals on just 16 minutes a night. He reminds me of a younger Gumby but all the available literature out there is trying to suggest that he's one of the bastard Swiss. I dunno, he doesn't look very Swiss to me. Those nefarious swine try to take credit for everything, yet they won't fess up on how they got so wealthy in the 40s. Go figure. They like to pretend that she's Swiss too. That's Czech booty all the way. Whatever, let's just for the sake of argument buy in to the masquerade that Sefolosha is Swiss. This would instantly make him the best Scandinavian baller ever already right? The guy's accomplished more in the league in two games than Finn Hanno Mottola did in two years.
In other games, Isiah's Knicks nearly blew a 19 point 4th quarter lead before holding on in triple OT over the Gasol-less Grizz. Looks like I was right about Hakim Warrick all along, but I just raved about him a year too early. 22-12 last night, great googly moogly. If only he wasn't 4 of 12 from the line, they'd have won. Also, Emeka Okafor looked healthy again going for 19-13-6 swats in his season debut (the Bobcats lost anyway, get used to it) and Mr. Grumpypants was the predictable first victim of the "`Sheed Wallace rule." 23 minutes, 0 points, 3 rebounds, 2 Ts in Detroit's opening night stinkbomb vs. the Bucks. Oh yeah, Flip's really got these guys playing for him. I think the Pistons might be a future destination for one Kevin Garnett. Just give the T-Pups Wallace, a couple young guys and like the next five 1st round picks and maybe it'll happen. Remember, McHale's lost five 1st rounders before, with that horrendously botched under-the- table Joe Smith deal, so this would even his slate at least. Before they run him out of town that is...
Okay, the NW...
Utah Jazz - Lots of people overlook the Jazz because they don't look "athletic" enough but if the Carlos Boozer-Mehmet Okur-AK 47 frontcourt could ever stay healthy, they'll just knock the smaller teams silly around the basket. Who else in the West can claim three borderline All-Stars up front? We're looking at 50-30 from them every night. They're going to create matchup problems for everybody and be involved in lots of 2:45 games because of their parade to the FT line. Will it be fun to watch? No. But since when has Jerry Sloan cared about that? It's going to be effective and that's all that matters. As long as his horses are healthy, Sloan will refuse to be baited by the small ball carnivals across the league, and I'll respect him just for that.
Besides the durability of the front line, the biggest factor in Utah's success will be the development of 2nd year PG Deron Williams. He had 18 (on 50% shooting) and 10 dimes last night in their win over the Rockets, and I'm sure the Jazz would love to get that every night. 15 and 7 is a bit more realistic. The question mark is at the two spot, where they'll have to cobble together some production between Gordan Giricek, C.J. Miles and the high soaring youngster Ronnie Brewer.
The bench is solid with Derek Fisher to provide some scoring and crunch-time leadership from the backcourt (expect to see him and Williams playing together a bunch) and Obi-Wan Kanobi to do the same at small forward. Jarron Collins is around to provide some rebounding and defense around the basket, and unlike how the Nets are using his brother the Jazz at least have the common sense to not let him start.
Denver Nuggets - They're remarkably similar to Utah actually. Like the Jazz, they boast a very talented bigs, an above average point guard, and a great big sucking sound at shooting guard. Also like the Jazz 2/3 of their front line has major durability issues, and of those two, one is a certifiable cancer. Let's go over the pros and cons when comparing the two frontcourts...
On one hand Denver's one reliable, Carmelo Anthony is a far better player than Utah's Okur. `Melo was a bad seed coming into the game, and definitely negatively influenced by K-Mart's thuggish tendencies, but it looks like he's started to grow up a bit and hanging out with Flash and BronBron has been good for him. He was Team USA's best player in Japan for the World Championships and he's poised for a huge year. Also, Denver's three guys are more rugged and physical than Utah's three, which may pay dividends in the playoffs.
Howevuh... all of Utah's guys can shoot. Only Anthony can for Denver. All of Utah's guys can play for their coach. Martin has proven he cannot. Utah's two question marks are young. AK-47 is 25 and Boozer is 24. Denver's two are old. Camby is 32 and Martin is 28 (with knees going on 48). At this point it is a much safer bet that Utah's guys will make it through the season relatively unscathed and adversity free than Denver's guys, so I'll give them the edge. Of the six players we're talking about `Melo's the best, but I'd place the Jazz' guys at 2nd, 3rd, and 4th.
Andre Miller is a decent enough point, but like the rest of this team, his jumper's very streaky. He's already hit 30, surprisingly enough, so it appears his best days, such as they were, are behind him. JR Smith is penciled in as the starting two which is odd because we almost traded Bones for him last year to be our 9th man. Apparently the Nuggets have some organizational philosophy where their shooting guard is not allowed to be any good at you know... shooting. Well maybe that's not fair. I guess he's decent enough at 3s, but not much else. Still, he only looks good by comparison because DerMarr Johnson was the only challenger for the job. I'm still puzzled why they won't give Julius Hodge from NC State a look. Y'all drafted him for a reason, how much worse can he play than the other two? The bar hasn't been set high here.
The bench has some names in Earl Boykins, Eduardo Najera, Nene, and Reggie Mr. Planters Evans so King George will have plenty of ammunition when he wants to run the floor or bang bodies down low. Still as always with this club I'm concerned with A) where the points will come from and B) their chemistry. With Denver you never know when the volcano will erupt - you just know that it will.
Minnesota Timberwolves - Let's see. They're gonna be crap at rebounding except for KG. They're gonna be crap at passing except for KG. They're gonna be crap at defending except for KG and maybe some guy named Trenton Hassell. And they don't really have a real center, point guard, or small forward. Oh and their coach sucks. Otherwise they're all set. You would think such a resume is more befitting of a cellar dweller than a 3rd place club and you'd be right, and things like this are why the Northwest division is such a joke. The T-Pups would give the Warriors a good run for last place in the Pacific and they're far worse than anyone from the Southwest.
Their one asset (some would say asshead) remains Garnett. While I will give him the benefit of the doubt in his feud with Wally Z., because I know how annoying it is to watch the guy let alone play with him, it has to be said that Garnett is shadier than the average fan might guess. He did his best Kermit Washington impersonation to ex-University of Minnesota center Rick Rickert's Rudy T. during a training camp scrimmage a few years ago just because Rickert had the nerve to score on him. Also, if Garnett was half as interested in winning a title as he claims, he should offer to tear up his contract and sign for something that would allow the Wolves to get some real players around him. The guy's been in the league for over a decade. He's made enough scrill. He's got his shoe deal and loads of other endorsements. Still he wants to have his cake and eat it too. Not only does he have a contract that makes him virtually untradable, but he's too much of a wuss to take the big shot in games. The guy's still popular enough for Sony to make a movie about his life, but I found Kirsten Dunst to be an odd choice for the lead role.
Besides KG, the starting line up consists of the backcourt of Mike James and Ricky Davis, Hassell at small forward, and Mark Blount at the five. John Hollinger calls Blount "the single worst rebounding center in the NBA" and says that his rebounding rate is that of the average small forward. Thankfully if he doesn't work out there's the always reliable Eddie Griffin in reserve. If Griffin's skilled enough to drink, drive, watch a movie and masturbate all simultaneously, than basketball should be a relative breeze. Meanwhile what can I say about James and Andre 3k that hasn't already been said about the LAPD? They'll shoot first and ask questions later.
Maybe Troy Hudson will knock down some shots or Marko Jaric will step up his game, but somebody back there needs to be able both take care of and distribute the ball. I'm not sure how much Randy Foye will help them in his first year either. Of course Mark Madsen's still around for comic relief or gratuitous lottery tanking. So um... no, I'm not high on Minny.
(Enter New City Here) Sonics- You know how Chappelle had those "When keeping it real goes wrong" sketches? Well the Sonics are the "when small-ball goes wrong" team. On paper you see Jesus Shuttlesworth, (I wonder if he ever hooked up with porn star Chasey Lain in his trailer) Rashard Lewis, and an improving Luke Ridnour at the perimeter spots and you think to yourself, "Hmm...not bad" but it's easy to get fooled. First of all, all three are atrocious defensively to the point of indifference. Nobody can be that bad if they cared. Secondly none of their bigs can do ANYTHING.
Chris Wilcox and Nick Collison will battle it out all year for the starting four job, but it doesn't really matter who wins it in the long run. The former is a bit better at scoring and the latter has the edge in rebounding and defense but both are foul prone and at a decided disadvantage against the dozen or so quality power forwards that the West can boast. The news gets even worse at center where youngsters Mouhamed Sene and Johan Petro have as much of a clue of how to use their athleticism as Nicole Ritchie does of using her digestive tract. All you need to know about the Sonics' center situation is that Robert Swift's ACL injury actually matters for them.
My guess is that Coach Boner will get so frustrated by his doughnut situation that he'll get desperate enough to play one of his power forwards at center, play Lewis at the four spot, and insert the relatively productive Damien Wilkins into the lineup. In other words: Small ball hell. They'll be like a slightly less flashy and even more poorly coached version of the Warriors. Also on the bench are solid veteran point guard Earl Watson, young super athletic Frenchman Mickael Gelabale who's going to be a great player in a few years, and the ludicrous Danny Fortson, who's probably my least favorite player in the league. How this guy hasn't been banned yet from David Stern's NBA is beyond me. He's more of a health hazard for all the other players than anything that goes on in the clubs afterward. All he's interested in doing on the floor is flagrantly fouling people as hard as possible. Isn't there some rule against this? Can't he just be suspended for his Japanese schoolgirl pigtails? You just know he wears his hair like that so it'll be an excuse to punch whoever gives him shit about it.
Portland Trailblazers - I think your average Final Four team in the 80s was older than these guys. Jarrett Jack? Martell Webster? LaMarcus Aldridge? Brandon Roy? Yikes.
It's probably not a good sign that they're going to count on veteran leadership from the likes of Juan Dixon, Jamaal Magloire, and my personal favorite, Raef LaFrentz. This team is a mortal lock to finish with the worst record in the league and the only way they're not landing Greg Oden next summer is if the ping pong balls don't go their way. Or maybe they'll just repeat their mistake of 22 years ago and not draft Oden because they "already have a good center" in Aldridge.
What should they do? What can they do? It's easy. Trade Zach Randolph for 50 cents on the dollar, (maybe a late 1st rounder) eat D-Miles' salary and get him the hell out of your organization, and take your lumps with the young guys. You can't have these rotten apples negatively influencing your kids. The results and scores of these games should not matter to anyone here for the next two seasons. It's all about effort and learning. Hopefully they'll have guessed right with half of their four 1st rounders from the past two drafts and they can go from there. Might as well start playing Aldridge at the four spot now so he won't have to make the transition next year when Oden comes over.