It boggles the mind how much more compelling the Western Conference is compared to the East. Maybe I'm biased, but to me it appears like the '06-07 NBA season will be an awful lot like how the NFL was in the late 80's-early 90's with the NFC and AFC. I mean, am I nuts or are the top six Western teams a safer bet to win a ring this year than Miami, Chicago, Cleveland, or Detroit? I don't know about y'all, but I'd take the Rockets over any East club if they were healthy.
What's even weirder is that as tilted as the balance of power is between the conferences, there's even a further disparity still between the divisions. The Southwest is far superior top to bottom to the Pacific which is in turn dramatically more competitive than the Northwest. The Pacific even has its own junior varsity version of the Texas Triangle with the Suns, the Clips, and the Lakers.
... Except that the Suns are from a different state than the other two teams.
... And that the Lakers and Clips play in the same city and the same building so it's not really a triangle. More of a diagonal line, as my diagram shows:
Triangle --> <] Diagonal Line --> \
... Oh and none of the teams really dislike each other all that much because it's hard to work up much of a rage when you're a multimillionaire living in 90 degree weather and up to your armpits in available models, porn stars, and wannabe actresses everyday.
But otherwise, they're totally similar. So without further ado, here's one man's opinion of the Pacific...
Los Angeles Clippers - Almost everyone is picking the Suns to win this division with ease, but I think that's just lazy. Not only are the Clips a club on the rise, but they had one of the best free agent acquisitions of the summer in Tim Thomas. Talk about an upgrade. Not only does he give them the one thing they lacked last year - three point shooting - but his addition directly weakens the Suns. Lest you forget, Thomas was pretty much Phoenix's fourth best player in the playoffs. He gives them another big body off the bench as well as the ability to either bury a team late or trigger a comeback late. Now they can do pretty much a little bit of everything.
Of course Elton Brand is the bedrock that makes everything else work. Spurs fans can relate to this as well as anyone. As long as Brand gets his 25 and 12 and draws the occasional double team, the Clips will be in every game. His sidekick at the five spot is the psycho-looking Chris Kaman. While the layman may know him more for being the unwitting "grabee" to Reggie Evans "grabber," Kaman is actually one of the more solid centers in the league, averaging 12 and 10 last year. In addition to getting Thomas, if LA could get a whole healthy season out of small forward Corey Maggette, it'd be like scoring another free agent coup, since he missed almost the whole season in '05 and was never right when he did play. Maggette is being brought along slowly off the bench for now, but he has 20 ppg talent and it's just a question of whether their front office will have the patience to wait around for him to get his game back or whether they'll deal him. For the moment their starting three is Quinton Ross, their version of Bruce Bowen. The critical difference is that A) he's ten years younger and B) in all likelihood has a much more attractive significant other.
(FYI, last year Tony was the one I rode unmercifully, but this year Bruce will be my guy).
The starting backcourt meanwhile is a bit on the old and short side. It has to be looked at somewhat of an indictment on the development on Shaun Livingston that he still hasn't managed to wrestle the job from a 36 Sam Cassell. Sam I Am is getting mighty wrinkly, and by now he's clearly a defensive liability, but he can still get it done when it counts. I kind of dig the fact that he's still the number one guy. It's pretty neat that one team can boast two of the ugliest five guys in the league in their starting lineup. His running mate on the perimeter is Cuttino Mobley, whom Hollinger refers to as "the Steve Trachsel of the NBA." That's just brilliant frankly. I can't possibly top that.
The bench has talent galore with Thomas, Maggette (for now), Livingston, and the big man they drafted out of Michigan State, Paul Davis. It'd be foolish to expect any contribution from Davis for the first couple of months, but I think he'll find a way to be in the rotation by year's end. Forward James Singleton was also a guy they counted on last year, but it appears that he's lost his minutes at the moment to Thomas.
Phoenix Suns - Second verse, same as the first. And the one before that too. Still not much use for defense out there among the cacti, and one has to wonder if Mike D'Antoni's job will be on the line if the Suns continue to drop close games late. It's not like it's a team full of youngsters. Nash, Marion, and Bell have been around, as have Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas. It was very telling last year about how much of a difference coaching makes when a badly undermanned Lakers squad led by Phil Jax was one Game Six rebound away from pulling the upset against D'Antoni's Suns. On paper it shouldn't have gone more than five games and Phoenix nearly blew it. Another el foldo this year will not bode well.
However they still have a roster that doesn't take a backseat to anybody in terms of talent. Nash is a two-time MVP who surprised a lot of people last year when he had an even better overall season without having The Beast to pass it to. Offensively he's everything you'd want in a point guard. He gets everyone involved, doesn't play favorites, doesn't have an agenda, shoots 50% from the floor, over 40% from three and over 90% from the line. Defensively... well just cover your eyes and hope he doesn't hurt himself back there. As always the biggest concern with Nash is with him having something in the tank for the postseason, but at 32 and at the pace he plays, I just don't know if this is possible. The team desperately needs to keep his minutes in the low 30s range yet somehow still find a way to win over 55 games during the year. Really, at this point it'd be worth considering resting him on the second night of back-to-backs. It's not like there aren't any points on the roster.
Shawn Praying Mantis Marion was an absolute monster last year as the full time power forward, averaging 23 and 12, but he's still better suited as a three. How much he'll be able to play his natural position depends on the health of his fragile frontcourt mates. Frenchman Boris Diaw who had a breakout campaign last year will get the first shot at the four spot, but he has to prove he's tough enough to stick his nose in there on the glass and on defense night after night. There aren't many questions with him on the offensive end, but he has to show consistency and toughness on both ends. Kurt Thomas will try to provide that mean streak at the five, but centers age badly after 30 and he's already 34. Plus as long as he's in there, defenses will rotate over to make him be the guy who has to know down open shots, and his game is pretty limited on offense. Once again with the Suns, the more you get them in a half court game, the better off you'll be. Raja Bell starts at two spot to provide some grit and attitude, but he also needs to show he can be consistent for the whole year before Leandro Barbosa gobbles up more and more of his minutes. Last year his jumper was pretty damn crummy, but supposedly he really worked on it over the summer.
The X-Factors for Phoenix will be the first two guys off the bench. Barbosa is your odds on favorite to win the sixth man as he's a threat to score over 20 every night. Barbosa has shown he can play the one or the two, with Nash and without, but he has to prove he can set up his teammates when it's his show out there. The saga of Amare on the other hand is almost too depressing to talk about. In the '04-05 season watching him play was like Exhibit A to the Bible belt that evolution is the truth. Here was a 6'11" guy with the quickness and explosion of a young Jordan. Then came the dreaded microfracture surgery and '05-06 was lost. Now as Stoudemire tries to make his comeback, they're being ultra cautious, limiting him to between 10 and 20 minutes off the pine. Some nights he almost looks the same. Other nights he just makes you shake your head. Will we ever see the guy who torched the Spurs in May of '05 to the tune of 37 a night again? I'll give you the same answer that I give about '04-05 Manu - Possibly, but I highly doubt it.
As for the rest of the bench, they signed Marcus Banks to be the 3rd point guard, (possibly 2nd if they use Barbosa as a SG) James Jones for some more athleticism on the wings, and just recently Jalen Rose as yet another option to play any of the perimeter spots. However D'Antoni has shown reluctance in the past to extend his rotations more then seven deep, especially in the playoffs, so it remains to be seen how much any of them will play when it matters.
Los Angeles Lakers - A darkhorse contender and a real team on the rise is the Lakeshow. The pluses are obvious. At the SF and SG spots they have as much talent as any team in the league. They have an excellent coach, when he wants to be. And they have a ton of young guys who'll only get better and are content to be in their supporting roles. The weaknesses unfortunately are pretty apparent as well. Their big men are soft, injury prone, and inconsistent. Odom has never shown that he can maintain his aggressiveness when he's on the floor with Kobe. And at some point Smush Parker will kill them at point guard. Mainly they're young and their fans will have to exercise some patience. I doubt the KG trade will ever happen, so the Staples Center will have to get used to the idea of having more big name stars in the seats than on the court.
In the starting lineup the only given is Bryant. Like him or not, at least you know what you're gonna get from him every night (you know unless he decides on a whim to stop shooting the ball to make a point to his coach, his teammates, and the media). It made perfect sense to me that he switched his uniform number to 24, because like this guy he's an obsessive, hypercompetitive sociopath. Now that Shaq got his fourth ring, Kobe will stop at nothing to match him, even if it means strangling Sasha Vujacic or Kwame Brown in front of 20,000 people. Don't be fooled by the easy going Mamba that will be supportive of his teammates for the first 30, 40 games this year. By May he'll be a foaming at the mouth maniac.
Right now both of last year's two starting big men, Chris Mihm and Kwame are hurt so the team is being forced to use Odom at the four and baby Andrew Bynum at the five. At this point management would be thrilled if the two of them combined could average 18 and 18, but who knows what their playing time situation will be like this year? Not only is Bynum showing some progress in his second season, but both Brian Cook and Rony Turiaf are around to chew up some minutes at power forward as well. And Luke Walton has been pretty good as the starting three. Add in the lamentable Smush Parker, at point guard, and it's safe to say that beyond Kobe and Odom, the line up will be "in flux" all year long.
It really depends how you look at it. The Lakers have twelve players who are at least "decent" but only two are unquestionably good enough to start. Further more, of the twelve, only three are guards. I expect rookie Jordan Farmar from UCLA to really eat in to Parker's playing time at the point, but there isn't a real serviceable backup shooting guard on the roster. Vujacic is terrible and Aaron McKie needs to be put out to pasture.
There's just a glut of forwards besides Odom in Brown, Cook, Walton, Turiaf, Maurice Evans, and Vladimir Radmanovic. How can you find playing time for everyone? Who deserves to sit? Screw it I've changed my mind. A trade for KG would make a lot of sense here. Some of these guys gotta be moved because they're too good to be getting DNP-CDs.
Sacramento Kings - Wow have they become unlikable over the years. I liked the old soft Euro version with Stojakovic, Divac, Turkoglu, and the biggest pansy of them all, C-Webb. Now they're a borderline dirty team with Ron-Ron, Kenny Thomas, and Coach Swervy. Their starting five is decent enough, except for durability issues and of course the potential combustibility concerns that come with having Artest on your team, but they have zero depth outside of Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and ultimately the grind of the 82 game schedule will be the death of them. Expect these guys to be quite competitive during the first 50 games before sinking like a stone for the final third of the year. Also worth noting is that Musselman's coaching style tends to get on guys' nerves. The Warriors already staged a mutiny against him, so how mature will his new charges be?
As I said, the starting five is good. Brad Miller is an All-Star quality center, albeit a worthless one guarding the basket. Thomas is your classic "3.0 GPA without ever getting a B" guy, meaning he'll have some games where he gets 18 and 12 and others where he gets 6 and 4, but he'll rarely actually play to his seasonal averages of 10 and 8. Then again, maybe 10 and 8 translates to a 2.5 GPA. Whatever, you get my point. Artest is an absolute lunatic, capable of flipping out at any moment, but unlike Bruce Bowen, he does deserve his due as the toughest perimeter defender in the NBA. What few observers besides Hollinger and Matthew failed to realize last year though was that he was positively atrocious last year offensively as a King, and he looks to be continuing that trend so far this year, "shooting" it at a 31% (20 of 64) clip through three games. Not to be outdone is point guard Mike "Mini-Ron" Bibby who's off to a 32% start of his own.
The real key to the Kings' fortunes, besides the Tru Warier's ability to stay on the floor, will be how well shooting guard Kevin Martin plays in his first year as a starter. If he can give them 18 a night and manage not to be a total sieve on defense, the Kings might sneak in to the playoffs as a 7th or 8th seed, but only if everything else breaks right. Beyond the starting five, Shareef is a dependable asset, but John Salmons and Francisco Garcia are the best they can come up with on the wings, and Jason Hart is their sorry excuse for a backup point. Oy vey.
Golden State Warriors - It could be because I'm from the Bay Area, but I feel miserable for Warriors fans. Is there a more downtrodden franchise in all of sports? God, I remember the days when I HATED the Warriors. I mean, I absolutely despised them. This was back when they had Run TMC of course. And the reason I loathed them was because I respected them as well. I still remember them handing it to us in the first round of the 1990 playoffs, upsetting us as a 7th seed three games to one in a best of five. Shortly after that season they made the disastrous move of trading Mitch Richmond for the rights to Billy Owens, and the franchise has never really recovered.
Anyway, I guess GM Chris Mullin, the "C" of Run TMC has fond memories of those days as well because he's hired his ex-coach, the ancient Don Nelson, to run the show again for his sorry bunch. And their fans, so desperate for a winner actually think this is a good move. I mean...come on. For years the Warriors have been a club that had no interior presence on either end of the floor, a collection of soft streaky jumpshooters without the will to play defense or make shots down the stretch. So they hire a guy whose coaching style is to not change a thing? How could this hire possibly make them any better?
The tentative plan is to go with a smallball lineup of power forward Troy Murphy at the five, the completely overmatched Mike "The Blank" Dunleavy Jr. at the four, Frenchie Mickael Pietrus (their best defensive player, but that's not saying much) at the three, Jason Richardson at the two, and Baron Davis at the point. If they collectively have a hot shooting night, that quintet might get you 100 points by the end of the night, but they'll give up about 120, with Murphy and Dunleavy in particular getting treated like gazelles on those Discovery Channel shows. This lineup won't last more than five games before common sense prevails. (Not even more than two it turned out actually).
The better option would be to leave Dunleavy at the three, where he'll embarrass the organization slightly less than he would anywhere else, (he's making too much coin to not play) bench Pietrus, and start Ike Diogu at the four. At least then they'll have a low post game. Or another option is to play with a real center and start youngster Andris Biedrins. He's still terribly raw, but at least he has the ability to rebound and block shots and has some craftiness around the basket. I think he'll eventually become a good player, but it remains to be seen whether the Warriors will be patient with his development. The drafting of Patrick O'Bryant out of Oklahoma suggests that they will not.
Whatever success the W's have will depend largely on the starting backcourt. Richardson's game seems to get incrementally better every year, but yet his team never gets any better. Even worse, he still seems every bit as uninterested on playing defense as he did as s rookie. Davis on the other hand is a guy you fall in love with if you just look at box scores or highlight shows, but if you watch him play night in and night out, he starts to drive you crazy. How anyone who makes only three of every ten 3s he attempts is permitted to shoot six of them a night is beyond me. I mean can you imagine Pop ever letting Tony shoot six a game? He'd start Beno before that happens. Secondly Davis' decision making gets worse and worse as the game gets later and later. The guy is fool's gold and I think it's safe to say the Hornets are pretty happy to have Chris Paul instead. Monta Ellis had a promising rookie year as a 2nd round pick last year and should play a lot more this year as the 3rd guard. One would think. With the Warriors, you never know.
Quickie NFL Picks...
After another mediocre couple of weeks my record for the year stands at 74-40 picking the winners and 55-55-4 vs. the spread. I'm too tired to figure out how other people are doing, but maybe next week.
Kansas City at St. Louis (-2.5)... Chiefs to win and cover... LJ, LJ, LJ....
Cincinnati at Baltimore (-3)... Ravens to win and cover... Bengals are soft.
Houston at NY Giants (-13)... Giants to win, Texans to cover... Let's get off the Giants' nuts a little, huh?
Tennessee at Jacksonville (-9.5)... Jaguars to win, Titans to cover... Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Dallas at Washington (+3) .... Redskins to win and cover... Just to keep it interesting in Cowboy land.
Green Bay at Buffalo (-3).... Green Bay to win and cover... I don't get this line. Bad things happen to me whenever I don't get a line. Oh well.
New Orleans at Tampa Bay (+1)... Saints to win and cover.... Unless they feel like making anymore 62 yard field goals. (sigh).
Atlanta at Detroit (+5.5).... Atlanta to win and cover..... I give up. I'm actually Vick to cover a ballgame. Still think he sucks.
Miami at Chicago (-13.5).... Chicago to win and cover... Not betting against them at home.
Minnesota at San Francisco (+5)... Vikings to win and cover. Gore won't do Niners much good against Minny.
Cleveland at San Diego (+12.5)...Chargers to win, Browns to cover. Browns are spunky.
Denver at Pittsburgh (-3).... Denver to win and cover. If the terrible QBs cancel each other out, doesn't Denver have the better team?
Indianapolis at New England (-3)... Colts to win and cover. Blow me, Sports Guy.
Oakland at Seattle (-7.5).... Seahawks to win and cover. Raiders will find a way to make themselves look foolish on Monday night, you watch.