Lets get started with the Southwest Division, the most brutal division in the NBA.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG Tony Parker
Coach: Gregg Popovich
The good: They are the NBA Champions and with an improved roster.
The San Antonio Spurs may be the last interesting champion in sports. If you ask the Spurs, they dont care. Led by team leader Tim Duncan, the Spurs always have a shot at a ring. However, it was point guard Tony Parker aka Mr. Eva Longorias evolution as a basketball player that clinched the Spurs their third title in seven years and for Parker, a Finals MVP award. A healthy mix of youth and veteran leadership is a great recipe for championships, which is what the Spurs have excelled in since 1999. Their additions were few, but forward Ime Udoka had a solid season for the Portland Trail Blazers and will be mentored by defensive genius (or dirty player to some) Bruce Bowen. The Spurs style may bore some, but if boring equals a championship, then the Spurs are showing that it doesnt pay to be flashy. Fundamentals still count for something and Duncan epitomizes that.
The bad: They could not keep international superstar Luis Scola. That cost the Spurs a shot at 70 wins.
OK, Im reaching here, but it just goes to show you how well Gregg Popovich has been able to maintain a steady influx of talent. Luis Scola might very well be the best player that has never played in the NBA right now. Originally drafted by the Spurs in 2002, everyone was waiting for him to help out the Spurs, but buyout issues with Spain forced them to deal him to the Rockets. Shame, because he alongside French prospect Ian Mahimni can keep the international flavor of the Spurs going as they continue to improve from within.
Robert Horry might be entering his final season as a Spur and father time is creeping up on Michael Finley and Brent Barry. Tim Duncan needs to remain healthy as he has struggled with plantar fasciitis in recent seasons. Hes 31, but an old 31 after being beaten down on the block for the last decade. They are without first round pick Tiago Splitter out of Brazil due to contractual obligations to TAU Ceramica. He could either help next season or become another Scola.
The outlook: 2nd in the West, 1st in the Southwest, and a loss in the conference finals, making them a rare dynasty in that they cannot win two titles in a row.
Projected Starting Lineup:
Coach: Avery Johnson
The good: This was the best team in the NBA in the regular season. They have the firepower to do it in the playoffs.
The Mavs finished with a 67-13 record, placing them in the conversation for best teams of all time during the regular season. Led by MVP Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs were steamrolling over their opponents that is unless you happen to be a member of the Golden State Warriors. This season, they bring in savvy veteran Eddie Jones to provide some defense and now fully hand the starting job to point guard Devin Harris who signed a lucrative 5 year deal this summer. The sleeper player on this team could very well be Jose Juan Barea, former guard for Northeastern. He possesses the same skill set as the Raptors Jose Calderon. If he has a Calderon-like effect, this team can be even more dangerous. Josh Howard should continue to become one of the better small forwards in the West, and with newly acquired swingman Trenton Hassell, they now have a way to prevent Kobe from scoring 50 points a night.
The bad: Soft teams never win championships, and the Mavericks follow the way of their leader, who is soft.
The fact of the matter is, this team choked. Only one team had a mental edge on them and that was the team they had to play in the first round. Their lack of heart and defense cost them big time and many critics wonder if it is because Dirk Nowitzki doesnt have the heart to take this team to the summit of the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki needs to prove to everyone that his MVP award was not a fluke. Devin Harris needs to show to everyone that he is deserving of that nice pay raise despite not doing much statistically. In a conference where there are many good point guards, he needs to stand out. Their centers need to be a solid force and not an easy 6 fouls every night. DeSagna Diop and Erick Dampier along with Dirk are the big men on this team. They need to play with a toughness this team lacked last season. During the regular season, they can play without a sense of urgency and have good regular season stats. Maybe this year they might want to play their starters near the end of the season just to keep the pressure on the rest of the league.
The outlook: 3rd in the West, 2nd in the Southwest, I predict another first round matchup with the Golden State Warriors. Dont worry, this time you exorcise your demons to an extent and get knocked out in the semis.
Projected Starting Lineup:
C Yao Ming
Coach: Rick Adelman
The good: This is the best talent Tracy McGrady has ever been surrounded by in his career.
Tracy McGrady has never made it out of the First Round. Everyone remembers his press conference where even he doubted himself. Ever since hes been in Houston he has had to deal with average teams, recurring injuries, and a loss of hope. Well this year could actually be different. All-star center Yao Ming is back with a mean streak. Aside from the Boston Celtics retooling and the Minnesota Twolves imploding, one can argue the Rockets had the most active and productive offseason.
They re-acquired Mike James from the Twolves for Juwan Howard, drafted Aaron Brooks in the NBA Draft, hired a new coach in Rick Adelman, and managed to sign former Rockets star Steve Francis after being paid $30 mil by the Portland Trail Blazers to go away. They went from having no point guard to having too many (they currently have five and are expected to cut two of them). The biggest addition was adding international star Luis Scola in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs. Although Scola is 27, that means he is ready to contribute now and could be a dark horse candidate for Rookie of the Year. As long as T-Mac remains healthy, doubt should not cloud his mind. The Rockets may not be the best team, but they are the most dangerous one.
The bad: With all of these new additions, theyre still not settled on a point guard and unsure of whether they can become an elite team in the West.
Tracy McGrady has played alongside the likes of Vince Carter, a gimpy Grant Hill, and now Yao Ming. The team makeup this season is very good, but there is a question as to who will be the starting point guard. Steve Francis has returned to the place that made him a superstar. If he continues to be the Steve Francis that the New York Knicks knew, that helps no one. Also, Mike James and Rafer Alston are talented, yet erratic point guards. If they dont get their act together, they will be benched in favor of rookie Aaron Brooks who might not be ready to take on the challenge of getting T-Mac and Yao out of the first round. After watching preseason, it is good to see Yao playing aggressive. But luck needs to be on his side and his legs after suffering a broken leg last December. There are a lot of question marks, not in regards to making the playoffs, but beating the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, and San Antonio Spurs and becoming that elite team.
The outlook: 5th in the West, 3rd in the Southwest, and sorry fans, I still cant see them winning in the first round. Too bad theyre not in the East. They could advance there.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PG Chris Paul
Coach: Byron Scott
The good: Chris Paul and Peja Stojakovic are healthy again and Tyson Chandler is ready to take the next step towards being a major star.
This team last season was ravaged by injuries. Chris Paul missed a month as well as power forward David West. The biggest blow to the team was Peja Stpjakovic who inked a $60 million contract and then had back surgery, limiting his season to only 13 games. There is much to be optimistic for in The Big Easy, though. All are expected to be back and ready to live up to their expectations. The revelation of last season was center Tyson Chandler. Chandler finished second in the league in rebounds per game and has become a defensive stalwart. His mini-career resurrection has sparked a boost to the Hornets who can now develop an inside-out game.
Like many teams ravaged by injury, the Hornets can now show what could have been in years past. Signing Morris Peterson over the summer to a 4 year deal was huge considering they were losing swingman Desmond Mason to the Milwauke Bucks. For a team whose city is hosting the 2008 NBA All-Star game, I predict there will be at least 2 representatives (Chandler and Paul). They will be a sneaky bunch this season.
The Bad: their bench at the guard spots is very thin. Also, Stojakovic needs to show hes fully healed.
The New Orleans Hornets First round pick Hilton Armstrong must step his game up or else hell wind up like his former teammate and first round pick Cedric Simmons: traded. First round pick Julian Wright out of Kansas slipped to them at #13 in the 2007 NBA Draft, but he could become a sleeper and definitely an impact guy considering Pejas health. He has to show that he can be a stat filler and show improvement on his jump shot, something that hampers his game. The Hornets are relying on players such as Adam Haluska, Rasual Butler, and Jannero Pargo to help out the second unit at the guard spots. Its a thin, inexperienced and incomplete bench. The Hornets are hoping it doesnt cost them a playoff spot. Of course, the injury bug needs to buzz off of New Orleans. In their first full season back to N.O. since Hurricane Katrina, the people deserve to see their best players play. Also, the fans need to show up and support the way Oklahoma City did when the Hornets were temporarily there. To gain a huge home court advantage in New Orleans could spur this team onto many home victories.
The outlook: 8th in the West, 4th in the Southwest, they lose in the first round, but they help a recovering city feel better.
Projected Starting Lineup:
PF Pau Gasol
SF Rudy Gay
SG Mike Miller
Coach: Marc Iavaroni
The good: A happy Pau Gasol combined with young athletic talent can lead to a resurgence in Memphis.
This team is moving in the right direction not only to win down the line, but to appease their franchise player. After losing the NBA lottery despite having the biggest odds to win, they managed to walk out of the draft with Ohio State PG Mike Conley, who shined in last years NCAA Tournament. Conley should be a decent guard down the line, but in the meantime the Grizz under new GM Chris Wallace managed to sign Darko Milicic to a 3 year $21 million deal and swing a deal for Gasols buddy from Spain Juan Carlos Navarro. Navarro, although not having played a single NBA minute, adds a veteran presence to a team that will need it if they want to make the playoffs. The player to look out for is Rudy Gay. This is a player that made the All-Rookie First Team last season and showed glimpses of being a star, averaging 10.8ppg and 4.5rpg. A jump in his production can jumpstart this team in need of a score-first player.
The bad: Darko may or may not be ready to take on finally being the man he was hyped up to be in 2003.
Another player to focus on is Darko Milicic. This is his third team in 5 years. The #2 pick in the 2003 has caught tons of criticism for not living up to the talent of the players drafted in the same year him such as LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Hes now being paid like a superstar. He will get the starting center job. Now its time for him to play like a superstar. He is the difference between another trip back to the playoffs or trying their luck at a game theyre not good at: the lottery. Stalwarts like Mike Miller will keep the team in many games, but ultimately Im not too fond of Mike Conley and Rudy Gay. Will they be decent? I believe so, but Grizzlies fans at times will get frustrated with their play. Its called growing pains, but for a team committed to winning now while Gasol is still happy, now is time to show some progress. Its a team on the rise, but it only takes one injury to the star to dead their season.
The outlook: 10th in the West, 5th in the Southwest, missing the playoffs, but becoming a team people will want to watch in the next year or two.