Wednesday, October 25, 2006

NBA Preview 2007

The Contenders:
Heat:  The champs return intact with no major losses or additions.  On paper they look to have the same warts as last year’s squad:  vulnerable perimeter defense, concerns of reining in Walker and Williams on offense, and major questions about whether O’Neal is much more than a shadow of his former self.  The biggest point to make in response?  They worked through those problems just fine against the Pistons and the Mavs to take the title last season.  

Mavericks:  The Mavs were a choke job away from the title last year, but choke jobs have a way of meshing themselves into their victims; ask Brad Lidge and Nick Anderson about that sometime.  Moving past that, this is still a deeply talented team of athletic role players built around Dirk Nowitzki.  No position has an outstanding weakness on either end of the floor, and Avery Johnson has been fantastic in motivating his charges.  The only thing in their way is the possibility of Dirk continuing to clam up in the 4th quarter of big games.  
Spurs:  Have the Spurs become dinosaurs overnight?  Duncan and Parker couldn’t keep up with the athletic Mavs last year, and Phoenix is another team that can put fear into the Spurs.  The NBA is moving further towards fullcourt play, which is not the forte of this team despite Manu and Parker.  The numerous leg injuries endured by Duncan over the years may be aging him rapidly, and the loss of both Rasho and Nazr coupled with bottom-end draft picks over the years has left the team in danger of being outgunned by younger teams.  Popovich is still as good an NBA coach as you’ll find, so don’t pity the Spurs just yet.
Kicking at the Door:
Phoenix:  The story starts and ends with Amare Stoudamire.  Every Suns preview this year will include the words “if he is 100% healthy,” and I can let you in on something: he’s not.  Both knees continue to bother the PF sensation, and what’s worse is, grumblings are going through the franchise that his dedication and effort to getting back on the floor have been lackluster at best.  The Suns last year rallied and played above their collective heads behind Steve Nash.  Amare Stoudamire can either make them the deadliest team in the league, or he can shatter their Musketeer chemistry.  

Chicago:  Is Big Ben the missing piece or an overrated grumbler past his prime?  Wallace may either use this season to stick it to the Pistons team he left (in spirit, a year ago) or he could continue what some believe has been a slow decline.  PJ Brown will join him to form a frontcourt that is fairly long in the tooth, but solid defensively.  Ty Thomas, if he makes good on his potential, could be a wrecking crew on offense in the form of the original LJ.  Rumors continue to swirl over Ben Gordon’s future with the team, but Kirk Hinrich should keep the Bulls moving along.

Cleveland:  LeBron made a leap in his development last spring, as he nearly knocked off the Pistons on his own.  If Larry Hughes can be his Robin, this team may become the new kings of the Central Division.  At some point, Ilguaskas is going to be reduced to a shuffle, and Drew Gooden needs to show up more than once a week.  The point guard position remains an embarrassment, but LeBron lightens the load in that regard.  

Detroit:  Wallace quitting on the Pistons put a nail in their tires last season.  His apathetic play is gone, but can Nazr Mohhamed patch the hole?  The Piston’s bench has been woefully thin, and shot-happy Flip Murray was the only infusion of talent this summer.  More than ever, an injury amongst the remaining Fab Four could mean an early summer.  

Playoff Fodder:
Nets:  Not much changes in the Meadowlands: it’s still a high octane trio with a thin frontcourt and bench.  Marcus Williams was a steal in the draft, but his wrist injury means it’ll be a little while before he can start contributing.  Boki Nachbar has been drawing praise as a versatile backup forward and Krstic has been improving at the 5, but the situation at PF is still desperate enough to require the services of Cliff Robinson.  
Pacers:  With Artest gone, it seems that Stephen Jackson is out to fill in the loose cannon void.  Bird has not managed many changes despite tough media talk, with Al Harrington replacing Peja in the lineup as the only big move.  Aside from Danny Granger, it’s difficult to argue that this Pacers team is making moves in a forward direction.  

Rockets:  The Rockets have dug massive holes in their past two Novembers and Jeff Van Gundy is on his last letters in hangman.  New additions Shane Battier and Bonzi Wells, as well as addition by subtraction with the departure of clueless Stromile Swift, should boost the Rockets depth.  Rookie forward Steve Novak has given observers whiplash with his sniper-like shooting, which should mesh well with Yao’s post game.  McGrady’s health will mean everything to this club’s success.

Clippers:  The Clippers must maintain.  It’s that simple.  Rad-man was switched out for Tim Thomas, but other than that, this is the same team that genuinely threatened to overtake the Lakers in their inter-city rivalry for the first time in memory.  Self-proclaimed player-coach Sam Cassell needs eek out one more healthy year out of his worn down legs, Elton Brand must continue his near-MVP play, and Chris Kaman has to play the center position as strong as he did last year.  

Kings:  In most respects, this appears to be a dangerous team, with interchangeable pieces, a couple of stoppers, several scorers, and most players in their prime.  The only questions are the 2-guard spot, first-year coach Eric Musselman, and whether there is a clutch go-to scorer.

Lakers:  Things began to look up in the playoffs last year, with the entire team acting like a unit until Kobe reverted to his old ways in the losing half of the Suns series.  His opting to change his number to 24 (one above MJ?) may signal a new era, and it is time for him to fully come into his own.  The roster is largely unchanged, with Lamar Odom’s role a central question.  

Wizards:  The Wizards chief problem in the last two years has been running the offense through a pure scorer (Gilbert Arenas).  It was for this same reason that Team USA cut Arenas in tryouts.  In the playoffs, teams that rely on one-on-one scoring get exposed (unless we’re talking about Jordan or Wade), and that’s happened to the Wiz twice in two years.  With virtually no offseason moves, there’s little reason to expect things to change.  

Bucks:  A good team that is a full step or two below the big boys.  Bogut moves to his natural center position this year, which should allow him to be more successful.  Trading for Charlie Villaneuva helps maintain the PF spot, but there is added pressure on Mo Williams to run the point now that TJ Ford is gone.  Michael Redd will need to stay at an All Star level for this team to compete, as the bench is painfully shallow.

Hornets:  The Hornets were the darling surprise story of the league last year, much like the Saints are for the current NFL season.  The addition of Peja and Tyson Chandler to a frontcourt with gem David West solidifies this group on paper for the Run & Fun offense.  Chris Paul was far and away the best selection in last year’s rookie class, and he should be able to avoid the sophomore slump.  Be wary of trouble as Stern rings his PR bell for the Hornets to return to Louisiana and owner Shinn squirms.

Spinning Wheels:
Denver:  Owner Stan Kroenke has stewed quite a mess in Colorado.  Undermining and cutting loose GM Kiki Vandeweghe has left the roster an overpaid, unbalanced mess.  The team has found itself stuck with the unwanted Kenyon Martin and managed to shoehorn in 4 other PFs that want his playing time.  JR Smith is the only player that could pass for a shooting guard on Halloween, but George Karl has already challenged his professionalism and attitude (JR, in return, commented that he wasn’t a morning person).  Andre Miller came to camp almost 20 pounds overweight, and Karl doesn’t feel he’s in shape to handle starter minutes.  If you think this is a playoff team, keep them in pencil.  

Minnesota:  Someone will make the playoffs by virtue of winning the Northwest division, and the Wolves have a good shot at overtaking Denver for that spot.  Mike James and Randy Foye join Ricky Davis to form a trio of wing players that can put up numbers, something that offensive facilitator KG thrives on.  Center is shaky in the hands of Mark Blount, but a small ball approach with Garnett in the post may match up better with the Suns and Mavericks of the world.

Golden State:  Speaking of small ball, it wasn’t hard to figure that Don Nelson’s arrival meant the bench for Adoynal Foyle and the starting center position for Troy Murphy.  Mike Dunleavy should see plenty of action as a point forward (Nelson created the concept), giving him his best chance to get his career going.  Richardson should thrive in an offensively-bent system, and pressure is on Baron Davis to grow up and help before he becomes nothing more than a punchline.

Memphis:  When Pau Gasol went down with a fracture in his leg, it likely shut the lights out on the Griz hopes for this year.  However, more than once in NBA history has a team rallied together after the loss of its star to scrap together an overachieving year.

Orlando:  They may not be there yet, but this is a team on a serious rise.  Finally free of Steve Francis’ ball-hogging, Dwight Howard looks to be a very legitimate All-Star center in the East.  Darko Milic should cease the laughter and find his place as a reliable frontcourt piece.  Grant Hill begins his farewell tour, while Trevor Ariza and Carlos Arroyo look to establish themselves as quality starting material.  They still need a couple of pieces, but this team is tearing down the road in the right direction.  

Boston:  Paul Pierce is surrounded by players that may or may not ever be ready to take the next step.  Al Jefferson, Delonte West, and Gerald Green ooze with potential, but are they going to realize it anytime soon?  Most of this supporting crew (also including Wally Szczerbiak and Sebastian Telfair) is made up of good secondary players, but none of them are capable of winning games.  Tayshun Prince can win games for the Pistons, Richard Jefferson can win some games for the Nets, Tony Parker can win some games for the Spurs, but can Al Jefferson win a game for the Celtics?  

New York:  That’s right, I’m not putting them under ‘miserable.’  Isiah is an overrated coach, but Larry Brown soured the players to the point that they would gleefully embrace Stalin if he had a clipboard.  The entire team wants nothing more than to stick it to Brown with a winning season, and that may be good enough for a surprisingly competitive run inspite of an ill-conceived roster.  Eddy Curry will be a key factor in their fate this season.

Philadelphia:  This franchise will remain stuck in second gear so long as Chris Webber is there to impede the progress of Iguodala and Dalembert.  Unfortunately, Billy King has elected to stay the course while this ship is caught in rocks.  Rodney Carney should add some pep if Iverson elects to run and gun with the kids.  

Toronto:  Another franchise that is making some strong moves to compete.  Bryan Colangelo is today’s Jerry West, and his initial moves have been outstanding.  Bosh wants relief from the 5 spot?  Here’s Rasho Nestrovic!  The PG play has been shaky?  Insert sparkplug TJ Ford!  Sick of Americans leaving Canada?  Draft promising Italian Bargnani!  With Joey Graham as well, this roster looks balanced and ready to grow.  

Charlotte:  A lot of eggs are in Adam Morrison’s basket.  Scoring has not been dependable in either the front- or backcourt, and scoring is his calling card.  If he shows promise, it may be time for Bernie Bickerstaff to move upstairs and bring in a more fiery coach to instill some fight in this sometimes passionless team.  

Hawks:  There’s not much positive that you can say, but Shelden Williams may represent the first good draft the Hawks have had since taking Kevin Willis in 1984.  

Blazers:  As long as Zach Randolph and Darius Miles continue to bring the team down to their level, they won’t turn a corner.  But they had a great draft, and Brandon Roy looks to be a class act.  A rivalry has kicked off between Jamaal Magloire and Joel Pryzbilla over the center position minutes.  

Sonics:  There may finally be hope for this franchise now that the endlessly frugal Howard Schultz has sold the team to investors from Oklahoma.  The future Oklahoma City Cyclones won’t be ready to go into the playoffs this year, with Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are slightly jaded with the team, Chris Wilcox is primed to revert to apathy, Luke Ridnour feels betrayed by the Earl Watson acquisition, and the regrettable mistakes brought in to imitate centers.  

Jazz:  Larry Miller and Jerry Sloan are experiencing a Stockton/Malone hangover that is as crushing as what Chicago endured post-dynasty.  The healing might start once the infuriating Carlos Boozer is sent off (preferably, to Eastern Russia).