#1 Seattle SuperSonics – This will most likely be the year of the “Durantula”. Winning Gold over the Summer in which the ball was placed squarely in Durant’s hands has me believing that he’s prime to take that next step towards league dominance. It’s like when Neo finally “got it” in the first (and only good) Matrix. I can talk about Durant forever, but it’s not like he’s alone out there in OKC. The maturation of Russell Westbrook has me thinking, Rajon Rondo? Yes, Westbrook can be that good. Plus in order to beat LA, you have to dominate the PG position, and Westbrook had his way with Fisher for the most part. Expect even more improvement from him, as he too benefited from the World Championships’. The pool of young talent doesn’t end there for OKC, as Jeff Green, James Harden and Serge Ibaka round out their core. Each of these players will contribute substantially to the team, with Harden being the most intriguing piece. Harden has looked good in the pre-season, and if he continues to play well, watch out! It’s refreshing to see a team like this built from the ground up. No huge free agent signings, no big trades. Aside from my beloved Warriors, I’ll be rooting for this team to succeed!
#2 LA Lakers – The Lakers may finish second in standings out West by season’s end, but they’re still the best team coming out of the conference. In fact, as much as it pains me to say it, they’re still the best team, period. Only question surrounding the Lakers is health. I’ve said this all Summer long, everyone’s worried about Kobe’s knee, but what they should be worried about is that finger he fractured last season. I don’t think he’s ever fully recovered from it, nor will he ever. Andrew Bynum’s timing on electing to have his knee surgery didn’t please anyone in the Lakers organization, but they’ll hold the fort down without him. Now, can he stay healthy once he returns? They’ll need Bynum out there come money time. This might be the season in which Pau Gasol gets the credit he deserves as being the Lakers’ best player. I still can’t believe the voters robbed him of the Finals MVP last season. Kobe went 6-24 in the biggest game of his career. Just saying. Nothing else to touch upon with this team, it’s Phil’s last ride, will it be off into the sunset? Hope not. Probably will.
#3 Houston Rockets – I’m finishing up these predictions today, which means I got a chance to watch the Rockets in action last night against the Lakers, and I must say, I’m impressed. Primarily by that explosive back court! Aaron Brooks and Kevin “Drake” Martin can light it up in an instance! I still like the combination of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis a little better, but the Brooks/Martin duo can do some serious damage. Of course the concern for Houston is if Martin can stay healthy. Over the past few seasons, he’s battled Andrew Bynum neck and neck for the title of “Most Fragile”. I’d put Greg Oden in that conversation too, but I feel sorry for the guy. Speaking of injuries, Yao Ming looked solid in his first regular season action in quite some time. He moved around fairly well, and once he shakes off some of that rust, he should be able to resemble his old self. Hopefully he’s healthier than what he’s letting off, and those “set” minutes slowly increase during the course of the season, because he’s a huge asset to the Rockets. Having Luis Scola makes up for a lot though. Ultimately, good coaching, solid role players, and big upside is why I’m high on the Rockets, but I know having them atop the South West division might be a bit of a stretch.
#4 Utah Jazz – No need to mention Coach Jerry Sloan, or Deron Williams here, we know how great those guys are. Of course the big move for the Jazz, was acquiring Al Jefferson during the Summer, and if the pre-season is any indication of what’s to come, that transaction will pay off dividends for Utah. I happen to think the Jefferson/Williams combo fits better than the Williams/Carlos Boozer one. Plus, what this move really does is free up Paul Millsap. Finally we get to see this kid shine! Add in a motivated AK47 in a contract year prior to a possible lock out next season, and we got ourselves a squad! CJ Miles brings a scoring punch off the bench, and by season’s end, should be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year. I like Utah drafting Gordon Heyward essentially replacing Kyle Korver. And we haven’t even begun talking about Mehmet Okur yet, who should improve on what was a down year last season. With Denver’s future uncertain, the battle atop the North West division is between the Thunder and the Jazz. I think OKC edges out Utah.
#5 Dallas Mavericks – It’s safe to say that the window in which the Maverick’s could have won a championship, has closed. I think the best approach for Dallas is to have a mediocre season, and maybe catch a hot streak late, then carry that momentum into the Playoffs. Even with that said, I don’t see the Mav’s upsetting any team above them on my list. It’s not as if Dallas isn’t stacked with talent. They have two future Hall-of-Famers in Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, who can still ball at an elite level. They got Caron Butler in a contract year with the lock out looming next season, and they still have Shawn Marion and Jason Terry. The Mav’s boast good size up front too, with newly acquired Tyson Chandler, and Brendan Haywood backing him up. I guess the only thing the Mav’s don’t have, is a collective killer instinct. I thought last season they’d break out of the “too soft” mold, but they only furthered the truth to it. More than anyone, I’d like to see Bay Area native Jason Kidd get another shot at a ring, but unless things change drastically out West, it won’t happen.
#6 San Antonio Spurs – San Antonio might finish sixth in the standings out West, but they could easily be among the top three when all is said and done. The Spurs have nothing to prove during the regular season, and their only goal will be getting into the Playoffs, which they’ll do. Greg Popovich is a fantastic coach, and he understands the importance of health to a veteran team, so he won’t exert his stars over a long season. Instead, he’ll use the regular season as a platform to develop his young talent like Tiago Splitter, who I’m very high on, then lean on George Hill and DeJuan Blair again like last season. Tim Duncan is closing in on his career, Manu Ginobili has a lot of mileage on him, and with this perhaps being Tony Parker’s final season in San Antonio, I feel one last big push by the original “Big Three”.
#7 Golden State Warriors – Before you ridicule me, I’ll display my disclosure right now. I’m biased. There you have it, you can’t argue against that. With that said, I do believe this Warriors team has the talent to make a splash in a crowded Western Conference. Chappy mentioned this before in his Warriors’ preview, but the combination of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis in the back court is absolutely lethal. Might be the best back court in the league. The big acquisition for the Dubs this Summer, was trading for David Lee. Lee should still rack up double-doubles for the Dubs in his new position, PF, but the most intriguing development for Lee, is how he and Curry will work the pick and roll game. I’m drooling just thinking about it. Andris Biedrins spent most of last season on the bench either due to injury, or from lack of trust from then coach, Don Nelson. With Bieds healthy, and more importantly, happy, I see a bounce back season from him. Golden State’s main concerns, you ask? For one, avoiding the injury bug. Last season was ridiculous, the amount of players the Warriors’ couldn’t suit up due to injury. Another red flag would be a Sophomore slump from Curry. He’s admitted to struggling in learning Keith Smart’s new motion offense, and his pre-season numbers back that up. Finally, the Warriors’ don’t have much depth on their bench, but they surely compensate that with the quality of their sixth man, Reggie Williams. Nothing but high hopes and aspirations for my beloved Warriors, let’s hope they deliver.
#8 LA Clippers – I have the LA Clippers slightly edging out the Portland Trailblazers for the final spot out West, and it’s simply because Blake Griffin has been playing like an absolute beast this pre-season. I wrote a post on my old blog prior to the beginning of last season, stating one good performance from Blake Griffin during the pre-season doesn’t make him a star. He followed that up by sustaining a season ending injury. I was looking like a genius at that point. Fast forward to now, and I want to delete that post from my memory banks forever! Griffin is a future star in the making! What he lacks in height, he makes up for in athleticism and strength. And sure tenacity! But the Clips are not just Blake Griffin. Baron Davis, when in shape, and motivated, is still a top five PG in this league. It’ll be interesting to see what Davis shows up this season. Chris Kaman is a bull in the block, and Eric Gordon can be the Clippers’ version of Jason Richardson. Basically, the Clippers have pieces in place to make a push. They’re a legit team on paper, but wins aren’t determined on paper.
#1 Dallas Mavericks – Like By said, their window is all but closed. They’ve proven that they are good at playing well in the regular season, but too bad for Cuban it doesn’t mean anything in the playoffs. I could see them getting the number one overall seed in the West then promptly losing to the 8th seed. Is this the year that Kidd, Marion, Butler, and Dirk start to break down? I’ll say they have one more strong year left in them…
#2 Seattle Supersonics – Kevin Durant and Co just keep getting better. I guess nobody will be sleeping on them this year if they get the #2 seed. They didn’t make many changes over the offseason, but why would you when you have the best young core in the league. They improved by 27 wins last year, so I still see them improving their 50 win total to somewhere in the 60 range.
#3 Los Angeles Lakers – Riddled by injuries to some stars (Bryant and Bynum), the Lakers might start off slightly slow. As I said awhile back when Bynum opted to have his knee surgery later who really cares, they’ve been to the finals in three straight seasons. Home court doesn’t mean as much as being healthy come playoff time. Even as the third seed, they are the team to beat. I really like that they added Barnes and Blake. I think Blake will be a big factor in keeping Fischer from being their only option at the point. Plus, he’s used to being in whatever role is given to him without complaining.
#4 Utah Jazz – Some think they will fall off after losing Boozer. Millsap getting to have his first season as a full time starter, and the addition of Al Jefferson will more than fill in for Boozer’s absence. They seem like they should be focused without the Boozer side show to distract them! I like them a lot more than I did last year. I remember when they drew the Lakers in the 2nd round I thought it would be a sweep. I actually think Utah could be even higher than the 4th seed.
#5 San Antonio Spurs – This team feels ancient. Not in the Celtics way, but not in a good way either. With TP ready to head to NY with his sweetheart Eva, the Spurs need to make their last push with the old three. If you count them out, then you’re not looking at history. They get it done once again, but lean on DeJuan Blair much more heavily than they expected. Duncan starts grooming him the way David Robinson did for him…
#6 Houston Rockets – I believe in Adelman! If he almost got an injury plagued team to the playoffs last year, I’m sure he can do it with a full squad this year. He’s one of the best coaches in the league that doesn’t quite get the recognition that he deserves. I’ve had a mancrush on Brooks for about 5 years now dating back to his Oregon days. I still remember him lighting up Westbrook in college, and from that point on I knew he’d make it in the pros despite his lack of height. There’s one thing you can’t learn and that’s speed. Throw in the tallest Asian you’ll ever see, and there’ not much I don’t like about this team. I think Brooks makes some big strides this year in the assist column especially now that he has a healthy K-Mart.
#7 Portland Trailblazers – I don’t love the Blazers this year, but even though they were injury riddled they somehow got into the playoffs last year. They might rely a little to heavily on Brandon Roy, but that’s not a bad thing. I really like Batum to have a good season this year. If Aldridge doesn’t finally step his game up to the next level, we might see Batum getting the same amount of minutes as Aldridge! Their biggest question is can their centers stay healthy…
#8 Los Angeles Clippers – Did I just put the Clippers in the playoffs? I guess so. I see them taking out number one seeded Dallas too! The Clippers are led by the guy who took the Mavs out in 2007, Baron Davis! Now that Dunleavy is gone this team and it’s talent should fare a lot better than the years past. Not that I believe in Del Negro, but Art Shell is a better basketball coach than Dunleavy. Blake Griffin is out of this world. Imagine if Lebron took his talents to LA. He’d have the 2nd biggest athletic freak hanging by his side for years to come.