You want NBA predictions? I’ve got them. Well, at least for the Western Conference, where the Golden State Warriors have gone from legitimate playoff contenders to long shots after a tumultuous offseason.
Let’s just say there’s not much playoff fever in the Bay Area approaching the Warriors’ season opener Wednesday night at home against New Orleans. That’s understandable considering that the team let point guard Baron Davis leave as a free agent and lost guard Monta Ellis indefinitely to an ankle injury he suffered in a moped accident.
So how will the West’s 15 teams stack up when the season ends in April? Here’s my best guess. And hey, if you think I’m off base, send me your predictions. It’s always good to compare notes.
1) Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers made it to the NBA Finals last season without injured center Andrew Bynum. Now Bynum is back, giving the Lakers a strong inside force to team with guard Kobe Bryant, the best player on the planet, and 7-foot power forward Pau Gasol. This is a deep, talented team, and it’s no secret that coach Phil Jackson knows how to get the most out of a talented lineup.
2) Houston: Last season the Rockets won 55 games then pushed Utah to the limit in the first round of the playoffs without an injured Yao Ming. Well, Yao is back, and the Rockets added the combustible but super-talented Ron Artest to a roster that includes lights-out shooter Tracy McGrady. Coach Rick Adelman’s team can score and defend. The question is, can the Rockets stay healthy? I’ll roll the dice and say yes.
3) Utah: What you saw last year when Utah reached the Western Conference semis is basically what you’ll get this year from the Jazz, which returns most of its roster intact. Deron Williams, Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Ronnie Brewer and the rest of this very deep roster have another year of experience playing together in coach Jerry Sloan’s system. The biggest change this year is that C.J. Miles is expected to start at small forward with Andrei Kirilenko coming off the bench.
4) New Orleans: It’s only a matter of time before point guard Chris Paul wins an MVP award. He’s that good. Paul is all but unguardable. He either gets his shot or draws a double- or triple-team and dishes to either 7-1 center Tyson Chandler for a monster jam or to marksmen such as Peja Stojakovic or Morris Peterson for wide-open treys. The Hornets also added some experience in forward James Posey.
5) San Antonio: Yeah, the Spurs are getting old. Yeah, Manu Ginobili is injured and will miss the first two months of the season. I won’t bury this team until Tim Duncan retires. Last year, coming off an NBA title, this aging team made it to the conference finals. And we all know the Spurs never win back-to-back titles. History tells us this is there year to make another title run. The combination of Duncan, point guard Tony Parker and coach Gregg Popovich is enough to keep the Spurs afloat until Ginobili returns.
6) Phoenix: The Suns won’t be nearly as much fun to watch under new coach Terry Porter as they were under former coach Mike D’Antoni, who took his run-and-gun ways with him to the New York Knicks. But Porter, a more traditional coach, is probably better suited to lead a team that has 7-foot-1, 325-pound Shaquille O’Neal as its center. The Suns’ window of opportunity for an NBA title may have closed, but they still have Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, Raja Bell, Leandro Barbosa, Boris Diaw and Grant Hill, along with Shaq. Not bad at all.
7) Portland: Last year the up-and-coming Trail Blazer won 41 games even though center Greg Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft, missed the entire season with a knee injury. Oden is healthy, and he’ll join a deep pool of young, talented players that Portland has collected, including All-Star guard Brandon Roy and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Oden should help put “Rip City” back on the NBA map again.
8) Dallas: I don’t think Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs ever truly recovered from their confidence-shattering playoff loss to the Warriors two seasons ago. Before that series, Dallas was considered to be one of the NBA’s elite teams, a true title contender. Now the franchise is in turmoil. The Mavs made a very questionable mid-season trade last year for aging point guard Jason Kidd then got bounced by New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs. After the season, Dallas fired coach Avery Johnson and hired Rick Carlisle.
9) Denver: The Nuggets slipped into the playoffs last year and were crushed 4-0 by the Lakers in the first round. This year, there’s little reason to believe Denver will even get the No. 8 spot. For some reason – money? – this defensively challenged team traded its best defender, Marcus Camby, to the Clippers. Superstars Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony will still put on an entertaining show, but the Nuggets’ defensive lapses might drive coach George Karl into retirement.
10) Los Angeles Clippers: With the addition of former Warriors point guard Baron Davis, the Clippers might push for the eighth playoff spot. Davis will be playing with a chip on his shoulder after the Warriors shoved him out the door. And he’ll be playing in front of his hometown fans, vying for attention in Lakers land. The Clippers lost Elton Brand and Corey Maggette but added Davis and Marcus Canby, who will team with Chris Kaman to give the Clippers a solid inside presence.
11) Golden State: Two years ago, the Warriors made the playoffs and stunned Dallas in the first round. Those will be considered the good old days for Warriors fans. They traded guard Jason Richardson to Charlotte in a 2007 draft-day deal. Now they’ve let point guard Baron Davis walk away as a free agent and lost guard Monta Ellis indefinitely to an ankle injury. Captain Stephen Jackson and free-agent pickup Corey Maggette will have to carry too much of the load. Then there’s the front-office turmoil. Executive V.P. Chris Mullin is a lame duck, and so is coach Don Nelson, who has a young team that might make retirement in Maui sound very inviting.
12) Memphis: The Grizzlies are still going to run and gun under ex-Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni, but they’ll also try to mix in a little more defense and toughness. The addition of 7-foot-1, 265-pound center Marc Gasol, brother of Lakers power forward Pau Gasol, should help. But with racehorses like Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo and Hakim Warrick on the floor, this team is going to run from start to finish.
13) Sacramento: The days of cowbells and playoffs are long gone for the Kings. This team is in full-blown rebuilding mode. Mike Bibby and Ron Artest are gone, leaving Kevin Martin as the undisputed star of a very young team. Coach Reggie Theus will have the Kings playing hard, but they’re not close to being a playoff team.
14) Minnesota: GM Kevin McHale got power forward Al Jefferson a little help, adding rookie Kevin Love and sharpshooter Mike Miller. Having a healthy Randy Foye to man the point guard position is a plus, too.
15) Oklahoma City: After moving this franchise from Seattle, a jewel of a city with a long NBA history, team owner Clay Bennett will get what he deserves. Kevin Durant is worth the price of admission, but this team is exceptionally young, raw and defensively challenged.