Tuesday, October 31, 2006

'06-07 Season Preview--Predictions

Jay Aych's predictions:
Here we go with a straight-forward season forecast. Let me just say that picking the order of finish in the Central Division was damn near impossible. I wavered back-n-forth at trying to arrange the top 4 teams, and I think you can jumble them in any order you want. I can't foresee much separation between the Bulls, Cavs, Pistons, & Pacers and even a few games lost to injuries could effect the order. I might be going out on a limb picking the Pacers, but I feel their defense is close to being as good as the Bulls, and have more offensive talent. But Tinsley & O'Neal have to stay healthy, which could be asking alot.

Atlantic: (1) Nets (2) Celtics (3) Sixers (4) Knicks (5) Raptors

Central: (1) Pacers (2) Cavs (3) Pistons (4) Bulls (5) Bucks

Southeast: (1) Heat (2) Wizards (3) Magic (4) Bobcats (5) Hawks

East Conf:
1) Pacers
2) Heat
3) Nets
4) Cavs
5) Pistons
6) Bulls
7) Wizards
8) Magic

1st round: Pacers over Magic; Heat over Wizards; Nets over Bulls; Pistons over Cavs
2nd round: Pacers over Pistons; Heat over Nets
Conf Finals: Heat over Pacers

Southwest: (1) Mavs (2) Spurs (3) Rockets (4) Hornets (5) Grizzlies

Northwest: (1) Nugs (2) Jazz (3) T-Wolves (4) Sonics (5) Blazers

Pacific: (1) Suns (2) Clips (3) Lakers (4) Kings (5) Warriors

West Conf:
1) Mavs
2) Suns
3) Spurs
4) Nugs
5) Rockets
6) Clips
7) Lakers
8) Kings

1st round: Mavs over Kings; Suns over Lakers; Spurs over Clips; Rockets over Nugs
2nd round: Spurs over Suns; Mavs over Rockets
Conf Finals: Spurs over Mavs

NBA Champs: The field is as wide open as I can remember. I feel there are actually 10 teams who have the ability to get to the finals: Nets, Heat, Bulls, Cavs, Pacers & Pistons in the East and Mavs, Spurs, Suns, & the Rockets out west. Picking a clear-cut fav to win the East & the West might be the hardest it's ever been. I feel pretty good about picking the Spurs from the West, but don't have a strong feeling about who's coming out of the East, but right now I like the Heat to repeat as East champs.MY PICK: I just feel strongly that the Spurs will regain their crown with Duncan rested & highly hungry. Spurs over the Heat.

MVP: The usual suspects should be in the hunt again this year--LeBron, Wade, Dirk, Kobe, & Nash are the frontrunners. Guys like Melo, Brand, Pierce and even Vince have the potential to be in consideration by the end of the year. And if McGrady's back can hold steady, he can regain his MVP-level status. Also, let's not write off Mr. Duncan just yet--I really think he will look to tear it up this year and return to scoring 22-24 ppg. MY PICK: This is really splitting hairs, but I got to go with Lebron. I think Kobe is the best player in the NBA, but he is a little gimpy right now, so I have to go with the second best player, Bron.

Rookie of the Year: Well, to win this trophy it helps if the player starts or gets starter minutes, which eliminates alot of rookies off the bat. Also, it helps if the rookie is in a situation where they can put up solid stats and has a pretty significant role from the get-go. To me, this leaves only two possible rookies who fit these scenarios: Adam Morrison & Brandon Roy. What helps out Morrison is he is immediately Charlotte's best pure scorer and the Bobcats desparately need him to score right away. Roy looks to have the starting 2-guard spot, and after Zach Randolph, is probably the second-best option on the Blazers. I think Roy will fill out the stat sheet better, but Morrison will put more points on the board--the Bobcats need him to score around 18 ppg, if not 20 ppg. Two other sleeper picks: Rudy Gay, who's in a similar situation as Morrison, where he is his team's best pure scorer with Gasol out, and will have the opportunity to put up good scoring numbers. Also, don't forget about Utah's Ron Brewer, who should see big minutes at the 2 and has a great all-around game like Roy. MY PICK: I am leaning toward Brandon Roy who should stuff the entire stat sheet, while Morrison will be nipping at his heels by leading rookies in scoring, but doing little else.
M. Haubs in the house
I'm going to take it easy on myself and not try to pick divisional order of finish. Here we go:

1) Spurs
2) Mavs
3) Suns
4) Nuggets
5) Rockets
6) Clippers
7) Warriors
8) Lakers

First Round: Spurs over Lakers, Rockets over Nuggets, Suns over Clippers, Mavs over Warriors
Conf. Semis: Spurs over Rockets, Mavs over Suns
Conf. Finals: Spurs over Mavs

1) Cavs
2) Heat
3) Nets
4) Bulls
5) Pistons
6) Pacers
7) Wizards
8) Magic

First Round: Cavs over Magic, Bulls over Pistons, Pacers over Nets, Heat over Wizards
Conf. Semis: Cavs over Bulls, Heat over Pacers
Conf. Finals: Cavs over Heat

NBA Finals: Spurs over Cavs
MVP: LeBron James
Rookie of the Year: Randy Foye

- I basically came up with these seedings blindly, but man I sure fell ass-backwards into some compelling playoff matchups - Bulls-Pistons, Mavs-Warriors, Cavs-Heat. We can dream.
- It was really impossible to pick the East. I think, like Jay Aych, that the Pacers could win just as easily as my pick, the Cavs.
- I agree with Jay Aych that both the 'ship and the MVP are wide-open this year. That said, considering I had Cleveland leading the East, I had to go with LeBron as my MVP - that's a no-brainer if the Cavs get the 1 seed. But I do think that Duncan will be back in the mix this year.

Storylines I'm interested in:
-Will this be the year that Shaq hands off the torch as the league's best center to Yao?

-Which young team will emerge? There are several teams with a bunch of young potential - see almost every lottery team from the East, for ex. Which talent will take the next step? I say Orlando.

-How much Amare? I hate to be a hater, but I must say that I'm pessimistic that a player who is so athletic can come all the way back after microfracture surgery. I wonder - if Amare can't come back - if we'll start to ask why the hell anyone would agree to the procedure. It just don't seem to work, y'know. Hope I'm wrong.

-Who's the best player in the league? We're in such a strange period - usually the league's top player is fairly clear-cut, or at least it's no more than a group of about three. Right now, we have LeBron, D-Wade, Kobe and Dirk all staking a claim. I think Timmy will be back with a vengeance, KG's still in the house, and we haven't even gotten to the two-time defending MVP! Just wonder if we'll get any clarity this year.

-Where will The LeBron Saga go? Or, as Free Darko called it, the Jordan Narrative. As much as anything else, I love the NBA for its multi-year-long storylines. And in this era, the overarching story is whether LeBron can ascend to the Jordan-Magic-Bird-Russell-Chamberlain pantheon of uber-greats, don't you think?

-Are the Spurs a dynasty? Oh yeah, unless it's this: the dynasty that no one cares about. If they win, as we both predict, that'll be four titles in nine years, and three in five. That's kinda a dynasty, folks, esp. when you consider they were knocking on the door in '04 and '06, too. But I doubt anyone will care, although these cats are exactly the kind of hard-working team-oriented clean-image guys that people say the NBA is lacking....


Happy Opening Day, everyone. The League is back, rejoice. Sure, the tipoff doubleheader is good, but I'm really looking forward to tomorrow night, when there's a full slate and I can sit back and rock the League Pass in force. And, man, I just checked the schedule - we've got Mavs-Spurs, Cavs-Spurs, Clippers-Suns among others this week. Let's get it on.

OK, I'm sure you have a bit of season preview overload at this point, so let's take an alternative look at things.

The Sports Business Journal (subscription) did its own NBA preview last week, looking at things from a business perspective.

Here's their rating of the 20 Most Influential People in the NBA:
1. NBA Commissioner David Stern
2. ESPN/ABC Sports President George Bodenheimer
3. NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver
4. NBPA Exec Dir Billy Hunter
5. Heat Owner and NBA Board of Governors Chair Micky "Stay white, Miami!" Arison
6. Suns Chair & CEO and USA Basketball Managing Dir Jerry Colangelo
7. Turner Sports President David Levy
8. NBA President of League & Basketball Operations Joel Litvin
9. Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban
10. NBA President of Global Marketing Partnerships & International Business Operations Heidi Ueberroth
11. Nike Chair Phil Knight
12. Anheuser-Busch VP/Global Media & Sports Marketing Tony Ponturo
13. Lakers Owner Jerry Buss
14. adidas Chair & CEO Herbert Hainer
15. Coca-Cola VP/Sports Marketing Bea Perez
16. WMG Management President Arn Tellem
17. FSN COO Randy Freer
18. Cavaliers F LeBron James
19. Rockets C Yao Ming
20. Reebok Senior Dir of Grassroots Basketball Sonny Vaccaro
(No, Henry, I have no idea how they missed William Wesley, either!)

Other random business-related notes from SBJ:
- They did a business-oriented "Scout's Take" kind of thing, where they had anonymous quotes from execs - there was a sentiment, similar to the one that Cuban has voiced, that perhaps too much is being focused on the international markets, when the money is not fully there. As Cuban noted, an increase of "just" 500,000 American viewers to TNT/ESPN broadcasts would provide a huge ratings boost that would turn the league into a huge success story.
- On TV, expect to see a lot more of the "Cable Cam" above the court. NBA TV will be broadcasting a game entirely using those cameras. In general, it'll be a big TV year because the contracts will be up after the 2007-08 season, so negotiations will begin in earnest sometime this season.
- Another random note that was brought up was how the NBA is really struggling all at once in West Coast markets - Seattle, Portland, Sacramento - which have been longtime strongholds.

Some of my favorite interviews before the season opener.
LeBron on The Daily Show (Comedy Central - Click on "Monday, 10/30, Pt. 3")
    JON: "I don't mean to offend you, but are you an alien creature? Are you a being from another land? What can stop you, is it kryptonite or some sort of caramel-like popcorn?"

    LEBRON: "I'm not sure. At this point, I don't think anyone can stop me right now."

Charles, Kenny & Ernie (Slam Online)
    After being asked if when he played, he was the guy that went through and chose the game balls…
    KENNY: “Make sure you write this correctly, but yes, I was the ball tester.”

    CHARLES: “I knew it! You coming out tonight? This is the perfect place, because it’ll be in every newspaper tomorrow. We’re still gonna love you.”

KG (Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
    "Getting knocked off, knocking at the door, no one answering -- those things are not only humbling, but they put a different kind of fire in you. Every time you come up short, it's like seeing that girl in school every day that you're sweet on.

    "It's like, she ain't ever said two words to you but all of a sudden she smiles at you. That turns into a 'hi.' A 'hi' turns into a walk down the hall. That turns into sitting with her at lunch. And then when you get that phone number, 'OK, cool!' That turns into a big opportunity.

    "When you get to the Western Conference finals, you feel like you've got the phone number. And then you lose the phone number. And she moves away to a different school."

    "You have no way of getting in contact with her and you feel like you're moving backwards now. You don't know any of her friends. But you know what school she's going to, so you can go up there, sit in the parking lot and look really stalk-ish."

Shaq (Time.com)
    The NBA is using a new ball this year, and you've been a pretty vocal critic.

    The ball is terrible. It's something we'll just have to get used to. Playing with the new ball is like going to a gentlemen's club, seeing an exotic dancer and then going home and playing with a plastic blow-up doll. It's bad. A lot of these people are trying to make decisions for the NBA. It's just getting too corporate. There are too many rules that don't really make sense--for example, about our shorts being too long. You go to a Foot Locker--that's what all the kids are buying, the long shorts. Kids ain't buying the short John Stockton shorts.

Flea! (LA Times)
    Question: Is it realistic to believe that short shorts will return?

    I hope they do. I think it would be a very bold statement and a really cool thing. I prefer the short-shorts look. I think it's a manly look. (He wrote this in his blog last year: "I am waiting for some bold player to muster the gumption to just quit fooling with the dated oversized-shorts look and bust out the wee little shorts of yesteryear.")

    Is it a thrill for you to perform in NBA arenas?

    Totally. I love it. I always go creep around the locker rooms and stuff. I've been known to doctor the chalkboards. I think it was in New Jersey, when Derrick Coleman was playing, there were all these Xs and O's up there and other messages, and I wrote, "Derrick, hog the ball, don't play defense." Just silly stuff.

Jerry Buss (LA Times)
    I think we were a lot closer to it than people realized last year, just that last nine seconds [in Game 6 against Phoenix]. We would have won that series and we would have played the Clippers after that, who the last game of the year you probably remember, we dominated.

Don't know if you saw them, but GQ and Esquire have fairly substantial NBA-related previews (GQ's was actually a "Sports Issue" with NBA content included) this month. I think I preferred Esquire's... not just b/c their cover photo was of Scarlett "Sexiest Woman Alive" Johansson instead of a shirtless Dwyane Wade. Here's a scouting report:

They had a very good oral history piece by Peter Richmond, looking back to the fateful NBA day of Nov. 7, 1991, when Magic announced he was HIV-positive. He had quotes from Magic, his then-agent Lon Rosen, Jerry Buss, Jerry West, Jim Brown and more. It's so jarring to think back to that day when, let's face it, we all thought Magic would soon be dead, considering what an afterthought it seems to be in his life today.

Here are a few quotes to that end:
    LON ROSEN: I was with him in the doctor's office when they told him. The doctor said, "You're going to die." It was the most surreal experience of my life. They gave him a death sentence: You have HIV and you can't play basketball anymore.

    JACK HALEY: It was one of the most unbelievable things I've ever seen. Magic walked in and stood there and told us he'd contracted the AIDS virus. All these grown men were crying and upset and freaking out. Magic stands there the entire time, his voice never cracks, he has this smile on his face. He is stronger than anyone I've ever seen.

    MAGIC: For the first five years, I didn't know what was going to happen. I was hoping the medicine was going to work, but you just don't know. In those years, it was always, "You OK? You OK? You OK?" everywhere I went. Now I don't get that. Now I get "You're doing great in business." No one checks anymore.

That said, I'd have to say the D-Wade cover story left me disappointed. It was short and didn't really break any new ground. Here's an excerpt.

Also, MAJOR points off to the copy-editing department. They did a photo portfolio on the 16 coolest heroes in sport. There was a nice 2-page shot of Worthy, Magic and Kareem, but they were listed as "The '86 Lakers"! Could have been '85, could have been '87, but not '86 - wouldn't be so egregious if the '86 Celtics weren't considered one of the greatest teams ever!

The meat on the bones were Tom Chiarella's fun piece, "The Pathology of Gilbert Arenas" and the prolific Paul Shirley weighing in with a solid "Player's Notes" effort.

Sidebars included a graphic look at the new ball and a list of 15 Things That Make Us Happy About the New NBA Season. Included was: "7. Portland rookie Sergio 'Spanish Chocolate' Rodriguez: the best nickname since Darrell 'Dr. Dunkenstein' Griffith".

Extra credit for Scarlett content, and I'd have to say Esquire was the winner.

Is there any question that Gilbert Arenas was the media's NBA MVP of the offseason? You had the Esquire piece linked above and the absolute must-read two-part series from Mike Wise in the Washington Post (Part I, Part II). The Post's D.C. Sports Bog has also weighed in with some quality Gilbertology tidbits, and don't forget Zero2Hero himself, blogging for NBA.com.

Kudos also to the Rocky Mountain News for their four-part Carmelo series.

Lest we forget, Golden State of Mind also has a look at new signature shoes for stars around the league for '06-07:

'06-07 Season Preview--Atlantic Division

Gets my vote as the worst division in the NBA, just below the Northwest. Really have only one team that has a legit shot to advance out of the 1st round of the playoffs. After the Nets, the other 4 teams could just have a tough haul getting into the playoffs, and could easily see a repeat of last year where only one Atlantic team makes the playoffs. The Nets are clearly the class of the division and can be considered a contender for the East crown. In my mind, the final 4 squads can be shuffled in any order. But right now I'm leaning toward Boston as having the best chance at 2nd place & a good shot at the 7 or 8 seed. Isiah hopes to inject positive vibes into his charges after a year ruined by Larry Brown's meglomania. The Raptors are trying to bring the Valley of the Sun to the Great White North. And the Sixers basically made no personnel changes to a flawed team with both of their star players a year older.

BOSTON CELTICS--(33-49; 3rd in Atl; 11th in East)
Key additions: Bassy Telfair; Rajon Rondo;
Key losses: Raef LaFrentz; Dan Dickau

Starting to gain steam as a sleeper pick to go along with Orlando. Their young guys have looked sharp in preseason, especially rookie Rajon Rondo, so there is more optimism for this season than during the summer. Do have a decent shot at one of the last East playoff spots but will have to fight with Orlando, Wash., MIlwaukee, & Philly.

This team is deep at the wings with Paul Pierce & Wally their main options, and their PG situation is looking better by the day. To me, it will be the play of their frontline that will make the difference either for this team to make the playoffs or prepare for the Greg Oden sweepstakes. They need Al Jefferson & Kendrick Perkins to step up to the plate big time. Right now I do not have a clue how these guys will fare this year. I have better vibes about Jefferson improving, but I am skeptical of Perkins. And Theo Ratliff is not getting younger, so the center position is certainly shaky.

Rondo has been looking like a stud in the preseason and could easily supplant Telfair of the starting PG duties by mid-season. Even with his subpar outside shot, he has been putting up nice all-around numbers so far. Maybe a pure point guard can help cut down on turnovers--the Celts were the 2nd worst in the NBA.

Boston's defense was not great last year and does need to be tighten to make a run at the playoffs a possiblity. I have to admit, the Celts have looked intriguing in the preseason and I am starting to warm to the fact they are a serious playoff contender, after being lukewarm on their chances during the summer. But it will not be easy, because they will have to jump teams like the Magic & the Wizards to make it to the postseason.

NJ NETS--(49-33; 1st in Atl; 3rd in East)
Key additions: Marcus Williams; Josh Boone; Eddie House; Hassan Adams
Key losses: Jacque Vaughan; Zoran Planinic; Lamond Murray

Have a chance to win the East, but a few people don't even see them winning the Atlantic (Not sure what Hollinger's thinking), which I find very hard to fathom. NJ should win this division easy, barring an injury to their big 3.

People forget how tough they played the Heat in the 2nd round. It might have been only 5 games, but the last 3 games of the series were close encounters and the Nets had great chances to win each game. In Game 3 & 4, the Nets primarily lost those games by making a handful of bad decisions (TOs & bad shots) at the wrong time in the 4th quarter and D Wade needed to drill a buzzer-beater in Game 5 to avoid sending the series back to Jersey. It's not like the Heat's talent was overwhelmingly superior, if the Nets took better care of the ball, they had great chances to win the last 3 games.

They had a great draft, they filled two huge needs--back-up PG & role-playing 4. Not surprisingly, PG Marcus Williams looks like a seasoned vet already and should hold the fort down quite well when Kidd is resting. Josh Boone starts the year with a bum shoulder, but he does fill the glaring hole for a true PF, especially one that rebounds, defends & runs the floor well.

No doubt the bench is the biggest question mark with this team. Antoine Wright has looked promising in the pre-season and Nachbar has the ability to contribute some productive minutes, but both are still unproven. The frontcourt depth is a little unsettled. Uncle Spliffy is back, but he was drafted in the 80s, so how much can he have left in the tank. The aforementioned Marcus Williams surely helps the bench corps and when Boone gets healthy he should provide some much needed athleticism in the post.

Vince Carter needs to attack the bucket more consistently and not settle for off-balance jumpers so much. Especially with the new rules, he can be as unstoppable as Wade, Bron, & Kobe.

NJ needs to up the pace and get back some of their fast-breaking mojo that worked so well a few years ago. This team has the talent to score more than the 93.8 ppg of last year. Underrated defensive team that should stay that way with Coach Frank at the helm.

Sort of tied into the bench issues, is the need for 3pt. shooters--Nets were near the bottom of the league in 3pt %. The Nets semi-addressed the problem by signing Ed House (although he could be injured awhile), but still could probably use some more outside help. They will hope A. Wright & Nachbar can add some long-range marksmanship.

I think this team will cruise to an Atlantic title, if their starting core stays healthy, and is assured of at least the #4 seed in the East. Hollinger is way too negative on these guys--I think he's taking the point differ. from last year too far. This team is capable of scoring high 90s if they put their mind to it. This team does not get mentioned enough with the contenders for the East, but I have them squarely in the thick of things with the Heat, Bulls, Pacers, Pistons, & Cavs.

NY KNICKS--(23-59; 5th in Atl; 15th in East)
Key Additions: Jared Jeffries; Renaldo Balkman
Key losses: Mo Taylor; Jalen Rose; Jackie Butler

I expect better things from them this year. I really think this team is going to respond well to Isiah this year, and even has an outside chance at playoff spot. I really do. There is plenty of talent here, it's just getting it to mesh together and to play a shred of defense.

I really liked the signing of Jared Jeffries, who provides a role-playing, defensive SF. This team needed to add role players to offset all the ball-dominant chuckers and Jeffries provides the little things, especially much needed defense. I think this is what Thomas was trying to accomplish with the pick of Balkman, so I did not totally rip Isiah for this pick because I thought the Knicks biggest need was a role-playing SF.

Still not sure how Marbury & Francis can co-exist in the starting backcourt. I just can't see this as a long-term solution. Also, can this team build some sort of chemistry? Interested to see how Isiah divvies out minutes in the backcourt with guys like Crawford, Nate Robinson, & Q Richardson looking for serious burn behind Francis & Marbury. Lots of areas for dissention in the locker room.

Plain & simple, the Knicks have to ratchet things up quite a bit on defense. Will Isiah be able to do it? No clue. The Knicks were dead last in the league in TOs, and I can't see that changing for the better with the biggest culprits returning, combined with Isiah's insistence on a helter-skleter pace.

They will more than likely be shut out of the playoffs once again, but I would not be stunned if this team did steal a #8 seed. I just have these good vibes that Isiah will light a fire under this roster and expect the players to respond well-- just a gut feeling. But then again, there is a solid chance we are headed for another season with clashing egos & petty melodramas that end up with Isiah out on the street. As always with New York, stay tuned.

PHILADELPHIA SIXERS--(38-44; 2nd in Atl; 9th in East)
Key additons: Rodney Carney; Bobby Jones
Key losses: John Salmons

Have to say, I don't like where this team is headed. The Sixers needed to make some changes this off-season, and they failed miserably. Did not answer either of their biggest holes--PG and back-up PF. For a guy whose job is on slippery ground, Billy King did not pick a good time to have an inactive summer. Although, he's probably not too worried because I bet he has a GM gig waiting for him in Memphis, you know with Dukies running the show.

Basically, can this team ante up on the defensive end, is the main question They are saying the right things currently, but everything is rosy during training camp & I'm not buying it. The problem rests with Mo Cheeks--he is too nice. Sorry, but 9 times out of 10, Nice guy coach = bad team defense. It's just one of my tried & true basketball theorems. I just don't have good vibes about this team. Made very few changes in the off-season for a team that needed to make some changes.

Also, this team has point guard issues. I thought they made a mistake by passing on all the points available and instead taking Rod Carney. Don't get me wrong, I think Carney has wonderful potential, I just did not think he was as big a need with Iggy already on board, and this team did not have a quality true point. Right now, they decided to move AI back to the 2, and start Kevin Ollie, while they could be starting Marcus Williams or Rondo right now.

The depth on the frontline is a big issue as well. Steve Hunter was a mild disappointment and they have basically nothing behind Webber, who's health is always precarious. Sorry, but Shavlik is barely NBDL-worthy.

For a team that did not make many moves during the off-season, I see a good chance of moves being made in-season, except the head coach & GM could be the ones to move on. If AI & C-Webb can stay relatively healthy & this team performs better on defense (dubious), they have the ability for a 7 or 8 seed. I mean Iverson is still involved, so the Sixers can never be completely discarded from playoff considersation.

TORONTO RAPTORS--(27-55; 4th in Atl; 12th in East)
Key adds: A. Bargnani; A. Parker; J. Garbajosa; F. Jones; TJ Ford; R. Nesterovic
Key losses: Mike James; Charllie Villanueva; Rafeal Araujo; Matt Bonner

The Raps look to be turning their fortunes around this year. New GM Bryan Colangelo has really made a splash in his few first months on the job by changing the identity of the Raps, in an attempt to copy the success of the Suns. He definitely wants an up-tempo system (see TJ Ford) with a heavy Euro influence (see Bargnani, Rasho, Garbajosa). But it will take some time before the Raps come close to duplicating the Suns' success.

What goes overlooked about this team was how they scored the ball fairly well in '05-06. It starts with emerging star Chris Bosh, who is extremely well-rounded & very efficient. Losing Mike James hurts to a degree, but they brought in more of a true point in Ford, who looks to push the pace.

Colangelo did a great job grabbing a collection of experienced vets from around the globe to expediate the rebuliding effort. Besides Ford, Euroleague star Anthony Parker can step right in to provide some offense immediately at the wing. Love the signing of Fred Jones--an explosive wing who has rounded out his game over the last couple years & has looked good in the preseason. Don't expect a whole lot out of #1 pick A. Bargnani this year with him more than likely backing up Bosh.

Huge fan of Euro vet Jorge Garbajosa who was huge to Spain's Gold medal run this summer. As I like to call him--the Euro Rob Horry. The ultimate role player. He brings outside shooting, rebounding, sneaky drives, drawn fouls, and great overall defense (one of the best help defenders I've seen). Huge in Gold Medal game. I think he can draw some 4s away from the basket with his shooting & can pick up some fouls with his deceptive drives, but he could have trouble as an individual defender. Although, I am confident he can figure out ways to contribute.

Although, the offense was nice last year, the defense was awful. I think this will ultimately hold the team back this year, because I can't see a drastic improvement with Sam Mitchell in charge. To go along with the bad defense, the Raps were near the bottom in rebounding as well. Rasho might help a little, but I they will need Garbajosa & Bargnani to help on the glass; Bargnani's main flaw is his rebounding, so the rebs. could be tough to come by once again.

I don't think the fans should have huge expectations this year and have to give Colangelo & Co. time to perfect their business plan. But I would not totally eliminate them from playoff consideration at this point, but their chances are very slim.

Monday, October 30, 2006

'06-07 Season Preview--Central Division

This division is flat-out sick; sort of the polar opposite of the Atlantic. You have 4 teams who have a legit shot at winning the East Conference crown. I think you can shake up the Bulls, Cavs, Pistons & Pacers in any order of finish; it is really hard to choose who is winning this division. Injuries could be the deciding factor since I don't see much separation in records between these 4 teams. Milwaukee is clearly the also-ran of the division, but even so, they have a realistic shot at getting one of the last 2 playoff spots. Intra-divisional games should be dogfights and can't-miss games.
*-The teams are listed in alphabetical order with last year's record in parentheses.

CHICAGO BULLS--(41-41; 4th in Cen; 7th in East)
Key additions: Ben Wallace; PJ Brown; Tyrus Thomas; Thabo Selofosha; Vik Khryapa
Key losses: Tyson Chandler; Darius Songalia; Eric Piatkowski; Othella Harrington

Well, we know the defense is going to be awesome; then again they were awesome last year before they added Ben Wallace & PJ Brown. Skiles gets his hands on two vets (Ben & PJ) who he will love--hardworking, classy guys who sell-out on the defensive end every nite. But can the Bulls' offense keep up with their stellar defense?

But the well-received signing of Ben did not address their biggest deficiency--scoring the ball, especially the need for low-post scoring. Ben & PJ surely do not answer that problem, this is why the deal for Ben was somewhat overrated. I do think the offense should naturally be a little better this year just because key guys like Gordon, Hinrich, Nocioni, & Deng are a year older & wiser. But the lack of an inside offensive presence could ultimately be their downfall in the playoffs. In general, the overall frontline depth is a little shaky & could use some more size.

Kirk Hinrich showed signs of emerging Nash-like abilites, but Kirk actually defends, and might be the best def. PG in the NBA. They really need to get him signed to his extension in the next couple of days--he's one of the better young points & they are not easy to find, so when you own his rights you do what it takes to resign him.

The Bulls look to have nice depth & versatility, especially on the wings--adding Thabo Sefolosha & V. Khryapa are underrated moves & both guys have looked promising in the preseason. Really like the Deng/Noce combo at SF--both guys rebound well for SFs & are active on both ends of the floor. Also, Ty Thomas should see some minutes at the 3 & 4, and provide even more athleticism & activity to the forward positions.

Can compete for the East crown. They played the Heat as tough as anyone in the playoffs & now they have added the guy who guards Shaq one-on-one better than anyone in the league. Even with the lack if ovrewhlkeming offensive firepower, this team is dangerous because Skiles has shown the ability to squeeze every ounce of talent out his ballclubs and this is arguably the deepest squad in his tenure.

CLEVELAND CAVS--(50-32; 2nd in Cen; 4th in East)
Key additions: Shannon Brown; David Wesley; Scot Pollard
Key losses: Luke Jackson; Flip Murray

Played above & beyond the call of duty vs. the Pistons last spring, and had legit chances to advance to the East finals. Should be better this year just by Lebron being a year older & having a healthy Larry Hughes around. Having lost only Flip Murray from their main rotation helps the natural progression of the team as well.

But if there is one place they can look to upgrade, it's their point. They really do not need a classic pure point, they need a point who can flat-out shoot and defend decently. Eric Snow does a commendable job doing the little things & bringing defense, but he's a major liability in the shooting department. On the other hand, Damon Jones can stroke it, but brings absolutely nothing else to the table besides his reserved personality and understated sense of style. Now if you could somehow combine those two guys, you would have the perfect point for the Cavs.

Their 3pt shooting was subpar last year (6th worst in the league) and is critical when you have a player like Lebron. They added David Wesley who should help and hopefully rookie Shannon Brown can pitch in some long-range bombs.

Their defense slowly improved during the year & performed surpringly well in the playoffs--but still needs to improve more--Bron can still be a better defender. I do not the love the resigning of Gooden, but they got him at a reasonable price--I think Varejao is ready to start & was productive playing off Lebron on the high pick/roll in the playoffs.

Have a legit shot at the East crown. But I think they might be a little too inexperienced to make the leap to Conf. champs after only one playoff run under their belt. Personally, I don't think they are quite ready, but nothing would surprise me with Bron behind the wheel.

DETROIT PISTONS--(64-18; 1st in Cen; 1st in East)
Key additions: Flip Murray; Nazr Mohammed
Key losses: Tony Delk; Mo Evans

Some people are predicting the demise of Detroit with the loss of their heart & soul, Big Ben. Don't count me in that camp--they still have an array of steely vets who are battle-tested and mentally tough. They still have the ability to win the East and challenge for a NBA title. But, if this team were to get off to a unexpected poor start, I could see things turning south with how the players' relationship with Coach Sanders is somewhat uneasy to begin with.

It will be interesting how much the defense falls off this year without Ben. Expect it to fall-off to a degree, I am just not sure if the drop-off will be significant. This team fell off last year with Ben, and many point the finger at Flip for the defensive shortcomings. So will see if he can muster more intensity from his troops this year.

Rebounding is a minor flaw & could be exposed even more with Ben gone. Sheed has always been a poor rebounder for an athletic 6-11 guy, but last year's 6.8 rpg is ridiculous. He has to concentrate on getting on the glass & getting his caboose down on the block, where only Duncan is more nasty. Also, as well-rounded as Tay Prince is, he still needs to be getting more than 4 rpg for a long 6-9 SF.

I don't expect the offense to fall off at all, it will probably have better spacing with Ben gone. But Detroit really bogged down in the playoffs because they were settling for jumpers way too much and their offense was too one-dimensional. This is why I loved the pick-up of Flip Murray because he can attack off the dribble & they got him at a great price.

But they sort of offset that signing by overpaying for Nazr. I know he's a big, but he's not much better than Lo Wright and Lo got signed for 2 years at $3 mil per. Nazr might technically start but McDyess should get the significant minutes, especially during crunch time. I really did not think this team loss very much when Detroit subbed McDyess for Ben over the last two years. McDyess held his own defensively and provided more options on offense than Ben.

Carlos Delfino has to get more minutes this year. He is a great athlete who finishes at the rim and is a sweet ball-handler with nice passing skills. Carlos was great at the Worlds and has the ability to be a starter in this league in the near future.

This team will not win any near as much games as last year, not just because the absence of Ben, but their is no way they can be that lucky avoiding injuries. If they somehow get off too a slow start, I could see friction brewing and Flip too feel the brunt of the heat.

INDIANA PACERS--(41-41; 3rd in Cen; 6th in East)
Key additions: Marquis Daniels; Shawne Williams; Maceo Baston
Key losses: Austin Croshere; Anthony Johnson; Peja Stojakovic; Fred Jones

Have been derailed by injuries (mental & physical) to key players for two years straight, but have still played tough, which is a testament to Carlisle. J. O'Neal is still their go-to-guy and if he could just get a healthy year under his belt, he could regain his status as one of the best bigs in the NBA. Having Jeff Foster hurt last year was a very underrated factor as well--he brings tremendous energy off the bench and crashes the boards like few others.

To make things easier on the Pacers, Jamaal Tinsley has to find a way to stay healthy for this team to reach its full potential. Sarunas has to find a way to conditon his body for the rigors of a 82 game season--he was pretty solid for roughly the first 50 games then he smacked hard into the rookie wall. They will need him if Tinsley misses his usual 15 games per year.

Love the versatility of the roster--they have many guys who can play multiple positions. Carlisle has the advantage of throwing a varitey of different lineups out this year: Danny Granger & Al Harrington can play the 3 or 4, O'Neal can play the 4 or 5, S. Jackson the 2 or 3, Marquis Daniels can play the 1,2, & 3. Newcomer Maceo Baston gives them another athletic vet to plug into the frontline who won titles with Saras in Europe.

This versality should help the Pacers be a litle bit more creative on the offensive end. Under Carlisle, the Pacers have been one of the more conservative teams in the NBA, and would have a tendency to go thru extended lulls--they shot 44.4% from the field last year & only put up 93.9 ppg. Carlisle has hinted that he has plans to take the chains of the offense, probably sensing the increased athleticism of his roster & the paradigm shift in style of NBA play. Re-acquiring Al Harrington was a quite a coup and definitely gives the offense more natural firepower.

With the fans and seemingly the rest of the team irritated by Steve Jackson's mercurial ways, I wonder how long this team sticks with Jackson. He was on thin ice before the recent incident, so if he becomes a distraction in the locker room, he should be gone if Bird can find a taker.

This team has a legit shot at winning the East, but they need better luck in the injury & mental health categories than they have had in the last 2 years. I like the potential of this team alot and think Carlisle is one of the top coaches in the league, so I can easily see them in the finals. Indy fans just have to hope that Jackson does not ruin the locker room like Artest did, and that Tinsley & O'Neal can be more durable.

MILWAUKEE BUCKS--(40-42; 3rd in Cen; 8th in East)
Key additions: Ruben Patterson; Charlie Villanueva; Steve Blake
Key losses: TJ Ford; Joe Smith; Jamaal Magliore; Toni Kukoc

Can't see this team being much better than it was last year. Should be in the running for one of the last playoff spots. Can't afford Bogut to miss too many games, because there is no room for error when only a couple games usually separate the teams fighting for the last playoff seeds.

The team defense needs to be upgraded, pronto--a 46.6 Def. FG% is not good. And I don't foresee this team being a much better defensively this year, so that will not make their quest for thr playoffs any easier.

Not quite sold on Villanueva, even though he fills the void of an athletic 4 next to Bogut. One year on a bad team does not prove he has turned the corner in my book. There was still rumblings from Toronto that he had attitude issues, so lets wait a few years before we assess this deal. I really did not think that the TJ Ford/Charlie deal was as uneven as everybody else did--now the Bucks need to find a point guard--have combo guards & career back-ups trying to fill the void.

Like to see them run some of the offense thru Bogut showcase. His passing skills will be needed since the Bucks are starting Mo Williams at PG and he more concerned with scoring. Mike Redd should still be the #1 option, but I liked to see some more offense run thru Bogut in the high post.

They have a diamond in the rough in young Turk Ersan Ilyasova. He displayed glimpes of a NBA-style game in the Worlds: step-back jumpers, pull-ups off the dribble, fadeaways to combine with good size & athleticism at the SF. Can easily see him being a starter in 2-3 years, probably supplanting Bobby Simmons who the Bucks can hopefully deal for a legit starting caliber point guard that they still need; sorry Steve Blake is not the answer.

Bucks are finishing in last place in Central, this is a surefire guarentee (barring any major injuries to the other 4 teams). But then again this is probably the best division in the NBA, so they still have a shot at the 7 or 8 seed in the East.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Regular-Season Win Over/Under Predictions

I generally find that messing around with over/unders for NBA regular-season win totals is one of the most fun endeavors in the glorious, now-forbidden world of online sports wagering.

Betting on single games is fraught with peril - the spread seems to hinge on a random three-pointer which does or doesn't cut the deficit to 5 in the last seconds too often.

Forecasting who'll be up and down for the entire season, though, feels more like an exercise in skill (famous last words) and logic. I've generally had pretty good success with my prognostications on season O/U's in past years, but this season seems to be one of the toughest to predict that I can remember.

Normally, I have strong feelings about a few teams, but as I look up and down last year's standings, it seems like most *everyone* in the lottery and lower end of last year's playoffs has gotten better at first glance, doesn't it?

I mean, look at the West. Sure, Memphis should be down with Pau's injury (though the Czar has overachieved with undertalented teams in the past), but...
-I like the Lakers' moves of adding a couple shooters plus I think (call me crazy) Kwame can continue his play from late last season.
-SAC and SEA both finished strong after making trades last year, and I think they both have made solid coaching changes.
-UTAH and HOU had a zillion injuries last year, and should be better if they can just stay healthy.
-Golden State feels like it should be a tougher regular season team with the Nellieball style - that team just feels like it's in a better place after the coaching change.
-MIN added a 20-pt scorer plus a potential ROY to its backcourt (though I don't entirely feel like all these parts fit - but it's hard to imagine they'll win *fewer* than last year's 33).
-And then there's New Orklahoma City, who made the most celebrated FA signing, though I'm not as high on them as others.

But there you have every team from the #7 seed on down except Portland - I mean, which of these teams are going to be worse? Seems like a significant chunk of how the standings shuffle out will come down to health - tough to predict.

So, it's a frustrating year for O/U aficionados like myself, but I'll give it a shot and take a closer look.

Below are this year's O/U lines from, with last year's win totals in parens, plus my pick and how strongly I feel about it.
I feel like such a square (i.e. public bettor) b/c I have so many Over picks, when I like to fashion myself as a sharp (i.e. professional "observer").
Just stick to the ones in bold - my Solid and Strong picks

Note: since people tend to bet Overs more than Unders, the odds are generally a bit better for Unders.

In case you don't want to scroll through the whole thing, here are the ones I like best:
ATL Under 28.5
CLE Over 49.5
GOL Over 37
HOU Over 46.5
NOK Under 40.5
NYK Over 31
ORL Over 38.5

Without further ado (acme, for entertainment purposes only ;-}):
ATL 28.5 (26) - UNDER - Solid
I like the UNDER here - they lost Harrington for nothing, and didn't improve much, while most of the other East lottery squads did.

BOS 36 (33) - OVER - Mild
If they can get anything like improvement from Jefferson and production from Rondo, I think they make this number easy. I just wonder if Pierce can match the monumental effort of last year.

CHA 33 (26) - OVER - Mild
This team had a huge amount of injuries last season, most notably with Okafor missing 56 games. Consider that most of their best players are improving young guys, plus Ray Felton for a full year and maybe some production from Morrison (whom I'm not high on), and this team looks much better on paper. 26 to 33 is a big jump, though.

CHI 48.5 (41) - UNDER - Mild
Considering this is everyone's darling club, it shouldn't be surprising that the U odds are really good. I definitely think this team is better with Big Ben, but man, I still remember how bad he looked in May, and wonder *how much* of an upgrade he is over Chandler at the respective points in their careers. I think they'll be right around the number.

CLE 49.5 (50) - OVER - Strong
I mean, honestly, you're telling me this team is going to get worse??? Do you not remember that Larry Hughes missed 46 games and Andy Varejao missed 34 last year? If the health of LBJ holds up (knock on a redwood tree), this seems like a no-brainer.

DAL 56.5 (60) - OVER - Mild
I get nervous about going over numbers this high, but I think people forget how many injuries this team withstood last year due to superlative depth. If they get reasonable health, I think they make the number.

I have no feel for this ballclub. Melo seems like he's ready to take a step up, which could lift them above the number singlehandedly, but who knows what they're going to get, and for how many games, from Martin, Nene, and Camby. My favorite Bodog prop bet allows you to pick which one of those three will be the first to miss 5 straight games.

DET 50.5 (64) - UNDER - Mild
Most notably, this team was freakishly healthy last season, starting the same lineup for the first 73 games. Then they lose Big Ben, and Hollinger points out that Chauncey's season was fluky by historical standards, and I think this team is going down - but 14 games is a lot.

GOL 37 (34) - OVER - Strong
I just get a good vibe from these guys. I'm not ready to say they'll be a playoff team, with all of the competition in the West, but I think they're going to be a hot team - going up and down with that building going wild - and Baron Davis seems really in tune with Nellie, which is the most important thing. 3-game improvement? No doubt. Only problem is that I'm not the only one who thinks this, and the odds are much more in your favor on the under.

HOU 46.5 (34) - OVER - Solid
Man, I was hoping the oddsmakers would sleep on these guys, and underestimate last year's injuries, but they didn't, and set a nice, healthy number, making this a tougher play. I like their moves getting Battier, Bonzi and even Snyder and I still think they can get back to their 51-win total of '04-05, but this is still a risky play cuz it's all about the health of T-Mac and Yao.

IND 44.5 (41) - OVER but stay away
On balance, I liked their offseason, re-acquiring Harrington and grabbing Daniels for Croshere. And don't forget that J. O'Neal missed two months last year. On paper, I take the over, but this just feels like a team with bad mojo, punctuated by the Steve Jackson-Fingers Willford tete-a-tete.

LAC 46 (47) - UNDER - Mild
The first thing I wonder about this team is: how the hell did they only win 2 more games than the Lakers, what with Brand's career year, the addition of Big Sammy and Cat, Kaman getting a double-double, Livingston developing. I feel like this team will be better, and I want them to be, but the evidence tells me otherwise.

LAL 43.5 (45) - OVER but stay away
I thought they made good solid role-player pickups with Vlad Rad, Mo Evans, even Shammond Williams. I think Phil will continue to get a little more out of Kwame. They should be better, but considering we don't know if Kobe's going to be ready for opening day, I think it's too tenuous of a play. They need him for as close to 82 as possible to hit the number.

MEM 39.5 (49) - NO FEEL
Obviously, Pau's out, but as I mentioned above, the Czar got a lot out of minimal talent in CLE in the mid-90s, so I wouldn't put this number past him.

MIA 51 (52) - Again, NO FEEL
What do you do with these guys for regular season wins? They're aging, they figure to lack motivation, esp. the big guy, and Wade could be exhausted. But then again, they have Riles driving all season, they're the champs, and D-Wade is still D-Wade after all. Sorry, I have no clue.

MIL 41.5 (40) - UNDER - Mild
Another team I don't have a good feel for - MIL seems about as blah of a mediocre .500 team as you could ask for. Villanueva and Patterson were nice pickups but not thrilling. And now Bogut's out for a little. I guess I'd rate them U just b/c I think several of the East lottery will be more improved, making it tough for these guys to match last year's win total.

MIN 37 (33) - OVER but stay away
I mean, on paper, James and Foye make this team better, but I worry that they dominate the ball too much to mesh with KG, who thrived in Flip's passing game. There's too much of a chance that this whole thing implodes, esp with all of the other West teams improving.

NJN 47 (49) - OVER but stay away
I thought they made some subtle moves to help improve their bench, which was atrocious last year, but now guys like Eddie House and Josh Boone have gone down, and I think they're back in trouble. All in all, I prob have too much trouble trusting Vince to ever go with one of his teams... but it is a contract yr... stay away.

NOK 40.5 (38) - UNDER - Solid
I don't know, these guys made the big splashy expensive moves for Peja and Chandler, but I'm really not that high on those guys. Throw in the fact that they overachieved with a bunch of buzzer-beaters and the OKC honeymoon, and I just feel like these guys will be a little worse, not better. I think this number is set too high as an overreaction to their signings.

NYK 31 (23) - OVER - Strong
I mean, I know it seems to defy logic, maybe you're not a believer in Isiah, but it just can't be worse than what Larry Brown inflicted upon this team last year. Amazing how a guy could turn in one of the better coaching jobs I've ever seen in '03-04 and one of the worst I've ever seen in '05-06. This team flat-out has talent. I think they win 35 with even the most medicore coaching job.

ORL 38.5 (36) - OVER - Strong
There's really no way I *can't* pick these guys to improve by 3 or more games, after they finished last season like gangbusters following shrewd trades and developing young players. These guys not only finished the season 12-3, but beat DAL, DET, MIA, and SAS in doing so, the latter two on the road.

PHI 35 (38) - UNDER - Mild
It's so tough to go U on a team that lines up AI, C-Webb, Andre Iggy, and Sam Dalembert - they look good on paper. But the chemistry just doesn't work with these guys, they play no D, I don't trust Cheeks, and I doubt AI and Webb can match last year's performance.

PHO 55.5 (54) - OVER but stay away
I just don't believe Amare is back, period. So I stay away from these guys.

POR 24.5 (21) - OVER but stay away
I have a feeling that Zach Randolph is going to have a big year, and B-Roy should help, but by and large their offseaon left me nonplussed, and many of the teams above them got better. Still, I think they'll play hard for Nate, which might allow them to steal some games down the stretch. All of these things are big variables... i.e. stay away.

SAC 43 (44) - OVER - Mild
I just look at this team and the fact that they were 26-14 after the Artest trade, and I think that that - a circa 50-win equivalent - should be the benchmark instead of 44-38. Losing Bonzi hurts a lot, but I like Coach Muss a lot. I would say this is a "Solid" O, but of course let's not forget that you'd be betting on Ronnie A's sanity....

SAS 56.5 (63) - OVER - Mild
Again, it's a tough number to go over on, but lord, how did these guys win 63 last year with all of their injuries, plus subpar seasons from Timmy and Manu. You'd have to think this team will be better, though I am concerned that they are aging a bit.

SEA 35.5 (35) - OVER - Very mild
On balance, I think this team is headed in the right direction. I loved how they closed the season after the trades. I think that a full season of Bob Hill + Earl Watson will help their D, and they really have a lot of depth. That said, they seem to have too many variables - can Ray do it again at 31? will Wilcox be as motivated? will they have to deal Rashard? Now you have the Swift injury and of course the arena situation (I actually think Clay Bennett will stabilize the situation compared to last year, but still, who knows?). Stay away.

TOR 34 (27) - UNDER - Mild
What a weird offseason. I think that Colangelo helps this team long term, and I liked how they finished last year after a terrible start. I hated the Villanueva trade, and they lost a 20-point scorer (James) for nothing. I liked the Fred Jones pickup, I think Bargnani will be pretty good, and Calderon looked great this summer. I like the long-term prospects for this franchise, but I think this is a transition year.

UTA 40 (41) - Wanted to say OVER but...
I was all ready to anoint this club as one of my strong O's, considering all of their injuries, and the late-season development of Deron Williams, but Hollinger pointed out that this team was the biggest overachiever in expected wins last year - their pt diff said they should have won 32 instead of 41. That sort of negates their expected improvement, and now I'm torn.

WAS 40 (42) - OVER - Mild
Weird team - they were under expected wins by 5 last year, but they didn't have any major injuries. And they didn't do much in the offseason. But then again, this is a team that gave CLE all it could handle in the playoffs. All in all, I think they're right around the number, so stay away.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

'06-07 Season Preview-- Southeast Division

Looking ahead to the 2006-07 season, the current world champs look to be right back into the thick of things at the top of the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference. Miami is a legit title contender again with the entire starting unit back. But not everything is quite perfect in Miami-- they could have serious questions about the status of their bench. Washington should be able to make another playoff run, but the question remains-- is do they have the personnel to advance deep in the playoffs. They must tighten up their defense and get better at moving the ball if they want to be in the upper echelon of the East Conf. Orlando has an solid chance of grabbing one of the last playoff spots in the East, but is not ready to be a serious contender for at least a couple years. I expect Atlanta & Charlotte to be bottom feeders once again in the East, and neither team has a real good chance of sniffing the playoffs.
*-The teams are listed in alphabetical order with last year's record in parentheses.

Atlanta Hawks--(26-56; T-4th in SE; T-13th in East)
Key additions: Speedy Claxton; Shelden Williams; Lo Wright
Key losses: Al Harrington

Congrats Atlanta, you're now the Worst Franchise in the NBA--Don Sterling & Elgin Baylor send their best regards. I know there has been uncertainity with the ownership, but that does not totally excuse the dunderheaded transactions or lack of transactions made by Billy Knight & Co. Two years in a row, the Hawks botch the draft & pass on filling their biggest hole of PG, which one of the hardest positions to fill in the NBA. The last two years they have had players like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rondo, Foye, & Marcus Williams for the taking, but passed. I find it even funnier now that Rondo & M. Williams have looked great in the preseason. Oh but don't worry, they picked up Speedy Claxton. Great, a 5-10 career back-up, problem solved. They picked up another SF to go with other 5 young SFs last year. This year they took a role-playing PF who will probably never average more than double-digit points at #5, when they could have traded down, and they let their best player walk in free agency without getting anything in return. Nice. No wonder they have no fans.

Getting back to strictly on-court issues, the Hawks have a long way to go defensively, and I can't see them making too many strides on that end this year--they were tied for the 3rd worst Def. FG% in the NBA. Rookie Sheldon Williams can help them defensively & on the boards to a degree, so his drafting was not a total mistake.

Josh Smith still shows tantalizing spurts of potential, but he seems not to understand how to put it all together. With Harrington gone, this is now Joe Johnson's team. He has the requisite skills, but does he have the killer instinct to be a #1 option, or is he more content with being a #2? Another issue for the Hawks is turnovers--they were 4th worst in the NBA--this might have somehing to do with lacking an adequate PG.

This team is still too young to seriously compete for a playoff spot. The Hawks have to solve their point guard problem as soon as possible--the free agent market is weak once again, and even though this is shaping up to be a superb draft, the one position that is weak is, yep, the point. Look at it this way Atlanta fans, someone has to be the laughingstock of the NBA now that the Clips are for real.

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS--(26-56; T-4th in SE; T-13th in East)
key additions: Walter Herrmann; Adam Morrison; Othella Harrington; Ryan Hollins
key losses: Jumaine Jones

Can't really expect much out of the Bobcats once again this year and the playoffs are really not a viable option. Very young team that has just shrugged off its expansion status and is sitting on their money waiting for next summer's free agent bonanza.

The biggest weakness this team needed to improve was their scoring--a 43.3 Off. FG% will not suffice. They didn't have anyone on the team last year who was really more than a 15 ppg type of guy. This is why they scooped up the best scorer in the draft, Adam Morrison. Adam is instantly Charlotte's best pure scorer and they desparately need him to give them around 20 ppg, since no one else is really capable of getting more than 15, even a healthy Okafor. Morrison is not in the NBA for his defense, but that's why you have the versatile Gerald Wallace next to him.

Sorry but I really can't see Emeka ever being a great scorer, healthy or not. I did not think he would be more than about a 15-17 ppg guy at best coming out of UConn & that's where he pretty much is now. His shooting % is rather poor for a post guy.

Argentine forward Walter Herrmann is a poor man's Nocioni--intense, strong driver, good rebounder at the SF, decent shooter--and played great in the FIBA Worlds. He's a back-up at best in the NBA and can play either forward spot.

Not a very good defensive unit last year. Tied with Atlanta for the 3rd worst Def. FG%. But by leading the league in forced turnovers they did cut down on their opponents' possesions, so it was not totally horrible on the defensive end. With Okafor back healthy, the defense should see improvements. One of the worst rebounding teams in the league last year, but that was most certainly effected by the absence of both Okafor & Sean May for roughly 55 games each.

The fans in Charlotte should not expect much this year and should just hope for Morrison to show signs of being able to score roughly 20 ppg vs. NBA-level defenders.

MIAMI HEAT--(52-30; 1st in SE; 2nd in East)
Key additions-- Earl Barron
Key losses-- Derek Anderson

The defending champs kept the roster pretty much intact, but age & an uncertain bench are factors to success. Expect Shaq to missed his obligatory 15 games either by legit injury or just "rest". Also will see if he goes thru the motions in the reg. season; more than likely. So expect the Heat's record not to be overwhelming, probably just enough to win the SE division. Also, expect D Wade to be in the running for the MVP award once again.

But one thing that I feel needs to be noted: Shaq is still one of the most dominant players in the league, in the top 10, no doubt. The dude shot 60% the last 2 years...60%. And he still needs to be double teamed more than any player in the league. So please keep leaving him off your Top 10 player lists and saying he's washed up (Hello, Dime Mag).

The starting 5 stays intact and all the key reserves are back, but 2 key ones are a year older--Mourning & Payton. Alonzo played great last year, especially on defense, but his health is always a day-to-day thing. And GP was a key cog for the Heat, even getting alot of the crunch time minutes at point, but he is not the same defensive presence any longer & is going to be 38/39 years old this season. This team could still use a reliable back-up behind Wade. A combo guard would be nice so to cover some minutes at point as well, but Riley really has not found one yet.

Outside shooting is still somewhat of a wild card. Although, the Heat shot the ball well in the playoffs, in general they rely on guys who have a rep as generally erratic gunners like A. Walker, J. Williams, & Payton. Wade does not help matters either. He shot the deep ball surprisingly well in the playofs, but his reg. season numbers were terrible--17% and more in line with his rep--24% career (he also did not shoot the long ball well in Worlds). When he gets past 18 feet his shot seems to desert him; The one significant hole in his game that needs to be improved. Posey is their most reliable 3pt. shooter, but he's only at 34% for his career. Posey & Williams had their best 3pt. shooting seasons of their career & Walker had one of his better years--will this type of shooting happen again?

This team could ultimately be done in by poor shooting in the playoffs, don't be surprised when it happens. I foresee Miami facing more zones this year--which is the wise thing to do vs. Shaq, especially paired with Wade--zones do make Wade uncomfortable. And the zones help to keep Wade off the foul line a little more, which is always a good thing. No-brainer to throw copious amounts of zone at the Heat.

No doubt the Heat are a title contender and are probably the strongest team in the East entering the season. But by no means are they an overwhelming favorite to win the East or repeat as Champs--age, motivation, and outside shooting are key factors to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

ORLANDO MAGIC--(36-46; 3rd in SE; 10th in East)
Key additons: JJ Redick
Key losses: DeShawn Stevenson; Kelvin Cato

The Magic seem to be the chic pick as the sleeper team du jour this year; but can you really consider them a sleeper when so many people like them? They definitely have a shot at getting one of the last East playoffs spots, but I would not pencil them in quite yet.

One thing that is highly encouraging in Orlando is their frontline. Their frontline is emerging into a possible devastating 1-2 punch that could wreak havoc for years to come. Howard is no longer just a man-child, he's all man--he is one of the most physically imposing bigs in the NBA at only 20 years old. This kid owns the boards, and is a strong deterrent defensively. He still needs to refine his post moves. Darko seems to slowly be coming into his own--extremely good shot-blocker, nice elbow jumper, sweet post moves. But he still seems reticent at times--he will fade away on some shots, instead of going up strong & has mopey body language sometimes.

One thing that is of minor concern is the perimeter defense. Picking JJ surely did not help this situation. If you plan on eventually starting Nelson, JJ, & Hedo as your 1-2-3, be prepared for Howard & Darko getting alot of blocks, but also picking up fouls left & right with all the penetration let in from the perimeter. Trevor Ariza helps, but would have been better advised at drafting Rod Carney or Ron Brewer to place between Jameer & Hedo.

The Magic still have a pretty young core which might not be quite ready to make a deep run in the East Conf. playoffs. But they definitely have the ability to get either the 7 or 8 seed, and being a thorn in side of Miami, NJ or who ever wins the Central in the 1st round.

WASHINGTON WIZARDS--(42-40; 2nd in SE; 5th in East)
Key additions: Darius Songalia; Deshawn Stevenson
Key losses: Jared Jeffries

This team can score with anyone--they are stocked in the scoring department with Arenas, C. Butler, & A. Jamison capable of getting 20 every night--its the overall defense & decision making that is an issue.

I thought they were not half bad defensively in the 1st round vs. Cavs, but that was only a handful of games. During the entirety of the season they were not too good. The Wiz were 2nd best in the NBA at causing TOs, so that helped to a small degree. They just have to get better at helping each other & closing off driving lanes as a team. Losing their best pure defender, Jared Jeffries, in free agency surely does not help their quest for better team defense.

A lot of people will say that the Wizards already have a pretty good point guard in Arenas. I don't think so. Gil is not a very good point guard--he's a very good 2-guard who needs a ball-handler next to him to let him just worry about attacking the rim. Gil's just a poor decision maker with the ball, which is backed-up by high number of turnovers, terrible asst/TO ratio & one of the worst shot selections in the NBA. I've felt this way for a couple years now, and the Wizards' brass agreed with me last year by bringing in Antonio Daniels, but Antonio seemed to underachieve last year.

This summer they had a chance to grab Rondo, who would have been a perfect fit--pure point who brings some defense-- but Grunfeld screwed up royally. This team still needs a true point. They just don't move the ball real well on offense, and they also need to improve their shooting %--two things that stem from having Arenas as your point in my opinion. Coach Jordan wants to run a Princeton-style offense, but he has the absolute worst personnel for it--this team really needs some role players with some passing skills & willingness for doing the little things. Jeffries fit that well, but they let him go. Off-season signee DeShawn Stevenson could possibly bring a little defense to the table, but will wait & see.

Really can't see the Wiz being much better than they were last year, but should be in the running for one of the 2 final playoff spots. If they can somehow turn their defensive mindset around & Arenas can reign in his blockhead tendencies, they could maybe compete for a 4 or 5 seed, but I think that's a longshot. They will eventually have to fight off improved teams in Orlando, Milwaukee, Boston, & Philly for one of the last 2 playoff spots.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

'06-07 Season Preview-- Pacific Division

The Pacific Division is becoming one of the best divisions in the NBA and is right there with the Central & Southwest. Phoenix should be leading the pack in the Pac, and with Amare back, possibly back to their '04-05 form. The Clips seemed to have turned the corner as a franchise, and are on the verge of breaking into the upper tier of NBA. The Lakers are always dangerous with the best player in the league (as far as I am concerned), and should get back to the playoffs. The Kings have a new young, fiery coach who should bring more discipline on the defensive end, which should help them stay in the running for one of the last playoff spots out West. The Warriors also have a new coach, but he's the polar opposite of Musselman--older, laid-back and not really caring if his players consider the concept of defense. But every team does have a legit shot at the playoffs, even the Warriors, so this division will be fun to watch.

GOLDEN ST WARRIORS--(34-48; 5th in Pac; T-12th in West)
Key additions: Pat O'Bryant
Key losses: Derek Fisher

There seems to be a fair amount of people excited about Nellie taking over the reins. Don't count me as one of them. It's no surprise he's employing a small ball lineup (something he was doing long before it was in vogue). Maybe his system will lend itself to some more victories in the reg season, but if the Warriors were to sneak into the playoffs, they would get throttled in the 1st round. Is this what Bay Area fans are really excited about? Getting blown out in the 1st round as their best option.

His quirky lineups might work some wonders on offense, but what about the other end? Defense has always been of an afterthought with Nellie, and G.S. has had issues with their D for awhile, and don't think Nellie will change anything for the better. Even with a conventional lineup with Troy Murphy at the 4 & someone like Foyle at the 5, they would be lousy defensively in Nellie's hands. But with Dunleavy at the 4, it's like Nellie really does not care what happens on the defensive end at all. Let's face it, Dunleavy is going to get abused on the block every night and the opposing team's gameplan is going to center around pounding it inside. Basically, the Bay Area fans need to prepare themselves that the defense is going to be bad.

The Warriors should not have trouble putting up points, but how efficient they put them up is the question. I think some coaches/front offices think they can just install these fast, undersized looks and hope for the same success as the Suns. I think they are misguided to how important/vital Nash is to the Suns' formula. You need a point guard who makes great decisions and take good shots and get good shots for his teammates.

Can Baron do that? Not sold. He needs to improve his shot selection and be able to improve the shooting % of his teammates. The Warriors were 3rd worst in Off. FG% in the NBA and coupled that with a poor 3pt %. The Warriors were also one of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA last year. Playing smallball obviously does not help this problem. GS likes to copy the Suns--poor rebounding, below average defense, forcing alot of TOs, but they are way off in the shooting efficiency department, and I think that is heavily influenced by the difference in point guards

The Warriors should just be called "the Knicks of the West Coast" from now on. The Warriors are locked into about 9-10 players for a couple more years and they don't seem to play well together, sort of like the Knicks. Good talent that does not fit together, bad defense & bad contracts--sure sounds like the Knicks. Although I can't totally rule them out of a bottom playoff spot--I think they have a slim chance, but I just do not think they are better than the Jazz, Lakers or Kings.
I just can't see who they can finish ahead of in the division.

LA CLIPPERS--(47-35; 2nd in Pac; 6th in West)
Key additions: Paul Davis; Tim Thomas
Key losses: Vlad Radmanovic

Will try to build on the momentum they established last year. This franchise seems to be on the upswing and has unofficially handed the "Worst Franchise" tag over to the Hawks.

Elton Brand has definitely made the jump to the upper echelon of the NBA--his mid-range post-up game is pretty devastating. His frontcourt partner, Chris Kaman, is developing into a solid NBA center, but still has a tendency to get lost on the defensive end. But frontcourt depth behind these two is definitely an issue. Tim Thomas helps, but he plays more like an SF & does not bring much in the way of defense. Rookie Paul Davis might need to step up to the plate this year--could be a nice pick-n-pop guy off the bench--because Zelly Rebraca & Aaron Williams are the only other options.

Right now it seems like they are sticking with Maggette, but I see his situation as pretty shaky with Dunleavy at the helm. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with Corey's game. Sometimes he really impresses me with his strong drives to the rim which often lead to him making a living on the foul line. The great defensive rebounding from the SF position wins high marks from me as well. But he can infuriate you at the same time with incredibly boneheaded turnovers and horribly misguided shot selection, so I understand why the Clips seem to always entertain offers for Corey.

I would not worry about Sammy's age, he still looked pretty good last year, plus his game has never been predicated on speed, it's all about his savvy, fakes & positioning. On top of that, S. Livingston is nearly ready to step in if Cassell gets old in a hurry-- Shaun is one of the best pure passers in the league, but needs to chug the whey protein & tweak his jumpshot.

I mentioned this last spring but I still don't think people realize that the Clippers are an underrated defensive team. They are also one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA. Don't forget they were the 6th best in Off. FG %. You would think with all this success in key categories they would have had a little bit better point diff. (+1.6) & maybe slightly better record.

One thing they need to improve on, is their 3pt. shooting--they were 2nd lowest in attempts--Thomas fills Radman's role, but no one elses lights it up from deep besides Mobley. Maybe the couple extra points per game the increased 3pt. makes bring will up their point diff.

I think the Clips have the ability to get to 2nd round, especially if they get the Nugs in the 1st round again. Would not be stunned if they got to the West finals, but I think it will tough as they are a notch below the Spurs, Mavs, & the Suns.

LA LAKERS--(45-37; 3rd in Pac; 7th in West)
Key additons: Maurice Evans; Vlade Radmanovic; Shammond Williams; Jordan Farmar
Key losses: Devean George

The Lakers had an underrated off-season in my opinion by grabbing some shooters to surround Kobe & Odom, and grabbing a couple of points who could possibly help their weakest position. I like the signing of Radmanovic, and they got another solid wing for basically nothing in Mo Evans.

PG spot is still a question mark. They need someone who can knock down shots most importantly. Shammond Williams could be the best fit next to Kobe, not really a true point, but he does not have to be a playmaker, more important to hit open outside looks. I like Jordan Farmar's potential, but not sure how much he can contribute this year & is not much of a shooter either.

Mo Evans can cover up the loss of Dev George. Vlad also can help keep the extra defenders off Kobe & Odom. I would like to see Kobe at the 2, Vlad at the 3 & Odom at the 4 as the main lineup. I think Phil should start Odom at the 4, he has the best post skills of any of the Lakers. Also, Ronny Turiaf needs to see more time. Showed nice glimpses of potential in the playoffs last year & in this preseason. Has better offensive skills then Kwame, maybe not as big, but brings great energy off the bench. Kwame's off. skills need a ton of work--bad footwork, very little touch, passing skills lacking. Granted, he looked good vs. the Suns last year, but the Suns usually make any post player look like a Hall-o-Famer on offense.

I feel pretty confident they will grab one of the last playoffs spots, but I just can't see them advancing out of the 1st round. Although, with Kobe around, never totally count out the Lakers. But I just see their PG & Center positions not being quite up to snuff to help Kobe & Odom along.

PHOENIX SUNS--(54-28; 1st in Pac; 2nd in West)
Key additions: Marcus Banks; Jumaine Jones; Eric Piatkowski
Key losses: Tim Thomas; Ed House

Is this the year? It could all boil down to Amare's left knee. If he's relatively healthy & can get some consistency by March this team has a shot to win a title. If they can't get nearly enough from him, they can't hope to get out of the the West. And the clock is ticking, because Nash & his balky back are not getting any younger. Also, Marion could be on his way out because the Suns are headed for luxury tax land next year.

Although, Rob Sarver maybe had a change of heart after the draft where the Suns looked petrified to take on even the smallest of rookie contracts. I mean why did they pass on Rondo at about a mil/year then take on M. Banks at about 3 mil & then offer Barbosa & Diaw extensions? Maybe someone got to Sarver and explained to him to go all out because the time is now to win in Phoenix.

Can Diaw & Amare co-exist? They operate in the same area of the high-post playing off of Nash. It will be interesting to see how they play off each other & if either guy eventually crimps the other's play. Also, will Marion complain about fighting for touches? He has made small waves before complaining about his role. So don't be shocked if you hear some minor grumblings out of the desert this year, there are issues that are definitely ripe for the picking.

This team really did not address their biggest flaw this off-season--interior defense. They added perimeter guys who were overkill--Jumaine Jones--but are left with Sean Marks & Pat Burke as their only true centers, yeah. People seem to think having Amare back solves their interior defenses issue. Sorry, not really. Amare was never a good defender--occasionally he'd make some blocks coming off the ball, but otherwise he would stand around with his arms down going thru the motions, out of position & not having a clue what to do. I know the Suns' defense was better when Kurt Thomas was healthy in the reg. season, but the Suns' defense was solid in the reg. season in 04-05 and was awful in the playoffs.

One of the worst rebounding teams in the NBA, and this does help things on the defensive end when they give up so many easy shots. Should improve with Amare back & moving a double-digit boardman to SF. But could still be an issue come playoff time like it was 2 years ago with Amare playing.

This team still has to prove it can defend in the playoffs, especially in the paint. The Suns do not have to play great defense, just mediocre because their offense is so efficient. If Amare is not relatively healthy come April, it will be mighty tough for the Suns to get past either the Mavs or the Spurs.

SACRAMENTO KINGS--(44-38; 4th in Pac; 8th in West)
Key additions: John Salmons; Quincy Douby; Mo Taylor
Key losses: Bonzi Wells

They still have guys who score the ball, and their defense should be better by having Artest & Musselman from the start of the year. Musselman will definitely tighten up the defense.

Biggest holes were back-up defensive big & defensive PG. They really did not cover any of these holes this summer. Hate to say it but the Kings had one of the worst off-seasons of any team; one usually doesn't say that when Geoff Petrie is at the helm. Although, that should not really kill their playoff chances. They could have had Rondo (who would have been a perfect fit behind Bibby), but went after Douby, who is just another young 2-guard. They could have Josh Boone as well who could have helped defensively upfront. Then they went and vastly overpaid for John Salmons after he got cold feet with the Raptors (The Raptors must be delighted that Salmons nixed the deal, because now they have a better player in Fred Jones at half the price). I guess Salmons can cover some back-up point, but why are you paying him that much when he did not prove much with Philly.

Shareef Rahim might need to start--if they could move Kenny Thomas' putrid contract they would in a second. Shareef reminded people of his deft scoring talent by going to work over Duncan in the 1st round. This guy use to be a 20-9 guy when he was getting 38 mins per, so hopefully Musselman ups his minutes. Not sure why they needed another undersized PF who plays no defense in Mo Taylor. I am not that concerned about the loss of Bonzi because he overlapped with Artest somewhat and I feel confident in the talents of Kevin Martin, who played with a ton of poise in the playoffs.

I think the Kings are in the running for one of the last playoffs spots West with the Lakers, T-Wolves & Jazz. But they could definitely use some defensive help in the interior to make things easier on themselves. Right now I have them tentatively penciled into the 8th spot, but no team's fortunes are ever certain when their best all-around player is Ron Artest. You know with Ron being slighty goofy, in all

New lineup for ABC/ESPN

Michael Hiestand of USA Today is reporting that ABC/ESPN has finalized the changes in its broadcaster lineup.

Here's what we got:
-Mark Jackson replaces Hubie Brown as the No. 1 ABC analyst, working with Mike Breen.
-Hubie stays on board as the No. 1 analyst on ESPN games with Breen, and as the No. 2 analyst on ABC games, working with Mike Tirico.
-No word yet on how they'll split up the Eastern Conference Finals (on ESPN) and the NBA Finals (on ABC), though a three-man booth is a possibility.
-Recently retired Jon Barry replaces Steve Jones, working with Bill Walton and Mike Tirico on ESPN.
-No word on the other cast of characters, such as Durham and Musburger and Tolbert, so I assume there are no changes.
-As far as pregame shows, Jackson will do Joe Buck-like double duty. It doesn't say here, but I believe that that team is still Dan Patrick, Michael Wilbon and Jackson. Pippen will not be back.
-J. Mashburn, A. Houston, K. Vandeweghe will be studio analysts for ESPN.

Also, here's a smattering of good quotes from the last couple days:
-From Hiestand's column:
"TNT preseason coverage eavesdropped on NBA referee Ron Garretson warning Los Angeles Clippers guard Sam Cassell that refs now want players to be well-mannered when they complain about foul calls and won't tolerate 'gyration.' Later on TNT, Cassell was asked about such gyration: 'I never heard of it, and I speak a lot of jive, too. ... I even went to Russia this year, and I've never heard of that word.'"

-From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
Pat Riley on Dwyane Wade playing in Olympic qualifying next summer:
"I would imagine that it would be in the best interest of him and his body if he would turn it over to Kobe (Bryant) or somebody for next summer. He's done his part. But again, I don't want to speak for him."
This wouldn't be a huge story, as Wade could easily come back for Beijing in '08 even if he skips qualifying next year.

Also, note that Wade, shirtless for the ladies, is on the cover of the new GQ. Story is by Joel Lovell, and there's an excerpt here.

-From the always entertaining Paul Shirley chats on ESPN.com:

Thaddeus (cape cod, MA): What was it like going up against Mark Madsen every day in practice for 3 weeks?

Paul Shirley:
A flurry of paleness.

-From the Enemy's Lines notes from an opposing scout, in the Rockets preview in Sports Illustrated:
"The Rockets have so many good citizens that Bonzi Wells will be O.K. It reminds me of the old quote from Al McGuire: You can afford to have one donkey, but you can't have two because then they'll breed."
Al was kinda funny before he turned into the Grandpa Simpson of broadcasting.

-Last word of the day to the Big Fella, courtesy Palm Beach Post:
"There will come a time in my career as a master where a young ninja will take me out. That's just how it happens. If you look at all the karate movies that's how they go. There's one young hungry ninja and he has to beat the guy with the white beard. The old guy with the white beard is the one you have to take out."

Friday, October 20, 2006

'06-07 Season Preview--Southwest Division

Arguably one of the best divisions alongside the Central Division, although the Pacific is gaining fast. You have two of the best teams in the NBA, the Spurs & Dallas, who had to slug it out in a legendary playoff series one round too early because of a flawed seeding system. They also have another team in Houston, who if they can avoid the injury bug, has to be considered a legit title contender as well. The Hornets also were a huge surprise last year (I thought they would win 15 games at the most), nearly making it to the playoffs with not much apparent talent on their roster. Right now, things don't look so rosy in Memphis with Gasol's foot injury, which should eliminate them from playoff consideration.
*-Last year's record in parenthesis.

DALLAS MAVERICKS--(60-22; 2nd in SW; 4th in West)
Key additions: Greg Buckner; Moe Ager; Devean George; Austin Croshere
Key losses: Adrian Griffin; Keith Van Horn; Marquis Daniels

Should have no problem repeating the success of last year, one of the elite teams in the league. Stayed strong by having a productive off-season. Re-signed Jason Terry. Lost Van Horn, but basically neutralized it with a trade for Croshere, who actually plays a modicum of defense in the post & is tougher. Anthony Johnson gives them a savvy, back-up point. It will be interesting to see if Avery starts Dev Harris with Terry in the backcourt or starts Stack, Buckner or Dev George at the 2. George gives them a solid battle-tested vet who can provide some outside shooting. I like the pick-up of Moe Ager which just deepens the backcourt furthur. If they can get Diop to keep developing on his natural progression, they should be fine at the center. Basically, the Mavs are in great shape.

The one minor thing this team is missing is someone who can be a reliable low-post option. The one significant flaw of this team is they get too jumpshot-happy. Dirk will go down on the block here & there, but its seems like he has to be coaxed to go down there. Even though, this team still has a knack for getting to the free-throw line with all their emphasis on jumpshots, which is slightly surprising.

Should fight for the West crown with SA, Phoenix, & Houston and have an excellent chance to get back to the finals.

HOUSTON ROCKETS--(34-48; 5th in SW; T-12th in West)
Key additions: Bonzi Wells; Kirk Snyder; Shane Battier; Vassilis Spanoulis
Key losses: Stro Swift; David Wesley

Health is the buzz word in Houston. Most importantly, how is the health of McGrady's back? If he can keep his missed games to a minimum, this team has the ability to challenge for a West crown. Yao has to stay free of the injury bug as well, (he still seems to have lingering foot problems, but he did lead the Worlds in scoring in the prelims).

The Rockets stayed busy in the off-season trying to compliment the Big Two. Shane Battier provides the team with a great spot-shooter who can relieve pressure off Yao & Tracy. Rookie S.Novak is Matt Bullard Jr.--he does not do anything but shoot, but he does that very well. Not really sure why they needed Bonzi, with the acquistion of K. Snyder & V. Spanoulis, but they did get Bonzi at a bargain-basement price, so why not.

Their backcourt situation looks pretty good, really good compared to their frontcourt situation. They are severely hurting for depth & athleticism upfront. Mutombo's playing on fumes, at this point Juwan Howard should be a back-up or at least have his minutes limited to 30 mins or below. Who else do they have, Ryan Bowen? Chuck Hayes? I don't care what his rebound rate was last year--he's 6-6 & is only good for a max of 15 minutes.

They need to use one or two of their surplus of backcourt players to make a deal for a big, preferably someone athletic. Why not a guy like Kel Cato? He's nothing special, but he played pretty well next to Yao a few years back, and he's available & better than any bench guy they have now.

Defense is not an issue--Houston had one of the top defensive teams in the NBA despite throwing out a NBDL-level lineup by the end of the season. So I am not sure they needed Battier as bad as everyone thinks they did. Sure, his shooting is wonderful next to Tracy & Yao, but they had to part with Swift, and they still have a gaping hole in frontcourt where he left. Battier can play some 4 and they plan to do that, since they might have no other choice after Juwan.

PG spot is a minor question mark as well. What can they get from R. Alston? Not sure and I still don't think Van Gundy totally loves having Alston as his point. Spanoulis is nothing more than back-up, who's not much of a shooter & his playmaking skills are questionable, but he is intense & a scrappy defender, which Van Gundy should love.

Outside shooting was something that needed to be improved--new additions Battier & Novak help alot, although none of their backcourt additions Wells, Spanoulis, or Snyder are known for their shooting and Novak can only play limited minutes.

If McGrady & Yao stay relatively healthy, this team can be put in the same echelon as the Spurs, Suns, & the Mavs. But their frontcourt depth could eventually cost them in the playoffs when they will face off vs. one or two of these teams.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES--(49-33; 3rd in SW; 5th in West)
Key additions: Stro Swift; Rudy Gay; Kyle Lowry
Key losses: Shane Battier; Lo Wright

For a team that would have been fighting for one of the bottom playoff slots out West even with a healthy Gasol, losing him for a month or two ruins their playoff chances. So Spain's gold medal run pretty much flushed Memphis' season down the toilet.

Not really sure where this team is going to get scoring from with Pau out. I thought this was a flaw last year in my playoff previews: they don't have dynamic secondary scoring around Gasol. Possibly in the future Rudy Gay can be that guy, but he's not ready for that this year. But like it or not, I think Fratello needs to give Gay more minutes & touches than anticipated because the Grizz desparately need his scoring acumen--right now he's probably their best scoring option.

Their point guard situation is not helping things either. They are counting on a 33-year-old Damon Stoudamire, who's trying to recover from a bad knee, & his back-ups are barely 6-feet themselves & both are back-up caliber at best.

Even if Gasol was healthy, the Grizz were in need of some size after Lo Wright left in free agency. Stro Swift does not want to be there, plus they already tried that experiment before & it did not work. When some people thought Laettner coming back was a joke, I was not laughing because he could probably start for this team right now. I'll take Laettner over Big Jake anyday. As you can see this team was in disarray regardless of Gasol's health, I understand why Jerry West is in a hurry to retire.

The Grizz were not a very good rebounding team last year, and failing to bring another center in after Wright's departure does not help things. Hopefully, Rudy Gay can use his length to help on the boards from the SF slot.

Really can't see them making the playoffs, especially with Gasol out for an extended period of time. But I do expect this team to play tough & keep games closer than expected because of Fratello's staunch leadership.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS--(38-44; 4th in SW; 10th in West)
Key additions: Peja Stokaovic; Tyson Chandler; Hilton Armstrong; Ced Simmons; Bob Jackson
Key losses: PJ Brown; JR Smith; Kirk Snyder

Somewhat of a surprise last year, with Byron Scott being the Coach-o-Year in my estimation. Promising young core to build around, especially on the bookends of PG & Center.

Thought the front office did a great job this off-season. Needed a back-up PG--got a solid vet in Bob Jackson. Needed a SF & outside shooting--killed two birds with Peja, somewhat expensive, but was one of the best F.A. available this summer. T. Chandler & Hilton Armstrong gives them two young, athletic centers who can come in handy detering all the penetrating guards that are in vogue because of the new rules. But the Hornets do have a hole at SG, where Des Mason is better suited as back-up wing, and there is basically no one of substance behind him.

Think they can challenge for one of the last playoff seeds, but think they will get bumped off by either the Lakers, Kings or Jazz, who are slightly superior in my mind. The Hornets are just a little too green outside of Peja, especially their frontcourt.

SAN ANTONIO--(63-19; 1st in SW; 1st in West)
Key additions: Francisco Elson; Jackie Butler; Jacque Vaughan; Eric Williams; Matt Bonner
Key losses: Nazr Mohammed; Rasho Nestorvic; Nick Van Exel

By no means is this team washed-up as some people would make you believe. If Manu does not commit that haphazard foul on Dirk, the Spurs are in the finals vs. the Heat. Having a healthy Duncan, makes a significant difference & Manu never could get into a rhythm last year either because of his own injuries.

Although, some trepidation is warranted. Bruce Bowen is still a top-notch defender, but he is at that age where you are in danger of getting old overnite almost literally--it can happen fast. His main back-up is M. Finley, who's still valuable, but he's 33/34, to go along with mid-30s Brent Barry & Eric Williams on the wings. This team definitely needs an infusion of youth on the wings around Manu.

Another issue is the frontcourt slot opposite Timmy. Robert Horry looked like he used up all his good karma with the b-ball gods last spring & he should not be starting at this point, and no one else on the roster is really starting caliber. New pick-ups Jack Butler & Fran Elson are nice solid reserves, but back-ups at best. I like the things that F. Oberto brings to the table, but I don't really think he's starter-caliber either. Although, Nazr Mohammed was nothing special himself & playing next to Duncan does take off alot of pressure, so maybe it will not be that big of an issue.

What does all this mean? The Spurs should once again be in the thick of things, and should be considered one of the top 5 teams in the NBA. This team won 63 games last year with a gimpy Duncan & Manu scuffling with injuries all year, so by no means are they now playing second fiddle to the Mavs-- their pretty equal in my mind.