Monday, October 29, 2007

2007-08 NBA Preview (Pacific Division)

Good lord, this thing is done! I can scarcely believe it, and with only hours to spare. This is quite possibly the single most hellbent I've ever been on a project, so I hope somebody out there is getting something out of it. I suppose it is incumbent upon me to make a prediction at this point, and even though I'm no good at this, I'll do it. You can't go wrong with picking the Spurs and the Pistons as finalists, with the Spurs taking the series in six games. They're the two most successful franchises over the past five years and no one has made a move that's significant enough to stop either of them. Only an inspired effort, like LeBron's coming of age in last year's Eastern Conference Finals, or the Mavericks' resounding Game 7 win in San Antonio in 2006, can derail these two.

Oh, and how could I ever forget? ... Statistics in parentheses are points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game from 2006-07, unless otherwise noted. And I do, on occasion, note otherwise.

Golden State Warriors
2006-07: 42-40
Beat Dallas 4-2 in first round
Lost to Utah 4-1 in conference semifinals
Coach: Don Nelson
Starting lineup
PG Baron Davis (20.1/4.4/8.1)
SG Monta Ellis (16.5/3.2/4.1)
SF Stephen Jackson (16.8/3.3/4.6)
PF Mickael Pietrus (11.1/4.5/0.9)
C Andris Biedrins (9.5/9.3/1.1)
F/C Al Harrington (17.0/6.4/2.3)
F Matt Barnes (9.8/4.6/2.1)
C Patrick O'Bryant (1.9/1.3/0.6)
G/F Kelenna Azubuike (7.1/2.3/0.7)
PG Troy Hudson (5.9/1.4/2.1)
PF Brandan Wright (rookie, 8th pick)
SG Marco Belinelli (rookie, 18th pick)
PF Austin Croshere (3.7/3.0/0.7)

The Warriors returned to relevance in a resounding way last season, making their first playoff appearance in 13 years count with an upset of No. 1 seed Dallas. The emotional heart of the team is Stephen Jackson (pictured, right, with Kobe Bryant), the volatile swingman who will miss the first seven games of the season as punishment for an alleged incident at an Indianapolis strip club. When he returns, he brings intensity that translates on both ends, and especially on offense, where he is fearless driving the basket in the Warriors' up-tempo attack. If he's playing dialed in and isn't turning the ball over, he's one of the league's best players. The conscience of the Warriors is Baron Davis, the veteran point guard who directs Don Nelson's famous small-ball attack. He can penetrate, shoot and post up any other point guard in the league, but like Jackson, is prone to turnovers. Monta Ellis, a scorer whose athletic skills are perfectly tailored for this offense, moves into the starting lineup to replace Jason Richardson, who was traded to Charlotte for rookie Brandan Wright. Andris Biedrins is another athletic presence, but while he excels at defense and is a solid rebounder, he doesn't contribute much offensively. Mickael Pietrus, another skilled athletic defender who could use a reliable jump shot, starts at power forward while Nelson tries Al Harrington as a sixth man. Harrington is an offensive threat as a shooter and with his post-up game and will see time at all three front court positions. Swingman Matt Barnes is another valuable asset off the bench who provides energy and is rapidly developing his offensive game. Kelenna Azubuike's jump shot and open-court game were nearly enough to vault him into the starting shooting guard role. Troy Hudson, a fearless penetrator but not a skilled distributor, is the backup point guard, but his job description, like most others on the team, is subject to tinkering by a veteran coach who is known to experiment.

Los Angeles Clippers
2006-07: 40-42
Coach: Mike Dunleavy
Starting lineup
PG Sam Cassell (12.3/2.9/4.7)
SG Quinton Ross (5.2/2.3/1.1)
SF Corey Maggette (16.9/5.9/2.8)
PF Tim Thomas (11.0/5.0/2.3)
C Chris Kaman (10.1/7.8/1.1)
F Al Thornton (rookie, 14th pick)
G Cuttino Mobley (13.8/3.4/2.5)
F/C Paul Davis (1.6/1.4/0.2)

Power forward Elton Brand wasn't the only one hurt badly when he tore his achilles tendon in August. He'll miss at least the first half of the season, which is probably enough to knock the Clippers from playoff contention since he was by far their best player. Corey Maggette (pictured), who's been a versatile talent and provides both strength and athleticism, must raise the level of play to the star-quality level he's never quite reached if this team is to remain afloat while Brand recovers. It would also help if Tim Thomas, who is one of the NBA's most inconsistent talents, is at his best and produce offensively. Sam Cassell, one of the best shoot-first point guards in the NBA over the past decade, turns 38 on Nov. 18 and just isn't the player he once was, but he's the best the Clippers have at this point. Center Chris Kaman, an energetic force around the basket but a deficient rebounder, needs to improve his rebounding and could use a consistent mid-range jumper, too. Quinton Ross doesn't have much of an offensive game, but is the Clippers' best perimeter defender and is a much needed rebounder as well. Cuttino Mobley is a skilled defender as well, and his shooting and quickness make him a valuable reserve who could wind up in the starting lineup at either guard position at some point. Rookie Al Thornton is another who could be starting soon, but he's blocked for now by Maggette, who is in many ways a more polished version of Thornton. Scoring has always been what backup center Paul Davis does best, but his work rebounding and passing this past offseason has earned him a spot in the rotation. He might start some day if he gets better on defense, too.

Los Angeles Lakers
2006-07: 42-40
Lost to Phoenix 4-1 in first round
Coach: Phil Jackson
Starting lineup
PG Derek Fisher (10.1/1.8/3.3)
SG Kobe Bryant (31.6/5.7/5.4)
SF Luke Walton (11.4/5.0/4.3)
PF Lamar Odom (15.9/9.8/4.8)
C Kwame Brown (8.4/6.0/1.8)
C Andrew Bynum (7.8/5.9/1.1)
C Chris Mihm (last played in 2005-06: 10.2/6.3/1.0)
F Vladimir Radmanovic (6.6/3.3/1.2)
SG Sasha Vujacic (4.3/1.5/0.9)
PG Jordan Farmar (4.4/1.7/1.9)
PF Ronny Turiaf (5.3/3.6/0.9)

Trade rumors continue to swirl around Kobe Bryant, so the team could look drastically different at any moment. Bryant wants out of what seems to be a dead-end situation in which an appearance in the conference semifinals would be a breakthrough accomplishment. The team around him, though improved this season, is not suited to complement his vast skills. Power forward Lamar Odom, the team's second best player, is an all-around talent and probably the best passer on the team, but his weakness is a lack of aggression and intensity, which Bryant demands from teammates. Luke Walton, who likely starts at small forward, is a similar player to Odom in that he is a skilled passer with an array of skills but doesn't look to score. The team's most significant acquisition was of Derek Fisher, who has plenty of experience playing with Bryant, having been his backcourt mate on all four of the Lakers' runs to the Finals this decade. Fisher isn't a star, but he's a dangerous outside shooter and a crafty defender who can make up for a lack of speed. Center Kwame Brown has the most tenuous hold on his starting spot, largely contingent on continued development of his offensive game, into which he has failed to channel his vast athletic ability in any of his six seasons so far. He's in a three-way battle with Andrew Bynum, another high school-to-NBA project, and Chris Mihm, who was the starter before missing all of last season with an ankle injury. The team will likely keep Vladimir Radmanovic on the bench to use as a scoring sixth man, capable of getting points with his outside shot as well as with post-ups. Defense keeps him from beating out Luke Walton for a starting gig. Sasha Vujacic is another valuable reserve, despite his inconsistency, given his ability to play either guard spot. Jordan Farmar, who was the team's starting point guard in the playoffs, is nonetheless a poor defender and shooter and must battle Vujacic for minutes.

Phoenix Suns
2006-07: 61-21
Beat L.A. Lakers 4-1 in first round
Lost to San Antonio 4-2 in conference semifinals
Coach: Mike D'Antoni
Starting lineup
PG Steve Nash (18.6/3.5/11.6)
SG Raja Bell (14.7/3.2/2.5)
SF Grant Hill (14.4/3.6/2.1)
PF Shawn Marion (17.5/9.8/1.7)
C Amare Stoudemire (20.4/9.6/1.0)
F/C Boris Diaw (9.7/4.3/4.8)
G Leandro Barbosa (18.1/2.7/4.0)
PG Marcus Banks (4.9/0.8/1.3)
F/C Sean Marks (2.0/1.0/0.0)

The Suns can make a legitimate claim that they would have won the title last year if not for the controversial suspension of Amare Stoudemire in Game 5 against the Spurs or if not for disgraced official Tim Donaghy, who worked Game 3 of that series. We'll never know for sure. What we will find out is if it was their best shot at a championship with this group by seeing whether the infusion of free-agent signee Grant Hill elevates the team or an injury-prone bunch led by Steve Nash, who turns 34 in February, is about to crumble physically. Nash, a two-time MVP and the director of the Suns signature small-ball, up-tempo attack, has been plagued by back problems in recent years that haven't kept him out of important games but require him to lay on the floor instead of sit during breaks. Hill had his career derailed by ankle injuries that cost him the better part of three seasons. He hasn't played as many as 70 games in a season since, but when healthy lends an interesting change of pace to the Suns' offense. He's never played in a fast-breaking system, but his slick passing, court vision and ability to get to the basket are excellent fits, even if his mid-range jumper will be difficult to shoehorn in. He joins the starting lineup with explosive slasher and rebounder Shawn Marion, center Amare Stoudemire, who combines strength, agility and speed like no other big man, and Raja Bell, one of the league's premier perimeter defenders and a dangerous three-point shooter. The bench features Boris Diaw, whose long arms, athleticism and knowledge of the game allow him to play all five positions, and Leandro Barbosa, quite possibly the fastest man in the NBA who can blow by defenders on his way to the basket. Marcus Banks, a skilled defender whom the team is counting on to improve his playmaking and shooting so he can spell Nash at point guard, is fighting for a spot in the rotation along with Sean Marks, a post player with deft offensive moves and a reliable jump shot but little appetite for banging in the paint.

Sacramento Kings
2006-07: 33-49
Coach: Reggie Theus
Starting lineup
PG Mike Bibby (17.1/3.2/4.7)
SG Kevin Martin (20.2/4.3/2.2)
SF Ron Artest (18.8/6.5/3.4)
PF Shareef Abdur-Rahim (9.9/5.0/1.4)
C Brad Miller (9.0/6.4/3.6)
PG Orien Greene (1.5/1.1/0.5)
G John Salmons (8.5/3.3/3.2)
G/F Francisco Garcia (6.0/2.6/1.1)
F/C Mikki Moore (9.8/5.1/0.9)
F Kenny Thomas (5.3/6.1/1.2)

The Kings were dealt a withering blow when Mike Bibby tore ligaments in his thumb at the end of preseason that will keep him out the first six to 10 weeks of the regular season. Bibby is the last link to their title-contending teams from the early part of this decade and far and away their best ball handler. His shot and leadership will be missed as well, as the starting point guard job falls to Orien Greene, whose best asset is his defense. The team will be missing Ron Artest (pictured) for the first seven games because of a suspension stemming from a no-contest plea to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge. The Kings will be missing one of the best perimeter defenders in the game and a steadily improving offensive force who had developed a reliable mid-range and outside jumper. Veteran Brad Miller has been plagued by nagging injuries, but he should be available to provide the passing, mid-range shooting and rebounding that make him one of the better centers in the game. Prior injuries have robbed Shareef Abdur-Rahim of some of the skills that made him a one-time All-Star and top 10 scorer, but he's still one of the craftier point producers in the game who is an asset offensively. Kevin Martin, the team's leading scorer last season, is around to provide defense and is the kind of athlete new coach Reggie Theus wants to emphasize in a more up-tempo game. The team has a pair of capable if undersized veteran frontcourt options off the bench in Mikki Moore, a shot blocker and active defender, and Kenny Thomas, a rebounder and scorer. The backup wings are the ones who must step up. John Salmons is a smart and versatile player whose shot could use work and Francisco Garcia must work in the weight room to add strength and improve a deficient defensive game.

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