Sunday, October 28, 2007

2007-08 NBA Preview (Southwest Division)

Someone please tell Yao that photographers who want him to do homoerotica aren't with the Chinese government, and he doesn't have to comply with their requests ...

Objects in mirror are closer tha ... er ... statistics in parentheses are points per game/rebounds per game/assists per game from 2006-07, unless otherwise noted.

Dallas Mavericks

2006-07: 67-15
Lost to Golden State 4-2 in first round
Coach: Avery Johnson
Starting lineup
PG Devin Harris (10.2/2.5/3.7)
SG Eddie Jones (7.7/3.0/1.7)
SF Josh Howard (18.9/6.8/1.8)
PF Dirk Nowitzki (24.6/8.9/3.4)
C Desagana Diop (2.3/5.4/0.4)
G/F Jerry Stackhouse (12.0/2.2/2.8)
G Jason Terry (16.7/2.9/5.2)
C Erick Dampier (7.1/7.4/0.6)
SF Devean George (6.4/3.6/0.6)
G/F Trenton Hassell (6.7/3.2/2.7)

A core scarred by consecutive playoff collapses returns to seek an elusive championship that seemed imminent, before they blew a 2-0 lead in the 2006 Finals and before they were shocked in the first round last year. Reigning MVP Dirk Nowitzki (pictured, second from left) is the anchor for what coach Avery Johnson (pictured, far right) promises will be a more up-tempo attack this season (also pictured is team owner Mark Cuban, far left, and commissioner David Stern, second from right). That would seem to fit their personnel, and point guard Devin Harris has the quickness and playmaking ability to run a fast-break offense, and is one of the best defenders at his position as well. Only the lack of a jump shot keeps him from becoming an All-Star. The development of a reliable shot helped Josh Howard earn his first All-Star berth last year, and his athleticism could become even more apparent if the team quickens its pace. Center Desagana Diop can run the floor well for a 7-footer and his blocked shots could start plenty of transition opportunities. The Mavs will go to backup Erick Dampier for rebounding. Defensive whiz and long-range shooter Eddie Jones will likely get the nod at starting shooting guard, though incumbent starter Jason Terry could very well playing more minutes. Bringing Terry off the bench would allow for the Mavs' reserves to have an unrivaled one-two offensive punch and mean the team could continue to play an athletic, up-tempo style even when Howard and Nowitzki are getting their rest. Trenton Hassell and Devean George are around when the team needs to tighten its defense.

Houston Rockets
2006-07: 52-30
Lost to Utah 4-3 in first round
Coach: Rick Adelman
Starting lineup
PG Rafer Alston (13.3/5.4/3.4)
SG Tracy McGrady (24.6/5.3/6.5)
SF Shane Battier (10.1/2.1/4.1)
PF Luis Scola (rookie, 55th pick in 2002)
C Yao Ming (25.0/9.4/2.0)
G/F Bonzi Wells (7.8/4.3/1.1)
F Chuck Hayes (5.6/6.7/0.6)
G Mike James (10.1/2.0/3.6)
G Luther Head (10.9/3.2/2.4)
C Dikembe Mutombo (3.1/6.5/0.2)

The Rockets are counting on an unconventional rookie to lift the team into the upper echelon of the Western Conference. Luis Scola, a 27-year-old Argentinian who has been considered the best player not in the NBA while playing in the Spanish league the past several years, was acquired in a deal with the Spurs and is expected to step into the starting small forward position. He's a skilled low-block player who can score and teamed with center Yao Ming (pictured) might give the Rockets the most intimidating combination of post threats since they had Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson in the '80s. Yao is considered by many to be the league's top center with an array of post moves and the deft passing and ball-handling that sets great centers apart. Tracy McGrady is the perfect perimeter complement when healthy, the rare wing who is equally adept with a pull-up shot as he is driving to the basket. McGrady has rebounding and passing skills as well, but has missed 10 or more games two of the last four seasons. McGrady often creates plays for the offense since point guard Rafer Alston has never been known for his passing. Alston has nonetheless developed his jump shot to the point that he's a capable starter. Shane Battier has nowhere near the talent of the other four starters but is in the lineup because of his shooting, defense, intelligent play and defense. The bench features three offensively talented perimeter players in Bonzi Wells, Mike James and Luther Head, as well as an undersized post player who is nonetheless a force on the boards in Chuck Hayes. Then there's backup center Dikembe Mutombo, who can hit an open jumped and is still a skilled rebounder and shot blocker at 41. years old.

Memphis Grizzlies
2006-07: 22-60
Coach: Marc Iavaroni
Starting lineup
PG Damon Stoudamire (7.5/2.2/4.8)
SG Mike Miller (18.5/5.4/4.3)
SF Rudy Gay (10.8/4.5/1.3)
PF Pau Gasol (20.8/9.8/3.4)
C Darko Milicic (8.0/5.5/1.1)
PG Kyle Lowry (5.6/3.1/3.2)
C Stromile Swift (7.8/4.6/0.3)
SF Casey Jacobsen (6.5/2.0/1.3)
SG Juan Carlos Navarro (rookie, 40th pick in 2002)
F/C Hakim Warrick (12.7/5.1/0.9)

The Grizzlies were the worst team in the league last year, but that was mostly because they were racked by injury, most notably to Pau Gasol (pictured), who was coming off his first All-Star selection in 2006. His versatile offensive game is back this year, but new coach Marc Iavaroni will insist he concentrate on improving his mediocre defense. Gasol is surrounded by Mike Miller and Rudy Gay, two athletic, multi-talented offensive threats who will be challenged to get better defensively as well. Damon Stoudamire has never been considered a great passer or much of a pure point guard, but Iavaroni believes he has been a calming influence and has distributed the ball well enough in preseason to get the starting nod. Talented but unaccomplished Darko Milicic gets his first chance to prove his mettle as a full-time starting center. Veteran Stromile Swift, who might be a better fit with the team's athletic core, waits in reserve behind Milicic. Hakim Warrick is another post player who could fit that scheme but is the fourth option in the team's power rotation because of his lack of strength and defensive liabilities. The Grizzlies have a defensive option at backup guard in Kyle Lowry and an offensive weapon in Juan Carlos Navarro. Casey Jacobsen is around for his dead-eye shooting.

New Orleans Hornets
Coach: Byron Scott
Starting lineup
PG Chris Paul (17.3/4.4/8.9)
SG Morris Peterson (8.9/3.3/0.7)
SF Peja Stojakovic (17.8/4.2/0.8)
PF David West (18.3/8.1/2.2)
C Tyson Chandler (9.5/12.4/0.9)
G Bobby Jackson (10.6/3.2/2.5)
G Jannero Pargo (9.2/2.2/2.5)
G/F Rasual Butler (10.1/3.2/0.8)
PF Melvin Ely (3.0/1.8/0.6)
C Hilton Armstrong (3.1/2.7/0.2)
F Ryan Bowen (last played in 2005-06: 1.3/1.3/0.4)

The Hornets nearly made the playoffs last year despite being beset with injuries and playing half their home schedule in Oklahoma City. Healthy and back in New Orleans full time, the team could make a leap this year. Point guard Chris Paul (pictured, right), who many believe may be the best at his position in a couple of years, is the nerve center of the Hornets and can distribute, penetrate and is a strong team defender. Paul gets the attention, but power forward David West (pictured, left) gets the points, despite his lack of athletic ability. The team's leading scorer from last year combines long arms, sure ball handling and uncommon court vision with a reliable mid-range jumper to excel. Center Tyson Chandler was the league's second best rebounder behind Kevin Garnett last year, and is a defensive force. Only his inability so far to develop a decent offensive game keeps him from superstardom. Peja Stojakovic is one of the league's best shooters and can penetrate to score as well, but doesn't defend and can't stay healthy. He played only 13 games last year due to back surgery and has missed more than 15 games in three of the last four seasons. Morris Peterson, the team's most significant free-agent signee, brings his deadly outside shot and veteran leadership from Toronto, where he helped mentor a young club to a surprise division championship last year. Bobby Jackson, the Sixth Man of the Year in 2003, leads a deep bench with his slashing offense and solid defense. Jannero Pargo is a shooter and a defender, but neither he nor Jackson can adequately fill in as a ball distributor when Paul is out. Rasual Butler is an intriguing athlete and potent shooter who still must develop strength to defend and drive the basket. Melvin Ely is the choice for offense in the post, while Hilton Armstrong is the better defender, while Ryan Bowen can provide a punch of energy and rebounding at either forward spot.

San Antonio Spurs
2006-07: 58-24
Beat Denver 4-1 in first round
Beat Phoenix 4-2 in conference semifinals
Beat Utah 4-1 in conference finals
Beat Cleveland 4-0 in NBA Finals
Coach: Gregg Popovich
Starting lineup
PG Tony Parker (18.6/3.2/5.5)
SG Manu Ginobili (16.5/4.4/3.5)
SF Bruce Bowen (6.2/2.7/1.4)
PF Tim Duncan (20.0/10.6/3.4)
C Fabricio Oberto (4.4/4.7/0.9)
G/F Michael Finley (9.0/2.7/1.3)
C Francisco Elson (5.0/4.8/0.8)
PG Jacque Vaughn (3.0/1.1/2.0)
G/F Ime Udoka (8.4/3.7/1.5)
F/G Brent Barry (8.5/2.1/1.8)
PF Robert Horry

The Spurs return every rotation player from last year's championship team, so there's no reason to think they can't repeat, which is about the only unaccomplished objective left for this bunch. It all starts with Tim Duncan (pictured, left), who staked his claim as the greatest power forward in the history of the game with another title in 2007. He has the size, the talent, and a wide variety of skills on the offensive and defensive ends, and few have ever known the game better. He is a dominant post presence. Tony Parker is the perfect complement who dictates the pace of the game and can turn it into an up-and-down, athletic, slashing affair if the situation warrants. He and Manu Ginobili are two of the best at driving to the basket. Ginobili has been used as a sixth man who doesn't start but plays clutch minutes in the past, but he's opening the season in the starting lineup. Bruce Bowen (pictured, right) provides toughness on the perimeter and is one of the best defensive players in the game, despite having little more than an outside shot to rely upon offensively. Fabricio Oberto emerged last year as a solid post defender and slick passer who knows his role and never got in the way despite limited offensive skills. Michael Finley, though 34 and in decline, is an outside shooter off the bench whom Duncan can find on kick-outs and can use his strength to body up defenders and back them down for an easier look at the basket. Francisco Elson is a better shot blocker than Elson but is more suited to a bench role because of his foul difficulties. Jacque Vaughn is a veteran caretaker for the offense, a distributor who rarely looks to score. Ime Udoka, a journeyman free-agent signee, has impressed as a rebounder from the perimeter who can play a variety of positions. Brent Barry is a deadly outside shooter who isn't afraid to drive the lane, but doesn't play much defense. Robert Horry, at 37, is a bit player, but has won seven titles, more than any other player in the league, and still can hit the outside shot when needed most.

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