Today, we continue our lost season previews, covering the Western Conference teams. The Eastern Conference previews can be found over here. How did we do? I feel pretty good about all of this.
San Antonio Spurs
I hate to say it but it looks like a rebuilding year for the perennially great Spurs. Duncan is on his last legs, Ginobili's health is still in doubt, and Parker has been the subject of trade rumors for some time now. With the truncated season, these old fogeys just won't be able to handle so many back to back games, and Popovich will smartly rest them once its clear the Spurs are nothing but a fringe playoff team at best. Perhaps a full season tank job to win the Andre Drummond sweepstakes is in order, a la their 1996-97 season resulting in Tim Duncan. If there's one franchise that's smart enough to do it, it's San Antonio.
These guys shocked the world last year, but now have a target on their back the size of an off-season Marc Gasol. They will maintain their frontline advantage if Darrell Arthur improves on his solid 2011 campaign, but it's clear OJ Mayo will be dealt early on, as I'm sure he doesn't feel wanted after the deadline trade for Josh McRoberts was submitted too late last year. Look for them to be fighting for the 8th seed in April again, and for Tony Allen to get sick of tweeting eventually.
Dallas Mavericks (division winner)
Dallas Mavericks (division winner)
Losing Chandler, Barea, and Stevenson to free agency? Ain't no thing! These guys have the depth to fill those roles easily with the likes of Brendan Haywood, Rodrigue Beaubois and playoff hero Brian Cardinal. Don't look for this team to exhibit a championship hangover either. If anything, losing those key players will motivate Dirk and friends even more to prove that last year was no fluke. The fightin' Mavs will win the division, challenge for the best record in the NBA, and will be the last team left standing again in June (or early July).
Once again, Daryl Morey goes into the season without a clear superstar, or a clear rebuilding strategy. Hiring Kevin McHale, a guy who flamed out in Minnesota, could be as disastrous as the Isiah Thomas reign in New York. And what will their solution at point guard be when the oft-injured Kyle Lowry is sidelined again and Goran Dragic shows he's not ready for prime time? Third stringer Jason Lin of Haaarvard fame? Are you insane? Lottery bound.
New Orleans Hornets
New Orleans Hornets
With Chris Paul returning for another year, we expect that New Orleans' smart general management will surround him with the kinds of talent that keep him placated for years to come. This isn't a LeBron situation: Paul doesn't need the ball in his hands all the time and when you have talent like Trevor Ariza, Jarrett Jack and a drastically underrated Jason Smith on the wings, this team is nothing to scoff at. When the Hornets finish with over 35 wins, look for the dynamic Paul to once again challenge in the MVP race. But can he overcome the mighty Rose?
Seattle SuperSonics (division winner)
Kevin Durant has rejuvenated the Sonics franchise, but can he take the next step and bring the city a title for the first time since the late 70s? With Gary Payton set to get his number retired this year, Shawn Kemp becoming an ambassador for the franchise, and David Shields set to write a sequel to Black Planet focusing on the Durant/Westbrook relationship, there is nothing but upside for those loyal Pacific Northwest fans.
The team that changed the way blockbuster trades were made comes into this year trying to change the way championship teams are made. Except half their team is in China now, they wasted a draft pick on unknown Kenneth Faried from Morehead State when Montenegrin superstar Nikola Mirotic was on the table, and they just re-signed Nene to long term contract that makes him untradable. Look for a step backwards this year and for George Karl to not make it to April.
These guys just have no identity, and it'll result in them fighting for the worst record in the league. They'll be sorry that they didn't trade up for potential Rookie of the Year and hometown hero Jimmer Fredette, especially when he torches them for 35 in his homecoming. On the plus side, they have plenty of draft picks and can rebuild quickly with some smart drafting and good personnel moves.
Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers
In last year's playoffs, Brandon Roy made a miraculous comeback from what seemed to be a career ending injury. This season, Roy looks to continue proving his doubters -- and doctors! -- wrong. Let me make another prediction while I'm out on a limb, Greg Oden finally starts to make the "Bill Russell for the new millennium" hype seem reasonable. Plus, Jamal Crawford should have no trouble fitting into the offense. No GM? No problem. This team is playoff bound.
It'll be another cold winter and spring in basketball Siberia, as Kevin Love takes a step back from his flukey 2011 season, Ricky Rubio shows why he floundered in Europe, and the laughable front court of Darko and Pekovic (who?) simply take up space in the middle. On the plus side, none of these guys have a history of injury and should be able to take advantage of the shortened season with their youth and enthusiasm, and another lottery pick in 2012.
Los Angeles Clippers
Even with a core of Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers should be right back where you’d expect them to be: working on winning the Harrison Barnes sweepstakes at the top of the NBA Draft lottery. Despite Blake’s high flying antics, we can’t expect too much on this team on defense, and despite Chris Kaman’s likely presence coming off the bench, that stacked front line isn’t going to hold up against their crosstown rivals’ three big men, Gasol, Odom and Bynum.
Los Angeles Lakers
As this team continues to develop under new coach Mike Brown, expect some hiccups through the year, but almost all smooth play. Understand that Kobe Bryant – at 33 years old and nearly one million minutes played – will be in decline this season. Metta World Peace looks ready to gear himself to be the slasher he was meant to be and extend this team's run. Despite Metta, the play of Lamar Odom might be the most important for the Lakers: his experience and chipper attitude has often kept this team together, and in a contract year, he’ll likely be showing why he’s one of the league’s best big men. And when rickety Andrew Bynum’s on your roster, you need to make sure you’ve got a guy like Odom to hold it down.
Golden State Warriors
Co-existence hasn’t been easy for the Warriors’ two star guards, but this season looks to be the one where Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry can finally gel and challenge for a low playoff seed. In particular, Stephen Curry is looking like a dynamo – expect Curry and Ellis to combine for a gnarly 50 PPG this season. Considering that nobody figured out how to guard Dorell Wright last season, it seems evident that the one-time Miami Heat benchwarmer will be hitting on all cylinders once again. With a healthy Biedrins in the fold, what’s holding this team back?
At last, the sun will set in Phoenix for Steve Nash. After struggling without his long-term pick-and-roll partner last season, look for Nash to consider retirement as his aging body finally begins to give out this year. The Suns are well inclined to try to re-sign their backup option, Aaron Brooks, once he returns from China, but Nash’s body may not last that long, and they may need to trade for help – look for Grant Hill or Marcin Gortat to be on the block early. The Suns will rely on Jared Dudley and Robin Lopez more than ever to move this team: lucky for Phoenix denizens, they may be up to the task.
Sacramento Kings (division winner/sleeper of the year!)
With a new spirit of teamwork this season under head coach Paul Westphal, look for the fast-paced Kings to show off their lottery pick, Jimmer Fredette, early and often. If Jimmer is willing to play off the ball, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to make a run for rookie of the year – he’s going to get the minutes, and he’s just that talented. With new acquisitions John Salmons and J.J. Hickson in the starting lineup, it’s clear that the Kings are gunning for power and prestige – these are serious players and it means the Kings will mean business for the first time in a long time. It almost makes the attempted robbery of the team by Anaheim last season worth it.