Cue Ennio Morricone.
The start of 08-09 NBA season is here. And this year the wild, wild West promises to be more competitive and entertaining than the craziness that was last year. Yup, that's right. It's game time.
Who am I? My name is Lee, and I'll be your host for @TH's Southwest Division Preview. I happen to run a much smaller operation known as Hometown Hornets, but starting now I'll be contributing to @TH, proudly reporting from the Hive for every Hornets home game.
But enough with the introductions. Now is the time to pull out your six shooter, dust off your Air Jordans, fill up your thunder stix, and prepare to whoop and holler for six months straight.
Yessiree, this season's going to be amazing. And what better way to begin our journey than to take a look at the surrounding competition. You know, the first round of challengers we're going to whom we'll have to lay waste if we want to be the last team standing come June. Remember, the Hornets are defending a division championship for the first time ever. Time to see who's got the fastest draw in the (South) West.
5. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
There's good news and bad news. The good news: the Grizzlies will not finish last in the Western Conference. The bad news: they will finish last in the Southwest division. Despite the general ineptness of the Grizzlies' front office (see: Gasol, Pau), they have managed to wrangle a pretty solid group of young talented guys. The problem: a lineup of Conley, Mayo, Gay, Warrick, and Gasol (the younger one) doesn't strike fear in the hearts of most opponents (especially when your backups are named Marko Jaric, Kyle Lowry, Antoine "Wait, I still play in the NBA?" Walker, and Darko Milicic). But with some patience and a little hard work, this group could mature and one day be playing for a playoff spot. In the meantime, they'll just have to keep Darrell Arthur away from Mario Chalmers.
Last season: 22 wins
This season: 25-28 wins
4. DALLAS MAVERICKS
Dallas (along with Phoenix) is currently occupying a form of NBA limbo: they're good enough to make the playoffs, but are on a downward slope and probably not going very deep come June. The good news for Dallas is that Jason Kidd will be quite the trading chip come February if any chemistry problems arrive. His 21 mil contract will give Cuban the opportunity to clear some space and maybe get a few chips in return.
The team's real problem is that Cuban has hired a coaching doppleganger of Avery Johnson. You might be thinking, "Hey, wait a minute. I thought Avery was pretty successful". And you'd be right. But this Dallas team is a different animal now. The team is older now. Take the starting five: Kidd (35), JET (31), Howard (28), Dirk (30), and Dampier (33). Even the bench is up there in NBA years, with Bass, Barrea, and Green being the only players under 25 who will see significant playing time. Those high numbers for your core players.
"But Lee, doesn't Carlisle, like Avery, plays slow ball with no running allowed? Wouldn't that be perfect for older players?" Possibly, but keep in mind that pace during an actual game has as much to do with one team as it does the other. This strategy worked when the Mavericks were among the most efficient offenses of all time (scoring on almost every possession while keeping the total possessions frustratingly low for their opponents), but now they lack the scoring efficiency to pull that off as well as seasons past. And if you're scoring less efficiently and your point guard gets beat off the dribble on almost every series, you're going to have problems. I'm not saying running is the answer, but I don't think Carlisle is either.
All things considered, there are enough good players on this team to win at least 50% of their games. But I think we've seen the last 50+ wins from this lineup.
Last season: 51 wins
This season: 43-46 wins
3. HOUSTON ROCKETS
The Rockets are this year's biggest question mark. While they have the potential to be a bona fide powerhouse, they also have the potential to explode in eight different directions. The answer will ultimately come down to the same three questions everyone's been asking since Artest came to town. In case you've been sleeping since late July, I'll list them out for you: Can Yao stay healthy? Can Mcgrady stay healthy? Will Mutumbo eat everyone in the clubhouse? Just kidding. The last one is obviously: will Artest mess up Houston's chemistry? The funny thing about that last question is, as Marc Stein deftly points out in his latest Power Rankings, "Mess what up? Houston hasn't won a playoff series since 1997". Word, Marc. Word.
My gut tells me that Yao and McGrady will probably miss between 20-30 games between them, and that Artest will probably not cause trouble until Yao and McGrady are out at the same time -- at which point, he will have to play "leader" on the court. Of course, my gut also tells me that cake goes well with beer, so what do I know? The reality is that the Rocket's success is going to have more to do with their players not numbered 1, 11, 93. A "big 3" can do wonders for your team, but it alone will not win a championship (see: Celtics, Boston). They need to worry about whether or not Alston and Landry can match last year's numbers, whether or not Battier can come back healthy, whether or not Scola will continue to improve, and (finally) whether or not they can afford to keep paying Steve Francis 2.5 mil to play 10 games a year.
Last season: 55 Wins
This season: 51-54 wins
2. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Manu's out for a few months. Duncan has passed the 1000 game mark. Their role players are old as dirt. And Popovich looks a little like Chewbacca's grandfather. But guess what? I wouldn't count these guys out until April 15. No, not because it's an odd year, thereby signaling another Spurs championship. I can't count them out because their "big 3" have played so well together that they have logged over 100 playoff games with one another. One freakin' hundred. They know the game and they know each other so well, it's downright ridiculous. Tim Duncan may no longer be the best player in the league, and the Spurs as we know them may only have a couple of good years left, but this mini-dynasty will not go quietly. Or at least not as painfully as the slow, boring demise of the Pistons... but I digress.
The Spurs' top 9 reads: Parker, Finely, Bowen, Duncan, Oberto, Ginobili, Udoka, T. Thomas, and Mason the younger. That is still a scary group to face any day of the week. Unless Stern over-assigns Joey Crawford to their schedule (and he just may), this team will top 50 wins.
Last season 56 wins
This season 52-55
1. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
A championship is 100% feasible. This team's window is almost wide open now that they've earned their stripes in the post season. But to do it, three things need to happen:
1. Everyone needs to stay reasonably healthy
2. Julian Wright needs to continue improving on both sides of the ball
3. Someone needs to step up and play well at the point behind Chris (so he doesn't have to play 40 minutes a game down the stretch)
That's it. If Hilton actually earns the money we're paying him, if Rasual becomes a legit scoring threat off the bench, if Posey wins 6th man of the year honors, or if Ryan Bowen sets a league record for most rebounds volleyed to mid-court... it's doesn't matter. That's all lagniappe.
Last season: 56 wins
This season: 55-58 wins