Today we begin our BlazersBlog Official Western Conference Preview. Well have four parts, one for each division and then a Blazers-specific preview.
Part 1: Soutwest Division.
Southwest Division Preview
The Western Conference’s Southwest Division is arguably the deepest division in basketball, with all five teams looking to be playoff-caliber in 2006-07. The class of the division, and 2/3 of the Conference’s powerhouse teams, will once again be San Antonio and Dallas. Is this finally the year that Dallas overtakes San Antonio and grabs the division championship? Meanwhile both NO/OKC and Houston have made major upgrades during the offseason and look to knock off Memphis. Fortunately for these teams, the NBA plays a balanced in-conference schedule, so the other Western Conference teams won’t have a leg up in that regard. This looks to be one of the most competitive and fun divisions to watch.
1. Dallas Mavericks
Starters: Devin Harris, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Dasagana Diop
Bench: Austin Croshere, Eric Dampier, Anthony Johnson, Greg Buckner, Devean George
On paper, the moves that Dallas made this offseason may not appear to be significant. The major changes were allowing Keith Van Horn to leave via free agency and trading Marquis Daniels for Austin Croshere. Any skills that departed with Van Horn they are replacing in Austin Croshere who will be a slight improvement over Van Horn, and does a better job of getting to the free throw line. The addition of Anthony Johnson gives them a flexible player who can run the point and give either Devin Harris or Jason Terry a breather off the bench. They can play small ball (with those three, Josh Howard and Nowtzki) or bring in size (Dampier, Croshere) to bang the interior. With one of the league’s top superstars in Dirk, two burgeoning stars in Howard and Harris, and Terry’s instant offense, I have very high expectation for Dallas again this season and expect them to not only win their division but gain a top-two seed and have a huge role in the dogfight that will be the Western Conference Playoffs. They’re a tier-1, title contending team.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Starters: Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Jackie Butler
Bench: Michael Finley, Brent Barry, Matt Bonner, Eric Williams, Francisco Elton, Jacque Vaughn, Beno Udrih
Every year the Spurs seem to lose someone of importance, and every year they manage to find a needle in a haystack and get the most out of their players. This year, however, I expect them to take a small step backwards. They’ve still got one of the most feared threesomes in the league with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, and they got an absolute steal this offseason in pilfering Jackie Butler from the Knicks. That said, they simply don’t have the depth or the firepower to keep up with the Mavericks or the Suns during the regular season. San Antonio’s got the best defense in the West, and a full season of healthy Duncan and Ginobili will do them wonders. It’s a team built for the playoffs, and we’ll see their best basketball in May and June, not November through March.
3. Houston Rockets
Starters: Rafer Alston, Bonzi Wells, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Yao Ming
Bench: David Wesley, Kirk Snyder, Vasilis Vanoulis, Luther Head, Juwon Howard
Due to the acquisition of Shane Battier and the signing of Bonzi Wells, there are a boatload of people who are suddenly picking Houston as a top-3 seed contender in the West. To me, they’re much improved, and a strong team, but no better than second tier. McGrady and Ming form a very nice 1-2 punch, and Bonzi Wells and Shane Battier are fantastic role players. I like Houston to take a step forward this year and make the playoffs (something I expected them to do last year), but in between McGrady’s inability to stay healthy, Bonzi’s pension for selfish play (and it will be another contract year for him), they’re still another piece or two away from contending.
4. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets
Starters: Chris Paul, David West, Desmond Mason Peja Stojakovic, Tyson Chandler,
Bench: Bobby Jackson, Hilton Armstrong, Cedric Simmons, Jannero Pargo
The Hornets went out this offseason and made a huge splash, dropping a bunch of cash to sign Peja Stojakovic and making a big trade to acquire Tyson Chandler. And when you’ve got a point guard like Chris Paul running the show, he makes both of those guys infinitely better. The Hornets did need to add some outside shooting, but that said I’m afraid that Stojakovic’s best days are behind him. In his prime he was a 6-10 shooting guard with a crazy-good jump shot and impressive quicks. Now? He’s a good shooter. They’re overpaying for what they’ll get from him NOW, let alone in five years. This isn’t baseball where a club can overpay a little to address a need. But my biggest problem with New Orleans is they didn’t do anything to address their two biggest weaknesses: low-post scoring (Chandler is a zero in this department) and perimeter defense (Stojakovic actually subtracts). They had a nice fun run last year but given some major concerns about their roster and throw in the fact that I believe Byron Scott to be a below-average coach, and I think this team will be fortunate to not finish last place in this tough division.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Starters: Damon Stoudamire, Mike Miller, Stromile Swift, Pau Gasol, Jake Tsakalidis
Bench: Rudy Gay, Brian Cardinal, Hakim Warrick, Chucky Atkins, Eddie Jones, Kyle Lowry
I have to hand it to Jerry West: he had the balls to tear this team down and rebuild. He traded Shane Battier for Rudy Gay, got rid of Bonzi Wells, let Bobby Jackson walk, and took a chance on Stromile Swift. He’s committing to rebuilding around Gasol, Miller, and Gay, which isn’t a bad threesome to build around. This Memphis team had made the playoffs two years in a row but clearly didn’t have the pieces to contend. They’ve got a couple of nice young players to build around and while this upcoming year could be rocky, I think they did the right thing in making major changes for the future. A lot of people think he won’t be around for too many more years so to sacrifice personal record for the long-term health of the franchise is admirable.
Projected Order Of Finish:
2. San Antonio
4. New Orleans / Oklahoma City
Next up: Later this week - Part 2, Pacific Division.