The previews roll on as we head to the Western Conference. It’s still strange to me that an Eastern Conference team won the championship last year since the West is clearly the superior conference. I guess that’s why the NBA is fantastic!!! Let’s start in the Northwest since I’ve made our one Sonics reader wait long enough:
DENVER NUGGETS (2005-2006 record: 44-38. Lost in round 1 to Clippers)
Projected division finish: 1st
When I took a glance at the depth chart for this year’s team, I was struck by the glut of power forwards:
Kenyon Martin. Nene. Joe Smith. Reggie Evans. Eduardo Najera.
What’s more fun is to look at the shooting guard position:
JR Smith, Julius Hodge (recovering from being shot) and a bunch of guys I’ve never heard of including Yakhouba Diawara. Who?
I don’t know what to make of this roster. It’s strangely balanced for sure, but it seemed to work well enough to win the division last year. Denver can score with anyone, but can they commit to defense?
Obviously, health is always a big issue with the Nuggets. Last year, they lost Nene for the season on opening night. Kenyon Martin and Marcus Camby were only available for 56 games. Hence, the need for five power forwards.
The good news is that Carmelo Anthony is healthy, happy and enjoying a brand new contract. He had a great summer playing for the U.S. in Japan and is likely headed for another monster season in the Rockies.
The Nuggets remind me a lot of the Nets in the East. They seem like a pretty good bet to win the division, but once they get in the playoffs, they’re in trouble. Remember, this was a team that won the division but didn’t have home court advantage in the first round against a six seed.
I’d expect more of the same this year except thanks to the new playoff format, they’ll be a four seed.
SEATTLE SONICS (2005-2006 record: 35-47. Missed playoffs)
Projected division finish: 2nd
You can’t find a franchise in more turmoil going into a season, but this has nothing to do with on-the-court activities.
Seattle is facing a major basketball crisis, as the Sonics have been sold to a group with strong Oklahoma City ties and speculation is running rampant that this will be the final year in the Pacific Northwest.
I think this will spark a rebound for the Sonics. Remember, this team was the surprise of the league two years ago. They almost beat San Antonio in the playoffs and seemed poised to return to prominence in the Northwest.
However, it all fell apart last year. Seattle couldn’t defend anyone. Everyone seemed to be playing for a new contract. They simply were not very good.
But that’s not to say they don’t have the ability to get back to their 04-05 form. Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are still around. Chris Wilcox looked phenomenal in a Sonics uniform for the final 29 games of the year. Earl Watson and Luke Ridnour seem poised to push one another at the point guard position.
The major problem for the Sonics is their disastrous center rotation. Robert Swift, Johan Petro and Danny Fortson have not shown any consistency at all, and for the Sonics to succeed, they’re going to need someone to emerge on both ends of the floor.
Like the Nuggets, the Sonics will score. Like the Nuggets, the questions surrounding the Sonics are whether they can play defense.
They’ll challenge for the division crown, but unlike the Nuggets, the Sonics will find themselves sitting at home at playoff time, falling just short in their bid to captivate Seattle for perhaps the last time. The emotional ride will only carry them to second place.
UTAH JAZZ (2005-2006 record: 41-41. Missed Playoffs)
Predicted division finish: 3rd
I feel pretty good about a couple of predictions when it comes to Utah. They will play hard for Jerry Sloan. They will be a team that plays everyone tough. They will have at least two of their key players hurt for an extended period of the season.
Isn’t this how it always goes?
I’ve read many people predicting that this team could be a playoff contender, but I have to say I just don’t see it.
Andrei Kirilenko is a stud. He can do everything well, and he’ll be this teams go-to-guy once again.
Carlos Boozer tries to bounce back from yet another season full of injuries. Boozer can rebound, but he’s an undersized, overrated power forward in my book.
Mehmut Okur will do some scoring, Matt Harpring and Derek Fisher will shoot from the outside, and the Jazz will cross their fingers that Deron Williams can find some confidence.
The way I see it, there’s just too many guys snake bitten by injuries on this roster to get excited and proclaim them playoff contenders. They were .500 last year, and even if they’re healthy, I can’t imagine them being much better this season. There are too many teams in the West who are better.
But I’ll say this: never discount a Jerry Sloan-led team. They tend to look nasty (in a bad way) on paper but overachieve when they hit the floor.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (2005-2006 record: 33-49. Missed playoffs)
Predicted division record:4th
The mission to build a title contender around the Big Ticket continues.
Kevin Garnett is still here and he maintains all he wants to do is win. Yet, Kevin McHale is still trying to find the right pieces to put around him.
This year, he’s turning to Mike James and rookie Randy Foye to deliver. James has a pretty amazing year north of the border last year, averaging 20.3 points per game. However, if you’re going into the season with Mike James as your second scoring option, you’ve got problems.
Randy Foye had one of those super-buzz worthy Summer League sessions, so everyone who follows the Wolves is thrilled. I’m withholding my judgment until he plays a regular season game, but I think he’ll do well in his first year playing with KG.
Everything else: yikes. Ricky Davis is always fun, but he’s Ricky Davis. How can anyone count on a guy who shot at his own basket to try to get the final rebound he needed for a triple-double? Rashad McCants is out until January. Mark Madsen, Mark Blount and Eddie Griffin are going to get big minutes up front. They’re even taking a look at Vin Baker.
The bottom line is that this Timberwolves franchise seems to be going no where fast, and unless James has another fantastic season and Foye develops into an All-Star caliber guard in his rookie season, the only matter being discussed about the Timberwolves will be where Kevin Garnett is playing next season. I’ll join everyone else in predicting it won’t be in the Twin Cities.
PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS (2005-2006 record: 21-61. Missed playoffs)
Predicted division finish: last
This is going to be a bad team.
However, there’s good news. The Blazers had a great draft.
Brandon Roy is going to win the rookie of the year. He could be the Dwayne Wade of the 2006 Draft. That might be overstating it a bit, but he seems ready to step right in and contribute, which is a very good thing in Portland.
LaMarcus Aldridge will come along slower. He’s far too thin and raw to be a factor, but give him time to develop and there’s no question we’ll be looking back at the 2006 Draft as the day Portland turned things around.
The Blazers also did some housecleaning in the off-season, removing Sebastian Telfair, Theo Ratliff, Steve Blake, Viktor Khrypa, Brian Skinner and Ha Seung-Jin from the roster via trades.
Jarrett Jack is now the point guard, although Sergio Rodriguez could end up being the best player at the position a few years from now. Martell Webster is going to improve with playing time, and while Juan Dixon may get more minutes at the shooting guard spot, this is Webster’s position for years to come. Zach Randolph will get some help upfront from Jamaal McGloire and the re-signed Joel Przybilla. Who knows what Darius Miles will do, but he’s great trade bait if they don’t want him.
In other words, the Blazers seem to have their ducks in a row. They’re going to take their bumps with a young roster, but with Roy, Webster, Jack, Aldridge and Przybilla locked in for a while, Portland has put themselves in decent position to rebuild faster than say Minnesota or Philadelphia, and for that reason Blazer fans should be happy. It could be a lot worse.