By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
With the Dodgers being bombed out of the playoffs and the Angels
faithful downtrodden over Brian Fuentes and some piss poor calls at the plate, the NBA season, for a bball junkie like me, couldn’t come soon enough. This year, like most of this decade, the Western Conference will be the overall stronger conference. Depth will be at a premium and with all the great teams, the West should be wild like the OK Corral.
Los Angeles Lakers
Championship or failure for this team. That’s why they dropped Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest who was brought in to match up against Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce, players he has historically been able to handle better than any other wing in the game. Not much talked about, but equally as important due to the Blazers’ championship aspirations, is that Artest has been able to lock down Blazers all-star Brandon Roy. Last year in three games, Artest hounded Roy into 39 percent shooting, forced him to nearly double his turnovers (3.3 to 1.9) while also committing more fouls (2.6 to 1.6) and if it weren’t for Roy’s last second halfcourt prayer that was answered, Artest would have been a perfect 3-0 in those games.
San Antonio Spurs
There’s plenty of talk about the Spurs trade for Richard Jefferson (a wing who Artest struggles to defend) and the draft heist of DeJuan Blair (who is rebounding like Dennis Rodman) making them the deepest and best team Tim Duncan has ever had. However, the real reason that this year’s Spurs will have a legit shot at the crown is newly signed center Antonio McDyess. McDyess is a rebounding, rock-solid defensive presence that can score on putbacks and on 15-foot jumpers. Basically, the perfect compliment to Tim Duncan. With McDyess at the five, Timmy will party like it’s 1999, the year he won the first of his four rings and the last time he played with a legitimate center. You know, that guy David Robinson.
While many aren’t too high on this squad due to the advanced age of all of their main players as well as the lack of a legitimate center, the reason I believe (and I’m sure owner Mark Cuban concurs) that this team is championship caliber is the addition of Shawn Marion. The 2009-10 season will be Jason Kidd/Marion part two. Nearly ten years ago, a second year Marion blossomed playing next to Kidd and emerged as the high-flying, rebounding, defensive sieve NBA fantasy fanatics grew to love. Though quite a bit older now, Kidd’s passing wizadry will cause a Matrix revolution. The Mavs will be an excellent rebounding team as well, with J-Kidd an elite rebounder, Josh Howard excellent over his career, Marion at 10 rpg for his career, and Drew Gooden who from 04-07 was top seven in the NBA in rebounding percentage.
One of the deepest teams in the league, I’m still not sold that they have a championship pedigree. If Andre Miller embraces his role as backup point guard and does for Travis Outlaw, Rudy Fernandez, Joel Przybilla and Martell Webster/Jerryd Bayless what he did for the 76ers the past two seasons, this team will easily be a top-four seed and a shoo-in to the second round. If, however, Miller becomes a starter and, gasp, the top dog, and Roy embraces this change (he’ll still take all the big shots, he just won’t be running the show most of the time) then this team will have the ability to beat the Lakers and legitimately challenge for the chip this year. Well, assuming Greg Oden can stay out of foul trouble.
While a lot of people are high on this team following a surprising run to the Conference Finals last year, there are a couple things that bother me. First, they lost Linas Klieza and Dahntay Jones and didn’t add another viable big man to the roster in the likely event one of their injury-prone bigs goes down. Second, while Chauncey Billups worked magic in his first season at the helm, he’s only been Mr. Big Shot one year in 04-05 when the Pistons won it all. Since then, he’s been Mr. Disappears in the Conference Finals. Likewise, coach George Karl has been the same. A regular season winner, but a postseason underperformer. I will say this however, none of that other stuff will matter if Carmelo Anthony ascends to the upper crust of the NBA elite this year and J.R. Smith becomes a borderline all-star. If those two things happen, a trip to the finals is a real possibility.
Talk about a team that underperformed last season. The Jazz pushed the Lakers to six games in the WCF two seasons ago before being bludgeoned out of the first round last year. Fully healthy, without a bunch of contract questions hanging over the season (except for Carlos Boozer), look for the Jazz to be an elite contender once more this season. Deron Williams is the engine to this Jazz machine and will make the Boozer/Paul Milsap timeshare a non-issue. If he stays healthy, he could be in the discussion for MVP as well. The lack of a legitimate three-point threat will once again hurt the team, but Boozer’s expiring contract will remain a wild card to acquire such a player before the trade deadline.
New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets massively disappointed last year all those fans who weren’t paying close attention. Adding James Posey instead of signing a legitimate backup center was the main culprit, but significant and lingering injuries to 3/5ths of their starting five had a lot to do with it as well. This season, they are better simply because they now have a legitimate bench. Bringing on inside scoring ace Ike Diogu and solid veteran Darious Songalia to reinforce a non-existent frontcourt and drafting Darren Collison (ideal backup for Paul) and Marcus Thornton to help address the glaring reserve spots in the backcourt, were definitely steps in the right direction. But relying on the health of this roster is like betting on a horse to win the Triple Crown.
They’re baaaaaaaack…Kind of. Steve Nash and D’Antoni disciple Alvin Gentry are committed to the SSOL, run-and-fun Suns this year, just with a slightly older cast of characters. My unwavering belief that Marion’s unique game was just as vital to what the Suns did will be put to the test this season. Jason Richardson is no Joe Johnson, but the two-time dunk champ is a much better fit running the break with Nash. Leandro Barbosa has had a year to cope with his mother’s illness and will reprise his role as sixth man of the year. If Amare Stoudemire returns to Mr. 25 and 9 on 58 percent shooting, the Suns are my favorite darkhorse in the West.
Los Angeles Clippers
I’m not going to lie. I love this team. Even with the terrible, and Clipperesque start to the season that has rookie sensation Blake Griffin already out for the first month and a half of the season, despite my better judgment, I still think they’re going to surprise and make the playoffs. Am I stupid? Probably. I did the same last season, hyped up the roster, and then bang! Everything went flush down the toilet. Already with one foot in the toilet, what’s different this season? Well, for one, no Zach Randolph. Normally, that in and of itself is good for six or seven wins. But there’s also the fact that Baron Davis grew his beard out and worked his ass off this summer. Mike Dunleavy was humbled. And of course, Griffin was drafted. But digging deeper, last year’s draft class, Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan, have looked real good thus far. And the bench has been fleshed out with Sebastian Telfair (better suited to a backup role), Rasual Butler and Craig Smith, who is an ox down low and will be very vital with Griffin’s injury sidelining for perhaps six weeks. Also, Al “I-like-to-shoot-contested-fadeaway jumpers” Thornton looks like he’s taken his possible demotion from the starting lineup seriously. In pre-season, he’s, gasp, passing, driving to the hoop, taking contact and getting to the line, hitting the offensive boards and even playing defense! If he can keep this up and Griffin can return in a reasonable amount of time, I still (am I really stupid?) think this team can make it to the playoffs. And if they aren’t facing the Purple and Gold or the Silver and Black, they’ll have a real good shot of making it to the second round.
If you made it this far into my column (and aren’t a relative), you probably know who Shane Battier is. While his defensive expertise was crucial to getting the Memphis Grizzlies and the Rockets into the playoffs, he’ll have a tough time doing so this year, even with the addition of Ariza (who, despite me loving his game, won’t be nearly as good as people think he’ll be this year, not without Kobe and Gasol and Odom and Bynum drawing attention away from him to shoot wide open jump shots). Yao Ming’s 7-6 presence was not only crucial for the Rockets offense, it anchored the defense as well. When Yao went down two years ago in the middle of that 22-game win streak, Dikembe Mutombo stepped up and reprised his finger-wagging Nuggets/Sixers heyday. There is no Mutombo on this year’s Yao-less squad. The Rockets must rely on 6-4 Chuck Hayes and Euro-softy David Andersen instead. However, if the Rockets stay close and Tracy McGrady returns to playing like T-Mac circa 2003, then not only will he garner MVP consideration, the Rockets will be a scary team heading into the playoffs. Could happen, T-Mac hired the same trainer that helped Dwyane Wade last year.
Golden State Warriors
Everyone’s talking about Anthony Randolph and Stephen Curry. Randolph as a MIP (most improved player) awardee and Curry as a potential ROY. But don’t sleep on the sweet shooting Anthony Morrow who led the league in three point percentage last season as a rook. This team could upset any team on any given night with a barrage of points, but with Nellie Ball’s lack of commitment to defense and Stephen Jackson’s and Monte Ellis’ lack of commitment to the franchise, the playoffs seem like a pipe dream.
Oklahoma City Thunder
This season Kevin Durant will continually be mentioned with the likes of Wade, Kobe and Roy as the best shooting wings in the L. James Harden will continually be praised for his ideal glue-guy game. Jeff Green will continue to improve. Russell Westbrook will average nine assists but continue to struggle from beyond the arc. And the continued hype about the Thunder being a darkhorse playoff contender will be discontinued by the all-star break.
Zach Randolph won’t pass. Rudy Gay can’t. Allen Iverson does, but only after he’s dribbled away 20 seconds of the shot clock. O.J. Mayo is willing, but not the most gifted. In fact, of the projected starters, the best passer is Marc Gasol and he won’t see the ball enough to distribute it around. Last year, without the black hole of Randolph, the Grizzlies led the league by a wide margin in the lowest percentage of field goals assisted at .497. The next lowest was Golden State at 53 percent. Even if the Grizzlies hired the Hornets’ statisticians (who generously award CP3 extra assists), the Grizz might not break the 40 percent mark this year. This year’s team could be a train wreck or just a wacky science project, either way, should be fun to watch.
Like I said last year, Kevin Martin will make the all-star team (he would have last season, but he got hurt). Tyreke Evans, the fourth pick of the draft, will get to shoot a ton of freethrows on his way to a top three ROY season. This team has a chance to not be the worst team in the league if Martin stays healthy, and Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson both take big steps forward in their respective games. If you just happen to watch a Kings game, check out rookie Omri Casspi. He’s a riot.
We’ve all seen Kurt Rambis bounce up from being close-lined by Kevin McHale all those years ago. Hopefully he’ll be able to bounce back up as quickly after absorbing the blow of Kevin Love’s hand surgery, which will leave him sidelined for the first 6-8 weeks of the season. Unlike in L.A., Rambis no longer has the extreme luxury of Lamar Odom coming in to replace a key starter. Turning to his new bench, the former Lakers assistant gets to choose from Mark Blount, Oleksiy Pecherov, Ryan Hollins, and Brian Cardinal. For those who actually know any of those players, you should join my fantasy leauge. While lottery pick Johnny Flynn and free agent pickup Ramon Sessions will impress and center Al Jefferson will make a strong push for the all-star team, Love’s injury means the Wolves will probably be struggling out the gate and will have an uphill battle to not be the worst team in the West. On the bright side, Rambo can always watch Ricky Rubio play pretty well in Spain…
While the West is deep 1-10 and has a couple of young teams that could make that depth jump to 12, the East could quite possibly have the three best teams in the league. Overall, the East is broken down into four categories. The Elite, the cream-of-the-crop talent; the Breaks-Perfect Contenders, those teams who would be legitimate contenders if injuries befall the elite and every player plays to optimum performance; the Playoff Hopefuls, those teams who would be content to just be a part of the postseason; and the Luxury Tax Casualties, those teams that have little to no talent due to financial concerns and/or in anticipation of the 2010 free agent class.
Before you continue to hold a grudge against Vince Carter for mailing in seasons or his past failures to advance in the playoffs or his unwillingness to attack the basket despite having the God-given physical ability to dunk over anyone, just admit to yourself one thing: Carter is hands down better than Hedo Turkoglu. The knock on VC has always been that he couldn’t “carry” a team—though, dragging a Raptors squad devoid of premium talent to the playoffs sure does appear the opposite of that line of thinking. Personally, I believe he’s Derek Coleman’s mind in Michael Jordan’s body—the Lamar Odom of second bananas. I mean, look what he did for Devin Harris last season. Adding Carter to a still improving best center in the league (Dwight Howard), an all-star point guard (Jameer Nelson), a long and athletic deadeye three-point shooter (Rashard Lewis) and a roster exploding with youth and talent (Marcin Gortat, Brandon Bass, Ryan Anderson, Mickael Pietrus and I’ll even throw in J.J. Redick) as well as savvy veterans (Jason Williams, Anthony Johnson, and Matt Barnes) the 09-10 Magic have the makings of the best team in the East. Unlike the two teams listed below, Orlando would be the best team in the league if every one of their players had the exact same year as last season. Remember, before Nelson’s injury mid-season, the Magic were on pace for 65 wins, the same as the Lakers. Seeing as how every single major contributor on the squad (save for Carter) is either in his prime or blossoming into it, this team’s overall potential outshines every squad in the league, including the Lakers.
With Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace the Celtics are old. I mean, not like Larry King old, just relative to hoops. On the flipside, the C’s are also really young. In last year’s playoffs, Rajon Rondo, 22, was Boston’s best player while Glen “Baby” Davis, 23, became a man. And if not for Shaq joining the East, Kendrick Perkins, 24, might have had a shot at the all-star game this year. The rest of the roster shakes out nicely as well. Eddie House has finally been given the Yin to his Yang in Marquis Daniels. Shelden Williams (the L.A. Sparks killer for his part in Candace Parker’s pregnancy) and J.R. Giddens have zero expectations on them, meaning whatever they contribute is a plus. And Tony Allen and Brian Scalabrine will only be needed for five-minute stretches or during garbage time. KG’s knees are the keys to the season, but if the extent of their damage has been greatly exaggerated, they’ll carry this squad to a curtain call in the finals.
After leading his team to an impressive 66-win season and winning his first MVP award then being embarrassed in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Orlando Magic despite having home court advantage in Cleveland where his team had only lost two games all year, Lebron James had the following offseason: he underwent surgery on his jaw due to a cancer scare; got dunked on at his own camp; introduced his latest shoes and went on a ten-city tour to promote them; released a book about his life; released a movie about his life; got into a war of words with former Browns reciever Braylon Edwards (who immediately afterwards was sent to the Jets); and made a plethora of appearances including Letterman, Oprah, Charlie Rose and NPR. What I haven’t read about or heard from any media is how the King spent countless hours working on that shaky midrange J. Besides the thought of adding Shaq’s alpha-male ego to the team, or the fact Anderson Varejao can’t space the floor for the Diesel, or that jump-shooting Zydrunas Ilgauskus is better suited as a starter, or concerns over Delonte West’s mental health, the biggest reason the Cavs won’t make the finals? Lebron James’ summer activities. And that includes this upcoming summer as well…Okay, I have to talk about Shaq a little too. Mr. O’Neal has never been content with second-dog status, even when he’s stated that as his goal (Wade, Nash, Amare). Before Phoenix’s miracle-working medical staff helped him last season, he hadn’t played in 75 games in nine years. He’s a horrific pick and roll defender…horrific. Yes he’s replacing Ben Wallace, but Wallace had the best plus/minus differential on the Cavs last year. Whatever your belief is on advanced stats, that is one of which you must take note. Shaq has had a curious history of being a part of teams whose coaches (who had not won it all) ended up being fired: Brian Hill, Del Harris, Kurt Rambis, Stan Van Gundy, Mike D’Antoni, and Terry Porter. Last time I checked, Mike Brown hadn’t won a chip yet either. Shaq has bad-mouthed a pair of coaches who have 19 combined championships (Phil Jackson and Pat Riley), so what hope will Brown have if the team struggles? Shaq has also made the ultimate team-player, Steve Nash, lose his passion for basketball. He left Orlando in ruins. Left L.A. embittered. Left Miami disgusted. Left Phoenix crushed. So for a Cleveland franchise that has everything riding on this season, relying on a 37-year-old Shaq to be the piece that puts them over the top just seems like a shot in the dark. He is who he is. Old dogs can’t learn new tricks. And to think pundits have been so against Artest’s acquisition…
THE BREAKS-PERFECT CONTENDERS
The Wizards are like the Phoenix Suns of the East, an explosive offensive club that lacks the defense necessary to win a chip. The similarities spread to the roster as well. The Wiz have a solid core of veterans who are aging or have health concerns (Caron Butler, Mike Miller and Antawn Jameson). They’ve got big time potential with some of their youth (Javale McGee, Nick Young, and Andray Blatche) and a quick, scoring guard coming off the bench (Randy Foye). They also have a potential offensive superstar (Gilbert Arenas) coming back from a horrific injury with questions galore as to whether he’ll return to superstardom or have to settle for not-quite-all-star status. Arenas has shown the ability to be a superstar-level player. If he regains that form, the rest of the roster stays healthy, and the youth make another big jump in the maturation process, this team will remain everyone’s favorite darkhorse. And don’t overlook the very, very goodness of coach Flip Saunders. That 60 percent career winning percentage along with four conference finals appearances are nothing to sneeze at and he’s a master with the zone defense.
This team could and probably will win 45-50 games. But for the Hawks to take that next step into championship level contenders, they need their best players to all get better. Joe Johnson was a dynamo playing with Nash. He’d be dynamite next to Lebron. But as a team’s number one star, he’s only dynamic. Josh Smith has all the ability and physical attributes to be a superstar. He’s just missing the mentality. Marvin Williams, the guy Atlanta took over Chris Paul, has to his credit worked his tail off and gotten steadily better each and every year. He’s only 23, so this could be his breakout season. If all three play up to their potential, this team could be a legit challenger. If they only marginally improve or take a step back, the Hawks will be about as successful as last year’s team, despite the upgrade to their bench.
Canada’s only team is like an Eastern Conference Clippers. I love the hodgepodge of talent GM Jerry Calangelo has assembled and am eager to see how a European-style squad will match up in the NBA. That being said, the Clippers have far more upside because they have the ability to become a legit defensive team (and defense wins championships blah blah blah). The Raptors, unfortunately, will not defend well. They do have the offensive firepower—from Hedo Turkoglu to Jarrett Jack to Jose Calderon to Chris Bosh—to make an SSOL Suns-like run through the playoffs and adding Reggie Evans for his board work and grit was huge, but more likely than not, the Raps will win 45 games and get bounced in the first round. And yet, Spain, Argentina, Lithuania, Greece and Puerto Rico have enjoyed success against U.S. Olympic teams over the past five years so it could work…But, Turk is no all-star, and Bosh no MVP…And yet, in Euro ball, the sum is greater then the parts…of course this is the NBA…
THE PLEASED WITH PLAYOFFS
I actually think this team will be pretty good for the Eastern Conference, though, I have to admit that relying on the health of Jermaine O’Neal is about as sound a plan as giving out NINA loans. That being said, if dude can stay on the court, Miami will be pretty good defensively despite not making any roster adjustments outside of signing Carlos Arroyo. A healthy James Jones and Quentin Richardson will join Daequan Cook and give Wade a trio of long-range shooters to space the floor. I also think Michael Beasley’s stint in rehab is just what the doctor ordered. Kid will have a fantastic sophomore season to the point the Bulls might, for a flitting moment, second guess last year’s number one pick. Wade should once again be in the MVP discussion, though all talk of how last year’s Miami’s team was worse than the 05-06 Lakers should be silenced forever.
Elton Brand has 80 million reasons to prove he’s an all-star caliber player this year. And he’d better because Philly fans aren’t nearly as understanding as the Clipper faithful. No matter what, it will be difficult replacing the leadership Andre Miller brought to the team the last couple of seasons because Brand has never been a leader and Miller was that vital to the team’s success. Andre Igoudala is the most underrated wing in the game and has been screwed out of an all-star berth and a dunk contest trophy due to a general lack of acknowledgement of this fact. Look for both Brand and Igoudala to garner some RESPECT this year. With Miller, the Sixers would have been bumped up a level, but without him, the playoffs are the best they can hope for.
The Bulls still lack the potent low post scorer they’ve claimed to have desired since the failed Eddy Curry experiment. They also let their best, most clutch offensive weapon (Ben Gordon) wheel on over to a division rival this past summer. Add to these problems the ever-increasing expectations of a young core including Derrick Rose (obviously), Tyrus Thomas, Joakim Noah, and thanks to his eye-opening pre-season, James Johnson—and this team seems like the failed-to-live-up-to-expectations squad of 09-10. I mean, Luol Deng, who is supposed to supplant the loss of Gordon’s offense, has looked awful so far.
This is the make or break season for GM Joe Dumars. If Ben Gordon becomes Joe D reincarnated, Charlie Villanueva transforms into Rasheed Wallace-lite, Kwame Brown grows a pair of Shaq-like hands and John Kuester finds a rotation at the 1-3 positions that keeps everyone happy, then Dumars really should be considered a genius and the now prolific naysayers in Detroit and across the NBA will be forced to eat crow. My thoughts? The team will be more fun to watch and Dumars will keep his job for one more season before being let go.
The Pacers want to be a defensive team this year. Coach Jim O’Brien has made that the team’s goal. All-star Danny Granger has endorsed it. GM Larry Bird brought in defensive specialists Dahntay Jones and Earl Watson and even drafted Mr. “Energizer Bunny” Tyler Hansbrough. Even the offensive-minded sophomore Roy Hibbert averaged 3.6 blocks per game during the pre-season. So far so good. If the defense in Indiana improves and the offense remains explosive (a huge “if” with Jarrett Jack and Marquis Daniels leaving town), the Pacers might actually make this blue collar experiment work. The potential pay off for Hoosiers? A swift and nasty first round playoff exit.
THE LUXURY TAX CASUALTIES
No disrespect to former Suns players I used to root for, but you know your team is not very good when the possible loss of the 09-10 version of Raja Bell (torn wrist ligament) would be considered a huge blow. Also, no disrespect to the coaching prowess of Larry Brown who always makes the most out of very little, but playoffs are a big stretch, even for you. Of course, no disrespect to the scoring prowess of sophomore D.J. Augustin, but this team will struggle to put up 85 points every single night. And no disrespect to the heart of Gerald “Crash” Wallace who puts his body on the line every game, but this team has injury-issues and Cats fans will hold their collective breath every time Wallace or Tyson Chandler jump. What I can say about this squad is for those who play fantasy hoops, pick up Boris Diaw. He’s missed only two games over the past three seasons, has 50/40/70 percentages (FG/3pt/FT) and will average around 15 points, 6 boards, 6 assists, a steal, a block and a 1.5 treys. That’s why he’ll be the focal point of the Cats’ offense, which pretty much sums up why they’re a bottom team…no disrespect intended.
New Jersey Nets
I like the young collection of talent they’ve got here. They’ll miss Vince Carter, but the tenacity of Courtney Lee and Chris Douglas-Roberts and the slick game of Terrence Williams is the absolute right direction for this rebuilding squad. Rafer Alston helps with the wear-and-tear on all-star Devin Harris and Brook Lopez is an all-star in the making. The Nets might sniff a playoff hunt if Yi Jianlin steps up big and Sean Williams plays up to his potential. Otherwise, the rest of the roster is basically $32 million of expiring contracts.
New York Knicks
They’ll be fun to watch thanks to Mike D’Antoni, though, the more interesting drama will be observing how GM Donnie Walsh tries to trade away the toxicity of Eddie Curry and Jared Jeffries without a number one pick in the 2010 draft—goals that supersede everything else, including winning this season. This year’s draft pick, Jordan Hill and last year’s pick, Danilo Gallinari better be real good, real fast, or it won’t matter what the Knicks do because Lebron won’t come to a team void of talent. Don’t see how this team has more talent then its swamp-dwelling, Brooklyn-desiring neighbor.
Here are the vital questions for the Bucks this season. Can Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut stay healthy? Can 19-year-old Brandon Jennings blossom as a rookie under the despotic rule of coach Scott Skiles? Are Roko Ukic, Walter Sharpe, Ersan Ilyasova, Jodie Meeks and Joe Alexander contributing NBA players? And why did Bucks management let Ramon Sessions walk yet sign worse players for the same amount of money? Anything less than three outright yeses means this team is lottery bound once again. And the answers are…no, maybe (but not likely), no, maybe, yes, maybe, maybe, and I have no flippin’ clue.
Jordan Ikeda is the sports editor of the Rafu Shimpo. He can be contacted at [email protected] . The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.