WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW
1. SAN ANTONIO
* 2005-06 record: 63-19, No. 1.
* Outlook: In a season in which little worked out, they still had the most wins in the league before losing to Dallas in a seven-game second-round series after the Mavericks won the pivotal Game 3 with the help of a raft of close calls. Nevertheless, Coach-General Manager Gregg Popovich set about finding help up front for 30-year-old Tim Duncan, letting methodical Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic go, bringing in springy Francisco Elson and athletic Jackie Butler. More important, Duncan is healthy again after playing hurt all last season and posting career lows of 18.6 points and 48.4% from the floor. Manu Ginobili, who was supposedly set to take off, didn’t but he’s healthier too. Tony Parker did take off with career highs of 18.8 points and 54%.
* Bottom line: Three stars, a rock-solid defense and no egos mean they’ll be back.
* 2005-06 record: 60-22, No. 4.
* Outlook: Despite his madcap behavior, owner Mark Cuban was smart enough to accept Don Nelson’s nomination of Avery Johnson as the next coach, even if Cuban and Nellie didn’t get along. Johnson made the Mavericks bigger and tougher with D.J. Mbenga, whose skill level wouldn’t have cut it under Nelson. Once-soft Dirk Nowitzki was approaching superstar status when they blew that fourth-quarter lead in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Their 0-4 plummet as the team switched hotels and bristled at the press suggested they were sucked into Cuban’s anguish. Nowitzki even zinged his boss, noting, “Do I think it’s a bit much sometimes? Yeah. He’s got to learn how to control himself as well as the players do.”
* Bottom line: Winning another 60 when everyone knows they’re coming will be harder, but they’re still the biggest, deepest team of all.
* 2005-06 record: 47-35, No. 6.
* Outlook: No, really. Having shocked the world, they’re not a surprise anymore. Everyone knows they’re no longer a laughingstock. Instead of the old just-passing-through atmosphere, there’s a deep, businesslike, unified roster. Coach Mike Dunleavy enjoys unprecedented power. Since his arrival, owner Donald T. Sterling, whose previous record was $15 million (Eric Piatkowski’s five-year deal) has offered $40 million or more to Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Gilbert Arenas and Chris Kaman. With Kaman and Shaun Livingston still coming fast, their best is ahead of them, assuming the new environment lasts.
* Bottom line: Of course, only they could give someone all that power without locking him up. With Dunleavy’s contract running out, everyone is waiting to see if they re-sign him or haggle and risk all they’ve gained.
* 2005-06 record: 54-28, No. 2.
* Outlook: Everything seemed set up for them when Amare Stoudemire returned last spring, but his comeback lasted three games. He’s still not his old, explosive self and, at least for the moment, neither are they. Without three starters, Coach Mike D’Antoni created another high-powered offense last season around Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and newcomers Boris Diaw and Tim Thomas. However, when Vladimir Radmanovic jilted the Clippers for the Lakers, Thomas jilted the Suns for the Clippers. Giving away size, the Suns have to make three-pointers, but having lost Thomas, Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson in two seasons, they suddenly find themselves short on shooters.
* Bottom line: The key may be Bryant’s favorite, Raja Bell, who made 44% of his threes last season and 32% in exhibitions.
* 2005-06: 34-48, No. 12 (tie).
* Outlook: Short of disbanding, they couldn’t have done worse, dropping 17 games in the standings while Tracy McGrady sat out 35 with minor ailments, before hard-working Yao Ming got hurt and missed the last 25 games. Assuming Yao is healthy and McGrady feels like playing, they should be back, at least part way. They traded for solid Shane Battier and got a bonus, signing Bonzi Wells, who averaged 22 points in the playoffs last spring, then left Sacramento to get a big offer and wound up having to take half of their veteran’s exception, $2.1 million. Jeff Van Gundy, who was good at his slow-down style, says he’s going small and pushing the ball with Battier at power forward and McGrady moving from guard to small forward.
* Bottom line: It’s no longer safe to assume anything, but they should make the playoffs standing on their head.
* 2005-06 record: 41-41, No. 9.
* Outlook: In limbo for three seasons since bidding farewell to Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Jazz finished on a 7-3 run. After months of cringing at comparisons to Chris Paul, whom the Jazz passed up, rookie point guard Deron Williams made 54% of his threes after the All-Star break. Now the Jazz has former Laker Derek Fisher backing him up. Carlos Boozer missed 49 games and Andrei Kirilenko 13, but they finally met up to form one of the league’s best tandems, backed up by another starting-caliber forward, Matt Harpring. Mehmet Okur, thought to be soft, had to firm up under Coach Jerry Sloan but led the team at 18 points and 9.0 rebounds a game.
* Bottom line: They’re big, young and deep. If they get close to being hard-nosed enough for Sloan, they could move up from here.
7. GOLDEN STATE
* 2005-06: 34-48, No. 12 (tie).
* Outlook: If people forgot, this was a promising team until it fell apart under Mike Montgomery and even at 66, Don Nelson remains one of coaching’s rainmakers. After Nelson’s departure in 1995, the Warriors went 11 seasons without making the playoffs, amid horrors such as Latrell Sprewell choking Coach P.J. Carlesimo. This team was built to play small, a style D’Antoni popularized but Nelson invented. Instead of worrying about the missing big man, Nelson moved power forward Troy Murphy to center and Mike Dunleavy Jr. to power forward. Baron Davis, who had a bad back and scant regard for Montgomery, is aching to reclaim his place after a lost season. There are more talented young players in Mickael Pietrus, Donta Ellis and Dajuan Wagner.
* Bottom line: They’ve been down so long, this would look like way up there to them.
* 2005-06 record: 44-38, No. 3.
* Outlook: Carmelo Anthony is almost as talented as his pals, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who form the trio "?” according to Sports Illustrated. Unfortunately, Anthony isn’t as mature, so it’s no accident his teams haven’t done as well. Their high-powered offense sagged, coming in No. 30 in three-point shooting. Their hopes of acquiring Paul Pierce last season were dashed when Nene was lost opening night. Coach George Karl feuded with fading
Kenyon Martin while the Clippers ousted them in the playoffs. Karl and Martin claim they’re OK. Nene is back with a new, five-year, $60-million contract. That’s a lot for averaging 9.6 points and 5.9 rebounds.
* Bottom line: With Hornets reject J.R. Smith and free-agent rookie Yakhouba Diawara of Pepperdine at shooting guard, they’d better get Pierce, or someone.
* 2005-06 record: 44-38, No. 8
* Outlook: Ron Artest led the Kings to a 26-14 finish after joining them at 18-24, a pace that would project to 53 wins, but it’s never that simple with Ronnie, is it? At least, not to date. The Bulls thought he was special but out of his gourd and traded him. The Pacers signed him to a long-term deal and then saw him all but wreck their franchise. Unfortunately, the Kings have other issues. Mike Bibby, who’s out two weeks because of a thumb injury, thinks it’s still his team. Power forwards Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Kenny Thomas don’t like each other. Then there’s Artest and hard-nosed new coach, Eric Musselman, who replaces their old players’ coach, Rick Adelman. Musselman is trying a new, softer persona, but it’s early.
* Bottom line: They’ll make the playoffs or there’ll be a big hole where Arco Arena is now.
* 2005-06 record: 45-37, No. 7.
* Outlook: Things were looking dim for the Laker five.... And then training camp opened. In the West, where there are even fewer sure wins, the Lakers were in enough trouble before the horrific exhibition season. Suggesting their level of anxiety, Kobe Bryant is the first player who was ever listed “questionable to doubtful.” They made a remarkable move last season, climbing 11 games in the standings and going from No. 11 to No. 7, but this season looks like a desperate effort to hang on for No. 8. Signing Vladimir Radmanovic costs them their old salary-cap strategy but gives them a shooter. Even if Bryant misses some games, they could do it if Brown and Lamar Odom keep tracking up as they did at the end of last season and Andrew Bynum breaks out.
* Bottom line: That’s a lot to hope for.
* 2005-06 record: 33-49, No. 14.
* Outlook: Since falling to the Lakers in the 2004 West finals, they have fallen apart, wasting the prime of Mr. Kevin Garnett. Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell and Flip Saunders were replaced by Marko Jaric, Rashad McCants and Dwane Casey as they went from 58 wins to 33. Now 30, Garnett looks destined to get no further than the first round of the playoffs, if that far, unless he stops hinting about trades and forces the team’s hand. Nevertheless, no team with a 7-foot annual MVP candidate should ever be out of the running. Newly acquired Mike James can and will shoot but last season’s promising rookie, McCants, is out for several months and this season’s promising rookie, Randy Foye, isn’t ready.
* Bottom line: The real question is how long will Garnett sit still for trying to finish No. 8?
12. NEW ORLEANS
* 2005-06 record: 38-44, No. 10
* Outlook: Fleeing Hurricane Katrina, the Hornets became last-season’s feel-good story, starting 31-25 before finishing 7-19 and looking the way they had been expected to. Nevertheless, with an infusion of cash from Oklahoma City fans in their major league audition, the heretofore-inept front office signed Peja Stojakovic and Bobby Jackson and traded 37-year-old P.J. Brown for 23-year-old Tyson Chandler. Instead of last season’s little front line, they’ll look more like an NBA team. They just want Chandler to defend and rebound, but so did the Bulls. Zinged daily by Coach Scott Skiles, Chandler gets the fresh start he needed, but he will have to perform for Byron Scott, who’s no soft touch himself.
* Bottom line: Just staying where they were will require another big step, like Paul, who was spectacular as a rookie, learning to shoot.
* 2005-06 record: 49-33, No. 5.
* Outlook: Jerry West took a franchise that had never had 24 wins in a season to 50-45-49 in the last three, but his time may be ending. With Duke teammates Brian Davis and Christian Laettner buying the team, West has been offered a lifetime deal amid speculation he’ll retire at season’s end. Coach Mike Fratello, who picked up where Hubie Brown left off, is on an expiring contract. The new hope is rookie Rudy Gay, but they no longer have the luxury of breaking him in slowly. Projected as the top pick before his disappointing sophomore season, Gay dropped to Houston at No. 8, whereupon West traded Battier for him. Even in a best-case scenario, however, Gay wouldn’t be ready to lead anyone anywhere this season.
* Bottom line: They still have good complementary players in Eddie Jones and Mike Miller but no lead dog.
* 2005-06 record: 35-47, No. 11.
* Outlook: Proving the NBA is harder than the coffee business, Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz just sold the team, foiled in his bid to get the city, state, county or any other combination of taxpayers to build him a new arena. This means no more triple-no-foam-half-caf jokes, and someone else is now threatening to move the team. That’s the new owner, Oklahoma City’s Clay Bennett, who could take it to his avid hometown if the Hornets return to New Orleans. In non-arena news, the Sonics managed a 14-11 finish under Bob Hill, replacing Bob Weiss, who was fired 30 games after he was hired. They have Ray Allen and a promising young player in former Clipper Chris Wilcox, but Rashard Lewis’ contract is running out and the situation is fluid.
* Bottom line: There may be a place for them, but it’ll be a while before they find it.
* 2005-06 record: 21-61, No. 15.
* Outlook: Proving the NBA is also harder than the software business, owner Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, can’t even figure out what he wants to do. After taking offers last season, he then took the team off the market. GM John Nash was let go when his contract ran out. President Steve Patterson interrupted his feud with the local media to conduct a search for a new GM and then appointed himself. Patterson’s contract is running out too so he’d better enjoy being a GM while he can. Still trying to emphasize character, they’ve given up on Darius Miles and are still trying to win over Zach Randolph, who had another brush with the law when he was implicated but not charged in a sexual assault case over the summer.
* Bottom line: With a big draft coming, it’s a good season to finish last again.