MINNESOTA: (1st in Northwest, 2nd in West, 3rd in NBA)
Minnesota could challenge the Spurs for the Western Conference title despite the simmering internal turmoil. Cassell and Sprewell want contract extensions (as well they should) but the T-Wolves are (sensibly) reluctant to provide them to thirty-four-year-old guards. Wally Szczerbiak has publicly stated his desire to start ahead of Trenton Hassell.
Considering that the rest of the roster consists of the second-best player in the world, a cadre of guards who thrive in their roles (Hassell, Troy Hudson, and Fred Hoiberg) and a quartet of big men who have no choice but to accept theirs (Michael Olowokandi, Ervin Johnson, Mark Madsen, and John Thomas), and taking into account the competitive natures of those complaining, Flip Saunders should be able to guide the team to the top of new Northwestern Division and the Western Conference Finals irregardless of personal grievances.
UTAH: (2nd in Northwest, 5th in West, 7th in NBA)
I like this team a lot. They are sure to be better than last year and look to continue to get better going forward. Only the Pistons exceed the amount and variety of young talent the Jazz possess: two point guards, two shooters, the extraordinarily diverse talents of Andrei Kirilenko, two solid big men, Raja Bell and Jarron Collins to play defense as needed, and the potentially very good Kirk Snyder and Kris Humphries. I don't know that the rookies will get much of a run this year, but they will contribute in the future.
Jerry Sloan is an excellent coach and I'm old enough to remember when the Jazz were an intereseting (I was always a big Thurl Bailey fan), before the ravages of age turned Stockton and Malone's competitiveness into cynicism. This collection will continue to be fun to watch.
DENVER: (3rd in Northwest, 6th in West, 9th in NBA)
A truly delightful first seven is augmented by limited yet serviceable skills of Francisco Elson and Greg Buckner, one I was right about (to date), Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and one I was very wrong about (to date), Rodney White.
They will miss Jon Barry and Chris Andersen from the second unit, but the addition of Kenyon Martin and the development of Carmelo Anthony and Nene should more than off-set that. I've got them as the fifth best team in the West, but there's not much separating teams three through eight. Injuries will most likely determine the exact order of finish. Yes, the above is an obvious cop-out.
PORTLAND: (4th in Northwest, 11th in West, 17th in NBA)
I just don't know.
I would have taken Zach Randolph with the first pick in the 2001 Draft (actually, I probably would have traded the first pick to the Bulls for Elton Brand and then continued to trade down Jimmy Johnson style until I ended up with eight draft picks, spending one of them on Randolph). Turns out I might have bee right about the talent (at least relative to the rest of that draft class) but wrong about the man. Seems he's a bit moody.
I have no idea why a team needs Randolph and Shareef Abdur-Rahim or Damon Stoudamire and Nick Van Exel (perhaps they hope to stagger their suspensions) or D. Miles and Ruben Patterson or Vladimir Stepania and Joel Przybilla. I can't imagine they'll keep all these redundant pairs for the entire year, but I have no idea who they'll trade to whom or for what. Sorry.
SEATTLE: (5th in Northwest, 13th in West, 22nd in NBA)
Even if Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis stay healthy, it will be a long year in Seattle. In the interest of player development, they'll often field their third best point guard, second best power forward, and a teenaged center. It's the right thing to do with the options on hand and with the gulf between themselves and a play-off spot in the West, they should probably go ahead and deal Allen and Lewis while they're at it.
As for the young players, it will be difficult for Luke Ridnour's offensive to game to mature fast enough to off-set his defensive liabilities. Nick Collison will struggle for most of his postponed rookie year. It took him until the second NCAA Tournament game of his Junior year at Kansas before he realized how good he was. The period of adjustment should be telescoped this time around, but it will take time. Eventually, he'll be the 21st Century Buck Williams. Robert Swift is an 18-year-old center. Sonics fans just have to hope their club figures out how good he is before free agency arrives.