SAN ANTONIO: (1st in Southwest, 1st in West, 2nd in NBA)
If either Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili figures out how to maximize their talents this year, the Spurs could be scary good.
Parker’s still only 22 and I think he’ll be an elite point guard sooner rather than later. The danger for this season lies in an inconsistent Parker forcing Brent Barry to play the point too much, leaving the Spurs one shooter short. I don’t think either Mike Wilks or Beno Udrih will the answer backing up Parker in big games.
If Ginobili channels his aggressiveness into effective defensive play, it will allow Gregg Popovich to play him alongside Barry for long stretches of time. Ideally, Popovich could pick his spots with Bruce Bowen and Devin Brown. I’d really like to see Romain Sato make this team and eventually take over Brown’s minutes. I think Sato’s still developing as a basketball player and could have Mario Elie’s career.
The Spurs released Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje yesterday and will go with two power forwards to back up the very competent Rasho Nesterovic. It appears that the best player in the world, Tim Duncan, will push the envelope in maintaining the fiction that he’s not a true center; the only seven-foot-tall, dominant post player to accomplishment that feat.
HOUSTON: (2nd in Southwest, 3rd in West, 5th in NBA)
Projecting the Rockets as the third best team in the West is admittedly optimistic. I base the prediction almost entirely on the potential of the immense talents of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming to work in tandem. The remaining optimism rests on Bobby Sura getting significant minutes at the point once he returns from back surgery. If Sura’s unable to be a factor for the Rockets, the two-headed Point Guard of Near Mediocrity (Charlie Ward and Tyronn Lue) will be the team’s downfall.
Juwan Howard and Maurice Taylor should provide decent production from the power forward position. One of Clarence Weatherspoon, Scott Padgett, Ryan Bowen or Bostjan Nachbar will need to provide minutes at the three to spell Jim Jackson and McGrady until Sura is healthy.
MEMPHIS: (3rd in Southwest, 7th in West, 10th in NBA)
If David Stern could manipulate the schedule so that the Grizzlies played the Jazz about fifteen times a year on national television, recalcitrant basketball fans such as my father would no longer be able to voice their ignorant complaints about the quality of NBA basketball.
The Grizzlies are legitimately eleven-deep and their twelfth man, Jake Tsakalidis, is sort of fun in his own, awkward way. This collection of young talent, blessed with the guiding hands of Jerry West and Hubie Brown, the best GM-Head coach partnership outside of Detroit, proved adaptable to all game situations last season.
Except for the play-offs. The breadth and depth of talent (I’ll admit I was completely wrong about Earl Watson and Brian Cardinal if you’ll allow me to brag about James Posey) on the roster disguises that fact that, as of right now, Pau Gasol isn’t good enough to be the best player on a championship team. Another 50-win season and a better play-off performance are both well within their capabilities.
DALLAS: (4th in Southwest, 8th in West, 11th in NBA)
This is a good division. The second- through fourth-best teams in the Southwest could finish in any combination and cause problems in the play-offs. I consider Dallas the least likely of the three to be dangerous because of the question mark at point guard and the lack of frontcourt depth.
Devin Harris will eventually be a good NBA point guard but, Kirk Hinrich notwithstanding, it’s a difficult job to succeed in as a rookie. Jason Terry will man the point by default and Dan Dickau might get some minutes as his backup. Neither will help solve the team’s defensive problems.
The Michael Finley, Josh Howard, Marquis Daniels rotation through the two and three spots should again prove delightful.
Alan Henderson is currently listed as Nowitzki’s backup. I presume the Mavericks are in possession of a Plan B. If Nowitzki is forced to play 40 minutes a game, he could suffer from the damaging late-season fade that a fatigued Steve Nash suffered last year.
Even if last season was a fluke, Erick Dampier will still be better than Shawn Bradley and Calvin Booth. Should Dampier struggle and Henderson prove ineffective or unavailable due to injury, the Mavericks are more likely to fight the Suns for the last play-off spot than to challenge the Rockets and Grizzlies for second place in the division.
NEW ORLEANS: (5th in Southwest, 12th in West, 18th in NBA)
Anyone other than George Shinn owning this team and one might feel some sympathy for the Hornets, re-aligned into irrelevance.
Even with Jamal Mashburn they would have had little hope of contending for a play-off spot in the West. To prevent this from becoming a wasted year, Byron Scott must find minutes for David West, Chris Andersen, and JR Smith. The next Hornets team to experience a play-off game is more likely to feature that trio than David Wesley, George Lynch, and PJ Brown.