Dallas Mavericks: Dallas’ chance at a repeat took a hit when center Tyson Chandler left to join the Knicks. Chandler was a legitimate rim protecter/inside presence for the Mavs last season, something Dallas has lacked for as long as I can remember. Dirk Nowitzki’s heroics are what everyone will remember from the postseason (and rightfully so), but Chandler was instrumental in getting Dallas to take the final step and win their first championship. The Mavericks did manage to land Lamar Odom in a trade with the Lakers, but Odom, as talented as he is, possesses a different skill set than Chandler. He’ll help Dallas in a number of areas, but an intimidating inside presence he is not. Instead, it seems that the Mavs will rely on Brendan Haywood at center, which may be a bit more than he can handle. Haywood played the perfect amount last season, averaging 10 minutes per game in the playoffs and serving as a guy who could either absorb fouls or spell Chandler if the latter was in foul trouble. Fortunately for Dallas, they have talent at every other position on the floor (just as they did before Chandler arrived), with Nowitzki, Odom, and Shawn Marion at the forward spots and Jason Terry and Jason Kidd in the backcourt. They also lost J.J. Barea to the Timberwolves, so they’ll look to Rodrigue Beaubois to fill a similar role as an undersized offensive sparkplug off the bench. I should probably also mention that they signed Vince Carter, who looked less than impressive in a 2010-11 season split between Orlando and Phoenix. He could provide some bench scoring for Dallas if Beaubois falters, but if he plays like he did in Phoenix at the end of last season (14 PPG on 42% FG in 51 games), he may not see a ton of time in the rotation. Looking at Dallas’ chances this season, they certainly would have wanted to get Chandler and Barea back (not to mention LeBron-stopper DeShawn Stevenson, who has yet to sign with anyone), but even without them, this is still one of the top two teams in the West. As long as the schedule doesn’t cripple Kidd (he turns 39 in March, but he’s played at least 80 games six years in a row) and some of Dallas’ older players, the Mavs will breeze to a high playoff spot. How Odom and Carter offset their losses from last year’s championship team, though, will ultimately determine Dallas’ fate, and that can only be answered in the playoffs.
Could Make the Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
San Antonio Spurs: You might have forgotten it after their first-round playoff exit, but San Antonio was the West’s best team in the regular season, finishing at 61-21, their second-most wins in a season during the Tim Duncan era. Most of that squad returns, though they did send George Hill to the Pacers in order to land rookie SF Kawhi Leonard, and it’s unclear if Antonio McDyess is retired or not [Editor's Note: retirement appears likely]. Hill did a good job for the Spurs the last couple seasons, but losing him isn’t going to make or break this team. They’re still going to win a lot of games due to the penetration and playmaking of Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and the inside play of Duncan. The Spurs also shot the three extremely well last season, posting a league-leading 40% mark while launching 21 per game, seventh in the NBA, led by top gunners Matt Bonner (46%) and Richard Jefferson (44%). The issue with the Spurs is their frontcourt, which was exposed by 8-seed Memphis in last year’s playoff series. San Antonio’s primary inside defenders all have flaws, and Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph took full advantage. Bonner couldn’t match the Grizzlies’ athleticism, and he’s never been an outstanding defender. DeJuan Blair can still rebound at 6-foot-7, but he’s undersized for a guy who played a lot of minutes at center last season. Even the future Hall-of-Famer Duncan suffered a bit last season, as he showed that, at age 35, he’s not quite as quick as he once was. Losing a step hurts Duncan’s game, as those great Spurs teams were built around Duncan’s ability to rotate and help in the paint, cleaning up his teammates’ mess on defense. Duncan was the Spurs’ glue guy, and when that glue becomes unstuck, things start to fall apart. San Antonio should handle the lockout well—no one manages minutes better than Gregg Popovich, and, apart from last season, he has a tremendous track record of getting his teams to peak at the right time (but keep in mind that Duncan and Ginobili were both hurt at the end of the season and in the playoffs). It’s also worth remembering that Popovich’s Spurs won the title in 1998-99, the last time that games were missed due to a lockout. As a veteran team that’s played together for a while, San Antonio will win plenty, and it seems that Leonard will be a good fit as a defender/rebounder while not being counted on to shoot a lot (his weakness). The Spurs will be in the hunt as always, but unless someone dramatically steps up in the frontcourt (looking at you, Tiago Splitter), they’re looking at a likely second-round exit.
Memphis Grizzlies: To the surprise of pretty much everyone, the Grizzlies upset the Spurs in Round One last year, and if it weren’t for Kevin Durant going off for 39 (which he has a tendency to do) in Game 7, Memphis could have found itself in the conference finals for the first time ever. They did a good job locking up Marc Gasol, who’s a bull down low. They do lose Shane Battier, but they still have perimeter defender extraordinaire Tony Allen, and they get back Rudy Gay, who missed last year’s playoffs with an injury. Mike Conley showed most of what you’d want from a young point guard, and though he still can’t shoot superbly, you can do pretty well as a point guard if you can ballhandle, pass well, and get to the rim (see Rajon Rondo and Jason Kidd). The Grizzlies aren’t quite good enough to be mentioned among the league’s elite, but I have to say that GM Chris Wallace has done a good job stockpiling talent. That talent comes with a cost, however. Zach Randolph and O.J. Mayo are both tremendous players, but they have a tendency to do some stupid things (just last season, Mayo fought with Allen on a team flight over an unpaid gambling debt). Randolph, in addition to being a knucklehead, has had motivation issues in the past, and after signing a four-year extension with Memphis in April, he’s no longer playing for a contract, which means that he could bail on the team early if they stumble out of the gates. The Grizzlies’ potential is bright, and while they won’t win the title, a conference finals appearance isn’t out of the question. But they’ll only go as far as Randolph is willing to take them.
Houston Rockets: With plenty of cap room and a need at center, Houston looked poised to spring a move for a big man this offseason, but their three-way deal for Pau Gasol fell through when David Stern blocked the trade. Even worse, last year’s starter, the undersized and under-appreciated Chuck Hayes, signed with the Kings, while Yao Ming retired for good, meaning that Houston’s center situation is somehow even worse now than it was at the start of the offseason. With the season less than a week away, Houston’s options at center right now are: Jordan Hill (bust) and Hasheem Thabeet (historically huge bust). GM Daryl Morey has been trying to contend on the cheap for several years now, but the NBA isn’t MLB—you can’t trot out overlooked, undervalued players and win an NBA title. All the top teams either spend top dollar for free agents or hit the lottery with a high draft pick. Houston has done neither, and as a result, they’ve won between 43 and 55 games in eight of the last nine seasons. There’s no reason to expect the Rockets to do anything other than tread water again this season. Luis Scola is a great finisher and continues to improve year after year. Kevin Martin scores really well, but doesn’t do much more, and Kyle Lowry emerged as a capable starting point guard last year. Beyond those three players, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Morey has assembled players that have all shown just enough potential to be good, but not enough for them to be truly in demand. The hope is that among Goran Dragic, Jonny Flynn, and Courtney Lee, one of them can become a star in the backcourt, and between Chase Budinger, Marcus Morris, and Patrick Patterson, one of them can become a star in the frontcourt. But realistically, most of these guys are just role players and not worth getting truly excited about, even with a new head coach in Kevin McHale. Expect the Rockets to be a bit over .500, fight for a playoff spot, and then do it all over again until Morey decides whether he wants to go all in or blow things up.
New Orleans Hornets: I’d be near the end of my rope right now if I was a Hornets fan. Chris Paul emerged as a savior for the franchise after Hurricane Katrina, keeping the team in New Orleans and making basketball relevant. But instead of trying to build a team around Paul, owner George Shinn was forced to sell the team. And instead of finding a buyer (there were several lined up), the league took over the franchise, ensuring that the Hornets will stay out of contention until they find a buyer (supposedly in the first half of 2012). There’s simply no way the other owners would approve of the league spending tons of money to make one of their competitors better, and faced with that realization, can you really blame Chris Paul for leaving? The deal Stern rejected for Paul would have made the Hornets a viable playoff team right now (Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry). Instead, he opted for a deal that prepared NO for the future (read: kept costs low for a future owner) by acquiring Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Minnesota’s first-rounder in 2012. Gordon does a lot of things well and is a really nice get, but the Hornets’ roster is clearly one that was built around one standout player. Now that he’s gone (not to mention David West, the team’s second-best player), it’s just a mish-mash of mostly one-dimensional players. The big question New Orleans faces is this: how are they going to score? Apart from Gordon, no one on this team is a consistent scorer. They will get put-back opportunities from Okafor, Landry, and Chris Kaman, but that probably won’t be enough to compete in a tough division. Instead, watch for Gordon to get consistently double teamed, forcing Jack to force the ball into the Hornets’ big men. The saddest part about this team is that if they actually had a deep-pocketed owner, they could have added one other piece after last season, making this a really dangerous team. New Orleans needs to hope that Minnesota is bad enough to land the top pick, giving them a new superstar to build around going forward.
Top 5 Players
F/C: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
F: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
F: Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies (if motivated)
G: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
G: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs