10. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (Last year’s record: 19-63)
Blake Griffin, once he finally gets out onto the court, will make this team less unbearable to watch. Second-year shooting guard Eric Gordon has improved steadily but is also dealing with injuries, while no one can ever be sure the likes of Baron Davis and Marcus Camby can make it through 82 games without falling apart. Still, a team with this many question marks might still be better than the bottom-feeders of the West in 2009-10 because they have actual talent.
Aside from the walking wounded I already mentioned, Craig Smith brings great energy to the frontcourt, Al Thornton can score in a variety of ways (though he is best served off the bench), Rasual Butler can shoot and play both swing spots and Chris Kaman, whether anyone wants to believe it or not, is playing like a top 5 center so far despite his gross amount of turnovers. Once Griffin and Gordon are healthy (hopefully at the same time), I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team string together a near-.500 record with them on the court. The problem, though, is that they may be 10 games under .500 before that happens.
9. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (Last year’s record: 49-33)
Part of me really, really feels bad for Chris Paul.
He can put up 20 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals per night in his sleep, yet his team is destined to bumble towards mediocrity for the second straight year. Last season, pundits blamed oft-injured center Tyson Chandler for it, noting the lack of interior defense without him around. The Hornets tried to move him to Oklahoma City before a lingering injury voided the deal. Now Chandler is in Charlotte, traded for a better player in Emeka Okafor.
But is he a better fit? I think he’ll do more offensively, which will cause David West’s All-Star level numbers to dip a bit, but I’m not so sure Okafor or Chandler are really the defenders they’re made out to be. Nobody else on this team is, either; James Posey is on the wrong side of his prime by now and Peja Stojakovic, who never was even a good defender, is now relegated to life as a spot shooter. The rest of the team is just in shambles – rookies (Marcus Thornton, Darren Collison), raw young vets (Bobby Brown, Hilton Armstrong, Julian Wright, Ike Diogu) and old, washed up vets (Posey, Morris Peterson, Sean Marks). With patience running thin, both Paul and Byron Scott may be looking for a way out, and management will likely be reluctant to let their star point guard depart.
The coach, however? He’s probably good as gone. It’s the last year of his contract anyway. UPDATE: Ian originally sent this to me Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, Scott was fired and general manager Jeff Bower was appointed interim coach in his place. See? Sometimes we do know what we’re talking about.
8. HOUSTON ROCKETS (Last year’s record: 53-29)
Rick Adelman is and always will be one of my favorite coaches ever. For some reason, every team he coaches overachieves like crazy and plays their hearts out for him. This Houston Rockets team is no different. Despite a plague of injuries hitting the squad’s two best players, Yao Ming (out for the season) and Tracy McGrady (out for at least another few weeks), this team has performed respectably well throughout the regular seasons and playoffs in the past few years.
New signee Trevor Ariza is expected to take the place of departed Ron Artest, but he will have some help picking up the slack. New center David Andersen will help Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry in the post, the tandem of Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry should be solid enough to man the point guard spot and Shane Battier and Luis Scola will, as ex-Rocket center Dikembe Mutombo always says, “do what they do best.”
Don’t sleep on rookie Chase Budinger either; he fits really well in a winning system because he can knock down a jump shot. If McGrady becomes a factor this year he, Ariza and Battier can theoretically be on the court together with a combination like Scola and Landry to make a formidable lineup. It’s not going to be one that sets the world on fire, but this team was a joy to watch last postseason and it should be no different this year when Houston looks to qualify for the playoffs yet again with a scrappy, hustle-centric attitude and Adelman to spur them on.
7. UTAH JAZZ (Last year’s record: 48-34)
Jerry Sloan has missed the playoffs once in his tenure with the Jazz, and despite the West being a tough and fairly even division, Utah should still be in contention with the very best until season’s end.
Deron Williams is one of the three best point men in the league, and he isn’t coupled with one go-to scorer; Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Paul Millsap and Andrei Kirilenko hold down the frontcourt and each bring a different dimension, while Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and rookie Wesley Matthews join Williams in the backcourt. Matthews, not one of the most heavily sought after rooks (he wasn’t even Utah’s first pick; Eric Maynor was), fits the Utah system perfectly. Almost everyone here does.
Everyone but Carlos Boozer.
Everything was up in air with everyone assuming Boozer was as good as gone when Utah matched offers to Millsap and revealed intentions to start the rebounding whiz. Boozer hasn’t been a great player so far, and it’s looking more and more like he’ll be an odd man out. If Utah can work a trade for a defensive-minded true center to compliment Okur, as well as another possible perimeter shooter, the Jazz can probably climb up to a fifth or sixth seed. How about Boozer’s expiring deal to the Milwaukee Bucks for center Dan Gadzuric, combo guard Charlie Bell and expiring contract Francisco Elson (yes, he’s a contract. Nothing else. Just a 6-10 piece of paper)?
The biggest obstacle for the Jazz right now is getting everyone on the same page. If there are any point men in the league who can do it, Williams is one of them.
6. PHOENIX SUNS (Last year’s record: 46-36)
This year, the Phoenix Suns will likely go back to their fun-to-watch, up-tempo ways under Alvin Gentry for a full season. And while it still won’t get them into title contention, it won’t push them all the way out of the playoffs, either.
Steve Nash is rested and looks healthier than he has in recent years. Channing Frye and a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire are versatile big men, Grant Hill is still solid and Jason Richardson is a former 20 point per game scorer. Their bench isn’t incredibly deep, but Leandro Barbosa, Jared Dudley and Lou Amundson help in different ways. Goran Dragic will be a bit better after a year in the league and Robin Lopez will be better off as an energy big off the bench. Alando Tucker and rookie Earl Clark do a little bit of everything too, and will be brought along slowly behind more experienced players barring injury.
The big difference here – and I know you’ll take offense to this, Tony – is the departure of Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq took up far too much space in the lane and didn’t do anything unpredictable for the Suns and their slashing, drive-and-dish efforts were dashed every time he camped out in the lane. Players should find themselves open more this season as defenses have to respect the drives of Nash, Barbosa and Stoudemire with shooters waiting all over. Frye, at 6’11, may be one of the team’s best perimeter shooters. Can anyone say that about Shaq?
Phoenix is going to be fun to watch again, which is good for the league. They’ll be competitive again, which is good for the league. And yet again, they won’t be good enough to make a deep run into the playoffs. Again, good for the league, since defense still wins championships and the Suns (except for Lopez and Dudley) still don’t have enough of it.