by Ian Kollar
I apologize for not getting these Western Conference previews up sooner. You see, I have been infected by volleyball fever.
I’ve been following a true feel-good story about a small private school’s girls’ volleyball team, the program just six years, making a championship run. During my coverage, I made a few different references to volleyball as the ultimate game of momentum, and to a point that’s true. It’s also true of the NBA’s Western Conference, where momentum will be key to deciding who’s left standing at the end of the regular season.
All of the contenders made significant moves to bolster their rosters. Each is coming to a realization that whoever is the healthiest at the end of the year and playing the best has the greatest opportunity to go all the way. So basically, what I’m saying is this: expect a lot of rest for guys like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and anybody else who shows a little limp or makes some winces. Health is of the essence to each of the top teams since so little separates them talent-wise.
At the bottom though, it’s where the poor got poorer for the most part, a sad but true reality of most professional sports these days (boy, do I sound about 60 or what?).
15. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (Last year: 24-58)
This team has fallen so far from grace since the legendary (and somewhat underrated, both as an analyst and coach) Hubie Brown led them to the playoffs. It seems like eons ago. The chemistry on this squad has proven combustible just a week in; while Zach Randolph is a solid player and has kept his ego in check, he’s just not a winner. Allen Iverson is already complaining about a lack of playing time, Rudy Gay hasn’t diversified his game since leaving UConn and O.J. Mayo will likely regress statistically since he won’t have the ball in his hands as much.
There are some positives. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley should be better than they were last season and Mayo has an opportunity to grow and be the leader Gay hasn’t developed into. Hasheem Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll and Sam Young are an intriguing group of rookies and the younger players on this team should get the playing time now to develop into something later. The obvious problem with that, though, is ticking off Iverson, Randolph and Gay. It’s a lose-lose situation for coach Lionel Hollins and GM Chris Wallace.
But they asked for it. They didn’t get anything worthwhile for Pau Gasol. They made questionable offseason acquisitions. They even had opportunities with their number two pick to get more assets via trade or take a player like James Harden, who could compliment Mayo very well. Those are three strikes too many, and that’s the main reason why I see them bringing up the rear in the Western Conference standings.
14. SACRAMENTO KINGS (Last year: 17-65)
My team on the West Coast. I don’t know what will be more frustrating for me: watching and following Sacramento (who I know will be pretty bad and take their lumps this year) or Philly, who seems primed to underachieve this year when they could be pretty good.
Sacramento has plenty to be happy about for the future. Kevin Martin, when he’s healthy, is one of the most unique scorers in the game in that there’s no good way to guard him; play him too tight and he’ll blow past you for a layup or a pair of free throws. Play him loose and he’ll bury three or four straight jumpers in your face. I like Kevin Martin. There should be more shooting guards like him rather than Dahntay Joneses who get fat contracts for being able to jump really high and play decent defense. Spencer Hawes is a cool big man with Vlade Divac-lite skills, Jason Thompson will be a solid power forward for years to come and Tyreke Evans might turn out to be a good combo guard.
But I was fuming once the Kings decided not to take Ricky Rubio. It was the perfect situation in my slightly biased eyes, too. That one pick up may have been the dealbreaker to get him to come over and play this year with athletic young guys. Jon Brockman was a great value acquisition for them too. Paul Westphal? Not so much. I would’ve much rather had Kurt Rambis. But alas, both Rambis and Rubio are in Minnesota now. I might just have to change allegiances…
13. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (Last year: 29-53)
Don Nelson ruined a great opportunity yet again.
I used to love watching “Nellie-ball,” and his innovative tactics were called genius for so long. Then everyone else looked at what he was doing, tinkered with it, improved on it and now it’s not so special anymore. And despite a roster that should suggest otherwise, he continues to kill chemistry and force position problems like nobody’s business.
I, for one, am sick of it. This could be a damn exciting team. It was when they knocked off the Mavericks a few years ago with spirited, up-tempo play, some knock-down shooters and a few gritty, grizzly defenders. Andris Biedrins and Ronny Turiaf bring that to the frontcourt, but neither is a very efficient scorer so they don’t play together often. Younger forwards like Anthony Randolph and Brandan Wright show great promise (though Wright is injured), but another Nelson favorite – fluctuating rotations – prevents them from getting consistent minutes. Corey Maggette doesn’t defend and is a few years past his prime, while Stephen Jackson is on the trading block.
The backcourt, Jackson included, isn’t much better of a situation. Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis are playing alongside one another while Kelenna Azubuike and Anthony Morrow bring depth off of the bench. All four are fine players in their own right but splitting 96 minutes between those four and Jackson just isn’t going to get it done against other teams’ best perimeter players. The rest of the roster is full of castoffs (Mikki Moore, Devean George, Craig “don’t call me Speedy” Claxton) and underwhelming young players (C.J. Watson, Acie Law). It will be a long year.
12. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (Last year: 24-58)
Finally, a glimmer of hope! Rambis and Rubio, already mentioned, are a good start for T’Wolves GM David Kahn even though Rubio may not be in green and black again until 2012 at the ripe old age of 21. Rambis putting the triangle into motion should be nice to see once they acquire some shooters. Al Jefferson and Kevin Love are a good complimentary duo and Jonny Flynn and Ramon Sessions should tide the point guard spot over and perhaps give Kahn more flexibility once the eventual time comes to move one of his perimeter players.
I’m not a big fan of Corey Brewer since it looks like he won’t develop into anything special like people perceived when he came out of Florida. Wayne Ellington is a stopgap more than a solution. Damien Wilkins and Sasha Pavlovic aren’t the answer, either. I’d like to see Kahn get his hands dirty trying to grab a nice wing player through either free agency or the draft; not too many young guards are moved midseason via trade and I’m okay with that.
This team’s resilient fanbase saw a lot of Kevin Garnett-led teams fall short year after year. Patience is the main virtue here. There will be nights when they compete with the best and others when they lose to the worst. A slight improvement in their record isn’t out of the question, but a top 10 draft choice would be ideal in getting the Wolves’ roster to shape up quicker than expected. My choices? West Virginia’s Devin Ebanks (more of a small forward at this point, but a better offensive player than Brewer) and Ohio State’s Evan Turner. Neither would a focal point but could knock down a jumper with consistency – a big deal in the triangle offense.
11. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (Last year: 23-59)
Behind Scott Brooks the Thunder looked good to close out the season in 2008-09 and got a lot of estranged bandwagon fans in the offseason. People are already christening them the next Portland Trailblazers – building off of stockpiled youth and a versatile focal player (Brandon Roy, Kevin Durant) – but the Thunder still have a long way to go.
Harden was a smooth pickup and should compliment Russell Westbrook nicely in the backcourt. Durant is as good as they come scoring-wise but still needs work on other facets of his game. Jeff Green is good too, but not a full-time power forward and he could likely be moved. Minnesota, on second thought, would be a good destination for him (Green for Pavlovic and intriguing young center Oleksiy Pecherov…BOOK IT!). Nenad Krstic was an under-the-rader move which helps, while Nick Collison and Thabo Sefolosha are strong defenders and nice pieces for any team to have. The Thunder will be trigger-shy to give them up to contenders as they wait to contend, but as I said, it will be awhile. Younger bigs like B.J. Mullens and Serge Ibaka (whom I wish about five other teams selected) are a ways away from contributing on the big stage.
The teams listed ahead of Oklahoma City, with two exceptions, are still a few steps ahead and will likely stay in contention for a fairly long timeframe. OKC needs some patience and a little bit of free agent activity – they have enough youth and need more Etan Thomas-type players at this juncture – as it slowly builds momentum. I like the idea, and with some refining this should be a good team in a few short years.