In the Western Conference,the tides have changed so much that it now appears that its the weaker conference after years of domination.Because of this, I see San Antonio winning the West but losing to the Pacers in the NBA Finals.Northwest DivisionDenver Nuggets (49-33, 2nd in division last year): In the second year under head coach George Karl, all-stars Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin will form a potent one-two combination strong enough to win the division. The primary weakness of the Nuggets is how well Voshon Lenard will play as he returns from his season-long injury suffered last year.Seattle Supersonics (52-30, 1st in division last year): The departure of head coach Nate McMillan will be a substantial loss, but newcomer Bob Weiss has NBA coaching experience and knows the team’s system.With their core intact, the Sonics will also benefit from the continued development of Rashard Lewis, Luke Ridnour and Nick Collison.Utah Jazz (25-56, last in division last year): Last year’s record notwithstanding, this is a team with an abundance of talent, a future Hall of Fame coach and a proven system.Andrei Kirilenko is one of the top 10 players in the league but still needs some help from Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Matt Harpring and DeronWilliams to compete.Minnesota Timberwolves (44-38, 3rd in division last year): It’s hard to say a team with one of the top three players in the league will finish fourth in its division, but that’s what will happen to Minnesota. With a new coach in Dwayne Casey and not much else beyond Kevin Garnett and Wally Szczerbiak, it should be another tough year for the Timberwolves.
Portland Trailblazers (27-55, 4th in division last year): Stealing Nate McMillan from their division rival, the Seattle Supersonics, was a solid personnel move.Unfortunately, it won’t be enough to keep Portland from contending for the league’s worst record this year.The Blazers have a mix of young talent and veteran players, which, at the very least, gives the team a bright future.Pacific DivisionSacramento (50-32, 2nd in division last year):After adding Bonzi Wells and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the Kings’ playoff chances hinge on how well these two players adapt to the team’s proven offensive system. In a weak division, it might not even matter, as Mike Bibby and Brad Miller form a nifty duo, and Peja Stojakovic is always looming on the arc.
Los Angeles Lakers (34-48, 4th in division last year): There’s just no way Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant don’t return to the playoffs. The Lakers postseason chances will depend on how well Lamar Odom can perform in the Zenmaster’s triangle offense, and how effectively newcomer Kwame Brown can play.Los Angeles Clippers (37-45, 3rd in division last year): With a veteran starting five, the Clippers are transforming their image from the new kids on the block to experienced players. With Sam Cassell and Cuttino Mobley, the backcourt is sound. The frontcourt featuring Corey Maggette and Elton Brand will lead a team that could contend with many conference foes.Golden State Warriors (34-48, last in division last year): The final playoff spot will come down to the Warriors and Clippers. On paper, Golden State has the clear advantage: their starting five are strong and so is their bench, especially with rookies Ike Diogu and Chris Taft. If the Warriors can play some defense, they will be a team to watch out for.Phoenix Suns (62-20, 1st in division last year): Last year’s conference runner-up took some big steps backwards during the offseason, trading Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson. With Amare Stoudamire on the shelf until February, that leaves Shawn Marion and reigning MVP Steve Nash as the only returning starters. The Suns have a tough hill to climb.Southwest DivisionSan Antonio Spurs (59-23, 1st in division last year): There is no doubt that the Spurs are favored to repeat for the third straight year. The only question with the Spurs is whether they have tinkered around too much and disturbed team chemistry; however, that seems like a long shot with proven veterans such as Tim Duncan.Dallas Mavericks (58-24, 2nd in division last year): Losing Michael Finley to a division rival could come back to haunt the Mavericks, as they will rely on Jerry Stackhouse to shift his game from his usual sixth-man role. Young, deep and athletic, Dallas will be the Spurs biggest roadblock in getting back to the NBA Finals.Houston Rockets (51-31, 3rd in division last year): After getting routed by 40 points in Game 7 by the Mavericks, the Rockets made depth and athleticism a priority this offseason. However, Houston will only go as far as its two franchise players, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, can take them.Memphis Grizzlies (45-37, 4th in division last year): Eddie Jones, Damon Stoudamire and Bobby Jackson for Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells and James Posey is a good exchange in my book.The new guys are older, but all have enough left in the tank to prove that Jerry West hasn’t lost a step. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets (18-64, last in the division): This will be another long year for the Hornets, a team that will be the feel good story of the NBA playing in Oklahoma because of Hurricane Katrina.J.R. Smith, Chris Paul and Chris Andersen give this team a foundation for the future, but I don’t understand the Jamaal Magloire trade.