The Wild, Wild West: The Middle Seeds

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the 2010 Western Conference Champion will be the Lakers or the Spurs.  Here’s how I see the four teams below them: Denver, Portland, Utah and Dallas.

Denver

Denver put a scare into the Lakers in last year’s playoffs.  But that’s over: the Artest pick-up will put an end to the competitiveness of the two teams.  Last year’s Lakers simply had no way to guard Carmelo Anthony. Walton was too slow, and both Ariza and Kobe got steamrolled by Anthony’s size and power. As I noted in my Lakers preview, Anthony will not be steamrolling Ron Artest.    

Nevertheless, this is still a very good team, and my pick for the #3 seed.  Having Chauncey Billups with the team for training camp should only improve the tremendous chemistry they developed towards the end of last year. My one caveat with Denver, and its an important one, is their lack of depth.  They have only one big to speak of (the Birdman, Chris Andersen) behind Nene and K-Mart, and both of those guys are notoriously injury prone. On the wings, they lost Kleiza and last year’s starting 2-guard Dontae Jones to free agency.  They’re going to try to fill those holes with Joey Graham and Arron Afflalo.  Good luck!

Wild card:  Ty Lawson.  The diminutive rookie point guard could prove a spark plug for the Nuggets off the bench.  He laid a 29 pt., 6 assist, 5 steal in 27 minutes performance on the Lakers in the preseason.  Ouch!  My Achilles heel!

Portland

See if you can guess which team I am describing:  Solid but unspectacular role players at the point guard, a superstar at the off-guard, a shut-down defender at the small forward, an offensively gifted all-star caliber power forward, anchored by a huge young center carrying enormous expectations.  If you guessed the Los Angeles Lakers, then you already know where I’m going with this.  The Blazers are a mirror image of the Lakers.  The only problem is that they are worse at every single position.  And their head coach, to put it as respectfully as I can, has not shown an ability to make successful adjustments when faced by opponents with superior talent.  This is not a recipe for winning titles.

Portland was humiliated by a mediocre and lower seeded Houston team in the first round of last year’s playoffs.  Largely because they have the same Achilles heel as the Lakers:  they are helpless against the penetration of quick point guards. In fact, the problem is far worse for them than for the Lakers, because the quality of their help defenders, Greg Oden in particular, is far worse.

Andre Miller was their big off-season acquisition.  While he may help them somewhat defensively at the point, I’m doubtful that he’ll be able to guard Parker, Brooks or Ellis any better than Steve Blake can.  And offensively, this was simply a terrible acquisition.  Miller can do nothing for a team without the ball in his hands.  He’s a career 21% 3 pt. shooter, for pete’s sake.  Playing him off the ball simply won’t work: other teams won’t even have to guard him.  And since Portland wants to put the ball in Roy’s hands in the 4th quarter, can someone explain to me how Miller can play with him?

Roy has already been outspoken about this problem, and has insisted on having Blake in the starting lineup.  Miller is coming off the bench, and making sour mewling noises. Another genius move from the GM who selected Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. (Can you imagine what a Roy, Aldridge, Durant lineup would have looked like?  Wow.  But that’s for unconventional thinkers.)

Utah

Not much to say about this team, except that Boozer is back and healthy.  And very motivated to play well in his contract year.  I would expect Utah to come out of the gate very fast, because Boozer will not be dogging it on the road the way he usually does.  I’ve also read that Kirilenko is healthy and bulked up.  We should look for increased performance from him as well as he nears the end of his deal.  This is a very solid team, that is likely to exceed expectations for regular season performance this year.

But they won’t get far in the playoffs, due to their lack of size and length inside (which may get worse if Boozer gets moved and Milsap becomes the starter).  They are also very poor at the wings.

Dallas

Dallas is a fascinating team this year.  They’ve added Shawn Marion, and announced plans to play him at the 3 and Josh Howard at the 2 in the starting lineup.  You might think this would make them a formidable defensive team, but then they also added Drew Gooden to play center.  Huh?  And then there’s Dirk Nowitzki, no defensive powerhouse, at power forward, and the ancient Jason Kidd at the point.  And the first two guys off the bench, Terry and Barea, can’t guard anybody.  Hmmm.

And what about shooting?  Marion is a slasher, not a shooter.  Howard is decent from outside, but he’s more of a slasher as well.  Kidd is good for an occasional three, but nothing more.  Its obvious to me that their starting lineup will have a lot of difficulty putting the ball in the basket.  Which is why I think we’ll see a lot of small-ball from Dallas this year:  Nowitzki at the 5, Marion at the 4, Howard, Terry and Kidd.  That lineup is intriguing, if it can get out and run.  But how many minutes can it play?  Can the old guys still run?  Is Nowitzki willing to bang at the 5?  And is Marion willing to go back to the 4?

Which brings us to the final problem with this Dallas team: age and injuries.  Howard is still recovering from an ankle injury that has bothered him for at least two years.  Will he ever be healthy?  Marion has been falling apart in the last couple of years, and has been out much of the preseason.  How much does he have left?  Gooden has always been a dog: I am very sceptical of his ability to stay on the court this season playing the 5.  And then there’s Kidd.

Mark Cuban is convinced he’s put together a championship contender.  Which is why he’s the worst GM in basketball.

Other posts in this series:  The Lakers; The Spurs; The Warriors.

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