West Side Story
With Manu going down, the regular season is basically the Lakers and everyone else in the West. Not that even Manu could have helped the Spurs chase down the Lakers. I still think the West is stronger in terms of the top 9 than the East but things are starting to even out. The battle for the 8th spot is going to be something and the loss of Amare Stoudemire might just knock the Suns out but right now I just can't bet on the Mavericks. I just don't see it with them this year. The loss of Amare Stoudemire might keep the Suns at bay though. How they fare against the KG-less Celtics and the Lakers should give us a better indication of whether or not the Suns have risen again.
1. LA Lakers: The team to beat.
2. San Antonio: The Manu injury hurts by Roger Mason Jr. is good enough to help out a bit. Tony Parker is no worse than the third best PG in the NBA and the combo of him and Duncan is still too much for most teams.
3. Denver: It's safe to say that the Iverson trade was a disaster for Detroit. They basically gave away Billups for nothing (I can't believe they couldn't have gotten something for him at the trade deadline) and are falling out of the playoff picture. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have been moving up the standings. Carmelo's got a decent supporting cast so this is really his year to prove that his name belongs amongst the list of elite superstars.
4. Houston: The Rockets will be a better team without McGrady and Alston. I like how Artest and Battier complement Yao Ming better than T-Mac and I was never a huge fan of Alston. Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry are underrated and just as good as Rafer. This could be Houston's year to finally get out of the first round.
5. Portland: I understand why they didn't make any trades but I have to say that I still don't think that the Blazers are ready for prime time. It should be interesting to see what they do this offseason. Most of their players are on expiring deals so they should be able to deal. As for the season, I'd like to see Jeryd Bayless get some more time. A victory in the first round should be considered a great year for the Blazers. And until Oden becomes a beast (which might not happen) or they add some more talent, that's probably their ceiling.
6. New Orleans: The Hornets are exhibit A of how bad contract come back to haunt you. Yes, last year was great but Peja's contract is killing them and Tyson Chandler came back down to earth. CP3 is the best point guard in the game but everyone else on the team has gone from underrated to overrated. I've never been a big believer in David West and I really don't believe that this team has a legit #2 option. Unless the team makes some moves, I wouldn't be stunned if last year was the peak.
7. Utah: Typical Utah fashion, they are good but not really good enough.
8. Phoenix: Even with Amare gone, I'm not going to bet against Nash and Shaq. The Amare injury and coaching change actually opens things up. Jason Richardson can become more of a scoring threat (which is really all that he is), Matt Barnes can get more minutes at his undersized, three point shooting PF role, and it's small ball/run & gun from here on out. It won't help them in the playoffs but it could help them make the second season. The biggest question now is whether the team can survive Shaq not playing in back-to-back games.
9. Dallas: If anyone falters, Dallas will take their spot but I just am not impressed by the Mavs anymore. I can see these guys blowing a lot of games and they seem the most likely to go on an extended losing streak.
10. Golden State: This team is a mess and Don Nelson seems more focused on... well, he doesn't seem focused on anything, really. Still, they just have too much talent to lose so many games. Granted, most of the talent is at the guards but I still think they should win enough to be the best of the teams that have no chance of making the playoffs.
11. Memphis: At this point, it's a crap shoot as to who finishes where but I think Mayo and Gay will keep this team away from the bottom.
12. Oklahoma City: While Durant gets all the hype, the guy who'll determine how this team finishes in Russell Westbrook. If he can play with any sort of consistency and keep improving, they could put together a decent second half of the season. If not, we'll see a lot of gaudy numbers for Durant and a lot of losses. Which might actually be better for the Thunder in the long run as they have to be hoping that they get Oklahoma's own Blake Griffin in the draft.
13. Minnesota: The Wolves would probably be above Memphis if Big Al Jefferson was healthy but I just don't think they can weather the loss of The Unstoppable. If they do, it might be time to consider whether they want to keep Big Al. I still don't like the Love/Jefferson frontcourt and they could fill a lot of holes by dealing Big Al.
14. LA Clippers: If the players on this team have any sense of dignity, they should put together a run at the end of the year. They are just too good to be this bad. But I really don't think many people on this team actually care about winning games so I'm betting that they end the year near the very bottom.
15. Sacramento: The future is now but now is not the future. The Kings gave up on this season by giving away John Salmons and Brad Miller but their roster just isn't that good so they are going to need to really rehaul it if they ever want to see the playoffs again. I'd recommend dealing Kevin Martin because by the time the Kings are good, they'll be staring down a second max contract with their talented scorer. Also, it's not like anyone is going to sign with Sacramento so they need to use the draft and trades in order to add talent. Martin's really the only asset they have that might be on the block. Spencer Hawes is solid but I'm not sold on him being anything more than a third star. Jason Thompson showed some promise but he seems like a role player. Who knows if Donte Green will ever pan out. The Kings also need to hope that, if they get the first pick, Ricky Rubio enters the draft because I think he's their best chance of improving and also getting people interested in the Cowtown Kings again.