West's pecking order has familiar flavor
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With the main ingredients back -- plus the addition of Ron Artest -- the Lakers look poised to repeat.
OK, hungry fans, it's time to turn our attention to the Western side of the menu, after Monday's look at the new pecking order in the East.
I'm not sure the pecking order in the West is quite so "new;" less changed in these parts since the end of last season. But I'm here to break it down all the same. Much like the East, the West can be broken into five distinct groups. Make that five and a half, actually, as there's one additional category we didn't have in the East.
And, like yesterday, we'll be sticking with an epicurean theme. Without further ado, here's how it lays out.
Group IA: The Chef's Special
There's a lot of good stuff on the menu, but this one looks a cut above. Sure, it costs more, but the reviewers all say it's worth every cent. You'll be talking about this meal for weeks.
Los Angeles Lakers
Consider this: The defending champs won a title despite getting virtually nothing from Andrew Bynum during the postseason. If he comes back and plays to his capabilities they're going to be scary good.
Of more immediate interest, however, is their de facto swap of Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest. Artest is nuts and lost a step at the offensive end last season, but he's still an elite defensive player and he's a better spot-up shooter than Ariza. (For those who watched only the playoffs, I'll remind you that Ariza was a 29.9 percent career 3-point shooter when the postseason began. Let's not get carried away with a well-timed hot streak.)
Committing to Artest for five years was foolish, but the swap makes the Lakers better in the short term. With Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown re-signed at very reasonable prices and Phil Jackson coming back, L.A. has quietly (for them) had a strong offseason.
Of course, the greatest break for the Lakers is that they're still in the Western Conference. While the East is top-heavy with Orlando, Cleveland and Boston all loading up, L.A. remains the clear favorite to oppose one of those three in the Finals.
Group I: The Entrees
Oh sure, you'll eat the free bread and order a side dish or two. But realistically, these will be the last and most memorable items on your plate at the end of the season.
San Antonio Spurs
On paper, the Spurs look like the most legitimate aspirant to the Lakers' Western crown. They've added Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess without surrendering anyone important, giving the starting five a badly needed infusion of scoring. Throw in the second-round theft of DeJuan Blair and a return from injury from Ian Mahinmi and the Spurs should be deeper, too.
But all this depends on their stars carrying the mail. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili both broke down at the end of last season and, at their age, one wonders if they can regain their previous form and sustain it through an entire season. Without knowing the answer to that major question, the Spurs merely rank as another of the West's hopefuls.
Last spring, the Nuggets had the Lakers sweating bullets for four games and most of a fifth, so theoretically they entered the offseason on near-equal footing. However, money matters have prevented them from keeping up with the arms race among the other contenders. Denver isn't a high-revenue team despite its success last season and is already over the luxury-tax threshold, so it had to manage its money carefully. As a result, Linas Kleiza and Dahntay Jones won't be back, and Anthony Carter might not be either.
But the Nuggets' top six players return, including a re-signed Chris Andersen, and trades brought in some younger help in rookie Ty Lawson (one of my draft favorites) and Arron Afflalo. There isn't a huge margin of safety here, but if the Nuggets are healthy they'll still be really good.
Portland Trail Blazers
Nobody talks about the Blazers as serious contenders in the West, but we should. Portland had the best scoring margin in basketball after the All-Star break last season, and as I keep repeating, scoring margin predicts future success better than winning percentage.
Yes, they went one-and-done in the playoffs, but this team should be better this time around. The Blazers added Andre Miller, vastly improving their backcourt depth, and returned Martell Webster from injury. The only departure was Channing Frye, who fell to the fringes of the rotation by the end of last season. Most importantly, one of the league's youngest nuclei gained a valuable year of experience and cut its playoff teeth. Watch out for these guys.
Group II: The Tasty Hors D'oeuvres
Scrumptious in small doses, these clubs are hoping to steal your attention from the centerpiece, and at times it seems they might succeed. But each lacks a key ingredient to keep it on our plate 'til June.
It's hard to get too jazzed up about a ride on the Utah bandwagon when it was healthy for the final 23 games of last season and went 8-15. The Jazz have effectively stood pat thus far this summer, drafting a backup point guard in Eric Maynor and retaining Paul Millsap by matching Portland's offer sheet. They may also lose a breaking-down Matt Harpring to retirement.
However, we're still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Carlos Boozer dismayed everyone by opting in for the final year of his contract, leaving the Jazz well over the luxury-tax line. Pretty much everyone assumes they'll trade him, and if Utah can score a quality wing player in the deal it could move up a class. Utah owns one other huge asset as well: the completely unprotected 2010 first-round pick belonging to the Knicks.
The Mavs bought when everyone else sold, retaining Jason Kidd and adding Shawn Marion, Drew Gooden, Kris Humphries, Tim Thomas and Quinton Ross this offseason. They are well into the tax and overpaid for Kidd especially (three years and $25 million at 36?), but if paying luxury tax doesn't bother Mark Cuban then it's really not a problem.
Despite their age, the Mavs will try to play small and fast, with Kidd, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Marion and Dirk Nowitzki playing as a run-and-gun unit in crunch time. That could give them a puncher's chance at a playoff upset, but it's tough to see how they can match up physically against the powerful frontcourts the top contenders possess.
Because of Cuban's willingness to spend, they're a far more intriguing team a year from now thanks to what may become the league's most coveted asset: Erick Dampier's expiring, non-guaranteed $12 million in 2010-11. Casual fans may not realize how valuable this is in the current economy. Next summer a financially struggling team could trade a highly paid player to Dallas for Dampier, waive him immediately and wipe their books totally clean. And given the current economic conditions, I have a feeling some teams will be willing to do it.
New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets didn't spend any money this summer and, based on recent history, maybe that's good thing. A series of bad free-agent contracts (Peja Stojakovic, Morris Peterson, James Posey) have tied the Hornets' hands and put them in tax territory, though they did manage a slight upgrade at center with the Tyson Chandler-Emeka Okafor swap.
Chris Paul makes them a playoff team on his own, and offseason pickups Darren Collison and Ike Diogu might improve what was among the league's worst benches last season. But the Hornets might still try to shed a contract or two to get under the tax, and as things stand now they're going to get miserable production from the wings.
Group III: The Mystery Meat
These teams are the equivalent of going to a foreign country and ordering blindly off a menu in another language. It might be awesome, it might be terrible; really, you have no idea. But it will definitely be different, and you'll probably walk away with a good story or two.
Los Angeles Clippers
They stunk last season, plus they're the Clippers, which means they could screw this up at a moment's notice. But the offseason certainly pleased the Clipper faithful. First overall pick Blake Griffin should be a double-double guy immediately, and the trade of Zach Randolph for Quentin Richardson gives the Clips cap space for a free-agent run next year. Better yet, they parlayed Richardson into frontcourt depth with a second deal with Minnesota for underrated forward Craig Smith.
But the biggest reason to like the Clips is because they were going to be better anyway. Baron Davis, Chris Kaman and Ricky Davis should all be in much better physical condition for this go-round, and second-year pro Eric Gordon should improve, too. Whether it's enough for a playoff run remains to be seen, but this version of the Clips should keep us entertained.
Thanks to a reluctance to pay luxury tax and some horrific cap management in prior offseasons, the Suns keep shedding personnel. Phoenix traded Shaquille O'Neal for straight cap relief -- plus the already-released Ben Wallace and the soon-to-be-released Sasha Pavlovic -- when he came off an All-Star season. But instead of launching a full tear-down operation they extended Steve Nash, signed Channing Frye and re-signed Grant Hill, which means they could still make the playoffs if Amare Stoudemire is healthy.
We have no idea how well he'll recover from his eye injury or what the implications are for his game if the eye gives him problems. But if he's not playing to his usual standard the Suns could embark on a long ride down. One quick note to file away if that happens: Oklahoma City has Phoenix's draft pick from the Kurt Thomas salary dump in 2007, and there's no lottery protection whatsoever.
Oklahoma City Thunder
I think the Thunder are ready to move up the standings this season, but I'm just not sure how far. They opted to hold back on spending this summer and save it for next year, when they'll have about $15 million in space under the cap. So any improvement this season will result from internal development by the core of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook and the addition of draft pick James Harden.
Is it possible Durant blows up, averages in the high 20s and leads these guys to the playoffs? Absolutely. But they depend an awful lot on one guy for the offense, and that one guy has yet to demonstrate he can take high-percentage shots or create meaningful opportunities for others. And if injuries hit, there's not a lot of depth here.
Group IV: Can I Send This Plate Back?
Sure, they look like decent appetizers at first glance. But once you have a few bites, it turns out there's something half-baked about each of these clubs.
Golden State Warriors
Based on talent, the Warriors shouldn't be down here. They have plenty of offensive firepower with the return of Monta Ellis and the addition of Stephen Curry to go with the likes of Corey Maggette, Andris Biedrins, Stephen Jackson and summer-league star Anthony Randolph.
Unfortunately, we already know they'll screw this up somehow. The dysfunctional mess of a front office is too busy running Don Nelson's least-favored players out of town to bother acquiring pieces that fit. Al Harrington, Jamal Crawford and Marco Belinelli already departed with nothing to show for it, and Brandan Wright's got next. With this roster and Nelson's basic M.O. of playing seven shooting guards 30 minutes each, the Warriors are guaranteed to be among the worst defensive teams in the league, so if the offense isn't lights-out they're gong to struggle.
Medical problems pretty much ended Houston's season before it started, as Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady went under the knife and will contribute little, if anything. Meanwhile, the de facto swap of Ron Artest for Trevor Ariza bodes well for Houston's future but doesn't alter its present outlook much.
That was the only major offseason move. Otherwise, Houston tried to supplement its future with the biggest run of property acquisitions since the Louisiana Purchase. Houston paid nearly $9 million to acquire the rights to Jermaine Taylor, Chase Budinger, Sergio Llull and David Andersen -- not their salaries, mind you, just the right to be the ones paying them -- but only Andersen is likely to be in the rotation this season.
If the Rockets stay healthy and get bust-out years from Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry it's possible they can stay on the fringes of the playoff race, but it's more likely they'll struggle too much to score.
Group V: Roadkill
I'm pretty sure this is meat, but it tastes like an animal not normally served in restaurants, and I think I see a tread mark. We're outta here …
Chris Wallace's nameplate still says general manager, but it's obvious that owner Michael Heisley is calling the shots on personnel. As usual when an owner meddles, the results have been disastrous. What kind of a buffoon trades Pau Gasol for pennies on the dollar and then a year later acquires Zach Randolph at the same money? The same kind that prefers trading for Randolph to trading for Carlos Boozer, or to making a run at David Lee, or to just setting $16 million *河蟹*. Oh, and he wants Allen Iverson too. Great.
Despite a near-empty arena, the Griz still make money. That's partly because they'll do anything for $3 million, even trading a useful player (Darko Milicic) for a finished one (Quentin Richardson). But the few fans left in Memphis will get to see two of the league's biggest ball hogs fight it out for shots every night when Randolph and Rudy Gay take the court. One almost wants to see them add Iverson to the mix just to see if they could go an entire game without an assist.
While other teams have gained more attention as belt-tighteners, the T'pups have quietly joined their ranks. Trading Craig Smith just to be rid of a $2.7 million obligation to Sebastian Telfair next year has to qualify as a low point, and one gets the impression they're pretty happy to defer a $3 million obligation to Ricky Rubio a couple years into the future. They dumped Mike Miller and Randy Foye, eventually acquiring a non-guaranteed player they can waive (Chucky Atkins), and their only foray into free agency was a low-wattage bid for Ryan Hollins.
If Al Jefferson returns to his All-Star-caliber level of the first half of last season it lifts Minnesota half a notch above doormat status, but the Wolves leaked a lot of talent since their strong January last season.
Shell-shocked by increasingly horrific economics in Sacto and the woefully outdated Arco Arena, the Kings locked down financially while they wait to find out where their next home will be. If it's a new building in Sacramento, great, but if not, San Jose, Anaheim, Kansas City and others await with open arms. Either way, they won't spend a nickel without some certainty on this front.
The Kings did pick up a potential star in the draft in Tyreke Evans and a low-budget breakout possibility in Sergio Rodriguez, plus Kevin Martin should be healthier. That should keep them run-of-the-mill bad rather than historically awful, but optimists won't find a lot of ammunition here.