It's a long way to next June but the trip has begun. Another NBA season is under way. As you know, I am a fearless prognosticator ... but why push it? This time around, starting with the West, I'll lay out the best teams in each conference. I will also pick the Rookie of the Year and the MVP and give you an NBA Finals result (but I can't get into who will play whom in which round -- I simply can't).
1. Los Angeles Lakers
With the addition of Samaki Walker, Lindsey Hunter and Mitch Richmond the best team got even better -- if that's possible. Last year, I thought maybe the jealousy factor between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal would prevent the Lakers from winning a title, but even that couldn't do it. They couldn't even stop themselves! So, I don't see anything else in their way. Complacency is always a possibility, but probably not with Phil Jackson as the head coach.
|Shaquille O'Neal and the Lakers look to threepeat this season.|
2. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are a good team but I don't see greatness. They lost their most athletically-gifted player in Derek Anderson but added steady Steve Smith. Tim Duncan has no weaknesses, but you wonder what David Robinson has left. Look out for Tony Parker, who is one of the quicker players in the league, coming off the bench. San Antonio looks like the second-best team out west.
3. Sacramento Kings
I like the entire Kings starting lineup (and the bench as well). Now that Chris Webber's contract issues are out of the way, once he's healthy, look for him to put up even bigger numbers than last year. Mike Bibby will be an improvement over Jason Williams at point guard. And there's more to like: Predrag Stojakovic is instant offense, Doug Christie is one of the better defensive guards in the league and Hidayet Turkoglu is a lot of talent coming off the bench. Sacramento plays well when it is overshadowed, and this season the Kings are overshadowed (probably) by two teams.
4. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs have a great starting lineup with Tim Hardaway and Danny Manning coming off the bench. They'll be a playoff team. Hopefully Hardaway, who played well under Don Nelson when they were at Golden State, has accepted his role. Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley are two bright starts. Steve Nash is solid at the point -- he just needs a better haircut.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin Garnett will probably be the only reason the Timberwolves get to the playoffs. But because he's all they have, they won't make it past the second round. I like Terrell Brandon a lot, although he's been the topic of some trade rumors. Was Joe Smith worth all this trouble? I don't think so.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
After years of overrating the Trail Blazers, they could turn out to be underrated this year -- if it's possible to underrate a team with all that talent. Scottie Pippen is still a capable all-around player but can he fill the void of team leader? Rasheed Wallace is an enigma -- but a talented one. Portland brought in new coach Maurice Cheeks, the quiet guy who could maybe be a calming influence on Wallace. (Wallace says he's reformed but got a technical on opening night.) It's Damon Stoudamire's team now so there won't be any splitting time or sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter when Greg Anthony runs the offense. I do like Bonzi Wells, but Dale Davis is a forward playing center. Ruben Patterson has a lot of athleticism and Zach Randolph, the rookie out of Michigan State, will be a great addition.
7. Utah Jazz
Pencil them in for 50 wins and also for losing in the first round of the playoffs. But don't forget to go out and watch Malone and Stockton before their careers are over. They still play the game together as well as anyone ever has. Stockton will have to play a little more this year because Utah doesn't have the normal backup in Howard Eisley or Jacque Vaughn. The backup is John Crotty, who's not that much younger than Stockton himself. The Jazz are still weak at center, which they were when Malone and Stockton were young.
8. Los Angeles Clippers
They'll make the playoffs this year with Lamar Odom, Elton Brand, Jeff McInnis and a pretty good front line. We may have seen the best we can see out of Michael Olowokandi. I like the talent off the bench with Darius Miles, Corey Maggette, Quentin Richardson and Keyon Dooling. It's a good team. They're no longer your father's Clippers.
9. Phoenix Suns
They traded away Jason Kidd, the best point guard in the NBA, in my opinion. Certainly the best point guard in executing what he's asked to: distribute the ball and make others better. They brought in an exciting player in Stephon Marbury who will put up big numbers. But will he make this team better? Will Penny Hardaway and Tom Gugliotta stay healthy? Shawn Marion is a star already. The bench is not formidable. Playoffs not out of the question.
10. Houston Rockets
It's hard to find a better all-around guard than Steve Francis. And with Hakeem Olajuwon gone, this is Francis' team. They'll be good, not great. Rebounds will be a problem, as will depth. Watching Eddie Griffin develop will be interesting. They'll need to surprise to make the playoffs. But it could happen. After all, they won 45 games last year, the most ever for a non-playoff team.