NBA Preview: West’s Top Guns

The NBA just had to do it. They went ahead and forged their way into the minds and hearts of ghosts, witches, princesses, superheroes, and celebrity impersonators everywhere. The Association has done the unthinkable.

They infringed upon the sanctity which we all know as Halloween. A day that should be reserved for kids chomping as much candy as their young teeth can take served as the tip-off to a season of grown men dressed in jerseys holding the spotlight by dribbling some type of bouncy pumpkin. Oh, the shame.

Sigh. I guess there's nothing I can do but do my best to warn you of who could possibly stick around long enough to ruin your Memorial Day activities in 2007. Athletic savages. First, we head left of the Mississippi and discover who's best out west.

1) Phoenix Suns (Pacific Division Champs)

The Suns will continue to run up and down better than the best of them with Steve Nash back at the helm. The two-time reigning NBA MVP will continue to steer the league's highest-octane offense (108.3 ppg), and he'll get some help. Amare Stoudemire played more limited preseason action coming back from knee surgery, but was fairly effective. His presence in the middle will pay great dividends if he gets back into game form.

Downside — Traded Tim Thomas; Stoudemire's comfort level.

2) Dallas Mavericks (Southwest Division Champs)

The NBA runners-up are determined to finish the job they started this past summer. With Jason Terry taken care of, Dirk Nowitzki and the boys can plan their assault on a tough division. I'm a big fan of Avery Johnson as a coach, and his team might have the experience to unseat the Spurs as division champs. I also like the rookie additions of Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Maurice Ager.

Downside — Got rid of leaders/grinders Darrell Armstrong, Adrian Griffin, and Marquis Daniels.

3) Los Angeles Clippers

This was the surprise of '05-'06. No one thought the Clippers were more than a also ran with talent. But don't tell that to Sam Cassell. The guard teamed up with all-star Elton Brand to make a nice run into the playoffs. They got Tim Thomas to help with the dirty work and drafted two quality players in Guillermo Diaz and Paul Davis. They should challenge Phoenix for Pacific supremacy.

Downside — Winning's not much of a tradition.

4) Denver Nuggets (Northwest Division Champs)

George Karl has the bulk of his squad back from the '03-'04 playoff upstart. They're the same guys that disappointed expectations last season, so what's the point? Basically, I got this one wrong last year. The potential of the Nuggets served to make them probably the most underachieving team in the Association last season. Still, the team's talent (Carmelo Anthony, Andre Miller, Kenyon Martin, and so on) will overwhelm its way to another Northwest Division title.

Downside — Injuries (Marcus Camby, Nenê, etc.) and Martin's attitude

5) San Antonio Spurs

The heart, soul, and mind of a champion can say quite a lot. That's why, in recent years, the Spurs have been at the top of the list in the category of "Best Odds to Win it All." Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker are back to lead a team that were one Game 7 away from getting back to the conference finals. Their defense continues to be their identity, and with that, you'll at least make it to the second season.

Downside — Haven't waded much in the fountain of youth.

6) Utah Jazz

Something just tells me that the Jazz are ready to get back to the playoffs. Maybe it's the offensive capabilities of Matt Harpring. It's possibly the confidence in second year guard Deron Williams. Or it might just be the relaxation of Andrei Kirilenko's wife and her "one groupie a year" policy. Whatever the case, Utah has brought in some nice rookie talent (including Williams' Illinois running buddies in Dee Brown and Roger Powell). My crystal ball suggests jubilation in Salt Lake.

Downside — The always-precocious injury bug.

7) Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant will have a say in this year's playoff picture. They swiped up free agent Vladimir Radmanovich and drafted Jordan Farmar to help handle the offense. Two other issues that might sway the balance are the continued emergence of Kwame Brown and the health of Ronny Turiaf. But with Phil Jackson providing more Zen leadership, the Kobes, I mean purple and gold, should have enough to sneak into the '07 postseason.

Downside — Chemistry (or getting along with the star) and role player talent.

8) New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets

The other non-returnee to this year's field might call two cities home, but they have one distinct leader. Rookie of the Year Chris Paul hopes to bypass a sophomore slump and head right into superstardom. The Hornets shored up the middle by picking up Tyson Chandler and drafting UConn late-bloomer Hilton Armstrong. They should also have a better comfort level after being uprooted and shuttled out last November. Question is: who gets the home playoff games?

Downside — Durability of Chandler and establishing a solid post presence.

Now, I'm not saying that the other teams out west have no chance to make a run. There's more than enough time to prove me wrong. Even though Wednesday is Dia de los Muertos (or Day of the Dead) south of the border, that only means a new lease on life in the Association.

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