Around the League

NBA 2011-2012 Western Conference Season Preview

Pacific Division

Copyright 2011 NBAE-Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Los Angeles Lakers, who were swept 4-0 by the eventual 2011 champion Mavericks in the Western Conference Semis, thought they had pried PG extraordinaire Chris Paul from the Hornets via mega-trade only to have the deal nixed by Commissioner Stern. Instead the Lakers shipped 13th-year combo forward and reigning Sixth Man of the Year 6’10” Lamar Odom to the champs for a 2012 first round pick and an $8.9 million trade exception. Now in his in his 16th NBA season, Kobe Bryant endures as one of the league’s top talents. But like all athletes he is slowing down with age. The Staples co-habitants still have 11th-year All-Star 7’0” Pau Gasol and 7th-year 7’0” center Andrew Bynum, only 24 years old. But they want Dwight Howard, and he would play in SoCal. So the cast of the 2011-12 Lake Show is by no means set in stone. New head coach Mike Brown, who steps into a giant set of shoes from the departed too-many-rings-for-his-fingers Phil Jackson, will have to weather the perilous tides of change.

The Los Angeles Clippers, who finished 32-50 last season, pulled off the biggest trade of the 2011-12 preseason and landed the much-sought-after PG Chris Paul to go along with unanimous 2011 ROY Blake Griffin. For balance the Clips added 15th-year PG Chauncey Billups, who will anchor their young roster with his focused, veteran presence. Coach Vinny Del Negro also has athletic 10th-year wingman Caron Butler and the defensive paint monster center DeAndre Jordan. There is already growing excitement around this promising team, and with tremendous upside come great expectations. 2012 may be the long-awaited year that the oft-maligned ‘little brother’ of the LA hoops world finally passes his glittery-gold big brother and takes over Tinseltown.

The Phoenix Suns, with the former 2x NBA MVP and 16th-year PG Steve Nash (best Canadian baller ever) missed the Western Conference Playoffs last season with a 40-42 record. Coach Alvin Gentry has newly-added 6th-year former Laker combo guard Shannon Brown to run with Nash. 5th-year center 6’11” Marcin Gortat gives Phoenix muscle and hustle up front, and 17th-year G/F Grant Hill helps out all over the stat sheet and court.  5th-year players G Aaron Brooks and F Jared Dudley will have to step up their production with the loss of Vince Carter to the Mavs. Also 7th-year F/C Channing Frye will be needed to crash the boards with Gortat to give the Suns a chance to run the way they like to.

The Golden State Warriors have a 43 ppg starting backcourt in 7th-year Monta Ellis and 3rd-year Stephen Curry, both 6’3” and 185lbs. Besides this lethal 1 and 2, rookie Coach Mark Jackson doesn’t have a whole lot to work with – especially in the frontcourt, even with the addition of onetime #1 overall pick 6’11” 11th-year Kwame Brown. 7th-year big man David Lee led the team with 9.8 rpg last year. It will be tough for this East Bay bunch to improve a whole lot on last season’s 36-46 finish. There is always talk that either Ellis or Curry is on the trading block because GS needs some serious help up front.

The Sacramento Kings have three players returning who averaged in double figures last season: 3rd-year guards Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans along with 2nd-year ultra-talented 6’11” center Demarcus Cousins. They drafted long-range bomber Jimmer Fredette from BYU and added former Cav 4th-year 6’9” J.J. Hickson to help out up front.  After enduring a 24-58 season last and the possibility of the franchise leaving SacTown, the Kings can build around a shaky, but skilled young nucleus. They are still a few years away from finishing in the top 8 in the West.

 

Northwest Division

Copyright 2011 NBAE-Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the WCF last spring, but gained valuable playoff seasoning and experience along the way. With First Team All-NBA 6’9” 2x league scoring champ 5th-year Kevin Durant leading the exciting Thunder, the OKC bunch finished 55-27 in 2011. With 4th-year 2011 All-Star and Second Team All NBA PG Russell Westbrook running the show and 3rd-year players Serge Ibaka and James Harden providing inside and outside help respectively, the Thunder should again top the Northwest division in the upcoming season. When center Kendrick Perkins is fully healed and ready to anchor the low post defensively, OKC will be formidable and difficult to beat when they’re ‘clicking’.  The next step in their team maturation should give them a solid chance at making the 2012 NBA Finals.

The Denver Nuggets played very well in the 2010-11 season considering that for a large chuck of it they had to deal with the Carmelo Anthony trade circus. Melo was eventually shipped to the Knicks and the Nuggets finished last year at 50-32 and lost to the Thunder in the WC first round. The Nuggets drafted 6’8” rebounding-machine Kenneth Faried in the first round of the 2011 draft and now have 6’10” 4th-year F Danilo Gallinari and 10th-year 6’11 Nene Hilario up front. In the backcourt they have 5th-year swingman Arron Afflalo and the 3rd-year all-galaxy-quick Ty Lawson at the point. Denver added Rudy Fernandez and Corey Brewer to take the place of Kenyon Martin, Wilson Chandler and J.R. Smith who are playing in China this year. Look for coach George Karl’s team to push the ball and play exciting, high-altitude hoops.

The Portland Trail Blazers, who lost former ROY and 3X NBA All-Star Brandon Roy to early retirement due to a degenerative nerve condition on 12/10/11, will have their work cut out for them in a talented and tenacious Western Conference. Portland returns 6th-year leading scorer 6’11” LaMarcus Aldridge (21.8 ppg) and 3rd-year 2-guard Wesley Matthews who put up 15.7 ppg and played in all 82 regular season games last year. In addition on 2/24/11, they traded for 11th-year 6’7” dynamic Gerald Wallace, who also averaged 15.7 ppg. Veteran PG Andre Miller was traded to Denver on Draft Day for 7th-year PG Raymond Felton. 16th-year 6’11” C Marcus Camby led the Blazers with 10.2 rpg in the 2011 season and is back again, while 4th-year former #1 overall pick center Greg Oden will once again start the year on the sidelines with troubled knees. The Blazers finished 48-34 last season and lost to the Mavs in Round 1. Portland should make the 2012 postseason but have age and injury questions that might hinder them.

The Utah Jazz, who finished last year at 39-43 and out of the playoffs, come into the 2012 season with much uncertainty surrounding them. 8th-year 6’10” Al Jefferson is their leading returning scorer at 18.6 ppg, and he started all 82 games last year. 6th-year 6’8” Paul Millsap is back after averaging 17.3 ppg. Up front they added #3 overall 2011 pick 6’11” Enes Kanter to develop alongside of 2nd-year 6’10” Derrick Favors. Their backcourt is made up of 8th-year PG Devin Harris and 7th-year 2-guard C.J. Miles. The Jazz have several players who can and will impact games. The question is can they impact the WC as a moldable group and return to the playoffs in 2012?

The Minnesota Timberwolves, who suffered through a dismal 2010-2011 season and finished at 15-67, have added #2 overall pick 6’8 Derrick Williams and 21-year-old 2009 #5 overall pick PG Ricky Rubio from Spain. New head coach Rick Adelman has 2011 MIP and league rebounding champ 6’10” Kevin Love to build around. If Minnesota fans will have any hope of improving on last season’s record, 4th-year F and scorer 6’10” Michael Beasley and 9th-year 7’0” Darko Milicic will need to contribute at a more consistent rate. The Wolves team defense was pretty bad in 2011, so they may be thinking trade in order to shore up that area. The bottom line is that this squad needs a lot in a lot of areas and needs to either be patient and try to develop what they have or to break up this current group and start again.

Southwest Division

Copyright 2011 NBAE-Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty ImagesThe Dallas Mavericks, the 2011 NBA Champs, are back to defend the title with a few changes that may be consequential come the 2012 playoffs. Center Tyson Chandler, Dallas’ 5th leading scorer, top board-man and best shot blocker, was traded via a sign-and-trade to the glow of Manhattan and the NY Knicks.  Former Laker 6’10” combo forward Lamar Odom, the 2011 6th-Man of the Year, arrived via trade on 12/11/11. Dallas also signed free agent Vince Carter, a 14-year vet, who can still light up the scoreboard on some nights. Coach Rick Carlisle still has 18th-year PG Jason Kidd running the show and 10x All-Star and 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki scoring from seemingly everywhere on the court. 13th-year F Shawn Marion is back and 11th-year 7’0” C Brendan Haywood returns, where he’ll be expected to fill Chandler’s important role as defensive-stopper.

The Memphis Grizzlies, who made it to the WC semis last spring before losing to the OKC Thunder in a great series, have 6th-year 6’8”SF Rudy Gay back to start the new season. 20-point a night scorer Gay, who had season-ending shoulder surgery last March and missed the entire 2011 postseason, will give the Griz even more firepower to go along with 11th-year PF Zach Randolph, PG Mike Conley, 7’1” Marc Gasol and SG O.J. Mayo. They still have Tony Allen for defensive shutdown assignments, however they lost veteran Shane Battier to the Heat and Darrell Arthur to a season-ending torn right Achilles tendon.  Memphis went 46-36 in a monster division where all five teams finished well above .500 last season.  Coach Lionel Hollins’ squad will be a tough team to beat, especially after gaining valuable playoff experience and victories last year.

The San Antonio Spurs, after posting a 61-21 regular season record (good for #2 overall in the league), were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the upstart Grizzlies. Mr. 4-Rings, future 1st ballot HOF’er 35-year-old Tim Duncan, posted career lows in scoring and rebounding during the 2011 campaign.  Manu Ginobili, the 34-year old crafty Argentine wingman, is still clutch and productive in a pinch, but he too has lost a step and some zip in his frenetic, soccer-like on-court game. The third member of the Spurs triumvirate is French PG Tony Parker. He led the team in scoring and dimes, but he too is probably past his prime. SA traded combo guard and fourth leading scorer George Hill to the Indiana Pacers for rookie Kawhi  Leonard on draft night in June. The Spurs still have the talent to beat any team in the NBA, but it remains to be seen whether they do it in a 7-game series.

The Houston Rockets finished a very respectable 43-39 in a loaded division, but missed out on the postseason. Celtic great Kevin McHale is the new headman in Houston, and he has some potent scorers on his roster. 8th-year 6’7” G Kevin Martin led the team with a 23.5 ppg average. 5th-year rugged PF Luis Scola put up 18.3 ppg and led the team in rebounding with 8.2 rpg last year. 6th-year PG Kyle Lowry was the third leading scorer and led the Rockets in dimes with 6.7 apg. Houston will be able to score. Their difficulties will come on the defensive end where they’ll be forced, until a change is made, to play Hasheem Thabeet and Jordan Hill in the middle. Look for the Rockets to be active in the trade markets this season to change up the composition of their starting five.

The New Orleans Hornets went 46-36 and lost to the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Now they’ve lost All-World PG Chris Paul via a requested trade with the Clippers. NO’s top scorer in 2011, F David West signed with the Pacers recently. From the Clips, the Hornets received top-flight 4th-year SG Eric Gordon, only 22 years old, as well as big man 7’ Chris Kaman and 2nd-year combo forward 21 year old Al-Farouq Aminu. In addition, the Hornets received an unprotected #1 draft pick that the Clippers got from the Timberwolves. New Orleans is in a difficult spot in that the league and the 29 other owners are in charge of The Big Easy’s hoops team. This is a franchise in limbo. Head coach Monty Williams will have his hands full at first and will need to rely on size. Both 6’10” Emeka Okafor and 6’9” Carl Landry will be called upon to provide front court production and toughness for the new-look Hornets.


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