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More Duncan And The Spurs This Year

To conclude my NBA preview, I present my complete projected standings, records, award winners, and playoff results.  A few notes:

--Playoff series predictions, as I have done them here, are pretty useless because they depend upon projecting the standings.  Even a slight error can mean the matchups in any or all rounds will be different from what I have projected.  As such, one team advancing farther than another should not automatically be read as the one being superior to the other, just that they drew a favorable playoff matchup I would expect them to win.  For example, the Mavericks and Rockets are most definitely the second-and-third best teams in the Western Conference, but neither is likely to reach the Western Conference Finals.  Likewise, the Pacers are strong championship contenders, but if they face Detroit in the first round, I see them getting bounced early.

--My award predictions represent who I think should win the awards based upon my projections, not necessarily who will win them.  So if Carlos Boozer and Matt Harpring miss half the season and the Jazz post a dismal record, obviously I don?t expect Jerry Sloan to be Coach of the Year.

--For my thoughts on the Atlantic and Southeast Division, please scan RealGM?s General NBA board in the next few days.  My predictions are too late for ?preseason? press time.

--If you have any comments or questions regarding my previews, please send me an email at tlehrbach@usfca.edu

Projected Standings
Golden State Warriors (48-34)
Phoenix Suns (46-36)
Sacramento Kings (44-38)
Los Angeles Clippers (41-41)
Los Angeles Lakers (38-44)

Denver Nuggets (50-32)
Seattle Supersonics (43-39)
Utah Jazz (42-40)
Minnesota Timberwolves (39-43)
Portland Trail Blazers (24-58)

San Antonio Spurs (59-23)
Houston Rockets (57-25)
Dallas Mavericks (54-28)
Memphis Grizzlies (36-46)
New Orleans Hornets (14-68)

Cleveland Cavaliers (57-25)
Indiana Pacers (54-28)
Detroit Pistons (52-30)
Chicago Bulls (44-38)
Milwaukee Bucks (36-46)

New Jersey Nets (49-33)
Philadelphia 76ers (40-42)
New York Knicks (38-44)
Boston Celtics (34-48)
Toronto Raptors (22-60)

Miami Heat (56-26)
Washington Wizards (42-40)
Orlando Magic (32-50)
Charlotte Bobcats (20-62)
Atlanta Hawks (19-63)

Playoff Predictions
Western Conference Quarterfinals
#1 Spurs over #8 Supersonics in 5
#2 Nuggets over #7 Kings in 6
#3 Warriors over #6 Suns in 7
#4 Rockets over #5 Mavericks in 7

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
#1 Cavaliers over #8 76ers in 7
#2 Heat over #7 Wizards in 4
#3 Nets over #6 Bulls in 5
#5 Pistons over #4 Pacers in 6

Western Conference Semifinals
#1 Spurs over #4 Rockets in 7
#2 Nuggets over #3 Warriors in 7

Eastern Conference Semifinals
#5 Pistons over #1 Cavaliers in 6
#2 Heat over #3 Nets in 7

Western Conference Finals
#1 Spurs over #3 Nuggets in 4

Eastern Conference Finals
#2 Heat over #5 Pistons in 7

NBA Finals
Spurs over Heat in 6

Award Predictions
Most Valuable Player: Tim Duncan, San Antonio
NBA Finals Most Valuable Player: Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Defensive Player of the Year: Andrei Kirilenko, Utah
Rookie of the Year: Chris Paul, New Orleans
Coach of the Year: Jerry Sloan, Utah

All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Allen Iverson
F LeBron James
F Tim Duncan
C Shaquille O?Neal

All-NBA Rookie First Team
Raymond Felton
Chris Paul
Charlie Villanueva
Deron Williams
Marvin Williams

Central Division Preview

Chicago Bulls
2004-2005 Prediction: 32-50, fifth in Central Division
2004-2005 Finish: 47-35, second in Central Division

Bulls management correctly realized making a commitment to Tyson Chandler was far more important than locking up question mark Eddy Curry. ? Mike Sweetney is a downgrade from Curry in nearly all phases of the game, but the trade was a good one because Curry was a goner anyway.  Sweetney will at least take pressure off Chandler on the glass.  Moving Chandler to center might well constitute an upgrade at that position. ? Over the course of two seasons, Kirk Hinrich has successfully brought his high-energy game to the NBA.  However, that Hinrich is such a pleasure to watch for his athleticism and creativity only makes his limitations?poor man-to-man defense, inefficient shooting?all the more glaring.  He is already average or better at the point position, but his gifts and fire could carry him to far greater accomplishments than we have yet seen from him.  The pressure mounts for Hinrich to grow as Chris Duhon and Ben Gordon continue to impress. ? As expected, Gordon proved a worthy pro in spite of his early struggles, and how!  By midseason he was the Bulls? go-to clutch playmaker.  Growth from Sixth Man of the Year to strong starter seems only natural. ? Gordon and Duhon were the most impressive pair of rookie defenders I?ve seen on one team in some time.  From Duhon, this was little surprise, but Gordon had appeared lost in the preseason, and when he did come around, his solid defense went largely unnoticed.  As the minutes for these sophomores increase, the Bulls already outstanding defense will become even better. ? Speaking of sophomores, Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni both met expectations, and Deng in particular is developing into a long, strong midrange slasher.  Perennial enigma Tim Thomas adds another shooter to the mix at small forward, but Coach Skiles won?t take minutes away from the incumbents just to be teased by four or five spectacular games from Thomas. ? Many are expecting a return to earth, and that?s possible, but last year?s record included an aberrant 0-9 start, hence predicting a similar record this year even allowing for a slight letdown. ?

PG Hinrich/Duhon/Pargo
SG Gordon/Piatkowski
SF Deng/Nocioni/Thomas
PF Sweetney/Songalia/Allen
C Chandler/Harrington

2005-2006 Prediction: 44-38, fourth in Central Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Bulls just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
Gordon, Deng, Nocioni, and Duhon were even more impressive as sophomores. ? Swapping Curry for Sweetney and sliding Chandler to center improved the Bulls? rebounding, and growth by all rendered the defense downright suffocating. ? Somebody other than Gordon stepped up in crunch time, as just enough key shots were sunk to pull out 16 low-scoring playoff wins. ?

Wait, no, the Bulls just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
Four sophomore slumps stunted the growth of the team. ? Curry took the Bulls? playoff spot with him to New York. ?

Cleveland Cavaliers
2004-2005 Prediction: 45-37, third in Central Division
2004-2005 Finish: 42-40, fourth in Central Division

No team enjoyed a better summer than the Cavs did.  Damon Jones and Larry Hughes are just the jump shooter and defensive stopper, respectively, the Cavs needed to solidify their backcourt.  If Eric Snow will show up for a new coach, but in the same limited role as before, this is a scary unit.  Depth is no problem, as LeBron James can cover either guard spot when needed. ? Even if James? numbers level off or regress, continued polish in his handling and defense with vault him closer to the legendary heights he seems certain to scale.  Now he has two great shooters?Jones and Donyell Marshall?to punish opponents for collapsing on him, and one great defender?Hughes?to help James conserve his energy at the other end; the pressure mounts for James to utilize these weapons to dominating effect.  Does anybody really doubt he?ll do just that? ? Marshall?s assignment is tailor-made to his skills: rebound, run the floor, and hit open jumpers.  He is also the perfect changeup to Drew Gooden, who is more of a bruiser by comparison.  Gooden?s numbers couldn?t match those of supervillain Carlos Boozer, but at the end of the day he gave the Cavs a more versatile scorer and a better post defender than Boozer. ? Ilgauskas must of course stay healthy for this team to succeed, but he has been reliable over the past three seasons.  Shaq and the Wallace combo are the only big men who can dominate Z in the Eastern Conference. ? No team outside of San Antonio is as complete as the Cavaliers, but can they put it all together in their first season? ?

PG Snow/Jones/Wilks
SG Hughes/Pavlovic
SF James/Jackson/Newble
PF Gooden/Marshall/Henderson/Varaejo
C Ilgauskas/Hamilton/Andriuskevicius

2005-2006 Prediction: 57-25, first in Central Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Cavaliers just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
James approached Oscar Robertson numbers in year three and ran away with the MVP award. ? Jones and Hughes thrived, while Snow accepted his role and lent a steady hand at both ends. ? Ilgauskas and Gooden were models for unspectacular production, and Marshall scored from three positions. ? LeBron threatened Finals scoring records and ran away with that MVP award, too. ?

Wait, no, the Cavaliers just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
Ilgauskas? run of good health came to an end. ? Snow pouted again, and Jones looked decidedly average without Shaq to create wide-open threes for him. ? LeBron?s numbers faltered, and he buckled under the pressure as critics wondered why he couldn?t lead his improved supporting cast into the playoffs. ?

Detroit Pistons
2004-2005 Prediction: 58-24, first in Central Division, NBA Champs
2004-2005 Finish: 54-28, first in Central Division, East Champs

Make no mistake, Larry Brown is the best coach in the NBA, but Flip Saunders is just as suited to the Pistons job?maybe even better suited, if he can mastermind some new twists to a frequently predictable offense and utilize a variety of zone defenses?his specialty at the end?to render the defense even more dominating. ? Success starts with the Wallaces, who will continue to suffocate opponents.  Big Ben is approaching free agency next summer, so a decline in his game is improbable.  Sheed is finally appreciated for the player he is despite not putting up superstar numbers.  Those numbers might even decline as he ages, but he remains the only power forward on a contender who can score over Duncan and hang with him defensively. ?Few have noticed that Chauncey Billups is much more than a playoff hero.  He?s been leading the Pistons since he arrived in Detroit. ? It?s unfair to suggest that a true successor to Reggie Miller should have his insane shooting range; Rip Hamilton is truly his equal when it comes to scrapping for any and all scoring opportunities, especially by moving off the ball. ? Brown never trusted his bench much, but Saunders will give them minutes.  Trouble is, it seems to me Brown?s worries were justified.  Neither Arroyo nor Hunter is a capable floor general.  McDyess was superb in limited doses, but he is the only trustworthy big man in reserve.  Saunders certainly won?t allow the bench to hurt his team, but he might find himself leaning on the starters just as much as Brown did. ?

PG Billups/Arroyo/Acker
SG Hamilton/Hunter/Delfino
SF Prince/Evans
PF Wallace/McDyess/Maxiell
C Wallace/Davis/Milicic

2005-2006 Prediction: 52-30, third in Central Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Pistons just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
The institution of some new schemes by Saunders made the defense even better and gave the Wallaces longer rests in the regular season. ? Billups, rewarded with a trip to the All-Star game, turned in playoff-caliber performances for most of the season. ? The Pistons held off the Cavs, Pacers, Nets, and Heat over the course of a fierce regular season and even fiercer playoffs, then reversed their game seven fortunes against the Spurs in the Finals.

Wait, no, the Pistons just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
The team-first philosophy broke down as Sheed dialed up the disruptions, Big Ben played for Big Dollars, and the team responded to Saunders as they did during Carlisle?s last days. ? Dale Davis and McDyess broke down, too, forcing the team to rely on the human victory cigar to contribute to victories. ? An injury to a starter compounded the Pistons? troubles by midseason, so they tanked the season to reload for 06-07. ?

Indiana Pacers
2004-2005 Prediction: 55-27, second in Central Division
2004-2005 Finish: 44-38, third in Central Division

The biggest story is, of course, the return of Ron Artest.  If he can avoid any meltdowns and vacations to promote his music, he resumes his role as the most fearsome defender in the league.  Can he pick up the scoring pace he set in his brief ?04-?05 season?  He?ll probably have to for the Pacers to outscore elite opponents. ? The losses of Reggie Miller and James Jones are not insignificant.  Jonathan Bender and Fred Jones, so used to being great bit players, are being counted on for consistency now.  Neither excels defensively, and both are prone to shooting slumps, which negate the pair?s biggest strength.  Rookie Danny Granger and import Sarunas Jasikevicius will handle mopping up duties well enough, but it?s quite possible these two are essential for any chance the Pacers have at postseason success.  Granger, at least, is a good bet to meet the team?s need for a full-court energizer off the bench.  Having drawn comparisons to Shawn Marion and even Andrei Kirilenko, Granger is an explosive transition player and rebounder, but he is not what the Pacers arguably need most: a creative scorer. ? Once again it?s Jermaine O?Neal by himself against the top big men in the league.  Jeff Foster does what he can and puts up solid numbers in the process, but he?s just not much help against Sheed, Shaq, or Duncan, especially when it comes to taking scoring pressure off O?Neal.  O?Neal usually takes the criticism when the Pacers come up short against those foes, and some share of criticism is rightly directed his way, but the Pacers purport to have a better supporting cast up front than other contenders, and this is demonstrably not the case.  The Pacers could use Brad Miller, but I digress. ? The Pacers are neither a better offensive nor better defensive team than the Pistons, but they?ll go as far as their desire, and their temper, can carry them. ?

PG Tinsley/Jasikevicius/Johnson
SG Jackson/Jones
SF Artest/Granger/Bender
PF O?Neal/Croshere/Walker
C Foster/Pollard/Harrison

2005-2006 Prediction: 54-28, second in Central Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Pacers just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
A gigantic chip on their shoulders inspired the Pacers to out hustle every opponent, every night en route to the top record in the league, home court advantage, and a psychological edge over exhausted adversaries. ? Especially exhausted were those unfortunate souls forced to match up with Artest, who exceeded last season?s numbers and irritated Wade, Ginobili, Kobe, and everybody else?especially the MVP voters who had no choice but to give him consideration for his efforts. ? O?Neal got help either from an improved Foster or a post scorer acquired in trade. ? Jasikevicius hit the Finals-winning shot and declared himself the best player in the world. ?

Wait, no, the Pacers just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
Artest imploded again, and the team either lost him to suspension or was forced to dump him in trade.  Granger failed to carry his preseason flourish into the regular season, and Bender was the same ol? disappointment, leaving the small forward position in shambles. ? It was last season all over again, only without two key veterans (Miller, Jones) largely responsible for keeping the ship afloat.

Milwaukee Bucks
2004-2005 Prediction: 36-46, fourth in Central Division
2004-2005 Finish: 30-52, fifth in Central Division

A busy offseason, beginning with the draft of Andrew Bogut and culminating in the trade of Desmond Mason for Jamaal Magloire, has beefed up the Bucks frontcourt.  But will the effects be seen right away?  Bogut hasn?t emerged as a better starting candidate than Joe Smith at power forward and so is reduced to a bench role, at least early in the season.  Magloire, meanwhile, is a slight upgrade over Dan Gadzuric in the middle, but Gadzuric?s development into a productive center might be negated by competing with Magloire and even Bogut for minutes. ? To be sure, this is a deeper team than any the Bucks have had post-Ray Allen, but does the net effect of the offseason transformation constitute much of an upgrade?  Bobby Simmons is certainly not a better player than the departed Mason.  Magloire is better than departed ZaZa Pachulia, but perhaps not by such a wide margin that the loss of Mason is justified. ? If T.J. Ford stays healthy, he?s worth a few wins.  He?ll miss having Mason running alongside him on the break, but he should allow Simmons to improve on his impressive 2004-2005 season, as well as take pressure off Michael Redd to create all the offense in the half court. ? Redd is a great shooter and an abysmal defender.  Paired with the diminutive Ford, the Bucks are left with a turnstile for perimeter defense.  For that reason, adding a capable shot-blocker in Magloire makes sense, but it probably won?t help enough. ?

PG Ford/Williams/Gaines
SG Redd/Welsch
SF Simmons/Kukoc/Davis/Ilyasova
PF Smith/Bogut
C Magloire/Gadzuric/Johnson

2005-2006 Prediction: 36-46, fifth in Central Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Bucks just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
After a slow start, Bogut exploded on the scene with footwork and vision becoming a ten-year veteran, routinely dropping twenty, ten, and five. ? Ford and Mo Williams ran circles around tired pointmen throughout the league, racking up easy buckets and assisting wide open jumpers for Redd and Simmons. ? Magloire, Gadzuric, and Smith gave their characteristic hustle and provided just enough defense against the elite bigs in the league for the Bucks to edge their playoff foes in throwback games where the first team to 140 wins. ?

Wait, no, the Bucks just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
They paid the Magic for their secrets. ?

Southwest Division Preview

Dallas Mavericks
2004-2005 Prediction: 45-37, third in Southwest Division
2004-2005 Finish: 58-24, second in Southwest Division

Having lost Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Antawn Jamison, and Antoine Walker over the last one-plus year, the Mavericks are still loaded with offense.  What keeps them among the league?s elite in spite of their losses, though, is their ever-improving defense.  Coach Avery Johnson is backed by experienced assistants, but the intensity and defensive discipline is all his own. ? Speaking of defense, after years of criticism, Dirk Nowitzki astonished most by emerging as a consistently good defender.  He and the somehow still motivated Erick Dampier aren?t frightening, but they are by far the best defensive duo this team has had up front in years.  And obviously, they?ll outscore most big men they face. ? DaSagana Diop?  Why? ? Marquis Daniels and Jerry Stackhouse will find Doug Christie taking their minutes if they can?t or won?t buy into the commitment to defense, but at least the two are assured of increased scoring responsibilities with Finley gone. ? Josh Howard, too, can be expected to score more, but the Mavericks really need him to play the sort of defense of which he is capable all the time. ? Lost in the Steve Nash worship last season was the quiet effectiveness of Jason Terry and Devin Harris as his replacements in Dallas.  Neither has his stroke or his passing touch, but they can run the break and drive and dish more than adequately. ? Keith Van Horn sure looked good in his half-season as a Mav, but remember, Raef LaFrentz once seemed like a great fit here, too.  Like LaFrentz, Van Horn will probably settle into a role of hitting loads of open jumpers and doing little else. ? While Dirk keeps ?em in contention, Dallas has matchup problems with every other elite team, especially in the middle, and now they have young comers nipping at their heels. ?

PG Terry/Harris/Armstrong
SG Daniels/Christie/Strickland
SF Howard/Stackhouse
PF Nowitzki/Van Horn
C Dampier/Diop/Mbenga/Podkolzin

2005-2006 Prediction: 54-28, third in Southwest Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Mavericks just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
Defense happened.  Christie proved the summer?s smartest signing, as he and Avery Johnson made everybody on the team defend smarter and with more intensity. ? Daniels, healthy and given more minutes, made Finley?s loss go unnoticed. ? Nowitzki merely matched last season?s numbers?but carried that performance into the playoffs this time around. ?

Wait, no, the Mavericks just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
Dampier and Diop remembered they are no longer playing for contracts. ? Nowitzki regressed and clashed with Daniels and Howard as the latter two sought bigger shares of the spotlight. ? An injury in the backcourt left the Mavericks playing Darrell Armstrong and Erick Strickland too much to contend for the playoffs. ? Cuban said his prayers, and the Mavs? one ball was drawn. ?

Houston Rockets
2004-2005 Prediction: 47-35, second in Southwest Division
2004-2005 Finish: 51-31, third in Southwest Division

Fresh legs for Yao Ming, coupled with the springs-for-legs of Stromile Swift, mean Jeff Van Gundy possesses an even scarier defense with which to work.  Dikembe Mutombo was terrific in relief last season, and moving Juwon Howard to the bench full-time makes the defense better by default. ? Both Yao and Tracy McGrady received too little credit for their 2004-2005 campaigns, especially at the defensive end.  These two already perform at a championship level; it?s the rest of the roster that needs to catch up. ? Rafer Alston hasn?t proven he can lead a team or even start an entire season.  Given that McGrady is the focal point of the offense, however, all Alston really needs to do is hit open threes and push the ball in transition; this seems a reasonable assignment with little risk?unless Alston decides he?s quitting again. ? Derek Anderson adds length to a shooting guard position badly in need of it, but unless the number is set at 40 or fewer, the smart gambler takes the under on his number of appearances this season. ?Luther Head is, er, turning heads with his sweet shooting in the preseason.  He doesn?t project as a point guard long-term, but he?ll get minutes as a combo spark both early in the season (with Sura injured) and late in the season (when Anderson goes down with a paper cut). ? Jon Barry was ignited from the moment he arrived in Houston.  Even reverting to his career percentages, he is a reliable catch-and-shoot option off the bench.  However, will he find a rhythm if he loses time to Anderson and Head?  David Wesley likewise saw his numbers rise after coming over in trade.  The Rockets are displaying that trait of a true contender: role players are starting to look better than they looked elsewhere. ? If the Rockets played another style, they could contend for the most points scored in the NBA; as it is, they might well hold their opponents to the fewest points in the league. ?

PG Alston/Head/Norris/Sura
SG Wesley/Barry/Anderson
SF McGrady/Bowen/Glover
PF Swift/Howard
C Yao/Mutombo

2005-2006 Prediction: 57-25, second in Southwest Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Rockets just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
Swift helped the frontline overcome the likes of Amare, Dirk, and Duncan. ? The Rockets were able to ride a stronger Yao more than in the past when opponents locked down on McGrady. ? Rafer, reminded of his days in Miami, hit big jump shots and didn?t distract. ? Wesley, Barry, and Head fed off the doubles and zones needed to contain McGrady and Yao, hitting their share of open shots, too. ?

Wait, no, the Rockets just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
Swift failed to meet the expectations placed on him?again. ? Anderson and Sura struggled with injuries, Barry and Wesley looked old, and Head looked young and inexperienced.  The backcourt was a mess, and nobody came out of the woodwork to hit the jumpers that were falling last season. ? Yao and McGrady were slow out of the gates again, but this time they couldn?t recover. ?

Memphis Grizzlies
2004-2005 Prediction: 43-39, fourth in Southwest Division
2004-2005 Finish: 45-37, fourth in Southwest Division

The Grizzlies made bold moves in the offseason, but they still seem likely to fall back in the Western Conference pack. ? The huge trade which sent out James Posey and Jason Williams hands Shane Battier the more prominent role he deserves.  Battier goes unnoticed as a truly great defender and reliable deep shooter; in short, he is exactly the player he was at Duke. ? Eddie Jones is still a better scorer than Posey, Williams, or Andre Emmet, but his minutes have declined in each of the past four seasons, so he cannot single-handedly replace their contributions.  Enter Damon Stoudamire.  He, like Williams before him, will post an impressive assist-to-turnover ratio and play pitiful defense.  Unlike Williams, he will also shoot a good percentage from the line and beyond the arc.  Will that satisfy Coach Fratello enough to overlook his maddening tendency to dribble the varnish off the floor?  That certainly constitutes a change from Williams? game.  If Bobby Jackson can stay healthy, he might offer the up-tempo look Williams brought. ? Pau Gasol will once again be shuffled between power forward and center.  His soft touch and variety of moves both facing up and backing down really ought to result in higher scoring totals than he has posted in his career, but having Stoudamire as his point guard won?t help toward that end. ? Mike Miller remains a threat both as a slasher and as a spot-up player.  If he had any toughness whatsoever, he?d be a dangerous weapon.  Instead, he should probably lose his starting spot to Battier. ? Is Hakim Warrick a tweener or a forward whose athleticism and versatility transcend either the three or the four?  I?m inclined to lean toward the latter, but he might spend his rookie season looking like the former while he adjusts to NBA speed at both spots. ? Lorenzen Wright has no single selling point, but is near the top of the heap of great bodies who fill the middle without killing your team?or producing. ?

PG Stoudamire/Jackson
SG Jones/Jones
SF Battier/Miller
PF Gasol/Cardinal/Warrick
C Wright/Tsakalidis

2005-2006 Prediction: 35-47, fourth in Southwest Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Grizzlies just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
Gasol and Miller toughened, Eddie Jones was rejuvenated by the change of scenery, and Stoudamire defied all reasonable expectation and proved capable of running the Grizzlies offense, which thrived on its versatility. ? All that, and their only playoff opponent was Pat Summit and the Tennessee Volunteers. ?

Wait, no, the Grizzlies just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
A cast of mediocre players lived up to their billing, but Jones continued to age, Jackson spent half the season modeling the NBA?s new dress code, and Wright pouted after his demand for a trade was met with little demand by other teams. ?

New Orleans Hornets
2004-2005 Prediction: 35-47, fifth in Southwest Division
2004-2005 Finish: 18-64, fifth in Southwest Division

Yesterday?s trade was a terrific one for the Hornets, contrary to typical reactions.  Jamaal Magloire had peaked as a player?a good center, for sure?but in measuring his loss, he is not a player around whom you build a franchise. ? Neither is Desmond Mason such a player, but he meets a far greater need on the wing and fits the franchise?s mission to assemble a corps of exciting young talents.  Mason could lead his new team in scoring, now that he finally gets to be a primary option in an offense. ? If there is a downside to acquiring Mason, it is pushing Bostjan Nachbar back in the depth chart.  While Mason, Chris Paul, and J.R. Smith are likely to struggle from outside, Nachbar, who is showing off his hot shooting in the preseason, will be the lone relevant deep threat on the team, and now he?s relegated to the bench. ? Chris Andersen has quietly improved in every season of his career, to the point where he is now a starting-caliber defender.  His athleticism is his only ticket to offensive relevance, but whaddyaknow, he plays on a team with running point men who will reward him for getting down the floor and skying for lobs.  In addition to acquiring Mason, his emergence justifies trading Magloire. ? Paul and the underrated Speedy Claxton probably bring comparable games right now, but Paul can be expected to shoot more often, and certainly more effectively, than Claxton does.  That alone would merit starting him right away, but he will also bring needed exposure to the team. ? J.R. Smith is a fine finisher already and will continue to improve, but he has virtually no playmaking abilities and will be wholly reliant on his point guards to find him advantageous opportunities.  His shooting percentages won?t rise significantly until he can create good shots for himself. ? Kirk Snyder will get a better chance for the young Hornets than he did for Jerry Sloan.  He has a lot to learn about team basketball, but his physical gifts alone will carry him to vastly improved numbers as a sophomore.  I still expect a long and fruitful career for him. ? Maciej Lampe and Arvydas Macijauskas have shown promise in the preseason, but they?ve also shown the limitations which are going to leave them logging the majority of their regular season minutes on the bench. ?

PG Paul/Claxton
SG Smith/Macijauskas/Snyder
SF Mason/Nachbar/Butler
PF Brown/West
C Andersen/Lampe

2005-2006 Prediction: 14-68, fifth in Southwest Division

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Hornets just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
The other 29 teams donated a championship as part of the Katrina relief effort. ?

Wait, no, the Hornets just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
The Hornets endured a rough season, but they were rewarded with steady improvement by all their raw talents and the number one pick in the upcoming draft. ?

San Antonio Spurs
2004-2005 Prediction: 59-23, first in Southwest Division, West Champs
2004-2005 Finish: 59-23, first in Southwest Division, NBA Champs

The Spurs enter the 2005-2006 season as the heaviest preseason championship favorites since the Bulls following their 87-win campaign of 1995-1996.  They have the rare luxury of being good enough to repeat as champs without improving one bit, and yet they added three free agents. ? Duncan should be going for his fourth straight MVP award this season; he can console himself by looking at his rings. ? Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley (the former, especially) could well go the way of Brent Barry and have lousy seasons, but as long as one or two of the three, plus Robert Horry, have something left for the postseason, the Spurs won?t be wanting for contributions off the bench.  Finley, anyway, seems a good bet to maintain his level of play, if not his numbers, in a role with reduced minutes and reduced pressure.  His defensive limitations will prevent him from taking many minutes from Bruce Bowen, but he could see minutes at shooting guard, too. ? The Finals notwithstanding, Rasho Nesterovic is a better player than Nazr Mohammed.  It?s hard to fault Greg Popovich for anything, but perhaps he needs to show a little more confidence in Rasho, who does precisely what is asked of him: providing consistently good defense. ? Manu Ginobili has left fellow young guard phenom Tony Parker in his dust.  Perhaps that, coupled with a miserable Eurobasket performance, will force Parker to find the pride he needs to play more consistently to his talent? ? Ginobili, meanwhile, will continue to inherit more scoring responsibility and become even more assertive. ? The Spurs can beat you in every conceivable way. ?

PG Parker/Udrih/Van Exel
SG Ginobili/Barry
SF Bowen/Finley
PF Duncan/Horry/Oberto
C Mohammed/Nesterovic

2005-2006 Prediction: 59-23, first in Southwest Division, NBA Champs

Okay, it?s June 2006 and the Spurs just won the NBA Championship.  What happened?
More of the same. ?

Wait, no, the Spurs just won the draft lottery.  Now what happened?
Suddenly, xenophobia ran rampant in the Spurs organization, as all international players were cut. ? Duncan sat out the season in protest.

Northwest Division Preview

The Northwest Division is full of question marks. Can the Wolves recover? Will the Nuggets duplicate their second half? Are the Sonics for real? Should the Jazz and Blazers be out of rebuilding mode?

Pacific Division Preview

With Amare Stoudemire on the shelf for four months, all bets are off in the Pacific Division. The Kings have reloaded and the Lakers have improved, but Jason Richardson and the Warriors now have the opportunity to lead the way and get back to the playoffs.

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