Team-by-team previews

October 31, 2006|By Los Angeles Times

Listed in order of predicted finish

NBA West

Spurs

2005-06 record -- 63-19

Outlook -- In a season in which little worked out, they still had the most wins in the league before losing to the Mavericks in a seven-game second-round series after Dallas won the pivotal Game 3 with the help of many close calls. Nevertheless, coach-GM Gregg Popovich set about finding help up front for Tim Duncan, 30, letting methodical Nazr Mohammed and Rasho Nesterovic go, and bringing in springy Francisco Elson and athletic Jackie Butler. More important, Duncan is healthy again after playing hurt all last season and posting career lows of 18.6 points and 48.4 percent from the field. Manu Ginobili, who was supposedly set to take off, didn't, but he's healthier, too.

Bottom line -- Three stars, a rock-solid defense and no egos mean they'll be back.

Mavericks

2005-06 record -- 60-22

Outlook -- Despite his madcap behavior, owner Mark Cuban was smart enough to accept Don Nelson's nomination of Avery Johnson as the next coach, even if Cuban and Nellie didn't get along. Johnson made the Mavericks bigger and tougher with D.J. Mbenga, whose skill level wouldn't have cut it under Nelson. Once-soft Dirk Nowitzki was approaching superstar status when they blew that fourth-quarter lead in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Their 0-4 plummet as the team switched hotels and bristled at the press suggested they were sucked into Cuban's anguish.

Bottom line -- Winning another 60 when everyone knows they're coming will be harder, but they're still the biggest, deepest team of all.

Clippers

2005-06 record -- 47-35

Outlook -- No, really. Having shocked the world, they're not a surprise anymore. Everyone knows they're no longer a laughingstock. Instead of the old just-passing-through atmosphere, there's a deep, businesslike, unified roster. Coach Mike Dunleavy enjoys unprecedented power. Since his arrival, owner Donald T. Sterling, whose previous record was $15 million (Eric Piatkowski's five-year deal), has offered $40 million or more to Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Gilbert Arenas and Chris Kaman.

Bottom line -- Of course, only they could give someone all that power without locking him up.

Suns

2005-06 record -- 54-28

Outlook -- Everything seemed set up for them when Amare Stoudemire returned last spring, but his comeback lasted three games. He's still not his old, explosive self and, at least for the moment, neither are they. Without three starters, coach Mike D'Antoni created another high-powered offense last season around Steve Nash, Shawn Marion and newcomers Boris Diaw and Tim Thomas. However, when Vladimir Radmanovic jilted the Clippers for the Lakers, Thomas jilted the Suns for the Clippers. Giving away size, the Suns have to make three-pointers.

Bottom line -- The key may be Kobe Bryant's favorite, Raja Bell, who made 44 percent of his threes last season and 32 percent in exhibitions.

Rockets

2005-06 -- 34-48

Outlook -- Short of disbanding, they couldn't have done worse, dropping 17 games in the standings while Tracy McGrady sat out 35 with minor ailments, before hard-working Yao Ming got hurt and missed the last 25 games. Assuming Yao is healthy and McGrady feels like playing, they should be back, at least part way. They traded for solid Shane Battier and signed Bonzi Wells, who averaged 22 points in the playoffs last spring for Sacramento. Jeff Van Gundy, who was good at his slow-down style, says he's going small and pushing the ball with Battier at power forward and McGrady moving from guard to small forward.

Bottom line -- It's no longer safe to assume anything, but they should make the playoffs standing on their head.

Jazz

2005-06 record -- 41-41

Outlook -- In limbo for three seasons since bidding farewell to Karl Malone and John Stockton, the Jazz finished on a 7-3 run. After months of cringing at comparisons to Chris Paul, whom the Jazz passed up, rookie PG Deron Williams made 54 percent of his threes after the All-Star break. Now the Jazz has Derek Fisher backing him up. Carlos Boozer missed 49 games and Andrei Kirilenko 13, but they finally met up to form one of the league's best tandems. Mehmet Okur led the team at 18 points and nine rebounds a game.

Bottom line -- They're big, young and deep.

Warriors

2005-06 -- 34-48

Outlook -- If people forgot, this was a promising team until it fell apart under Mike Montgomery, and even at 66, Don Nelson remains one of coaching's rainmakers. After Nelson's departure in 1995, the Warriors went 11 seasons without making the playoffs, amid horrors such as Latrell Sprewell choking coach P.J. Carlesimo. This team was built to play small. Instead of worrying about the missing big man, Nelson moved power forward Troy Murphy to center and Mike Dunleavy Jr. to power forward. Baron Davis, who had a bad back and scant regard for Montgomery, is aching to reclaim his place after a lost season.

Bottom line -- They've been down so long, this would look like way up there to them.

Nuggets

2005-06 record -- 44-38.

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