Utah’s precipitous fall from title contenders to getting waxed in the first round was one thing, but it was another game last night that showed just how wide open the Western Conference might be next season: the New Orleans Hornets losing by 58 points to the Denver Nuggets. It was a home loss so terrible, so embarrassing, one has to wonder if the Hornets quit on purpose to get Byron Scott fired.
The Los Angeles Lakers notwithstanding, the West is no longer the best. Don’t be fooled by the Jazz winning 48 games to squeak into the playoffs as the eighth seed, that has more to do with the Western Conference possessing six of the seven NBA teams that won less than 30 games this season (including the Warriors, of course). With several perennial powers in the West starting to look old or just plain broken, it stands to reason that if the Warriors make a few intelligent moves (and admittedly that’s a huge “if”), can slide into the eighth seed about 11.5 months from now.
This isn’t a post about what the Warriors need to do to become playoff contenders, we all know they need to stay healthy, get a point guard and find some team dumb enough to trade something halfway decent for Jamal Crawford and/or Corey Maggette. And…maybe they could focus just a tad more on defense and rebounding next season. And find a GM to replace Chris Mullin whose name isn’t Don Nelson or Larry Riley (my services remain available). But like I said, this isn’t about that. We’re all about optimism here at BASG (OK, stop laughing, it’s not my fault I decided to start a blog about Bay Area sports at a time when the best team around was the San Jose Sharks Charmin), so let’s see what faltering squads Tony Randolph and Co. can leapfrog over next year.
First, a list of the teams guaranteed to be better than Golden State next year unless their entire rosters are struck by a wicked strain of swine flu:
Playoff Locks in 2010
1. Los Angeles Lakers: Even if Kobe Bryant suffers 1,000-game-itis next year like KG and Tim Duncan did over the past two months, the Lakers will still be a top-three team in the West. Even the awful shooting of Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar can’t screw that up.
2. Portland Trail Blazers: They’re only going to get better, especially if Greg Oden simply becomes a serviceable center (meaning he stays relatively healthy and doesn’t collect a foul every three minutes).
3. Houston Rockets: Besides the whole T-Mac thing, their front office seems to be a half-step ahead of the rest of the league. Their only worry is if they re-sign Ron Artest and he acts like he usually does during non-contract years.
4. Denver Nuggets: They have size (Nene, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Anderson), shooting (J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza) and a point guard (Chauncey Billups). And oh yeah, they just beat a Chris Paul-led playoff team by 58 POINTS. Seriously, the Hornets should forfeit their first ro.
No chance whatsoever
1. Sacramento Kings: What a mess. It has to be tough to watch their entire non-Webber/Divac nucleus from those great early-2000’s teams (Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu and Brad Miller) all in the playoffs right now. They have a better chance of moving next season than making the postseason.
2. Los Angeles Clippers: Even if they do fire Mike Dunleavy, can you see Donald Sterling hiring anyone competent to right the ship?
3. Minnesota Timberwolves: Al Jefferson will be coming off major knee surgery and they still don’t have a point guard who’s either (a) dependable or (b) able to shoot over 40% from the field. All bets are off if they land Ricky Rubio, however.
4. Memphis Grizzlies: This team is so immature, they need at least two years of growth before they can even think about the playoffs. I still can’t believe nobody on this team got into a highly publicized fight with each other.
5. Phoenix Suns: You can’t count out a team with Steve Nash, Shaquille O’Neal and Amare Stoudemire, but…well, I think you can. After systematically purging their roster of talent and draft picks, the Suns are treading water with ankle weights on. Nash doesn’t mesh with anyone on the current roster and his play is declining, Shaq is more about lengthening his career than winning championships and Stoudemire has been exposed as stat-addicted and defense-phobic. Add that to the unrestricted free agencies of Grant Hill (only their most consistent player this past season) and Matt Barnes (who’ll probably get a better deal elsewhere than he would from the penny-pinching Suns) and it’s tough to see how the Suns will be any better next year.
The bubble teams
1. Dallas Mavericks: They sure look good against a San Antonio team that appears to have given all hope without Manu, but after they get murdered in the second round by Denver there are sure to be some dumb/irrational/insane moves coming from Cubanville.
2. San Antonio Spurs: Looking older by the minute, and they’re rumored to be going after Rasheed Wallace after the season, even though they are in much greater need of a replacement for Michael Finley than another aging power forward. When did R.C. Buford become Brian Sabean?
3. New Orleans Hornets: So much for the idea that adding James Posey ensures your team of winning a championship. Now they’re left to find out how to blow up the team, keep Chris Paul happy and sell enough tickets to keep themselves financially viable in a depressed area. The sad thing is, they’d be even worse in their series against the Nuggets if that Tyson Chandler trade for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox had gone through.
4. Utah Jazz: I know it’s almost blasphemous, but screw it — I’m not Mormon: isn’t it about time for Jerry Sloan and the Jazz to part ways? Their offense has turned into “let’s let Deron Williams run around in circles until he tires himself out, makes it to the hoop or finds an open teammate.” If Williams isn’t on fire, the Jazz are about as potent as a six-pack of O’Doul’s. They’re simply awful on the road, and whenever the going gets tough Sloan’s only plan of action is to foul more. Mix that with the probability that Boozer, Millsap or both won’t be with the team next year and the Jazz might take a tumble next year. (Side note: those baby-blue uniforms need to go as well. Simply the worst look in the league, and it’s not even close. I’d rather watch the Warriors in their orange uni’s against the Wizards in their shiny gold-and-black numbers in a seven game series than see the Jazz wear those abominations ever again).
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Poised for a huge year even if they don’t get lucky in the draft lottery. If they somehow end up with Rubio or Blake Griffin they’ll arguably be better than the Hornets and Jazz were this year.
6. Golden State Warriors: Think they should be ranked below the Suns? If I’m building a team I’d rather have Randolph on my roster than anyone in Phoenix due to his age, athletic ability and mindset. The guy sells himself out every night in hopes of grabbing every rebound, blocking every shot and tomahawking (is that a word?) every dunk. 5-10 more pounds of muscle and an off-season spent shooting mid-range jumpers would make Randolph just the player to make Andris Biedrins’ and Ronny Turiaf’s lives easier. If the Warriors can somehow get Andre Miller, Bibby or (fingers crossed) Master Rubio, pencil them in for the No. 7 or 8 seed. If the W’s point guard combo is Monta Ellis and C.J. Watson, get ready for another season finishing tenth in the West.
So there you have it. The Warriors have an opening next season to at least become playoff contenders if things go relatively well, which in Warrior-land would be a near miracle. Be that as it may, only two teams out of the Mavs, Spurs, Hornets and Jazz need to falter for the Warriors to sneak into the playoffs next season. Stranger things have happened.
How’s that for optimism?