2010 NBA Preview: #16 to #20

Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash points down court after sinking a three-point shot against the Los Angeles Lakers during Game 6 of the NBA Western Conference finals in Phoenix, Arizona May 29, 2010. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

This year, I’m going to preview the NBA season by starting with the lowest of the low and working my way up to my Finals picks. If a franchise is a legitimate championship contender, I’ll focus on what stars have to line up for a title run. If a team is a playoff also-ran, I’ll identify the weaknesses that have to be shored up via trade, free agency or draft over the next couple of seasons to make it a contender. If a team is likely to miss the playoffs, I’ll take a look at the salary cap, and provide a blueprint for how the team should proceed in the near future to get back in the postseason.

#20: Charlotte Bobcats
One thing’s for sure – Larry Brown will have his team competing. But with the loss of Raymond Felton to free agency, Charlotte turns to D.J. Augustin as its starting point guard, while Shaun Livingston is expected to back him up. Unless the light suddenly goes on for one of these guys, the Bobcats are going to struggle to make the playoffs in the much-improved Eastern Conference. I think their main competition for the #8 spot is the Knicks, which should be interesting because the two teams play such different styles. Cap-wise, the Bobcats won’t have any financial flexibility until 2012 when Boris Diaw, Eduardo Najera, and (probably) Gerald Wallace come off the books. The Bobcats are in no man’s land. They’re not good enough to compete for a title, but just good enough to miss landing a sure-fire star in the lottery.

#19: Phoenix Suns
I feel bad for Steve Nash, who will likely go down as one of the greatest players never to play in a Finals. The former back-to-back MVP lost Amare Stoudemire to the Knicks, and the Suns replaced him with Hedo Turkoglu, Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick. I do like the addition of Childress, but if they’re asked to play power forward, Turkoglu and Warrick are going to have a lot of trouble on the defensive end. If Phoenix can keep the incredible chemistry that it developed last season, the Suns could finish a few spots higher and compete for a playoff spot, but without Stoudemire’s finishing ability, the team is going to be overmatched most nights. Payroll-wise, the Suns will have the flexibility to add a good player next summer, but it will mean the loss of Jason Richardson, who is in the final year of his deal. Sadly, I think the days of Nash playing for a legit contender are over. It was fun while it lasted.

#18: Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies surprised a lot of folks last year, finishing #10 in the conference and fighting for a playoff spot for most of the season. In the end, there was still a serious talent discrepancy between the Grizzlies and the Western Conference playoff teams, and it hasn’t been overcome this offseason. O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol will continue to improve, but this team is still hoping Mike Conley will be its point guard of the future and Zach Randolph isn’t necessarily dependable, especially since he’s in the final year of his contract and has made it clear that he expects a new deal. The bench is still extremely thin, but the team made a nice move to acquire Tony Allen, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. Don’t be surprised if Lionel Hollins moves Mayo to the point and gives Allen a ton of minutes at the two. Xavier Henry is the wildcard. He’s finally with the team after holding out for a ‘normal’ rookie contract, something owner Micheal Heisley didn’t want to offer. If the Grizzlies elect not to re-sign Randolph, they’ll have a ton of flexibility next summer and thereafter. Other than Z-Bo, the only major contract on the books is Rudy Gay’s monster deal.

March 5, 2010 Los Angeles, CA..Clippers' Blake Griffin, who is out for the season with a knee injury after becoming the 2009 first overall pick of the NBA Draft, participates in the pregame shoot around before the NBA game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. Oklahoma City defeated the Clippers, 104-87.

#17: Los Angeles Clippers
The Clips finished #12 in the West last season, so why do I project them to move up two spots and compete for a playoff spot? Two words: Blake Griffin. The guy is a stud, and he could easily be worth 10-15 wins this season. Throw in the potent backcourt of Baron Davis and Eric Gordon along with quality big man in Chris Kaman, and the Clippers’ starting lineup isn’t bad at all. Mike Dunleavy is out as head coach/GM, and while I’m not totally sold on Vinny Del Negro, he is an upgrade from a leadership standpoint. The team made a (somewhat laughable) run at LeBron and ended up with Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye, who will provide some depth to the rotation, while draft pick Al-Farouq Aminu will push for minutes at small forward, where there’s considerable opportunity for someone to step up. Cap-wise, the Clippers are in decent shape, but they won’t have any substantial money to spend until 2012. For the time being, these are your Los Angeles Clippers.

#16: New Orleans Hornets
Chris Paul missed 37 games last year and that, coincidentally, matches the team’s win total. What’s my point? Well, if the Hornets can get a full season out of their superstar, they’re bound to win 45-50 games and make the postseason. New GM Dell Demps showed his commitment to Paul by trading away Darren Collison (arguably the team’s second-best player) in a four-team trade that landed the Hornets Trevor Ariza. With Paul, Marcus Thornton and David West in the lineup, Ariza can go back to the more complimentary role that he thrived in when he was with the Lakers. In the last two seasons, the Hornets lacked the chemistry and cohesion that was on display during their run to the seventh game of the Western Conference Semifinals and a near-upset of the then-defending champion Spurs. While another such run is unlikely, a 50+ win season is not out of reach, assuming the roster stays relatively healthy. More likely, the Hornets will hover just above .500 and be fighting for a playoff spot come April. Financially speaking, they’re not in luxury tax territory this season, and project to have $12-$14 million in cap space next summer, which could be used to re-sign David West or to potentially make a run at Carmelo Anthony.

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