2010 NBA Preview: #6 to #10

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.

#10: Denver Nuggets
It’s tough to handicap Denver’s chances this season given the uncertainty surrounding Carmelo Anthony’s future with the franchise. There’s very little doubt in my mind that if the Nuggets hold onto Melo for the entire season, he’s going to sign elsewhere next summer. Will they risk losing him for no compensation after watching Chris Bosh bolt Toronto last summer? It seems doubtful, though it’s going to be very difficult to justify trading Anthony away in the middle of the season if the team is playing well and looks to be amongst the West’s elite. The truth is that the Raptors did get something out of Bosh’s departure. People forget, but Toronto and Cleveland actually worked out sign-and-trades with the Heat and each garnered a couple of first round picks (and a trade exception) out of their respective deals. The Nuggets could wait and (probably) do the same thing, but they’ll get better value if they trade Anthony before the deadline. With one foot out the door, the Nuggets are going to be answering questions all season about the status of their superstar and it’s going to be a distraction. There’s no way around it. With a pretty good roster, the Nuggets will be good, but they’re not good enough to overcome all the drama. If Denver moves Anthony and eventually trades Chauncey Billups as well, they’ll be in great shape financially, building around Ty Lawson and whatever young players (Derrick Favors?) they can acquire for their two stars. But make no mistake — this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

#9: Utah Jazz
For the first time in six seasons, the Jazz head into the season without the potent duo of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. Williams is basically the franchise cornerstone and is still there, but Boozer is long gone. So the Jazz are going to take a step back, right? Not necessarily. They have one of the best backup power forwards in the league (Paul Millsap) ready to take Boozer’s place and they stole Al Jefferson from the T-Wolves, so the front line will be fine assuming Mehmet Okur’s recovery from an injury to his Achilles. Of greater concern is the wing, where the losses of Kyle Korver and Wes Matthews will hurt if C.J. Miles, Raja Bell and Gordon Hayward are not up to the task. Head coach Jerry Sloan will have his team competing and it’s rare that the Jazz are ever out-executed on any given night. Another 50+ win season looks likely.

#8: San Antonio Spurs
With Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker still on the roster, the Spurs are going to be good. The question is, how good? Duncan’s days as a dominating center are behind him, but he can still take over a game from time to time, and Ginobili is just reaching the tail end of his prime. It has been years in the making, but the talented Tiago Splitter will finally join the Spurs this season and might very well be the best big man to play alongside Duncan since David Robinson eight years ago. He’s not going to set the league on fire, but he can score in the post and is a pretty strong defender and rebounder. The problem with the Spurs is getting easy buckets. They used to be able to give it to Duncan on the block or Ginobili at the top of the key and get good look after good look. But with both players on the decline, those easy buckets have become harder and harder to come by. The Spurs will always be a tough out, but they need to be 100% healthy when the postseason comes around to have more than a puncher’s chance of making the Finals.

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (R) works in the low post against San Antonio Spurs guard Keith Bogans during the second half of Game 1 of their NBA Western Conference playoff series in Dallas, Texas April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

#7: Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs are a good bet to win another 50+ games this season, but they don’t excite me as a potential Finals contender. There is definitely plenty of talent on the roster, but the most of the rotation is over 30 and past its prime. The Mavs are what they are — a collection of very good players that form a pretty good team that is going to lose somewhere in the Western Conference Playoffs. However, if the Lakers were to suffer some sort of injury to Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol, the Mavs are one of the teams capable of picking up the ball and taking into the endzone, if you don’t mind me mixing my metaphors. Dirk Nowitkzi is still a Top 10 talent and Jason Kidd has turned himself into a very good spot up shooter. Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler make up a good, but aging rotation. The only young upstart to speak of is Roddy Beaubois. Considering how Mark Cuban has overspent during the last few seasons, the Mavericks will have a considerable amount of cap space as soon as the summer of 2012, when the franchise is projected to have just Nowitzki, Marion, Haywood and a few rookie contracts on the books. But Cuban keeps kicking the rebuilding can down the road and will continue to do so as long as Dirk is still playing at an All-NBA level.

#6: Chicago Bulls
Considering they missed out on Miami’s new SuperFriends, the Bulls did a very nice job of upgrading the roster. They desperately needed some post scoring, and when healthy, Carlos Boozer provides just that. He’s not the greatest defender, but playing alongside Joakim Noah, he doesn’t have to be. The Bulls also needed three-point shooting, and new addition Kyle Korver is one of the best pure shooters in the league. Ronnie Brewer gives the team a perimeter stopper on the wing, while Taj Gibson, James Johnson and Kurt Thomas round out the front court rotation. In the end, this team will go as far as Derrick Rose can take them. If he can turn into an efficient scorer/distributor, especially late in games, the Bulls will be very tough to beat. Cap-wise, Chicago is poised to go into luxury tax territory during the 2013 season, after the extensions for both Noah and (potentially) Rose will kick in. But with this much talent on the roster, who cares?
I was very close to ranking the Bulls ahead of the Orlando Magic, but Orlando has stability and consistency on its side, and it’s going to take a few months for the Bulls to work the kinks out. If/when they do…watch out.

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