2008 NBA Preview: #3 New Orleans Hornets

Offseason Movement: The Hornets #1 job this offseason was to lock up Chris Paul, and they managed to sign the superstar point guard to a deal that runs through 2013. GM Jeff Bower poached James Posey from the Celtics in a move that will bolster the team’s bench. He also signed Devin Brown to give the team some depth at guard.
Keep Your Eye On: The Hornets’ wings
In Chris Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler, New Orleans has three of the top players in the league at their respective positions. (Chandler isn’t an offensive force, but he’s a terrific shot blocker and rebounder and his contract is a bargain at the center position.) The key to the Hornets success might be the play at off guard and small forward, which are currently manned by Morris Peterson and Peja Stojakovic, respectively. Both players are 31 and have shown signs of decline. Neither player is a defensive force, so if their shots aren’t falling, there’s really no reason for them to be on the floor. Julian Wright is an up-and-coming small forward who played very well in limited minutes last season and James Posey was signed for his championship experience, tough defense and clutch shooting. Devin Brown will also play a factor.
The Big Question: Can the Paul/West combo lead these Hornets to the Finals?
Both Paul (23) and West (28) are in their primes so the championship window is wide open. They nearly upended the Spurs in last year’s playoffs and have added a valuable piece (Posey) to their championship puzzle. The Hornets need good shooting from their wings to give Paul and West the space to operate. Whomever is on the floor in crunch time needs to be able to knock down shots because inevitably the Hornets’ season will depend on it.
Outlook: With Paul locked up for five years and West locked up for the next three, the Hornets are clearly in their championship sweet spot. But it seems like the team is one player away from being a serious title contender. Stojakovic was supposed to be that guy, but his defensive limitations and suspect shooting in the clutch may make the Hornets regret signing that huge contract two summers ago (if they aren’t already regretting it). Don’t be surprised if Posey gets a lot of crunch time minutes. If he can perform like he did with the Celtics last season, the Hornets have a good shot of getting out of the West.

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2008 NBA Preview: #4 San Antonio Spurs

Offseason Movement: The Spurs were pretty quiet this offseason, apparently content with their roster. They re-signed Michael Finley and Kurt Thomas, and drafted George Hill, a combo guard that could really score in college.
Keep Your Eye On: Manu Ginobili’s ankle
Manu Ginobili will be out of action until mid-December after undergoing left ankle surgery. The Spurs won the title in 2003, 2005 and 2007, and I would pick them this year if not for the uncertainty surrounding Ginobili’s health. If he comes back at 100%, the Spurs have a great shot at a fourth title in seven years. Ginobili’s ankle is especially worrisome considering his style of play. He’s most effective when he’s able to drive to the hole, and a shaky ankle may limit his ability to get to the rim.
The Big Question: Do the Spurs have another title run in them?
Ginobili (31 years old), Tim Duncan (32), Michael Finley (35), Bruce Bowen (37) and Kurt Thomas (36) are all pretty long in the tooth and they’ll all be playing a major role in the Spurs’ rotation this season. Obviously, Ginobili and Duncan are the keys – if they are healthy and can play at a high level, the Spurs are going to be a very tough out, especially considering that the 26 year-old Tony Parker is just hitting his prime.
Outlook: Same ol’ same ol’. The Spurs recipe for success is pretty simple. They’ve signed their stars to reasonable contracts and with regard to the supporting cast, chemistry outweighs ability or upside. Duncan is signed for four more seasons, which would make him 36 in the final year of his contract. Realistically, the team has a 2-3 year window in which to win another title. Duncan is still playing at a high level, but there’s no guarantee that at 34 or 35, he’ll still be able to post franchise-cornerstone numbers. There is no doubt that the clock is ticking. This season probably represents the Spurs’ best chance for another title.

2008 NBA Preview: #5 Utah Jazz

Offseason Movement: The Jazz exercised a couple of no-brainer contract options on Ronnie Brewer and Paul Millsap, and signed Deron Williams to a long-term deal. The other main acquisition was center Kosta Koufos via the draft.
Keep Your Eye On: Carlos Boozer
Boozer has another year on his deal, but it’s a player option, and considering he can make more on the open market, he’ll probably opt out. That doesn’t mean that he’s leaving Utah, but given Boozer’s history, the team is justifiably worried. Utah has a lot of money tied up in Andrei Kirilenko (three years, $49 million) and it would be much better spent on a new deal for Boozer. Complicating matters is Mehmet Okur, who can also opt out next summer. The good news is that the Jazz locked up Deron Williams, so that should encourage both Boozer and Okur to stay.
The Big Question: Is this group good enough to get over the hump?
Utah has a nice roster, but it’s unclear if the current core – Williams, Boozer, Okur, AK-47 – is good enough to get past the West’s elite. Can Williams and Boozer raise their respective games? Will another player (Brewer, Koufos) turn into a star?
Outlook: The Jazz are right on the cusp and they’ll always play hard for Jerry Sloan, so they’ll be in the thick of things come playoff time. That means that they’re likely to advance to the Western Conference Semis or Western Conference Finals and meet a roadblock like the Lakers, Hornets or Spurs. I’d like to see Jerry Sloan make another trip to the Finals, but the odds are against that happening this season.

2008 NBA Preview: #6 Houston Rockets

Offseason Movement: The team acquired Ron Artest from the Kings in exchange for Bobby Jackson and draftee Donte Greene. Trading for Artest is a risky move, but one that the Rockets pretty much had to take. The window is closing on the Tracy McGrady/Yao Ming combination and the team had to make a bold move to shake things up. And any move that puts Ron Artest on your roster is a bold move. The Rockets also re-signed forward Carl Landry, who was very productive in limited minutes last season.
Keep Your Eye On: The Rockets’ injury report
If T-Mac, Yao Ming and Ron Artest can all play 75+ games and are healthy for the playoffs, this team will be very competitive. But as history has shown us, that is a HUGE “if.” Yao hasn’t played more than 57 games in any of the last three seasons and McGrady is averaging 61 games played over the same span. So the Rockets can’t really hope that the duo will stay healthy, they just have to hope that whatever injuries T-Mac and Yao do sustain aren’t of the season-ending variety.
The Big Question: Assuming health isn’t a factor, how will Ron Artest fit in?
With the acquisition of Artest, three of the Rockets’ top four players are actually small forwards. Luckily T-Mac can play off guard and Shane Battier can play a little power forward and come off the bench. Known for his…um…fiery personality, Artest rehabbed his image while with the Kings, and for the most part he was a pretty good citizen. Anytime you add a player of his caliber, the other guys are going to have to make an adjustment. The silver lining to the T-Mac and Yao injury concerns is that the team will probably need Artest to play a major role at some point this season.
Outlook: Along with T-Mac, Artest, Battier and Yao, the Rockets have a nice group of role players that helped the team catch fire last season after they lost their center. Luis Scola gave the team inside scoring and rebounding (though he was absolutely lost on defense) and Landry provided some much-needed toughness in the paint. Brent Barry provides some outside shooting, while Aaron Brooks is developing into a nice backup for starter Rafer Alston. The team can go nine deep, which gives them the necessary depth to withstand a short-term injury to one (or both) of their stars. If everyone is healthy for the playoffs, watch out for the Rockets. If T-Mac or Yao sustains another season-ending injury, the Rockets might elect to blow the team up and start from scratch.

2008 NBA Preview: #7 Phoenix Suns

Offseason Movement: The Suns signed Matt Barnes to a one-year contract. Barnes had a nice season for the Warriors two years ago (averaging 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds), but fell out of favor in Golden State and saw his minutes cut. He’s a decent three-point shooter (37% in ’06-’07) and is otherwise an energy guy with a pretty good handle. The team drafted Robin Lopez, the more defensive-minded of the Lopez twins from Stanford. (You know, Sideshow Bob.) He may be the future at center once Shaq hangs ‘em up.
Keep Your Eye On: Shaquille O’Neal
Shaq’s scoring numbers have been in a freefall since the ’04-’05 season. At that point in his career, he was averaging 22.9 points and 10.4 rebounds. In 28 games with the Suns, he averaged 12.9 points and 10.6 boards. Clearly, Shaq can still rebound when he wants to. He shot 61% from the field with the Suns, but his blocks have slipped from 2.3 four seasons ago to 1.2 last season. If he is committed mentally and physically, there’s no reason that he can’t play 60-70 games at a 15/10 clip. If the Suns can get to the playoffs with everyone healthy, they’ll be a factor. If Shaq is out of shape and the knees start to bother him, the Suns season is pretty much over.
The Big Question: Will trading away Marion ultimately pay off?
GM Steve Kerr took a big risk last season when he traded Shawn Marion to the Heat for Shaq. Two years ago, the Suns were a couple of bench-clearing infractions away from upending the eventual-champion Spurs. The franchise could have kept that group together, but Marion was an offseason headache and Kerr ultimately decided to take a couple of aspirin last year. We’ll never know what would have happened had he kept that group together, but it did seem like the window was closing as the Marion drama affected the team’s chemistry.
Outlook: Cautiously optimistic. If we’re talking about getting to the Finals, the Suns are one of those teams that needs everything to break the right way. The team should benefit from a half-season and a training camp with Shaq, and if he, Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire can all stay relatively healthy, the team has the juice to go a long way in the West. But Nash is 34 and Shaq is 36, so chances are one will miss significant time, and that can’t overlap with the playoffs. The Suns have spent the last few years giving away most of their draft picks, so they are pretty much “all in” this season. If they don’t make a serious run, Kerr might decide to blow the team up and start over with Stoudemire as his centerpiece.

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