2008 NBA Preview: #1 Los Angeles Lakers

Offseason Movement: The Lakers re-signed Sasha Vujacic and signed Chinese guard Sun Yue. They probably overspent on Vujacic (three years, $15 million) but had to compete with European teams for his services. Vujacic had a great year shooting the ball, but didn’t play particularly well in the Finals, especially on defense.
Keep Your Eye On: Lamar Odom
It’s not clear how Odom is going to fit in with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the Laker front line. It’s going to be tough for Kobe Bryant to find any room to drive when the three big men are on the court at the same time, so the most likely scenario has Odom or Bynum coming off the bench. It’s going to take some time Bynum and Gasol to get used to playing with each other, and if Odom is the one coming off the bench, he’ll have to adjust to a sixth man role. The good news is that if things aren’t working by the trade deadline, they can probably unload Odom for a good player that is a better fit.
The Big Question: Is Bynum’s return enough to get the Lakers over the hump?
Conventional wisdom states that if you take a team that lost in the Finals the previous season and add an up-and-coming seven-foot center to the rotation, then the team will inevitably be better. While that’s certainly a distinct possibility, there’s no guarantee that Bynum will jive with the rest of the rotation. Just because the Lakers are better on paper, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be able to once again run the gauntlet that is the Western Conference playoffs. A lot of things had to go right for the Lakers to make the Finals last year, and a lot of things have to go right for them to make a second straight trip.
Outlook: Despite some training camp kinks that need to be worked out, there is no team in the league with more talent top to bottom. They also have one of the best coaches in the league, so the Lakers are the odds-on favorite to with the title, and rightfully so. Still, there are a number of roadblocks they’ll have to overcome. First, Phil Jackson must find a way to use Gasol, Bynum and Odom to the best of their abilities without limiting what Kobe can do on the drive. Second, Kobe must stay healthy, which means the problem he has with his shooting hand can’t bother him too much and those knees have to stay relatively pain-free. And lastly, they must show better toughness if they meet the Celtics again in the Finals. Bynum brings a lot to the table, but he’s not going to make this team tough by himself. The Celtics were hungrier than the Lakers last season, but now the roles are reversed. If Jackson can get Odom, Bynum and Gasol to play together well, or if the Lakers can trade Odom for a better fit, they should make it to the Finals again. There is just too much talent here; they should be able to figure it out.

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2008 NBA Preview: #2 Boston Celtics

Offseason Movement: The Celtics were unable to re-sign James Posey, who ended up signing with the Hornets. GM Danny Ainge did re-sign Tony Allen, Eddie House, and Sam Cassell, while also signing Darius Miles and Patrick O’Bryant. Out of the draft, the team ended up with shooting guard JR Giddens and small forward Bill Walker.
Keep Your Eye On: The bench
Even more than last season, Boston is going to need a regular lift from its bench. With Posey gone, someone will have to pick up his defensive-mindedness and shooting touch. The bench projects to be very young, but with youth comes energy, and the Celtics will need it this season.
The Big Question: Now that the Big Three won a title, will they be as focused?
Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to Boston with one thing in mind – a NBA championship. Paul Pierce set aside his ego for the same reason. Throughout that season, the Celtics were focused on a singular goal, but now that they have their rings, will they be able to bring that same intensity every night? Hunger can really bolster a team’s success, and Boston will somehow have to manufacture that hunger this season. That’s a tough thing to do.
Outlook: The C’s are still the class of the East, but will face a bigger test within the conference given the improvements that the Sixers and the Heat have made, along with the continued maturity of the Magic and the Cavs. James Posey was so crucial to the team’s playoff success that one wonders if the team will be overcome that loss and stay as focused as they were last season. They are the odds-on favorites to win the East, but it’s shaping up to be a very interesting season in Beantown.

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.

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.

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