Young Star

The NBA Reloaded

DEFINITELY MAYBE - Carl Francis M. Ramirez -

The East may now be deeper, younger and more competitive, but the NBA title goes through the LA Lakers and the rest of the West.

With most of the Eastern contenders retooling and reloading for this upcoming season in hopes of dethroning Kobe and the Lakers, the West isn’t allowing itself to lose a step. The ’08-‘09 season made everyone outside of LA look either too old, too thin or too inexperienced. The Blazers, Hornets and the Rockets just didn’t seem to have enough to take that next step, while the Spurs and Mavericks seemed too old and predictable to put up a respectable fight.

This year, though, the West has also reloaded. San Antonio, Dallas, Portland and New Orleans shook things up with a couple of key moves in the hopes of keeping in step with the Ron Artest-reinforced Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets traded away one half of the Crescent City Connection, oft-injured big man Tyson Chandler, for another big guy with a history of getting hurt, Emeka Okafor. For the Hornets, this gives them a big man with quicker feet and a more polished offensive game. The Charlotte Bobcats, meanwhile, continue their roster exodus pioneered Larry Brown. Keep in mind that the Hornets already tried to trade away Chandler midway through last season, but Chandler’s physical examination made the Oklahoma Thunder balk at the last minute. Does this make a big enough change to make the Hornets a serious title contender? Highly doubtful. With a supporting cast that looks older and older by the second (Peja Stojakovic, Mo Peterson, James Posey), the Hornets need another godly performance by Chris Paul to have a shot at Kobe.

Further west, one has to question the basketball sense of the move the Portland Trailblazers made in acquiring Andre Miller. Miller is an aging, ball-hungry point guard who can’t shoot treys. He would be a questionable complement to Brandon Roy, who runs the team like a point guard and likes to dish out to open shooters. Already, Miller and head coach Nate McMillan have butted heads, and the team that was renowned for its team chemistry suddenly doesn’t look as cheery. Nevertheless, Andre Miller is a better player than previous starter Steve Blake, who is almost exclusively a shooter.

If McMillan can find a way for Roy and Miller to share the ball as both playmakers and scorers, then the gamble will pay off. And with Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez and the rest of the young Blazers getting a year of playoff experience under their belt, it’s hard to see Portland taking a step back.

The runner-up in the West for best off-season has to go to the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks impressed last season by toppling division rival San Antonio in the first round. However, the Mavs did not have enough firepower to counter the rough and tough Denver Nuggets and got trounced the round after. This year, the Mavs kept their core of Dirk Nowitzki, Josh Howard, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd while adding a couple of interesting names.

The big splash from Mark Cuban this season was signing “The Matrix” Shawn Marion. Sure, Marion replicates a lot of what Josh Howard does (running the break, rebounding) but the Matrix also brings a few new things to the table. With Marion, the Mavs get a versatile defender who can guard anybody from Tony Parker to Amare Stoudemire. The exciting product of this signing though is that now Dallas has the option of going small (Kidd, Terry, Howard, Marion, Nowitzki) without giving up too much on the defensive end.

Also, the Mavericks added veteran forward Drew Gooden to their frontline to rotate with Erick Dampier. With this added depth, Dallas potentially has enough to get farther than the second round. However, there are still teams clearly ahead of them, including their new-look rival, the Spurs.

Outside of the Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs have to be the frontrunners to capture the Western Conference crown. Apart from Manu Ginobili being healthy and Tim Duncan altering his workout regimen to get in better shape, the Spurs have the made the most significant moves of the off-season. Their biggest move was acquiring Richard Jefferson from the Bucks in exchange for old guys and expiring deals. In Jefferson, the Spurs now have the best fourth-scoring option they’ve had in the Duncan Era.

This allows coach Greg Popovich to ease off Manu and Duncan throughout the season to keep them fresh for the playoffs, where both players have broken down in recent history. Few teams are equipped to defend San Antonio’s top four guys, if any at all.

In addition to RJ, the Spurs also beefed up by signing veteran forward Antonio McDyess and drafting rookie DeJuan Blair. These two, in addition to Matt Bonner, give Tim Duncan the best frontcourt complement he’s had since David Robinson. The Spurs are probably now deeper and more dangerous than any other team in the league. In fact, they look deeper and more dangerous than the Spurs teams that won the NBA title. If I were to put money on anybody to best the Lakers this year, it would be on this team.

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For questions, comments or corrections, please email me at carlfrancisramirez@gmail.com.

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