Realistically speaking, the Sonics, Warriors, Blazers, Jazz, Wolves and recently-wounded Grizzlies are in rebuilding mode. They have little or no chance at winning the National Basketball Association championship. Here we’ll look at the teams who actually do have a chance, classified as ‘pretenders’, ‘contenders’ and ‘elite.’
New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets
Last season, when most expected the Hornets to end up at the bottom of the standings, they were one of the most surprising teams in the NBA, nearly making the playoffs. Players such as Chris Paul and David West performed beyond expectations. This season, with the marquee free-agent signing of Peja Stojakovic, some are predicting a playoff berth. There’s no reason why they can’t progress and push for this very achievement.
As an unabashed Kings fanatic, it pains me to say that their future looks less promising than the Lakers’. But this isn’t to say that the Kings have no future. The Mike Bibby-Brad Miller nucleus remains intact, and coupled with the defensive disciplines of new head coach Eric Musselman and last year’s acquisition of Ron Artest, it should provide hellish frustration for lesser teams. This is, of course, assuming Artest keeps his head for the whole season. Look for Musselman to utilize young players like Francisco Garcia and Quincy Douby in this new defensive-minded strategy, and the Kings making their ninth straight playoff appearance.
Last year’s early playoff exit was dismal for the Nuggets. No matter how many game-winning shots Carmelo Anthony nails in the regular season (this is one aspect in which he surpasses his draft-classmates Lebron James and Dwyane Wade) the Nuggets won’t make noise in the postseason unless head coach George Karl and forward Kenyon Martin are on the same page. Look for Karl to develop a working respect with Martin like he has done in the past with Gary Payton and Sam Cassell, or else disappointment is in store for Denver.
Last year, franchise players Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming were sidelined with injuries and even Houston’s role players couldn’t stay healthy. In all, 19 Rockets had to suit up last season, many times in makeshift lineups. The law of averages indicates the Rockets will be healthier this year, and with Jeff Van Gundy coaching for his job, look for ‘T-Mac’ and Yao to succeed out of necessity. Houston returns to the playoffs in 2007.
Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant proved he could involve his less-talented teammates for the greater good of the team in last season’s first round series against the Suns