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Vince Thomas

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Are the Trail Blazers too young to be a serious contender in the Western Conference?
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Predicting spoiler, darkhorse teams for upcoming season


Posted Oct 20 2009 7:32PM

For as long as I've been writing about the NBA, I always begin season forecasts with one very honest caveat: at this point in the season, I, like almost everyone else (fans, journalists, players, coaches) don't know what's going to happen between now and June. All we can do is make educated guesses. Look at where we're at in the NFL. The Tennessee Titans -- 13-3, last year -- are 0-6, after a 59-0 snow-pummeling from the Patriots. Meanwhile, thanks to a 32-year-old coach and Plan B quarterback, the Denver friggin' Broncos are 6-0. Nobody called that before Labor Day ... no one.

Last season's NBA predictions were no different. Remember that trendy, Elton Brand/Philly pick from last season? And look how injuries killed the Hornets. Who saw Orlando winning close to 60 games? And there was no way we could have seen the Allen Iverson/Chauncey Billups trade or the impact that Billups would have on the young Nuggets. We knew the Cavs were good, but 66-wins good? Child please, don't even front.

You see what I'm saying, now? Thankfully, practically no one has seen that movie The Weather Man from a few years, otherwise us "experts" would be getting milkshakes in the face just like Nicolas Cage. But as ridiculous and fallible as this preseason tradition happens to be, I gotta do it. Why? 'Cause it's fun -- that's why. Just don't hold me to it.

So now that I got that waffling, caveat-filled, blame displacing preface out of the way, we can get down to business. Usually, shortly after the trade deadline, I tend to restrict my attention to only the teams that matter. Not just playoff teams, but those playoff teams that I feel actually have a chance to advance, even if it's by mild upset. All the other squads, at that point, are really just white noise. I break the teams that matter down into three categories: contenders, darkhorses and spoilers. It all has to do with what I think is each team's "realistic potential." Can I realistically see Toronto winning three series and repping the East in the Finals? No. But, I do think the Raptors are good and dangerous enough to upset a top seed in the first round. They're your typical spoilers. I wouldn't call Utah one of the West's favorites to win a title (contenders), but that team is talented and deep enough that, depending on matchups, it's a possibility. The Jazz and their ilk are darkhorses.

We'll get to contenders, the creme, next week when the real season pops off. For now though, check out these squads that could be sending some of the big boys fishing before they were ready for vacation.

SPOILERS

PORTLAND - Houston bounced the Blazers out of the playoffs in the first round. I didn't like that and, more importantly, neither did Portland. So they went and nabbed 33-year-old Andre Miller to upgrade in the two areas most observers considered their weakest areas -- point guard and experience. But now, there's some reported confusion over whether Miller will even start this season and, apparently, it's driven the L.A. native to sporting his hair in miniature pigtails, like that dude from Boyz N The Hood (is he gonna drink his Gatorade out of a baby bottle next?). Don't get me wrong, I dig Steve Blake as a very solid floor leader, but he's not the answer. Isn't that why they went out and gave 'Dre the 3-year, $21 million contract? You also have LaMarcus Aldridge fretting about a contract extension, even if he tries to project nonchalance to the press and public. But forget all that. With me, it all comes down to toughness. The Blazers are two deep at every position and can roll with anyone in the league, but, no matter Brandon Roy's penchant for fourth-quarter heroics, this just isn't a team that is going to win 12 playoff games in the West. That takes a mettle that, at this moment, the Blazers just don't seem to possess. Too young, too unsure and, as it stands early on, too confused.

TORONTO - In five years, Raptors fans will be cursing Hedo Turkoglu's contract the same way Hornets fans probably are damning Peja Stojakovic's $14 million noose around their necks. But for the immediate future, I have a hunch that Hedo's presence will bear more dividends than a lot of folks think. Hedo received deserved praise for all his facilitating in Orlando, but it's not like Toronto needed much facilitating with a deft distributor like Jose Calderon running the offense. The Raptors do need a fourth-quarter assassin. Enter Turkoglu. What they're missing -- now that Anthony Parker is running with the Cavs -- is some athleticism and defense on the perimeter. They'll miss it. But any team with Chris Bosh and Turkoglu can be scary in late-April.

CHICAGO - John Salmons can do some things better than Ben Gordon -- like defend, rebound, pass -- and he's not a bad scorer, either. In fact, the Bulls won't miss Gordon too much -- until the last seven or eight minutes of each game creeps up and they need someone to take over. The Bulls enter this season as one of the great unknowns, because they could end up improving a whole lot, given that much of the roster -- my favorite young point guard Derrick Rose, Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas -- is in that stage where they can leap several strata after just one summer. But if your leader is either a 20-year-old point guard or Brad Miller, exactly how much ruckus are you really going to bring in the playoffs? Might be another seven-game exit next April.

MIAMI - Anything can happen when you have Dwyane Wade on your roster (as long as he can get that calf healthy). But the X-Factors, of course, are brittle Jermaine O'Neal and troubled Michael Beasley. O'Neal, for one, at least sounds like he's back. In an interview with FanHouse he said, "A lot of people wonder. A lot of people don't think I can get back to that level. But I will dominate my position again. I won't do it the same way I used to. But I'll do it.'' OK, dude. I'm usually one to smirk at that kind of tough talk, but I'm going to give O'Neal the benefit of the doubt, because he hasn't sold too many woof tickets throughout his career. So, O'Neal says he's back. Cool. Now what about the youngen? If Beas' is the Beas' that I thought Beas' would be -- a double-double beast and matchup nightmare for any big man trying to contend with his vast array of offensive skills -- then the Heat go from dangerous to legit.

DARKHORSES

NEW ORLEANS - Do me a favor and think back to this time last season, as the the '08-09 season was begging with the Hornets fresh off nearly knocking off the Spurs in the Western Conference semis. Remember the way we thought about them? A lot of folks had them as the Lakers' biggest threat. But then things fell apart and they "only" won 49 games. Now they're basically ignored as a fairly inconsequential squad, right? You should think again -- seriously. The Hornets were the most injury-ravaged squad of any of last year's preseason contenders. This season, if they can keep Mo' Pete and Peja relatively healthy, this squad will be better than that '07-08 team. Why? Emeka Okafor does everything better than Tyson Chandler (rebound, block and score); Julius Wright is finally coming into his own, which makes Stojakovic less and less essential; and here's the biggie: Chris Paul is still getting better. The dude is only 24 and he already plays his position better than 99 percent of the point guards to ever bounce a ball. Don't underestimate this squad.

ATLANTA - This is a deep, deep team. And they added some nice vets to the mix, most notably Joe Smith. It's the other Joe that worries me. This squad needs an alpha male and, up to this point, Joe Johnson seems reticent to be That Dude. Maybe he's just not wired that way. But he needs to be That Dude, because only an alpha male can cage the mercurial Josh Smith. If Smith channels his talent and passion properly, he'll be an All-Star this season. It's that simple. But will he? There's just too many questions about this team's character and chemistry for me to look at them as a contender. The ceiling is high, though. Johnson, Smith, Mike Bibby, the slept-on Marvin Williams, newcomer Jamaal Crawford, young Al Horford, gritty Zaza Pachulia -- this squad is a handful.

WIZARDS - With the Wizards, either they're a darkhorse/contender or they're a disappointment that doesn't even warrant any real consideration. You got Gilbert Arenas back, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison (if he can return intact from this shoulder injury) are still All-Star caliber players and you just added Randy Foye and Mike Miller to your bench. Plus, you went out and got a big name, veteran coach like Flip Saunders. This team needs to win and win big, otherwise, some finger pointing has to go on. Someone will be to blame. For me, it's going to all come back to Gil. If he leads and finds a balance between scoring and facilitating (like veteran point guards are supposed to), then the Wizards can semi-realistically shoot at winning a championship. That's the real. What's good, Gil? It might be unfair, but it's on you.

UTAH - Who knows what this team will look like after the All-Star break, with the Jazz actively shopping Boozer (in the last year of his contract) and they dropped a $30 million contract on Paul Millsap, who happens to play the same position as Booz. Boozer claims that it won't be "tough or awkward" as a short-timer in Salt Lake City, but how can it not be? And what does that kind of roster-uncertainty do for team chemistry? What if the Jazz are rolling, keeping pace with the heavy-hitters through mid-February and then general manager Kevin O'Connor ships Boozer off to whatever squad gives up the best package, but then the players in that package don't mesh with the standing Jazz roster? Yeah, Utah has the second best point guard in the league and Mehmet Okur is a nightmare for immobile centers and Andrei Kirilenko is still one of the best Swiss Army cats in the league and Kyle Korver can shoot the lights out and Coach Sloan is still doing his thing, even if he's the same age as John Wooden ... but this Boozer thing is going to hold this team hostage. Unless they make the trade early, it's going to be another lost season.

Vincent Thomas writes and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. You can e-mail him here.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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