Several West contenders have depth concerns
Utah is down to three big men with even a modicum of NBA experience. Granted, they’re three good ones – Mehmet Okur, Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap – but given Boozer’s injury history, that’s living dangerously. In reserve are two young big men, Kyrylo Fesenko and Kosta Koufos, both thought to be a considerable distance away from being trusted by Jerry Sloan with meaningful minutes. Beyond depth concerns, the Jazz really lack a defensive presence among the three. The best shot-blocker on the team is Andrei Kirilenko, who might have to spend minutes at power forward this year. That would be OK, except veteran Matt Harpring’s career is in jeopardy. And Utah, deep into tax territory, isn’t very likely to add anyone who can change the outlook.
Denver is in similar straits. The Nuggets just packaged a No. 1 pick to go with Steven Hunter to Memphis in exchange for a future No. 2, which tells you Denver isn’t looking to take on any additional contracts. Hunter isn’t much, but his departure leaves the Nuggets with Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen as its rotation big men with Malik Allen No. 4.
Portland has only three big men on its roster. Unlike Utah, at least they’re true big men – Greg Oden, LaMarcus Aldridge and Joel Przybilla. What the Blazers really don’t have, though, is a small forward capable of giving them minutes at power forward – Travis Outlaw, Nicolas Batum and Martell Webster – unless the opposition is going small. Unlike Utah and Denver, at least, Portland is willing to spend freely if it can find a trade fix.
The nominal starter at shooting guard now is Mo Peterson, who was limited to 43 games and nine starts by injury a year ago and shot less than 40 percent. At 32 after three years of steady decline, it’s unlikely he can turn back the clock to his career-best 2005-06 season when he averaged 16 a game. But there’s no obvious options behind him, with journeyman Devin Brown and rookie Marcus Thornton the choices.
The situation at small forward is almost equally perilous with another injury-prone veteran, Peja Stojakovic, backed up by veteran James Posey. Posey, though, could be called upon to play major minutes at either shooting guard, where he’d have a tough time keeping up defensively, or power forward.
The Hornets could really use third-year lottery pick Julian Wright to emerge for depth at both forward spots.
And two of Phoenix’s top four perimeter players remain Steve Nash, 35, and Grant Hill, 37 when the season starts.
The Clippers have everything in place to challenge for a playoff berth, though it has to start with a rebound year from Baron Davis. The addition of Butler from New Orleans gives the Clips a solid backup to second-year shooting guard Eric Gordon, a potential star. The trade of Zach Randolph opens time for Blake Griffin, which should hasten his elevation to the face of the franchise. Griffin’s athleticism will make him a perfect complement to the plodding Chris Kaman, who remains a very effective scorer and rebounder if he stays healthy. And the makeup of the team now favors the skills of third-year small forward Al Thornton.
The playoffs aren’t likely for Memphis, but the Grizzlies probably won’t be focused on their lottery odds, as usual, from the All-Star break on. While Randolph is likely to eventually run afoul of authority, either legal or team, his 20-and-10 status added to Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, with an improved Mike Conley at the point and formidable second-year center Marc Gasol to anchor the middle, gives the Grizzlies a fighting chance at .500. A thin bench, heavy on youth with rookies Hasheem Thabeet, SamYoung and DeMarre Carroll plus second-year power forward Darrell Arthur, could be troublesome.
Kevin Love had a fine rookie season and Al Jefferson was playing like an All-Star until going down with an ACL tear that compounds Minnesota’s depth concerns. Whatever Love and Jefferson’s merits, they’re not ideally suited to play together, at least defensively, and right now there isn’t an obvious No. 3 big man on a roster that includes Darius Songaila and Mark Blount. If Ricky Rubio doesn’t get out of his Spanish league deal, the backcourt consists of rookie point Jonny Flynn, injury-prone vet Chucky Atkins, journeyman Damien Wilkins and rookie Wayne Ellington.
Ouch. It’s a long way from Los Angeles to Minneapolis.