Kobe Bryant's Lakers are still serious favorites out West.
(image by Harry How/Getty Images)

After suffering from nasty coughing and mild fever, I finally feel well enough to make a micro-preview of the unexpected (at least by me) 2011-2012 NBA season. Before I get into the team-by-team stuff, here are some things we should expect across-the-board:
-       A 66-game regular season negates the age factor somewhat, so teams like Boston and San Antonio should have a better shot at NOT having injured players come playoff time.
-       A 2-game preseason means teams will be experimenting with roster combinations for longer than they’re used to. Most second stringers will probably have inconsistent minutes right through mid-January.
-       Even if the season is abbreviated, the plethora of back-to-back-to-backs might actually have a more adverse effect on the health of some teams. This also means players who’ll miss time will potentially miss more games than they would in an 82-game season and, because it’s a shortened season, each game carries a bit more weight.

After the JUMP:
-       Positives (strengths and/or opportunities) and Negatives (weaknesses and/or threats) for each of the 15 West teams,
-       Each team’s expected Best Player by the end of the season (my own prerogative), and
-       a Projection for each team’s campaign given present personnel and context.

(+): Landing last year’s 6th Man of the Year and getting Jason Kidd’s old New Jersey running mate can only be good for an already loaded Dallas roster. The aging Spurs and current player movements have also helped keep the Mavs’ place as one of the elite squads.
(-): After everything is said and done, Lamar Odom and Vince Carter join Shawn Marion as a trio small forwards who’ll be forced to play out-of-position. Also, none of the abovementioned players can play lockdown D like Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson did last season.
BP: Still and will always be (until he retires) Dirk Nowitzki.
PROJ: At least 3rd seed.

Meet Dirk's new frontcourt playmate,
NOT Tyson Chandler.
(image by the AP)

(+): Andre Miller is a valuable insurance option in case Ty Lawson fails to meet expectations. Dano and Nene form one of the most potent forward combos in the league. If only Al Harrington could play the way he used to.
(-): Bird Man, Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos at center. Nice. Also, no K-Mart, JR Smith and Wilson Chandler. Colorado will boycott Chinese-made goods till April 2012. That, of course, is impossible, unless Colorado wants to end up not using anything at all.
BP: Nene as the best player on your team? Things could be worse.
PROJ: Best case is they’ll barely make the playoffs as 7th or 8th seed, but worst case is they’ll miss the bus as 9th or 10th.

(+): Steph Curry and Monta Ellis are two of the most productive guards in the game today. They’re fantasy freaks. They also thrive in a free-flowing atmosphere that D-minded new coach Mark Jackson might not espouse.
(-): Curry injured his ankle a few days ago and nothing specific has been released about his status. And Kwame Brown is probably starting at center. Yes, that Kwame Brown.
BP: He won’t put up stratospheric numbers, but Dorell Wright will probably be the most reliable guy on this roster every game.
PROJ: If the Warriors miraculously buy Jackson’s system and still maintain their offensive explosiveness, then they’re a fringe playoff team. Otherwise, and most probably, they’ll be outside looking in.

(+): Kevin Martin is a stat demon. Luis Scola will probably have another 18-and-8 year. Kyle Lowry should improve on his career numbers even more. Things actually don’t look too bad for Kevin McHale. And the Samuel Dalembert pick-up wasn’t too shabby, either.
(-): If Houston were in the East, they’d be a step ahead of Philly and Indiana. But they’re not, which means they’ll probably be a step behind the likes of Denver, Portland and Memphis. Again.
BP: K-Mart will score in bunches and Scola will net double-doubles in around half his games, but Lowry will be the glue that sticks everything together.
PROJ: 8th seed at the very best, but a very likely 9th or 10th place.

(+): Just managing to snare CP3 is enough reason for all Clipper fans to recognize this season as the best since they last entered the playoffs. Adding Billups is actually the bigger draw, since his championship experience and flexibility make the new-look LA backcourt much more formidable. Oh, and they have two pogo-beanpoles in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
(-): Jury’s out on whether Caron Butler can be the Caron Butler he once was. Also, how will Mo Williams and/or Eric Bledsoe figure in the rotation? Will they/either be LA’s answer to Jason Terry, or will they/either be trade bait?
BP: Blake will receive a lion’s share of the highlights, but it will be Paul’s all-around sheen that will make the Clippers matter again.
PROJ: Top 4 potential in the conference, but, realistically speaking, they should be good for at least the 6th seed.

(+): The Clips built up a lot of PR power, but the Lakers still have the West’s best center (that’s Pau and NOT Andrew) and best SG (do you even want to guess?). That should be enough to quell some doubts about whether they’re still the top team sporting Los Angeles on their unis.
(-): Kobe might not be 100% to start the season and Bynum will miss a handful of games for his antsy antics in the previous postseason. The PG spot is also suspect, with the choice being between an over-the-hump D-Fish and a one-dimensional Steve Blake. But the biggest weakness might just be the guy who’ll helm the whole ship – new coach Mike Brown.
BP: Still Kobe.
PROJ: Still a Top 3 team in the conference.

(+): Rudy Gay’s return will add another dimension to the offense Memphis showcased in last year’s playoff run. Zeebo and “the other Gasol” should post twin double-double averages. Tony Allen will still play tenacious D. The decline of San Antonio, Denver, and New Orleans will give the Grizz a better shot at a higher seeding.
(-): Losing Shane Battier for nothing will be a bigger blow than most people currently imagine. Also, Memphis had a better record without Gay.
BP: Gay stretches the D, Gasol controls the lane, and Mike Conley calls the shots, but Zeebo is the guy on whose shoulders this team will be carried.
PROJ: 6th-8th seed.

(+): Kevin Love looks more fit this season, which means another 30-30 night is not an impossibility (apologies for the double-negative). Michael Beasley should rework the scoring form he showed in the early weeks of 2010-2011, while Ricky Rubio’s flair should invite some fans back into the Wolves’ lair.
(-): Love will rebound like hell. Beasley will probably be their best offensive threat. JJ Barea will confound defenders anew. Rubio’s fancy passes will be the stuff of highlight reels. But no amount of individual wizardry will ever make this Timberwolves team click.
BP: Kevin Love’s nightly double-double assures him of this spot.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the West.

(+): Ummm… Monty Williams is still reasonably upbeat. And they finally get a legit 7-footer at the slot in Chris Kaman.
(-): In the span of a few days, the Hornets lost two of their most recognizable faces: Chris Paul and David West. Now they’ll have to rely on Eric Gordon and Carl Landry as their new 1-2 punch combo. Good luck.
BP: Gordon had a super offensive season last year, and, being that nobody will really compete for shots, he’ll get his 20 or more ppg again.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the West.

(+): A Conference Finals slot in 2011 should boost their confidence heading into the new season. Durantula, Jet-Zero, and the Beard will form a terrific triumvirate on offense, while Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins should take no prisoners on the other end of the floor. Scott Brooks is dreaming of gold.
(-): Russell Westbrook, for all his awesomeness, is still not quite in the Top 3 PGs of the league (Deron, D-Rose & CP3). For all their bravado, too, neither Ibaka nor Perkins is a serious low block threat.
BP: Kevin Durant’s team. Kevin Durant’s time.
PROJ: Top seed at best, 3rd seed worst.

This year could be THE year for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
(image by the AP)

(+): Shannon Brown was a nice snatch off the market, and he should fill in for the departed Mickael Pietrus quite well. And, yes, Steve Nash is still the face of the franchise.
(-): Who else is there outside of Nash? Really now. Grant Hill is nearly 40, Channing Frye will never be better than he was last year, and, well, since when has Sebastian Telfair (or Josh Childress for that matter) lived up to potential?
BP: Nash by a mile.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the West.

(+): Adding both Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford was a good move. Felton gives them someone reliable to run the show, while Crawford adds considerable depth to a Brandon Roy-less lineup. Gerald Wallace should also improve mixing it up in the Portland system, and Nicolas Batum will crowd Wesley Matthews for the starting SG spot.
(-): LaMarcus Aldridge’s heart issues might prove to be quite serious, and if he does miss some games, his All-Star stats will be very hard to replace. The retirement of Roy and the unwelcome development on Greg Oden’s injury further dampen an already beleaguered franchise.
BP: LaMarcus Aldridge is the franchise.
PROJ: 6th – 8th seed.

(+): DeMarcus Cousins might finally bring out the numbers to back up his overwhelming confidence. He needs to be consistent, though. And so do the rest of the team. Coach Paul Westphal won’t have to look far for offense, since he has John Salmons, Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans.
(-): Evans needs to stay healthy and someone has to plug the Samuel Dalembert-sized hole in the middle.
BP: Evans will still be the king King this year, but look for Cousins to challenge his reign.
PROJ: Bottom 5 in the West.

(+): TD, Manu and Eva Longoria’s Ex still make quite a fearsome trio, but they’ll be a year older again. It might not matter much in a 66-game season, but those back-to-back-to-backs might kill their backs for good. At least Tiago Splitter seems ready to revive the twin tower days in the Alamo area.
(-): Age will always be the killer here, and it did kill them against Memphis last summer. They also should’ve let Richard Jefferson go.
BP: Duncan’s past his prime and Parker will never be Top 5 PG material, which means Manu retains the title of sharpest Spur.
PROJ: San Antonio can still steal the 4th seed, but the Clippers might be strong enough to dip them down to among the bottom 4 playoff-bound teams by April.

Will Manu Ginobili and the Spurs ride into the sunset?
(image by the AP)

(+): Lots of upside for young guns Derrick Favors, CJ Miles and Gordon Hayward. New faces of the franchise perhaps? Former Mavs teammates Devin Harris and Josh Howard reunite, but will it be a rekindling of good times, or a rerun of disappointment?
(-): Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson make a potentially potent frontline, but they’re undersized. Losing both Okur and Kirilenko means less versatility and less experience.
BP: The good money is on Paul Millsap, but CJ Miles might be poised for a breakout season.
PROJ: If they string a few lengthy win-streaks, then an 8th seed finish will be in the offing, but the likelihood is they’ll fall just short of it.

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