With the exception of one bottom-feeder, this is the most competitive division in the NBA.
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As usual, the Mavs almost have sufficient tools to mount a serious challenge to the reigning champs. The key world being almost.
At 32, Dirk Nowtizki has lost a step but is still an indomitable scorer.
Jason Kidd has lost two steps and his superlative defense is a distant memory. Yet he’s still a wondrous passer and has become a dangerous 3-point shooter.
Shawn Marion is more absent than present once the lights are switched on.
Jason Terry is a formidable spot-shooter and shot-maker when stopping and popping to his right. Unfortunately, he does little else.
Brendan Haywood defends and scores with a jump hook, yet is foul-prone.
Tyson Chandler blocks shots, commits unnecessary fouls and couldn’t shoot himself in the foot.
J.J. Barea is a pesky presence who can speed up the pace.
Rodrigue Beaubois will develop into a high-octane scorer.
Defense, speed in the starting lineup and general fallibility in the clutch are the Mavs’ most glaring flaws. Still, they have an outside chance to survive into the conference finals.
The Rockets are the dark-horse favorites to unseat the Lakers.
If his proscribed 24-or-so minutes/game are used judiciously, Yao Ming will still be a tower of power in the middle.
Luis Scola is a tricky, earnest and relentless scorer in the low post who’s also equipped with an accurate mid-range jumper. If only he could play even a modicum of defense!
Brad Miller is a high-post player who can shoot from there and make high-IQ passes. Yet he’s another Houston big with no defense.
Aaron Brooks is the motor of the team. He’s as quick as a finely tuned NASCAR machine and is also a streaky shooter. For the time being, he’s still a neophyte point guard learning how to run a team.
Courtney Lee is an excellent athlete who wants to shoot but has trouble creating his own shots. A valuable bench player.
Kevin Martin can run with Brooks. Martin is a dynamic scorer who is useless without the ball in his hands. He’s also soft and defenseless.
Jared Jeffries is the designated defender at three positions.
At 6-6, Chuck Hayes is an undersized, always competitive defensive specialist.
Shane Battier can still play top-notch defense while also draining open 3-pointers. He’s the glue guy.
With the Rockets’ firepower balance, and deep bench, this could be the year they make fans smile in June.
Marc Gasol is a tough guy in the pivot. His smarts go a long way in overcoming his slowness afoot, and he’s a solid second-tier center.
Zach Randolph scores and rebounds, but he doesn’t defend and must have the ball to be a factor.
O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay are shoot-first players who excel in isolation situations, and have trouble playing adequate defense.
Tony Allen is an awesome defender and penetrator coming off the bench. His inept jump-shooting is his only failing.
Mike Conley is a solid if underrated point guard who’s still blossoming.
While the starting five is deficient in defense, they are all more-than-capable scorers, and, as such, will be very dangerous at home.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
Chris Paul is doomed to endure another frustrating season. He’s blessed with warp speed, is an exceptional screen/roll playmaker, and an improving set-shooter. But, as before, David West is the only teammate he can play off of in half-court sets.
West can score in the pivot, off S/Rs, and can also create his own shots. Defense is something that other guys play.
Peja Stojakovic is done. Even when he was at the top of his game, his defense was atrocious and he was one of the most notorious chokers in the league.
Trevor Ariza plays quick-handed defense, can make treys and is an outstanding running mate for CP3.
Emeka Okafor is at best an average center.
Willie Green is a dependable defender with undependable offense.
With inadequate defense and limited half-court offense, the Hornets will be playing uphill all season. How long can Paul keep his chops up before unequivocally demanding to be traded?
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Do the Spurs have one last gasp left?
At 34, Tim Duncan isn’t nearly as spry as he once was. But his savvy, intensity, unselfishness and still functional skills will enable him to be a dominant player three of every four games.
Tony Parker is a youthful 28 but his madcap dashes into the bosom of defenses have been curtailed by several injuries. These days, TP must rely more on his jumper than his penetrations — making him more of a shooting guard than a point guard.
Manu Ginobili’s fearless style of play has likewise taken its toll. Even so, at the relatively advanced age of 33, he remains the Spurs’ X-factor.
Antonio McDyess is reduced to being a jump-shooting spot player at age 36.
Since Richard Jefferson needs to run to be effective, it’s clear that he’s on the wrong team.
Matt Bonner is a freak — a big whose main function is to spread the defense with 3-point shots. His limited athleticism makes him a poor defender.
George Hill is getting more accomplished at the point than Parker. A versatile performer, Hill also has the goods to excel at shooting guard.
DeJuan Blair is pure hustle/muscle, but is only effective in carefully selected matchups.
Young Tiago Splitter will need most of the season to learn what he can and cannot do in the NBA. Even so, he’s aggressive and has a lively body.
As long as Duncan, Parker and Ginobili can keep ticking over the long haul, the Spurs will be competitive. San Antonio is even more dangerous because Gregg Popovich is an accomplished chess master and no-nonsense motivator. Next to Phil Jackson, Pop is the best coach in the league and his influence should never be underestimated.