NBA Free Agency Update – July 20

Here’s an update on the latest NBA free agency news via Reup Sports, including analysis on Jeremy Lin becoming a Rocket, updated Dwight Howard trade rumors and recent signings in Los Angeles. Check out the article here.

NBA Free Agency Update – July 16

For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!

Fourth Of July Free Agency Wrap-Up

In a particularly dry free agency day, one piece of news immediately jumped out and turned the whole day on its head. Here are the major headlines from the Fourth of July:

Steve Nash Heads to Rival Lakers:

The biggest news of the day was Steve Nash’s decision to play with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix’s biggest and most hated divisional rival. Although calling what the Lakers and Suns have a “rivalry” might not be completely accurate since Los Angeles seems to get the best of Phoenix every time these two teams meet, Nash’s decision quickly dissolved the happy memories of his time in Phoenix into outrage over his decision to put on the yellow and purple colors. Nash explained that the decision was influenced by his desire to be close to his three children in Phoenix and wished the Suns organization nothing but the best for the future, but there’s no question his departure for LA is still a stab in the back to the city of Phoenix. Nash signed a three-year deal with Los Angeles worth around $25 million, instantly turning Los Angeles into title contenders once again. How Nash and Kobe will function on offense remains to be seen, as both guards need the ball to be effective, but there’s no question that having a quality point guard like Nash increases a team’s pick-and-roll game and overall success. Suns management continued to baffle fans with this trade, as the Suns only got four future draft picks for their beloved marquee player who will now leave to join Phoenix’s hated rival. Phoenix received first-round picks in 2013 and 2015 and second-rounders in 2013 and 2014. Not bad overall, but certainly not worth Nash and definitely not enough to raise a fan base’s faith in their management, especially considering Phoenix’s history of wasting draft picks in exchange for cash considerations. To make matters worse for his former team, Nash will try and talk Grant Hill into joining him in LA. Hill said he would either join the Lakers or retire, but considering the fact that he went to Germany for a knee procedure (the same one that revitalized Kobe Bryant’s knee), it doesn’t seem that Hill is ready to retire just yet. If Hill does head to LA to join Nash, the Lakers could be looking at a potential lineup of Nash, Kobe, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum with Hill, Steve Blake and Jordan Hill on the bench. Not bad at all, especially since the Lakers could look into Dwight Howard either next year or in a trade for Gasol/Bynum. Overall, it was a horrible day for Phoenix fans and a glorious one for LA supporters.

Nash will be joining Kobe in Los Angeles, much to the chagrin of every basketball fan in Phoenix.

Suns Sign Dragic and Beasley:

In a feeble attempt to compensate for Steve Nash’s departure for LA, the Suns signed Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley. Dragic was signed to a four-year deal worth $34 million and Beasley was signed to an $18 million deal for three years. Dragic was a very good signing by the Suns, especially now that Nash is gone. Considering how Dragic thrived in Houston as a starter when Kyle Lowry sat out, the Suns are getting a quality player who deserves a better contract as a starting point guard. As an added bonus, Phoenix was always particularly fond of Dragic when he backed up Nash and will be happy to welcome his back. Unfortunately, the signing of Beasley won’t get many (smart) Suns fans excited. Beasley is a decent player at best and considering how many of those are already on the roster, this isn’t the kind of quality player Phoenix needs, especially with Nash and possibly Hill leaving.

Nash is gone, but the Suns got a consolation prize in potential breakout star Goran Dragic.

Houston Offers Jeremy Lin a Deal: 

The Rockets have offered Jeremy Lin a four-year deal worth around $30 million. The Knicks can almost match Houston’s offer (four years, $24.5 million), but have made it clear they would have to think hard about matching other teams’ high offers for the breakout point guard. After losing Dragic to Phoenix, the Rockets could use a quality backup for Kyle Lowry in Lin, but keep in mind that Lin and the Knicks both want a reunion. What offer New York puts on the table could decide where Lin ends up.

Could Jeremy Lin be heading back to the Houston Rockets?

Jason Kidd and Mavs Close to Signing Deal:

Jason Kidd and the Mavericks are closing in on a multi-year deal that will allow the Dallas veteran to end his career where it all began. The amount is unknown, but it will likely be a bit higher than Kidd would normally be worth after the Mavs were unable to bring Deron Williams or Goran Dragic to Dallas.

Jason Kidd will most likely be ending his career in Dallas.

Spencer Hawes Signs Extension:

Spencer Hawes will be staying in Philadelphia next year after signing a two-year, $13 million deal with the Sixers. Nothing much to report here other than the fact that the 76ers could be shaping up to be a pretty consistent threat in the playoffs for the next few years if they continue to keep so many pieces together (especially with so much youth).

Spencer Hawes will be staying in Philly after signing a two-year extension.

Thunder Add Hasheem Thabeet:

The Oklahoma City Thunder signed former number two draft pick Hasheem Thabeet to a two-year deal. Thabeet has never really panned out to be the quality player with potential he promised to be, with career averages of just over two points and two rebounds per game in his limited time on the floor. This is a questionable signing by the Thunder, especially because Serge Ibaka’s return to OKC is not guaranteed at this point.

The Thunder signed Hasheem Thabeet. For some reason.

Western Conference Standings Update

For Easter, we focused on the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, there’s no clever way of saying today is going to be about the West, so let’s just jump right in. The standings have shifted dramatically night in and night out over the past few weeks, and though I’m confident my Western Conference playoff predictions will be close, win streaks by the Rockets, Grizzlies and now even the Nuggets need to be factored in. So here we go:

Oklahoma City Thunder – Despite dropping a home game against the Clippers, the Thunder should stay confident and cruise to the number one seed. After taking the top seed in the West, the Spurs had lost two straight before ending the Grizzlies’ win streak last night. So as long as OKC continues to do what it has done all year, the Thunder will remain the dominant favorite of their conference, even if they are only a half game ahead of the Spurs right now. Durant and Westbrook have been trading good games back and forth; once they get back on the same page there should be no problems. Also, keep an eye on James Harden; this Sixth Man of the Year has been extremely mediocre lately and the Thunder will go far if he can pick his play up.

The Thunder will need this guy to pick his game back up if they want to win it all this year.

San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs were looking like they could be a huge surprise and take the top seed in the West….until Gregg Popovich pulled a Gregg Popovich, resting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, his three best players, and generating a huge discussion on whether or not resting starters down the stretch is “cheating the game.” While I didn’t exactly see it that way, it’s also true that this is the time of year for a team to be peaking and playing its best ball, so resting the starters kind of hurts that momentum (no wonder they came out flat against the Kobe-less Lakers). So even though they’re only a half game back, that’s why San Antonio lost those two games before beating Memphis last night. Knowing Popovich, he will probably rest his starters for the playoffs once it’s clearer what seed they’ll get. Which is why they won’t take the top seed and probably will fall flat in the postseason, Spurs-style.

Will Popovich continue to rest his stars and risk them not being in peak form come playoff time?

Los Angeles Lakers – Inexplicably, the Lakers keep winning without Kobe Bryant on the floor. Los Angeles squeaked out one win (why didn’t God punish Metta World Peace for that ridiculously stupid last-second pass against the Hornets??) and then had an impressive win over the Spurs. Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are playing lights out right now, even if Bynum is still a head case. The Lakers have a one and a half game lead over the Clippers at the moment, and I think they will maintain that margin unless Chris Paul puts up 30 points a night for the rest of the season.

Bynum has been playing excellently without Kobe on the floor, but he's still a liability because of his temper.

Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers lost to the streaking Grizzlies, but responded well with a win on the road against the West-leading Thunder and then again against the Timberwolves. It’s tough to figure this team out; they’re good enough to compete with anybody, but without Chauncey Billups on the court, Chris Paul is going to have to do too much down the stretch every night for me to give the Clips a ringing endorsement. LAC will need someone else to step up, and with the Grizzlies only one and a half games back, the Clippers could fall to the fifth spot. Either way though, they should be preparing for a matchup with Memphis in the playoffs.

Chris Paul and his continuing ability to be clutch for the Clippers will determine how far they can go.

Memphis Grizzlies – Memphis has won seven of their last 10 games and has succeeded in putting some temporary distance between them and the rest of the pack in the lower half of the West. Rudy Gay’s phenomenal play and Zach Randolph starting to find his rhythm is the reason for the Grizzlies’ win streak, which has put them in the fifth spot and only a game and a half game behind Los Angeles. Whether or not they overtake the fourth seed is irrelevant, because at this point, it looks like we will be seeing a Clippers-Grizzlies first round matchup.

Rudy Gay is the driving force behind this surging Grizzlies team.

Dallas Mavericks – The defending NBA champs have seen some struggles in the past few weeks and are now only a half game ahead of Houston and Denver, who are at 10 games back. However, Dallas owns the tiebreaker and is currently sitting precariously in the six spot. I’ve gotta give the edge to the Mavs here; they have the experience in Jason Terry and Jason Kidd as well as the leadership in Dirk Nowitzki. Unless Denver continues to play on another level for the rest of the season, the Mavericks are favorable to take the sixth seed.

Dirk and the Jet will look to make some noise in the playoffs with their championship experience.

Houston Rockets – The Rockets put a nice little string of wins together thanks to incredible play from backups Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee before dropping a game to Utah on Wednesday. Lowry surprisingly returned to the court on Sunday, but he’s not quite up to speed and I think it’s safe to say his return threw off the team chemistry a little bit. The Rockets are currently sitting in the seventh spot, but don’t be surprised if Denver and possibly even Utah give them a run for their money.

Goran Dragic is a huge reason why the Rockets are in the playoff hunt right now.

Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets haven’t panned out exactly like I though they would this year, but with Gallinari back, Denver is a completely different team. Kenneth Faried has filled in since Nene left, Ty Lawson is an effective point guard, Arron Afflalo has been on a hot streak and the Nuggets have an abundance of role players  who all consistently contribute. With Denver, Houston, Dallas, Utah and Phoenix all vying for the six, seven and eight seeds, I see Denver winning more games than everybody except Dallas the rest of the way.

Danilo Gallinari and Arron Afflalo will try to show the world how good Denver can be.

Utah Jazz – It was easy to pick the Jazz as making the playoffs when they had a six-game win streak going, but I don’t think they can outwin Houston or Denver to make the postseason. They did just beat the Rockets and are only one and a half games back, but Devin Harris’ inconsistent play is going to prevent this team from reaching its potential. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are great, but only Gordon Hayward has been playing consistently well in the backcourt.

If only Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap could get some more help from the backcourt.

Phoenix Suns – The Suns are perfect at teetering between a playoff squad and a team that is going to come up just short. Unfortunately, Phoenix can’t win the big games when they need them the most and that fact alone will keep Steve Nash and company away from the postseason. It’s disappointing considering how dramatically improved this team has played in the second half of their season, but the Suns will probably come up short again, even with Grant Hill returning to action today.

Sorry Suns fans. It doesn't look like Nash and Hill will get a look at a playoff run this year.

Happy Trails, Derek Fisher

It seems the question of whether or not Ramon Sessions would be starting for the Lakers has been answered. After 12 full seasons in Los Angeles and five championships, the Lakers are trading Derek Fisher to the Houston Rockets for Jordan Hill and a future first-round pick.

Fisher is averaging 5.9 ppg on 38% shooting this season. The Lakers traded for Ramon Sessions earlier today, needing an upgrade at the point guard position, but I don’t think anyone saw a Derek Fisher trade coming. Fisher provided the Lakers with many memorable playoff moments, including his incredible buzzer-beater with 0.4 seconds left that lifted the Lakers over the Spurs in Game 5 of the Western Conference semis in 2004. His heart, determination and highly competitive play was a huge reason for the Lakers’ recent championships over Orlando  and Boston, hitting big-time shots down the stretch and providing leadership throughout the postseason. Although LA fans will agree that Fisher has been a liability this season with poor 3-point shooting and lackluster defense on younger and quicker guards, they should also never forget how much he gave the city of Los Angeles.

Although the Lakers don’t really need Fisher with the acquisition of Sessions, it seems almost unnecessary to send him away. However, the addition of Jordan Hill will make the Lakers a better team as his production off the bench can only be a step up from what the LA has been getting from its bench players up to this point. Hill is averaging 5 ppg and 4.9 rpg this season. If the Lakers can get their hands on Beasley, LA will be a powerhouse in the West.

On the other side of the coin, the Rockets’ moves have been questionable so far today. They have acquired two washed up veterans (Fisher and Marcus Camby). I’m assuming they hope these veterans will provide leadership for a team currently in the playoff picture and although they had to give up very little to get them, these moves are not particularly impressive. The injured Kyle Lowry must have had something to do with the Derek Fisher trade, needing a backup for Goran Dragic. Houston may have slightly upgraded, but not as much as they should have if they really want to contend.

Derek Fisher has been traded to the Rockets for Jordan Hill

Recent Trends Around the League

Overtime seemed to be a theme of last night’s NBA action. Let’s take a look at which teams are going in the right direction and which squads need to start regrouping.

Contrary to my prediction that the Orlando Magic would slow down and start losing because of all the Dwight Howard trade speculation, they have done anything but that. They have not only maintained their position at the third spot in the East, but have distanced themselves from Philadelphia in the fourth spot. The Magic responded from an awful loss to the Bobcats with impressive, Howard-dominated wins over the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat (in overtime). This team will continue to go as Superman goes, but for the time being, Dwight Howard is unstoppable.

But nobody looks as underachieving as the New York Knicks right now. The Knicks are suffering a six-game losing streak, have lost eight of their last 10, and are not shaping up to be anything more than a dysfunctional team with too many scorers (although they looked a lot better in their competitive contest with the Bulls). And no, the main problem is NOT Carmelo Anthony. Jeremy Lin’s offensive production has declined, but the biggest problem in NY has been Mike D’Antoni. I’ve never thought much of D’Antoni’s coaching, and this stretch of losing with so much talent isn’t helping. Another giant problem is Amare Stoudemire, underachieving on both ends of the floor while taking up the majority of the Knicks cap space ($83 million through 2015 to be exact). When Amare, Lin and Melo play well at the same time, they give you competitive performances against teams like the league-leading Bulls. But then you’ve got distractions like JR Smith’s semi-nude pictures on Twitter and all of the media-frenzied “Is Melo the Knicks’ Problem?” controversy. I still think the Knicks will turn things around, but they have fallen out of the number 8 spot in the East, giving it up to…

The Milwaukee Bucks! The Bucks are currently in playoff contention in the East thanks to the Knicks’ losing streak, but also because of their winning streak. The Bucks have won three in a row because of Ersan Ilyasova’s emergence as a superstar. Illyasova is averaging 21 ppg in March so far and has established himself as a great offensive threat. However, Drew Gooden’s revitalization should not be undervalued either. This has all been done without the help of Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who were traded yesterday to Golden State in exchange for dynamic scorer Monta Ellis. Things are looking up for the Bucks in the East, especially if the Knicks continue to struggle. But they should keep watch out for the two teams right behind them.

Will Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis be able to coexist?

Which includes the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are led by Antawn Jamison’s scoring presence and rookie star Kyrie Irving’s ability to close games (which he does with intelligence by taking the ball to the rim instead of settling for isolation plays that lead to low percentage jumpshots). Despite their losing record (like the Bucks), Cleveland is still in the playoff hunt.

Speaking of the Indiana Pacers, this team has not lived up to expectations. While I stand behind them as my sleeper pick in the East, they haven’t been getting the quality wins they’ve needed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, losing four straight before a rebound win over the hapless Blazers. Admittedly, those four loses were against the Bulls, Hawks, Heat and Magic, but this young team needs these type of wins, not only to send a message to the rest of the East, but to gain confidence for when the postseason rolls around. The Pacers have gone 0-for-2 on that front.

The Dallas Mavericks were on a downward spiral lately, losing eight of their last ten before defeating the Wizards last night. Their losing streak dropped them to the seventh spot in the West and was made even worse considering the majority of those losses came to teams under .500 (New Jersey, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and Golden State). I still believe the Mavs can be competitive in the postseason, but the same could be said of the Lakers last year, who claimed they would be dangerous in the playoffs despite dropping games during the regular season. And we all know how that turned out.

Remember when the Denver Nuggets were losing games and not even in the top eight in the West? Those days are over. The Nuggets have won six of their last 10 and are currently the six seed in the West. But what’s most encouraging is that Danilo Gallinari and Nene’s return wasn’t even the primary reason for Denver’s surge; now that these two stars are almost back in rhythm, watch out.

Gallinari and Nene led the Nuggets to a big overtime win over the Hawks last night

I’ve already written about the Memphis Grizzlies climbing in the West, but what’s up with the Phoenix Suns? Despite the fact that they were far back in the standings in the West, they have won seven of their last 10 and seem to be turning things around. Steve Nash continues to set up Marcin Gortat for success while Grant Hill and Jared Dudley have steadily increased their production on both ends of the floor. Suns fans should hold their breath for a playoff appearance (both because Phoenix still has a long way to go and because tanking would secure a better draft pick), but this might be a team worth watching if this success continues.

The Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets suffered season-altering blows in the form of injuries to their star point guards. Ricky Rubio is out for the season with a torn ACL while Kyle Lowry’s bacterial infection will keep him sidelined for two to four weeks, during a critical stretch of Houston’s schedule with the Rockets teetering at the number eight seed in the West. These teams still have playoff hopes and the Rockets did get a great win against the Thunder last night, but these critical injuries will make it difficult on them.

Finally, the battle for L.A. and the Pacific division seems to have swung to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Los Angeles Clippers continue to struggle without Chauncey Billups while the Lakers have won seven of their last 10. During that stretch, LA has beaten the Heat and got an huge double-overtime win in Memphis last night, looking like the much more playoff-competent team right now, especially with Bynum and Gasol getting more touches. Vinny del Negro is coaching his quality team into the ground, and even with Billups’ absence, the Clippers problems are inexcusable.

Andrew Bynum and Kobe powered the Lakers to a double-overtime victory on the road

Contender or Pretender?

We’re a little bit past the midway point of the regular season already, so now is a good time to take a look at which teams are contenders and which are just pretenders. We already know that Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami are all definite contenders, but the rest of the league is a little more difficult to make out so far. It’s still early, but here are the picks.

The East

Indiana Pacers – Contender. The Pacers were my sleeper pick at the beginning of the season and they haven’t disappointed so far. They’re currently 3rd in the East and have won their last four games, rebounding from a disappointing five-game losing streak. Indiana has a young core, gained valuable playoff experience last year against the Bulls (in a series that was much closer than its quick 5 game span), and are being led by All-Star seasons from Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert. Nobody really pays much attention to them, but they could surprise a few people if they continue to play at a high level.

The Pacers are my sleeper team. Keep them on your radar

Orlando Magic – Pretender. The Magic are having a lot of problems right now, even with Dwight Howard putting up superhuman numbers. Considering that the Magic will try and get all they can for the unhappy Superman as the trade deadline approaches (draft picks might be key here), the Magic aren’t going to be making very much noise this year if he leaves. And what may be even worse for Orlando is if Howard doesn’t leave, as the Magic’s chemistry will continue to suffer with the awkward position that Howard, the team and the entire city of Orlando is in right now.

Superman might be saying goodbye soon

New York Knicks – Contender. The Knicks showed they’re not contenders just yet in a disappointing loss to the Heat, but it’s hard to believe this team won’t develop into a highly competitive playoff team. While I don’t think they have the chemistry to reach the Finals this year, I do believe they can make a decent playoff run and give more competitive teams a run for their money. If Jeremy Lin can keep his turnovers down while making sure Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and JR Smith all get more involved on offense, the Knicks could become a big contender for the next few years.

The revamped Knicks only lack chemistry right now

Boston Celtics – Pretender. I’ve already written about what’s happened to the Celtics, so there are no surprises labeling them as pretenders here. With the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Hawks in the East, I think Boston’s window of opportunity for winning championships is over. The Boston Threeparty is getting too old and Rajon Rondo can’t pick up the scoring load for them. Defense is their best weapon, but it won’t be enough for a substantial playoff run.

Philadelphia 76ers – Pretender. This pick is definitely the riskiest of the bunch, but I don’t think the 76ers have what it takes this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if I were wrong about this one, but there’s just something about this 76ers team I don’t like. Maybe it’s their current five-game skid. Maybe it’s how different this Philly team is with big man Spencer Hawes sidelined. Or maybe it’s unnecessary and idiotic trick shots like this that suggest the team’s lack of focus. But whatever it is, I don’t believe in the Philadelphia 76ers just yet.

The 76ers are solid. But I'm not a believer yet.

Atlanta Hawks – Contender. I honestly don’t think the Hawks have great chances in the East, but I believe in them more than the Magic, 76ers or Celtics, so I’ve got to put them down as contenders. The absence of Al Horford has really hurt them, but they still have a good record and Josh Smith is putting up great numbers in multiple categories. The Hawks have disappointed fans in the playoffs in the last few years, but I think they have the edge over some of the other teams in the East who are in the playoff running right now.

The Hawks have youth and playoff experience

Cleveland Cavaliers – Pretender. The fact that the Cavs are a part of this discussion at 13-18 shows how set-in-stone the East is already shaping up to be. The Cavs are only 1.5 games behind the Celtics for the 8th spot in the East right now, but even though Boston is not shaping up to be a contender, the Cavs are unlikely candidates to oust them for that final spot this season. Next year looks more promising for the impressive rookie Kyrie Irving, Antawn Jamison and the currently injured Anderson Varejao.

The West

Los Angeles Lakers – Contender. As the season started, the Lakers looked terrible, old and defunct. But then Kobe completely took over the Lakers’ offensive game plan, put the team on his back, and set the wheels in motion for Los Angeles to be tough to beat every time they take the floor. Mike Brown’s defensive coaching fits perfectly with the Lakers because their bench leaves so much to be desired. And now that the Lakers are feeding the ball to their talented big men, they look like a much more complete team. Pau Gasol is having an All-Star season and Andrew Bynum has been putting up fantastic numbers while staying healthy. Derek Fisher needs to contribute more consistently on offense and the Lakers bench is a huge weakness, but Kobe Bryant alone makes the Lakers competitive. Especially in the playoffs.

Kobe still has that will to win that makes the Lakers dangerous

Denver Nuggets – Contender. The Nugets wouldn’t even be in the playoffs if the season ended today, but don’t forget that Denver is a completely different team with Danilo Gallinari and Nene on the floor. Despite the apparent Nuggets’ nosedive recently, they are only a half game back in the standings and will be getting Gallinari back soon. If all goes according to plan, the Nuggets will be peaking when it matters.

Dallas Mavericks – Contender. I was a little torn on this one, but the Mavs should still be seen as contenders for now. Last year, nobody picked Dallas to be a contender at the start of the playoffs, but elevated play from Dirk, Jason Terry and the entire bench showed the world how tough they are to beat when they hit their stride. Even with Tyson Chandler and JJ Barea gone this year, Dirk is starting to pick up his game again and the Mavs are competitive almost every night. If they get hot in the playoffs and get favorable matchups, it’s possible for them to at least reach the Western Conference Finals.

Dirk is starting to play like he wants another championship

Houston Rockets – Pretender. The Rockets have been surprisingly good this season and are currently in the 6th spot in the West. However, I don’t think the Rockets stack up against any of the other contenders with only Luis Scola in the paint. They have fantastic guard play from Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin, but other than that, the Rockets lack the necessary depth to make a real playoff run.

Los Angeles Clippers – Contender. The loss of Chauncey Billups is a definite blow and will most likely prevent them from going as far as they might have, but the Clippers are still a force to be reckoned with in the West. Chris Paul has shown the ability to take over late in the game and Blake Griffin’s electrifying play not only produces good numbers, but it also has the ability to ignite the crowd, which could be a definite advantage in the playoffs if they can secure a good seed. The Clippers will need consistent offensive production from Caron Butler and Mo Williams, but they will also need increased production from DeAndre Jordan and Randy Foye in the playoffs to be a truly tough team to beat.

Griffin and CP3 are still a formidable force in the West without Billups

Portland Trail Blazers – Pretender. The Blazers are deadly at home, but I don’t think they’ll get enough wins by the end of the season to secure enough home-court advantage for the playoffs when it would matter the most. Portland has an awful road record (5-11), and they’re even starting to drop games at home too (they’ve lost four of their last six at the Rose Garden). And given the age of Portland’s big men behind Aldridge (Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas), if the Trail Blazers have the same unfortunate injury luck they’ve had in the past few years, the bench’s lack of depth may hurt them.

Minnesota Timberwolves – Pretender. It’s hard to call a team a pretender when they are only in playoff contention right now, but since I don’t think the T-Wolves will be contenders this year, I have to label them as pretenders. Rubio and Love are the promising future of Minnesota basketball, but it’s a little too much for fans to ask that their team makes a deep playoff run in their first year together. The future looks promising, but I think the T-Wolves will come up a little short this season, even though I do believe they’ll make the playoffs.

The T-Wolves will make the playoffs. But they might not go very far

San Antonio Spurs – Contender. The Spurs have racked up a big number of wins in the past two regular seasons, and although they were a huge disappointment in the playoffs last year, I think they learned their lesson. Don’t forget this team was the number one seed in the West a year ago, and this year they’ve been streaking without Manu Ginobili on the floor. The Spurs aren’t the most entertaining team in the league, but they know how to win and will start grabbing people’s attention soon.

Memphis Grizzlies – Pretender. Without Zach Randolph on the court, the Grizzlies have to remain pretenders for now. They should be getting Z-Bo back soon and Rudy Gay should have been an All-Star this year, but the Grizzlies should be so much better than they are right now. This is not the same team that stunned the number one-seed San Antonio Spurs and gave the Oklahoma City Thunder a run for their money last year. Part of that can be attributed to Randolph’s absence, but the rest lies in the fact that the Grizzlies don’t always beat the teams they should (Phoenix and Utah twice).

So there you have it. Do you agree with my picks? Or have I unfairly ruled someone out? Sound off in the comments section.