By Cub Buenning

The days are growing shorter; the leaves (along with the temperatures) are dropping, which can only mean that it is time for the game we all love. While this off-season in the NBA was one of the more tumultuous in league history, the influx of young talent along with major player movement makes it one of the more exciting, as well. I would be remiss if I did not initially acknowledge the possibility of another major shift in league (and conference) dynamics when its best player is traded, which could happen any day now. The Eastern Conference has gotten stronger, but for my money (and time-did the fans at the Q get their money back last night?) it is still all about the West! With that I usher in the new season with installation number one of the WESTERN CONFERENCE WRAP!!!

Yes, the season is already underway, but today’s thoughts will focus on the season as a whole. Which teams improved, which got worse, and which stayed pat. No stone will be unturned. No team will be ignored, other than those in the East, of course. There should be two others that follow this post, as I will look at each division by itself.

As should be expected I will start with my area of expertise, the Northwest.

UTAH: (last year: 51-31) lost in Western Conference Finals to San Antonio
This is the team that people want to forget and ignore. Their run of the last year was a fluke, right? It is true that this team was just seconds away from being ousted in the first round by the Houston Rockets, but I feel this team is just starting to scratch the surface.

Led by a great one-two punch of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, the Jazz have few weaknesses in the half-court. Boozer is a beast on the glass and down low, and Williams could become the Jason Kidd of a new generation. The team looks to battle with their Mountain Time Zone brethren in Denver for the divisional crown, but they have little room for error. They need max production from all of their key guys in order to truly hang with the Spurs, Mavs, Suns, Rockets, and Nuggets. Paul Milsap was a great 2nd round pick last season, and he is already dropping double-doubles early in this campaign. Andrei Kirilenko must return to his form of two years ago, when he was a stat-machine.

The Jazz will continue to have a leg on their opponents due to their coach, Jerry Sloan, who has made a living of getting the most out of his guys. Ultimately, I look for this team to be around a 45-win group.

DENVER (45-37) Lost in first round to San Antonio
This should be the year, right? From the minute that Allen Iverson came aboard, this shaky ship has been on the right path. The Nugget faithful here in Denver have been waiting for this group to have a full training camp, in hopes of putting last year’s craziness in the past. While it cannot be argued that this team is one of the most talented in the entire league, it is still to be determined if they can take that “next step.”

Iverson and Carmelo Anthony will obviously be the driving force on the offensive end of the court, but both need to make sacrifices on the defensive end for team success. Anthony is coming off a great summer with his performance with Team USA (best on the court on most nights) as well as no distractions involving backpacks, snitching DVDs, or extortion claims. Look for Anthony to be a first-team All-NBA guy and flirt with averaging 30 and 10. Hit the glass, dude!

The frontcourt looks to be the Nugs’ deepest in years. While health has always been an issue with all of these guys, Marcus Camby, Nene (who was flat-out balling the second half of last year), Kenyon Martin, and Eduardo Najera present a formidable and energetic group. Based on the past, health has to still be my main concern with this team, as I can’t imagine the team will suffer the suspensions and distractions of a year ago. The one change made by the organization has already been bit by the gimpy bug, as Chucky Atkins will be on the shelf for the season’s first two months. This is a big loss, as the Nugs badly needed Chucky’s outside shooting, something that is in dire need ‘round these parts. The team will look to Linas Kleiza and Yakouba Diawara for long-range help, as both of these guys showed flashes last year.

(SIDE NOTE- I wrote most of this post before watching last night’s DEN/SEA game. This just in, Kenyon Martin has his springs back. Keep him on those limited minutes, Coach!)

My one last question of this team is pretty simple. Is JR Smith ready to be an adult professional basketball player? His ability to stay in Head Coach George Karl’s good graces is imperative for his continued development. He is a freak, in ways both good and bad, and I feel at some point he will wake up and explode. I have made this comment here in many times; the team is loaded enough that they can be patient. Let the vets lean on him, let him take his shots (not from Nate Robinson), and let him grow.

This is a 55-win team in my estimation and as I expounded in my preview, I think they can and will make the conference finals.

PORTLAND
(32-50) Tee-times somewhere sunny

I like this team even with out Greg Oden. I like Greg Oden, A LOT, so you can imagine how much I’ll be feeling this team next year. The Trailblazers are now quite different than the unit that has inhabited the Rose Garden for the past decade. This group represents more of the Drexler, Jerome Kersey, Buck Williams days, albeit in its infancy. The patience that the team could not display with Jermaine O’Neal they have with Travis Outlaw and Martell Webster. Both are long, quick, explosive kids that can not only score in bunches, but can play both ends of the court. I peeped Outlaw in his first days as a pro, at the summer league in the SLC. He was garbage, flat out. Kudos to Kevin Pritchard (my favorite former Jayhawk point guard-BEAK ‘EM HAWKS!-sorry ‘bout that) for having the vision. Other than the huge loss of Oden, who will be replaced by Ghostface, the frontcourt is (for now) anchored around LaMarcus Aldridge, a Tim Duncan in training. Aldridge is solid from the perimeter and his inside game is cagey and will only get better. Outlaw and Webster run and gun from the 2-3 spot with Jarrett Jack at the controls. The team is a little thin on the bench, but again, I expect a good year.

I am going to say they barely miss the playoffs and finish around the .500 mark.

SEATTLE (31-51) Out of state in search of sunlight

This team will struggle this year. Not only did they lose their two cornerstone players in Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, but they also got even younger in the process. Kevin Durant CAN be a Tracey McGrady-type scorer, but he will take his lumps (and excessive shots) early. Nick Collison is solid, as is Chris Wilcox, but neither present match-ups problems for the conference’s elite teams, all of which are stacked up front. I always liked Jeff Green in college, but I’m not quite sure his game is ready. He’ll be a force in this league in my estimation, but not this year. Luke Ridnour, again is solid, but not overly impressive and he will share the backcourt with Delonte West. PJ Carlesimo takes over the reigns of this rebuilding organization that might not even be in the Emerald City at this time next year. Here’s hoping things can get figured out and the SuperSonics can stay in Seattle.
Otherwise, kids growing up today won’t understand Cube’s infamous ditty.

Can’t see ‘em winning more than maybe 30.

MINNESOTA (32-50) See the two above

The TWolves and Sonics used to run this division. My, how times have changed. Minnesota might be worse than Seattle, especially in lieu of the recent losses of Ricky Davis (by trade) and Randy Foye (by injury.) Who is on this team these days? I just have to imagine that the “ex-Celtics” probably make up the majority of this roster. Gerald Green might score 50 in a game this year and should flirt with the 20 ppg mark. I like Ryan Gomes but not as a primary scorer. Shame on the great Kevin McHale, for shame. The best post moves in league history is a bad GM. Wait, they have Al Jefferson. He’ll be this their best player.

Like Seattle, I can’t see more than 30 wins.

I like Utah, I like Denver more, I wish Greg Oden hadn’t gotten hurt. I’ll be back soon with a peek at the Pacific Division, where I know there be at least one “Coby” with the Lakers all season long.