Playoff time for Warriors

Basketball offseasons are always too long.

With Tuesday’s NBA season opener in the books and the Warriors’ season opener coming tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers, let’s answer some questions about the 2006-07 season.

Who is going to win it?

San Antonio. Let’s play it safe to start. The Spurs are there year in and year out, key players — Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili — are still improving and Tim Duncan feels like he’s got something to prove.

What about the East?

Detroit is going to get back to the Finals. Yeah, the Pistons lost Ben Wallace, but you know something’s fishy when you can’t get along with Flip Saunders, which Wallace didn’t. As for the Heat, Shaquille O’Neal isn’t getting any better and Dwyane Wade … well, how much better can he get? After those two, the icebox is pretty empty.

Which teams got better?

The Warriors, Houston and Toronto. If the only thing Don Nelson does this season is clean up the Warriors’ late-game play, they’ll win a half-dozen more games. If he does more than that, the Warriors will have a shot at ending that playoff drought. Assuming Tracy McGrady’s back holds up, the Rockets become a 50-win team again. As for the Raptors, it’s not that they’ve improved that much, it’s that in the kid-brother East, most other teams improved less.

Which teams got worse?

Memphis, Sacramento, Philadelphia. The Grizzlies were trying to go young and athletic and they’re less of both now that Pau Gasol is hurt. The Kings could become the new Denver Nuggets: Always simmering. And the 76ers? They’ve got the makings of a troublesome November and December, then a January of “Where’s Iverson going?”

Which teams are going to make the playoffs in the Western Conference?

San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver will get in again. But here’s the call: The Los Angeles Lakers, Kings and Grizzlies don’t make it this season and the Rockets, Utah Jazz and Warriors do. The hunches are that Kobe Bryant can’t match his level of play from last season, the Kings are less than meets the eye and Memphis will be in rebuilding mode by February.

How are the Warriors going to make the playoffs?

There are going to be nights when the Warriors’ up-tempo style overwhelms opponents. Not often, but here and there. Throw in the acknowledged truism that Nelson gets talented but flawed teams to overachieve and you start thinking eight to 10 more wins isn’t out of the question.

What’s going to hurt their chances?

Free-throw shooting, perimeter shooting and decision-making. But perhaps more of a challenge will be whether the Warriors can win meaningful late-season games. Before the Warriors think about the playoffs, they’re going to have to either hold on or make a run the last six weeks of the season. What’s worrisome is that Troy Murphy, Jason Richardson, Mike Dunleavy, Mickael Pietrus, Monta Ellis, Dajuan Wagner and Andris Biedrins have yet to play high-stakes pro games in April.

Matt Steinmetz is the sideline reporter for Warriors telecasts on Fox Sports Net.

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