NBA Season Preview: Part 2

Mike: Hi there, remember us?  I know, I know, we’re a few weeks into the season now, a little hard to do a Western Conference “Preview”, I suppose.  Although really when you think about it, there’s still 5+ months of the season left, and I don’t think we really have much more than a glimmer of what any of these teams might end up looking like by the end of the season anyways, so the preview is still on!

Justin and I are back to look at the fifteen teams that make up the Western Conference, including the new look Thunder, losers in last year’s NBA Finals and now without one of the key pieces of that team, James Harden.  In case you missed Part One you can check that out here.  I think we managed to keep this one a little shorter than our Eastern conference preview, so with that, we’ll get right into it.  Hope you enjoy!

 

Northwest

Oklahoma City ThunderOklahoma City Thunder
(2011-12 Record: 47-19, 2nd in conference, 1st in Northwest)
Key Additions: Kevin Martin (SG)
Key Losses: James Harden (SG)

 

 

 

Mike: Well, I had some thoughts penciled in here about how I liked it that they were essentially keeping the team intact, no need to make any big changes, etc., but I guess I kind of have to throw those out the window.

So, big news first I guess, the Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets (along with Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward) for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second round pick.  Clearly this was done for salary reasons, which is certainly understandable considering Kevin Durant is set to make $77M over the next four seasons and Russell Westbrook is going to make $78M over the next five.  That might not be such a big deal except that Kendrick Perkins unfortunately has $25M left over three years on his contract.  Oh right, then there’s the whole part about Serge Ibaka’s contract jumping from $2.2M this year to $12.3M for each year after that for the next four seasons.  If the Thunder had signed Harden to the 4-year $60M deal he wanted, all of a sudden you’re looking at the team committing anywhere from $45M-$60M+ on those four or five players the next four years.  And that’s not even including the rest of the team.

We’re not talking about the Los Angeles Lakers or the Brooklyn Nets here.  This is not a team that can spend as it wants and jump into the tax area of the salary cap without repercussions.  What’s interesting is that the Thunder reportedly offered Harden a 4-year $55M contract, only $5M or so off the max offer.  If Harden had accepted that, the Thunder would have almost certainly had to amnesty Perkins after this season, with $62M already guaranteed on next year’s cap space even without Harden’s contract.  As it is they may end up amnestying Perkins anyways depending on how things play out (Specifically how impactful can he be against Dwight Howard this year in their very important games against the Lakers).  But with Harden gone they do at least free up some salary space down the line.

Justin: The thing with that, is that it’s bullshit. The whole thing really, and not you specifically, but the majority of pundits spewing this nonsense, drives me up the wall. First off,  with the CBA as structured, they couldn’t give him a fifth year and when you’re talking guaranteed money, that matters. Second, without that fifth year, it wasn’t a matter of a few million, it was about $25 million. I’m sorry, but this is a business, and while teams love to spout loyalty, they will also dump you in a heartbeat for the right deal. Look no further than the Boston Celtics for proof of this. Not only did they do to Rondo what the Thunder could’ve done to Harder (spout loyalty to get a discount price, then try to dump him), but you can look at the acrimony between Ray Allen and Boston now, because Allen fell for this sentimental garbage hook, line and sinker- then had his feelings hurt when he was shopped and benched last year.

Moreso, this is a team that made $35 million in profit last year, in a strike-shortened season. Exactly, read that again. And this team is going to cry poor? The violins playing for them are microscopic. Perkins, if he can’t stop Dwight, is going to be amnestied. Hell, even if he can, it’s almost a given. He simply doesn’t bring that level of value to the team. On top of that, if you need salary relief, trade Ibaka. I really don’t care that they need his “defensive-mindedness,” when he’s only even effective against smaller players anyways. Give me a break.

Don’t let anyone fool you. The Thunder are not remotely poor. The reason they didn’t sign James Harden, was because they did not want to pay him. They seem to think, and perhaps justifiably so, that they can build back what they lost. Maybe they’re right. But in the end, they valued their profit margins, over their championship window. After stealing the team from Seattle, they now treat Oklahoma City, already a top 5 fanbase, the exact same way. With contempt. Godspeed to Sam Presti in making it up to them.

Mike: Enough about the financial aspect of this, there’s also the basketball side of things to consider.  Harden is 23 years old.  He upped his PPG from 12.2 to 16.8 last year, while improving his FG% from 43.6% to 49.1%, his 3P% from 34.9% to 39.0%, his RPG from 3.1 to 4.1 and his APG from 2.1 to 3.7.  He’s fantastic at getting to the line, is an equally fantastic free throw shooter, and is a good ball handler capable of running the point when called upon.  He was top 30 overall in PER last year and top 5 among shooting guards at 21.13.  He’s not going to be making any NBA All-Defense teams any time soon, but he’s also not exactly a turnstile out there either.  Basically, this guy is about as good as it gets when it comes to a sixth man coming off the bench, and the Thunder are absolutely going to miss him.

In return they get a one year rental in Kevin Martin who is to my shock only a few months away from turning 30.  Martin is a big shooting guard coming in at 6’7”, capable of being a prolific scorer, scoring over 23 points per game on three different occasions.  He’s nowhere near the efficient scorer that Harden is, in fact he hasn’t shot above 45% from the field since 2007-08, and was only 41.3% last year.  He’s also become an injury concern, missing 26 games last year, 36 in 2009-10, 31 in 2008-09, and 21 in 2007-08.  The Thunder are probably hoping that some of his struggles came from playing under a new coach last year in Kevin McHale and that he just needs a better system to find his form again.

Long term, Oklahoma City will be looking to rookie Jeremy Lamb to fill some of the void, a better defender than Harden, and someone with solid potential to be a rim finisher.  While we’re most likely not looking at a player that will be near the caliber player Harden is, they are at least potentially getting some talent in return.

Justin: I like Kevin Martin more than most, probably. He has some problems playing the whole year, that can’t be denied, but he’s certainly qualified to take over as a 6th man and power the bench unit. Lamb, in addition to the greatest dunk of the college year last season, tore up the Summer League (right, I know), and looks to have a bright future. The draft picks will of course help with someone like Presti in charge. I don’t honestly think they’ll be effected in an overly negative way, long term it could very well be positive. It’s more the reasoning used, than the results of the trade, that irk me. I see OKC taking a step back this year, but still being among the elite.

Mike: Still, I think it’s hard to look at this as anything but at the very least a small step back for the Thunder for this season.  For those games when Westbrook was just all over the place in terms of pacing the game, or when Durant just couldn’t find his shot, having Harden there to come in and just take everything over and get the team back on track was a huge benefit and not something I would expect to see with someone like Kevin Martin.  Even without Harden this is a top tier team in the West, but Thunder fans may find themselves sorely disappointed come playoff time.

 

Portland Trail BlazersPortland Trail Blazers
(2011-12 Record: 28-38, 10th in conference, 4th in Northwest)
Key Additions: Meyers Leonard (C), Damian Lillard (PG)
Key Losses: Ray Felton (PG), Jamal Crawford (SG)

 

 

 

Mike: The Portland Trail Blazers have always been one of those teams in the West that I just never feel like I know a ton about, I just figured with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nate McMillan they should be a good enough team, but never good enough to be a title contender.  They’re a small market team, they play on the West Coast, which means late games, so I just tend to not get a lot of exposure to them.  I was a little surprised things fell apart for them last year before they blew up the team, but then again Brandon Roy was gone, and in years past they always seemed to have big injuries happen to them and they just sort of moved past it like it never happened.  I guess that all kind of caught up with them last season.

Justin: That, and Ray Felton’s metabolism. Also, they made the brilliant choice to force Jamal Crawford to play as a point guard, which he can’t do. Surprisingly, he couldn’t do it. I actually do see a ton of Blazers games. I tend to stay up late anyways, so if there’s a game on, I’m probably watching it. Not that that means I know a ton about them. They’re just one of those West Coast teams where it seems like they are constantly on TV because there aren’t a ton of teams in that time zone, and they can’t all be at home every TV night. Golden State also falls into ths.

Mike: So, the Blazers are now without former GM Rich Cho, they are without McMillan, they are without Brandon Roy, and they are without Roy Hibbert, whose contract Indiana (unsurprisingly) matched after the Blazers put out an offer for him.  Basically we’ve got Aldridge, Wes Matthews, Nicolas Batum, and a bunch of other guys.  Terry Stotts is their head coach, who I couldn’t tell you a thing about, but according to Wikipedia he was the head coach at Atlanta, as well as pre-dating Scott Skiles as coach in Milwaukee.  Looking at their starting lineup, you’ve got #6 overall pick Damian Lillard at point guard, a surprising 4-year college player that went top 10 in the draft.  Then you have the aforementioned Wes Matthews, a shooting guard with good range and good size, but someone who really struggled to shoot well last year (41.2 FG%).  Aldridge is fantastic, nothing new there, put up 22 and 8 last year while shooting 51.2% from the field and also shooting 81.4% from the free throw line.  Batum starts at small forward, a good asset offensively, but still not quite the defender you’d like to see at the three spot.  And at center the Blazers have been going with the undersized option, JJ Hickson, who is even a little small at power forward at 6’9” 242.  Hickson was a valued commodity in Cleveland, and at only 24 is trying to maybe reach that potential the Cavs expected from him here in Portland.

Justin: I don’t think the Blazers really ever thought they’d get Hibbert, I think it was more of a move to show Aldridge that they were willing to pay to put people around him. More of a demonstration than an actual attempt at a free agent. I tend to think these guys have a great starting line up, but some of the worst depth in the league. Aldridge is a legit top tier player, Lillard probably will be sooner than later, Wes Matthews can score, Hickson is finally worthwhile after years in Cleveland of being little more than frustrating. Batum needs to live up to his potential with some consistency. At 24, you need to stop showing flashes, and start being consistent. They will probably lose a lot of games, especially with any sort of injuries, but the starting line up should make sure they aren’t blown away.

Mike: All that being said, I don’t really see this as a playoff team.  Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, it’s a nice trio of players to have, but it’s only going to take you so far, and how much does Portland have to offer after that?  I don’t think much of Stotts, and frankly the whole coach/GM search was a little weird, which brings up one thing that always bothers me about the Blazers: Paul Allen.  No, he might not be as visible as someone like Mark Cuban.  But he’s still a pretty eccentric owner who likes to get a little more involved in the workings of his team than he probably should.  I always worry about his influence on the team having negative repercussions, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s why the team has the management in place that they now have.  Remember, Rich Cho was a big name coming out of Oklahoma City in 2010, and made in Portland for less than a year before being inexplicably fired.  All in all, they could be one of those teams fighting for that last playoff spot, but I’m not holding my breath.

 

Denver NuggetsDenver Nuggets
(2011-12 Record: 38-28, 6th in conference, 2nd in Northwest)
Key Additions: Andre Iguodala (SF)
Key Losses: Al Harrington (PF), Arron Afflalo (SG)

 

 

 

Justin: The Nuggets are going to be good this year. There was a ton of preseason hype- they got rid of Nene for 2 young Cs full of potential, they brought in Andre Iguodala, and they kept everything else. It can only be considered an upgrade. Karl is always going to get the most out of his players, and with this group, not much but good can happen. They ooze depth and can play any style the opposition brings them. Plus, they have the best alternates in the legue this year, and what else really matters?

Mike: Is anyone not excited about this team?  I feel like I barely get to watch any West Coast basketball, especially a team like the Nuggets, and I’m still super excited to watch these guys.  There isn’t a player on the roster I don’t like.  Nene I’m a little lukewarm on, he’s gone.  Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo I didn’t much care for, especially at the money they were making, so now they’re gone.  Chris Andersen is, eh, and he’s amnestied.  Everyone else I’m on board with.  A starting five of Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kennith Faried and either Javale McGee or Kosta Koufos?  Yes please.  Then you’ve got either Koufos or McGee coming off the bench, the immortal Andre Miller backing up Lawson, Wilson Chandler and Corey Brewer coming in at the wing, and Timofey Mozgov…well, he at least has more opportunities in the West to get dunked on.

Koufos in particular is one of those guys I’ve never really paid any attention to, didn’t think much of him coming out of college, and honestly nothing really in his NBA career had given me any real reason to think twice about him.  But last season, he put up 5.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game to go along with 0.9 blocks.  Yeah, that’s not much to look at, but he did it in only 16.5 minutes per game.  Oh, and he also shot 60% from the field.  So you’re lookin at 12 points and 11.7 rebounds to go along with 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes.  He’s also 7 feet tall and only 23 years old.  And he’s making $9M total over the next three years.  You take him, and add in Javale McGee who is making quite a bit more ($44M over the next four years), but is also one of the most athletically impressive 7-footers in the league, and with an actual coach working over him instead of Flip Saunders, they could be scary in the middle.  McGee was shooting 61% from the field after going to Denver (Although on the flip side he shot 37% from the free throw line, oof), and you have to think if he can minimize the number of times he does dumb Javale McGee things, look out.

Kenneth Faried looks like he’s going to be exactly the guy everyone thought he was going to be when we saw him tear up the boards at Morehead State in the NCAA tournament.  He’s just a great energy guy, managed to put up 10 and 8 in 22 minutes a game last year while shooting 59% from the field.  Gallinari should shoot from three better than he did with Denver last season (32.8%), and Knicks fans were definitely sad to see him go in the Melo trade.  If he can get back on track with his perimeter shooting, he should really spread the floor out for the rest of the team.  Iggy was a great pickup, he’s such a great defender, but not a flashy guy, so he usually is one of those guys that just kind of flies under the radar.  He’s not a great scorer, but can still get you 15 points a game and shoot 45%.  He’s not a great rebounder, but can still get you six boards a game.  He’s someone that’s invaluable to your team, even if you can’t easily prove it by pointing to any particular aspect of his game.  Yeah, he’s getting paid ($30M over the next two years), but there are many worse contracts out there.

The questions for this team are the same as last year, really.  Is there enough outside shooting, and who’s going to be the crunch time must-make-shots guy?  They may not have answers for that, but even with their roster as it is, they should be able to be a top 4 seed and make some serious noise in the playoffs.

Justin: That’s definitely the big question for Denver. Who takes the shot in the playoffs? Who takes over crucial moments? Who does the team turn to for leadership? There has never been a team constructed like the Nuggets that has gone on to win an NBA title. Ever. You could make a flimsy argument for the recent Pistons run, but they had Billups as that guy, they had Ben Wallace as the emotional leader, they had Rip Hamilton doing his thing. That’s about as close as it comes. The best hope for Denver is that Ty Lawson becomes that guy. He’s immensely talented, and only ever gets better. But can he be the 1A of a team? It’s possible. Gallinari is another solid prospect for this role. Igoudala has already attempted that role in Denver, and has come to succeed by being an incredible player that is NOT that guy.

When they have to battle the Grizzlies, Lakers, Thunder, or Spurs, things will get interesting. They can certainly hang with any of those teams- but can they beat them? In a 7 game playoff series? In a row? Then hang with the best of the East like the Celtics, Heat, or Knicks in a title series? I just don’t see it. They are obviously a super interesting team jam-packed full of above average players, with a great coach. But when you lay it out like that and ask yourself to answer… the excitement for this team dies down a little bit. Their path to a title would need more than just a little luck.

 

Utah JazzUtah Jazz
(2011-12 Record: 36-30, 8th in conference, 3rd in Northwest)
Key Additions: Marvin Williams (SF) Mo Williams (PG)
Key Losses: Devin Harris (PG)

 

 

 

Mike: For me, the most interesting part of this team is it’s payroll situation.  The team has nothing in the way of long-term contracts, it’s biggest veteran contract being Marvin Williams, who makes $8.3M this year and has a $7.5M player option next year.  That’s it.  Al Jefferson, Mo Williams, Paul Millsap, Raja Bell, Randy Foye, they all expire this year.  And everyone else, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, they’re still on their rookie contracts.  It’s just kind of crazy to me that a team can be structured this way, with a number of young, recently drafted players to go along with a bunch of expiring veteran contracts.

Now, the thing is, while it’s nice to have all of that cap flexibility for the future, unless you just have an absolutely amazing bunch of young draft picks, this kind of situation is only going to take you so far.  Because it means none of the veterans on your team are really good enough to justify some kind of extension to make sure they stay with the team long term. Mo Williams is a journeyman just jumping on for a season as the Jazz were quite weak at point guard.  Now, Paul Millsap is a guy that is definitely good enough to get an extension.  And by all reports, the Jazz tried to get one done.  Unfortunately, the Jazz were only able to offer about three years $25M because of the current CBA, and Millsap I’m sure thinks he can get better money in free agency (can’t say I disagree with him).  It will be interesting to see how much he wants to stay with the Jazz and how much the Jazz want to pay to keep him.  Al Jefferson’s a nice guy to have on your team, a great post up presence, puts up 19 and 10 for you and shoots 50% from the field, but he’s really not going to do you any favors defensively.  So is that a guy you want to extend when he’s making $15M a year?  It’s a tough question.  I like Jefferson a lot, but I’m not sure if this team is the right fit for him. With the evolution of Derrick Favors you can’t help but think that Jefferson will be playing somewhere else next year.

What to expect from this team?  Well, they made the playoffs last year, and given the state of the West I’d be surprised if they didn’t make it back there again this year.  One of their main issues last year was a serious lack of three point shooting.  While I’m not sure how much better they’ll be this year, Marvin and Mo Williams should be able to help some in that regard.  This is a team that is certainly going to succeed as a team, as there isn’t a ton of individual talent.  Still, it should be enough to sneak in as one of the bottom seeds.

Justin: Jazz should basically be the same team last year, with one year’s more development. Not a lot of moves happened that will make much difference. You could do a hell of a lot worse than having Hayward, Burks, Kanter, and Favors as your young core. Milsap will probably be gone unless they feel like paying up. Jefferson, as Mike alluded to, is almost certainly not going to be sticking around. This is a whole lot like the Nugget team we just talked about, in a lot of ways. They probably have both more youth and more of an idea who will take the final shot (Milsap or Jefferson), but fundamentally they’re really similar.

 

Minnesota TimberwolvesMinnesota Timberwolves
(2011-12 Record: 26-40, 12th in conference, 5th in Northwest)
Key Additions: Brandon Roy (SG), Andrei Kirilenko (SF), Chase Budinger (SF)
Key Losses: Michael Beasley (SF)

 

 

 

Justin: For a long time this year, the Wolves are going to struggle and probably only win because they have Rick Adelman, a coach I consider among the elite. Love is out til December-ish (Editor’s note: This was written before Love’s surprise return on the 21st), Rubio is out til… I don’t even know how long. Pekovic is an emerging player, if a little injury prone, and will probably star for the team in the interim. Of course, Brandon Roy is returning from retirement, and maybe he got some of Kobe’s German stem cells in his knees and will be able to return to form. They also have the underrated Luke Ridnour (in a Jose Calderon type of situation), Kirilenko coming off an MVP season in the Euroleague last year (does that say more about his resurgence or their talent level?), Alexy Shved coming in (sort of a bigger Rubio in a way, but without the extremes), and Derrick Williams on the rise. It’s not a “bad” roster, it’s just one that won’t be able to do much but tread water at best until their 2 stars get back.

Mike:  If any of last year’s lottery teams are making the playoffs, the Timberwolves seem like the only real legitimate threat to make it in.  They really seemed to find their rhythm last year before Rubio went down with a torn ACL, and everything kind of fell apart after that over the last 25 games of the season.  The problem this year for the T-Wolves is that Rubio is expected to probably miss the first couple months of the season, and even then I wouldn’t expect him at 100% this year.  This isn’t a team that’s a lock to make the postseason, so they need as much Rubio as they can get.

They will have their big three back this year, Rubio, Kevin Love, and Nikola Pekovic.  Love put up great numbers last year, averaging 26 ppg and 13.3 rpg, but at under 45% shooting and 37% from three, you’d like to see him improve a bit in those areas.  Pekovic was a pleasant surprise for Minnesota last year, doubling his minutes in his second season and seeing his points per game jump from 5.5 to 13.9 and his rebounds from 3.0 to 7.4.  He also managed to lower his fouls per game rate and increased his FG% from 51.7% to 56.4%.  More importantly, he provided us with one of the great gems from last year’s season: Where in the World is Nikola Pekovic? (Many thanks to Yahoo for having the foresight to embed the video themselves, everyone else links to the Youtube video that is no longer available).

The rest of the team is…interesting.  Brandon Roy back from retirement, but still with no knees.  Andrei Kirilenko back from Europe, could provide some added firepower behind the arc.  Derrick Williams was a big disappointment last year, looking to be more effective shooting the ball in year two.  Chase Budinger has arrived from Houston as a one year rental, but a strong pickup nonetheless (Although he’s now out for an indeterminate amount of time with a knee injury).  Greg Stiemsma will give the team some solid defensive depth behind Pekovic.

I like the players, I like that they got rid of guys like Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson, but is this a group that can collectively make the playoffs even with a still recovering Ricky Rubio?

Justin: They certainly can, especially assuming in that statement that Kevin Love will be back and at full health for most of the season. However, I think SI’s NBA preview had them third in the West? That’s incredibly optimistic, to be kind, and if that’s anything resembling the common opinion, these guys are beyond overhyped. Ownership is definitely taking risks and bringing in good teammates to ge Kevin Love some help- but they aren’t at a level where they’ll make much noise yet, in my estimation.

 

Pacific

Los Angeles LakersLos Angeles Lakers
(2011-12 Record: 41-25, 3rd in conference, 1st in Pacific)
Key Additions: Dwight Howard (C), Steve Nash (PG)
Key Losses: Andrew Bynum (C), Ramon Sessions (PG)

 

 

 

Mike: Have you ever seen a team more assembled to win in the now?  The Lakers’ payroll this year is pushing $100M, but come 2014-15, they only have $10M committed to anyone (Steve Nash).  You would expect Dwight Howard to stick around as well even if he doesn’t have a fresh contract yet.  Kobe’s not going anywhere yet most likely either.  But Pau Gasol?  Metta World Peace?  Who knows what will happen with them in a couple years.  It’s pretty clear that the Lakers are all in for the next two years, and after that, we’ll see.

I feel like talking about the Lakers is a little boring, because there’s really not much to talk about that hasn’t been beaten to death all summer.  Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace should be good enough defenders to make up any shortcomings the team might get from Nash, Kobe, or Gasol.  The offensive and rebounding output we should expect from Gasol and Howard should be really something to see.

Justin: I’m not so sure about Dwight’s offensive output, but I guess Nash has done things for guy’s careers before that had less of a pedigree than Howard. The big thing with this Laker team, and here’s where I go ahead and temporarily stop pretending I’m not writing this in the preseason, is that they just hired Mike D’Antoni to take over the team as head coach.  Yeah, well, now I guess I shouldn’t know that in the timeframe of this column- but procrastination has it’s perks. I’m not going to talk down about D’Antoni, I think he’s a great coach. I don’t believe the myths about his lack of defense (his Suns teams were always league average, and his Knicks teams were strong defensively (10ish) when his rosters were a bit more settled.

My biggest concern is the age of this team. When Amar’e first came to New York, it was nothing like it was now. He played up to his contract. He had a streak of 9 games in a row with 30 or more point. Knicks fans were in love. This came after years and years of athletes coming to New York to die, and now we finally had a star that was going to play. So what happens? D’Antoni runs him to death. Look for yourself. Hell, a 55 minute game is what started the aforementioned streak. D’Antoni regularly had him playing 40+ minutes a night. You know, the guy we signed that had uninsurable kees.

Now, Kobe has German stem cells in his knees that seemingly revitalized his career, and older players like Tim Duncan are rejuvenated seemingly for no reason other than a good medial staff- but what is D’Antoni going to do with this roster? This team is almost as old as the Knicks, and D’Antoni not only runs players hard, but he’s notorious for running a very short bench, even during the regular season. Will their bodies hold up to this?

Mike: Then there are the obvious questions.  Is this team really deep enough to win a title?  The starting five, Nash/Bryant/World Peace/Gasol/Howard is really, really good. But then you’re looking at a bench of Jodie Meeks, Jordan Hill, Antawn Jamison, Devin Ebanks, Steve Blake, and Chris Duhon.  Where’s the help going to come from?  As much as I would love to watch Gasol and Howard play together, I feel like you’re going to need to split up their time with the second unit as much as possible, and plug Jordan Hill in where you can.  How is Kobe going to handle the new influx of talent?  He’s going to have to go from having one of the highest usage rates in the NBA to having that rate drop significantly with the addition of Steve Nash to help run the offense.  It seems like one of those things that’s easier said than done.  I had a bit in here about how Mike Brown would be my primary worry as a Lakers’ fan and how I didn’t have a ton of faith in him as a coach, but I guess that’s been taken care of so we can just skip over that.  I don’t know if D’Antoni is the right answer, but he’s a much better answer, and because of his work with Team USA and his time in Phoenix you know he has the support of the important guys on the team.

Look, as long as the Lakers can be healthy heading into the playoffs, they’re going to be very, very tough to beat, and I think they should comfortably be the favorites to make it out of the West, especially with the Thunder trading James Harden to the Rockets.  Do they have enough to beat the Miami Heat?  Tough to say, as they have their own star power they can throw right back at Los Angeles.  San Antonio could give them a tough time in the playoffs, but to me these guys are the guys to beat if you want to make it to the NBA Finals.

Justin: Nash in a Lakers uniform almost feels like watching sin… but I absolutely hope that guy gets a ring before he retires and this is probably his best chance at this stage to do it. Pau Gasol trade rumors are inevitable, and maybe this time they go through with it and it doesn’t get vetoed by David Stern. Who could say. But adding a younger piece could do wonders for this squad.

 

Phoenix SunsPhoenix Suns
(2011-12 Record: 33-33, 10th in conference, 3rd in Pacific)
Key Additions: Goran Dragic (PG), Michael Beasley (SF), Luis Scola (C)
Key Losses: Steve Nash (PG), Grant Hill (SF)

 

 

 

Mike: Now that Steve Nash is gone, you know what the Suns will be most known for now?  Derrick Rose embarassing Goran Dragic.  That’s just one of those clips that I will never, ever get tired of watching.  But hey, I know he’s your boy Justin, I’m sure he’s worth every penny of his $30M contract.

This is kind of a hodge podge of talent, isn’t it?  Lots of mid-contract guys, Dragic, Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye, Michael Beasley, Luis Scola, Wes Johnson, Jared Dudley, Shannon Brown.  None of those guys are necessarily bad, but none of them are All-Stars either.  And most of this team is signed through 2014-15, so while they have some salary room available that season with Gortat and Johnson coming off the books, it’s not a ton of space to work with, especially considering the fact that they have one of the cheapest owners in the league.

Seems like this team is destined to be one of the worst teams in the league, which might be the best thing for them as they move on past the Steve Nash era.  They just missed out on the playoffs last year, but I wouldn’t expect that to even be an issue this year, instead they may end up competing with the likes of the Kings and the Warriors at the bottom of the barrel.

Justin: This is where I go back to pretending the season isn’t 10 games deep. I like a lot of the talent on this team. Just not together. As a team. Beasley is a fine hot/cold shooter, Scola has had a solid career, Dudley can rain 3s, Brown is as athletic as they come. Dragic is definitely a favorite, as Maloney stated, and yes, he’s absolutely worth his contract. You remember this is the NBA right? His is nowhere near the top of the league’s worst. Good luck with that being what the Suns are remember most for since I doubt most people even remember it at all. I don’t really have much to say about this team. Sarver has proven he doesn’t care about winning, or really anything, and preyed on Nash’s loyalty for years. So, yeah, Phoenix will have a basketball season. Probably not a very good one.

 

Los Angeles ClippersLos Angeles Clippers
(2011-12 Record: 40-26, 5th in conference, 2nd in Pacific)
Key Additions: Lamar Odom (PF)
Key Losses: Mo Williams (PG), Jamal Crawford (SG)

 

 

 

Mike: How much better are the Clippers this year?  Chris Paul is still there.  Blake Griffin is still there.  But…what else?  This team was a mid-seed in the playoffs last year, pulled off a somewhat surprising series win over the Grizzlies, and then were promptly eviscerated by a much older, much more disciplined Spurs team.  And now we’re back this season, and I’m not sure that this team is any more mature or any more disciplined than last year.  You have Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in the frontcourt, even though neither player is a great defender despite impressive physical gifts.  Both are very poor free throw shooters, which isn’t great considering both of their games are hugely based on going to the rim, which often leads to contact.

Maybe with Chauncey back, to go along with Paul, the team can try and get themselves sorted out, but I have my doubts.  And then on the bench you have Jamal Crawford, a guy that’s made a career out of coming off the bench and providing some offense, but has never been what you’d call an efficient scorer, and takes too many shots for what he’s expected to do.  Then there’s Lamar Odom, and who knows what you’re getting from him.  He basically abandoned the Mavericks last year, and now that’s he’s back in Los Angeles, we’re just supposed to believe he’ll be back to normal?  I don’t buy it.

And then of course there’s probably the biggest issue with the team, ownership/management.  You will never convince me that Vinny Del Negro is a good NBA coach.  He doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of strategy, and I don’t really notice things during Clippers games that make me think “Huh, what a good decision”.  He’s never been terribly adept at managing rotations, and he certainly doesn’t inspire his players to play above their talent level.  Then there’s Gary Sacks, someone within the Clippers organization that was hired as GM after their former GM left to go to Portland.  He has no real experience as a GM, but he’s cheap and easy to hire, so there’s that.  And of course there’s Donald Sterling, not a great guy by all accounts, and not someone you’d think is going to be a real asset to a franchise when it comes to signing big name players.  And that’s something the Clippers have to take very seriously with Chris Paul becoming a free agent after this season.

Justin: I suppose. You hear a lot about that, but I’d be shocked if Paul left. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy that just hotshots around teams looking for the best shot at a title. He went from New Orleans to the Lake- er, Clippers, but that’s a bit different in that New Orleans wasn’t going to do anything to improve and help him. I believe he truly wants to make the Clippers better, to get rid of the entire stink and stigma associated with the franchise for basically it’s entire existence, and to help them win a title. Where would he be if he led the Clippers to a title? Who else would take on that challenge? If he reached his goal, how much does that boost him among the all time greats? It’s certainly no easy task to take arguably the worst franchise in American sports and try to bring them to a title.

Mike: As I’ve said, I don’t feel like this team is much different from last year, for better or for worse.  I love all the talent they have, but I don’t much care for the discipline, or lack thereof, and I think some of that stems from the front office and the coach, who I have no respect for.  They’ll make the playoffs no problem because Chris Paul is one of the best basketball players alive right now, but he can only take them so far, and I could see them falling apart again like they did against the Spurs last year.

Justin: I’ll leave you with this- can he only take them so far? Even when his roster is packed with above average talent? Will Blake Griffin ever truly be his co-star? Will Donald Sterling sabotage the team somehow? It’ll be interesting to watch.

 

Golden State WarriorsGolden State Warriors
(2011-12 Record: 23-43, 13th in conference, 4th in Pacific)
Key Additions: Harrison Barnes (PF), Carl Landry (PF)
Key Losses: Nate Robinson (PG)

 

 

 

Mike: I thought I remembered people saying that Mark Jackson was a defensive coach when he was brought in to coach the Warriors.  I remember this because I thought it was kind of an odd hire considering the Warriors had been more of an offensive minded team.  Well, maybe that will change a bit this year.  Stephen Curry I would say has made improvements defensively, and according to 82games.com allowed opponents a PER of 15.8, not great, but not awful.   David Lee I can’t make any excuses for, he’s still terrible.  But Andrew Bogut, the prize in the big Monta Ellis trade last year, he’s a fantastic defender, one of the best defensive big men in the league.  Swapping out Ellis for Bogut should pay huge dividends on that side of the court.

So why aren’t the Warriors going to be any good?  Well, there are definitely concerns about Stephen Curry and how well his ankles are going to hold up this year after missing 40 games last year with ankle sprains.  Then there’s Andrew Bogut, who has never been the most durable of players, and he himself missed 54 games last year.  He’s also been noticeably worse on the offensive side of the ball ever since his horrific elbow injury in 2010 (I’m not going to link to it, go find it yourself if you want to be grossed out).  He’ll have a better complement of players to work than he did in Milwaukee, but still, it’ll be concerning if he goes through another season of poor shooting.  All in all Golden State might be a little better than last year, but unless they buck the injury trend and manage to stay relatively healthy they’re looking at being a lottery team again this year.

Justin: I don’t see Golden State being very good, again. As Maloney went over, arguably their 2 best players seem to get hurt constantly. David Lee, who could easily be listed with them, plays absolutely no defense at all. I think they undervalued Monta Ellis’ scoring. With Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson being groomed at the SG spot, they have a future there- but it won’t be pretty in the immediate future.

Mark Jackson can preach all the defense he wants, but it’s going to have to get through to the players. The big difference can be Bogut, but that’s only if he ever gets healthy again, and stays healthy for long enough to change the player mindset on the floor. Even then, if he goes down, it’s back to square one with a team full of players that just don’t try that hard at that end. We’ll see where this goes, but I expect the same old Warriors as always.

 

Sacramento KingsSacramento Kings
(2011-12 Record: 22-44, 14th in conference, 5th in Pacific)
Key Additions: Thomas Robinson (PF), Aaron Brooks (PG)
Key Losses: None

 

 

 

Justin: Can they just move to Seattle and start over already? I mean, it’d be shocking if they kept staying in Sacramento at this point, and it’d obviously suck for the fans there. But this is just a clown show and needs to end.

I guess there’s always the psychodrama of Boogie Cousins.

Mike:  It’s been 10 years since the Kings were brutally defeated by the Lakers in seven games in the Western Conference Finals.  Might as well be 30 years.  Maybe the team wanted to relive old pain, as they’ve brought back John Salmons to take more money from them.  Is there anyone on this team even remotely worth getting excited for?  I guess Tyreke Evans is really good and enjoyable to watch.  I will say they’re a fun team to watch in person, because you get to see DeMarcus Cousins fluctuate between amazing basketball player and fat and disinterested live and in person.

At least they’re not paying the luxury tax…right?

 

Southwest

Dallas MavericksDallas Mavericks
(2011-12 Record: 36-30, 7th in conference, 3rd in Southwest)
Key Additions: Chris Kaman (C), OJ Mayo (SG), Elton Brand (PF)
Key Losses: Brendan Haywood (C), Jason Terry (SG), Jason Kidd (PF)

 

 

Mike: I had a good laugh on espn.com before opening day, and I quote “Eddy Curry will likely start against Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers”.  Oh yeah, let me see more of that.  This is the same Eddy Curry that the Spurs waived and Dallas claimed off waivers the last Thursday before the season started, then immediately turned around and started him in their last preseason game on Friday.  Now granted, he’s playing because Chris Kaman has a strained calf and won’t be able to play, but it’s just the absurdity of the whole situation that amazes me.  Two years ago the Mavs rolled out one of the best defensive big men in the game in Tyson Chandler to play center, now this year their season is going to start with all around bust Eddy Curry.  Just thought it was something worth pointing out.

Can the Mavs make the playoffs this year?  The thing they probably have working for them is that there’s a lack of quality teams from last year’s lottery pool ready to make the jump, because I look at the other seven playoff teams from last year and I think they’re all better than Dallas.  This is a team that missed out on Dwight Howard and Deron Williams.  Now they just have Dirk, who is 34 going on 40, and I’m not sure that his numbers last year were solely a product of having to conserve energy in a condensed schedule.

Justin: I really like their hodge-podge, one-year roster. They’re probably a first round bounce, but it will be fun to watch.They did miss out on Williams, which considering how much they put into that, it was off of Mark Cuban to skip the talks to record some reality show that nobody watches. I never considered them a contender for Howard, so that doesn’t concern me much. They’re obviously going all-in for the FA market after the year, again. One of these times they’ll have to pull the trigger as Dirk looks like he’s on the downside of his career.

I like old Vince Carter and I like old Shawn Marion. Kaman is a solid player when he’s healthy, and they basically robbed Collison from Indiana (welcome to post-Larry Bird, Pacer fans). It’ll always be fun when Dirk is back and I think he’s definitely been one of the more underappreciated talents during his time. Though not by the rest of the players as almost everyone has tried to add that fall back, leg out jumper he basically won a title using. Anyhow, he probably won’t be around for more than a few more years, and he hasn’t really been the amazing player he was since they won the title. Partially, likely, due to a lessened desire, but I’m sure his international games and lack of any real break until recently didn’t help anything. I always like watching the Mavs during the Dirk Era, they won’t make a ton of noise this year, but it should be fun and fairly unpredictable team along the way.

 

San Antonio SpursSan Antonio Spurs
(2011-12 Record: 50-16, 1st in conference, 1st in Southwest)
Key Additions: None
Key Losses: None

 

 

 

Mike: Speaking of old players.  I’ll give San Antonio the benefit of the doubt and assume they will be plenty productive in the regular season and will be fine going into the playoffs.  But with the Lakers and Thunder at the top of the conference, along with tough teams like the Clippers, Grizzlies, and Nuggets along with a sleeper like the Timberwolves, I just think it’s a very tough field for the aging trio of Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker to navigate through.

Justin: So let me get this right. This is the exact same team as the team that continually finishes with the best record in the west for all intents and purposes. Duncan has lost years off his body somehow. Yet this team still gets overlooked constantly?

Here’s my not-so-bold prediction. It’s going to happen again. The Spurs are going to lock up the #1 seed in the west again. Do you think they are remotely pleased, remember who’s involved here, to have been the doormats for the Memphis Grizzlies’ welcoming party? Or to finish off one of the better runs in recent years with a total collapse against Oklahoma City? I could easily see this team in the Finals this year, hell, I could see them winning at all (though I’m no predicting either). I just know one thing. This team is going to be motivated, and it’s the same team that already dominated the tougher conference. And Kawhi Leonard is going to be a star someday. So that’s two things.

Mike: It’s actually a little funny, because a team that has been so consistent over the years thanks to Duncan and Pop actually has me completely baffled on how they will end up performing this year.  Will they get bounced in the first round of the playoffs?  Not likely, but if it’s the right matchup?  Sure.  Will they make it to the NBA Finals?  I dunno, maybe?  I really have no idea.  On paper this looks like a pretty typical Spurs team, you’ve got your big three and a bunch of other guys that all fit really well with whatever the Spurs want to do, although Kawhi Leonard is probably one of the better “other guy” they’ve had in quite a while.  Duncan and Ginobli keep getting older and it continues to not matter.  I still don’t think I can pick these guys to make it to the NBA Finals, as I said I think the competition at the top is too tough.  But I also wouldn’t even be remotely surprised if they made it there, either.

 

Houston RocketsHouston Rockets
(2011-12 Record: 34-32, 9th in conference, 4th in Southwest)
Key Additions: Jeremy Lin (PG), James Harden (SG), Omer Asik (C)
Key Losses: Kyle Lowry (PG), Chase Budinger (SF), Samuel Dalembert (C)

 

 

 

Mike: First thing’s first with this team:  They are going to be bad.  They just are.  I don’t care how much you love James Harden or Jeremy Lin.  You’re looking at something like a Lin/Harden/Chandler Parsons/Terrence Jones/Omer Asik starting lineup, with guys like Carlos Delfino, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas, and Toney Douglas coming off the bench.  Just not a whole lot to get excited about there.

Big picture it’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.  Harden will probably sign a 5-year $75M deal after this season as a restricted-free agent, instead of the 4-year $60M extension he’d have to sign before this year starts.  That still leaves the Rockets with significant cap space going forward, as Harden will be the only guy on the roster next year scheduled to make over $5M.  2014/15 is a little tougher as the third year of Lin and Asik’s deals kick in, meaning they both make $15M to go along with Harden’s $15M.  But after that Harden is the only guy that will for sure be under contract.

I guess the question here is, is Harden good enough to be “the guy” on his own team?  He was obviously great in his role on the Thunder.  But now you have to go from being great playing with the best pure scorer in the game and one of the best three point guards in the game to being the number one option on a team with Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, and not much else.  It’s a gamble for Harden, one that was clearly done for a lot more money, but with it comes a lot of uncertainty.

Justin: We really just have to see how Lin performs with his new contract, how Asik translates as a starter (should be really good), and how Harden takes on the role of being “the man.” Everything else is all rookies and young guys and not a whole lot else. Morey is of course on the verge of always making a move, but we’ll have to see what he can do. Maybe he can bring in Pau Gasol again and not have it vetoed.

I’d absolutely notch this team up as a League Pass must watch. I just don’t know if I’d be willing to go any further than that.

 

Memphis GrizzliesMemphis Grizzlies
(2011-12 Record: 41-25, 4th in conference, 2nd in Southwest)
Key Additions: None
Key Losses: OJ Mayo (SG)

 

 

 

Mike: Did you remember that Memphis actually finished with the same record as the 3-seed Lakers last year?  Me either!  Granted it was during the strike shortened schedule, but still, they went 41-25 last year, and I feel like they’re flying a bit under the radar this year because they failed to capitalize in the postseason after having a ton of momentum following the 2011 playoffs.

Zach Randolph should be back to 100% healthy, and I think everyone is excited to see what a healthy Randolph and Marc Gasol can do to the rest of the league. The rest of the starting five is back too, Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Rudy Gay.  The bench looks a little different, with Jerryd Bayless taking OJ Mayo’s spot (Although Bayless doesn’t have Mayo’s size), and the addition of Tony Wroten to back up Conley.  Maybe someone they can get to help from behind the arc would be Wayne Ellington, who shoots from a good percentage from three (Although was not good last year).  It’ll have to be him, because there’s really not much else there for them on the roster.

Justin: They have no outside shooting threats, and that will probably be their downfall. They may be able to pick up something by the trade deadline, but what? I suppose most would suggest trading Rudy Gay for that sort of production, but I don’t think those people value Gay’s contributions enough. Wayne Ellington, as Mike pointed out, will probably be their best option here.

They should be a solid squad, as they almost always are when they have a healthy Zach Randolph. Marc Gasol is blossoming into a great player. Mike Conley is proving he can run a team, and Tony Allen does all of those Tony Allen things. If they can figure out the perimeter shooting, they are really missing nothing else, and have a lot more that most teams in other areas like defense and size.

Memphis is one of the four western title contenders (with Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and the Lakers) are a bad match up for just about anybody. Personally, I’m hoping for a series with the Lakers in the finals, to see a Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph vs Dwight Howard/Pau Gasol match up. Kobe and Nash obviously swing the balance in terms of superstars, but the “grit and grind” of Memphis could overwhelm them. All conjecture of course, but a match up worth hoping for in the post-season.

 

New Orleans HornetsNew Orleans Hornets
(2011-12 Record: 21-45, 15th in conference, 5th in Southwest)
Key Additions: Anthony Davis (PF), Ryan Anderson (PF), Austin Rivers (SG)
Key Losses: Emeka Okafor (C), Chris Kaman (C), Carl Landry (PF)

 

 

Justin: If Anthony Davis doesn’t stop trademarking stupid bullshit, I’m going to turn on him very, very fast. I already can’t stand Austin Rivers, who’s like the evil preppie character from every 80s Molly Ringwald movie. I love Eric Gordon, when he can stay healthy. Unfortunately, that’s almost never. Ryan Anderson is good for what he is. They won’t be worst in the league, and may over-perform just because Davis is talented as all hell, but they will almost certainly not get into the playoffs this year.

There’s always next year though, as they have a good cap outlook going forward and a solid base of young talent to grow from.

Mike: I actually like what Anderson’s role is on this team.  He’s a 6’10” power forward that is great from three and doesn’t play much defense.  So why not pair him with a tremendous defensive big man and someone that can protect the rim in Anthony Davis?  Eric Gordon could definitely do himself some favors and play through most of this season, in the last three years he’s missed 20, 26, and 57 games, respectively.

They could certainly be a fun team to watch, although the best thing about the team is their future.  After trading for and cutting Rashard Lewis, they now have a ton of cap space going forward and nothing in the way of bad contracts, with a young core of players, and new ownership, things could be looking up for the franchise.

 

_________

Again, I’d like to thank everyone who managed to make it through all 20,000+ words that we wrote on this year’s NBA season.  We’re hoping to provide you with some more content as the season goes on, but for now that’ll do it for us.  I’d like to thank Justin for taking the time out of his busy life to collaborate on this preview, and thanks to everyone for reading.

 

Mike Maloney
Email: mtmaloney@gmail.com
Twitter: @mtmaloney

Justin T.

Email: SagersBlazers@gmail.com