30 Teams, 30 Questions: NBA Season Preview Part One (West Conference)
With the NBA season upon us, many are already jumping to predict the next champion. Will the Heat repeat? Will the Thunder look to take it one step further and win the organization’s first championship? Or will a retooled Lakers or Celtics squad step up to the plate and show that savvy veterans have what it takes to compete with the young dogs?
But just because the end goal (to win it all) remains firmly in sight, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a Sacramento Kings/Cleveland Cavaliers game, right? There are 30 teams to break down, which is why Matt Vinsko and Brett Murdock (with a little help from their friends) are here to answer the biggest questions from all around the league. So sit back, relax, and enjoy an in-depth breakdown of the NBA season prior to opening tip.
Phoenix Suns: What is the biggest challenge for the Suns in the first year of the post-Nash era?
• Brett: Looking ahead, the Suns biggest concern is their chemistry and how they will mesh. There are some pretty good pieces to this puzzle now, both in the starting line-up and on the bench. Acquisitions like Goran Dragic, Michael Beasley and Luis Scola bring talent and namesake to the starters to go along with fan favorite (and possible face of the franchise?!) Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat. Off the bench, Wesley Johnson has impressed so far for his new team, but the rest of the back-ups have been underwhelming, including first-round pick Kendall Marshall. As it stands, there is no real floor general like Nash was, and it will take some time to find that cohesiveness that coach Alvin Gentry needs for this team to get back to the playoffs.
L.A. Lakers: Does the Dwight Howard trade put the Los Angeles Lakers back into title contention?
• Matt: If you would have asked me this question prior to last season, I would have immediately told you what a benefit Dwight Howard would be. But now, coming off a season filled with off-the-court drama and a number of injuries (compared to Andrew Bynum’s career year), it’s hard to be ecstatic. Sure, Dwight will help defensively, which is what the Lakers needed last year in the playoffs against a much-younger Oklahoma City squad. And even though defense isn’t his specialty, Steve Nash is set to rejuvenate a somewhat stagnate offense. But still, it’s hard to be excited knowing Superman can walk out the door at the end of the season if contract negotiations fall flat. With the Lakers, it always feels like a championship or bust mentality, and unless Nash, Pau Gasol, and even Kobe Bryant can channel their youth, it’s hard to see the Lakers competing night in and night out for 48 minutes.
L.A. Clippers: Will the aging veterans they added in the offseason push the Los Angeles Clippers to the next level?
• Matt: Last season, the Clippers surprised a lot of people (including yours truly). I knew Chris Paul would make an immediate impact, but it was really the veteran presence of Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler that made a difference, especially in the team’s opening round series win over the Memphis Grizzlies. So what do the Clippers do to build on that? They get older, signing Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, and trading for Lamar Odom. On paper, the Clippers have got to be considered one of the deeper teams in the Western Conference with their off-season acquisitions. Crawford can still light it up from game to game, whereas Hill is one of the best defenders in the league at either forward position. Odom might be a question mark following his rough tenure in Dallas last season, but if he comes close to reaching his potential, the Clippers made a steal. At the end of the day though, the team’s success will rely on Paul’s health and Blake Griffin’s continued emergence as a superstar.
• Brett: The Clippers are a talented team, make no mistake about it. They possess the best point guard in the league in Chris Paul and of course have Blake Griffin, though he could be a little more complete, but that’s another story. The big issue for the other L.A. team last year was depth, and they looked to have resolved it this past summer, adding proven veterans in Hill, Odom, and Crawford, while getting Chauncey Billups back from injury. This is a much stronger team on paper than last year’s squad that made it to the West Semis before being bounced, and should piece together nicely, though still think it’s a stretch to make them title contenders. Nevertheless, they are a solid team and with the right breaks, will be a major factor this season.
Golden State Warriors: Can Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry stay healthy enough to make the Warriors playoff contenders?
For this answer, we turn to esteemed Warriors fan and fellow NAU grad Joey Chenoweth…
• Joey: As a fan of all Bay Area teams, I’m on a pretty big high after the Giants won the World Series, and unusually optimistic. With that being said, the Warriors’ master plan for putting together a winning team is as screwed as ever. And the latest screw got placed after management decided to trade the fan favorite, really the only player who has regularly provided excitement to the franchise, for Andrew Bogut. A couple years ago, this would have been a no-brainer. And a pairing with Stephen Curry? How do you say “championship” in Australian? But now Bogut can’t play for more than 60 games a season and Curry’s ankle just exploded while he was cutting his finger nails. They’ll be lucky to play 10 games together. But with two lucky drafts, where they were able to nab both Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes, maybe those two aren’t the future after all.
Sacramento Kings: Can the Kings ever channel their talent into a successful season?
• Matt: Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas, and DeMarcus Cousins might not be household names, but their talent could be. Add Thomas Robinson to a youth movement, and it’s hard not to envision a playoff-caliber team. Unfortunately, Evans hasn’t been the same player since his rookie year and Cousins is often marred in off-the-court issues that can sometimes overshadow his on-the-court success. Immaturity is a word that has often been used to describe the Kings, but is it hard to blame them? On a team with practically no veteran leadership, how are these young men supposed to develop not only as basketball players, but as grown men? Sadly, I see a similar disheartening season for Kings’ fans, albeit with a silver-lining. If Cousins can continue his dominance down low, and if Evans, Thomas, or even Aaron Brooks can find some consistency on the wing, the sky could be the limit for a Sacramento squad that hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs since 2006.
• Brett: I honestly kind of feel bad for Sacramento. They had so many successful seasons in the early 2000s and then all of a sudden, it seemed to vanish. They aren’t a big market team and their arena, no matter how historic or how much of a novelty it is, needs a major facelift. Or perhaps the Kings need a new arena, maybe in a new city. However, there is some serious talent on this team, but the problem is turning that talent into a solid squad. Tyreke Evans is a talented hybrid guard/forward, DeMarcus Cousins is a talented, albeit somewhat immature big man and names such as Marcus Thornton, Jason Thompson and Thomas Robinson should pique some interest. But, alas, nothing ever seems to fit quite right in Sac-town, and I’m afraid it’s going to take a lot more than just talent to put together something great there. So sad.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Are the Thunder still the favorites in the West following the James Harden trade?
• Matt: In a move that shocked the basketball world, the Thunder traded current Sixth Man of the Year James Harden five days prior to the start of the season. In exchange for the talented, bearded one, the Thunder received Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, and future picks. While many fans may forget basketball is in its essence a business, it’s still tough to see the defending Western Conference Champions ship off one of their key pieces due to a roadblock in negotiations that was estimated around a $5 million difference between the two sides. Yes, Kevin Martin can still score as long as he remains healthy and is sure to provide a spark off the bench, while Lamb is set to make an immediate impact as a rookie out of UConn. But it’s still hard to see a cornerstone of a young franchise shipped off for what in essence will be salary cap and future picks. As long as the Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, they are sure to compete for a second Western Conference Championship, but to say that their off-season acquisitions put them over the hump would be a vast (bordering on absurd) overstatement.
• Brett: Make no mistake about it, the Thunder will feel the loss of James Harden. Despite him being a sixth man through his whole career, Harden is an impact player that would start on 27 of the 29 other teams in the league, and will for the Rockets after the trade. But to even question whether or not the Thunder should be the favorites for the Western Conference crown is an insult to the team. They still have Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and a solid frontcourt combo in the ever improving Serge Ibaka and the ever imposing Kendrick Perkins. They also snagged Kevin Martin in the trade, who can score at will, and have solid bench production when they need it. This team is primed for another run this season, and will use their experience from last year to their full advantage.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Can Minnesota hold onto playoff contention until Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio are healthy?
• Matt: Last season, Ricky Rubio was an early favorite for Rookie of the Year before a grueling ACL injury ended his season. Without a floor general, the Timberwolves fell apart at the seams, and even Kevin Love’s emergence as the most dominant power forward in the game couldn’t derail the free fall. Entering this season, Love and Rubio are expected to miss significant time, and new additions Brandon Roy and Andrei Kirilenko are going to be expected to pick up some of the slack. This will be Roy’s first season in the NBA since his retirement a year ago, whereas Kirilenko is returning to the league following a year off in which he played for Russia. While both have proven they’re NBA capable, it’s hard to imagine them filling the load Kevin Love provides on a nightly basis on both ends of the court. Depending on how Roy and Kirielenko readapt to NBA basketball remains to be seen, but if they can somehow rekindle the spark each had prior to their departure, expect the Timberwolves to hang around until Love and Rubio make their season debuts.
• Brett: I was on the bandwagon for the T-Wolves last year, and that wagon took a hard bump when Spanish sensation Ricky Rubio ripped his knee apart. With him still recovering, and now the news that All-Star forward Kevin Love will be out for a long stretch, it’s hard to get back on that wagon. In order for Minnesota to stay relevant until their return, they’re going to need major minutes from Nikola Pekovic, Luke Ridnour, Derrick Williams and even out-of-retirement Brandon Roy, provided his knee doesn’t combust (which I hope it doesn’t). That being said, this group is comprised of some still unproven players, and I just don’t think they can hold together as a group and bring the Wolves back to the playoffs. But if they do, more power to them!
Utah Jazz: Who has more fans in Utah, the Jazz or Mitt Romney?
• Matt: Right now, this is a tough one just because the Jazz are coming off a surprisingly successful season in which they made the playoffs and saw their nucleus of Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, and Gordon Hayward compete valiantly against the top-seeded Spurs. It seems Jazz management are banking on this youth movement, as their biggest offseason acquisitions came in the form of Mo and Marvin Williams. All the pieces are set for the Jazz to make the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since the days of Deron Williams. But against the likes of Mitt Romney? I don’t think even John Stockton and Karl Malone could compete with a Mormon on the national stage.
• Brett: It’s always a good time to joke about Utah and how religious it is because of how essentially founded the state. It’s all in good fun though, and nothing is meant by it. But I will admit, Mormons do love their basketball, and the hometown Jazz have something cooking. They have rebounded nicely since trading their star point guard a few years back and look to make back-to-back playoff appearances this year. However, this is an election year and I will be VERY surprised if the ever Mormon Romney doesn’t win that state 98 percent to 2 (because there’s always some detractors, no different than sports fans). Basketball will always have those people who root for who they want to root for, but in this day and age of the political spectrum, everybody sticks to their party guns, and that should easily apply here.
Denver Nuggets: Is Andre Iguodala the superstar the Nuggets need to put them over the edge?
• Matt: It’s been said you need a superstar or two in order to compete for an NBA title, but George Karl and Nuggets management continue to defy that trend with their depth. Adding Andre Iguodala while keeping a core group of Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and Javale McGee shows just how deep this team was a year ago. Add Iggy’s fast break-tailored game to Denver’s high-tempo offense (not to mention his defensive prowess), and one can easily see how the move is expected to pay dividends. But still, it’s hard to fight that superstar argument. Who’s going to step up when the game’s on the line? While Iguodala can shut down anyone in the game, he isn’t the offensive player many give him credit for. I expect Denver to easily make the playoffs and continue their growth moving forward, but until someone emerges as that transcendent player, I find it hard to peg the Nuggets as NBA, let alone Western Conference Champions.
• Brett: I was shocked to learn while watching the Nuggets/Clippers preseason game the other night that Andre Iguodala is only a one-time All-Star…and that his first selection was last year no less! I knew he was underrated, but dayum! Iggy has been one of the best all-around, most consistent players in the game since he came into the league in 2004 and now finally has a legitimate shot at a championship on a talented Nuggets squad. He is a perfect fit for their style of play and brings an edge defensively, along with his athleticism and workman-like attitude. But is it enough to put the run and gun Nuggets over the top? At this juncture, he cannot do it by himself, but moving forward, it is definitely an intriguing prospect. Iguodala will definitely help this team improve on both sides of the ball.
Portland Trailblazers: Is Damian Lillard a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year?
• Matt: Anyone who reads this article should know this question is no disrespect to Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, or any other rookie from this year’s draft class. No, as a graduate of Northern Arizona University, I have to root for my fellow Big Sky athletes, including Damian Lillard out of Weber St. Bias aside, I feel Lillard has a chance to make an immediate impact playing alongside the likes of Wesley Matthews, Nicholas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge. As a guard, he is sure to lead all rookies in assists, and won’t be required to do much of the heavy scoring playing alongside three established players (and an underrated Meyers Leonard). Whereas Davis and a number of other rookies will have to rely on their teammates to get them the ball, Lillard will have the opportunity to learn on the fly as he plays off of an already established core of NBA players. In his current position, the (Big) Sky is the limit for Lillard in his rookie campaign.
• Brett: While attending college at Northern Arizona University (Go Jacks!), I had the up close and personal pleasure of watching Lillard carve up the Lumberjack basketball team last season while he was at Weber State. Even though he was facing inferior competition against NAU and the rest of the Big Sky Conference, there was no doubt why NBA scouts were salivating over the guard. He is an explosive scorer with great vision and solid athleticism and has already made an outstanding impact on the Blazers and the NBA. He could very easily run away with the ROTY Award if he transitions his preseason into the regular season. His only real competition for the award, and for my money, is Anthony Davis, but Lillard has the tools to make this happen.
San Antonio Spurs: Is this the final chance for a championship for the Spurs’ big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili?
• Matt: Age is just a number, but when it comes to professional sports, it tends to mean a little bit more. Even though it’s hard to imagine a time when the Spurs won’t be relevant, their respective age has to have fans thinking the end is in sight. But last year, many of the Spurs aging players, including Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, all defied expectations and led the Spurs to the number one seed in the West (again). Granted, their age caught up with them against a hot, younger Thunder squad, but in a condensed season, their 50-16 record should still be considered quite impressive. Never count out the Spurs, and with more rest and further growth by young talent spearheaded by small forward Kawhi Leonard, it’s hard not to see the squad compete for a title for a least two to three more years. The end may be in sight, but when you have a team of the Spurs pedigree, that window remains open until the bitter end.
• Brett: Because I’m a Suns fan, it’s my given right and duty to hate the Spurs. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect what they’ve done this past decade plus. Except for Ginobili …**** him. Pardon my language. But after the Spurs went on a roll to close out last season, during which time they were busy proving everybody wrong about their age and deficiencies (before losing in the West Finals of course), it’s hard to doubt them anymore. Even though their Big 3 is now all in their 30s, with Parker being the latest member to join that club, the Spurs still have good support around them so Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili don’t have to take over each and every night. The window for them is still open, and I look for San Antonio to compete at a high level this season, just like they have been the past decade.
Dallas Mavericks: Now armed with the likes of OJ Mayo and Darren Collison, how will the Mavericks fare until Dirk Nowitzki is healthy?
• Matt: What turned into a disastrous offseason was salvaged by a series of one-year deals for very serviceable players in the form of OJ Mayo and Elton Brand. A trade for Darren Collison (also on a one-year deal) improved an aging backcourt formerly inhabited by Jason Kidd. Chris Kaman, a talented but oft-injured center, adds frontcourt depth to a team that severely lacked it following the departure of Tyson Chandler. Unfortunately, now that all these pieces have been put together, the glue has temporarily dried up in the form of a knee injury to centerpiece Dirk Nowitzki. After the departure of Jason Terry also, who are the Mavericks going to rely on for scoring? Right now, Mayo has to be the guy, and his erratic seasons in Memphis have me wondering if he can be that superstar many predicted he would be. If Dirk can come back healthy and mesh with his new teammates, I expect the Mavericks to be a dangerous out come playoff time. But making the playoffs is going to be a long shot if Dallas’ new additions can’t step up and have an immediate impact.
• Brett: Dirk Nowitzki is my favorite player of all-time. Because of that, I’m a Mavericks fan by extension. So when I got the news that my boy was going to be out a few weeks with an injured knee, I was worried. These Mavericks took a big tumble after winning it all in 2011, finishing seventh last year and entering this year with some serious questions, number one being Dirk’s age and health. Even though his prognosis is only counting on him being out for a few weeks (complimented by early reports that he was already on an exercise bike), it will still take the German more time to get back into game shape and up to speed. In his absence, guys like OJ Mayo and Darren Collison will have to step up to make sure Dallas doesn’t go belly-up during Dirk’s absence.
Houston Rockets: Can a new backcourt break the Rockets streak of mediocre seasons?
• Matt: When Jeremy Lin arrived in Houston, I thought he was doomed. On a team whose best scoring option was the often erratic Kevin Martin, I figured defenses would find a way to stifle Linsanity once and for all. But with the arrival of James Harden, the Rockets suddenly go from lottery picks to a potential playoff berth. Sure, they still might struggle upfront with Omer Asik and Patrick Patterson, but much like the Thunder, Houston now has depth and scoring ability on the wings in the form of Lin, Harden, and even Chandler Parsons. Predicting a sudden return to prominence may be a little too out there, but the addition of Harden definitely puts the Rockets on the fast track.
• Brett: Houston, we don’t have a problem anymore. By landing James Harden in a surprising swap with the Thunder that caught everybody off-guard, you have paired the bearded one with Jeremy Lin, whose exploits last season as a Knick made him an international superstar, which he used to parlay that fame into a hefty contract with the Rockets. Houston now certainly boasts a good tandem at the guard spots, but the rest of the pieces remain unproven. Omer Asik as your starting center is not a good sign, especially when you consider he’s been a backup his whole career. The rest of the roster prides itself on potential that has yet to truly be tested or proven in the professional ranks. It will take a while before Houston can get back to where it was during the years of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, but with the addition of Harden, it probably won’t be as long as you think.
Memphis Grizzlies: Are the Grizzlies a sleeper to win the Western Conference?
• Matt: After their stunning first-round upset against the Spurs a few years back, everyone and their mothers jumped on the Grizzlies bandwagon, and who can blame them? Young talent in the form of Rudy Gay and Mike Conley Jr. compliment proven veterans like Zack Randolph, giving them a nice inside/outside balance you don’t see as much these days. But their collapse against the Clippers in last season’s first round made a doubter out of me. It’s not that I don’t think this team will compete; I do. It’s just after such success the prior year, everybody, including myself, expected them to take that next step, and they didn’t. A lack of big offseason moves, which has to include the loss of OJ Mayo, isn’t helping. Sure, Conley and Gay will continue to improve, but Randolph is only aging, and the West isn’t exactly getting weaker. It seems the Grizzlies had their chance to transcend to that next stage and fell flat. Expect a middle of the road team with some upside, but who may have (sadly) seen their best days go up in a blaze of glory.
• Brett: I like watching the Grizzlies play. They have a good frontcourt with Randolph and Marc Gasol, a steady, consistent point guard in Mike Conley and a criminally underrated small forward in Rudy Gay. Their bench is solid too, with Darrell Arthur, Marreese Speights and Jerryd Bayless all expected to contribute in a large way. This is a team that can match up well with anybody and have fulfilled the “position” roles that a lot of NBA coaches look for, meaning there are no hybrids or point-forwards or anything of that nature. Because of that, they can compete with the best of the best and could make a nice run through the Western Conference, granted they find a way to finally make it work.
New Orleans Hornets: Will Anthony Davis ever shave that unibrow, or is it too marketable?
• Matt: When you have a distinctive look, you have to ride it. James Harden has his beard. LeBron has his headband. Whether it’s an accessory or a physical feature, if it sticks out and helps the fans recognize you, exploit it. Take Anthony Davis and his unibrow for example. Everyone who follows the NBA has seen the headlines, articles, and even memes regarding Davis’ trademark brow, and rightfully so; it sticks out almost as bad as a pimple on prom night. But hey man, you have to be yourself, and if Davis is becoming this league-wide superstar, you can’t neglect that image had something to do with it. New Orleans won’t be winning a lot this year, but they should definitely take solace in the fact that their star center is becoming some sort of a fashion icon.
• Brett: Oh, Anthony Davis. You seriously might be one of the weirdest looking dudes to enter the NBA in recent memory. And it all has to do with that unibrow that currently resides in your T-zone. Holy bejeezus man, that thing is scary. I’m pretty sure if you flipped it over onto your chin, it would rival James Harden’s beard…that’s how noticeable it is. But, maybe you are just deceiving us all and doing this on purpose. I understand that athletes have superstitions that supposedly help their teams win or help their individual performances, so it must be totally reasonable for you to grow a unibrow, right? After all, I’m sure companies are throwing endorsements your way not because you were the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and perhaps the most hyped pick since LeBron James, but because of that line of hair currently pitching tent below your forehead. Seriously dude, that thing is marketable. Get on that or get a razor.