The final installment of the TwH NBA preview brings us way out west, to the Pacific Division. Standing in the shadow of Kobe’s territory, the Clippers look to win over the Staples Center fans with one of the most appealing one-two combos in recent memory. The Warriors will be looking to firebomb opponents with 3-pointers from every angle, but will that reliance doom them come playoff time? Also, what about Steph Curry’s ankles? Boogie Cousins is one of the most polarizing figures in a basketball town with a history of polarizing figures (and some pretty good basketball). Can he keep a cool enough head to flash the Kings back a decade? And finally, will anyone willingly watch a Suns game who does not live in the greater Phoenix market?
1. Los Angeles Clippers
2012-’13 regular season record: 56-26, 1st in the Pacific Division
Key additions: Coach Doc Rivers, G J.J. Redick, G/F Jared Dudley, F Antawn Jamison, F/C Byron Mullens, G/F Reggie Bullock, G Darren Collison
Key losses: G Eric Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups, F/C Ronny Turiaf, F Grant Hill, F Caron Butler
2013-’14 Linchpin: C DeAndre Jordan. The only 82-game starter for the Clippers a season ago, Jordan led the team in blocks and all-around defensive efficiency. He often finds himself at the foul line on offense, mostly because opposing teams would rather him shoot there (38.6% in 2011-’12) than from the field, from which he led the league in field goal percentage last season at 64.3%. If he can get his free throw shooting back to between 45-50%, where he had been the two seasons previous, that would be hugely beneficial to squeezing the most out of each possession. He has slowly but steadily improved his offense each year he has been in the league, but one of the big questions surrounding him is exactly how high his ceiling is. Will his game always be limited to dunks and spot-up rim play? Averaging near 10 points per game this season is not out of the realm of possibility for him, and it would open a lot of doors for the rest of the team. On defense, he is excruciatingly-near elite, and this is almost certainly the season he becomes that. Staying out of foul trouble, which plagued him to an extent in the playoffs, will be hugely important on both ends.
Overall: Going into the Staples Center when it was adorned with red, white and blue used to be a signal for opposing teams to relax and get an easy win. Those days are gone. The Clippers are finally not the league’s doormat, despite the frustrated, under-the-breath mumbles of Lakers fans. Adding Doc Rivers from Boston to replace Vinny Del Negro was one of the best offseason moves by any team, and it will particularly benefit a team as good as this one. Chris Paul is the best playmaker in the league. He can see movements before they happen, and, unlike Rondo in Boston now, he has the pieces around him who can anticipate passes and deliver. Blake Griffin is a one-man highlight show whose offensive acumen and sheer physicality cause major matchup issues for every other team at the 4. An interesting offseason pickup arrived in the form of J.J. Redick, whose 3-point shooting has always been good. The rest of his game has quietly gotten a lot better, and it will be intriguing to see him start with this lineup and be able to create space for the rest of the team. Jared Dudley will anchor a solid bench unit who can bail Griffin and Jordan out of foul trouble. Byron Mullens showed flashes of fine basketball in Charlotte, and his offensive capabilities will be a welcome relief when Jordan sits. The Clips are not without their problems, of course. Griffin’s rebounding has decreased in each of his three seasons, which may speak as much to a defensive apathy as much as anything else. Dunks don’t go both ways, and Griffin will have to hustle to defend and retrieve the ball as the Clippers’ leading rebounder. His playoff scoring has been disappointing as well. Chris Paul’s 3-point percentage came down a bit from his career average last year, and he will want to return it to around 36% this season. Antawn Jamison is kind of old, so there’s no telling exactly what he will provide. This team has all the parts to win the championship this season. If not this year, the Clippers are in very good standing contract-wise to be competitive for the next couple of years following the re-signing of Griffin and Paul to contracts through 2017. Finally, at least for a fleeting moment, the Staples Center belongs to the Los Angeles Clippers.
2012-’13 regular season record: 47-35, 2nd in the Pacific Division
Key additions: F/G Andre Iguodala, G Toney Douglas, C Jermaine O’Neal, G Nemanja Nedović
Key losses: G Jarrett Jack, F Carl Landry, G Brandon Rush, F Richard Jefferson
2013-’14 Linchpin: F/G Andre Iguodala. Iguodala settled into being the best player on the Sixers for the better part of the last decade as well as a somewhat forgotten member of the 2012 edition of Team USA basketball. There was a time he played, briefly, together with the other Philly A.I., and he has slowly developed into the most well-rounded basketball player this side of LeBron James. Last season with the Nuggets, he was the all-conquering two-way hybrid guard/forward who could take the opposing team’s best scorer out of the game and regularly put at least 15 on the board himself. Coming into Golden State, he can rely on the best supporting cast of his career in order to open up his own game. The pressure is off him, and at 29, he is still in the twilight of his prime and able to contribute huge minutes in crunch time. The Warriors will look to him for spacing, where he can fill in for the departed Jarrett Jack, and lockdown defense, where he is better than Jack was. Expect Iguodala to have a quietly huge year, as Iguodala is so wont to do.
Overall: Last season was a breakout year for Stephen Curry, who had been knocking on the door ever since he entered the league. He made a statement with a 54-point explosion against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden which drew comparisons to MJ and Kobe, who each seemed to play better in the Garden. Curry is fearless, and that plays to both his benefit and his detriment: throwing himself into bigger defenders when launching jump shots creates landing issues, and Curry’s ankles have already given pause to fans. If they can hold up, however, Curry has a solid chance to lead the league in scoring sometime after this season (I mean, Durant’s pretty much locked in for it this year, what with Westbrook’s injury and all). Klay Thompson is the other Super Splash Brother, and following an excellent playoff run, the Washington State product will look to space the floor even more in his third season. David Lee will play a key role this season, as his double-doubles provide the inside stability necessary to draw defenses from the perimeter, Thompson’s and Curry’s territory, and into the paint. Lee has a propensity for steals as well, which gives ill-prepared big men headaches when they put the ball to the floor. Jarrett Jack’s departure is offset almost entirely by Iguodala’s arrival, and the only area in which the Warriors will miss Jack is ball handling. Toney Douglas is a capable point guard who can pick up minutes when Curry sits, but he does not possess the court vision or ability of Jack. Kent Bazemore may also be able to pick up minutes at the 2 should Thompson get into foul or injury trouble, and Draymond Green has all the opportunity to improve drastically from his rookie campaign. Andrew Bogut is a serious question mark. With his expiring contract, he could very well become trade bait in February, and teams already have their eyes on Bogut. If he plays well, he could be the deep interior presence the Warriors need to win the championship. If he plays well, he could also be traded for higher value, and if he plays poorly, he could be traded to a contender anyway. The Warriors are an exciting young team that could just as easily win this division and win the championship as it could implode should the threes fail to fall and Curry gets injured. Either way, Golden State will be an incredibly fun team to watch.
2012-’13 regular season record: 45-37, 3rd in the Pacific Division
Key additions: C Chris Kaman, G Nick Young, F Ryan Kelly, G Jordan Farmar
Key losses: C Dwight Howard, F Metta World Peace, F Antawn Jamison, G Chris Duhon, G Earl Clark
2013-’14 Linchpin: C Pau Gasol. That’s right – CENTER Pau Gasol. Being moved to the 4 with the Dwightmare in Los Angeles seriously hampered some of Gasol’s game and prevented him from playing back-to-the-basket, which is where he feels comfortable. He creates significant space by dragging centers to the perimeter and hitting distance jump shots, even threes, but his work in the middle will be key to anything the Lakers can do this year. When Andrew Bynum struggled during the 2009 and 2010 title runs, Gasol easily stepped in to create matchup problems against less athletic centers. As the best player in purple and gold entering this season, it will be up to Gasol to keep this team somewhat relevant until Kobe Bryant returns. Gasol is a serious enough player for Kobe to entrust him with this task, even with head coach Mike D’Antoni trying his best to make Gasol fit an Amar’e-with-the-Suns archetype he has in his head. Keeping a cool head and working together with a healthy Steve Nash will be fundamentally integral to the Lakers’ playoff hopes this season, and if Kobe takes any longer than he would like to return to the lineup, it will be up to Gasol to shoulder a lot of the offensive burden. Both his scoring (13.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.6 per game) were well below his career averages last season, and if Gasol can restore both to acceptable levels, at least for the first half of the season, the Lakers might just have a chance at snagging the 8 seed.
Overall: The Dwightmare is gone. What began as a citywide campaign to appeal to Howard’s happy-go-lucky, aspiring-movie star character ended with a disappointed city and a frustrated Mitch Kupchak turning out the lights on an otherwise uneventful offseason. Though that does open up significant opportunities for the near future (read: Summer 2014), it does not help a Lakers team that is quickly losing hold of its own city in the present. Steve Nash is turning 40 in February, and although his passing and work ethic are legendary, his health is quickly causing problems. He is also essentially the only player under contract after this season, and that brings about so many different trade possibilities that it would be useless to try and predict some of them here. Jordan Hill should continue to improve every aspect of his game and will use Kobe’s absence to take significant strides on offense. Nick Young stands the best chance of becoming Kobe’s first actual murder victim this season if his irrational shot choice continues. Standing in Kobe’s shoes is a difficult position for anyone, but it will be frustrating to Lakers fans if he is not at least serviceable but acts like he is an All-Star. Kobe’s injury, while arguably the most glaring problem for any team in the NBA, would keep anyone out for a much longer time than it will keep Kobe sidelined. And here’s the thing about Kobe: when people shoot rolled up paper balls into the trash can, they don’t say “LeBron” or “Melo” or “@KDtrey5.” Not yet. They say “Kobe,” and it is because he is the psychopathic, cold-blooded spiritual descendant of Michael Jordan who is furiously chasing MJ’s every stat, including the six championships. Kobe is the kind of guy who might end up buying an NBA team after retirement and beating one of its young players in a game of one-on-one just to prove that he can. Hell, he might challenge MJ to a game later on in life, and neither would admit that the fifteen-year age difference gave one an advantage or put the other at a disadvantage. For as long as he can, Kobe Bryant will play at an elite level, scoring on defenders in a way that makes them look stupid for even trying. He really, really wants to catch MJ’s championship number and Kareem’s scoring number, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do both. When he returns to this Lakers team, the dynamic will be entirely different, and even if the Lakers go winless to that point, maybe especially if they do, Kobe will take it upon himself to ensure that they do not become a joke. Not as long as he is in town.
2012-’13 regular season record: 28-54, 4th in the Pacific Division
Key additions: G Ben McLemore, F Carl Landry, G Greivis Vazquez, G Ray McCallum, F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Key losses: G Tyreke Evans, G Toney Douglas
2013-’14 Linchpin: C DeMarcus Cousins. For better or for worse, this is Boogie’s team. With the departure of Tyreke Evans, the impetus falls entirely on Cousins to keep his head together and focus on playing basketball. When he wants to be, he is brilliant, forcing his way to scoring at will and playing tight rim protection defense. Hell, the guy even led the team in steals last season. His attitude, of course, has already posed huge problems; he is a walking nuclear reaction waiting to happen, such to the point that Saturday Night Live was able to make it the butt of a joke. Having now grown to 6’11”, 270 pounds and with athleticism, there is no reason Cousins can’t be a dominant force in this league. Except for what is happening inside his own brain at any given moment. New head coach Michael Malone and the new, non-Maloof ownership group will be looking to put a lid on the Cousins volcano. If he can take advantage of his skills even three-quarters of this season, the Kings could have an outside shot at a playoff berth. It starts with Boogie.
Overall: Beyond DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings are a surprisingly well-rounded group. Greivis Vazquez was a nice offseason addition and generally cool head who can distribute the ball well enough to keep his team happy. Isaiah Thomas should be able to take advantage of Evans’ departure, improving upon his career high scoring last year. Patrick Patterson is a player with a nice skill set who can complement Cousins in the paint and will pick up Cousins’ defensive slack. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has been a capable role player throughout his career, and having a larger role in Sacramento may be the catalyst he needs to take his game to the next echelon. Ben McLemore has one of the best upsides of anyone in the 2013 draft and should immediately contribute in a big way; being thrust into the spotlight as a rookie is a tough transition, but McLemore seems like a mature enough player to adapt as well as anyone. The Kings are another Pacific team with a lot of young talent at its disposal, and while questions of moving the team settled a bit in light of the ownership switch, a murmur will remain. Essentially, DeMarcus Cousins is the weather, and the rest of the Kings are going surfing every single game day this season, whether they want to or not. Within a few years, the Kings could again be a strong Western Conference team led by a prolific interior presence, much like in the Webber days, but this year should only really set them up for a nice spot in the loaded 2014 draft.
2012-’13 regular season record: 25-57, 5th in the Pacific Division
Key additions: G Eric Bledsoe, G/F Gerald Green, C Alex Len, F/C Miles Plumlee
Key losses: F Luis Scola, C Jermaine O’Neal, F/G Jared Dudley, F Michael Beasley
2013-’14 Linchpin: G Goran Dragić. The team leader in scoring, assists and steals a season ago, Dragić returns to a team whose focal point shifts from Luis Scola to Eric Bledsoe. It will be up to Dragić to distribute the ball effectively and cut down on his 2.8 turnovers per game from a season ago, though he did hit career highs in every major offensive category. Bledsoe will start at the point, and he and Dragić can work together in two ball-handler situations which will space the floor through rapid ball movement. He should also lead the bench unit and be a decently productive sixth man, picking up valuable minutes both with and without Bledsoe on the court. If Bledsoe signs an extension, as CBS Sports reported the Suns may be trying to get him to do, Dragić becomes all the more important as a valuable trade piece on a team looking toward the future.
Overall: The Suns are on a one-way path to the Lottery; it is just a matter of which slot they snag. Phoenix made some extremely savvy cost-cutting maneuvers and plays for the future. Parting ways with Scola, O’Neal, Dudley and the off-the-court mischief of Beasley allowed for the start of a huge overhaul in the Suns organization, and dealing for Bledsoe fashioned a burgeoning young talent as the team’s centerpiece. Going near the league’s salary floor is huge for Phoenix, which is preparing not only for the stacked 2014 draft but also for the high-profile free agent class next summer. Salary flexibility makes this team a player for both, and having a couple of capable guards and other talented front court pieces (Markieff Morris, Miles Plumlee) will draw the eyes of more than one big-time free agent. This season will be a cloudy one in Phoenix, but rest assured: the Suns will rise again in the very near future.