What To Watch For: NBA Western Conference
The 2013-14 NBA season gets underway this week. Here are three things to watch for with all 15 Western Conference teams.
- Can the guards guard?- The Jose Calderon/Monta Ellis backcourt will score a lot of points, unfortunately for the Mavs, it will give up more. The Mavs just gave both big contracts, but I wonder, especially with a defensive minded coach like Rick Carlisle, how often will they be able to be on the floor at the same time.
- Team cap space- Since winning the title in 2011 Dallas has seemingly been hoarding cap space in hopes of landing a major free agent. They’ve missed on everyone. Despite signing Ellis and Calderon, the Mavs will have significant cap room this summer with the contracts of Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion coming off the books. Someone has to take Mark Cuban’s money at some point, don’t they?
- Trade Dirk?- Speaking of Nowitzki and his expiring contract, I think you will hear his name mentioned in trade talk, if the Mavs look like they are going to miss the playoffs for the second straight season. It will be hard for Cuban to trade him, but it might be best for him and the franchise. The only way it happens is if Dirk asks for it.
- Big changes at the top- Last season, GM Masai Ujiri was the league’s Executive of the Year, while George Karl was Coach of the Year. They are both gone, and have been replaced by first-time GM Tim Connelly, and first-time head coach Brian Shaw. Nobody doubts Shaw’s credentials, and it’s about time he was given the opportunity to be head coach, but you have to expect some growing pains.
- Do the pieces fit?- Ty Lawson is an excellent point guard, and Andre Miller is terrific off the bench, but there other guards are Randy Foye, Nate Robinson, and Evan Fournier. Foye, Robinson, and Miller are basically the same player. Fournier started games at the end of last season and he’s the one guard they have with size (6’7), and he can defend.
- Relying on the unreliable- The Nuggets traded Kosta Koufos in the offseason, which leaves Javale McGee as their best starting center. McGee is a freak athlete who will have plenty of highlight reel plays, but he’s a space cadet who hasn’t done anything to prove that he can be relied upon to play big minutes on a good team.
Golden State Warriors
- Splash Brothers- The backourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson is the best shooting backcourt in the league. Curry was able to stay healthy and play at an all-star level last season, but you’re always worried about his troublesome ankle, and their backup point guard is Toney Douglas.
- Getting’ Iggy wit it- Last season, Golden State didn’t have lock-down perimeter defender. They do now with Andre Iguodala, one of the league’s best. Adding him won’t make them a great defensive team, but it does make them pretty good now, and it gives them a guy who can lock down big-time scorers.
- Play big or small- When David Lee was hurt in the playoffs, the Warriors had a lot of success with Harrison Barnes playing power forward. They’ll have a traditional starting lineup with Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, and Bogut, but it will be interesting to see how Mark Jackson uses his bench. Carl Landry is gone, so you are looking at having to use a lot of Jermaine O’Neal and Marreese Speights, at least until Festus Ezeli returns from a knee injury.
- Will Dwight fit?- It seems like he should, but we won’t know until we see it on the floor in real games. The Rockets weren’t a great half court offense last season, and with Howard they will play slower than they did a year before. Defensively, Howard will fit in just fine. Might take a little time to get used to the guys he is playing with and the scheme, but as long as he is healthy he’s one of the three best defensive player in basketball.
- Asik and Lin- The Rockets two big free agent signing from 2012 are in flux. Omer Asik probably wants to be traded after the Howard signing, while Patrick Beverly has been a find and could supplant Lin as the Rockets starting point guard. They haven’t been together long, but the early returns on Asik and Howard playing together have been good, and I think the Rockets will try and make that work early on. Having Asik on the roster will help limit Howard’s minutes early in the season. I don’t think it matters who the starting point guard is. Beverly and Lin both have different strengths and could form a very good point guard duo,
- The young power forwards- Donatas Montiejunas and Terrence Jones are entering their second season in the NBA, and after showing small flashes last season, the Rockets will need at least one to step up and turn into a contributor. Both could be solid stretch power forwards that will help spread the floor and give Houston an extra 3-point shooter. That would end the Ryan Anderson talk with the Rockets.
Los Angeles Clippers
- League’s best offense- The offseason additions of J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley are going to make this team a nightmare to try and defend. Giving Chris Paul two deadly 3-point shooters and Blake Griffin could make this the best half court offense in the league, and they will still be able to get out in transition.
- Can he get better?- Blake Griffin is an all-star, but the Clippers need him to get better. He’s a beast around the basket, but it gets ugly outside the paint, and then there is his poor defense and awful free throw shooting. The Clippers need a more complete player.
- Thin up front- Behind Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan are Byron Mullens, Ryan Hollins, and Antawn Jamison. That isn’t good enough to win a title. Expect the Clippers to be in the mix for Emeka Okafor if he can comeback from a herniated disc.
Los Angeles Lakers
- Kobe- Will Kobe Bryant come back, when will he come back, and how good will he be? I know he will come back, probably sooner then we all think, but I can’t imagine he’ll be close to the same after tearing his Achilles. The Lakers roster around him is so weak, he might be better served by sitting out the season, like Derrick Rose did last season. Also important to remember is that Bryant is a free agent after the season.
- Does Pau stick around- Another Lakers free agent is Pau Gasol. If the Lakers are as bad as I think they are Gasol could win up getting traded at some point. He can still be a really good player, but the Lakers really have nothing to rebuild around. They can get solid assets for Gasol.
- Look to the future- The Lakers have only $10 million in guaranteed contracts on the books for next season, so get ready to hear not stop rumors/questions about the summer and what’s ahead. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Luol Deng will likely be unrestricted free agents, but don’t sleep on possible restricted free agents Greg Monroe and Evan Turner. With all the cap room, LA will be able to afford over-paying guys.
- No changes- Last season was the best in franchise history, and in terms of personnel, the Memphis really didn’t change much. They’ll run out the same starting five that they did in the playoffs last season. That makes for a solid team, probably still the best defensive team in the league, but will it be good enough when you consider Houston, Golden State, and the Clippers are all better than they were last season.
- Ok, a few changes- The biggest change Memphis made in the offseason was not bringing back head coach Lionel Hollins. Dave Joerger replaces him. They made a sneaky good pick up by adding Kosta Koufos from Denver. Ya, he plays the same position as Marc Gasol, but he can defend and rebound. They also added Mike Miller, who if he can stay healthy should help a bad-shooting team.
- Time to trade Z-Bo?- Zach Randolph is 32, and he was solid last season after an injury riddled 2012 campaign. They like to run their offense through Marc Gasol, and they’ve got depth in their front court with Koufos and Ed Davis. Another thing to consider is that Memphis is very budget conscience. It is a small market team that traded Rudy Gay in the middle of the best season in franchise history.
- Stay healthy- For whatever reason, injuries seem to follow Minnesota coach Rick Adelman everywhere he goes. Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and the last two years Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love. If this team could ever stay healthy they could get to the playoffs for the first time since 2004.
- Solid starting 5- The starting lineup of Rubio, Love, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, and Nikola Pekovic could be one of the best in the Western Conference. Martin has been at his best with Adelman and he could thrive on this team as a spot-up shooter. Love and Pekovic will command so much attention from the defense that Martin will get plenty of open shots, and don’t forget Rubio might be the best passer in the league.
- What is Williams?- Coming out of Arizona, there were questions about whether Derrick Williams was a small forward or power forward. Two subpar NBA seasons haven’t answered that question. He was better last season, but the Wolves would like to see him take a major jump in 2013-14. Remember, this is a guy who was talked about as the #1 pick in the 2011 draft, ahead of Kyrie Irving.
New Orleans Pelicans
- Going for it- On draft night, New Orleans not only traded the right to Nerlens Noel for Jrue Holliday, but they also added their 2014 first round, which is only top 3 protected. Holliday was an all star last year for Philadelphia, but this could be a trade they regret since making the playoffs in the Western Conference isn’t exactly easy.
- Year two for Davis- Anthony Davis had a solid rookie season, putting up a double-double per 36 minutes. He could develop into a star on both ends of the floor, and while the Pelicans took a big risk in trading for Holliday, they could do it because they have Davis. He mostly played power forward last season, but with Robin Lopez in Portland he could see more time at center.
- Gordon has to stay healthy- Eric Gordon was the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade, and he has been a major disappointment. He only played in 9 games two years ago, and last season he missed half the season, and was bad in the half he did play. He’ll turn 25 on Christmas Day, so he’s still young, but he’s making a lot of money and its time for him to prove that he deserves it.
Oklahoma City Thunder
- Westbrook’s knee- Russell Westbrook will probably miss the first month of the season and his return can’t come soon enough. It took him getting hurt for people to realize just how valuable he is to what Oklahoma City does. They are able to put pressure on opposing defenses in transition because of Westbrook’s incredible athleticism. He won’t be the old Westbrook immediately, but he should be fine by the spring.
- Bench scoring- James Harden was the Sixth Man of the Year in the league two years ago. He was replaced last season by Kevin Martin, who is now in Minnesota. The Thunder did not go out and find a replacement for him, so it looks like Jeremy Lamb, who was also acquired in the Harden trade, will get minutes behind the offensively challenged Thabo Sefalosha. That is asking a lot of a guy who really made no contributions last season.
- Moving away from Perk- Trading for, and giving Kendrick Perkins a big contract made sense at the time, but he clearly isn’t the same player, and it seems like the Thunder play better with him on the bench. Scott Brooks has stayed loyal to him, but for how much longer. They took Steven Adams with the 12th pick in the draft, and I’d rather try and develop him then watch a subpar Perkins.
- Two point guards- Goran Dragic was the Suns best player last season after coming over from the Rockets in free agency. Eric Bledsoe was the Suns biggest player acquisition in the offseason. They play the same position, but Phoenix wants them the share the floor, unfortunately, Dragic is the taller of the two at 6’3, and even though they are both good defenders, they could have a lot of trouble guarding shooting guards.
- Big building block- Phoenix took Alex Len with the fifth pick in the draft, and with Marcin Gortat in Washington, the center position belongs to him. He’s a skilled center who showed flashes at Maryland, though there were times you forgot he was on the floor. I don’t expect much from him this season, but he is a key to their re-build.
- Looking to the future- Let’s be honest, Phoenix isn’t trying to win now, but they are set up well for the future, especially if Bledsoe and Len pan out. They could have as many as four first round picks in a loaded draft, and they are in great shape cap wise, especially after next season. If they draft well, this could be a dangerous team in a couple of years.
- Solid offseason- Portland didn’t do anything flashy this offseason, but that doesn’t they didn’t improve. Robin Lopez is an excellent defensive center who will fit in well with LaMarcus Aldridge, Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright are solid veterans who will help that second unit.
- Year 2 improvement- Portland drafted Myers Leonard in the lottery in 2012, and Thomas Robinson, who is on his 3rd team was taken with the fifth pick. Both had poor rookie seasons, which shouldn’t be a big surprise, especially Leonard, but now they enter their second season’s and it is time to produce. Portland also had last season’s rookie of the year, Damian Lillard. Offensively, he was as good as it gets, but he needs to show improvement on the defensive end.
- How good is Batum?- Nic Batum is entering his sixth year in the NBA, he’s in year two of a 4 year/$46 million contract. He’s been a solid player, but he should be better, especially on defense. He’s 6’8 and a freak athlete. If he’s able to develop into the defensive stopper he should be, Portland becomes a scary team in the West.
- Boogie’s team- Sacramento gave DeMarcus Cousins a 4 year/$62 million contract in the offseason, effectively letting everyone know they are building around him. The talent is certainly there, and he has been productive, putting up 17 points and 10 rebounds last season, but maturity will always be a question mark. Sacramento has been a dysfunctional place ever since he has been in the league, maybe that changes with new ownership and a new coach.
- A distributor- Isiah Thomas is a nice player, but I don’t know if he should be your starting point guard. He’s a shoot first guy, which you don’t need when you’ve got solid offensive options on the floor with you like Cousins, Marcus Thornton, and Ben McLemore. They traded for Greivis Vasquez, who is a solid distributing point guard. Adding him could make this a fun offense to watch.
- Stability- No longer will we have to hear about the Kings moving. They will be in Sacramento long-term, so they don’t have to operate with the Seattle cloud over their head’s.
San Antonio Spurs
- Another year- Another year of Duncan, Parker, Ginobli. Another year of thinking they can’t possibly do it again, and another year of them running through the league. At some point they have to slow down, but when? Gregg Popovich does such a brilliant job of keeping them fresh, and as long as they have solid options behind the big 3, they will continue to contend.
- Lingering effects- Granted, it hasn’t happened a lot, but it has been 25 years since a team got back to the Finals after losing game 7 of the Finals the previous season. That was the Bad Boys Pistons. Doesn’t mean the Spurs should cancel the season, but you have to wonder if last season was their last chance.
- Not just the big 3- This team has a lot more talent than people give them credit for. Kawhi Leonard could be a star, and they have a lot of solid pieces that fill out their rotation. Marco Belineli was a solid pickup, and he’s probably better than Gary Neal, whose minutes he’ll be taking. They were able to keep Tiago Splitter, who despite a poor series against Miami is a very capable big.
- Time for the young bigs to step up- Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are gone, so now the front court belongs to Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Favors just signed a massive contract, despite not doing a whole lot his first three seasons in the league. He has something to prove, but if he flops, the Jazz just wasted $49 million. Kanter didn’t play in college and had the chance to sit back and watch Jefferson for two seasons. Not rushing him onto the floor is the best thing they could’ve done for him.
- Intriguing young core- Unfortunately, Trey Burke is injured, but when he comes back, the Jazz have a very talented, very young starting five with Favors, Kanter, Burke, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. Hayward was a solid player last season and the Jazz are trying to sign him to an extension before he becomes a restricted free agent at season’s end. Burks has had two quiet seasons, but he will finally get the opportunity to start and play big minutes.
- Corbin on the hot seat- Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin is in the final year of his contract and with the team rebuilding and not looking to give him an extension, you have to wonder how long he can last. Utah isn’t the type of team that just fires people for the sake of doing it, but Corbin hasn’t had much success since replacing Jerry Sloan, and missing the playoffs last season was a major disappointment.