Tuesday, October 30, 2012

2012-2013 NBA Preview Part 2: Western Conference

Greetings! If you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1 which broke down the Eastern conference in about 1.2 million words. Here we go with the West....

15) New Orleans Hornets
  • Starting Lineup - Anthony Davis (C), Ryan Anderson (PF), Al-Farouq Aminu (SF), Eric Gordon (SG), Greivis Vasquez (PG)
  • Bench - Robin Lopez (C)*, Jason Smith (PF/C)*, Lance Thomas (PF), Hakim Warrick (SF/PF)*, Darius Miller (SF), Xavier Henry (SG)*, Roger Mason Jr. (SG), Austin Rivers (SG/PG)*
  • Overview - Let me say the positive things first. I am very high on Anthony Davis. He's going to make a defensive impact from the jump and his offensive game is more advanced than most people give him credit for. He's able to handle the ball like a guard, he can make a mid-range jumper already and has a nose for the ball around the rim. Plus, he'll rebound. Also, Eric Gordon is an elite talent when he's out there. Okay, now that we're done with that, let's harp on the negative! Here are Eric Gordon's totals in games played in his four seasons: 78 (awesome), 62, 56, 9. I believe this is a trend, and not a good one. If you could guarantee me even 60 games from Gordon, then I'd raise the Hornets up a spot or two, but because you can't, here they are. They don't have a point guard of any note on the entire roster as Vasquez is so slow that he can't defend a soul, and Rivers has never been and never will be a point guard even if he succeeds in the league. They overpaid for both Gordon and Anderson, and while both are good players, Gordon has the injuries, and Anderson has the "Dwight" factor that leads many (me included) to believe that he can't repeat his 2011-12 production level without Dwight and that floor spacing. On the bright side for Anderson, Anthony Davis may be that kind of player in the near future. The bench isn't horrible in the front-court with legit rotation guys like Lopez and Warrick, but the backcourt depth is woeful with Henry as the only "piece" and aforementioned point guard conundrum. The future could be bright with Davis and Gordon, but this isn't the year. 
  • X-Factor - Gordon's health is the real one, but since we've spent the overview on that, I'll go with Rivers. Can he really play the point? I'm dead set against this, but they've spent a lottery pick on him to play that spot next to Gordon, and he's definitely a player from a skill standpoint, so we'll see.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Gordon doesn't play 50 games. Anthony Davis finishes in the top 5 in the league in blocks. Ryan Anderson leads the league in 3's attempted again this year, but his percentage drops from 39.3% last year to around 35% this year. 
  • Projected Record - 24-58
14) Phoenix Suns
  • Starting Lineup - Marcin Gortat (C), Luis Scola (PF), Michael Beasley (SF), Wes Johnson (SG), Goran Dragic (PG)
  • Bench - Jermaine O'Neal (C), Channing Frye (PF/C)*, Markieff Morris (PF)*, Jared Dudley (SF)*, PJ Tucker (SF), Shannon Brown (SG)*, Sebastian Telfair (PG), Kendall Marshall (PG)
  • Overview - This is a team with a bunch of half-decent players and no one that I'd even put in the top 40-50 in the league. I'm actually really high on both Gortat and Scola. Gortat averaged 15 and 10 last year playing with Nash and put up a 21 PER on the season. Scola has never posted a PER less than 15 in his entire career and is at worst above-average at the 4 spot. Pretty good right? Right, but the real issue is on the wing. Beasley is a ball-murderer (the exponent of ball-stopper) who does nothing else but "score" inefficiently, Wes Johnson has been a mssive disappointment, and the best wing on the roster (Dudley) is definitely more of a role player than anything else. The huge burder on this team lies with Dragic. The former Nash backup is now the Nash successor, and they'll need his 16-point/7-assist line that he put up in the 2nd half of last year to be legitimate. Phoenix won't be awful, but there's just not a lot of firepower that scares you, and the defense could be pretty bad with Scola/Beasley/Dragic all out there.
  • X-Factor - Gortat. Is he really this guy? Most people would attribute playing with Nash to giving Gortat the booming numbers from last year, but if Dragic is really Nash-lite, can he sustain it? If he's a double-double guy and can protect the rim, Phoenix will be competitive. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Michael Beasley averages 20 points a game... and no one will enjoy it. Dragic averages 18/8. Kendall Marshall won't guard a single person all season.
  • Projected Record - 26-56
13) Sacramento Kings
  • Starting Lineup - Demarcus Cousins (C), Jason Thompson (PF), Tyreke Evans (SF), Marcus Thornton (SG), Isaiah Thomas (PG)
  • Bench - Chuck Hayes (C)*, Thomas Robinson (PF)*, James Johnson (SF/PF)*, John Salmons (SF/SG)*, Travis Outlaw (SF), Tyler Honeycutt (SF), Francisco Garcia (SG/SF), Aaron Brooks (PG)*, Jimmer Fredette (PG)
  • Overview - Oh, the Kings. On paper, the talent alone should carry them to a better record than this projection would indicate, but again, these are the kings. The best two players on the roster are Demarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, and both of them have.... issues? Yes, issues. Cousins is a known malcontent who almost single-handedly got Paul Westphal fired last season. That said, he's an absolute monster as a player. Cousins averaged 18 points and 11 rebounds a game last season as a 21-year-old and the numbers were even better after Westphal departed. He led all centers in the league in scoring per 40 minutes, and was 7th in the entire league in rebound rate. He's still a low-percentage shooter (which is baffling, really) but if he can keep his head on straight, he's a beast. Evans is an even more interesting case. After a rookie year that saw him average 20/6/5, his production has decreased each of the last 2 seasons. Last season, Evans numbers (16.6 PER, 45% shooting) were actually reasonable, but the big question surrounding him is the most effective role for him going forward. He's clearly not a #1 option, but his awkward skill-set (ball-dominator, bad shooter, great in 1-on-1 scenarios) is troubling for coaches to deploy. Even with all of the negatives on Tyreke (his demeanor is bad too FYI), I still think he's being undervalued at the moment. He's still a mega-talented player, and while a change of scenery could be the only thing that lets him break out, I wouldn't rule out him having a big year in a contract year for Sacto. Elsewhere for the Kings, I absolutely love Thomas Robinson. The rookie lottery pick from Kansas is a long-time man-crush of mine and that will continue in the pros. There are very few guys I've ever seen play as hard as Robinson did at Kansas and it showed. His rebounding numbers were insane in college, and rebounding is one of the easiest things to project in the league. Add that in with his elite athleticism, NBA body, and that great motor, and he has a very high floor as the player. The Kings also brought back Jason Thompson. He had his best season ever last year (54% FG, PER of 16.41) and with Cousins and Robinson, that's a pretty stout frontline. The perimeter is the bigger problem area for the Kings. Outside of Evans, the #1 option is Marcus Thornton. I firmly believe that Thornton should be a 6th-man/spark plug guy because his only NBA skill is his ability to score. He's averaged 21 points per 40 minutes for his career, and because of that, there's a place for him, but I don't think he's a starting shooting guard. The point guard spot is up in the air. Isaiah Thomas had a surprisingly awesome rookie year, as he averaged 12 and 4 with a PER of 17.68 after being a late 2nd-round pick. There is some skepticism about his ability to sustain this level because of size question (he's listed at 5'9) and the fact that he's much more of a scorer than distributor (think Nate Robinson). I actually like Thomas, but I'm not sure he's a starter. Behind him, they went and got Aaron Brooks. Yes, another score-first, undersized point guard, except this one has a longer track record of being exactly that, and he's coming off of a year in China. Oh, did I mention that the Kings used the #10 pick in the draft in 2011 on Jimmer Fredette!? Jimmer wasn't a complete disaster as a rookie, but the fears about him were realized. He has exactly one NBA skill (shooting) and he has markedly awful on the defensive end. We knew these things! Anyway, Fredette's only real role in the NBA (that I can see) is as a bench marksman coming in to get threes on a team that can hide him defensively. This isn't that team. The rest of the bench is spotty with Francisco Garcia, John Salmons, and James Johnson as solid vets that are in line for minutes on the wing, and with Chuck Hayes (and his incredible post defense) behind the 3 guys discussed up front. 
  • X-Factor - Evans. It has to be, right? I think we actually know what Cousins is at this point, but I honestly have no idea what Tyreke is capable of in a contract year, and that's the biggest x-factor as to whether this team is a playoff contender. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Cousins averages 20 and 10. Jimmer Fredette gets bench splinters. James Johnson performs the best out of the Garcia/Salmons/Johnson trio. Jason Thompson gets traded mid-season. 
  • Projected Record - 31-51
12) Portland Trail Blazers
  • Starting Lineup - Lamarcus Aldridge (C), JJ Hickson (PF), Nic Batum (SF), Wesley Matthews (SG), Damian Lillard (PG)
  • Bench - Meyers Leonard (C)*, Joel Freeland (C), Jared Jeffries (PF)*, Victor Claver (SF), Luke Babbitt (SF), Will Barton (SF), Sasha Pavlovic (SG), Elliot Williams (SG), Nolan Smith (PG/SG)*, Ronnie Price (PG)
  • Overview - Positives first, simply so I don't get grilled by that die-hard Portland fanbase. I think Portland is going with Aldridge at center... and I love that move. He's an elite player in this league, and at 6'11, he certainly has the size to play center in today's league. After averaging 22 and 8 last season even in a trainwreck season for the team, he did play a significant amount of minutes at center and that should continue. One more great note about Aldridge is that he shot 51% from the field and 81% from the line last season while still being a very good defender (low block total not withstanding), and that's a combination that you're really not going to find. The starting wing spots are the other strength of this team. Nic Batum got a huge extension after seeing his production jump up in his 4th season. The volume of money in the deal is certainly a "projection" of what Batum could be, but after giving Portland a PER over 17 with stat-stuffing numbers across the board, Batum is worth almost that much money with no more improvement. At only 23 years old as we enter his 5th season, Batum brings elite length and athleticism to the wing spot, and he can run, shoot, and finish at the rim. The shooting guard spot is occupied by Wes Matthews, who is a personal favorite of mine. He's never going to be an big-time player in the league, but he can shoot threes (40% combined over the last 2 seasons), is a very good defender, and has a really low 8% turnover rate. There are also some weaknesses to his game in that he's a pretty terrible finisher at the rim (just 49.5% last season), and he doesn't have elite athleticism. Nonetheless, you can certainly get by with Matthews as your starting shooting guard. The rest of the roster? Meh. Damian Lillard has been handed the reins as the starting point guard after being drafted in the lottery out of Weber State. There's been some significant buzz about Lillard in the preseason, with even some rookie of the year projections, but I'd have to imagine that's almost entirely opportunity-based as projecting a 22-year-old guard from Weber State could be an adventure. That said, I really like what I've seen (admittedly a small amount) from Lillard. He's got nice range on the jumper, seems to be able to run a team, and scores in an efficient way. I think he's more of a shoot-first guy than anything else, but that actually may help the Blazers as they are starved for scoring outside of Aldridge. I'm high on him, but with skepticism. After that, the questions start screaming at you. The battle to start alongside Aldridge is between JJ Hickson, rookie Meyers Leonard, and Jared Jeffries... groan. Hickson is the incumbent and we kind of know what he is. He scores at the rim well, and he's a very good rebounder, but that's the end of the strengths category. He's kind of a mess defensively, and relies on his average-ish jump shot too much. Leonard is a high-upside draft pick that is a guy who no one thinks is ready to play right now, and Jeffries is a nice veteran who's a big-time defender but does nothing else particularly well and isn't a guy you want playing big minutes. Pretty weak frontcourt, eh? Well, you haven't seen the backups at the wing spots yet. Ladies and gentlemen... Victor Claver, Luke Babbitt, Will Barton, Sasha Pavlovic, and Elliot Williams. That's the list! Really! There's exactly one guy (Pavlovic) who's ever been a rotation guy in the league, and he's played 8 years in the league with exactly one year of a PER over 10. It's ugly, folks. And behind Lillard at the point? Nolan Smith and Ronnie Price. In short, neither of those guys inspire confidence. If the Blazers only had to rely on their best 5 players, they'd be a decent club, with the astounding lack of quality depth, I can't give the Blazers a legit chance at a playoff spot. 
  • X-Factor - Lillard. If he's Kyrie Irving lite in his rookie year? This projection is low, but if he's a typical/bad rookie, this projection is high. Simple as that.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Batum makes another leap and averages 17-18 points a game. Aldridge repeats a 22/8 type of line. Lillard makes 1st-team all-rookie. Elliot Williams plays 25 minutes a night. 
  • Projected Record - 34-48
11) Houston Rockets
  • Starting Lineup - Omer Asik (C), Patrick Patterson (PF), Chandler Parsons (SF), James Harden (SG), Jeremy Lin (PG)
  • Bench - Donatas Motiejunas (C)*, Cole Aldrich (C), Greg Smith (C), Marcus Morris (PF)*, Royce White (SF/PF)*, Terrence Jones (SF/PF)*, Lazar Hayward (SF), Carlos Delfino (SG)*, Daequan Cook (SG)*, Toney Douglas (SG/PG)*, Shaun Livington (PG/SG)
  • Overview - Well, I had an entire Houston preview written... and then James Harden arrived. First of all, I absolutely love this deal for Houston simply because they've finally acquired a reasonable #1 option after all of this time. Kevin Martin was moving on anyway, and while Jeremy Lamb and two #1 picks isn't a small price, the value that Harden can and will bring is certainly worth the risk. I'm an unabashed Harden believer going back to when he was at Arizona State, and while I don't think he's a legitimate #1 on a title team, he's one of the best 30 players in the NBA in my opinion, and that's something that Houston was sorely lacking. His new backcourt mate, former Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, provides even more interesting discussion. Was last year a fluke? Will Kevin McHale allow him the freedom to run the pick-and-roll that allowed him to breakout last year? Will the Harden acquisition help or hurt Lin? All questions we have no idea about, to be honest, but I'm intrigued, and I like Jeremy Lin's skillset. Up front, the Rockets are still a bit of a mess. They signed Omer Asik to a big deal in the off-season and while that deal spawned some "huh?" looks from the non-diehard NBA fans, Asik is an elite defender at the center position and those don't grow on trees. He'll need to at least modestly improve on his offensive game to justify the contract, but the defense is extremely valuable. Outside of him? I have no idea who even plays. I'd have to assume Patrick Patterson gets some run after 23 minutes a game a year ago, but he's a jack-of-all-trades type of forward and he'll need to rebound better than his ghastly 7.7 per 40 minutes last year. Other than Patterson, Houston has Motiejunas, Cole Aldrich, and Marcus Morris up front. All 3 guys have really nice pedigrees, but none have done anything in the league, and for Houston to be successful, they'll need production from at least one of them. On the wing (other than Harden), it's another collection of guys we don't know much about. Chandler Parsons is the incumbent at the small forward spot, and he averaged 10 points a game last season. Parsons is versatile, has great size (6'9), and is really skilled so I actually like his game, but he still needs to add strength and improve his awful (55%) free throw shooting. Behind him are two rookies in the person of Royce White and Terrence Jones. Both are combo forwards. Both were very, very good college players. White would've gone 10 spots higher in the draft if not for diagnosed anxiety issues that scared teams off, but he's a powerful, ball-handling forward with pretty big upside if he can stay on the court. Jones is a tweaner, but I think he sticks at power forward in the league. He's got 3-point range and he's skilled with the ball in his hands, but there are motor questions to say the least. When he wanted to play at Kentucky? He dominated, but he also disappeared a lot. The perimeter depth behind Harden and Lin is questionable. Carlos Delfino and Daequan Cook are fringe-like shooting guards who can both excel offensively, but I'm not sure how much you want to play them. Behind Lin, you have Shaun Livingston (who I love, but only irrationally) and Toney Douglas battling for minutes. Livingston is the more versatile choice and the better offensive option, while Douglas is a lockdown defender who shot 32% from the field last season. That's not a misprint. Yikes. I really like some of the parts in Houston, but anything more than 35 wins would be a result of a breakout from Lin and/or some big-time production from the rookie forwards. I don't think you can bank on either one. 
  • X-Factor - Lin. The deep, dark secret of Lin's breakout in New York is that everything was set up for him to do whatever he wanted. I doubt Kevin McHale will give him that kind of freedom. That said, Lin did have a 20 PER and average 15 and 6 in just 27 minutes a game. That's pretty impressive stuff, and even if he's just a 14/6 type of guy, he's worth that money. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - James Harden isn't a mega-star as the #1 option, but he's the best player the Rockets have had since T-Mac and Yao were alive. Jeremy Lin is solid, but unspectacular. Omer Asik gets defensive POY votes and deserves them. Royce White emerges as the best forward on the roster even in the middle of all of the off-court issue.
  • Projected Record 35-47
t9) Golden State Warriors
  • Starting Lineup - Andrew Bogut (C), David Lee (PF), Harrison Barnes (SF), Klay Thompson (SG), Stephen Curry (PG)* - Injured
  • Bench - Andris Biedrins (C)*, Festus Ezeli (C), Carl Landry (PF)*, Jeremy Tyler (PF/C), Draymond Green (PF/SF), Richard Jefferson (SF)*, Brandon Rush (SG/SF)*, Jarrett Jack (PG)*, Charles Jenkins (PG)
  • Overview - I'll say this first. If Andrew Bogut and Steph Curry play 70+ games a piece, the Warriors are making the playoffs. The question is: how likely is that? 10%? 20% maybe? We'll start up front with Bogut, who was acquired in the Monta Ellis trade last season. He is an elite, elite, elite defensive center who ranks among the league leaders in blocks every year, and is a great rebounder. His offensive game has been lacking since he had that freak elbow injury in 2010, but the real concern for Bogut is health. He's only playing a full season once in his entire career, and he's already hurt with an ankle injury that has him questionable for the season opener. Next to him is David Lee, who, on paper, is the perfect counterpart to someone like Bogut. Lee is a pretty awesome offensive player. He's got range on his jumper, handles the ball well, scores around the rim and can pass. He's even a great rebounder. And then... you look at his defense. He's absolutely ghastly on that end of the court, but when you pair him with a healthy Bogut, that could be a potent offense/defense combo. Please don't forget that Lee averaged 20 and 9 last season. That's nothing to sneeze at. On the wing, the Warriors are young, but have tremendous upside. Harrison Barnes was the next "all-everything" recruit to UNC, and played well with Carolina, but has seen his star fall a bit since then. That said, he's still very talented, his a refined offensive game, and could be a very good defender with his strength at the 3. I think he's the epitome of a guy who will be a better pro than college player. Next to him is Klay Thompson, who is this year's darling of the media that everyone thinks is a breakout player... and I agree! After the all-star break last season, he averaged 17 points a game and shot 40% from three in 31 minutes a game. He's not a great athlete at all which limits him defensively, but he's a big-time shooter and can create his own shot efficiently. I'm a fan. The point guard spot should be a strength because Steph Curry is a special player when he's on the court. He's a savant offensively, averaging 18 points and 6 assists a game for his career with elite percentages and ridiculous jump shooting range. He doesn't get into the paint easily because of lack of strength, but his court vision is outstanding and because his shooting is absurd, it opens up the court for him. Defensively? He was shockingly decent last year from what I saw. He's never going to be a good defender because of his athletic limitations, but he's long for a point guard, and the Warriors were better defensively with him on the court than without. The issue is the previously discussed injuries. Curry's ankles are always an issue, and he only played 26 games last season. Let's hope he can stay on the court. The bench is shockingly solid going into the season. Andris Biedrins is a proven NBA center, and while his offensive game is an abomination (seems to be lack of confidence), he's a good rebounder and defender. His foul shooting woes are well-documented, but the issue is that he seems to have morphed his game entirely to avoid going to the line, and he's a worse player for it. Carl Landry and Richard Jefferson wouldn't be a great starting forward tandem, but when they are your backups? That's pretty darn outstanding. And as if that weren't strong enough, the backcourt combo of Jarrett Jack (who I love as a backup and insurance policy) and Brandon Rush are pretty good too. The strength of the team is depth, but don't mistake this for taking away the importance of Bogut and Curry staying on the court. If everything goes well, this could be a 45-win team, but because I can't predict health with any credibility, they land here.
  • X-Factor - Besides health (discussed above), I'd go with Harrison Barnes. I'm pretty high on him, but he'll be asked for a lot, especially on the defensive end, and that's a tall order as a rookie.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Bogut plays 65+ games and is a D-POY candidate. Curry battles ankle issues all year. Klay Thompson averages 18 a game. David Lee leads the league in hilariously bad defensive plays. 
  • Projected Record - 40-42
t9) Minnesota T-Wolves
  • Starting Lineup - Nikola Pekovic (C), Kevin Love (PF)* - Injured, Andrei Kirilenko (SF), Brandon Roy (SG), Ricky Rubio (PG)* - Injured
  • Bench - Greg Stiemsma (C)*, Derrick Williams (PF/SF)*, Dante Cunningham (PF), Chase Budinger (SF/SG)*, Alexey Shved (SG)*, Malcolm Lee (SG), Luke Ridnour (PG)*, JJ Barea (PG/SG)
  • Overview - This ranking is too high. I know it is. And yet, here they stand. I have an affinity for Kevin Love and a love for Ricky Rubio. Come on! Love is a top-10 player in the league at this point, and while he's injured for the start of the season, it appears that it isn't an injury that will limit him going forward. His numbers last year were absurd. 26 points, 13 rebounds, 37% from three, 82% from the line, and a PER of over 25. That's ridiculous! I can't emphasize his prowess enough, but if there was a weakness, it's defensively. He actually improved a lot last year, mostly due to a bump in conditioning and quickness, but he'll never be a rim-protector and he simply can't jump. That said, if he's league-average defensively, that's a win. Rubio is also banged up and injured (are you sensing why I said this ranking is high?) but he's an offensive wizard when he's out there, and I was stunned by how outstanding he is defensively. He's one of the best passers in the league already, and while he can't shoot at all yet (37% on twos, 34% on threes), the way he sees the floor is amazing. Defensively, he's so long for a point guard that he's good on 2-guards, and he has really quick feet. Minnesota was over 7 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Rubio on the court, and he's vastly underrated on that end. Elsewhere, Nik Pekovic was awesome last season. Would you believe me if I told you that he averaged 14 points, 7 rebounds, and posted a 21 PER last season? Did you notice? He scores well around the rim, but his prowess keys off the fact that he has amazing brute strength. Pekovic isn't a big-time rim protector but he does move his feet defensively, and he can rebound. I like him. Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy are teaming up to form the most unlikely wing duo in recent memory. AK47 was brought back from European exile and all reports are that he has reinvested in the game in his time away. Let's not forget that this was a guy who posted 20+ PER in 4 straight years in Utah, was a 5x5 candidate every night, and he is an elite defender. For as "bad" as he was in last year in Utah, he was top-10 among small forwards in PER, and his defensive metrics were still good. He's a very, very good basketball player, and his versatility should help them in the early weeks without Love. Brandon Roy was virtually retired before signing in Minnesota, but the T-Wolves gave him the mid-level as a flier. Roy is only 28(!) years old still and while his knee problems have permanently zapped his athleticism and burst, he could still be an effective player if they allow him to play. At any rate, it's a pure flier, but the upside is warranted. The bench could be a strength as well. Greg Stiemsma was brought in to back up Pekovic, and he was surprisingly effective in Boston last season as a high-energy guy who rebounds and blocks shots. Derrick Williams is the primary backup at both forward spots, and while he's miscast as a 3 in my opinion, the presence of Love really makes him shift there. Chase Budinger is a nice pick-up on the wing coming off a season where he averaged 10 points a game in just 22 minutes, and they also brought in Shved from Europe as a potential contributor. Luke Ridnour is an awesome backup PG, and JJ Barea will see extended minutes while Rubio is out. The depth is there. If Love and Rubio were healthy from the beginning, I think this team would be getting home-court-like buzz, but if they battle for the playoffs and both guys are healthy and productive post all-star break, that's encouraging.
  • X-Factor - Roy. Because Budinger is behind him, the risk isn't too great, but he does hold the key that could take Minnesota to another level. If he's even 80% of Portland Roy, that's huge.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Love averages 13+ rebounds again. Kirilenko gets all-defensive-team buzz. Roy plays 60 games of productive basketball. Pekovic repeats last year's performance over a full season. Derrick Williams gets traded. 
  • Projected Record - 40-42
8) Dallas Mavericks
  • Starting Lineup - Chris Kaman (C), Dirk Nowitzki (PF)* - Injured, Shawn Marion (SF), OJ Mayo (SG), Darren Collison (PG)
  • Bench - Bernard James (C), Eddy Curry (C), Elton Brand (PF/C)*, Brandan Wright (PF), Vince Carter (SF)*, Jae Crowder (SF), Dahntay Jones (SG)*, Dominique Jones (SG), Rodrique Beaubois (PG)*, Jared Cunningham (PG)
  • Overview - Disclaimer first. Dirk has to play the majority of the year for this ranking to make any sense. He's out for the beginning of the season with a knee issue, but he's already riding a bike and I'm encouraged by his recovery. On the court, Dirk was still tremendous last season, averaging 22 points a night even with his minutes at a career-low. His defensive IQ has improved over the years to off-set a drop in athleticism, but this is still not a strength of his game (to be kind). Outside of Dirk, depth is the main strength for Dallas. Elton Brand was brought in, and if he's your 6th man, that's absolutely outstanding. He's not the same player as he was earlier in his career, but he still averaged 11 and 7 with a PER over 18 last season. Chris Kaman is a key cog in this year's Mavs season, and he's a solid player. You can write in 13 points and 8 boards for Kaman, and while he's not a defensive presence, he's still an average center at worst. On the wing, Shawn Marion, OJ Mayo, and Vince Carter are splitting the minutes 3 ways. Marion is the guy you can count on among those 3 and he'll give you 10 or 11 points, 8 rebounds, play good defense, and he doesn't hurt you anywhere on the court. It's a great insurance policy to have for the other two guys. I'm actually very high on OJ Mayo as he finally gets a change of scenery. This is a career 15-point-a-game scorer who could be a defensive presence in certain situations. He's too small to guard the Kobe Bryants of the world and not quite quick enough to stay with Ty Lawson or someone of that ilk, but he's one of the best matchups for guys like Westbrook and Rose, because he's physical and just quick enough to stay in front. He's a good ball-handler as well, and I think Dallas should use him to create offense at times. Vince Carter is Vince Carter. He's brittle at 35 years, and no one enjoys watching him play. At the same time, he can still shoot, is an underrated passer, and even defends well when he wants to. He can be a valuable piece, but not someone you want to rely on. The guy with the biggest pressure on this team? I'd say Darren Collison. He's the undisputed guy at the point, and when Deron Williams balked at coming back home, Collison became a crucial get. I've always been high on him because of his on-ball defense, but Collison's offense leaves a lot to be desired. He's probably a league-average player at this point, and shouldn't be counted on for much more. The rest of the bench includes Brandan Wright (who actually had a good year last year), Dahntay Jones, Eddy Curry and Rodrique Beaubois. Delonte West easily would've been the best player other than Brand on the bench, but he's a documented head-case who was suspended twice this preseason before being waived on Monday. Beaubois has shown flashes but never done anything. Eddy Curry is enormous and can't be relied on. Dahntay Jones is an all-defense, no-offense vet... on a team that needs offense and not defense. Cheers! 
  • X-Factor - Other than Nowitzki's health, I think it's Mayo. Can he be a #2 option? They're going to need 15-17 points a night out of him at a minimum, and I think he can give them that, but will it be efficient? The scenery change should do good things, and I think he's a guy that may thrive with more responsibility to shoulder.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Dirk plays 70 games. Mayo averages 17-18 points a game. Vince Carter finally falls the rest of the way off of the cliff. Elton Brand averages a double-double until Dirk returns. 
  • Projected Record - 42-40
7) Memphis Grizzlies
  • Starting Lineup - Marc Gasol (C), Zach Randolph (PF), Rudy Gay (SF), Tony Allen (SG), Mike Conley (PG)
  • Bench - Hamed Haddadi (C), Marreese Speights (PF/C)*, Darrell Arthur (PF)*, Quincy Pondexter (SF)*, Wayne Ellington (SG), Josh Selby (SG), Jerryd Bayless (SG/PG)*, Tony Wroten (PG/SG)*
  • Overview - You're probably shocked to see the Grizz this low, and I'm probably the only one who feels this way. Here we go! Marc Gasol has emerged as an elite center in this league and is the best player on this team at this point. He averaged 15 and 9 last year to go along with 1.9 blocks, and he's an outstanding team defender. He'll never be a great leaper or athlete, but his positioning is tremendous and he changes shots on that end. At age 27, this is his prime and I'd expect nothing worse than a repeat of last year's great campaign. Next to him, Zach Randolph took a step back last season. He battled knee trouble all year, and his averages fell to 12 points and 8 boards a game. He's probably still better than that if he's healthy but at age 31 and with a lot of miles, I don't think he's "Z-BO!" anymore and without him dominating, this isn't the same team that made that great playoff run a couple years ago. Rudy Gay is an enigma to me... still. He had the "best" year of his career last year, averaging 19 points and 6 rebounds with a PER near 18, but did he wow you? At age 26, I don't think the "peak" for Gay is really coming and this is kind of what he is. He doesn't generate efficient offense, because he relies on his average jump shot too much, and he doesn't play elite defense (like his athleticism would suggest) because he doesn't position himself well, and he's lazy at times. In fact, Memphis was over 6 points per 100 possessions worse defensively with him on the court last season, and that's a flaming indictment. I'm not trying to say that Gay is a bad player, because that would be ludicrous, but he isn't making a leap, and he is what he is as a 18-point/7-rebound guy. I do enjoy this backcourt a lot. Tony Allen is one of the best defenders in the entire league, and he's the best on-ball 2-guard in the NBA. His offense came back to Earth after a crazy 2010-11, but he was still solid enough (10 points, 80% free throw shooting) to justify his big-time minutes as the defensive stopper. At the point, Mike Conley is one of my favorite players in the league. He's improved every season, averaged 13 and 7 last season as the 4th option, and he's great at the rim. In addition, he's an awesome on-ball defender (teaming with Allen, my goodness) and shot 37% on threes last year. He's never going to be elite, but he's great at taking care of the ball, plays good D, makes threes, and isn't bad at anything. Very solid. The bench has long been a weakness of Memphis, but this year, it may be solid. Darrell Arthur (back from injury) and Marreese Speights team up to provide some decent help to Z-Bo and Gasol. In addition, Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless provided some wing depth and flexibility with good defense from Pondexter and explosive scoring from Bayless. The issue, for me, is the backup point guard spot, as I don't trust Josh Selby at all, and Tony Wroten is a rookie "upside" guy who no one is sure can play the point in the NBA. Fortunately, Mike Conley has played 82, 80, 81 and 62 (lockout-shortened) games in the last 4 seasons. I like this team, but just not as much as everyone else does. 
  • X-Factor - Randolph. If he's the guy from the 2010-11 season, this projection is laughably low, but if he doesn't come back after a down 2011-12, Memphis isn't the same team.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Marc Gasol is the 2nd-team All-NBA center (yes, I'm talking to you, Andrew Bynum). Tony Allen comes in top-3 in D-POY voting. The Grizz miss OJ Mayo.
  • Projected Record - 46-36
6) Utah Jazz
  • Starting Lineup - Al Jefferson (C), Paul Millsap (PF), Marvin Williams (SF), Gordon Hayward (SG), Mo Williams (PG)
  • Bench - Enes Kanter (C)*, Derrick Favors (PF/C)*, DeMarre Carroll (SF), Jeremy Evans (SF/PF), Randy Foye (SG)*, Alec Burks (SG), Raja Bell (SG), Jamaal Tinsley (PG)*, Earl Watson (PG)
  • Overview - Here's my limb for the season in the West. I'm all-in on Utah. The depth of their quality size is absolutely unmatched in the league right now. Al Jefferson is a monster and he's posted a 19+ PER each of the last 5 seasons. In 2012, he put up a 19 point, 10 rebound, 1.7 block per game stat line, and is a very valuable asset. The only knock on Big Al is his defense, but after last year where he posted his best advanced metrics of his career on that end of the court, he may not be the huge liability that he used to be. Next to him, Paul Millsap is another stat-stuffing beast. He had the best year of his career last season (17 points, 9 boards, 21.8 PER) and is in the middle of his prime at age 27. He's a great rebounder for his size and actually led the entire league in steals per 40 minutes in the frontcourt. He has great hands and instincts, and is a high-energy complement to Jefferson's slower, more laid back style. The primary backup at both spots is former #2 overall pick Derrick Favors. Favors took a big step in year two as he bumped his per-40 minute averages up to 17 and 12, and established himself as an absolute defensive force. The defensive prowess is a nice shake-up behind Jefferson and that's a great fit, but Favors' offensive game is what is lacking. It is pretty tough to put up a 17 PER while being an outright bad offensive player, but Favors did it. He shot less than 30% outside of the basket area, and still doesn't have a go-to move to get buckets. At any rate, at only 21 years old and in year three, I'd expect yet another jump in production. Notice how we haven't even MENTIONED last year's #3 overall pick, Enes Kanter. He's the 4th big on this team, and was very solid as a rookie last year. First, I'd question the logic in taking Kanter in that spot with the other 3 bigs around, but if we get past that, Kanter had per-40 minute averages of 14 and 12 last season as a 19-year-old. That's insane. He's a very, very good rebounder and has a big, NBA body to bang with under the glass. The downside to Kanter is that while he has a decent shooting touch, he rarely utilizes it, and because he's not a good finisher at this stage, he needs to use the mid-range jumper more. Now that we've established their insane depth up front... the wing backcourt/wing spots aren't so special. Marvin Williams moves over from Atlanta, and while I consider myself to be a Marvin expert (lol), he's a guy who doesn't inspire too much awe and excitement. I've always thought Marvin was given a raw deal when it came to expectation vs. production and the numbers bear that out. He's never posted a PER less than 13 as a full-time starter, and that number has even risen to around 16 in a couple of seasons (including last year). After back surgery, he moved more fluidly, and that allowed for his highest rebound rate since his rookie season, while simultaneously posting a ridiculously low/good turnover rate of 6.1. Marvin is also an above-average defender with great length, and this allows him to be an effective player overall. He won't wow you but he's unquestionably an upgrade over the pu pu platter that Utah has trotted out in the past. At the 2-guard spot, I thoroughly enjoy Gordon Hayward. He's on virtually every "breakout" list for this season that I've seen, and I'm on board. I'd expect 13-15 points a night with efficient shooting numbers, and a solid assist rate for a wing. He's a nice player. Mo Williams arrives to be the starting point guard, and while that's worrisome (because he isn't a natural 1), Mo's been a nice player for his entire career and he'll score effectively enough to warrant the minutes. He's an exceptional free throw shooter, and even defends at an average level, but is another guy who's expectations (the former #2 option next to Lebron doesn't help) got out of control. The bench (other than Favors and Kanter) is interesting. Alec Burks (former 1st-round pick) and Randy Foye will get the majority of the wing minutes, and along with Jeremy Evans, that's going to be a point of emphasis here. Can they steal effective minutes? Jamaal Tinsley was pretty bad at times last year, and he and Earl Watson are "competing" for backup point guard minutes unless they elect to try Randy Foye there. That's a weakness. Overall, I think the brute force of Utah in a now-undersized league can carry them to regular season success, and the play of Marvin/Hayward will surprise some people.
  • X-Factor - Favors. If he makes an additional leap, they're going to be hard-pressed to keep him on the bench. He adds a unique defensive impact that Jefferson and Millsap can't match, and they may need a rim protector like that at some point.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Hayward gets most improved player consideration. Mo Williams averages 15+ points a night. Al Jefferson averages 20 and 10... again.
  • Projected Record - 47-35
5) Los Angeles Clippers
  • Starting Lineup - DeAndre Jordan (C), Blake Griffin (PF), Caron Butler (SF), Chauncey Billups (SG), Chris Paul (PG)
  • Bench - Ronny Turiaf (C)*, Ryan Hollins (C), Lamar Odom (PF)*, Trey Thompkins (PF), Grant Hill (SF)*, Matt Barnes (SF)*, Travis Leslie (SG/SF), Jamal Crawford (SG/PG)*, Willie Green (SG), Eric Bledsoe (PG)*
  • Overview - So. Many. Players. That's the theme of the season for the Clippers to me. I don't really grasp the rationale of how Butler/Odom/Hill/Barnes are all needed and what they plan to do in the backcourt with Billups/Crawford/Bledsoe. At any rate, Chris Paul is the best point guard on the planet and if anyone can implement all of these guys, it's him. Paul posted a ludicrous PER of 27.09 last season (2nd in the league to Lebron) and averaged 20 points and 9 assists a game with 48/37/86 percentages. He's an absolute monster and there's not a lot else I need to say about that. Blake Griffin is his running mate, and there's a lot more analysis here. First, Blake did make a marked improvement from year one to year two. His scoring rate and rebounding rate actually lowered (just wait), but his shooting percentages increased exponentially as his usage rate decreased and his turnover rate decreased. In short, he's more efficient now. Oh, and he's still an unbelievable athletic specimen with power and explosiveness. That's the good part. The bad part? He still doesn't defend really at all, and there's no excuse for that with his physical gifts. Additionally, he's so bad at the free throw line that his true shooting percentage can't climb over 55%, and that's ridiculous for a guy who can finish how he does. He still takes too many jump shots for my liking at the current moment, but I can understand him attempting to adjust gradually to what will become declining athleticism at some point. He was better in year two on jumpers, and that's encouraging. Blake is a tremendous player, but the frustration is that he should be much more. The supporting cast is... interesting. Deandre Jordan got paid, and people expected a big leap from him that never really came. He did have the best statistical season of his career (hello Chris Paul!), but he can't handle the ball at all, he can't shoot at all, and his free throw exploits are well-documented. LAC couldn't play him in crunch time last year, and that may repeat itself. Behind him, they are going with Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins, and while I'm a Turiaf fan, it's not ideal to have him as the primary backup center on a Western playoff team. The wing is where it gets fun. Lamar Odom fell off the planet last year (9.26 PER?!?) in Dallas, but the move to LA, where he loves to be, can only help him. Caron Butler is another year older is in steady decline at 31 years old, and while he's a decent player, you don't want him as your primary small forward option. Grant Hill was brought in to provide support and defense, but do you really want to rely on Grant while he's away from the Phoenix training staff at age 40? I love him, and I always have, but that's a risk. In the backcourt, it's a battle between Chauncey Billups, Jamal Crawford, and Eric Bledsoe for minutes. All 3 guys are not point guards, all 3 guys can't really defend 2-guards (Bledsoe plays D but is undersized), and all 3 guys need the ball in their hands... except the ball needs to be in Chris Paul's hands at all times. Great job, Clippers front office! Way to assemble a supporting cast! At any rate, I think Crawford is probably (gasp), the best fit to play with Paul because he's the best scorer, but my money says that Billups plays in crunch time. 
  • X-Factor - Jordan. There's nothing of value behind DeAndre Jordan and last year's support (Reggie Evans) is gone. They need Jordan to be on the court and effective.
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Blake averages 20 and 10 again, but leaves you wanting more. Grant Hill is the best small forward on the team... but only plays 50-ish games. Lamar Odom is out of the rotation by Christmas and never returns.
  • Projected Record - 50-32
4) Denver Nuggets
  • Starting Lineup - JaVale McGee (C), Kenneth Faried (PF), Danilo Gallinari (SF), Andre Iguodala (SG), Ty Lawson (PG)
  • Bench - Kosta Koufos (C)*, Timofey Mozgov (C), Anthony Randolph (PF), Wilson Chandler (SF)*, Jordan Hamilton (SF), Quincy Miller (SF), Corey Brewer (SG/SF)*, Andre Miller (PG/SG)*, Evan Fournier (SG), Julyan Stone (PG)
  • Overview - Everyone is all-in on Denver, and with good reason. They are legitimately deep with talented players, have a new, impact-type player in Iguodala, and most people expect guys like Kenneth Faried to make a leap. First, the front-court is pretty solid. JaVale McGee isn't a guy I'd ever call "solid" individually simply because of the loose cannon persona that he has. That said, he averaged 11 points, 8 boards, and 2 blocks a game with a PER of 20 in only 25 minutes a night. If you bump that up to 30-35 minutes, that's in the neighborhood of 16/10/3 and that's an elite center in today's league. McGee isn't somebody I'd ever want to trust, but there's no doubting his talent and ability. Next to him is 2nd-year beast power forward Kenneth Faried. After leading the country in rebounding multiple times in college, Faried averaged 14 rebounds per 40 minutes as a rookie and had a ludicrous 22 PER as a 21 year old in the Western Conference. I absolutely love him, and while there's a ceiling on any "star" potential, I think he averages 10+ boards a game this year even if minutes tick up just a touch, and his energy could have a positive impact on McGee. Behind them, Koufos played the best ball of his career last season, going for nice scoring/rebounding rates in limited minutes, and showing off a nice touch around the rim. He's a very nice backup center, and when teamed with Mozgov as the 3rd option, that's pretty deep. In the other forward spot is Danilo Gallinari, who is one of the best shooters in the league. There was a ton of buzz when he was on the Knicks, and after moving to Denver in the Carmelo deal, there's been steady improvement on Gallinari, but he certainly isn't a star. He averaged 15 and 5 last season and that's about what I'd expect this year. Wilson Chandler is the back-up swingman and should be a pretty good 6th/7th men in the league as a potent scorer off the bench. In the backcourt, Ty Lawson returns after his breakout season in 2012 where he went off for 16 points, 7 assists, and 1.3 steals a game with great shooting percentages. Behind him? Oh, just Andre Miller, who I still think is a top-20 point guard in the league, and is a fantastic steadying influence. The big-time addition is Andre Iguodala, who is playing out-of-position at the 2-guard spot, should provide elite wing defense, the ability to score at a decent rate, and should help hide Gallinari's defense. Sounds like a lot of praise, right? Well, the downside of Denver contains a couple of things. First, there is no "star" on this team. The NBA, moreso than any other league, is star-driven, and there isn't a single top-20 guy on this roster. We've seen "depth" and "talent" teams do well in the league in recent years, but the only one that was a real title contender was the 2004 Pistons, and they were elite defensively. Secondly, as mentioned above, JaVale McGee is prominently involved here, and that should scare anyone. Third, there isn't a single traditional 2-guard on this roster, which shouldn't be a huge problem given Iguodala's defensive prowess, but other than him, Corey Brewer is it. Good luck. I like Denver and they should be a unanimous "league pass" team to tune into, but I think the ceiling is 55 wins and a 3-4 seed. 
  • X-Factor - It's gotta be McGee for the reasons addressed above, but if I had to pick another one, it's Gallinari. He's really the only shooter on the wing because that's not a strength of Iguodala or Chandler, so if he's not healthy, people will pack in the defense in the half-court. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Kenneth Faried averages 11+ rebounds a night. Andre Miller-to-JaVale McGee will produce the most ridiculous alley-oop of the season. 
  • Projected Record - 53-29
3) Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Starting Lineup - Kendrick Perkins (C), Serge Ibaka (PF), Kevin Durant (SF), Thabo Sefolosha (SG), Russell Westbrook (PG)
  • Bench - Hasheem Thabeet (C), Nick Collison (PF/C)*, Perry Jones (PF/SF), Jeremy Lamb (SF/SG)*, Kevin Martin (SG)*, Eric Maynor (PG)*, Reggie Jackson (PG/SG)*
  • Overview - The defending Western Conference champs were set to return virtually in tact with a couple of minor tweaks... until Saturday night, when Sam Presti dealt James Harden and company to the Rockets (which also singlehandedly made me re-write 2 different team previews!). We'll tackle the Harden deal in a second, but I want to point out one thing in reference to any reports of the Thunder's demise. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are exceptionally good at basketball. In this era of overreaction theater, I've seen things like "are the Thunder a fringe playoff team?!?" and "Can the Thunder survive without Harden!?"... I'm here to tell you that both of those statements are crazy. First, Kevin Durant is either the 2nd or 3rd best player in the world (depending on how you feel about Dwight Howard) and that hasn't changed. He's a lock to be top-3 in the league in scoring, he's going to average 8 boards a game, he's going to shoot on around a 48/40/85 level (which is absurd), and he's only 24 years old. In the case of Westbrook, pencil in 24/5/5 with improving defense, and even more freedom to run the show on the perimeter. Basically, the drop-off can only go so far when these guys are around. That brings us back to Harden, and while I absolutely love his game (see the preview for Houston above), his departure isn't going to murder this team at all. I'll disclose that, originally, I had the Thunder in the #1 spot in this preview and, as you can see, they are now third. There is a negative connotation to the trade for this season. But let's breathe, people! Coming back in the Harden trade, OKC acquired Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb (along with 2 first-rounders) and both guys are interesting to discuss. Kevin Martin was honestly born to be a sixth man in the NBA in my opinion. He's a career 18-point-a-game scorer who does little else in the way of offense, but is a reasonable defender, and could serve perfectly in a spark plug role off the bench. Lamb was a 1st-rounder in this year's draft and while he tends to coast from what I've seen, he has the tools to be elite defensively if he wanted to be. I actually like his game quite a bit, and that's a nice asset going forward. The biggest changes from Harden to Martin are defensively and with ball-handling responsibilities. Harden basically morphed into OKC's creator at times, and even with Westbrook on the floor, Harden had the ball in his hands a ton so that he could deploy his unique and effective skills. The pressure of that role shifts to Westbrook, and in addition to that, the roles of Eric Maynor and/or Reggie Jackson as backup PG's become magnified since Martin isn't going to be able to take on that creator role. Can't wait to see what transpires. The front-court is unchanged for OKC other than the inclusion of Cole Aldrich in the Harden deal. Serge Ibaka is still insanely raw, but the guy led the league in blocks, and he's shown himself able to knock down mid-range jump shots. Kendrick Perkins is violently overpaid, but you won't find many better post defenders, and he's still a valuable piece despite the contract. Behind them is Nick Collison, a role player extraordinaire that I love watching play. He's a great pick-and-roll defender, can score a little bit when necessary, and rebounds the ball with vigor. I'm a fan. What does it all mean for OKC? The big two carry them to 45+ wins virtually by themselves, and with the fact that a) Kevin Martin is actually pretty good, b) Ibaka has another year under his belt and c) Eric Maynor can handle some additional responsibility, I'm giving them 54 wins and the 3-seed. Discuss.
  • X-Factor - Ibaka. Do we really know what he is? He played 27 minutes a game last season, couldn't crack the court on the Spanish national team, and has never averaged double-figure points. He did average a ludicrous 3.7 blocks last season (in just those 27 minutes by the way) and provide a solid rebound rate, but OKC can make another leap if Ibaka proves himself a more consistent offensive player and can stay on the floor for more minutes. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Durant goes 50-40-90 in the percentages. The Harden deal is lamented for killing their season (and rightfully so), but Kevin Martin actually plays well, and Jeremy Lamb shows himself to be a legitimate asset going forward. Ibaka leads the league in blocks with 4+ per game. 
  • Projected Record 54-28
2) Los Angeles Lakers
  • Starting Lineup - Dwight Howard (C), Pau Gasol (PF), Metta World Peace (SF), Kobe Bryant (SG), Steve Nash (PG)
  • Bench - Jordan Hill (C/PF)*, Antawn Jamison (PF)*, Earl Clark (PF), Devin Ebanks (SF), Jodie Meeks (SG)*, Andrew Goudelock (SG), Steve Blake (PG)*, Darius Morris (PG/SG), Chris Duhon (PG)
  • Overview - Well, we are absolutely not short of material here. Dwight Howard made an absolute mockery of the free-agent/trade process that landed him in LA, but that's not worth covering here so let's stay on court. With that said, Dwight Howard is a top-3 player in the NBA and unquestionably the best big man on the planet. He's an elite defender, an elite rebounder, probably the best athlete at center in the world, and the PERFECT guy to play on the back-end to cover up for Nash and Kobe's "Ole!" perimeter defense. Basically, they robbed a bank when they get him for the price of Bynum, McRoberts, and 2 bad picks. It's a coup. The other major acquisition was the sign-and-trade that brought in Steve Nash for a couple of #1's. Nash isn't quite the guy that was the MVP from an athletic standpoint, but his numbers in 2011-12 were unbelievably good and he's an offensive savant. 13 points, 11 assists, 49% FG, 91% FT, 60% true shooting and a PER over 20. He's absolutely tremendous, and while he can't guard anybody, he provides the ball-handler/distributor/shooter that this team desperately needed at the point. Oh, did I mention that LA still has Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant? Pau is an unquestioned top-20 player in the league that suddenly has the pressure taken off of him, and you can pencil him in for 16-18 points, 9-10 boards, and a PER north of 20. Kobe isn't KOBE (capital letters) anymore at age 34, but he's still an elite offensive player by any measure, suddenly has a better offensive cast to shoulder some of the burden, and won't murder you on defense despite the drastic dip in his on-ball skills in recent years. The 5th member of the starting lineup, Metta World Peace aka Ron Artest, has seen his production steadily decline each of the last few seasons, but with zero offensive responsibility and Nash to create open looks for him, that helps on that end, and he is still a very good one-on-one defender and an X-factor to matchups with Durant and/or Lebron. If this entire preview was based on starting lineups, the Lakers would be the best team in the NBA and a 70-win contender... alas, it's not. The bench is flat-out bad. Antawn Jamison was brought in as the 6th man, and while that sounds awesome, he's coming off the worst year of his career and at age 36, it isn't going to get better. In addition, his defense is legendarily bad at this point and they'll need to hide him next to Howard as much as possible. Outside of that, the best bench guys are Steve Blake and Jodie Meeks. Eesh. I actually like Blake and he's a fine backup, but with Meeks at 6'4 (if that), they are very short-handed on the wing defensively and don't really have a legitimate backup for Artest. Jordan Hill, Earl Clark, and Devin Ebanks all figure to get some real minutes, and that should scare any Lakers fan, especially considering the age of the corps guys (mainly Kobe and Nash). With zero injuries to the Big Four, the bench may not murder them, but it's pretty hard to expect 75+ games from Kobe and Nash and it's ugly in a hurry.
  • X-Factor - Cohesion. Most, if not all, teams in this preview have a "breakout" candidate that could make or break their season. For the Lakers, they don't need that guy because they have 4 legitimate all-stars. That said, Dwight Howard is banged up and missed a lot of training camp, Kobe has never played with a point guard like Nash, and they'll all need time to gain trust. I actually assume the Lakers will be my "favorite" in the West by the time the playoffs hit, but if there's any snags, they won't have homecourt and that will matter. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Dwight Howard will play 80 games, average 18/15/3, and win the defensive POY award. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant will have the "worst" statistical seasons in the last 10 years. One of the "Big Four" will miss at least 20 games and the bench will torpedo them a bit after a blistering start. 
  • Projected Record - 57-25
1) San Antonio Spurs
  • Starting Lineup - Boris Diaw (C/PF), Tim Duncan (PF/C), Kawhi Leonard (SF), Danny Green (SG), Tony Parker (PG)
  • Bench - Tiago Splitter (C)*, DeJuan Blair (PF/C)*, Matt Bonner (PF), Stephen Jackson (SF)*, Gary Neal (SG), Manu Ginobili (SG)*, Nando de Colo (SG), Patty Mills (PG)*, Cory Joseph (PG)
  • Overview - My 15-year love affair with the Tim Duncan-led Spurs continues. They return the exact same team that had the best record in the West last year with the only change being Nando de Colo instead of James Anderson. Not too inspiring, but consider these things: 1) Ginobili played only 34 games last year, 2) Boris Diaw is there for the full season was actually (gasp) interested and is an upgrade over Matt Bonner, and 3) Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and Danny Green are all young guys who one could reasonably improvement from. Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan and while he's not the same athlete and he's not as dominant as he used to be, he had a PER of nearly 23 last season, still scores at a great rate (22 points per 40 minutes), and is one of smartest players on Earth. I love him. Tony Parker is in his prime and had the best year of his career in 2011-12. I would expect a similar performance this year, and if San Antonio can get a near-full season from Ginobili, they have one of the top-5 backcourts in the league. Green and Leonard form a young, defensive-minded wing combo, and with a guy like Stephen Jackson off the bench and Ginobili, that's really nice. The only real question mark is who gets the minutes behind Tony Parker, but San Antonio could easily use Ginobili as the backup point guard, and I actually like Patty Mills a lot. In short, with reasonable injury luck, there's no way the Spurs don't win 50 games, and they could easily be the best team in the West.
  • X-Factor - Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter in a tie. Leonard was tremendous last year as a rookie mid-1st round pick. Basketball diehards (like myself) absolutely love him for his elite defensive abilities, and while his numbers don't jump out at you, he still managed to post a PER near 17 as a 20 year old rookie. If he progresses a bit offensively, we could be looking at a real stand-out on the wing for San Antonio and their best wing defender since Bruce Bowen left. Splitter is a bit of an enigma, a guy with huge draft pedigree that stayed in Brazil forever and is actually 27 years old. That said, his PER last season was over 20 (!) and while he only played 19 minutes a night for the season, he averaged 10 points, 5 rebounds and nearly a block per game. Defensively, he's not stellar, but if he posts the same sort of per-minute numbers this year in an increased role? Big things on the way. 
  • Bold Prediction(s) - Leonard makes the 1st-team All-defense team. Ginobili plays 60+ games. Boris Diaw makes everyone forget the "Fat Boris Diaw" era in Charlotte. 
  • Projected Record - 60-22

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The spurs suck