For hoops junkies like myself, the NBA season can't start soon enough. Sure, I am winless in my fantasy football league and my Los Angeles Dodgers are on the outside looking in of the wildcard race with three games to play. But these two travesties of the American sports landscape are not the only reasons why I am excited for the new season of NBA basketball.
For one, The Clippers are coming off their best season ever, and the NBA as a whole is a terrific product with an excess of young talent. There's a generation of veteran players, some still playing at a high level, others holding on for a chance to win an elusive title. There are great rivalries, both long standing and more recent. There's been player movement, and even the formation of a "super team" or two. There will be surprise teams this season, just as there will no doubt be teams that disappoint. Former Clippers on new teams, former Clippers back for a second go round. Teams we love to hate and teams we hate loving. The draft surprises, the draft busts. The comeback/surprise player of the year. March Madness and how college players draft stock can change, possibly altering the course of an NBA franchise for better or worse and for years to come. Arguing about fines for flopping. Fans calling for a coach's head after a 3 game losing streak in December. The screeching of sneakers on the hardwood, the big time finishes at the rim, and with any luck, a sea of red t-shirts at Staples Center come May. I love all of it, and I truly can't wait.
The preseason tips on October 5 in Istanbul, with the Clips opening up the following night in Las Vegas. As such I thought it an apropos time for a Pacific Division preview and preseason rankings. So without further ado...
5. Sacramento Kings
2011-2012 record- (22-44)
Record vs Clippers- (0-3)
Head coach: Keith Smart
The Sacramento, soon to be Anaheim, unless they stay in Sacramento, which looks likely/not likely Kings! Go Maloofs!
Things haven't been pretty sad for California's northern-most (at least for the time being) NBA Franchise. It wasn't all that long ago that fans were bringing cowbell hysteria to Arco arena with legitimate hopes of bringing a title to Sac-town, but those days are long gone. The Kings are very young, and have a serious logjam of undersized scoring guards in the backcourt. Jimmer Fredette (6'2) Isaiah Thomas (5'9) Marcus Thornton (6'4). Joining that mix is the newly signed Aaron Brooks who is 6'0 at best. On top of that the Kings still have Tyreke Evans, perhaps the most positionally challenged player in the league. Last season the Kings had no idea how to use Evans, who began his career as 1/2 combo guard and now finds himself getting minutes at small forward.
The Kings do have some depth at the power forward position. They re-signed Jason Thompson, who was solid for them last season. They acquired James Johnson from Orlando, and landed highly touted prospect Thomas Robinson in the draft. That's a lot of guys to battle with and throw fouls at the glut of all star power forwards in the conference. These players are joined in the front-court by DeMarcus Cousins, a very big, strong, and immature player oozing with potential. Cousins, in just his second year in the league averaged over 18 points and 11 boards a game last season. He is hot headed and very prone to foul trouble, but he's also very young at just 22 years of age. If Thomas Robinson pans out, the Kings front-court could be a very imposing force in the years to come, and could give some teams a lot of trouble this season.
The Kings are still half a mess, and they have a lot of work to do. That said, Cousins, Robinson, and last year's surprise second round pick Thomas offer a glimmer of hope for Kings fans for the future. The Kings are still the cellar dwellers of the pacific division, but should continue on the improvement they showed under new coach Keith Smart. Prediction for 2012-2013 (31-51)
4. Phoenix Suns
2011-2012 Record- 33-33
Record Vs Clippers- 3-1
Head Coach: Alvin Gentry
The Suns really had no business being in playoff contention last season, yet somehow they managed to finish .500 and just 3 games out of the 8 seed in the Western Conference. They frustratingly (for Clipper fans) won 3 out of four against the Clippers for the second year in a row. Coming into 2012-2013, the Suns will have a whole new look. Steve Nash and Grant Hill have both found new homes elsewhere in the division, and stretch big man Channing Frye was just lost for the season after being diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Hustling big man Robin Lopez was traded away as part of a three team trade, with the Suns acquiring former lottery pick and presumed draft bust Wesley Johnson from Minnesota.
The Suns struck out on restricted free agent Eric Gordon this summer, however they did did manage to sign former Steve Nash protege Goran Dragic in free agency, who is coming off two very solid seasons in Houston. The Suns
also signed free agent swingman Michael Beasley, an incredibly talented and stunningly inconsistent player, but one who still has some upside. The Suns acquired UNC point guard Kendall Marshall in the draft, and signed amnesty victim Luis Scola. They also added veteran big man Jermaine O'Neal to the mix. These new faces for the Suns will be joined by returning players Jared Dudley, Marcin "The Polish Hammer" Gortat, and athletic freak Shannon Brown. Former Clippers Ike Diogu, Sebastian Telfair, and Solomon Jones will also be in camp for the Suns.
Its hard to know what to expect from this group with the departure of the brilliant Nash, but I don't see them being a pushover by any means. Gortat, Scola, Beasley, Dragic, Dudley- theres some firepower on the roster, but it's yet to be determined if they will be able to stop anyone from scoring this season. They will have nights where they get hot and probably knock off some good teams, but have all the makings of a very inconsistent team. This should be the year the Clippers re-take control of the season series. This is a patchwork roster, and one that will be on the outside looking in of the playoff race again this season. Still, it is a team I will definitely tune in to watch on the ol' League Pass this season. Prediction for 2012-2013: (37-45)
3. Golden State Warriors:
2011-2012 Record: (23-43)
Record Vs Clippers: 2-2
Head Coach: Mark Jackson
It's not really an easy thing to rank teams in the preseason, particularly when there are significant new player signings. These are paper rankings. No team reflects this more than the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors will have a new look in 2012-13, the first full season without fan favorite Monta Ellis, shipped to Milwaukee last season for oft injured but highly talented Aussie center Andrew Bogut. Add to that the fact that these Warriors shut down and called it a season with 10 games to go last year in an effort to save their top 7 protected draft pick. They were successful in their efforts and landed University of North Carolina star Harrison Barnes at 7, which seems to be a perfect fit for the Warriors who were in need of a small forward with length.
For the Warriors, shipping out Ellis was a statement that they are committed to playing Stephen Curry at the point, a position I think he is more than capable of playing (at least at the offensive end of the floor). Curry has serious ankle issues, and the Warriors wisely traded for Jarrett Jack as a backup/insurance policy. Jack can score and spent all last season as the starting point for an underrated New Orleans team that might have been quite good had Eric Gordon not gotten hurt. Jack also gives Mark Jackson the ability to play small and move Curry to shooting guard where he is an elite three point shooter and plays terrific off the ball making defenders chase him through screens.
Last season, first round pick Klay Thompson turned out to be a stud, and he looked great again in summer league, giving the Warriors their answer at the shooting guard spot. David Lee returns to play the power forward position, where he will be backed up this season by Carl Landry, who was signed in free agency. Golden State re-signed Brandon Rush, ensuring that this team will have no lack of shooting on the perimeter at any point in a 48 minute contest this year. The team still has Andris Biedrins as a backup center, as well as rookie 1st rd pick Festus Ezili (who is likely to be more of a project player than a regular contributor, but an extra big all the same). Rookie Barnes will be splitting minutes with veteran Richard Jefferson, who is still a serviceable wing and is coming off of consecutive seasons shooting above 40% from beyond the arc.
On paper, these Warriors should be vastly improved from last season, and are a very deep team. A healthy Bogut and Curry, a sophmore improvement from Klay Thompson, and these Warriors could spell trouble in the postseason for a number of teams. The success of this team is dependent on some big "ifs", and no team ever won a game on paper, but Golden State has a great chance of taking the 8 seed in the West this year. 2012-2013 prediction: (42-40)
2. Los Angeles Clippers
2011-2012 Record 40-26
Record vs Clippers: UNDEFEATED
Head Coach: Vinny Del Negro
I wrote a way too lengthy season preview of this Clippers team back in August, and those of you who feel so compelled (and have a few hours to kill) can check that out HERE. For a slightly less wordy outlook, I direct
you to the paragraphs below.
Following up on the best season in franchise history, the Clippers come into the 2012-2013 season with a new found respect from opposing teams and fan bases. But with that new found respect comes increased expectations. The Clippers are considered to be among the elite teams in the Western Conference, and a finish outside the top 5 (they were a 5 seed last season) would be considered a serious disappointment this year. What makes The Clippers good? Chris Paul, quite frankly. Paul is the best point guard in the league, and a bonafide superstar. His sidekick, Blake Griffin is not half bad himself, and should continue to improve in his third full season. The pick and roll game between these two in the halfcourt is a punishing weapon, and will continue to become more lethal as Griffin improves his free throw shooting and mid range jumper.
This season, the dynamic duo will be joined by what looks like the deepest roster in the league, with veterans Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler returning, as well as young bucks DeAndre Jordan and Eric Bledsoe (both of
whom the Clippers will be relying on to make big jumps this season). Mo WIlliams, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Nick Young and Randy Foye are all gone, replaced by Lamar Odom,Jamal Crawford, WIllie Green, Ronny Turiaf,
Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, and Ryan Hollins. That's quite a roster turnaround. Detractors will argue that Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom are not the players they used to be, but it seems to me that they could be very productive in the well defined roles off the bench the Clippers coaching staff are sure to provide them with. Odom, Crawford, and the rest of the bench should remedy the Clippers greatest weakness from last season, bench production. This new group has the ability to score (both in the halfcourt and in transition) and will be much improved defensively on the perimeter. They also add some serious versatility, providing Coach Del Negro with the ability to play a very big lineup (DJ, Griffin,Odom, Butler, Paul- for example) or play small ball With just Odom and Griffin in the front court. Odom can play the 4 when Griffin sits, and act as a stretch 4 with Paul and DJ running the pick and roll. There are a lot of possibilities for lineups, and the Clippers won't be an easy team to prepare for this season.
Success for the Clippers is not a sure thing. The team needs to emphasize defense and rebounding, and must get consistent three point shooting to spread the floor for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. They should be able to achieve those goals, and with a full training camp for the roster to gel, look for the Clippers to set a new mark for franchise success. 2012-2013 Prediction (54-28), 3 Seed In the West.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2011-2012 Record: (41-25)
Record Vs Clippers: 2-1
Head Coach Mike Brown
Don't shoot the messenger. I didn't want to do it, but I had to. Some might disagree, but the Lakers actually underachieved last season. Kobe Bryant (love him or hate him) showed he was still able to score at an elite level, (even if he did shoot too much at times). Pau Gasol is really good, far better than he played last season, and Andrew Bynum was utterly dominant at times last season, although he lacked the consistency and maturity to be considered elite. Ramon Sessions was a solid mid season pickup, and although the bench left something to be desired, they were still a very tall, long, talented group capable of beating anybody on a given night.
So the Lakers decided to shake things up a bit. It took a little longer than we all thought, but the Lakers managed to trade Andrew Bynum, turning him into Dwight Howard. Now, Dwight's offensive game is not as polished as Bynum's, but he is far more physically dominant, and can easily score 20 a night on putbacks and lobs. Defensively, he is the most dominant player in the league, and completely changes the game for the Lakers. While that move
alone would have pushed the Lakers to the top of this list, the Lakers were far from done. They also managed to sign the aging but brilliant Steve Nash, one of the great play-makers and shooters the league as ever seen. Nash will get his players open looks at the rim, and will punish you for doubling down on Howard inside, or on Kobe on the perimeter. The Lakers also bolstered their bench by signing veteran Antawn Jamison, who is still a crafty and capable scorer, and Jodie Meeks, a 6-4 guard who is a career 37% shooter from the perimeter.
The Lakers are big and talented, and their size is going to be a nightmare matchup for just about every team in the league. Nash and Gasol are a perfect fit for each other, and Dwight Howard makes defensive liabilities disappear. It remains to be seen how much Kobe likes/dislikes playing off the ball, but it should be a huge plus for the team. Good luck rest of the league, this is not going to be a fun team to play against. 2012-2013 Prediction: 60-22