I have to admit, I am more intrigued than usual about the start of the NBA season, if for no other reason than to see how the new realignment of talent works itself into shape.
A few years back you had the Big 3 of the Miami Heat getting together and everyone speculating about how they would gel. Now you can make that inquiry about seemingly ever other team you run across.
How will Nash get along with Kobe? How will Bynum fit in Philly? Can Jeremy Lin transform Houston? Are Deron and Joe Johnson potentially the best backcourt in the NBA?
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See what I mean? A high degree of personnel turnover isn’t ALWAYS a good thing – but once in a while it is a nice shake up and gives you an opportunity to reassess how the powers that be – Oklahoma City, Miami – may fare against retooled teams like the Lakers and Nets.
One thing is certain: if you’re looking for legitimate championship contenders, look West. I count four teams with legitimate designs on the finals in the tougher conference, while let’s face it – the East is Miami and everybody else. So let’s take a look at that Western Conferece and get a sense of who’s in and who’s out.
THE SURE THINGS
Oklahoma City Thunder: If there’s any player who can challenge LeBron James as the league’s best, it is surely Kevin Durant, and despite the improvements other teams may have made, Durant’s elite status, coupled with a big strong front line and a tremendous second option in Russell Westbrook, earns the Thunder the status of favorite heading into the season.
Los Angeles Lakers: With the additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the Lakers have the best starting five in the NBA, bar none. In fact, that’s the best starting five the NBA has seen in quite a while. The biggest questions facing LA are age and chemistry. Can all the kiddies get along in this superstar sandbox? That’s the reason I believe Steve Nash was such a key addition. Dwight Howard could never hope to wrest the mantle of team leader away from Kobe, but Nash can surely share it with him, and since Nash will have (and be distributing) the ball, he can bring the Lakers star talent together and get the most out of what they have.
Goodwill Ambassador: Steve Nash will play peacemaker on the Lakers
Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers’ dynamic duo of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul are the equal of any one-two punch in the league, even LeBron and Dwayne Wade, and the Clippers don’t stop there. There is quality talent on this roster, including newcomers Lamar Odom and Grant Hill, who will add veteran leadership to the team. The Clippers haven’t gotten over that hump that teams seem to hit yet, but it will happen sooner or later and they should be in the West’s upper echelon for the foreseeable future.
San Antonio Spurs: Yeah, I know, the Spurs are old, they’re the Celtics of the West. Well, they were old last year, and put up the best record in the conference. And they were old the year before that and they put up the best record in the conference. Yes, the Spurs are old. And maybe that’s why they can’t seem to translate their regular season dominance into postseason success lately, but to dismiss the triumverate of Duncan, Parker & Ginobili would be a mistake.
Denver Nuggets: Last year, the Nuggets were a balanced team that played hard, but lacked a star or “go-to” player. And this year. . .the Nuggets will be a balanced team plays hard, but lacks a star or “go-to” player. The addition of Andre Iguodala gives them a defensive stopper that may translate into some more wins, but this team still isn’t built to a championship.
Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks were unsuccessful in their big to add another big star to the roster, and had to settle for second tier guys like Elton Brand and OJ Mayo. Dirk Nowitski missing a chunk of the season at the beginning with an injury won’t help their chances, either.
Utah Jazz: The Jazz, as they usually do ever since Stockton and Malone retired, will fly under most people’s radar all year. Under-appreciated players like Paul Milsap and Gordon Hayward will make good contributions, but this team is not particularly athletic, so their best hope is for Derrick Favors to have a break out year and start living up to his draft potential.
Minnesota Timberwolves: It’s hard to imagine a team that Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio not being in contention for something, but that’s just the problem. Will the T’Wolves have Rubio and Love? Love and Rubio will both miss the beginning of the season with injuries – bad news for a team who added Brandon Roy in the offseason on the chance that he might still be able to play and stay healthy. One bright spot: perhaps with Love out, Derrick Williams will show that he can be a dominating player, making Minnesota an even tougher club once they’re at full strength.
Step up time. Minnesota needs Derrick Williams this year
Golden State Warriors: The Warriors will get a real lift if rookie Harrison Barnes can oust Richard Jefferson at the 3. This team has scoring potential in its backcourt, with Stephon Curry and Klay Thompson, but they lack some athleticism up front, and Jefferson is clearly a stop gap, not the answer.
Memphis Grizzlies: It’s hard not to love this team’s front court, with prolific Zach Randolph, big Marc Gasol, and high flying Rudy Gay providing all kinds of contributions to this team. I don’t think they’ll exactly miss OJ Mayo, but they didn’t exactly replace him either, and I’m not sold on Gay as a superstar who can carry a team.
New Orleans Hornets: Don’t get too excited – this team is probably a cellar dweller, but you have to be intrigued by Austin Rivers and Anthony Davis joining the Hornets as a unit, and I like the addition of Ryan Anderson. Probably, the Hornets are still bad, but it wouldn’t shock me if at some point this season, they start playing some really good ball.
Phoenix Suns: Steve Nash is gone. Marcin Gortat is still there. ‘Nuff said.
Houston Rockets: Few teams had more turnover than the Rockets, but it won’t help. Jeremy Lin is a nice player, but you can’t have him be your best player and expect to contend. Still, there are some players who bear watching on the Rockets, in particular rookie Royce White, who I think might be a real find.
Portland Trailblazers: Poor LaMarcus Aldridge. He’s one of the premier big men in the NBA, but he’s surrounded by extras and rookies, and the Trailblazers, unless one of their young players just explodes (keep an eye on Damian Lillard) , are going nowhere this year.
Sacramento Kings: Same old Kings. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins still aren’t good “team” guys, and the Kings lack both leadership and talent. I’m pretty sure Evans is who Charles Barkley is talking about when he says the NBA is full of “fake superstars.”