<h3>With the Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in Los Angeles, James Harden and Jeremy Lin in Houston and Rookie Anthony Davis in New Orleans, The NBA’s Off Season of Change Provides an Exciting and Refreshing Opening to the 2012-2013 Campaign. But One Thing Remains The Same. The West Still Belongs to Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant.</h3>
Here are some of my thoughts and opinions on each division, every franchise and the players and scenarios that will make this season one of the best ever. With all of that being said, I’m reminded of the wise words spouted by one of the street corner philosophers of my youth, that, “Opinions are like Hynie’s. Everybody’s got one, and most of ‘em stink.”
Nevertheless, I offer my random thoughts as we stand at the beginning of the NBA’s delectable 2012-2013 campaign. Today we’ll focus on the Western Conference.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS – For folks debating whether the Lakers or Thunder will represent the Western Conference in this year’s Finals, you need to pump the brakes a little bit. People forget that the Spurs won 20 consecutive games, ended last year on a 10-game winning streak and swept the Clippers and Jazz in the opening rounds of the playoffs. Before folding like a bad poker hand after leading OKC 2-0 in the Conference Finals, they were playing the best basketball in the league. Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA and a solid argument can be made that Tony Parker is its best point guard, or at least on par with the usual suspects of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose. For those who don’t speak Spanish, Manu Ginobli roughly translates to, “Holy Crap!, did you see what he just did!?” And people sleep on the starting shooting guard, Danny Green, who shoots over 40% from beyond the three-point line. I’m not fooled for one minute by the great Tim Duncan’s diminishing point and rebound production. His minutes are down to preserve him for the long haul, but when they truly need him, expect a routine, Timmay-esque 25 points and 16 rebounds. I love what undersized center DeJuan Blair brings, along with the redheaded marksman Matt Bonner. Kawhi Leonard has become one of my favorite young players to watch because of his excellence on both ends of the floor. Don’t be seduced by the glitz and glamour in L.A. or the youthful exuberance in OKC, the Spurs could very well be the best and most well rounded team out west.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS –With the #1 pick in the Draft, the Hornets selected the best big man prospect to come out of college since Tim Duncan. His impact on the team will be powerful and immediate, judging from his opening night performance against Duncan’s Spurs. If Eric Gordon can return to full strength in a few months, they’ll be an exciting team to keep your eyes on. I think this will be Greivis Vasquez’s breakout year as he emerges as the team’s best option at point guard. His heart, vision and competitiveness remind me of Ginobli. The forgotten Lopez twin, Robin, may not be able to score like his brother, but he’s every bit as tough and shouldpost double-digit rebounds if he plays starter minutes. There are lots of new faces, and while everyone thinks Austin Rivers will make an immediate splash, my money is on the less heralded rookie from Kentucky, the steady and heady Darius Miller. This team will take its lumps, but with its young core of Vasquez, Gordon, Rivers and Davis, we could be looking at a major renaissance blossoming in New Orleans over the next few years.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES – The Grizz are coming off of two very successful seasons. People forget that they were one game away from the conference finals before last year’s craziness with the condensed schedule. The entire starting five returns and despite the loss of O.J. Mayo, the additions of Jerryd Bayless, Wayne Ellington and top draft pick Tony Wroten, Jr. were excellent. I’ve always argued for people to be patient as point guard Mike Conley developed. This year, I’m expecting him to assert himself as one of the top young point guards in the league. I love how Tony Allen gets after it defensively and if Josh Selby can transfer his superb work in the summer league, he should be a solid rotation player. Rudy Gay is a special talent who, if he can slightly elevate his overall game, should become a perennial All Star. Zach Randolph is a certified beast. He’s never been an explosive athlete, but I love how he brings his lunch bucket and the craftiness to routinely post double-doubles. Big man Marc Gasol is a great passer and his low-post and mid-range offensive skills are legit. Look for the Grizz to continue to keep the good times flowing on Beale Street.
HOUSTON ROCKETS – Swinging the trade for James Harden on the eve of the season sent more shockwaves and dropped more jaws than the night John David Stutts assassinated Buckwheat. Houston now has a frontline superstar who will shock and amaze. His acquisition helps Jeremy Lin, because the Beard-sanity will allow Lin to be a fine complimentary piece without having the bulls-eye affixed to him every night. If Omer Asik can prove to be a good, reliable NBA center, Houston could be better than most people realize. I love Royce White’s game. The rookie from Iowa State can abuse a bigger player on the perimeter and a smaller one in the post. But his passing, which is as lovely as a 25-year-old Gladys Knight, is what really sets him apart. With Luis Scola gone, I’m interested to see how the void will be filled at the power forward position. There will be plenty of opportunity for someone to emerge there, whether it’s Marcus Morris, the Lithuanian rookie Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Patterson or JaJuan Johnson. I like rookie Terrence Jones and am intrigued by the ceiling that Chandler Parsons seems to have. With Harden and Lin in the backcourt piloting this rocket ship, this is going to be a fun season in Houston.
DALLAS MAVERICKS – They couldn’t get Dwight Howard or Deron Williams, but don’t sleep on the Mavs. This year’s team might look like a Craig Sager outfit, in that things look hastily put together without any thought of how it all matches, but Mark Cuban is always a man with a master plan. They’ll make the playoffs this year with Dirk, Shawn Marion and the additions of Elton Brand, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman and Darren Collison. I think Rick Carlisle is an excellent, creative coach and we all know that Dirk is one of the best and most unique players the game has ever seen. That’s always a great combo to build from. I’m excited to see if the 157-year-old rookie from Florida State, Bernard James, can play the type of defense I believe he’s capable of. Collison is one of my favorite players to watch, along with the mercurial backup, Roddy Beaubois, who just might be faster than the hiccup. The casual fan doesn’t know their names yet, but I think Dominique Jones and the rookie Jae Crowder will make some major noise. And with the money they saved by not having to pay Dwight or D Will, expect Cuban to be making it rain during next summer’s free agency like Pac Man Jones at a Vegas strip joint.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES – How good is Ricky Rubio, the flamboyant, precocious Spanish point guard? They were two games above .500 before he got hurt last season, and then proceeded to win only five of their remaining 26 games without him. People look at his brilliant transition play and Magic Johnson-like passing ability, but he was equally impressive by simply living up to the hype that preceded his arrival. With Kevin Love, once he also returns from injury, making a solid argument for being the preeminent power forward in the game, the Wolves have the foundation in place. If you haven’t seen Minnesota play, you probably have no idea who Nikola Pekovic is. He might look like something out of the WWE archives, but the big man can play. I’m interested to see how Derrick Williams plays with a year under his belt because he definitely struggled for most of last season. The big question is at the shooting guard position. Will Brandon Roy play anywhere close to the amazing youngster we saw in Portland? If not, is the Russian import Alexey Shved a capable NBA player? Will Andrei Kirilinko look like the AK-47 of old? Will Chase Budinger become more than a solid rotation player? Will backup center Greg Stiemsma be as effective as he seemed to be in Boston? One question that does not need to be answered is how well this team will be coached, as Rick Adelman is among the best in the biz. With a healthy Rubio and Love on the floor, the Wolves will be worth the price of admission.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS – A couple of years ago, a buddy of mine who is a D-I assistant coach out at a mid-major program out west told me that this kid named Damian Lillard at Weber State was the best point guard in the country. His NBA debut and the havoc he wreaked in the summer league showed that he might already be in the upper tier of point guards by the end of his rookie season. I’m intrigued at what this team might be capable of if LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wes Matthews and J.J. Hickson develop a positive rapport and chemistry with Lillard. If anyone has a chance at running neck and neck with Anthony Davis as the league’s top rookie, other than Golden State’s Harrison Barnes, this kid is a safe bet. I covered Will Barton when he was balling for my main man Herman Harried at Lake Clifton High in Baltimore, so I might have a slight bias, but I think he’ll raise a few eyebrows with his length, ability to shoot from the perimeter and score while attacking the basket. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Portland is in the race for one of the last playoff spots deep into the season. And to be quite honest, I also wouldn’t be shocked, with so many talented teams out west, if they’re picking high in the next draft.
UTAH JAZZ – I love Paul Millsap’s game. If he played in a major media market, he’d be a household name. And watching Al Jefferson ply his trade in the post is a joy to behold. Both of these guys are playing for big contracts next year, so they should have even more incentive to improve on last year’s solid playoff showing. He’s not the long-term answer but point guard Mo Williams has some nice young weapons at his disposal, if he decides to increase his pass to shot ratio, with Jefferson, Millsap, Gordon Hayward and the former Atlanta Hawk Marvin Williams. It’s time for Derrick Favors to prove something. Everybody knows he’s good, but all of the tools seem to be there for him to be great. He needs to decide if he wants to be special, or a guy like Kwame Brown who does just enough to stay in the league a long time, yet never fulfilled the promise that so many on early on. Hayward might look like Mitt Romney’s son, but his game has more soul than Bobby Womack! Big man Enes Kanter is another intriguing prospect, but there seems to be too many big bodies and not enough minutes to go around. Utah should, once again, make the playoffs and could pull off a first round upset if Marvin Williams or Favors play like the can’t-miss prospects many expected them to be.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER – I know some people lost their ever-loving minds over the trade that sent James Harden to Houston. But I wasn’t one of them. Like Hyman Roth told Michael Corleone in The Godfather, “This is the business we have chosen!”And once you understand the business, there’s no need to get emotional. Harden’s a marvelous player who I’d pay to watch all day, every day, and twice on Sunday, and I wish we could see what OKC could’ve accomplished with him, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka competing for championships throughout the next decade. But the reality is that, after locking up Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka, the Thunder would either have had to commit to luxury tax purgatory by signing Harden to a max extension, or parlay that one asset into some less expensive long term assets. I’m not worried about his points and assists being duplicated, as Kevin Martin and Eric Maynor can take care of that in Harden’s absence. What will be hard to replicate is the energy he provided off the bench and the palpable synergy had with his teammates. But having Jeremy Lamb develop while absorbing the franchise’s winning culture, while also being able to say the same about the gifted rookie Perry Jones III, seems almost unfair. The crazy thing to consider is that Durant is still getting better and has not yet approached the crescendo of his skill development. For the rest of the league, and even LeBron, that’s got to be as scary and sobering as watching an episode of The First 48 that features the Memphis homicide detectives. If Russell Westbrook’s mind and decision-making can pull even with his wondrous athleticism, with Durant carrying the load on his slender shoulders, Harden might be busy counting that paper, but he’ll be stuck watching his former teammates duke it out with San Antonio for Western Conference supremacy once again.
DENVER NUGGETS – Despite their slow start to open the season, the rumors of the Nuggets demise is greatly exaggerated. Granted, they haven’t looked explosive or fluid in the first few games, but I wish everyone would stop panicking like a hypochondriac. This is a talented team with race-car speed and the depth of a Michael Eric Dyson discussion. They run the floor and share the ball with breathtaking simplicity and beauty. New acquisition Andre Iguodala, once things settle down, should be a perfect fit for coach George Karl, who has proven that he can win with or without superstars. Denver pushed the Lakers to seven games in last year’s playoffs while leading the league in scoring. With the addition of Iguodala, and more time for big man JaVale McGee to mature and soak in the culture of what a professional locker room likes like, I’m expecting Denver to be even more dynamic come season’s end. Danillo Gallinari might have slower feet that Herman Munster, but he has the vision, ability to hit the open man and sweet shooting ability to make defenses pay. I love Kenneth Faried, who plays as if there’s some Dennis Rodman trapped in his body. Ty Lawson is a breathtaking Ferrari in the open court. Backup point guard Andre Miller is so underrated, it’s laughable. He’ll do all of the small things that go unnoticed to the casual fan. The Nuggets are one of the best teams to watch, because they play fast, but unselfish. For all of you kids running around the court 100 miles per hour, looking like a chicken with your heads cut off during the summer circuit, this is what getting up and down the court at a fast pace is supposed to look like.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS – This is one of the most intriguing teams that I’ll be keeping an eye on this year. I’m hoping that Steph Curry and Andrew Bogut can rebound from their injury woes and give Head Coach Mark Jackson the ingredients he needs to get things cooking in Oakland. When healthy, Bogut is one of the best centers in the league, a big, mobile talent. Whatever you need him to do, whether it’s score, pass, rebound, play great defense, make sure that Andris Biedrins doesn’t sniff the court, Bogut can do it all very well. Although moving Monta Ellis was not popular among the fan base, the emergence of Klay Thompson made it palatable. Losing Brandon Rush for the season hurts because of his versatility in swinging between the shooting guard and small forward positions. I’m a huge fan of David Lee, who I call “The Honda Accord”. You’ll never see much razzle-dazzle with him, but he simply gets the job done, day in and day out. If Curry can get back on track to being that sky’s-the-limit player, they could challenge for that final playoff spot as well. I thought they had a fantastic draft with Harrison Barnes, the deceptively rugged and effective Draymond Green and Festus Ezili. Barnes is going to be a better pro than most realize, one of my favorite Rookie of The Year candidates. Jarrett Jack was also a great addition to bring in off the bench.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS – They might have made the biggest splash during the offseason with the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, but so far they’ve been a bigger dud than Magic Johnson’s old late night talk show. But Lakers fans need to relax and give this group some time to jell. Even though Steve Nash is 157 years old, he’s still among the top distributors in the game. But with his style of play, despite that fact that he’s always in great shape, he’s going to be more susceptible to serious injury. Steve Blake is a wonderful role player, but if Nash’s leg injury lingers, or other ailments creep up, they’ll find themselves in the same position as last year, vulnerable at point guard. It’s amazing that Kobe, who is no spring chicken himself, remains one of the best two-guards in the game, along with Dwayne Wade. There are not many things better than watching Los Angeles, ignoring everything else on the court and just focusing in on Kobe, whether he has the ball or not. We need to enjoy him while he’s still at the elite level, because father time remains undefeated and he has Kobe firmly in sight. Say what you want about Metta World Peace, and yeah, he might be a little off and unpredictable on offense, but he’s still a bull in a china shop on defense, a true warrior that any sane player would want to walk into battle with. And people need to stop taking Pau Gasol for granted. His passing and ability to get buckets are Hall-of-Fame worthy. Dwight Howard is, hands down, the league’s best center. On paper, they’re the best team in the league. In practice, we’ll see if everything meshes. Hopefully, Head Coach Mike Brown will get that Rufilin flushed out of his system, the one Eddie Jordan slipped in his Diet Coke when he convinced him to install the Princeton offense.
SACRAMENTO KINGS – I don’t care what anybody says, I’m expecting this team to be good. I thought the emergence of the diminutive Isaiah Thomas was one of the great stories around the league last year. With Aaron Brooks back from China, Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thronton and Jimmer in the rotation, they are going to have a nice inside-outside threat, because DeMarcus Cousins has arrived as one of the game’s best big men. Top draft pick Thomas Robinson is going to help out down low with his energy, strength, athleticism and desire to outwork his opponent. Jason Thompson and James Johnson will also be valuable, if underappreciated, cogs in Coach Keith Smart’s machinery. Some people believe that Tyreke Evans has reached his plateau, but I think he can increase his production across the board. There is some intriguing potential here.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS – I know everybody was hyped on the Lakers heading into the season, but I have the feeling that the best team that resides in the Staples Center will be the one led by Chris Paul, if Chauncey Billups is 100% recovered from last season’s unfortunate Achilles injury. Eric Bledsoe was overshadowed by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins at Kentucky, but he’ll be a major player on this squad, as people recognize the unique package of skills and his rare combo of muscle and speed. The addition of Jamal Crawford in the backcourt makes this one of the most potent units in the league. The scary thing about this team is that despite being named an All-NBA second team performer last year, Blake Griffin was merely excelling because of instinct, elite explosiveness and athleticism. When and if he develops an unstoppable array of post moves and can consistently hit his jumpers and free throws, we’ll need to start calling him “Aluminum Foil”, because it’s gonna be a wrap! DeAndre Jordan is another huge, athletic marvel that, should he enhance his skills, could become a certified monster in the paint. In order for this team to be serious, Jordan and Griffin have to do more than deliver jaw-dropping dunks off of lobs in transition. With Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, this team has leadership, experience, youth and more than enough weapons to be L.A.’s best team.
PHOENIX SUNS – It’s hard to fathom that no one of significance is still on the roster from that very good team that had a deep playoff run just two years ago. Goran Drajic is decent, but I have yet to see why some people seem to think so highly of him. This is a make-or-break season for the wonderfully talented Michael Beasley. To be fair, he’s still only 23 years old, but he needs to prove to have the hunger and work ethic that will elevate his delectable talent. Luis Scola is a tough character who is so crafty with the ball near the basket when he’s in attack mode. Channing Frye can consistently bang the three and I enjoy watching Markieff Morris. His offense is still a work in progress but he’s a rebounding machine with no fear. Marcin Gortat is not bad. Jared Dudley had a quietly excellent season. I like Shannon Brown. I think that he and the rookie from North Carolina with night-goggle vision, Kendall Marshall, are capable of being a very good backcourt. If Michael Redd can shoot the three while Wesley Johnson becomes the player that most though he would be two years ago when he left Syracuse, and if Beasley can devote all of himself to doing the little things that separate the good from the great, we could be looking at another team capable of snagging bottom playoff seed.