The Clippers and Warriors prepare for another Hollywood duel, the up-tempo Suns look to fool the doubters again, and the Kobe Bryant farewell tour is officially underway
Don’t forget to tune in to Place To Be Nation’s NBA-Team Podcast as Andrew Riche and Adam Murray break down every division for the upcoming season. Click here for the Pacific Division preview.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (Last season: 57-25, 1st in Pacific, 3rd in Conference)
IN: Spencer Hawes, Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Jared Cunningham, Ekpe Udoh, Glen Davis (re-signed), Hedo Turkoglu (re-signed), C.J. Wilcox (draft)
OUT: Darren Collison, Danny Granger, Jared Dudley, Willie Green, Ryan Hollins
I don’t think any team had a season of highs and lows, literally at the same time, quite like the one that the Los Angeles Clippers had last year. Things could have been more dire for LA had Chris Paul departed in free agency after the Clippers lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies. But the Clips pulled a coup of sorts by bringing in Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers in a complicated trade to replace the overwhelmed Vinnie Del Negro. Paul immediately agreed to re-sign with LA, and the team improved vastly under Doc. The Clippers won a franchise-record 57 games while maintaining a fun, up-tempo style and scoring a league-high 107.9 PPG. Paul was his statistically brilliant self but made strides as a leader thanks to Rivers’ guidance. If I told you that All Star power forward Blake Griffin was third in the league MVP voting behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant, you wouldn’t believe me, but he did and at his young age, he will only get better. DeAndre Jordan was molded into the league’s top rebounder despite his gaping weaknesses in other parts of his game.
The Clippers were able to take down division rival Golden State in the first round of the playoffs, but the shocking revelation of owner Donald Sterling’s racist diatribe gave the team quite the pause. It is difficult to quantify the emotional impact Sterling’s comments had on the team as they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder (thanks in large part to a controversial meltdown in Game 5) in six games, but with Sterling banned for life by league commissioner Adam Silver and the team bought for $2B (!) by Steve Ballmer, the team is back in the swing of things. The Clippers might play like Lob City at times, but don’t mistake them for a young, unaware squad. This is one of the most experienced teams in the league, where nearly every role player has gone deep into the playoffs more than once. The biggest subtraction from last season is Darren Collison, who went to the Kings, so they signed Jordan Farmar as the back-up point guard. Granger and Dudley were dead weight, so getting a shooting big in Spencer Hawes was a great fit for a team that needs to improve at the three-point line. Big Baby is back to bang inside, and I think Chris Douglas-Roberts is a great glue guy for this team, sort of a younger version of teammate Matt Barnes. Jamal Crawford won Sixth Man of the Year again, but he is getting up there in age, so watch out for slippage.
PREDICTION: The irony about the Clippers is that amongst all the riff raff of changes in the front office and the owner’s box in the wake of Sterlingate, the team itself pretty much stood pat from last season, and that was the smart choice. Doc Rivers definitely put his stamp on this team, with Paul, Griffin, and Jordan all hitting the primes of their careers. I expect Griffin to be in MVP consideration, but the two X-Factors to me are Paul’s tendency to crumble in the playoffs and Jordan becoming a complete center in his contract year. If CP3 can bring along the very few new teammates and lead the team out of the second round, this team could win it all. Yes, I said THE CLIPPERS COULD WIN THE NBA FRIGGIN’ CHAMPIONSHIP! I expect this team to win 60 games or more. (1st in Pacific, 3rd in Conference)
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (Last season: 51-31, 2nd in Pacific, 6th in Conference)
IN: Shaun Livingston, Brandon Rush, Leandro Barbosa, Aaron Craft, Justin Holiday, Steve Kerr (head coach)
OUT: Steve Blake, Jermaine O’Neal, Jordan Crawford, Hilton Armstrong, Mark Jackson (head coach)
In a weird but fitting way, the Golden State Warriors found themselves in the same sort of NBA flux that their division rival Clippers did: A really good team on the rise forced to deal with a sudden change in leadership. Many thought going into the 2013-14 season that leader was going to be head coach Mark Jackson, who had just led the Warriors to a second round playoff appearance thanks to the emergence of the “Splash Brothers,” Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Neither guy disappointed last season as Curry became an All Star and Thompson averaged over 18 PPG. The signing of Andre Iguodala as the team’s top defender alongside big men David Lee and Andrew Bogut seemed to make a starting five to die for, and at times they were. The Warriors won 51 games, far more than the previous season, but whispers began emerging that Jackson was at odds with the owners and management about his contract extension. No matter what Jackson did, he had labeled himself a sitting duck in the eyes of Warriors brass, and it was merely days after losing in seven games in the first round to the Clippers that he was out.
After looking around for a week or so, the Warriors made a Godfather offer to broadcaster and former player Steve Kerr, who reportedly was on his way to being hired as the head coach of the New York Knicks by Phil Jackson. Kerr took the Golden State job, and I cannot blame him. While the team is right up against the cap thanks to Lee, Bogut, and Iggy’s overblown salaries, the talent is very rich in the starting unit as well as the bench. Harrison Barnes is a world-class underachiever with great talent while Draymond Green is a world-class overachiever who is never the most talented guy on the court. Like the Clippers, the Warriors stood pat in the offseason, but not before a quick scare in the form of a Kevin Love deal in exchange for Thompson and Lee that felt apart at the last minute. I am glad the Splash Brothers will stick together, but it might mean that someone else has to go when Klay gets max money when he becomes a restricted free agent next summer. Steve Blake is gone in the backcourt, and so is Jermaine O’Neal in the frontcourt. As far as player additions, the most significant one is Shaun Livingston, a long-armed point guard who will relieve Curry from handling the ball too much and wearing out his tender ankles.
PREDICTION: All eyes will be on the bench to see how Kerr fares in his first season as a head coach. Many thought Kerr would help Phil run the triangle offense with the Knicks had he taken the job, but now that he is running his own show in Golden State, the question is around what his coaching philosophy will be. He did pull a nice one by hiring former Clippers assistant Alvin Gentry, who was the head coach in Phoenix when Kerr served as GM, and defensive savant Ron Adams as assistant coaches. I expect the offense to stay in the top ten, but Mark Jackson molded a team that was also 10th in scoring defense and 5th in rebounding. The Suns under Gentry and Kerr were a poor defensive squad, so can the team possibly get better if they depreciate on the other end? The pressure is already on for a team that may have already peaked with a roster that will be financially unsustainable by this time next year. It would be nuts to think they won’t make the playoffs, though, but they won’t surpass the Clippers in the Pacific. (2nd in Pacific, 4th in Conference)
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (Last season: 27-55, 5th in Pacific, 14th in Conference)
IN: Jeremy Lin (trade), Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis, Xavier Henry (re-signed), Jordan Hill (re-signed), Wesley Johnson (re-signed), Nick Young (re-signed), Ryan Kelly (re-signed), Ronnie Price, Jeremy Tyler, Roscoe Smith, Wayne Ellington, Julius Randle (draft), Jordan Clarkson (draft), Byron Scott (head coach)
OUT: Pau Gasol, Kendall Marshall, Jodie Meeks, Chris Kaman, Jordan Farmar, MarShon Brooks, Kent Bazemore, Shawne Williams, Mike D’Antoni (head coach)
I got a tougher workout writing the “Ins” and “Outs” for the Los Angeles Lakers this year than I did for any other team. It is unreal to think that before the 2012-13 season, many (including me) were convinced that the Lakers’ new star-studded lineup of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash would run roughshod over the Western Conference and play the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Not only did that not happen, but the Lakers barely made the playoffs that year, losing Kobe to injury, Howard to free agency, head coach Mike Brown to stupidity, and Nash to geriatrics along the way. With Bryant on the shelf with a torn Achilles (then coming back and tearing up his knee after only ten games), it was a lost season for not only the Hall of Fame guard but also the Lakers as a whole. Mike D’Antoni coached another season in LA, but all his three-pointer-happy offense did was make fans wish he was gone in Seven Seconds or Less.
Pau Gasol was miserable as the team leader by forfeit with a ragtag group of journeymen like Xavier Henry, Chris Kaman, Kendall Marshall, Wesley Johnson, Jodie Meeks, and Nick Young. When “Swaggy P” is one of your team’s bright spots, you know it’s Doomsday. D’Antoni was predictably fired after the team went a division-worst 27-55, and with Pau now off to Chicago, the only legitimate stars left on the team are Bryant and Nash, who is likely to retire after this season. Bryant has two years and $50 million to go on his contract, and although he is no longer the best in the world, the doubts about his salary might be enough to motivate Bryant into some fine offensive numbers as he reaches the last two seasons of his amazing career. The head coach is Byron Scott, who has failed everywhere he has been, so I wasn’t enamored with that hire but he is buddy-buddy with the Bean, so I have to think Bryant will remain the central figure of the offense. There are plenty of new faces like Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin, and rookie Julius Randle to go with re-signed names like Johnson, Henry, Jordan Hill, and Ryan Kelly, but it is an eclectic mix with very little fanfare to go with it. Randle was quite the catch, however, in the draft lottery, so look out for him. Scott has also refused to let the team shoot threes in the preseason, so that will be quite the experiment if he actually goes through with it.
PREDICTION: I found it quite forward-looking of the Lakers that Mitch Kupchak re-signed a lot of the team’s role players to two-year deals to go with Bryant’s contract, which will also end in 2016. The Lakers have already given up on going for broke in the next two seasons for the sake of saving all the cap space in the world for the chance to fish for new and improved superstars to don the Purple and Gold in the all-too-important 2016 free agency pool. It’s almost like a two-year version of the 1996 season when Magic Johnson came back, only this team as a whole is far worse. That team wound up getting Shaq and Kobe in its wake, but will the Lakers be so lucky if they wait this long? With Byron Scott at the helm, the next two seasons might feel like an eternity. (4th in Conference, 12th in Conference)
PHOENIX SUNS (Last season: 48-34, 3rd in Pacific, 9th in Conference)
IN: Eric Bledsoe (re-signed), P.J. Tucker (re-signed), Isaiah Thomas, Anthony Tolliver, Zoran Dragic, T.J. Warren (draft), Tyler Ennis (draft)
OUT: Channing Frye, Dionte Christmas, Ish Smith, Emeka Okafor, Shavlik Randolph, Leandro Barbosa
In last year’s season preview, I absolutely buried the Phoenix Suns as the least talented team in the league and a slam dunk for being the worst team in the Western Conference. I thought the combination of two-guards Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe in the same backcourt would be a failed experiment and there was no chance they would even crack 30 wins. Boy, was I wrong. Under the leadership of former Jazz great Jeff Hornacek as head coach, the Suns pushed the tempo and vastly improved their offense in the process. The only offensive category that the Suns struggled in were assists (29th in the league), but they were elite on that end of the court. It was thanks in large part to the improved play of Dragic and Bledsoe along with a trade that sent Luis Scola to the Pacers in exchange for Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green. That trade looks like a steal for Phoenix as both players had career-best seasons.
Alongside steady veteran P.J. Tucker, the Morris twins inside, and stretch five Channing Frye, the Suns were a scrappy, quick-paced crew that unbelievably won 48 games in a highly difficult Western Conference, missing the last playoff spot by the thinnest of margins. The Suns looked to stay firm on lowballing Bledsoe in the summer as a restricted free agent before an offer by the Minnesota Timberwolves forced their hand and Bledsoe was given a 5-year-, $70 million extension. Dragic has a player option next season, but he is such a great fit in Phoenix that I find it difficult to see him bolt for more money. The Suns have their back court of the future, which is what makes their other acquisitions so curious. Instead of working on their middle-of-the-pack rebounding efforts, G.M. Ryan McDonough loaded up on guards by drafting Tyler Ennis and signing Isaiah Thomas from the Kings. It lacked logic, but the offensive firepower is something to behold. The Morris twins and Tucker both got re-signed, and rookie T.J. Warren looked like a lethal scorer in summer league. They will miss Frye’s leadership and shooting, however. The players who need to find a way into the rotation somehow are big man Alex Len and guard Archie Goodwin, and I think Len has the better chance between the two because of how thin they are inside.
PREDICTION: Hell, I thought this team would finish dead last in the West, so imagine my shock and awe when they finished a cool 9th place with a winning record throughout the season. Now, the target has been made for the Suns and they have to follow-up a surprising breakout year with further proof that they were not a flash in the pan. Finding a compromise for Bledsoe was smart even though some snicker at his career numbers compared to the salary he demanded. But it is a guard-oriented league, and no coach does a better job at enabling guards in multiple sets like Hornacek did last season. The loss of Frye is a blow to their front court, so now is the time for Markieff and Marcus Morris to step up. If any of their rookies make headway and Plumlee and Green keep working hard, they will be in the playoff hunt once more. But are they ready to be the team everyone is gunning for? (3rd in Conference, 8th in Conference)
SACRAMENTO KINGS (Last season: 28-54, 4th in Pacific, 13th in Conference)
IN: Darren Collison, Ramon Sessions, Omri Casspi, Ryan Hollins, Eric Moreland, Sim Bhullar, Nik Stauskas (draft)
OUT: Isaiah Thomas, Jason Terry, Aaron Gray, Quincy Acy, Travis Outlaw, Willie Reed
First, the good news: The Kings remained in Sacramento with a fresh face in Vivek Ranadive as the owner, they have an All Star power forward/center in DeMarcus Cousins, and the coach and GM were not fired after one season. So, there’s that. Unfortunately for the Kings, the bad news encompasses everything else. Little went right in the 2013-14 season for GM Pete D’Allesandro and head coach Mike Malone as the Kings, even with those fat, annoying Maloof goofs out of the mix, seemed like the same sad story we have seen over the last eight seasons. A trade with Toronto for Rudy Gay early in the season befuddled me even though Gay’s selfishness and hogging of shot attempts seemed to weirdly fit right at home on this team. After Gay, Cousins, and the departed Isaiah Thomas, the next best scorer was rookie Ben McLemore, who was mercurial at best. The Carl Landry signing was marred by injuries, Derrick Williams continues his status as a lottery bust, and the Jimmer experiment officially ended. Malone spent more time complaining about his players’ laziness than he did about calls.
The Kings were able to make a handful of moves, but nothing that dramatically changes the overall make-up of the team, at least this year. Gay opted into the last year of his contract (owed a whopping $19.3 million) while this will likely be the last season for Williams. They replaced Thomas with two solid attacking point guards in Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions while the drafting of Nik Stauskas at the small forward spot felt like a square peg in a round hole. Gay and Cousins do get to the free throw line a lot, and they scoop a lot of offensive rebounds. Jason Thompson is just…there, like a lot of misfit toys on this team from Reggie Evans to Omri Casspi to Ryan Hollins. Adam Murray called them the definition of miscellaneous, and I completely agree. “Boogie” Cousins stands out, and he looked great in the FIBA World Cup, but we already know what type of woe-as-me attitude he carries. How long can he really stay happy on a team this forgettably bad?
PREDICTION: The Kings were one of the most predictable teams in the NBA in that you knew they were going to be awful and that they had little to no chance for the playoffs by December. This team needs a jolt of adrenaline or a notable winning streak in the worst of ways in order to get the fans behind the team again and put Cousins on the map as a star player in the eyes of fans. Malone wants to teach them the right way, but this is a team just can’t shoot straight. I say embrace this team’s collective randomness and try some fresh line-ups with Gay, McLemore, Collison, and Stauskas. Maybe it will win them a few more games, but I still think they lose more than 50 games unless Cousins becomes a nightly dominant force. (5th in Pacific, 13th in Conference)