You’ve got to feel for the Thunder. They lose a tight series to Miami in the Finals but position themselves to own the West for the next few years anyway.
And what happens? In one stupendous summer, the Lakers amp up and become the people’s choice to reach the Finals. Then, unable to come to agreement with one of their Big Three on a contract extension, the Thunder are forced to trade James Harden just days before the season.
Nothing is guaranteed in this league. That’s what Oklahoma City just learned, that it’s tough to keep a great team intact in this league, and anyway, its main threats in the West weren’t buying the idea of a Thunder conference dynasty. Even without Harden, they could be as good as last year and still fail to play for a championship.
Actually, none of the contenders can relax this season. The West is deep and dangerous and, come playoff time, the possibility for a surprise could be fairly strong.
(For a team-by-team breakdown of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, go here.)
1. Los Angeles Lakers
Gotta give it to the Lakers: They don’t stay down for long. Taking his cue from his mentor, the great Jerry West, GM Mitch Kupchak was bang-up in the offseason, when he totally transformed a team without giving up much in the process. Suddenly, the Lakers have a dynastic gleam in their eye and Kobe Bryant has a reason to be bloodthirsty once more.
There will be questions whether the pieces will need an adjustment period before fitting, but that’s a bit overblown. The newcomers don’t clash with their surroundings; if anything, they fill voids. Steve Nash is a pass-first point guard and Dwight Howard a defensive-minded center. Kobe will still get his touches and so will Pau Gasol.
This will surely re-energize Kobe, who has only two years remaining on his contract and has hinted that he probably won’t seek another, especially if he goes two-for-two for championships. Then, Kobe will be one-up on Michael Jordan and his legacy would be intact.
The bench is rather weak, and Mike Brown has his detractors as a coach. Also, the Lakers will introduce a new system, the Princeton offense, not to be confused in any way with the triangle offense. Come playoff time, though, everything should be in place for a serious title run.
Slam Dunk: Now that he’s returned from a lower back injury, Howard is ready to resume his place as the best center in basketball. He’s unmatched as a defender and rebounder (a league-leading 14.5 per game last season). And while he never developed a money move on offense, he’s blessed with an elite point guard who will get him the ball in his sweet spot.
Swish: Kobe finished a fraction behind Kevin Durant for top scoring honors last season, and that was without Nash and Dwight, who’ll command attention from the defense. While his scoring may not increase, his shooting percentage should, because he’ll see more one-on-one coverage.
Timeout: The elephant in the room is age, and in an 82-game season, the Lakers must stay healthy, or else. While Gasol and Nash appear healthy, Kobe is dealing with a strained right foot that could keep him out of Tuesday’s opener against the Mavericks.
Turnover: While Nash’s offensive skills remain intact at age 39, defensively he’s sure to suffer, especially against Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and other younger, quicker guards in the conference. With the exception of Howard and Metta World Peace, none of the Lakers are at their peak defensively.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
The first casualty of the constricting new labor agreement was a big, fat target, as OKC felt the financial pinch in a major way. Unable, or rather unwilling, to deal with severe penalties for having a swollen payroll, the Thunder decided to act swiftly and tinker with their chemistry, perhaps with grave consequences.
Gone is Harden, their deluxe sixth man, sent to Houston for Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, a pair of first-rounders and a second-round pick. Martin is a career 18.4-points-per-game scorer but doesn’t strike fear in the defense the way Harden did, and nobody knows what Lamb will do yet. The bigger question deals with chemistry; OKC had it with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Harden. This roll of the dice might turn up snake eyes for OKC.
GM Sam Presti didn’t have to bail on Harden this quickly. He could’ve kept Harden until next summer and then weighed the situation. But the possibility of Harden getting a max deal and forcing OKC, a small-market team, to hand over millions in luxury-tax penalties, was apparently too much for ownership to bear.
Strange thing is, OKC should still be a serious player in the West. Durant and Westbrook haven’t even reached their prime, and they’re among the best in the league at their positions. Martin does know how to score and Lamb might contribute in a small but valuable way. Still, the one area where OKC had an advantage over the Lakers -- chemistry -- is gone, at least for now.
Slam Dunk: Are Durant and Westbrook the best offensive tandem in basketball? They’re certainly in the running; the duo averaged nearly 52 points per game last season. Durant should be a strong candidate for MVP, while Westbrook’s speed helps offset his limited court vision. There was always a fear these two would clash, but they mesh.
Swish: Martin has been an under-the-radar scorer because he spent much of his career with some average-to-bad Sacramento teams before joining the Rockets. He’s never been in this position, on a team with high expectations. We’ll see how he reacts to the spotlight and the burden of replacing a good and beloved player.
Timeout: Eric Maynor has keener pure point guard instincts than Westbrook and returns after knee surgery. He was sorely missed as a backup; now the question is whether he lost speed or mobility.
Turnover: Kendrick Perkins has transformed from a beneficial center for the Celtics to just a functional one in Oklahoma City. He remains a decent defender, but suffers almost everywhere else.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Which is it gonna be, Spurs: The team that won 20 straight games last spring, or the one that flamed out against Oklahoma City? Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle for a proud but not perfect team that figures to be in the mix this season.
Once again, the nucleus will be Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan, but the Spurs have traditionally found quality supporting help. That’s been the trademark of this club, to get good and relatively cheap role players who can give good value in return: Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair, Patty Mills, Stephen Jackson, etc.
Kawhi Leonard (eight points, five rebounds in 24 minutes) is cut a bit different though. He’s a role player who may become a star. You can imagine this happening because his support system is tremendous, starting with coach Gregg Popovich, who connects with a tough-love approach.
The Spurs have had the best regular-season record in the West for two years straight and there’s more than enough championship-tested talent to shake up the West. The challengers in L.A. and Oklahoma City, though, are no joke.
Slam Dunk: Popovich was named the league’s best coach in the annual preseason poll of NBA GMs. No surprise there. Pop is a terrific in-game coach who pushes all the right buttons. And the players all seem to love him despite his cranky exterior. There’s a high level of respect for Pop both in and beyond the locker room.
Swish: Parker and Ginobili have been a tandem for a decade, winning three championships together. Their chemistry is perhaps unmatched and their motor still remains high. There’s a reason the Spurs had the third-fewest turnovers last year. Expect more of the same if Ginobili stays healthy.
Timeout: The Spurs must continue to preserve Duncan for the playoffs by rationing his minutes as much as possible. He averaged only 28.2 last season, fewest of his career. But if they’re forced to lean on him in the playoffs more than usual, that’s not good.
Turnover: The Spurs are far from being bad defensively, but they’re no better than middle-of-the-pack, with no shot-blocker. How will that translate in a grudge match against the Lakers and/or Oklahoma City?
4. Denver Nuggets
There isn’t another team in basketball where the talent drop-off between the No. 1 guy (whoever that is) and the No. 7 guy (ditto) is as thin as the air in the Rockies. Such is the case in Denver, where there is no superstar but there aren’t any slugs, either.
The Nuggets are deep, well built and, as evident from their league-leading scoring average, very tough to figure out. While there’s not a single player who’ll make an opponent shiver, there are very few soft spots on a team that could pull a surprise in the West. If the Lakers, Thunder or Spurs lose to anyone besides each other, figure Denver is the most qualified candidate.
While it’s unfair to single out a player or two, the Nuggets are expecting big things from Kenneth Faried. He brings energy and toughness and might add a little skill as well; his growth has been steady. Now that he’ll play next to a legitimate center for an entire season, Faried may become a borderline star if his minutes increase.
Actually, “star” is a four-letter word with the Nuggets. They’d rather be known as a balanced team that manages to defy all odds and beats you in a variety of ways.
Slam Dunk: Andre Iguodala did make the Olympic team and was an All-Star last season, so actually, the Nuggets aren’t completely devoid of top-shelf talent. But he’s a chemistry-type player, not a forceful one, so he’ll fit right in. Free from the pressure-cooker of Philly, Iguodala should respond favorably, especially defensively.
Swish: The Nuggets have an amazing ability to share the ball without egos getting in the way. Danilo Gallinari might be their best scorer, but this can also change from night to night. Anyway, here in the post-Carmelo Anthony Era, nobody cares.
Timeout: Ty Lawson and Andre Miller form a solid one-two punch at point guard, no question. But Miller is 36; does he still have a knack for attacking the rim?
Turnover: The Nuggets are a poor three-point shooting team (33 percent), one of the league’s worst a year ago, which will cost them a few wins.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
For a slapstick franchise with a history rich with ineptitude, these are heady days for the Clippers. They have stars, they win games and hear few, if any, snickers. They’re even entertaining, worth staying up to watch if you live in the East.
Even better, there’s not a large gap that separates the Clippers from The Other Team in Town when they’re at their best. While they Clippers aren’t exactly on the Lakers’ level in terms of star power and championship gleam, they’re fully capable of giving the Lakers as much as they can handle.
But they wouldn’t be the Clippers without bad luck, which punched them in the gut three months into last season when Chauncey Billups tore his Achilles. Such is life as a Clipper; you constantly must be aware of black cats crossing.
Slam Dunk: Chris Paul is a free agent next summer and few, if anyone, believes he’ll sign elsewhere. My, how times have changed for the Clippers. Paul is the best player they’ve ever had. And he wants to stay.
Swish: Blake Griffin emerged as a star at power forward and a ferocious dunker whose highlights made him a YouTube star. Griffin’s kryptonite was his outside shooting. However, he spent much of the summer with a shot doctor, hoping to rectify 59 percent career free-throw shooting.
Timeout: The Clippers are average, at best, defensively as a group. Paul is solid and DeAndre Jordan will swat some shots, but that’s about it.
Turnover: Vinny Del Negro is working without a net this season, and was nearly fired last year. He’s probably not the coach to take this team to the next level.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
After flirting with being an upper-tier team the past few years, the Grizzlies lost in the first round of the playoffs, no thanks to a slow return from knee surgery by Zach Randolph. While Memphis doesn’t appear to be lumped with the Lakers, Spurs or Thunder, it’s in the next group, with no danger of falling.
The Grizzlies invested heavily in three players: Marc Gasol, Randolph and Rudy Gay, but only Gay remains in his prime. Randolph, at 31, must recapture the offensive magic that made him nearly automatic from 15 feet and in, or else the Grizzlies could struggle for points.
Still, with a good coach and a solid supporting cast, the Grizzlies should be squarely in the playoff mix, and if the matchups fall in their favor, could win a few rounds and scare someone.
Slam Dunk: Gay desperately wants to be considered a big-time player and true star. He was genuinely crushed when he failed to make the cut for the Olympic team, and vowed to show ‘em this season. Maybe he will.
Swish: Tony Allen is the true definition of a rugged, clamp-down defender, especially on the perimeter. Night in and out, he relishes the chance to check the other team’s best player.
Timeout: Mike Conley brings exceptional anticipation skills and quickness for defense, where he finished second overall in steals. Memphis is still waiting for him to sharpen his point guard instincts, though.
Turnover: The Grizzlies could really use a lights-out shooter off the bench, the only glaring weakness for a team that can’t make threes (25th out of 30 teams) but wants to be lumped with the contenders.
7. Utah Jazz
It didn’t take long for the Jazz to recover from losing Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan. After a few smart decisions, along with an ability to avoid a major injury, they put themselves right back into respectability and, if all falls right, they could be a spoiler.
That’s a best-case scenario. And for that to happen, Utah needs at least one of its young players to enjoy a breakthrough, with Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors the most likely of the bunch.
The Jazz won’t go a very far without an accelerated development phase, and maybe that doesn’t happen this season. If their young players are nothing but a tease, then so, too, will the Jazz.
Slam Dunk: Paul Millsap is a good, no-frills power forward. He’s not a star, never will be, but he rarely disappears, either. Blessed with amazing quickness for his size, he was fourth in steals and partly why Utah was third in rebounding.
Swish: Al Jefferson is out of position at center, where he gives away too much size, especially against the elite. He brings passion and pride to the job, however, and someone who always flirts with a double-double.
Timeout: Maybe Mo and Marvin Williams will help, but Utah isn’t a superb outside shooting team (just 32 percent on threes). Improved shooting would go a long way into providing balance, with Millsap and Jefferson plowing the paint.
Turnover: Coach Ty Corbin needs to instill a better defensive mindset. Or maybe Utah just lacks players with an instinct for defense. Only seven teams allowed more points and six didn’t make the playoffs.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
After several years of enriching themselves with high lottery picks, maybe this is the season Minnesota finally gets it right. Strange thing is, most of those picks bombed, and the Timberwolves team you’ll see this season was created in other ways.
Only Ricky Rubio and Derrick Williams are true picks; Kevin Love was a draft-day trade. In the nucleus, there’s also Nikola Pekovic, Brandon Roy (drafted by Minny, then traded away, now back) and Andrei Kirilenko. Somehow, the Wolves overcame their personnel blunders to field a respectable team.
But they’re not a playoff lock because of injury concerns. Love will miss the first few weeks because of hand surgery, Rubio is still mending from knee surgery and Roy doesn’t have any cartilage in either knee. This house of cards must stay together, or it’s back to the lottery for Minnesota.
Slam Dunk: Love is not only the best power forward in basketball; he’s among the top all-around players in the game. Nobody can grab rebounds and also win the three-point contest at All-Star Weekend. All he has to do is carry a team to the postseason.
Swish: Rick Adelman is the right coach at the right time for this team. He brilliantly brought Rubio along slowly and has an excellent relationship with Love. Does anything else matter?
Timeout: Williams really needs to find a niche in his second season. Nobody’s quite sure which forward position he’s best at. Even he has doubts. If he’s a small forward, 41 percent shooting (27 percent from three) won’t cut it.
Turnover: GM David Kahn has had more success with the nickel-and-dime moves than the dollar decisions, as evident by his shaky history with high lottery picks.
9. Houston Rockets
After some exhausting research, we’ve learned the Rockets have made 462 personnel moves, give or take a few dozen, under GM Daryl Morey. Finally, two of them made a major splash this summer and fall when Morey stole Jeremy Lin from the Knicks and Harden from the Thunder.
Suddenly, the Rockets elevate themselves from a so-so team to one on the playoff bubble, depending on how quickly this new and exciting backcourt meshes. In different ways, Lin and Harden were high-level sensations last season before sad endings; Lin with a knee injury and Harden flaming out in the Finals against Miami.
Until now, Houston’s been off the radar since Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady hooked up a decade ago. Injuries ruined that era, and ever since, the Rockets have searched for an identity and some traction in the West. They’ve been stuck in the 40-45 win range, which is deadly; that means a team isn’t good enough to win a few playoff rounds, or bad enough for a high lottery pick. They needed to find a superstar and an excuse to pull Morey away from the trading table.
We’re not sure if we’re ready to call Lin or Harden superstars. They may never be. But at least the Rockets have our attention.
Timeout: The Rockets lost Jeremy Lamb in the Harden trade, and while they have two other first-rounders on the roster, Lamb -- the 12th pick who helped Connecticut to its 2011 championship -- was perhaps the most polished. Plus, the Rockets surrendered a pair of future first-rounders as well as a second-rounder, but that won’t have any impact on this season.
Turnover: Other than Harden, there isn’t a proven scorer on Houston’s roster, either in the starting lineup or coming off the bench. A fair share of the burden to generate points will fall on Lin’s playmaking, but eventually, a few players, Carlos Delfino for sure, must step forward and create their own shots and give Harden a hand.
10. Golden State Warriors
The season, and the Warriors’ chances of winning their first playoff series in over a decade (assuming they make the playoffs) will depend on two important players with suspect ankles. So what will it be, Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry?
Bogut arrived as damaged goods at the trade deadline and hasn’t played since January, undergoing two surgeries. Curry, who missed 40 of 66 games last season after an ankle injury relapse, turned the ankle again in the preseason. The Warriors are in such a delicate situation involving their starting center and a guard who, if healthy, can solve plenty of problems almost instantly.
At least the Warriors do have help. Klay Thompson’s stock is soaring right along with his confidence, and he’s nearly automatic from 20 feet. David Lee is an underrated power forward, a double-double guy who just needs to learn how to defend. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry are quality reserves, while rookie Harrison Barnes might find himself with more playing time than he expected.
It all comes down to health and also defense, two questionable issues hovering over a frustrated franchise. The Warriors have been saddled by disastrous ownership and silly personnel moves until lately; it’s time for a change.
Slam Dunk: Curry and Thompson could remain a dangerous backcourt for a decade if all goes well with Curry’s health. They’re tremendous shooters; both shot well above 40 percent inside and outside the three-point line. They’re disciplined shooters, too, averaging about 11 attempts per game, rarely taking bad aim.
Swish: Lee averaged 20 points and almost 10 rebounds and is perhaps the Warriors’ best post player since Chris Webber’s brief time in town. He has quick hands, too, but that’s the extent of his defense.
Timeout: Brandon Rush impressed the Warriors enough to land a contract extension. The trick now for him is to keep Barnes from cutting into his minutes. Rush is a solid three-point shooter and also one of the Warriors’ best defenders, which isn’t saying much.
Turnover: Defense will ultimately cause the downfall of this team unless coach Mark Jackson finds a solution. Which doesn’t appear promising. By drafting Barnes, the Warriors have decided to look for a stopper next season.
11. Dallas Mavericks
Two years ago they celebrated a mighty and popular upset of the Heat, the culmination of Mark Cuban’s vision. The Mavericks were a Lone Star (literally) team that caught fire, along with a few breaks, at the right time. But almost as quickly, a rebuilding process began, as Tyson Chandler left as a free agent, and Jason Kidd and Jason Terry soon followed. Now, there’s a real chance the Mavericks could miss the playoffs altogether.
They still have the goodwill from the championship, along with the excuse of Dirk Nowitzki missing as much as six weeks with a knee injury, to use if they wish. Nobody will hold it against them if they fall into the lottery, because the Mavericks are doing the right thing. They didn’t get Dwight Howard or Deron Williams last summer, but they didn’t lock up their financial resources by signing average players to long-term deals, either. Rather than hang onto a team that had maxed out, they’re trying to reinvent themselves before Dirk gets too old.
And so next summer, they’ll have enough cap room to make a run at a free agent or two, in addition to some trades, plus a high or mid-range draft pick. In the meantime, they’ll try to stay competitive with Darren Collison, Elton Brand and O.J. Mayo, temporary hires who might be gone by summer.
Slam Dunk: Nowitzki, at 34, is still one of the game’s most feared shooters, and assuming he’ll be 100 percent when he returns, should stay on that level at least this season. He shot 45 percent last season, although his 21-point average was his lowest since his sophomore season, in 1999-00.
Swish: Who would you rather have: Brendon Haywood and Ian Mahinmi, or Brand and Chris Kaman? Even if Brand and Kaman were on their last legs, and they’re pretty close, they’d clearly be better than anyone the Mavericks used at center (Tyson Chandler excepted) in the last decade.
Timeout: Mayo can be fairly effective but there’s a reason Memphis let him go. Not only that, the Mavericks signed him cheap (two years, $8 million). Mayo is just too inconsistent, which scares off teams looking to make a major commitment. Maybe that changes this season.
Turnover: The Mavericks might really struggle to score while Dirk’s out, because the roster lacks another player with as much punch; Vince Carter is too old. Collison had better be terrific at distributing the ball and setting up teammates, or it could get ugly.
12. Portland Trail Blazers
Three years ago he was supposed to be a member of a Big Three, a collection of rookies who would grow together and give the Blazers the look of a dynasty. Well, injuries ruined all that, and LaMarcus Aldridge is all by himself as the Blazers move beyond the Brandon Roy and Greg Oden nightmares.
Aldridge, in the meantime, developed into an All-Star player who shed his “soft” label and showed he’s capable of being a lead singer. Now the Blazers are on the clock as they try to surround him with the necessary pieces. It’s not that Aldridge is old, or even injury-prone; it’s just that Portland is weary from the last few years and would like to put a winner on the floor ASAP.
Well, it might need another year. Other than Aldridge, there just isn’t All-Star material on the roster -- not yet, anyway. Nic Batum returns at a high price. He’s a nice player, but no heavyweight. Same for Wesley Matthews and the rest. There is buzz about Damian Lillard, the rookie point guard, except he hasn’t done anything yet.
Most likely, the Blazers are a year or two away from solid respectability, although it should be fun watching them grow together, and maybe this time, avoid a serious injury or two.
Slam Dunk: Aldridge lit it up for a second straight season last year, averaging 21.7 points and posting a Player Efficiency Rating of 22.7, the 12th-best in the league. He’s still not a great rebounder (7.5 career average) for his size, especially in traffic, but he’s a decent defender and overall, not too many 6-11 guys have his skills.
Swish: Lillard has opened eyes in Portland ever since he pulled on a uniform and the Blazers believe they grabbed the best player, pound-for-pound, in the draft. Point guard was a problem last season with Raymond Felton, but already, there’s the general feeling Lillard will be the next Terry Porter. Maybe better.
Timeout: New head coach Terry Stotts had losing results in his other two stops, Milwaukee and Atlanta. In due time, the Blazers will know whether he was a victim of bad luck in those jobs and knows how to work if given the right mix of players, or he’s a career assistant coach.
Turnover: Are the Blazers finally through with the revolving door in the upper reaches of the franchise? They’ve gone through what seems like a zillion GMs and presidents. Maybe Neil Olshey will stick, although, given the fluctuations of owner Pau Allen, Olshey would be wise to rent.
13. New Orleans Hornets
Eric Gordon twice didn’t want to be in New Orleans: First when he was sent there by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, and again when the Suns signed him to a free agent offer sheet last summer. When the Hornets matched it, Gordon was resigned to his fate, giving the impression he was one unhappy millionaire.
Well, that’s probably not really the case. Really, what’s not to like? The Hornets just drafted a center for him in Anthony Davis, the best player in college basketball last year and now an Olympic gold-medalist. There’s also new ownership in Tom Benson, who also controls the Saints and is willing to spend. Finally, the Hornets have the look of a true up-and-coming franchise that emerged from a dark period with solid players and a friendly salary-cap situation.
There’s a scenario where the Hornets will be in playoff contention in March, which of course will depend on whether Gordon is playing at an All-Star level and Davis is a shoo-in for rookie of the year. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Hornets are in good hands -- those belonging to Gordon and those running the show.
Slam Dunk: The Hornets have the best young GM/coach tandem in Dell Demps and Monty Williams. Demps comes from the highly regarded San Antonio Spurs School of GMs, while Williams has already generated respect among his peers. New Orleans is lucky to have both.
Swish: Most Improved Player of the year Ryan Anderson is a poor man’s Kevin Love, a solid three-point shooter (39 percent) for his size and an underrated rebounder -- especially on the offensive glass. We’ll see how much of his game last year in Orlando should be credited to Dwight Howard’s presence.
Timeout: The Hornets aren’t loaded with proven scorers on the wings, unless you think rookie Austin Rivers is NBA-ready. That alone could force Gordon to be less of a point guard and more of a shooting guard, which might be his true position.
Turnover: The Hornets aren’t loaded with solid, on-the-ball defenders, which is why Davis will find himself bailing out teammates perhaps more than he anticipated. But with a coach like Williams, expect the effort at least be there nightly.
14. Phoenix Suns
Remember when the Suns were glamorous? Remember when free agents, dreaming of sunshine and golf and an up-tempo system, placed Phoenix high on their list of destinations? Remember Sir Charles and Kevin Johnson and Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire and a team that rarely had a shot-clock violation?
Gone. All of it. What’s left, we’re not quite sure. Well, there’s Alvin Gentry, the lone reminder of the great times, but a coach can only do so much. The Suns are reeling from a series of moves and non-moves (holding on to Nash for far too long), and this is the year they pay the price for that.
There are some intriguing players and maybe a few will enjoy a career year, yet there’s no identity. The Suns suffer from the same symptom of many lottery teams, they lack a true star and struggle to play defense. In that sense, don’t expect massive changes on this front.
The best bet for Phoenix is to clear cap space and seduce all those free agents, except the ownership situation has changed and not for the better. Jerry Colangelo was top-notch back in the day. Robert Sarver, the owner, is not.
Slam Dunk: Center Marcin Gortat is coming off his finest season in the NBA, a breakout year where he flirted with double-doubles almost every night. He’s a big man who runs the floor and knows his way around the paint, and might even be better playing next to Luis Scola.
Swish: Goran Dragic returns for a second tour of duty, and comes off a career season in Houston, where he averaged 11 points. Asking him to be Nash is a bit much, because Dragic isn’t that clever of a passer. Dragic can thrive if the system fits him and the Suns don’t ruin his assists total with poor shots.
Timeout: Jared Dudley might be the best player on the team, a shooter without any conscious and who loves the big moments. Still, the Suns are asking him to be a star, something he isn’t. At least not yet.
Turnover: The Suns want a pair of Minnesota misfits, Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson, to assume important reserve roles. Hey, if they couldn’t cut it with the Timberwolves, what can you honestly expect in Phoenix?
15. Sacramento Kings
They might not be the team at the bottom when the season is over, but they can see it from here. The Kings are loaded with mid to high draft picks and most either haven’t panned out yet, or simply maxed out. This suggests the Kings did very little to take advantage of the last half-dozen years when they delivered almost nothing on the court. The rebuilding continues.
And when you’re handing the franchise over to pampered youths, you get the typical return: poor defense, pouting, low confidence and stressed-out coaches. That won’t change anytime soon, given the financial handcuffs on the Maloofs, who can’t afford to buy into free agency and watch their payroll soar.
So the Kings march on to a young beat and hope someone breaks out. DeMarcus Cousins is the most obvious candidate, but that only happens if he matures. Thomas Robinson is another first-round pick with promise, but once again, you wonder if he needs a few years to develop, like most big men.
Anyway, the most pressing issues for the Kings are off the court and whether they’ll eventually flee Sacramento. Oddly enough, the city still wants this organization to stick around.
Slam Dunk: Isaiah Thomas was a discovery last season, a little guy plucked from the second round who played better than the more-hyped first-rounder, Jimmer Fredette. Thomas averaged 11.5 points per game in a limited role, and expect his minutes and production to rise this season.
Swish: Once the Kings dumped confrontational coach Paul Westphal, Cousins settled down and began to produce more consistently. His skills have never been an issue. For a big man, Cousins has a soft touch and nimble feet. His maturity and work ethic, however, need to catch up with his raw talent.
Timeout: Is Keith Smart really the answer as a coach, or does he have the job because he comes cheap? Maybe it really doesn’t matter in a sense, because the Kings aren’t built to win now. Best he can do is give the Cousins and Robinson all they need to improve.
Turnover: Tyreke Evans, whose scoring, assists and rebounds have all fallen since a Rookie of the Year season, is a symbol of all that’s wrong with the Kings, a No. 4 pick who never showed much improvement. There’s the fear he’ll have company soon, courtesy of Fredette.
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