At this time last year Los Angeles was the epicenter of the NBA when Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol held court for a mass of media. Who knew that the preseason would be the best of times for that group?
The buzz has now moved about seven miles north where the Clippers will welcome Doc Rivers and the kind of expectations that have never been thrown their way before. And a few hundred miles farther upstate, the Warriors will begin camp still riding the high of a terrific playoff run. But it's not just about those two teams. Roughly half the Western Conference believes it can extend their season deep into May.
Just like we did with the East, here are a dozen training camp headlines for the West in October.
1. Kobe Or Not Kobe, That Is The Question. The typical human doesn't resume hopping around on a repaired Achilles until about a year later. Kobe Bryant says his timetable is quicker than ours. We know this much: His appetite for competition is off the charts, so he'll be back on the floor fairly soon, if only to satisfy that desire. But how good will he be, and will it be enough to make the Lakers respectable? Also, keep in mind that Kobe is in the final year of his contract and while the Lakers say they want him back, they'd be foolish not to see what's left before making a hasty decision.
2. Spurs Hangover. Teams lose the NBA championship every summer, sometimes even in heartbreaking fashion like the Spurs when Ray Allen gored them with a three-pointer. But the Spurs are aging and might be beyond their prime. That's what made the loss to Miami so tough. How many more looks will Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker get in June to add to their ring collection? With strong competition from L.A. (Clippers), OKC and Houston coming, did the Spurs blow their last chance? Gregg Popovich will give a few clues in training camp how he intends to keep his veterans fresh through an 82-game grind and also try to finish high in the West, something he pulled off last season, not without some controversy.
3. Beware Of The Boogie Man. Everything's gone right in Sacramento over the last several months. The franchise stayed put. New ownership. New coach. New arena, soon to break ground. New contract for Boogie Cousins. Wait. The Kings are about to give Cousins a rich extension? You mean the center who was suspended multiple times during his young career and can't seem to control his emotions or behave in a professional manner? Nobody questions Cousins' ability; he's one of only a handful of seven-footers who can get 20 and 10 and his skills for a big man are rare and unique. Besides, talent usually trumps everything, and if you haven't noticed, the Kings are lacking in that department. Still, extending Cousins does come with a risk. By giving him big money, they're empowering him. As good as Cousins is, some NBA general managers are thrilled they don't have to make that call. Expect Cousins to keep improving, perhaps even to All-Star level. And expect a few more flare-ups.
4. Russell Westbrook Returns. Modern science and medical practices are being put to test. From RGIII to Derrick Rose to Rajon Rondo and also to Westbrook, who suffered a bad knee injury in the spring, just when the Thunder were about to make a playoff run. Crazy as it sounds, Westbrook actually continued playing on his knee before being diagnosed with a tear, which tells you plenty about Westbrook and his intensity. Since OKC still lacks a quality big guard replacement for James Harden, the Thunder will need Westbrook's whiplash moves and scoring punch, and the preseason will provide an initial glimpse of his recovery.
5. Harrison Barnes or Andre Iguodala? The Warriors made a bold move by signing Iguodala this summer, a decision that was largely applauded, but which also raised a question: What about Barnes? After a decent rookie season followed by a series of very uplifting playoff games, Barnes appeared ready to assume a large role, or at least increased minutes at small forward. But now those minutes, we assume anyway, are going to Iguodala, who brings some much-needed defense to the Warriors. We'll see how much comes at the expense of a young player who's anxious to develop and can't do that on the bench.
6. Dwight Howard Is Happy In Houston. That's why he chose the Rockets over the crumbling contender in L.A. The trick now is to find a happy transition to a team that will not feature him as the first option. Howard always pouted in Orlando when he didn't get the ball, and had a brief spat with Kobe Bryant and Mike D'Antoni over his role in the offense with the Lakers. If he grumbles about James Harden, it won't work. Hopefully for his sake, he spent the summer looking in the mirror and working on some low-post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon. In camp, the Rockets will also try to figure out a way to use Howard and Omer Asik together. And speaking of grumbling, Asik isn't thrilled about losing his spot to Howard. Yes. Omer Asik.
7. Nuggets Pick Up The Pieces. Timing is everything, and it doesn't appear to be on Brian Shaw's side. He waited years before getting his chance to slide one seat over on the bench, and his first head coaching job comes with a team that was decimated in the off-season. The Nuggets lost their GM, their previous coach and their best player in a matter of weeks. This came after they were exposed by the Warriors in the playoffs. And they may not get Danilo Gallinari back before the holidays. When camp starts, Shaw will probably introduce some variation of the triangle offense, which he learned while sitting next to Phil Jackson, but is there any offense that can squeeze something out of JaVale McGee?
8. Doc In The House. It was a solid career move for Doc Rivers to bolt Boston, and it was a surprisingly solid franchise decision by the Clippers to get him. And now, that last layer of doubt about the team -- competent coaching -- was removed. In camp, Rivers will whip up an offense that doesn't totally rely on lob passes and make the Clippers more half-court friendly with an emphasis on outside shooting. It helps to have J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley during this transition. There will be pressure on Rivers to be a difference-maker in the post-season, or folks will wonder why the Clippers dumped Del Negro.
9. Shabazz Is On Shaky Ground. The Timberwolves took a risk drafting Shabazz Muhammad when C.J. McCollum, among others, was still on the board. Muhammad had a poor showing in summer league and seemed to confirm all the red flags about his lack of ball-handling skills and reluctance to pass. Then he got tossed from the league's mandatory rookie orientation for sneaking a woman in his room. This false start must concern Flip Saunders because Muhammad was his first big decision as the new GM, and the Wolves are desperate for backcourt scoring. Muhammad will say all the right things when camp opens, but will he do the right thing? And play the right way?
10. Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday Make A Point. The Pelicans decided in the off-season that they're done with the draft lottery. By getting Holiday (and also Tyreke Evans) they took a significant step toward respectability and should compete for a lower playoff seed. Holiday was an All-Star with the Sixers who now upgrades the New Orleans backcourt and also presents a nice problem to have: Who plays point guard? Holiday and Gordon can play either guard spot, but camp will likely show that the ball is better off with Holiday. Coach Monty Williams has a month to figure that out and also how to turn Anthony Davis into an offensive weapon.
11. LaMarcus Aldridge Is Restless. Aldridge wants to make something clear: He didn't demand a trade over the summer. To clarify, he was just frustrated about the lack of moves made by the Blazers initially -- then when they drafted C.J. McCollum (who had a solid summer), it seemed to pacify him. That said, the Blazers still aren't ready to contend for real. If Thomas Robinson, on his third team in a year, has a good camp and demonstrates he was worthy of being the No. 5 pick in 2012, would the Blazers be inclined to trade Aldridge before the deadline and re-make the team? That's a loaded question that must take a lot of things into account; namely, what they could get for him. If the Wolves are open to shipping Kevin Love to his hometown, Portland might be open to that.
12. It's Trey Day In Utah Already. Handing the keys to a rookie point guard isn't new. Just last season, the Blazers did that with Damian Lillard and that worked out fine. Utah didn't bring veteran help or even a player to compete with Trey Burke to camp, so he'll have the job by default. There's really nothing to lose here; Utah is rebuilding with young players galore, and making the playoffs in the tough West might not be realistic. So this is the right time to let Burke make his mistakes and groom him for the future. He shot poorly in summer league and was often outplayed by guys who won't cash an NBA paycheck, but Burke is only 20 and the Jazz are under construction. If nothing else, he has time.