Los Angeles Lakers: This seems to happen every five to ten years: the Lakers finally seem as if they’re headed for a period of decline when they somehow steal one of the league’s most valuable assets, immediately re-establishing themselves as contenders. Credit is due to general manager Mitch Kupchak, who played the Dwight Howard scenario perfectly and owner Jerry Buss, whose deep pockets have given Kupchak and his predecessor, Jerry West, the confidence to take calculated risks in spending. The biggest part of the Howard trade (apart from the big man himself) was that LA didn’t have to give up Pau Gasol, upgrading what was already one of the league’s elite frontcourts. Meanwhile, the guy they traded away, the injury-prone Andrew Bynum, is already out for three weeks. As if the acquisition of Howard wasn’t enough, LA also landed Steve Nash who, even at 38, is a major upgrade over Ramon Sessions. The Lakers aren’t without problems, however, and that’s why they’ll face an uphill battle if they are to knock off the Thunder or Spurs in the West. The second unit is weak, especially the backcourt, where the best players are Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake. Metta World Peace turns 33 in November and seems to get worse every year. But the biggest problem may be who gets the ball in crunch-time: Nash, Bryant or Howard? Ideally, Nash would get the ball and facilitate, since he’s proven time and again that he’s capable of putting it in the right place to maximize his team’s scoring ability. This might be okay for Howard, who never seemed entirely comfortable being the No. 1 scoring option in Orlando, but could present problems for Bryant, whose hero-ball schtick is well-known in the NBA. Whatever happens in LA this season, one thing is certain: it will be worth watching.
Could Make Playoffs (in order of likelihood)
Los Angeles Clippers: There were a lot of positives from last season, which goes down as the greatest in the 42-year history of the franchise. LA came within a game of its first division title, finished with its highest winning percentage ever (.606) and was unfortunate to run into a Spurs team that was firing on all cylinders in the second round of the playoffs. The biggest thing that will prevent the Clips from improving on last season is injuries: Chauncey Billups is out until December, and Blake Griffin, coming off July knee surgery that kept him out of the Olympics, is no guarantee to stay healthy. With his aggressive, high-flying style and injury history (remember, he missed his entire rookie year), Griffin is a major knee injury waiting to happen. Chris Paul means that this team will always be competitive, but to expect anything more than another second-round playoff appearance may be wishful thinking with this roster. Lamar Odom could thrive now that he’s back on the beach, but he turns 33 in November and is coming off his worst season as a pro. DeAndre Jordan continues to develop defensively, but no one respects him with the ball in his hands. The team’s new acquisitions (Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Willie Green) created a reaction that ranged from “eh” to “okay.” They’re all guys who aren’t bad to have at the end of your rotation but who could present problems if they’re playing major minutes in a playoff series. Even if Griffin can stay healthy, I’m not convinced that he’s a complete enough player yet for this team to challenge the likes of the Lakers, Spurs, or Thunder. The energy and effort is there, but his defense is nowhere near where it should be for a player with his size and speed. Paul’s otherworldly talent will assure somewhere in the realm of 50 wins, but unless Griffin matures, Odom or Caron Butler morphs back into a reliable third scoring option, and the Clippers add another piece (like, say, a three-point shooter), they’re a cut below the West’s elite.
Phoenix Suns: Normally when a team loses two of its top six rotation guys, that means that it could be due for a tumble in the standings. And when that team was only 33-33 the year before, it could mean a year in the division cellar. But that’s not the case in the Pacific, the NBA’s most top-heavy division. Phoenix lost Steve Nash and Grant Hill, and while those losses will hurt–especially Nash, who left to a division rival to boot—they’re not enough to move the Suns below woeful Golden State and Sacramento, who Phoenix gets to play eight times combined this season. Though few can compare to Nash at the point guard position, the Suns appear to be in a good place, re-signing Goran Dragic after he spent a year and a half in Houston and drafting Kendall Marshall, college basketball’s best point guard last season. They also lucked into Luis Scola after the Rockets amnestied him during their failed pursuit of Dwight Howard. Now, with a three-year, $13.5 million contract, Scola just might be the NBA’s most underpaid player. Between Scola, Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye and Jared Dudley, Phoenix has a frontcourt that can do a little bit of everything, but the backcourt is still a little unsettled and undersized. Marshall and Dragic will handle point duties, with Dragic also splitting time with Shannon Brown at shooting guard. The Suns are also hoping that between Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Beasley, and Wesley Johnson, one of them will pan out and be able to help the team win some games in 2012-13 or at the very least become a usable trade chip. Head coach Alvin Gentry has done a solid job with this club since taking over in 2009, and though the Suns are ultimately not talented enough to contend, a playoff berth is not out of the question if everything breaks right.
Golden State Warriors: This is a team that bears watching in 2012-13. I don’t think that Golden State is good—yet—but so far I like what I’ve seen from general manager Bob Myers since he took over in 2011. Taking a risk on the injury-prone Andrew Bogut was okay, because at the very least they got rid of Monta Ellis, whose inefficient scoring and ballhog tendencies weren’t helping the team move in the right direction. Myers has drafted well, landing three-point specialist Klay Thompson and point guard prospect Charles Jenkins in 2011 and Harrison Barnes in 2012. Barnes will never live up to the hype that saw him named a preseason All-American before his freshman year at North Carolina, but as long as he’s not counted on to be a star, he can become a valuable contributor at the NBA level. His defense has shown glimpses of being fantastic, and though his offensive game has holes, he can still score a little, as long as he’s not being counted on to create his own shot. Stephen Curry missed 40 games last season due to an ankle injury, but has proven that, when healthy, he’s a quality scorer and exceptional three-point shooter. In the frontcourt, Richard Jefferson needs to be put out to pasture, but acquiring Carl Landry was another positive move that should pay dividends. If Barnes and Thompson mature, Bogut and Curry stay healthy, and rookies Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli live up to the potential they flashed in college, Golden State could be a playoff team by 2014. Right now, however, they’re too overmatched, especially on defense (27th in the league in Defensive Rating in ’11-’12) to win consistently.
Sacramento Kings: The positives for Kings fans: 1) the team is relatively young, with six key contributors 25 years old or younger; 2) the team drafted Thomas Robinson fifth overall, who appears to be a sure thing as far as scoring and rebounding are concerned; 3) the team is relatively young. Honestly, it’s difficult to come up with many reasons for optimism in Sacramento, starting at the very top, where the Maloof family, which owns the Kings, has been unsuccessfully trying to leave town for a few years now. Of that young core, Isaiah Thomas was a pleasant surprise as a rookie, but Tyreke Evans and Jimmer Fredette are inefficient, one-dimensional players (Fredette submitted horrible 39% FG / 36% 3FG percentages for someone who is supposedly a great shooter). DeMarcus Cousins has all the talent in the world, but he’ll never realize it until he grows up, which is unlikely to occur in an environment as toxic and discombobulated as Sacramento. There’s no leadership there, and since Cousins is still one of the team’s best players, he has little incentive to reel in his behavior (you know, apart from getting better). Marcus Thornton has no business being a team’s number one scorer, as he was for the Kings last season, and, apart from Evans, the team’s backcourt is tremendously undersized and extremely vulnerable defensively, primarily at point guard (Thomas is 5-foot-9 and Aaron Brooks is 6-foot). The team also made a mistake waiving the underperforming J.J. Hickson last season (who immediately went on to average 15 ppg in 19 games in Portland). Sacramento is a team that does very few things well, and the rebuilding effort, now entering Year 7, has shown no signs of progress. Maybe Robinson is the savior. But, more likely, he’s just a quality player who will go to waste in an environment ill-suited to winning games.
Top 5 players:
C: Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers
F: Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers
F: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G: Steve Nash, Los Angeles Lakers