Six NBA Storylines To Watch – West
With the NBA finally on the precipice of returning to action, the landscape is literally filled with intriguing storylines to follow as we head into the season. Media days are scheduled to begin as early as this Friday for teams playing internationally during the preseason.
From the surprises throughout the 2013 NBA Draft, to the big-name free agents electing to relocate, to the flurry of unexpected transactions that have all taken place since late-June, there are essentially countless storylines to get excited about entering the 2013-14 campaign. Yesterday, Moke Hamilton looked at the top storylines in the Eastern Conference.
Today, we’ll look at the top stories we’ll be following in the Western Conference:
Can The Blazers, Timberwolves and Pelicans Compete For A Playoff Berth?
The easy way to answer this question would be to simply say, “probably,” “possibly” and “not quite, but soon” (respectively), but we’ll go a bit deeper than that for argument’s sake. After a fantastic rookie season that saw Portland’s Damian Lillard take the league by storm on his way to a 19 points, 6.5 assists per night average, the Blazers enter this season with heightened expectations. Alongside Lillard, the team is getting back a healthy Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum to go along with 10th-pick C.J. McCollum, another scoring guard who starred at Lehigh University. Questions remain unanswered regarding the future of two-time All Star LaMarcus Aldridge in the wake of his recent acknowledgement of being “extremely frustrated” by last year’s 33-49 team. If Aldridge is able to be brought back completely into the fold, this is a team that could very easily find themselves ascending into the postseason ranks, once again.
The Timberwolves’ lack of postseason play has been a cause for concern for power forward Kevin Love for the past couple seasons. While Love has expressed nothing but excitement and anticipation for his team’s chances out West this season, Love has gone on record about such displeasure as recently as two summers ago. The Wolves find themselves finally healthy, as both Love and franchise point guard Ricky Rubio are slated to return at full strength in 2013-14. Love and Rubio have to hope their health, combined with the addition of free agent Kevin Martin and re-signing of their emerging center Nikola Pekovic, will be enough to finally get them over the hump in a tough Western Conference.
The Pelicans could very likely be about a season or two away from being that team folks are surprised to see in the playoff discussion and beyond for years to come. Chock-full of talent, head coach Monty Williams is armed with a nice, young core to go around his former No. 1 pick Anthony Davis. Their surprise draft day trade for point guard Jrue Holiday was precisely the type of move that can get them into the postseason discussion in a hurry. While Davis overcame injuries and actually improved over the course of his rookie season, fellow second-year player Austin Rivers was never quite able to break through and establish himself last season. With that experience under his belt, Rivers looked very strong and confident about the upcoming season when HOOPSWORLD caught up to him this summer. Alongside another new addition in small forward Tyreke Evans, Davis, Holiday and an improving Rivers could be poised to be the proverbial “next” team in just a few years.
Can The Rockets Find Immediate Success?
In a world, let alone league, where we now expect everything and everyone to instantly become a success or individual star, it should not come as a surprise that people have already placed a tremendous amount of expectations upon the Houston Rockets.
A certain desire for instant-gratification is an understandable outcome for fans in Houston, especially on the heels of a somewhat surprising playoff run that featured a breakout year for shooting guard James Harden. Adding Dwight Howard to a mix of players that was already riding an emotional wave of having overachieved in 2012, and it is no wonder you have former greats like Hakeem Olajuwon speculating on just how “deadly” the combination of Jeremy Lin and Howard could be?
While that level of excitement is natural and expected, the Rockets would do themselves a great service to curb any extreme enthusiasm while the team is working out the kinks, so to speak.
The addition of a healthy Howard to any roster should be enough to improve team defense, but it is actually the offensive end of the floor where the greatest adjustments are likely to be necessary. The run-and-gun style of play the Rockets employed for a majority of last season is not the same as the “four-out, one-in” system Howard enjoyed in Orlando, even though Houston does have a host of shooters to surround him with. Even though Howard is statistically the league’s best big man when a part of a pick-and-roll, Howard expressed extreme displeasure with the notion of that being his primary mode of offense last season.
Even though the circumstances are slightly different, as Howard actually chose to join the Rockets as a free agent rather than merely being acquired via trade, a learning curb should still be expected. These Rockets should have enough talent to win on the strength of match-up advantages early on, but in order to develop the type of chemistry needed for an immediate Finals (or even Conference Finals) run, it can take some time. In an ultra-competitive and ever-improving Western Conference, it will be fun to witness just what heights these Rockets can reach.
Have The Lakers And Mavericks’ Contending Windows Closed?
As currently constructed? Probably so, but that doesn’t mean members of these particular fan bases have to give up, entirely. In fact, quite to the contrary, this is a season in which fans can finally be at ease with allowing themselves to enjoy their teams without astronomical expectations. Not that winning a title isn’t the ultimate goal for every team or that either of these teams won’t be actively competing as hard as they ever have, but realistically it’s unlikely that we’ll see either the Lakers or Mavericks hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy this upcoming season.
So much is up in the air, as both teams have considerably new-look rosters compared to just a few short seasons ago. Considering these are the last two franchises to win titles prior to Miami’s two-year run, fans in Dallas and Los Angeles can’t afford to be too upset by a couple of down years.
With that said, don’t expect either of the two fan bases to willingly take defeat lying down. While no one in those cities will enjoy reading it, it could technically be the final year for Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and even Kobe Bryant for their respective teams. If Bryant’s season-ending injury taught us anything last year it is that you must appreciate what you have while it is there. No career, let alone title run, is guaranteed. Sometimes, when you’ve won several titles along the way, even though you’d like to see a certain player reach a milestone or accomplishment, it is acceptable to allow yourself to simply enjoy them for what they are.
No More Excuses For Lob City?
Not that you necessarily had to make “excuses” for their postseason shortcomings over the past two seasons, but the Los Angeles Clippers have now fully transitioned from being everyone’s surprise team to a franchise that now comes with a certain level of expectations around the league. Even though they won a franchise-record 56 games last year during the regular season, their first-round loss at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies was seen as a disappointment by a rapidly growing fan base.
It goes without saying, that is a stark contrast from the old attitude that surrounded the team. Los Angeles will likely always be a “Lakers town” but while the future is somewhat up in the air with the purple and gold, this is a perfect opportunity for the Clippers to steal some of the spotlight and dominate L.A. Doc Rivers brings his championship experience and hard-nosed mentality to Los Angeles, in replace of Vinny Del Negro, and these Clippers are now expected to makes some serious noise in the Western Conference.
As Chris Paul heads into his third season with the organization, he is armed with arguably the most talent he’s led outside of Olympic play, and the level of expectations are undoubtedly going to be through the roof once things get going. However, even with the improvements to the roster and coaching staff, these Clippers still leave you wondering where their consistent interior play will come from.
Sure, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are extremely talented and have made strides to improve their individual games (especially in Griffin’s case), but the question of interior toughness will haunt them until they provide a different outcome on a more consistent basis. While the Clipper faithful might enjoy a dozen “jump-out-of-your-seat” highlights, Rivers would probably prefer a consistent combined total of 20+ rebounds and interior defense from his talented front line.
Where Do the Thunder Stand Out West?
By all accounts, point guard Russell Westbrook has made a full recovery, and is on schedule to return to action with his teammates when the Oklahoma City Thunder open training camp in just a couple of weeks.
This must not only be great news to head coach Scott Brooks’ ears, but also a very welcomed sight to team leader Kevin Durant’s eyes. While Durant was every bit as special in the 2012 postseason once Westbrook suffered the MCL injury, he understandably found life far more difficult when acting as a lone star.
While many are already ushering teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and newly-improved Houston Rockets into the eventual Conference Finals, it was the Thunder that actually had the best record in the West last year, and they have every intention of picking right up where they left off now that everyone is healthy and ready to go.
In order to maintain their top spot and place themselves back into the Finals discussion, they’ll not only need continued improvement from their main core of Durant, Westbrook and even fifth-year power forward Serge Ibaka, but they’ll also need to find steady contributions from role players like Reggie Jackson, second-year player Jeremy Lamb and rookie big man Steven Adams.
How Will The Season Impact Next Summer’s Expected Free Agent Frenzy?
So much is riding on this upcoming season that predicting the outcome of free agency next summer is nearly impossible. Rumors are bound to swirl about some of the bigger names like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony potentially heading out West, but there is absolutely no guarantee either of those players eventually decide to opt-out of their respective contracts in order to pursue free agency.
It’s even less likely that guys like Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade will decide to opt-out of the final two years of their contracts. Even though these types of discussions are conveniently tossed around most social media and talk radio platforms, in the case of both Wade and Bosh, common sense should be allowed into the discussion at some point. Put simply, if you are Wade or Bosh, would you decide to opt out of the final two years of a contract that still owes you upward of $42 million? The only reason to do so would be to secure a new long-term deal, but has their play as of late warranted another monster payday?
Much like Dwight Howard this summer, but to an even further extent, James’ decision to stay in Miami or opt-out will likely be the main domino that triggers a stream of moves. Beyond James and Anthony, other notable potential free agents following 2013-14 include: Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol (unrestricted, Lakers), Zach Randolph (player option, Grizzlies), Dirk Nowitzki (unrestricted, Mavericks) and Tim Duncan (player option, Spurs) to name a few.
How well teams blend together and potential in-season moves are likely to impact the the next couple summers as well.
As stated earlier, the storylines of the upcoming season are endless. One bit of advice: Allow yourselves to enjoy the actual season prior to getting caught up with all the rumors of things to follow. After that epic seven-game battle in the Finals and league-shaping of moves that followed, the 2013-14 NBA season will undoubtedly be one for the ages.