NBA Western Conference preview
The West is an L.A. story again, only not the kind you might expect.
There’s one team poised for a Hollywood ending and another on the verge of capturing the hearts of NBA fans in Southern California.
Neither team is the Lakers.
Oklahoma City is no longer up and coming. It’s here.
The Thunder remains young, yes, but last season’s run to the Western finals was only the prelude to bigger things. You don’t need to add any pieces when you have the dynamic Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook backed by a more mobile Kendrick Perkins and a still-menacing Serge Ibaka.
Meanwhile, a strange and unfamiliar feeling has washed over one team in the Hallway Rivalry … Clippers envy!
The Clippers have Chris Paul, the Lakers don’t, and there’s nothing Mitch Kupchak or anyone outside Commissioner David Stern’s office can do about it.
Add a reinvigorated Chauncey Billups and a healthy Caron Butler alongside Blake Griffin, and Clipper Darrell might finally have a winner.
The Lakers still have their two 7-footers, along with plenty of issues. There’s a roster worse than the one that bowed out by a sweep in the Western semifinals last season, an aging superstar and a center who will create a gargantuan hole in the lineup while serving a five-game suspension to start the season.
If the Lakers did anyone a favor, it was their new archenemy. They strengthened the defending champion Dallas Mavericks while weakening themselves by trading an unhappy Lamar Odom to their conference rival in the wake of a nixed Paul trade.
Think Odom will feel he has something to prove when the Mavericks play the Lakers at Staples Center on Jan. 16 and April 15?
Though Memphis could take another step forward in stature, the other usual playoff suspects — San Antonio, Denver, Portland — appear ready to recede further into the background, whether because of age (San Antonio), injuries (Portland) or having nearly half their roster stuck in China (Denver).
You can’t make this stuff up. Even in Hollywood.
Ben Bolch picks the West (in predicted order of finish)
2010-11 finish: 55-27, No. 4 in West.
Coming: Reggie Jackson.
Going: No one of note.
The Thunder was spared from the mad free-agent scramble, returning every key player from last season. Durant and Westbrook should help a young roster come of age, with a potential No. 1 seed in the West preceding a deep playoff run. James Harden is poised to continue his development into an upper-echelon guard, and a slimmed-down Perkins no longer has to slog up the court.
2010-11 finish: 57-25, No. 3.
Coming: Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, Delonte West, Brandan Wright.
Going: Tyson Chandler, Jose Barea, Caron Butler, Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez.
Chandler and Barea each represent huge losses from the defending NBA champions, but Odom should be an inspired addition — particularly in the four games against the Lakers — and Carter clings to the vestiges of greatness. Oh yeah, and there’s still that Nowitzki guy. The biggest question might be how long it takes owner Mark Cuban to zing Khloe Kardashian.
2010-11 finish: 57-25, No. 2.
Coming: Coach Mike Brown, Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, Jason Kapono.
Going: Coach Phil Jackson, Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown.
If it seems the only direction the Lakers can go without their longtime coach and top reserves is down, the fall shouldn’t be a long one. The Lakers still have a core that would make almost every other NBA team envious and a coach who has been to the Finals. The health of aging superstar Kobe Bryant and fragile big man Andrew Bynum will be assessed on a knee-to-know basis, with any significant setbacks curtailing title aspirations.
2010-11 finish: 32-50, No. 13.
Coming: Chris Paul, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups.
Going: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al Farouq-Aminu, Craig Smith.
Clipper Nation has expanded its borders with the big-ticket acquisition of Paul, the dynamic point guard who wants to lead the woebegone franchise on a deep playoff run alongside Griffin. If everything goes as planned, Los Angeles could go from Lakertown to Lob City. If everything falls apart, the Clippers Curse will remain intact. But for the first time in years, there is enough talent to make the playoffs — and stick around for a while.
2010-11 finish: 46-36, No. 8.
Coming: Jeremy Pargo.
Going: Shane Battier.
The good times are rolling in Memphis, where the Grizzlies continue to bask in the afterglow of their magical run to the Western Conference semifinals. The re-signing of center Marc Gasol means the Grizzlies have their core of Gasol, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley locked up in long-term deals. Even once-disgruntled O.J. Mayo appears to have embraced his role as a sixth man.
2010-11 finish: 61-21, No. 1.
Coming: T.J. Ford, Kawhi Leonard.
Going: George Hill.
Those David Gilmour lyrics about thinking you’re getting older and wiser when you’re just getting old may apply to the Spurs, whose projected starting lineup has an average age of 31. How do you think the starters’ legs will feel after one of the dreaded back-to-back-to-backs? It could be the perfect scenario for rookie Leonard to play heavy minutes.
2010-11 finish: 50-32, No. 5.
Coming: Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez, Andre Miller, Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton.
Going: Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin.
The Nuggets face a serious trade deficit after losing Chandler, Martin and Smith to China until at least March. Nene and rising star Arron Afflalo are back, however, and Coach George Karl has a knack for pulling together teams with under-the-radar talent. A rejiggered roster could also present opportunities for Brewer and Fernandez, mere afterthoughts in Dallas.
2010-11 finish: 48-34, No. 6.
Coming: Jamal Crawford, Craig Smith, Kurt Thomas, Nolan Smith.
Going: Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, Rudy Fernandez.
The Trailblazers suffered two big losses before their opener with the retirement of Roy and another setback to injury-prone center Greg Oden, whose career is also teetering on the edge. It’s LaMarcus Aldridge’s team now, and the emerging star has a new wingman in Crawford to add some scoring punch off the bench. Coach Nate McMillan is installing an up-tempo offense for a team likely bound for another quick playoff exit.
2010-11 finish: 40-42, No. 10.
Coming: Shannon Brown, Sebastian Telfair, Ronnie Price, Markieff Morris.
Going: Vince Carter, Aaron Brooks.
The Suns appear to be setting quickly, with mainstays Steve Nash, 37, and Grant Hill, 39, closing in on AARP status and a team that finished two games under .500 largely unchanged from last season. Brown will infuse energy and some flashy dunks but isn’t a game-changer.
2010-11 finish: 43-39, No. 9.
Coming: Coach Kevin McHale, Jonny Flynn, Marcus Morris, Samuel Dalembert.
Going: Coach Rick Adelman, Yao Ming, Chuck Hayes, Brad Miller.
The Rockets nearly had Pau Gasol, whom they intended to use in an attempt to lure free agent Nene. Thanks to Commissioner Stern, they have neither. Now they’ll go forward with the tandem of Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, whose egos could be bruised by nearly being cast off as part of the nixed Gasol trade. Not ideal.
2010-11 finish: 36-46, No. 12.
Coming: Coach Mark Jackson, Kwame Brown, Brandon Rush, Klay Thompson.
Going: Coach Keith Smart, Charlie Bell, Vladimir Radmanovic.
Jackson is preaching defense, but is anyone listening? The team known for scoring in triple digits — and losing — remains largely intact from a season ago, meaning the cavalry isn’t coming to save Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry & Co. In a subplot, former Lakers center Brown gets yet another chance to prove he isn’t one of the league’s all-time flops.
2010-11 finish: 46-36, No. 7.
Coming: Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu.
Going: Chris Paul, David West, Tony Allen.
The Hornets hope to emerge as the eventual winners in their blockbuster trade with the Clippers. Unfortunately, even a best-case scenario involves sacrificing this season while waiting for the draft pick they acquired in the deal to turn into a franchise player. In the meantime, having Gordon, Kaman and Aminu makes them the Clippers Lite.
2010-11 finish: 39-43, No. 11.
Coming: Coach Tyrone Corbin, Josh Howard, Enes Kanter, Alec Burks.
Going: Coach Jerry Sloan, Andrei Kirilenko, Ronnie Price.
The last time the Jazz went into a season without Sloan on the sideline, their roster included a young duo by the name of John Stockton and Karl Malone. The year was 1988. Longtime Utah fans must also adjust to life without former All-Star Kirilenko, the 10-year veteran who remains in Russia. Howard will be reunited with point guard Devin Harris in a retooled lineup that doesn’t exactly exude excitement.
2010-11 finish: 24-58, No. 14.
Coming: J.J. Hickson, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw, Jimmer Fredette, Tyler Honeycutt.
Going: Omri Casspi, Beno Udrih, Samuel Dalembert.
The Kings have bigger issues than a shaky roster, such as where they will call home a year from now. Anaheim remains in play for a franchise that appears to have little direction on or off the court. Hickson and Salmons are nice additions but hardly constitute building blocks for a championship, or even a playoff push with this team. Free agent candidate Chuck Hayes’ being diagnosed with a heart ailment didn’t help either.
2010-11 finish: 17-65, No. 15.
Coming: Coach Rick Adelman, Jose Barea, Brad Miller, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams, Malcolm Lee.
Going: Coach Kurt Rambis, Sebastian Telfair.
Kevin Love is still around, so there’s that. The Timberwolves also could drive the Lakers bonkers with the presence of Barea alone. But come on, it’s going to take more than Williams’ tantalizing upside for this franchise to emerge from its deep freeze. Anything more than 20 victories qualifies as an upset.