Unless David “basketball reasons” Stern interferes, this is what the projected starting lineup for the 2012-2013 Los Angeles Lakers will be:
PG Steve Nash
SG Kobe Bryant
SF Metta World Peace (I can’t believe writers of any level have to use this name)
PF Pau Gasol
C Dwight Howard
Barring a career-ending injury to Howard, this team has three future hall of fame players on it. Some loyal Gasol fans might argue that he is a hall worthy player, but I’ll consider him fringe at best right now. For now the focus will be about how Howard’s arrival impacts the playoff race in the western conference.
The top seeds are unfortunately pretty predictable this year. Oklahoma City and the Lakers will without a doubt be battling for that #1 seed. Last year’s top team, San Antonio, faces even more questions as they continue to age (albeit rather gracefully). As long as Gregg Popovich is coaching this team, the Spurs will more than likely be a Top-4 seed in the west. Things begin to get a little interesting as we go on to the lower seeds. Are Memphis and the LA Clippers going to be able to be as good or better than they were last season? The series between these teams was probably the best matchup not involving OKC or Miami. So now we’re at the bottom half of the seeding, a place where Minnesota has a realistic shot at ending up this year. These teams did a lot in order to improve upon last year, but as we all know sometimes the effort doesn’t equal success.
Denver Nuggets (#6 seed)
Javale McGee can block shots, and while he is often on the wrong end of jokes in the NBA circle, he is long and athletic enough to keep up with Howard. Kenneth Faried burst onto the scene last year, and this guy never looks tired at any point in the game. An offensively raw player, but he does the little things on the defensive end in order to help this team succeed. The problem with the Nuggets front court is their main backup big man, Timofey Mozgov, is Blake Griffin’s personal poster boy. The addition of Anthony Randolph is a big mystery, as you never know what to expect from him. Overall, expect the addition of Andre Iguodala and the “we don’t need superstars to win” concept implemented by coach George Karl to vault the Nuggets into the playoffs once again.
Dallas Mavericks (#7 seed)
The Mavericks tried to do a couple of things this offseason. Get younger and more talented. You could say that at this point, their somewhat at a stand still. Yes, they acquired O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, and Elton Brand in addition to drafting Jaw Crowder and Bernard James. They did, however, lose Jason Terry to Boston. Terry was getting older, but he was the pacemaker for this team’s bench. He was the second best player behind Dirk Nowitzki in that 2011 championship run. The team also lost the veteran presence of Jason Kidd, one of the best point guards to ever set foot on an NBA court. While the team did do a good thing in shedding the contract of Brendan Haywood, Chris Kaman will not be a sufficient replacement defensively.
In summary, the team got better and younger, but older and less mature as well.
Utah Jazz (#8 seed)
Some people will tell you that Utah’s playoff run this year was a fluke. An argument can be made both ways. They have a wonderful group of post players who can size up against the Lakers and attack them in many different ways. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap seemingly score at will. They both have some defensive limitations, however, but the two youngsters in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter make the Jefferson/Millsap duo increasingly expendable. Look for Utah to make a deal in order to improve the aging and somewhat talentless backcourt. Alec Burks is still developing, and I believe he will be a good player in this league. No disrespect to Mo Williams, but the team is going to need a better facilitator at the point guard position. His scoring will be great, but not when he can’t pass the ball to the other guys consistently. Utah can make the playoffs again this year, but only if they make a deal to improve the back court.
The other guys
While I love what New Orleans did this offseason, expect them to take a couple years until they make some noise. Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers should team up well with Eric Gordon to get off to a good start.
Houston lost way too much talent in Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, Chase Budinger, and Samuel Dalembert to contend. Overpaying for Jeremy Lin and drafting a player too afraid to fly in a plane (Royce White) was not the answer.
Golden State is a team always up in the air. They stole Harrison Barnes in the draft, and when a healthy Andrew Bogut returns expect a solidified defensive front court. Stephen Curry will be the x-factor. Will he be healthy enough for an 82 game season? Expect Klay Thompson to step his game up and be the team’s MVP this season. Barnes should also project to be a strong Rookie of the Year candidate.
Sacramento has troubled, yet extremely talented DeMarcus Cousins to pair with Kansas star Thomas Robinson down low. While this should produce a lot of points, there are too many question marks in other spots. Who is the point guard of the future? Jimmer Fredette or Isiah Thomas? Will Tyreke Evans break out to become a bonafide superstar? He has all the tools to do so, but health is a key issue. Too many questions to contend.
Portland got younger and has two good lottery picks in Meyers Leonard and Damian Lillard to build around LaMarcus Aldridge with. Is Aldridge willing to stay around for rebuilding? That’s the key question. The rebuilding process may take a few years, and the fans will grow impatient.
Phoenix is an interesting story. They managed to at least get something for Steve Nash in the form of draft picks. Their first round pick Kendall Marshall was one of, if not the best, passers in college basketball last season. Michael Beasley swore off marijuana, Wesley Johnson gets a fresh start, and they stole Luis Scola from Dallas and signed rising guard Goran Dragic. Throw in the development of Markeiff Morris with Marcin Gortat stabilizing the post and you have a team with a legitimate shot at contending for a playoff spot.
Without a doubt the most active team this offseason. Only 7 of 15 players from last year are returning. Kahn signed two Russian stars in AK-47 and Alexey Shved. Former all-star Brandon Roy came out of retirement to don a Wolves uniform. Chase Budinger consistently stretches the floor and displays stellar athleticism. Derrick Williams lost weight and became more explosive in the process. Greg Steimsma will simply add interior defensive depth to a team that has a rising player in Nikola Pekovic and an MVP-type player in Kevin Love.
The most vital part to a successful season is the return of Ricky Rubio. A healthy Ricky guarantess a playoff appearance. An injured Ricky decreases chances only slightly due to the talent added. Roy and Shved have terrific ball handling abilities to compensate for any Rubio injury.
So why do Minnesota’s playoff chances increase with Dwight going to LA?
Minnesota’s main advantage of the other teams is that they addressed all of their needs in order to become a more well rounded team in all areas of basketball. Their front court tandem of Pekovic and Love will be a Top-3 post scoring tandem, and the emergence of other players like Shved and Rubio will only pay dividends to Kahn’s efforts. Other teams simply don’t have the personnel or firepower to keep Dwight and Pau that occupied on the defensive end. Even Rubio, Roy, and Shved should be trouble for the Kobe/Nash duo. They’re both amazing players at their age, but how long can we realistically expect their twilight revivals to last? Most of the Lakers’ losses will be from he result of sub-par guard play, but Minnesota is one of the few teams in the conference that can make the Lakers lose due to sub-par post play. Another important factor is Steve Nash and his historical playing tempo. Phoenix did so well because Nash is a very aggressive, yet poised, point guard. This caused teams to force themselves into track meets with Phoenix, mostly ending in agonizing defeat. Don’t expect much 6-seconds and shoot basketball under Mike Brown’s watch. Nash working at a slower tempo should warrant a mildly rocky adjustment period. Look for The Unicorn (one of Rubio’s nicknames) to take advantage.
My prediction for is for the team to sneak into the playoffs, potentially as high as the #5 seed. To be fair, #7 or #8 would be more realistic, but hey a man can dream. Optimism will be in the air this season, and the team won’t disappoint.