Los Angeles trails the arch rival Boston Celtics by just one in the championship category and another wildly successful off season has kept them as the top team in the West.Phoenix drastically changed its roster following the departure of Amar’e Stoudemire, trying to supplement his loss by bringing in two stretch power forwards.
The Clippers have been waiting 18 months for Blake Griffin to make his debut, but the most talented rookie big man may be in Sacramento.
Without question, the Golden State Warriors had the best summer. With a change at the top, which was needed years ago, the team can finally devote all its attention onto the court and will be a much better team because of it.
Los Angeles Lakers (58-24)
Last season was the best coaching job by Phil Jackson. The man with the most titles (11 as a coach and two as a player) redeemed the career of Ron Artest, helped Kobe Bryant force his name into the 15-greatest players of all-time conversation, helped Pau Gasol develop a killer instinct and won a title with virtually no help off the bench. The knock against Jackson has been he attached himself to great players and rode their coattails to titles. Michael Jordan and Bryant never won a title without Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal never had any jewelry for his fingers until teaming up with the Zen Master . Jackson has juggled the most volatile personalities in league history (Dennis Rodman and Artest, top that combo) and always came out on top. It’s fitting that in what is likely to be Jackson’s final season, his team has an opportunity to win a third championship. Say what you want about Jackson, how he’s lucked into winning situations, how he lets his players really manage the game, but this is the last time a coach will have a chance to claim his fourth career three-peat.
Oh yeah: As huge as the addition of Matt Barnes was, Steve Blake was the exactly the player the Lakers needed to help defend their title. Having bounced around the NBA, playing with the Wizards, Trailblazers, Nuggets, Bucks and Clippers, Blake has always found a way onto the court. Blake doesn’t do anything flashy, but he’s just a solid point guard that was brought in to save Derek Fisher’s legs for crunch time.
Oh no: There is not a single move the Lakers could have made differently to improve their team. Even their two second round draft selections (Los Angeles traded away its first rounder) impressed in the summer league. Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter will give the team quality minutes off the bench.
Watch out for: Even more annoying stories about how Bryant, seeking his second career three-peat, is now in the same class as Jordan. Please, Bryant is a talented player, there is no arguing that point, but to say he’s on the same level as Jordan is ridiculous. Jordan never let a series go seven games, wouldn’t shoot 6-for-24 in a Game 7 and Artest wouldn’t of had the two signature plays of the championship run. Jordan is on a level all by himself, can everyone else just admit it too?
Phoenix Suns (45-37)
The Suns will have a hard time remaining the league’s highest scoring team with the departure of Amar’e Stoudemire. Phoenix is trying to offset his departure by bringing in disgruntled Toronto forward Hedo Turkoglu and his predictably unpredictable play. During his tenure with the Orlando Magic, Turkoglu went from free agent bust to the key driving force on a championship team. He played so well during the 2008 playoffs, the Raptors signed him for five-years $53 million, the most Toronto has ever given a free agent in franchise history. A year later, he was tossed aside and is looking to rejuvenate his career alongside Steve Nash. Popular general manager Steve Kerr unexpectedly resigned and the team has been scrambling to assemble a front office ever since. While talented enough to make another playoff run, the Suns can hear the clock ticking on their chance to win a title.
Oh yeah: Phoenix had the bizarro off season of the flawless Lakers. Everything went wrong, they drafted Gani Lawal, a Georgia Tech big man that won’t make any impact this season with their only draft selection, Phoenix has taken a major step back from the team that was the Lakers biggest threat in the division.
Oh no: There is no way Turkoglu and Hakim Warrick will replace the production from Amar’e Stoudemire. Armed with enough cash to lure another premier free agent, the Suns never seemed to be in contention to anyone. Is this a sign owner Robert Sarver and his cost cutting ways have finally caught up to the team? First he forced out Bryan Colangelo, the architect of the 7 Seconds or Less Suns, let coach Mike D’Antoni go to New York and has sold draft picks (In 2004 the team could have added Andre Iguodala, their pick in 2006 became Rajon Rondo) and the departure of Kerr is just the latest sign the team is in turmoil. With Nash’s career coming to an end, Phoenix needs new leadership if it really wants to win the first title in franchise history.
Watch out for: It was a bad year for rookie big men from the Big East. Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet, the second overall selection by the Memphis Grizzles, was sent to the NBDL during the season taking all the attention away from Earl Clark and his struggles in Phoenix. Coming out of Louisville, Clark was expected to be the top backup for the Suns. His skill set was perfect for the team, but showing up out of shape really set his season back. With no set backup for Lopez, Clark needs to elevate his game and has the talent to make an impact.
Los Angeles Clippers (39-43)
For once, the Clippers didn’t put together the worst off season in the Pacific Division. Los Angeles’ Eric Gordon was surprisingly included on the final roster and became one of the best scoring options for the United States squad in the FIBA World Championships. The team made wise decisions on draft day, brought in Vinny Del Negro, who just being someone different is a significant upgrade over Mike Dunleavy, and Blake Griffin is set to finally make his NBA Debut after separating his knee cap last year. For once, it looks like the Clippers may have something to look forward to other than the NBA Draft Lottery.
Oh yeah: Some how, this team didn’t act like the Clippers and sign Tracy McGrady to a five-year $55 million contract this off season, instead, passing on the former scoring champion. It seemed like a huge mistake for the team was imminent when it was announced they would host McGrady in a workout, but give the team credit for not falling into the usual Clipper trap and overpaying for a former superstar. Instead, the team left some minutes available for rookie Al-Farouq Aminu to develop. The Clippers, selecting seventh, selected the only player that can grab a rebound and run the length of the floor, according to Philadelphia team president Rod Thron. For once, the Clippers have the right mix of veterans and young talent on its roster, and the bold prediction for the season is the team will finish sixth in the rugged Western Conference.
Oh no: Donald Sterling still owns the team, so something will go wrong soon enough. Will he be crazy enough to hire Isiah Thomas? With nearly $10 million in cap space, will Sterling splurge off his money by signing Zach Randolph again? Since purchasing the team in 1981, the Clippers have qualified for the playoffs just four times, and advanced to the second round just once. 2010 marks the most talented team the Clippers have ever fielded during Sterling”s tenure, with two former All Stars (Baron Davis and Chris Kaman) one on the verge (Gordon) and a power forward that can become the face of the franchise (Griffin).
Watch out for: Blessed with lightning quick speed and a terrific jump shot, Eric Bledsoe was the most underrated player on Kentucky’s loaded team last season. Playing behind Gordon and Davis puts Beldsoe in a perfect situation, an instant energy player off the bench that can score and distribute, much like Will Bynum in Detroit. The Clippers made a terrific decision to trade for Bledsoe in exchange for a future first round draft selection.
Golden State Warriors (38-44)
The most dysfunctional franchise in the NBA, and possibly all of sports, over the past 25 years finally has some front office stability. Joe Lacob and Mandalay Entertainment CEO Peter Guber agreed to buy the club for $450 million, the largest sum ever paid to buy a team in league history. Former owner Chris Cohan purchased the Warriors in 1995 and the team only made one playoff appearance (2007) during his tenure, the only team in the league that failed to make multiple playoff appearances during that span. The new owners have plenty of talent to build around with a terrific back court duo, Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis. The new duo wasted no time, landing one of the top free agent power forwards and changing the logo and uniforms to become the coolest in the league. Of course when talking about the Warriors, the roster, and the season, has already taken a huge hit by losing Ekpe Udoh, the sixth overall pick in the draft, for at least six months with a wrist injury.
Oh yeah: The team landed the perfect power forward for their up-tempo offense, adding David Lee from New York. As the only bright spot on the Knicks for the past few years, Lee is a walking double-double, and having never played with talented guards before, will thrive even more alongside Ellis and Curry. As the only free agent with extensive experience playing for a troubled franchise, the new ownership and Lee give each other the fresh beginning both desperately need. After securing the long-term deal he’s been seeking, Lee will put up even better numbers than the 20.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game he averaged a year ago.
Oh no: The new ownership simply has to replace coach Don Nelson, who became the all-time winningest coach in league history last season. While the accomplishment sounds impressive, Nelson has never won a championship and with good reason. Leading the Warriors to their only post season appearance in the past 16 years, eighth-seeded Golden State knocked off the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks for one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. The Oracle Arena housed one of the best fan bases in the league and everyone was buzzing about the Warriors finally turning the corner. Armed with a young but talented roster, Nelson never capitalized after the 2007 season. Often refusing to play young players (like Anthony Randolph, who was told by Nelson to seek a trade away from the team during his rookie season) and often tormented his team by jerking around everyone’s playing time. It was clear towards the end of the season Nelson was selfishly gunning for the wins record. With such a young team, Nelson simply isn’t the right fit to make a playoff run.
Watch out for: The Warriors can put the ball in the basket, averaging 108 points per game last season and the scoring punch won’t stop with Ellis and Curry out of the game. Second-year guard Reggie Williams (not to be confused with the former Jaguars receiver) played only 24 games last season but still managed 15 points per game. The virtual unknown guard from the Virginia Military Institute is the ultimate fantasy sleeper.
Sacramento Kings (29-53)
Tyreke Evans submitted one of the finest professional debuts in NBA history. Averaging 20 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game, he joined Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and LeBron James as the only rookies to post those numbers in securing a Rookie of the Year nod for himself. The only problem is most of the country hasn’t seen what Evans can do on the court, as Sacramento never appeared on TNT, ESPN or ABC, so on the East Coast, the only time fans could see the Kings is when they came to their home city. This season, Sacramento hosts with the Lakers (Nov. 3 on ESPN) and will be showcased nationally during road game against the Clippers (Nov. 25 on TNT) and when Nuggets come to Arco Arena (Jan. 6 on TNT) giving everyone a chance to see why Evans was the top rookie last season.
Oh yeah: Sacramento landed John Wall’s biggest challenger for Rookie of the Year, by selecting his Kentucky teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, fifth overall. Only three times in NBA history has a team selected consecutive Rookie of the Year winners, but Cousins is the most talented center to enter the NBA since Dwight Howard was drafted six years ago. If Evans and Cousins can mesh together, the Kings could make a surprise playoff run.
On no: If there was any doubt the Kings need to relocate, this summer was it. With plenty of cap space, not one free agent seemed to even entertain the possibility of going to Sacramento. The team has been unsuccessful trying to negotiate for a new stadium in California’s capital city. The team has plenty of options for relocation, as Seattle has a glaring need for an NBA franchise, but the Kings are also considering Las Vegas and Anaheim as possible destinations.
Watch out for: A Samuel Dalembert trade. As the highest paid player ($12 million) on the team with the second lowest payroll in the league, behind Minnesota, the Kings could bring back some talent for a team looking to get under the salary cap.
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