If you missed the first part of our NBA Preview on Wednesday, click here for a breakdown of the Eastern Conference from top to bottom. Today? We take a closer look at Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Clippers' plan for world domination, the Lakers' contingency plans, KD and Oklahoma City, and of course, Dirk and the defending champs. But first let's all get depressed.
15. Utah Jazz: "At Least In Sacramento They Have Jimmer And Alcohol"
When you see a Jazz dunk in the preseason and think, "That might end up being the highlight of their entire season," it probably doesn't bode well for what's coming next. But hey, it was a hell of a dunk.
14. Sacramento Kings: "At Least We're Not In Utah?"
As perfect as the Hornets mess was in terms of exposing the NBA's hypocrisy, the true litmus tests for small markets is a team like the Kings. New Orleans has a lot of backing from both the NBA and the state of Louisiana that gives them a safety net. Sactown lives in a harsher reality, as we saw with last year's almost-heist by the Maloofs. The city loves them, but the owners are broke and looking for a quick fix, and David Stern's not going to bend over backwards to save the market. Meanwhile the foundation's there on the court. Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins have more talent than any young duo this side of Oklahoma City, and even if it doesn't translate to wins this year, one day it should. Particularly if they add a true point guard and another big man to take pressure off Cousins, there's a foundation that could get dangerous.
The question is whether A) The Kings are still in Sacramento when it happens, and B) Tyreke stays with Sacramento long enough to let it happen. Time will tell, and the answers will be telling.
13. New Orleans Hornets: "More Like Al-Farouq Amin-WOO!"
Good news: The Hornets got good value in the CP3 trade and between the players they got and the picks they'll have this year, there's reason for optimism. For instance, Al-Farouq Aminu may not look like the second coming of LeBron, but he could be a lockdown defender and a tough matchup on offense, and if he puts it all together, he could become one of the most effective, if unspectacular, forwards in the league. He's got a lot of tools, and the potential to evolve into a real weapon.
Bad news: Even with all the tools he has, if you were betting on whether Al-Farouq Aminu ever actually fulfills that potential, you'd probably bet no, right? Right now, for better or worse, Al-Farouq Aminu personifies the future in New Orleans.
12. Phoenix Suns: "[Robert Sarver Farts In Steve Nash's Face]"
He's well-read and a pretty vocal pacifist, so maybe Steve Nash is emulating Gandhi with his peaceful resistance in Phoenix. But A) it isn't working, and B) Gandhi also said this:
It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.
EVEN GANDHI THINKS STEVE SHOULD DEMAND A TRADE.
He should force his way to New York like, yesterday. Nobody will blame him. We all agree that it's pretty depressing that one of the greatest players of this generation is spending the twilight of his career passing to Channing Frye and Mickael Pietrus. He should do it for our sanity, if not his own.
11. Houston Rockets: "David Stern's Lies And The Lying Liars That Tell Them"
Okay, it's one thing to take David Stern to task for completely hijacking an otherwise fair trade, indulging in a blatant conflict of interest, and screwing two of his most competent franchises for the sake of appeasing a bunch of owners who'd rather complain than compete. To make matters worse, Stern's completely denied there was ever a trade. There was no hijack, he tells us, because there was never a trade.
If you're listening to all this in Houston, it's understandable that you'd be pissed off. But this was probably a blessing in disguise for the Rockets. If Daryl Morey's "master plan" really consisted of landing 31-year-old Pau Gasol and then adding Nene, then Daryl Morey was about to set back the Rockets a lot more than David Stern ever could have. Even if the trade goes through, and even if both of those players stay healthy, where's that put Houston? The No. 7 seed? Six, maybe? Houston got screwed, but not that screwed. If the goal is winning a title, the Rockets need to start over. They've needed to start over for three years now, and Pau Gasol wasn't going to change any of that.
10. Golden State Warriors: "We're On A Mission From God"
Take it from someone who spent a solid five years talking himself into Gilbert Arenas as a franchise cornerstone ... Building around a combo guard is fun, but it's kinda like going out and ordering only tequila all night. There's a reason nobody does that. It's really fun. It always ends badly.
Get a jack-and-coke and a real two-guard. Have a beer, draft a big man.
Or to put it another way: when the future of the franchise depends on the choice between the point guard who allegedly sent a picture of his penis to a team employee and the point guard who posed for this wedding picture, there are no right answers. But if there's one guy who knows how to figure all this out, it's Mark Jackson. He's on a mission from God, after all.
9. Minnesota T'Wolves: "I ... I Can't Feel My Face. I Can Touch It, But I Can't Feel It."
You can understand if Wolves fans are having trouble processing all this. No fan base has been more tortured over the past few seasons, but with hope for the future that kept getting snatched away, replaced instead with another idiotic David Kahn quote. This year should be different.
They may not make the playoffs and there's a decent chance that ninth is a little optimistic, and yes, David Kahn is still the most incompetent GM alive. But Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams and Kevin Love will be so f'ing fun to watch. So much fun that it won't even matter if they succeed this year. Because for the first time in years, Minnesota basketball fans have raw-and-uncut hope, and a reason to get excited about watching basketball. That high won't last forever, but it'll be enough to keep everyone happy for at least this season.
(But seriously can you imagine this team if Kahn had drafted DeMarcus Cousins?)
(Sorry Wolves fans. Carry on.)
8. San Antonio Spurs: "Only For A Moment And The Moment's Gone"
If you're ever comparing NBA players to rappers, remember, Tim Duncan is Kansas.
7. Memphis Grizzlies: "GRIT N' GRIND"
If you're ever comparing NBA superstars to rappers, remember, Zach Randolph is Rick Ross, Tony Allen is Juicy J, Rudy Gay is J Cole, Mike Conley is Kurupt, O.J. Mayo is Memphis Bleek, Marc Gasol is Little Brother, and ... Hamed Haddadi has gotta be DJ Khaled, right?
6. Dallas Mavericks: "We're Still Drunk!"
And they should be. What the Mavs did during last year's playoffs was probably the coolest story the NBA's seen in the past decade, and if Dirk Nowitzki has no idea where he is right now, then good for him. They added Delonte West and Lamar Odom to the mix this offseason, but their biggest problem is in the middle, where they lost Tyson Chandler. I wrote last year that as amazing as Dirk was, Tyson Chandler was the guy who put them over the top. He pounded the boards on both ends, and most importantly, he's single-handedly kept the Mavs from getting murdered in the paint against Miami. Now he's gone.
Factor in the schedule taking its toll on aging team, guys like Shawn Marion and Jason Terry coming back to earth, and it's hard to see the Mavs finishing much higher than the 4-6 range in the regular season. But when the playoffs arrive, bet against Dirk at your own risk.
5. L.A. Lakers: "Do You Like Phil Collins?"
The Lakers are a mess. Trading Lamar Odom may have seemed like an afterthought in the wake of the Chris Paul trade, but it essentially killed this team as we know it. Odom's greatest value was his ability to step in and spell guys like Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol when they were injured. Or, say, a guy like Kobe Bryant. On an aging, delicate roster, Odom was the spare wheel that kept things running smoothly whenever someone got a flat tire.
Now that wheel's gone, and unless they swing a trade for Dwight Howard, it's hard to imagine them contending this season. I think that'll happen around the trade deadline, which is why they're fifth here. But it'd be more fun if it doesn't because Kobe Bryant is a lot more fun as a fringe weirdo fading into the sunset than as a contender we have to take seriously.
One game I like play with Kobe involves watching American Psycho clips and pretending that Kobe is saying all the lines. It works better than you think. For instance:
"I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don't know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip."
And once you get going, you can go deeper with it:
"I think their undisputed masterpiece is "Hip to be Square", a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it's not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it's also a personal statement about the band itself."
Can't you picture Kobe being irrationally passionate about Huey Lewis and the News? Basically what I'm saying is, even if the Lakers don't get Dwight Howard and wind up turning into a shell of their former selves, we'll still have a lot of fun with Kobe over the next few years. And yeah, I like to think this is how he introduced himself to Darius Morris this year.
"There is an idea of a Kobe Bryant; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real Kobe: only an entity, something illusory. And though Kobe can hide his cold gaze, and you can shake his hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable... Kobe simply is not there."
4. Portland Trail Blazers: "Keep Portland Weirdly Competitive, Always"
There will be two factors that give teams a clear advantage in the 66-game season. First, it favors younger, deeper teams. So, exactly like the Blazers. Second, it will favor teams who play their ass off every night. Where other teams will concede games sporadically, teams who kill themselves on a nightly basis will be able to steal three or four games' worth of leverage. And one thing you can always say about Portland under Nate McMillan, they play their ass off. . Even when they have have built-in excuses to give up. Likewise, the fans in Portland goes nuts for every single home game. All of it -- combined with LaMarcus Aldridge continuing to become the best big offensive big man in the league -- adds up to the Blazers sneaking up on a lot of good teams, and finishing better than anyone expected.
3. Denver Nuggets: "Mozgov >>> Melo"
All of the analysis for the Blazers applies here as well, but with the added bonus of the altitude in Denver wreaking havoc on already-exhausted visiting teams. The Nuggets aren't the third best team in this conference, but they're closer than you think, and in this regular season, they have exactly what it takes to jump in front of teams like the Mavs and Lakers. At least til the playoffs.
2. L.A. Clippers: "Your New Favorite Team, Your New Favorite Player"
Oh man. Nobody's totally prepared for how much the world will fall in love with this team in 2012. Their origins were just scandalous enough to get everyone tuning in, and once you watch the Clippers for even a few minutes, that's it. They're the anti-Heat. We've only seen two preseason games, but so far the miracle is this: There's never been an NBA team whose genesis inspired such rampant cynicism, and yet, it's impossible to watch the Clippers and come away anything but elated about where pro basketball is in 2011.
And with all due respect to Blake Griffin, all this comes back to CP3. People may tune in to see Blake, but they'll come away raving about Paul. Everyone knows he's one of the best players in the league, but a lot of casual fans have missed out on the singular joy that is watching tear apart an opposing defense all night long.
For that matter, in the era of the combo guard, a lot of fans have missed out on the singular joy of watching a great point guard just go to work for 48 minutes. It'll never get old watching a pudgy little guy like CP wreak havoc on guys twice as big and entire defenses dedicated to stopping him.
He wasn't 100 percent last year in New Orleans, but even when he turned in one of the most stupidly dominant playoff series we've ever seen from a point guard, half those games happened at 11 o'clock Eastern time. Now, though? The Clippers are everyone's reason to stay up late, and Paul's about to go from one of the most underappreciated stars in the NBA to maybe its most popular. And all this is why he'd have been a fool to stay in New Orleans.
We still have reasons to worry, obviously. A few:
- Vinny Del Negro. "But a team like this coaches itself!" you say. Ah, but not if the coach gets in the way first! We should all give VDN the benefit of the doubt (I guess?), but he underachieved in Chicago with Derrick Rose -- the Bulls won an extra 21 games the year after he left -- and even last year's Clippers were about 10 games worse than they should have been. This will be a harder team to underachieve with, but if anyone can find a way ...
- It's the f**ing Clippers. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul both had season-ending injuries two seasons ago. Given the franchise history, the stench of Donald Sterling that lingers over everything out there, we should all knock on wood after any Clippers game that ends with no calamities.
- Defense. They will need to do that, eventually.
But you know what? Screw it. No reason to lighten the mood with any healthy dose of skepticism. For now let's just enjoy this while it lasts, and see where it goes in May and June. That's the beauty of this Clippers team; we really have no idea what's going to happen here. But it's gonna be fun.
[/furiously knocks on wood]
1. Oklahoma City: "Your Old Favorite Team Is Getting Older."
... And while everyone freaks out about the Clippers, the Thunder have a chance to start the year without deafening hype, and with a chance to remember why they love playing together. Obviously we're talking about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook here.
Bill Simmons has said a thousand different times that the Thunder could be headed for an "Avon/Stringer showdown" between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but that's the wrong Wire analogy to choose. The Thunder already belong to Kevin Durant, and if there's a battle being waged, it's between Russell Westbrook and the rest of the world. If he's a Wire character, as I wrote during the playoffs last year, he's Boadie.
Now it's nine months later, and we still don't know whether Westbrook can change. But there are two factors working in OKC's favor. First, Kevin Durant just enjoyed another summer of touring the country and basking in the glow of his (rising) stardom. He understands now more than ever that he's one of the five best basketball players on earth. If Westbrook tries to takeover this year, Durant may not give up the ball so easy.
Likewise, if you're betting on whether Westbrook can evolve--or predicting the NBA Title based on it--you gotta have faith that a 23-year-old has plenty of room to mature and understand his role.
If he evolves, the Thunder become the favorites in the West. They've got the deepest, youngest team in the NBA, and they're probably the most talented from top to bottom, too. Kendrick Perkins should be healthier this year, and that much better as an anchor for them down low. And in a year where everyone's endurance is going to be tested, this is as good a time as any for the torch to be passed from one generation to the next. As long as Russell Westbrook plays along, KD continues progressing, and everyone else stays healthy, it'll be OKC on the receiving end.
And just for the hell of it, some quick picks...
- MVP: Chris Paul
- Rookie of the Year: Derrick Williams
- All-NBA: Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard
- DPOY: Dwight Howard
- Coach of the Year: Frank Vogel
- Finals: Thunder over Heat in 6.
Now, everyone have an awesome holiday, and enjoy the games. HARK THE HERALD ANGELS SING, AND OH GOD IT SOUNDS LIKE BASKETBALL. IT'S A CHRISTMAS MIRACLE, YOU GUYS.