HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — In our Wednesday Blogtable, the NBA.com staff agreed — with the lone exception of esteemed colleague Aldo Avinante in the Philippines office — that the Los Angeles Lakers, even with the return of a bullish Kobe Bryant, will not make the playoffs.
This seemed like a pretty easy call. Carlos Boozer and Swaggy P. just don’t scream Showtime. Meanwhile, the Western Conference threatens to be more ferocious this season than last.
But what if the question had asked if the Phoenix Suns will make the playoffs? Or if the New Orleans Pelicans with ascending star Anthony Davis can break through? Or if a Ricky Rubio–Andrew Wiggins combo can end the Minnesota Timberwolves’ long postseason drought? Or if the don’t-sleep-on-the-Denver-Nuggets, with Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee (don’t laugh) and others coming back from injury, plus the return of near-All-Star Arron Afflalo, can climb the ladder? Sorry Kings fans, but I’m leaving out the (maturing?) DeMarcus Cousins and Co. in this discussion.
Would any of these teams have lessened the majority of naysayers?
For one team to sneak in, one must slide out.
The regular season in the West might only be good for a reshuffling of last season’s top eight. An argument can be made that among those eight only Houston came out of the summer weakened, and even then some contend that swapping of Chandler Parsons for Trevor Ariza will aid the Rockets’ lacking perimeter defense and thus make it a better overall outfit.
The Spurs return their championship squad in full to attack the task of repeating for the first time in the everlasting Tim Duncan–Gregg Popovich era. Oklahoma City will welcome a full season of a fully healthy Russell Westbrook. The Clippers are pumped to play for an energetic new owner. The talented Trail Blazers added veteran depth.
At positions six through eight, Golden State is free of last season’s distractions, the Grizzlies cleaned out the front office and solidified coach Dave Joerger. The Mavericks stole offensive flamethrower Parsons from Houston and added defensive anchor Tyson Chandler.
So which of those teams possibly falls out?
And if one does, which team is poised to snag the spot?
Here are my choices for the teams that will be circling:
1. New Orleans Pelicans
Everybody in The Big Easy is knocking on wood. Surely this team is in store for good health after last season’s injury apocalypse. The Pelicans added rim-protector Omer Asik and coach Monty Williams will presumably start Asik — disgruntled as a reserve in Houston — alongside Davis. That could cause some lane cloggage, but it would finally allow Davis to become entrenched at power forward. Sharpshooter Ryan Anderson, who played in only 22 games last season, point guard Jrue Holiday, an All-Star for Philadelphia two seasons ago but played in only 34 games last season, plus combo guards Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon all have plenty to prove. The hope is good health and continuity will produce a dynamic offense and improved defense to fuel this young team into the playoff picture. Knock on wood.
2. Phoenix Suns
For as surprising and spectacularly entertaining as the Suns were last season, there are concerns that they can improve upon a 48-win season that left them one game out of the eighth spot. Phoenix lost stretch-4 Channing Frye in free agency and it’s only proven offseason addition was diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas in a trade with Sacramento. Thomas presumably will be used to initiate instant offense off the bench behind the starting backcourt of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Only at this moment we don’t even know if the talented (but feeling disrespected) Bledsoe will be with the team as the restricted free agent seeks a much bigger deal than the Suns are willing to pony up. The Suns are loaded with young prospects and picks to make an in-season deal, but such trades can be difficult to make work within the flow of the season.
3. Denver Nuggets
Considering the injuries and adversity (i.e. Andre Miller saga) Brian Shaw faced in his first season, that the Nuggets won 36 games seems something of a minor miracle. The return of Gallinari after missing all of last season with an ACL injury suffered late in the 2012-13 season, will be huge. Affalo was a nifty reacquisition, Nate Robinson will be back healthy and I still hold out hope (fool me once, fool me twice…) that basketball’s Benny Hill, the 7-foot McGee, will see the light. Point guard Ty Lawson and forward Kenneth Faried (now looking to nail down a spot with Team USA) had excellent seasons under Shaw. With Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Timofey Mozgov and J.J. Hickson, Denver, which should easily improve upon its 22-19 home record) could quickly find itself back in the mix.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
If this were a movie we’d all be watching with a box of Kleenex and desperately awaiting the happy ending. I had this bunch pegged as a playoff team the last two summers. Yet any joy in Mudville might still be a couple years away. Kevin Love‘s days with the franchise appear down to single digits. The good news for glum Wolves fans is the return brings the optimism of youthful and athletic No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins. Rubio showed toward the end of last season that he’s finally overcome the mental hurdle of his devastating ACL injury from a couple seasons ago. Glancing at Rubio, Wiggins, Kevin Martin, Nikolai Pekovic, Corey Brewer, exciting 2014 first-round pick Zach LaVine and the emergence of 2013 first-rounder Gorgui Dieng, and the Wolves might at least hold down a top spot on the League Pass must-watch list.