Identity Crisis: Los Angeles: Lakers and Clippers Season Previews

The Los Angeles Lakers championship banners will not be seen inside Staples Center during Clippers games this season. The teams have shared the stadium since the 1999-2000 season but, of the two, the ‘Lake Show’ is the team that’s attained any accolades worthy of presenting to the audience at Staples.

“This is our arena when we play,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said when asked about the banners. “So I just thought it would be good that we show our guys. No disrespect to them (Lakers). But when we play, it’s the Clippers’ arena as far as I know.”

Was it the personality and credentials of the championship coach, or the talented Clipper roster, that makes hiding the Lakers’ championship banners low-er key news in the NBA preseason? The ’99 season is also the year Rivers entered the league as a head coach, when he was awarded Coach of the Year honors coaching the Orlando Magic. The Clippers are the considerable favorite to win the Western Conference, and the Lakers will likely be left on the outside, watching on, as their inner city foes battle in the postseason. Maybe it’s the dwindling window for former prolific superstars Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, of the Lakers, to make a final run at a championship — the trio of veterans don’t have many competitive seasons remaining in the tank. However; this is only the fate until the Black Mamba makes his return, that’s when the purple and gold plan to re-evaluate their success.

Nash or Gasol certainly aren’t strangers to leadership or Superstar roles, but fitting  the pieces fit with Nick Young , Chris Kayman, Xavier Henry and Jordan Farmar is a tall task to ask of any tandem. The four role players combined to average 49 points this preseason.

Lakers’ head coach Mike D’Antoni was asked by the media if Bryant would be available for the season opener — SI’s Point Forward shared his answer.

“No, my God,” D’Antoni replied, when asked if Bryant would play. “I know he’s Superman, but my God. He hasn’t run yet.”

 

Photo Credit Sam Amick

Photo Credit Sam Amick

 

How will the Clippers respond to the opportunity to take the town by storm? Blake Griffin, destined to be one of the most thrilling high-flying dunkers the league has ever seen, states that the team’s former alias, “Lob City,” has gone by the wayside.

“Lob City doesn’t exist anymore. Lob City is done,” Griffin said, via ESPN LA. “We’re moving on and we’re going to find our identity during training camp and that will be our new city. No more Lob City.”

My question to Griffin; why not? It’s understandable to be humble in the presence of an all-time great coaching staff, but to go away from ‘lob city’ is sheer lunacy — that’s where the offense lives. This is a play from last season — the starting power forward throws an ally-oop to the starting center (DeAndre Jordan) in transition. 

When the Clippers can’t get looks in transition they’ll rely heavily on pick and roll plays featuring all pro point guard Chris Paul, the clip below shows P&R sequences from a post season game against the Grizzlies.

Notice that when bigs Jordan or Griffin are unable to lift-off to receive an ally oop, sixth man of the year contender Jordan Crawford or Chauncey Billups is on the perimeter for a spot-up look at a three-point shot, or a pump fake away from an open lane to the basket for layup or opportunity for a rimrocking smash.

Billups since has returned to his former team, the Detroit Pistons, but the Clips brought aboard 39 percent lifetime three-point specialist J.J Redick. Redick played the second half of last season with the Milwaukee Bucks, theoretically the move by L.A. is an upgrade based simply on previous circumstances. He’s never shot worse than he did playing for the Bucks last season.

Tonight’s game at the Staples Center is a home game for the Lakers, though that didn’t make a difference last season as the Clippers swept the season series between the teams. The Clippers are all business this season, while the their in-town counterparts just hope to steady the ship until their longtime captain returns. Will the tabloids turn on the Clippers this season as they would if the Lakers were a championship contender? How much worse can it be for D’antoni, Nash, Gasol and the Superstar in question — Kobe?

Tune in to TNT at 10:30PM EST tonight, as these two teams open the NBA, and chapter one of their 2013-2014 rivalry against each other in prime time tonight.  And make sure to catch these two live this here by purchasing Clippers tickets and Lakers tickets for the 2013-14 regular season.

Sacramento Kings Season Preview: An Era of New Beginnings

Earlier this May the NBA Board of Governors unanimously voted to sell the majority of the Sacramento Kings to an ownership group, led by a man named Vivek Ranadive, keeping the team in California. Though the people of ‘Sactown’ are excited about retaining the franchise, they’ll be lucky to see their squad win 30 games this season. Keeping professional basketball in the state’s capital marks the beginning of a painful rebuilding process, but fans can look forward to the Kings’ promising future as a fixture in the league.

The feel good story aside, it’s going to be a long year for the Kings.

Sacramento’s head coach is also starting a new beginning; Michael Malone joins the team after spending the previous two seasons under Mark Jackson in Golden State. He’s also spent time with Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets and the New York Knicks. Voted best assistant coach by the league’s general managers, Malone is defensive minded — and he’s got his work cut-out for him with this roster.

Projecting a starting-five for this team is a headache, especially when thinking about the point guard. Greivis Vasquez, a third year player from the University of Maryland, is 26 years old, has lifetime averages of 14 points and 9 assists per game and is anticipated to be the starting point guard on opening night. But don’t tell that to Isaiah Thomas, who had 21 points in Wednesday night’s preseason, come from behind, victory against the Golden State Warriors. Thomas also played more minutes, had more rebounds and less turnovers than Vasquez. When going off the numbers from last season, deciding on a facilitator is a tough call for Coach Malone to make, as neither player is the type to conceded the starting role.

Rk Player Season Age G GS FG% 3P% 2P% FT% TRB AST TOV PF PTS
1 Isaiah Thomas 2012-13 23 79 62 .440 .358 .491 .882 2.0 4.0 1.8 2.1 13.9
2 Greivis Vasquez 2012-13 26 78 78 .433 .342 .462 .805 4.3 9.0 3.2 2.4 13.9
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 10/24/2013.
Vasquez spent last season with the New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans), and came to the Kings in a trade for Tyreke Evans. Evans was the team’s third leading scorer last season by averaging 15 points per game. How will Sacramento replace his production? Seventh overall pick in this summer’s draft, Ben McLemore.

Oct 23, 2013; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas (22) pulls up for a shot during the fourth quarter of the game against the Golden State Warriors at Sleep Train Arena. The Sacramento Kings defeated the Golden State Warriors 91-90. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

McLemore averaged nearly 20 points per 40 minutes at the University of Kansas last season, but despite being an exciting player in terms of upside and potential — it will take time before he becomes a prolific scorer. Through six preseason games, he’s averaging 12 ppg on 48 percent shooting from the field and has hit 40 percent of his attempts from downtown. He’ll need to be more aggressive off-the-dribble and getting to the line; McLemore’s only taken 11 free-throws, 8 of his 72 points this preseason have come from the charity stripe — an average of less than two FT’s per game. His predecessor, Evans, averaged six-and-a-half attempts from the line his rookie season. Expect the rookie to start the year coming off the bench; veteran Marcus Thornton will get the nod at shooting guard, for now.

The anchor of the ship in Sactown – DeMarcus Cousins –  is an unstable one, to say the least. Last month Cousins signed a contract extension worth 60 million dollars, a pretty penny for a player who led the league in technical fouls last season (17). He ranked 9th in rebounding, a positive, but needs to continue to improve to be more than just a 20 point, 10 rebound guy if he wants to carry the Kings to more than 30 wins this season. He hasn’t shown the ability to be a leader, in fact, his attitude may have cost him a higher draft selection (5th), and has had him sent off by former coach Paul Westphal. Plus, he’s not a player fans will get behind if there’s no improvement to his ethic.

Other offseason additions include Carl Landry, Luc Mbah a Moute and Ray McCallum.

It’s tough to tell if this team will be the sneaky good scoring squad they were last season with an offense that ranked 12th in the NBA. Their most pressing however, issue is still defending, which ranked 28th. Playing in the Western Conference, more specifically the Pacific division, the Kings must find success against the Phoenix Suns, Portland Trailblazers, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers -teams on the downslide in the West- if they want to improve off a 7-9 division record from last season or a conference worst 14-38. Where Sacramento must really improve is on the road, both the Kings and the division-dwelling Suns were 8-33 on the road, only the Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards were worse away from home last season.

Malone has work to do, though it must be nice having the support of Mayor Kevin Johnson (a former NBA All-Star), in addition to the city of Sacramento, as the Kings await a new stadium and a new beginning to Basketball in California’s capitol.

”You guys know that Sacramento has a fighting spirit.  Our fans show up every game and they fight tirelessly for their team.  Our community has had their back against the wall on more than one occasion and this is going to be no different.  We’ve done the impossible.  We kept the team from going to Anaheim.  We came up with a financing plan last year that was a win for the Maloofs, it was a win for the NBA and it was a win for the city and here we are with another opportunity.  And I expect us to do everything that we can possibly do to come out victorious. – Kevin Johnson, before it was determined the Kings were staying in Sacramento.

Phoenix Suns Season Preview: Bright on the Surface

A promising point guard, a new head coach and new uniforms merely changes the appearance from the outside looking in at the Phoenix Suns. The surface is a mirage; there’s a playoff drought in the Valley of the Sun.

The offense couldn’t score – only the Wizards’ Offensive Rating ranked lower – and sitting in U.S. Airways Arena was like taking a bath in lukewarm water. When the Suns actually managed to score, the 22nd ranked defense became their demise. Eric Bledsoe, a 24 year old point guard Phoenix acquired by trade from the Los Angeles Clippers, is the new star amongst the Suns and is responsible for generating heating from the team’s core.

Michael Beasley’s potential promised a bright future. However, bringing him aboard prior to the 2012 season was a mistake by the Suns. His flame appropriately burnt out in August, rather than fading away into free agency, and Beasley’s old habits died hard when he arrested for possession of marijuana.

PHOTO: Scottsdale PD

PHOTO: Scottsdale PD

Jared Dudley, the team’s sniper, shot 39 percent from long range last season and was sent to the Clippers in the deal to attain Bledsoe.

Other Subtractions: Wes Johnson, Luis Scola, Jermaine O’Neal and Hamed Haddadi.

Losses in production

  • Departure of 2nd, 4th, 6th and 7th most productive scorers

  • 46 points per game

  • 24 rebounds per game

  • 34 years NBA experience

 

It’s as if acquiring Johnson and Beasley from the Minnesota Timberwolves was no accident, did the team want to tank? Tanking is a trending debate league wide but (for now) Phoenix isn’t going to be a franchise participating in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes this season. I’d like to think I have the support of the Suns’ Slovenian guard, Goran Dragic.

Dragic was ballin’ this summer during FIBA’s EuroBasket World Cup Qualifier — his 16 points per game was the fourth highest in the tournament, his 5 and-a-half-assists ranked 3rd of all competitors. International competition meant going against the likes of Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Tony Parker, Nick Batum and Alexey Shved and many other talented players — it wasn’t easy out there for Dragic. Here’s his monster 28 point performance against Greece.

Can a Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt exist? I believe so, can it carry the Suns to more than 30 wins this season? No, I don’t. Dragic essentially evolved into a point guard, adapting to a role teams needed him to play; neither he nor Bledsoe are naturals at the point.

 Bledsoe had this to say at Suns practice earlier this month.

“I just like making plays,” Bledsoe said. “I have a tendency to try to make the touchdown play instead of the right pass and let that person make the other play. It’s a process.”

The Suns need perimeter shooting and instant offense — Bledsoe has the potential to provide both. He’ll have an opportunity to show the league he’s more than just a roleplayer and will be the starting shooting guard at the beginning of the season. If he performs, he’ll have gained some continuity around the league and the Suns would gladly make him part of their future when the time comes at the end of the season to renegotiate his rookie contract.

Channing Frye, who attended high school at St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, theoretically helps improve the Suns’ 33 percent three-point shooting from last year with his return to the team. The lifetime 39 percent shooter didn’t play last season because of a heart ailment that threatened his life during strenuous activity. If he plays similar to how he did in the 2010-2011 season — he’ll help this team win. Frye shot 172 of 392 (39%) from downtown, he’s a set shooter who can hit from anywhere, shown by the heat chart below.

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 7.06.11 AM

 

The Suns drafting Alex Len in the first round of the draft signifies the imminent departure of the one known as the Polish Hammer; Marcin Gortat. Len is a 7-foot 1-inch center from the University of Maryland. He runs the floor well and is capable of playing above the rim with ease, in addition to being versatile in the post – both offensively and defensively. Plus, he’s only 20 years old, so he’ll continue to grow and develop as well as contribute in certain aspects of the game immediately.

He’s coordinated, which isn’t always the case with younger players his age and size, with a skillset for playing back to the basket as well spotting up from the 15-feet area around, and in, the lane. The importance of having a mid range game as an NBA center cannot be overstated. Len’s 65 percent shooting on non-post up attempt came mostly in pick-n-pop and pick-n-roll situations. He’ll see plenty of the same opportunities playing the P&R/P&P game with Dragic. (As we saw in the video, the lefty loves that type of game.) Len shot 38 percent in post up situations last year, a number that must improve to succeed as a professional. Some of that, however, was because of Maryland’s mediocre roster — he didn’t have much help.

Len and Gortat won’t play aside each other and will rotate time with Miles Plumlee, another young center with above average skills as a big man. Gortat is owed a little over 7-and-a-half million this season and becomes an unrestricted free-agent at the end of the year. He’ll be shopped throughout the year, and the rumor mill will churn fastest near the trade deadline. Assuming Gortat can produce as he’s done in the past, he’ll be picked up by a competitor looking to improve by adding a solid P&R/P&R veteran. It’s time to rebuild in Phoenix.

 

Shannon+Brown+New+Orleans+Hornets+v+Phoenix+hh3mNPb2TlQl

Within 10 years the Suns have appeared in three conference finals. Fans saw Steve Nash win consecutive Most Valuable Player awards operating, arguably, the most prolific offense in league history. Unfortunately, it’s going to be a considerable amount of time before this team sniffs the playoffs or has a player in the MVP conversation. Historically the team’s been competitive and has never endured more than a five-year postseason drought. Though that record might be in jeopardy, as an absence in the upcoming season would be the fourth straight for the Suns.

It’s now time for patience in Phoenix, this franchise needs some time before they’re able to heat up with the same energy of their teams in the past.

Golden State Warriors Season Preview: The Next Step

May 12, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) reacts after making a three point basket against the San Antonio Spurs in the first quarter in game four of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors wore glass slippers to the NBA playoffs last season. After starting the season 25-15, Mark Jackson’s young squad dropped 20 of the final 42 games, earning the sixth-seed in the Western Conference. Following an opening round upset over the Denver Nuggets, the clock struck midnight on Golden State — the Warriors fell at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. Overwhelmed by the Spurs’ depth and experience, and in addition to missing a key-component, Golden State was simply gassed and out of firepower to keep up with San Antonio.

Was it the inexperience preventing the Warriors late season and playoff success? Or was it the exciting and up-tempo play?

Playing at the fourth-fastest pace (the number of possessions a team uses per game) in the NBA, Golden State’s 101-points per game last year ranked seventh amongst the league. The Warriors, however, hope to play even faster this season.

“Our style is going to be similar, but I’d like to push the ball even more,” Jackson said during the team’s media day. “We’ve got versatility and the ability to get the ball off the rim and push it and make plays. There are so many weapons around the floor.”

Key Offseason Additions: Andre Iguodala, Toney Douglas, Jermaine O’Neal, Marreese Speights, Nemanja Nedovic and Seth Curry.

Subtractions: Andris Biedrins, Jarrett Jack, Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry and Brandon Rush

Though veterans Jack, Jefferson, Laundry and Rush were all essential to the success of the team’s bench last season, the Warriors addressed the holes in the depth chart with capable, more affordable backups. O’Neal and Speights will be the back-up bigs to Bogut (who always seems injured) and (currently injured) center Festus Ezeli, who may not return until January after having knee surgery in the offseason. Douglas, brought in on a one-year deal worth 1.6 million, played with the New York Knicks his first three-seasons in the league and lands in the Bay Area after appearing in 22-games for the Sacramento Kings last season. He’ll likely handle most of the point guard responsibility behind Steph Curry.

The likelihood of taking down the Goliath-like Spurs may not have been so slim had the Warriors not lost David Lee in the first game of the postseason. Lee, entering his ninth season, led the league in double-double’s last year and was Golden State’s only All Star selection. His feel good story ended abruptly in the first game of the opening round after tearing a hip flexor. Lee’s absence was another reason the clock struck midnight on the Warriors playoff-ball last season. Because of the injury to Lee, youngsters Harrison Barnes (21) and Draymond Green (23) played significant minutes on the league’s biggest stage; reinforcing roster depth lost with the departures of Rush, Laundry and Jefferson.

Though Barnes playing the power forward added to the electric atmosphere within Oracle Arena, those moments are gone — for now. With Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, Bogut as the projected starting lineup Barnes takes a backseat to Iguodala at small forward. Last season, Iguodala played 80-games with the Nuggets and was eliminated in the first round at the hands of those who are now his teammates. As far as what he thinks about the team’s depth at the wing;

“We have a really talented group at the wing position because we all push each other; really competing against each other, so it’s gonna be good for us.”

In an interview with CSN Bayarea.com, Igoudala would continue,

“I think we put winning as a team over any individual goals. Those are the type of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that can help our team win.”

Iguodala has lifetime averages of 15-points, 5-assists and 6-rebounds a game — he’s a high flyer willing to do what it takes to win. The perfect fit for Coach Jackson’s team oriented philosophy; he can be a mentor to younger guys like Barnes and Green.

Prediction: 54-28, good for the 4th seed in the Western Conference.

Teams in the NBA are going for a smaller, less post-game oriented, approach to building rosters over the past few seasons. With stretch forwards like Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ryan Anderson of the New Orleans’ Pelicans and as we’ve seen in Dallas during Dirk Nowitzki‘s time with the Mavericks; the ability to spread the floor offensively is a must for teams around the league. The Warriors have taken notice — the offensive versatility of Lee, Iguodala, Barnes with the willing grit that Green brings on the defensive end gives Golden State flexibility when matching up against Western Conference foes. Some questions remain however. Will Lee and Bogut remain healthy throughout the season? Will the loss of Jack limit Curry’s scoring output because there isn’t a veteran presence at point guard behind the Warriors sensational shooter?

Golden State is a team built, not only to win in the future, but to win now. So can they play an explosive style while also avoiding injuries? Will the fast-pace work against them if they’re able to reach the postseason? There’s a fine mix of young talent and experienced veterans playing in the Bay Area this season under a coach who’s been there before in Jackson — they’re on my list of Western Conference teams that make the playoffs this season.