For most of us in Southern California, the changing of seasons is a subtle event. We lack the autumn splendor of trees shedding their foliage or the crisp smell of burning leaves which herald the end of October and the onset of winter. One of the things I usually do around this time of year, which I’ve always associated with Fall, is to call my old college roommate to discuss the coming NBA season and the Clippers’ chances of making the playoffs. Despite the fact that we’re irredeemable Clippers fans, we like to believe that we can judicially gauge the Western Conference competition and the Clippers’ place in its hierarchy without much prejudice. It is also a chance for us to put aside the worries of adulthood for a moment, and to become boys again—if only for a few minutes—as we eagerly look forward to the upcoming season’s storylines.
I suppose that this is one of the pleasures of being a sports fan; it links us to our youth, to our friends when we were younger, and to a time when all that mattered in life was that your team reaches the pinnacle of glory. The beginning of each season also allows us to imagine a brighter future for our team; a future where everything falls perfectly into place, where the health and fortunes of our core players are unhindered by the treatments of Jasen Powell or the veracity of fate. And so, it is always with guarded optimism, tempered by restraint learned from many years of disappointment, that we look upon the Clippers’ chances of sneaking into the playoffs, and think; by the graces of Blake Griffin’s health, and the frailties of our competition, goes our hope for the long climb back toward respectability.
Our hope resides not only in Blake Griffin’s debut, but also to the fact that for the first time in many years, the Western Conference has weakened. It was only a few years ago, when the West was so deep that the only way for the Clippers to sneak into the Playoffs was for misfortune to strike down a few teams. Now only six teams in the West seem to be locks for a playoff spot, with another six teams, including the Clippers, fighting for the final two slots. First let’s look at the teams which are destined for the post-season, barring significant injuries or a devastating plane crash over the Rockies that will wipe out their entire roster.
THE PLAYOFF TEAMS
1 – LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Despite the hoopla surrounding the new triumvirate in Miami, the Lakers made quiet moves that strengthened their already formidable team even further. The two times defending champs have added Steve Blake, Matt Barnes, and Theo Ratcliff to replace the inconsistent Jordan Farmar, the little used Adam Morrison, and DJ Mbenga. Steve Blake’s cerebral play is a natural fit for Phil Jackson’s triangle offense and he will keep Derek Fisher fresh for the playoff run, while Matt Barnes will team up with Ron Artest to give the Lakers two of the most physical perimeter defenders in the league. The rise of Miami also spurred Lakers owner Jerry Buss to open up his wallet even further, to go deeper into the luxury tax hole, by bringing back Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher.
While their bench is now deeper than ever before, their main concern is Andrew Bynum and Kobe Bryant’s rehabilitation from their respective off-season surgeries. But as awful as Kobe had looked during this preseason, even his critics have to give Kobe the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his determination to triumph against all physical limitations. Kobe blows off all questions about his knee with his usual confidence that borders on arrogance. Now in the twilight of his career, with a lot of playoff mileage upon his legs, one wonders, however, when even Kobe’s formidable will power might fail to overcome the tolls of age that eventually diminishes all mortals. But like old lions or aging emperors who have survived all challengers with their pride and foibles intact, Kobe’s arrogance has become almost endearing as his career winds to a close. It is almost as if by stubbornly holding on to the indestructibility of his youth, by never admitting any flaws or chinks in his armor, Kobe is waging an ultimately futile battle against both father time and his younger adversaries who are determined to dethrone the old but fiercely defiant monarch.
But as long as Kobe’s iron-will can overcome the slow ravages of time, he will not allow Gasol, Lamar, Fisher, Artest, Bynum, et al to lose. Barring injuries to Kobe and Gasol, the Lakers are the deepest and most talented team in the league, and will likely win their third straight NBA title.
2 – SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Perhaps it is mere sentimentality on our part, but we have a hard time dismissing the Spurs as a team whose glory have passed. While the venerable Tim Duncan can no longer dominate games for extended periods, while the health of Ginobli and Tony Parker are always in doubt, the Spurs aged trio probably have one last hurrah left in them. With the steady emergence of George Hill, the growing confidence of DeJuan Blair, and the addition of rookie center Tiago Splitter, the Spurs might have the right mixture of experience and young legs to make one final push for an NBA crown if fortune and health favors them. Poppovich also believes that the disappointing Richard Jefferson can finally find some rhythm and comfort in the Spurs system with a year under his belt. While it is difficult to see the Spurs beating the Lakers, Miami, Celtics, or Orlando in a seven game series, the rest of the NBA underestimates the Spurs at their own peril.
3 – OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Many pundits have the rising Thunder squad pegged as the number two seed in the West based on their impressive performance last year in the playoffs against the Lakers. Until the gutsy Celtics team pushed the Lakers to seven games, the young Thunder team was the only squad to put a real scare into the NBA champs. Reigning scoring champion Kevin Durant is the preseason favorite to win the league’s MVP, and his running mate Russell Westbrook leads an explosive nucleus of young players on the rise. Their long, athletic perimeter defense last year gave opponents fits and was the real strength of their team, while their most glaring flaw was the lack of a formidable inside presence, which they tried to address in the off season. The maturity of Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Jeff Green, and the addition of burly rookie Cole Aldrich might be enough to push them to the top of the Western Conference if the Lakers and Spurs succumb to the infirmities of age.
4 – DALLAS MAVERICKS
It is easy to forget that the Mavericks won 55 games last year, especially after they were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Spurs. Dirk Novitzki is in late stages of his prime, and the team is loaded with talented players in their peak years or on the downside of a glorious one. One day, the immortal Jason Kidd will slow down and become ineffective, but like an aging prize fighter who you would expect to decline precipitously, but who defies all logic and continues to grind out victories, Jason Kidd’s wily experience more than compensates for his faded athleticism in the twilight of his career. With Caron Butler, Jason Terry, Brendan Haywood, an aging Shawn Marion, the addition of Tyson Chandler, and a rising Rodrigue Beaubois, the Mavs are likely to exceed 50 wins once again. Whether they are built for a deep post season run, and whether they will ever get back to the NBA Finals before the sun finally sets upon Novitzki’s career is another story.
5 — PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS
For a team that was decimated by injuries last year, it is mind boggling that the Trailblazers somehow managed to win 50 games in a deep Western Conference. With all their young guns back and focused on a deep playoffs run, the Blazers are a team on a mission. They still have questions about the viability of ball dominating Andre Miller playing alongside Brandon Roy, the fragile health of Greg Oden, and the enigmatic LaMarcus Aldridge, their reluctant young star. With the pricey addition of Wesley Matthews, however, the Blazers believe that they are ready to take the next step forward into the latter rounds of the playoffs. Nate McMillan is proving himself to be one of the elite coaches in the league, whose team is often greater than the sum of its parts.
6 — UTAH JAZZ
There is something about Jerry Sloan’s teams which defies the passing of time, which seems immutable and ageless as the sandstone cliffs of Zion. The pick and roll precision of John Stockton and Karl Malone have seamlessly transitioned to the tandem of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. And with the departure of the feckless Boozer to Chicago, the Jazz pulled off a coup by stealing Al Jefferson from Minnesota. Alongside, Paul Millsap, who had waited patiently in the wings to replace Boozer in the starting lineup, Al Jefferson can now provide a more physical presence in the middle to match up to the Lakers length. Since the days of Frank Layden and Mark Eaton, the Jazz’s Achilles heel have always been a void in the center to complement their ageless duo. Al Jefferson might finally be the answer to their quest. If playing alongside Deron Williams will improve Al Jefferson’s already formidable game, then the Jazz might have captured lighting in a bottle yet again.
7 — DENVER NUGGETS
The Nuggets are a combustible team, seemingly held together by the tortured charisma of George Karl. When Karl underwent chemotherapy for throat cancer last year, the team, which had at one point early in the season, believed themselves superior to the Lakers, imploded under the hapless ministrations of Adrian Dantley. The talent and depth of the Nuggets is undeniable. But the unbridled emotions of JR Smith, Kenyon Martin, Nene, Chris Anderson, and Carmelo Anthony is sometimes too much for even Chauncey Billups to control. Without George Karl to provide focus and inspiration, the Nuggets seems to lose their swagger and confidence. Now, with the addition of Al Harrington, and agitations for a trade by Carmelo, the Nuggets can implode again in spectacular fashion. But George Karl has returned to the sideline, slimmer and hoarser, in the last year of his contract. His team won 53 games last year with him fighting for his life. Now, will his team fight for him, amidst all the distractions and trade rumors surrounding their star? They have seen the thin line between success and embarrassment, and for their coach, between life and death. How they react to Karl and to one another can either propel them to the pinnacle of the Western Conference or down into the depths of their division.
8 — HOUSTON ROCKETS
After losing Yao Ming for the entire season, the Rockets were another surprise team in the West for most of last year. That they finished above .500 with 42 wins is testament to their coach Rick Adelman and the tenacity of the players that Daryl Morey have assembled. The speedy Aaron Brooks won the NBA Most Improved Player award, while Luis Scola stepped up his game without Yao. The Rockets gave up an undersized but promising Carl Landry for an established scorer in Kevin Martin. This summer’s addition of Courtney Lee and Brad Miller will provide additional offensive punch to a team that had a difficult time scoring in stretches last season. The return of Yao Ming this year is the key for this team. In his limited minutes, will the presence of Yao disrupt the offensive rhythm that the team must establish without him in the lineup? And will Yao be the same dominating presence he was when he left the Playoffs floor in 2009 on a broken foot? The fragile center was at the height of his basketball prowess then, leading the surging Rockets to blowout wins over the stunned Lakers in the Playoffs before finally succumbing in seven games. But for a brief moment, it seemed that anything was possible for the Rockets franchise, stirring the faded memory of those gutsy Olajuwon squads.
9 — PHOENIX SUNS
Of all the old Western Conference powers, it would seem that the Suns had fallen the most. Losing Amare Stoudemire might be a fatal blow to a franchise kept aloft these last few years by the singular brilliance of Steve Nash. Many people, including myself, thought that they would slowly fade into irrelevance last season. Instead, they finished with 54 wins and reached the Western Conference Finals. Amare rededicated himself to the team and played some of his best basketball to close out his career in Phoenix. And the Suns rode their only inside horse deep into the Playoffs. Though the emergence of their closely knit reserves are a bright spot, the loss of Stoudemire and the addition of Josh Childress and Hedo Turkoglu does nothing to address their now glaring lack of an inside scoring threat. The maestro of the Suns particular brand of madness, Steve Nash, will turn 37 in February. Every year, we expect Nash’s body to break down, his brilliance to slowly dim, but like the ageless Jason Kidd in Dallas, Steve Nash somehow finds a way to lead his team to victories. Doubters have buried Nash and the Suns countless times before, and this time, the decline might be real, but then again, would you really want to bet against Steve Nash?
10 — NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
The Hornets are another team that hung around last season’s playoff race much longer than anyone expected, particularly after Chris Paul went down with a season ending injury. Rookie Darren Collison filled in ably, but now he is gone, traded for Trevor Ariza, who management hope, will serve as an able running mate for Paul and mollify him for now. They have some pieces, particularly, David West, but it is Chris Paul who determines the fate of this franchise. Along with Carmelo, Paul has been agitating for a trade, for the bright lights of New York, to form their own unholy trio. Coming off a season ending injury, Chris Paul will be looking to prove that he is, once again, one of the top five players in the league. If he can regain his MVP caliber form, he will keep the Hornets close to the eight spot, and perhaps sneak into the first round, but they won’t have enough to go much further than that.
11 — MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
In a way, the young Grizzlies were the surprise team of last season, surging to 40 wins and only missing the playoffs in the last few weeks. Lionel Hollins’ firm hand has guided a team to the precipice of the post season, and they will try to build on last year’s success. Marc Gasol has proven that he is a burlier version of his older brother, Zach Randolph has seemingly reformed his wayward ways, and they surprised a lot of people by signing Rudy Gay to a maximum contract. It might not have been wise to lock up so much money in an unproven star like Rudy Gay, but owner Michael Heisley did what he had to do to keep the team moving in the right direction. Without Rudy Gay this year, Memphis would have taken a step backwards, any progress they had made toward respectability would have departed with their enigmatic young star. Now, their young core will have another year under their belts, and if they can improve a bit, win five more games, they might be able to take another step forward and grab that final playoff spot.
12 — LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Breene has already done a fine job with our team’s preview, so I won’t get into much detail here. After finishing with 29 wins last season, the Clippers are looking for a big boost from Blake Griffin, and of all the teams listed here, they have to make the biggest jump to be in the running for the final playoff spot. The depth of the team, on paper, seems weaker than recent Clippers squads, but there is hope that the core of Blake Griffin, EJ, Kaman, and Baron can keep the team competitive and make progress toward earning a playoff berth. The rookies and bench has to survive and keep the games close until the starters can return. I am hopeful that we can get to 40 wins, but I think 35 wins is probably a bit more realistic. If Denver ,Phoenix, and New Orleans collapses, however, the Clippers need to be adequately positioned to seize the opportunity, if the basketball gods smile favorably upon us and spare us the ministrations of Jasen Powell, the bringer of pain.
13 — SACRAMENTO KINGS
It’s probably not fair to Kings fans to put them a spot behind the Clippers (they would probably argue for a tie), after all, they have the reigning Rookie of the Year in Tyreke Evans, and some good young pieces in Carl Landry, Omri Casspi, and Jason Thompson. With dark horse ROY candidate DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings might be a team on the rise, though it will take a few more years and a few more pieces.
14 — MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
I have no idea what David Kahn is doing out there. Re-signing Darko Millicic and letting Al Jefferson go for peanuts was probably an act of madness. He reasons that Michael Beasley will work better with Kevin Love and talks glowingly of Beasley as a rare talent, with the “skill, athleticism and drive to become one of the best players there is in our league.” Madness.
15 — GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Don Nelson is gone. The architect of that mad small ball helter-skelter brand of basketball has departed the Bay Area for the second and probably final time. Keith Smart takes over the team in transition. David Lee will try to replicate the monster numbers he got under D’Antoni, but the thing with Nellie ball is that once Nellie is gone, his undersized teams usually reverts to their Lilliputian status and fall apart. The much heralded Stephen Curry is a gunner without remorse. He and Monta Ellis will be eyeing one another with suspicious envy.