We appreciate each of you that followed along with all of our 2014-15 NBA Team Previews, as we know many of you are just as eager for the start of the season as we are. Now, we take a look at the top questions, concerns and challenges facing each team as they head into training camp. We continue our camp series that started with the Central, Northwest and Southwest divisions with today’s look at the Pacific Division:
Los Angeles Clippers
Although the Clippers have clearly shown they are no longer the lovable butt of NBA jokes over the past few seasons, they still have yet to put everything together in order to push past the semifinal round over that stretch. They’ve been far more successful and are without a doubt one of the more exciting teams to watch, but even with a remarkable influx of talent and the addition of a highly regarded coach with the resume of Doc Rivers, they haven’t been enough to truly place the Clippers into title discussion.
Can Blake Griffin take another step forward?
Griffin took a significant step forward in terms of his overall development as a player in 2013-14. The amount of work Griffin has put into his craft has been obvious, as the supremely athletic 25-year-old has improved in just about every facet of the game over his first four years. His 24.1 PPG, 3.9 APG and 71.5 percent from the line were each career highs, and Griffin even finished third in the regular season MVP voting. While still the eye-popping athlete and eternal ‘posterization’ threat, Griffin can now attack defenders in a variety of ways. He still isn’t quite the defender his athleticism and agility might lead you to expect, but Griffin has also improved on that end of the court. For these Clippers to truly take the next step, they’ll need Griffin to also do the same.
Chris Paul is without a doubt the leader in the locker room and on the court, but the Clippers need Griffin to further develop into the type of player that can be called upon for the key basket in a crucial situation when teams swarm the point guard with size.
Will Chris Paul stay healthy enough to maintain and build upon the momentum throughout the year?
No one questions whether Chris Paul is one of the tougher, pound-for-pound players in the league at this point, but that doesn’t mean he is exactly indestructible. After missing 12 games in 2012-13, the Clippers were without Paul’s services for a whopping 20 games last season due to injury. Hometown point guard Jordan Farmar’s addition could be key, but he hasn’t exactly been the perfect picture of health, either. If healthy, Paul and Farmar could very well be the best tandem at that position. In fact, when healthy, Farmar has proven worthy enough of a starter’s role; leaving Rivers with quite the favorable “problem” as a head coach. He’ll need to find the balance between keeping Paul healthy and rested throughout the year while also keeping Farmar fully engaged and sharp.
Which small forward will play the bulk of the minutes for Rivers?
Matt Barnes is currently listed as the starting small forward, but it is clear the team is still looking for answers at the position, as evidenced by the fact that the front office recently went out and acquired journeyman swingman Chris Douglas-Roberts. Last year’s first round pick Reggie Bullock has already been the subject of trade rumors and enters his sophomore season with far from any guarantees. If neither of the three are able to provide the type of consistent effort Rivers is looking from out of the position, don’t be surprised to see these Clippers engaged in further discussions to improve in that area.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors welcome in first-time head coach Steve Kerr and his new basketball philosophy into the fold. Golden State’s faithful fan base needn’t worry, as the Warriors should still be every bit as exciting as we move forward. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are fresh off their gold medal-winning contributions with Team USA and, like the Clippers, this team looks take the next step and compete for at least the Western Conference crown.
Will Coach Kerr run the Triangle Offense?
Kerr recently told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News that his offensive plans would be influenced by Phil Jackson and Tex Winter’s Triangle Offense, but we shouldn’t anticipate it looking quite like those 90s Chicago Bulls teams. With as many capable and willing playmakers in their rotation, the Triangle would certainly make a great deal of sense for Golden State. That said, as comfortable and efficient as Curry is with the pick-and-roll, expect to see plenty of two-man action as well. Basically, Kerr is most likely to eliminate much of the one-on-one or isolation action while strongly encouraging ball movement and spacing. As someone that played for three absolute coaching legends in Lute Olson (University of Arizona), Phil Jackson (Bulls) and Gregg Popovich (Spurs) during his basketball career, Kerr can certainly call upon the ample basketball knowledge that has been bestowed upon him since his freshman year at the U of A back in 1983.
Will Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green take the next step?
Each of these versatile, young players have shown promise at various times over their first two seasons in Golden State. At just 6’7, Green can shift between either forward position depending upon what size lineup they prefer. He’s a hustle and effort player that also has a more refined skill set than you might initially imagine. The 6’8 Barnes is actually agile enough to play the small forward position as well as in the backcourt against some of the larger shooting guards. Although they showed flashes at times, their roles were never quite defined under the previous regime. Each are skilled enough to shine under the presumed Kerr direction, but time will tell if they are able to work themselves into being consistent contributors on both ends of the court.
Will health be a main determining factor for Golden State once again?
Although much of the focus will understandably remain with Curry’s ankles and overall well-being, the diehard Oracle Arena faithful will tell you just as much (if not more) attention must be granted to the health of both Andrew Bogut and David Lee. Overall team health is always important, but for these Warriors to finally push forward and advance beyond the first couple rounds of the postseason they’ll finally need to have a relatively healthy frontcourt by the time we reach next year’s playoff stretch. Don’t be surprised to see a guy like Marreese Speights find a way to contribute on Kerr’s team, whether in spot duty or in extended coverage for an injured big man.
Coming off what was a surprisingly positive 48-win season in Jeff Hornacek’s inaugural season at the helm in Phoenix, the Suns find themselves attempting to actually build upon a year in which they nearly doubled their win total from the previous year (25).
How will Coach Hornacek divide the minutes in what is suddenly a crowded and talented backcourt?
No, this isn’t the reincarnation of former Timberwolves GM David Kahn, but let’s just say the Suns have an awful lot of options at the point guard position as we head into 2014-15. Sure, Eric Bledsoe is used as a combo guard, but that doesn’t account for the fact that the team had already signed free agent point guard (and previous starter in Sacramento) Isaiah Thomas and drafted a promising young point guard in Tyler Ennis over the summer. There were murmurings of reigning Most Improved Player Goran Dragic being involved in trade rumors surrounding the draft, but those whispers have since subsided, and Hornacek has quite the enviable problem of potentially having too much concentrated talent at one position moving forward. With Gerald Green coming off the best season of his career, one would also expect him to remain in Hornacek’s rotation.
Could the Suns have a future move in mind?
With all that aforementioned backcourt depth, it will be interesting to see if GM Ryan McDonough decides to see what could materialize on the trade market. Word is, the Suns are currently in favor of utilizing a three-headed attack between Dragic, Bledsoe and Thomas but the existence of the roster redundancy at least makes a mid-season move a possibility. Teams could also find themselves reaching out to Phoenix regarding some of this young talent if the Suns don’t end up having quite the success they’d like to have.
Can the Suns compete for a playoff position in a tough Western Conference?
Even though their 48 wins would have been good enough to qualify for home court advantage in the first round of last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, the Suns know if they want to merely stay afloat in an ultra-competitive Western Conference it’s likely going to take more wins than that. If they can stay healthy enough in the backcourt and can somehow manage to keep everyone satisfied and engaged, then the Suns could approach a similar win total once again. Trouble is, will it be enough?
Los Angeles Lakers
It’s no secret that the Lakers are in a bit of a rebuilding period. Not only are they trying to welcome a returning Kobe Bryant back into the fold, they’re also simultaneously attempting to find a balance between his greatness and preferred style of play at this point in his career and their necessity to also develop and feature younger players and additional talent.
Can Byron Scott protect Bryant from himself, especially early in the year?
Aside from Scott being a capable coach, a likely reason why the Lakers ultimately elected to have him replace the departed Mike D’Antoni was due to his relationship with Bryant. The whole “he knows what it means to be a Laker” may sound nice to the loyal fans of the purple and gold (and may have even been a minor aspect of their search), but simply understanding and embracing the “Laker way” isn’t enough to warrant a position on its own. ESPNLA’s Max Kellerman often draws an interesting parallel between a boxing trainer being able to protect his fighter from his own desire to win while in the ring to how Scott needs to approach monitoring and in some cases limiting Bryant’s minutes and workload throughout the year. While anyone familiar with Bryant knows just how much easier that sounds in theory than in actual reality, if these Lakers are to have any success over his last couple years in the league, the key for Scott will be in getting the future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer to trust both in his strategy and the other players on the roster as much as he’s always trusted in his own abilities on the court.
Will Julius Randle be able to work himself into a starting position at some point this season?
To be clear, it is far more significant for Randle to be starting by the end of the year than it would be for him to be granted a starting position from the start of their upcoming camp. Even though the roster appears to be chock-full of power forwards, it appears the tentative plan is to play both Jordan Hill and Ed Davis at the center position in order to permit plenty of room for the growth and development of Randle. Although Randle is very nimble and agile for a player with his size and build, the rumors of him actually playing some time at the small forward position may be a bit premature until we see how his game will translate at this level. Fellow incoming rookie Jordan Clarkson is also someone the Lakers appear to have high hopes for, and is also seen as someone that may have the ability to play multiple positions for these Lakers. Bryant will remain a key component to what takes place for as long as he decides to continue lacing up his Nike’s, but these Lakers are now in the rare position of having to actively pursue the future while finding a way to respectfully permit an all-time great to gracefully walk off on his own accord.
Can these Lakers establish a defensive identity?
While some of us may be tempted to insert a Drew Rosenhaus “next question” at the mere mention of defense with this group, it isn’t beyond the realm of imagination to say this team could actually improve on the defensive end. Look for Scott to attempt to reestablish a certain toughness, intensity and personal accountability that should help, but the key could be in whether he can get the team to buy in and remain dedicated to both defending and rebounding as a unit at all times. Regardless of their efforts and willingness, it should be noted this team isn’t likely to simply develop into a defensive juggernaut overnight. Much like everything else in this game, the process of expunging the team of the most recent laissez-faire attitude toward defending while incorporating some of the younger and more able-bodied talent will be a process. Scott is charged with the somewhat unenviable task of finding a way to channel his inner-Aristotle in getting the ‘whole’ to be greater than the sum of its parts when it comes to the Lakers’ defensive efforts this season.
The Kings may have only won 28 games last season, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any positives to take from the year. The new ownership group and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson were able to keep the team in California’s state capitol, new GM Pete D’Alessandro was able bring in a talented player like Rudy Gay and first-year head coach Mike Malone was able to help DeMarcus Cousins (22.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG, 1.3 BPG) truly establish himself as a legitimate “face of the franchise.”
Can Darren Collison fill the void left by Isaiah Thomas’ departure?
The truth is, while Thomas was absolutely fantastic for them as more of a scoring point guard, this team doesn’t really need Collison to play quite that style to have an impact. Collison may be an above-average shooter from distance and can definitely get out in transition, but these Kings need him to focus on being a playmaker and distributor as well as being able to lock in and defend at the other end. Malone is a heavy proponent of defensive intensity along the perimeter and Collison is someone that can provide the type of ball pressure he’s looking for. The addition of Ramon Sessions in a reserve role should provide a bit of the scoring punch off the bench in the event the team still needs a boost in that department, and his size (6’3) also grants Malone the ability to use him against some of the bigger point guards if necessary.
Will DeMarcus continue to develop as a leader?
That question may have been laughed at just a couple short years ago, and even though Cousins can still be a very intense player he should absolutely be praised for the progress he’s made as a professional. He’s transitioned from being a guy that was seen as volatile to someone that is learning to utilize his intensity and emotion as weapons of motivation rather than allowing them to be detrimental to the team’s progress. Having just turned 24 during his time spent with Team USA this summer, don’t be surprised to see Cousins take yet another step forward in terms of his professionalism and leadership. That may show up in the form of increased productivity on the court, but Sacramento could most use a steady and strong voice within the locker room.
Will Ben McLemore or rookie Nik Stauskas ultimately be the answer at shooting guard?
Needless to say, if the team decides to spend the eighth-overall pick on Stauskas just a year after using the seventh-overall selection 0n McLemore, it’s clear there are no guarantees for the latter. Even though McLemore showed flashes and signs of his capabilities at times for Sacramento, his inability to find any amount of consistency with his shot had to be a concern for this coaching staff. What they need is someone who will be able to provide balance to the offense. What they don’t need is another scorer that will require in excess of 15-20 shots per night simply in order to get himself going. Offensive efficiency and a willingness to participate in a concerted effort on the defensive end will probably be the determining factors for this potential position battle.
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