Nowhere Plans kicks off the NBA season with a five-part preview including a comprehensive breakdown of all 30 teams. Six NP writers (Jon Dimedio, Sean Frey, Dan Krupinsky, Chris Leone, Tom Ferguson and Josh Brokaw) offered their predictions for the upcoming season. Each provided a projected conference finish, the highest and lowest ranking were dropped, and the remaining average was used to seed the teams in the order of finish listed below. Today’s preview details Western Conference teams outside of the playoff picture.
(15) SACRAMENTO KINGS
Last season: 24-58 (5th Pacific, 14th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: Good things are happening in Sacramento, but the Kings are still a ways from being a serious contender. Between DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, J.J. Hickson and Jimmer Fredette off the bench, there’s a youth movement in NorCal and, assuming management keeps them together, Kings fans will soon reap the benefits. They’ll just have to wait for it, because the team showed its youth early and often last season and, while they should improve, are not likely to be in the playoff picture or really anywhere even close to it.
John Salmons and Travis Outlaw (the latter via the amnesty provision) were nice offseason additions and should provide a much-needed veteran presence for such a young team. Fredette is in range as soon as he enters the players’ parking lot at Power Balance Pavilion. Cousins is strong on the glass and Hickson perhaps even better, Evans a point guard with a lot of upside (despite the sophomore slump) and Thornton a pure scorer. Chuck Hayes off the bench will cost the Kings some size, but the team isn’t terribly big to begin with so the effect will likely be offset by the fundamentals he brings to the table. Francisco Garcia and Jason Thompson performed well off the bench last season but are difference makers by no means. Put it all together and it figures to be another season of growing pains in Sacramento, but assuming their young nucleus continues to make progress, they could get to around 30 wins this season and display a bit more consistency along the way.
Worth watching: Can Jimmer transition into an effective NBA player? And if so, how soon? J.J. Redick famously struggled after a college career of three-ball after three-ball. Jimmer is much the same, only with twice the range (which is only a minor exaggeration, but nevertheless hard to believe). As BYU’s best player, he had the free reign to pull up for jumpers well beyond 25 feet pretty much whenever he had the space to put one up; naturally that isn’t going to fly at the pro level, not with coach Paul Westphal and not with his teammates, who have plenty of raw talent of their own. At least at the start, he figures to come off the bench as a three-point specialist; whether his other skills translate to the NBA level is a question that will likely take more than just this season to answer.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-14, SF-14, DK-14, CL-14, TF-15, JB-15
(14) NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
Last season: 46-36 (3rd Southwest, 7th West)
2011 Playoffs: Lost to L.A. Lakers in first round 4-2
jonnyd says: Let’s get to the point. The Hornets’ two best players from last season, Chris Paul and David West, who were largely responsible in them making the playoffs and taking the Lakers to six games before eventually losing in the first round, are gone. I know that I have them ranked at 15 but I would actually be a bit surprised if they ended up being the worst team in the West. All in all, they did pretty well for themselves in the Paul trade with the Clippers. Paul was gone anyway, and New Orleans made the most out of it and flipped him for Eric Gordon (one of the better shooting guards in the league), Chris Kaman (a serviceable center), Al-Farouq Aminu (largely unimpressive his rookie year but saw limited minutes, has a lot of potential upside, and was the 8th overall pick in 2010 draft) and an unprotected first-round draft pick.
The good news is that the Hornets still have Emeka Okafor, who is good for 10 points and 10 rebounds a night, and ex-Laker Trevor Ariza, who has underperformed since leaving L.A. and is probably better suited as a role player on a championship-caliber team, which the Hornets are not. Paul’s replacement at point guard will be Jarrett Jack. Jack hasn’t really been given much of a chance to be a true starting point guard in the NBA so it’s hard to say how he’ll perform. About three years ago, Jack started 53 games for the Indiana Pacers and averaged 15.4 points and 4.6 assists. Not awful. No doubt it’s a huge drop-off, but we’re talking stepping in for Chris Paul here, there aren’t many other guys you can throw in there and not miss a beat.
Worth watching: Eric Gordon is the best player on the New Orleans Hornets. He’s a young, prolific scorer who was having a breakout year before injuring his wrist last season. He should be fully healed by now and will be the Hornets’ first option on offense. This team is so different from the one that has been on the court the past few years that it’s hard to know what to expect.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-15, SF-15, DK-13, CL-12, TF-14, JB-14
(13) MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Last season: 17-65 (5th Northwest, 15th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Dan says: I’m apparently one of the very few people who is somewhat high on the Timberwolves. Minnesota’s unprotected first-round pick became part of the Chris Paul deal, and is now owned by New Orleans, and I’ve heard speculation that it might end up being the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft? Really? Minnesota is the worst team in the league? The Wolves trot out Kevin Love, Derrick Williams (who I thought was the best player in the 2011 draft), Michael Beasley and the enigma that is Ricky Rubio on a nightly basis, to go along with some nice supporting pieces like J.J. Barea, Wesley Johnson and (drum roll please)…DARKO!!!! Okay, so that last one is kind of a joke, but seriously, am I crazy or is that NOT an awful team? Certainly not No. 1 overall pick bad, by any means. Add into the mix that Rick Adelman is taking over at the helm, and I think the Wolves are going to surprise a lot of people.
Kevin Love is a bona-fide stud. He’s so much fun to watch play, and he grabs rebounds like it’s his job (oh, wait. It is his job. Whatever, you know what I meant) I’m not sure if he’s technically a “superstar” by NBA standards, but the man is a damn good player, and as long as he’s healthy and producing, the Wolves won’t be a pushover. Michael Beasley can really make or break this team, in my opinion. Beasley has a tremendous amount of talent (some scouts still say he’s the most naturally gifted pure scorer in the league. And remember, Kevin Durant plays in the same league) but he just hasn’t been able to put it all together on a consistent basis and be the type of player that his talent suggests he should be. If it finally “clicks” for Beasley this year, look out.
Worth watching: I LOVE Derrick Williams. One of my favorite things about the NBA (and really, sports in general) is falling in love with a guy in college, and then watching him at the next level and following his development as a pro. I think Williams has the potential to be a very special player in the NBA. His best bet is for Beasley to be the player that Michael Beasley is supposed to be, which will allow Williams to be brought along slowly and develop at a nice pace. If Williams pans out, Beasley plays up to his potential and Love continues to be Love, that is a DANGEROUS team in the future. But maybe I really am insane, because I think the Wolves are way better than just about everyone else, everywhere. We shall see.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-13, SF-13, DK-11, CL-15, TF-9, JB-11
(12) GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Last season: 36-46 (3rd Pacific, 12th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: You have to give the Warriors credit, Larry Riley tried to make a splash this offseason. He tried to lure DeAndre Jordan away from the division rival Clippers. He tried to sign Tyson Chandler. He discussed dealing for Chris Paul. And after all that, all he ended up with was Kwame Brown.
If anything went right, it’s that their top four scorers from last season are all still on the roster. Modern Day Iverson Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry, David Lee and Dorell Wright are all returning and all averaged double figures a season ago, with Lee adding almost 10 rebounds a game and both Ellis and Curry averaging near six assists per. They let veteran forward Vladimir Radmanovich walk along with Reggie Williams and generally don’t have a lot of proven depth on the bench…
…Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After Brown’s signing, Louis Amundson was expendable and flipped to Indiana for Brandon Rush, a young 2-guard who can shoot the three. Ishmael Smith was shown the door in Memphis and welcomed in by Golden State; the speedy point guard averaged just under two assists per game averaging less than a quarter. The Warriors are expecting great strides from Andris Biedens (specifically, not getting hurt) and Ekpe Oduh, AND they have 11th overall pick Klay Thompson on the roster, who can hit from anywhere inside the arena. If the right players make enough progress and the others live up to expectations, the Warriors will be a tough opponent night in and night out and will battle for one of the West’s final playoff spots. But a lot of things have to go right, and very few of them did one year ago. It doesn’t help that they didn’t play much defense last season, and the front office did very little to improve the team in that area.
Worth watching: Monta Ellis is fantastic to watch, but more intriguing is if fans will be watching him play for Golden State by season’s end. Mentioned in trade talks for much of last season, the Warriors decided to hang onto him and so, at least for the time being, Ellis will continue to shoot way, way, WAY more than anybody else on the roster. But if Thompson is able to have an impact off the bench, Ellis could be on the move. Klay has four inches, 20 pounds and five years on Monta; he also shoots the three better than The City’s current starter. If nothing else, it’s at least possible that Ellis will be headed east at some point this season; among the many teams he was linked to last season include Orlando and Philadelphia.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-11, SF-12, DK-10, CL-13, TF-11, JB-12
(11) PHOENIX SUNS
Last season: 40-42 (2nd Pacific, 10th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Sean says: The Suns missed out on the playoffs last year for the second time in three seasons. Steve Nash somehow is still with the team; Vince Carter, however, is not. This is a problem because that potentially puts Josh Childress in the starting lineup, and in limited minutes last season, he was pretty much useless. There’s some chance Jared Dudley is called on to play the 2-guard, although at least in the early going it seems likely they’ll both see minutes. This is an old team: Grant Hill is back for another year at age 39, Nash is 37, and the other three starters are in their late 20’s (Dudley is the youngest at 26). And while there are plenty of veteran leaders on this team, it appeared that age took its toll on this team last season and they haven’t done much to get younger.
On the bench, rookie Markieff Morris will play behind Channing Frye, Robin Lopez behind up-and-coming Marcin Gortat. Frye and Gortat provide good presence down low although both are rather undersized to be true pivots; there will be a noticeable difference when one or the other is out of the game, as Gortat is a significant improvement on the glass over Lopez (and, in fact, won the starting job largely for that reason) and Morris will suffer from inexperience. Shannon Brown was a nice pickup to spell Steve Nash, and Mickael Pietrus remains on the team, so the Suns do have depth at some positions. But facing an offseason where they needed to improve to stay viable in the West, Lance Blanks made no significant moves. One wonders if Alvin Gentry will find himself on the hot seat.
Worth watching: How long can Hill and Nash continue to play at their current levels? Nash’s playmaking ability and defense isn’t necessarily declining, but he attempted his fewest shots since 2000-01 and had his lowest shooting percentage since 2003-04 (which nevertheless is really high, but still). Hill actually saw an uptick in his production last season, but at 39, is it realistic for him to continue playing 30 minutes? One of these two is bound for a significant regression—the classic “hanging on too long”—but will it be this season? If it does, there won’t be much to cheer about in Phoenix.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-12, SF-11, DK-12, CL-11, TF-13, JB-8
(10) UTAH JAZZ
Last season: 39-43 (4th Northwest, 11th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
Dan says: I wonder if Jazz fans still hate Deron Williams. I’d like to think that they do. I mean, the guy basically got Jerry Sloan, a beloved legend, fired and then forced his way out of town anyway. “So, our star player didn’t like our coach, got him fired and then we traded the player away too. Wait, what!?” Yeah, it makes no sense, and the Jazz are still a mess because of it. And if you’re saying right now “Well, it’s not as bad as you make it out to be. They still have Devin Harris! He’s a star too!” No, he’s not. I mean, he is, in the sense that a lot of people THINK he is, but the guy averaged just over 15 PPG last season and right around 7 assists. Nice numbers. Not star numbers. I think Harris has more talent than that, but he’s been proving me wrong the past few seasons. The rest of the Jazz backcourt really doesn’t inspire you to say much more than: Eh. That’s pretty much the reaction it solicited from me. Sorry if I can’t get excited about a rotation that includes Raja Bell, Gordon Hayward (a guy that a lot of people think might make “The Jump” this season. I am not one of those people) and Earl Watson (although, in another walk of life, I am a HUGE fan of people with the name E. Watson. And yes, I literally only included Earl Watson in this so I could also include Emma Watson, simply because she makes me happy, and writing about the Jazz is making me sad). The wild card here is rookie Alec Burks, the 12th overall pick. His summer league performances have gotten Jazz fans excited for his future. We shall see.
The good news for the Jazz (there is good news!) is that the front court looks to be pretty solid. Al Jefferson, Paul Milsap, Derrick Favors (hey, thanks for him, Deron Williams!), Mehmet Okur and the Jazz’s OTHER first-round pick (No. 3 overall) Enes Kanter. The veterans here not only provide a solid presence and a good amount of production, but, for the most part, they all have skill sets that complement each other. Jefferson is a beast defensively and can score inside, Okur can move outside a little bit and score, Millsap can score from 18 feet and Favors and Kanter give you a nice young foundation who can score and defend. Now, that’s the good news. The bad news is that everything I just wrote is BEST CASE SCENARIO. And how often does “best case scenario” ever actually work out? Yeah, not too often. While it’d be nice to get all these guys going at once, I don’t see it happening for any long stretches. Enjoy the lottery, Utah.
Worth watching: Without question, it’s Kanter and Burks. If the Jazz’s two lottery picks can develop quickly and provide some spark (especially Burks, since, as previous discussed, the Jazz kind of don’t really have a good backcourt), it will take the Jazz from “really bad” to “just below average.” But the Jazz probably want to start scouting lottery picks for 2012 now.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-9, SF-10, DK-15, CL-9, TF-12, JB-13
(9) HOUSTON ROCKETS
Last season: 43-39 (5th Southwest, 9th West)
2011 Playoffs: Did not qualify
jonnyd says: The Rockets head into the 2011-12 season with a bad case of blue balls. If not for David Stern, Dan Gilbert and company blocking the Chris Paul deal, Houston would have an overhauled frontcourt featuring Pau Gasol. They would have given up a good amount (Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic and a first-round draft pick) but I think ultimately they would have made out pretty well in the trade. Now they have three players, two of which are starters, who know that they are considered non-essential. Part of me thinks that these three players don’t have egos as fragile as Lamar Odom’s, but still there may be some things that need to be smoothed over during the first few weeks of the season or the team’s chemistry will suffer. In Asian news, Yao Ming announced his retirement over the summer. Frankly, his presence will not be missed simply because he didn’t play a game in ’09-’10 and only played five games in ’10-’11.
The Rockets did their best to make moves this offseason. Between the vetoed trade and big name free agents deciding against joining them, this team is pretty much the same as the one they put out there last year. I have a feeling that another year of familiarity between starting guards Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin will do them well. This is a team that plays a very tough division in a conference that is stronger from top to bottom. Making the playoffs will be a tough feat for the Rockets, but I have a feeling they will be in the mix.
Worth watching: As I mentioned earlier, the backcourt is solid and young and one that flies under the radar compared to guard combos that may feature bigger names. Luis Scola is a banger down low and during spurts last season was putting up MVP numbers. The weird thing is, when he scored 25 points or more last season, the Rockets were 2-9. They will have to do a better job of finding a way to win and utilizing his talent this year.
NOWHERE PLANS says: JD-7, SF-9, DK-7, CL-10, TF-10, JB-9
Tomorrow: The NBA Preview continues with a look at Western Conference playoff teams.