Know thy enemy: The Western Conference, Part I
How do you know the Laker season is underway? Besides watching last night's home opener, the barrage of KCAL ads and your general ability to read a calendar, since the games start on more or less the same date each year?
Because we're busting out the ol' "Know thy enemy," that's why!
It's time to analyze, deconstruct and generally pick apart the Western Conference that houses Laker enemies. All 14 teams. All angles and aspects explored. I've divvied up the contenders (and pretenders) into four categories, two of which will be posted ri ... gh ... t ...
TEAMS THAT DEFINITELY WILL BE WORSE THAN THE LAKERS
Give Kevin McHale credit. He provided KG precious little help during his 12 seasons in Minneapolis, but the dude don't eff around when it comes to erasing remnants of the failed Big Ticket era. And good call, by the way. If you really want to rebuild, don't try to make the transition somewhat palatable. Blow it the (bleep) up in the hopes of eventually becoming good by stockpiling young talent and cap space during those 3-5 years of being bad. And make no mistake, this squad will be, as Homer Simpson once said, "crap on a crud." Al Jefferson, Randy Foye (who'll be out a while), Craig Smith, Gerald Green and Corey Brewer could develop into one hell of a core. But for now, expect the kids to experience mucho growing pains while being baby sat ... er, mentored, by Theo Ratliff and Mark Madsen. And if McHale really wants to keep this inaugural rebuild atmosphere from turning poisonous, I'd advise making copies of Troy Hudson's and Juwan Howard's buyout papers for Antoine Walker.
Another team that could be good in a few years, but for now, yikes! At least they've got one hell of a prospect in Kevin Durant to create entertaining losses. To say this kid (who Kobe recently described as the longest player he's ever seen) can score from anywhere on the floor would be a comical understatement. He also appears to have his head screwed on straight, which is fortunate, since the road to super-stardom will be filled with a lot of bumps in the immediate future. Considering the Sonics are comprised of "one starter who can play but isn't a go-to guy" (Chris Wilcox), "starters who would come off the bench for almost any team other than Seattle" (Nick Collison, Damien Wilkins, Luke Ridnour), "solid role players who'll help but would likely rather be elsewhere" (Kurt Thomas, Wally Szczerbiak, Earl Watson), "youth movement dudes" (Jeff Green, Delonte West) and "the freakiest-looking kid I've ever seen in my life (Robert Swift)," Durant has already found himself in LeBron's company before even playing an official game. He stepped into the NBA as his team's best player.
Greg Oden's out. Reigning ROY Brandon Roy is battling injury. Blazer fans are bummed. And I'm totally suspicious. Personally, I don't think either guy is hurt. I think Kevin Pritchard looked at the roster and realized that despite this team's wonderful future, they're still too young to make much noise even at full strength. So why not toss another season into the toilet, try to snag another freak-luck No. 1 pick, add O.J. Mayo to the Oden-Roy-LaMarcus Aldridge foundation and set this franchise for life? For that result, I'd be willing to roll the dice and endure a crappy year with Joel Przybilla racking two points a game at center. And no, that number was not a typo. Remember, you heard this conspiracy theory here first.
For what it's worth, there's definitely a team in the Pacific with more ill-matched or unimpressive parts than the Lakers. You just don't hear about them, since nobody cares about the Kings anymore. Save Nicole Richie-thin Kevin Martin, this rotation's core leaves mucho to be desired. A star duo (Ron Artest and the thumb-addled Mike Bibby) that reportedly doesn't get along and has been on and off the block since about 1978, a small forward trapped in a center's body (Brad Miller), two power forwards (Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Kenny Thomas) who could lose their starting gig to a cat barely topping 220 pounds (Mikki Moore), and John Salmons, last season's mid-level-compensated addition whose name won't ring a bell for 9 out of 10 people reading this. Hey, what's not to love, besides their terrible D and new coach Reggie Theus' rules, like no cellies on the bus and roadie curfews? The perfect spirit-lifter during a sub-.500 season.
I'll be watching this rather lousy team for three reasons and three reasons only.
1) I find the career path of Darko Milicic bizarrely fascinating (as well as his thoughts on FIBA refereeing).
2) I'm just curious to see if Darko's presence motivates Stromile Swift, since Milicic snagging his minutes would soldify Swift as the worst No. 2 pick of the last 10 years. Or vice versa, if Swift holds him off. A historic "Battle to Suck Less" is in the works, people!
3) After bringing in Pau Gasol's best buddy Juan Carlos Navarro specifically to appease the disgruntled star, I'm curious to see who G.M. Chris Wallace will swap out to add Jose Calderon, Jorge Garbajosa and Sergio Rodriguez and surround Pau with all his boys. Will they put together a $100,000,000 package to lure Fran Vasquez out of hiding? Whatever it takes to make Gasol "gruntled," a transformation that won't likely happen, since I'm pegging these guys for about 35 wins.
Los Angeles Clippers
Best-case scenario to stay afloat until Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston hopefully return in February: Corey Maggette becomes an efficient scoring machine, prompting Mike Dunleavy to wonder what the two ever fought about. Chris Kaman proves that last season was a hiccup in an otherwise steadily improving career. Rookie Al Thornton builds on a monster preseason. Tim Thomas actually steps up for a team that needs him to become tougher and motivated. Cuttino Mobley remains steady. Ruben Patterson's bulldog attitude permeates throughout the squad. Brevin Knight and Sam Cassell remain healthy enough to patch together a season's worth of quality point-guard play and leadership.
Worst-case scenario to stay afloat until Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston hopefully return in February: Corey Maggette becomes an inefficient shooting machine, prompting he and Mike Dunleavy to come to blows in a liquor store parking lot. Chris Kaman continues looking easily distracted, just with shorter hair. Al Thornton hits the rookie wall in January. Tim Thomas remembers he gets the exact same paycheck no matter how he plays, which makes hitting cruise control a no-brainer. Cuttino Mobley's biggest 2008 accomplishments revolve around his wardrobe (dude can dress). Ruben Patterson's bulldog attitude gets him suspended twice by the team for "conduct detrimental." Brevin Knight misses his usual assortment of games while Cassell nurses even more injuries, eventually getting dealt at the deadline to a contender that he guides to a title playing 18 mpg.
I'm not sure either scenario will shake out exactly as described, but call me crazy: I'm picturing an outcome closer to the second than the first.
TEAMS THAT WILL BE ABOUT AS GOOD AS THE LAKERS, MAYBE A LITTLE BETTER
New Orleans Hornets
Do yourself a favor. If you're vacationing in the Big Easy and talking hoops with a local, don't bust out a sob story about the Laker injury woes, because you're likely to find a little spit in your gumbo. Say what you want about the purple and gold's crummy health, but the Hornet starters missed a combined 133 games, 69 alone by Peja Stojakovic. But even with that staggering number of contests featuring Hornets in suits, they still managed to make a serious playoff push. If they can stay out of the trainer's room, this is a team equipped to, at the very least, nudge the Lakers further down the Western Conference ladder. David West is the NBA's best "almost 20/10 player that nobody knows who the hell he is." Tyson Chandler is beating Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry in the quest to be the 2001 high school draft class kid that almost lives up to the hype (as a defensive specialist/rebounding machine who alters roughly a zillion shots per game). And with all respect to Deron Williams, Chris Paul still has my vote for league's most promising young PG. Add Peja's triples, Bobby Jackson's ability (when healthy) to score in bunches, Mo Peterson's shooting and defense, plus solid role players like Rasual Butler, Ryan Bowen and Jannero Pargo, that's a team that can provide fits around the league. Or at least beat the Lakers, whichever comes first.
Golden State Warriors
Call me cynical, but I don't see Golden State improving much on last season's surprise success down the stretch. Maybe it's because I think Baron Davis can't stay healthy enough. Maybe it's because I think they don't have enough front-court scoring. Maybe it's because I think they don't have enough D, whether front, back or middle court (if such a term even exists). Maybe it's because any team with Stephen Jackson as a tri-captain seems pretty much destined to go off the rails like a ... wait for it ... crazy train. But until the Warriors actually fall back into the mediocrity I'm predicting, they finished 2007 with the same record as the Lakers, so they deserve my treatment as more or less equals.
Incidentally, does everyone agree that last season wasn't a question of Dirk Nowitzki simply crumbling in the playoffs but literally being scared of the Warriors? As in, "I'm frightened of these guys and I want my mommy!" Granted, between Davis, Jax, Al Harrington's mohawk and Matt Barnes running around like a tatted-out meth fiend from Fresno, the Warriors put out a decidedly edgy vibe. But at the same time, the dude is 7' 0" and freakin' German! Shouldn't that make him sort of tough? I don't like tossing around the "soft" label, because I think it's often a cliche. But I've been questioning Dirk way before the Mavs got bounced. I was actually pretty relieved to hear Mark Cuban say that Dirk was off the table in a theoretical Kobe swap. I'll take Josh Howard over Nowitzki any day of the week.
Part II to follow soon.