The Golden State Warriors are heading back to the NBA Finals, while the San Antonio Spurs are attempting to pick up the pieces.
It isn’t that often in which an NBA team will come along and do what the Golden State Warriors are currently doing. The Warriors went 67-15 en route to winning the NBA Championship in 2015. Last season the Warriors would set a new single-season record by going 73-9, but they fell one victory short of repeating as NBA Champions. And although that the Warriors fell one victory short of their ultimate goal last summer, they still have a have a huge bulls eye on their backs during the current NBA season.
As if having two of the best perimeter shooters in the NBA in point guard Stephen Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson wasn’t enough, the rich got richer when the Warriors signed small forward Kevin Durant last summer. Now it’s a classic game of “pick your poison” as either Durant, Curry, or Thompson can explode for 40 points on a given night as this is a team that has embraced the spotlight.
The Warriors entered this NBA season with Curry being the two-time reigning MVP, along with the fact that there’s a huge consensus of basketball fans that are upset about Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder as a free agent in order to sign with the team that eliminated him in the Western Conference Finals last June. And once you factor in that the Warriors are very good, along with the notion of power forward Draymond Green not being Mr. Popular due to his questionable play on the court, Golden State might be the closest thing to a hated team that the NBA has right now. But if there’s a group guys who aren’t concerned about this, it is indeed the Warriors.
This NBA season didn’t begin like the previous one did for the Warriors when they won their first 24 games as on opening night, they fell at home to the San Antonio Spurs. And by Golden State’s sixth game, they had tasted defeat for the second time as the young Los Angeles Lakers got the best of them. But then Golden State would get on one of those vintage runs as they would reel of 12 consecutive victories and since then they have not lost two games in a row. Each time that the Warriors have lost a game, they followed it up by winning at least their next four in a row.
There were people who wondered how the Warriors would be able to make things work with Durant, Thompson, Curry, and Green all in the starting lineup. But Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has one of the most unselfish teams in the NBA. Each of these players have seen their points per game diminish this season, but it’s all for the greater good for the team in order to win another NBA Championship.
Durant led the NBA in scoring on four separate occasions with the Thunder which included a career-high 32 points during his MVP campaign during the 2013-2014 season. But Durant isn’t a one-dimensional player who is focusing on scoring as he wants to win which is what led him to joining the Warriors over the summer. This season Durant’s points per game are down as he’s average 26.2 per contest which still leads the team, however he has become more efficient.
With the Warriors, Durant is averaging a career-high in rebounds (8.4), along with blocks (1.7), while he is also shooting over 54% from the floor. Each time that Durant takes the court you can see the hunger in his eyes as he wants to win an NBA Championship, while also proving to people that he didn’t join the Warriors to merely ride the coat tails of Curry, Thompson, and Green.
Curry’s points per game (24.6), and three-point field goal percentage (40%) are each drastically down from last season. However Curry is still one of the best shooters from long range as teams around the NBA still have reservations as far as leaving him open from beyond the three-point arc.
Thompson might be the forgotten man on the Warriors this season as he’s still averaging 21.1 points per game. But on December 5, Thompson torched the Indiana Pacers for 60 points in just 29 minutes as the Warriors crushed them 142-106. And if teams want to focus on Durant and Curry, Thompson could still be Golden State’s ace in the hole.
Then there is the case of Green who is the Warriors omnipresent player. Curry may have won the NBA’s MVP last year, but there were people who made the case that Green was the best player on the team. This season Green is once again leading the Warriors in assists with 7.5 per game while he is also averaging 8.5 rebounds, 1.9, and 1.4 blocks. Green is still that guy that does the dirty work as any championship needs a player like that. But at times Green can be his own worst enemy as he has been known to make bonehead decisions on the court.
Green racked up several flagrant fouls in the NBA Playoffs last year which led to him ultimately being suspended for Game 5 of the NBA Finals. And Green’s absence was the momentum needed for the Cavaliers to get back into the series and ultimately win the NBA Title. But Green has yet to learn as he kicked Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden in the head earlier this season, and you get the feeling that his antics could cost the Warriors once more when the chips are down in the playoffs.
In signing Durant, the Warriors sacrificed some size as they traded center Andrew Bogut to the Dallas Mavericks, while also allowing center Marreesse Speights to leave in free agency as he signed with the Los Angeles Clippers. And whereas there were some detractors who felt that the Warriors would have issues because of their perceived lack of size, they are currently sixth in rebounding as they are averaging 45.2 per contest.
The Warriors have a commitment to defense and rebounding which includes the likes of center Zaza Pachulia, power forward David West, point guard Shaun Livingston, and small forward Andre Iguodala who is still one of the better perimeter defenders in the NBA.
It’s late January, but the Warriors have all but clinched the Pacific Division for the third consecutive year as they should not be tested until they reach the Western Conference Finals where they will more than likely face the Spurs. The Warriors have lucked out for the fact that they’ve not had to face the Spurs in the last two years in the playoffs, but this season it is almost inevitable as they are clearly the top two teams in the Western Conference. And if the Warriors can escape the Spurs, the Cavs are once again lurking in the NBA Finals.
But this Warriors team appears to be different from the one last season that was all glitz and glamour when they set an NBA record with 73 wins. This Warriors is more business like as the wins are still piling up. And Golden State knows that what they are doing now won’t mean a thing unless they are the last team standing in late June.
It’s still early in the NBA season, but that doesn’t mean we cannot begin to look at who’ll take home some hardware in the spring as the league’s MVP. And although that Christmas has not yet arrived, here are some players that are right now a cut above the rest.
DeMar DeRozan-Shooting Guard-Toronto Raptors
Since the Toronto Raptors made shooting guard DeMar Derozan the ninth overall selection of the NBA Draft in 2009, he has been a work in progress. As a rookie, DeRozan averaged 8.6 points per contest, but he would make a huge leap in his second season as he netted 17.2 points per game. And by 2014, DeRozan had elevated his game to that of an NBA All-Star.
Last season saw DeRozan help the Raptors make the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, and he’s doing his part to help Toronto take that next step in order to win an NBA Championship.
This season DeRozan is averaging 28 points per game, which has included a pair of 40-point performances. In all but three games this season DeRozan has scored at least 21 points as he is the focal point of the Raptors offense.
DeRozan deserves a ton of credit as after signing a five-year, $139 million extension to remain in Toronto over the summer, his production has increased which goes against the norm as athletes tend to regress after agreeing to a mega deal. But DeRozan is mentally tough and as he has the Raptors poised to make a title run, he cannot be overlooked in regards to being the NBA’s MVP.
LeBron James-Small Forward-Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James falls into that rare air. James has been one of the best players in the NBA since he first came on to the scene in 2003 which is evident by him being a four-time NBA MVP. James is always in the discussion to be the NBA’s MVP, and although that he’s only averaging 23.9 points so far this season, he is averaging 9.1 assists, and 7.6 rebounds per contest as he is still the game’s best all-around player.
Russell Westbrook-Point Guard-Oklahoma City Thunder
Since Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook made his NBA debut in 2008, he has been one of the league’s most explosive players. Westbrook is a five-time NBA All-Star in spite of the fact that he has spent his entire professional career playing out of position as he was always a shooting guard prior to joining the Thunder.
I expected Westbrook to have an increased role in the Thunder’s offense after small forward Kevin Durant left last summer in free agency and he has lived up to the expectations and then some.
In Westbrook’s first game this season, he dropped 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists on the Philadelphia 76ers. Westbrook follwed this up by torching the Phoenix Suns in the second game of the season for 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.
For the season Westbrook has 11 triple-doubles to his credit which includes recording one in his each of his last six games. Westbrook is currently averaging 31 points, 11.3 assists, and 10.9 rebounds as he is seeking to become the first player in the NBA to average a triple-double for an entire season since Oscar Robertson in 1962. And if Westbrook is able to pull off that feat, he should receive very strong consideration to be the NBA’s MVP.
Kevin Durant-Small Forward-Golden State Warriors
Small forward Kevin Durant shocked many people last summer when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent to join the Golden State Warriors. And when Durant joined the Warriors, it was going to be interesting to see how he would play alongside point guard Steph Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson who are two of the premier scorers in the NBA.
But so far Durant hasn’t skipped a beat with his new team as he is averaging 26.5 points, 4.8 assists, and 8.4 rebounds which are a career-high. Durant has been consistent for the Warriors as he has scored at least 20 points in every contest in all but two for the Warriors. And as the Warriors once again find themselves in the title hunt, Durant’s contributions cannot be overlooked.
James Harden-Point Guard-Houston Rockets
Before this NBA season began, new Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that he would be shifting James Harden from shooting guard to point guard. And whereas people such as myself laughed at the notion, D’Antoni has been right on so far.
Harden has still maintained his status as one of the better scorers in the NBA as he is averaging 28.5 points per game. But the amazing feat is that Harden has done this while he is leading the league in assists at 11.4 per contest. Harden has four triple-doubles on the season. And in those contests the Rockets are 3-1 which includes victories over the San Antonio Spurs, along with the Golden State Warriors.
D’Antoni has maximized the ability of Harden which is leading to victories for the Rockets and the elevation of the all-around game of one of the best players in the NBA.
Anthony Davis-Power Forward-New Orleans Pelicans
Being that the New Orleans Pelicans are not one of the better teams in the NBA, the exploits of power forward Anthony Davis could go unnoticed to the casual fan. Davis was the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft by the then New Orleans Hornets, and he has been as good as advertised. Davis is a budding superstar which began to recognized as he was named to his first All-Star team in 2014. That season Davis averaged 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks as he helped the Pelicans reach the postseason for the first time since 2011.
Injuries limited Davis to just 61 games last season, but this time around he is currently averaging 31.6 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks.
On the season Davis has 10 games in which has delivered at least 30 points and 10 rebounds which was highlighted by going for 50 points and 15 rebounds in an opening night loss to the Denver Nuggets, along with a 41-point, 16-rebound barrage last Tuesday in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Pelicans don’t have a good team around Davis which will hinder his chances as far as making the postseason goes, but what he is currently doing the season cannot be discredited.
X-Golden State Warriors 65-17 (1)
Last year was a dream season for the Golden State Warriors as they set a new NBA single-season record for wins 73 that should stand for a very long time. The Warriors appeared poised to repeat as NBA Champions as they built a 3-1 series in the NBA Finals, only to falter and lose the final three games to the Cleveland Cavaliers, which included two of those defeats coming at home. The Warriors only lost nine games during the regular season, but they would lose nine contests during the playoffs which includes their last three as they’ve had all summer to sit back and only ponder what could have been if they were able to repeat as NBA Champions. But after a record breaking season for the Warriors, don’t expect them to drop off that much.
What has propelled the Warriors over the past few NBA seasons has been their perimeter shooting. As a team the Warriors shot nearly 42% from beyond the three-point arc while they were led by “The Splash Brothers” of point guard Steph Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson.
Curry is the reigning two-time NBA MVP who is one of the best perimeter shooters that the game of basketball has seen as he is indeed a pure shooter. Last season Curry averaged 30.1 points per game and at times he can make deep shooting almost look like making layups as it doesn’t take that much for him to get into the zone.
Thompson is no slouch either when it comes to scoring as he is a career 42% shooter from downtown, while also seeing his points per game average increase in each of his five NBA seasons.
But one element that hurt the Warriors in their NBA Finals loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers was the fact that Curry nor Thompson have the ability to score close to the basket, while they are not nearly as effective when opposing defenses keep a body on them to prevent them from consistently getting open looks at the basket. And in a very surprising move which could remedy that issue, small forward Kevin Durant decided to join the Warriors on Independence Day.
For nine years Durant was the face of the Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder franchise. Only Gary Payton scored more points than Durant’s 17,566 in the history of the franchise, and no one who ever played for the organization made more three-point field goals (1,143) than him. Durant also helped the Thunder reach the NBA Finals in 2012, but allure of playing with the Warriors, while being lukewarm at best to remain in Oklahoma City and playing alongside point guard Russell Westbrook was enough to persuade him to take his talents west and join the Warriors.
What Durant gives the Warriors is a bigger scorer, but is he indeed the missing piece that can get Golden State another NBA Championship?
For Durant’s NBA career, he has averaged 27.4 points per game, but he is never going to be confused with being a defensive stalwart, which is an element that the Warriors are going to need if they are going to once again claim the NBA Title. The other big issue is going to be how will Durant fit in with Curry and Thompson as there is only one basketball to go around. Durant doesn’t appear to be the kind of player that will want to rock the boat as he understands that there is a winning formula in place, while Curry and Thompson must love the thought of having another scoring option that can take some of the burden off of them.
The Warriors do have a defensive presence on their team in the form of power forward Draymond Green and small forward Andre Iguodala. Last year Curry was the NBA’s MVP, but in actuality Green is the Warriors best player. Green can do it all as he is a perimeter scorer, interior, rebounder, defender, facilitator, and the heart and soul of this team. I also doubt that Green would have an issue in taking a backseat to Durant, Curry, and Thompson as far as the scoring goes, while he can still strengthen the team in other areas.
But all is not well with the Warriors as they’ve lost some of their depth that was key to their success over the last few years. In making room for Durant, center Andrew Bogut was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, while center Marreese Speights left to join the Los Angeles Clippers, and shooting guard Leandro Barbosa is now a member of the Phoenix Suns. On top of that small forward Harrison Barnes left in free agency to sign with the Mavericks after the Warriors made it clear that they were zeroing in on Durant.
The Warriors new supporting cast includes the likes of veteran power forward David West and center JaVale McGee to partner with stalwarts off of the Golden State bench such as point guard Shaun Livingston, but will it be enough to get the Warriors back to the NBA Championship?.
In spite of not winning the NBA Championship last June, the Warriors will still have a bulls eye on their backs due to what they did in the last regular season. And Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will have to make sure that his team will be up for the challenge.
Y-Los Angeles Clippers 54-28 (3)
The last three years have seen the Los Angeles Clippers be one of the better teams in the Western Conference, but they’ve been unable to get over the hump in the postseason. The Clippers have never won an NBA Championship and dating back to their stints in Buffalo and San Diego, they’ve never gotten to the conference finals.
Doc Rivers has been the Clippers head coach for the last three years and he has given this organization a high level of respectability. Under Rivers, the Clippers have won 50 games in each of the last three seasons, and once you factor in their 56-win campaign under Vinny Del Negro during the 2012-2013 NBA season, Los Angeles is in the midst of their best run in franchise history. But unfortunately for the Clippers, they have taken a backseat to the Golden State Warriors in the Pacific Division which is something that must change if they are going to achieve their ultimate goal which is to win an NBA Championship.
As point guard Chris Paul is set to begin his sixth season with the Clippers, he is the leader of this team, but who is the their go-to-guy? Aside from Paul, the other recognizable faces of the Clippers are power forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan. Paul is one of the better floor generals in the NBA as he has averaged 9.9 assists for his 11-year NBA career, while Jordan is currently one of the top rebounders in the league. Injuries limited Griffin to just 35 games last season, and he needs to find a way to remain healthy for this campaign. But you have to wonder if the title window is closing for this trio?
Griffin has never come off of as being “the guy” for the Clippers as he plays off of Paul. Jordan has never developed his offensive game enough to be a consistent scorer, while he is also a liability late in contests due to the fact that he is a career 42% free throw shooter. And as for Paul, he has never shown the ability during his NBA career to be a player that a team can consistently count on to score 25 points per contest.
But aside from this the Clippers still have a team that can do some damage in the regular season as long as they can remain healthy. Shooting guard J.J. Redick is one of the best deep range shooters in the NBA which was evident last season when he connected on nearly 48% of his shots from downtown. Jamal Crawford is set to begin his fifth season with the Clippers, and after averaging 14.2 points off of the bench last year for Los Angeles, he will once again be vital to their success as he is the only three-time winner of the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. At 39-years of age, small forward Paul Pierce is not the player that he was during the prime of his career, but his knowledge of the game should be able to help the Clippers in this his last go round in the NBA. The last few years have seen center Marreese Speights be a valuable role players coming off of the bench for the Warriors, and he should be an upgrade at the offensive end of the floor for the Clippers when Jordan goes to the bench. And at 6’10”, Speights’ size will also help the Clippers at the defensive end of the floor last season as they were seventh in the NBA in points allowed.
In order for the Clippers to have a shot to contend with the power teams in the Western Conference such as the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, they must take care of their business against the also-rans. And if everyone is one the same page, the Clippers should be a tough team to reckon with in spite of the fact that they more than likely won’t win the NBA Title.
Sacramento Kings 36-46
You have to go back to 2006 to find the last time that the Sacramento Kings finished an NBA campaign with a winning record. Over that stretch the Kings have gone through eight different head coaches with a ninth in Dave Joerger set to begin his tenure with the club. The Kings have not won more than 38 games in a season during their latest journey to futility, while they’ve also been an organization that has lacked leadership which means that Joerger will have his work cut out for him.
Joerger spent the last three years as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies where he compiled a record of 147-99. Joerger also led the Grizzlies to three consecutive playoff appearances which included guiding a Memphis team last season that had a slew of injuries. Joerger is an excellent communicator, while he also focuses on defensive basketball, but he will have his hands full as far as turning things around in Northern California.
Center DeMarcus Cousins has been the Kings best player in each of the last six years, but he has also been the organizations biggest headache. Cousins is coming off of a season where he averaged 26.9 points and 11.5 rebounds, while also being a member of the United States Men’s Basketball Team that won the gold medal this past August at the Summer Olympics. However the category that the Kings need Cousins step up in the most is his leadership.
As Cousins is now on his sixth different head coach with the Kings, it is safe to label him as a “coach killer”. But Kings owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac continue to keep Cousins as their centerpiece in spite of the fact that he continuously clashes with head coaches, along with being unable to make the players around him better which will more than likely be on display this season due to the fact that Sacramento has individual talent and not a group of guys that will more than likely be able to function as a cohesive unit.
Along with Cousins, the Kings are set to return four of their top five scorers from last year’s team. Small forward Rudy Gay is set to begin his fourth season with the Kings. During Gay’s time in Sacramento, he has averaged 19.4 points per game, but just like Cousins he has been unable to help the Kings get over the hump and back to the playoffs. Point guard Darren Collison is set to begin his third season in Sacramento, and he could have more of an impact this year due to the fact that he won’t be looking over his shoulder after the Kings allowed point guard Rajon Rondo to leave in free agency. Small forward Omri Casspi gives the Kings a solid perimeter scorer coming off of the bench which will be vital as Sacramento does’t want to get lost in the shuffle once again in the Western Conference.
During the off-season, the Kings also picked up veteran wing players in small forwards Matt Barnes and Arron Afflalo who aside from both playing their college ball at UCLA could provide Sacramento with experience and more importantly a defensive toughness that is going to be necessary for them under Joerger.
Something will have to give for the Kings as no team in the NBA allowed more points per game (109.1) last season than they did, while Joerger typically had one of the better defensive teams in the league during his time in the Memphis. For the Kings to improve at the defensive end of the floor, it is going to take a collective effort, but players such as Cousins, Gay, and Casspi don’t have a solid history of being solid defenders which puts Sacramento in an interesting situation being that Ranadive and Divac have been known to chose Cousins over their head coaches.
Just like last year, the Kings have tremendous individual talent, but they must learn to play together as a team. The Kings are currently one of the most poorly run franchises in the NBA, and the only highlight of their season will be the unveiling of their new home in Northern California which is the Golden 1 Center.
Los Angeles Lakers 33-49
It’s no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers are in the midst of their worst stretch in franchise history. The last three years have seen the Lakers fail to post a winning record, while they’ve also been unable to qualify for the playoffs. This marks the first time in the illustrious history of the Lakers franchise that this has happened as they are now coming to grips with a very unfamiliar word which is “rebuilding”. The upcoming NBA season also marked the end of one era for Lakers basketball, and the beginning of a new one.
The past 20 years have seen shooting guard Kobe Bryant as a fixture on the court for the Lakers. Bryant helped the Lakers win five NBA Championships. But like all good Hollywood productions, Bryant’s time on the court has come to an end. Bryant’s departure means that the focus will be on the youth movement for the Lakers, along with a new voice on the sidelines.
36-year old Luke Walton is set to become the 26th head coach in the illustrious history of the Lakers franchise and there is only one way for him to go which is up. Walton has played for the Lakers as he was a member of their championship teams in 2009 and 2010. Walton has spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors and he hopes to bring the same ball movement offense that has been successful in Oakland to Los Angeles. And although that Walton doesn’t have the same level of talent to work with in Los Angeles as opposed to Oakland with the Warriors, all is not lost for Walton as there is some potential on the Lakers roster.
As the Lakers have combined to lose 181 games over the last three NBA seasons, it has also seen them picking very early in the NBA Draft. In 2014, the Lakers used their first-round pick on power forward Julius Randle. In 2015, the Lakers used the second overall pick of the NBA Draft on point guard D’Angelo Russell. And after winning just 17 games last year, the Lakers once again had the second overall choice; this time they selected small forward Brandon Ingram whom they are hopeful will be another piece to their young core of players.
In the first game of the 2014-2015 NBA season, Randle suffered a broken leg which ended his rookie campaign before it even started. Randle would return last season in what was his de facto rookie campaign as he averaged 11.3 points and 10.2 rebounds as he is showing that he has the potential to be a low-post presence in Los Angeles. Russell had an up and down rookie campaign as he averaged 13.2 points and 3.3. assists while having the locker room turn on him after an incident with shooting guard Nick Young. Russell is only 20-years of age, and there is still a level of immaturity that must be curbed if he is going to grow as a professional basketball player. Aside from Russell, the Lakers are high on another guard in Jordan Clarkson. Last year was Clarkson’s second NBA season and after averaging 15.5 points per game, he received a four-year extension that is worth $50 million. Ingram showed flashes of what he could be during his one year of collegiate basketball for the Duke Blue Devils as he averaged 17.3 and 6.8 rebounds en route to being the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Player of the Year. And Ingram’s development as a wing player and all-around player are going to be vital for the Lakers who are looking to pick themselves up off of the canvas in the Western Conference.
Aside from the Lakers youth movement, they do have veterans on this club such as small forward Luol Deng and shooting guard Lou Williams who’s experience will be important as Walton looks to get his message across to his young team.
It might not seem like it, but the Lakers are in the process of building something special, and although that the 2016-2017 NBA season will more than likely see Los Angeles miss the postseason once again, they are on the verge of building something very special.
Phoenix Suns 30-52
Throughout the 48-year history of the Phoenix Suns franchise, they’ve never won an NBA Championship, but they have had a reputation of being a perennial playoff team. However things have really gone awry for the Suns as they have failed to make the postseason since 2010. Over that stretch the Suns have had four different head coaches which has taken away from their ability to build some cohesion. Earl Watson was the Suns interim head coach for the final 33 games of the 2015-2016 NBA season after Jeff Hornacek was fired. The Suns would go 9-24 under Watson, but team general manager Ryan McDonough decided to stick with him heading into the upcoming NBA season. However it doesn’t matter who will be coaching the Suns as this organization has lost its luster.
When you think of the history of Suns basketball, an uptempo pace that produces plenty of points generally comes to mind. But last season the Suns were 22nd in the NBA in points per game at 100.9 per contest. One issue that the Suns have had is that they’ve concentrated too much on being a guard oriented team. In the past five years the majority of the Suns draft picks have been guards and this has robbed the Suns from gaining cohesion on the basketball court along with an overall identity. The Suns two best players are a pair of point guards that played collegiately for the Kentucky Wildcats in Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, but it is counter productive to have each of them on the court at the same time when they have the same skill set.
However regardless of whether it is Bledsoe or Knight that is running the show for the Suns at point guard, they have a promising player to run with in the Phoenix backcourt in shooting guard Devin Booker. Last year as a rookie, Booker was the Suns third leading scorer at 13.8 points per game behind Bledsoe and Knight and the ceiling is very high for him as his second year in the NBA is set to begin.
The Suns do have a veteran presence in their front court with center Tyson Chandler who is still a solid rebounder, and power forward Mirza Teletovic who is a quality scorer as he averaged 12.2 points per game last year for Phoenix, but it is highly unlikely that it will be good enough to make them a playoff team.
Five of the Suns first eight games this year will be on the road, and a slow start could be the prelude for another long season in Phoenix.
Y-Clinched Playoff Berth
A week ago life was good for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder had a 3-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, and a trip to the NBA Finals appeared to be in the cards for them. But the Thunder were unable to seal the deal as they lost their next three games, with each defeat being more painful that the previous one. Now the Thunder have become a running gag on social media as some people are labeling them as “choke artists”, with their star players in point guard Russell Westbrook and small forward Kevin Durant being singled out. The Thunder enjoyed a terrific season as they won 55 games during the regular season en route to winning their fifth Northwest Division Title in the last six years. In the Western Conference Semifinals, the Thunder got past the San Antonio Spurs who were viewed by many observers as the uncrowned NBA Champions. But after being so close to defeating the Warriors, the Thunder are left to ponder what could have been as they’ll be licking their wounds over the summer.
But the Thunder won’t be able to sulk for long as team general manager Sam Presti must formulate a plan to keep Durant in Oklahoma City. Durant is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and there are several teams in the NBA that will be putting on the full-court press in order to entice him to join them. However what the Thunder have going for them is that they can offer Durant more money than any other team, while roster wise they still possess a squad that is championship ready.
Presti must also decided if he is willing to re-sign shooting guard Dion Waiters. During the 2014-2015 NBA season, the Thunder acquired Waiters from the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he became a valuable sixth man in Oklahoma City. Waiters made $5.1 million this season, but you can expect that he will be seeking a bigger payday over the summer, and it will be interesting to see if the Thunder are willing to commit to him on a long-term deal. However being that Waiters is a restricted free agent, the Thunder will have the opportunity to match any offer from another NBA team.
Other than Durant and Waiters, all the key players to the Thunder’s success are under contract at least through next season. Billy Donovan was solid in his first season as the head coach of the Thunder as he was brought in for his ability to deal with different personalities. And Donovan did a solid job of staying out of the way, while letting his players be.
But as good as the Thunder have been and can be, they are not going to get too many opportunities to win an NBA Championship like the one that they just had which was right within their grasp.
The Western Conference is still difficult with the likes of the Warriors, Spurs, and the emerging Portland Trailblazers. And the Thunder proved how difficult that winning the Western Conference can be as they’ll more than likely have to go through the Spurs and Warriors once more.
Although that Westbrook didn’t enter the NBA as a point guard, he has evolved into one of the best in the league as he is a triple-double waiting to happen. And in the defeat to the Warriors, Westbrook showed that he is the heart and soul of the Thunder as he was a big reason why Oklahoma City was up 3-1 in the series due to his relentlessness at both ends of the court. With the deep run by the Thunder in the playoffs, I don’t see Durant leaving Oklahoma City as being there gives him the best chance of winning an NBA Championship which appears to be high on his list of priorities. The Thunder have rebounding in the form of centers Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, along with power forward Serge Ibaka. The Thunder also get interior defense from Ibaka and Adams, while Waiters and shooting guard Andre Roberson are solid perimeter defenders. But what the Thunder could benefit from is having another ball handler on the court coming down the stretch of games which would take some pressure off of Westbrook while allowing him the freelance more. And most importantly, the Thunder must find a way to finish.
What separated Golden State and Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals was that the Warriors expected to win, while the Thunder hoped to win. The Warriors have been there and done it, which is why they are the defending NBA Champions and are still playing as the Thunder are not. Make no mistake about it that this version of the Thunder was better than the team that lost to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. And if the Thunder can find a way to build off of this difficult defeat as opposed to allowing it to bring them down, they can once again be a very formidable team next season.