The Sports Inquirer attended the presser of Atlanta Hawks player Jeremy Lin at the team’s Media Day festivities on Sept. 24. Topics included preparations for this upcoming season, NBA team’s focus on off-the-court development and his evolution as a player.
Music to listen to: Roulette Dares (live) by The Mars Volta
Time to preview the Western Conference for this upcoming NBA season
Best team: Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder finally reached the NBA Finals last season and will continue to show supremacy in the division behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The trade of James Harden does make OKC weaker in the short-term until Kevin Martin can implement himself into the rotation.
Weakest team: Portland Trailblazers. Most prognosticators are picking Minnesota to finish in last place but I have greater concerns about Portland. LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star player and very talented but the rest of the roster is lacking greatly. Damian Lillard will have a strong rookie campaign but that won’t be enough to help Portland avoid last place in the division.
Wildcard team: Denver Nuggets. I really, really wanted to pick Utah in this spot because I love the depth at forward/center with Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and even Marvin Williams. I think Gordon Haywood has star potential and looking forward to seeing Enes Kanter improve. However, the guards the squad are weak and your weakest spots on a team can’t be guards, especially in the West.
I’ve seen predictions for the Nuggets to win between 45-60 games this season which makes them the true wildcard of the entire conference. The depth of the frontcourt is outstanding with Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Anthony Randolph and JaVale McGee who I think will show strong maturity and make his first All-Star team this year. If the guard play stays solid with Andre Miller, Ty Lawson, and the addition of versatile Corey Brewer, Denver could actually make a run for the division title against the Thunder.
Best Player: Durant. In most divisions, Kevin Love would be a major contender for this crown. Westbrook has made a case for being the best point guard in the NBA. However, he’s not even the best player on his own team. Durant will lead the league in scoring again this season, continue to become respectable on defense and if he ever committed to rebounding, he could average a double-double an entire year.
Most Important: Love. When Love and Ricky Rubio were in the lineup together last season, the Timberwolves were a playoff-contending team. When Rubio went out for the season with a knee injury, the postseason hopes were dashed. Through this logic, it would seem that Rubio is the more valuable player to the team but the engine is driven by Love. Currently, Love is going to miss the first month of the season with a hand injury, meaning that his return to top form is critical for the overall development of the team.
Top newcomer: Andre Iguodala, Denver. I’m bullish on the Nuggets and its because they have an elite defensive perimeter player in Iguodala. The Nuggets have a versatile player that can match up with any guard or small forward in the league and provide offensive skills as well.
Best Coach: George Karl, Denver. I know that Scott Brooks led the Thunder to the Finals last year but Karl brings more experience to the table and has shown a stronger ability to blend different levels of talents within a team better.
Coach on the hot seat: This may be the only division where everyone’s job is safe because of being new (Terry Scotts and Tyrone Corbin), coming off of an outstanding season (Brooks), or well-established within their team (Rick Adelman and Karl). If I had to choose one, I guess it would be Brooks because of the heightened expectations for the Thunder this season. Only a return trip to the Finals would be considered a successful season and that’s a steep curve to work under.
Predicted finish (in order): Oklahoma City, Denver, Utah, Minnesota, Portland
Best team: San Antonio Spurs. Outside of Miami in the Southeast and arguably the Los Angeles Lakers in the Pacific, this may have been the easiest division winner to predict. Dallas still has Dirk Nowitzki but the rest of the lineup is questionable. We’ll get to the rest of the division later.
Weakest team: New Orleans Hornets. The addition of Anthony Davis is nice and Eric Gordon has All-Star potential. However, the rest of the squad is still developing and the growing pains will show strongly this season.
Wildcard team: Memphis Grizzlies. The darkhorse Western Conference contenders going into last season have regressed though the questionable health of its top players, mainly Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay staying on the court. Furthermore, the loss of OJ Mayo is going to hurt Memphis more than people are expecting. However, any squad that can throw a starting frontcourt of Marc Gasol, Randolph and Gay along with a solid point guard in Mike Conley should be respected as a team that can make a playoff run if healthy.
Best Player: Tony Parker, San Antonio. Parker has been overshadowed in the past by other point guards in the NBA and even his own teammates, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, over the years. However, Parker had a career year last season and helped lead the Spurs to the best record in the Western Conference.
Most Important Player: Nowitzki. If Dirk doesn’t come back to full strength and produce a solid season, the Mavs can book themselves a place in the draft lottery for the first time in a long time.
Top Newcomer: Jeremy Lin and James Harden, Houston. When outlining my thoughts a few days ago, Lin and Davis were my picks for this section. While I think Davis will have an impactful rookie campaign, Houston’s trade for Harden changes the dynamic. The combination of Lin and Harden in the same backcourt makes Houston an interesting view because both men have versatility, handle the ball well and shoot. There are challenges on the defensive end but the intrigue is there.
Best Coach: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio. Best NBA coach of this generation outside of Phil Jackson and maybe Larry Brown.
Coach on the hot seat: Kevin McHale, Houston. The addition of Harden has elevated the expectations for Houston and that falls on McHale.
Predicted finish (in order): San Antonio, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans
Best team: Los Angeles Lakers. When the starting lineup consists of three future Hall of Famers (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard) and one of the best power forwards of the last 15 years (Pau Gasol), you have the best team in the division.
Weakest team: Phoenix Suns. The Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings aren’t going to make much of an impact this season but the post-Steve Nash era will be the cruelest to the Suns and make them the weakest team in the division.
Best Player: Kobe Bryant, Lakers. Yes, he shoots too much at times, ignores teammates and can actually be taken advantage of on the defensive end at times. However, Bryant is still an elite guard that will benefit greatly from having a post presence like Howard to open up shooting opportunities. Furthermore, Nash is the best point guard that Bryant has ever played with and will get the ball in the right spot.
Most important player: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers. The fate of the entire Clippers franchise lies with Paul and whether he can get the offense to flow properly with Blake Griffin. The Clippers have an odd collection of players (Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Caron Butler, DeAndre Jordan) who have versatility but also the potential to be dysfunctional without a good floor leader which is what Paul will have to be for the Clippers to even return to the playoffs.
Top newcomer: Howard. If the Lakers are going to win an NBA title, the post defense will have to be better, especially with perimeter defenders who have slowed down over the years. Howard may have some offensive limitations but there’s little doubt that he’s the best paint defender in the NBA and this will help the Lakers greatly when perimeter players drive past the guards.
Best coach: For a major division, the coaching in the Pacific does seem to be lacking. I’ll take Mike Brown of the Lakers by default.
Coach on the hot seat: Vinnie Del Negro, LA Clippers. He was almost fired last season numerous times and there was a potential player revolt as well. I don’t see much changing this season.
Predicted finish (in order): LA Lakers, LA Clippers, Golden State, Sacramento, Phoenix
Those are my thoughts, what are yours?