With training camps opening across the country, the official start of the 2015–16 NBA season is upon us. This is an uncertain time: optimism runs rampant, as it should, but every team faces ambiguities that could develop into serious problems. On Monday, SI.com’s Rob Mahoney previewed the top storylines facing all 15 Eastern Conference teams. Now, it’s time to take a look at the Western Conference landscape.
Will a rough summer and a host of injuries produce the first losing season of Mark Cuban’s tenure?
It’s easy to overlook the Mavericks’ run of consistent success when the Spurs continue to roll along in even more impressive fashion just a four-hour drive away. Sure, Dirk Nowitzki isn’t quite Tim Duncan and Rick Carlisle’s one championship leaves him four shy of Gregg Popovich, but stop for a moment and appreciate the full scope of what Dallas has put together. In the 15 full seasons since Mark Cuban took over as owner, the Mavericks have made the playoffs 14 times, they’ve advanced to the second round seven times, they’ve made two Finals appearances, they’ve won 50+ games 12 times, they’ve won 60+ games three times, and they’ve never had a losing season, not not even in 2012–13, when Nowitzki missed nearly 30 games due to injury.
This year could be different, as a losing season is a distinct possibility. Aside from the always brutal nature of the West, there are two major sources of concern: 1) Dallas saw a whole lot of talent go out the door this summer, and 2) Dallas has a whole lot of talent tied up with medical issues.
On the first point, the sum total of outbound talent got lost in the insanity of the DeAndre Jordan affair. In addition to not landing Jordan, Dallas lost Tyson Chandler (its leading rebounder and interior defender), Monta Ellis (its leading scorer and backcourt playmaker), Al-Farouq Aminu (possibly its top perimeter defender), Rajon Rondo (an ill-fitting but experienced point guard), Richard Jefferson (an occasional starter and veteran presence), and Amar’e Stoudemire (a rotation big scooped up off the Knicks’ trash heap), among others.
On the second point, Dallas had the impact of its incoming pieces blunted by injuries. Wesley Matthews, the Mavericks’ top signing, could be out until Christmas as he recovers from an Achilles tear. Deron Williams, the Mavericks’ new starting point guard, has seen his production diminish for three straight seasons as he battles ongoing ankle injuries. Those concerns are compounded by the uncertain status of starting small forward Chandler Parsons, who reportedly underwent a microfracture-like surgery on his knee. Somehow, this leaves Dirk Nowitzki, even at age 37, as the team’s surest bet, which is a real problem considering Nowitzki’s age-induced slippage.
Absent quick returns from Matthews and Parsons and an unexpected revival from Williams, the Mavericks look overmatched against their conference foes. Carlisle’s deserved reputation as a miracle worker will get a strong test this season.
Will Emmanuel Mudiay emerge as the Rookie of the Year?
It’s hard to settle the table better for a rookie point guard than the Nuggets have for Emmanuel Mudiay. GM Tim Connelly told reporters on Monday that Mudiay, 19, will start. There will be no real depth chart pressure, as last year’s starter, Ty Lawson, was shipped out in an off-season trade. Instead, Mudiay will be able to learn from, and play alongside, veteran Jameer Nelson as he acclimates to the NBA game after spending his post-prep year in China. From an expectations standpoint, Mudiay will enjoy a clean slate, as Denver is looking to turn the page with new coach Michael Malone after two disastrous seasons under coach Brian Shaw. Even better, Mudiay won’t need to go it alone: veterans like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Randy Foye are in place to provide an element of stability.
• MORE NBA: Mudiay will start at PG for the Nuggets
This all amounts to a no-lose proposition for Mudiay, a strong on-ball player who enjoyed a nice showing at Las Vegas Summer League. He gets to familiarize himself with running an offense with some talented pieces around him, but he doesn’t need to stress out about making a playoff push. He gets enough room and space to put up numbers (and miss shots and commit turnovers) without worrying about looking over his shoulder. And he gets to do it all without the large-market scrutiny that will surely follow the Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell or the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis.
Given the opportunity in front of him, Mudiay should be viewed as one of the top Rookie of the Year candidates, and perhaps the favorite to win the award. Unlike Russell or Porzingis, there’s no question about the size of his role. Unlike Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Philadelphia’s Jahlil Okafor, Mudiay should be in control of his own fate on every offensive possession. A strong rookie year for Mudiay would fall somewhere between what Brandon Knight (12.8 points, 3.8 assists, 11.7 PER) and Derrick Rose (16.8 points, 6.3 assists, 16 PER) managed as full-time starters in their first seasons. Brandon Jennings (15.5 points, 5.7 assists, 14.5 PER), who made a similar prep-to-international-to-NBA journey, makes for an easy comparison and an ambitious target.
Golden State Warriors
Is starting center Andrew Bogut at risk of being further marginalized?
You need a telescope to spot any potential drama with the Warriors right now, as a magnifying glass or even a microscope just won’t do. The defending champions are sitting so pretty: they bring back their top nine guys by minutes played last season, their roster has no immediate injury concerns, and their projection rotation is comprised entirely of players who are 32 and younger. Something will eventually go wrong, but they enter camp with a talented, deep, and balanced squad that is fully capable of running off 67 wins again and claiming a second straight title. The Thunder, Spurs, Clippers, and Cavaliers should all be better than they were last season, but the Warriors can fairly argue that they still possess the highest ceiling of any team in the league.
If there’s one spot to watch, it’s clearly in the middle. While Andrew Bogut, last year’s starting center, garnered All-Defensive recognition and finished sixth in Defensive Player of the Year balloting, the Australian 7-footer averaged a career-low 23.6 minutes per game and is facing challenges from all sides. Most obviously, there’s the temptation to go small with Draymond Green in the middle, an approach that posted an obscenely strong +21.8 net rating during the regular season and helped the title run in 2015 Finals. Then, there’s the ongoing emergence of Festus Ezeli, a 25-year-old center who came on well down the stretch and is eligible for a rookie extension this fall. Finally, there’s Marreese Speights and newcomer Jason Thompson, two deeper reserves who possess greater mobility and a little more individual offensive potency than Bogut. There’s not enough time for everyone, and while Bogut remains near the front of the line, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the organization made it a priority to work in Ezeli to a greater degree, especially in light of Bogut’s long injury history.
Although Bogut struggled early in the Finals and played less than three minutes total in Golden State’s final three wins, coach Steve Kerr will obviously be in no rush to shove him aside. The Bogut/Green pairing is crucial to the Warriors’ success against traditional frontlines, and some measure of Golden State’s smallball success is due to how seamlessly they can shift between various looks. All told, the Warriors’ 2014–15 starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Green, and Bogut went 51-7 (.879) in their 58 appearances together, a 72-win clip over a full season. That type of dominating performance surely lands in the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” category for now, but it’s worth remembering that Kerr has multiple options at his disposal if he decides it’s time to pivot away from Bogut.
• MORE NBA: Rockets seize opportunity, land Lawson
Can Ty Lawson transform from Public Enemy No. 1 to game-changing addition?
Here’s a quick rundown of the biggest additions to contending teams this summer: LaMarcus Aldridge and David West to the Spurs. (A big freaking deal.) Paul Pierce, Josh Smith, and Lance Stephenson to the Clippers. (Meaningful upgrades.) Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes to the Grizzlies. (Overlooked role players.) Tiago Splitter to the Hawks. (Addresses a clear weakness.) Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson to the Cavaliers. (Classic hole-pluggers.) Jason Thompson to the Warriors. (Probably won’t matter.) Rookies Cameron Payne to the Thunder and Bobby Portis to the Bulls. (Check back later.)
And then there’s Rockets guard Ty Lawson who, on pure talent, is better than everyone on the list above besides Aldridge. In terms of fit, Lawson and the Rockets might actually be the best player/team pairing: he helps fill a position of weakness, he complements Houston’s superstars well, and his skills mesh perfectly with Houston’s preferred up-tempo style and efficiency-focused offense. At 27, he’s in his prime, he’s aligned age-wise with the other key members of the team, and he brings playoff experience to a team with championship aspirations.
To further sweeten this scenario, Lawson arrived without costing Houston a major rotation piece in the trade and his addition didn’t require parting with last year’s starting point guard, Patrick Beverley. One could even make the case that the Lawson addition was a cleaner net positive for Houston than Aldridge was for San Antonio, given that the Spurs had to part with Splitter, Aron Baynes, and Cory Joseph—three guys who played 1,000+ minutes last season—so that they could fork over max money to Aldridge.
All of this sunniness, of course, depends entirely on Lawson’s ability to make progress on the off-court issues that made him available to Houston in the first place. Although he won’t need to be the face of the franchise, like Denver wanted him to be, Lawson will face real pressure to deliver given the Rockets’ success last year. If he settles in and makes the most of what he’s called a “fresh start,” Lawson could emerge as the biggest X-factor in the NBA. If things go south, it could get ugly, quickly. Perhaps that’s why both team and player seem to be proceeding cautiously as training camp opens.
Los Angeles Clippers
Do the Clippers finally have the bench they need to make a deep run?
It’s disorienting to mention “depth” in a write-up about the Clippers without the long-mandatory “total lack of” preface. As recently as L.A.’s first-round series against San Antonio, coach Doc Rivers was doing his best to stick to a seven-man rotation despite obvious signs of exhaustion from his stars. During the seven-game series, the Spurs’ bench nearly doubled the Clippers’ bench in scoring, 299–156, and L.A.’s leading reserve scorer, Jamal Crawford, shot a paltry 38.4%. Does L.A. collapse against Houston in the second round if Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and J.J. Redick weren’t all stuck logging monster minutes throughout the postseason?
Kudos to Rivers for getting creative in reassembling his bench unit with limited flexibility this offseason. Honestly, he pulled out every trick in the book, scooping up a bought-out player on the cheap (Josh Smith), trading for a fallen “star” with some headaches (Lance Stephenson), calling on an old friend (Paul Pierce), re-signing his own flesh and blood (Austin Rivers), and making logical use of their minimum deals (Pablo Prigioni, Wesley Johnson, and Chuck Hayes).
To be clear, Rivers still has his work cut out when it comes to assembling his lineups. He hasn’t yet decided whether to start Pierce or Johnson in the small forward hole vacated by Matt Barnes, and trying to find a way to mix together Rivers, Crawford, Stephenson, and Smith on a second unit might very well require a PhD in Chemistry. It’s always better to have too many options, though, and the Clippers no longer look like a team that’s too thin to withstand the West’s grueling playoff bracket.
Los Angeles Lakers
Will Byron Scott coach for the present or the future?
Let’s cut to the chase with the Lakers: only their most delusional diehard fans are holding out hope for a playoff push. The top-end talent just isn’t there, there aren’t enough quality defensive pieces, and Kobe Bryant just isn’t as effective as he needs to be if he’s going to shoot 20 times a game. L.A.’s 2015–16 season should be geared around showcasing recent draft picks Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. If you can’t win now, lay some real groundwork.
Nothing is ever quite that simple for the Lakers, who missed out on splashy signings this summer but did add multiple veterans in Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, and Lou Williams. Those additions should help the Lakers put a slightly more respectable product on the floor: all three are proven commodities, even if they aren’t A-listers. The danger here is that Scott, a key piece for multiple Lakers championship teams, chases the elusive flicker of short-term success at the expense of playing the long game. Bass might be more ready right now than Randle, but there’s no question who should be the higher priority. Russell might struggle to adapt to the NBA game, as many rookie point guards do, but he needs to have the space to make mistakes. He shouldn’t be pitted against Clarkson in a fight for minutes, either.
• MORE NBA: Bryant among top 10 comebacks
Given Bryant’s possible retirement next summer, the Lakers’ poor showing last season and the intense scrutiny that follows the franchise, Scott is surely feeling some hot-seat pressure. Self-preservation simply isn’t a good enough reason to restrict L.A.’s young core in any way. Last season, Scott played Bryant 34.5 minutes per night, a heavy load, and he’s made noises already about cutting down on Bryant’s time. That’s a promising start, assuming he follows through and delivers when Bryant inevitably pushes back.
The trick for Scott is to admit that while the Lakers are “Bryant’s team,” they are also deep in the midst of a multi-year rebuilding process. A true rebuild of this premier franchise requires a forward-thinking view in all aspects, but especially when it comes to divvying up minutes and shots during an otherwise forgettable season.
• MORE NBA: Off-season grades: Southwest Division
Did the Grizzlies do enough this summer to increase their ceiling?
Memphis will bring back the guts of its 2014–15 roster, and rightfully so. The Grizzlies pushed the Warriors to six games in the second round, and they were the only team that held the eventual champs to fewer than 100 points in the playoffs (97.8 points to be exact). As in playoffs past, Memphis couldn’t keep up when it came time to play the adjustment game, and Golden State swiped the series with three straight double-digit wins by picking at the Grizzlies’ perimeter weaknesses.
With a re-signed Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Mike Conley all playing at a high level, there was never any doubt that the Grizzlies would take another crack at it with this veteran core. That trio, which led a starting lineup that posted a +7.4 net rating last season, is flanked by veterans Tony Allen, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, and newcomers Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes. Given the franchise’s half-decade track record of success, the team’s clear identity, and this roster’s wealth of experience, Randolph didn’t sound crazy this week when he said the Grizzlies were “thinking ring.”
The addition of Barnes looks like a potential swing move. In a best-case scenario, the hard-nosed Barnes fits in with the grit-and-grind Grizzlies and becomes the knockdown, release-valve shooter the team has needed for years. Indeed, coach Dave Joerger could finally have some plausible small ball options at his disposal if both Barnes and Green can hit shots. In a worst-case scenario, the 35-year-old Barnes find it harder to get clean looks without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin doing all the hard work for him, or he starts fading like aging teammate Vince Carter. If that happens, 2015–16 could be déjà vu all over again for the Grizzlies, who would likely find themselves stuck without the necessary potency to keep up with the Warriors, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, and Spurs. Put simply, Barnes, Green, and the potential lineup flexibility they represent could be the difference between Memphis being “the team no one wants to play (but beats anyway)” and “the team that sends everyone else packing.”
Will this year actually be fun?
At this time last year, there was a big rush to peg the Andrew Wiggins-led Timberwolves as one of the NBA’s most exciting, must-watch up-and-coming young teams. A laundry list of injuries kept the “exciting” part from ever materializing. With the obvious exception of Wiggins’s Rookie of the Year campaign and Zach LaVine’s Slam Dunk Contest title, Minnesota was downright depressing as it slogged to just 16 wins. More often than not, the Timberwolves failed to look like a professional team, let alone a “fun” one. Not even Wiggins’s vast individual potential could compensate for a badly outdated approach to offense and a downright incompetent defense.
The 2015–16 season should be better, and not just in an “it couldn’t be any worse” kind of way. Wiggins and 2015 No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns are arguably the NBA’s most intriguing young duo since Oklahoma City snagged Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in back-to-back drafts, and both have the capacity to thrill with their offensive games. Serbian forward Nemanja Bjelica enjoyed a nice EuroBasket and could provide some pop as a versatile stretch option, too. The ringmaster, as always, will be Ricky Rubio, who missed significant time last season with an ankle injury. If Rubio is back, and a healthy Kevin Martin can help keep defenses from loading up on the youngsters, Minnesota might finally be on to something.
There are still a few good reasons to exercise caution before getting too worked up about the Timberwolves. Unfortunately, Sam Mitchell was thrust into the coach’s chair when Flip Saunders was forced to take a leave of absence earlier this month. That type of transition is never easy, and the situation is even trickier because the roster Mitchell is inheriting is loaded with teenagers and geezers, and little in between. There’s also the very real possibility that injuries could strike again, given the injury histories of guys like Rubio, Martin, and Nikola Pekovic and the age of guys like Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince.
Even though this season will likely produce Minnesota’s 12th straight lottery trip, the meaninglessness that defined last season should remain in the past. Only an unreasonably large dose of bad luck will keep the Wiggins/Towns/Rubio trio from being entertaining in defeat.
New Orleans Pelicans
Can the Pelicans’ offense take off without a healthy Jrue Holiday?
It’s hard not to salivate at the Pelicans’ potential under new coach Alvin Gentry. Take a quality core composed of all-world forward Anthony Davis, Tyreke Evans, and Jrue Holiday, and then hit the fast-forward button like Steve Kerr, Gentry’s old boss, did in Golden State. That’s bound to work, right? Even Evans himself hopped on board with the comparisons to the reigning champs, saying in a recent interview that he doesn’t “see [the Pelicans] any different from the Warriors.”
The stick in the mud, at least for the time being, is Holiday’s health. The 25-year-old point guard will reportedly be on a minutes limit through January, as he continues to deal with a stress-related leg injury, and Evans will be forced into a greater ball-handling role to help pick up the slack. Gentry’s offensive approach relies on applying constant pressure, and a huge part of that pressure is the threat of a dynamic point guard who can shoot the rock, a la Phoenix’s Steve Nash and Golden State’s Stephen Curry.
• MORE NBA: Holiday's minutes limited until January
Holiday obviously isn’t in the conversation with those two floor generals, but he’s a solid all-around offensive threat with dependable three-point range and an All-Star selection to his name. Evans, meanwhile, is fully comfortable taking off in transition -- honestly, sometimes a little too comfortable – and going downhill in pick-and-roll scenarios, but the court often closes around him because he has tunnel-vision tendencies and isn’t a reliable outside shooter. Back-up Norris Cole won’t be much help when it comes to drawing attention and creating spacing for others when he has the ball in his hands, either.
Maybe Davis’s singular talent will be able to totally make up for this roster deficiency, but maybe not. As the NBA saw last year, Davis is often at the mercy of his ball-dominant guards, and Gentry will surely make it a priority to involve his star player in as many new ways as possible. Even if Davis takes his already eye-popping production to new heights, the corresponding jump in the standings that many are forecasting for New Orleans might not take place until Holiday is all the way up to speed. Golden State succeeded because it used an excellent system to maximize a superior talent base, after all, and their coaches would be the first to admit that the talent made the system work, not the other way around.
• MORE NBA: Durant cleared for Thunder training camp
Oklahoma City Thunder
Is Kevin Durant back?
This season is loaded with comeback stories, and none is bigger than Kevin Durant’s. Over the last six seasons, the Thunder are 285–130 (.687) when their franchise forward takes the court. That translates to an average of 56 wins over an 82-game slate, which would have tied for the NBA’s third-best record last season. In other words, Durant, who turned 27 this week, has played at a bona fide contender’s clip since he ascended to All-Star status as a 21-year-old in 2009–10.
That’s a long, convincing track record of success that should give the Thunder an automatic berth into the “serious contenders” conversation, even though Durant still has just one Finals appearance to his name, even though he is coming off three foot surgeries in less than a year, even though he is playing for a rookie NBA coach in Billy Donovan, and even though his upcoming free agency will hang over the franchise all year.
The story of the Thunder’s season will be the story of Durant’s season, because team and player are one and the same, at least until July 1. Over the summer, the four-time scoring champ appeared rested and rejuvenated at USA Basketball camp, and he’s returning to a deep roster that now features an improved Russell Westbrook, a low-post scorer in Enes Kanter, an extra shooter in Kyle Singler, and a solid frontcourt rotation that includes Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, and Nick Collison. There’s a lot to like here, including Oklahoma City’s flexibility to shift between big lineups aimed at controlling the paint and smaller looks aimed at creating space around Durant. It’s a safe bet that the fiery Durant is taking note of all the preseason attention paid to Golden State and San Antonio, too.
Have the Suns evolved into a defense-first team?
This might be the season that a Suns organization long known for prioritizing points over stops turns that reputation on its head. Phoenix has been home to high-scoring outfits for decades, from Paul Westphal to Mike D’Antoni, from Kevin Johnson to Steve Nash to Goran Dragic, and from Charles Barkley to Amar’e Stoudemire. But GM Ryan McDonough has struggled to craft a clear identity in his tenure, cycling through players at a rapid pace and losing core pieces, including Dragic, along the way.
A mediocre 2014–15 season produced a more balanced showing than usual—Phoenix ranked 14th on offense and 17th on defense—and coach Jeff Hornacek is now preaching a defense-first mentality as he enters camp. That approach makes sense. Eric Bledsoe, the team’s best player, is one of the top on-ball defenders in the league. The team’s biggest off-season addition, center Tyson Chandler, is a former Defensive Player of the Year who amounts to a massive upgrade over Phoenix’s interior defenders last season. Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker both bring physicality and versatility to the forward positions. With the exception of point guard Brandon Knight, Phoenix’s projected starters all finished last season as plus defenders, according to Defensive Real Plus-Minus.
Hornacek, who is entering the final guaranteed season of his contract, will have his hands full making this work, in large part because his roster from spots six-to-15 just isn’t anything to get excited about. If Chandler, 32, misses time, as he did in both 2012–13 and 2013–14 in New York, Hornacek will be forced to turn to the as-yet-unproven Alex Len inside. If Knight can’t show major progress, Hornacek will essentially have to live with the results because his other options are wild youngster Archie Goodwin and the aging Ronnie Price. There’s also the (crucial) matter of molding a cohesive, selfless team from a bunch of new and unfamiliar faces (again). Continuity is a critical element for truly elite defenses, and that’s a luxury that Hornacek doesn’t have at his disposal.
As many executives and coaches have learned over the years, wanting to be a defense-first team isn’t the same as actually doing it. Will Phoenix get added to that list?
Portland Trail Blazers
Is dumpster-diving a viable roster-building strategy?
Neil Olshey has consistently sought bargains since taking over as Portland’s GM in 2012. That approach made sense when he was looking to build around a core group that included LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum. He plucked Robin Lopez in a three-way trade. He took fliers on Thomas Robinson, an apparent draft bust, and Eric Maynor, who was recovering from a major knee injury. He brought over budget friendly foreign players like Victor Claver and Joel Freeland to see what they could do.
Those moves led to varying degrees of success—many, frankly, didn’t pan out—but they kept Olshey in a position of relative flexibility as he looked to build around that core. Unfortunately for the Blazers, that core is now gone and there was no short-term back-up plan in sight. Rather than spend for the sake of spending this summer, Olshey opted to continue his low-risk, no-commitment approach by accumulating as many unfinished products, up-and-comers, and outright projects as possible. Instead of plunking down the American Express on 5th Avenue, Olshey bought out a cul-de-sac’s worth of garage sales in hopes of finding some treasure in the wreckage.
• MORE NBA: Off-season grades: Northwest Division
He upgraded Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis from minimum contracts to real deals. He saved Mason Plumlee from the wrath of Lionel Hollins. He traded the NBA equivalent of a Canadian penny to the Magic for Moe Harkless. He made sure to get back a former lottery pick in Noah Vonleh for Batum. He looked past the red flags to give former prep standout Cliff Alexander a shot. Throw in former lottery picks Meyers Leonard and C.J. McCollum, who showed progress last season, and the Blazers just might lead the league in, “This guy could really turn into somebody some day!”
The problem for Olshey and coach Terry Stotts: it’s unclear how many of these guys, aside from Lillard, can be positive contributors in the near future. Can a roster of long and long-ish shots produce anything better than a tantalizing, but ultimately frustrating, final product? And, importantly, how many of these guys need to turn into real players to justify the pain that could conceivably stretch over into multiple seasons?
• MORE NBA: The NBA journey of Seth Curry
How, exactly, does Rajon Rondo fit?
It’s been popular to compare the Kings to a reality show this summer, and this group certainly looks destined to produce an unscriptable, and possibly wacky, season. Coach George Karl, franchise center DeMarcus Cousins, and free-agent signing Rajon Rondo all stand as major wild cards entering training camp. When and where those three key figures are able to reach compromises on basketball matters and personality differences will determine how functional the 2015–16 Kings can be. Even Miss Cleo would pass at the opportunity to take a stab at how that process will play out.
One rival talent evaluator insisted to SI.com earlier this month that Rondo, whom Cousins called a “flat out genius when it comes to basketball” this week, should be used as a low-minute starter who doesn’t close games. The idea would be to keep Rondo invested in the team by starting him before turning over the show when it matters to Darren Collison, who is a better shooter and a better fit in Karl’s preferred style. By taking this approach, Karl could close games with a four-out lineup built around Cousins in the middle, Rudy Gay at the four, and three shooters (probably Ben McLemore, Marco Belinelli, and Collison). The upsides are numerous: Cousins has maximum space to operate, Gay has mismatches to exploit, and Sacramento’s complementary players should enjoy fairly clean looks with Collison keeping the ball moving. Karl is happy, Cousins should be happy, ownership is happy that Rondo’s $9.5 million contract isn’t going to waste on the bench, and Rondo is (hopefully) at least somewhat happy.
Barring a remarkable and unlikely bounceback season from Rondo, who bailed on the Mavericks during the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine a better, realistic compromise. Karl is unlikely to give the keys to Rondo, who kills spacing and prefers a deliberate style. Rondo is unlikely to transform his game to play Karl’s style well. Cousins and Rondo might very well be able to find a connection on and off the court, but Rondo’s track record in leading high-powered offenses is nonexistent, and that will eventually show through given this roster’s talent level.
Even in a hypothetical best-case scenario, Sacramento’s situation already feels far too delicate, and we’re barely past media day. Throw in an impatient owner (Vivek Ranadive) and an unpredictable rookie GM (Vlade Divac), and the potential for roster fireworks remains sky high.
San Antonio Spurs
Can Tony Parker turn it around or will San Antonio be forced to work around him?
“How does LaMarcus Aldridge fit?” seems like a fairly easy question for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to answer, all things considered. Aldridge is one of the best players at his position, he’s played for winning teams, he’s been the centerpiece of efficient offenses, he’s coexisted with multiple stars, he’s expressed a desire to go deep in the playoffs, and he’s idolized Tim Duncan for his entire career. Honestly, he represents more answers than questions, even as he changes zip codes for the first time in his career.
A tougher question for Popovich is what to do with Tony Parker, whose game has slipped significantly since the 2012–13 season. Parker generally disappointed last season, he suffered through a poor showing in San Antonio’s first-round series loss to the Clippers, and he endured a rough EuroBasket for France. His shooting has been pretty erratic, he’s struggled to get to the rim, and he’s never been known as a lockdown defender. These are real concerns for a Spurs team hoping to get through a West field that includes Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Ty Lawson, and Mike Conley.
Popovich has some options if he wants to de-emphasize Parker’s role, even though backup point guard Cory Joseph headed to the Raptors this summer. He can continue to turn over greater offensive responsibility to Kawhi Leonard, who bloomed down the stretch of the 2014–15 season. He can open the floodgates for the speedy Patty Mills, who played well during San Antonio’s run to the 2014 title before taking a step back last season due to a shoulder injury. He can try using Kyle Anderson as a point forward, hoping that the second-year player can build on his Las Vegas Summer League MVP success. He can try running more offense through Duncan, Aldridge, and Boris Diaw, three big men who are all capable passers. He can take one last ride on the Manu Ginobili Psychedelic Experience.
None of those options are as desirable as Parker simply returning to form, which must be considered as a possibility given his long injury history. One way or another, Popovich should be in position to further ease the regular-season load on Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili thanks to a strong off-season that has left him with a deep bench. That should help. Still, it’s hard to envision Duncan claiming his sixth title without better point guard play than what we’ve seen from Parker over the last 12 months.
Will Dennis Lindsey secure an upgrade at the point guard position?
Perhaps the most exciting quote to come out of this year’s media day extravaganza was delivered by Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey, who was asked about his ability to add to his roster. Lindsey said, via KSL.com: “If we're not getting those results, we've got close to $7 million in cap [space] that we are authorized to use, but we want to use that well. We have a significant pick and asset base built up that we can address a deficiency as it comes up on the roster, whether that’s at point guard or any of the other positions moving forward.”
After a summer in which Lindsey mostly sat on his hands, this public approach should be music to the ears of Jazz fans. In essence, Lindsey is sending two messages to Trey Burke: 1) we’re giving you another shot to prove you’re our floor general, but 2) we’re not necessarily going down with you if you sink the boat again.
Perfect. The momentum has building for long enough in Utah, where Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert, and Derrick Favors combine to form what is probably the NBA’s most underrated core trio. Burke has the potential to drag this group down like an anchor if he doesn’t show substantial progress in year three, and the loss of Dante Exum took away coach Quin Snyder’s most obvious in-house alternative. A bunch of point guards moved around in midseason deals last year—Reggie Jackson, Brandon Knight, Michael Carter-Williams, Goran Dragic, Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Thomas, and Jameer Nelson, among others—and there’s no good reason Lindsey should remain on the sidelines if the trade market action picks up again. The time is now for the Jazz to turn the corner and make a serious run at the playoffs.