Oct 30 2013 12:01PM

Pacific Preview

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 47-35, sixth in Western Conference, lost to San Antonio in Semifinals
ou can make a case Golden State hasn't been riding this high--beating Denver in the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs before losing to San Antonio in a six-game series--since the mid '70s, back when the Rick Barry-led Warriors won the 1975 NBA championship. Sure, some Dubs fans will bring up the 2008 "œWe Believe" playoff team that upset No. 1 seed Dallas as a higher point, while others will reminisce over the Run-TMC days. But honestly, there has been no greater sense of optimism combined with accomplishment than the current crew of Warriors that fought through the losing days (David Lee, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson), added talented newcomers that ultimately helped produce a second-round playoff squad (Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, Festus Ezeli) and then spent even more money to spotlight a future of even brighter things to come (Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights, Jermaine O'Neal, Toney Douglas).

2013-14 OUTLOOK
You'll be hard-pressed to find someone who does not include the Warriors amongst their top 10 NBA teams. That's quite an accomplishment for an organization that previously had only made the playoffs once during the 21st Century. Yes, indeed, this Warriors' "We Believe" fever has spread well outside of Oakland. For almost everyone now believes Golden State has a 50-plus win franchise on its hands. The free-agent acquisition of Iguodala--combined with the health of Curry and Bogut--has some thinking that the Warriors' Super Six combo (don't forget Lee, Thompson and Barnes) just may be the NBA's best sextet in the game. And now with Warriors management--led by GM Bob Myers and high-profile consultant Jerry West--being blessed with an up-to-the-luxury-tax budget for the first time, Golden State will likely field its best bench ever.

3 POINTS

Mark Jackson is not your typical NBA coach. First off, he doesn't swear. When he does get a technical, it's normally because he first asks the ref to give him a T. Secondly, he is a pastor. He preaches in his L.A.-area church every Sunday he can--even during the season when schedule permits. His players have been known to attend when in the neighborhood. All of this creates a unique environment of belief on the team, which not only extends to their spiritual lives, but also to their games on the court. The Warriors should start charging admission for their post-practice shooting contests. It's that good. Curry is already the NBA's best three-point shooter, but even he gets competition in these duals from teammate Thompson. Barnes, who says he has never beaten Curry in a shootout, is another one who uses this practice time to get better with his teammates--Barnes shot an impressive 36 percent on threes as a 20-year-old rookie. Even All-Star Iguodala cited the team's post-practice shooting wars as a prime reason for wanting to join this Warriors squad. When GM Myers salary dumped Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson to Utah--using Brandon Rush and draft picks as bait--teams around the NBA knew Golden State was serious about getting better. When the team paid 29-year-old Iguodala a four-year, $48 million deal to do so, that was the moment indeed when everyone knew the Warriors were charted on a championship-contending course. It may take years to get there, but this team of 30-and-under standouts understands ownership wants nothing less than a championship after the money they've invested in this particular squad. I mean, they paid big money to add a top 20 player to a 47-win, second-round playoff team. That's big.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
We've alluded to the Super Six before, but what truly makes this stellar sextet stand out is the flexibility they bring to the team. On the ends, you've got Curry at point guard and Bogut at center. Those are their main positions. But as for Thompson (shooting guard and small forward), Iguodala (shooting guard and small forward), Barnes (either forward spot) and Lee (power forward and center), you have an inner core of players that present multiple lineups for Coach Jackson to use any time he chooses. Iguodala, the best perimeter defender in basketball, can also take on point guards, which frees up Curry's defensive responsibilities, if Jackson so chooses. Back in the day, former Warriors coach Don Nelson was known for playing unusual small-ball lineups to create mismatches with opponents. Unlike Nellie, Jackson has been blessed with a better all-around team. But like the former Golden State boss, Jackson is certain to create havoc with all the weapons at his disposal. You'd never know it based on his reputation, but Curry has only played less than 74 games once in his four-year NBA career. The ankle injuries took him out of most of the 2011-12 season--he only played 23 games--but it's been the paranoia of potential ankle injuries that has plagued the 25-year-old point guard for most of his career. As long as he doesn't play 58 minutes in playoff games--as he did against the Spurs in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, before injuring himself--he should be fine. The jury is still out, however, on Bogut, who has only played 44 regular-season games combined the past two seasons, before embarking on a 12-game dominant jaunt during the 2013 NBA Playoffs. Supposedly healed this summer and feeling 100 percent for the first time in years, Bogut's health will go a long way in determining just how good and deep this Golden State Warrior team truly is. Warrior management, however, is in the camp that believes Bogut is back for good. They are talking contract extension after liking what they've seen so far in preseason. Part of the reason the Warriors want to lock up Bogut to a long-term contract is they like what he did for the team defense last year. Did you know that no other team in the league allowed fewer shots at the rim--within a five-feet span--than the Warriors. Sure, you've got to give some credit to Festus Ezeli, former Warrior Andris Biedrins and others, but Bogut was the man who changed other team's game plans with his massive 7-foot, 260-pound frame and defensive game. Especially in the playoffs. And by taking the Warriors from the 27th-best defensive team in 2011-12 to the 13th-best in limited action during 2012-13, it makes you wonder how good that defense can become if he has a somewhat healthy 82-game season. That said, the real reason everyone is excited about Golden State is because of the exciting offense. Curry and Thompson are the best shooting backcourt in the game and they are complemented so well by big men who know how to set screens, in distinctly different ways. Lee likes to set his picks as an offensive weapon, often slip-screening his man for layups or even popping outside to nail jumpers. On the flip side, Bogut likes to set his picks up high, in the middle of the court, blocking players like an offensive lineman. This often results in easy baskets--or ensuing passes that lead to open looks--for the Dubs' dynamic duo of Curry and Thompson, a.k.a. The Splash Brothers. As a team, nobody in the NBA was more accurate from three-point range than the Warriors, who made 40.3 percent of their threes. All of the aforementioned is why the Warriors are legitimately considered a big-time team, following years of being league doormats. It's pretty similar to the moves the Brooklyn Nets have made the past few years, shedding their New Jersey Nets' loser image in the wake. In 2017, this Warriors team moves into a new arena in San Francisco, with a team old Golden State fans can be proud of, playing for a new ownership group who has delivered on their promise of building their franchise into a winner. For the first time in years, it is safe to say this organization is finally in a golden state.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Draymond Green is the type of player who sneaks up on you year after year and always leaves you with a smile on his face. Physically, Green didn't look like an All-American at Michigan State two years ago and last year, the 6-7, 248 pounder didn't look like an NBA forward. But the crafty, heavy-set Green adjusted on the fly to his ever-increasing role, where he in time became the team's defensive stopper, guarding power forwards and wings and even occasionally assigned to the other team's point guard. When opponents took advantage of his bad three-point form on offense (14-for-67 in the regular season), Green put extra work in on his shot and made playoff teams pay (9-for-23). This season, the 23-year-old Green weighs in at 231 pounds and has spent a whole summer working on his shot. Watch out.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 56-26, fourth in Western Conference, Lost to Memphis in first round
There are certain coaches out there who clean up a mess, but have trouble taking teams to that next level. Vinny Del Negro seems to be one of those types. He did a good job with the Chicago Bulls and more recently, the L.A. Clippers, but in both cases, the teams reached a plateau they could not rise above. So management in both cases went out and got better coaches: Tom Thibodeau, in the case of Chicago, and Doc Rivers in the case of L.A. Now it's sad to say the Clippers leveled out as a 56-win team. But for two postseasons straight, they looked lost in the playoffs, running Chris Paul makeshift plays moreso than anything seemingly designed by Del Negro. Blame last season's one-round-and-out loss to Memphis on coaching. Blame it on lack of big-man depth. Whatever. This extremely talented bunch needs to stop limping to the finish line, worn down by injuries, and start playing the playoffs with purpose. Six postseason wins in two years was not enough.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Doc Rivers' imprint on this team already is telling. He has established his own hierarchy, similar to his Boston days, by creating a new Big 3 in L.A.: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Granted, these three players have played together the past two seasons, but never before did D.J. receive the same star treatment allotted for the dynamic duo of CP3 and Blake. However, since Doc's arrival, Jordan has gotten that promotion, with his new head coach telling D.J. to lead the defense"”both physically and vocally"”in the same manner that Kevin Garnett did for Doc in Boston. Now you're seeing Jordan being recognized as something other than Blake's best friend. There, he was with Paul and Griffin on Kimmel. There he is doing another Clippers' trio photoshoot with his fellow leaders. Everybody is going to talk about the Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison acquisitions. And those are nice. But Rivers is hoping his psychological ploy helps everyone realize how important defense is to Los Angeles and how well it's being played out in Staples Center.

3 POINTS

The Lakers may not want to admit it, but once Chris Paul came to town, the Clippers started to become the new king of L.A. Sure, the fan base will always be with the Lakers, but in 2013, both the Pacific Division title and playoff-seed advantage finally swung over to the Clippers' side. In the past two seasons, the blue-and-red has gone from a .606 to a .683 winning percentage, while the purple-and-gold have dropped from a .621 to a .529. None of his Clippers have an NBA championship, so Doc Rivers' words at playoff time should carry weight. His Celtics' 2008 NBA Finals win"”not to mention 2010 NBA Finals appearance"”puts Doc on an NBA shortlist of current head coaches who have two or more Finals appearances: Rick Adelman (with two); Erik Spoelstra (with three); Gregg Popovich (with five). Some believe Paul may have tested the free-agent waters if Clippers management had not hired a coach of Rivers' ilk. When Staples Center fans start raving about the wings this season, they won't be talking about the new McDonalds' menu item on the upper-level concourse. New acquisitions J.J. Redick, a stellar shooting guard, and Jared Dudley, a do-everything small forward, will be mighty fine complements to Clipper returnees Jamal Crawford, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later 2 guard, and Matt Barnes, an offensive facilitator and nasty defender at the forward positions. The Clippers have had good players at the wing positions before, but never this many this good.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Powerful post presence Blake Griffin doesn't want his team to be linked to Lob City anymore. Peerless point guard Chris Paul, who always has a no-nonsense attitude, seconds that motion. And defensive DeAndre Jordan, who has been known to throw down a highlight dunk or two, has also bought in to the offensive focus on the fundamentals. They want these new-and-improved Clippers to be recognized for playing an efficient offense (they were fourth in the NBA last season in efficiency). For featuring a team of excellent passers (fifth in assist ratio). For playing downright nasty on D (ninth last season). Doc Rivers is the coach who can take Clippers' goodness and turn it into greatness. The biggest room for team growth this season will take place at the free-throw line. The Clippers, as a squad, shot a woeful 27th-ranked .711 free-throw percentage. That number was surely brought down by Griffin (.660) and Jordan (.386). But that's not even half the problem. Did you know that only 32.0 percent of the Clippers' total shots come from shots at the rim within five feet? That is only slightly above the 31.7 league average, which is surprising when smart, physical penetrators like Paul and Griffin handle the in the paint as much as they do. There are so many more rim makes out there for the taking, but the Clippers need someone other than Griffin (fourth in the NBA in rim makes), Jordan (19th) and Barnes (81st) to be aggressive. This is where teammates need to step up and finish, like Paul (141st), Dudley (162nd), Crawford (183rd) and Redick (187th). It's nice to have six players with the proper Sixth Man attitude it takes to survive in the NBA. That is why many league insiders are so excited about the Clippers' 2013-14 prospects, because the team has so many good players who are used to coming off the bench for other teams. Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes only started a combined four games last year, but they very well could be closing a majority of the team's games this season. New acquisitions Dudley and Redick have excelled coming off the bench for most of the careers, while Collison and Antawn Jamison have already gotten used to bench roles in recent years, after playing as starters for most of their careers. That said, the Clippers do have one glaring weakness, which has haunted them their past two seasons, and that is lack of big-man-depth. In previous seasons, either Lamar Odom or Reggie Evans was able to patch up the center and power forward positions, while playing behind Griffin and Jordan. But this year's team lacks anyone who has the defensive presence of the aforementioned. If Byron Mullens and Ryan Hollins are not up to the task of defending the backup bigs, the Clippers again will be in danger of another short playoff run. As the Clippers have already found out in playoff play, they simply cannot keep up with Grizzlies centers (Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur) or Spurs centers (Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter) with the roster as currently constructed. There is something to be said for continuity and stability. Griffin, Jordan, Paul and Crawford seem to have the Clipper continuity thing down. Plus, they've signed nice long-term deals in their time with L.A. So when the organization goes out and pays handsomely as well for newer acquisitions like Barnes, Redick and Dudley, you have to think this franchise has permanently turned the corner from league laughingstock to perennial power. After two good seasons of basketball in the heart of L.A., it is nice to see the Clippers doing business the right way to keep a winner in Los Angeles.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Jared Dudley is the West Coast version of Shane Battier, which is as big a compliment one can give for a complementary player. Dudley can do it all and it was a shame to see his winning ways wasted in Phoenix last season, once the franchise got rid of Steve Nash and Company. Here in Los Angeles, the Clippers will appreciate the 28 year old's team-first approach. The 6-7, 225-pound wing will be looked on to defend the opponents' best shooting guard on most nights. Paul will count on him to continue knocking down 3s at his career 40.5 percent clip. Griffin and Jordan will surely appreciate Dudley's career 8.6 percent rebound rate. And Doc will definitely need the 11 points in 28 minutes per game he provided last season at a stellar .588 true shooting percentage. He just does all the little things. And then he plays big in the big moments.

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 45-37, seventh in Western Conference, lost to San Antonio in first round
After a disastrous 17-25 start, the Los Angeles Lakers avoided a riches-to-rags season by winning 28 of their final 40 regular-season games to squeeze into the playoffs as the No. 7 West seed. The price they paid to save face on a season cursed with Finals expectations, however, was a stiff one; the ramifications of which are still being felt in this 2013-14 season. Dwight Howard, who was urged not to have in-season shoulder surgery to keep the Lakers alive, left L.A. soon thereafter, once he became a free agent. Then-34-year-old Kobe Bryant, who averaged 46 minutes in his final seven games in a desperate attempt to keep L.A. on playoff pace, finally saw his body give out, suffering an Achilles tendon tear that has him still missing games six months later. The same wear-and-tear of continually playing heavy minutes also took out other old Laker vets Steve Nash, Metta World Peace and Steve Blake in April 2013.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Everyone has learned to manage expectations in LaLa Land after last season's debacle. The team lost starters Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace and made little effort to replace them, bringing in Chris Kaman, Nick Young and Wesley Johnson, among others. If the Lakers come through the mighty West this season with a winning record, it will be a testament to the rehab recovery work done by their Hall-of-Fame trio Kobe Bryant (35 years old), Pau Gasol (33) and Steve Nash (39) this summer. If the three All-Stars are able to play a combined 6,295 minutes--their total from last season--then and only then do the Lakers have a shot at winning more than 35 games. Should those three be indeed healthy, perhaps the NBA should consider unveiling a Trainer of the Year award for Laker healer Gary Vitti, whose task at hand is truly titanic this season.

3 POINTS

You can almost hear Kanye West and Chris Martin singing "Homecoming" every time Jordan Farmar, Nick Young and Chris Kaman take the Staples Center floor this season. It just feels right to have these three back in L.A.--Farmar a two-time NBA champ with the 2009 and 2010 Lakers; Young, a former Clipper and USC Trojan too; Kaman, an eight-year Clipper vet. Coach Mike D'Antoni did not get a training camp last season to put in his vaunted offense that originated a decade ago with his Nash-led Phoenix Suns teams. Now we'll see if his new Lakers squad of bargain-basement role players can complement his big trio of scorers. It's doubtful since none of the bunch has been a consistent three-point marksman in their careers, but if any of the crew put summer work in, the results will show on the court soon enough. With elite passers Nash, Kobe and Pau looking for kickouts, these new role players will get plenty of opportunities. You have to brace for a minutes decline from Nash and Gasol when the two old-heads have seeing their playing time decrease in each of the past three seasons. Then couple that fact with Bryant's comeback from his Achilles injury and you soon realize that Lakers health is the key to the 2013-14 season. Should Los Angeles lose one--or dare I say, two--of these leaders to injury this season, it is almost a certainty their playoff hopes will go down just as quickly.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Kobe's health is key. If Kobe returns anytime in November at anywhere near 90-percent Mamba strength, the Lakers are in good shape for playoff-contention status. That said, Kobe's recovering torn Achilles tendon is more important than a simple make-the-playoffs run--something the Lakers should have realized last year. If anything, the organization needs to take all pressure off their 35-year-old All-Star because his long-term health is tantamount to L.A. even having a future a year from now. That said, if Kobe can play in November 2013, he keeps hope alive in Los Angeles for another month. Through mid-October, Kobe has been running hard on the treadmill, getting that tendon stretched out, and he says if the playoffs were a week away today, he could see himself on the court. It's funny how Bryant's injury affects all around him in varying ways. Such is true with Nash, who can use this blessing-in-disguise moment to establish his own sense of leadership on this Kobe-less Lakers squad early this season. With Kobe in rehab this October, Nash has been able to return to his specialty as full-time facilitator--a position that suffered in his first season as Bryant's teammate, when Nash's 17.8 usage rate dropped from his Phoenix Suns' days from 2005 through 2012 (21.8). With Nash able to find his point guard comfort zone--remember, he only played two of the Lakers' first 26 games last year--the Lakers are better prepared to ease Bryant back into the lineup when he feels ready to play once again. Just as important as Bryant's sturdiness, is the re-positioning of Pau Gasol into the Lakers' offense. Gasol is a Hall-of-Fame center forced to play power forward the past two seasons because of the exile of Lamar Odom and the heavy-minute All-Star center experimentations of Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum the past two seasons. Consequently, Pau was not up to par playing stretch power forward 20 feet from the hoop and the Lakers' play obviously suffered. Well, now Pau is back to his position on the 2009 and 2010 NBA champion Laker teams and nobody is happier than Bryant and Farmar, who both remember how dominant Gasol was when he was playing a majority of his minutes on the block, creating for himself and others. On the flip side, nobody is expecting the Los Angeles Lakers to play much defense this season. D'Antoni is the coach; Kobe only plays D when Phil Jackson is around; Gasol and Kaman--hardly anyone's defensive stoppers--are the only vets who qualify as above-average in the ways of defending. That said, these Lakers will outscore you if they get more 3s up than you and hit them at an efficient rate (last year's Lakers ranked fourth in 3s and 19th in trey percentage). If Nash (43 percent career on 3s), Blake (39 percent), Young (37 percent), Meeks (37 percent), Farmar (37 percent), Bryant (34 percent) and Johnson (34 percent) can elevate the team's 35.5 percentage from a year ago, D'Antoni's team will be better able to cover up its flaws on D. When all is said and done, however, the Lakers will wipe the slate clean this summer when everybody's contract--except Nash, Young and Robert Sacre--comes off the books. It is then that the Lakers can truly rebuild its team and perhaps land another star to play alongside Bryant and Gasol, should both agree to take pay cuts when they become Summer 2014 free agents. Because of this subplot within the Lakers 2013-14 story, do not be surprised if GM Mitch Kupchak trades one of his Big 3 players to land an asset and also trim off the necessary $6 million it takes to get under the $70.3 million luxury tax this season. The savings the Lakers make this year will pay off exponentially down the road, due to complex rules of the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Jordan Hill has been an intriguing big man for years in the NBA. Once a No. 8 first-round draft prospect, Hill has bounced around from New York to Houston to Los Angeles over his five-year NBA career. But he may have found a home in L.A. if the 26 year old can finally play 2000-plus minutes in a season. His per-minute averages are astounding at times: 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in 15.8 minutes per game last season. If he doubles that output with increased playing time for L.A. this season, Hill's one-year, $3.5 million contract could certainly branch into a long-term deal this summer. Yes, the 6-10, 235-pound power forward is below average on D, but he does have fine tutors in Gasol and Kaman to get him up to speed. If Hill meets that challenge and can stay healthy, Laker big-man depth may be back in business.

PHOENIX SUNS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record, 25-57, 15th in Western Conference
Want the bad news first? The Suns, sporting a .305 winning percentage, were the worst team in the Western Conference. The good news: They were still better than three other NBA teams last season (Orlando, Charlotte and Cleveland). What more can you when the Suns break up one of the best quintets in basketball this decade? (Phoenix's starting lineup had a +9.45 adjusted plus-minus in 745 minutes together in 2011-12). It's easy to see why the .500-ish Suns team collapsed last season. Steve Nash was traded to the Lakers. Grant Hill signed with the Clippers. Channing Frye missed the 2012-13 season with an enlarged heart. So Jared Dudley and Marcin Gortat, who missed 21 games in 2012-13, were left to fend for themselves last season. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure you can't replace Suns chemistry overnight with only returning Suns Goran Dragic, and first-year Suns P.J. Tucker and Luis Scola (now a Pacer) filling in the blanks.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
Look at it this way. The Suns are rebuilding their rebuilding project. Suns Rebuild 1.0 was a failure. When new Veep of basketball operations Lon Babby came on board in 2010, he made a lot of bad calls on the fly, from GM to coaches to players. In Summer 2013, owner Robert Sarver has allowed Babby to hit the reset button and things are starting to look better once again with Suns Rebuild 2.0. Don't get it twisted, Phoenix will still be one of the worst teams in the West. But you have to admire their front-office moves, whether hiring the Celtics analytics-driven Ryan McDonough as GM, Phoenix favorite Jeff Hornacek as head coach or any of these hirings that have given the Suns that familial feel once again (Hornacek is the brother-in-law of Phoenix legendary trainer Aaron Nelson; new Suns assistants Mark West and Kenny Gattison were former teammates of Horny). Granted, the team only spent $52 million on players--with Eric Bledsoe being the only semi-big-name acquisition, via trade--so you won't see much on-court improvement this season. But at least the sunrise is starting to emanate on the horizon.

3 POINTS

It wasn't that long ago that the Phoenix Suns were playing in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. Goran Dragic and Channing Frye remember that well, as key contributors to that 54-28 Suns squad. With Frye back from his heart problems and Dragic back again since re-signing with the Suns in Summer 2012, Hornacek has something to build on that connects Phoenix future with Suns' sensational past. Aaron Nelson is, without a doubt, the NBA's best trainer. If you don't believe us, just ask Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal...actually, just ask anyone who is in the NBA--player, coach, trainer--and they'll readily confirm. The value he brings to a team is best illustrated when a player like Channing Frye goes through his heart problems, like last season. Not only do these Suns get the best care possible, they also know when a player does return, he comes back better, stronger, faster. The Suns may no longer have the NBA's best athlete on its team with soccer/hockey/rugby/baseball/track-and-field star Steve Nash gone, but you can make the case no NBA team matches up in athleticism with these 2013-14 Suns. Specimens like mini-LeBron Eric Bledsoe, slasher Shannon Brown, slam-dunk champ Gerald Green and talented teen Archie Goodwin are unique even in a superhero-producing environment like the NBA.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
It starts with Bledsoe. Nobody knows what this newest acquisition will give Phoenix during the regular season. Lord knows the Suns could use some O infusion into its 29th-ranked offense that produced an abysmal 51.2 true shooting percentage. Bledsoe, however, is more likely to spark an offense with his tenacious, long-arms-in-the-passing-lanes defense that enabled him to get 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks in 20.4 minutes per game as L.A. Clipper Chris Paul's backup last season. Bledsoe may knock down an occasional 3 (31-for-78 last season), but most of his game is of the attack-the-basket variety. He'll undoubtedly be able to defend shooting guards very well, while playing alongside point guard Goran Dragic. But exactly how shy-shooter Bledsoe fits into the Suns' offensive halfcourt schemes remains to be seen. A better nutcracker for the Suns' offensive woes is spread-the-floor big man Channing Frye, who returns to the Phoenix lineup after sitting out 2012-13 with an enlarged heart. Frye has taken things slow in his return, even though his medical and coaching staff are excited, saying Frye is doing a lot better than he thinks he is in his return. Still, expect the team to give him minimal minutes in the beginning as Frye slowly regains his confidence. If Frye makes it all the way back, the Suns will be the better for it, employing a career 39 percent three-point shooter who stands 6-11, 245 pounds. As a 30-year-old established vet, he has so much to impart into young Suns stretch bigs Markieff and Marcus Morris. Emeka Okafor comes to the Suns in a swap of centers (Marcin Gortat, a very capable pivot was moved for Okafor), but it's more a salary move as Okafor has no timetable to return from his neck injury. Still, the Suns training staff have a reputation for performing medical miracles. If Okafor recovers, he becomes a very serviceable center, the kind that can get you 12-15 points and 10 boards while protecting the paint. Dragic is no Nash, but as expected, he is earning his money as the starting point-guard leader of this franchise. Without much help around him, Dragic did all he could to try to jump-start a 2012-13 Suns team that had been stripped of its weapons. He made some interesting discoveries in the process, like how his own three-point shot diminished once he found himself in the full-time point-guard role--something that Nash's abilities overcame. The importance of a Suns point guard being a three threat is especially important since they could have used more help from the 2 or 4 spots last year. This season, Dragic--who is good in all the other offensive facets of the game--has re-tooled his three-point shot, and hopefully will receive additional help from Frye and the Morris twins. He'll need them because Jared Dudley's stretch capabilities will be sorely missed this season, with unproven shooters replacing him. The big and small of everything is this. If the Suns are going to really raise the hopes of its fan base for the future, the optimism is going to have to come from the development of first-round picks Alex Len and Archie Goodwin. Len, a strong rebounder, has good, all-around abilities, especially as a 7-1, 255-pound center. The 20-year-old Suns' progress could have a lot to do with whether Gortat remains in Phoenix. Still, expect management to take its time evaluating Len, since he underwent two surgeries this summer. Goodwin also is a long-term prospect, although the 19-year-old's surprising play in Summer League has some thinking he may challenge Shannon Brown for the backup shooting-guard spot sometime this season. The 6-5, 198-pound Goodwin has a long wingspan and much athleticism, giving basketball people fantasies of one day watching a Bledsoe/Goodwin defensive backcourt in action.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Markieff Morris gets minutes. As a Suns rookie, he only missed four games and logged 1227 minutes playing behind Frye in a lockout-shortened season. In 2012-13, Morris played all 82 games, became the Suns sixth man and saw his playing time rise to 1837 minutes, even with his twin Marcus--another stretch 4--joining the Suns at mid-season via trade. The 24-year-old Markieff Morris also is becoming a solid NBA defender, which is especially valuable if he can stay out the floor for 2,000-plus minutes as a stretch 4 offensive threat, ala Frye, who returns to the team this season. Mind you, Morris is a career 34 percent three-point shooter after two NBA seasons. When he becomes a 39 percent guy like Frye, don't be surprised if the Suns move Frye to center to make room for Morris. The matchup possibilities from that point become endless.

SACRAMENTO KINGS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 28-54, 13th in Western Conference
When last we checked in on our Kings last April, things were bleak. The team had just wrapped up their fifth straight sub-30-win season and looked like they were on their way to moving to Seattle with an ownership change. Head coach Keith Smart would be let go. Free agent Tyreke Evans would depart. And the team built on minimal salary-cap money would do what you expect from an ownership group distracted by non-basketball business at hand. They did nothing to help their current team from floundering, best evidenced by their second-to-last finish in defensive efficiency, trailing only the Charlotte Bobcats in that category.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
The Kings' dismal season technically ended in April 2013, but a May 2013 offcourt victory by Vivek Ranadive's ownership group to keep the team in Sacramento erased all bad feelings of what transpired in 2012-13. In fact, the ownership change and Mayor Kevin Johnson's fight to keep the Kings in SacTown actually left the Sacramento Kings fan base feeling like champions this summer. No move to Seattle. No more Maloof family running the team. Enter a new head coach, Mike Malone, from Golden State, one of the finest NBA assistant coaches. Enter new GM Pete D'Alessandro, a former Nuggets and Warriors analytics-driven exec. Enter minority owner Shaquille O'Neal--yes, the heel to many Kings-Lakers shows of days gone by--to make the Kings big again. Granted, the changes to the actual team have been measured: drafting Ben McLemore, along with signing Carl Landry, Luc Mbah a Moute and Greivis Vasquez to a combined $13 million annually. But general consensus has Kings fans feeling things are finally moving in the right direction after a seven-year, no-postseason drought.

3 POINTS

Mike Malone is big on instituting a culture change in Sacramento, from running a more advanced offense, intense team and overall unselfish attitude throughout the entire roster. As a Warriors and Hornets assistant, Malone has established himself as one of the top Xs-and-Os coaches in the game. Look for the 42-year-old boss to make the most of his first head-coaching opportunity. Kings veterans used to carry an oxymoronic connotation because no such thing existed as recently as a few years ago (the 2010-11 Kings had no 30-year-olds on the squad). Now, things are much different, with John Salmons (34 years old), Chuck Hayes (30) and Carl Landry (30) bringing some senior leadership to a squad that definitely needs it. Even sixth-year King Jason Thompson (27) carries himself with the air of a veteran baller. It's just good to know young prospects in Sac will have someone to turn to when the going gets tough in an 82-game season. New owner Vivek Ranadive is as high-tech as they come in the NBA, so his addition to the league is a coup. The CEO/Founder of Tibco Software knows a thing or two about startups and has taken that approach with the 2013-14 Kings. He just bought the team in May and started staffing his front office in the months to follow. As for player personnel, Ranadive took his time, with bigger moves sure to come next summer. As for 2013-14, the Kings signed some decent players and are embarking on creating a master plan from there. It will be really interesting to see where Sacramento goes from here with Ranadive at the helm.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle comes in the form of 6-11, 270-pound center DeMarcus Cousins. A once free-spending organization that had become quite cheap in recent years under the Maloof family ownership, the new-look Kings made quite an impression on the NBA and its players when Ranadive's new ownership group quickly signed the 23-year-old Cousins to a junior max four-year, $62 million extension. This came within a week of the team announcing that Shaquille O'Neal was now a team minority owner as well. The signing placed imagery in one's head that these new Kings were doing big things. Could Shaq tutor Cousins? Might cowbell-hysteria creator Phil Jackson come and coach one day? Okay, maybe not that. But who knows what the future holds, once these execs have a year to get their feet under them again? Speaking of Cousins, he definitely seems to be the centerpiece of the Kings' court. He can't shoot. Fouls too much. But oh, can he become a dominant presence. Let's talk about what he can do: defend well for a big man; pass; rebound; rebound; REBOUND; then score some putbacks too. Cousins has much work to do on his post-up game, but he needs no coaching in height and size. He just needs a finer touch around the rim so he can stop missing the first shot, grabbing the offensive rebound and making the second attempt. As it stands now, Cousins only made 61 percent of his shots within five feet of the rim, but he did rank 10th in rim shots made. With some input from Malone and coaching from Shaq, you can see Cousins going from a 17 & 10 low-efficiency man to a 20-point scoring-and-passing force every night. Indeed, offense shouldn't be a problem. After all, the Kings had the 13th-best offensive efficiency in 2012-13, and the main reasons for that were all the rim shots the Kings got: 34.1 percent of their shots were within five feet of the basket; league average was 31.7 percent. Credit for that must go to rim attackers Cousins, Thompson and Thomas. And with Landry now on board as a go-to-the-buck forward, expect the Kings to stay on attack, with the Kings free agent filling a go-to void left by departed free agent Tyreke Evans. Balance will likely be a key issue for Sacramento. Malone already has 10 players--none of them All-Stars--who are used to playing anywhere from 1,500 to 2,700 minutes a season. That's not even including lottery pick Ben McLemore. Competition for playing time certainly will be at an all-time high in Sac, so expect the quality of the defense to improve as a result. That is Malone's forte. He gets unselfish play from numerous players and it always translates on the defensive end. Don't be surprised if power forwards Landry, Thompson, Mbah a Moute and Patrick Patterson all average 20-plus minutes per game. It will be really interesting to see how the Kings use their talented point guards throughout the season. On one hand, you have the incumbent 5-9, 185-pound sparkplug Isaiah Thomas who has put this team on his back the past two seasons when finally given the point-guard job and excelled in both instances. Then you have tall threat Greivis Vasquez, a 6-6, 211-pound quarterback from the Hornets who has become one of the top playmakers in the league. Neither plays defense, but both are good for offense. Thomas is the better scorer; Vasquez is the better passer. Can they play together? Could be a potent mix. We shall see how this plays out.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Jason Thompson is the second-best player on this team, though you'll never hear him brag about that. It's also unlikely you'll hear others tout him either because he's not great at anything--just good or above average at everything. He doesn't hurt an offense or defense, no matter whom you match him up with or against. The 6-11, 250-pound King may relieve Cousins at center one minute, then go spell someone at small forward the next (hopefully though, that 2012 Thompson-as-a-small-forward experiment has been put to rest for good). But if you need 11 points, 7 rebounds and some good D for 28 minutes, you certainly get that from Thompson. He gave it to Sacramento all 82 games last season and he has the track record that lets you know he'll be just as dependable again this year (only 16 missed games in five seasons where he averaged, you guessed it, 11 & 7).