This time a year ago was one of the most depressing phases in the life of any NBA fan. Instead of using phrases like ‘draft pick’, ‘trade’, ‘most-improved’, and ‘free agent’, we were in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory, dealing with ‘collective bargaining agreements’, ‘revenue’, ‘luxury tax’, and ‘BRI’. Most of all, we were plagued by that one cursed ‘L-word’ that haunted our nights and tortured our days: The Lockout.
Thanks to the basketball gods then that the worst is over. The 2011-12 season started late, but the action on the court was well worth the wait. The year 2012 may be a scare for the Mayans, but over in NBA-land, things are as good as ever. Coming off a dream NBA Finals matchup between the league’s two best players on the league’s two best teams, followed by a summer of more exciting hoops in the London Olympics, it seems that the 2012-13 season is ready to lift off without delay – and with a bang!
No more talk of lawsuits, no meaningless exhibition games, no street-ball tournaments, no need to follow star players heading overseas. Now, with most of the best teams loaded, most of the best players ready, and all of the fans definitely ready and pumped, the NBA is back with all its goodness.
On NBA.com/India, we present season previews for the upcoming year.
With some major upgrades, here is what I predict will go down in the Western Conference.
The Big Western Conference Picture: Dwight Howard.
Like LeBron James in 2010, Dwight Howard has owned the 2012 off-season, becoming the biggest story in the NBA preceeding the season’s tip-off. Howard was the centerpiece of a four-team trade that brought him from Orlando to the LA Lakers. Adding the league's best Center to a team that also added two-time MVP Steve Nash to the starting core of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Metta World Peace means that the Lakers have one of the most impressive lineups in NBA history – on paper.
But ‘paper’ only goes as far as paper can, and the real test will be for Lakers Coach Mike Brown to perfect a system to fit all these brilliant pieces together to make a cohesive team. Two teams that will have no trouble with cohesiveness will be the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs. The Thunder, coming off their first Finals appearance, have youth, talent, and team chemistry on their side, and will not be willing to give up the mantle of Western Conference Champions that easily. The Spurs may see some big names getting older, but Popovich’s squad will remain relevant in the West as always.
Also making improvements in the West will be the Clippers and the Nuggets. The Clippers have strengthened their bench with some veteran additions, while the young Nuggets will get older, wiser, and see a perfect new fit of Andre Iguodala energise their squad.
Several more teams, like the Rockets, Suns, Timberwolves, Warriors, Mavericks, and Hornets have got considerable facelifts, while the improving Jazz will look to quietly turn some heads as well.
Watch Out for: They may be struck by the injury bug to begin the season, but there is no team poised to make a bigger jump out West than the Minnesota Timberwolves. After finishing 26-40 for last place in their division last season, Minnesota should make a drastic improvement and compete for a playoff spot. They will need their two biggest stars – Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio – to return, but waiting joyfully will be a squad that features the Andrei Kirilenko (back from Russia), Brandon Roy (back from injury/retirement), and a deep support crew.
Western Conference Rookie Watch: Who else but the unbelievably talented Anthony Davis? Davis is ready to make a big impact for the New Orleans Hornets. This year has been a good one for the young man, a year in which won the NCAA Player of the Year Award, Defensive Player of the Year Award, Freshman of the Year Award, Big Man of the Year Award, and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four Award. He won the National Championship with Kentucky. He became the first pick in the NBA Draft. And he won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic Team. No, nothing is stopping Davis from taking the next big step and becoming not just the best rookie in the league, but also one of the most important young players in the NBA.
Western Conference All-Stars: It looks to be a very LA-flavoured All-Star Weekend in Houston this year. Three Los Angeles players – Chris Paul (Clippers), Kobe Bryant (Lakers), and Dwight Howard (Lakers) – are prime candidates for being voted into the Western Conference starting five again. Kevin Love may become the best power forward in the league when he returns from injury, but the more popular Blake Griffin (Clippers) could be the fourth LA-based player in the West. Kevin Durant – last year’s All Star MVP – will be a starter again.
Western Conference MVP: Howard may make all the noise, but the quiet and ever-effective Kevin Durant will be the most important player on the West side once again. Durant came to sniff the NBA title last season and will be motivated to lead the Thunder as far as he possibly can again. The LA-duo of Dwight Howard and Chris Paul will be the next best bets to be West MVPs behind Durant.
Western Conference Playoff Contenders: Based on cohesiveness, continuity, and the talented lineup featuring Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka, expect the Thunder to become the best team in the regular season out West. The Lakers will start slowly, but Kobe, Howard, Nash and Co. will figure things out and start peaking right in time. The Spurs will continue being dominant, handing over the reins of their success mostly to Tony Parker and youngster Kawhi Leonard. Chris Paul should be able to lead the Clippers towards home court advantage as well. The Nuggets, Grizzlies, and Jazz will return to the playoffs, while the Timberwolves will sneak into the last spot. Hurt by injuries and a downgraded roster, the Mavericks will be a major casualty from the final eight in the West.
Western Conference Champion: The West Finals will come down to the two best – Thunder vs. Lakers – two teams who will be dominant in different ways. The Thunder have youth, athleticism, togetherness, and talent, while the Lakers have size, experience, and a whole lotta talent, too. I predict that, with almost a season under their belt, the Kobe-and-Dwight Lakers will have perfected a winning system and will be hard to stop, even by Durant and Co. A Laker victory will see them into the NBA Finals again, facing an ultimate showdown against the reigning champion Miami Heat.
It will be a primetime bonanza to remember. But before we get too caught up with the eventual destination, let’s celebrate the journey. The new NBA season is about to begin. Nothing can lock out the excitement anymore!