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2015-16 NBA preview: Western Conference Part 1, the cellar-dwellers

Will Kobe turn back the clock this year?
Expert
8th October, 2015
20

The start of the NBA season is just 19 days away. We’re so close to the start of Sacramento’s in-fighting, Robert Sacre’s bench celebrations, and Josh Smith’s immortal long step-back twos.

It’s going to be serene. And that’s just California.

Over the next three weeks we’ll be previewing every team in the league, breaking the conferences down into three parts: the cellar-dwellers, the middle class and the contenders. Why are we doing it this way? Because it’s God’s plan. And how are you going to stop God’s plan?

Thank you DeMarcus. We’ll see you at the end of the article. For now though, let’s start a little further south.

15. Los Angeles Lakers
Last season: 21-61, 14th in the West
Key arrivals: Roy Hibbert, D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams
Key departures: Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill

Who likes bad shots? If you do, go west, young man. In Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams and Nick Young, the Lakers have a holy trinity of the NBA’s least efficient shot-takers. Last season Bryant and Young conspired to shoot 37 per cent and 36 per cent from the floor and Lou-Will wasn’t much better at 40 per cent. In other words, DeAndre Jordan has more hope of making free throws than these three have of making shots.

The Lakers are going to be terrible on defence. This is a fact. Beyond Roy Hibbert and maybe Brandon Bass, L.A. doesn’t have a single average defender who is going to play minutes. This team is going to regularly have Russell, Williams and Bryant on the floor at the same time, which is like frightening post-modern art from a defensive perspective. If Mo Williams or Corey Brewer are ever going to drop 50 again, it’ll be against these Lakers.

The more interesting question though is how on Earth does this team generate efficient offence? Russell and Julius Randle will be wayward through their growing pains. Swaggy P is Swaggy P and we’re three years removed from Bryant, now 37 (or as I like to say, two years older than Tayshaun Prince), being an effective offensive player. You’re in a bad place when your best source of buckets might be Lou Williams jacking with no conscience.

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Add in the most antiquated coach in the league and the Lakers don’t have a prayer of sniffing the playoffs. There is talent though, and Roy Hibbert by himself should elevate last year’s 29th ranked defence.

2015-16 for the Lakers is ultimately about finding out who will be around in 2018-19. In Russell, Randle and Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers have three exciting young talents who will be their future. In the meantime, enjoy the firestorm of clanked mid-range jumpers Los Angeles.

Predicted record: 25-57

14. Portland Trailblazers
Last season: 51-31, sixth in the West
Key arrivals: Gerald Henderson, Mason Plumlee, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis
Key departures: LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo

It’s hard to imagine a more violent and sudden rebuild in NBA history than what Portland went through this off-season. In February, the Blazers were legitimate title contenders and by March they were finished, staring into the abyss of NBA purgatory.

To their credit,the Blazers didn’t mess around in July – they’re not taking any half measures.

Eighty per cent of their starting line-up from last season is gone. This is Damian Lillard’s team now (sorry Meyers Leonard) and Portland’s ability to be competitive this year will live and die with his stardom.

In Noah Vonleh, CJ McCollum and Meyers Leonard, the Blazers have some interesting pieces, but there are just too many holes. When Gerald Henderson is your second best player, that’s a recipe for a top-five draft pick. Regardless, the Blazers are loaded with competent pros – guys like Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee – and they have a bona fide star in Lillard. That should be enough to make them ‘respectably terrible’ this season instead of ‘a blazing inferno of awfulness’.

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Predicted record: 28-54

13. Denver Nuggets
Last season: 30-52, 12th in the West
Key arrivals: Emmanuel Mudiay
Key departures: Ty Lawson

After two years lost to the awkward mediocrity of the Brian Shaw non-era, the Nuggets finally have some direction. They have a new coach in Mike Malone and a new point guard to lead their future, with the fresh excitement of Emmanuel Mudiay replacing the murky troubles of Ty Lawson.

Perhaps most importantly, the Nuggets seem to have finally come to the realisation that it’s okay to be bad. Unlike in previous years, this off-season Denver didn’t lavish any bad contracts on free agents to paper over the cracks. JJ Hickson’s three year, $16 million contract is still on the books as negative reinforcement. Reminder: Hickson does nothing good on the basketball court.

This team will be built around Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic, whatever the likes of Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic can give them, plus their upcoming draft pick which is likely to be in the top half of the lottery (they have the right to trade picks with the Knicks. New York you may now light yourself on fire). In Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and a seemingly rejuvenated Danilo Gallinari, the Nuggets have some veteran talent too who can also function as movable trade assets.

Denver is going to be bad this year but they’re also going to be a lot of fun. Mudiay will be wild and reckless (expect turnovers. Expect a lot of turnovers) but there will be plenty of highlights. Gallinari’s unconventional offence is a joy to watch, as is Faried’s hustle. And a Nurkic/Jokic Bosnian/Serbian big man tandem will be a delight.

Predicted record: 30-52

12. Minnesota Timberwolves
Last season: 16-66, last in the West
Key arrivals: Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Miller
‘Key’ departures: Anthony Bennett, Chase Budinger

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Finally, a little bit of basketball hope to warm up the freezing Twin Cities. The T’Wolves have the past two number one picks on their roster in Towns and Andrew Wiggins and both look to be the real deal. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the rest of the team is a mess.

If you were to look at every roster in the league, Minnesota’s is the one that makes the least sense. They have Karl-Anthony Towns and Gorgui Deng as the young future in the frontcourt, but they also have Nikola Pekovic on a $60 million contract and Kevin Garnett who is 60 years old, both of whom will eat away valuable minutes.

The backcourt and wing positions are a bizarre chaos of opposing ideals with the young excitement of Zach Lavine, Shabazz Muhammad and Andrew Wiggins countered by the presence of ageing veterans Kevin Martin, Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince. And there’s poor brittle Ricky Rubio in the middle of all this mess. Oh, and Adreian Payne, Nemanja Bjelica, Tyus Jones and Damjan Rudez are also on this team, and will all want minutes.

Ultimately though, everything outside of Wiggins and Towns is just background noise. Those guys are the future. For now just enjoy the chaos of Zach Lavine throwing lob passes to Gorgui Dieng on one possession and then Andre Miller and Tayshaun Prince partying like it’s 1998 on the next one.

Predicted record: 30-52

11. Sacramento Kings
Last season: 29-53, 13th in the West
Key arrivals: Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli, Kosta Koufos, Willie Cauley-Stein
Key departures: Nik Stauskas, Derrick Williams

Has the NBA left Rajon Rondo behind? In a league obsessed with threes and getting to the rim, Rondo is incongruous to the setting. Rondo was the best player on a team that made the Finals in 2010, yet at just 29 when he should be in the middle of his prime, in free agency he could only fetch a one-year deal from the NBA’s most dysfunctional franchise.

It’s easy to write Rondo off as a has-been – it’s been three years and a torn ACL since he’s been ‘good’ – but there is some cause for hope. No-one has ever doubted Rondo’s motivation or his work ethic. He’s a basketball savant, and he always plays with a chip on his shoulder. Banished to the NBA nether region of Northern California, Rondo has plenty to prove. He’ll have some toys to play with too, working with DeMarcus Cousins, one of the league’s 10 best players, and Rudy Gay, a re-invented offensive weapon.

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Everything dies in Sacramento though. This team and its ownership is a farcical catastrophe. Willy Cauley-Stein makes no sense on a team with Cousins and Kosta Koufos, giving them three centres who need playing time. The Kings do go nine-deep in real NBA players though, and that’ll be enough to keep them on the fringes of the playoff race if circumstances conspire to help them.

They’ll need Rondo to elevate them into the heart of the discussion though, and while it’s not incomprehensible to think the former championship Celtic and recent malcontent Mav has something left, it’s not something you can count on.

Predicted record: 34-48