1. Los Angeles Lakers
Location: Hollywood, California
Level of Exposure: Very High, celebrities and superheroes
What are Celtics fans to do when Steve Nash joins Dwight Howard as the newest additions to the Super-Lakers? Be thankful Nash didn’t join the Heat? The Lakers continue to be the destination for title-less superstars who want to end their careers with a championship. We can hope that this year’s Lakers falls to the Harden-less Thunder, the age-less Spurs or the fear-less Clippers, but it’s more likely that they advance to the Finals and meet the Heat, Celtics or Pacers. Like the 2003-04 Lakers who added Payton and Malone in their version of the free-agent ring-shopping superstars, this team may fall one or two games short because of age, injuries and a lack of chemistry. Kobe has already declared this “His” team. Pau Gasol can disappear for however long he likes this year. Why did Steve Nash choose the Lakers? Because Toronto was on the wrong side of Canada? Let the ego-circus begin.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Location: OKC, OK, O (north of Texas Panhandle), Oklahoma
Level of Exposure: Average, big success minus small market
Sam Presti wasn’t bluffing. James Harden wasn’t budging. James Harden becomes a Rocket, and OKC welcomes Kevin Martin and Martin’s expiring contract. Martin is a dynamic offensive player, but hasn’t had the chance to prove he can handle scoring against playoff-level defense, having wandered through Sacramento and Houston. Who loses? Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. The three are all locked into long-term deals with OKC, and were crossing their fingers that Harden would join them as the four horsemen of the Western Conference for the next five years. Thabo Sefolosha’s stellar postseason run must be replicated as his minutes will be crucial without Harden.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Location: Alamo, San Antonio, Texas (south of Texas Panhandle)
Level of Exposure: Average, big success minus small market
Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson must be thankful. Two versatile talents whose careers were languishing in Charlotte two years ago have added balance to an already high-powered offense. As always, the age-less Spurs depend on health from their trio of fundamentally-sound teammates: Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. Spurs fans cannot expect Parker and Ginobili to continue penetrating so aggressively, sacrificing their old bodies, now that they’re, 30 and 35, respectively. Tim Duncan continues to sip from the water fountain of youth.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Location: The non-celebrity-traveled parts of LA (East LA, South Central, Glendale, Van Nuys)
Level of Exposure: With last year’s exception, Low to Average
Chris Paul was the most talked about athlete in Los Angeles last year. Then Pujols signed with the Angels. Then the Dodgers traded for everyone available. Then the Lakers convinced three other teams to participate in a deal that brought them Dwight Howard. Then Steve Nash joined the fray. Chris Paul wasn’t mentioned in any of this. He sat at home and sent reassuring texts to Lamar Odom, hoping to stir the Laker-hatred in former-Laker Lamar. DeAndre Jordan is one year older, wiser, and (hopefully) less foul-prone. Blake Griffin may or may not have developed a few more post moves. Grant Hill joins the club for moral support. The Clips are back in their rightful place, under-the-radar.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
Location: Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee
Level of Exposure: Low, big success minus small market
Which version of Tony Allen and which model of Zach Randolph will be around this year? If they can maintain their high-energy, passion-fueled games without lifting off into the stratosphere, the Grizzlies will be as gritty an opponent as ever. A full year of healthy Rudy Gay would certainly be nice. Jerryd Bayless might provide a spark off the bench. Memphis is a playoff team, like the Clippers, who nobody will want to face. Fans of both hope they avoid each other in the first round this time.
6. Denver Nuggets
Location: Rocky Mountains, Denver, Colorado
Level of Exposure: Average, with light snow
The Nuggets will bring energy and athleticism every night. Will they bring 50 wins? Andre Igoudala and Kenneth Faried will force-feed team principles like communication and rebounding on Javale McGee, Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson. The combination of offensive firepower and aggressive defenders with a shot-blocking machine like McGee behind them make the Nuggets a difficult matchup. Can they each find their niche under George Karl? Will Javale McGee mature in a new environment?
7. Dallas Mavericks
Location: Wealthy Dallas, Texas
Level of Exposure: Average, big market, medium success, even with Cuban’s dull-roar
Nowitzki must be miserable. Hard to get optimistic when your team brings in Elton Brand and Chris Kaman to join Vince Carter. Is this 2003? Should Darren Collison really start over Delonte West? Rodrigue Beabois? These are not the kinds of questions Mavs fans want to think about, but they are the only ones that come to mind.
8. Golden State Warriors
Location: Bay Area, Oakland, California
Level of Exposure: Average, big market with rabid fans and little success
Andrew Bogut can block shots, rebound, and has decent passing skills. Stephen Curry can out-shoot anyone, and has learned how to run the pick-and-roll, and lead an offense. If both of them can somehow play 65-75 games, Golden State will make the playoffs. If Bogut goes down, the Carl Landry signing becomes critical, and Lee shifts over to play undersized center. If Curry goes down, Jarrett Jack becomes the maestro of Mark Jackson’s offense, which doesn’t bode well for Mark Jackson’s offense. Brandon Rush and Klay Thompson both bring range to the wings. The season still hinges on the health of Curry and Bogut.
9. Houston Rockets
Location: Houston (Asian capital of the south), Texas
Level of Exposure: Jeremy Lin gets a spotlight in NYC and now a flashlight in Houston.
Lin to Harden. Lin to Harden. Lin to Harden. Lin to Harden. If only they never grew tired and could play 48 minutes per game. Patrick Patterson will block a few shots and do his best Dale Davis impersonation. Omer Asik will give every molecule of energy to the defensive end, and will end up with stitches and rebounds. But Lin and Harden, Lin and Harden, Lin and Harden, that is all you will hear when you watch a Rockets game. They will sell tickets. They will be exciting. They will be fun to watch. But they won’t win very many games. Clawing away at Minnesota and Golden State in early April for that 8th spot and a chance to get trounced by the Super-Lakers: this is their best hope.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
Location: Frozen Lakes, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Level of Exposure: Cold
Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will be back by the end of December. How steep will the climb out of the cellar be? The team has x-factors in Derrick Williams, Nikola Pekovic and the rehabbing Brandon Roy. If Ridnour and Barea can keep the ball moving and get the most out of Williams, Pekovic and Chase Budinger, maybe the Wolves can win a few games before January.
11. Portland Trail Blazers
Location: Rainy Portlandia, Oregonian
Level of Exposure: Low to average, with moderate showers
The only trail they have blazed recently is the one that sends their most exciting player (Gerald Wallace) and most beloved player (Brandon Roy) packing. Aldridge can carry the offense, with his mid-range jumper and post-game. Damion Lillard will shoot until his arms fall off, but can he actually run the point? For Portland to make this season interesting, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Mathews have to dominate defensively and find consistency with their long-range jumpers. Defense will be mediocre to awful at the other three positions.
12. Utah Jazz
Location: Salty, Utah
Level of Exposure: Salty but Low
With Big Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap underneath, the Jazz have a decent foundation. Unfortunately, Deron Williams is still gone. First it was Devin Harris who attempted to run the offense. Now Mo Williams, another shoot-first point guard, gets a chance. Imagine how good Al Jefferson could have been with Rajon Rondo running his show? We’ll never know. Instead, Al has had to carve out his own points with his nifty spin-moves and up-and-under pump-fakes. Unless Gordon Hayward and Randy Foye know something I don’t know, the Jazz will struggle to defend in the backcourt.
13. Sacramento Kings
Location: Sacramento, the city on the way down from the Sierras, California
Level of Exposure: Low, small market with poor fans who hit a cowbell when excited.
Something is going on in Sacramento. It has to do with common names. Last names of the current Kings roster: Thomas, Brooks, Thompson, Robinson, Johnson. A few names from the Old West: Travis Outlaw and Tyler Honeycutt. The inimitable Jimmer Fredette. Tyreke Evans is a uniquely talented creator without much decision-making ability. DeMarcus Cousins is another volatile project, and Thomas Robinson can hit the glass and score in the post, but can’t block shots or shoot free-throws. None of it adds up to much, really.
14. Phoenix Suns
Location: Sunstroke, Phoenix, Arizona
Level of Exposure: Very Low but with very bright sun
In Phoenix, this year will be known as Life-After-Steve. As Nash bolted for Hollywood, the Suns turn their lonely eyes to Goran Dragic. Dragic will drag his teammates around the court, looking for a Scola screen or a Gortat pick-and-roll. The Suns may now become Eastern Europe’s most-beloved franchise. Michael Beasley’s career is slipping through his fingers. Jared Dudley will be calling Nash nightly, asking if there is any way he might join him in L.A. Jermaine O’Neal will play five games before mercifully retiring. Telfair will get his 13th chance to prove he belongs in the NBA, and it may be his last. Poor Wesley Johnson. The sharpshooter endured two years in Minnesota and now he has to go through this?
15. New Orleans Hornets
Location: Crescent City of Jazz and Sadness, New Orleans, Louisiana
Level of Exposure: Treme aside, low to average.
Anthony “Uni-brow” Davis trademarked his uni-brow last summer. Will his uniform read “Uni-brow” on the back? Austin Rivers is listed behind Greivis Vasquez on the depth chart at point guard. This seems like it would be a grievous error on the part of Monty Williams, who seems to actually know what he is doing. Despite Monty’s competence, this year will be a struggle. Eric Gordon wants to show he’s finally healthy. Austin Rivers wants to show he belongs. Anthony Davis wants to make some extra money on the uni-brow thing. Only two Hornets are over the age of 26. Maybe Williams can beg the NCAA to let the Hornets play in the national tournament this year, if they keep Hakim Warrick and Roger Mason, Jr. on the bench.