With the new NBA season kicking off, NBA writer Gary Washburn makes his predictions for the highlights this year:
TOP 3 FACES IN NEW PLACES
Chris Paul – The all-star point guard is finally in a big market after a dramatic week that donned him a Laker for about 10 minutes. Paul will have an immediate effect on the Clippers along with Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups, making them a darkhorse in the Western Conference.
Eric Gordon – Traded to New Orleans in the Paul deal, the overshadowed Gordon will finally have the opportunity to shine and replace Paul as the Hornets’ next superstar. The Clippers were reluctant to part with Gordon, who is just 22 years old and a pure scorer.
Tyson Chandler – After helping the Dallas Mavericks win their first NBA title, Chandler was dealt to New York, a team that desperately needed a defensive-minded big man. Chandler has gained the faith of an organization before and faltered, what will he do on basketball’s biggest stage?
THREE POTENTIAL BUSTS WITH NEW TEAMS
Glen Davis – Big Baby finally got the money and a long-term contract, but will he be able to handle playing for the emotional Stan Van Gundy, who is as hard on his players as Doc Rivers? And can he handle being an NBA starter? He asked for this opportunity but it could backfire for Orlando.
Lamar Odom – Odom turned into an L.A. guy with a reality show and a laidback attitude. The Mavericks are trying to squeeze another title out of their aging core. Will Odom respond? Or sulk because he is no longer a Laker and no longer receiving attention for his public marriage.
Caron Butler – Butler is one of the game’s best defenders when healthy but he is not quite in shape and coming off a torn patella injury that cost him a chance to play in the Finals. A one-legged Butler is not going to help the Clippers’ playoff march. We’ll see if he’s healthy.
THREE WORST NBA SCHEDULE STRETCHES
Celtics’ 8-game road trip in March – A team that’s aging gets a difficult road trip that begins in Los Angeles and ends in Philadelphia. The Celtics hit Los Angeles for a Sunday afternoon game after a Friday night home game against Portland.
Bulls’ 9-game road trip in January-February – Amazingly, the Bulls play eight of their 14 Eastern Conference opponents on this trip that begins in Washington, ends in Boston and includes games at New York, New Jersey and New Orleans.
Pistons’ 13 road games in one month – Detroit’s life away from Motown begins in Utah on March 12 and after it plays at Charlotte on April 12, the Pistons will have played 13 of 17 games on the road, which includes three trips of four or more games. Brutal.
TOP THREE NBA STORYLINES
How will players react to 66-game season? – The season has been stuffed into four months and 66 games and there are fears that there could be more torn Achilles, hamstring and knee injuries because of the short training camp and preseason. Many players had no idea when the season would begin, and may not be ready for the intensity of a season, either.
Chris Paul with Los Angeles Clippers – Can Paul make the Clippers a winner after years of being the ugly stepchild in Los Angeles? The Clippers are now going to attract more fans than just the ones who want to see a Blake Griffin alley-oop. They are no longer a sideshow.
Can Miami win the title? – There is speculation that one of the Big Three could be gone if the Heat don’t win the NBA title this year. While the scrutiny will be considerably lighter, no one around the league is rooting for the Heat to be successful. They remain the NBA’s chief villains and their road in Year 2 will be fascinating.
TOP 3 COACHES
Gregg Popovich, Spurs – He gets the most out of his players, and more importantly he knows when they are done and has no issue with ridding himself of aging players. It’s not a popular approach but it’s realistic and has resulted in four NBA titles.
Rick Carlisle, Mavericks – Finally got the respect he deserves and claims a spot in the Top 3 now that Phil Jackson has retired. He coached circles around Erik Spoelstra in the NBA Finals and is one of the game’s best strategic coaches.
Doc Rivers, Celtics – He consistently wins, blends a mentor attitude with that of a drill sergeant and has brought respectability back to Boston basketball. If not for Kevin Garnett’s injury in 2009, the Celtics are likely back in the Finals and his work in 2010 was masterful in coming one quarter from another crown.
THREE COACHES ON HOT SEAT
Alvin Gentry, Suns – The Suns are now insignificant and while Gentry’s run-and-run more style is fun to watch, Phoenix is no better than a .500 team. Gentry has never been a dynamic coach, so if the Suns struggle out of the gate, look for the club to give Dan Majerle a chance.
Paul Westphal, Kings – His tenure in Sacramento has been rocky at best and if he can’t get along any better with the younger players, he may be gone and replaced by a coach who can. Westphal is classic in a hip-hop team and the Kings can’t stumble, especially when they are trying to build a new arena and save the team in Northern California.
Flip Saunders, Wizards – Besides leading those Kevin Garnett Minnesota teams to the postseason, when has Saunders consistently won? The Wizards looked putrid in their preseason opener and there is too much young talent on this team to get embarrassed. Saunders could be on a short leash, potentially replaced by a hot assistant.
THREE TEAMS ON THE RISE
Los Angeles Clippers – What an offseason for the Clips. They acquire Chris Paul, claim Chauncey Billups, match the salary for DeAndre Jordan and sign Caron Butler. They are a team ready to win now and Clippers fans are long deserving of a club that has a chance to win every night. That has never been the case.
Indiana Pacers – Team president Larry Bird had been waiting for this offseason to rid themselves of roster mistakes such as Mike Dunleavy and Jamaal Tinsley, and finally the Pacers have reason for optimism after being insignificant since the Brawl at the Palace. Paul George is a player on the rise while David West will provide leadership.
Golden State Warriors – Believe it or not, the Warriors have made a bunch of astute moves over the past year, hiring Mark Jackson and Jerry West, keeping their young core together and placing emphasis on winning and not just putting out a high-scoring, no-defense outfit as they have the past decade. The playoffs are not out of the question.
THREE TEAMS ON THE DECLINE
San Antonio – How much longer can these guys go on? Tim Duncan has a year or two left. Tony Parker has lost a step and Manu Ginobili can’t be your best player. So it could be now or never for this current crew of Spurs and it’s hard to believe they have enough against the Western Conference’s upstarts such as Oklahoma City and Memphis.
Boston – The Big Three has played at such a high level, but eventually they have to slow down. Will it be this year? Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are free agents after this season and will be motivated to win but if one of the Big Three has a subpar year, it could mean a first-round playoff elimination and perhaps the dreaded “R” word: rebuilding.
Los Angeles Lakers – Kobe Bryant is not the one to worry about here. Pau Gasol looked terrible in the postseason, Metta World Peace has had focus problems (shocker!) and Derek Fisher is 37. Can the Lakers go head-to-head with teams wanting revenge for years of beatdowns? Highly unlikely.
TOP THREE MVP CONTENDERS
Derrick Rose – If Rose can make smarter decisions down the stretch and avoid pressing when double teamed, there is no reason why he can’t win MVP again. The Bulls didn’t change all that much and they still remain the best defensive team in the league. So Rose has a serious shot to go back-to-back.
LeBron James – It’s redemption time for LeBron. He looked putrid in the fourth quarter during the NBA Finals and said he has worked on his post game and has learned not to press in the clutch. All eyes will be on him and perhaps he responds to the challenge. This may be his best chance to win a third MVP.
Kevin Durant – Durant led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals and the core of that team returns. In a shortened season, Oklahoma City will have the advantage because it doesn’t have to build chemistry, so look for Durant to get off to a fast start and if the Thunder win 45 games, the award is his.
TOP THREE ROOKIES
Kyrie Irving – Irving has been anointed a starter and leader already in Cleveland and he will be allowed to make plays and make mistakes under coach Byron Scott. The Cavaliers may not win a lot of games, but Irving will take that Derrick Rose road to success as an immediate leader.
Derrick Williams – The Timberwolves may not make many national television appearances, but Williams will be someone to watch after a stirring NCAA Tournament run. If he can blend with Kevin Love, he will make a bona fide push for Rookie of the Year, and the Timberwolves could use some good news.
Kemba Walker – Charlotte isn’t going to be very good, so the Bobcats will hand the ball to Walker and also hand him the franchise tag. Walker will pile up numbers for himself and create plays for teammates. Michael Jordan pegged him for a good reason.