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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...2012-13 NBA "FUTURES" TO WATCH!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


That’s more like it!

After enduring a work stoppage that delayed the start of the 2011-12 NBA campaign for two months, pro hoops is back on its normal timetable this season. Which means hoops for Halloween; regular-season battles commence on Tuesday night, while college action (really!) begins later next week.

The start of basketball season also means the start of TGS Basketball, our well-received hoops-only publication available online. Our season debut issue will be ready on Monday night, covering the first 65 NBA regular-season games thru November 8. Thereafter, our weekly issues will be available on Thursdays into early January, when we commence our twice-weekly schedule. As always, for online subscription information, check out our website at www.goldsheet.com or give us a call at 1-800-798-GOLD (4653) to take advantage of special full-season pricing offers.

As has become tradition for us at TGS, we begin our hoops coverage with our featured season “over/under” wins recommendations. Following is a condensed version, with season win numbers next to each team; the full preview will be available in our first TGS Hoops issue, available online, as mentioned, on Monday night.

EASTERN CONFERENCE


ATLANTIC DIVISION: Well, Danny Ainge didn’t exactly break up the Boston Celtics (50 ½) in the offseason like many envisioned, as Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce still comprise a very veteran core of the team. Among the “big three” only Ray Allen has departed (for Miami), effectively replaced by ex-Mav G Jason Terry. And HC Doc Rivers remains in the fold for another year. Ainge did, however, add a lot of younger athleticism to augment the veteran core. And signing Leandro Barbosa and Darko Milicic in addition to Terry, plus a now-healthy, Jeff Green, should improve the depth. Still, Garnett remains the heart-and-soul of the operation, and, with his history of knee woes and advanced age, expect Rivers to pace K-G accordingly to have him ready for the playoffs, where the Cs hope to be peaking by next April. Getting ready for one last postseason push with K-G and Pierce is where the emphasis remains, while an apparently upgraded Atlantic Divison could make it a bit harder to get into the 50-win category. We’re looking “under” in Beantown.

Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way regarding the Brooklyn (New Jersey) Nets (44 ½); at the risk of offending the urban hip-hop crowd, the new Jay-Z inspired logo looks like something we might have created when back in grade school. And the new, simple, black-and-white uniforms look like the sort of drab garb that might outfit the Rahway State Prison team. Having said that, the move to Brooklyn figures to re-energize the franchise, which still has hopes of eventually landing Dwight Howard (who might not stick in L.A. beyond this season, after which Howard has yet to ink). In the meantime, acquiring Joe Johnson from Atlanta and re-signing Deron Williams means the Nets might have the East’s best backcourt. And Lottery-ville should be far in the rear-view mirror if the well-balanced Gerald Wallace-Kris (sans Kardashian) Humphries-Brook Lopez frontline can stay healthy. If that frontline stays intact, HC Avery Johnson steers Brooklyn to the playoffs; it’s an “over” for us at the sparkling new Barclays Center.

The New York Knicks (46 ½) had quite a rollercoaster ride last season, changing coaches midstream before (Jeremy) Lin-sanity took over not only the back pages of the Post and Daily News, but ESPN SportsCenter as well. And the offseason was not without change, as Lin departed for Houston, with new faces Raymond Felton and vet Jason Kidd expected to provide service from the perimeter. But now Amar’e Stoudemire’s knee injury might keep him out until December, and we’re curious to see how Carmelo Anthony handles the PF role in Stoudemire’s absence. But we liked the way the Knicks responded to HC Mike Woodson after Mike D’Antoni’s dismissal last winter, and the expected return of Stoudemire and 2-G Iman Shumpert before long suggest the Knicks should be at full strength by Christmas. Which leaves enough time to make a legit playoff push and perhaps challenge for Atlantic Division honors. We’re looking “over” at the renovated MSG.

Did the Philadelphia 76ers (45 ½) really upgrade themselves in the offseason? Or are they kidding themselves that newly-added C Andrew Bynum can become the franchise anchor they envision? More than a few league observers suggest Doug Collins’ patience is going to be tested, and Bynum’s long-standing durability issues are already back in focus, as knee problems have jeopardized his availability early in the season. Some insiders also believe the Sixers did too much lineup juggling in the offseason, losing glue guys such as Olympian Andre Iguodala (traded to Denver), LY’s leading scorer Lou Williams (to Atlanta in FA), and leading rebounder Elton Brown (amnestied; now with Dallas). Can replacement parts such as Jason Richardson, Nick Young, and Kwame Brown provide similar intangibles? We’re not convinced; look “under” at Wells Fargo Center.

Are the Toronto Raptors (33 ½) still in the NBA? Forgive us and others for losing track after the franchise seemed to drop off the radar after Chris Bosh’s escape to Miami. Rather quietly, however, HC Dwane Casey began to reassemble the pieces in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, focusing upon defense and improved teamwork, as Toronto improved a full-season equivalent of seven wins from the previous year. And that was with key frontliner Andrea Bargnani missing 35 games with an assortment of injuries. Now, the international brigade is further fortified by the legit post presence of 6-11 Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in the 2011 Draft who stayed overseas last season. Casey also added several potentially-useful veteran spare parts (perimeter components Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, and Landry Fields) who fit his style and seem to more than compensate for the subtraction of Jerryd Bayless. There is plenty of potential upside in Toronto, especially if Bargnani stays healthy; we’ll take a chance that he does and look “over” at Air Canada Centre.

CENTRAL DIVISION: Anyone who watched the Chicago Bulls (47 ½) crumble in the playoffs vs. the Sixers minus Derrick Rose knows how important it is to the team for the All-Pro G to make a full recovery from last April’s devastating ACL injury. Unfortunately, the timetable for his return remains vague, although most suspect it might not be until around the All-Star break in mid-February. In the meantime, Luol Deng will try to assume the featured role, while HC Tom Thibodeau hopes that signing Gs Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli, and Nate Robinson, and getting a full season out of Rip Hamilton, can plug the leaks in the backcourt dike until Rose returns. Already, however, Hinrich is dealing with a groin strain, and relying upon Deng, Joakim Noah’s considerable intangibles, and the replacement parts on the perimeter might not be enough to compensate for Rose’s absence. The dynamics will completely change with a healthy Rose, but since we don’t know when that might happen, we’re simply going to pass at United Center instead.

The post-LeBron rebuild with the Cleveland Cavaliers (30 ½) appears to be on course, albeit a decidedly slow one. The Cavs have been adding pieces to their puzzle ever since “The Decision” two summers ago, and now feature a promising young lineup highlighting several components who could still have college eligibility if they didn’t make the early jump to the NBA. But the operative word is “young” in Cleveland, and the jury is definitely out on boom-or-bust Syracuse draftee Dion Waiters, Kyrie Irving’s new backcourt mate and of whom opinion is mixed among NBA scouts. Eventually, Irving, Waiters, and frontliners Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller (another rookie) could make for a solid nucleus...in 2014-15, perhaps. For the moment, the Cavs remain a work in progress for HC Byron Scott. It’s another “under” for us at “The Q” this season.

Maybe it’s not quite like the Houston Rockets’ “Twin Towers” days of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, but the Detroit Pistons (31 ½) are one of the league’s few teams with a pair of contributing 7-footers (emerging star Greg Monroe and UConn rookie Andre Drummond). But those two alone are not going to get the Pistons back into the playoffs; it’s about time for Rodney Stuckey to reward GM Joe Dumars’ faith and display the sort of game-to-game consistency required of prime-time players. Coach Lawrence Frank, however, can be expected to make good use of several role players (newly-added SF Corey Maggette provides another much-needed scoring option), and some NBA insiders suggest former Kentucky PG Brandon Knight is en route to star status. The Pistons are no title threat, to be sure, but the clever Frank ought to keep them on the periphery of the playoff mix in the East and at least get Detroit into the mid 30s on the win side. It’s a calculated “over” for us at Auburn Hills.

The Indiana Pacers (51 ½) have been knocking on the title door for a while now, and were good enough to push the eventual champion Heat a lot harder in the playoffs last spring than Oklahoma City did in the Finals. And, mostly, the Pacers kept their emerging core intact in the offseason thanks to matching Portland’s max-salary offer sheet and maintaining C Roy Hibbert in the fold. The only tweak of note was trading last year’s starting PG Darren Collison (deemed expendable due to emergence of Indy native George Hill) to Dallas for rugged C Ian Mahinmi, who provides proper cover in the post for Hibbert. Meanwhile, offseason additions PG D.J. Augustin and swingman Gerald Green supply a couple of more nice off-the-bench options for HC Frank Vogel. Unless linchpins Hibbert and/or Danny Granger go down with injury, expect the Pacers to remain a serious contender and likely steal the Central title while the Bulls wait for Derrick Rose to recover from his knee injury. It’s an “over” for us at Bankers Life (nee Conseco) Fieldhouse.

It certainly pained Milwaukee Bucks (36 ½) HC Scott Skiles (who, we know, always looks pained) last winter to watch his team’s interior defense disappear after Andrew Bogut’s ankle injury and subsequent trade-deadline deal to Golden State. But Bucks GM John Hammond moved quickly to address the problem in the offseason, acquiring vet C Samuel Dalembert from the Rockets and nabbing pterodactyl-like North Carolina PF John Henson in the first round of last June’s NBA Draft. Importantly, their respective calling cards are defense and rebounding, so we’d expect those areas to improve from the late-season version of the Bucks that missed the playoffs. They’d better play some defense and get some boards, too, because Gs Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis don't do much of either. But with Derrick Rose still in recovery mode in Chicago, Jennings and Ellis give the Bucks the most potent backcourt combo in the Central. And if Dalembert and especially Henson produce as expected, the Bucks should contend for one of the last East playoff spots. It’s an “over” for us at Bradley Center.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION: At least give the Atlanta Hawks (43 ½) credit for not standing still. Perennial playoff qualifiers but not-quite title contenders, the Hawks reassembled their core in the offseason, shipping out a couple of mainstays in G Joe Johnson (now Brooklyn) and F Marvin Williams (now Utah) while adding some potentially useful veteran pieces in Gs Devin Harris, Lou Williams, and sharpshooter Kyle Korver. Unfortunately, we don’t believe the changes get Larry Drew’s team any closer to the Heat, Pacers, or Bulls (with a healthy Derrick Rose) in the Eastern queue. But there’s still enough on hand (frontliners Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia, and Josh Smith remain in the mix) to probably get the Hawks back to the playoffs...where they’ll likely lose in the first round again. Still, that should be good enough for an “over” at Philips Arena.

We hadn’t seen a team lose as often as last season’s Charlotte Bobcats (19 ½) since the Washington Generals used to absorb those nightly lickings from the Harlem Globetrotters. At 7-59 in the work stoppage-shortened season, the Bobcats had the worst win percentage in league history, partially knocking the Mad Dog Carter-Leroy Ellis-Freddie Boyd-Manny Leaks 76ers from 1972-‘73 out of the record books (those Sixers, however, still retain the all-time loss record of 73). Moreover, Charlotte couldn’t even win the Draft Lottery, missing out on a chance to take Kentucky C Anthony Davis. But Davis’ UK teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a nice consolation prize in the second slot, and is envisioned as a versatile Scottie Pippen-like contributor at this level. Although this still might not be what new HC Mike Dunlap was hoping for in his long-awaited chance to lead a team, the late word is that Michael Jordan is starting to distance himself from the personnel side, which should be a plus. And besides the NBA-ready Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte did add some other potentially useful veteran pieces in the offseason, as Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions at least add some functionality to the backcourt, while Brendan Haywood is a legit NBA big. And maybe Dunlap can mimic Gene Shue, under whom the ‘73-74 Sixers improved 16 wins from their previous year’s debacle. We might regret this, but we think the Bobcats can go “over” that modest win total.

The bar continues to be set ridiculously high for the Miami Heat (60 ½), who are now motivated to prove they belong in the NBA pantheon of great teams by at least winning back-to-back titles. Anything less and the season is a failure in South Beach. Which also means the focus is going to be on the playoffs, and making sure all of the key ingredients are healthy in April. And with Dwyane Wade off summer knee surgery (which caused him to miss the Olympics) and having proven susceptible to injury in recent years, and Chris Bosh and even LeBron (nursing a sore ankle heading into the season) perhaps not as durable as they used to be, Erik Spoelstra will be awfully tempted to pace the big three in the regular season while aiming all to peak in the playoffs, a recipe that worked last spring. With no subtractions from the key elements of the championship roster, and new additions Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis likely to prove useful in their new specific roles, the Heat should be ready to defend their title...but not necessarily storm through the regular season. It’s a slight “under” for us at American Airlines Arena.

Excuse us if you've heard this tale before with the Orlando Magic (23 ½); draft a future HOF big man, build up to a title contender, reach the Finals, lose there, start to backslide a bit...and then lose the star performer completely and start the rebuild process all over again. Only we're not talking about 1996 after Shaquille O'Neal left for the Lakers, but rather Dwight Howard's exit to L.A. sixteen years later. Unlike with Shaq, the Magic at least got something for Howard before he left via free agency, but none of the disparate parts who arrived in the four-team deal that also involved the Lakers, Sixers, and Nuggets can compensate for big Dwight. Although, in truth, Orlando should bode good riddance to the distraction that Howard, despite over-the-top coddling from the franchise, had become. So, what are the Magic left with this season? A handful of leftovers (Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Big Baby Davis, J.J. Redick) from recent contenders, ex-Sixer Nikola Vucevic in place of Howard, and nothing resembling a go-to scorer unless you want to stretch the definition to include ex-Nugget swingman Arron Afflalo. Plus a first-time HC in former guard Jacque Vaughn. The prognosis? Back to the Draft Lottery...where maybe the next Shaq or Dwight Howard awaits. It's an "under" for us at Amway Center.

Will the best thing about attending a Washington Wizards (27 ½) game at he Verizon Center still be the chance to swing by nearby U Street and Ben’s Chili Bowl for a chili half-smoke, the ones that Bill Cosby and Barack Obama love so much? Maybe so. Injuries are causing problems before the regular season even starts (never a good sign), with key components G John Wall (knee) and hard-working frontliner Nene (foot) already hurting and likely to miss action into early November, and perhaps into December in the case of Wall. True, the Wizards improved their defense markedly in the trade that sent Rashard Lewis to New Orleans in exchange for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, and ridding the roster of Lewis and Andray Blatche has made it easier for HC Randy Wittman to preach defense and teamwork. The thought of Wall working in tandem with Florida rookie G Bradley Beal (who should provide more consistency from the perimeter than holdover Jordan Crawford) even has Nats fans like Charles Krauthammer taking notice. But Washington is not going to take flight until Wall is able to grab the controls, and his succession of injuries is starting to worry GM Ernie Grunfeld. That’s too big of a question mark to assume much of an upgrade; it’s an “under” for us in D.C.


WESTERN CONFERENCE


NORTHWEST DIVISION: After appearing content to sit still in the summer, the Denver Nuggets (50 ½) suddenly got very active when the chance to land Sixer Olympian Andre Iguodala presented itself as an adjunct part of the four-team deal also involving the Lakers and Magic, which eventually sent Dwight Howard in Los Angeles. George Karl, however, will think he got a pretty good deal with a versatile swingman such as Iggy, of whom most NBA insiders regard as an upgrade from Arron Afflalo (shipped to Orlando as part of the four-team transaction). What really intrigues about the Nuggets, however, was how Karl seemed to connect with moody C JaVale McGee, who was a disruptive force at Washington before turning a new leaf in the Mile High City, showing signs of blossoming as a dominating component after his trade to Denver. Mostly, however, it’s our respect for Karl, and his ability to mold a sum greater than its parts, that prompts us to look “over” at Pepsi Center.

Last year, with the Minnesota Timberwolves (39 ½) finally getting some proper structure and organization on the court from new HC Rick Adelman, they emerged as a playoff contender for the first time since the Kevin Garnett years. Until, that is, Spanish PG Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL when the T-wolves were sitting at 20-19; they finished 6-21 without him. Rubio’s rehab is on schedule, but he still might not be available until the Super Bowl, at which time Adelman’s team could be in the same spot the hometown Twins were for most of the past MLB season. And with do-everything (except play defense) F Kevin Love sidelined for a shorter duration at the outset with a broken hand, we can envision Minnesota digging a pretty big hole for itself by the time it (hopefully) has all hands on deck by the middle of winter. Further, when Love returns to the lineup, while Rubio remains out, who might be the one to remove some of his scoring burden? Luke Ridnour? J.J. Barea? Damaged-goods Brandon Roy? Mostly, however, we saw enough of this team struggling without Rubio last spring to believe it can’t stay afloat for what might be a half-season without him. Look “under” at Target Center.

The dynamics have abruptly changed for the Oklahoma City Thunder (59 ½), although most NBA insiders are not surprised that super sixth man James Harden has left the nest. Remember, the Thunder had already committed its future max-salary slots to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and Harden wasn’t going to accept under-market value forever. So, rather than risk losing Harden in free agency after the season and getting nothing in return, Ok City got more than a little in exchange for the bearded one on the eve of the regular season, adding perimeter contributors Kevin Martin and rookie first-round draftee Jeremy Lamb (UConn) from the Rockets in the deal. Although neither can be expected to provide the spark as Harden did as the sixth man, which could alter the Thunder dynamics that have been so carefully nurtured over the past few years by HC Scott Brooks. Sure, there are still enough pieces besides Durant and Westbrook (emerging PF Serge Ibaka, defensive stopper Thabo Sefolosha, and no-nonsense C Kendrick Perkins are valued components), but the adjustment phase to coping without Harden’s spark from the bench could cost the Thunder a few wins, and 60 looked a high-end target anyway. It’s a measured “under” for us at Chesapeake Energy Center.

The Portland Trail Blazers (33 ½) have become something of an afterthought in the West, a demise traced in part to receiving basically nothing from the No. 1 pick in the 2007 Draft, C Greg Oden, whose myriad of injury woes derailed his career and finally forced the Blazers to give up on him last March, at about the same time the franchise decided to discard HC Nate McMillan, who had been in charge since the 2005-06 campaign. Moreover, Portland’s attempt to lure HC Jerry Sloan out of retirement eventually failed, forcing the Blazers to hire fall-back option Terry Stotts, recently a Dallas assistant but whose career win percentage as a head coach (.406) in previous stints with the Bucks and Hawks hardly inspires much confidence. For the first time in a while, however, Portland is flying well under the radar, and several observers applauded the team for matching Minnesota’s offer sheet to keep explosive swingman Nicolas Batum in the fold, and some believe Weber State’s rookie PG Damien Lillard can make an immediate impact. And, for what it’s worth, Stotts is considered a shrewd offensive tactician, which the Blazers have lacked from the sidelines lately. It’s not asking much for Portland to get to the mid 30s, so we’re looking “over” at the Rose Garden.

Where do the Utah Jazz (43 ½) fit into the Northwest equation? Opinion seems mixed among several observers, but we don’t expect the Jazz to regress after making a surprise playoff appearance last spring. Having done a quick reboot after the Carlos Boozer-Deron Williams roster core was disbanded, and longtime HC Jerry Sloan having retired, in recent years, Utah has quickly reassembled a nice nucleus featuring a consistent 20-10 producer in the post with C Al Jefferson, a relentless PF who has emerged as an All-Star caliber force in Paul Millsap, and an emerging 15-17 ppg perimeter scoring threat, versatile ex-Butler star Gordon Hayward, who is fast becoming a nice complement to the strong inside-scoring attack. And after adding useful veteran “Williams” pieces in the offseason such as G Mo and F Marvin (who figure to improve Utah's 3-point shooting, in need of an upgrade after ranking 27th in that category last year), HC Ty Corbin has a deep and functional roster that should return to the postseason. “It’s an “over” for us in Salt Lake City.

SOUTHWEST DIVISION: Mark Cuban’s Dallas Mavericks (42 ½) have been significantly downgraded just two seasons after winning the NBA title, but don’t expect the Mavs to completely disappear from the map as have Gene Chizik’s football Auburn Tigers just two years after their championship. And in Big D, it has nothing to do with the departure of a Cam Newton, or, for that matter, the likely absence of Dirk Nowitzki for at least the first month of the season as he deals with knee issues. That’s because GM Donnie Nelson spent the offseason revamping the roster, signing vet C Chris Kaman from New Orleans, shooting G O.J. Mayo from Memphis, PF Elton Brand after he was amnestied by Philadelphia, and trading for PG Darren Collison from Indiana. Granted, the Mavs are eventually going to need to get Nowitzki back in action to make a playoff push, but as long as big Dirk returns sometime in December, and doesn’t have too many complications thereafter, there should be enough time for the Mavs to salvage something from the campaign. And in that scenario, it’s an “over” for us at American Airlines Center.

The Houston Rockets (30 ½) have swung and missed more often than the hometown Astros in the past year, with potential additions of the likes of Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard each failing to materialize. Now, GM Daryl Morey and HC Kevin McHale have finally connected...perhaps. They’ve swung a deal for the Thunder’s super sixth-man James Harden on the eve of the regular season, and now hope to ink the bearded one to a long-term deal before the Rockets open the season on Wednesday at Detroit. Early indicators are that Harden wants to stay, too, but some insiders also suggest that Harden might instead want a return to his native L.A., and if negotiations hit a snag, this could turn into a short-term rental. Moreover, at the moment, Harden’s addition further complicates what was already a massive Houston overhaul that includes numerous veteran additions (G Jeremy Lin and C Omer Asik foremost among them) and several rookies, although UConn rookie G Jeremy Lamb, along with useful vet sharpshooter Kevin Martin (the only significant holdover from last season), were packaged to Ok City in the Harden deal. Expect McHale to spend the first half of the campaign trying to evaluate and properly distribute minutes, but too many moving parts make an Astros-like debacle a possibility. At least Houston fans have the Texans these days; it’s “under” for us at Toyota Center.

We’re not sure if the Memphis Grizzlies (48 ½) have fully recovered from their Game Seven meltdown at FedEx Forum in the first round of the playoffs vs. the Clippers, or from blowing a 27-point lead in Game One of that series, a result that eventually proved very costly. Assuming there is no hangover, however, the Griz ought to be back in the playoff mix for a third straight year. The only significant offseason departure was 2-G O.J. Mayo, the one component who often had some problems accepting HC Lionel Hollins’ team concepts. Ex-Raptor replacement Jerryd Bayless might prove a better fit in this system. We’re still not sure Memphis has enough backcourt prowess to make a serious title challenge, but the Griz remain among the top of the second-tier crowd with mostly the same cast of characters as a year ago. And if Rudy Gay fulfills his long-promised emergence as a dominant force, maybe the Thunder, Lakers, and Spurs really have something to worry about. We’re looking “over” on Beale Street.

Fortunes might have finally begun to turn for the New Orleans Hornets (27 ½) at the Draft Lottery when their name was pulled ahead of favored Charlotte and others for the right to select Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, who appears to be a can’t-miss franchise player. At the outset, he’ll be operating from a PF spot while ex-Sun Robin Lopez mans the post. While we suspect Davis will quickly emerge as a dominating force, and with another rookie, Duke combo G Austin Rivers, also promising much upside, we also wonder about the wisdom of signing G Eric Gordon, who craves a big-city stage, to a max contract. We’re not sold on the Hornets’ depth, either, and a few injuries (of which the hurt-prone Gordon is always a candidate) could force HC Monty Williams into scramble mode. Next year, we might be looking “over” in the Big Easy, but for now it’s an “under” for us with the Hornets.

Everything seemed to be going to plan for the San Antonio Spurs (55 ½) last season before running into a more-athletic Oklahoma City in the West Finals. Besides the Thunder, however, no one seemed to match up with Gregg Popovich’s team last term, and we don’t foresee a lot of drop-off in the Alamo City. Remember, Coach Pop has made proper adjustments for Tim Duncan’s minutes, and along with GM R.C. Buford had improved depth to the extent that the Spurs won an NBA-best (along with Chicago) 50 games in a shortened and compressed regular-season format that many believed would instead work against San Antonio. But as long as there’s some tread left on the tires of Duncan and fellow triumvirate members Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (whose back spasm issues at the moment aren't considered serious), the Spurs shouldn’t drop too far this season, especially as the likes of last year’s quality additions C Boris Diaw and F Kawhi Leonard get more minutes. That sort of depth and a winning mindset suggest another “over” at AT&T Center.

PACIFIC DIVISION: Looking for a potential sleeper? Try the Golden State Warriors (36 ½), who finally get the return on their investment in February’s big trade with the Bucks, as C Andrew Bogut is ready to go following last season’s ankle injury. Bogut himself might not extricate the Warriors from Lottery-land, but veteran additions G Jarrett Jack and F Carl Landry provide a needed grizzled look to a roster that has been further augmented by North Carolina first-round draft choice Harrison Barnes, who very nicely fills the glaring need at small-forward. Jack’s addition also provides some cover for injury-prone PG Stephen Curry, who (knock on wood) seems beyond last year’s ankle injuries. We’ve noticed that HC Mark Jackson has been quiet after promising a playoff berth last season; we’re not sure Golden State gets there, but the best showing in Oakland since Baron Davis led the 2007 Warriors into the postseason is a distinct possibility. “Over” for us at Oracle Arena.

While most of the attention of the insufferable Hollywood types is once again focused upon the Lakers, we suggest that Jack Nicholson and the rest also consider buying some courtside seats for the Los Angeles Clippers (49 ½). Losing Chauncey Billups until further notice after recent Achilles tendon surgery is hardly a plus, but doesn’t hurt so much since the Clips added Jamal Crawford and Grant Hill in the offseason, and the club already learned it could win without Billups, who also missed much of last season. The bigger deal in Clipper-land was signing Blake Griffin to an extension and the fact Donald Sterling wants to do the same with G Chris Paul, who continues to think about it. Still, as long as Paul and Griffin are on the floor, the Clips can argue they have the best 1-2 punch in the West (Lakers included). There is also the intrigue of recently-added Lamar Odom being motivated to play again after checking out early in last year’s misadventure in Dallas; if Odom is serious, and not inflicted by too much Kardashian-itis, his addition could prove a boon. Khloe, Courtney, and Kim aside, we’re still looking “over” with the Clips.

While everyone seems ready to slot the Los Angeles Lakers (58) back into the NBA Finals for the first time in three years after the high-profile additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, we’re suggesting caution instead. Mainly because Howard (off back surgery), Nash (variety of injuries in recent years), and Kobe Bryant (playing fewer and fewer games each season and already likely to miss early action with foot problems) are going to pace themselves as they gear everything to ramp up for a playoff assault next spring. Which means we could see Mike Brown sacrifice a handful of wins (and maybe more) as he makes sure his stars are healthy and on the court in the postseason...not necessarily in November, December, or January. How the newcomers co-exist with Kobe’s peculiarities also remains to be seen, as more than a few sources say Howard and Bryant are more likely to clash than fit. And at this stage of his career, Nash is going to have to be camouflaged on defense, where he is a distinct liability. Moreover, the introduction of Princeton concepts into the offense threatens to be derailed each time Metta World Peace/Artest decides it’s time for him to fire a long-range bomb, and the preseason record was 0-8. Would Phil Jackson be a better facilitator to help mesh these disparate parts and egos? Just asking. The Lakers should be ready for the playoffs, but we think the win total is more likely in the low, rather than the high, 50s. “Under” for the Lake Show.

The last piece of a once-promising era for the Phoenix Suns (32 ½) has now departed with Steve Nash leaving the desert for the Lakers. Now, HC Alvin Gentry is tasked with molding a different unit from among newcomers including Fs Luis Scola (via Houston) and Michael Beasley (via Minnesota), G Goran Dragic (who returns to the Suns after two years with the Rockets), and North Carolina rookie PG Kendall Marshall. But only Joe Biden and a few others could see hope in so much redistribution of minutes and roles in the wake of Nash’s departure, and too much turnover (only two starters and five of ten rotation players from last season) suggests that Gentry is going to be spending much of the first half of the season figuring out how to distribute minutes while settling upon lineup combinations. Adjustment phases can often be painful; we look “under” at US Airways Center.

We have little sympathy for the Maloofs, who have turned up their noses at a legitimate arena deal being offered to house their Sacramento Kings (30 ½). And they’re not fooling too many NBA insiders, who know that Joe, Gavin, George, Philip, Adrienne and the whole lot (who can be thankful their papa made a fortune from his Coors distributorship in the last century) really want to move to Anaheim, although the Clippers and Lakers are not too keen on sharing their territory. A backup plan for the Maloofs could be the new arena being built in Seattle, where the locals might be willing to cut a real sweetheart deal to bring the NBA back to town after the Sonics bolted for Ok City. Although the league would rather be rid of the Maloofs once and for all, get new owners in place, and take up mayor Kevin Johnson on his arena proposal. Whatever, proving we hold no animosity to the Kings beyond their current ownership, we note some green shoots appearing on the recently-barren Sacto landscape, especially since HC Keith Smart seems much better equipped to relate to tempestuous C DeMarcus Cousins (who can dominate when the mood strikes) than did predecessor Paul Westphal. We also like many of the other pieces on the roster, with electric PG Isaiah Thomas and his energizer bunny act likely to disrupt plenty of backcourts, and Kansas rookie PF Thomas Robinson, appearing to provide a nice complement on the blocks to Cousins. Now, if Smart can light a fuse under Tyreke Evans, the Kings could become an unlikely playoff contender. We’re looking “over” at the now-named Sleep Train Arena (Sleep Train Arena?); with that new arena name, and enduring the Maloofs, the good folks of Sacto deserve something to cheer about this season.


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