NBA Preseason 2012: Top Storylines Entering Exhibition Games
It's been the summer of the Lakers, but—as we all know by now—championships aren't won in July and August.
They aren't won in October either, but this month's preseason schedule will be a crucial first chance to build foundations that will remain strong, well into the postseason.
That's especially true for those Lakers. In addition to welcoming two new future Hall of Fame starters and a handful of new bench players, Los Angeles is integrating new and old faces alike into an offense heavily flavored by Princeton schemes. The man responsible for making it work on the floor is none other than 38-year-old, two-time MVP Steve Nash.
The long-time Lakers foe is now their chemistry coordinator; a leader on the floor every bit as important as Kobe Bryant.
Believe it or not, the Lakers aren't the only storyline heading into preseason competition—sometimes it just feels that way. Here's a look at the most salient underlying narratives coming out of Los Angeles and elsewhere this month.
Lakers This, Lakers That
Following the Los Angeles Lakers' summer has been an exercise in multitasking. There are enough storylines surrounding this team to put all the other NBA storylines out of business.
The most central theme going into preseason competition will be the extent to which the league's most star-studded lineup can develop some chemistry—something that preseason competition should help quite a bit. Of course, whether Dwight Howard can play in any of those games remains uncertain, but his teammates have some adjustments to make, too.
With head coach Mike Brown integrating elements of the Princeton offense into his playbook and Steve Nash now running the show, the preseason is as valuable for the Lakers as any team in the league—with or without Howard playing.
Amid all the transition, questions loom about what will become of Kobe Bryant.
The 34-year-old icon unabashedly dispelled any notion that the Lakers are no longer his team, and yet there's also a very real mandate to keep his minutes in check. With two years remaining on his contract and a very real chance he may retire when it's up, all eyes will be on Kobe this month—as if they're ever looking anywhere else.
Just How Deep Is That Other L.A. Team?
Just how deep are the Los Angeles Clippers?
We'll begin to find out as preseason contests get underway, but those on the roster already have a pretty strong opinion (via the Los Angeles Times' Broderick Turner):
"As far as being deep all the way through, it'll be the deepest team that I've ever played for," said [Clippers guard Chauncey] Billups, a 15-year veteran who has played on seven NBA teams.
Billups isn't alone in that belief (via ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi):
"No," [Clippers forward Lamar] Odom said Friday when asked if he has ever been on a team as deep as this season's Clippers. "I've been on good teams. I've been on a team that went to the finals three years in a row. You have to be pretty good to get to the finals. But championships aren't won by just talking about a team and looking at a roster. We've all seen good rosters before and teams that we think should win, but this team is built to compete against the best teams in the NBA."
Lamar Odom has certainly done his part to improve the roster's depth, though it remains to be seen how thoroughly he'll rebound from a disastrous partial campaign with the Dallas Mavericks (though you can assume being back in L.A. is a step in the right direction).
The good news for the Clippers, however, is that their second unit's fortunes don't depend on Odom alone. The organization also added Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Ronny Turiaf and Willie Green to a bench squad that also features third-year guard Eric Bledsoe.
There's a lot of talent and experience there, but there's also no telling how it will all fit together. That's where the preseason will be both useful and illustrative for the Clippers.
On paper, though, this should indeed become one of the league's very deepest teams. There are scorers, strong defenders, size in the paint and length on the wing. With such an improved arsenal comes plenty of pressure on head coach Vinny Del Negro to make the most of it and produce some results, namely a trip to the Western Conference finals.
Can the Chicago Bulls Stay Afloat Without Rose?
The Chicago Bulls don't need to play like a contender between now and Derrick Rose's return—they just need to play like a playoff team.
If head coach Tom Thibodeau's resilient squad can hold onto a decent spot in the standings, this club will head into the postseason with a healthy star point guard and plenty of confidence. Getting to that point starts now.
This roster has enough talent to hang in there, but it also has a number of new pieces replacing key (departed) role players like Omer Asik, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson. In their places, you'll find Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Nazr Mohammed, Kyrylo Fesenko and point guard Marquis Teague.
Wherever you stand in terms of comparing this season's depth to last, the Bulls still have a darn good team.
But this is a team that desperately needs leadership and self-starting scorers at the moment. Preseason games will serve as an excellent opportunity for guys like Luol Deng, Carol Boozer and Richard Hamilton to assert themselves in those capacities, and they'll also give some of the newcomers a chance to see where they fit in.
Chicago could have easily opted to mail it in this season and start thinking about the future, but that didn't happen. With a still-meaningful season on the line, these Rose-less Bulls will have a busy October.
Will the Knicks Get More out of Carmelo and Amar'e?
The New York Knicks will spend much of their October just trying to assimilate all the new role players they brought in this summer, including starting point guard Raymond Felton, his backup Jason Kidd (injured), swingman Ronnie Brewer and big men Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace.
But the bigger story remains what becomes of stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.
This club's depth will certainly help, but the difference-makers remain those frontcourt scorers. The ongoing narrative has, of course, been that they can't play together; that their preferred spots on the floor are redundant and that their styles of play are incompatible. Though there's certainly some truth to the concerns, the notion that this is an insurmountable problem is entirely premature.
Stoudemire spent his offseason working with post-legend Hakeem Olajuwon, honing his skills so that he can be more effective in a half-court game and rely less heavily on high-post pick-and-roll (or pop) situations. If successful, those are the kind of adjustments that should make Anthony's life easier—allowing him more space to operate around the elbow and allowing the Knicks offense to operate at a more Anthony-friendly pace.
Of course, this isn't just about placating 'Melo.
New York also needs Stoudemire to be on top of his game, approximating the production he yielded in his first season with the Knicks (and doing so outside Mike D'Antoni's system). Head coach Mike Woodson has a deeper roster this time around, but he doesn't have a clear-cut third scoring option, and that puts the onus on Amar'e to make a significant impact as the second option.
Are the 2011-12 Conference Finalists Poised to Return?
With all the attention centering around the adjustments those teams in New York and Los Angeles made, it's easy to forget that none of them actually played in the conference finals last season.
Maybe that's why they made so many of those adjustments.
Meanwhile, the clubs that were in the conference finals have taken two very different paths to returning. In the East, Boston and Miami have tweaked their rosters here and there while fundamentally relying on the same core. The changes are more drastic for the Celtics, who lost Ray Allen while adding Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green and rookies Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo.
Boston's loss (which may not have been a loss at all in the final analysis) was, of course, Miami's gain; an important free-agent signing for a club that otherwise had a relatively quiet offseason. The bigger changes for the Heat may have to do with their game plan, especially with Chris Bosh spending more time at the 5 and LeBron James more minutes at the 4.
With an even bigger target on the reigning champion's back, it's important that the Heat continues to evolve and stay ahead of the pack.
It goes without saying, though, that head coach Erik Spoelstra is also reluctant to fix something that's clearly not broken. He'll no doubt attempt to strike that balance before the regular season is fully underway.
In the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs reminded the rest of the NBA why they're so different.
Neither made any significant moves, instead focusing their summers on retaining talent. For San Antonio, that meant hanging on to Tim Duncan and role players Boris Diaw, Danny Green and Patty Mills. For OKC, it meant working out an extension with Serge Ibaka and attempting to do the same with James Harden.
Will the East tweak its way to another victory, or will the West prove slow and steady wins the race? With clubs like the Lakers, Clippers, Bulls, Knicks and Nets all poised to join the fray, will these four teams even be back?
Preseason games won't answer that, but they will give us a much-anticipated hint of what's to come.
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