The season is fast-approaching and most previews will mention Kobe Bryant, Derrick Favors and Kevin Durant as being the pinnacle of NBA players that will help shape their respective teams’ destinies. OK, strike that. Most won’t mention Favors, but I certainly will.
I’ll hit up Western Conference players in this post that will be just as vital as the stars for how well or bad their team fares. Remember, the term “success” here is all relative. *cough*Kings*cough*.
Dallas Mavericks: Darren Collison
Jason Kidd is gone. Deron Williams never came. So, it’ll be up to Collison to prove that the point guard position for the Mavs is still a strong element in their game. It wasn’t long ago that Collison averaged 18.8 points and 9.1 dimes in 37 games as a starter during the 2009-10 season. If he can come close to those numbers, Mark Cuban and other Mavs fans will be ecstatic. A good pick-and-roll player, Collison will have to wait a bit before he does his thing with Dirk Nowitzki, but when it goes down, it’s going to be nice.
Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried
Can the Manimal do it again and show why he’s so good? After averaging 11.0 points and 8.2 boards in only 25 minutes per contest in 39 games as a starter last season, Faried will once again start at the four, but with a little more experience and expectations behind him. If given true starter minutes, which he should get with Anthony Randolph backing him up, Faried can easily beast out a double-double and do well defensively on hustle alone. JaVale McGee comes in a close second here.
Golden State Warriors: Andrew Bogut
OK, really the answer here is Stephen Curry’s ankle, but enough has been written about that. The oft-injured Bogut is justifiably the pick here too since the Warriors essentially traded Monta Ellis for him, hoping that they finally have that impact big on both sides of the court. The Ws are hoping for a return to double-double numbers to go along with a couple of blocks for Bogut, while also being that post presence on offense that will create a lot of open looks for Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes.
Houston Rockets: Jeremy Lin
Everyone around the world, particularly the New York Knicks and their fans, want to know if Lin can re-create the magic that was Linsanity. I don’t think so, but I think he’ll be very good and the Knicks will regret letting him go. In any case, as seemingly passive as Lin is, there has to be a fire within him that will want to prove the Knicks and his critics wrong. Right?
Los Angeles Clippers: Lamar Odom
Dallas didn’t work out so much for Odom, but he returns to Los Angeles where he certainly feels more comfortable — only he won’t be doing his thing with the Lakers, but the up-and-coming Clippers. The only problem? Odom came into camp fatter than Kim Kardashian’s booty. Yeah, I know, easy joke. Nonetheless, it wasn’t too long ago that Odom was the NBA Sixth Man of the Year and an important component to the Lakers getting rings. If he can get back in shape and focus solely on basketball, the Clippers will reap a lot of reward. They still probably won’t get past the Lakers, but they’ll have a better shot of it.
Los Angeles Lakers: Dwight Howard
It’s kind of silly to pick a superstar here, but Howard’s back and the media nightmare that happened the past year is pretty hard to ignore. Plus, that back really is an issue to consider, especially since he’ll be facing a lot of defenders in the post giving him elbows trying to deny him the block and the ball. It should be interesting as D12’s health will be an important factor in the Forum Blue and Gold getting another ring before Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash are another year older.
Memphis Grizzlies: Zach Randolph
Randolph missed 38 games at the beginning of last season. When he came back he was a shadow of his former self, dipping from 20.1 points and 12.2 rebounds to last season’s 11.6 points and 8.0 rebounds. A lot of that had to do with coming back from a knee injury and not being in top shape. Or at least top Z-Bo shape. If he can return to 20/10 form and stay healthy, the Grizzlies will make some real noise in the West if the other players such as Mike Conley, Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol continue to do well.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Brandon Roy
Roy didn’t play at all last season and most thought he would never play again, which was a shame because of how great he was his first five seasons. However, he dedicated himself to coming back and the T-Wolves are giving him that shot. He’s the likely starting shooting guard, but it’ll be interesting to see how healthy he stays and how productive. If he can produce even 80 percent of his career numbers (19.0 points, 4.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds) in limited minutes, many will be claiming success and redemption for B-Roy.
New Orleans Hornets: Eric Gordon
Many will speak enough about Anthony Davis, so we go with EJ and his full comeback from injury here. Also, there’s a question about his desire to play with the team after telling the franchise he really wanted to go to the Phoenix Suns during the free agency period. He’s a solid foundation to build upon with Davis and should succeed, health willing.
Oklahoma City Thunder: James Harden
The Beard Watch is officially on! How will Harden come back this season, knowing that there are really only two possibilities: 1) re-sign with the team long-term or 2) get traded at the deadline. I highly doubt the latter happens and the franchise and Harden work it out somehow during next offseason, but you have to wonder if the team re-upping with Serge Ibaka and lessening the chances of re-signing Harden hurt his feelings to some degree. It had to at least been a blow to his ego, and if so, how much does that affect him on the court?
Phoenix Suns: Goran Dragic
Can it really be anyone else? Steve Nash gets traded to the Lakers and Dragic is signed as a free agent to take his spot. How will Dragic do in his return to the Suns? They’re hoping that it’s much the same as when Nash returned after some time with the Mavs.
Portland Trail Blazers: Nicolas Batum
When he’s not punching opponents in the junk, Batum shows flashes of brilliance on the court and the Blazers are now paying him as such after the Timberwolves tried to sign him away during the offseason. With Gerald Wallace, Brandon Roy and Jamal Crawford no longer around to keep him down, Batum is given the starting three position with no one to take his minutes. Can he still produce with higher expectations and reliance on him?
Sacramento Kings: Tyreke Evans
Once upon a time, the Kings were Reke’s team without any question. Then something happened and just like Kevin Johnson hearing the Maloofs back out from a deal to keep the team in Sactown, I’m not entirely sure what. However, the ambiguity aside, Evans seems to be taking the hit and rolling with the punches, especially with the Kings reportedly not likely to offer him an extension. How the mighty have fallen. It’s up to Evans to pick himself up and play hard, if not for the sake of the Kings, for the sake of a big contract somewhere else.
San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard
Gregg Popovich said that Leonard would be the future of the franchise and whatever Pop says is as credible as The Dude abiding. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a second-year player, but Leonard has the skills, physicality and most importantly, the veteran leadership around him to make it happen. Can he rise up to the challenge? If he does, look for another strong Spurs run during the season and perhaps pulling off a surprise during the postseason.
Utah Jazz: Derrick Favors
Coming into the league, Favors was all upside. Some were saying he’d be the next Karl Malone, which is crazy to say, especially since a John Stockton clone doesn’t exist and hasn’t since he left the NBA. However, he has the body, explosion and work ethic to be something like the Mailman. A clerk at your local postal office at the least. However, Paul Millsap, a free agent-to-be is in the way from Favors delivering on his potential that saw him average 12.2 points and 9.3 rebounds in nine games as a starter in only 29 minutes. If he continues to show production over potential, the Jazz could very well send Millsap somewhere else.