With the dust mostly settled on this offseason’s player movement — and there was a whole lot of it this year — it’s time to take stock of all the fascinating new faces in new places, as well as the more compelling stories of players who will face new challenges while sticking around. Over the course of the next few weeks, Andrew Unterberger will do a team-by-team look at the most interesting players going into next season — one new to the team, and one returning — as we all try to pass the dog days of NBA-less summer, dreaming of hoops-filled months to come. The series continues today with the teams in the Pacific Division: the Warriors, Lakers, Clippers, Suns and Kings.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Most Interesting New Player: Jermaine O’Neal
JO might be kind of a tough sell for most interesting on a team that made a much more obvious big-budget acquisition this offseason, but I feel like I know what Andre Iguodala is going to give the Warriors this season — not an inconsiderable contribution, mind you, but I’d be surprised if he greatly deviated from my expectations in any way. O’Neal, however, could play more of a swing role on this team than people realize. He’ll go into the season with a decent shot at the Dubs’ backup center role, unless Festus Ezeli’s shoulder heals and he actually learns how to catch the ball or put it in the basket in the offseason, and he was sneaky good in that role last year for Phoenix, averaging 16 and 10 per 36 minutes (though he only played about half that on a nightly basis) and posting his best PER, by far, since he was on the pre-LeBron Heat.
More importantly, he might end up doing a whole lot more than playing backup if — and based on recent history, more like when — Andrew Bogut goes down with injury. Bogie’s missed double-digit games each of the last five seasons, and over half his games each of the last two, so it’s a relatively safe bet that there’ll be stretches where O’Neal, assuming he stays healthy himself (no easy assumption given he’s missed nearly as many games as Bogut over the last six years), gets pressed into far more than locker-room-leadership duty. Is it too late for Jermaine O’Neal to play a key-ish role on a championship contender? Or will GSW be forced to say “to hell with rim protection,” stick David Lee at center and go bombs away with the rest of their lineup? Maybe the latter is the likelier bet, but I haven’t given up on JO just yet.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Harrison Barnes
Barnesy recently ranked at No. 40 on SB Nation’s projected list of the Top 40 NBA Players of 2017, higher than both young studs like Larry Sanders and Damian Lillard and current superstars like Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker, basically entirely off the strength of his playoff run, in which he averaged 16 and six with decent shooting numbers and a number of big buckets. But it’s worth remembering that in the regular season last year, Barnes was basically a no-show, averaging less than 10 a game and posting a PER that barely cracked double digits, and that next season, he might not even be starting, with the acquisition of Andre Iguodala and the continued presence of David Lee (and the big contracts of both) possibly blocking him in the first five.
To get to be a Top 40 player four years from now, Barnes is gonna have to build on his playoff success — and as much as that run seemed like a breakout for Barnes, he still basically averaged his same shooting percentages from the regular season, with a fairly mediocre 13.8 PER — and prove that his 3-and-D skills are too integral to the Warriors’ run-and-gun attack for him not to get big minutes. And if not, expect for Barnes’ name to replace Eric Bledsoe’s as the go-to Intriguing Trade Chip in every blockbuster mega-deal rumor you hear from now until the end of his rookie deal.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Most Interesting New Player: Darren Collison
After three team changes in just four years of his still-young NBA career, Darren Collison ends up right back where he started: backing up Chris Paul on a playoff team. The first time around, it didn’t go so well, but that wasn’t Collison’s fault — Paul got injured halfway through DC’s first season with the Hornets, and DC put up such excellent stats as his replacement in the starting lineup that he seemingly played his way out of being a backup, but the Hornets still lost a bunch, and before the next season, he was traded to the Pacers in a deal that brought back Trevor Ariza. Two teams later, it seems that Collison has disproved that initial conclusion, and that in fact maybe he is best as a change-of-pace backup guard, so now he gets to play that role uncontested on the most talented roster he’s ever been a part of. (Unless, of course, CP3 goes down again, knock on wood.)
By the way, have you recently looked at those stats Collison posted as the New Orleans starter four years ago? Probably not, but they were just unreal — 19 points and nine assists a game on 49 percent shooting and 43 percent from deep — though he did turn the ball over about four times a game. Still, pretty incredible that the guy did that over the course of nearly half a season (37 games), just four years ago, and without anything really changing in his game except the way coaches and fans perceive him. His advanced stats last year were practically identical to that of his rookie campaign, but he’s back to career backup duty and minimum contracts. He really could have been the steal of the offseason for the Clippers.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Blake Griffin
Chris Paul thinks so, Doc Rivers thinks so, I think so. It’s amazing how quickly Blake has gone from being the league’s most electrifying player to occasionally being an afterthought on his own team. I want to be excited about Blake Griffin again, dammit, and though I’m not sure what it’ll take for that to happen, exactly — hopefully Doc’ll have something to do with it — I still feel like no matter how many mid-level upgrades the Clips made in the offseason, it’s Blake Griffin just tearing through the league in his senior season that’ll make the difference between them being a first or second-round out and them being a legit title contender. I really, really hope he gets back there. You can only watch Blake get swallowed up in the playoffs so many times before it starts to become legitimately concerning.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Most Interesting New Player: Wesley Johnson
Is it ridiculous to believe that Wesley Johnson isn’t beyond saving? I always felt like he was a couple made threes — OK, maybe more than a couple — from being a potential contributor on those Wolves teams, and though maybe only five people in the greater Arizona area noticed, he came on a little — OK, almost a little — at the end of the Suns season, averaging about 14 a game on not-disastrous shooting numbers over their last 15 games. In any event, he’s still young-ish, he’s still athletic, but if a rangy swing player with Wesley’s particular skill set can’t put up numbers in LA, he’ll probably be following in his fellow Syracuse flame-out Jonny Flynn’s footsteps to Australia by this time next year.
I dunno, I still like Wesley Johnson for some reason. I want good things for him. Go down swinging at least, Young-ish Wes.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Kobe Bryant
Yeah, tough call between Kobe and Jodie Meeks, but for sentimentality’s sake I guess I’ll give it to ol’ No. 24. When will Kobe be back? Will he be Classic Kobe, or some weird new recipe that leaves a weird syrupy taste in fans’ mouths? Will he still insist on playing point guard, reducing Steve Nash to eye-rolling spot-up shooter? Will he decide the whole “team” thing is a lost cause anyway and go into stat-padding mode for the whole season? Will he still play 40+ minutes a game every night? Will he actually physically decompose on the court while trying to drag the team into the playoffs, like in that super-uncomfortable final scene in “Death Becomes Her?” Or will he just give up on this season altogether, take the time to rehab properly, and allow the team to tank for the Next Laker Superstar in the upcoming draft.
Probably not that last one, anyway. But there sure are a lot of other scenarios at play for Mr. Bean this upcoming season, and as always with Kobe, it’ll be fascinating to see which way he ends up going.
Most Interesting New Player: Alex Len
Lotta solid choices here, from fellow rookie (and Summer League standout) Archie Goodwin to minorly intriguing Pacer pick-ups Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green to, of course, blockbuster trade acquisition Eric Bledsoe. Still, Len’s the guy I really wanna see in action — the only games I saw of him in college last year were apparently the only games where he was all that good, but he was pretty dominant in those, blocking shots, moving and finishing well, and even showing a little touch down low, especially in that early season game against Kentucky were he basically owned Nerlens Noel. Was that game (and some other stuff) reason enough for the Suns to be the fifth and final team to pass on Noel in the draft last year? Dunno, but if he’s the same guy that I saw in that limited exposure last year, he could be a real centerpiece of the long rebuild to redemption currently underway in the Valley of the Sun.
And hey, now he’s even on pace to begin the season with Phoenix! Len’s presence might be the difference between the Suns being an early-season League Pass sleeper and one of the match-ups where good LP teams go to die, so I’m pulling for that speedy recovery.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Goran Dragic
Poor, poor Goran. He just can’t seem to hold on to that uncontested starting job. After serving out his point guard apprenticeship period under Steve Nash in Phoenix, he split duties with Kyle Lowry in Houston, then finally seemed to get that long-overdue promotion to unequivocal starter when he signed that four-year deal to return to the post-Nash Suns last year. And even though most people would point to Dragic’s play last year as a bright spot for the Suns — he led the team in points, assists, PER and Win Shares — when GM Ryan McDonagh saw an opportunity to land young stud point Eric Bledsoe at minimal cost to the team’s future, he couldn’t resist creating another PG controversy for Dragic. Hard to blame him, but it’s probably a bummer for Goran, and that guy always looks kinda pouty to begin with.
Of course, Bledsoe’s insertion doesn’t necessarily mean a demotion for Dragic, as the Suns seem to be contemplating a two-point system (BACKCOURT 2013!), which at least would make the Suns a more exciting watch, even if it might lead to some interesting ball-handling dilemmas and defensive mismatches. It seems unlikely to me that both will be in Phoenix long term, and the impossibly high-upside Bledsoe seems the more likely candidate to be the keeper. I hope Dragic can at least play well enough this year to make that a controversial decision for Phoenix though, and maybe play his trade value into a new role for a team that properly appreciates him.
Most Interesting New Player: Greivis Vasquez
You know you have to go back to the turn of the millennium to find a player on the Sacramento Kings who averaged more than seven assists a game for a season? Jason Williams averaged 7.3 back in 99-00, and since then, the only player to average even six a game is when Mike Bibby dimed 6.8 a contest in 04-05. In 2012, Tyreke Evans led the team with 4.5 a game, and last year, Isiah Thomas led the squad with a whopping 4.0 a game. Sharing has not exactly been caring in Sactown lately, and you’d have a tough time saying the team has been better off for it.All of this is to say that Greivis Vasquez, who averaged nine assists a game and led the entire league in total assists last year, might be something of a breath of fresh air for Kings fans. He doesn’t have the starting job firmly won from Isiah Thomas yet, but I have to imagine that once the Kings get a little taste of actual pure point guard distribution, it’s gonna be too intoxicating for them to go back to a hybrid like Lil Zeke. They’ll probably still be terrible, but it’ll be a more communal form of terrible, and that’ll be nice.
Most Interesting Returning Player: DeMarcus Cousins
A make-or-break year for DeMarcus, though he might have five more of them before all is said and done. But hey, new coach, new GM, new ownership, a real point guard, no more Tyreke — fresh starts won’t come much fresher for DMC, at least not in Sacramento, so now would certainly seem to be the time for him to make the most of it. At the very least, now would be a good year to cut down on the techs, ejections, coach feuds, team suspensions, announcer confrontations, testicle punches and referee gender slurs, to prove that even if he may or may not live up to his contract on the court, he won’t be 100 percent toxic off of it. It’s not too late to start the second act of your career, DeMarcus. It’s gotta be more fun than the first.