After months of inactivity; the Association took off at warp-speed on December 9, in order to get the regular season up and running this Sunday. During the last two-plus weeks; a combination of Free Agency, trades and injuries have changed the fortunes of many teams in the NBA. As Christmas Day and the start of the regular season rapidly approaches, we have witnessed some perennial doormats turn into potential contenders; while some of the elite teams of the past few have definitely taken steps backwards. Let’s explore some of the clubs who have made some of the most dramatic transformations since the end of last season:
On The Rise:
Los Angeles Clippers: After Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers, he told reporters that he wanted to see his new team’s jerseys all over the city of Los Angeles. He may soon get his wish as the club has created a buzz throughout the Association. The team goes into the regular season with a starting lineup of Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. During their first preseason game against the Lakers, they looked like a veteran squad. The team has a very tradeable asset in former starting point guard Mo Williams, leaving young talented Eric Bledsoe on the bench. If this team does not make the Playoffs, head coach Vinny Del Negro could very well be on the hot-seat.
New York Knicks: The Knickerbockers have arguably assembled the strongest starting front-court in the NBA by adding Free Agent center Tyson Chandler to the tandem of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. What remains to be seen is how quickly veteran point guard Baron Davis can recover from pain due to bulging discs in his back and can Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby handle the floor-general duties until he is able to play. If they can get the rock to one of their big men and be complimented by some outside shooting from Landry Fields; New York could win the Atlantic Division Title this season.
Minnesota Timberwolves: The T-Wolves have a lot of talent on their roster and for the first time since they dismissed Flip Saunders they have a legitimate NBA coach in Rick Adelman. Lots of unanswered questions with this squad though: Can Kevin Love improve on his breakout season last year? Will Ricky Rubio fulfill the promise that the T-Wolves saw in him when they drafted him a few years ago? Will Michael Beasley stay on the straight and narrow? Can the club trade some of its surplus of guards for help in other positions?
Indiana Pacers: Frank Vogel will be on the bench as head coach for his first full campaign after taking the Pacers to the Playoffs last season. His club got a major upgrade at the power forward position when they inked veteran David West to a deal putting Tyler Hansbrough on the bench for much-needed depth. West will team up with Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert to give Indiana a formidable trio in their starting lineup. West is reunited with former Hornets teammate Darren Collison; a talented young point guard that New Orleans most likely wish they had never traded. Very well-rounded roster.
Chicago Bulls: On paper the Bulls maybe the closest thing to a complete team heading into the campaign. If Rip Hamilton still has mileage left he will be the solution to the club’s problems at the two-guard slot. I am still not convinced that Joakim Noah can be in the middle of a Championship starting five, however if Deng and Boozer stay healthy this team will be dangerous.
Charlotte Bobcats: After making the Playoffs in 2010, the Bobcats disassembled that squad and are basically in rebuilding mode. They got two players in the draft with huge upside in forward Bismack Biyombo and point guard Kemba Walker. Bobcats bench boss Paul Silas was LeBron James first coach in Cleveland, and perhaps the coach he has most respected playing for in the Association. This team is unlikely to make the Post-Season, but they are laying a good foundation for the future.
On The Decline:
Boston Celtics: If the Celtics window of opportunity remains open it may only be due to faulty weather-stripping. They head into the regular season opener against the Knicks with All-Star forward Paul Pierce doubtful for the contest with a bruised right heel. The player who was designated to be his backup Jeff Green is out for the year after undergoing heart surgery earlier this month. Sasha Pavlovic or Marquis Daniels will get the start as well as the challenge of guarding Carmelo Anthony. Boston goes into the campaign with Jermaine O’Neal at the pivot backed up by two players who have either limited or no experience playing in the Association, both in their mid-twenties. The Big Three and Rajon Rondo will all have to play at an All-Star level for the Celtics to be legit contenders this season.
Los Angeles Lakers: Mike Brown would have had it tough enough following a Hall Of Fame head coach in his first year as coach of the Lakers; however now he has to deal with the aftermath of the aborted deal to acquire Chris Paul from the Hornets. Lamar Odom has been traded to the Mavericks after his feelings got hurt, leaving Troy Murphy or Josh McRoberts to backup Pau Gasol or fill in when center Andrew Bynum gets hurt. Kobe heads into the season with a torn ligament in his wrist, but will most likely start on Sunday. At the point, Derek Fisher is nearing the end of a long and succesful career; while Steve Blake is not going to be feared by many opponents.
Dallas Mavericks: Shawn Marion complained that the Dallas Mavericks were not getting the respect due to a defending NBA Champion. The veteran forward is correct in his assessment; the problem is that the squad that won the NBA Finals no longer exists. Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler are all gone and with them most likely any hopes that the Mavericks can compete. Is Dallas simply clearing salary cap space to try to sign or trade for a big name player; or is it that the front office has decided to take the cheap route now that they won their Championship as many Mavericks fans believe?
Portland Trail Blazers: The leader on and off the court for the Blazers All-Star guard Brandon Roy retired far too early due to knee problems earlier this month; nipping a once promising career in the bud. Free Agent Jamal Crawford will help fill the scoring void, but not the leadership role that B-Roy played on this club.
Denver Nuggets: The “Little Team That Could” that delighted Nuggets fans after the trade that sent Anthony and Billups to the Knicks last season suffered a lot of defections during the Lockout; as J.R. Smith, Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin all signed to play in China this season. Although Martin has severed ties with his Chinese team, he is barred from playing in the NBA until March due to his contract. Raymond Felton is off to Portland traded for George Karl favorite Andre Miller who will backup Ty Lawson. Denver far surpassed what most NBA observers thought they would do after the trade last season; can they once again defy expectations with a depleted roster?