After an offseason ranging anywhere from six months (for non-playoff teams) to four (for the NBA Finalists), the first day of the NBA season is a lot like the first day of school. Every team in the league is like a classmate you have known for years - even if you don’t particularly like them, you are still curious what they have been up to over the summer and whether they have changed in their time away. There’s excitement and hope in the air as everyone gets a fresh start, even if you know most will return to their old patterns of behavior soon enough.
With that in mind, here’s a look at one thing that’s changed and one that hasn’t with every team in the NBA, starting with the Southwest Division.
San Antonio Spurs
What’s changed: Playoff LaMarcus
After nine seasons with the Blazers where he didn’t get a chance to make a lot of deep playoff runs, Aldridge is going to a team that plays deep into May and June on an annual basis. What that means is a lot of seven-game series where he is matched up 1-on-1 with the best PF’s in the world. LaMarcus vs. Blake. LaMarcus vs. Anthony Davis. LaMarcus vs. Draymond Green. LaMarcus vs. Serge Ibaka. Now that he is playing next to Tim Duncan, LaMarcus is going to have to guard the best perimeter-oriented big men and they are going to have to guard him. There’s going to be nowhere for anyone to hide on either side of the ball.
If there’s going to be a last stand for the two post offense in the modern NBA, it should be a team that can feature two 7’0 capable of scoring with their back to the basket (check), that can control tempo, play high-low and get both guys the ball in the right spots on the floor (check) and can spread the floor with enough shooters to make teams pay for doubling and crowding the paint (check). The adjustment process between a ball-dominant star like Aldridge and San Antonio’s ball-movement heavy offense won’t always be smooth but it should create some really compelling storylines in the playoffs.
What hasn’t: Aging guards
Maybe the craziest thing about Duncan’s longevity is that he is aging better than Tony Parker, the guy who was supposed to take over the reigns of the franchise when Duncan was out of the league. That’s the difference between being a 7’0 who depends on size and a 6’0 who depends on speed. Parker didn’t look like himself in the playoffs, where he averaged 11 points a game on 38% shooting, or at Eurobasket, where he often looked like he was playing in mud. For all the re-tooling the Spurs have done in their frontcourt, they are going to need their guards to find the Fountain of Youth if they are going to make it through the Western Conference gauntlet.
What’s changed: More depth
The Rockets won’t just be the James Harden show this time around. They are stacked with athletes at every position on the floor - their second unit is Patrick Beverley, Marcus Thornton, Corey Brewer, Donatas Motiejunas and Clint Capela and that doesn’t even count Jason Terry and intriguing young guys like KJ McDaniels and Sam Dekker. They should have the pedal to the medal for all 48 minutes and they should be able to run older and slower teams off the floor. I expect Kevin McHale to stagger minutes so that either Harden or Ty Lawson is always in the game and they will each be given the keys to one of the best offenses in the league. They have elite playmakers, tons of guys who shoot 3’s and plenty of big men who can run the floor and finish. They should be hard to stop and fun to watch.
What hasn’t: The match-up with the Warriors
All roads in the West go through Golden State and there’s a reason the Warriors went 8-1 against the Rockets last season. They have a center with the size to bang with Dwight Howard, they have a ton of long and athletic wing defenders they can put on Harden and there’s nowhere to hide a weak defender on the perimeter against them. For as much as Ty Lawson can improve Houston, he’s not a great match-up against a Golden State team that ruthlessly attacked his defense in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.
There was nowhere the Nuggets could hide Lawson - Steph Curry and Klay Thompson shot over him like he was a chair and Harrison Barnes could take him in the post whenever he wanted. That dynamic hasn’t really changed. The best chance for the Rockets in a potential rematch of the Western Conference Finals would be to get more out of the power forward position. The problem is that Terrence Jones couldn’t do anything against Draymond Green last season and seven-footers better than Donatas Motiejunas haven’t been able to exploit the Warriors lack of size either.
What’s changed: Mike Conley’s standing in the league
Conley has always been every hipster’s favorite point guard in the Western Conference, the guy who was under the radar because he didn’t put up the biggest stats or have the flashiest game or play in the biggest market. That changed in last season’s playoffs, when he ripped up Damian Lillard in the first round and then came back from a broken face in the second round to push Golden State to the limit. Because he plays at a slow pace in a halfcourt offense next to two traditional big men, he’s never going to put up the huge daily fantasy numbers that attracts attention in the regular season. If there’s any justice in the world, though, he should be in line to take Lillard’s place at the All-Star Game, given Portland’s likely descent in the standings.
What hasn’t: The search for a wing
Ever since they emerged on the scene in 2011, the Grizzlies have been searching for the final piece on the perimeter that will push them over the top. They need a wing player who can create his own shot, spread the floor and play high-level defense. Rudy Gay was supposed to be that guy, but he was too ball-dominant and too inefficient. For as great as Tony Allen is on defense, his lack of shooting always catches up to them in the playoffs. Courtney Lee is a good player but he’s better as a complementary piece. Vince Carter might have been that guy five years ago. They got Matt Barnes but he’s 35 and he was starting to look over the hill last season in Los Angeles. While I’m interested to see what second-year guard Jordan Adams has, I wonder how many minutes will really be available for him behind so many vets in Memphis.
New Orleans Pelicans
What’s changed: Anthony Davis at the 5
Alvin Gentry has mostly been talking about changing the Pelicans schemes and their style of play but my question with any new coach is whether they make any changes to the rotation. The personnel you put on the floor dictates everything else you do. Gentry saw the benefits of going small first-hand in Golden State and he coached against New Orleans in a first-round series where Omer Asik could barely get on the floor because the Warriors didn’t guard him. At some point, he’s going to have to go Davis at the 5 and see how far it takes him.
The easiest way to unleash a big man in the modern NBA is to put more speed and shooting around him and allow him to play in more space. If Davis is going to be the MVP, it’s because he’s putting up monstrous numbers as the lone big man in a 4-out offense and he’s anchoring the defense to where they can at least survive without a lot of size on the floor. The real question is whether their best line-ups will feature him with a stretch 4 like Ryan Anderson, a more traditional PF like Dante Cunningham or going super-small and sliding a wing like Quincy Pondexter down a spot.
What hasn’t: Jrue Holiday’s health
The decision to trade two lottery picks for Jrue Holiday in 2013 was where most observers began to turn on the Pelicans' front office. The real problem for New Orleans is that Holiday hasn’t been healthy since. With Holiday on a tight minute restriction at the start of the season and the 76ers having to fork over millions of dollars for lying about his health, there’s a chance that never changes. The shame is that Holiday is one of the most talented two-way guards in the NBA and he’d be a perfect complement to Davis on both sides of the ball. If New Orleans is going to take the next step, they are going to need Holiday to be the All-Star caliber guard they thought they were getting two years ago.
What’s changed: Pure 4-out basketball
If there’s any chance of the Mavs exceeding expectations this season, it’s from the backcourt duo of Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews staying healthy and providing far more three-point shooting than they got from Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis. The Mavs four best players are all volume long-range shooters who can stretch the floor, which should make the game easier for everyone else, particularly their motley collection of C’s. Playing in space in the NBA is like playing at Coors Field in MLB and no coach in the league does a better job of putting guys in a place to succeed than Rick Carlisle. In a best-case scenario, the Mavs are playing beautiful basketball on a nightly basis and far exceeding the sum of their parts.
What hasn’t: Dirk’s defense
Defense was never a strength of Dirk Nowitzki’s game when he was in his prime, much less when is in his late 30’s and barely capable of getting up and down the floor. It’s going to be so much worse without Tyson Chandler because he allowed the Mavs to slide Dirk on to the weaker of the opposing big men almost every night, regardless of the match-up. Any team that can get offense from their PF and their C is going to give Dallas a lot of trouble because the only way to hide Dirk on defense is to put him on someone who can’t score, which doesn’t even get into the problem he poses when it comes to guarding the pick-and-roll. If there’s a point where no amount of offensive genius can make up for a complete inability to defend, Dirk is rapidly approaching it.