As we approach the opening tip of the 2016-17 NBA regular season, The Shadow League looks at every one of the league’s six divisions and the players who will make this year an unforgettable one. Today, we examine what's soon to be popping in the division where KD has joined forces with the Warriors in search of his first title.
Predicted order of finish:
1. Golden State Warriors – I know, I know: Golden State finishing at the top of the Pacific Division is a bold prediction, but they add Zaza Pachulia over the summer. Seriously though, who saw it coming?
Seeing Kevin Durant in a Warriors uniform still almost doesn’t make sense. Not because the former MVP joined the team he wanted to go to in Free Agency (which he had EVERY right to do). But if you told me last season that a team that won 73 games and was one Draymond Green crotch attack too many from winning back-to-back NBA titles would somehow get (drastically) better, I’d turn into Stephen A. Smith so quick and tell you to stay off the WEE-EE-ee-duh.
Hate to join the peanut gallery, but their death lineup is one of the greatest lineups in NBA history. I can’t think of one where when it comes to NBA All Star game appearances, NBA Titles and Olympic gold everyone has at least two out of three. That’s crazy. The center (Green) can play point guard, the point guard (Steph Curry) warms up from 35-feet, and everyone else in-between can either light it up, lock down on defense or both.
Won’t say they’re going to win the NBA championship. We’ve seen super teams lose before and it’s a long way from June. But I’d bet the house they’ll be in the Finals.
2. Los Angeles Clippers – Every year feels like the same story: they’ve got to put it all together or blow it all up. Chris Paul manages to escape a lot of the criticism that his fellow banana boat homies don’t. Probably because unlike the popular show based on Chris Rocks’ life, everybody really loves CP3. Will his losing pass escape him this year? Maybe. If the Clippers can stay healthy, they’re probably the best threat to GSW in all the Western Conference.
But it’s still hard to buy into the Clips ever living up to their potential. It feels like an unlucky cloud of WTF follows this franchise. First Donald Trump’s fellow orange racist friend, and walking, talking slab of bacon Donald Sterling’s evil views got out. The league took a stand, but the players had to play with way more than basketball on their minds.
Last season, they took a first round L to Damian Lillard, C.J. McCullum and the Trailblazers after injuries depleted the team to the point of relying on Austin Rivers to carry them. No shot at Doc’s son, he played as hard as he could and went out like a G. But he’s nobody’s post-season hero.
Don’t think this is necessarily the “make-or-break” year for them, meaning they still have time to figure it out and should keep the core together. But that window is closing and young Western Conference teams are coming up wild like Michael in The Wire.
3. Phoenix Suns – The Suns fall into the third spot for two reasons: Eric Bledsoe is back and Devin Booker is better. Bledsoe only played 31 games last year, but was on par for his best statistical season of his career at 20.4 points, 6.1 assists, 4 rebounds and 2 steals per game. Regarded by many as one of the best two-way combo guards in the league, having Bledsoe available makes this team better than 23 wins for a season.
Phoenix also did well in the draft department, picking the best basketball name since Sheryl Swoopes in Dragan Bender (seriously, that’s an incredible name. He sounds like a hero from Lord of the Rings or a villain from one of the Rocky movies) and a player who might be the steal of the 2016 NBA Draft, Marquese Chriss. While they play similar positions, they’ll essentially get to do so together, while veteran shot blocker Tyson Chandler holds it down in the middle.
Then we have Devin Booker. Man, this kid’s got all the tools to turn into a top 5 shooting guard in the league. Soon!
He’s got the greenest of lights with the work ethic to match. Here’s a player that hit the reverse rookie wall, meaning he got off to a slow start and then, all of a sudden he’s given grown men that Narcos flow to the tune of 11 games of 20 points or better, with five 30-plus performances sprinkled in. That will carry over to this year and the Suns will finish third in the division. Believe that.
4. Sacramento Kings – The Kings have arguably the best big man in the game today in DeMarcus Cousins. It’s all pretty much downhill from there. Second year player, Willie Cauley-Stein showed some signs of life last year and might be the defensive anchor of the team but nothing to anoint him the next Tyson Chandler or anything.
The locker room has been a problem for Sacramento, even though it seems like Cousins is maturing. However, with journeymen like Rudy Gay, Arron Afflalo and Matt Barnes, and after losing Rajon Rondo in free agency, there’s a good chance this 33-win team might have gotten worse.
5. LA Lakers – Excuse me for a second…
*Plays Boyz II Men – It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday*
*Cues Kobe Bryant’s last game against Utah*
*Cries Into Lakers Jersey: No.8*
OK. So the Lakers are about to experience life after Bryant. The last few seasons weren’t exactly pretty, but the normality of having the Black Mamba in that Purple and Gold made sense. Love him or hate him, you have to admit it’s kind of strange not having him out there. But fear not. You’ll read this and we’ll get through it together like a family.
D’Angleo Russell and Jordan Clarkson make up an exciting backcourt. Especially Ice Vein Papi himself, D’Russ. Because Byron Scott notoriously hates rookies not named Chris Paul, Russell missed more than a few teaching moments. He’ll get those reps and more under new head coach, Luke Walton.
The two of them have a bond reminiscent of a young Magic Johnson and Pat Riley in the sense that their mutual respect and reverence for each other is obvious. Almost kind of bromantic the way they gush over each other, which seems to have already boosted the second year point guard’s confidence.
After suffering a knee injury, last year was really Julius Randle’s rookie season. The kid was one of nine players to average a double-double. The best part about that for the franchise is that like a Marvel character who first discovers their newfound powers, Randle has no idea how to truly use his abilities yet.
Coach Walton’s already decided to bring the youngest of the bunch (Brandon Ingram) along slowly at first, which should only help. No pressure to win right now, just develop.
As for me, don’t worry. I’ll be fine.
Possible MVP – Steph Curry
Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain. Larry Bird. No, that’s not the first three people on my NBA Mt. Rushmore (although, you could argue for anyone of them to be on said fictitious monument) but it’s the elite trio Steph Curry’s trying to turn into a quartet.
The aforementioned legends are the only men to have won the NBA MVP award in three consecutive seasons. We know Curry’s getting less shots with new Teammate Kevin Durant. What we don’t know is how many more open shots Durant will generate for Riley’s dad or how high his assists will go up with the GSW newbie.
Meaning if his league leading 30.1 points per game average does drop, his 6.7 assists per game should go up. And even though they didn’t have third or fourth options anywhere near as good as Klay Thompson or Draymond Green, the last duo this devastating in this division (or any division, really) was Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. And they averaged 28.7 and 28.5 respectively back in 2000-01, proving big numbers can come in twos. But can MVP’s come in threes for Curry? There’s a strong possibility.
Impact Rookie – Brandon Ingram
When Kevin Durant calls you a better version of himself at your age when he watches you play, you’re bound for greatness. With a sinewy frame and seemingly innate scoring ability, Brandon Ingram has been drawing KD comparisons since prep days back in North Carolina, with prep experts saying Ingram could at least become a poor man’s version of Durant.
Ingram looks primed to prove he’s not a poor man’s anything, but a historic franchise’s answered prayer at high-level player. D’Angelo Russell has become the leader but like Kobe said in a press conference last season, torches are earned. Not passed.
Not to throw too much on the rookie’s broad shoulders, but the Lakers haven’t had a ROY winner since Elgin Baylor in 1959 and technically they were still the Minneapolis Lakers back then (I’ll save you the google search: Oscar Robertson beat out Jerry West in ’61, Larry Bird beat out Magic Johnson in ’80 and Allen Iverson won in ’97 on a ballot that didn’t even include Kobe). With Philly’s Ben Simmons out indefinitely, Ingram should bring at least one piece of hardware back to L.A.
Breakout Player – D’Angelo Russell
For as bad as the Lakers record will be this season, it won’t be because of effort and it definitely won’t be because of D’Angelo Russell. Young Iced Vein-nilla latte is cold on the court and is showing maturity in his decision-making on and off of it.
He showed a new focus during Summer League play and now has the coaching environment needed to flourish under arguably the NBA’s most sought after young coach, Luke Walton. D’Russ has crazy court vision, great size and is developing into a serious scoring threat. Mitch Kupchak and co. have given the youngin’ the Major Key’s to the Kingdom Kobe carried. Word to DJ Khaled.
Division’s Defender – DeAndre Jordan
Unpopular Opinion: DeAndre Jordan was the most important player on the U.S. Olympic Gold medal winning team this summer. Take away Carmelo Anthony and you still have Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan. Exclude Kyrie Irving and playmakers like Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green would have stepped up. But no one altered shots and played his position like Jordan.
Fresh off his back-to-back NBA All-Defensive First Team appearances and his first All-NBA First Team selection, Jordan has got to be the favorite to take San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard’s DPOY crown. Hopefully all the accolades add up to the proper respek’ on his name and he makes the All Star Game this season, too.
League Pass Alert – Golden State Warriors
This is the team you’re not allowed to use in NBA 2k17. It just ain’t fair. The team with the best regular season record ever lost in The Finals and then replaced Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant. That’s like if Michael B. Jordan broke his leg while filming Black Panther, only to miraculously grow to 6’4” and win an Oscar for a film on Mansa Musa.
Think about Steve Kerr’s new death lineup: Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. I don’t know how you beat that, but it’s going to be fun watching teams try.
Finna Get Him A Kardashian – Devin Booker
Listen, this young boy’s about to blow up. He got the co-sign from Kobe and Drake. After recording his first 30+ point game last January (32 points vs. the Indiana Pacers) nothing was the same. The Suns have already pegged him as the future of the franchise and if the last half of last season is any indication, Booker’s about to be a star.
And you know what that means: You guessed it, the Kardashian clan is watching from their magic cauldron. Stirring up a love potion for the NBA newbie. Kim’s a mom, Khloe’s usually in the mix but Tristan Thompson’s attached to her, and Kris Jenner is old enough to be that boy grandmamma. That leaves the true cougar of the bunch, Kourtney Kardashian. She’s been linked to one and only Justin Beiber, so we know she likes them young. Gon’ head and show her how hot it is in Phoenix, young blood.
Player Who’s Secretly Been Drinking Youth Serum On The Sideline His Whole Career – Jamal Crawford, L.A. Clippers
Seriously, what kind of Benjamin Button concoction does Jamal Crawford sip on?
I’m 30 years old and my generation’s superstars are calling it quits: Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming are enshrined Hall of Famers; Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan have officially dipped into retirement, while Paul Pierce and Vince Carter have vowed to make 2016-17 their swan song seasons.
But Crawford’s still out here still winning Sixth Man of the Year awards and averaging 14.2 points per game off the bench, which is only slightly under his 15.8 career average. I don’t know what Instagram Model herbal tea he’s drinking, but I want a lifetime supply.