Last Weekend of Hope: Western Conference

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On Tuesday the 2010-2011 NBA season begins. From that point on, the reality will be set for 30 teams in the NBA. One team will wind up in possession of the trophy which defines careers, while 29 others will find themselves deeply disappointed in themselves, their teammates, their organization, or all three. The fans, likewise, will go through a similar process of understanding exactly how good their respective teams are, and are not. For most, it is a bitter, sobering process, tinged with those moments of fleeting success wherein they take comfort in the overtime, come-from-behind win, or the outright smackdown of a top team. You’ll hear a lot of “They are what they are.” But right now? This weekend? These precious, painful few days? These teams could be anything. They could far surpass expectations, and bring outright exuberance to their fans, players, and the people that work behind the scenes to make them great. They could shock the world, even if that means a second round playoff exit in a sweep. This is the last weekend of hope before the journey begins. And while that journey is fun, and it’s why we watch, this moment should be documented, particularly because this may be the last hopeful weekend we have in a while, as the specter of imminent lockout looms over us like a raven, just waiting for the season to die.

In that uplifting, comforting spirit, here then, is the hope of the Western Conference.

(Note: Do not confuse the hope enlisted with the opinions of the author. We’re just conveying what appears to be the best-case outlook for the various squads.)

Dallas Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki has aged about as well as any star of his ilk can. Jason Kidd actually shot better from the arc. Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have a full training camp of work with the team to get adjusted. And Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones are legit. There’s no reason this team shouldn’t finally crack their way back into the Conference Finals. And once there, with the Mavericks size, speed, and talent, they’ll just need to get two games at Staples to have a shot. This can be done. It’s got to happen sometime, right?

Denver Nuggets: Sure Carmelo’s thinking about leaving. But when we bust out to a big start, he’ll change his mind. He has to. This is the team that drafted him. He’s not like LeBron. And we have a much better team, with Chauncey, KMart, Nene, and Lawson. We were in the Conference Finals two years ago! How could you leave a team like this for a lottery team? This team underwent a series of disasters it couldn’t have predicted last year, but it also played the Lakers tight. All it’s got to do is stay focused. And when Melo signs the extension, they can do just that.

Golden State Warriors: Cohan’s gone. Theyhave the best sophomore player in the league in Stephen Curry. Monta Ellis is ready to stop being a problem. They got David Lee and a new head coach that wants the team to actually play defense. There’s no way this team isn’t considerably better than last year’s. It’s nearly physically impossible. Better talent, better coaching, better ownership. Things finally look up in the Bay.

Houston Rockets: 24 minutes a game. There’s absolutely no reason this team can’t stay healthy with Yao only playing 24 minutes a game. They’re deep. They’re versatile. They’re extremely well coached and now have some offensive firepower. This team was painfully close to taking out the Lakers two years ago, but all of a sudden with a better team they’re also-rans? In Morey everyone should trust. All the team needs is for a series of things not to go wrong. That can’t be that hard to avoid. Sure, Yao’s injury-prone. But that’s why the minute limit exists. And it will get this team to the playoffs where there isn’t a team that matches up with them.

Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin, Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin Blake Griffin. Eric Gordon, Blake Griffin. Blake Griffin.

Los Angeles Lakers: Count the rings, y’all. Count the rings.

Memphis Grizzlies: The team might have a bench! With Xavier Henry, Tony Allen, and an improved Sam Young, if the team can just hold leads on nights when all the starters aren’t on fire, it’s possible they could sneak into the playoffs. They overpaid for Rudy Gay, but he’s also the franchise star. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph make up one of the best frontcourt tandems in the league and Lionel Hollins is a decided advantage. With a fast-break team that got wins over a lot of playoff squads last year, why can’t they take a step forward and win a playoff series?

Minnesota Timberwolves: The media just hates us. And David Kahn. They’re just too simple to see the truth. This team is primed for a breakout. They say Kevin Love is such a terrific talent, but the Timberwolves won’t use him despite trading Jefferson to make room for him.They say Michael Beasley is such a waste, but he tore up the preseason. They say they overpaid for Darko but then talk about the lack of legitimate centers in the league. If the media would get over themselves, they’d see that Wes Johnson is  a star in the making, Kevin Love is already a star, the team has better depth, and all this before Rubio comes. But after this season, there’s no way he’ll stay away. Then the media will see how great Kahn’s plan is.

New Orleans Hornets: Chris Paul’s back, so the Hornets have Chris Paul, to go along with David West, Okafor, Thornton, and now Bayless. The Hornets almost made the playoffs without CP3 playing. How good will they be with him on board, and a better wing in Ariza. It’s time for everyone to remember how great CP3 is. Now if we could only get the team sold…

Oklahoma City Thunder: Sorry! Can’t talk right now! We’re having a party over how great our team and its future is for the next four years! PS Kevin Durant is the MVP!

Phoenix Suns: Okay, losing Amar’e is going to hurt. But hurt enough to lose a playoff spot? Did the Suns lose Steve Nash, too? Oh, no, they didn’t. They’ll be fine. The team won last year with slightly decent defense and a tougher brand of offense. Hakim Warrick and Josh Childress will help in their positions and the team is still deep enough to win as long as Nash is healthy. Never count out Steve Nash.

Portland Trailblazers: Pritchard’s gone, but Cho looks great so far. Freak injuries were the only things that delayed progress last season. And Greg Oden will be a franchise player. He just has bad luck. And bad luck passes. When he gets healthy, he’ll become the All-Star he was before the injury. Brandon Roy will bounce back, the back court depth has improved and been cleaned up. There’s been every indication that the team will only improve this season, and with Nate McMillan at the helm, they can survive until everyone gets healthy. The team isn’t a young squad anymore, but it’s deep and versatile. And all it needs is a few things to go its way, for once. That’s go to happen sometime.

Sacramento Kings: Looks like Thunder. Feels like Thunder. Loaded like Thunder. Why can’t the Kings make a huge leap with two superstars they drafted? Tyreke Evans is the best sophomore in the league, the team is coming together, DeMarcus Cousins will be a beast, and they have some depth to go along with the talent. There’s no reason this team can’t make a push for the playoffs.

San Antonio Spurs: Greatness doesn’t age. It endures. A healthy team and this is the Western Conference Finals. A few things go right and the Spurs are in the playoffs. Is there any question that this team can’t compete with the Lakers in a seven game series? One more ring for Timmy. Something to keep Parker home. The Blair Bear. Jefferson’s fitting in. James Anderson was another steal. Pop’s got one more ring in him. Duncan needs one to put him ahead of Shaq once and for all. The window hasn’t closed, and the youth on this team could prop it open just long enough to steal gold.

Utah Jazz: Lost Carlos Boozer. Added Al Jefferson. Lost Kyle Korver. Added Raja Bell. Lost Ronnie Brewer. Added Gordon Hayward. This is the definition of a reloaded team, and one that may be better than the one last season. The team has faced nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs. But anything can happen in sports. That has to be how it is. What’s the point, otherwise?

After months of hype, reality proves harsh for Lonzo Ball, Lakers in opener

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LOS ANGELES — Hollywood is built on hype. The Lakers know hype like no other NBA franchise.

Lonzo Ball has been at the heart of the Lakers’ hype all summer. From being drafted No. 2, through selling out Summer League games in Las Vegas and winning the league MVP, through selling out meaningless preseason games the Lonzo hype in Los Angeles has been on overdrive.

Thursday night it met reality.

Reality in the form of the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley being in his face from the opening tip, giving him no space or quarter. Reality in the form of Clippers defenders cutting off most of his look-ahead options in transition (although Ball had a few). Reality in the form of his shot not falling — he was 1-of-6 — and reality in the form of his teammates missing when Ball did make a good pass.

Reality in terms of a 108-92 loss where the Lakers were not competitive with Blake Griffin and the guys they share the building with.

“We got blown out, so I didn’t play too well,” Ball said.

“I just had to set the tone,” Beverley said of his physical play from the start. “I told him after the game, due to all the riffraff his dad brings he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. He’s got to be ready for that and I let him know after the game…

“(I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.”

That’s cold — and it’s far kinder than what he yelled outside the Rockets’ locker room after the game.

Thanks to a combination of his father, his game, and the yearning of Lakers’ nation to have their next superstar, Ball entered the game with ridiculous amounts of hype — and unrealistic expectations. Magic Johnson was a national champion and a No. 1 pick when he first came to the Lakers, and he said there was far less hype around him.

“It wasn’t even close to this,” Johnson said pregame. “You didn’t have social media, you didn’t have talk shows like this….

“I was known, like he’s known, you know that whole high pick (thing). And the NBA played it up like they’re playing it up now. But it wasn’t even close to this. From the social media standpoint, and ESPN and Fox Sports and all if it, this is so much bigger than I can ever imagine. And then I wasn’t from here. This young man is from here, he wanted to be a Laker.”

Magic also won his first game (then ran over and hugged a surprised Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Lonzo’s Lakers got thumped.

Ball finished the night 1-of-6 from the floor, his one basket a three pointer in the middle of the second quarter. Ball sat the fourth quarter of the blowout. In half court, Clippers defenders were playing off Ball and daring him to shoot. He couldn’t drive around Austin Rivers a couple times in isolation. Ball did pull down nine rebounds, and he had four assists — he could have had more, but his teammates were missing. The Lakers were 11-of-42 outside the paint and desperately missedKentavious Caldwell-Pope’s outside shooting and floor spacing (he is suspended the first two games of the season due to a DUI). Look at the Lakers’ shot chart.

The problem with the young Lakers is those missed shots on offense got into their head on defense and they didn’t give the same effort on that end. It showed. Blake Griffin finished with 29 points on 23 shots, was 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and had 12 boards in an impressive performance. DeAndre Jordan had 14 points and 24 rebounds, and Danilo Gallinari had 11.

It was a good win for a Clippers, team with playoff aspirations. They played hard, meshed well for a lot of new faces, and played pretty good defense for stretches.

After it was over, the Lakers chalked it up as a learning experience. They will have a lot of those this season.

“It was good for (Lonzo),” Lakers coach Luke Walton said of the rough first night. “Beverley is as good as anyone, if not the best, at the point guard position of getting into other people and getting under their skin. I thought Zo kept his composure.”

He needs to keep his composure because the hype and pressure aren’t going away. Not in Los Angeles. Not with Lakers fans, who consider contending for a title their birthright.

“That’s what happens when you play in L.A.,” Ball said. “Everybody expects you to do well, and i f you don’t they’ll get somebody else to do it…

“The good thing about the NBA is we have 81 more (games). We’re 0-1. It’s only one loss, tomorrow we can bounce back.”

The good news for Ball is the defense he faces should be a little softer Friday night against the Suns.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s first points as a Laker (VIDEO)

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LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball‘s welcome to the NBA was a bit rough. Patrick Beverleyas he said would happen before the game — was in Ball’s space and physical with him from the start. Clippers defenders got back and cut off those push the ball ahead passes Ball loves. In his first quarter as a Laker Ball 0-of-3 from the floor, missed two free throws, and didn’t pick up an assist.

But in the second quarter, Ball got his first bucket as a Laker. After Beverley and Blake Griffin miscommunicated on a screen, Ball got a clean look at a three and knocked it down. The Staples Center crowd erupted.

It was a rough first night for Ball in the NBA, with the defense focused on him. He’s got game, he can adapt, but there are going to be some rough learning experiences this season.

Fake Klay Thompson, James Harden, and Kobe Bryant emerge (PHOTO)

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Tuesday night was the start of the new NBA season and with the games came more of what we love from the NBA sphere: weird stuff you only see from the best fans on earth.

During the Golden State Warriors’ home opener against the Houston Rockets, a fan behind the bench came dressed as Klay Thompson complete with uniform, beard, and haircut.

This did not go unnoticed on social media, and Steve Kerr was even asked about the doppelgänger after the game. For the record Kerr said, “I thought it was a perfect metaphor for our conditioning level.”

Yikes, sweet coach burn.

In case you missed it, this is what that fan looked like:

Warriors would have won if coach put me in the game.

A post shared by Daws (@bigdawstv) on

That is YouTuber Big Daws, who of course was given free tickets to the game by SeatGeek. That video now has more than two million views and comes complete with a SeatGeek discount code. As is everything in 2017, even something you think is just a fun Halloween costume is actually an ad.

Culture begets culture and soon followed a new doppelgänger in Sacramento. Again, the Rockets were involved in this one as as a fan came dressed up as Houston guard James Harden. No word yet on whether this guy has a popular YouTube channel or what his offer code is, but here’s what he looked like:

This cultural phenomenon had folks looking for other NBA lookalikes around them this week, and someone came up with this Kobe Bryant twin:

This really is the best league. I can’t wait for that Big Daws guy to shave his goatee and cosplay as Ryan Anderson at a Rockets game.

Anyway, please stop by in the comment section below to get 15% off your next visit to NBCSports.com/NBA by using the code DOPPELGÄNGER at checkout.

LeBron James: “I’m out of shape” (VIDEO)

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LeBron James looked good in the opening night ceremony against the Boston Celtics. The Cleveland Cavaliers star put up a stat line of 29 points, 16 rebounds, and nine assists in the win over the Eastern Conference rival.

That doesn’t mean that James is done dealing with a nagging ankle injury that kept him out of all five of Cleveland’s preseason games. Speaking to reporters after practice on Thursday, The King said that he will indeed play on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks, but he won’t do it under the circumstances he prefers.

Specifically, LeBron said that because of his injury, he’s been unable to get into the kind of shape he’d like to be in heading into the season.

Via ESPN:

“I just want to get to where I should be,” James said after participating in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ practice Thursday. “The ankle and the foot injury just kind of kept me out and set me back further than I would like, but I got some time now along the course of these games that we got. We got two back-to-backs coming up, so that’s going to help and we have some opportunity to get some practice time in as well.”

“I’m out of shape, very out of shape for my expectations,” James told TNT’s Kristen Ledlow during his on-court postgame interview Tuesday.

No doubt it will be tough to keep one of the most durable stars in NBA history out of of the regular season games they need to start this season off right. However, this is the kind of thing that slows down the careers of aging stars, and if I can play devil’s advocate here for a minute, this is what we’ve been looking for from James for some time.

I’m not saying this is the beginning of the end for LeBron, but it is an important enough thing to note and to keep a pin in for future reference.

Meanwhile, James is still doing great stuff off the court like this:

Aww.