Four teams that could head off a Lakers vs. Heat NBA final

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It’s the consensus of prognosticators (and me as well) — the NBA finals will be the Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. You can already sense David Stern drooling like a Pavlovian dog thinking about the television ratings.

What teams could destroy David Stern’s dream?

There are four. While we could argue that each of these four need a little luck or for the Heat/Lakers to come back to them, we could say the same for the Heat and Lakers. Fact is you don’t win an NBA title without some breaks going your way.

So here are the four most likely teams to get in the way, two West and two East.

Oklahoma City Thunder. They remain the next best team in the West, even after the James Harden trade. (I think they take a step back after trading away a key playmaker, the Sixth Man of the Year and an Olympian and trying to fill his minutes with Kevin Martin. Long term with the picks and Jeremy Lamb we can debate the trade impacts, but the Thunder did not get instantly better Saturday night with this move.)

The Thunder have improved each year because their players have improved and gotten more experienced. That will happen again. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are going to take steps forward after their Olympic experience — and the Lakers will struggle to stop Durant, even with Dwight Howard in the paint. OKC gets Eric Maynor back and that gives them depth at the point guard spot and another playmaker. They have Kendrick Perkins to match up with Dwight Howard and Serge Ibaka to slow Pau Gasol. Westbrook can hamper Steve Nash.

The Thunder are not as good a team without Harden, but they are still very good and still match up with the Lakers as well as anyone.

Los Angeles Clippers. You can argue the San Antonio Spurs should fit here, but the last couple seasons showed me that while they are awesome in the regular season you can scheme for their weaknesses come the playoffs. The Clippers are a team on the rise. They have the single best pure point guard in the game in Chris Paul, and he is in a contract year so expect big things. They added some depth with Jamal Crawford, and while I’m not his biggest fan he is an upgrade over what they had. Eric Bledsoe is coming into his own off the bench. They have solid veterans like Caron Butler and — once he gets in shape — Lamar Odom. Oh, an they have the force of nature that is Blake Griffin. Paul is just figuring out how to use all those pieces.

The key for the Clippers in the playoffs is DeAndre Jordan. Last season he got benched for Reggie Evans when the going got tough. That’s not good. The Clippers need Jordan to take a huge step forward because they need his athleticism to combat Howard if they face the Lakers. If Jordan is in foul trouble or just plain old ineffective, the Lakers would run them over without slowing. But Jordan and his growth — scoring and putting pressure on Howard on both ends of the floor — changes the dynamic. He makes it possible. But it’s asking a lot of him to make that leap.

Boston Celtics. They came within a game of getting the Heat last season, and while they racked up a 3-2 lead in the series with Chris Bosh out it still shows they were close. Then Boston got better this summer — Jason Terry is better right now than Ray Allen. Not over their careers, maybe not now as a pure shooter, but Terry brings far more shot creation and versatility to the Celtics. Boston also gets Jeff Green back and he gives them real depth off the bench. Jared Sullinger should let Kevin Garnett rest more.

Boston must have a healthy and rested Garnett to have a shot at the Heat — he is the heart of their defense has to play as well or better than last year to have a shot. Rajon Rondo has to step up his game and get his squad more easy looks offensively against a swarming Heat defense. Boston cannot show their age. The good news for Celtics fans is Boston matches up well with Miami considering its defense, Paul Pierce and his ability to score, and now some punch off the bench. It’s not easy, but the Celtics have a puncher’s chance in a series with Miami.

Indiana Pacers. If you’re going to beat the Heat, the best way to do it is with size — Indiana has that in Roy Hibbert. One of the key turning points in the playoffs last season was when the Heat fell behind the Pacers because of the play of Hibbert and they had to adjust their style and step up their play. The Heat had that other gear.

To best the Heat Pacers need George Hill and Paul George to take steps forward with their game (both would be key in the finals, particularly on defense), David West to keep being himself, Granger to be steady in the big moments and Hibbert to become a dominating force. The Pacers lack the kind of superstar player the Heat have two (or three) of, but they have great balance, good depth and the size that could give the Heat fits. They just have to play nearly flawless basketball (and hope the Heat do not).

Three questions the Minnesota Timberwolves must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season:
31-51, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: A whole lot. Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford are the notable additions from this summer. It was a disappointing end to Ricky Rubio‘s tenure with the franchise, but the swap for the No. 7 pick in the draft to the Bulls brought over one of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s favorite former players from Chicago. Add on Gibson, Teague, and a still-able-to-score Crawford and the Wolves roster looks markedly better than it has in years past.

THREE QUESTIONS THE TIMBERWOLVES MUST ANSWER:

1) What will the play look like between Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins? Wiggins played 93% of his minutes at SF in his first year under Thibodeau last season. Meanwhile, Butler played most of his minutes under Thibodeau as a shooting guard. That means the two will be on the floor together, and it will be interesting to see how they play off of each other. Wiggins clearly made a move to try to be a better 3-point shooter last season, and if that continues there could be a real benefit as Butler works as the second ball handler in the pick-and-roll.

That of course is the hope, but as we’ve seen in other circumstances — Al-Farouq Aminu in Portland — when the 3-point shooting of players strongly rises and then dips again they can become a liability. It’s easy to imagine Wiggins clogging the interior of the arc when Butler has the ball and vice versa, with some serious kinks to potentially work out.

2) What exactly are they going to do with Jamal Crawford? Thibodeau typically hasn’t had players like Crawford during his tenure as a head coach, save for perhaps Nate Robinson in 2012-13 with Chicago. Crawford has 17 years of experience in this league, and although he has slowed down a little bit, he is still an excellent ball handler and streaky scorer.

Crawford should fit that bench scorer role for Minny, and even if Thibodeau does play his starters a thousand minutes a game you can be sure that they will still need the veteran presence of Crawford. The year that Robinson played for Thibodeau he shot 40% from three-point range, and perhaps that could be the role that Crawford slots into here. If there is one offseason acquisition that doesn’t quite fit in for the Timberwolves, Crawford does seem to be it. He has a real potential to get lost in the mix. That, or it could go the other direction and they might need to rely on him as a ball handler off the bench more than they would like. I can see both happening.

3) Can they find a groove to keep their head above water in the playoff race in the Western Conference? Set aside the reigning NBA champions in the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference is still an absolute meatgrinder. So many big name free agents either were traded to or signed with teams out West. Paul Millsap, Brook Lopez, Paul George, Chris Paul to the Rockets, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Thabo Sefolosha are all on the list outside of the guys already mentioned in Minnesota.

The NBA League Pass fan has high expectations of the Timberwolves for the upcoming season, especially after adding an MVP candidate like Butler. However, with so many new players in the Western Conference I think we will still have some of the same questions we have had in years prior about the Timberwolves. That is, what is their development path and how soon should we expect their dominance?

Building a super team doesn’t necessarily mean immediate contention — we know that by now. Yes, having players who have played under Thibodeau before might help this team get through some of their growing pains quicker as the year starts. But there also seems to be a huge potential for a slow start out of the Timberwolves and if that happens it could take some of the wind out of their sails as they try to make up for it going into the All-Star break.

Make no bones about it, Minnesota is likely a playoff team out West. That should feel like a win for Timberwolves fans — because it is. However, I think it’ll take some time for them to jell, and if that’s the case they might end up toward the bottom of the seeding with an uphill battle in April.

Jimmer Fredette has signature shoe line in China, and they are outstanding

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Jimmer Fredette was the leading scorer in China last season, averaging 37.6 points a night and dropping 73 in one game. He’s big time.

And big time guys get their own shoe lines.

Jimmer got a signature shoe line teaming up with 361 shoes out of China, as ESPN’s Nick DePaula reports.

I’d wear a pair of those on the court. I have no idea what the price point is (they are not on the 361 website yet), but those could sell.

Is Jimmer going to be the new Stephon Marbury of China?

Reports: Lakers to sign Andrew Bogut to one-year deal

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Brook Lopez will start at center for the Lakers. Behind him, they have a couple young players they want to groom, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant.

Those youngsters just got bumped a notch down the ladder — Andrew Bogut is about to become a Laker. Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports broke the news, and other reports have confirmed it.

Lakers’ coach Luke Walton coached Bogut at Golden State, and that connection helped get him to Los Angeles when Boston, Minnesota, and Cleveland were also trying to land his services. Bogut gets the system Walton wants to run and wants to be part of this new Lakers team.

The question with Bogut is always health. He can be a solid defensive big in the paint and is a good passer, but last season he broke his tibia in his first game with the Cavaliers, the latest in a long line of health concerns. Bogut’s doctors have cleared him to play.

The Lakers also add a solid veteran presence to help mentor those young bigs (although if Bogut is taking minutes from them it seems counterproductive). Bogut can show Zubac and Bryant the art of setting the best illegal screens in the league (he’s a master, Lonzo Ball will love him). We’ll see how many minutes Bogut gets when it matters.

This one-year deal gives the Lakers another potential trade chip and does not mess with their cap space next summer, when they want to clear out room and go after two max free agents (which will mean dumping the contract of Luol Deng, likely with Julius Randle or someone as a sweetener, to get the space). For Bogut, stay healthy and play well and he might come back on a minimum contract to a stacked Lakers team next season.

Report: Grizzlies to sign Ivan Rabb, adds to already crowded roster

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The Memphis Grizzlies have 15 guaranteed contracts on the roster already — and that’s not counting a deal for JaMychal Green and the non-guaranteed deal for Mario Chalmers.

Which makes this signing interesting, via Marc Spears of ESPN.

The Grizzlies and second-round pick Ivan Rabb are close to agreeing terms on a three-year contract, a source told The Undefeated.

Two years of that are rumored to be guaranteed. If so, that leads to questions about who gets cut from the roster and paid anyway? Or, are the Grizzlies setting themselves up for a trade during camp? Also, Mario Chalmers is going to have to show enough skill for another team to grab him.

Rabb is a 6’10” guy with potential but a lot of development to do. He may be more of a four than a small ball five, but he needs time on the court to find out and show off his game. He didn’t get a lot of that time to show what he can do in Summer League due to a sprained ankle. He should get run in Grizzlies camp, where there are going to be some interesting roster battles.