Photo: Miami Heat forward LeBron James goes to the basket as Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) watches during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013, in Washington. The Wizards won 100-82. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
"Coming out of a lot of camps, we’ve heard our name a lot, so we know," LeBron James told the media in response to the proverbial target on the backs of the defending back-to-back champions, Miami Heat.
In part 1 of this 3-part preview of James and the Heat’s quest for a third straight NBA title, I enlisted the main threats to Miami’s bid to become only the fourth NBA franchise to accomplish such feat.
James and co. are ready and confident in their quest for 3, and the upcoming season’s yield of challengers will definitely give them a run for their money.
I noted the Spurs (my frontrunner to come out of the West), the Pacers, Bulls and Nets as the top 4 teams that have the best chance at unseating the Heat. These four teams have the ability to match up with the Heat whether they choose to go small or with bigger lineups, and play hard-nosed, physical defense.
With a number of already dangerous teams upgrading their rosters in the offseason, there are far more dangers that lurk around the NBA landscape from the West, but only one can come out and actually wrestle the Larry O’Brien trophy from the Heat if they do end up surviving the East.
Here are some teams that I view are on the cusp of being top contenders and are definitely capable going deep in the playoffs, but do have some lingering question marks to address and prove themselves.
Los Angeles Clippers
Photo: Los Angeles Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, left, Blake Griffin, center, and Chris Paul watch the the action against the Sacramento Kings during the third quarter of an NBA preseason basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, Oct. 14, 2013. The trio did not play in the Clippers 99-88 loss to the Kings.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Whether “Lob City” is a thing of the past - as Blake Griffin and his teammates announced coming into the season - or not, these Clippers are a far more lethal team than last year’s version that won 56 games during the regular season.
A change in philosophy with new head coach Doc Rivers, who won a championship in 2008 with the Celtics, should give the Clippers an added edge and calming leadership in the late trenches, especially after their premature exit in the playoffs last season.
Rivers is already asserting his personality and ruffling the feathers of their arena co-inhabitants’ supporters when he took exception to Lakers banners hanging at the Staples Center’s ceiling during Clippers games. As a result, those same banners will now be draped off and covered during Clippers games.
Aside from hiring Rivers, the Clippers also addressed and upgraded their bench by bringing in Darren Collison as their primary backup point guard, and added shooters JJ Redick and Jared Dudley to the fold.
Collison - who is a Chris Paul favorite from their time in New Orleans - has been running havoc off the bench and already has 31, 27 and 20-point games in the preseason with the Clippers to prove it.
Capable of starting for most teams around the league, Collison chose to come home to Southern California to pursue a title and has added a new dimension to the Clippers’ offense by allowing Paul to play off the ball when they are both on the floor together.
My main concern regarding this unit is their interior toughness and ability to grind out wins in the playoffs against bigger lineups like what had happened in their series against Memphis last season.
They didn’t particularly add size and toughness in their frontcourt with Antawn Jamison, Ryan Hollins, and Byron Mullens as their primary backups for Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, but Rivers’ defensive system helps out in this department a lot. Acquiring a Metta World Peace or a Tyler Hansbrough-type of player won’t hurt either.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Photo: Oklahoma City Thunder's Kevin Durant, right, keeps the ball from Philadelphia 76ers' Evan Turner during their NBA preseason basketball game at the Phones4 u Arena in Manchester, England, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
OKC can easily be on top of my list with a healthy Russell Westbrook. Unfortunately for the Thunder, Westbrook is starting the season on the injured list, and as far as that goes, I’ve learned to temper my expectations learning from the Derrick Rose saga last season.
Things would’ve been so much simpler if they were able to keep James Harden, but just a full season removed from taking Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Heat, the Thunder have uncertainties in two of their “Big 3” positions from that stellar run. And with Kevin Martin jetting off to Minnesota, they practically have nothing to show for in exchange for the man widely considered as the current best 2-guard in the league.
They do still have Kevin Durant together with majority of the supporting cast from that season, and Reggie Jackson has filled in Westbrook’s shoes admirably. But until Westbrook shows he can capture his old form and someone from within like Jeremy Lamb can become a legitimate third-scoring threat for the Thunder, they might need to bring in another main complimentary piece to help Durant get back to the Finals.
Photo: Houston Rocket's Dwight Howard, right, dunks over Dallas Maverick's Vince Carter, left, and Dallas Maverick's Samuel Dalembert, center, in the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)
The Rockets look solid on paper. Then again, the Lakers looked like granite on paper last season as well (yes, they were banged up and snake-bitten all year, too). With that said, approaching the Rockets’ season with guarded optimism, yet with high hopes, should be the way to go as this talented unit can definitely make a deep run in the postseason.
Dwight Howard will have plenty of shooters to kick the ball out to when he gets doubled in the paint, and if they manage to keep Omer Asik happy with his role coming off the bench, the Rockets have the best insurance policy when their franchise center gets into early foul trouble.
James Harden will have more room to create and less pressure with the defense having to worry about Howard and the ripple effects he causes to opposing defenses with his mere presence in the paint. Jeremy Lin will have more pick-and-roll options, while Chandler Parsons will be looking forward to the most open looks and lanes he’s ever seen in his entire career.
The Rockets have a decent bench with a mix of young guys like Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley and veterans like Aaron Brooks, Francisco Garcia and Omri Casspi. Though they can play big, this unit likes to run and go out in transition, but will have to prove they can execute down the stretch if they intend to pull out late round playoff wins against the top tier teams in the West. A lot of that will depend on Howard’s progression as a player and a leader.
Who better to learn from than Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon?
Golden State Warriors
Photo: Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, center, drives between Sacramento Kings' DeMarcus Cousins, left, and Greivis Vasquez, of Venezuela, during the first quarter of an NBA preseason basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
They showed how much damage they can cause in the playoffs last year, and with a healthy David Lee back together with the addition of Andre Iguodala, Dub Nation has plenty to be optimistic about with this unit.
Mark Jackson proved last season that he can coach in the NBA, and the Warriors are exactly the perfect team for his mentoring style and philosophy.
Jackson motivated and challenged his young star, Stephen Curry the way he did his former backcourt running mate Reggie Miller during his playing days in Indiana. The second-year head coach has mastered the art of unleashing deadly shooters in the playoffs the way Bundini Brown knew how to get Muhammad Ali amped up for a world title fight.
If Andrew Bogut can stay healthy and do a passable job in manning the middle for the Warriors, this team will be a nightmare matchup for anyone in the playoffs. Iguodala’s balanced and unselfish play will pay dividends to the team’s overall success, and can be used as a facilitator as well as a slasher to either finish or open up defenses for their shooters and help alleviate the loss of Jarrett Jack, who was an invaluable piece for the team last season.
Their playoff run only helps in developing their young nucleus, while Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson look to build on their solid performances. Their bench aren’t pushovers either with guys like Kent Bazemore and Dreymond Green capable of quality minutes, while the addition of veterans like Jermaine O’Neal and Marreese Speights add toughness to the team’s interior defense which was their weakness last season.
Photo: Milwaukee Bucks' Larry Sanders, right, defends against Memphis Grizzlies' Marc Gasol, of Spain, during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game in Memphis, Tenn., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Last and definitely not the least in this group are the Memphis Grizzlies.
They made it to their first-ever Conference Finals appearance last season, thanks in large to their defense and grind-it-out offense behind Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and steady point guard Mike Conley. In the end, however, their lack of offensive firepower did them in as they fell short to the Spurs.
It remains to be seen how they will look under new head coach Dave Joerger, but being that he’s been on the Grizzlies bench for 6 years prior to being promoted this season to replace Lionel Hollins, I don’t see any major cause for concern here.
The Grizzlies brought back Mike Miller - who was waived by the Heat in the offseason - to help address their shooting woes, especially in the postseason where he has proven to be most effective.
The addition of Kosta Koufos in a trade that sent Darrell Arthur away to Denver further bolsters their interior defense and rebounding and provides an insurance policy behind Gasol at the center position, while re-signing Tony Allen as well as bringing back virtually their entire core unit, allows the Grizzlies to continue giving opposing offenses nightmares with their suffocating defense.
In my next column and the third and last part of this three-part preview, I round up my list with my sleeper teams who have the potential of surprising many come playoff time if they pull things together. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.
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