As riveting as the NBA has been over the past decade, the 2012-2013 season might be its most intriguing yet. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash are in Los Angeles. Ray Allen is in Miami. The Nets are in Brooklyn. James Harden is in limbo. How will all of these storylines play out? We spoke with former L.A. Laker and current ESPN analyst Kurt Rambis to get his thoughts on what is sure to be a wild season.
On paper, the Lakers' starting five is scary good. Scary like a dude with a chainsaw chasing you in a haunted house. But with Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant edging closer to retirement, some commentators see this team as a repeat of the 2004 Lakers, when an aging Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined the team in search of a championship, and things fell apart.
Rambis disagreed. He said, "A lot of people have had their doubts, and a lot of people are trying to compare this team to the '04 team with the Lakers, and I don’t see it. I see this team just working out seamlessly. When you look at a player like Nash, with his vision, his ability to pass the basketball offensively, and you add pick and rolls or a system that he can figure out, he’s a very intelligent basketball player. There are not too many guards that can end up staying with him, or too many defenses that he hasn’t seen before that he’s not going to be able to manipulate. He’s going to be a willing passer. Then you look at how defenses are going to defend him, when they have to concern themselves with the other three guys on the floor."
Rambis believes that the Lakers can post up Gasol, Bryant, Dwight Howard or Metta World Peace, leaving the defense scrambling to decide who they want to help off of. And with a team full of guys who, according to Rambis, don’t need to massage their egos (“If Nash didn’t take a shot all year, he would be ok with that.”), this little Hollywood experiment could go swimmingly.
"As long as they all kind of get on that same page in terms of distributing the basketball and being willing to move it freely, it could work out really well,” said Rambis.
(Photo via The Sports Dump)
Oklahoma City had no problem eliminating the Lakers in last year’s Western Conference finals, but they flamed out after taking Game One of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. With L.A. reloading, OKC's road back to the Finals appears to go right through Tinseltown—again. Do the Thunder have enough power to get by the revamped Lakers?
Rambis thinks the Thunder will be forced to give Kendrick Perkins big minutes to match up with Howard, which will not allow the Thunder to be at their best. "One of the things with the Thunder that they were able to do and allowed them to play their best basketball was when Perkins wasn’t on the floor," said Rambis. "They have some other big guys that can physically match up with Howard, but just experience-wise, they’ll have a difficult time matching up with him. If you’ve got Perkins on the floor, you saw what happened with him in the Finals with Miami.”
Despite the Perkins conundrum, Rambis thinks the Thunder are going to be better than they were a year ago, especially with the return of backup point guard Eric Maynor, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL. He said, “They have a very good tea, with the experience of getting to the Finals and getting Maynor back, which I think is going to be a big key for them. He’s a more traditional point guard, he can take Westbrook off the ball, he can take Harden off the ball, and now teams are going to have a much more difficult time in dealing with all of that offensive power that’s out there on the floor. They’re going to be a good team, but that Perkins issue is something that’s going to be interesting to see how that gets resolved."
(Photo via Alternate Crop)
Despite all the positives that came out of James Harden’s breakout 2011-2012 season, one big issue remains: his contract. If the Thunder do not sign Harden to an extension by Halloween, he will become a restricted free agent this summer. Therein lies the problem. Harden will command a max offer, one the Thunder cannot match without going deep into the luxury tax. So does Harden take less money to stay with the team that drafted him? Or does he head for greener pastures and a boatload of cash? And will that looming decision affect his play on the court?
Rambis doesn’t see it becoming a distraction. "I don’t think it’s going to be something internally he worries about, because if he doesn’t get the sort of contract that he wants out of OKC, there are going to be plenty of suitors and bidders out there when the season is over with," said Rambis. "So one way or another, he’s going to get his money. I believe, preferably, he would rather stay in OKC and make all of that happen.”
Shaquille O'Neal has been disrespecting Howard for years, continuously calling Andrew Bynum the best center in the league and making other ridiculous claims that are clear shots at the new Lakers center.
Rambis can’t seem to wrap his head around it. He said, “I really don’t understand it. I just remember being with Kareem [Abdul-Jabaar] and listening to Wilt [Chamberlain] make comments about Kareem. It’s been going on for generations: the center who's retired tries to find a way to demean the one who's the top center in the league at that point in time."
As for the notion that Shaq never took kindly to Howard calling himself “Superman,” the nickname Shaq once held, Rambis chuckled. It was Rambis who earned the original Superman moniker during his playing days, due to his large mustache and thick-rimmed glasses. "We all know who the original Superman in the NBA was, so they both stole it,” he said with a laugh.
(Photo via The Smoking Section)
It's a forgone conclusion that the Lakers and Thunder will make the postseason. Here's who else Rambis sees getting in on the dance.
San Antonio Spurs. “Every single year, we go into a talk about playoffs, and every single year the team that seems to do really well and no one ever mentions is San Antonio. You look at how well they played in the first couple games against OKC, and then they just couldn’t figure out a way to play defense. OKC changed their matchups and they ended up doing a really good job of stopping San Antonio from scoring, which is what San Antonio did all season long and did a really good job at. That’s a team that everybody forgets about, but is probably going to be right back up there again.”
Sacramento Kings. “This is Sac’s year to kind of step up. I don’t know if they can make the playoffs, but they should be a team if guys have matured and grown together. Everybody has been talking about all the time they spent together this summer. There’s enough talent there to beat a lot of teams in the league, so they’re going to cause teams problems too if all of that falls into place with them.”
Dallas Mavericks. “Dallas, they lost key ballplayers, and you just don’t know about O.J. Mayo and how he’s going to fit in, but he could be a terrific scorer for them, or he could just not fit in. Coming off the bench, it’s a role he hasn’t accepted, as opposed to where [Jason] Terry kind of enjoyed the role of almost a villain coming off the bench and being the guy that sparked the team. That’s not something that O.J. has accepted, so there’s going to be a little bit of jostling there. They’ve got new players like [Chris] Kaman, so they have NBA talent there. You just wonder if it’s all going to fit well enough to be a playoff team. It’s one of those situations where you look at it and you go,‘They could be a top four or five seed if everything clicks for them, but they could also be a team where it just doesn’t work.’”
It’s been an interesting offseason for Miami. The team added Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen, but Dwyane Wade is coming off knee surgery and LeBron James played an awful lot of basketball this summer en route to winning the gold medal in Beijing. Is there any reason to doubt that Miami can repeat?
Rambis said that head coach Erik Spoelstra has matured as a coach and understands the importance of resting his players. “Erik has grown as a coach and he understands that he’s got to manage the season in order to get guys playing the best ball and be healthy at the end of the season, and not necessarily worry about what your regular season record is. The key part is making sure that you manage the players through the season, especially guys that went all the way into June and then were playing in the Olympics and then [have to] turn it around and start the season again.”
As for the play on the court, Rambis thinks the Heat, with Lewis and Allen sliding in for the oft-injured Mike Miller and the streaky James Jones, have put themselves in a position to get even better.
“They could be a scary team just because Lewis and Allen add that outside threat that opens up the floor for those guys. You could sit out there and run a whole bunch of sequences for Allen, where he’s just one of the best that’s ever played the game at moving without the basketball to get a shot. Again, like the Lakers, are you leaving Bosh to help out? Are you leaving James to help out? Are you leaving Wade to help out? Where are you helping off of? So that could be a problem. Where LeBron, he’s not doing anything more than passing the basketball. He could work his way through a game that way, save some energy, and then at the end of the game step up and take over. They’re going to be very good again.”
(Photo via Bleacher Report)
The move is complete. The Nets are out of New Jersey and in their new house that Jay-Z built, the Barclays Center, with a new cast of characters. Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace were Brooklyn's big grabs of the offseason, and the club retained Deron Williams.
Rambis gave us his expectations for a team that is suddenly in the spotlight: “You’re adding all of these new pieces, guys that haven’t played together before, and that takes time under most circumstances. The terminology, getting everybody on the same page so they are talking the same language. They shouldn’t have a whole lot of issues blending their games. Gerald Wallace is a guy that’s always fit in. He plays hard, he has unselfish characteristics as a player. Joe Johnson has been one of the elite scorers in this league, a guy that you have to focus on. Deron Williams is a point guard who's very difficult to stay in front of; and you’ve got [Brook] Lopez inside who’s a very capable offensive player. He’s big and he’s strong, so, again, they are a team that can cause a lot of matchup problems for teams as long as those guys play and fit into their roles.”
(Photo via CBS Sports)
Aside from the Heat and the Nets, here are a few other teams Rambis thinks could do some damage in the postseason.
Atlanta Hawks. “They lost a lot of firepower, but they are going to be getting [Al] Horford back. They missed him for most of the season, so that’s going to help them out. That’s going to change things for them. They are a team I’d put in the Dallas/Utah kind of thing, where they could either be really good and play well and have a nice spot in the playoffs or they could not make the playoffs.”
New York Knicks. “It’s going to be interesting to see Jason Kidd coming off the bench. For an older guy, if you’re not playing significant minutes, you can get pretty stiff pretty quick. But he’s going to be a terrific voice in the locker room and getting everybody to do the right things. He’s a no-nonsense type of guy. You’re doing the right things, doing your role, playing the right way, playing defense, moving the basketball, and he’s going to bring all that to a team that has the talent to be a very disruptive team in the playoffs. They’ve got the talent, they’ve got the size, they’ve got the defensive presence with players that they’ve added or had on the team before. It’s a team, if they do the right things and move the basketball and play the kind of defense they are capable of playing, they can be a very disruptive team.”
Boston Celtics. “I think [Jason] Terry’s going to be a tremendous asset for them. He's willing to come off the bench, whereas that was a struggle with Allen. You’ve got Terry coming off the bench accepting that role. Jeff Green is coming back. In the preseason game that I saw, he looked terrific. He's able to attack the basket, and it doesn’t look like he has any sort of hesitance in his mind about being aggressive, which you might concerned about with somebody who had the surgery that he had to go through. He was attacking the basket, he was falling, he was getting up and running, so there was no problem with any of that. They are a team with [Paul] Pierce and [Kevin] Garnett. And Darko [Milicic], this might be his time to step up. He’s playing with veteran guys that want to pass the basketball. When he wants to, he can play good basketball offensively and defensively. They’ve got starters, they’ve got a bench. They’re going to be good.
“I like [Rajon] Rondo, I like Avery Bradley. Their defensive presence, both Rondo and Bradley at the guard position, they can be disruptive for any team with their length and defensive capabilities. Bradley showed me he’s a lot better shooter than people thought he was, in terms of a spot-up shooter. If that continues, they might be able to play those guys together even and play a smaller lineup. They’re going to be an intriguing team to watch and see how they grow.”
Watch Kurt Rambis on ESPN this season. NBA action kicks off Oct. 30.