The Questions Every Western Conference Team Needs Answered This Preseason

Preseason is when teams want to work through mistakes and identify the most pressing issues. Camps have now given way to games, which offer a different level of looking at a team’s identity. It would be asking for the impossible to have every problem identified, let alone remedied, by the end of October; the best-case scenario is to simply not carry too many from the start into the season. What should every team be asking itself during the preseason? We’ve got you covered. Today, we look at the Western Conference.

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LOS ANGELES LAKERS: The Lakers are set just about everywhere with not just good talent, but upper-echelon, All-Star talent. It’s the same at center, too, though Dwight Howard‘s arrival came with a caveat: his back and its herniated disk. The question shifts to his backups Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre, the latter a second-round pick in June from Gonzaga. Hill was an energizing force last season off the bench after his trade from Houston to L.A., and he had 10 points against Golden State in the first preseason game. And then, just like Howard, he was diagnosed with a herniated disk. Some reports have his injury as worse than Howard’s. The Lakers could survive with Sacre, whose passing is fine if unspectacular in a Princeton offense, but for how long?

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: Lamar Odom is beyond the questioning of his talent. Now back in Los Angeles after a winter of discontent in Dallas, we’re probably past questioning his attitude, too (it should be sunny). So how does he fit into the lineup for the Clippers? With DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin holding the center and power forward spots, and Caron Butler and Grant Hill good bets (though hardly set in stone) to get a majority of minutes at small forward, Odom’s minutes are likely to be from a mix of the two positions. The Clips could venture at times to a smaller lineup, with Griffin at center and Odom a PF who can stretch a defense, or bump him up to spot duty even at shooting guard for mismatches. Will be able to become the multi-position weapon he was in a Lakers uniform again in his first basketball action since last February? This preseason will go a long way toward helping coach Vinny Del Negro decide how best to use him.

PHOENIX SUNS: At shooting guard, Jared Dudley and Shannon Brown are dueling for the one job that hasn’t been claimed outright in Suns camp so far. Brown started the final 17 games of last season and averaged 15.8 points as a starter, seven more than when he came off the bench, but an improvement on wing defense is needed from him. Dudley has the edge in being able to defend more than just his position and is also more flexible with where he could fit on offense, too; he could see time at small forward even with Michael Beasley as the determined starter. If Dudley continues to shoot his career averages (47 percent from the field, 41 percent from three) he could get the edge at the two spot.

GOLDEN STATE: Will Klay Thompson‘s game be more versatile? Thompson had a very rocky start to his NBA career as a rookie last January, but became a 12.5 PPG scorer on 44 percent shooting from the field, and 41 percent from three by April. What was so interesting about his first preseason game against the Lakers wasn’t that he shot 7-of-11 from the field, but that three straight possessions he drove on Kobe Bryant to the basket. Afterward he said that “Kobe can’t move his feet as much as he used to,” which saying that alone is a sign the guard from Washington State has much more confidence. Hopefully that translates into becoming less one-dimensional as a spot-up shooter, and harder to plan for by opponents.

SACRAMENTO: When Thomas Robinson went to the Kings last June in the NBA Draft, the thought of rebound-eating lineup with DeMarcus Cousins at center and Robinson at PF kept Kings fans going nearly by itself. What else did they have to cling to, with Tyreke Evans unhappy and the Maloofs uncommitted to keeping the team around? That plan has a wrinkle now: Robinson has been playing at small forward in preseason, with Chuck Hayes and Jason Thompson taking the fours spot. Keith Smart is doing what coaches should in the preseason, which is dabble with lineups, but this appears to be less an experiment than a more permanent way to give the Kings a larger lineup. Would it hurt the rebounding of Robinson, last year’s NCAA leader, to have him closer to the three-point line than the block? We shall see.

MINNESOTA: The point guard position, sans Ricky Rubio, is maybe most pressing. Can J.J. Barea be the starting guard he lobbied to be after the 2011 postseason? Can Luke Ridnour get those minutes? Or will Alexey Shved transition from preseason starter to regular-season leader until Rubio returns? All are interesting. Most pressing, however, is how Kevin Love arrived at camp out of shape. He’s acknowledged, publicly, that the shape he’s in is stressing him out mentally and coach Rick Adelman has called him on it. Quite simply, Love is even more important to the Wolves without Rubio, so getting him ready to play by the season opener is paramount. This team has little margin for error in making the playoffs and needs an even better season from Love than his last two, which is asking a lot. The way he transformed himself from one of Team USA’s disappointments early this summer to a stalwart by the gold medal game in London is a good clue as to why it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Love to go from out of shape to all-world quickly.

PORTLAND: How will new coach Terry Stotts ensure Nicolas Batum is worth his $45 million contract? Batum is the No. 3 option on this team with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard the finisher and driver, respectively, of an offense Stotts promised will be uptempo and heavy on the running. Batum has been inching toward a bigger role in Portland in each of the past four seasons, with his usage rate last season of 20.5 percent a career high. How to make him more of a part of the offense? Diversify how he can hurt you. Much like Thompson in Golden State, Batum must become a more consistent to-the-basket option. His free-throws average per game last season was a career high (as was his attempts per game at the rim), but at 2.7 per game from the stripe, he still has much room for improvement on getting calls on slashes to the hoop.

DENVER: Ty Lawson, in an interview with Dime last month, dropped a hint that JaVale McGee had become a low post force in offseason workouts. Denver has been a fashionable choice to upset the Lakers or Thunder since it traded for Andre Iguodala in August, but one of the largest pieces holding back full-out praises for the Nuggets is McGee. The preseason would be a nice time to give him more touches than usual — in scoring position or out of it, to see if he has new ways to get to the rim — and see what he can do.

OKLAHOMA CITY: James Harden‘s impending contract deadline aside, I want to see if Reggie Jackson can continue his hellacious Summer League progress into this preseason. You might think point guard of Oklahoma City would be one of the most boring evaluations of any in the West because minutes behind Russell Westbrook will be scant once the real games begin. Instead, who gets to play his backup is one of the most intriguing to watch between Jackson and Eric Maynor, who is returning from knee surgery but has started this preseason. Jackson should consider this his callback to prove his audition as Westbrook’s backup was no fluke.

UTAH: Enes Kanter had a very busy offseason, what between losing 50 pounds, flexing in L.A., and learning how to do the worm for Jazz media day. He’s also added post moves after working with Kiki Vandeweghe, which one report noted was Kanter’s first lesson since being drafted No. 3 a year earlier that was spent with a big man expert. That’s more of a knock against the Jazz organization more than anything for not getting him help earlier, but it appears from those lessons came a new jump hook, to his decidedly one-dimensional and ineffective repertoire last season. It’s one thing to get into great shape, but another to find minutes behind Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors and Paul Millsap. Can he show enough this month to earn his first start — or even more than his 13.2 minutes per game last season?

SAN ANTONIO: The Spurs have few holes, so I’ll look at two role players and their contributions. First: Is Nando De Colo for real? A day after Stephen Jackson compared him to Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Gregg Popovich supported that theory, as well. Those are enormous votes of confidence for the slick-passing guard, whose stealing ability and defense may be the best ways he ensures he gets floor time. Also, will the real DeJuan Blair please sub in? In a year’s time he went from sparkplug and confirmation of the Spurs’ front-office genius at drafting to a disgruntled playoff bench fixture. Will Popovich use the preseason to build up Blair’s confidence with extended playing time, or will he give even more credence to the idea Blair is a dead man walking?

HOUSTON: Amid the flurry of Houston’s offseason deals meant to snare Dwight Howard, Jeremy Lin took center stage. It’s no different in preseason, because even though Lin has the job security and a large contract he must show the playmaking ability he flashed in New York last spring. It doesn’t have to be three games of 30 points and 10 assists, but just the notion Houston didn’t buy a flash in the pan would be nice. For the record I believe in Lin’s long-term ability; however, by playing well he staves off the sports talk radio panic, which keeps feeds fans’ fears from showing, which holds off unnecessary pressure on Lin in October. Lin of all people should know how much fans’ fervor can change overnight.

MEMPHIS: On a team many have called the Grizzlies best to ever start a season, the injury of Darrell Arthur isn’t the likely talking point to start with. And yet, his leg fracture playing pick-up ball before training camp brings into question the depth behind Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol after Dante Cunningham was traded away in the summer. As the Memphis Commercial-Appeal noted, Marreese Speights is able to fill in in the frontcourt but won’t be able to match Arthur’s pick-and-role defense.

NEW ORLEANS: One of the most intriguing teams to watch this year is the Hornets, who after one of the most unstable seasons in pro sports history (being run de facto by David Stern under the NBA’s ownership) have a new owner, the No. 1 pick and a promising supporting cast to go with an up-and-coming coach. So what is the most interesting of all that? Eric Gordon. The rookies Austin Rivers and Anthony Davis will need time to season, but Gordon is the playmaker ready to make an All-Star team right now. He was famously upset when New Orleans matched Phoenix’s restricted offer in July, but once he stopped being mad, he had to realize New Orleans will cater to his wishes as its best player. It may be a pipe dream to believe this could be the next small-market surprise, a la Oklahoma City, but Gordon should use the next three weeks to assert himself as “the guy” and develop chemistry with Davis and Rivers.

DALLAS: Will O.J. Mayo become a playmaker on both ends of the floor? Defense has rarely been a priority in Dallas and it surely wasn’t the reason the Mavericks decided to make him their shooting guard for two seasons. He recently called his time in Memphis a “failure” and lamented being benched. Mayo has said all the right things since he arrived in Dallas about turning his career around, but the way to do that is to show a burst of energy by keeping his opponents on the wing in front of him, thus showing an effort to improve the part of his game that has always been his weakness.

What do you think?

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