9. KEVIN DURANT
Perhaps unfairly, a lot of people think Kevin Durant is the reason the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals. This is the common byproduct of any playoff loss: the team’s best player gets the blame. If the Thunder had won the title, Durant would have won the Finals MVP award and people could no longer call him a modern George Gervin (actually, he’s already a better defender and passer than Gervin and the Iceman never made the NBA Finals in his 16-year ABA-NBA career, but still, their body types and the ease with which they score make the comparisons inevitable). No, Kevin Durant was not the reason the Thunder lost in June (Harden’s disappearance and LeBron’s post play are better answers). But entering his sixth season, and at the still-ripe age of 23 (he’ll turn 24 at the end of September), Durant is just now starting to enter his prime, and he’s in a glorious place for that prime.
Oklahoma City has another year with their Westbrook, Durant, Harden and Ibaka lineup, but next summer Harden, Ibaka or both will be gone. If they’re going to win a title, they’d better do so this year. With the Lakers’ moves this offseason, San Antonio’s continued consistency (not to mention three more years of Timmy), a still dangerous Dallas team, the Clippers’ re-tooling with Lamar Odom, Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford, Oklahoma City doesn’t have time to wait around for another opportunity like last year. It’ll be on Durant and his teammates to meet the blossoming challenges in the West, and because of Durant’s place as their best player on their young team (sorry Russ), he’ll be the one to take the praise or the blame. While it’s true he still has at least another 10 years playing at a high level, we don’t know if he’ll be in such a perfect team situation to win it all.
If the Thunder fail to win a title this year, it will be a disappointment. That’s never been the case for a franchise this young. Durant isn’t even 24 yet, but he has three straight scoring titles and he’s USA Basketball’s all-time leading scorer. It’s now time for that elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy. If it doesn’t happen this year, it might not ever happen; such is the fickle fate of the superstar-laden rosters of the post-CBA contemporary NBA.
8. CHRIS PAUL/BLAKE GRIFFIN
The Los Angeles Clippers made the second round of the playoffs last year. It took a miracle comeback against a solid Memphis team in the opening game to get there (remember, they came back from 24 down in the fourth quarter). Then they were swept by an elderly – yet talented and well-coached – Spurs team that had won 14 games in a row to that point. It was a bright opening to the one-dimensional “Lob City”.
Now, the season after they made that first step, they’ve failed to find a GM to replace Neil Olshey (who headed north, to Portland). But GM/Coach/Twitter joke fodder, Vinny Del Negro, helped Director of Player Personnel (and possible new GM) Gary Sacks, acquire Grant Hill, Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford to augment the already formidable partnership between franchise player Blake Griffin and point guard Chris Paul.
With a year playing together behind them, the Clippers’ dynamic duo are expected to play even better going into 2013 with the Pacific Division getting much tougher after the Lakers’ moves. But there are a number of possibilities and concerns for the poor Clippers fans (and the bandwagon fans, the lifers detest) that could derail the good vibes of Paul and Griffin’s first season together.
Chris Paul has never played in a conference finals game, and before last year Blake Griffin hadn’t even suited up in May before, but now with the additions of Odom/Hill/Crawford, they’ll be expected to win, and win more than last year. A second round sweep isn’t going to cut it this year. If Blake’s janky knee doesn’t hold up, and Chris Paul is expected to expend 48 minutes of effort on his beat-up body (he also has a knee that’s decidedly lacking in cartilage), then there’s the possibility Paul might flee the Donald Sterling-owned (and hence, bad juju) franchise.
It’s up to Blake and Paul to make this year another stride in the right direction. If not, the Clippers, plus Blake and Paul individually, will have failed. Last year was a cupcake party compared to the expectations even a slice of playoff success breeds. They better win, and they better win now, or else next year might be back to square one.