The new NBA season tips off tomorrow! There are a ton of storylines heading into this season that shroud expectations for many teams. There have been tons of moves made in the offseason (Houston, Minnesota, Golden State, Denver, New Orleans) that should increase the competitive balance in the Western Conference. Other teams (Clippers, Denver, Memphis) have new coaches, while others (Lakers, OKC) desperately need to get a superstar player back from injury (Kobe, Westbrook).
With all of this upheaval in the Western Conference, there’s always one constant, the San Antonio Spurs. The defending Western Conference champs will return with most of the same roster that pushed the Miami Heat to the brink in the NBA Finals back in June. There’s no reason to think they won’t replicate the same regular season success they had last year.
The West is going to be super-competitive this year, and both L.A. teams, contrary to what ESPN has to say will both be factors and should be thoroughly entertaining to watch. Without further adieu our Western Conference Preview.
Basketball is a media circus here in Los Angeles, but down on the Rio Grande, it’s just business as usual for Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and crew. The Spurs will look to get more out of bright young players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who both emerged in last year’s playoffs. Nando de Colo and Cory Joseph will allow Popovich to manage Tony Parker’s minutes. The Spurs will also love Thiago Splitter enough to have given him a four-year/$36 million deal this offseason. However, Splitter is a solid big-man who alleviates some of the pressure on the 37-year old Duncan. Much like the St. Louis Cardinals in baseball, the Spurs are a player development machine.
In this year’s Western Conference, continuity will be the key to the Spurs’ success. Nothing fancy, just fundamentally sound basketball with tons of high screens and pick-and-rolls on offense. The San Antonio machine will not be slowing down this year.
2. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The amazing turn-around of the Clippers continues. Once the most moribund franchise in the league, there is no doubt that the Clippers are now one of the most exciting teams to watch. The Clippers were busy in the offseason finally landing the coach they wanted in Doc Rivers. Despite the best regular season in Clippers history, the team exited the playoffs in the first round, and former coach Vinny Del Negro was gone. The Clippers hope that Rivers, a brilliant motivator, can help players like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan reach their full potential.
Not only that, but the Clippers fully rehauled their bench adding several veteran players, including some outstanding three-point shooters not only at the wings (Redick, Dudley), but at the four-also (Jamison, Mullens). The Clippers will be small ball nightmare with the shooting they have. With the incomparable Chris Paul running the show at point, the Clippers are great basketball to watch. Paul is brilliant, and his ability to take over games in the fourth quarter is sublime. His drive is unquestioned.
The key for the Clippers will be if Doc Rivers can get Griffin and Jordan to expand their games in the half-court. Griffin’s game can become plodding in pressure situations, and Jordan just isn’t an option late in games since he’s the worst free throw shooter in the NBA (38.6% last year, 44% for his career). If Jordan and Griffin can take the next step, the Clippers could be unstoppable.
3. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Things ended on a sour note for the Thunder last year. Russell Westbrook sustained a torn meniscus in his knee during the Thunder’s first round series with the Houston Rockets. Consequently, the pressure of the world fell on Kevin Durant‘s shoulders and the West’s number one seed was out of the playoffs in the second round. Westbrook had to undergo a second operation on his knee and he is expected to miss at least the first month of the season.
The Thunder also continue to be haunted by the James Harden trade. Harden’s replacement, Kevin Martin, a capable veteran shooter, left for the Minnesota Timberwolves this offseason. Basically, there’s not really another proven scorer out there to help out Durant.
The Thunder will be just fine, however. Westbrook will be back sooner rather than later, and when that happens the Thunder will have the most dynamic scoring duo in the league. Although Serge Ibaka wilted in the playoffs, he’s still a highly efficient inside scorer and a demon while defending the boards (3.03 BPG, tops in the league). Reggie Jackson was more than capable filling in for Westbrook during the season. Youngsters Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones will look to assume some of the offense vacated by Martin.
OKC will be just fine. Once Westbrook returns to the court, he and Durant will be just like KD’s Nike ad: Not Nice.
4. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
The Warriors were the darlings of the NBA last season spearheaded by the emergence of Steph Curry as an elite scorer and shooter. Curry is so deadly from three point range, he shoots better from behind the arc (45.3%) than in front of the line (45.1%). Curry is also brilliantly unselfish, he averaged 6.9 assists per game. Insert free-agent acquisition Andre Iguodala into the lineup in place of the not-nearly-as-effective-as-he-once-was Richard Jefferson and Golden State will be looking to do some major damage in the West this year. Iguodala gives Golden State another scary wing defender along with Harrison Barnes, and a jack-of-all-trades player.
The Warriors will miss Jarrett Jack’s veteran presence and craftiness off the bench, but the Warriors have to be confident that Curry is more than ready to assume more of the responsibility. Steph Curry is a joy to watch, the Warriors might even be more fun to watch than the Clippers. Scratch that, they’re definitely more fun to watch.
5. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
The Grizzlies are not entertaining, but, by golly, they are consistent. The Grizzlies are what the Spurs used to be, slow, plodding, methodical, and suffocating on defense. The Grizz allowed a league low 89.3 PPG last season. Much like the Spurs, continuity will be the key to the Grizzlies’ success. The roster of outstanding players being perfectly utilized remains intact. Although Lionel Hollins is out as coach, the Grizz promoted long time assistant Dave Joerger to head coach, so don’t look for any major fundamental changes to the way Memphis goes about business.
One of the keys to Memphis’s success last year was players like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol taking the next step and becoming outstanding players. Tayshaun Prince fit seamlessly into Memphis’s system coming over after the trade deadline. Prince may not be as devastating as he was on defense in his Detroit days, but he still provides length at the wing, and can hit the corner-3.
If Joerger can get the most out of his players the same way his predecessor did, the Grizzlies will be just fine. In terms of the looks they give you on D and their physicality up front, Memphis is just not a team you look forward to playing, the average score was 92-89, it’s just not fun!
6. HOUSTON ROCKETS
In the movie Enemy of the State Gene Hackman’s character Brill would question Will Smith by saying “You’re either incredibly smart, or incredibly stupid.” I feel that quote applies to the Rockets. The Rockets of course made the big move of the offseason signing Dwight Howard to a four-year/$88 million dollar max contract. Howard gives the Rockets the hoop protection defensive anchor they sorely need. Ideally, Dwight would fit nicely into the Rockets fast paced, spread-the-floor offense led by James Harden and Chandler Parsons. However, that was the idea with the Lakers last year and that never happened.
Not only did Howard fail to assimilate to life in L.A. and not being the star player, Howard’s limits on the offensive end of the floor were painfully obvious all year. That Dwight has such little versatility on offense for a superstar-caliber player heading into his tenth year in the league is inexcusable. Good luck to the Rockets getting Dwight to improve his game in that regard.
However, a change of scenery will do Howard well, and he should fit in better with younger teammates and less pressure in Houston. Enough about Howard though. The Rockets are Harden’s team. Harden emerged as a superstar in his first year on the Rockets and appears primed to do more of the same in his second season in Houston. Harden was fifth in the league in scoring (25.9 PPG), behind only the likes or Carmelo, Durant, Kobe, and LeBron. Yeah, Harden’s at that level.
Here’s hoping Dwight doesn’t get jealous of that.
7. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Oh, what to make of this bunch? There’s a lot of questions, but the majority of them revolve around health, and there’s not really any possible way the Lakers can be more injured than they were last year. Kobe Bryant probably won’t be back in time to start the season, but all reports seem to indicate Kobe is on track and will be back sooner rather than later. If Steve Nash and Pau Gasol are both healthy, they could finally start running that brutal high screen-and-roll that everyone envisioned last year. With Howard gone and Gasol back to being the primary option in the post, things should flow much more freely on offense for the Lakers. New additions like Nick Young and Wesley Johnson give the Lakers much needed youth and athleticism on the wings and they fit much better into Mike D’Antoni‘s system than some of last year’s personnel.
That being said, the main concern for the Lakers will be on the defensive end. The Lakers were bad enough on defense as it was, but without Howard in the lineup they were a sieve in front of the rim. Gasol and Kaman will do an alright job, but they’ll be burned by the pick-and-roll down low. There’s not really a lockdown defender on the wing, imagine the chaos of Kobe and Nick Young just bouncing around in open space trying to feel out opposing players. It might get ugly.
Regardless, the Lakers were still a top 5 offense last season and they can only get more cohesive on offense sans Howard and with a full season of the D’Antoni system. The Lakers won’t be great by any stretch of the imagination, but this is far from a bad team.
8. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Welcome to the club. I kind of look at the T’Wolves the same way I look at the Lakers, given some health, this will be a formidable offense and a team that no one will look forward to playing. Things could be shaky on “D”, but if all the pieces are healthy, they could be a younger, more exciting version of the Lakers.
First and foremost will be the return of Kevin Love. Love missed most of last season (only 18 games played) dealing with various hand breaks and other injuries. Just in those 18 games though, Love was putting up 18 PPG and 14 RPG a night! Imagine what healthy and motivated Love will be able to do this year.
Ricky Rubio is also back at 100% after spending most of last year coming back from a knee injury that ended his 2011-12 season early. Throw in some better wing players with Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, who can both spread the floor with their shooting, and the imposing Nikola Pekovic, who most closely resembles a Bond villain, doing damage on the block and on the boards.
This Minnesota team is really exciting. If everyone stays healthy, look out.
9. DALLAS MAVERICKS
Another team that will be in the mix for the last two playoff spots out West, and in the same vein as the Lakers and T’Wolves. A fast-paced offense that’ll spread the floor, but just a gaping hole on defense.
Dirk Nowitzki will have a little more firepower on the court with him as the Mavs brought in run-and-gun guard Monta Ellis. Veteran PG Jose Calderon will give the Mavericks offense some stability and the ball-distributor they’ve been missing since Jason Kidd left. That being said, the Mavericks just don’t have much defensive flexibility at the wing positions and for all the nice things they do on offense, it will tough to incorporate so many new guys into Rick Carlisle‘s nuanced defense.
The Mavs will be interesting, but I can’t see them cracking the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference
10. DENVER NUGGETS
The Nuggets were another one of the darlings of the NBA last year jumping out to the number three seed with one of the most entertaining offenses in the league. Most would feel that the team overachieved last year and much of that was because of last year’s Coach of the Year George Karl. However, with a new GM in town, Karl and the Nuggets parted ways, and rookie coach Brian Shaw will take over.
On top of that, the Nuggets lost their most versatile player, Andre Iguodala to free agency. The Nuggets will sorely miss Iggy’s perimeter defense, his cutting and passing was integral to George Karl’s offense. Danilo Gallinari is also out with a knee injury, and he won’t be coming back anytime soon either. Nate Robinson and Randy Foye will bring energy and pace, but that has to be the smallest pair of wings in the game.
They also lost their main rim protector in Kosta Koufos, that means more responsibility for JaVale McGee, which will be entertaining regardless of the outcome.
All the question marks, and this Nuggets team just isn’t as intimidating as last year’s bunch.
11. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Another intriguing young team that could make some noise competing for the last two playoff spots. Portland’s biggest problem last year was that they simply had no bench to backup the nice young core of LaMarcus Aldridge, rookie of the year Damian Lillard, and wings Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews.
A lot of that will be solved now. Lillard was a revelation last year and is already in the top 10 of true point guards in the league. Aldridge is one of the most versatile bigs in the league on offense. They now have some solid backup. Mo Williams and Earl Watson bring solid veteran leadership to the bench and will alleviate some of the pressure on Lillard. Williams can also play the two spot if Portland wishes to play to some ball and stretch the floor. Robin Lopez doesn’t provide much offense but he gives Portland a solid rim protector and is at least a body up front next Aldridge. Anything they get from sharpshooting rookie McCollum is a plus.
Like the teams preceding them on the list, the Blazers probably won’t play very great D. As nice as Lillard and Aldridge, et al are, I consider the Blazers kind of like the Atlanta Hawks West. Good, sometimes really good, but this group isn’t winning a championship or going deep into the playoffs. They have talent, but not that kind of talent.
12. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Not only are they must watch simply because of the name change, but the Pelicans could be one of the most interesting teams to watch in the league. And I’m ranking them only 12th! With the additions of Holliday and Evans the Pelicans now have a loaded backcourt that can do virtually anything on offense. Anthony Davis is poised to take the next step, he’s already outstanding on the defensive end and he’s about to get pretty darn good on offense too. Throw in Ryan Andersen, the ultimate stretch-four, raining threes, and the Pelicans will be a blast to watch.
Other than Davis, they’ll also play little to no defense on a nightly basis, which is why I can’t pick them to finish as a playoff contender. But, maybe I’m wrong, and the other tweaks they made to their bench add some more firepower, and the Pelicans are good enough to put opposing defenses in distress. I’ll say no, because everything would have to break the right way for them, but don’t be fooled by the goofy mascot, the Pelicans could be dangerous in this year’s Western Conference.
13. SACRAMENTO KINGS
Key additions: Greivis Vasquez, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ben McLemore; Key losses: Tyreke Evans
Meanwhile in Sacramento. It seems the past few years all we’ve been hearing out of Sacto is that the team is being sold, the fanbase is doing whatever they can to keep the team in town. Seemingly every Lakers game up there in April for the past three years has been “the last time Sacramento will host the Lakers.”
Well, it finally seems as though ownership is resolved and the Kings will stay in Sacramento. With that, the fanbase has a decent amount to be excited about this season. The Kings were one of the most efficient offenses after the all-star break last year, and DeMarcus Cousins just got a big payday (4-years, $62 million). Paired with Greivis Vasquez running the point, Cousins could finally become the all-star so many people have been waiting to see.
Other than that, not much else has changed up at Sleep Train Arena (or whatever, they’re calling it nowadays). The Kings games will be thoroughly entertaining with absolutely no defense being played whatsoever. Take the over, we could be watching games score in the 130′s up there.
The Kings will be fun, but they’re not going anywhere.
14. UTAH JAZZ
Utah has some nice young talent, but it’s just that, raw, young talent. This is a rebuilding year. Their best player is Gordon Hayward, and the team will let the young guys play. Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors are a very nice defensive combo at the rim and will allow the Jazz to play some pretty nice defense on any given night.
But, there’s just too many unproven guys, and Jefferson and Biedrins won’t be doing much in what was a straight salary dump by Golden State on Utah. If young guards Alec Burks and Trey Burke can develop quickly the Jazz could go a little higher, but with this stacked West, it’s just not in the cards for Utah.
15. PHOENIX SUNS
The Suns are officially “Riggin’ for Wiggins.” Witness a team in full tank mode, and this was before they traded Marcin Gortat and Shannon Brown to Washington for Emeka Okafor and a draft pick. That’s okay, though, the Suns want the best possible position in the 2014 draft where they could have up to four picks.
Other than the absolute train wreck that is the Suns right now, really the only intriguing thing from a basketball standpoint going on will be to watch Eric Bledsoe get extensive minutes. Will the uber-athletic Bledsoe make the leap and realize superstar potential? Or will he just be another guy. Regardless, Bledsoe will get the minutes (Goran Dragic will be there at the start, but he’s probably next to be traded), and the Suns will gladly take the results (or lack thereof) regardless.