The NBA season begins on October 29, and the pecking order of teams could be on the brink of a dramatic shift. Some good teams could make the move into elite status, while some old friends at the top may find themselves battling for a playoff spot.
A wide-open Western Conference is as difficult a Conference to predict in recent memory. The San Antonio Spurs won last year, eventually falling short of the ultimate goal to the Miami Heat in the Finals, but they will always be in the conversation with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan leading the way. The NBA world has waited for the often elite, but never able to get over the proverbial "hump" Oklahoma City Thunder to make that next step. Could be difficult with an ailing Russell Westbrook. And then there's the much-maligned Los Angeles Lakers always in the hunt. And that is only mentioning a handful of teams in an extremely deep Conference. Here's how I think it will ultimately play out.
1 - Los Angeles Clippers (58-24)
Often in these previews, you see the author hyping up the new free agent signing being the reason why a team is able to improve dramatically. While Darren Collison, Jared Dudley, Antawn Jamison, Byron Mullens and J.J. Redick are all nice improvements to an already deep squad, it is all about the new coach leading the way for the "other team" in L.A.
I do not think there was a more impactful move made by an NBA team over the past few months than the Clippers bringing in Doc Rivers to coach for them. We are about to embark on a mature Clippers team. Gone are the days of "Lob City" where the Clippers monopolized Sportscenter's Top 10 Plays, only to fall short in the playoffs. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will have career years respectively, and sixth man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford will continue pouring in buckets. Expect the Clippers' defense to improve dramatically with the influence of Doc.
The wild card here, and ultimately the reason the Clippers will make the move to the top of the West, is DeAndre Jordan. With the Clippers moving away from the high-octane offensive game plan, and going for more of a complete defensive-driven strategy, we may finally see Jordan reach his peak as an NBA center.
Say goodbye to "Lob City" and say hello to the top seed in the Western Conference.
2 - Houston Rockets (53-29)
The West is not nearly as top heavy as it once was. The Thunder are vulnerable, the Spurs will likely rest their players even more and the Lakers are not even in the conversation anymore. That leaves opportunity for once average teams to take the jump to the top, and here come the Houston Rockets.
Houston made a huge splash by bringing in controversial All-Star Dwight Howard. Regardless of how you feel about Dwight as a person, his immense talent and imposing power are impossible to deny. The center position is as thin as you can imagine, and Howard continues to be a top guy. Outside of the scrutiny of Los Angeles, Dwight Howard can go back to being the Dwight Howard of old -- and that means bad things for the Western Conference.
Joining Howard in the All-Star discussion this season will be James Harden. Harden emerged as a superstar last season for Houston, as he was top five in scoring with 25.9 points per game. His defense and ability to perform highly in the playoffs continue to be his question mark, and he will have to face his playoff demons in 2014 as Houston is expected to be contenders in the Western Conference.
The Rockets have two legitimate studs on the team, and plenty of supporting players to ascend their way towards the top of the West. Chandler Parsons was one of the more underrated players in basketball a year ago, while Patrick Beverley proved he has what it takes to lead an offense. His contribution was vital as Jeremy Lin surprised no one with his dramatic regression during his first year in Houston.
If Dwight Howard channels his Orlando Magic version of his game, then Houston will find themselves comfortably at the top of the West.
3 - Golden State Warriors (51-31)
The Warriors surprised a lot of people in the NBA world last season as they found themselves not only above .500 for the first time in five years, but back in the playoffs as they were knocked out by the eventual Conference champions in the second round.
They are a prime target for regression a year later, but don't expect Stephen Curry to allow that to happen. Curry was ridiculous in the playoffs and a healthy squad could mean an improvement from surprising low playoff seed to a top three team in the West.
A lot of people do not realize how deep the Warriors are. It is not just Curry. David Lee enjoyed his first All-Star game nod since 2010 last year, while Andrew Bogut healthy means an imposing force in the paint. Klay Thompson showed spectacular improvement in his sophomore campaign, and will again be at the top of the three-point leaderboard this season. Harrison Barnes went from a decent rookie with growing pains during the regular season to a vital rotational piece of the puzzle in the playoffs. Look for him to be Golden State's 2013-14 version of Klay Thompson showing great improvement in his second year.
Andre Iguodala was knocked out of the playoffs by the Warriors while with the Nuggets, now a season later he has accepted the mantra of "Can't beat them, join them." His defense against swingmen is still top notch, and will be a solid contributor and stabilizer for a talented, young Warriors team.
Bench-cheerleading-stud Kent Bazemore will have plenty to cheer about this season with the Warriors.
4 - San Antonio Spurs (50-32)
The Spurs are as likely to win the West as any other team in the Conference. However, to make that a reality, look for coach Gregg Popovich to rest his stars even more this year. Make no mistake, in the playoffs, the Spurs will be led by their Hall of Fame duo of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, but in the regular season, it is going to be Kawhi Leonard's time to shine. He will fill up the box score with points, steals, rebounds and assists. He could be a very prominent dark horse candidate to make his first All-Star team at just 22 years old.
The Spurs are a been-there-done-that team. They have enjoyed enough regular season success to satisfy the most vicious of competitors. For years they have been more focused on the playoffs trying to capture the elusive final championship. They fell short last year after Danny Green's impeccable shooting fell off the face of the Earth, and Manu Ginobili struggled to realize if he was playing for the Spurs or Heat.
The biggest question mark on the Spurs is the aforementioned Ginobili. He didn't just regress in the playoffs, he was flat-out brutal. To say he cost the Spurs a championship would not be as big an exaggeration as one may think. I don't trust Manu Ginobili, and that is why I see the Spurs falling back with the pack this season.
The window is closing on the Spurs, this may be their last chance to win it all together. They'll be in the hunt.
5 - Oklahoma City Thunder (49-33)
Such a low ranking for the defending top seed in the West may be an egregious shortcoming on my behalf to some, but Russell Westbrook's injury hinders this team dramatically. OKC was able to beat a mediocre Rockets team in the first round sans Westbrook, but were easily taken out by a better Memphis Grizzlies team. That is your precursor for how the Thunder will perform to start off this season.
Westbrook's return is very much up in the air right now after tearing his meniscus in his right knee against the Rockets in the opening round. He could miss up to two months to start off the season as it could linger throughout the campaign. Kevin Durant is the best player in the NBA not named LeBron James, but this is a league where you need at least two superstars to compete for a title, and Westbrook is just too much of a question mark to get on the bandwagon.
Who will step up in Westbrook's absence? Taking a look at the roster, I don't see many legitimate candidates. Serge Ibaka is a defensive stud who continues to let his offensive game grow, but from there you run into issues. Thabo Sefolosha has a defensive-heavy game, while guys like Nick Collison and Derek Fisher bring the typical "intangible" effect to a team. These are not difference makers, and the Thunder are surprisingly thin.
Having Kevin Durant on your team automatically makes you a contender, but don't be surprised if even with a healthy Westbrook, the Thunder fail to make a lasting impact in the playoffs. This team is still trying to replace James Harden, and the roster is not deep enough to truly compete.
6 - Memphis Grizzlies (47-35)
After trading Rudy Gay last January, many people wrote off the Grizzlies as legitimate threats in the playoffs. Despite this, Memphis made it to the Western Conference Finals on the backs of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Most teams are lucky to have one above average big man on their roster, the Grizzlies have two studs.
One player who stood out in the absence of Rudy Gay was Mike Conley. The underrated point guard led the NBA in steals in 2012-13 and fills stat sheets with points, assists and rebounds. His improvement from one year to the next has been spectacular and we seem to be on the verge of Conley's prime.
Mike Miller has returned to the team that drafted him to finish out his career after spectacular playoff success with the Miami Heat. He joins Jerryd Bayless, Tony Allen, Quincy Pondexter and Tayshaun Prince as they fill out a very deep Memphis team.
Memphis has their own budding "big three" and a combination of Randolph, Gasol and Conley can make another deep run in the playoffs.
7 - Dallas Mavericks (45-37)
Dallas struggled mightily in 2012-13 as they dealt with an overturned roster and crippling injuries. Now a year later, Dallas has a healthy Dirk Nowitzki and a more mature and deep roster. Dirk missed 29 games due to injuries, and while his age is catching up to him, he still possesses elite scoring abilities. His flexibility and shooting skills continue to perplex and stretch defenses. A healthy Dirk Nowitzki gives Dallas a fighting chance to creep back above .500 and get back in the hunt for the playoffs.
Dallas missed the postseason last year, but they would have been in even deeper trouble if not for Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. Novice fans would be surprised to learn how effective both players were for Rick Carlisle's Mavericks. Carter has become a three-point marksman while Marion continues to exhibit top-notch defensive capabilities at the wing.
The dead weight of Chris Kaman and Elton Brand has been replaced spectacularly by Mark Cuban. Samuel Dalembert is a bit of a headcase, but his defensive prowess and rebounding ability will prove to be invaluable for an aging Dirk. Not to mention nabbing former San Antonio Spur DeJuan Blair. Both guys save Dirk from having to play center, which is exactly what he and this team need.
The positive additions don't stop at Blair and Dalembert. Monta Ellis has replaced O.J. Mayo at SG and that is a fantastic upgrade. Ellis is one of the best bulk scorers in the league, and is a hell of a lot better mentally than Mayo. Devin Harris has injury woes to deal with, but he will simply be a back-up with newcomer Jose Calderon leading the offense at the point. Calderon will flourish on a decent Dallas squad as his name will likely creep towards the top of the assists leader board.
A likely return to the playoffs is imminent for Dallas if the team can remain healthy. Newcomers Ellis, Dalembert and Blair lift some pressure off the shoulders of Dirk, and a deep roster means a scary opening-round matchup for a top West team.
8 - Denver Nuggets (42-40)
Denver finished as a top-three team in the West at the end of last season, but a major fall back to reality is in store here. Andre Iguodala is gone, and he is someone I think meant more to Denver than they realize.
Danilo Gallinari is still nursing a torn ACL that he suffered last April, and likely will not return until early 2014. Without him, Denver will rely heavily on Wilson Chandler and Darrell Arthur as swingmen. Both guys are talented, but very injury prone. A healthy Gallinari would make this a top five team in the West, but as it stands, they will have to battle for a playoff spot.
Ty Lawson continues to take huge strides in his career and is primed and ready to establish himself in the second tier of NBA point guards. Denver has a perfect combination of exciting young talent in Lawson, and a crafty experienced veteran in Andre Miller. Miller can still ball and is very much an asset to this team.
Keep both eyes on Kenneth Faried this year. This monster was fantastic down the stretch last year and has quickly become one of the more entertaining rising stars in the league. His electric play-style is a joy to watch, and I expect big things out of the "Manimal."
Denver is one year, and a few additional pieces away from being true contenders.
9 - Los Angeles Lakers (41-41)
Remember last year? The Lakers were being heralded as the team that could take down the mighty Miami Heat. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash were donning Laker gold and everything seemed pretty awesome in Tinsel Town. One nightmare season later and they are looking at the very real possibility of missing the playoffs.
Who knows when Kobe Bryant will be able to return from his torn Achilles injury. And if they were smart, knowing how little time Kobe has left in his career and how bad this roster currently is, the Lakers would be smart to not rush him back. That being said, this roster lacks any sort of young potential studs, and Steve Nash has quickly grown old. The Lakers are very far away from being title contenders, with or without Kobe.
Pau Gasol is still a great big man, but there is no center to speak of on the team to complement him. Chris Kaman is not exactly Dwight Howard.
Wes Johnson, Nick Young and Jodie Meeks will all get big minutes respectively in the rotation as they vie for the starting swingman spot. Nick Young scores in bunches, but is wildly inconsistent, while Wes Johnson has been a major bust since being taken fourth overall in 2010. Johnson did have his best statistical season last year with the Suns and still his a sliver of potential left in him.
Kobe Bryant will likely return sooner, rather than later, but it's likely he'll wish he hadn't. The Lakers are missing the playoffs.
10 - Minnesota Timberwolves (39-43)
Every season it seems like the Timberwolves are touted as the biggest potential breakout candidate to compete for a playoff spot in the West, and every year the Timberwolves fall well short of any sort of contention. Maybe if Kevin Love could stay healthy for a full season, they could have a shot. That seems to be a tall order, unfortunately.
Hey, if it were up to me, Minnesota would finally realize their potential. Kevin Love is a monster double-double waiting to happen every game, while Derrick Williams is slowly making progress after being take second overall just two years ago. The team is exciting to watch with Ricky Rubio running the point, and if he can continue to grow with Love and Nikola Pekovic dominating in the middle leading the way, Minnesota may flirt with .500.
The Kevin Martin experiment in Oklahoma City failed miserably last year. He was thrust into a role that was impossible to fill with the Thunder trying to replace James Harden. His role is far less vital with the Timberwolves and the once amazingly efficient Martin could return to form slightly in Minnesota.
Minnesota continues to be a few years away from being viable contenders, as any sort of contention in the playoffs will likely not happen until Kevin Love is long gone.
11 - New Orleans Pelicans (35-47)
The NBA team formerly known as the Hornets now have a fresh new name and uniform, and a new roster to showcase them.
I love the addition of Tyreke Evans and he, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon actually make up a surprisingly formidable core on an otherwise bad team. Davis started off slow last season, fresh off his number-one overall selection, but finished very strong and is primed to establish himself as a premier big man. And somehow, some way, Eric Gordon is seemingly healthy. It's a shocking proposition, but if actually stays on the court, he could be the leading scorer for the Pelicans. Jrue Holiday gives New Orleans a potential stud at the point, which they have been trying to replace since letting Chris Paul go.
And from there, you run into issues. A starting squad being good should be expected, those are your best players. The bench is what can separate the good teams from the great teams, and New Orleans is still searching for bench guys who can contribute. Ryan Anderson is a nice player who is deadly from downtown, but his defense leaves a lot to be desired. Austin River's potential has seemingly disappeared in just one season as New Orleans went from using their 10th pick in 2012 to nab him, to sliding him very far down the depth chart. He's officially a project and not remotely a contributor.
New Orleans is a sexy dark-horse pick for playoff contention, but they need to fix their bench and defense issues before they get on the modest level of the lower playoff teams in the West.
12 - Utah Jazz (34-48)
Utah fell just short of the playoffs last year after squeaking in two years ago. They have been stagnate as a mediocre to average over the past few seasons, and things will likely decline this season. That's not to say there aren't some players to get hyped about. Derrick Favors may finally take that next step as he continues to grow as a player, and with both Paull Millsap and Al Jefferson gone, he will be entrusted with leading the way for the big men on the Jazz. He may finally show why Utah traded Deron Williams for him. Favors and Gordon Hayward are the surprising leaders of this very young team.
Rookie PG Trey Burke was being counted on to be that third piece of the puzzle and help solidify Utah as a possible playoff contender, but the Jazz will likely see his debut delayed for upwards of two months due to a broken finger. He is a Rookie of the Year candidate if healthy.
Alec Burks figured to be a Rookie of a Year candidate in his rookie season two years ago after being taken 12th overall in 2011, but he has since disappointed, struggling to establish himself as a difference maker. The Jazz are rebuilding, and he is either going to step up this season, or cement himself as a bust.
Utah will struggle more than they succeed this year, and will never be legitimate playoff contenders.
13 - Portland Trail Blazers (31-51)
Portland should not be this bad, but they are. Even with Damian Lillard bursting on the scene and snatching the Rookie of the Year and LaMarcus Aldridge nabbing back-to-back All-Star nods, they're still very far away from being in the conversation for the playoffs.
Mo Williams was brought in to spell the budding star in Lillard as he can effectively provide meaningful minutes when the Rookie of the Year is on the bench. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews both solidify the wing for Portland, and continue to make me wonder why the Trail Blazers are not better than they are. Something just doesn't quite mesh for this roster top to bottom, and they struggle.
The core is there, but the supporting cast is just bad. Meyers Leonard was taken 11th overall in the 2012 draft, and while he's hardly a lottery-worthy talent, last year's draft was very mediocre. A more meaningful draft pick was potentially made this year with C.J. McCollum taken 10th overall. The combination guard could emerge as a solid sixth man for Portland behind Lillard and Matthews.
There are a lot of young guys trying to develop their games with Portland, and this is the epitome of growing pains.
14 - Sacramento Kings (29-53)
Many people wondered if the Kings would begin this season with DeMarcus Cousins on the squad, and Sacramento put any sort of trade rumors to rest by signing the controversial big man to a substantial four-year $62 million extension. It's time for the big baby to turn into a leader for the Kings and put the head-scratching immature outbursts to bed once and for all.
Cousins' talent is undeniable, but with Tyreke Evans now in New Orleans, there is not much else to get excited about on the Kings. Greivis Vasquez was very good for New Orleans last season, but on a bad team. He is in a similar situation in Sacramento where he can fill the box score, but lose game after game. Inexplicably, the Kings gave Carl Landry a four-year $27 million contract. It's a brutal cap hit for a very average basketball player.
Marcus Thornton is a (very) poor man's Jamal Crawford with his ability to score a ton of points thanks to his impeccable shooting ability, but his minutes could be limited with Vasquez in the fold, and rookie Ben McLemore likely getting every chance possible to crack the rotation. McLemore is someone to be excited about as a Kings fan, but his potential won't even be sniffed for another few years.
Here's hoping DeMarcus Cousins doesn't mind losing more games, or else the big contract stud may have his patience tested once again this season.
15 - Phoenix Suns (23-59)
To say the Phoenix Suns are rebuilding would be a insult to understatements. There is nary a veteran difference maker on the squad other than Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat. Unfortunately, these are two guys who would be better served as role players than stars.
The Eric Bledsoe experiment officially begins in Phoenix as he will likely play shooting guard and be given the most minutes he has ever consistently received in his career. He has a legitimate shot at establishing himself as the most effective player on the team.
Alex Len was taken fifth overall out of Maryland in last summer's draft, but is a way's away from being a true impact performer. The 7-footer has a lot of raw potential, and will log plenty of minutes behind Gortat, but is most likely a year or two away from being a true contributor for the Suns.
Phoenix has no other choice but to allow their young players to develop while filling the holes with bad veterans. They just have to hope they play bad enough to get a top pick in next year's stacked draft.
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