Well, we can now call this an annual tradition, so welcome back to another Timberpups.com’s preview of the NBA’s Western Conference. I’m going to stick with a similar flow for the preview, ranking the conference from worst to first and taking a stab at how I see the playoffs unfolding. As I was ranking the teams this year, I quickly realized that there isn’t a team in the conference that doesn’t have its flaws. I also have no idea how things are going to pan out at the top of the conference given injuries, old age, and a few other wrinkles we’ll tackle when we get there. Enough foreplay, here we go …
15. Phoenix Suns: I’m not even sure where to start. If I were a Suns fan going to home games, my regular attire would start with a brown bag. The owner is reprehensible, the front office is something a little less derogatory, and the roster is a mess. Eric Bledsoe is going to be a fantasy basketball stud. Marcin Gortat should put up nice numbers as well, given the Suns’ rookie is Alex Len and already listed as “Day-to-Day”.
14. Sacramento Kings: Any time you have a coach-killing, I don’t give a crap, locker room cancer up for a new contract, you have to max them out, right? Particularly after a lost season when your old ownership group dragged the entire city through the mud. This will be a fun team to watch with Greivis Vasquez and Ben McLemore in the backcourt, but I hate their frontcourt and I’m not moving this team up any further with Cousins the proud new owner of a max contract.
13. Portland Trailblazers: This is likely where I lose a lot of readers, but I foresee a lost year for the Blazers, who will be held hostage by LaMarcus Aldridge – reportedly not happy with the team and looking to move on. The Blazers are another team that will look great playing small ball with Lillard, Matthews, Batum, and McCollum, but I think they suffer from the distractions. One final question: is Thomas Robinson going to figure out life in the NBA this season?
12. Utah Jazz: The Timberwolves’ trade partner from draft night! Trey Burke and Alec Burks make for an intriguing backcourt (and an announcers nightmare). This team still has 2 or 3 too many wings on the roster and a complete lack of balance. They have no depth at PF/C, so expect a lot of run for Favors and Kanter, and then expect them to hit a wall after the all-star break.
11. Los Angeles Lakers: Who knows when Kobe will come back, but what I do know is that he isn’t human. So when he does return, he’ll be at least 80% of Kobe and that’s better than 90% of the players in the NBA. At the same time, I think this team can tread water thanks to Nash, Gasol, and to a much lesser extent, Kaman. If they would have signed one decent wing this offseason, I think they would fight for the last playoff spot. Sorry, Nick Young and Wesley Johnson fans.
10. Denver Nuggets: This year’s winner of my “I literally have no idea what to expect from this team” award. I think Brian Shaw is going to be a good coach, unless he tries to replicate Kurt Rambis’ performance in Minnesota. I like Lawson and Faried, while Gallinari/Chandler are certainly serviceable (note that Gallinari is injured). But then I look and see their SG rotation (Evan Fournier, Randy Foye, and Quincy Miller) and their starting Center (JaVale McGee) and think there is no way this team flirts with 40 wins. Again, I have no idea where this goes. (#Analysis)
9. Dallas Mavericks: This was my surprise team in last season’s preview. That didn’t go too well, but the team was still competitive. They are another year older (Dirk, Marion, and Wince Carter) and have a huge question mark in the paint – Sam Dalembert. The addition of Monta Ellis adds a lot of intrigue, if only to see how long it takes for Rick Carlisle to become the first coach to ever attack a player on the floor with a chair from the first row. The West is too strong/competitive for the Mavs to make the playoffs in my opinion.
8. New Orleans Pelicans: New team name, new mascot, and a few new faces. This is one of the few teams that are on my “must watch” list to see how these guys work together. The Pelicans stole the draft by getting Jrue Holiday, but then went out and got Tyreke Evans. If Eric Gordon or Austin Rivers can stay healthy (I know, I know), this team is going to be highly entertaining. I haven’t even mentioned Anthony Davis yet, who had a strong rookie season and will only get better.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves: So, I have to be honest. The Western Conference is ridiculously loaded and I wound up seeding the playoff teams with two thoughts: 1. some semblance of how I legitimately thought things would wind up and 2. one eye on the playoffs and creating exciting first round match-ups. We’ll get there, trust me. The Wolves are already down one man (Budinger) after last season’s debacle and really can’t afford to lose anyone else, particularly on the wing.
Last season was supposed to be the year the team returned to the playoffs and broke the curse, thereby allowing this season to be “the next step”. So we are behind a year on that roadmap, but I do believe this team is a lock for the playoffs if it can stay healthy. How far it can go heavily depends on Love returning to his “Best PF in the NBA” tag and Rubio making a significant leap in rankings among PG’s. If those two things happen, and they are big “if’s”, this team can do a lot of damage, as all of the complementary pieces are there – shooting, depth, veterans, young guns, and more.
One last thought: Derrick Williams or Shabazz Muhammad must wedge themselves into Adelman’s rotation to fill minutes at multiple positions. If this happens, the team will be ready to roar come playoff time.
6. Golden State Warriors: This team is scary good on paper and there lies the problem. Do I really want to rely on Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut to stay healthy and not miss significant time over the course of a season? Is Harrison Barnes going to breakout? Is Andre Iguodala a nice stats, falters when it matters type of player? Everything about this team says it could be a top four team in the conference, but I couldn’t bring myself to move it any higher than this spot.
5. Memphis Grizzlies: We know what Memphis did last season in the playoffs and quite honestly, that is the only reason I have them above GS. I really like what the Grizzlies did in getting Ed Davis. However, I thought Tayshaun Prince could have been shopped this offseason in order to find an upgrade on the wing. Gasol and Randolph are going to bring it every night and Mike Conley has found himself as a PG in the NBA. This is just a really good “team” on both ends of the floor and I’m not going to discount that.
4. Los Angeles Clippers: Here is what I wrote last season for the Clippers:
I hate watching the Clippers, which bothers me because I used to love watching Chris Paul. However, the LA hype that they get now just bothers me. Paul and Griffin whine to the refs at every whistle. Anyone that thinks Griffin is a better pro than Love doesn’t understand basketball. The owner of this team is disgusting. Have I mentioned I don’t like the Clippers?
Nothing has changed. In fact, I had them at #4 last season as well. Chris Paul is running the entire franchise, but to his credit, players are coming to LA to play for the Clippers, the latest example being JJ Redick. They have a solid starting five and three solid backups in Collison, Crawford, and Barnes. Beyond that eight man rotation though, it is a little frightening if you are a Clippers fan (Byron Mullens, Ryan Hollins, and Antawn Jamison? Yikes!).
3. Oklahoma City Thunder: Well, the James Harden trade certainly didn’t work out. As I mentioned after the trade, I hate seeing teams sell when they have a very legitimate shot at a ring and that’s what Sam Presti did and now they have to figure out how to right the ship. It always helps when you have Kevin Durant. The injury to Russell Westbrook will cost the team at least a couple of wins in the early part of the season and that is going to cost them a top two seed in my opinion. Are we sure Serge Ibaka is only 24 years old? He was drafted by the Sonics and that team hasn’t been around in what feels like a decade.
2. Houston Rockets: You may notice what I’m doing here if you are a Wolves fan, but I slide the Rockets into the 2 seed of the conference. You may have heard that Dwight Howard signed with the Rockets this offseason. James Harden took ‘the leap’ last year and became one of the top players in the league. PG play is a concern, but the Rockets have good depth at the forward positions (while not spectacular) and a top three player at their respective positions in Howard and Harden. This equates to a lot of regular season wins and the 2 seed in my book.
1. San Antonio Spurs: Why?! Will this team please go away! I say this half in jest because the Spurs play great basketball and showed the nation that they could hang with the Heat. The NBA Finals were as good as professional basketball can look. Naturally, the Spurs found diamonds in the rough in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and every other franchise just continues to shake their collective heads. I can’t make a case for anyone else in the 1 seed, given the injury to Westbrook in OKC.
Here’s how I see the playoffs shaking out:
As mentioned earlier, I tried to make the first round as entertaining as possible with the seeds. Spurs roll over a ‘happy to be here’ Pelicans team, the Clippers again in the 1st round (YES!), the Thunder take care of a pesky Warriors team, and the Wolves upset the Rockets!
Come on, look at all those storylines: Adelman vs. McHale, Dwight choking in the playoffs, the Wolves getting stronger as the season progresses and culminating in the upset! This would be fantastic. Honestly, name a worse first round opponent for the Rockets, not named the Spurs and Thunder. Pekovic and Love can frustrate the heck out of Howard, and the team can throw a number of players out there to man up on Harden … or at least provide their respective six fouls. Make this series happen!
Beyond the first round, you see a pretty straightforward run by the Spurs and Thunder, setting up the rematch to represent the conference in the Finals.
Where am I off my rocker in the conference rankings? Who do you see representing the conference in the Finals? Let us know in the comments below.
Also, be on the lookout for an Eastern Conference Preview within the next week or two.