Blakely's NBA Western Conference Preview
Blakely's NBA Western Conference Preview
BOSTON – An NBA champion from the Western Conference hasn’t won back-to-back NBA titles since the Los Angeles Lakers did so in 2009-2010.
And while Golden State returns most of its core guys from the franchise’s first title team in 40 years, the odds of them repeating aren’t great.
Their strong nucleus will be put to the test by an array of Western Conference foes who have strengthened their rosters significantly from a year ago.
And even those teams that were on outside of playoff picture a year ago like the Utah Jazz, have made enough progress to where they can’t totally be overlooked.
It all adds up to what should be more fun and unpredictable times in the Wild, Wild West.
Here’s a look a season preview of the Western Conference:
15. DENVER NUGGETS
Trading Ty Lawson to Houston was a necessary part of the roster cleansing needed for the Nuggets. Their future success lies heavily in how quickly first round pick Emmanuel Mudiay takes off. The drafting of Mudiay last June will certainly make the Nuggets a more entertaining team to watch, but they have a ways to go before they can be seen as a relevant player out West. Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and a healthy Danilo Gallinari are all solid pros but don’t exactly move the needle in terms of making Denver a playoff contender. Center Jusuf Nurkic was one of those sneaky-good draft picks last year who didn’t get a ton of buzz but proved he has the potential to be a double-double type of big man. And the addition of Mike Malone as the head coach will certainly help as well. Still, it won’t be enough for them to climb out of the Western Conference basement this year.
14. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
Andrew Wiggins will look to build off of his rookie of the year season by inching Minnesota ever so closer to the playoffs. It’s not going to happen this season but there are clear and undeniable signs that the Timberwolves are on the right track. Fellow youngsters like Zach LaVine along with fellow No. 1 overall picks Anthony Bennett (2013) and last June’s top overall selection Karl-Anthony Towns provide tangible hope for the future. And throw in the sage wisdom of former Celtic Kevin Garnett and you have the makings of a team that’s only going to get better. The only real downer with this team right now is Flip Saunders, the team’s president and head coach. He has taken a leave of absence to deal with complications associated with his treatment for Hodgkins Lymphoma. Sam Mitchell will serve as the interim coach and General Manager Milt Newton will assume more front-office responsibilities in Saunders’ absence.
13. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
No team will hit the NBA basement floor with a harder thud than the Blazers. Losing LaMarcus Aldridge to San Antonio was just the beginning of problems for this franchise. They still have All-Star guard Damian Lillard, but beyond that the cupboard is pretty bare. There are solid players, but very few potential game-changers. The one player who could significantly shift the team’s fortunes is Al Farouq-Aminu who came over from Dallas. Portland locked up the 24-year-old within minutes of free agency beginning, with a four-year, $30 million contract. He made the most of his opportunity to play during the playoffs last season when Mavs forward Chandler Parsons was hurt, but it remains to be seen if he can play at that high a level for an extended period of time. The Blazers are literally banking on him being able to do so.
12. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
If you’re talking about the Lakers, the conversation has to begin and end with Kobe Bryant. But for a franchise that’s all about winning championships, the camp battles might actually be more intriguing than their actual games or Bryant. This roster is full of players who for different reasons, are more motivated than most to prove their individual worth. Bryant, 37, wants to show that he’s not washed up. Roy Hibbert is looking to make folks forget about how bad he was near the end of his time in Indiana, and remind folks of just how dominant a defender he could be in the paint. And rookie center Robert Upshaw would have likely been a first-round pick instead of going undrafted if not for a slew of off-the-court issues. However, Jordan Clarkson showed tremendous promise as a rookie last season and will be joined in the backcourt by the No. 2 pick, D’Angelo Russell. Throw in veterans like former Celtic Brandon Bass and Lou Williams, and the Lakers have the kind of roster that, on paper at least, could make a run at one of the last couple of playoff slots this season.
11. SACRAMENTO KINGS
I could totally see this group winning a championship on the video game system of your choosing. But in the real world, it’s hard to envision this team getting to the playoffs let alone make a deep playoff run. They added ex-Celtic Rajon Rondo, but no one knows what the Kings are getting with him. He struggled in his final days in Boston following an ACL injury and wound up being sent home during the playoffs with Dallas. DeMarcus Cousins showed tremendous growth on and off the court last season, but there are concerns that Cousins and head coach George Karl will continue to bump heads. And then there’s Rudy Gay, a high-volume shooter who is basically the No. 3 guy in terms of importance now that Rondo’s on board. You love this team’s top shelf talent. It’s their temperament that will ultimately keep this group on the outside of the playoff bubble.
10. PHOENIX SUNS
The Suns have been on the playoff cusp the last couple of years only to fall short by a few games. This season unfortunately will be more of the same. Eric Bledsoe remains an All-Star worthy player, but he has consistently failed to figure out how to get the most out of his teammates which would make them and the Suns, a better team. They seem confused as to what to do with T.J. Warren who is an unorthodox but effective scorer. The one X-factor that could be exactly what this team needs to take that next step and get to the playoffs, is Tyson Chandler. He doesn’t dominate the lane defensively as well as he has in the past, but his presence, experience and wisdom may be just what this club needs.
9. DALLAS MAVERICKS
I have said this time and time again. When it comes to Xs and Os, there are few if any in the NBA now that are better than Rick Carlisle. But as talented a coach as he is, this Mavericks team relative to their Western Conference brethren, are not on that level. Kudos to Carlisle and that entire Mavericks front office for bouncing back from the DeAndre Jordan fiasco and actually pooling together a decent assortment of players. JaVale McGee and ZaZa Pachulia will give them a much-needed presence defensively on the interior, and Wesley Matthews will eventually (he’s on the mend from an ACL injury last season) provide a high level of toughness that for a team that will have to scrap and claw for wins, becomes essential. But the X-factor for them has to be Deron Williams, who was an absolute ballin’ stud in Utah and a total dud most of his time in Brooklyn. If he plays at a level somewhere between those two NBA stops, Dallas will once again be sniffing around for one of the last couple of playoff spots.
8. UTAH JAZZ
Even with Dante Exum’s season-ending knee injury, this should be the Jazz’ year to breakthrough and get into the playoffs for the first time since 2012. They return a strong core of players led by Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors in addition to an emerging difference-maker in the middle Rudy Gobert. The 7-foot-2 center was one of the breakout performers last season, finishing among the top vote-getters for the league’s Most Improved Player (third) as well as Defensive Player of the Year (fifth). His play was instrumental in Utah closing out the season with a 21-11 record which was the fifth-best winning percentage in the NBA during that period of time. In addition, Trey Burke and Alec Burks are both under-rated players with serious game. And last season, Rodney Hood started to show flashes of being a big-time talent as well. By no means are the Jazz prepared to join the elite of the NBA, but they are ready to take that next step and get to the playoffs.
7. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
There is so much to love about Anthony Davis’ game. The 6-foot-11 baller can practically do everything you want. He is what I would call an emerging “five tool talent” who can score, rebound, defend, pass and make his teammates better. It is that last point – making his teammates better – that’s keeping the Pelicans from becoming one of the better teams in the NBA rather than just a playoff-worthy foe. Having a healthy Jrue Holiday will certainly help. I think a lot of folks forget that prior to joining the Pelicans, Holiday was an NBA all-star. New Orleans could also benefit from a healthy Eric Gordon in addition to Tyreke Evans (a former league rookie of the year award winner) being more consistent in displaying his versatility. The pieces are all there for a second straight trip to the playoffs. But staying healthy remains the biggest hurdle and concern for this group.
6. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Kevin Durant is going to have an edge about him unlike anything we’ve seen before. And for the rest of the NBA? You should be afraid … very afraid. For the Thunder to come as close as they did to making the playoffs with all the health issues Durant and Russell Westbrook endured, was impressive. But not impressive enough to keep Scotty Brooks from getting fired. In comes Billy Donovan who inherits arguably the best team that didn’t make the playoffs last season. He has two absolute studs to work with in Durant and Westbrook and one of the better “third wheel” players in Serge Ibaka. But the true test for Donovan will be getting those around his superstars, to elevate their play. Enes Kanter, Steve Adams and Anthony Morrow all have to be superstars in whatever role Donovan casts for them, in order for the Thunder to re-introduce themselves to the league’s elite. But even if they fall short of that, this team is deep enough now to get back to the playoffs.
5. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
They have resisted becoming a “small ball” team or one that’s looking for the next great “stretch 4.” This is a gritty, grimy, grind-it-out team whose foundation is heavily built around their inside players who are most effective around the rim while spending little time outside the paint. That brand of basketball isn’t going to change, either. Especially with the addition of Matt Barnes who truth be told, is now with the PERFECT team for his particular skills. Still, you have to wonder if the Grizzlies will continue along this path when it seems to keep them among the top teams but a step or two – or a shooter – short of being the best. That said, if you love good, strong physical play defensively then the Grizzlies are the team for you. But a championship club? They’re in the discussion but not quite there yet.
4. HOUSTON ROCKETS
Give Daryl Morey and the Rockets credit. They are not afraid to roll the dice on high-risk, high-reward talent when it comes to their pursuit of winning an NBA title. Making a trade for Denver’s troubled Ty Lawson is a gamble anytime, but to do so shortly after he started a 30-day stint in an alcohol rehabilitation treatment center? That’s gutsy. But it speaks to the “all-in” mentality this Rockets team has right now. James Harden has been one of the NBA’s best after coming over from Oklahoma City. And while Dwight Howard hasn’t dominated the lane like many were expecting, the veteran big man has given them an inside presence they lacked. And defensively, Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza are both above-average players at that end of the floor. Collectively, they have a lot of what you expect to find in a title contender which is why they should be one of only a handful of teams that should be given serious consideration as a title contender heading into this season.
3. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Once again, the Clippers head into the season as one of the NBA championship favorites, doing so with a roster that on many levels has improved. They add Paul Pierce who during his one season in Washington, showed that the Truth can still more often than not step up in big games. Lance Stephenson is a bit of a wild card – and I stress the word wild – but he has talent and versatility which will add some much-needed depth to the Clippers roster. The addition of Josh Smith could be very interesting. And remember, the players we’re talking about comprise the bulk of the team’s bench which speaks to how talented this Clippers’ starting five – strengthened by the return of DeAndre Jordan – should be this season. Regardless of seeding, the Clippers are one of the strongest teams in the West and will be among the last teams standing.
2. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Being the reigning NBA champion means only one thing: you were the best team last season. The Warriors aren’t going to fall off the NBA map and become also-rans overnight. But the chances of them having a repeat title are not great. They re-signed Draymond Green which was their top offseason priority. And they managed to make good use of Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes who are similarity talented players. Andrew Bogut was arguably the best defensive center in the NBA last season. And of course you have the Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, back to pick up where they left off last season. But just about every player you talk to that has won a title will tell you, the only thing harder than winning it the first time is repeating. There’s no way of knowing if the Warriors will play with the same kind of hunger they did prior to winning it all. That’s in part why so few teams ever repeat, even when they bring back the core group from the title winning team. But the Warriors proved themselves to be a good, mentally tough team. Only time will tell if they’re tough enough to do it again.
1. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
The fact that David West turned down a $12 million option to stay in Indiana, to instead take a veteran’s minimum deal ($1.4 million) to play for San Antonio says a lot. His signing was one of the many offseason moves made by the Spurs that put them head and shoulders above the rest of the league heading into training camp. They still have Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. But they have added another stud in the frontcourt, All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge along with re-signing Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard as well as sharpshooter Danny Green. Add the fact that they have the best coach (Gregg Popovich) in the game and another title being raised in San Antonio seems highly probable right now.