The East made all the noise this offseason, but the West is still the best hands down. The scariest part is that it continues to get better.
Durant and Westbrook are entering the prime years of their careers, Kawhi Leonard deserves to be seriously considered for the MVP this season and Anthony Davis showed he is ready to be a Top 5 player in the league while playing for Team USA this summer in Spain.
Not to mention the Clippers are a title contender, Dallas (who finished 8th a year ago) is good enough to finish as high as 4th this year, the Trailblazers continue to get better and better behind Lillard and Aldridge and meanwhile Golden State under new coach Steve Kerr may be better than three teams above. The Western Conference is a battle within itself, let alone winning the Finals.
Here is the 2014-2015 Western Conference preview:
15. Utah Jazz
Ever since the departure of Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams and long-time Coach Jerry Sloan out of Salt Lake City, the Jazz have yet to rebound from it. Being in the Western Conference, being the last (record wise) in the conference doesn’t always give a clear picture. Yes, they were ranked 29th in points scored a year ago and their defense was average, letting up 102.2 a game (18th in the league) but the Jazz still have some young talent to work with.
Signing Gordon Hayward to a 4-year $63 million deal was huge in solidifying a center piece for the future. The “Burke Brothers” backcourt in Alec Burks and Trey Burke is joined by extremely talented Aussie prospect Dante Exum (only 19 years old though) who has all the tools to be an elite player one day. The Jazz will improve, but are still stuck in last for another season.
14. Minnesota Timberwolves
Uber-talented is a way to describe the ‘Wolves. The acquisition of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennet in the Kevin Love trade means they won’t be looking to contend anytime soon, but still with all the young pieces they have put around PG Ricky Rubio, this team has a whole lot of potential to be a contender in the West. I still believe Shabazz Muhammed can have a similar 6th man role that James Harden had in OKC, as a streaky, athletic guard that can handle the ball as well as play off it.
Lack of front court depth will kill this team off the glass with Love gone, but is the future bright? Absolutely.
13. Sacramento Kings
For a team that ranked last in the NBA in assists, losing a PG in Isaiah Thomas in free-agency is not a good indicator of that title changing. In the Draft they opted for shooting, something they desperately needed (well, the Kings need a lot of things) to space the floor with Boogie Cousins in the paint and Rudy Gay on the wing. Nik Stauskas is an underrated ball-handler, and an overall scorer, but will have a rough transition defensively against NBA two-guards.
The Kings are still waiting for Ben McLemore to develop into the beast he was in college, but even he can’t solve the depth and defensive issues that have plagued this team from any place appearance since 2006.
12. Los Angeles Lakers
There is only one reason to rank the Lakers higher than where they finished a season ago. Kobe. If he stays 100% all season, I give them the slightest of chances of grabbing the 8-seed, solely because Bryant still has something left in the tank. In their preseason game against Golden State Thursday night, Bean displayed that he can still dominate in the mid-range whenever he wants, exposing Klay Thompson every time #24 had the ball.
Drafting Julius Randle with the 7th overall pick in June will be a nice fit up front. An NBA ready body with an NBA ready skill set, look for Randle to play well off of Kobe as he continues to develop a mid-range shot to go along with his already impressive low post game. After that, well it looks to be a long year for the Lakers. With Nash being 100 years old and Robert Sacre as the backup Center, I would be more surprised if the Black Mamba didn’t win the score title this season.
11. Denver Nuggets
Don’t let the ranking fool you. If Denver was somehow located on the East coast, they be a playoff team. But being in the unforgiving West keeps them out of the playoffs and a lower ranking than what they are worth. Ty Lawson continues to be the guy that comes to town and makes every local broadcaster say, “Wow, what a play by Lawson! He is the most underrated PG in the league.” Adding defensive and three-point specialist Aaron Afflalo rounds out a nice starting backcourt.
Other than Kenneth Faried, who was an absolute monster on Team USA this summer (and got rewarded with a 4-year $50 million payday) the front court is a little shaky. JaVale McGee never turned into what every hoped he could have become (some version of DeAndre Jordan, but better low post skills) and Danillo Gallinari needs to prove he’s 100% back from his torn ACL.
10. New Orleans Pelicans
Expect the Pelicans’ 22nd ranking in rebounds (41.7) a season ago to jump into Top-10, maybe Top-5 after adding Omer Asik via a trade from Houston on Draft night. Now paired with Anthony Davis, the Pelicans will be a force upfront defensively and on the glass. Speaking of Davis, if the Pelicans make the playoffs, the man should be a serious MVP candidate. Entering his third year now, he will be considered a Top-3 big man by season’s end. Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans must stay healthy for a playoff appearance to be remotely possible, but in the Western Conference, it still may not matter.
9. Memphis Grizzlies
The 7-11 and sometimes 12th seed in the West all in all, is a crapshoot. I could legitimately see the Nuggets, Pelicans or Grizz getting in, but the next team I mention I’m expecting big things out of. It’s pretty straight forward with Memphis, and has been for the past four years or so now. They rebound the ball, they play lockdown defense, and they make you grind out every possession, every shot, every game.
The core of Mike Conley Jr. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen has proven they are a threat to anyone in the playoffs, but getting there sometimes can be a challenge. Inconceivably, every year I pick them to finally break down and not make it, but somehow they continue get in. I don’t get it. They should be in the East anyway.
8. Phoenix Suns
Missing the playoffs by one game, the Suns were everyone’s darling story of the NBA behind the magical powers of Goran Dragic. They won’t be surprising anyone this year, but are still plenty good enough to make the playoffs in the West in 2014-15. Signing Isaiah Thomas away from Sacramento and resigning Eric Bledsoe gives coach Jeff Hornacek 3 legit guys in the backcourt to run his extreme up-tempo offense that drives teams to the ground defensively.
Losing Channing Frye, a big who can space the floor and hit the three will be missed, but the Morris brothers continue to improve each year. Keep an eye on rookie T.J. Warren out of NC State, whose offensive game can make in impact right away for the Suns.
7. Houston Rockets
Safe to say no one team endured a tougher off-season in the NBA than the Houston Rockets. What stings the most is that it could have been the complete opposite. They took a shot in the dark trying to lure Carmelo Anthony to Houston, pitching the formation of a super team to go along with Melo being good friends with Dwight Howard as it is, but they were never really in the race. Then, they focused all their attention on Chris Bosh shortly after LeBron headed home, offering a max deal to Bosh who would have fit perfectly with Howard and Harden’s skill set, supplying a big man who can stretch the floor and grab some boards.
Miami ended up keeping Bosh, Dallas lured away swingman Chandler Parsons, a key piece in Houston’s offense that is entering his prime, sent Jeremy Lin to LA to clear up cap space for max deals they never ended up putting pen to paper. Now SG Patrick Beverly will play point and signed Trevor Ariza who is a solid option at SF, but nonetheless is no Parsons. An unforgiving off-season means Houston is dropping a few spots in the compact top of the West.
6. Portland Trailblazers
What you see is what you get with Portland, which by no means is a bad thing. Maybe it’s because no one on the east coast or even midwest for that matter stays up on a Thursday night to watch them, but they have one of the best inside-out combinations in the league, and they’re just a fun group to watch. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge lead a well put together team by GM Neil Olshey that led the league in rebounds (46.4 pg.) and were 4th in points per game (106.7) a season ago. Look for them to build off of their 1st round victory over the Rockets before getting bounced by the Spurs in the Western Conference Semis.
5. Dallas Mavericks
The least talked about team in the state of Texas, the Mavs are setup nicely to make a solid run in the West this coming season. Signing Parsons away from Houston gives them a scorer off the wing they’ve needed for a while now. Jameer Nelson and Monta Ellis will be an interesting back court to keep and eye on and so will the return of Tyson Chandler who if healthy, will solve their troubles rebounding a season ago at only 40.9 a game (Last in the NBA). And then there is Dirk, what looks to be his final shot at another title, the future Hall of Famer seems as if he has never aged a bit and will continue to be the center piece in Dallas in 14-15.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
I feel as if I’m the only one saying this, but the Thunder aren’t in good shape without Kevin Durant, there I said it. Maybe I’m cynical because I watched a Bulls team for the past two years struggle without Derrick Rose, yet even if Chicago and OKC are two different teams, in completely different scenarios, at least I knew the Bulls had a decent bench to tread water in the weak East. But this is the Western Conference, if you don’t catch breaks, as in keeping guys healthy, your record will suffer.
In no way shape or form can a combination of Andre Roberson, Anthony Marrow or Perry Jones match the 2013-14 MVP’s wicked 32-7-5. But there is one guy that can come close to matching those numbers, enter Russell Westbrook. He gets criticized virtually every year for shooting too much and not getting Durant as many touches as some may like.
Well here is his chance. For the first 15-25 games or so plus the additional games it will take Durant to get back into full form (which we don’t know how long truly, considering Durant has missed only 16 games in his career) this is Westbrook’s team, which he secretly probably has been chomping at the bit for. He is one of the most talented and explosive players the Association has ever seen, it’s the Westbrook show in OKC for 2 months.
3. Golden State Warriors
For a couple of years now, we’ve watched this team grow up under former HC Marc Jackson. With Steve Kerr at the helm now and Steph Curry running the triangle, the window for the Warriors is 2014-15. We know what we get with the Splash Brothers in Steph and Klay Thompson, but the key is in the front court. David Lee and Andrew Bogut’s health is the x-factor if this team is realistically gunning for a title. With Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Brandon Rush coming off the bench, the Warriors are one the deepest teams in the West, and in the league.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Finally under new ownership, and a clear goal in mind, the Clippers are ready to contend. Don’t think their rather early exit a season ago had nothing to do with the Donald Sterling debacle, it negatively impacted the entire organization from top to bottom, how do you work for a man that has no respect for you and only looks at you as an item? Doc Rivers has a roster two to three guys deep at every position to go along with CP3 and Blake Griffin. The play of DeAndre Jordan and Jamaal Crawford off the bench will ultimately decide how far this team will go, both will be a vital part in Lob City’s quest for its first NBA title.
1. San Antonio Spurs
We are done talking about how we don’t talk enough about how good the Spurs have been for the past 15 years correct? Their 5th title in the same time span over the Heat has settled that score right? Good. I don’t care if Duncan, Ginobli and Parker don’t retire until they’re all 50, this team is the best team in the league until proven otherwise. I’ve always been one of those guys that thought, “They’ll take a step back, they’re getting pretty old.” Then it turned into, “Well Pop will rest his core guys, so they’ll lose a few games they would normally win.”
Nope. Not anymore. I am all in on the Spurs until they all retire and Pop is out of the league, but even then they still have Kawhi Leonard at the tender age of 23 and already has “Finals MVP” on his resume. If the Spurs continue to be as dominant as a season ago, Leonard will be a central reason and it’s time to put him in the MVP conversation this season. They play the most beautiful game of any team, fundamentally sound, unselfish basketball leading the league in assists. Don’t expect anything to change, same ole’ Spurs beating everyone.
Guess who isn’t doubting them this year?