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Despite talk of a Lakers takeover, Kevin Durant and the Thunder are looking to soar to new heights.
The Western Conference isn’t as cut and dry as the Eastern Conference. Dwight Howard may have put the Los Angeles Lakers in the driver’s seat, but there are some believing they aren’t the best team in their own arena. The Los Angeles Clippers have reloaded with wily veterans and an abundance of young hungry legs. And, lest we forget, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the reigning champions of the West.
The Mavericks, Spurs, Grizzlies, Nuggets and Warriors are improved and ready to challenge the upper echelon.
Southwest Division (Predicted order of finish):
1. Dallas Mavericks - The Mavs had a better than decent off-season. Mark Cuban chose not to get caught up in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, so he formulated Plan B. Cuban surrounded star forward Dirk Nowitzki with a nice mix of young talent and savvy veterans. The Mavs got younger when they traded for Pacers point guard Darren Collison. Collison is a good floor general whom will take his shot when left open. O.J. Mayo arrives from Memphis with the ability to create his own shot and cause match up problems. Center Chris Kaman may have been the biggest surprise pickup for the Mavs and is an All-Star caliber center when healthy. An excellent passer out of the post, Kaman is great on the glass. Elton Brand is the consummate pro bringing leadership and class to the Mavs. Brand is at his best when he isn’t overworked. Scoring point guard Delonte West is back. Veterans Vince Carter and Shawn Marion are still able to contribute without playing heavy minutes. Rookie Jae Crowder is going to help the Mavs as a multidimensional reserve.
2. San Antonio Spurs – Does anyone remember when the Spurs were the hottest team heading into last year’s playoffs? Tim Duncan & Co. swept their way to the Western Conference Finals and went up 2-0 on the Oklahoma City Thunder. After the Thunder reeled off four straight to finish off the Spurs, very little remained of the team that bullied their way through the early portion of the playoffs.
Instead of tearing things up, Gregg Popovich decided to stand pat. Pop was comfortable with the supporting cast built around the core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan. The Spurs may have been the most balanced team when it came to scoring output last season. Kawhi Leonard is a defensive star in the making, and at only 21, has time to improve offensively. The second time around in San Antonio for Stephen Jackson didn’t end in a champagne bath. Instead, he emerged as a leader in a backup role to Leonard. Danny Green, Gary Neal and Patrick Mills give the Spurs depth and scoring at the 1, 2 and 3. DaJuan Blair, Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter are all interchangeable at the four and five with the ability to bang in the paint or fire from deep. I expect the Spurs to make another run based on coaching. Pop knows when to push and when to pull. No coach did a better job distributing minutes last season.
3. Memphis Grizzlies – This may be the final run for this version of the Memphis Grizzlies. O.J. Mayo has moved on and same may be said for Zach Randolph and/or Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies still have enough to cause problems in the West. The Grizzlies finished fourth in the conference last season. Rudy Gay is the key to the offense despite suggestions that he has not met expectations. Mike Conley has worked hard to become one of the better point guards in the NBA. Conley doesn’t get the ink like some of his contemporaries, but he’s the only point guard other than Chris Paul to have more steals than turnovers. Marc Gasol’s minutes may be trimmed in the early going due to playing in the Olympics. Darrell Arthur needs to rebound from a disappointing season. Randolph looks to regain his form after recovering from a knee injury that limited him to 28 games last season.
Wayne Ellington was brought in to replace Mayo. If Ellington can increase his three-point percentage, he may be a keeper. Jerryd Bayless is a scoring point guard that will provide stability as a backup — ending the revolving door at the position. Big minutes await shooters Quincy Poindexter, John Selby and rookie Tony Wroten Jr. if they can score the basketball. Tony Allen was well deserving of his first team All-Defense selection.
4. Houston Rockets – The trade that brought James Harden to the Houston Rockets was a step in the right direction for a franchise looking stuck in limbo. Harden will start at the two for the Rockets. The Rockets got their man in Jeremy Lin, but lost Samuel Dalembert and Luis Scola. In the Harden trade the Rockets gave up Kevin Martin — who was out the door anyway and a nice talent in rookie Jeremy Lamb. Giving up two number one picks for a team in their position seemed foolish. Center Omar Asik brings toughness in the middle. Donatas Motlejunas, a 2011 Draft pick arrives after playing in Europe for an additional season. Terrence Ross and Royce White are young players that should make an impact now. Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson will compete for minutes vacated by Scola.
5. New Orleans Hornets – News of guard Eric Gordon missing time indefinitely because of knee problems is a devastating blow to this young team. For now, the team will look to Greivis Vasquez or Xavier Henty to fill the role until Gordon returns.
Prized rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers will pay their dues before things change for the better in the Bayou. Davis will be asked to anchor team defense and Rivers the same for play making and big shot ability. Ryan Anderson is a streaky shooting big man who can get hot and stay there. Jason Smith is a solid four with double-double potential. Robin Lopez has been penciled in as a starter at center.
Northwest Division (Predicted order of finish):
1. Oklahoma City Thunder – Despite the loss of James Harden, the Thunder are still NBA Finals worthy. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are still the offensive focus. The addition of Kevin Martin gives the Thunder a player who can create his own shot and play either guard position which allows Westbrook to move to the two. Kevin Durant finished second to LeBron James in the MVP voting and in the NBA Finals. Durant was instrumental in Team USA’s gold medal victory which heightens his taste for a ring. Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and newcomer Hasheem Thabeet are all defensive studs offsetting the finesse of Durant and Westbrook. The multifaceted Perry Jones III adds a Durant-like dimension to the Thunder. The wiry Jeremy Lamb can score inside or out. Erick Maynor — back from injury — will provide skill at point guard.
2. Denver Nuggets - The Denver Nuggets are making a push in the West without a big name star. Whether forward Andre Iguodala wants to admit it or not he is a star. The glitter of an All-Star game and the shine of an Olympic gold medal removed Iggy’s incognito status. He will get the appreciation in Denver some felt he did not get during his 8 seasons in Philly.
The Nuggets roster is full of players either right below star status or headed in that direction. Andre Miller is the professional coming off the bench. Miller led the Nuggets in assists. Ty Lawson gets the team’s open floor game going. Danilo Galinari would be an all-star if he were not tucked away in the mountains. JaVale McGee dedicated the off season to becoming better in the low post. McGee opened eyes this summer when he chose to work out with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. If McGee can give the squad 15/10/2 per night, he’ll be the Nuggets center for the next 10 years. Kenneth Faried plays with a tenacity and hunger that can will a team to 3-4 wins a year. Coaches covet this guy.
Rudy Fernandez joins the Nuggets with hopes that a change of scenery will jump start his career. Rookie Quincy Miller, Anthony Randolph and Corey Brewer round out a deep Nuggets bench. The Nuggets will score their share of points. The addition of Iguodala and the re-dedication of McGee will improve their poor ranking in points allowed (29th).
3. Utah Jazz – The sting that lingered from the events surrounding the resignation of coach Jerry Sloan and the Deron Williams trade has finally wore off. Coach Ty Corbin — who was a member on many great Jazz teams over the last two decades — is leading the basketball revival in a city loving their Jazz.
The front court tandem of Al Jefferson (19.2 ppg., 9.6 rpg.) and Paul Milsap (16.6 ppg., 8.8 rpg.) is as formidable as any in the league. Throw in fast developing Derrick Favors (8.8 ppg., 6.5 rpg.) and the Jazz are presented with the dilemma of who to keep when the time comes. I wouldn’t worry about that just yet.
The Jazz didn’t have the point guard they wanted in the shoot first Devin Harris. Bringing in Mo Williams gives them a player willing to distribute the ball and take a big shot. Randy Foye was brought into camp and should make the opening night roster. Gordon Hayward became a starter in his second season. Hayward averaged 11 points per game and shot 35 percent from beyond the arc. Marvin Williams was signed from the Hawks, but he will be in steady competition for playing time with Josh Howard, Jeremy Evans and DeMarre Carroll. Backup center Enes Kanter made the most of limited playing time last season and should see more minutes in the Jazz rotation.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves – The Timberwolves have enough capable guards to take their time in bringing back point guard Ricky Rubio. Before tearing his ACL and LCL, Rubio was everything we expected. Most importantly, Minnesota was winning ball games and streaking toward a playoff berth. Kevin Love is the game’s premier power forward and finished second to Dwight Howard in rebounding — pulling down more than 13 per game. Also add three-point champion to Love’s resume.
Brandon Roy is one year removed from his “retirement” due to two bad knees. There were few takers on Roy, but the Wolves think it’s worth the gamble given the Rubio situation and lack of scoring punch from the shooting guard position. Luke Ridenhour and Robbie Hummel will be on standby if Roy struggles. Andrei Kirilenko returns to the league after a year in Russia. The Wolves will look to AK-47 for leadership as well as filling up the stat sheet. Chase Budinger was brought in for his shooting touch and should fit well in the rotation. Derrick Williams will have to play above and beyond before he can look at serious minutes. Nikola Pekovic is the perfect complement to Love on the blocks. He was third in the NBA in field goal accuracy.
5. Portland Trailblazers – The Blazers were supposed to be on the cusp of the Western Conference Championship by now. Instead, they have been knocked back a step in four of the last five seasons. The team lost two building blocks when the knees of Greg Oden and Brandon Roy failed them. The Blazers are in an unofficial building stage that may take even longer.
LaMarcus Aldridge (21.7 ppg., 8.0 rpg.) is entering his prime and it’s hard to believe we almost saw him and Kevin Durant on the same floor at the University of Texas. Aldridge is joined by Wesley Matthews (13.7), Nicolas Batum (13.9) and J.J. Hickson (8.4). All are capable scorers with the ability to take over a game. Rookies Damian Lillard and Meyers Leonard will make an immediate impact.
It’s the bench production where things get hairy. Ronnie Price, Jared Jeffries, Sasha Pavlovic, Craig Smith and Nolan Smith will be asked to hold things down.
Pacific Division (Predicted order of finish):
1. Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers are primed to make at least a two-year run at the NBA crown. Dwight Howard and Steve Nash are faced with the pressure of winning it all, or risk being labeled career failures. There’s no pressure on Kobe Bryant because he’s five fingers deep. I’m not sure where Howard wanted to go or if he’ll stay in LA, but he seems happy so far.
With Howard on deck, we may get to see the full monty of Pau Gasol’s game. Not a notoriously physical player, Gasol’s game is more perimeter shooting and passing out of the post. Backup Jordan Hill is rugged and a physical presence playing the four or five. Metta World Peace for all of his activity off the court is still one of the game’s best defenders. Newcomer Antwan Jamison’s door is closing, but he can still contribute in a reserve role. Devin Ebanks will get more minutes this year and showed vast improvement last season. Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake give the Lakers another shooter and floor general.
2. Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers have put together an impressive roster in hopes of overtaking the guys in the other locker room. No one is talking about the future of Chris Paul or any of that stuff, so the Clippers are talking Western Conference Finals…the Clippers are talking Championship. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Caron Butler and DeAndre Jordan are the nucleus. The reserves brought in by the Clippers to join stud reserve Eric Bledsoe are even more impressive.
Grant Hill, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Willie Green are experienced veterans. Odom brings championship experience and Hill brings a professionalism to the locker room. Crawford is one of the league’s best pure scorers. Green is a pro’s pro — who just does his job — and Turiaf brings toughness.
If that wasn’t enough backup point guard Chauncey Billups returns from an ACL injury that kept him out most of last season.
3. Golden State Warriors – The Warriors have signed guard Stephen Curry to a 4-year $44 million contract extension — locking up the sharpshooter just in time for the Warriors to make their first playoff run in some time. Andrew Bogut appears to be ready to go. Bogut is a welcome addition to the Warriors losing faith in Andris Biedrins over the last two seasons. David Lee will only get better with Bogut in the middle. Klay Thompson had an excellent rookie campaign and will only get better. Rookie Harrison Barnes should flourish as a starter without the pressure of doing too much.
Jarrett Jack comes in to backup Curry. Carl Landry, Richard Jefferson, Draymond Green and Biedrins fill out the Warriors rotation.
I like what the Warriors have done by keeping Curry. With young pieces like Barnes and Thompson, the Warriors are a year or two away from making some real noise.
4. Phoenix Suns – The Suns have finally turned the page on the Steve Nash Era. Gordon Dragic will be the answer to a trivia question two decades from now. Kendall Marshall was a great floor general for Roy Williams and it should carry over into the pros.
The Suns have capable scorers. Much of their roster is full of young and talented players who have hit a snag in their career. Luis Scola is a good scorer in the post whom adds toughness and tons of experience. Michael Beasley hopes he’s found a home in Phoenix. People seem to have forgotten the season center Marcin Gortat had last year — leading the Suns in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots (15.4/10/1.5). Jared Dudley posted career highs in scoring, rebounding and assists. His role should continue to expand. Markieff Morris and Channing Frye add front court depth. Michael Redd and Jermaine O’Neal are looking to salvage what’s left of their careers.
5. Sacramento Kings – The Kings are still looking for an identity. It looks like the addition of Aaron Brooks at point guard is a step in the right direction. Small forward Tyreke Evans will be just that and no longer mired in back court purgatory. Marcus Thornton is the shooting guard and the Kings leading scorer. DeMarcus Cousins is an all-star waiting to happen. Cousins showed potential in his rookie season, but was his own worst enemy as he dealt with adjusting to the NBA. Cousins is now one of the best, if not the best young low post player in the league, and his head is on straight.
Thomas Robinson out of Kansas give the Kings a freakishly athletic wing player unafraid to go up and over a defender.
Jason Thompson, Jimmer Fredette, Francisco Garcia, John Salmons, Chuck Hayes, and Isaiah Thomas complete the Kings rotation.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. Los Angeles Lakers
3. Dallas Mavericks
4. Los Angeles Clippers
5. San Antonio Spurs
6. Denver Nuggets
7. Memphis Grizzlies
8. Golden State Warriors
Western Conference Champion: Oklahoma City Thunder