It’s a Wild West this year. In the Eastern Conference Preview I discussed that the East post-Decision has still yet to settle into anything predictable. After the four best teams, there is a lot in question. Out west, I think we have a better idea of how strong each team is going to be. Ranking their strength, along with selecting a conference champion, are a little more difficult. Here’s what I end up with for regular season finish order.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
4. Golden State Warriors
5. Houston Rockets
6. Memphis Grizzlies
7. Denver Nuggets
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
9. Portland Trailblazers
10. Dallas Mavericks
11. New Orleans Pelicans
12. Los Angeles Lakers
13. Utah Jazz
14. Sacramento Kings
15. Phoenix Suns
My top five teams could all make the NBA Finals, but I have concerns for all of them. I think the Los Angeles Clippers are going to look dominant at times this year, and their talent and athleticism, together with what Doc brings to the table, will help just run past a lot of teams. They might win a lot of laughers this season. However, I think they will stumble once again in the playoffs. I’ve yet to see anything from them to suggest otherwise. They have a roster that makes more sense this season, but I don’t think Blake Griffin is the right guy to help Chris Paul finally get to the Finals. The San Antonio Spurs have a better chance of winning the West and returning to the Finals. I don’t think they’ll win as many games this season because Duncan and Ginobili will probably rest a lot to prepare for the playoffs. However, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard are good enough to keep them in second place. I’m not sure how much I like the Oklahoma City Thunder this year, as it will take time for Russel Westbrook to return to full strength and for him to get back into the system. They also don’t have a legitimate third scorer and their interior defense is overrated. My main concern for the Golden State Warriors is Stephen Curry’s health. If he remains healthy, and Mark Jackson can determine how to most effectively distribute minutes, Golden State could be really good this year and make it a long way in the post-season. The Houston Rockets will go as far as Dwight Howard takes them. Although James Harden is probably their best player, this team will go as Howard goes. Despite their questions at point guard, power forward, and bench depth, if Howard is the player he was in 2008-2009 and plays well with his new teammates, this team could reach the Finals this year. If I have to choose one of those teams to make it to the Finals, I’m going to go with the Spurs IF and ONLY IF they remain healthy through the postseason. THIS time, it’s the Spurs’ Swan Song. For the record: I am very uneasy about this pick, and I truly believe any of these five teams could make the Finals.
Tough Ain’t Enough
The Memphis Grizzlies are going to give teams fits. Marc Gasol has become one of the best players in the league, and he is joined in the frontcourt by Zach Randolph, who is an equal beast when playing his best. I just don’t think Memphis is going to score enough to beat teams in the playoffs. Their defense is very good, but they just aren’t good enough offensively. Who would you give the ball to on this team when you really need a basket? I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them win a first-round playoff series, but I don’t think they will return to the conference finals this year. Now take what I said and just reverse it for the Denver Nuggets. They won’t be able to stop anyone from scoring, but I think there’s enough offensive talent on this team to still win enough games to get to the playoffs. I think Brian Shaw will get the most out of these guys, although I’m a little surprised to hear he wants to slow their offensive tempo.
Poor Man’s Contenders
Things look to be coming together for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trailblazers. Then you look at what they actually add up to and you realize they can’t actually contend with the best teams in the conference in a seven game series. The Timberwolves are a second-rate dream team. They have a legitimate star, some borderline stars, some really strong bench players, and a ton of potential. But they have so many problems. Can they stay healthy? What can Derrick Williams do? Is Kevin Martin still capable of being one of the leagues most prolific scorers? Are any of these super-intriguing guys going to help them win? They’re not quite there. And they have to be there and a little further if a team is going to contend with Kevin Love as their best player. The Trailblazers are a similar story. At first glance, they have a rising star at point guard, one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league, a full-of-potential-and-talent small forward, one of the three best power forwards in the game, and a presence in the post at center. They also have a legitimate bench this year. Then you look at this team a second time and see that Damian Lillard and Nicholas Batum are both overrated, and LaMarcus Aldridge may discontent with this team and might find a way out. And there’s no guarantees that a bench of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, injured rookie C.J. McCollum, and Thomas Robinson can give the boost needed to beat good teams. At first glance, this looks like a team with a solid core, two superstars, and a good bench. In reality? They’re the poor man’s version of the L.A. Clippers.
The Intriguing Jumbles
The Dallas Mavericks have a really high ceiling. Offensively, if Monta Ellis doesn’t shoot himself out of the rotation like Christian Bale shoots his way out of whatever town that final gunfight happens in 3:10 to Yuma, they could be a really high-scoring team. With Calderon’s underrated offensive ability, Ellis’ explosive scoring capabilities, the possibility of a mega-year from Dirk, and respectable bench players like Wayne Ellington and Devin Harris, the Maverick’s could be tough to stop. And with names like Brandan Wright, Shawn Marion, DeJuan Blair, and Vince Carter on the roster, this team starts to look super intriguing and a lot like a certain Dallas team that recently won an NBA Championship. My guess is this interesting bunch of guys fails to play their best together and does not make the playoffs. The New Orleans Pelicans are also an odd, yet interesting collection of players. We’re waiting to see who among their three guards (Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, and Tyreke Evans) emerges as the best. All of them can play; it’s a matter of who takes the next step, says healthy, and doesn’t get traded. Just for good measure, they’re backcourt becomes even more interesting with Austin Rivers looking to improve off a disappointing rookie campaign. Their frontcourt is interesting as well, with Ryan Anderson and his strange role in the basketball world, Anthony Davis and his volcanic potential, and Al-Farouq Aminu, who is Al-Farouq Aminu. Best case scenario, New Orleans, like Dallas, could storm their way into the playoffs. I’m not betting on it.
Last. And Certainly Least
The Los Angeles Lakers are going to be really bad. And no one seems to have a plan for getting better other than this pipe-dream of signing LeBron James next summer. I am, however, a little afraid of what Kobe might do once he returns. He will be must-see television. The rest of the team? Not so much. The Utah Jazz have a relatively bright future with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. For now, they’ll be terrible, but to have a young frontcourt duo like that is a rare gift. The Sacramento Kings will also be terrible this season and their future is totally frustrating. If DeMarcus Cousins ever realizes his full potential and Ben McLemore lives up to Jay Bilas’ expectations, then they have something. For now, they have a lot of guys who would be valuable pieces on other teams, but together don’t add up to a winning team. Finally, the Phoenix Suns have nothing good happening this year and a dubious future as well. Much work to be done in Phoenix.
Selecting MVP is kind of a worthless undertaking. Defensive awards are kind of a joke (Serge Ibaka almost won DPOY!!!!). We can’t really guess who will come off the bench and why would you predict an award like Most Improved Player? So that leaves me with Rookie of the Year. I have no one that I want to select for this award. I guess I’ll go with Oladipo, just because he’s pretty much guaranteed playing time and offensive freedom.
ESPN’s NBA Rank was pretty interesting, especially considering this year’s ranking was supposed to predict the quality and quantity of contributions for this coming season. There were a few things I have to mention. First, Kobe was 25. The only way they can possibly justify that is if every voter was heavy on the quantity of contributions, considering the fact that he may be out until the All-Star Break. Seriously though? 25? Second thing is Kyrie Irving’s silly ranking. Eigth? Ahead of Derrick Rose? A guy who doesn’t play defense, gets hurt, and plays for a team that doesn’t win any games? And third, James Harden was ranked fourth this year. I sort of disagree with that, but here’s my real problem: Durant, Harden, and Westbrook are 2, 4, and 5. Doesn’t that trade look like one of the worst in history? The Thunder decided to put their money on Serge Ibaka instead of James Harden? Now, perhaps we don’t know the full story and Harden wanted out anyway so he could be a max-deal superstar somewhere else. But can you imagine that perimeter attack? At their age, they could have been a ten year dynasty.
I guess I’m picking a rematch of last year’s Finals. If the Heat and Spurs stay healthy, I think they both have to be the favorites. That being said, it is going to be a highly competitive season and I’m looking forward to it.
What do you think? Who are your favorites? Is anyone besides LeBron a reasonable MVP candidate? Like, comment, subscribe/follow, post to Facebook and Twitter, email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tune in to the radio show, and thank you for reading!
Soli Deo Gloria