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NBA season preview: Six high-quality teams to battle in Western Conference

Clippers, Rockets and Thunder are likely to lead the way.

A team coached by Doc Rivers and directed by point guard Chris Paul has an inherent advantage at crunch time.
REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Second of three articles

Welcome to the second part of MinnPost’s 2013-14 NBA preview. On Monday we parsed and predicted the prospects for teams in the Eastern Conference. Today it is Western Conference, where there are no fewer than six high-quality teams, although the middle tier isn’t quite as strong as in recent history.

Both the Eastern and Western Conference previews are organized according to how I think teams will fare within their divisions, with predicted conference seedings in parentheses. On Wednesday, I’ll preview the Timberwolves season on the occasion of their season opener.

I’ll repeat what I said yesterday: Feedback is encouraged and intelligent comments are especially appreciated and enthusiastically engaged. I have long cherished the wisdom and willingness for dialogue among my readers and look forward to your disagreements. I’ve certainly provided you with plenty of ammunition.


 Southwest Division

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Houston Rockets (2)
Dwight Howard and James Harden are the most complementary pair of superstar teammates in the league. If the 27-year old Howard is as healthy and coachable as he was in his Orlando prime, he is the NBA’s most dominant defender and an automatic double-team to guard in the paint. Harden has tremendous court vision, is a fearless finisher at the rim, creates bundles of points at the free throw line and is a superb, unselfish decision-maker with the ball in his hands. Third wheel Chandler Parsons is a hard-nosed swingman who can be used as a stretch power-forward to surround Howard with outside shooters and excels as both a leaker and a trailer for Harden’s feeds in the running game. Biggest concerns: Howard’s health and how Kevin McHale will fare coaching a legitimate contender for the first time in his career.

San Antonio Spurs (4)
Most pundits are picking the Spurs among the top two, but when has coach Gregg Popovich ever cared about the regular season record? Expect Pop to rest his triumvirate of aging stars (Tim Duncan-Tony Parker-Manu Ginobili) as much as possible after San Antonio played 103 games up until the summer solstice only to lose in the Finals in heartbreaking fashion. As for improvements, we can expect Kawaii Leonard to continue his breakout star turn from the playoffs this season. But otherwise it is hard to imagine Duncan reprising his remarkable 2012-13 season and I don’t understand the near-universal approval for acquiring guard Marco Belinelli, who is a worse shooter (on field goals, free throws and three-pointers) and less capable defender than the man he’s replacing, Gary Neal.

 Memphis Grizzlies (5)
The lunch-pail team of the NBA, the Grizzlies allowed the fewest points-per-possession to their opponents through a mixture of hustle, intelligence and toughness. They return roughly the same group this season with two big exceptions. Kosta Koufous was a splendid acquisition from Denver, where his unsung willingness to play hard and selflessly while covering for his teammates on defense made him an honorary Grizzly-in-waiting. He’ll be an ideal backup for Marc Gasol. The other change, from hardboiled, “old school” coach Lionel Hollins to his longtime assistant, Dave Joerger, is fraught with uncertainty. Joerger apparently wants to run more and will also apparently pay more heed to advanced analytics from the front office. Alas, Memphis lacks the personnel for the “cheaper” points gleaned through transition buckets and three-pointers. They need to keep earning wins the hard way — by shutting people down.

New Orleans Pelicans (8)
So why am I one of the precious few picking the Pelicans for the playoffs? Because I think Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon are all primed to take a step forward this season, and having quick, rugged defenders like  Holiday and Evans fits right into coach Monta Williams’ emphasis on getting stops on the perimeter. Meanwhile, only Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade got to the rim as often as Evans among backcourt players last season, and whether he starts or comes off the bench, lanes will be open if Gordon, Holiday, stretch power forward Ryan Anderson and Anthony Morrow are hitting from long range. After a slightly disappointing, injury-affected rookie season, center-forward Anthony Davis is ready for stardom. New Orleans could still be a year away, but my gut tells me to get on this bandwagon early.

Dallas Mavericks (12)
The Mavs are going to be terrible defensively — they should be nicknamed Shawn Marion and the Matadors — and even a brilliant ball-distributor like point guard Jose Calderon will have trouble generating enough shots for both Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. In the nearly 600 minutes that new Dallas center Samuel Dalembert and Ellis played together in Milwaukee last year, the Bucks made one fewer field goal while jacking up 7.8 more attempts than the team average per 100 possessions. Such clanking tendencies create transition opportunities for opponents, and with five of the top six in Dallas’s rotation age 32 or older (three are at least 35 and Ellis is the youngster at 28), the Mavs can be run off the court.  If this squad makes the playoffs, then Rick Carlisle (a superb tactician and subtly effective motivator) should be Coach of the Year.

Northwest Division

Oklahoma City Thunder (3)
The horrible trade that sent James Harden to Houston will sting much less if rookie center Steven Adams (taken with the draft pick OKC acquired in the deal) can extend his magnificent preseason into the games that count in the standings. It is a rare chance to dramatically upgrade the roster, which is dealing with a second, albeit more minor, knee injury to Russell Westbrook and the lack of a dynamic scorer off the bench (a role filled by Harden and then Kevin Martin for one year). Then again, superstars Westbrook and Kevin Durant are both just 25 and have demonstrated a dogged commitment to further honing their ample skills. The secret weapon for OKC is defense: They were third in fewest points allowed per possession last season, spearheaded by wing-stopper Thabo Sefolosha and underrated coach Scott Brooks.

Minnesota Timberwolves (7)
I’ll have a much more extensive preview of the Wolves’ 2013-14 season Wednesday  before their opener. For now, I’ll say that the combination of Kevin Love’s healthy return and the decline of some typical playoff contenders in the West gets them to the post-season for the first time in nearly a decade. Not that it will be easy. Minnesota will dearly miss Andrei Kirilenko, and Chase Budinger for as long as he is sidelined. Coach Rick Adelman must keep preaching defense and ensure that his vaunted, movement-oriented “corner” offense doesn’t result in more shots for Corey Brewer and Ricky Rubio than Nikola Pekovic. In other words, don’t “take what the defense gives you,” work inside-out and continue to seize the mismatches the opponents are desperately trying to take away. That means a lot of Love and a generous portion of beef named Pek.

Portland Trailblazers (9)
The conventional wisdom is that the Blazers will be much improved because they strengthened their bench over the off-season. But if depth was their Achilles’ heel, why was the first quarter their worst last year, with an average -2.1 point margin? Actually the most significant personnel change will affect the starting lineup, where 7-foot center Robin Lopez replaces the undersized J.J. Hickson and should markedly improve a wretched interior defense that led to Portland ranking 25th in points allowed per possession last season. (Some of that is on LaMarcus Aldridge, who is the league’s most “underrated star” for a reason.) Otherwise, an infusion of ball-handlers (Mo Williams, Earl Watson, injured rookie C.J. McCollum) should allow burgeoning star point guard and minutes-played leader Damian Lilliard chances to rest or slide over to shooting guard in small lineups. 

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Denver Nuggets (10)
The blunderbusses atop the Nuggets’ hierarchy will get their comeuppance this season. They allowed the reigning Coach of the Year (George Karl) and Executive of the Year (Masai Ujiri) to walk in large part because they preferred JaVale McGee over Kosta Koufous at center. When you deploy a quick but undersized power forward like Kenneth Faried, you want a steady help-defender like Koufous beside him — not a foolish, foul-prone, shot-blocking gambler like McGee. After the front office was purged, Denver’s best defender and all-around player, Andre Iguodala, bolted for Golden State. That leaves the Nuggets relying heavily on glue-guy swingman Wilson Chandler at both ends of the court until three-point shooter Danilo Gallinari returns from injury. Meanwhile, three-point specialist Randy Foye is the starter beside the speedy and talented point Ty Lawson in the backcourt. This is not a recipe for the playoffs.

Utah Jazz (14)
Rather than try to leverage a trade for frontcourt starters Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap the past three seasons, the Jazz preferred to bring their young backup big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter along slowly, let the contracts of the veterans expire, and rebuild the rest of the roster through the draft. The growing pains from that strategy will likely be most acute this season, when the Jazz could well field an entire starting five comprised of first-round draft picks taken between 2010 and 2013. That’s actually the best plan for the present as well as the future, as their bench is lousy with past-their-prime vets and even lesser non-entities.

Pacific Division

Los Angeles Clippers (1)
A team coached by Doc Rivers and directed by point guard Chris Paul has an inherent advantage at crunch time. A team that won 56 games a year ago — under Vinnie Del Negro, no less — and then added a pair of perfect floor-spacing, glue-guy wing players in Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick and a capable backup point guard in Darren Collison (while losing Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, Eric Bledsoe and Lamar Odom) is a potential juggernaut. As most everyone agrees, the biggest question is whether Rivers can get another level out of DeAndre Jordan (especially on offense) and Blake Griffin (especially on defense). Since the Clips were fourth in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency last year, the luck of health would seem to be the biggest potential roadblock to a special season. 

Golden State Warriors (6)
The stupidest thing I wrote in last year’s NBA preview was: “This is the season we discover that second-year coach Mark Jackson is overmatched.” After that serving of crow, why am I rating the Warriors lower than most? Mostly because team leader Stephen Curry has a history of ankle woes and there is no depth in the backcourt — the Dubs got a huge lift off the bench from both guard Jarrett Jack and forward Carl Landry last year. Caveats aside, Andre Iguodala is a perfect signing, a defensive wing stopper that lets Golden State go big or small with their lineups depending on the matchups. The Warriors should add to their win total of 47 from a year ago, especially if Curry and center Andrew Bogut stay healthy. And Mark Jackson is a very good coach. 

Los Angeles Lakers (11)
Let us please cease further man-crush blather about Kobe Bryant’s superhuman willpower and ability to “prove people wrong” by leading the Lakers to the playoffs after recovering from Achilles surgery. This team barely grabbed a playoff spot last season with a mostly healthy Bryant and the now-departed Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace, their top three in minutes-played. Their biggest addition was journeyman center Chris Kamen. Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Bryant are fading stars and superstars and coach Mike D’Antoni hasn’t improved a roster since he left Phoenix six years ago. Their defense, 19th in points allowed per possession last season, will almost certainly be worse without D12 and Metta, and so will their won-lost record.

Sacramento Kings (13)
The Kings have been dysfunctional for so long it’s tempting to remain suspicious even after a very solid off-season, which began with the franchise remaining in Sacramento after a move to Seattle seemed a near-certainty. Signing problematic man-child DeMarcus Cousins to a fat long-term contract and hiring respected Golden State assistant Mike Malone as the head coach feels like a worthwhile gamble, given Cousins’ remarkable ability. Getting defensive specialist Luc Mbah a Moute to help change the culture on the court and in the locker room was shrewd. And having shooting guard Ben McLemore fall to their seventh pick in the draft was a stroke of good fortune. Marcus Thornton and Carl Landry provide punch off the bench, Jason Thompson and Chuck Hayes muscle in the paint, Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas depth at the point. Expect at least baby steps.

Phoenix Suns (15)
With the trade of Marcin Gortat to Washington, Phoenix has announced to the league, but especially the Philadelphia 76ers, that they are committed to finishing with the NBA’s worst record and the best chance of landing college sensation Mitchell Wiggins in the draft. The Suns’ two best players are now both point guards, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, who will likely be paired in the backcourt. The rest of the roster is an invitation for wisecracks and other snark. A dozen wins — and 70 losses — doesn’t seem like an outlandish prediction.