In anticipation of tonight’s tipoff of the 2014-15 National Basketball Association season, we previewed the Eastern Conference of the NBA yesterday and now offer up our preview of the superior and more competitive Western Conference. Tomorrow we will preview the local Minnesota Timberwolves, who open their NBA season Wednesday night.
As with yesterday’s look at the Eastern Conference, teams are listed in predicted order of finish within the conference, removing division designations. The top eight teams qualify for the playoffs.
Los Angeles Clippers
The table is certainly set for the most fabled season in the Clips’ 45 years of existence. Their racist owner is coughing in the dustbin of history. Their fiery superstar point guard, Chris Paul, is bent on atoning for playoff misdeeds that cast doubt on his supremacy at the position and their fiery superstar power forward, Blake Griffin, is coming into his prime. Coach Doc Rivers now knows the quirks and holes in his roster and can better exert his championship pedigree. A thin frontcourt has been beefed up with the acquisitions of Spencer Hawes for offense and Ekpe Udoh for defense. True, Matt Barnes is a ho-hum wing stopper, but he and the other perimeter guys can jam the jump-shooters and let center DeAndre Jordan protect the rim. Finally, along with the inevitable injuries, the Clippers must worry about suspensions, because this is a chippy bunch.
San Antonio Spurs
A year ago the question was: “How can San Antonio recover from the heartbreak of the previous season’s Finals?” This year it’s: “the Spurs don’t have a heartbreaking Finals loss to motivate them again.” Let’s lose the short-sighted punditry. The Spurs worst record over the past 17 years was 50-32—a .610 winning percentage—in 2009-10. Stylistically they are on the cutting-edge of change, but they hold firm to a mentality of disciplined self-regard that is literally their pride and joy. Like the Auerbach-Russell Celtics, the Popovich-Duncan Spurs don’t beat themselves. The passage of time and the fortunes of caprice will conspire to overwhelm them, but this far down the road, why be a cynic? They are defending champs much later than they ever “should” have been and they will be in the hunt yet again this season. Soak it in.
Gregg Popovich may not be the best coach in the NBA—Rick Carlisle is that good. Last year, Carlisle won 49 games with three new members of the second-oldest starting lineup in the NBA, then gave the strategically rested Spurs all they could handle in a seven-game series in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s roster again turns over three new starters, but one of them, center Tyson Chandler, is a much-needed rim protector, who, like shooting guard Monta Ellis, has played the best ball of his long career under Carlisle. Resident superstar Dirk Nowitzki took a pay cut so the Mavs could overpay swingman Chandler Parsons, but that quartet, run by a veteran committee at point guard (the defense of Devin Harris gives him the edge over Jameer Nelson and Raymond Felton) has the potential to be the most potent offense in the NBA.
Golden State Warriors
There is enough talent on the roster for a championship. You want shut-down defense? Throw out a lineup of Andrew Bogut, Dramond Green, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston—and understand that the top seven guys in minutes return from last year’s fourth-ranked defense. But coach Steve Kerr has replaced Mark Jackson to jumpstart the 12th rated offense. Maybe he can lean on the sweet-shooting backcourt of Stephen Curry and Thompson, better utilize Bogut’s dishes and screens alongside natural scorer David Lee in the frontcourt, and emphasize drawing more free throws on drives to the hoop. An injury to Bogut or Curry is a legitimate fear, but with a little luck health-wise, the Warriors are loaded and balanced.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Why drop the Thunder to the fifth seed? Because the West is brutally competitive and their superstar Kevin Durant figures to be out for about 15 games and not in a groove for at least 20 after foot surgery. The previous three seasons, OKC has begun 16-4. Knock four or five wins off that without KD, an elite point-producer who is also an underrated cog in the Thunder’s team defense. Sure, he’ll be fresh later in the season—and Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, who both love to overcompensate on offense, will be more heavily taxed. Losing Anthony Morrow along with Durant really dents the outside shooting prowess. And the defense will miss the departed Thabo Sefolosha. On the bright side, Stephen Adams will continue to develop as a banger in the pivot.
The Grizzlies have a stolid, bruising, time-tested style, a tight-knit core that will be challenged by aging and expiring contracts, and a nouveau riche and itchy owner. They could win the West or tumble into the draft lottery. Marc Gasol remains the most complete center in the NBA (Memphis was 40-15 with him in the lineup last year) and is playing for a new contract. His partner in grime, power forward Zach Randolph, bangs less effectively on the low block and likewise is playing on the last year of his current deal. Perimeter hound Tony Allen and demi-star Mike Conley are joined by relative newcomer and solid defender Courtney Lee on the wing. Once again the Grizzlies finished dead last in three-pointers attempted and made last season. The arrival of Vince Carter and the improved health of Quincy Pondexter will shore up that glaring weakness.
If center Dwight Howard resurrected his vintage Superman dominance from his years in Orlando and shooting guard James Harden became even an adequate defender, the Rockets would be the team to beat in the West. Those failures render the pair unsuccessful leaders and unlikable stars. On offense, Houston has the personnel to fit their analytics-driven formula of nothing but three-pointers, lay-ups and free throws, and while the defense loses big man Omer Asik, it gains swingman Trevor Ariza, who with point guard Patrick Beverley provides superb on-ball defenders on either side of Harden. The bottom half of the roster is laden with intriguing prospects. Coach Kevin McHale, already on the hot seat, must choose well in assembling his rotation.
Portland used the same four starters in every game last season (the fifth, forward LaMarcus Aldridge suited up for 69 of the 82), a near-miraculous period of good health that was karmic payback for all their injuries woes in recent previous seasons, and not likely to be repeated. That’s a problem because the bench is thin and the starters found a special synergy operating in coach Terry Stotts’ floor-spreading offense. Point guard Damien Lillard is a jewel, already among the best clutch shooters in the game and a born leader. Center Robin Lopez is the ideal gruntwork complement to Aldridge’s long but soft defense in the front-court. On the wings, Wes Matthews is the burlap bag to Nicolas Batum’s silk sheets, but their contrasting styles dovetail beautifully. Alas, there are no Sixth Man of the Year candidates coming off that bench.
New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis is probably still a year or two away from becoming a top-five player in the NBA, but coach Monty Williams and the Pelicans need to start generating sustainable momentum if they are to exploit Davis’s ascendance and become serious contenders in the rugged West. Young, large, talented point guard Jrue Holiday and bruising Turkish center Omer Asik are solid building blocks, and Ryan Anderson is a stellar stretch power-forward as a starter or sixth man. But on the wing, Eric Gordon has a poor attitude and Tyreke Evans lacks self-awareness and thus consistency in maximizing his prowess on defense and penetrating to the hoop. The bench is thin and Williams has been underwhelming as a defensive-oriented coach.
The giddy innocence of last year — when the Suns were widely expected to tank and instead competed for the playoffs until the final week — could linger with the decision to corral pint-sized penetrators Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas and turn them loose under enthusiastic coach Jeff Hornacek. Less obviously, the Suns also bring the muscle with a frontcourt that includes the rugged Morris twins, underrated center Miles Plumlee, and the overachieving junkyard dog, P.J. Tucker, as the wing stopper. They no longer have the element of surprise, and sensitive souls like breakout performer Gerald Green could wilt with reduced minutes. But the rebuilding is already ahead of schedule.
The Nuggets have a mild but still significant identity crisis. Any roster that boasts Ty Lawson at the point and Kenneth Faried at power forward is born to run, but coach Brian Shaw is an old-school fundamentalist at heart who doesn’t trust the pace. A happier accommodation is more likely this season thanks to the acquisition of swingman Aaron Afflalo and the expected return of injured sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari. Depending on the matchups, Faried can be a stud or a chump on defense, which is why the reliability of Timofey Mozgov is preferable to the pogo-stick antics of JaVale McGee at center. Wilson Chandler heads up a solid bench crew that could help keep Denver on the fringes of the playoff race in the big bad West.
A successful season for the Wolves in ‘14-‘15 would probably include Ricky Rubio and heralded rookie Andrew Wiggins leading the team in minutes played. It would also help if shooting guard Kevin Martin regained his scoring efficiency enough to be traded for high value in February, and rookie Zach LaVine learned to play off the ball and ditched his happy-go-lucky charisma when he’s alone and staring into the mirror. In the frontcourt, center Nikola Pekovic needs to prove he can log 70 games even as a regular role is created for second-year man Gorgui Dieng, who could and should also join a power forward timeshare with Thad Young and Anthony Bennett. There are roles for Mo Williams and Corey Brewer, maybe even Shabazz Muhammad. But above all, Flip Saunders the personnel guru has to convince Flip Saunders the head coach that the playoffs are a pipedream and pushing for 35 wins without prioritizing the development of Wiggins, Rubio and Dieng is unacceptable.
I have long been a booster of Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, so it seems a shame that the NBA’s most dysfunctional franchise has made him the face and soul of their operation without providing a veteran sidekick with sufficient gravitas to help him understand the value and methodology of subtle teamwork. Cousins finished second to Kevin Durant — ahead of Lebron! — in usage rate last season. His Kings co-star, swingman Rudy Gay, has seen his prior teams dramatically improve the last two times he’s been traded. Yet the Kings swapped out Isaiah Thomas for the inferior Darren Collison at point guard ostensibly to provide more looks for Cousins and Gay. This year’s lottery pick Nik Stauskas will compete with last year’s lottery pick Ben McLemore at shooting guard. Defense and consistency will remain insurmountable obstacles to success in Sacramento.
If Dante Exum, the buzzed-about 6-5 rookie teenager from Australia taken by the Jazz with the overall fifth pick in the draft, can sustain the electricity he flashed in the preseason, it will be an enormous boon and relief for a franchise whose dedicated youth movement seemed at best to be bound for mediocrity. Building through the draft seems like cost-conscious wisdom—until the picks neither boom nor bust and come due for hefty salary increase. Swingman Gordon Hayward and center-forward Derrick Favors are at least slightly overpaid, even as payday decisions loom for swingman Alec Burks and center-forward Enes Kanter. If Exum and/or last year’s top pick, Trey Burke, can blossom into stars in the backcourt, the Jazz could soon be respectable.
Los Angeles Lakers
This season’s large helping of humble pie will be good for the Lakers organization and many of its fans, who treated their franchise like an Oscar-winning film while it disintegrated into a Bravo reality show. The lure of climate and glitz does not alone produce a hoops nirvana, especially if you grossly overpay a snarling alpha dog like Kobe Bryant a prime time salary when he is literally on the last legs of his career. In an effort to “win-now,” the Lakers have surrounded Bryant with a motley collection of uncomplimentary talents—Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Nick Young. They need to develop promising rookie forward Julius Randle and bide their time. The forced retirement of nonpareil point guard Steve Nash due to injury is a merciful blessing for player and team alike.