In anticipation of the 2015-16 National Basketball Association season, we previewed the Eastern Conference of the NBA Tuesday morning. We now offer up our preview of the superior and more competitive Western Conference, where the five top teams could be arrayed in any order.
Taking time out to write a story on my debt to Flip Saunders, who died on Sunday, has necessarily abridged these appraisals of the 15 clubs in the West. The top eight qualify for the playoffs.
Wednesday afternoon, we will preview the Minnesota Timberwolves, who open their NBA season in Los Angeles Wednesday night.
Golden State Warriors (1)
The Warriors return their top nine players from last year’s championship run, in which they finished 67-15 in the regular season and 16-5 in the playoffs. MVP Steph Curry is 27. Draymond Green, the versatile linchpin of the NBA’s top-rated defense, is 25 and bolstered by a new contract. Wings Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes both have room to grow and the bench may still be the best in the NBA. Only the temporary absence of coach Steve Kerr due to back woes and the torrid competition in the West seem like possible deterrents to another magical season.
Houston Rockets (2)
James Harden averaged 27.4 points on just 18.1 field goal attempts per game last season, a phenomenal rate of efficiency that attests to his ability to draw fouls and make three-pointers. Guided by the advanced analytics of GM Daryl Morey, the Rockets led the NBA in three-point attempts and defensive field goal percentage against the trey, resulting in a NBA-best +328 in three-pointers made — a differential of 12 points per game. If Harden can co-exist in the backcourt with the similarly ball dominant Ty Lawson (whose problems with alcohol enabled his bargain acquisition from Denver) and Dwight Howard’s health holds up, hungry Houston has a beguiling mixture of firepower, junkyard dogs (guard Patrick Beverley, swingmen Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer) and geek stratagems to overachieve expectations a second straight season.
San Antonio Spurs (3)
The fact that point guard Tony Parker seems to be wearing out faster than ageless center Tim Duncan is a concern, and it’s a little disappointing that the Spurs fabled shot doctor Chip Engelland hasn’t helped heralded free agent LaMarcus Aldridge develop a three-point shot during the preseason. But Aldridge joins Kawhi Leonard as burden-bearers for San Antonio’s fading Big 3 (Duncan, Parker, Manu Ginobili), Danny Green returns on a reasonable contract — oh, and did we mention David West? The Spurs could trot out a starting five of nothing but forwards and still make the playoffs. They stand, scarred and grizzled, like a venerable oak tree while all the old jokes about the old Spurs have withered, shriveled and fallen off the vine.
Oklahoma City Thunder (4)
Among the gaggle of compelling story lines for this season will be whether OKC can convince impending free agent superstar Kevin Durant that his continued association with co-alpha scoring leader Russell Westbrook and new coach Billy Donovan will help win him a championship. Making that a moot point before Durant’s contract expires this year would be ideal, of course, but for that to happen, the Thunder need dedicated defensive effort. GM Sam Presti’s signing of defensive matador Enes Kanter to a fat contract extension is even more baffling than his ill-fated trade of James Harden a few years back. But Westbrook and Serge Ibaka likewise have to appreciate that defensive stops trump offensive touches on the priority list. Durant, a criminally underrated defender, already knows it.
Los Angeles Clippers (5)
The Clips are the last of the five teams in the West clearly capable of going all the way to a championship this season. Power forward Blake Griffin and point guard Chris Paul are bona fide superstars — a serious case can be made for both being the best at their respective positions right now, Anthony Davis and Stephen Curry be damned. Center DeAndre Jordan ensures that L.A. will never be outmuscled in the middle, and yet he is still quicker than most big men. J.J. Redick is a splash-for-cash shooting specialist and underrated defender, and the acquisitions of forwards Josh Smith and Paul Pierce and swingman Lance Stephenson is a gaudy upgrade on what had been an embarrassingly thin bench contingent. So why place them fifth? Frankly, just a feeling of bad juju — or maybe karma from Jordan’s off-season bait-and-switch of the Mavs, coach Doc Rivers’ comments about the Warriors being lucky, and the drama Paul and Griffin revel in on the court.
New Orleans Pelicans (6)
Coaching changes are frequently overhyped as an elixir, but hiring Alvin Gentry at this point of extreme ascension in Anthony Davis’ career feels like a jackpot for the Pellies. Amar’e Stoudemire was never better at both ends of the court as when Gentry had him in Phoenix. Gentry was offensive coordinator for the champion Warriors, who improved by four points per 100 possessions with roughly the same personnel last year. Davis is 22 and on a trajectory akin to Kevin Garnett. New Orleans is already racked by a welter of injuries, but nothing as yet that would torpedo the season. If a rotation that includes Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Omer Asik can gain continuity, Davis and New Orleans will be a playoff team no one wants to face.
Memphis Grizzlies (7)
The problem with effectively wearing down your opponents for five straight years is enduring all that physicality upon your own roster — it takes two sides to grind. The frontcourt granite of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and bruising swingman Tony Allen all crave contact as their currency for success, but while last year’s edition of the Grizzlies won 55 games and ranked third in points allowed per possession, the peak grit-‘n’-grind season remains 2012-13. Picking up Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes helps the depth, but perennially underrated point guard Mike Conley is the only starter under 30, and the Western Conference isn’t getting easier. Memphis is too entrenched and too successful to back off now. But perhaps a three-pointer or two (By the aged Vince Carter? Second-year sleeper Jordan Adams?) could be permitted, even if it does upend the Grizzlies’ sensibility of doing everything the hard way.
Utah Jazz (8)
I’d be a lot more confident punching Utah’s playoff ticket if Dante Exum didn’t tear his ACL in August; the 6-6 point guard was almost as important to the Jazz’s second-half resurgence on defense as “The Stifle Tower,” shot-blocker Rudy Gobert. Utah is at their best when they are able to live large, and point Trey Burke doesn’t qualify. That said, the added muscle of leading scorer Gordon Hayward, another year under the creative, if slow, spread offense of coach Quin Snyder, and the most intimidating frontcourt in the NBA — Gobert and 265-pound power forward Derrick Favors — might be enough to regain last year’s post All-Star break momentum, when they finished 19-10.
Phoenix Suns (9)
Tyson Chandler and Eric Bledsoe are quality defenders in the paint and on the perimeter, respectively. If surly forward Markieff Morris can control his temper, he can be a terrific defender of stretch power forwards, and small forward P.J. Tucker always works on his opponent like he’s a rubber hose. Put simply, the Suns can get stops. But ball movement on offense will be an issue, not only because court vision is at a premium on this roster, but because Bledsoe, Morris and shooting guard Brandon Knight will be loath to give it up. Mirza Teletovic and rookie Devin Booker will rain three-pointers coming off the bench, and seven-footer Alex Lin is already a promising big man who will learn a lot from Chandler. The Suns are in the playoff hunt.
Dallas Mavericks (10)
If everyone among the Mavs ostensible starters stays healthy and rediscovers the strengths of their respective skill sets, Dallas will return to the playoffs. But rugged wingmen Wes Matthews and Chandler Parsons are both coming off major surgeries and don’t know how to downshift. Dirk Nowitzki will be a quality shooter into his 70s, but already moves like he’s in his 50s — and he won’t have his ideal complement, center Tyson Chandler, covering for him on defense. Chandler’s replacement, Zaza Pachulia is smart and capable, but slow — power forwards and backdoor cutters are going to have fun with a Nowitzki-Pachulia pairing. Last but not least, once-elite point guard and Dallas native Deron Williams hasn’t ever recovered his game after forcing out coach Jerry Sloan in Utah. He could thrive under the similarly controlling Rick Carlisle — or be exposed as washed up.
Sacramento Kings (11)
Every year we imagine the Spurs will show cracks in their system and the Kings will get a clue. There are rumblings that veteran coach George Karl and franchise foundation DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins have patched their acrimony, but raise your hand if you perceive smooth sailing for that pair this season. Toss in polarizing locker room presence Rajon Rondo at the point and chronic underachiever Rudy Gay on the wing. I like top draft pick Willie Cauley-Stein and free agent acquisition Kosta Koufos, but they’re both seven-footers and Cousins is the center. The coach who got the most out of the Kings last season, Mike Malone, was fired after 24 games. Maybe the clue comes in 2016-17.
Denver Nuggets (12)
Behemoth center Jusuf Nurkic was the steal of the 2014 draft and the large, lithe point guard Emmanuel Mudiay may repeat that feat for 2015. But Nurkic is returning from off-season knee surgery and Mudiay is still a very raw talent. The Nuggets also have guys who tease with their specialty skills — the ferocious and quick leaping ability of Kenneth Faried and the sweet-stroke shooting of Danilo Gallinari. How quickly — or if — new coach Mike Malone can assembly and maximize these parts alongside stolid swingman Wilson Chandler will determine the success of this season in Denver. But the Nuggets are at least a year or two away.
Minnesota Timberwolves (13)
I’ll have a more extensive take on the Wolves later Wednesday, but suffice to say that enough potentially foundational pieces are in place — Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio, Karl-Anthony Towns — to make continuity the top priority. Last year’s tanking was anti-development for teenaged rookies Wiggins and Zach LaVine in terms of knowing what it takes to succeed as a team. There are some hopeful signs under new coach Sam Mitchell, who doesn’t mind running sets that foster three-pointers and has put the 6-foot-8-inch Wiggins at the two-guard slot where he can dominate with less grind. That’s important because he needs to become a wing stopper on defense — a side of the ball where the Wolves were historically bad last season, yielding the third-worst opponents’ eFG percentage of all time. As for motivation, this roster should realize that they are writing the final chapter of Flip Saunders’ legacy.
Portland Trailblazers (14)
All the starters are gone from last season except for Damian Lillard, who may be the most clutch long-range shooter I’ve ever seen, but will have precious few chances to splash buzzer-beaters with this rebuilding crew. Lillard is also a subpar defender, and may contract a case of Kobe-itis, ball-hogging as the losses mount. There is potential in forward Noah Vonleh, acquired from Charlotte in the Batum trade, and in Mason Plumlee, who will likely play center. Gerald Henderson and Al-Farouq Aminu are solid components coming off the bench — but they will start on this ballclub. Once LaMarcus Aldridge went to San Antonio, management wisely tromped on the reset button. But it is hard to instantly flip over a team that won 105 games over the past two seasons without a couple of years, like this one, in the mire.
Los Angeles Lakers (15)
Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Lou Williams — that’s your veteran core around to help the promising prospects learn the nuances of the game? Roy Hibbert, like Bryant, is playing for a new contract. And, uh, “Swaggy P” Nick Young would like a few more touches. Can old-school coach Byron Scott hold firm to a rebuild that features D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson in the backcourt and finds minutes for sleeper rookie combo-forward Larry Nance Jr. on the wing? At some point in the season, the Lakers will respond to the sordid reality that their 2016 draft choice is protected only through the first three picks and otherwise goes to Philly. Who tells Kobe it is time to load the tank?