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Previewing the NBA's Western Conference: Will the Wolves end their playoff drought?

Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant posing for a photo during media day at the Warriors Practice Facility.

On Friday, we opened our coverage of the 2016-17 NBA season by previewing the Eastern Conference. Today it is the weakened, but still deeper, Western Conference, where Golden State is the overwhelming favorite, the Clippers and Spurs the most formidable contenders, and then a large and intriguing group of teams that could fall anywhere from fourth to 13th.

Tomorrow I will offer more depth on the Minnesota Timberwolves, who I believe will end their playoff drought and provide the best hoops their long-suffering fans have experienced in well over a decade.

1. Golden State Warriors (First in the Pacific Division)
The addition of former MVP Kevin Durant to a record-setting 73-win team puts the cherry on top of the greatest collection of long-range shooters in NBA history. No opponent can adequately guard KD and the Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, as they synergize open looks for each other beyond the three-point arc. Durant’s presence will intrude upon Draymond Green’s high-post passing and essentially flipping Andruw Bogut for Zaza Pachulia doesn’t address the Warriors’ vulnerability to size and physicality near the hoop at both ends of the court, even with David West hopping over from San Antonio in his twilight search for a ring. But they still shape up as a magnificent regular-season juggernaut and the odds-on favorite to claim their second ring in three seasons.

2. Los Angeles Clippers (Second in the Pacific)
The Clippers' top four players are a glorious wrecking crew composed of superstars (Chris Paul, a healthy Blake Griffin) and ace specialists (hulking DeAndre Jordan, marksman J.J. Redick), but it really is do-or-die time now that CP and Blake have player options and Redick becomes a free agent at the end of this season. Unless the fate of this precariously top-heavy team — who have averaged more than 55 wins over the past four seasons — is to go down as memorable also-rans, they’ll need MVP-caliber campaigns from the studs, a return to form for Jamal Crawford (the game’s most overrated player last season as Sixth Man of the Year), and reliable contributions from their motley collection of small forwards.

3. San Antonio Spurs (First in the Southwest Division)
All those intangibles Tim Duncan was feted for — not to mention his very tangible prowess on defense, so efficient that it defined the Spurs franchise — are gone with his retirement. Kawhi Leonard ranks with Lebron James as the game’s best perimeter defender, LaMarcus Aldridge is a midrange shooting machine and capable rebounder, and Pau Gasol has the court IQ and finesse, especially on offense, to compensate for a significant amount of Duncan’s lost value. But even nonpareil coach Gregg Popovich can’t lose an alpha poise-maker like TD and not have his team take a hit, especially given the aging of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and the unfortunate roster swap of matador defender David Lee in place of David West. The Spurs will yet again win more than 50 and advance a round, maybe two, in the playoffs. But the most glorious NBA team legacy since the 60s Celtics is now fading in sudden haste.   

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4. Utah Jazz (First in the Northwest Division)
The offseason acquisition of George Hill was a masterstroke, ensuring that the unproven Dante Exum can be a bonus upgrade rather than a necessary risk at the point. Compare that to last season, when the Jazz were relegated to Raul Neto and Shelvin Mack as floor generals and still finished just two games below .500. The broken finger of top scorer Gordon Hayward will be an early-season hiccup, but swingman Rodney Hood is an ace replacement. The Jazz have length all over the floor, from twin towers Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert to Hood and Hayward (both 6’8”) and 6’7” Joe Johnson and 6’6” Exum in the backcourt. Yet with Boris Diaw and Trey Lyles they can also go “small.” Bottom line, they are lengthy, physical and deep. They protect the rim and play at a snail’s pace while spreading the floor and moving the ball on offense. Barring a slew of injuries, they will grind opponents down and get better and better as the season progresses.

5. Portland Trailblazers (Second in the Northwest)
In the off-season of 2015, President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey hit the bullseye on a number of value-added acquisitions, propelling a team thought to be in free-fall after losing LaMarcus Aldridge and three other starters to the second round of the playoffs. In the off-season of 2016, it looks like Olshey overpaid for inferior talent to supplement his previous coup. Does it affect team chemistry when your salary structure seems like the antithesis of merit pay? More significantly, Portland now has a good but not great roster and no wiggle room under the salary cap. Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Moe Harkless are making half the salary of Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe. Their best center (in my opinion), Mason Plumlee, is earning a third of what Meyers Leonard makes and half of what backup Festus Ezeli just signed for. Beginning next season they’ve got $50 million invested in an undersized backcourt of Damian Lillard (worth it) and CJ McCollum (not so much), who can shoot the lights out but don’t defend. Fortunately, coach Terry Stotts, a superb tactician, will preside over this fascinating experiment.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder (Third in the Northwest)
Unless you’re Lebron James (and there is only one of those), one-man teams don’t fare too well in the NBA grind. With Durant’s departure to Golden State and Serge Ibaka traded to Orlando, the Thunder’s second-best player behind Russell Westbrook is almost a four-way tie among the other starters. All have holes in their games — shooting guard Victor Oladipo (the key piece in exchange for Ibaka) and center-forward Steven Adams are probably the most well-rounded — and if Westbrook’s kamikaze style fueled by extraordinary athleticism results in injury, things will not be OK in OKC. Top pick Domantas Sabonis looks to be an immediate contributor at forward, but the Thunder are already better stocked on the front line than the backcourt, where a weak crew was further dinged by Cameron Payne’s fractured foot (he’s out 6-8 weeks). Westbrook is Superman. But OKC is one piece of kryptonite from falling out of the playoffs altogether.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves (Fourth in the Northwest)
We’ll get into specifics on this placement Tuesday, but folks who read me know I’m no sentimental homer. Yet I am rationally confident that barring significant injuries or unforeseen catastrophes, the Wolves will earn their first playoff appearance since 2004 in resounding fashion, with second-year center Karl-Anthony Towns going to the All Star game and Tom Thibodeau in serious contention for Coach of the Year. Enhanced defense, depth, and desire to win every game for a change will be worth at least a dozen more wins — for the season, 50 would be less surprising than 30. Pinch yourself.

8. Houston Rockets (Second in the Southwest)
Mike D’Antoni hasn’t won a playoff game (covering two first-round sweeps) since leaving Phoenix eight years ago. Since then he has proven particularly inept over a six-season span at getting talented but dysfunctional teams to set aside their distractions and gel. He inherits a talented but dysfunctional roster in Houston that is putting all its chips on the offensive side of the ball, a D’Antoni specialty. Newcomers Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon are superb long-range shooters but can’t defend. Oh, and like point guard Patrick Beverley and recently signed center Nene, they are prone to injury. Beverley’s most recent ding secures James Harden at the point, increasing the likelihood that Houston will score a ton and give us just a little less — not a formula that will win D’Antoni any playoff games.

9. Dallas Mavericks (Third in the Southwest)
It’s been said before, of course, but this is the year coach Rick Carlisle finally runs out of magic. Carlisle can rebut that by getting new center Andrew Bogut to remember how he scored in Milwaukee so opponents can’t ignore him; and by ignoring the max money given to Harrison Barnes and making the other swingman, Wes Matthews, the preferred option behind Dirk Nowitzki on offense. Matthews’ true shooting percentage is a gaudy 57.2; Nowitzki’s (a top five all-time shooter) is 58; Barnes sits at 53.2. Carlisle may also feature pogo sticks Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell as an assassin bench tandem so Nowitzki can rest long enough to exert a semblance of resistance on defense. And turning back the clock to vintage Deron Williams at the point? That would be serious magic.

10. Memphis Grizzlies (Fourth in the Southwest)
They are entering a transition, a team built on old-fashioned grit and grind trying to spread the floor and speed the pace while hanging on to their stalwart grinders. Yes, it’s possible that point guard Mike Conley (perennially underrated, now the highest paid NBA player) and center Marc Gasol are versatile enough to handle the switch. But wing stopper Tony Allen has a ton of hard miles on his body and turns 35 in January, the age that once-premiere low-post scorer Zach Randolph has already reached. Rookie coach David Fizdale (a former assistant in Miami) is an amiable salesman for the new system, and stretch forward Chandler Parsons signed for big bucks to help implement it. But Parsons is dinged up, Gasol is coming off major surgery last season, and Randolph figures to hog the ball coming off the bench because the roster depth isn’t sufficient to provide succor for the times when age, infirmity and exhaustion (there is no decent backup for Conley) take their toll on the cornerstones of this team. The Grizzlies are proud enough to be dangerous, which will make this necessary season of adjustment a little more poignant.

11. Denver Nuggets (Fifth in the Northwest)
What prevents Denver from being a trendy, ascendant team along the lines of the Jazz and the Wolves is the uncertainty of Emmanuel Mudiay at the point. He’s still only 20, with a bounty of athleticism and potential, but he couldn’t shoot from anywhere (the rim, the foul line, the three-point arc) last season and had an assist-to-turnover ratio below 2-to-1. Otherwise there is a lot to like, beginning with the two Eastern Euro behemoths, starter Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, the latter a prime candidate for a bounce-back season after being waylaid by injuries last year. Danilo Gallinari, newly acquired Wil Barton and Gary Harris provide outside shooting to create space for Jokic and Kenneth Faried (an inconsistent and ill-fitting piece who should be traded if possible) and Wilson Chandler returns from injury to shore up the defense. They’ve got talent, youth and cap space, and are waiting for Mudiay to fill the missing link. If he does, they vault to 8th.

12. New Orleans Pelicans (Fifth in the Southwest)
A year ago, the Pellies felt playoff-bound on the strength of superstar Anthony Davis and the arrival of coach Alvin Gentry. But Davis and his crew endured a slew of injuries, Gentry seemed remarkably befuddled, and Pellies won just 30 games. Unless AD’s body will allow him to be consistently transcendent (that’s still his stratospheric ceiling) and Gentry coaches with the aplomb he showed in Phoenix, New Orleans will again languish away from contention. They will miss point guard Jrue Holiday, on indefinite leave caring for his ailing wife, and by now it’s clear that swingman Tyreke Evans will never surpass his 2009-10 rookie season. Sharpshooting rookie Buddy Hield will help make up for the loss of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, and forward Solomon Hill is a good glue-guy acquisition. But even in a weakened West, fair-to-middlin’ won’t get you to the postseason.

13. Phoenix Suns (Third in the Pacific)
It always feels like the Suns have a glut of guards, even when they’ve given away Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas in recent seasons. Coach Earl Watson can roll out a three-guard front with a rotation of Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and Leandro Barbosa, who are all combo guards, along with shooting guard Devin Booker, who could be the best of the bunch. Center Tyson Chandler and stretch power forward Jared Dudley are high-character veterans (although Chandler’s play and attitude regressed last season) and swingman P.J. Tucker can be a junkyard dog off the bench. The lingering issue is whether the Suns want to sniff the fringe of playoff contention or concentrate on developing their youth, including rookie forwards Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender and center Alex Lin. Elementary, my dear Coach Watson — develop the kids.

14. Los Angeles Lakers (Fourth in the Pacific)
Not having to forsake teamwork in favor of Kobe Bryant’s self-centered swan song and losing 20th Century coach Byron Scott are huge additions by subtraction for the Lakers this season. That quality recruits like veteran workhorse Luol Deng and hotshot Warriors assistant Luke Walton are filling those voids just reinvests the dividends. The Timofey Mozgov signing was an embarrassing miscalculation, but he’s still better than last year’s starter, Roy Hibbert, at center. Speaking of miscalculation, any teammate still aggrieved by D’Angelo Russell’s social media faux pas from last season needs to be moved — Russell is a cornerstone who will blossom this season. Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. is an impressive corps of youngsters. A double-digit increase in wins this season is just the beginning of the comeback.

15. Sacramento Kings (Fifth in the Pacific)
DeMarcus Cousins is a premium, 26-year old center entering his 7th NBA season, and yet still in dire need of emotional mentorship and talented teammates. His current point guards are Darren Collison, suspended for the first eight games due to a domestic violence incident, and Ty Lawson, who has four DUIs and was filmed partying in Vegas right before missing the team flight last week. That the Kings have only declining, damaged goods for their floor generals as Cousins enters his prime — while drafting three centers in two years and trading for other bigs — is a level of incompetence that would make Ted Stepien wince (look it up). Sacramento’s second-highest paid player, Rudy Gay, has said he won’t return after his contract expires this season and the Kings are unsuccessfully trying to trade him. The best thing that could happen this season is an utter meltdown that ends any flimsy pretense and forces them to fumigate and start over. Free DeMarcus Cousins!

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Comments (2)

Bottom feeders

It's a shame that one of the most overlooked superstars in this league, Anthony Davis, is stuck on a Pelicans team that hasn't taken any steps to improve. Get that man some veteran help (ala Sam and Spree here) and they could potentially see the playoffs. Same goes for DeMarcus Cousins, though I think he's more likely to be traded than rebuilt around at this point.

Also, am I the only person on the planet who doesn't think Russell is a lock for future superstar? I know I've seen flashes of his ability, but he seems like a "volume scorer" to me (but hey, you could say he studied behind one of the best). He doesn't seem very disciplined on the defensive side of the ball, either. There are obvious maturity issues on such a young squad, and judging from Russell's past, I'm not sure he's leadership material, though there's nowhere to go but up.

My main uncertainty is where to put the Jazz this year. Like Anthony Davis, Derrick Favors has been the workhorse on a team that doesn't get tons of attention, and when it does, the focus has been on other guys like Gobert and Hayward. But Favors' ability dictates how far this team goes. I thought ranking them fourth in the west was a little high, but looking at the Northwest division, I can't see the Thunder or Blazers or Wolves being that much better than they are.

4-13 are totally up in the air

I could actually see Sacramento surprise some teams because vets often help a team avoid big problems, and they're trying to be competitive. Utah has fewer question marks than the other teams, I don't see Memphis missing the playoffs unless Gasol and Conley both have lingering injury effects, and Houston will destroy bad defenses. They all seem to be in that tier below the Spurs and Clippers. The Wolves are more in that next group with Portland (how long can they game the system before defenses catch up?), OKC (could see anything from 35-50 wins), Dallas (betting against Carlisle and Dirk has been largely unsuccessful), New Orleans (Davis is somehow now underrated and while they overpaid for depth, they got some useful players), and Denver (deep and athletic), where I wouldn't be surprised to see any of them make the playoffs.