It’s easy to nail down the top six teams in the West. Really the top seven. The difficult part is the order.
As always, there are a lot of variables. The biggest, as Warriors fans know too well, is health. Since I’m not into predicting injuries, for these rankings we are assuming health (except in cases where players are currently out). But the rest – player movement, coaching changes, old age, inexperience, a little gut, some guessing, a little Rock, Paper, Scissors – it’s all factored in.
Here is how I think the West standings (top 8) will look when the season ends. Prepare to disagree.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
I’m buying the hype. Again. Chris Paul’s had nice talent around him since he became a Clipper. But Los Angeles’ new best team added much-needed outside shooting in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. This might be their most complete team in the CP3 era. Their biggest addition was Doc Rivers, a championship caliber coach. If anyone knows how to maximize all that talent, it’s Doc.
Strengths: The best point guard in the game, the best sixth man in the game, one of the best coaches in the game and a slew of quality role players (led by Darren Collison, who I think will be one of the clutchest pick-ups off the offseason).
Biggest concern: Does Blake Griffin have another level to his game, or is this it? Especially with a zero-offense center in DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers needs someone who can generate inside offense. Inside-out is much better than relying on CP3 and Jamal Crawford to make everything happen.
X-Factor: J.J. Redick. What the Clippers needed was consistent outside shooting. If he can get them some efficient offense while stretching the floor, CP3 has the space he needs.
I’m done doubting the Spurs. I thought they were too old last year and they came 26 second away from being the NBA champions. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green all should be better with that experience under their belt. The machine continues. They have all the same starters back and the young guys will be better. My one hesitation is I don’t think San Antonio cares much about the regular season. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up fourth and Oklahoma City ended up here. But that’s not how I’m predicting it.
Strengths: Tony Parker and Tim Duncan can win games in their sleep. Many Ginobili may not have much left but Marco Belinelli and a larger role for Leonard could cover most of that. And they still have the grand wizard on the bench.
Biggest concerns: At some point, mileage has to catch up to Duncan and Parker right?
X-Factor: COREY MAGGETTE! … Kidding. Leonard was a beast in the playoffs. A big year from him makes Spurs that much more lethal.
3. GOLDEN STATE
The Warriors won 47 games last season with their starting center playing just 32 games and three rookies getting significant minutes. Now, their starting center is healthy, those three rookies are no longer rookies. Oh, and they went out and got exactly the type of player their core was missing in Andre Iguodala. A healthy Bogut and adding Iguodala instantly makes the Warriors a better defensive team. The question for me is simply how much better. That answer is a lot. They have the most versatile roster in the conference, on paper. One misplaced injury kills it all, but if healthy this team will be scary in the West.
Strengths: They will be versatile defensively and, assuming they start clicking, very difficult to defend. Oh, and they shoot the 3 pretty well, too. On paper, they are deep, which is key over an 82-game stretch. Marreese Speights, Jermaine O’Neal, Toney Douglas, Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore, Festus Ezeli: if they get good years from two or three of these, they’ll have a nice bench. Better than last year.
Biggest concern: They still lack inside scoring for sure. But the greatest question mark is how will they do in crunch time. Their floor general down the stretch was mostly Jarrett Jack, but he’s now in Cleveland. Is Curry ready to carry the Warriors in crunch time? Jack had the benefit of being defended one-on-one as the attention of the defense, and opponents’ best defenders, were affixed on Curry. But Curry won’t have the luxury of someone else drawing attention away from him. Another option is putting ball in Iguodala’s hands, but is he as good of a shot-maker as Jack?
X-Factor: Harrison Barnes. If the playoffs were a sign he’s a star in the making, the Warriors could end up contending for the top seed.
4. Oklahoma City
The trade of James Harden continues to impact the Thunder. A lot depends on when Russell Westbrook returns, and how long after he returns before he becomes Westbrook again. Certainly, his absence exposed the holes in Oklahoma City’s supporting cast. Plus, Kendrick Perkins has even more miles on those legs. Reggie Jackson has added responsibility, which is an adjustment even if you think he will succeed (of which I am not convinced). The Thunder is still a factor in the West, but maybe the departure of Harden was the start of OKC coming back to the pack.
Strengths: Kevin Durant. He is a beast and after his last playoff experience, you know he is determined. And Westbrook and Serge Ibaka make the Thunder especially athletic and so difficult to match up with.
Biggest concern: Their depth leaves a lot to be desired, even with Westbrook healthy. Kevin Martin is in Minnesota, which leaves offense off the bench a major question mark. Plus, they still need a second facilitator, someone who is good enough to push shoot-first Westbrook off the ball.
X-Factor: Reggie Jackson. He can play. But there is a difference between being the sleeper off the bench and a key rotation player. Scout, meet Reggie Jackson. Reggie, Scout.
Clearly, I’m not on the Houston bandwagon. I do not think Dwight Howard vaults them into the top of the Western Conference. They will be better, for sure. I could see them even getting up to four if everything goes right. But I certainly don’t have them dominating the West. The acquisition of Dwight Howard did not cover every hole. Of course, it’s no slight to D12 for taking a team from 8th in the West to 5th.
Here is a barometer of mine on which Houston does not score high on: who is the Rockets’ third-best player? To me, that guy is key because in an 82-game season, he’s going to be required to carry the team for a significant amount of games. Go down the list of the best teams in the West and mentally list their third-best player. Does Houston’s stack up? If they get the Jeremy Lin of Linsanity, they could be scary. But with Harden and Howard, I doubt he gets the touches.
Strengths: They have one of the game’s best players in Harden and a dominant presence at center in Howard. And they can shoot the 3. They are definitely going to cause problems.
X-factor: Chandler Parsons. He’s one of my favorite sleeper players. But he’s done his damage in a pressure-free, wide-open, gun-slinger style of play. That’s great when you’re the underdog. That’s not Houston’s environment now. If he takes his game up a notch, I could be eating crow.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
No question the Grizzlies are still a formidable team in the Western Conference. But they didn’t do anything to address their weakness: scoring. No, I don’t believe Mike Miller is the answer. He could be big for them in the playoffs, but even if he’s healthy in the regular season, he doesn’t have enough left to make a noted difference. Plus, isn’t it time to expect a decline in the games of Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph? Hard not to think the Grizzlies have already peaked. And this talk of speeding up the pace, despite having slow players, is unsettling.
Strengths: Probably the best defensive team in the league, big and physical enough to pound most teams into submission. Grizzlies are anchored by probably the best two-way center in the league in Marc Gasol and an under-appreciated point guard in Mike Conley Jr. who thrives under the proverbial radar.
Biggest concern: One of Memphis’ strengths was its experience together. Now, the Grizzlies bring in a new head coach after ousting Lionel Hollins, whom the players loved. Dave Joerger just might be a good coach (certainly was at every other level he’s coached). But coaching changes always equal adjustments, especially when the previous coach was good, and especially when the new coach is a rookie.
X-Factor: Mike Conley has to be dominant at his position. With the switch to an uptempo pace, the burden on his shoulders has become much larger.
From the third seed to fighting for one of the last spots. That’s the Western Conference. If you’re not getting better, you’re falling. The Nuggets lost Andre Iguodala, starting center Kosta Koufos and they have a rookie head coach. They have enough to be pretty good — Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur were nice additions — but they will have their struggles.
Strengths: The Nuggets have the best home-court advantage and the league. They also still have the pieces to be one of the better uptempo offenses in the league, led by point guard Ty Lawson. Despite losing Koufos, Denver still boasts good size on the frontline.
Biggest concerns: They assuredly took a hit defensively by swapping Andre Iguodala for Randy Foye. But their biggest flaw, I think, is they just aren’t a very smart team. It hurts them on offense, it hurts them on defense. It hurts them on the road, when they don’t have an advantage. Maybe Brian Shaw changes that. But such seems more like a personnel problem.
X-factor: Kenneth Faried is a very good player. He’s a great rebounder, a great finisher. He plays with energy. But if he can elevate his game, become a power forward who can take over and not just a productive hustle guy, they might surprise some teams.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
This pick is less a belief in the Lakers and more a disbelief in the other competition. Minnesota could end up here. So could Dallas. I could even see Portland here. But I’d rather put my money on the guys who have done it before at a high level.
Strengths: Experience and elite (albeit aging) talent are still on the side of the Lakers. I have a hard time counting Bryant out. I could see him using this as one last stamp on his legacy, carrying a counted-out team to the playoffs after coming off a torn Achilles.
Biggest concerns: Their best players are on AARPs watch list, and the supporting cast is a random collection of average-ness. Individually, they might be good pieces when in the right situation. But on the Lakers, they are key contributors: Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson. How can you not be concerned about that cast?
X-factor: If somehow, Nick Young can emerge as a reliable scorer, that would be a huge help — especially until Kobe Bryant returns. They really need someone who can create offense and take some of the pressure off of Steve Nash on the perimeter.
Dallas’ backcourt, Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, will be one of the easiest to score on in the league, and Dirk Nowitzki doesn’t have enough left to carry them. Portland is still too young with two many holes, namely at center and off guard, though I do think Damian Lillard and Mo Williams are a handful. Part of me wanted to go with Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love, but I just couldn’t muster the confidence. I thought about New Orleans, but while they are improved, making the playoffs would be an historic turnaround. Baby steps, Pelicans. Baby steps.