Can’t wait for the 2015-’16 season to start? We neither. Now that most of the off-season’s major moves are complete, we’ll dive into some ludicrously premature predictions for next season. In the coming days and weeks we’ll attempt to project the standings in each conference, five teams at a time, before trying to lock down who will bring home the major awards at the end of next year. We wrapped up the Eastern Conference last week – now it’s time for the fun part. Let’s look at the best the West has to offer.
Can the season start now, please? For years the nightly slate of Western Conference games has made it completely worth it for NBA diehards to sit through the underwhelming platter of Eastern opening acts. While the East should certainly be improved this year, viewers will be even more antsy for the Western Conference action to start on those cold weekday nights throughout the season. Not only to the champs reside here; the legendary Spurs, the vastly improved Clippers, the Western Conference runners-up from Houston, the newly healthy Thunder, and maybe the most talented player in the league are all going to be performing on the Western stage in 2015-’16. You could reasonably make the argument that seven of the league’s eight best teams play in the bloodbath that is the West.
Seriously, this season is going to look like something out of Middle Earth.
Here’s a way-too-early prediction for the top five teams in the Western Conference.
#1 – Golden State Warriors
Key Additions: F/C Jason Thompson
Key Losses: F David Lee, G/F Justin Holiday
Golden State’s opposition atop the West was tremendously busy this summer. They had to be. The gap between the the Warriors and the rest of the conference last year was significant. While the squads nipping at Golden State’s heels are entering the new season with shiny new acquisitions or clean bills of health, Steve Kerr’s 67-win bunch should still be considered the favorites.
Every team in the NBA is after what the Warriors already possess. Draymond Green’s versatility is the envy of teams league-wide; every other franchise is trying to find someone who can replicate his skill set. In a three-pointer-mad league, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson have proven to be more prolific shooters than the competition. On top of that, the Warriors boast a deeper collection of the switchable, lengthy wing players that are so en vogue right now than anyone else.
Until it can be proven otherwise, the champs remain the team most properly suited to thrive in the modern NBA. They’ve got the crown until someone steals it.
#2 – Los Angeles Clippers
Key Additions: F Paul Pierce, G Lance Stephenson, F Josh Smith, G Pablo Prigioni, C Cole Aldrich, G/F Wesley Johnson
Key Losses: F Matt Barnes, F/C Spencer Hawes, A Collection of Non-NBA Players
Well, that was a 180. In the matter of a few days and seven million emojis, the Clippers went from having a catastrophic off-season to being in the conversation as having one of the very best summers of all. Retaining DeAndre Jordan from the clutches of Mark Cuban and the Mavs was impossibly crucial to the success of the Clippers next year. Without him, the financially hamstrung Clips would have had to roll out a guy like Cole Aldrich for far more minutes than a guy like Cole Aldrich should be playing.
With Jordan still in town, Doc Rivers was able to entice useful role players Josh Smith and Pablo Prigioni to join the already wooed Paul Pierce and form a suddenly respectable second unit. Gone are the days of Lester Hudson, Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis carrying the mail when the Clippers’ killer starting unit rests. Instead of six or seven NBA-caliber players on the roster, Los Angeles goes 11 or 12 players deep.
One of the benefits that will be afforded the Clips’ GM and coach is the increased versatility of his squad. Running out Blake Griffin for huge stretches at center would have almost been a necessity had Jordan taken the Mavs’ offer. Now, it’s a luxury. Lance Stephenson was among the league’s worst players last year, but given his talent level, he stands a good chance of reviving his once-promising career surrounded by some strong, authoritative personalities like Rivers, Pierce and Chris Paul. Born Ready should offer another ball-handling option to both ease the load on Paul and limit Austin Rivers to much less than the nearly 20 minutes he played on a nightly basis last season.
With bolstered depth complementing one of the most outstanding starting units in basketball, the Clippers should be firmly in contention for home court throughout the Western Conference playoffs.
#3 – San Antonio Spurs
Key Additions: F LaMarcus Aldridge, F David West, F Boban Marjanovic, G Ray McCallum
Key Losses: G Corey Joseph, C Aron Baynes, G Marco Bellinelli, C Tiago Splitter
Of course the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge, lured David West to Texas on a minimum deal, made a sneaky unheralded move for an underused point guard, and brought in a 7’3 Serbian center who averaged a double-double in Europe last year. Of course they did.
The 2014 champs are fully reloaded for another shot at the crown – a run that could possibly the last for the Tim Duncan-Manu Ginobili-Tony Parker triumvirate that has dominated the better part of two decades. With Aldridge in the fold, the Spurs’ crunch time lineup appears to be a borderline unstoppable two-way monstrosity. We all know about the Spurs’ sensational ball movement, and the thought of Aldridge mastering the three-point shot is simply terrifying. Last season, he hit 35.2 percent of his three-pointers. That may seem like a ho-hum number until you consider that 2014-’15 was the first time the former Blazer regularly stepped out behind the line; he put up 105 threes – almost half of his 221 career attempts. As his comfort level grows and the amount of open looks he gets from deep increases, we could be looking at the most physically daunting stretch four we’ve ever seen.
It’s not easy to find areas of weakness with this Spurs team. Initial concerns over the loss of depth guys like Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes, Marco Bellinelli and Tiago Splitter were probably overblown. Under Gregg Popovich, the new crop of Spurs bench players – Summer League MVP Kyle Anderson, Ray McCallum, Boban Marjanovic and the like – is destined to be the next wave of ex-Spurs to get fat contracts elsewhere a few years down the road.
Where there should be some trepidation is with the 33-year-old Parker. While he’s still surely an excellent point guard, his numbers have slipped in the last couple years:
Of course, that much-improved three-point stroke somewhat quells the concerns about Parker’s decreased slashing ability and aging body. This is an almost unfairly talented team – even its weaknesses aren’t really weaknesses.
If it weren’t for Pop’s insistence on resting starters throughout the season, this team could very well win the top seed. Those mid-season nights when Duncan and company ride pine, though, will probably make it tricky to win the race for first given the ultra-competitive nature of the West.
#4 – Houston Rockets
Key Additions: G Ty Lawson, F Montrezl Harrell, F Sam Dekker
Key Losses: F Josh Smith, F Nick Johnson, G Pablo Prigioni,
The prevailing wisdom regarding the Rockets was that general manager Daryl Morey had been hoarding assets like Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas in order to eventually use them as attractive trade chips in a star-fetching deal. Well, he managed to swing a deal for a star – Ty Lawson – without parting ways with Jones, Motiejunas, or his incoming rookies Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell.
Kevin McHale now has three All-Star-caliber talents and 12 useful rotation players at his disposal. Lawson, while his personal issues need to be resolved, is an incredibly skilled offensive player, and can slide into a number of different roles with Houston. Obviously the natural fit is to slot Lawson next to James Harden in the starting lineup. The MVP runner-up took a beating last year. Devoid of other options, Harden worked as the team’s lead guard and offensive catalyst from start to finish, and compiled an outrageous 10.2 free throw attempts per game in the process. It will be a nice change of pace if Lawson can run the offense more regularly, and opening up some off-ball looks for Harden – who was, by the way, the team’s best three-point shooter last season save for Jason Terry (37.5%).
If Lawson is willing to buy in, he could demoralize opposing second units as the go-to option off the Rockets’ bench. Should McHale want to limit the minute totals for Harden, he could deploy Lawson with Patrick Beverley in spurts, where the tenacious Beverley could cover for his overmatched offense.
If the Rockets’ coach really wants to get creative, a configuration of Lawson, Beverley, Harden, Motiejunas and Dwight Howard could torch teams in transition and still maintain its defensive integrity. The point is, Lawson opens up a variety options for Houston, and will help alleviate the load that Harden carried last season.
With the splashes made by the Spurs and Clippers, it can be easy to overlook the team that was the second best in the West last season – both in the regular season and playoffs. However, with the addition of Lawson and the incumbent depth on the roster, Houston is just as much in the contender conversation as the teams listed above it.
#5 – Oklahoma City Thunder
Key Additions: G Cameron Payne
Key Losses: G Jeremy Lamb, F Perry Jones
It really is a testament to how glorious the battle at the top of the conference is going to be that the Thunder, which feature two of the 10 best basketball players on Earth, might have trouble getting home court for a first round playoff series. On paper, it could be argued that this is the most talented team in the league. Thanks to some shrewd deadline moves by management at this past year’s trade deadline, this is easily the best supporting cast Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have played with. It likely won’t surprise anybody if new coach Billy Donovan is a much-needed breath of fresh air; if Durant returns to MVP form many months removed from his last surgery; if Westbrook continues to play like a Mako shark on Speed; or if Serge Ibaka’s world-class defense hides Enes Kanter’s flaws enough to turn this team into a champion at season’s end.
However, that’s a lot of ifs.
With Durant’s free agency looming, Oklahoma City can ill afford to have anything go dramatically wrong. Unfortunately, projecting whether or not a decorated college coach will succeed in the pros is as dicey a proposition as expecting a foot injury not to flare up mid-season. Equally wrought with peril: counting on Kanter’s embarrassing defense to not drag down the entire operation.
The newly-minted $70 million man is a very good offensive player, no doubt, but he sucks the life out of his team on the defensive side of the ball:
|Enes Kanter – 20 GP w/ OKC||
Of course when the trade for Kanter was made, it appeared that the plan was to pair Kanter with the ultra-defender Ibaka in order to hide his impossibly bad footspeed and defensive positioning. Their minutes together were limited since Ibaka missed the Thunder’s final 18 games, but the early returns weren’t exactly encouraging. In 238 minutes together, the Ibaka-Kanter duo yielded a 108.6 Offensive Rating and a putrid 109.2 Defensive Rating.
Kanter isn’t being paid an obscene sum of money to come off the bench. In all likelihood he’s going to start – and when he’s on the court, the Thunder will hemorrhage points. Durant and Westbrook are so supremely talented that they can keep the Thunder near the top of the West all season, but if Donovan doesn’t craft a way to maximize the former third-overall pick’s skills while covering up his faults, Kanter’s presence could derail Oklahoma City’s all-important title chase when the playoffs roll around.