Posted by Andrew Shi
The season finally starts next Tuesday. Here are my predictions for the final Western Conference rankings:
1. The Los Angeles Clippers:
They ended last season in fourth and had a productive offseason, adding some fire power with J.J Redick , Jared Dudley and Antawn Jamison. Byron Mullens will be an effective backup for Deandre Jordan, and rookie Reggie Bullock showed some real potential during the Las Vegas Summer League. The loss of Eric Bledsoe will take a toll on the bench but will be mostly mitigated with the addition of Darren Collison. Overall the bench is much better than last year's. The real x factor for this team will be the starting front court, namely if Jordan and Blake Griffin can toughen up their defensive and put up some points instead of just making the highlight reel. Having Doc Rivers as coach will undoubtedly help, and Jordan is already putting up brilliant stats in preseason games. But this ranking is just as much because of their improvement as it is the unimpressive off-seasons of their closest competitors.
2. The Oklahoma City Thunder
They were the best team last year and were projected to reach the finals until they lost Russell Westbrook to injury in the first round. They had a quiet offseason, but letting go Kevin Martin will exact a noticeable toll on their bench and scoring. Too much now rides on sophomore Jeremy Lamb to pick up that slack. The Thunder still have a very good bench and two of the top five players, assuming Westbrook returns to full prowess. Serge Ibaka also looks like he made a huge jump in productivity over the summer. The Thunder could easily reclaim their slot at No.1 if Westbrook returns soon enough.
3. The San Antonio Spurs
Another team with a quiet offseason. They lost Gary Neal who proved himself as a dangerous shooter during the playoffs, but the addition of Marco Belinelli offsets that loss for the most part. Overall, the same team, but another year older. Yet the rise of Kawhi Leonard and the inexplicable phenomena that this team is ageless may just leave this team better this year than last year.
4. The Golden State Warriors
They lost some valuable players but added even more valuable ones. The absence of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry will take a toll on the bench, but the addition of all-star Andre Iguodala alone compensates for that. A player that can put up points, Iguodala's real value comes from his tenacious defense. Adding Toney Douglas, Marreese Speights and Jermaine O'Neal helps keep the bench healthy. Harrison Barnes will only get better but much rides on the ability of Andrew Bogut to stay healthy. When he is, he's arguably a top five center and a second-chance producing machine with his offensive rebounds.
5. The Houston Rockets:
Dwight Howard-- that's all that really needs to be said. So far the pairing of James Harden and Howard appears to be a match made in heaven. Their bench also looks championship ready with Ronnie Brewer, Omri Casspi, Patrick Beverley and Marcus Camby. The only deficiencies this team faces are having two centers start in a league that has shifted to smaller, nimbler lineups and having a decent, but turnover-prone point guard Jeremy Lin.
6. The Memphis Grizzlies:
Adding Mike Miller and Kosta Koufas empowers their reserves and Miller and Josh Akognon should alleviate the team's lack of shooters, but overall not too many large moves except for a new coach. They were in fifth last year and with other teams making big moves, they moved back a little by standing still. However, they're still a title contender
7. The Denver Nuggets
After the Grizzlies, the next two slots are truly open. Despite an awful offseason, this team is still good enough to make the playoffs. The loss of Andre Iguodala is devastating as he was the keystone to their defense. The absence of Kosta Koufas and Corey Brewer, while they were key reserves, are a smaller distraction. Adding J.J Hickson and Nate Robinson brings some scoring power to their bench, but Randy Foye, who is expected to replace Andre Iguodala is a glaring downgrade. Giving JaVale McGee more minutes should improve the Nugget's game and once Danilo Gallinari returns and Wilson Chandler returns to coming off the bench, this team will still be a dominate force, possibly moving up a slot. But losing Coach of the Year George Karl could have been too large of a step back.
8. The Portland Trailblazers
This slot was even harder to fill out than the last, and there are five teams that could easily take its place. However, the addition of Robin Lopez gives the team the center it needs, even if Lopez is far from a premier center. This team is still far from being a title contender but the additions of Mo Williams and Dorell Wright help improve one the worst benches last year. Once C.J McCollum returns he should be able to find plenty of playing minutes and fill out the bench further.
9. The Minnesota Timberwolves:
Finally seeing Kevin Love, Rudy Gay and Nikola Pekovic play together should propel this team forward in the rankings and into the playoffs. The addition of Kevin Martin may add the firepower they need, and newcomers Corey Brewer and Ronny Turief should compensate for the loss of Greg Stiesma and Luke Ridnour, although losing Andrei Kirilenko will bite and the re-injury of Chase Budinger leaves them needing to find someone to start the three. Rookies Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng have so far proven little but could surprise as the season progresses. Still, this team will be that much better with Kevin Love in the rotation again.
10. New Orleans Pelicans:
New name, new era. They added rising star Jrue Holiday and 2009-10 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans. Anthony Davis has shown in the first few preseason games that he's on the cusp of bona-fide all-stardom but a lot of this team's success will depend on the health of Eric Gordon. Austin Rivers has also shown drastic improvement and will make a good back-up point guard.
11. Dallas Mavericks:
They lost Darren Collison, O.J Mayo, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and decent reserves and added Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Samuel Dalembert and a few decent reserves. Calderon is probably an upgrade at point guard and Monta Ellis has so far looked drastically improved and is taking better shots. Still this team lacks one too many stars to compete with the aforementioned teams, although a full season with Dirk on board may prove that assessment wrong.
12. Los Angeles Lakers.
Gone are Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Metta World Peace and Earl Clark. Losing Howard is probably worth mentioning twice, even if his clashing with Kobe last season cost the team something. Speaking of Kobe, he's still out with an injury and who knows how much longer Nash can last. Chris Kaman and Nick Young are good additions, but on a true contending team they would be coming off the bench.
13. Utah Jazz
Another team that is somewhat tanking. They lost their starting front court to make room for their budding stars. They also lost their starting point guard, Mo Williams, to make room for their rookie Trey Burke. This is a very young team with a lot of draft picks looking to reenter the playoffs in another few years, but no sooner.
14. The Sacramento Kings
They traded away Tyreke Evans to be replaced by rookie Ben McLemore who has so far been a disappointment. Additions Greivis Vasquez, who led the NBA in assists last year, and Carl Landry will create better shots but it's all about Demarcus Cousins and his own personal improvement. Still far removed from the playoffs
15. The Phoenix Suns:
The 76ers' Western counterpart. They too are making no pretenses of anything but tanking. They booted Jared Dudley, Luis Scola, Jermaine O'Neal and Michael Beasley but did pick up Eric Bledsoe, who looks like the material needed for future stardom (he is called mini-Lebron). They have a lot of young players currently under development, but it's all about the 2014 draft for the Suns.