While the Eastern Conference seems to be a two or three team race, the Western Conference is pretty wide open as six or seven teams have a realistic chance of advancing to the NBA Finals. Here are my Western Conference predictions.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Sam Presti’s blueprint how to build a team from scratch will pay off this season. The franchise has surrounded stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with enough role players to take this team to a championship level. James Harden will need to continue to emerge as a viable third scorer while Kendrick Perkins must be a true defensive presence in the middle for that to happen though.
2. Dallas Mavericks
The defending champs lost a few key contributors in Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, and DeShawn Stevenson but replace them with Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, and Delonte West. I think there will be a bit of championship hangover for the Mavs and they will miss Chandler’s presence in the middle more than expected. If this team finds the fire that it had in the post-season, a repeat is possible, but too many teams in the West took steps forward this off-season while the Mavs have taken a tiny step back.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
Why not, right? If they get any sort of production from Greg Oden this season, that’s automatically an improvement from year’s past. Plus, I love the addition of veteran big man Kurt Thomas to provide more depth and toughness inside. The Blazers also added one the best sixth man in the league in Jamal Crawford at a bargain rate, will have Gerald Wallace for the entire season, plus Raymond Felton should be an up-grade at the point from Andre Miller. If LaMarcus Aldridge continues to get better, I really like Portland’s chances of being a sleeper to win the West. The Blazers also have enough trade pieces to make a major move if the right player becomes available.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Somebody needs to count the number of times #LobCity trends on Twitter this season with all the highlight reel alley-oop dunks that Chris Paul and/or Chauncey Billups throw up to Blake Griffin and/or DeAndre Jordan. I’m drinking the Clippers Kool-Aid but not as much as other people who are picking the Clips to win the West. Let’s remember that they don’t have a true shooting guard on their roster, are counting on Caron Butler as their starting small forward, and have concerns with their depth inside even after signing Reggie Evans. There will be a renaissance for L.A.’s “other team” but I think we need to slow down on the championship talk a bit.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Count me in as one of those people making the trendy selection of picking the Lakers to finish lower than the Clippers this season. But you can’t blame me… After giving away Lamar Odom to the the Mavericks (what a dumb move by the way), Devin Ebanks is their new starting small forward so that is a downgrade. Their big off-season acquisitions were Josh McRoberts, Troy Murphy, and Jason Kapono. Plus, you know Andrew Bynum is eventually going to have some sort of nagging injury that costs him a few weeks (although he is in a contract year so maybe he will finally stay healthy.) Kobe and Paul Gasol will have to carry the load more than ever so I expect to see the Lakers make a minor slide in the West.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
This is pretty close to being the same Griz team that upset the Spurs in the post-season except Rudy Gay is back and healthy while Shane Battier left via free agency, so that’s actually an up-grade. The question is whether or not this team can make a major leap with Gay in the line-up and move into the upper tier of the West. I am not sure that happens unless they get better production from their guard play, specifically Mike Conley, but Memphis should end up slightly higher than their eighth place finish of a year ago.
7. San Antonio Spurs
Every year I say this will be the season that the aging Spurs core of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobli finally start to show their age and fall off in the standings. Every year I’ve been wrong but I’m stubborn enough to keep predicting a down year until it happens, so why stop now? San Antonio showed some signs of this beginning to happen last post-season when they were upset by the Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. Outside of T.J. Ford and Matt Bonner, their bench is rather young and untested so I think the Spurs struggle especially since their elder statesmen will have to play multiple back-to-back nights due to the crammed schedule.
8. Houston Rockets
Daryl Morey has collected a ton of assets and affordable contracts so a monster trade seems to be on the horizon. They tried to get involved in the Chris Paul deal before the league vetoed that (or whatever actually happened) so expect Houston to swing a big deal that launches them into the post-season. Even if they don’t, the Rockets have enough depth and talent to sneak into the post-season.
9. Golden State Warriors
New head coach Mark Jackson is trying to change the culture in the Bay… and by change the culture I mean actually get the team to play defense. The Warriors have a ton of scorers so locking down on the defensive effort could be the difference between this team sneaking into the post-season or again picking in the lottery. They don’t have a very deep roster though and are counting on Kwame Brown to provide an inside presence on both ends. That is cause for concern.
10. Denver Nuggets
How interesting is the storyline of NBA free agents (including three Nuggets; Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin, and J.R. Smith) being trapped in China with the teams they signed with during the lockout? How awesome is it that R Kelly has written 32 more chapters to his epic Trapped in the Closet series? Anyway, this Denver roster is mediocre at best. They overachieved after the ‘Melo trade last season by finishing fifth in the West but I think they come back to reality a bit this season.
11. Utah Jazz
There is some intriguing talent on this team especially with young guys like Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks. Those guys seem to be a year or two away from really being factors though which means veterans Al Jefferson, Devin Harris, Paul Millsap, and Raja Bell are still carrying the torch. If the blend between youth and experience happens sooner than I expect, The Jazz should be competing for one of the final playoff spots.
12. Phoenix Suns
Since Steve Nash is in the final year of his contract and this Suns’ team is going nowhere fast, I cannot wait for the Nash trade rumors to gain steam in Februrary. Let me throw two out there for you; Nash, Grant Hill, and Channing Frye to Atlanta for Josh Smith and Kirk Hinrich’s expiring contract. Nash and Hill to Portland for Raymond Felton and Gerald Wallace.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
If I am going to be the type of person who pats himself on the back for being right, then I need to balance it by calling myself out when I’m wrong. When the Timberwolves drafted Ricky Rubio, I said that Rubio would never play a game in Minnesota. I was wrong. David Kahn has collected some nice young pieces to build around with Rubio, Kevin Love, Derrick Williams, Wesley Johnson, and Michael Beasley. Now that core needs to find some cohesion, develop under first year head coach Rick Adelman, and give fans something to be excited about. (For the record, I admitted being wrong AND complimented Kahn in the same paragraph…)
14. New Orleans Hornets
They absolutely made the right decision in trading Chris Paul prior to the start of the season and received some nice assets in return. Their starting five isn’t terrible, but their bench leaves plenty to be desired. With a pair of likely top ten picks in the 2012 NBA Draft and a ton of cap space available next summer, the Hornets could make a major splash next summer and have a very short post-CP3 re-building project.
15. Sacramento Kings
With DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans, Jimmer Fredette, J.J. Hickson, and Marcus Thornton, there is a lot of young talent on this team. They added a few veterans this off-season (Chuck Hayes, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw) but I still think this franchise is a a year or two away from getting out of the gutter in the Western Conference.
David Kay is a senior feature NBA Draft, NBA, and college basketball writer for the Sports Bank. He also heads up the NBA and college basketball material at Walter Football.com and is a former contributor at The Washington Times Communities. David has appeared on numerous national radio programs spanning from Cleveland to New Orleans to Honolulu. He also had the most accurate 2011 NBA Mock Draft on the web.
You can follow him on Twitter at DavidKay_TSB.
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