For my second installment of the 2015 NBA Season Preview, I’ll be going through the Western Conference. As with the Eastern Conference, several stars will be making their return from season ending injuries. The most anticipated return is Oklahoma City small forward, Kevin Durant. There is concern that Durant’s foot injury will be a chronic ailment for the rest of his career. Nonetheless, with free agency looming and a new coaching regime intact this will be a season where he must stake his claim as the best player in the world. The Los Angeles Lakers are in transition mode as they prepare to enter life without shooting guard, Kobe Bryant. Bryant is in the final year of his contract and he is also returning from a torn rotator cuff injury. With a few coaching changes and notable key additions to rosters, the West looks to continue its championship dominance. Seven of the last ten NBA Championship teams have come from the Western Conference. Six of those ten years the Eastern Conference team has been led by current Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James. Without James, it is safe to surmise that the Western Conference would have more teams hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
15. Utah Jazz
There’s not much to like about this team. A young coach with a young team and no sense of direction for the future. The team has not been successful since parting with former head coach Jerry Sloan. Also, the team is frugal in terms of spending money on free agents, not to mention Salt Lake City is not an ideal free agent destination. Former first round pick, point guard Dante Exum was hurt late last season and must take a leap in production for this team to be competitive. Power forward Rudy Gobert is a fascinating player but must put all his athletic gifts together with improved shooting and shot selection. It is an ideal situation for 2015 NBA Draft pick PF Trey Lyles to get significant minutes as a rookie. Head coach Quin Snyder has to teach this team fundamentals before they can contend for a playoff berth.
14. Phoenix Suns
Here’s another team with a plethora of young talent, especially at the prized point guard position. Head coach Jeff Hornacek employed a three guard set last season, with mixed results. PG Eric Bledsoe was given a hefty contract after playing sparingly with Los Angeles Clippers. He is now the leader of a young team and must co-exist with PG Brandon Knight, who is also a ball dominant guard. The addition of Center Tyson Chandler is a great pick up for the defense as well as the locker room. I’m interested to watch the maturation of SF T.J. Warren. Warren has a good inside-outside game and can complement the two PG backcourt of the Suns.
13. Portland Trailblazers
The Trailblazers 2015-16 season will be an individual showcase of PG Damian Lillard. The team lacks a secondary scoring option and depth. PF Noah Vonleh is a player that could benefit from a change of scenery after playing little minutes with the Charlotte Hornets. PG C.J. McCollum can score in bunches, but will he get lost in the shuffle while Lillard is forced to play hero ball? Lillard is one of the leagues best fourth quarter scorers, and with his team set to be behind in many games, that will have his teammates missing valuable touches. Lillard will have MVP numbers but this team will take a giant step back in the Western Conference hierarchy.
12. Los Angeles Lakers
For one of the storied franchises in the world, this will be another year of rebuilding. The return of Bryant will make them a tough team to beat but they will also feature several rookie players at key positions. PG D’Angelo Russell is being groomed to become the face of the franchise. However, he is in a conference with some of the elite point guards and will struggle mightily in his first season. The return of PF Julius Randle will bolster a suspect front line but he is undersized compared to his positional peers. C Roy Hibbert has the opportunity to resurrect his career after two subpar seasons with the Indiana Pacers. Overall, head coach Byron Scott has to manage Bryant’s minutes and ego, Metta World Peace, and a roster full of young talent. Can he survive the season unscathed?
11. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets would be near the bottom of my list if not for the return of SF Danilo Gallinari. He’s a great shooter and a willing slasher. He was missed last year as the team floundered under former head coach Brian Shaw. The team drafted PG Emmanuel Mudiay and he has the physical makeup of a NBA all star. His ability to get to the rim as well as his length will allow him to have a better transition to the pros than most guards. PF Kenneth Faried is the unquestioned leader and will benefit from having more structure under new head coach Michael Malone. This team is a SG and a capable C away from sneaking into the playoffs.
10. Sacramento Kings
I think most NBA fans are looking for drama more than basketball with this team. With new head coach George Karl, C Demarcus Cousins, PG Rajon Rondo and SF Rudy Gay, this team has too many egos to co-exist for an entire season. There are already reports of a rift between Cousins and Karl. Rondo’s game has deteriorated over the past few seasons, yet he is a good fit as a guard that’s not ball dominant. His ability to get the ball to open players such as Gay and SG Ben McLemore will lead to more wins than projected for this team. The team drafted C Willie Cauley-Stein and I believe that moving Cousins to the PF position could elevate this team to a playoff berth. If the Kings can come together and co-exist this could be the surprise team of the NBA, especially playing Karl’s style of offense.
9. Dallas Mavericks
The victims of Deandre-gate will miss the playoffs this season after making a great effort to improve their roster in free agency. SF Chandler Parsons will become the number one option after PF Dirk Nowitzki. Parsons is an all around polished offensive player and will be able to provide balance for the offense. The acquisition of PG Deron Williams adds a veteran presence as the floor general but his contribution will depend on what type of player he will be. Will he be the Williams that was once in discussion as the best PG in the league or the injury riddled player that toiled away on the Brooklyn Nets? With the healthy return of SG Wesley Matthews, head coach Rick Carlisle has a team that could sneak into the playoffs but does not have the depth to escape the first round.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
I really like this team. It has depth at every position. It also has a great mix of both young talent and proven veterans. Being in a stacked western conference is the lone factor placing this team at #8 in my rankings. Not long ago, the team started rebuilding after they gifted the Boston Celtics a championship hungry PF Kevin Garnett. Soon after, they took PG Ricky Rubio and also drafted Jonny Flynn and Ty Lawson. It is still remembered as one of the bizarre draft nights in NBA history. Should I mention that they passed on PG Stephen Curry, twice in the same night? Nonetheless, this year’s Timberwolves team may sneak into the playoffs and give a top seed some problems. Second year SF Andrew Wiggins will look to improve on a stellar second half of the season last year when he averaged 20 PPG. Combo guard Zach LaVine became an overnight celebrity after a sensational performance at the 2015 NBA Dunk Contest. If he can provide relief for SG Kevin Martin, I believe they have enough scoring to match their opposition. Garnett will be an on court mentor for #1 draft pick C Karl Anthony-Towns. He is a gifted defender and his rim protection will help this team begin its rise in the tough Western conference.
7. New Orlean Pelicans
Despite a horrible name change, the Pelicans have arguably one of the best players in the league in PF Anthony Davis. In new head coach Alvin Gentry’s system, Davis will be able to roam near the 3-point line more and he will be the focal point of the offense. Combo guard Tyreke Evans will be asked to facilitate the offense which suits his skill set best and will hopefully bring him near the production from when he was named Rookie of the year. PF Ryan Anderson will get plenty of opportunity to shoot in this offense as ball movement and spacing is paramount to the success of Gentry’s scheme. With PG Jrue Holiday and C Omer Asik the team has enough tools to compete in the West.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
As much as head coach, David Joerger tried to get away from the “Grit and Grind” mentality the team has adopted over the years, it’s what allowed them to remain in the hunt in the West last year. The team acquired SF Jeff Green last season to help incorporate some offensive firepower. The team is constructed to wear teams down in the paint with C Marc Gasol and PF Zach Randolph, and they didn’t make any significant changes this offseason. In a league where every team is trying to win the possession and pace war, the Grizzlies look set to slow the game down and chip away at teams. This approach will keep them in the championship hunt at least one more season but it would be wise to address the lack of depth and offensive talent.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
On paper having two top ten NBA players at their disposal would leave most fans scratching their head at why I have this team ranked so low. PG Russell Westbrook and SF Kevin Durant have become the top duo in the league. The problem with this team is the transition from former head coach Scott Brooks to new coach Billy Donovan. Donovan is coming straight from the college ranks. It will be interesting to see how quickly he acclimates to the pro game with numerous egos and contract disputes (see David Blatt). C Enes Kanter gave the team an another offensive option when Durant was injured. How will all these pieces mesh now that Durant is back in the fold? Defensively, I believe this team will struggle to stop some of the top teams in the West. PF Serge Ibaka is a help defender but was exposed last year by several opponents for suspect individual defense. Overall, this team will be in transition and with Durant’s free agency looming, there are changes on the horizon before this team can stake a claim as championship caliber.
4. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are a good team but they fade in clutch moments. SG James Harden was sensational last season, narrowly missing his first MVP title. C Dwight Howard recently admitted he played last postseason with a torn MCL. The team also lost starting PG Patrick Beverly to a hand injury which placed too much ball handling responsibility on Harden. Head coach Kevin McHale has the players at his disposal to challenge for the right to represent the Western conference in the NBA Finals. His star players must be available and able to deliver in key moments. The team drafted SF Sam Dekker and he will provide a similar game to former Rocket, Chandler Parsons. This team will go as far Howard and Harden will take them.
3. Golden State Warriors
The 2015 NBA Champions will have a target on their back as they didn’t make many friends on their journey to the championship. The team boasted the best record in the NBA last year with 67 wins. The team also benefited from an odd season in which some of the top stars on rival teams were injured. The Warriors coaching staff did a phenomenal job in managing minutes and constructing a roster with players that complemented each other. 2015 NBA MVP PG Stephen Curry had a healthy season and averaged only 33 minutes a game. Curry is considered one of the most humble players in the league but his contract may become an issue as he is the 5th highest paid player on his team. The obstacle this team must overcome is staying motivated after a great season last year. SG Klay Thompson had a pedestrian performance in the final two rounds of last year’s playoffs. He is one of the best two way players in the league and if he can continue to thrive next to Curry this team will make another run at a championship. It will be interesting to see how much last year’s success was due to the the tutelage of former associate head coach Alvin Gentry or the innovative style of head coach Steve Kerr.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
On paper this team is loaded at every position and it has one of the best head coaches in the league. This team pulled an O.J. Simpson on Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Cuban appeared to have stolen C Deandre Jordan from the Clippers. Then out of nowhere Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Paul Pierce alongside head coach Doc Rivers “broke” into Jordan’s home. From there they held Jordan hostage until he agreed to sign a contract with the team, leaving the Mavericks in crisis mode and Cuban allegedly driving around Houston looking for Jordan’s house. After retaining Jordan’s services, the team acquired combo guard Lance Stevenson in a trade, signed PF Josh Smith to a one year deal, and signed Paul Pierce. With this collection of talent to pair alongside Paul, Griffin, and J.J. Redick the question now becomes is it too many good players? Although he is terribly erratic, Stevenson plays better with the ball in his hands as a facilitator. Smith has an awful penchant for shooting 3’s even if his low 30 shooting percentage suggests he should play near the paint. Pierce has never been a quick player but he is extremely crafty. Will he slow down Lob City? This is why Rivers is the President of Basketball Operations. If he can get players to buy in to less minutes and more importantly less points (see Golden State Warriors) he has the artillery to win the championship.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Tim Duncan. Gregg Popovich. The narrative of why this team is number one in my preseason power ranking could end here but they’ve added some great pieces to an already formidable group. PF Lamarcus Aldridge is the bridge between the past decade of Spurs dominance and life post-Duncan/Popovich. Aldridge will benefit being in a system that will allow him to stretch the floor and let other bigs do the dirty work in the paint. Playing with Lillard must have pushed him closer out the door as there is no guarantee on how long Popovich will remain head coach. The opportunity to be in championship contention the next few years landed Aldridge in San Antonio. PF David West gives the Spurs depth at both front court positions in a league where quality big men are scarce. PG Tony Parker and SG Danny Green will benefit from pick and rolls leaving them open for 3’s or a clear lane for layups. SF Kawhi Leonard will continue his charge up the NBA superstar hierarchy as the clear defensive ace of the Spurs. The Spurs are flawed in terms of depth at the PG and SG positions but as a whole this team will be tough to beat in June.