NBA Predictions: Western Conference

NBA Predictions: Western Conference
September 24, 2013, 1:00 pm
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As training camps open this week, another annual basketball tradition commences: NBA writers making predictions.

So-called experts or not, nobody can truly say they know what will occur over the course of an entire season. Still, scribes undertake the foolhardy task of trying to divine the future, as if we were somehow empowered with some psychic ability beyond basic observation, analysis and in some cases, perhaps a decent feel for the game. That lengthy disclaimer noted for all to see, here goes nothing:

Today’s Topic: Western Conference breakdown

Northwest Division:

1.    Oklahoma City Thunder: Again the class of the division, the Thunder continues to lose a key piece or two — for the second consecutive summer, a sixth man, this time Kevin Martin, left town — but based on the young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, there’s no reason the squad should see much slippage. Westbrook, coming off a knee injury in the playoffs, could start slowly or even miss some time to start the season, but Durant’s otherworldly scoring ability should be able to pick up the slack and Ibaka’s defensive presence and improving offensive game will also provide help. The question for Oklahoma City is if one of their young reserves — combo guard Reggie Jackson is the most likely candidate, but it would be nice if Jeremy Lamb could also contribute during the regular season — can join the party, making up for the organization’s cap-strapped front office’s offseason inactivity.

[RELATED -- Durant: Sitting out a year was the right choice for Rose]

2.    Minnesota Timberwolves: Assuming the duo of power forward Kevin Love and point guard Ricky Rubio can finally stay healthy simultaneously, things appear set up for the Timberwolves to experience their first postseason since the Kevin Garnett era. Flip Saunders, Garnett’s coach in Minnesota and now the team’s top executive, had a productive first offseason, bringing back bruising center Nikola Pekovic and swingman Chase Budinger, while adding former division rival Martin to address outside-shooting concerns. A balanced, deep squad with a blend of youth and experience, it’s a fairly rosy picture now, but with Love’s opt-out option looming after the following campaign, there is some pressure to make progress in the present.

3.    Portland Trail Blazers: Another team that quietly did a nice job over the summer, Portland suddenly went from having arguably one of the worst second units in the league to being potentially very deep, with the combo-guard tandem of veteran Mo Williams and rookie C.J. McCollum in the backcourt, wing Dorell Wright and athletic 2012 lottery pick Thomas Robinson at the forwards, newcomers all. Center Robin Lopez, the Blazers’ other significant offseason addition, ensures All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge won’t have to log time in the middle, something he apparently detests, while the starting perimeter trio of the well-rounded Nicolas Batum, rugged shooter Wesley Matthews and reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard returns. The West is too deep for Portland to make a huge jump, but if everything goes as planned, they’ll be in position to contend for a bottom playoff seed.

[More: What three-peat champs say about the Heat's chances]

4.    Denver Nuggets: Denver had quite the tumultuous summer, as NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri, replaced by new general manager Tim Connelly, left for Toronto, while the league’s Coach of the Year winner, George Karl, simply wasn’t retained, leading to the hiring of Brian Shaw as head coach. Already without scorer Danilo Gallinari to start the season as he recovers from an ACL injury, swingman Andre Iguodala left in free agency, but the Nuggets did add some pieces, with Bulls fan favorite Nate Robinson and veteran Randy Foye joining the backcourt, and power forwards J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur bolstering the frontcourt. Point guards Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, high-energy rebounding machine Kenneth Faried, underrated wing Wilson Chandler and the inimitable JaVale McGee, penciled in as the starting center, are all back, but it’s going to take some time to see how all the pieces fit together.

5.    Utah Jazz: There was no ambiguity from the Jazz, as far as what direction the organization is going, as veteran stars Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap were allowed to depart via free agency, meaning Utah will build around its young core moving forward. The big-man combination of power forward Derrick Favors and center Enes Kanter will get every opportunity to blossom, while swingman Gordon Hayward should emerge as the team’s go-to player and guard Alec Burks will have a chance to receive consistent minutes. Rookie Trey Burke is clearly the team’s point guard of the future, but veteran John Lucas III was acquired to be a safety net as the team goes through some growing pains.

Pacific Division:

1.    Los Angeles Clippers: Our old friend Vinny Del Negro can’t catch a break: Thibs comes to Chicago and makes his pair of first-round playoff appearances a distant memory, then Doc Rivers replaces him and is expected to do the same in L.A. Rivers also has personnel powers and showed good acumen, bolstering his new squad by acquiring the likes of sharpshooter J.J. Redick, backup point guard Darren Collison, defensive stopper Jared Dudley and floor-spacing big men Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens. But Rivers’ biggest contribution is expected to be a culture change, somehow elevating the Clippers, coming off their best season in franchise history, to another level, getting All-Star point guard Chris Paul to the Finals and taking All-Star power forward Blake Griffin’s game to new heights, while usurping their Staples Center co-tenants, the Lakers, place as the premier team in the City of Angels and a perennial title threat.

[MORE -- NBA Awards Predictions: Durant or LeBron for MVP?]

2.    Golden State Warriors: The Warriors also have high expectations after their emergence last season and exciting, if abbreviated, playoff run, Stephen Curry approaching superstar status and maneuvering to acquire a versatile role-playing star in Iguodala over the summer. Now, Golden State is supposed to take another step in the process and much of that will hinge on the likes of Curry, All-Star power forward David Lee and center Andrew Bogut being in uniform and not street clothes, as well as the continued development of young players like Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green. If head coach Mark Jackson can keep the progress going, it should result in the Bay Area, one of the more passionate fan bases around, exploding.

3.    Los Angeles Lakers: Last season, which many observers thought would result in another championship, ended up being a disaster, one of the most disappointing campaigns in franchise history, and extended into the offseason, when Dwight Howard left in free agency. On top of that, Kobe Bryant is coming off a late-season Achilles’ injury, veterans Steve Nash and Pau Gasol don’t exactly have the cleanest bills of health, and picking up Nick Young, Chris Kaman and Wesley Johnson count as some of the team’s biggest summer additions. Given Bryant’s pride, even at his age and likely prematurely rushing himself back into action, it’s hard to say the Lakers won’t be competitive, but it certainly isn’t shaping up to be a banner season.

4.    Sacramento Kings: On the brink of moving to Seattle, the Kings not only are staying in Sacramento, but literally have a new lease on life, as they are now equipped with a new owner, general manager and head coach, the latter being highly-regarded longtime assistant Mike Malone, best known for his defensive strategies. On the court, the talented, yet volatile DeMarcus Cousins is Sacramento’s unquestioned centerpiece and the big man is reportedly in talks to receive a long-term contract extension. The supporting cast has talent, from holdovers like scorer Marcus Thornton, diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas and power forwards Patrick Patterson and Jason Thompson, to newcomers such as floor general Greivis Vasquez and top draft pick Ben McLemore, an athletic shooter, but there’s still a long way to go before the roster will resemble anything close to a cohesive, winning group.

[More: Is this the year the Bulls finally get past the Heat?]

5.    Phoenix Suns: In rebuilding mode, the Suns have new leadership, starting with general manager Ryan McDonough and rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek, who once played for the franchise. Phoenix looked toward the future over the summer, drafting center Alex Len and the youngest player in the league, guard Archie Goodwin, then trading for exciting guard Eric Bledsoe and emphasizing character by cutting ties with troubled forward Michael Beasley. Holdover guard Goran Dragic also appears to be a part of the organization’s plans, but this could be a make-or-break season for twin brothers Markieff and Marcus Morris, and veteran center Marcin Gortat is their biggest trade chip.

Southwest Division:

1.    San Antonio Spurs: The case to never again doubt the aging Spurs was made last season, as they pushed the defending-champion Heat to the limit, in a season where Tony Parker proved that he belongs in the top point-guard discussion and Tim Duncan’s resurgent campaign was arguably the best of any big man in the league. Gregg Popovich’s system remains the same, but if small forward Kawhi Leonard can play an increasingly bigger role, Marco Belinelli makes a quick transition after a solid year in Chicago and Danny Green builds on his NBA Finals success, it would help compensate for Duncan and Manu Ginobili not getting any younger, as well as the burden Parker has to carry. Despite the conference improving, it’s hard to say that, providing all the key parts stay healthy, any team has a significant advantage over San Antonio, and certainly nobody has comparable experience.

[More: Rose building confidence as return nears]

2.    Houston Rockets: By acquiring Howard via free agency, the Rockets made the biggest splash of the summer and assuming the All-Star center can regain his previous form after a disappointing one-year stint with the Lakers, some of which can be blamed on the lingering effects of a back injury the season before, Houston’s legacy of star centers leading the franchise to success is poised to continue. James Harden emerged as perhaps the league’s premier shooting guard last season, but arguably the team’s second-most important player a year ago, former Bulls center Omer Asik is reportedly entering the season wanting a change of scenery, as he would be relegated to a reserve role by Howard’s presence. Though the likes of swingman Chandler Parsons and the point-guard duo of phenom Jeremy Lin and Chicagoan Patrick Beverley are solid role players, Houston lacks quality depth, but Rockets head coach Kevin McHale still has to deal with outsized expectations.

3.    Memphis Grizzlies: After the most successful season in franchise history, longtime head coach Lionel Hollins wasn’t brought back and was replaced by top assistant Dave Joerger, who evidently is a better fit with the Grizzlies’ new ownership group and front office. That doesn’t mean things are destined to change much in Memphis, despite promises to push the pace and diversify the offense more, as all the pieces are in place to continue the “Grit and Grind” style of play that has defined the team, including re-signed veteran defensive stopper Tony Allen, a Chicago native. The Grizzlies weren’t overly active through the offseason, so underrated floor general Mike Conley Jr. and the inside tandem of All-Stars Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, will set the tone as usual, appearing to put the onus on Joerger, previously a D-League head coach, to keep Memphis’ recent winning tradition going against even stronger competition in the Southwest and conference in general.

4.    New Orleans Pelicans: It’s not exactly clear how highly-regarded, defense-first Pelicans head coach Monty Williams plans to combine New Orleans’ nucleus of 2012 No. 1 draft pick Anthony Davis, premier stretch-four Ryan Anderson and the team’s trio of young scoring guards — formerly disgruntled holdover Eric Gordon and newcomers Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, acquired via trade and free agency, respectively — but it’s obvious that the team has had a significant upgrade in talent. As deep as the West -- let alone their division -- is, the Pelicans might still be a year away from truly being a postseason contender, but the young squad has room to experiment and talented players with somewhat reasonable contracts as trade bait. There will likely be some growing pains, but things are looking up in New Orleans, the host city for the 2014 All-Star Game.

[More: Are the Knicks contenders in the East?]

5.    Dallas Mavericks: It’s tough to pick a team led by future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki to finish last, but after striking out in their free-agency pursuit of superstars like Dwight Howard and others, it’s equally tough to see the Mavericks having a resurgent campaign. Offseason acquisition Monta Ellis will help address Dallas’ scoring needs, but in general, it was an underwhelming summer. This might be the season the wheels come off, with the front office probably needing to think about trades and a total rebuild ahead of Nowitzki’s impending free agency if the team isn’t firmly in the playoff mix by the All-Star break.

Playoffs:

1.    Thunder: Even with Westbrook potentially not 100 percent to start the season and unproven youngsters put in roles of responsibility, the regular season is old hat to these guys now and if Durant is Durant, they’ll cruise because the foundation of their system hasn’t changed.

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2.    Clippers: Don’t be shocked if it takes Doc a little time to set his rotation and get the team’s defense up to the standards he was accustomed to in Boston, but once the Clippers hit their stride, they should be a real juggernaut, with Paul poised to thrive under the best coach he’s ever had and Griffin getting every opportunity to take the next step in his development.

3.    Spurs: It’s never been about the regular season for Pop’s crew, so this shouldn’t be seen as a predictor of slippage, but barring injury, they should be right there when it counts, although another year of age doesn’t help their chances, Duncan’s apparent Benjamin Button syndrome notwithstanding.

4.    Warriors: They’ll be better, even if it isn’t reflected much in their record or place in the standings due to a better overall conference, and I doubt any opponent will look forward to seeing their unique style (a different, updated version of the “We Believe” Warriors?) in the playoffs, especially if key pieces like Curry, Lee and Bogut can stay healthy.

5.    Rockets: Pending an Omer trade at some point, the Rockets just don’t have the depth and completeness to make me a believer just yet, but if Howard is back to his old self, Harden’s ascendance continues and some of the role players step up, they’ll also be a tough postseason out.

6.    Grizzlies: Similar to San Antonio, this placement shouldn’t be regarded as an indictment of the Grizzlies; rather, it’s proof of the expected improvement in the West, but while Memphis didn’t make any moves to dramatically upgrade its core, depending on the matchup, “Grit and Grind” still has some staying power.

7.    Timberwolves: For this to happen, obviously Love and Rubio need to remain relatively injury-free, but with Pekovic back and some of the other additions Flip Saunders made, there’s no reason the T-Wolves shouldn’t finally capitalize on years of post-KG rebuilding.

8.    Trail Blazers: I guess this would have to be my sleeper/surprise team, given how under the radar the Blazers were last season and how putrid their bench was, so with an influx of young talent and established veterans, Lillard and Aldridge should be able to lead a deeper Rip City squad back to a degree of success.

Tomorrow: Eastern Conference breakdown