It is officially the most depressing time of year, the playoffs are long gone, the draft and summer league have finished, and most major free agent signing have been finished. The next few months are rough for NBA fans. With that in mind there isn’t all that much to write about, so with my Eastern conference predictions completed a few weeks ago, I thought I would try and do my best at ranking this ridiculously competitive Western Conference.
15. Utah Jazz
Young, young, young. The Jazz are members of the trifecta of full rebuilding teams (the other two being Orlando and Philadelphia). The Jazz have a lot of young talented pieces, but unlike the other two members of the rebuilding club, the Jazz seem to lack a young player who could blossom into a superstar. Cases could be made for Exum and Favors, but I have serious doubts about both. I struggle to see how Exum or Burke can play effectively off the ball if they choose to play both of them at the same time, and the max contract signing of Hayward was a predictable move, but I’m not so sure it was a good one. He is a very capable basketball player, but max contracts should be given to franchise players and I have my doubts that Hayward is one. The improvement of Enes Kanter will be a huge story line for the Jazz this year as his production could open the door for a lot of their young guards, by playing with a talented big man. For this year at least the super young Utah team find themselves in a devastating conference and will accumulate a devastating amount of losses.
14. Los Angeles Lakers
The next 14 positions have been a nightmare to place, which is a testament to just how tough this conference is. This ranking is based on a few unfortunate scenarios the second greatest NBA franchise of all time has found themselves in. 1) Kobe and Nash are well past their prime. Kobe may come back and be somewhat productive, but a complete return to form after those two injuries will be an absolute miracle. Nash hasn’t been productive since he left the legendary medical staff at Phoenix and turning 41 next year isn’t helping anybody. Let’s just stop it there for a minute, I never ever thought a team of Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash would be close to making the lottery, let alone be this far to the bottom of a conference, I digress. 2) I have an awful feeling that the Lakers are planning on starting Carlos Boozer over Julius Randle. 3) Jeremy Lin isn’t going to help any basketball team win games, he had 7 ok games in New York then everybody lost their minds, he got a huge undeserving contract and hasn’t done anything of value since.
13. Phoenix Suns
Last years feel good team is now this year’s free agency “what the hell are you doing” team. Instead of trying to strengthen the four positions that need improvement, they chose to hoard point guards, the one position that they were fine for. The Bledsoe Dragic experiment went so well that Ryan McDonough chose to bring in two more starter quality point guards in Isaiah Thomas and Tyler Ennis, the problem with this? You can’t start four point guards. Eric Bledsoe can play the 2 guard and Dragic can manage in that role as well, but the 5’9 Isaiah and Tyler Ennis are both strictly floor leaders. Not only has he brought in unnecessary talent, but their most valuable player (Bledsoe) may be leaving as a result. Phoenix were a great team last year, in no small part to Jeff Hornacek, but they made zero improvements over the break and they could have used help in literally every position bar point guard. It was a miracle year last year, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green, The Morris twins, Goran Dragic and P.J Tucker all had career seasons, that wont be happening again.
12. Sacramento Kings
With the way the West in constructed this year, this could easily be close to a 40 win team, so this is in no way a harsh position for the Kings. Boogie will be an All-Star this year and for many more to come, but I still feel this team is at least one more season away from making some serious playoff noise. With Darren Collision taking the spot of Thomas it looks like the Kings are going to rely more heavily on DeMarcus and possibly work in Ben McLemore/ Nik Strauskas for scoring. I still believe Derrick Williams will be star in this league and I expect a notable improvement in performance this year and Rudy Gay has gotten himself into a rare position of being so overrated he is now underrated. The Kings are a very talented squad and just need someone to take the reins and steer them in the right direction. The problem is, I’m not sure they have a natural leader on their roster nor do they have the right coach for that job.
Their sticking with the deep roster theme, it’s worked for them once, why not again? Well for one there team was far more experienced and had an All-star leader, they didn’t rely so heavily on young talent, they had a much more seasoned coach and the West wasn’t quiet as threatening. That being said, Denver is still a very threatening team, as I mentioned they are ridiculously deep, they have Ty Lawson (All-star snub last year), Randy Foye, Wilson Chandler, Nate Robinson, Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo, JaVale McGee and JJ Hickson who are all capable starting caliber players, compound that with the young talent of Gary Harris, Quincy Miller and Jusuf Nurkic and you have yourself a very deep basketball team. Also, he may not be George Karl, but Brian Shaw is a very young and promising coach who could lead this team to a playoff push if all works well.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin Love will more then likely be gone at some point this season, but even if he stays for the entirety, the Wolves will still miss the playoffs. Rubio has now been playing professional basketball since 2005 and for some inexplicable reason; nobody has taught him how to shoot. Even with sharp shooting Love and Martin on the floor, having a useless scorer on offense is always a concern. Their coach is only 31 years of age so I find it hard to imagine him commanding much respect from players with his coaching resume. Love will be in and out of trade rumors the entire season, which will disrupt any sort of rhythm this team can muster. Pekovic and Brewer are both very talented players and they have an abundance of young talent, but I just don’t see Minnesota besting any of the next 9 teams. That said they could still very well get in the high 40’s for wins.
9. Dallas Mavericks
They made some noise in free agency, but failed to land any huge names. They managed to get back Tyson Chandler, but unfortunately for them he is no longer they same player they let go in 2011, they also gained the unpredictable Raymond Felton who could end up being a great back up point guard, but the overwhelming evidence suggests he will be nothing more then a locker room distraction. I know it, Daryl Morey knows it, Dwight Howard knows it and so does James Harden, Chandler Parsons is not a star player. He is a very capable starter and a productive member of any basketball team, but he is not going to bring to Dallas what Mark Cuban thinks he will. Nelson was a nice pick up, but similar to Tyson he is also past his prime. Dirk is still Dirk and can do extraordinary things, but he too is getting older and he is notably getting slower and it’s beginning to show on the defensive end, he was never a great athlete and has based his game around skill, but it’s never good for any player when there legs begin to slip. Monta Ellis is still the most talented player yet to be named an NBA All-star not named Tyreke Evans and really deserves more recognition, but there isn’t one player on this Dallas team who can keep up with him in transition or keep up with his fast style of play. This was the hardest spot in these rankings and I could very easily be dead wrong about this Dallas team and they could make huge playoff noise, but gun to my head, I’d have to say they miss the playoffs.
8. New Orleans Pelicans
As of right now the league has only two megastars, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, but in the not too distant future a man who resides in New Orleans will make it three. Anthony Davis has all the qualities of a player destined to be one the leagues best and most unique players ever. He has a great basketball body, a freakish god given gift for playing defensive, a ever improving and terrifying offensive game, a tireless work ethic that can not be matched and an unpredictability of which way he will torment the opposing team from night to night. Anthony Davis is a good enough reason alone for this team to make the post season, but there are of course others. Jrue Holiday is back from injury and ready to regain All-star form. He and Tyreke Evans both have a terrific ability of penetrating the defense and creating open looks for Davis or finishing themselves. On a side note Evans is still one of the very best players in the NBA and due to inability of his coaches he has been playing out of position since his rookie year, he is very much a player who needs the basketball in his hands to be most effective. When he is the primary ball handler for a team he has more then enough talent to be a perennial All-star. Now that that rant is out of the way, I digress back to the rankings. Eric Gordon is an exceptional scorer and you could do much worse for a second option on defense. They added Omer Asik this offseason which gives them even more inside presence and rebounding ability and also allows Davis to move back to his natural position of power forward. This may not be the greatest constructed basketball team in the league, but I can’t imagine any team with Davis to miss the playoffs if he stays healthy.
7. Houston Rockets
Not a lot to be said about this team, they still have Harden and Dwight who are a great one two punch. They lost Parsons, Omer and Lin and added Ariza and Ish Smith; they also have an array of young talent. Ariza may be a tiny upgrade from Parsons and Ish is a definite upgrade from Lin, but the overall improvement is very minimal, if any. This team did about as expected in the regular season last year then lost in the first round of the playoffs; I expect the same results this year.
6. Golden State Warriors
Like Houston, not too much change here either. They have the same starting five who lost in the first round (except Bogut was injured) and very similar role players. There starting five has great balance in that Lee and Curry are both predominantly offense, Klay can do a bit of both, but is more lethal on offense, Bogut is predominantly defense and Iguodala is just an absolute freak of a basketball player and the ultimate teammate. Harrison Barnes, Brandon Rush, Draymond Green, Marreese Speights and now Shaun Livingston comprise one of the most underrated benches in the league and they could have a great rotation. If Steve Kerr turns out to be the great coach I believe he will be, this team could make a very deep push into the playoffs. That being said, it may take time for that to happen and they could have some growing pains, hence the slightly lower position in the rankings. The top 6 teams in the West should all have Championship or bust on their minds.
5. Portland Trail Blazers
Once again a team relatively sticking with what they have, which isn’t always a bad thing, especially when you just came off a surprising regular season finish and first round victory. It also doesn’t hurt that their star player is only entering his third year and already has a ROY, All star, All-NBA selection and a series winning three-point dagger under his belt. LaMarcus had a career season last year and is finally getting the credit he deserves as one of the leagues best big men. Robin Lopez brings them an inside presence that LaMarcus lacks and Wesley Matthews and Nicola Batum make up a terrifying two way wing combination. The major problem is still there bench, the young Will Barton showed flashes of NBA staying power last year, C.J McCollum and Thomas Robinson still have potential to contribute and they’ve added Steve Blake and Chris Kaman, but compared to Golden State and the next 4 teams, they still have the weakest bench.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
Again, much the same, except they added arguably the best sixth man in the business at the moment, the artist formally known as Air Canada. He will be sure to bring a very much needed offensive threat off the Memphis bench. Mike Conley has been overrated for so long it’s beginning to become ridiculous, and the veteran big men duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are still more then a nightmare for any and all opposing big men on offense and defense. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are both in their mid 30’s, but they are still up there with elite wing defenders and are both a very big reason why Memphis is the most threatening defensive team in the NBA. Adding Kosta Koufus was a secretly big move this offseason as it gives Memphis a talented big man off the bench in which they desperately needed. Add him to the talented bench backcourt of Beno Udrith, Courtney Lee, Nick Calathes and Vince, as well as Quincy Pondexter and Jon Leur and you have yourself a very capable bench. Memphis pushed Oklahoma right to the edge of breaking point in their first round match-up and if you replay the series, they may very well come out on top, this is an extremely dangerous team.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Really nothing to say but positive remarks for this team. They have the greatest power forward of all time who continues to defy the law of time. One of, if not the best basketball coach to ever grace this world, the deepest team in the NBA, complete top to bottom unselfishness and complete desire to win from every single player. The greatest sixth man of all time and it’s all run to perfection by a certain spectacular French point guard. It’s fair to say I am a huge fan of this Spurs team and it’s also fair to say that last year’s team has to at least be in the conversation for one of the greatest basketball teams of all time. The only reason why the spurs are not first is because I believe coach Pop will rest Tim, Manu and Tony even more this season so they are as ready as possible for something they have never achieved. The repeat.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Oh how times have changed in Los Angeles. The Historic Franchise is now a bottom dweller and the laughing stock is now very much a title contender. Lob City however still has one glaring flaw, perimeter defense. They have two players who are in the top 10 players in the NBA, they have the interior nightmare that is DeAndre Jordan and almost too many outside shooters. Spencer Hawes is a nice addition as they now have a solid big man rotation and someone who can space the floor even more for Blake when need be, but apart from spencer and Jamal Crawford there is much to be desired from the clippers bench. They lost Darren Collison and didn’t do anything to fill the void he left. I very much doubt the Clippers are done making moves this offseason and they will hopefully have a much stronger bench, a backup point guard and manage to get themselves a wing defender from somewhere and they could very well be this years favorites.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Similar to the Clippers they have the two of the leagues top 10 players in Westbrook and Durant. Durant has finally conquered LeBron in the regular season, but his ultimate goal still eludes him. He is the greatest scorer that I have seen in my lifetime, but as impressive as that is, it’s his improved overall game and defense that has propelled him into basketball god like stardom. Serge Ibaka continues to be the best defensive power forward in basketball and now that Thabo is gone hopefully Scott Brooks will realize that having Jeremy Lamb or even Reggie Jackson in the starting line up is very beneficial. If I had to choose a starting line-up for the Thunder it would be: Westbrook, Jackson, Durant, Ibaka and Adams. That would leave the scarily efficient Nick Collison on the bench along with the sharp shooting Jeremy Lamb, the imposing Kendrick Perkins and the versatile Perry Jones. They also acquired Sebastian Telfair who I assume was brought in to take over Reggie’s back up point role after he is inserted into the starting line-up. All other role players will have limited minutes, as they are either unreliable or too inexperienced. As of this very moment Oklahoma are the favorites to win the 2015 NBA title.