The Hardwood Blues 2014-15 Western Conference Preview

1. San Antonio Spurs (60-22, 1st in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Gregg Popovich
Best Player: Tony Parker
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Corey Joseph

What’s even left to say about the Spurs? Their performance in last year’s playoffs was simply masterful, and trying to pretend like a younger, more athletic outfit will supplant them atop the Western Conference is a pointless exercise in futility. This offseason was a perfect microcosm of San Antonio’s dynasty; while other teams chased marginal free agents, the Spurs sat back and re-signed their own guys, drafted a lottery value (Kyle Anderson) with the last pick in the first round, and made two groundbreaking coaching hires. Oh, and Pop grew a badass beard.

2. Los Angeles Clippers (58-24, 1st in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Doc Rivers
Best Player: Chris Paul
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Chris Douglas-Roberts

With the Donald Sterling saga the rear view, the high-flying Clippers loom as one of the league’s legitimate championship contenders. Lead by the virtuoso tandem of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, LAC brings back the league’s most powerful offense and a defense that made strides during Rivers’ first year. Some, me included, would have liked to see the Clippers use the MLE on a defensive-minded role player rather than a stretch five, but lineups with Griffin and newcomer Spencer Hawes in the frontcourt could produce some dizzying offensive efficiency. With the CP3/Griffin/Jordan core group entering their fourth season together, the time has come to see if the Clips can make the leap from a fun team to a legitimately great one.

3. Golden State Warriors (56-26, 2nd in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Steve Kerr
Best Player: Stephen Curry
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Draymond Green

All of the Kevin Love rumors and subsequent dissection of Klay Thompson overshadows the fact that Golden State brings back one of the strongest teams in basketball. Headlined by the sharpshooting backcourt of Thompson and Steph Curry (see: Splash Brothers), the Warriors are well known for their long-distance assaults, and I would expect this to remain an integral part of their game plan under new head coach and former 3pt specialist, Steve Kerr. What is less evident is their elite defense, which was 4th in the NBA in Def Rtg thanks to the presence of anchors like Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. Factoring in Bogut in any Warriors predictions is tricky, because he is immensely valuable when healthy, which is never. Early reports out of GSW camp are that Kerr is opting to start Harrison Barnes at SF over Iguodala, which is unfortunate. Iggy is an ideal role player whose unselfish point-forward skill-set and all-world defensive chops makes life easier at both ends for the aforementioned Thompson and Curry, while Barnes provides no such value. Health and coaching are the two big question marks here, but on paper they are very much in the championship conversation.

4. Dallas Mavericks (53-29, 2nd in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Rick Carlisle
Best Player: Dirk Nowitzki
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Greg Smith

This is not exactly a fresh take, but the Mavs had themselves a hell of an offseason. Back in the fold is Tyson Chandler, the defensive anchor of Dallas’ 2010 championship team, to shore up what was one of the worst defensive outfits in the NBA last season. Pricey free agent signee Chandler Parsons is a solid all-around contributor who fits any offensive system and will provide a sizable upgrade on the wing. Dallas also made a few relatively minor moves that hit the mark as well; replacing Jose Calderon with the better-defensively Raymond Felton, adding Jameer Nelson, grabbing Greg Smith off the scrap heap, and swapping out Shawn Marion for Al Forouq-Aminu, a younger and cheaper player of the same ilk. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Dallas lost Calderon, Marion, Vince Carter, and Dajuan Blair, all objectively good players, but so is the price of chasing a ring. Dallas now has all the makings of a dark horse title contender: a top ten-or-so player in Dirk, the league’s second best coach in Carlisle, and a roster that is significantly better on paper than the one that pushed the mighty Spurs to seven games last season.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (52-30, 1st in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Scott Brooks
Best Player: Kevin Durant
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Andre Roberson

When I first got wind of Kevin Durant’s foot injury, I was immediately reminded of this stat I had seen on Twitter weeks earlier:

While many will get perverse enjoyment out of Westbrook using up to nearly half of OKC’s possessions, don’t count me in that group. Scott Brooks’ willingness to let Westbrook carry 44% USG gets to the crux of what I dislike about Brooks’ coaching philosophy and, by extension, the Thunder’s brand of basketball. The talent in OKC has been so overwhelming that Brooks’ questionable coaching acumen only comes into play in certain end-of-game situations, but down the league’s second best player this is no longer the case. Eventually, KD will return and the Thunder will be among the league’s elite, but how Brooks, Russ, and OKC’s flimsy supporting cast respond in his absence may prove critical to their ultimate success.

6. Memphis Grizzlies (50-32, 4th in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Dave Joerger
Best Player: Marc Gasol
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Jon Leuer

The Grizzlies are one of my favorite NBA franchises; they have a sharp front office and a core of smart, tough-as-nails players that mesh beautifully. Metrics-heads will bemoan their down-tempo, mid-range based offense, and they love to ignore that this style gave OKC hell in last year’s postseason and overwhelmed the Spurs in 2011. Free agent signee and guy-who-looks-bizarre-in-a-Grizzlies-uniform Vince Carter will play a critical role as a shot-maker from the wing, replacing the departed Mike Miller. I am also obsessed with what they did in the draft, scooping two players in Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes who are not only great value picks in a vacuum, but fit perfectly into the “Grit N’ Grind” culture that has been established in Memphis. The Grizz, as always, are something of a long shot to win the championship, but they are basically a lock to be a 5-8 seed in the West.

7. Houston Rockets (49-33, 3rd in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Kevin McHale
Best Player: James Harden
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Kostas Papanikolaou

Houston’s ambitious GM Daryl Morey took a big swing-and-miss when he shipped out Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in order to clear cap space for Carmelo Anthony/Chris Bosh, both of whom would ultimately stay put. This left the Rockets without a bench or their 2015 1st round pick, but with process-oriented guys like Morey, there is always a Plan B, C, and D. When Dallas pried away rising star Chandler Parsons with a max deal, it looked like another loss for Morey, but he responded by shrewdly signing Trevor Ariza, a roughly Parsons-caliber player and a clear defensive upgrade, for half the average annual salary. The Rockets bench might make OKC look like the Spurs, but their first five of Beverley/Harden/Ariza/Jones/Howard is still about as good as any unit in the NBA. An injury to any of the five could cause the bottom to drop out in Houston, but as it is I think they stay in the playoff picture.

8. Portland Trail Blazers (46-36, 2nd in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Terry Stotts
Best Player: Lamarcus Aldridge
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Will Barton

The Trail Blazers started off last season like gang busters thanks to MVP-level play from LaMarcus Aldridge and the late-game heroics of Damian Lillard. After some time, their offensive firepower could no longer mask their glaring defensive issues, and I expect this regression to pour over into this season. Portland has a decent coach in Terry Stotts and a really well-structured starting five, but their defense is pretty much dog shit. In a crazy competitive Western Conference with, in my estimation, 11 playoff-caliber teams, poor defense might be enough to drop even a team with a good coach and two All-Stars out of the postseason. As for now, I have the same eight in the West as last season, but Portland stands out as the most likely to be the 2012-13 playoff team that misses out.

9. New Orleans Pelicans (44-38, 5th in Southwest Division)
Head Coach: Monty Williams
Best Player: Anthony Davis
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Jeff Withey

On the flip side, the Pellies lurk as a strong candidate to be this year’s version of last year’s Blazers. New Orleans’ 2013-14 season was derailed by bad injury luck, so it’s almost inevitable that they improve somewhat. Their other downfall was their porous defense, which they hope to have improved significantly by adding one of the league’s premier rim-protecting/rebounding big men in Omer Asik. There is no reason why a lineup with Asik, Jrue Holiday, and rapidly ascending basketball god Anthony Davis should not be above-average defensively, and we already know that the Holiday/Eric Gordon/Tyreke Evans/Ryan Anderson/Davis unit is an offensive juggernaut. The deciding factor would appear to be head coach Monty Williams, who now clearly has playoff-level talent at his disposal. The Pelicans could be a surprise 50-win team, but if they fall well short of that and miss out on the postseason again, Williams should be out of a job.

10. Phoenix Suns (42-40, 3rd in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Jeff Hornacek
Best Player: Goran Dragic
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Anthony Tolliver

First-year head coach Jeff Hornacek reinvented basketball last year in Phoenix, or something, taking a team that was thought to be engaging in the mythical “tank-a-palooza” to the brink of the Western Conference Playoffs. Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were revelations in Horny’s dual-PG system, and they will really push the envelope this year by adding the diminutive and kick-ass Isaiah Thomas to the attack. Unfortunately, for a really refreshing and exciting group, the Suns stand out as another candidate to regress, what with all of their overachieving last season.

11. Denver Nuggets (41-41, 3rd in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Brian Shaw
Best Player: Ty Lawson
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Timofey Mozgov

All it takes is one tumultuous season to go from overrated to underrated in the NBA, and that seems to be the case in Denver. After firing George Karl and losing Andre Iguodala, both integral parts of their highly unusual 57-win team in 2012-13, everyone knew that the Nuggets were due to regress some last season, and a pair of worse-than-expected injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Javale McGee sealed their lottery-bound fate. But now Gallo and McGee are healthy (I think), and PF Kenneth Faried returns with a new confidence, fresh off an excellent FIBA performance and a $40 million extension. A return to 57-win form is most unlikely, but the Nuggets do have an outside chance of crashing the Western Conference playoffs.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves (32-50, 4th in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Flip Saunders
Best Player: Ricky Rubio
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Gorgui Dieng

The Kevin Love trade dropped Minny from a borderline playoff team to lottery participant, but it  did catapult them up the League Pass rankings. Ricky Rubio is a brilliant two-way talent and fast breaks involving him and high-flying rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine have already given us a few “holy shit” moments. Thaddeus Young is a dubious Love replacement, but he does fit nicely into an up-tempo, transition-heavy attack, which is where I assume the T’Wolves are headed. I expected Flip Saunders to completely bollix the Kevin Love situation, but they managed to come away with a few high-upside pieces (Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, and to a lesser extent, Dieng) and a surrounding group of solid vets (Young, Nik Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer).

13. Utah Jazz (28-54, 5th in Northwest Division)
Head Coach: Quinn Snyder
Best Player: Gordon Hayward
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Rudy Gobert

Utah’s half-court offense was a horror show last season, as the promising frontcourt of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter failed to make up for the departure of long-time safety valves Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Some of that was likely due to Ty Corbin who, by all accounts, was an awful coach. Corbin has since been replaced by Quinn Snyder, who I expect to push the tempo with guys like Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, and Dante Exum. Another highly intriguing player to watch will be second-year center/human redwood Rudy Gobert, whose limbs captivated the basketball world this summer. The Jazz are still very much rebuilding, but at least they will be easier on the eyes this season than last.

14. Sacramento Kings (26-26, 4th in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Mike Malone
Best Player: Demarcus Cousins
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Ray McCallum

The curious (to put it lightly) team-building tactics of the Sacramento King’s front office became a topic in-and-of-itself this offseason. Replacing Isaiah Thomas with the clearly inferior Darren Collison was a head-scratcher, as was their crowd-sourcing approach to the draft. DeMarcus Cousins is going to dominate, but that was mostly the case last season and the Kings still struggled on both ends of the floor on their way to 28 wins. It’s been seven seasons since Sacto last topped the 30-win plateau, and I don’t see any indication of them breaking that trend this year.

15. Los Angeles Lakers (22-60, 5th in Pacific Division)
Head Coach: Byron Scott
Best Player: Kobe Bryant
Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of: Ed Davis

What’s the opposite of “Showtime”? Once the dynastic team of my childhood, the Lakers are now on their way to becoming the West Coast Knicks. The roster has been in disarray ever since the failed Dwight Howard/Steve Nash experiment, and they refuse to hit the restart button as long as Kobe is around, snarling at people and whatnot. As if a piecemeal roster wasn’t enough, new head man Byron Scott is dead set on eliminating the 3-ball from their offense. What is amusing about that, besides the obvious strategic stupidity, is that 3pt shooting was BY FAR the Lakers’ best asset last season. Last week’s 75-point preseason debacle set the tone for what looks to be another long year in LA.

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