Wednesday, July 31, 2013

My Way Too Early Western Conference Predictions

I know it's been a little while since I've posted some content, but this article has actually been pretty tough for me.  The Western Conference is so much better than the East in terms of team talent from top to bottom.  However, I think I've gotten my predictions completed, and I'm pretty confident in them.

1. Los Angeles Clippers

This was somewhat of a difficult decision to make but I'm standing by it.  Plain and simple, the Clippers just got a hell of a lot better this summer.  They traded away Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler, along with two 2nd round picks and got back Jared Dudley, and JJ Redick who they both have long term for relatively cheap.  Both of these players are guys who you want on a championship team, as they play good defense, can shoot the ball, are above average ball handlers, and good passers.  Neither of these guys are top tier players, but these are the kinds of pieces that are essential to winning championships.

Another key move the Clippers made this off-season was inking Matt Barnes to a 3yr/$11M deal.  Barnes is a great hustle guy, and a great defender and does exactly what you want a player like him to do.  He's physical, and he plays with a "if you're not on my team I don't like you" attitude, which is great when he's on your team.

The key point for the Clippers this offseason however, was the resigning of Chris Paul to a 5 year deal.  Paul is hands down the best point guard in the league and locking him up long term is huge for this organization.  On the topic of point guards I also think that bringing in Darren Collison was a great move.  Collison is easily a starting caliber point guard and he thrived in New Orleans as Paul's backup, he should be a very key addition this next season.

2. Golden State Warriors

I get it, this might be unpopular but if you watched what the Warriors did in the post season last year then you have to agree with this.  The biggest caveat here is whether or not Stephen Curry can stay healthy, when Curry is healthy he's easily one of the most pure scorers in the league.  Should Curry play the entire season at the level he is capable of there is no reason this team should finish anywhere below 2nd in the West.

The biggest move the Warriors made was making some key trades to shed salary.  Richard Jefferson and Andres Biedrins are both gone, and with the money they acquired they were able to sign Andre Igoudala.  Igoudala is easily one of my favorite players in the league because he goes out and gives you 110% on both ends of the floor every night.  He's a pretty efficient scorer, rebounds well, and is an above average passer.  Furthermore, Igoudala plays suffocating defense which is sure to help this pretty young Golden State team.

David Lee will be back and healthy and although he's a liability on defense he can still score and rebound at extremely efficient rates.  Klay Thompson will be back and he looks to be continue getting better and better. Harrison Barnes has unquestionably accepted his move to the bench with Igoudala, but he will definitely see some big minutes at both the PF and SF positions.  Barnes was an absolute force playing the PF position last year in the post season when David Lee went down with an injury, and it should be expected that he will build on his great play from last year.

The departure of Carl Landry may hurt, but Draymond Green and Barnes both proved they could play the PF so it shouldn't have too terrible of an impact.  Marreese Speights is also still on the roster and he should be able to provide at least some filler minutes at the position if needed. 

Make no mistake, this team was pretty darn good last season, and they should be much better this next season.

3. Houston Rockets

The Rockets arguably made the biggest move this offseason in acquiring Dwight Howard.  This move alone immediately puts them into championship contention, and gives them the ability to win the Western Conference.  I'm sure some people will think it's absurd for me to rank them behind Golden State and the Clippers, but I have my reasons.

Is Dwight Howard still a dominant center? Absolutely.  Is Dwight Howard still the same player he was around 2009/2010? I'm not so sure.  Dwight is a beast on both ends of the floor, but he still has a very limited offensive game.  He has no mid-range jumper, and no post moves that are above average.  Dwight has had success offensively because he is big and strong and athletic and can move players out of the way in order to get dunks or easy looks at the basket.  This is fine, as he's been a very efficient scorer over the past few years, but there is one significant issue.  Dwight's body has begun to break down a bit, as he is very physical, and defenders are often very physical with him.  All anyone has to do is look back to to his back injury from two years ago, and his shoulder injury from last season to be concerned for him.  Howard was clearly not quite the player that he's always been last season, and that should be the cause for some concern.

Of course the issues with Howard could be all speculation and he could return to his peak form, which would obviously not be surprising he is only 27 years old after all.  Not to mention Howard is at his best when he has shooters surrounding him (see his '09 playoff run in Orlando).  Howard will have no shortage of shooters surrounding him in Houston.  Nearly every guard and small forward on this Houston team is an above average shooter.  Patrick Beverly, Francisco Garcia, Chandler Parsons, Omri Casspi, and Aaron Brooks all shot above 35% from long range last season.  Throw in Jeremy Lin and Reggie Williams who also shoot above 30% and you've got a pretty solid group of players who can hit from long range.  This doesn't even include James Harden who shot 37% from three last season, and showed that he is one of the most dynamic scorers in basketball.

Obviously, pairing Howard and Harden should look great on paper, as Harden was exactly what Howard missed during his time in Orlando.  Sure, Orlando had the shooters like Houston does, but they never had a great slasher who could get to the rim on his own.  Harden can definitely do that, and that could very well be what gets Dwight his first ring ever.

4. San Antonio Spurs

Every year you hear the same old thing, "the Spurs' title window is closing" "the Spurs are too old" "Tim Duncan isn't the same player he used to be" etc.  I think the Spurs have proven to us these last two years that anyone who says that is full of it.  Yes, the Spurs are another year older, but they just took the best team in basketball to seven games in the NBA Finals and were two missed free throws away from winning their fifth title of the Tim Duncan era.

The Spurs brought back Manu Ginobli for two years and only $14M, and Tony Parker is coming off of what was an MVP caliber season.  Sure Ginobli struggled in the finals, but he was still a pretty damn good player during the regular season and I don't expect his game to deteriorate that quickly.  As I mentioned Parker is also back and he just continues to get better and better and I fully expect him to be a top five point guard, or at least in the conversation for top five point guards next season.

Tim Duncan is coming off his best year out of his last three years and I don't see this guy slowing down anytime soon.  Duncan is still a crafty passer, can still shoot the mid range, still rebounds very efficiently, and is so fundamental on the low block he's still a force to be reckoned with.  It's also worth mentioning that Kawhi Leonard looks like he's getting comfortable being a scorer instead of just a great defender/corner 3pt specialist.  This is huge as Kawhi looks like he could very well blossom into an Andre Igoudala/Luol Deng type this next season, which is a kind of player every championship team needs.

The Spurs also happen to be coached by the best coach in the NBA in Greg Poppovich.  Somehow this guy manages to get the most obscure of role players to fit into his system and make an impact, and he can pretty much out x and o any other coach in the league on any given night.  So, go ahead and count the Spurs out, but we'll see where they are come April.

5. Oklahoma City

Blasphemy? Maybe.  I mean, it sure could be considering the Thunder have two top 10 players in the league, but I don't think they have gotten better in any capacity.

Yes, Kevin Durant is great, he's easily a top five player but he struggled last season to get his team past the Grizzlies when Westbrook went down.  I understand that Westbrook will be back this next season, but apart from the two of them who do they really have? Kevin Martin is gone, James Harden is obviously gone, Serge Ibaka looks like he's reached his peak offensively, and lord knows Kendrick Perkins isn't going to be a scorer.  I'll admit that I've always been a big fan of Jeremy Lamb, but I don't see him coming off the bench and being an instant scorer, at least not on the level Martin or Harden was.

Another thing that concerns me about Oklahoma City is their coaching.  Scott Brooks is not a good coach, and that's all there is to it.  But wait, he's won so many games over the past few years and got them to the finals.  No, make no mistake the Thunder have accomplished as much as they have because of how talented they've been and how good their chemistry is.  Brooks' offensive sets are extremely poor which is why you end up with Westbrook still dribbling around with eight seconds left on the shot clock.  Seriously, watch Kevin Durant when he doesn't have the ball, he literally just stands around 90% of the time.  If the Thunder want to get to the next level they definitely need better coaching.

Again, I'm hesitant to put Oklahoma City much further lower than five strictly because of Durant and Westbrook, but the Grizzlies very well could overtake them.  Speaking of the Grizzlies..

6. Memphis Grizzlies 

Memphis is probably the most intriguing team here because they very well could finish anywhere from 6th to 2nd.  Though Memphis declined to rehire coach Lionel Hollins, a coach who I have a great deal of respect for I think Memphis is still a complete enough team that they can work with nearly any system they are presented with under new coach David Joerger.  Joerger reminds me a lot of Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau in that he preaches excellent defense, and the Grizzlies have improved tremendously with Joerger on the coaching staff.

Memphis' defense is predicated by Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, and reigning defensive player of the year Marc Gasol.  Prince and Allen are two of the better perimeter defenders in the league, and though they aren't getting any younger it doesn't appear that they're slowing down any on the defensive end of the floor.  Having Gasol in the middle also allows Memphis' defenders to gamble a bit more because he is so effective at patrolling the paint and moving quickly between his man and a player attacking the rim, and then back to his man again.  The Grizzlies also have some tremendous defenders off the bench, which makes them a tough team to match up against at any time.

Mike Conley Jr. has proven over the last couple seasons, and last post season that he is one of the better point guards in the league.  An elite point guard? Probably not, but he has improved every season that he's been in the NBA and would definitely be the starter for most teams.  Conley can play extremely good defense, which was evident in the way he handled Clippers point guard Chris Paul during the playoffs this past season.  Conley is also extremely effective and running the Grizzlies offense, and has proved that he is a capable scorer and a quite crafty passer. 

Memphis' greatest offensive strength is without question is their low post game.  Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol are two of the most efficient post players in the league and the focal point of the Memphis offense.  Both players are extremely hard to match up with in the post as they're both extremely physical, but also have a great deal of finesse to their offensive games.  Randolph and Gasol both seem to up their games on the big stage in the playoffs and I would expect that trend to continue into next season.  

Once a maligned franchise, the Grizzlies are a team nobody should take lightly now.

7. New Orleans Pelicans

The Hornets Pelicans look to make the playoffs for the first time in a long time this coming season.  The Pelicans were quite active this offseason in acquiring Jrue Holiday via a draft day trade, and signing former Kings guard Tyreke Evans to a 4yr/$44M contract after acquiring him through a three team trade with Portland and Sacramento.  Evans certainly has his fair share of critics, but I am not one of them.  Unfortunately Evans was playing in a very, very crowded back court in Sacramento, but should be able to get some solid minutes for the Pelicans and be able to play up to his potential.

Make no mistake, this team is going to score, and they're going to score a lot. I fully expect the starters to be Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis.  Though this lineup is somewhat small, that appears to be the trend in the current NBA and this Pelicans roster should have no trouble with that. Al-Farouq Aminu may start in place of Evans who could be some very much needed firepower off the bench, but if not there's nothing wrong with this starting five.  Every single one of these players can score the basketball at a pretty efficient rate, and between Holiday, Evans, and Gordon they have some very, very capable ball handlers.  

Should this ultimately be the starting five for New Orleans they should be very difficult to match up with.  Holiday, Evans, Gordon and Anderson can all shoot from long range, and Davis has an extremely efficient mid-range game but can also play down low, as can Anderson.  Gordon, Holiday and Evans can also all attack the rim, and can create their own shots which will open up opportunities for everyone on the floor which leads me to believe this team will be in some top offensive categories.

Defense may be somewhat of an issue for New Orleans as they traded away Robin Lopez, and they aren't very deep in terms of big men to protect the paint.  Stiemsma is serviceable but he is not Robin Lopez.  Further, apart from Anthony Davis none of New Orleans top five players are really known for their defense.  This isn't to say they're bad defenders, but they're pretty average.

The Pelicans this next season will definitely be one of those teams you're probably going to want to purchase League Pass to watch because they're going to light up the scoreboard.  I'm excited for the future of this team, and you should be too.

8. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are coming off their best season in franchise history in which they logged 57 wins.  Coach George Karl won Coach of The Year and it looked like Masai Ujiri had put together a potential contender even winning Executive of The Year honors.  Instead, Ujiri left for Toronto, and George Karl was subsequently fired.  Obviously the firing of Karl is a bit of head scratcher, but sometimes teams just run their courses with a certain coach, as we saw back in 2008 when Dallas fired coach Avery Johnson after two consecutive first round exits in the playoffs.  Karl has struggled similarly in the playoffs being bounced in the first round the past three seasons.

The most notable departure for Denver is Andre Igoudala who signed with Golden State this offseason.  Igoudala was the perfect fit for the team philosophy under Karl, and his departure may have played a significant role in him leaving the team.  This move definitely hurts Denver on both ends of the floor as Igoudala is a highly skilled defender, and a good offensive player who has one of the best all around games in the league.

The Nuggets will still probably run their high-octane offense that they've been known for the past few seasons, especially since Ty Lawson is still running the point guard.  Lawson should continue to improve as a point guard and a scorer and I fully expect him to have a career year.  I expect Gallinari to be back and healthy, and if Wilson Chandler can be the player he was when he was acquired from New York in the Carmelo Anthony trade this team may very well over achieve.  

Despite Karl and Igoudala being gone the Nuggets still boast one of the deepest benches in the league.  Nearly every single player they bring off the bench is a capable player, and I expect that to help them immensely in their bid for the playoffs.  Defensively they are also still pretty deep and though they won't quite be as good as last year I still think they'll be a tough out for anyone.

9. Dallas Mavericks

Dallas will probably miss the playoffs again this next season, as they haven't really done anything to improve their roster from last season.  Yes, they still have Dirk, and he will be healthy next season, and Monta Ellis may end up being a good fit for this team but otherwise what do they really have?  

Dallas signed DeJuan Blair and Samuel Dalembert this offseason which should help them out underneath, and Shawn Marion will return to Dallas this next season which definitely bolsters their front court defensively.  Jae Crowder will be coming off the bench and in his rookie season last year he showed that he is a capable defender off the bench and can score the ball fairly well.

The Mavs should still be able to score the ball pretty well this upcoming season.  Obviously Dirk is still an elite offensive player and Monta Ellis can score pretty well albeit at a sometimes very inefficient rate. Marion is still a decent scorer and Vince Carter has proven that though his age is beginning to show and he's not throwing down monstrous dunks that he can still be a very efficient scorer.

Dallas is definitely not a bad team by any means, but I also don't think they're necessarily a good team either.  They're fairly average and they may make the playoffs, but as of right now I don't see that happening.

10. Los Angeles Lakers

Yes, the Lakers are going to miss the playoffs next season.  I know everyone thinks that Kobe will be back earlier than most are when it comes to a serious injury such as achilles tear, and he might because yes Kobe is a different breed.  However, most players are simply not the same when it comes to returning from this injury.  Kyle Wagner of Deadspin broke down how achilles injuries affect NBA players in a really interesting article back in April.

So, I assume that Kobe won't be back until at least a quarter into the season and in my opinion I think that's being somewhat generous, which means the Lakers are going to have a threadbare roster and are going to struggle in a deep Western Conference.

Los Angeles has refused to commit to contracts beyond one year deals for free agents next season as they hope to compete for LeBron or Carmelo after 2014.  That said, the Lakers did manage to bring in some decent talent on the cheap.  They signed Nick Young to a one year deal, and though he's not the most efficient scorer he can still light it up.  Former Mavericks and Clippers center Chris Kaman was also signed to a one year deal and make no mistake Kaman can definitely still play.  Wesley Johnson was the number four pick back in 2010 and he was signed to a one year veterans minimum deal and he may live up to his potential next season.  

The Lakers still have Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, but both players appear to be out of their prime and very much in the twilight of their careers.  Ron Artest is no longer on the roster as he was a casualty of the amnesty clause, and oh, yeah Dwight Howard is gone.  Obviously Dwight leaving is the most glaring loss of the offseason for the Lakers and leaves the Lakers pretty much barren for the next few seasons. 

The Lakers have no draft picks available until 2017, so I expect them to have some pretty thin years over the next few seasons, and unless they land a high profile free agent they are going to continue to struggle.  So rehab that achilles Kobe, because these Lakers are desperately going to need you.

11. Portland Trailblazers

The Trailblazers are getting there.  Damian Lillard has shown that he will be an elite point guard in the future, LaMarcus Aldridge has been playing at an all star level, and Nic Batum has proven to be an excellent defender and a solid offensive player.  This is an excellent core for the Blazers who struggled somewhat greatly last season and look poised to miss out on the playoffs again.

The Blazers have a pretty darn good core with those three players I listed above, and don't get me wrong Wesley Matthews is no slouch on an NBA court either, but they desperately need some depth.  CJ McCollum was an excellent draft pick and he should have no problems playing alongside Damian Lillard as the two have very similar games.  Thomas Robinson was also a great pickup this offseason.  Although T-Rob hasn't necessarily been what everyone predicted he would be in the NBA he's a solid front court player and should be able to provide some solid minutes off the bench.  The Blazers also nabbed Robin Lopez from New Orleans in a three team deal this Summer.  Lopez is coming off his best year as a pro and will be the starter in the middle for the Blazers.  Lopez gives them a good defensive presence, and some much needed size which they missed out on last year with JJ Hickson playing the center position.  

Dorell Wright was obviously a good addition as they were able to sign him fairly cheap and he will provide some depth at the small forward position.  Wright can shoot and is a pretty decent defender which is something Portland has desperately needed.  Allen Crabbe who was drafted from California will also probably get a decent amount of playing time, as he can shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor and shooters are something every team needs off the bench.

The Blazers obviously did an excellent job of bolstering their bench this offseason, but they're still very young which leads me to believe they'll struggle. However, like I said, they're getting there and they may very well catch some teams by surprise this year.

12.  Minnesota Timberwolves

I've been expecting the Timberwolves to get over the hump for around the past three seasons, and they just haven't been able to do it.  I've realized that these expectations are ridiculous and they won't be much of a contender next season.

Kevin Love will be healthy next year which is going to be big for the Timberwolves, but even a healthy Kevin Love is not vaulting this team to anywhere near playoff contention.  Make no mistake, Kevin Love is one of the best, if not the best power forward in the league, but plain and simple he cannot do it all himself.  Ricky Rubio should also be 100% this season, and he is one of the most fun point guards in the league to watch but Rubio still isn't an elite point guard and will need to raise his game significantly if the Timberwolves are going to have a shot.

The T-Wolves have been fairly active this offseason, acquiring Shabazz Muhammad through the draft, and Corey Brewer, Kevin Martin and Ronnie Turiaf through free agency.  Martin is not quite the player he used to be, but he can still definitely put the ball in the hoop, something Minnesota desperately needs from their wing players, and Brewer will bolster their perimeter defense.  Muhammad should hopefully contribute offensively for Minnesota as he was a great scorer in college, and, as mentioned, the T-Wolves are in very desperate need from high offensive production out of their wing players.  Turiaf will add some front court depth, but if Nikola Pekovic doesn't resign Turiaf may have to start, and that's not something that any team would want.

Speaking of Pekovic why the hell hasn't this guy signed already?  I mean, seriously does he think anyone is going to give him a better offer than the 4yr/$50M offer he received from Minnesota?  Seriously, take that money and run.  Not to mention the guy's from Russia so he can definitely play in the cold weather.  All jokes aside Minnesota better hope they resign him, or they're going to finish a hell of a lot worse than 12th.

13. Utah Jazz

Utah is in rebuild mode like several other teams at the bottom, and that's completely fine.  Al Jefferson is gone, Paul Millsap is in Atlanta, and Mo Williams will probably sign with Memphis.  

Utah started their rebuilding project by drafting NCAA Player of The Year Trey Burke from Michigan.  Burke was an absolute standout in two years of college, and I think he will be an effective point guard for Utah.  I know there are naysayers who will say "oh he struggled in the Summer League" well, if you think Summer League stats have anything to do with actual NBA Production than you're full of shit.  Adam Morrison averaged 25ppg in the Summer League and where is he? Oh yeah, out of basketball.

This next season will allow Utah to see how far Derrick Favors and Alec Burks have come.  Both have been decent NBA players in their own right, but it's now time for them to play at a much higher level.  Gordon Hayward should also hopefully continue to trend his game upward, and if that happens Utah may have a pretty good young core of Burke, Hayward, Burks, and Favors.  

Utah's bench is very thin, but that's okay because this team should be looking forward to the 2014 draft and salivating.  Their bench is not going to help them win games, in fact it will probably help them lose quite a few which means they should get a very, very good draft pick and this next draft class appears to be loaded.  

Utah traded with Golden State this past offseason to acquire Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins, two players who after this season will be off the books.  Marvin Williams also has an expiring contract which means the Jazz will be shedding somewhere around $27.5M in salary which will make them players in the free agent market over the next few seasons.

14. Sacramento Kings

I don't know when the Kings are going to turn it around but it's not anytime soon that's for sure.  They've been in lottery the last seven years and have been just absolutely abysmal.  None of their draft picks besides Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins have turned into anything other than average NBA role players, which is very, very concerning for a franchise in the shape their in.

Sacramento drafted Ben McLemore with the 8th pick this past year and McLemore looks like he could be a future star in the league.  Again, the kid struggled in the Summer League but you already know how I feel about Summer League play.  McLemore has all the potential, and all the athleticism, let's just hope he works to get there.  Sometimes players with McLemore's ability end up going into situations like the Kings are in and never get any better, but I expect coach Mike Malone to get the most out of him.

The one bright spot for the Kings right now is that DeMarcus Cousins has said he wants to stay in Sacramento and seems to really mean it.  It's always very rare for a star player to want to continue to play for a losing organization, and you really have to respect Cousins' loyalty in this situation.  Yes, he has his maturity issues, but I would say this is a good sign that he's working on that and I fully expect him to be the cornerstone of this organization for a long time to come.

Sacramento narrowly avoided having their team sold to Seattle last season, so the new Kings management better turn this team around and fast, or they'll be in that conversation for awhile.  Fortunately, they're getting a new arena, moving out of Arco which is so old it's absurd, and the Maloof brothers are no longer running the franchise.

P.S. - Kings fans, go to the fucking games.  Seriously, I'm from Iowa and we have no pro sports teams here.  You somehow managed to keep your team around, so you better damn well appreciate them. I don't care how bad they are.

15. Phoenix Suns

Is there anyone else to put here?  I mean the Suns are easily going to be the worst team in the league this upcoming year.  Phoenix seriously has nothing in terms of good players, but they do have some assets and they look poised to win the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes this upcoming season.

Phoenix acquired Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler this summer in exchange for Jared Dudley.  Bledsoe and Butler are both expiring contracts which means they're definitely worth something.  Phoenix also traded Luis Scola who still had quite a few years and a considerable amount of money left on his contract for Miles Plumlee, and Gerald Green from Indiana.  Green and Plumlee are both on the cheap, and should also help this team tank for 2014.

Phoenix is seriously going to be just absolutely horrendous next season, but hopefully they can flip what assets they do have into more draft picks for the 2014 draft, and prepare themselves for the future.  Don't worry Suns fans, though you can't see the horizon yet, and it's a great uphill battle, the team is starting to look prepared for a turn around.

Follow me on Twitter @DbRedickulous

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