Unlike the East, teams in the Western Conference better be able to maintain a legitimate winning record if there is any sliver of hope for a postseason berth. Anything less than .500 in the West equals a lottery pick. This is the NBA’s juggernaut conference.
The West is terrifying. The East can boast about the Miami Heat, Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls and the balanced Indiana Pacers, but there are only a few things more daunting in professional sports than what franchises in the Western Conference are forced to endure come playoff time.
Not even one or two seeds are exempt from tests in their first three series. Just for San Antonio to reach the Finals to take on the league’s top team record-wise in Miami last season, they had to defeat Dwight Howard and the Los Angeles Lakers, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors and finally, a Memphis Grizzlies team that sported the Defensive Player of the Year.
As for the Heat? They beat up on a middling Milwaukee Bucks team, an injury-ravaged Bulls team and a respectable Indiana team that had no bench and no Danny Granger. Notice the difference?
That’s why series out West are so much more fun than those in the East. There’s no such thing as a boring matchup, such as that visual NyQuil between Indiana and Atlanta last season, and each series will usually feature evenly-matched teams that showcase superstars on both squads.
That’s not going to change. A majority of the West’s elite has improved and there’s a high possibility that any of the top six seeds could be classified as a championship contender. Even scarier is the prospect that a few of those elite teams have young cores (Oklahoma City, Houston and Golden State) that they will ride with for at least another five years. To add to that, the teams I expect to barely miss out on the playoffs, such as the fast-paced, ridiculously deep Denver Nuggets, could probably win close to 50 games in the East. (I believe Denver will miss George Karl more than they realize.)
Unless the Heat is involved, the West will always have the more intriguing and entertaining matchups. When you go through this prediction piece, take a look at the potential matchups and notice how every series will attract your attention because of how appealing and unpredictable they can be.
Whether or not this is how the standings pan out come May, the only guarantee is the West once again being wild in the regular and postseason. (And oh yeah, sorry Lakers fans. Too many question marks on that roster to warrant a spot on this list.)
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8. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES
2012-13 Record: 31-51, 4th in Northwest, 12th in West
Additions: Kevin Martin (Trade), Shabazz Muhammad (Draft), Gorgui Dieng (Draft), Corey Brewer (Free Agent), Ronny Turiaf (Free Agent)
Losses: Luke Ridnour (Trade), Mickael Gelabale (Waived), Greg Stiemsma (Free Agent)
This is it! This is the year it’s all going to come together for the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s going to be the year where everyone stays healthy and Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio finally play on a court at the same time for longer than a game. Or we can at least hope so. Because if this Timberwolves team is healthy, they should be able to make it into the postseason as a low seed.
The stars of this encouraging Minnesota team include Love, a perennial All-Star that grabs rebounds at an unprecedented rate, Rubio, who has been near the top in assist percentage his first two years in the league, and Nikola Pekovic, a 27-year-old bulldozer of a center that should only continue to improve after breaking out and dropping 16.3 points and 8.8 rebounds per last year.
Also, get this, the Timberwolves finally have a starting shooting guard that is actually deserving of the role. Kevin Martin, acquired in a trade with Oklahoma City, is a tremendous acquisition for a Wolves team that ranked 25th last year in points per possession (PPP) off of spot-ups, per Synergy, converting only 34 percent of their 99 three-point attempts in such situations. Martin was a 42 percent shooter in spot-up situations last season. The Wolves are about to experience what it’s like to have a capable shooting guard for the first time in a long time.
Minnesota will also sport a formidable bench that includes Derrick Williams, J.J. Barea, promising rookies in Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, and Alexey “Change your face” Shved.
2014 Prediction: 45-37
7. DALLAS MAVERICKS
2012-13 Record: 41-41, 4th in Southwest, 10th in West
Additions: Shane Larkin (Draft), Ricky Ledo (Draft), Devin Harris (Free Agent), Samuel Dalembert (Free Agent), Jose Calderon (Free Agent), Monta Ellis (Free Agent), DeJuan Blair (Free Agent), Devin Ebanks (Free Agent)
Losses: O.J. Mayo (Free Agent), Chris Kaman (Free Agent), Anthony Morrow (Free Agent), Darren Collison (Free Agent), Elton Brand (Free Agent), Nick Calathes (Trade)
It took a few months, as well as the re-introduction of Dirk Nowitzki back into the starting lineup, but the Dallas Mavericks finally got it together enough to salvage a .500 season out of the 2012-13 campaign. The Dallas Mavericks aren’t willing to go away quietly. They feel that the 35-year-old Nowitzki is still capable of leading a title-bound team, evidenced by the slew of role players and fringe-stars brought in to accompany Dirk.
The Jose Calderon acquisition is interesting on two levels. On one level, it’s going to turn the Mavericks into a pick-n-roll juggernaut that will feature Calderon penetrating and Dirk stepping out for easy jumpers. Calderon has been prolific as a point guard who does not turn the ball over much, as well as a lights-out shooter. In 28 games with the Detroit Pistons last year, Calderon was the league’s top spot-up threat, knocking down 60 percent of his 68 field-goal attempts, including 61 percent on three-pointers.
On another level, a 32-year-old Calderon, who will be 36 by the end of his contract, will have to defend the likes of Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker if the Mavericks honestly believe they can contend for a title. Dallas may have been a tad hasty with this signing.
It will also be refreshing to see a motivated Monta Ellis who doesn’t want to spend an entire season attempting bad jump shot after bad jump shot. On 328 attempts from beyond the arc last season, Ellis was a 29 percent three-point shooter and a 33 percent shooter overall on jumpers. Monta “Have it all” Ellis, like Calderon, is a heavy utilizer of the pick-n-roll, relying on it for 33 percent of his offense last year, per Synergy. However, his reliance on settling for deep midrange jumpers and three-pointers that he has never been able to consistently hit will keep the ball out of his hands if it disrupts the flow of what should be a masterfully-run offense.
It will be intriguing to see how the Mavericks convert Ellis into a formidable number-two guy next to Dirk, but this team will be at its best on offense when the ball is being run through Calderon.