With the NBA season less than a week away from officially starting, you’ve probably noticed we’ve been pumping out enough preview content to bury even Hasheem Thabeet. Over the next week, we’ll be taking a look at the 10 biggest storylines of the 2013-14 season. Today, we’re giving you a preview of what’ll surely be one of the craziest playoff races in some time…
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It’s no secret that the West has been the stronger NBA conference over the last few years. Last season, 10 of the conference’s 15 teams went at least .500. Compare that to a weaker Eastern Conference that saw the 38-44 Milwaukee Bucks lock up a playoff spot.
However, the best team in the NBA still comes from the top-heavy Eastern Conference. With the offseason acquisitions of Michael Beasley and Greg Oden, the odds will be in favor of a Miami three-peat after a “better” LeBron James told The Miami Herald he’s improved his game this offseason in every aspect.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, Indiana added more ammo, returning swingman Danny Granger and adding Luis Scola. Chicago brings back 2011 MVP Derrick Rose to a defensive-minded roster that certainly could have used an offensive push during their second-round matchup with Miami last season. Brooklyn added veteran leadership and on paper, their team will start five players who have been All-Stars in the past two years. Then there is New York, who according to J.R. Smith, is a “100 percent” lock to win the NBA championship.
However, if the playoffs were based on the top 16 teams with the best records, there’s a high probability the majority of those would be from the Western Conference. This season, the West looks to be deeper than ever with 12 of the 15 teams having a legit shot of making the playoffs, and six of them looking like potential contenders. From the offseason acquisitions of the Los Angeles Clippers to the New Orleans Hornets, the “Wild Wild West” looks to be even crazier than before.
The teams on the outside looking in are the Utah Jazz, who lost Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap to free agency; a rebuilding Phoenix Suns organization and the Sacramento Kings, who also took a hit in free agency through the departure of Tyreke Evans. Outside of these three, it’s anyone’s guess which eight will be postseason-bound.
The Los Angeles Lakers have been a playoff mainstay after making eight consecutive appearances. While their supporting cast has come and gone over the years, one thing has remained constant: the Black Mamba. If you have learned anything about Kobe as he enters his 18th season, it’s that you can’t bet against him. Yes, the Lake Show doesn’t exactly feature a roster that rivals Miami’s but any time you have Kobe Bryant on your squad, you have a chance to make the playoffs â€“ whether your center is Kwame Brown, Shaquille O’Neal or Chris Kaman.
Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks were playoff streaking even longer than the Lakers, boasting 12 straight postseason appearances before missing the playoffs last season. While Dallas lost one-and-done Mavericks O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison to free agency, they filled the backcourt void with dynamic scoring guard Monta Ellis and assist master Jose Calderon. They’re better fits for Mark Cuban‘s playoff-bound hopefuls this season.
The up-and-coming Minnesota Timberwolves carry a trio of young players in Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic that look to lead Minnesota back to the playoffs for the first time since falling to the Lakers in the ’04 Western Conference Finals. Health has been the main issue for this team over the last two years. Rubio and Love have missed a combined total of 157 games. With the addition of scoring guard Kevin Martin, who signed a four-year, $28 million deal over the summer, expect a healthy T-Wolves team to make their case for a playoff spot. As if health and an additional scoring punch wasn’t enough to take Minnesota out of the lottery, the return of the man who last brought them to the postseason, Flip Saunders, the new president of basketball operations, is sure to provide the team with the experience they need.
The Portland Trail Blazers are another youthful team on the rise, led by All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and 2013 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard.
“There’s no reason that we shouldn’t be a playoff team,” said Lillard in an interview with Dime this offseason. “There’s no excuse. We got a deep bench [and] we [added] guys that can come in and help us.”
The additions in the backcourt include guards Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum while Aldridge will receive some frontcourt support from new teammates Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson.
One team that has a chance to surprise is the New Orleans Pelicans. After being very active this offseason in strengthening their backcourt by trading for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and locking up free agent Tyreke Evans, they’re now loaded with talent. Adding these two to a backcourt that already has a young combo guard in Eric Gordon forms a three-headed monster that can attack from all angles. It also gives the organization flexibility to possibly move Gordon if he can prove to be healthy. In addition, 2012 No. 1 pick Anthony Davis and 6-10 sniper Ryan Anderson form a frontcourt duo that can take teams inside and out. While the organization is coming off another subpar year, this might be the season that New Orleans breaks out under their new name and sneaks into the playoffs.
Clearly, the Denver Nuggets have mile-high expectations for their club after firing a coach that set an NBA franchise record for wins last season. While George Karl is out, first-time head coach Brian Shaw brings a wealth of knowledge and playoff experience from his Phil Jackson days in L.A. and his most recent playoff run last season in Indiana. Denver will certainly feel the loss of swingman Andre Iguodala, but an early and healthy return from Danilo Gallinari (who averaged over 16 ppg before suffering a season-ending knee injury) will aid in filling the void.
Denver also welcomes NBA journeyman Nate Robinson to the squad, who is a bargain at $2 million a year after averaging over 16 points and four assists in the playoffs last season for Chicago. Add Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee into the mix and Denver should still be a playoff team, but a superstar away from being considered a contender.
The Memphis Grizzlies also parted ways with a franchise record-setting coach after ex-commander Lionel Hollins led Memphis to a 56-26 record last season and a Western Conference Finals appearance. While his exit has more to do with him butting heads with a management team that wanted to change his style to an analytical approach, the Grizzlies still return the same squad and add a veteran sniper in Mike Miller. While Memphis was one of the least active NBA teams this offseason, the Grizz should still be a lock for the playoffs because of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, and could still be considered an under the radar contender.
Sam Presti didn’t exactly make as much noise this offseason as he did in the year prior when he sent James Harden to Houston but the Oklahoma City Thunder are still headlined by arguably two of the NBA’s top 10 players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Two seasons removed from the NBA Finals, OKC looks to finally reach the Promised Land. While the James Harden/Kevin Martin trade didn’t exactly work out, anytime you have KD, Russ and Serge Ibaka on the same team, you give yourself a great shot to reach the NBA Finals.
Speaking of James Harden, it looks as if he may have started his own potential dynasty with the Houston Rockets after luring free agent center Dwight Howard to a team that already featured solid young pieces in Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. In hopes of reaching the level of the Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets, the “Dream” was added to the Houston coaching staff, forming a Hall Of Fame sideline duo with Kevin McHale that can help to mentor and develop D12’s low-post game.
The fans in the Bay Area have a lot to be excited about this upcoming season as Mark Jackson, just three years into his tenure, has his Golden State Warriors looking to contend for their first NBA championship since 1975. Jackson recently told ESPN it’s time for his squad to “make it happen” and they will look to do so this year behind an even deeper roster that will allow NBA sophomore Harrison Barnes to come off the bench. A starting unit sporting Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, David Lee and Andrew Bogut, with the recent addition of explosive swingman Andre Iguodala, may cause a ruckus on the streets of Oakland and San Fran come June.
And how could you ever count out the San Antonio Spurs? This is the same team that was one Jesus Shuttlesworth three-pointer away from last year’s Larry O’Brien trophy. The “aging” Spurs may feature a veteran core in Parker, Duncan and Ginobili, but the fresher legs provided by Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter have taken a lot of the pressure off of Gregg Popovich‘s older Big Three. The Spurs also added addition international flavor to their roster by signing Marco Belinelli, formerly of the Chicago Bulls. Acquiring Belinelli is a solid, underrated pickup for the Spurs. He lifted the Bulls in the first round last season by dropping 20-plus points in Games 6 and 7.
Finally, the Western Conference team that may have the most hype going into this season is the Los Angeles Clippers after a series of moves that started with acquiring championship coach Doc Rivers. After Doc departed from Boston for Hollywood, the Clippers wasted no time in re-signing franchise cornerstone Chris Paul and supporting him and sixth man Jamal Crawford with a deep backcourt that includes Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison. This team not only features the NBA’s top point guard and a group of snipers and creators in the backcourt, but Lob City still has the NBA’s most athletic frontcourt in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
But as we saw last season with the Lakers, having a lineup headlined by multiple superstars doesn’t always equate to on-court success. This season, there seems to be too many teams in the Western Conference with similar levels of talent to accurately predict which eight teams will be playing-bound and which team will survive to the Finals. Only time will tell who will make it out of the wild wild West, but as learned from the dysfunctional 2012-2013 Lakers, we know that winning in the rugged Western Conference will come down to three deciding factors: health, heart and chemistry.
Who do you see coming out of the West this year?
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