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.)
*** *** ***
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.
6. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
2012-13 Record: 47-35, 2nd in Pacific, 6th in West; Lost 4-2 to San Antonio in Semifinals
Additions: Jermaine O’Neal (Free Agent), Toney Douglas (Free Agent), Marreese Speights (Free Agent), Andre Iguodala (Trade), Seth Curry (Free Agent), Nemanja Nedovic (Draft)
Losses: Jarrett Jack (Free Agent), Carl Landry (Free Agent), Brandon Rush (Trade), Andris Biedrins (Trade), Richard Jefferson (Trade)
Oh, you thought the Golden State Warriors were fun to watch last year? Well, Stephen Curry is still there, so that automatically shoots the Warriors up the charts if you’re a fan of League Pass.
In only his fourth year in the league, Curry set the NBA record for threes in a season with 272 makes, while shooting 45 percent to bump up his career three-point percentage to 45 percent. His onslaught of the Denver Nuggets in last year’s postseason resonate in the mind of every potential postseason opponent who could end up being as unfortunate as Denver by drawing the Warriors as a matchup.
Plus, Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson are gone. Seriously, there was another team in the NBA that was willing to take on the deals of Biedrins and Jefferson. You could have ended Golden State’s offseason right there and it would have been considered a perfect summer in Oakland. It meant losing the promising Brandon Rush as a result, but, hey, no more Andris Biedrins and his 11 percent free throw percentage.
But Golden State didn’t stop there. Akin to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors are a team in the Pacific Division that are finally beginning to realize what it takes to make a successful roster. Of course it helps to have a lottery pick as a centerpiece, but a supporting cast built through free agency is needed. It’s disappointing to see Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, who combined to average 23 points per game off the bench last year, depart, but getting back Andre Iguodala and Marreese Speights is solid compensation.
With Iguodala likely to start at small forward, it’ll send Harrison Barnes to a bench that will include the recently-acquired Speights and Toney Douglas, as well as second-year forward Draymond Green and second-year center Festus Ezeli.
The Warriors success this season rides on how healthy Andrew Bogut will be. He’s one of the league’s most gifted defenders and rebounders when healthy, but he played 44 games the past two years and the Warriors will need him in order to compete with the likes of Marc Gasol and Memphis or Dwight Howard and Houston. Injuries will make or break Golden State’s season, as Curry’s ability to remain healthy and stay on the court will also play a key role throughout the season.
2014 Prediction: 51-31
5. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
2012-13 Record: 56-26, 2nd in Southwest, 5th in West; Lost 4-0 to San Antonio in Conference Finals
Additions: Mike Miller (Free Agent), Nick Calathes (Trade), Kosta Koufos (Trade)
Losses: Tony Wroten (Free Agent), Austin Daye (Free Agent), Darrell Arthur (Trade)
Give credit to the Memphis Grizzlies, they didn’t fall into the trap the Boston Celtics set for them in trading them Fab Melo. After suffering with Dexter Pittman for a few moments late last season, the Grizzlies will choose to ride it out with reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and the recently-acquired Kosta Koufos.
Koufos, a 7-footer with five years of experience, was brought over in a deal that sent Darrell Arthur, who disappointed in his fourth season with Memphis, to the Denver Nuggets. Adding Koufos finally dispels the crucial need of a big man for Memphis, who were actually using Arthur as their only big off the bench in last year’s postseason.
The Grizzlies also welcome in a former player of theirs in Mike Miller, a victim of the amnesty clause utilized by the Miami Heat. Although playing time has been sparing for Miller, and it’ll be interesting to see how new coach David Joerger uses him on defense, he is going to fill the significant void of three-point shooting.
Memphis was the only team last year to average less than five three-pointers per game, finishing dead last in threes made per game. Quincy Pondexter and Mike Conley, Jr. were the only Grizzlies last season to average at least one three-pointer per game. Think this team needed a spot-up threat? They ranked 28th in the league, according to Synergy, in PPP off of spot-up attempts, shooting 37 percent overall on such opportunities last year.
Give credit to the Grizzlies; they filled two necessities over the offseason by signing a three-point threat and someone who could back up Marc Gasol. When it comes down to it, however, it will all depend on how much of an impact Gasol and Zach Randolph create in the low-post. Those two are the keys to a Memphis title run as they are arguably the most feared scoring power forward/center combination in the NBA. With so few players capable of limiting the soft-touch of Gasol and the bullying of Randolph, Memphis will continue to play the role of dark horse in terms of who could sneak out and represent the West in the Finals.
Also, we’re just begging for another matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers so we can get more of this:
4. HOUSTON ROCKETS
2012-13 Record: 45-37, 3rd in Southwest, 8th in West; Lost 4-2 to Oklahoma City in First round
Additions: Dwight Howard (Free Agent), Marcus Camby (Free Agent), Omri Casspi (Free Agent), Isaiah Canaan (Draft), Reggie Williams (Free Agent), Ronnie Brewer (Free Agent), Kostas Papanikolaou (Trade), Marko Todorovic (Trade)
Losses: Thomas Robinson (Trade), James Anderson (Waived), Tim Ohlbrecht (Waived), Royce White (Trade), Carlos Delfino (Waived)
The Houston Rockets were the franchise lucky enough to win the gift and the curse that is Dwight Howard.
The gifts Howard brings cannot be measured. He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who was severely underrated as a defender on a horrendous defensive team last year, ranking 20th last year in points per possession given up, and has led the league in rebounding in five of the past six seasons.
As much as everyone tries to discredit his limited offensive repertoire, Howard is statistically one of the most feared players to be involved in the pick-n-roll. When utilized in the pick-n-roll last year, Howard ranked ninth in the league, averaging 1.29 PPP and shooting 80 percent on 103 attempts.
Pairing him up with facilitators who thrive as ballhandlers in the pick-n-roll, such as Jeremy Lin and James Harden, while also receiving guidance from former elite post players in coach Kevin McHale and Rockets’ fixture Hakeem Olajuwon could turn Howard into the 25 points per game player we have all expected him to become.
Then there’s the curse Howard brings. There isn’t much to go into that ESPN and every other NBA blogger hasn’t already commented on; Howard has been a ravenous storm leaving devastation and misplaced, innocent citizens in his whirlwind path. He was a train wreck in both Orlando’s and the L.A. Lakers’ attempts to win him back. He has found a way to regress as a free throw shooter. His post game still leaves much to be desired, and he may still be recovering from the back surgery he went under in the summer of 2012.
Still, he’ll be paired up with one of the league’s top perimeter players–and this one will share the ball!–in James Harden and will be backed up by one of the league’s most underrated post defenders in Omer Asik.
Expect the Rockets to improve significantly on defending post-ups after ranking 24th in the league in PPP given up on post-ups, per Synergy, with Howard and Asik manning the fort.
Questions remain on where exactly the Rockets expect to get scoring from on their bench, but it won’t be as large and noticeable an issue if Howard and Harden combine to form a feared pick-n-roll duo.
3. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
2012-13 Record: 60-22, 1st in Northwest, 1st in West; Lost 4-1 to Memphis in Semifinals
Additions: Steven Adams (Draft), Andre Roberson (Draft), Ryan Gomes (Free Agent), Grant Jerrett (Draft)
Losses: DeAndre Liggins (Waived), Kevin Martin (Trade), Ronnie Brewer (Free Agent)
They replaced James Harden with Kevin Martin, now who do the Oklahoma City put in the vacancy left behind by Martin?
The Thunder have continued to see their roster regress since losing Harden to the Houston Rockets and the situation has only become more grim with their second sixth man in as many years departing for Minnesota.
Oklahoma City, who ranked fourth in the league in PPP off of spot-up opportunities, per Synergy, will no doubt suffer losing out on their best shooter next to Kevin Durant.
There’s a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the Thunder this year, not even including Russell Westbrook‘s return from a knee injury he suffered in last year’s postseason, and it focuses on who the team expects to get consistent scoring from outside of Westbrook and Durant. Expect Serge Ibaka, who dropped career-highs with 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds (as well as three blocks) per game last year, to have an increased role in the offense, as well as Reggie Jackson, who should become the Thunder’s next sixth man.
Outside of those four, where else does the scoring come from? You can count on Thabo Sefolosha to hit a few threes now-and-then, but do the Thunder expect to make another championship run with unproven talent in Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Steven Adams in the rotation?
The Thunder can expect Durant to continue to improve former weaknesses of his — such as his defense and facilitation as a passer — and Westbrook to have enough confidence in his health to become the athlete he’s been, but it will be a necessity for one of their unproven players to overachieve if they want to compete with the likes of San Antonio or the L.A. Clippers.
2. SAN ANTONIO SPURS
2012-13 Record: 58-24, 1st in Southwest, 2nd in West; Lost 4-3 to Miami in NBA Finals
Additions: Marco Belinelli (Free Agent), Jeff Pendergraph (Free Agent)
Losses: Tracy McGrady (Retirement), DeJuan Blair (Free Agent), Gary Neal (Free Agent)
No team is hurting more after last year than the San Antonio Spurs. But they won’t be the ones to tell you that, nor will you notice it.
For over a decade, the Spurs have been among the NBA elite and have been the league’s most wildly successful franchise, winning four titles since 1999. However, their first NBA Finals loss, a seven-game series defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat, may end up resonating more than any victory Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich have been a part of. Nevertheless, it’s rinse-and-repeat for the Spurs, who come back with a rotation similar to last year’s with the exception of the addition of Marco Belinelli, a career 39 percent shooter from deep.
There simply isn’t a need to make any sort of blockbuster moves if you’re the Spurs. You came a defensive rebound and a free throw away from winning the championship and the biggest obstacle in your way is now attempting to get over the fact that a defensive rebound and a missed free throw cost you a fifth NBA championship in 12 years. This Spurs team, however, is as mentally tough and resilient as any franchise in the league.
Worth watching this coming season is how Manu Ginobili performs after two injury-plagued seasons, as well as continuing to see the development of the likes of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, a 21-year-old who averaged a double-double against LeBron James in the Finals.
San Antonio will quietly dominate in the regular season and probably end up in another NBA Finals. They don’t have to overexert themselves in the regular season when they realize they have all the tools at hand to make another deep postseason run. In other words, they’ll be the same franchise you’ve come to disrespect and ignore until May when they get hot going into the playoffs.
2013-14 prediction: 58-24
1. L.A. CLIPPERS
2012-13 Record: 56-26, 1st in Pacific, 4th in West; Lost 4-2 to Memphis in First Round
Additions: J.J. Redick (Trade), Jared Dudley (Trade), Darren Collison (Free Agent), Reggie Bullock (Draft), Antawn Jamison (Free Agent), Byron Mullens (Free Agent)
Losses: Caron Butler (Trade), Eric Bledsoe (Trade), DaJuan Summers (Waived), Chauncey Billups (Free Agent), Ronny Turiaf (Free Agent)
Since when are the Los Angeles Clippers the franchise to make offseason moves that will actually be of benefit for the next season? The times are changing in the NBA, and there’s no more proof of that than the Clippers front office proving competent. By acquiring multiple three-point threats, the Clippers are making it a point to acquire complementary role players who will help stretch the floor for the facilitation of Chris Paul.
In the 2013 postseason, the Clippers finished 14th out of 16 teams in three-point percentage with a paltry 30 coversion rate, eventually falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in six games in their first-round matchup.
Wisely, the Clippers made it a purpose this offseason to fill the need that proved to be a significant part of four consecutive losses to end the season.
The smartest moves of the offseason, however, may have been acquiring Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens. Both are stretch-fours/fives that can prove useful come playoff time when Paul needs a David West-type player that can hit jumpers off the pick-n-roll. Blake Griffin averaged 13 points on 45 percent shooting in last year’s playoffs, while DeAndre Jordan dropped less than four points per game on 46 percent shooting. Come postseason time, there has been an obvious need for the Clippers to have a big who can stetch the floor in ways Blake and DeAndre can’t.
Although they lost out on a prospect with All-Star potential in Eric Bledsoe, they essentially replaced with him with five players who can hit from the perimeter. As talented as Bledsoe was, him being a 31 percent career shooter from deep and there already being a superstar point guard made him expendable.
Not to be forgotten was their drafting of North Carolina’s Reggie Bullock, yet another shooter to add to the Clippers suddenly fierce perimeter game, who shot 44 percent on nearly six three-point attempts per game in his final year with the Tar Heels.
It still seems like a far-fetched idea, and it’s almost like a weird dream to write, but the Clippers are very likely going to finish with the best record in the Western Conference this season. On top of all the moves they made, there were none that may bode more positive results in the future than the firing of Vinny Del Negro and the hiring of Doc Rivers, coach of the 2008 Boston Celtics team that won a title. Let’s just say it’s going to be doubtful you’ll hear any stories about conflicts of interest in the locker room or any sort of discrepancy. Now equipped with a coach worth respecting, the Clippers finally have the sideline leader to complement their floor leader.
2013-14 prediction: 60-22
How will the West play out this season?
Follow John on Twitter at @JohnFtheheatgod.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.