aNewDomain — Welcome to the wild, wild Western Conference, where any of half a dozen teams could end up in the NBA Finals. That would mean, of course, a matchup with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Must be nice to play in the Eastern Conference.
Battling for survival will be the name of the game in the West, where five of the past seven league champs have played. It’s going to be an intriguing six months to determine who moves on to the postseason.
Golden State Warriors
Golden State was the league’s best team from the start to the finish last season, mostly based on a collection of shooters unmatched in the NBA. Backcourt mates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were first and second in the league in 3-pointers made. Combined, they hit a remarkable 525 shots from behind the arc. Curry’s 23.8 points and 7.7 assists per game helped earn him the MVP award and Thompson wasn’t too shabby at 21.7 ppg. Draymond Green was a revelation on defense and Andre Iguodala is a star contributor off the bench. The Warriors are more than in the mix for another title.
Few teams in the league go deeper than the Rockets. Fewer good teams, the Bulls being an exception, walk more of a tightrope. When healthy, center Dwight Howard is nearly unstoppable. The only person who can stop him is himself. Mercurial James Harden finished second in scoring behind former teammate Russell Westbrook. Patrick Beverly’s 10 points per game only tells part of the story. He’s an excellent defender and irritant. Adding point guard Ty Lawson (15.2 points and 9.6 assists per game) only makes the bench richer.
San Antonio Spurs
Signing LaMarcus Aldridge during the offseason accomplished so much. It extends the career of 39-year-old Tim Duncan, guarantees that Coach Gregg Popovich will stick around a few more seasons and gives the Spurs another athletic forward they needed in their playoff loss to the Clippers last season. Kawhi Leonard (16.5 ppg.) is an ascending star. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are fading but good enough for one last run at a title. The supporting cast of Boris Diaw and Patty Mills will play key roles.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Foot issues limited forward Kevin Durant to a mere 27 games, derailing the Thunder’s season and knocking them from the playoff race. Point guard Russell Westbrook, who missed 15 games himself, picked up the slack as much as he could, leading the league with 28.1 points per game. The big question is whether two stars can continue co-existing. Durant is eligible for free agency next summer. Serge Ibaka is a prolific shot-blocker, collecting 2.4 per game. Swiss native Enes Kanter was a big late-season pickup last year, coming over from Utah. He’s a huge force on the boards.
Los Angeles Clippers
After ousting the Spurs in their first-round playoff series, the Clippers crumbled and were eliminated by the Rockets in the next round. How much will that foster the narrative that this organization can’t win the big one? Keeping DeAndre Jordan (11.5 points and 15 rebounds per game), who was all but signed, sealed and delivered to the Mavericks, was critical. Chris Paul (19.1 points and 10.2 assists) is one of the game’s top point guards. Blake Griffin (21.9 points and 7.6 rebounds) is an intimidating presence on the offensive end. J.J. Reddick is an underrated force at 16.4 points a game. Veteran addition Paul Pierce will also be a complementary player.
The often-overlooked Grizzlies have a fearsome frontcourt of Marc Gasol (17.4 points, 7.8 rebounds per game) and Zach Randolph (16.1 ppg., 10.5 rpg.). Gasol passed up the lure of free agency to stay in Memphis, a city he has come to love going back to the days when his brother, Pau, played here a decade ago. Mike Conley is a good point guard who gets lost in the shuffle with the Western Conference’s other excellent players at the position. At age 33, Tony Allen comes off the bench to play the type of aggressive defense you don’t see every night in this league.
New Orleans Pelicans
Future MVP Anthony Davis (24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds per game) makes the Pelicans a playoff contender all by himself. The backcourt combo of Jrue Holiday (14.8 points, 6.9 assists per game) and Eric Gordon (13.4 ppg., 3.8 assists) is good enough to get the job done. They both also shot 44 percent from 3-point range last season. Speaking of 3-point shooters, Ryan Anderson comes off the bench to score 13.7 points per game, many of which come from behind the arc. Tyreke Evans gives the Pelicans an excellent option at shooting guard at 16.6 points per game.
One of the better young teams in the league, we believe the Jazz are ready to make a playoff leap. The division isn’t exactly deep with only Oklahoma City as a postseason lock. Utah was tough after the All-Star Game last season, winning 19 of 29 games. Center Rudy Gobert was a revelation, putting up 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Gordon Hayward (19.3 ppg.) and Derrick Favors (16 points, 8.2 rebounds per game) round out a solid Jazz backcourt. Could be sweet music playing in Salt Lake City this season.
The Mavericks’ ultimately frustrating pursuit of DeAndre Jordan left the team seriously lacking in the big man department. Zaza Pachulia isn’t enough to make up for the loss of Jordan. Dirk Nowitzki isn’t getting any younger, starting the season at age 37. He has averaged 17.3 points per game in two of the past three seasons, well below his 22.2 career number. Getting troublemaking point guard Deron Williams from the Nets will be small consolation.
Phoenix made an unsuccessful run at LaMarcus Aldridge and ended up with Tyson Chandler instead. Not a bad player but certainly a second choice compared to Aldridge. Eric Bledsoe (17 points, 6.1 assists per game) and Brandon Knight (17 ppg., 5.2 apg.), if he can stay healthy, will form a quick backcourt that pushes the offense. Probably still not enough for the Suns to shine in the postseason.
Point guard Damian Lillard is the franchise player after the Blazers lost LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs in free agency. Aldridge wasn’t the only one who got away: Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews also left during the offseason. Portland will spend a season in purgatory.
Who are these guys? The biggest camp battle was to determine who would start at point guard: rookie Emmanuel Mudaiy or veteran Jameer Nelson.
Paced by forward DeMarcus Cousins’ 24.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game are almost enough to overlook the fact he’s a royal pain. For whatever reasons, Kings management chose to sign moody Rajon Rondo in the offseason. This could get interesting.
The Wolves will no doubt be playing with heavy hearts after the death of Coach Flip Saunders. Rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns and last season’s rookie of the year, Andrew Wiggins, provide a youthful spark.
Los Angeles Lakers
At age 37, Kobe Bryant has seen his last three seasons end prematurely with injuries. He put up 22.3 points per game last season and played just 35 games. Julius Randle will be interesting to watch after seeing his rookie year end because of a broken leg after playing just 14 minutes.
Photo of Stephen Curry courtesy of Noah Salzman. Photo of Russell Westbrook courtesy of Erik Drost. Photo of Damian Lillard courtesy of nikk_la.