Saturday, November 1, 2014

NBA: WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW WITH RANKINGS

By: Connor Glowacki


NBA Defending Champions: San Antonio Spurs
photo courtesy of 6abc.com
     In my preview of the Eastern Conference, I picked the Cleveland Cavaliers to edge out the Chicago Bulls in the East. The Western Conference, on the other hand, is a lot deeper and has talented teams spread all throughout. So, let's take a look at where the teams in the 'Wild West' could end up this season.

*Note: (PPG=Points Per Game, APG=Assists Per Game, RPG=Rebounds Per Game, 
SPG=Steals Per Game, BLKPG=Blocks Per Game)


15.) Utah Jazz

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Trey Burke (12.8 PPG, 5.7 APG, 3.0 RPG)
SG: Alec Burks (14.0 PPG, 2.7 APG, 3.3 RPG)
SF: Gordon Hayward (16.2 PPG, 5.2 APG, 5.1 RPG)
PF: Derrick Favors (13.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 1.5 BLKPG)
C: Enes Kanter (12.3 PPG, 7.5 PRG)

Utah Jazz rookie point guard Dante Exum
photo courtesy of NBA.com
     The young Utah Jazz struggled to a 25-57 record last season and are trying to navigate their way back to relevancy in an incredibly competitive Western Conference. Hayward and Burks received contract extensions from the organization and Burke, Favors and Kanter are all intriguing young players that can continue to improve their games in 2014.
     Utah used the fifth overall pick in the draft to select Australian point/shooting guard Dante Exum and will have to figure how to eventually play him with Burke, who was the team's lottery draft pick in 2013. The Jazz have some interesting pieces on the roster and if they were in the Eastern Conference, they could compete to finish around the 10th to 12th range. But they're in the West and that means they will continue to be bottom feeders until they can add some more building blocks towards the future.

14.) Los Angeles Lakers

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Jeremy Lin (12.5 PPG, 4.1 APG, 2.6 RPG)
SG: Kobe Bryant (13.8 PPG, 6.3 APG, 4.3 RPG in 6 games during 2013)
SF: Wesley Johnson (9.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG)
PF: Carlos Boozer (13.7 PPG, 8.3 RPG)
C: Jordan Hill  (9.7 PPG, 7.4 RPG)

Lakers star Kobe Bryant
photo courtesy of ESPN.
     It feels weird having the legendary Lakers franchise ranked this low for the upcoming season. But just as the season started, promising rookie forward Julius Randle is now out for the entire season with a broken leg and that's in addition to losing starting point guard Steve Nash for the 2014 season. So, what do the Lakers have left? Well, they have Bryant coming back from a serious achilles injury in 2013, but not much else.
     Lin has been inconsistent as a starting point guard in the NBA, Johnson and Hill are mainly rotation players and Boozer has been on the downside of his career since his last few seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Some players like Nick Young, Wayne Ellington or Jordan Clarkson could surprise off the bench, but the Lakers just aren't that good. If they didn't have Bryant, who'll probably average 25-30 points a game this season, they'd be dead last in the West.

13.) Minnesota Timberwolves

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Ricky Rubio (9.5 PPG, 8.6 APG, 4.2 RPG)
SG: Andrew Wiggins (17.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG at Kansas last season)
SF: Corey Brewer (12.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG)
PF: Thaddeus Young (17.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 2.1 SPG)
C:  Nikola Pekovic (17.4 PPG, 8.7 RPG)

Timberwolves rookie guard Andrew Wiggins
photo courtesy of NYPost.
     The Timberwolves are a team that has the potential to be better this season than what most people, including myself, expect. It'll all come down to how well the new players fit into the rotation. Minnesota traded star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the offseason and acquired Wiggins and forward Anthony Bennett in the process. They also signed Young in free agency and drafted guard Zach Lavine in the middle of the first round this summer.
      Since they never made the playoffs with Love, it'll be tough for Minnesota to make a run this year. But the young pieces on this team will make them very intriguing. Wiggins has garnered comparisons to former NBA forward Tracy McGrady and even to Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. He has the potential to be a star in this league and it'll be fun to watch his development this season. Brewer, Young and Pekovic form a formidable front court and Rubio continues to improve as an NBA point guard. However, outside of point guard Mo Williams, the bench is very inexperienced. In maybe two years, Minnesota might be able to compete.
     Unfortunately, they're in the Western Conference and the task to be compete will be much tougher.

12.) Sacramento Kings

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Darren Collison (11.4 PPG, 3.7 APG, 2.4 RPG)
SG: Ben McLemore (8.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG)
SF: Rudy Gay (19.4 PPG, 7.4 RPG)
PF: Jason Thompson (7.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG)
C: DeMarcus Cousins (22.7 PPG, 11.7 RPG)

Kings center DeMarcus Cousins
photo courtesy of bleacherreport.
     The Kings haven't been a good team in the NBA for a long time. Probably since the Chris Webber-Peja  Stojakovic era. And that's a shame because Sacramento has amassed some pretty solid individual pieces onto their roster. Cousins is arguably in the top three discussion of centers in the NBA as he has proven to be a strong mainstay for this team. Gay has always been a great scorer, and bringing Collison in from the Los Angeles Clippers will help stabilize the point guard position.
     The Kings also have several solid players on the bench, including point guard Ramon Sessions, forward Carl Landry and rookie shooting guard Nik Stauskas. The spotlight will be on McLemore to improve his game from his rookie season, especially with Stauskas fighting for more minutes in the rotation.
     The Kings are a pretty solid team and could be a playoff team, if they were in the East. You have to wonder if Cousins would seriously think about leaving Sacramento and head for a bigger market within the next few years.

11.) Phoenix Suns

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Goran Dragic (20.3 PPG, 5.9 APG, 3.2 RPG)
SG: Eric Bledsoe (17.7 PPG, 5.5 APG, 4.7 RPG)
SF: Marcus Morris (9.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG)
PF: Markieff Morris (13.8 PPG, 3.0 RPG)
C: Miles Plumlee (8.1 PPG, 7.8 RPG)

Suns guard Eric Bledsoe
photo courtesy of ESPN.
     It's starting to get tough to rank these teams because, once again, if the Phoenix Suns were in the Eastern Conference, they'd most likely be a playoff team. The Suns just missed the playoffs in the West last season and were led by an explosive backcourt of Dragic and Bledsoe. Bledsoe is one of the more underrated shooting guards in the NBA and Dragic had a comeback year for the ages.
     Phoenix can put points on the scoreboard in their up-tempo offense, but my problem with the team has to be their frontcourt. The Morris brothers and Plumee are all solid players, but against the front courts of superior teams in the West, I just don't think they compare that well. If center Alex Len could ever stay healthy, he could be a difference maker. Keep an eye out for rookie forward T.J. Warren, he was an offensive force for NC State and that could carry over in the NBA.

10.) Denver Nuggets

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Ty Lawson (17.6 PPG, 8.8 APG, 3.5 RPG)
SG: Aaron Affalo (18.2 PPG, 3.4 APG, 3.6 RPG)
SF: Danilo Gallinari (16.2 PPG, 2.5 APG, 5.2 RPG)
PF: Kenneth Faried (13.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG)
C: Timofey Mozgov (9.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG)

Nuggest foward Kenneth Faried
Photo courtesy of bloguin,com
     I keep repeating myself at this point. If the Denver Nuggets were in the East, they'd definitely be a playoff team. But they do have a chance to make it into the playoffs this year in the West. Denver has multiple players that can spread the floor and shoot the ball in Gallinari and Affalo and Lawson is one of the quicker, and surprisingly more efficient, point guards in the NBA. The Nuggets also have several playmakers off the bench that include point guard Nate Robinson, forward Wilson Chandler, and rookie shooting guard Gary Harris.
     But does Denver have that 'star' player that could carry them and allow them to compete against the top teams in the West? Since they traded Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks back in 2011, the Nuggets have been lacking a true star player. I think that player could be Faried this season. He has improved every season that he has played with the Nuggets and really impressed at the FIBA World Championships over the summer.

9.) Memphis Grizzlies

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Mike Conley (17.2 PPG, 6.0 APG, 2.9 RPG)
SG: Courtney Lee (11.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG)
SF: Tony Allen (9.0 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.6 SPG)
PF: Zach Randolph (17.4 PPG, 10.1 RPG)
C: Marc Gasol (14.6 PPG, 3.8 APG, 7.2 RPG)

Grizzlies center Marc Gasol
photo courtesy of grizzlybearblues.com.
     Let me make one thing clear. I have the utmost respect for the Memphis Grizzlies. They have one of the best frontcourts in the league in Randolph and Gasol and Conley has emerged as a top point guard. Over the last few years, the Grizzlies have made their presence on tough defense and knocked off several top-tier teams.
     But I don't think they are good enough offensively, as other teams in the Western Conference. Then again, I wouldn't at all be surprised to see them back in the playoffs this season. Forward Vince Carter will have to be a factor offensively coming off the bench for the Memphis Grizzlies to go where they want to go this season.




8.) New Orleans Pelicans

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Jrue Holliday (14.3 PPG, 7.9 APG, 4.2 RPG)
SG: Eric Gordon (15.4 PPG, 3.3 APG, 2.6 RPG)
SF: Tyreke Evans (14.5 PPG, 5.0 APG, 4.7 RPG)
PF: Anthony Davis (20.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.8 BLKPG)
C: Omer Asik (5.8 PPG, 7.9 RPG)

Pelicans forward Anthony Davis
photo courtesy of Huffington Post
     For what it's worth, I still don't like the team name Pelicans. That being said, I really like the New Orleans Pelicans roster that has been built over the last few seasons. It's been a tough task for this organization to completely rebuild after they traded point guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers, but they've done a commendable job. The Pelicans have a a potential superstar in the 21 year old Davis, who has improved his game in each of his first two seasons. The parallels to Tim Duncan's game are very understandable and Davis could become a elite player in the NBA this season.
     New Orleans' front office has also acquired several players over the years via trades, including Holliday, Gordon, Evans, and just this offseason, Asik. Holliday has the potential to be explosive at the point guard position with the ability to drive to the basket and kick out to shooters, like Gordon and Evans, on the wings. Asik will provide physical toughness in the paint, which will also allow Davis to be even more active in the offensive game. The Pelicans have a potential sixth man of the year candidate in Ryan Andersen who averaged 19.8 points per game last season and is lethal from three point range.
     I think New Orleans has more talent and a higher ceiling than teams like Memphis or Denver and that will put them right into the playoff conversation this season.

7.) Oklahoma City Thunder

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Russell Westbrook (21.8 PPG, 6.9 APG, 5.7 RPG)
SG: Andre Roberson (1.9 PPG, 2.4 RPG)
SF: Kevin Durant (32.0 PPG, 5.5 APG, 7.4 RPG)
PF: Serge Ibaka (15.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.7 BLKPG)
C:  Steven Adams (3.3 PPG, 4.1 RPG)

Thunder star Kevin Durant
     It's clear that when healthy, the Oklahoma City Thunder are not only one of the elite teams in the Western Conference, but also in the NBA. But the injury bug has affected the Thunder in a big way at the start of this season. Both of the team's superstars, Durant and Westbrook will miss over a month of this season with knee and hand injuries, respectively.
     We already know that both of these players are MVP-caliber players and having them healthy will be the only way for Oklahoma City to compete for a championship this season. If they both miss around 20 games of the season and the Thunder are well below .500, that could be a big problem. but if the rest of the team can hover around .500 by the time the get back in January, they should be in pretty good shape.
     I think they'll struggle early without Durant and Westbrook and will be near the bottom of the Western Conference early on, but if they can make the playoffs with everybody healthy, they are a huge threat. Ibaka, Adams, and guard Jeremy Lamb will have to keep this team afloat and become leaders on the court and in the locker room.

6.) Houston Rockets

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Patrick Beverly (10.2 PPG, 2.7 APG, 3.5 RPG)
SG: James Harden (25.4 PPG, 6.1 APG, 4.7 RPG)
SF: Trevor Ariza (14.4 PPG, 2.5 APG, 6.2 RPG)
PF: Terrence Jones (12.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG)
C: Dwight Howard (18.3 PPG, 12.2 RPG)

Rockets guard James Harden
photo courtesy of Wikipedia
     This wasn't the best offseason for the Houston Rockets. Their attempts to get a third superstar player to play with Harden and Howard was a failure as they couldn't persuade LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh to take their talents to H-Town. Houston also lost Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in free agency, in an attempt to get a superstar. And remember that the Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs last season.
     So what did Houston do to fill up their roster? They acquired Ariza and guard Jason Terry in free agency, but that was pretty much it. Essentially the roster just isn't as good as it was last season.
     That being said, there's still plenty of talent as Harden and Howard put up ridiculous individual numbers last season. They each have their own share of weaknesses though as Harden struggles to play defense and Howard still cannot his free throws. Ariza will help defend perimeter players on the wing and stretch the floor to shoot three pointers and Beverly should continue to improve as a point guard this season.
     What I think will be the biggest weakness on this team is the loss of Asik backing up Howard. Houston was able to play both players simultaneously last season and it opened up space for Howard to be dominant offensively. That space won't be there this year. Houston's still a good team, but not as good last year and will most likely be passed by other teams in the Western Conference.

5.) Dallas Mavericks

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Jameer Nelson (12.1 PPG, 7.0 APG, 3.4 RPG)
SG: Monta Ellis (19.0 PPG, 5.7 APG, 3.6 RPG)
SF: Chandler Parsons (16.6 PPG, 4.0 APG, 5.5 RPG)
PF: Dirk Nowitzki (21.7 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
C: Tyson Chandler (8.7 PPG, 9.6 RPG)

Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki
photo courtesy of Reddit.
     Owner Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks front office tried to land a superstar player during free agency and were ultimately unsuccessful in doing so. And yet compared to other teams that failed to land a superstar, the Mavericks still made key free agent signings to become a better team and possibly challenge the upper echelons of the Western Conference.
     Dallas acquired Chandler and point guard Raymond Felton from the New York Knicks and signed Nelson and Parsons in free agency. Nowitzki should be be given the most credit for these moves because if he hadn't decided to take a pay cut, these moves would have never happened.
     Dallas simply overachieved last season and pushed the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs to the brink in the first round of the playoffs. Nowitzki may be getting older, but he's gonna have a lot of support in the offensive game. Ellis, Nelson and Parsons can all put up points at any second. Meanwhile, Chandler will be anchor the defense in the paint, just liked he did with the Mavericks when they won the title in 2011.
     The Mavericks have a solid bench led by guard Devin Harris and forwards Richard Jefferson and Brandan Wright. And with one of the NBA's best coaches in Rick Carlisle at the helm, the Mavericks could make a deep run in the playoffs this season.

4.) Golden State Warriors

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Stephen Curry (24.0 PPG, 8.5 APG, 4.3 RPG)
SG: Klay Thompson (18.4 PPG, 2.2 APG, 3.1 RPG)
SF: Harrison Barnes (9.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG)
PF: David Lee (18.5 PPG, 11.2 RPG)
C:  Andrew Bogut (7.3 PPG, 10.0 RPG)

Warriors guard Stephen Curry
photo courtesy of BET.com.
     The Golden State Warriors have been one of the fastest rising teams in the Western Conference, under head coach Mark Jackson, over the last few years. During that time, the Warriors had made the playoffs for consecutive seasons and Curry has become a superstar in the NBA. But after a first round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Warriors suddenly fired Jackson. Nevertheless, Golden State moved on and hired former executive Steve Kerr to be the new head coach.
     While there will be questions regarding how Kerr will do as a first time coach, all starters return from last season's squad. Curry and Thompson form one of the best backcourts in the NBA and Lee has been a formidable offensive and defensive threat in the post throughout his stint with the Warriors. Meanwhile, Barnes and forward Andre Iguodala are both players that can attack the paint while also shooting spot up jumpers. Golden State's bench has some standouts including, Igoudala, forward Draymond Green and guard Brandon Rush.
     The big question will be if Bogut can stay healthy throughout the season. He has struggled with injuries throughout his career and his defensive presence in the middle of the paint will be crucial to the Warriors' success. Expect Golden State to make a deeper run in the playoffs this season.

3.) Portland Trailblazers

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Damian Lillard (20.7 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.5 RPG)
SG: Wesley Matthews (16.4 PPG, 2.4 APG, 3.5 RPG)
SF: Nicholas Batum (13.0 PPG, 5.1 APG, 7.5 RPG)
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge (23.2 PPG, 11.1 RPG)
C: Robin Lopez (11.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.7 BLKPG)

Trailblazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge
photo courtesy of wallerz.net
     The Portland Trailblazers made a statement last season as they defeated a favored Houston Rockets team in the first round of the playoffs. At times, Aldrige looked like a combination of Michael Jordan and Karl Malone, while Lillard pushed himself into the elite category of point guards in the NBA. The majority of the starting lineup returns this season, with the addition of Lopez at center. And with Aldridge signing a contract extension, Portland is in a solid spot where its superstar is locked up for the next few seasons.
     And the Trailblazers have some interesting pieces off the bench that include point guard Steve Blake, center Chris Kaman and forward Thomas Robinson. What will help out Portland more than ever this season is that they're playing in a weak division. The Northwest division features NBA bottom feeders in Minnesota and Utah, an injury plagued Oklahoma City and an inexperienced Denver team. Portland should win this division fairly easily and should make another run deep into the playoffs.

2.) San Antonio Spurs

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Tony Parker (16.7 PPG, 5.7 APG, 2.3 RPG)
SG: Danny Green (9.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG)
SF: Kawhi Leonard (12.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG)
PF: Tim Duncan (15.1 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 1.9 BLKPG)
C: Tiago Splitter (8.2 PPG, 6.2 RPG)

Spurs forward Tim Duncan
photo courtesy of foxsports.
     The San Antonio Spurs are the best organization in the NBA. They have done what few teams can do. Keep your core of star players and be able to surround them with talented role players. Duncan, Parker and guard Manu Ginobli won their third title last season as a trio. And the Spurs have head coach Gregg Popovich returning this season.
     The scary part about San Antonio is that they could be even better this season. Almost everyone from last year's championship team returns this year and Leonard could be the NBA's next star player. In Leonard, the Spurs might have the player that can carry the proverbial torch from Duncan whenever he retires.
     The only question regarding San Antonio is if they will have the same ambition and passion to go win it all again this season? At the very least, Popovich will continue to rest his older players throughout the season, so younger players like Leonard, Green, forward Marco Belinelli, and rookie forward Kyle Andersen will gain more playing experience by the time the playoffs roll around. The Spurs plan for the postseason and they will plan to make a run for a championship once again.

1.) Los Angeles Clippers

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP (Stats from 2013-14 Season)

PG: Chris Paul (19.1 PPG, 10.7 APG, 2.5 SPG)
SG: J.J. Redick (15.2 PPG, 2.1 RPG)
SF: Matt Barnes (9.9 PPG, 2.0 APG, 4.6 RPG)
PF: Blake Griffin (24.1 PPG, 3.9 APG, 9.5 RPG)
C: DeAndre Jordan (10.4 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 2.5 BLKPG)

Clippers forward Blake Griffin.
Photo Courtesy of ESPN.
     So why are the Los Angeles Clippers ranked higher than the defending NBA champion Spurs on this list? It's because the Clippers have players that can play every single role that is needed to win a title. Paul is one of the best point guards in the game, Griffin had his best season as a pro last season, Jordan is a defensive force inside the paint, Redick is a three point sharpshooter, guard Jamal Crawford can score in bunches off the bench, and I could keep going on and on.
     The biggest acquisition they made in the offseason was of center Spencer Hawes. He will be huge for this team because now the Clippers have a legitimate option at center to backup Jordan. Unlike Jordan, Hawes is a very good outside shooter and can knock down free throws if he needs to. Add in players like Barnes, forward Hedo Turkoglu, and guards Jordan Farmar and Chris Douglas Roberts, and the Clippers have one of the best supporting casts in the NBA.
     With the Clippers under the guidance of head coach Doc Rivers, I believe that the Los Angeles Clippers will not only win the Western Conference, but they will win the NBA championship by defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals in six games.

So there you have it! Agree or disagree with my predictions? Leave a comment below or tweet me your comment on Twitter @ConnorGlowacki.

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