NBA Western Conference Preview: The Thunder roars

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 9.54.39 PMIs it me or does the fun wear off of baseball about three days after the NBA Finals are over?  The dog-days of summer are finally over and its time to get ready for basketball.

Due to pent up excitement and the copious amount of impact players on the move that all need to be attended to, I will break up these previews into two weeks: the West this week, the East next.

The West is by far the deeper conference in the league.  Unlike the East, where there are only 4.5 actual contenders (Yes, I am busting out decimals.  One team is given only half a chance, but more on that next week), the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs will be one of the most exciting rounds to watch.

The race for the 6, 7, and 8 seeds will be a toss-up between six potential suitors, while the higher seeds could end in any number of ways.

Out of the 82-game schedule each NBA team plays, 30 are against the opposing conference.  These inter-conference games play a huge – if often overlooked — role in determining the standings out west.

Last season, the Mavericks and Jazz, who were both in the hunt, were left out of the big dance after finishing 17-13 against the East.  The last team in, the Rockets, finished at 21-9 against the East.

It is obvious that teams must win games in their conference to be successful. But this season, the entire conference will be much tighter at all levels.  So those games against the weaker competition in the East will be critical in determining who is looking at home-court advantage or who has to tune into Kevin Harlan’s commentary to catch the playoff games.

So how will it all stack up?  There are really not 11 teams battling for the No. 1 seed.  They can be separated into tiers that represent their relative power in the conference.   In honor of the series finale of Breaking Bad last week, I have divided the tiers based on quotes from the AMC drama that represent each grouping.


Tier 1:You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!” – Walter White 


Oklahoma City Thunder

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 1

TSR Projected Division Rank: 1

It is very hard to unseat the incumbent.

This is the number one seed from last season, going in hungry for revenge, that fell short after losing star point guard Russell Westbrook, in the first round.

This offseason the Thunder have remained rather dormant.  Kevin Martin, their 6th man, left (or was shown out, depending how you view the situation) for Minnesota.  Big man Steven Adams along with small forward Andre Roberson were picked up in the draft.

There is one problem that is constantly nagging the Thunder:  lack of depth. It became apparent last year.  When Westbrook and Durant had to go to the bench, there was no James Harden to depend on.  Without Durant on the floor it became the Russell Westbrook show, which only airs on certain nights.

They have nowhere else to turn. Even with the added impact of Serge Ibaka, it is still not enough to say they will run away with or even win the beefed up Western Conference.

Though the Thunder are not as good as they were in the past they have three things going for them: 1) The starting lineup is going into its 4th season together;  2) Still one of the best defensive teams in the league;  3) Kevin Durant still plays on the team.


Los Angeles Clippers

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 2

TSR Projected Division Rank: 1

The Clippers exited yet again in the first round last year, and very quickly fired coach Vinny Del Negro.  Doc Rivers, welcome aboard.  Rivers should have a huge impact on the play of Deandre Jordan, who needs to be a contributor if the Clippers expect to represent the West.

This offseason the better team in Los Angeles also added two swingmen in Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick.  Both are very solid role players that will be crucial to this starting lineup.  Of course, Jamal Crawford is still coming off the bench, and is still one of the best scorers in the league.

Any team with Chris Paul at the helm and Doc Rivers on the sideline is poised to be  powerful, but when you add the inside threats of Griffin and Jordan along with the newly added sharpshooter J.J. Redick you are looking at a title contender.


San Antonio Spurs

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 3

TSR Projected Division Rank: 1

I’ll be honest:   After the Spurs failed to make it out of the 2nd round three straight years after the 2011 campaign, I was ready to call the Duncan/Parker/ Ginobili era over.  I was one of the “They are too old” people.  I was wrong.

However, I was only partially wrong.  The era was over, but Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Gary Neal quickly revived it.  The Spurs acquired some youth that complemented their old firing squad quite well (enough to get them to the NBA Finals and be one free throw away from winning).

This offseason the Spurs saw Towson-product Gary Neal leave for Milwaukee and replaced him with Italian Marco Bellinelli.

I have written off the Spurs for age in the past, and I’m not afraid to do it again.  Ginobili looked awful in the later games of the finals last year. However, the Spurs always get it done in the regular season, and I expect to see them finish near the top.


Tier 2:  “Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.” – Mike Ehrmantraut


Golden State Warriors

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 4

TSR Projected Division Rank: 2

Golden State surprised many last year with its upset of the Nuggets in the first round and competitive series with San Antonio before getting bounced.

The problem for Golden State last year (beside the injury bug) was defense. The addition of Andre Igoudala and Toney Douglas will greatly bolster this area of the club.  Klay Thompson will no longer have to cover the opposing team’s best scorer, but rather Igoudala, thus allowing Klay to be more effective on offense.

With this added depth, budding star Harrison Barnes will now come off the bench to add some scoring to the second unit of a very solid Warriors squad.  The Warriors are a serious threat in the West given the fact that Thompson or Curry are both grenades with the pin missing….just waiting to go off.


Houston Rockets

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 5

TSR Projected Divisions Rank: 2

Last season the Rockets lost in the first round to Oklahoma City, after missing the playoffs for three straight years prior to the exit.  They used their fast-paced style to have one of the highest scoring offenses in the league.

The Dwight Howard saga ended with Superman taking his talents to the Space City.  The Rockets also added Omri Casspi and Marcus Camby to their bench.

There are two key problems that will cause the Rockets some trouble:  1) they are members of the Southwest division.  This is by far the strongest division in basketball.   2) It will take time for the Rockets to figure out their rotation.  Kevin McHale has already said he plans to use former starting center Omer Asik alongside D12, so it may take some games to work out the kinks.  Houston will get it together in the end though and could pose a threat in the West.


Denver Nuggets

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 6

TSR Projected Division Rank: 2

Denver is going to suffer from the loss of George Karl and Igoudala. The Nuggets lose a lot of their perimeter defense in his absence.  Evan Fournier may provide more scoring, but it does not make up for the scoring Denver will give up.

The Nuggets have been a team that has found a way to win without a  superstar.  What was the formula?  They stopped your superstar.  That job has just gotten a lot harder to pull off.   They will make the playoffs, but don’t expect much more than that.


Memphis Grizzlies

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 7

TSR Projected Division Rank: 3

The Grizzlies are another team I expect to fall off from their performance last season.  They are playing in the Southwest division, which is not conducive for easy victories.

The reason Memphis will still be relevant and in the playoff picture is they have the same lineup that carried them to the Western Conference Finals last year.  They still have Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the front court, and therefore cannot be written off.  The deciding factor will rest in their defense.  Will it be as resilient under David Joerger as it was under Lionel Hollins?  My answer:  No.


Tier 3: “This is my own private domicile and I will not be harassed!” – Jesse Pinkman 


New Orleans Pelicans

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 8

TSR Projected Division Rank: 4

This may surprise you, unless you are reading this from a bar outside the Superdome and think I’m talking about the Saints.  I think the Pelicans are going to rise to the occasion and sneak in the last seed of the playoffs, the first since the Chris Paul era came to an end.

New additions to the Pelicans include Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, and Anthony Morrow.  Making the starting lineup Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Anderson, and Davis. This lineup, if they can manage to work together, will be a very high scoring unit; all the while The Brow holds things down in the middle.

Depth could be an issue, but here is where the sharpshooting Morrow comes into play. If Austin Rivers can remotely perform on a level he is expected to, pieces may just fall into place for the Pelicans.


Minnesota Timberwolves

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 9

TSR Projected Division Rank: 3

Minneapolis has injury bugs swarming at the Target Center seemingly every year.  The Timberwolves have the talent to compete with the big dogs.  Superstar Kevin Love surrounded by two capable scorers in Kevin Martin and Chase Budinger, a facilitator in Ricky Rubio, and another big in Nickola Peckovic sounds like a recipe for success.

If the Timberwolves stay healthy, they are a good team, but for the T’Wolves that has been easier said than done.


Los Angeles Lakers

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 10

TSR Projected Division Rank: 3

Growing up in the Lakers era, it is very hard to even imagine the NBA playoffs without the purple and gold.  But they may as well not have even showed up last year, after the embarrassing sweep in the first round.

Kobe Bryant is coming back from an Achilles injury with no timetable for his return.  The Lakers are the definition of a team running on “E”, with their starting lineup averaging 33.5 years of age.

L.A. did add a younger Nick Young (28 years old) who is an athletic swingman, but he is not Kobe Bryant.  In summary, time to blow up the Lake Show (or make some calls to Melo and Lebron).


Dallas Mavericks

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 11

TSR Projected Division Rank: 5

The Mavericks missed the playoffs after a very disappointing 2012 season full of terrible beards and bad basketball.  However, with the addition of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, the backcourt will be much improved in Dallas.

Mavs fans will probably look back at the end of the 2013-14 NBA season and say, “We would be the 7 seed if we were in the East, but in the West we don’t even make the playoffs.”

And that is the sad reality. Dallas is caught in a conference with teams who are just better all around.  Maybe health strikes somewhere and they sneak in the backdoor of the playoffs, but I wouldn’t get my parade route planned yet.  Instead I would start looking into the science behind rigging ping-pong balls.


Tier 4:  Tuco Salamanca  . . .  a total wildcard.


Portland Trailblazers

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 12

TSR Projected Division Rank: 4

The Blazers get their own tier.  Why?  Because they aren’t good enough to contend with the others, but are nowhere near bad enough to be put in the group below.

Portland has talent; it is just young and very raw.  They traded for Thomas Robinson this offseason, who has a tremendous upside in the long run.   But in reality, the Trailblazers are only going as far as former Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard can carry them.  Sure they have LaMarcus Aldridge, but Lillard is the future of this team.

Maybe they can shoot their way into the tier above, but I’m not sold yet. Call me in 2015, and then we will talk.


Tier 5:  “Look, let’s start with some tough love. You suck. Period.” – Saul Goodman 


Sacramento Kings

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 13

TSR Projected Division Rank: 4

            The Kings have a new ownership group that fought hard to keep them in California’s capital city.  By replacing the recreational facility the Kings used to play in with a more up to date arena, maybe they stand a better chance at attracting some fans to watch a losing basketball team.

Ben McLemore and Demarcus Cousins are an interesting tandem.  Both have huge egos, but also have loads of talent. They could pan into something if they can set aside their attitudes.  If nothing else, watch the Kings on November 15th, when they have publicly announced they will be showing up ESPN for calling them the “worst franchise in all of sports”.


Phoenix Suns

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 14

TSR Projected Division Rank: 5

            The Suns are going through a rebranding and rebuilding period.  They are going to be pretty bad, but they did pick up Eric Bledsoe, who will be worth watching just to see how he handles the superstar role.

The fifth overall draft pick in Alex Len is sure to get some quality minutes as well. Other than that, not much is going on in the desert. At least their uniforms are cool.          


Utah Jazz

TSR Projected Conference Seed: 15

TSR Projected Division Rank: 5

Utah will be representing the West in the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. Gone are the days of the Jazz having a brutal home court advantage, where it was near impossible to win.  Now you can walk into Salt Lake City, show up at halftime and still manage to come back.

The upside: Trey Burke looked decent in Summer League.  Take that with a grain of salt, because it is Summer League.  Now he has every team keying on him because he is going to be a primary scoring threat. I don’t see good outcomes for the Michigan Wolverine or the rest of the Jazz, but hey, if you get lucky, maybe Adam Silver will be announcing the Jazz first in New York City next year.

2 thoughts on “NBA Western Conference Preview: The Thunder roars

  • October 3, 2013 at 5:25 am

    LA Lakers need to be ranked up a little higher.

  • October 3, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    I’m thinking the lakers are going to surprise people


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