The West is very good this year. Only Phoenix seems to be a lottery certainty. There are more elite teams in the West and more promising, young teams. This should be quite a year.
1. LA Clippers 52-30
2. Golden State Warriors 46-36
3. Phoenix Suns 25-57
4. LA Lakers 24-58
5. Sacramento Kings 20-62
The 2014 season will not be a good one for division named after oceans. The Suns are clearly in tank mode. The Kings have made the choice to build around Boogie Cousins, which seems like an impossible task. The Lakers look like a team that’s in for a historically bad year for them.
I feel the Warriors are a tad over rated going in. They made a nice jump last year, but they remain a shaky playoff team in my view. There’s only one potential superstar here, Curry, and he’s had injury issues. Andrew Bogut has been ordinary when he’s played the past two years and he’s also injury prone. I also feel they’ll miss Jack and Landry a lot. This is the team most likely to disappoint and fall short of the playoffs.
The Clippers should win the division, but beyond that I don’t see them as a title contender. Paul and Griffin form a nice superstar combo, but they can’t match the pairs in OKC, Miami or Houston. What they are is a good team stuck in a great conference. They’ll have to be satisfied with winning their city.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder 62-20
2. Denver Nuggets 58-24
3. Minnesota Timberwolves 44-38
4. Portland Trailblazers 34-48
Utah Jazz 30-52
This is one tough division. The Jazz and Blazers both have playoff-crashing sleeper potential. In Utah they’re going with a couple of promising young bigs who should improve the team defense, possibly dramatically. In Portland they have a lot of young players in their 2nd year, which is typically the year of most improvement. In both cases the tough conference probably dooms them to lottery status, but either team could surprise with a run.
I expect the Timberwolves to end the Association’s longest current playoff drought. This assumes a return to form by Kevin Love, who is one of the top 5 players in the NBA when healthy. This is the best supporting cast Love has had, so expect a good year in Minnesota.
The Nuggets at 58 wins? When I do this exercise, I usually make some minor adjustments for anything that doesn’t pass the smell test, like the 58 win projection for the 2014 Nuggets. I didn’t have time for that this year, so I’m going to let this ride. I also don’t take coaching changes into account and the move from Karl to Shaw could have a significant effect. What I like about Denver is they will be one of the league’s best teams on the boards and the core is still young with some upside. I do feel they’ll make the playoffs fairly easily even if the 58 wins might be a tad optimistic.
When the dust is settled, I expect the Thunder to emerge as Western Conference champs. This assumes a return to health by Russell Westbrook, which is the only thing about this prediction that gives me pause. I feel Durant and Westbrook will be the top 1-2 punch in the Association. They’ll meet the Heat in the Finals. I have no prediction here, but I will have a prediction in a separate piece.
1. San Antonio Spurs 59-23
2. Houston Rockets 58-24
3. Memphis Grizzlies 49-33
4. Dallas Mavericks 39-43
5. New Orleans Pelicans 39-43
Dallas and New Orleans are not just potential playoff teams, but have the upside of 50 wins. Either could surprise if things fall right for them though. In New Orleans Anthony Davis appears primed to become the NBA’s next big thing this year. Between his college numbers, the way he finished last year and his dominance of the preseason, Davis looks like a lock to break out. How far he can carry a Pelicans team that’s very thin inside behind him is another question. The Mavericks are intriguing, because they have improved their backcourt quite a bit from last year. Nowitzki is 35, but it isn’t uncommon for great players to check in with a very productive year at this age. Since wins are finite and the competition will be fierce in the loaded West, both end up at 39.
I have the Grizzlies dropping off a bit. I think the retooling they’re going through, particularly the Gay trade and the coaching change represents a step back before going forward as a stronger unit. One new player I am intrigues with is SG Nick Calathes. You may remember him. He left Florida after his sophomore season in 2008 and went to Europe. He rated as a pretty good prospect coming out. In Europe he has been an efficient, but low-volume scorer with good passing and defensive numbers. In a rookie class that has some nice long term upside but little immediate impact, Calathes could emerge as a ROY candidate.
I have some doubts about how much Howard will help Houston. As great a player as he’s been, I suspect he’s going to have a career similar to past great centers like Malone or Gilmore who started to tail off at 27. It remains to be seen if that’s how Howard’s career will go, but last year’s debacle in LA is not a good sign. Those doubts aside, the Rockets with Harden and Howard are one of the few teams with a legit shot of taking home the title. That makes Howard a gamble worth taking.
I think the Spurs are a little high at 59 wins. But not only am I letting the projections ride, I don’t like betting against this team. But there are things I don’t like here. Duncan was great last year, but all the smart minute-managing in the world doesn’t change the fact that he’s 37. Ginobili is 36 and is already in serious decline. The Spurs have been a great team and put on a great show last year. But my guess is they’re going to have trouble keeping up with the other elites this year.