NBA 2013 Preview: Western Conference

I had my Western Conference preview all set. Things were pretty simple and easy to predict. I had the Thunder winning the West and starting a dynasty. It made sense. They were a super-talented, well-coached team with smart management. Then the trade happened.  Suddenly the West is wide open. More analysis on the trade in the Rockets and Thunders blurbs below.

As for the West, it’s incredibly competitive this year. The reason for this is all the smart, creative front offices are in the West. Just look at how quickly Denver and Utah were able to retool after dumping their pricey superstars. While the East has more glamour locations, the West will continue to dominate as long teams like Dallas, Denver, Houston, OKC and Utah continue to employ the smartest guys in the league.

My system for predicting records is as follows. I project each player’s numbers for the upcoming season. It’s basically an average of his two previous seasons, with adjustments done for age. Next I try to translate the numbers into a winning percentage. I then make adjustments for team age, chemistry and other things I feel need to be factored in. Historically some of these are pretty good, while others are wildly wrong. Records are listed in reverse order, so all the drama, excitement and anticipation builds as you scroll to the bottom.

15. Portland Trailblazers: 23-59: I have them last because they’re on the downswing while the other weak sisters of the West all seem to be improving. The problem with the Blazers is the roster is so thin. In Aldridge, Batum and Matthews a decent top 3 is in place. The supporting cast is where they come up short. I have doubts about Lillard as a starting PG, despite his impressive summer league and pre-season. He better be as good as he’s looked, because there’s little in the way of other PG options. Handing the starting center job to rookie Meyers Leonard, who was only mildly productive in the Big 10 last year, will be a disaster. Again, there are few viable alternatives. This team has a mediocre core, no depth, and a new coach with a .406 career winning percentage. In the super-competitive West, that puts the Blazers in the basement.

14. Sacramento Kings: 27-55: The Kings have been in the accumulating talent mode for a few years and have added some nice pieces. They’ll win a few more games, but remain a little too dysfunctional to think they’re ready to make a move toward the playoffs. The top two players, DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, have been up and down during their young careers. Cousins is a dominant rebounder and inside presence, but he can’t seem to hit more than 45% of his FG attempts. Because he takes so many shots, this makes the entire King’s offense inefficient.  Evans has regressed since a promising rookie season, but is in a contract year and looks like he’s back to his old form. The overall team defense has been among the worst in the league and there’s little reason to think that will improve with the same cast returning. The Kings are a team in need of some serious tweaking before they’re ready to compete.

13. Phoenix Suns: 29-53: The Suns have been on a slow decline since the glory days of the mid-aughts. With the center piece of that era, Steve Nash, departed for LA, look for the team to hasten that decline into lottery land for a few seasons. They’ve retained and added enough in the way of talent that they should be semi-competitive. I even give them an outside shot at the playoffs. They PG-center combination of Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat should be effective. Luis Scola is a solid PF. On the wing is a pair of recent top 5 draft picks, Wes Johnson and Michael Beasley, who both busted in their first NBA stops. I have my doubts either one will live up to the lofty draft position, but if both do, this projection is way low. Bottom line for Phoenix is they just don’t have enough firepower to compete in the West.

12. New Orleans Hornets: 33-49: I like Anthony Davis enough that even as a young rookie, I feel he’ll lift this team above the 20something win crowd and to the point where we might start whispering about playoff chances should everything else fall into place. Ryan Anderson is a good fit in the PF spot next to Davis and Eric Gordon has the potential to be a top 10 scorer if he can ever stay healthy for a full season. The Hornets are still at least a couple of years and a few smart moves away from joining the league’s elite. With Davis in the fold, rebuilding is off to a great start.

11. Golden State Warriors: 35-47: Most of the arrows are pointing up for the Warriors, I’m just not sure how far up. The Ellis-Bogut trade could have a huge effect on the Warriors season and even get them back into the playoffs should everything fall right. The biggest piece is Bogut, a marginal all-star when healthy. Bogut has missed a lot of games during his career and suffered a decline in efficiency the past couple of seasons when he did get on the court. His impact remains questionable, but he’ll be a huge asset if he can get back to where he was 2 years ago. The other reason moving Ellis helps is the PG position now belongs to Stephen Curry who seems ready to bust out as a legitimate star. Curry has also been dealing with injuries, so health issues could decide the season for the 2013 Warriors. If Bogut and Curry are healthy and at the top of their games, this team could well crash the playoffs. It won’t be more than the 7th or 8th seed, but that would be a great finish for a team that has been struggling for a while.

10. Minnesota Timberwolves: 40-42: The Timberwolves are a tough team to project and should be an interesting team to watch, at least early in the season. They’re bringing in a couple of former all-stars who were both out of the league last year in Andrei Kirilenko and Brandon Roy. Kirilenko played a season in Russia and Roy “retired” at age 26 because of bad knees. Kirilenko should be a solid addition and seems like a good fit pairing with superstar Kevin Love at forward. Roy is more of a question mark. If he can somehow come back as the 2009 version of Brandon Roy, which was one of the top guards in the league, the Timberwolves could win 50 games. If he plays closer to the 2011 version, they’ll eventually need to find another option at SG and will likely miss the playoffs again.

9. Dallas Mavericks: 42-40: The Mavericks are an old bunch. While I like logic of zigging against the current zag of the league and picking up cheap available talent like Elton Brand and OJ Mayo, I feel this team has lost too much and has gotten too old to compete with the best of the West any longer. Dirk Nowitzki is an all-timer, but is now 34 and had knee surgery recently. I expect some decline. Brand is 33 and Marion is 34. That means they’re both likely to decline. Kaman is 30, has been in decline for a few years and is injury-prone. In the backcourt, Collison and Mayo are both marginal starters at best. I just don’t see the 2011 Champs being able to compete with the best in the West and feel they’ll miss the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.

8. Memphis Grizzlies: 47-35: While it isn’t time to write this team off just yet after their nice little run of the past few years, the Grizz roster has been somewhat static while the rest of the West has improved. Considering the ages of the core, there isn’t much in the way of improvement that could be expected, with the possible exception of until now unreliable youngsters Marreese Speights and Jarryd Bayless. On the other hand, this still is a good team and there’s no reason to think they’re in decline. If Zach Randolph brings his A-game to the playoffs they’re going to be a load to eliminate. But there’s also little reason to think they can improve on recent seasons when most of their competition has gotten better.

7. Los Angeles Clippers: 48-34: The West is tough at the top. That the Clippers finally have a strong team in place only to be buried by playing in what could be the most competitive conference ever, pretty much sums up the plight of this franchise. The Clippers have a great 1-2 punch in Paul and Griffin. Beyond that the team is a little soft in talent. While center DeAndre Jordan is a strong defender and finisher, the rest of the rotation is an aging group of former all-stars with a few overpaid, inefficient veterans thrown in. The Clippers would be better served if they surrounded their stars with some hungry defenders, rebounders and grinders.

6. Utah Jazz: 51-31: The Jazz are a good example of one of the West’s smart teams. When they needed to deal their superstar, it was done quickly and without drama. In return they received a haul that quickly made the team relevant again. One thing I really like about the Jazz is they have good potential for improvement via trade. In Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson they already have one of the best inside duos in the league. In reserve are a couple of promising youngsters in Derrick Favors and Enes Kantor. They have enough resources to make a deal to strengthen a weak perimeter without hurting themselves. With or without a deal this is a solid team. They’ll have a nice season, but will come up something short of elite.

5. Houston Rockets: 53-29: I actually liked the Rockets as a sleeper to crash the playoffs before the trade. The trade makes them damn near a playoff lock. The trade made two big improvements to the team. The upgrade of Harden over Martin is the big one. By adding Harden, who could well emerge as the league’s top SG now that he’s in a lead role, the Rockets now have one of the better young backcourts in the league. Harden can score and distribute, so he should be a great fit with Lin. They also upgraded the center position by adding Aldrich, a player who looks ready to contribute. With Asik and Aldrich in the middle, the Rockets should be one of the better defensive teams in the league. The forward positions would seem to be a weak link, but there’s enough depth, youth and diversity here that an effective forward rotation should emerge. I liked the direction they were headed before the trade and I like it even more after.

4. San Antonio Spurs: 56-26: It is tempting to put them at the top again. They’ve been the West’s top seed for 2 consecutive years now and have everyone back. They’ve filled in the roster around the aging big 3 brilliantly, whether through the draft or finding cheap, useful free agents like Gary Neal and Danny Green. The Spurs just haven’t been able to run with the talented young teams once the playoffs start and I see no reason to think that will change. Expect a slight tick downward in the record as the stars age and another disappointing playoffs.

1.(tie) Oklahoma City Thunder: 60-22: Being that I’m not an insider, I’ll mostly stay away from addressing the reasons Sam Presti saw fit to weaken what looked like a coming dynasty and deal Harden so quickly and for so little in return. Plenty of folks with inside knowledge will be breaking all that down better than I could. I’ll admit that predicting a 3-way tie atop the West after having my vision for the 2013 season jumbled by the trade is something of a copout. The Thunder looked to me like a clear favorite for both the conference and the NBA title before the trade. Now the situation is more muddled and I don’t see much that separates this team from the Lakers and Nuggets. They’re still very good and should be considered a threat to win it all. Durant and Westbrook are second only to LeBron and Wade as a top 2. The edge the Thunder duo has is they’re still improving. The supporting cast is group that’s strong defensively and is also young and improving. Kevin Martin should slide in as an effective bench scorer, despite being a downgrade from Harden. They’re still an elite team. They’re still one of 4 teams in the 2013 NBA with a legitimate shot at the championship. That’s good, but it could have been better.

1.(tie) LA Lakers: 60-22: I’m going to skip the gushing over how loaded this team is. That should be obvious to anyone who follows the sport. By adding Howard and Nash the Lakers have put themselves in position to add another trophy to their crowded mantle. I’m going to mention the concerns I have about whether the mix will work out. Concern #1: In the backcourt both Nash and Kobe are most effective with the ball in their hands and will have to learn to share. My thinking is that being two of the smarter players in the league they should be able to figure this out. Concenr#2: Kobe is 34 and Nash is 38. Both are likely to decline, possibly dramatically. Neither is likely to play at a level near their MVP peaks. But I suspect they’ll both be good enough to keep the Lakers elite. It might even serve as incentive to win the championship quickly before the window closes. Concern #3: The thing that worries me the most as far as the Lakers’ quest for a championship goes is Dwight Howard. He’s an all-time great defender, but he’s limited on offense. He doesn’t like to pass the ball. Centers who are poor passers have traditionally struggled to win a championship. That group includes Ewing, Mourning and Moses Malone (who got one, but only one). We’ll see how Howard adapts, but I feel this is a legitimate concern.  Concern #4:  That would be coach Mike Brown. He crapped out in the playoffs a couple times with LeBron when he went in as the top seed. These Lakers are a different group from those Cavs and could probably coach themselves. But if I were a Laker fan I’d feel a lot better if it were Phil Jackson back on the bench. With that in mind I see a 60-win regular season, but a team that comes up short in the playoffs.

1.(tie) Denver Nuggets: 60-22: This is a scary good team that should surprise the nation and run with the best in the West for most of the season. They added an all-star in Andre Iguodala to a roster full of talented, productive youngsters who seem ready to break out all at once. In addition to being young and talented, what I really like about this team is how well they fit together. There are two excellent PGs in Lawson and Miller. Iguodala is a great all-around player who should make everyone else better. Gallinari is the shooter. Faried is the rebounder and hustler. At center, JaVale McGee appears ready to bust out as one of the best in the league at his position. The roster has quality depth, so the team seems capable of weathering any injuries. The only reservation I have about this team is there is no superstar who produces at the level of a LeBron, Durant or Howard. Traditionally that has been a huge hurdle for a team to overcome in the quest for a championship. That makes the Nuggets a tough pick to win the conference. But the Western Conference suddenly looks as dysfunctional to me  as it does talented. The Spurs have issues with age, the Lakers are going to have chemistry problems and the young Thunder might need a season to recover from the shock of learning the realities of life in small market NBA. That leaves an opening for a cagey, veteran coach like George Karl to lead a fun, talented group of youngsters like the 2013 Denver Nuggets to the Western Conference Championship and into the NBA finals.

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