Western Conference Playoff Picture

Kevin Durant of U.S. goes up to shoot past Tunisia

Many view Kevin Durant as the Second Coming. We see him and the Thunder more likely coming Third through Sixth. (Source: Yardbarker.com)

On Wednesday we discussed what the Eastern Conference Playoff picture looks like, and today we go west, young man.  We’d already previously examined how much teams improved/regressed during the off-season, but now we’re talking about how they stack up against each other.  Meaning, we gave Orlando a zero for their summer and the Wizards a +2, but now we’re here to tell you that yes, of course Orlando is still gonna be far better.  For those who haven’t seen those posts on off-season grades, click the following links to see what we had to say about the Northwest, Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Pacific and Southwest Divisions.  Also, we’re only gonna be talking about the regular season here.  So even though we don’t think the Celts will be a top two team record-wise, it doesn’t mean we think they’re incapable of making it through the gauntlet again.  Lastly, some teams will be put in clusters ‘cuz they’ll likely end up with similar records and what does a victory or two here and there matter amongst friends?

#1 – Lakers

Do we need to say more?  Last season they lost games due to injury for Pau, Kobe, and of course Andrew Bynum, yet still easily managed to come out with the best record in the West.  That said, they’re not gonna kill themselves for the #1 seed, so expect Miami and likely Orlando to have better regular season records.  That said, I dunno if I’d bet against ‘em come Finals time…

#2 – Trail Blazers

Our first shocker.  The Blazers suffered an insane amount of injuries last year, took a while to figure out how to incorporate Andre Miller as the point guard, and only got Marcus Camby at the trade deadline (and after a short period, they then went on a season ending tear), yet still won a buttload of games.  Obviously until Greg Oden proves otherwise we can’t assume his health will be any better, but no way will the rest of the team suffer through the same amount of injuries.  Even if Oden never plays a single game, having Camby and the presumably healthy returning Joel Pryzbilla will be a huge step up from undersized ol’ man Juwan Howard coming out of mothballs to play out of position in the center spot.  Add all that, plus Miller and Camby now being comfortable in the system, then throw in some growth/ improvement from young athletic freak Nick Batum, and they could challenge the Lakers for the top record in the regular season.

#3-6 – Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets

The Mavs are too good and have too much talent to not be a surefire playoff team.  They’re also too old and know the playoffs are what really matter, so don’t expect them to kill themselves for a top spot in the West.

Even with rumors that Chris Paul wants out of N’Awlins, he’s a consummate professional and has a lot to prove after missing most of last season due to injury.  Plus expect him to be excited about new running mate Trevor Ariza and improving, excellent second-year shooting guard Marcus Thornton.

Pundits expect the Thunder to take the next step and be even better this year, but I’m not convinced.  Can Durant really improve that much from last year’s near-MVP season?  And will opposing teams follow Ron Artest’s cue from the playoffs and body up Durant to make him uncomfortable?  Jeff Green’s ceiling is pretty limited (and he might’ve already banged up against it).  They also won’t catch teams by surprise this year.  The most likely thing that causes them to take it up a notch is the still-improving Russell Westbrook who showed in the playoffs and is currently showing with Team USA that he’s getting better by the day.  Maybe even by the hour.  But not by the minute, ‘cuz that’d be ridiculous.

Lastly, I think the Rockets are locks to make the playoffs too.  Like with Oden, one can’t assume Yao will make it through the whole season.  However, unlike with say Tracy McGrady, when Yao’s there he’s a definite help to the team.  They only missed out on the playoffs by a handful of games, so even if he only plays a third of the season, that should add enough wins to make the difference.  Plus, if/when Yao goes down, they now have Brad Miller to step in.  Add in more time for Kevin Martin to have gotten acquainted with his new teammates (not to mention that he, Miller and Coach Rick Adelman are comfortable working this system together from their days in Sacramento), and I’m saying they’re in the playoffs.

#7-9 – San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets

These teams all have the potential end up higher or lower because of big variables.  For the Spurs it’s a combo of age and health.  With the Rockets and Blazers, at least only one of their players was injury prone.  With the Spurs, they’ve had the injury bug hit all of their big three (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and even the still young Tony Parker).  And even if Timmy doesn’t get hurt, he’s getting old and already wasn’t quite as good on defense last season.

The Jazz have the big question mark of whether Al Jefferson can replace Carlos Boozer’s production.  Bigger Al has only racked up stats on losing teams, so now we get to see if he can still be effective on a winning squad and play well with others.  The loss of Kyle Korver could hurt too, as his acquisition a few years ago was a key element that allowed them to finish the season with a hot run.  Add in the loss of Wes Matthews and Mehmet Okur possibly starting the season off recovering from injury, and despite the brilliance of Deron Williams, this team could find itself on the outside of the playoff bubble, looking in.

If they trade Melo, expect the Nuggets to plunge even further.  However, even if they don’t, this could be a team in turmoil.  They’ll start the season missing excellent defenders Kenyon Martin and Chris “Birdman” Anderson while they recover from injuries.  The team has already soured on JR Smith, and just the uncertainty of Carmelo’s future plus the non-passing ways of new signee Big Al Harrington could result in some every-man-for-himself ugliness.  Basically, unless Melo agrees to sign that extension before the season starts (or shortly thereafter), forget it.  Drop ‘em even lower.

#10-13 – Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors

Many of the teams above have key flaws that could derail their season (be it injuries, age or in-team issues).  If so, and everything goes right for one of these teams, they could sneak into the playoffs.  Maybe my fondness for the Clips has me overestimating their chances, but Blake Griffin has a shot at Rookie of the Year (his most likely competition being John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins).  Eric Gordon has been getting better and better, learning and becoming more confident during his current stint playing for Team USA during the World Championship.  And just losing Coach Mike Dunleavy is an addition by subtraction.  Plus I’m one of the few believers of Vinny Del Negro (and no, not just ‘cuz he’s now the Clipper coach).  His x’s-and-o’s may make you go ugh, but he gets his players to give their all, which is what this crew (particularly Baron Davis) needs most.

Should one ever count out Steve Nash?  Everyone doubted the Suns would make the playoffs last year (although I was not one of ‘em).  Similarly after his first MVP win, when Amar’e Stoudemire was diagnosed to miss the whole season, everyone counted ‘em out too.  The thing is, that second year Boris Diaw played out of his mind, while Shawn Marion had perhaps his best season, doing everything from defending bigs like Duncan, hitting threes, and of course finishing on the break and off alley-oops.  New acquisition Hedo Turkoglu has looked rusty and lethargic at Worlds, which ain’t a good sign.  It seems unlikely that he and new stud Josh Childress can compensate for the loss of Amar’e, Leandro Barbosa and underrated backup center Louis Amundson.

The Memphis Grizzlies barely missed out on the playoffs last year, so of this group, they’re probably the most likely to jump up into the top 8.  However, as with the Thunder, they won’t catch anyone napping this year, and I don’t buy that young teams will just improve on their own accord without new additions.  Or rather it’s far easier for them to do so up to say 40 wins, but each win thereafter becomes incrementally harder.  To go from 22 to 30 wins, no problem.  40 to 48 is a big ol’ mountain to scale.  Rudy Gay was just given a big ol’ contract, but even with Team USA he’s still putting up shots when he’s not even really open.  He still makes ‘em a decent amount of time, however to make it to the next level he needs to follow the Josh-Smith-Shot-Selection-Improvement program (aka, stop shooting dumb threes). It was that successful course that helped JSmoove move into the elite without “adding” anything new to his game last year.  On the other hand, OJ Mayo and Marc Gasol could improve a bit, thus enabling that jump into the upper echelon.  Or maybe Hasheem Thabeet will turn into a force.  Yeah right, and Darko’s manna from heaven.

The Warriors traded away Corey Maggette for scrap heaps (or as they call themselves, Charlie Bell and Dan Gadzuric).  However, replacing three players who spent most of the season injured (Anthony Randolph, Kelenna Azubuike and Ronny Turiaf) with the ultra-reliable David Lee should be a big boost.  Consider also that emerging defensive center Andris Biedrins missed most of last year due to injury.  If he can return to health, he’s a great complement to Lee’s offense, and this former small ball team will now have two guys who vacuum down rebounds.  Mix in that Stephen Curry’s had not only a full year of NBA seasoning, but a summer spent with Team USA, and mad Coach Don Nelson could do his magic again and turn these guys into a playoff contender.

#14 – Sacramento Kings

They might not win that many more games this season (certainly not enough to be in playoff contention), but they should be fun to watch and man is their future bright.  Tyreke Evans is a stud, and if DeMarcus Cousins can keep his head on straight, they could have a potent duo.  But it’s never a good sign when your three highest paid players are Samuel Dalembert, Beno Udrih and Francisco Garcia (they’ll combine for over $24 million in salary — by contrast LeBron James and Dwayne Wade will combine for $28.5 mill).

#15 – Minnesota Timberwolves

The Twolves, by contrast, probably won’t be fun to watch, nor do they have a particularly bright future as long as David Kaaaaahn is in charge.  And I’m not sure coach Kurt Rambis should be running the triangle.  During the off-season they essentially swapped Bigger Al Jefferson for Michael Beasley and Ramon Sessions for Luke Ridnour.  Granted Jonny Flynn’s only been in the league one year, but he didn’t wow and seems to have limited upside.  They do have Kevin Love who seems like a brilliant player, yet Rambis had him coming off the bench in limited minutes and oddly the same thing’s happening to Love with Team USA, despite the US’s lack of height and the fact that Love seems tailor-made for international bball.  Is he not as good as we think he is, or does he just call his coach names?  Well, at least for the next four years they’ve locked up Darko…

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