FINALLY! Tonight at 8:00 PM eastern time, the most anticipated season in NBA history kicks off as the Boston Celtics host the Miami Heat and their new Big Three and the Lakers get their rings before taking on the Rockets. As BSO’s resident NBA expert, I have waited months for this week, and in honor of the new NBA season I give you a three-part predictions series on what to expect this year in the East, the West, and the NBA Awards.
Without further ado, I present to you my Western Conference predictions:
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (Last season: 15-67)
Let’s make this quick. The Wolves will be the worst team in a very stacked Western Conference. They are the least talented squad in the West, and are too small to hang with most teams. Kevin Love should be a bright spot for the Wolves, continuing to grow into one of the top bigs in the NBA. Unfortunately for Love, he will have very little support.
It will be interesting to see if the Wolves decide to start moving some pieces in hopes of bringing in a big-name talent. With the rights to Ricky Rubio, the Wolves have a huge trade chip should they choose to ship him out.
14. Golden State Warriors (Last season: 26-56)
For the record, I absolutely love some of the moves the Warriors made. While David Lee isn’t a dominant presence inside, the fact is his game was made for the type of system that the Warriors won and he should be a 20-10 guy once again this season. If Stephen Curry can carry his strong second-half performance last season into this one, the Warriors have the talent offensively to make a playoff push.
The problem is defensively they still are a team that, well doesn’t play defense. The West is so stacked that teams have to play well on both ends every night to have a chance at making the playoffs. The Warriors roster is definitely more talented than the 14th spot in the West, but that speaks to how strong the rest of the conference is.
13. New Orleans Hornets (Last season:37-45)
Sorry Hornets fans, but this isn’t going to be a season that changes Chris Paul’s mind about leaving. New Orleans definitely has the talent to compete in the West, with David West and Emeka Okafor down low and Paul running the point, along with newly-acquired Trevor Ariza on the wing. But the gut feeling is that there will be a cloud hanging over the head of this team, and a couple losses in a row could snowball into a long losing streak and a long season.
One bright spot for Hornets fans could be the play of the newest Hornet, Jerryd Bayless. Should the Hornets eventually decide to ship off Paul, Bayless will be his heir apparent now that Darren Collison has been shipped to the Pacers. If the Hornets aren’t in the playoff hunt come January, expect rumblings of a Paul trade to grow louder than ever.
12. Sacramento Kings (Last season: 25-57)
In the Kings you have a team that is the Western Conference team with the best chance to take a Thunder-like jump into the postseason after toiling in the lottery the past couple seasons. That’s how good Tyreke Evans is and can make this team. Evans won the Rookie of the Year last season by averaging a 20-5-5, and the sky is the limit for this young gun. The Kings have also built a nice, young roster around Evans that will definitely be fun to watch, and with Dalembert in the middle will have a defensive presence down low.
The biggest question for the Kings is how well Evans meshes with rookie newcomer DeMarcus Cousins. In Cousins the Kings have the perfect pick and roll partner for Evans for the next 15 years, and a guy who’s attitude caused him to slip in the draft. However more than a few scouts have said Cousins had the talent to go top two this season, and if he can show it the Kings might be a dark horse playoff contender.
11. Phoenix Suns (Last season: 54-28)
Talk about a drop off in the standings. The Suns go from the three-seed and Western Conference finalists last season to eleventh in these predictions. The loss of Amar’e Stoudemire is obviously something that plays into this, but the fact that he was replaced with Hakim Warrick is something that the Suns are going to have to work very hard to get past. They have lost all of their inside scoring and rebounding and also the pick and roll game that Steve Nash loves to run, and it will be too much for them to overcome.
The Suns were able to add a couple of guys to their roster that should help them immediately, including Hedo Turkoglu who is coming off a forgettable season in Toronto last year. Should Hedo return to the same type of game he had as a star in Orlando, the Suns could once again prove everyone wrong and be a playoff team.
10. Memphis Grizzlies (Last season: 40-42)
One of the better surprises last season was the Grizzlies improbable run into relevance as they were in the playoff hunt for most of the season. Zach Randolph was re-born in Memphis, making the All-Star team and dominating inside for the Grizz. OJ Mayo continues to improve and learn the point guard position and should make great strides this season as well.
My biggest issue for this squad and what I think will ultimately keep them out of the playoffs is money. Rudy Gay got his big contract in the off-season, can we expect him to play with the same intensity or will he relax now that he was finally paid? And Randolph is looking for an extension that the Grizzlies don’t want to give him just yet, how long will it be before that is finally an issue with this team? Eventually, these things will catch up with Grizzlies and they will once again end up on the outside looking in.
9. Los Angeles Clippers (Last season: 29-53)
Arguably the most cursed team in the NBA today (sorry Cavs fans), the Clippers return this season with the playoffs on their mind. Blake Griffin will finally make his highly-anticipated debut after sitting out all of last season with a knee injury, and should be the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. He will come in right away and contribute to a Clippers squad in need of some energy inside.
The biggest question for the Clippers is which Baron Davis will show up night in and night out? When motivated, Baron Davis is one of the five best point guards in the NBA, but the problem is he isn’t always motivated, especially when his team loses a couple of games in a row. If Davis is motivated and the rest of the roster plays to their potential, the Clippers have a chance to be a playoff squad.
8. Denver Nuggets (Last season: 53-29)
How does a team that won their division last season and finished fourth in the West drop to eighth in these predictions with no real roster changes? By having their superstar ask for a trade in the off-season and head into the season disgruntled and wanting to leave, that’s how. Add that to the fact that they have an aging point guard in Chauncey Billups, and a volatile bench lead by trigger-happy JR Smith, and the Nuggets have all the makings of a disappointing team.
It will be interesting to see how George Karl returns from throat cancer and if he has the energy required to handle this squad of ego-driven players who at times seems to be looking out for nothing more than themselves. If Melo isn’t traded away, this is a playoff team regardless of the controversy, but how far down in the seedings will they drop?
7. Houston Rockets (Last season: 42-40)
After a season that many people thought was going to be a wasted year regardless, the Rockets return with a healthy (we think) Yao Ming and a deeper team than they left last season with. After bringing in Kevin Martin at the deadline last year, the Rockets traded away Trevor Ariza and brought in Brad Miller and Courtney Lee to add to an already stacked squad. This team has a couple of questions, the first being how effective will Yao be this season? We have already been told he will play no more than 24 minutes in a game, but will that rule stand even in a close playoff game when Yao is needed in the fourth?
Perhaps the most important question is how will this squad mesh this season? There are plenty of talented players on the roster, and it will be hard to give everyone the minutes that they want. Will these guys be able to stay happy and playing well when their minutes tighten up, or will they unravel and make this another season to forget in Houston?
6. San Antonio Spurs (Last season: 50-32)
For the first time in over a decade, the Spurs are not a unanimous pick for title contender. In fact, it doesn’t seem like anyone is expecting the Spurs to do much more than make the playoffs and then quietly be eliminated by whichever top-seed they get. Despite the apocalypse that most people think is coming for the Spurs, Gregg Popovich’s squad actually got better in the off-season.
Despite the aging of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs were able to add 7-footer Tiago Splitter to their roster finally. Just ask anyone who watched Brazil in the World Championships this summer, Splitter is a legit 7-footer who can make noise this season for the Spurs and is definitely a dark-horse contender for Rookie of the Year. And at the end of the day, Tim Duncan is still Tim Duncan, and the Spurs are still a dangerous team to see in the playoffs, just ask the Mavs.
5. Utah Jazz (Last season: 53-29)
No team in the West had more of a roster change than the Jazz, and somehow they walked out of it still a playoff team. Only a Jerry Sloan-coached team could pull of something like that. Despite losing almost half of their roster to the Bulls, Utah was able to add Al Jefferson for basically nothing and once again make themselves a postseason threat.
Deron Williams finally made the All-Star team last season, and as he enters this season should only improve. Already a top-three point guard in the NBA, Williams looks to cement himself as the best point man in the game today. If he is able to duplicate the same type of pick-and-roll success with Jefferson that he had with Boozer, the Jazz should be a better team, especially considering Jefferson is a much more physical defensive presence than Boozer was.
4. Portland Trailblazers (Last season: 50-32)
Will this finally be the year the Blazers get it all together? Can Portland avoid the injury bug, and even more specifically can Greg Oden stay healthy for a full season? These are just a few of the questions that seem to surround the Blazers every season. One thing that we know for sure, Brandon Roy will be an All-Star ready to lead his team back to the postseason.
Despite losing sharp-shooter Martell Webster, by virtue of being healthy the Blazers have upgraded their roster from last season. This should finally be the year that the Blazers make the jump into a top-four seed who is ready to get out of the first round. If Oden and Co. can stay healthy, this Blazers squad will be a very dangerous team.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder (Last season: 50-32)
Everyones favorite pick to make a leap in the standings this season is the Thunder. Fresh off of their first playoff birth since moving to Oklahoma City, the Thunder bring back virtually the same squad as last year. And that is exactly what the fans in Oklahoma City want to hear. With reigning scoring champ Kevin Durant leading the way, a young roster filled with rising young players such as Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, the Thunder are ready to make the jump from playoff upstarts into a team with home-court advantage this year.
While many people see the Thunder finishing as the second-seed to the Lakers in the West, I have them pegged as the third-seed. There will be a couple of nights where dealing with being favored in most games will bite the Thunder, and ultimately it will probably cost them a two-seed by a game or two. However come playoff time, this team will be ready to make some real noise outside of the first round.
2. Dallas Mavericks (Last season: 55-27)
After pulling off a big mid-season trade before the deadline last year to bring in Caron Butler and Brandon Haywood, the Mavs were expected to challenge the Lakers for supremacy in the Western Conference. So what happened? They fell apart against the Spurs and became the first second seed to ever lose a seven-game series to a seven seed.
After that huge disappointment, the Mavs went out and brought in Tyson Chandler to add depth inside in hopes that the rest of their roster will finally gel together with a full season to work with. Dallas now is the only team in the West with the depth inside to hang with the Lakers. It will be interesting to see if they can finally shed the label of regular season team and make some noise in the playoffs, Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy might depend on it.
1. Los Angeles Lakers (Last season: 57-25)
First things first, yeah I said it, no key losses. Jordan Farmar is not a key loss, in fact he might be an addition by subtraction. Now that I got that out of the way, the back-to-back defending champions return this season better than they left last year when they were holding up the Larry O’Brian trophy. The biggest weakness for a stacked Laker squad last season was the bench, and the Lakers made sure to address that issue with signings of Blake and Barnes. Take a look at the Lakers second unit:
PG- Steve Blake, SG – Shannon Brown, SF – Matt Barnes, PF – Lamar Odom, C – Theo Ratliff
Now go look at any NBA roster and find me a better second five. It’s almost impossible, and needless to say, the Lakers biggest issue last season shouldn’t be an issue this season.
What the Lakers do need to worry about however is the health of their starting five. Andrew Bynum is out until early December after knee surgery, and Kobe Bryant is coming off the third surgery on his knee. However with Pau Gasol and Ron Artest healthy and in better shape than they have been in years, and quite possibly the deepest team in the league, the Lakers are near locks to make the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season, barring any serious injury. It will take a huge change in the Western Conference landscape for the Lakers to be seriously challenged before the Finals on their quest for a three-peat.