Western Conference power rankings: Spurs, Thunder remain teams to beat
In contrast to the East, where LeBron James and Kevin Love have flipped the conference hierarchy on its head, continuity reigns in the West. None of last season's top contenders (Spurs, Thunder and Clippers) suffered major defections this summer, and the other playoff teams (Trail Blazers, Warriors, Rockets, Grizzlies and Mavericks) mostly had quiet offseasons and none made enough progress to launch themselves into true title contention. The anticipated result is another season in which the middle of the conference is stacked with big win totals and multiple lottery teams are glowering in the direction of the weaker East. But who can complain about another year of the status quo when nine West teams finished with at least 48 victories in 2013-14?
1. San Antonio Spurs: After putting on a clinic in the playoffs, San Antonio ran a second session this offseason, methodically taking the necessary steps to keep together its title team. Thirteen of the 14 Spurs who logged at least one minute in the playoffs are under contract for this season (restricted free-agent center Aron Baynes is the only exception), and those 13 players were responsible for 98 percent of San Antonio's postseason minutes.
Even this summer's setbacks could be viewed as blessings in disguise. A shoulder injury for Patty Mills helped the Spurs re-sign him on reasonable terms (three years, $11 million), and 37-year-old Manu Ginobili of Argentina has extra time to rest because a leg injury will keep him out of the FIBA World Cup. External factors played out favorably for the Spurs as well: The Thunder again trudged through an uneventful offseason, the West's other top challengers failed to add star talent in free agency and the dismantling of the Big Three-era Heat guarantees that the East will produce a less-tested Finals entrant. In other words, don't bet against the first back-to-back titles of Tim Duncan's career.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder: The franchise's first championship of the Oklahoma City era is within reach if it can simply avoid the bad luck that piled up throughout last season. A career year from Kevin Durant, who surpassed James in both the MVP race and Player Efficiency Rating, carried the team through Russell Westbrook's multiple absences, but it wasn't enough to make up for Serge Ibaka's devastating calf injury that limited him during the conference finals. Still, it took a vintage performance from Duncan to slay the Thunder in six games, and Oklahoma City can take heart knowing that it posted a 6-2 record against San Antonio last season when Ibaka played.
3. Los Angeles Clippers: By far the biggest offseason move by a West contender was the courtroom dumping of Donald Sterling, with loaded and hyper-caffeinated ex-Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer moving in as Clippers owner. Trading for Chris Paul might have added superstar talent and signing Doc Rivers might have injected some championship coaching experience, but it was revealed again last season how detrimental it can be to have a racist buffoon cutting the checks. If Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were capable of leading the team to back-to-back Pacific Division titles and at least 56 victories both years with an evil Grinch embarrassing the organization at every turn, shouldn't the rest of the league be a little concerned at how L.A. will respond now that the controversy has blown over?
The arrival of Spencer Hawes, who plugs the Clippers' biggest hole as a third big man, and no major rotation losses (Jordan Farmar replaces Darren Collison behind Paul) should put the Clippers firmly in the championship-contention conversation. A simple question will hang over the franchise from now until the trade deadline: How will Ballmer make his first splash?
4. Golden State Warriors: If a Love trade was available, as reports indicated, the Warriors blundered in not pulling the trigger. That said, Golden State has an excellent chance to emerge from the West's deep second tier to snag home-court advantage in the playoffs. Despite injuries to Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors finished with the conference's best defense last season. The return of all five starters, along with the savvy addition of Shaun Livingston (who is expected to miss the start of training camp after having toe surgery), should only fortify that strength. But all eyes should turn to the other side of the ball, where new coach Steve Kerr will be tasked with molding Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and company into an elite offense, a status that has surprisingly eluded the team during the Splash Brothers era.
5. Dallas Mavericks: Dallas promises to field its best team since winning the 2011 title, thanks to the high-profile acquisitions of center Tyson Chandler and small forward Chandler Parsons, who should fit extremely well alongside returning centerpieces Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis. The Mavericks know how well Chandler can cover defensively for Nowitzki while handling the rim protection and interior dirty work, and Parsons is a prototypical complementary wing capable of making defenses pay for over-committing to Dallas' two leading scorers. Coach Rick Carlisle's team will be a threat to lead the NBA in offensive efficiency after finishing tied for second last season.
Moving from Jose Calderon to Jameer Nelson and Raymond Felton is a downgrade at point guard, but Ellis and Devin Harris are both capable of running the show and Carlisle is an expert at making the most of his roster. The Mavs' hopes for a deep playoff run will hinge on Chandler's ability to bounce back from an injury-ravaged season.
6. Portland Trail Blazers: The "If you are standing still, you're moving backward" adage applies to the Blazers, even though the three West teams that finished with more victories last season also were subdued this summer. Why? Because few teams can claim to have enjoyed such a charmed season in 2013-14: A 54-win Portland team seemed to max out its potential behind great health, career years from nearly every starter and an unforgettable three-pointer by Damian Lillard to eliminate Houston in the first round. General manager Neil Olshey's nondescript offseason signings -- Chris Kaman and Steve Blake -- simply aren't good enough if Portland's luck turns south, and the same goes for the returning members of one of the league's weakest benches. It remains to be seen whether another career year from All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge and more progress from Lillard in his third season will be enough to propel the Blazers back to the second round or to the franchise's first conference finals since 2000.
7. Houston Rockets: While adages are being doled out, let's give "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades" to the Rockets. Houston almost had Chris Bosh. Houston almost found an unorthodox way to control Parsons' future in a cost-effective fashion. Houston almost figured out how to field a dazzling starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Parsons, Bosh and Dwight Howard, even if it had cost a pretty penny. Instead, the Rockets missed out on Bosh, lost Parsons to a conference rival, traded Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik and added small forward Trevor Ariza as the only noteworthy consolation prize.
Coach Kevin McHale faces more roster turnover than any other 2014 West playoff team. McHale used only nine players in a first-round loss to the Blazers, with just seven receiving steady rotation minutes. Parsons, Lin and Asik represent three of those seven, and their collective departure reduces Houston's margin of error. If either Howard or Harden misses significant time, the Rockets could sputter back into the lottery.
8. Memphis Grizzlies: One can't help but wonder how long the franchise's most successful run -- which has featured four consecutive playoff appearances, three straight seasons with .610 or better winning percentages and a 2013 run to the conference finals -- will continue, what with 33-year-old Zach Randolph bound to hit the wall at some point, 34-year-old starting small forward Tayshaun Prince in decline and headed to free agency in 2015, and 29-year-old franchise center Marc Gasol set to be one of the biggest names in next summer’s market. The good news: The Grizzlies' two-year, $20 million contract extension for Randolph positions them to pay Gasol max money. The bad news: Simply keeping the band together is unlikely to put Memphis over the top, and it’s unclear how this roster can progress.
For the most part, those questions can wait, as the Grizzlies should be able to ride an elite defense and the perpetually underrated Gasol/Mike Conley pairing to a postseason berth. Coach Dave Joerger returns, after some offseason machinations and flirtations, and he will welcome Vince Carter to a rotation that should look very similar to last year's version. Signing Carter, 37, adds a helpful piece, but it also serves as another reminder that this team’s clock is ticking.
9. Denver Nuggets: For all of its depth -- which will be bolstered by the returns of Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee and the reacqusition of Arron Afflalo -- Denver looks to be stuck in the West's middle, no longer capable of being a superstar-less power broker. Coach Brian Shaw's uneven first year provided more questions than answers, but a healthier roster led by Ty Lawson and Team USA's Kenneth Faried will help create a more stable rotation. That should translate to a bump in wins from 36 and a potential playoff berth if things go right and one of last season's entrants falters. The Nuggets' long-term direction, by the way, is still unclear but should come into better focus once GM Tim Connelly can assess this reassembled core.
10. New Orleans Pelicans: Which West team is most likely to exceed its 2013-14 win total by 10 or more games? The Pelicans, who won 34 games last year amid serious injuries to Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and the departed Jason Smith, should be the odds-on favorite. Their case begins with the continued development of Anthony Davis, who joined Shaquille O'Neal and Elton Brand as the only players to average 20 points and 10 rebounds during their age-20 seasons. Asik should be a superb rim-protecting partner for Davis, allowing perimeter players like Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon to focus on scoring. Do the Pelicans have enough? That's a fair question, given their lack of depth, and it's possible that next summer Davis will replace Love as the best player never to have made the playoffs.
11. Phoenix Suns: After surprisingly leaping from bad to good, Phoenix could find taking the next step -- securing the franchise's first playoff berth since 2010 -- to be just as difficult. The biggest acquisition during a somewhat disappointing offseason was Isaiah Thomas, a good stylistic fit but a reserve guard who simply boosts a position of strength. Ditto for the No. 18 pick, point guard Tyler Ennis, who must be wondering how many years it will be before he sees the court. Meanwhile, the departure of sweet-shooting big man Channing Frye isn't a death blow -- it was a sound decision to let him leave for Orlando because of the four-year, $32 million price tag -- but it does create a hole that Phoenix will attempt to fill in part with journeyman Anthony Tolliver.
Assuming the league is better prepared for coach Jeff Hornacek's high-pressure style in Year 2, big men Miles Plumlee and Alex Len will need to progress for Phoenix to take the next step. Perhaps a final prediction should be put on hold until the saga surrounding restricted free agent Eric Bledsoe, the Suns' most talented player, is resolved. The stalemate is confounding, considering how mutually beneficial an agreement should be. Get this deal done, please, so the fun can continue.
12. Sacramento Kings: Significant offseason improvement was going to be difficult as soon as GM Pete D'Alessandro executed cap-clogging midseason trades for Rudy Gay and Derrick Williams. Sure enough, Sacramento has little to show for its summer. Rookie shooter Nik Stauskas looks like a nice grab at No. 8, though it's unclear how many minutes he will be able to claim immediately. Management elected to sign Collison away from the Clippers rather than pay Thomas, a swap that appears at first glance like an unnecessary downgrade. Any hope of breaking an eight-year playoff drought will require major progress from franchise center DeMarcus Cousins and an out-of-this-world contract year from Gay. Even those developments likely won't be enough, though.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves: If Flip Saunders knew what was good for him, Minnesota would rank 15th by a mile. Instead, the president/coach seems to have done just enough to ensure that his roster isn't absolutely atrocious. The Wolves will experience major pain in the first year of the post-Love era, but their supply of competent veterans -- including Nikola Pekovic, Ricky Rubio, Thaddeus Young, Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and Mo Williams -- will enable Saunders to make a show of fielding a "competitive" team.
Ultimately, that group is going nowhere in the West, and Minnesota fans would be better served with a tear-down rebuilding project centered on Andrew Wiggins, Rubio and other recent draft picks like Anthony Bennett and Zach LaVine. (Not Shabazz Muhammad.) Such an approach would require Saunders to reverse course by dumping many of the veterans he signed just last summer; that's a bitter pill for any executive, especially one who hired himself to coach through an 82-game slog. It's probably best if the world checks back in on the Timberwolves in two to three years. With any luck, Wiggins' patented ear-to-ear smile will survive the bumps and bruises.
14. Los Angeles Lakers: There's a very good chance that Chris Ballard's tremendous story on Kobe Bryant winds up being the highlight of L.A.'s season. As for the rest of the Lakers, there's just so much to dislike here. Most glaring is the defense, which ranked 28th in points allowed per possession last season and could easily be even worse this year. Las Vegas might as well put odds on which player gets the most death glares from Bryant for botched assignments. Carlos Boozer? Lin? Robert Sacre? Nick Young? Julius Randle? Not even Walmart has enough "big boy pants" for all of these guys.
Maybe a 28-year-old Bryant could have overcome these deficiencies; expecting a 36-year-old Bryant coming off two major leg injuries to salvage this mess is asking the impossible. As such, the major tasks for first-year coach Byron Scott seem to be: 1) placate Bryant as he continues through his twilight; 2) focus on Randle's development; and 3) lose enough games to guarantee another top lottery pick.
15. Utah Jazz: This summer was doubly rough for the Jazz, who followed up a conference-worst 25-57 season by adding zero impact veterans and shelling out $63 million to avoid losing Gordon Hayward in restricted free agency. GM Dennis Lindsey is playing the very long game, though, and he made a promising hire in coach Quin Snyder to oversee this youth movement. The Jazz are probably -- to co-opt a popular recent phrase -- two years away from being two years away, but they made two intriguing draft picks in No. 5 Dante Exum and No. 23 Rodney Hood. The former has star potential, though it remains to be seen how he fits with point guard Trey Burke in the short term, and the latter has a chance to be a solid rotation player for years. Utah will emphasize player development, and it's hard to envision such a young team -- especially one that lacks a breakout All-Star candidate -- finishing higher than 13th in the conference.