By Rob Mahoney
With the season set to begin in short order, every team is engaged in a series of probabilities. There are no winners and losers, just likely favorites and predicted disappointments. The specific workings of the coming year are still totally uncertain, making it all the more appropriate to discuss the likely fate of teams around the league in terms of performance ranges rather than specific results. There are countless possible outcomes to the 2012-13 NBA season, and today we'll take a look at what might become of every team in the Western Conference by way of individually prescribed best-case and worst-case scenarios.
Best case: A plucky bunch of veterans give one of the West's top seeds a good run in a playoff series, but fall victim to their own limitations.
Worst case: Dirk Nowitzki spends much of the season fighting through knee pain, nudging Dallas out of the playoff race entirely and casting the Mavs' immediate future in doubt.
The unfortunate reality for the Mavericks is this: Even if everything goes according to plan, they'll merely have a top-10 defense and a competent offense in a conference that demands much more. The Lakers, Thunder and Spurs loom over all, and though Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban did a tremendous job in cobbling together a competitive (and financially flexible) roster at a moment's notice, this team doesn't have the aptitude to escape the shadow of those contenders.
To make matters worse: If Nowitzki's injury and absence drag on longer than expected, the early-season Mavs could find themselves rudderless and on the wrong side of .500. That alone may be enough to edge Dallas out of the postseason, or pave the way for more troubling concerns over Nowitzki's long-term production.
Best case: A wildfire regular season culminates in a deep, anything-can-happen playoff run thanks to a dramatic defensive improvement.
Worst case: The Nuggets parlay a fascinating, fast-breaking regular season into an all-too-familiar first-round exit.
High entertainment meets efficient offensive sensibility in Denver, where the Nuggets have somehow added a form-fitting All-Star without surrendering all that much in return. Andre Iguodala gives George Karl a playmaker, shooter and finisher to round out every stage of the coach's offense's execution, but Iggy's most compelling work may come on the defensive end. Much is expected of any elite defensive player who winds up on a subpar defensive team, and it may be a bit much to expect Iguodala's arrival to trigger a widespread culture change.
That said, it's not as if the Nuggets are -- individually -- poor defenders. Some lack experience and others lack instincts, but Denver is capable of being a far better defensive club than it was a season ago. Whether Iguodala can help capitalize on some of that potential is one of the season's great mysteries, and it's what separates a good-but-flawed Nuggets team from one that really challenges the West's top three.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Best case: A roster that makes a lot of sense on paper pans out in practice, with a better team defense than expected.
Good health is the linchpin of every team's performance, but the Warriors have left themselves particularly vulnerable to a bad break by leaning on two players with persistent injury troubles. That gives a thoughtfully constructed roster a considerable caveat; this theoretically looks like a team that should challenge for the eighth seed, but that potential would be deflated if Curry and/or Bogut were to miss considerable time. It almost seems unfair to play to that possibility, but with these two players the injury considerations are inescapable.
Best case: Houston's cast of prospects turn in strong individual performances while still turning in a miserable regular-season record.
The Rockets aren't a team so much as a collection of wait-and-see talent. In that, team goals are almost irrelevant; what coach Kevin McHale does this season in order to establish a rebuilding foundation certainly matters, but less so than assessing and projecting the performance of all of Houston's young players. But doing so will require an impossible balancing act; finding the minutes to properly gauge the play and progress of Patrick Patterson, Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lamb, Royce White, Marcus Morris and Donatas Motiejunas (not to mention the recently signed Lin and Omer Asik) would likely require a mad-scientist turn to McHale's rotation or a targeted manipulation of space-time. Neither seems particularly likely, meaning that the Rockets will undoubtedly have to prioritize and hope for the best.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Best case: One of the league's top offensive teams grows into a better defensive one and formally joins the contending ranks before being dropped in the Western Conference finals.
Worst case: The offense gets bogged down by ball-stopping on the wings, keeping a promising squad tethered to the Western Conference pack.
The Clippers manage to be highly successful in spite of their troubling lack of systemic creativity and productive organization -- or put another way, successful in spite of coach Vinny Del Negro. That aside, having seen L.A. improve on its unimaginative half-court sets through bumps in execution alone, one can hold out hope that that repetition might hold similar benefit for the Clips' needlessly below-average defense.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Best case: The new-look Lakers are a dynamo from Day 1, overtake the Thunder for the Western Conference crown and use precision and talent to overwhelm the Heat in the Finals. Pau Gasol improbably wins the Finals MVP.
Worst case: A schism in the offense makes L.A. very good but vulnerable (as opposed to overwhelmingly efficient), and a postseason slip downs the Lakers much sooner than expected.
Within the Lakers' core four is a league-altering potential. With Steve Nash and Dwight Howard finding their perfect complements in one another, Kobe Bryant finally letting go and Gasol thriving with all pressure lifted from his shoulders, this team team will undoubtedly be effective, and likely outstanding. Miami is still the hands-down title favorite, and Oklahoma City remains elite in every sense of the word, but this grouping in L.A. has the potential to be the Heat without the hiccups -- a more natural fit that requires far less in the way of concession and adjustment. We're just peddling hypotheticals at this point, but this year could be something special ... provided that L.A.'s short bench and heavy expectations don't get in the way.
Best case: Things in Memphis remain more or less the same.
Worst case: Things in Memphis remain more or less the same.
The Grizzlies have turned a few competitive playoff exits into a bit of a competitive stalemate. We know what this team is capable of, and few teams defend so effectively throughout their entire rotation. But without all that many ways to improve, the Grizzlies are stuck scrapping; they don't have the pieces to make a real run at the West's top three teams, but they are far too good to surrender ground to the ranks of playoff hopefuls. The Grizz are plumb in the ranks of the Clippers and Nuggets, but without the flash or rotational agility that give those teams their promise. It's been a blast watching Memphis at its disruptive best these last few seasons, but this is the year where the Grizz come face-to-face with the blessing and curse of their own consistency.
Best case: A deep and balanced team earns a playoff berth and takes a formidable first-round opponent all the way to Game 7.
Worst case: A once-promising season withers in the shadow of injury.
The Wolves may not have as many injury concerns as Golden State, but between the ailments of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Brandon Roy, there's quite a bit up in the air. Yet that alone can't totally disparage a talented group in a beautiful offensive system. Andrei Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic, Derrick Williams and Alexey Shved will give Rick Adelman a sturdy safety net in case the injury scenarios get a bit more complicated, and that group should keep Minnesota within striking distance of a playoff spot as it waits for its stars to heal.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
Worst case: Gordon sulks his way to a trade demand that isn't granted and puts a damper on a hopeful rebuild.
Honestly, it's hard to concoct all that many scenarios in which this year's Hornets disappoint. Davis seems to be as sure as sure things get, and with so many holes in New Orleans' mid-rebuild rotation, there's no expectation whatsoever of immediate playoff contention. The Hornets simply get to play out a freebie season -- they'll compete, they'll lose plenty, they'll get minutes for their top prospects and they'll test their best players in various roles. Barring injury, where could things really go wrong?
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Best case: The Thunder pick up right where they left off a year ago and storm to the title behind their own organic improvement.
Worst case: OKC suffers another painful year of coming up just short.
The Lakers are flashy and new, but the Thunder won't give up the Western Conference crown easily. This team is excellent, and with another year under the collective belt of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, the range of likely result is both slim and promising. Oklahoma City is going to be awfully good, but will that be enough to make it more than a highly successful runner-up?
Best case: One of the Western Conference's also-rans is as bad as it needs to be to really improve.
Worst case: The cozy mediocrity of near-playoff contention.
Given this team's multidirectional construction, things have been flipped on their head a bit. The Suns saw fit to invest some considerable coin in Goran Dragic and an interesting group of capable players, but they lack the individual star power to really project any long-term viability. The best possible result would be a humbling season; Phoenix needs to get worse before it gets better, and as presently constructed could be in a position to delude itself out of that possibility.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Worst case: Injuries across the West inflate the Blazers' record despite their obvious lack of chemistry, and that kills Portland's chance at a high lottery pick.
The Blazers have taken a hard fall over the last few seasons, and their current arrangement of talent doesn't exactly make for the most straightforward rebuilding plan. It's entirely possible that the trio of LaMarcus Aldridge, Batum and Lillard won't be intact when Portland makes the playoffs again a few years down the line. With so much money tied up in their current core, the Blazers may wind up with little choice but to explore all possible trade options for the sake of rounding out their rotation.
That makes it all the more important that Portland stumbles -- or lucks -- into another good draft pick this season, if only because another affordable asset could propel this team down the rebuilding path. Whether the Blazers wind up using that pick or dangling it as trade bait is almost irrelevant. This team is simply in need of an extra push without much financial flexibility to obtain it, and a lottery pick could provide a relatively painless way out of the gutter.
Best case: The Kings' haphazard collection of prospects somehow falls into a natural order.
Years of high draft picks have left Sacramento all dressed up with nowhere to go. The Kings have players of conflicting styles who need the ball to be effective; positional redundancies; a bona fide enigma in Evans; and a jumbled offensive system that does this weird roster no favors. Smart will do his best to sort through this mess of talent (or talented mess?), but it's hard to imagine what a successful end game even looks like with so many complicated elements in play.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Worst case: Manu Ginobili and Duncan show their age, and the Spurs' depth can only get them as far as a second-round collapse.
The Spurs have returned the exact same core for another round, and given their uncharacteristic slip in the Western Conference finals, they were right to do so. A prolific offense and mediocre defense were enough to give San Antonio a proper shot at the title a year ago, and one shouldn't expect any drop-off from a rotation this deep and a system this solid.
Of course, merely repeating their previous performance likely won't be enough to make it through a more perilous Western Conference, and it surely wouldn't be enough to take down the much-improved Heat in a long-shot NBA Finals. A team of veterans will have to contort their way into a few new tricks if this season is to go down any differently, but what more can the Spurs ask for from their aging stars and role players?
Best case: The Jazz find a productive solution to their frontcourt logjam by year's end and ride out another solid season with a decisive first-round loss.
Worst case: A prime playoff opportunity goes by the wayside, leaving the Jazz with the empty consolation of the 14th pick in the draft. Utah appears to have finally added the three-point shooting necessary to accentuate its low-post play, and it's just in time for the team's low-block staples to enter a season of uncertainty. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap were terrific last season, but with both set to be free agents next summer -- and Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter waiting backstage -- the Jazz will have to make some tough decisions about their core and future viability. The plot thickens with Utah's established place in a dogfight for the West's bottom two playoff seeds. Could this team really risk another postseason run for the sake of dealing one of its bigs before the deadline?