Western Conference Power Rankings
With NBA training camps set to open in about six weeks, here's my view of how the Western Conference stacks up. (Click here for the East.)
1. San Antonio Spurs: Don't bring that "The Spurs are too old" chorus here. The Western Conference champions essentially swapped Gary Neal for Marco Belinelli, but otherwise will return the core of a 58-win team that extended the Spurs' run as the most successful franchise in professional sports since 1998. It may be asking a lot for a 37-year-old Tim Duncan to duplicate last season's 18-point, 10-rebound output, but the further development of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green may be able to make up for any dip. And the Spurs still have Tony Parker, a bona fide MVP candidate, running one of the NBA's most efficient offenses. Count them out at your own peril.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder: Replacing James Harden with Kevin Martin was one thing. But replacing Martin with second-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb? That should make even the most enthusiastic Thunder fans nervous. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will still make Oklahoma City a potent offensive team, and the big-man rotation of Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison should keep last season's fourth-most-efficient defense stout. But the Thunder need a third scoring option to win the West, and it's hard to predict what they might get from Lamb, who spent most of last season in the D-League. If the 21-year-old Lamb isn't ready, third-year guard Reggie Jackson will face more pressure to be an efficient scorer and playmaker off the bench. Jackson played well in Westbrook's absence during the playoffs.
3. Los Angeles Clippers: The addition of coach Doc Rivers was big, if for no other reason than it kept Chris Paul in a Clippers uniform. But the Clippers did win 56 games last season, a number that will be hard to top in a conference that keeps getting better. Expect Rivers to hand plenty of offensive responsibility to Paul (which he wants) and put sharpshooter J.J. Redick in many of the same sets he ran for Ray Allen in Boston. But big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan will be the key to a deep playoff run. Griffin, who made strides diversifying his game last season, will need to become a more consistent low-post threat.
4. Houston Rockets: The Rockets landed the big fish in Dwight Howard, and a low-key Houston environment and the presence of a young star in James Harden should make the 27-year-old center's transition back to being the offensive force/defensive menace he was in Orlando easier. But the Rockets still have a glaring hole at power forward (a Howard-Omer Asik frontcourt is a pipe dream) and a point guard (Jeremy Lin) whom many scouts consider to be more of a backup. It's doubtful that freewheeling general manager Daryl Morey is done dealing, and if he can flip Asik for an experienced stretch-power-forward type, the Rockets could easily climb up the standings.
5. Memphis Grizzlies: The challenge for new coach Dave Joerger isn't having enough talent in Memphis, which returns most of last season's 56-win, defensively dominant, better-without-Rudy-Gay squad; it's managing a team with big personalities, something former coach Lionel Hollins did expertly by gaining the respect and attention of the locker room. On the floor, Mike Miller -- if his body holds up -- will help the NBA's worst three-point-shooting offense and be the fourth-quarter floor spacer the Grizzlies need to create room for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to operate. That's the key, really: If the Grizzlies can make perimeter shots, their two star bigs will be even more difficult to handle.
6. Golden State Warriors: Lost in the euphoria of Andre Iguodala's signing was the price Golden State paid to get him: letting guard Jarett Jack (a Sixth Man Award candidate and mentor to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) and power forward Carl Landry (an effective low-post presence) go in free agency. The Warriors will still score a lot and shoot a ton of three-pointers, and Iguodala gives them a versatile defender who can match up with an opponent's top perimeter player. But the loss of Landry, coupled with Festus Ezeli's torn ACL, has left the Warriors thin on the front line, even with the signings of Marreese Speights and Jermaine O'Neal. To avoid too many O'Neal sightings, David Lee, who is coming off hip surgery, and Andrew Bogut, who has played only 44 games the last two seasons because of back and ankle injuries, will need to stay healthy.
7. Minnesota Timberwolves: The Wolves are eager to turn the page from a lost 2012-13 season, when Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic all missed significant time and coach Rick Adelman was away from the team for an extended period while tending to a family issue. With that core back in place after Pekovic re-signed this week, Minnesota will be eyeing its first playoff berth since 2004. The wild card is rookie Shabazz Muhammad. Best case, Muhammad collects easy buckets in transition from Rubio, overwhelms two-guards in the post and handles the scoring burden with the second unit. Worst case, a lack of maturity continues to plague Muhammad and his game -- which at this point is, Go hard left and score over people -- doesn't develop.
8. Denver Nuggets: After jettisoning Coach of the Year George Karl, the Nuggets gave Brian Shaw a long-overdue shot at a head job. Shaw inherits a team in a little trouble. Denver still has the speedy Ty Lawson to run an up-tempo offense and athletic big men Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee to crash the glass. And Shaw has said his top priority is sharpening the defense and half-court execution. But the loss of Iguodala and, to a lesser extent, Corey Brewer will sting, and even Shaw has admitted that he isn't quite sure what Denver's style will look like. There is enough talent to make the playoffs, but not to match last season's success (57 victories, third seed).
9. New Orleans Pelicans: There are shades of pre-playoffs Oklahoma City in New Orleans, where the roster is loaded with dynamic young talent. All-Star Jrue Holiday heads a formidable backcourt/wing rotation that includes Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Austin Rivers. Anthony Davis' late-season production (15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in 24 games after the All-Star break) suggests that he is ready to live up to his considerable hype. The Pelicans' most glaring weakness is at center. Robin Lopez was shipped out in the Evans deal, leaving journeymen Jason Smith and Greg Stiemsma and rookie Jeff Withey to fill the spot.
10. Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers addressed their need for depth by adding Thomas Robinson, Lopez, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright in trades or free agency and drafting CJ McCollum. How McCollum and Damian Lillard play together -- particularly defensively, with McCollum, an undersized two-guard, sharing minutes with incumbent starter Wesley Matthews -- is unclear, and coach Terry Stotts will have work to do to improve a defense that ranked 26th in efficiency last season. But a quartet of LaMarcus Aldridge, Lillard, McCollum and Nic Batum is both versatile and potentially dynamic offensively. In the East, Portland would be good enough to make the playoffs. In the West, well, it should be better than last season's 33-win team.
11. Dallas Mavericks: Mark Cuban's gamble that the Mavs could lure Deron Williams, Howard or Paul over the last two years to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki -- a big reason for breaking up Dallas' 2011 title-winning team -- may have officially backfired. At 35, Nowitzki is coming off his worst scoring season (17.5 points per game) since his rookie year, and the Mavericks supplemented him this summer with guards Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon and center Samuel Dalembert, among others. Unless Dallas can flip Shawn Marion's expiring contract for another impact player, it's looking like a second trip to the lottery in a row.
12. Los Angeles Lakers: Make no mistake, there will be games when Pau Gasol is running and finishing in impressive fashion, Steve Nash plays like his old self and Kobe Bryant pulls the Lakers' fat out of the fire. But with Howard and Metta World Peace gone, with Nash and Gasol a year older -- and no better defensively -- and with Bryant's status uncertain after surgery to repair his Achilles tendon, more often than not the Lakers will be outgunned. Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill are credible up front, but the Lakers' lack of athleticism in the backcourt will continue to kill them against the conference's explosive guards.
13. Sacramento Kings: Joining Shaw in the it's-about-time-he-got-a-job club is Mike Malone, a superior mind who brings stability to the Kings' bench. Malone's priorities are twofold: Develop Ben McLemore, a two-guard with All-Star talent, and get through to center DeMarcus Cousins, who has the ability to lead a new era in Sacramento basketball or detonate it. The playoffs aren't the goal for this season; if the young players improve, the Kings can declare this a successful season.
14. Utah Jazz: The Jazz embraced the youth movement this summer, letting Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Mo Williams walk, effectively handing the team off to Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and Trey Burke. Kanter and Favors should shine outside of Jefferson's and Millsap's shadow. The questions come in the backcourt and on the wing, where Hayward and Burks are still works in progress and Burke, though perhaps the most NBA-ready playmaker in the draft, is stepping into the league's most complex position in a conference loaded with elite point guards. Three years from now, the Jazz could be really good. This season, they will be really bad.
15. Phoenix Suns: First, the good news: In Eric Bledsoe, the Suns have a young, potential franchise-type point guard. And first-round pick Alex Len has the talent to be a steady offensive and rebounding presence. Beyond that, though, the cupboard is pretty bare. Goran Dragic, Caron Butler and Marcin Gortat are solid pros, though if Len is healthy, Gortat could become trade bait. A Bledsoe-Dragic backcourt could create some offensive fireworks, but it won't stop anybody. Phoenix's focus is clearly on the future, and new GM Ryan McDonough could have three first-round picks in next year's loaded draft. Before then, expect the losses to pile up.