Can Dwight Howard regain his dominant form and make Houston a contender? (Bill Baptist/Getty Images)
With the NBA regular season just a few weeks away, The Point Forward examines the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team in 2013-14. Ben Golliver has outlined the scenarios for the Eastern Conference's 15 teams. Here's a look at the Western Conference.
Best-case:Rick Carlisle somehow creates a makeshift defense from Shawn Marion, an out-of-shape Samuel Dalembert and duct tape.
Worst-case: Dallas' defense collapses, keeping the Mavs out of the postseason for the second straight year.
In the combination of Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, Dallas may well have found offensive equilibrium. There's enough shooting, driving and passing between them to build a flexible foundation -- supported by skilled players serving complementary functions. Nowitzki can draw attention away from Ellis in the pick-and-roll when not pouring in points himself. Ellis' drives will set up Nowitzki and Calderon for open jumpers. Calderon will alternate between spacing the floor and setting up his teammates for easy scores. Such chemistry will undoubtedly take time to ferment, but that trio -- flanked by a deep cast of role players -- should fairly easily forge a top-10 offense.
Dallas' performance on the other side of the ball, however, could range anywhere from passable to absolutely disastrous. The fundamental problem in relying on Nowitzki, Ellis and Calderon at their respective price points is that their very union creates a massive defensive strain. Calderon and Ellis have both been truly disastrous defenders of late, while Nowitzki, at best, is right around average. Their joint struggles could be properly disguised if Dallas had a few top-flight defenders in the mix, but instead it will lean heavily on the overworked Marion and the overmatched Dalembert. Even if both have good defensive seasons, there's still a very real chance that Dallas ranks as one of the worst defensive teams among those actually trying to win games this season. Carlisle so often does a masterful job of redeeming maximum value from meager resources, but he'll have his hands full in trying to achieve defensive solvency.
Best-case: A first-round exit paves the way for an offseason of introspection.
Worst-case:A lottery berth paves the way for an offseason of introspection.
Even after expelling its mad scientist of a coach and losing its most idiosyncratic player, Denver remains incredibly odd. There's enough there to challenge for a playoff berth, particularly if JaVale McGee is able to even vaguely stretch his awesome per-minute production from last season (when he averaged 18 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per 36 minutes) through double the playing time. Even with that improvement assumed, though, this is a fairly mismatched group -- deep in all the wrong places and spending on all wrong things. Just this summer, Denver committed some $30.2 million over three years to J.J. Hickson and Timofey Mozgov, a curious investment that could well put the Nuggets into luxury tax territory in 2014-15.
There's a lot of salary invested without much certainty; the shot-creating duo of Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari isn't yet playoff-proven; McGee is as tantalizing (and frustrating) as ever; Wilson Chandler is a solid player, but perhaps not qualified for such high billing on a superstar-less team; Hickson promises to only compound Denver's defensive woes; the wings are stocked with raw, unreliable prospects; and we have no way of knowing if Brian Shaw is the right coach for this job. Perhaps this season can begin to provide some answers.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Best-case: Good health and improved defense give the Warriors a shot to compete with the best teams in the West.
Worst-case: Periodic injuries never quite allow Golden State to hit its stride.
Golden State will likely wind up a title contender, but I'm keeping an eye on two very related pitfalls. The first is the offseason reimagining of the Warriors' rotation, which -- among other moves -- swapped out a ball-dominant guard for a fill-the-gaps wing. Andre Iguodala is a wonderful addition for Golden State, fit to fill a variety of roles, but it's not as if he he's a clean substitute for former Warrior Jarrett Jack. Their wildly different games demand change in approach from Warriors coach Mark Jackson, and will likely demand a period of adjustment. Conversely, downgrading from Carl Landry to Marreese Speights will force Golden State to shift and compromise, all while reincorporating David Lee into the offense that fared so well without him during the playoffs.
All of which is very doable -- even common in a league where so many teams undergo drastic offseason changes. My larger concern is that the Warriors' efforts to shift their approach and integrate their new additions might be hindered by playing in fits and starts. If Andrew Bogut is as healthy as he claims and Stephen Curry can stay on the floor, Golden State should be quite good. But if either -- or both -- start popping in and out of the lineup with persistent injuries, it could make it challenging for the Warriors to ever sink into a groove.
Best-case:The Rockets make the jump ahead of schedule as Dwight Howard assumes his previously dominant form.
Worst-case: Houston is very good while still being -- rather clearly -- a piece or two away from challenging for the title.
Plenty still needs to be sorted out in terms of who and how the Rockets will play, but the pairing of Howard and James Harden is too sturdy for disaster. The worst that could happen is an expected delay; even a glance up and down Houston's roster would reveal a glaring hole at the power forward spot, one of which the Rockets are intimately aware and surely looking to address. Otherwise, this is a team in a position to grow organically during the season, potentially to the point of challenging for the title in spite of its flaws. Once more, with feeling: This is going to be fun.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
Worst-case:Highly efficient offense isn't enough to make L.A. a top-flight contender.
One of the best offenses in the league gets better, both by addition (J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison) and subtraction (Vinny Del Negro). Yet it's no secret that Rivers was hired as coach in part to tease some defensive potential out of Griffin and Jordan. Both are incredibly mobile and athletic, possessing the raw components necessary to be effective team defenders. But some aspect of that execution has somehow eluded them; even after the Clippers tweaked their system to better leverage Jordan and Griffin's collective speed, their team defense faltered at times behind their bigs' inconsistent rotations.
Expecting dramatic improvement in a single season might be a bit much, but the Clippers have done enough to bolster their offense that they don't necessarily need dramatic improvement. If Chris Paul is able to incorporate the newly acquired shooters as well as expected, then L.A. will at the very least be on the periphery of the title conversation. From there, it's up to Rivers and the Clippers themselves to find a way to make the defense -- and the painful lack of even a single useful reserve big man -- work on a level that could carry a championship run.
Will Nick Young do more good for the Lakers than bad? (Noah Graham/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Best-case:A season refresh thrusts a healthier Lakers team into playoff contention.
Worst-case: One final, needless jumper from Nick Young sends Kobe Bryant hurtling into insanity.
As hopeful as I am that Steve Nash and Pau Gasol might approximate their proper selves this season, let's not pretend that even that development -- coupled with Bryant's improbably full return -- would make the Lakers anything more than a mere playoff contender. Any team relying on a combination of Young, Chris Kaman, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and/or Shawne Williams to make the playoff cut is well behind the eight ball to begin with. Add in the fact that Bryant will be returning from an injury that has characteristically sapped the effectiveness of those NBA players unfortunate enough to suffer it, and there seems very little reason for optimism insofar as the desired end is to watch the Lakers win games this season.
For those angling for pure entertainment value, however, look no further. The Nash-Gasol pairing should be as fun as initially promised, Young's self-declared green light figures to be an amazing display of shooting audacity, and at the center of it all will be Bryant, attempting to recapture his game in the weirdest of circumstances. It won't always make for very good basketball, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fascinated.
Best-case:Further offensive refinement and a series of matchup advantages pave the way for a trip to the NBA Finals.
Worst-case:A better team drops Memphis in the first round.
The Grizzlies are a very good team in a very good conference -- a distinction that could earn them an early playoff exit if the seeding breaks poorly. With as many as six potential contenders in the West, four of the six are likely to play another high-level opponent in the first round. Memphis is a sensible pick to be among them, as the Grizzlies' style doesn't exactly lend itself to piling up regular-season wins -- at least not on the level of the Spurs or Thunder, or possibly even the Rockets or Clippers.
That in itself isn't the end-all for Memphis, which is nonetheless equipped to best some of the Western Conference elite. It simply doesn't bode well for a team that will already need a number of breaks to return to the conference finals to begin with. Making that trek is well within the Grizzlies' power, as they again promise to be one of the best defensive teams in the league and should be even more comfortable in their offense after having a few months to regroup. But as far as contenders go, Memphis is still something of a long shot, if only because of its positioning in the thick of the West's contending crowd.
Best-case:Kevin Love staves off fluke injuries to stay on the court for a full season, powering the Wolves to their first playoff berth in a decade.
Worst-case:When healthy, the pieces don't meld together as intended, exposing some rather considerable defensive flaws.
Minnesota is coming off what was essentially a worst-case-scenario season, having lost a crippling number of games to injury. One can only hope that this year will be different, if only so we can finally see this collection of noteworthy talent take a proper turn in Rick Adelman's offense. The passing and off-ball movement across the roster provide a promising foundation, but the truth is that Minnesota has been so dinged up over the past two seasons as to leave its roster a bit unsettled. We know how specific pairs of players work together, but this full rotation -- complete with the recently signed Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer along with the newly drafted Shabazz Muhammad -- will be something of a revelation.
Because of that, it's possible that the pieces don't all fit together just so. The offense should be fine, but Minnesota has neither a definitive wing stopper nor an elite interior defender -- a combination that could spell problems. Brewer works hard to challenge opposing wings and Nikola Pekovic does well to eat up space inside, but this roster is a bit of a gamble -- a dice roll with the hope that the Wolves can make the playoffs as is and tweak from there. This group may have enough to execute the first phase of that plan because Love is that good and Adelman is that sharp. But this is a precarious season for Minnesota all the same, as the Wolves' new brass will have a first, hard look at the roster at hand.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Best-case: A fascinating young team begins to strike balance on both sides of the ball.
Worst-case: The dual commitment to Tyreke Evans (at four years and $44 million) and Jrue Holiday (at four years and $43 million) begins to look like a huge mistake, while Eric Gordon further torpedoes his trade value.
This is far too weird a roster to make many concrete assumptions about how the Pelicans' season -- or their future in general -- might unfold. Overall, New Orleans has made a hard financial commitment to a core of very good young players, likely in the hope that their continued development will clear the way for the team's ascent. That's not a bad wager, largely because Anthony Davis could soon be the best player among them while still finishing out his rookie-scale deal. There are evident risks involved in signing Evans to an eight-figure annual salary and in sacrificing two first-round picks for Holiday, but in all the Pelicans have cobbled together a core group of versatile, complementary players with terrific offensive potential.
Bringing along the defense will likely take more time because much of it hinges on Davis' ability to deliver as promised. With some patience assumed in that regard, the worst it gets for New Orleans would be an early indication that the recent acquisitions might not work -- a hiccup from which the Pelicans could still easily recover. There is a very real chance that this core never quite fleshes out to be as successful on both ends of the court as is needed to contend, but the scope of that possibility goes well beyond this particular season.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Best-case: The Thunder win the NBA title after Russell Westbrook returns without issue.
There's enough doubt to prevent the Thunder from being the favorites to win the West, but in all likelihood OKC will again be one of the best teams in the league. Westbrook's injury could turn out to be just the experimental setting this team needs. While the Thunder could lose ground in the race to secure the top seed in the conference, Westbrook's absence should further stretch the skill sets of Jackson, Lamb, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka into helpful new directions.
Beyond that, this is still a team buoyed by the second-best basketball player on the planet, soon to be joined again by an explosive, undeterrable shot creator. There are flaws and worries beyond that, but the raw power of Durant and Westbrook will help cover for many of them. This, of course, assumes that Westbrook will return after a lengthy absence and multiple knee surgeries to look more or less himself. Anything less would be a heavy blow to the Thunder's chances, as Oklahoma City's rudimentary offense is built on the threat that Westbrook poses in conjunction with Durant.
In all likelihood, it's a nonissue; most players recover from meniscus injuries to return to form in short order, with some returning to the floor in a matter of weeks. But in a nightmare scenario the Thunder might not be schematically prepared to accommodate a lesser Westbrook, which could have some costly ripple effects for OKC's offensive execution on the whole. Worry not, Thunder fans, but be wary.
Best-case: Eric Bledsoe looks the part of a real-deal playmaker as the Suns pile up assets and begin their team-wide development.
Worst-case: Phoenix's most compelling prospects (Bledsoe, Alex Len, Archie Goodwin) fail to stand out in the muddle, leaving the Suns without the raw materials to continue their rebuild.
When you're already aiming to be one of the worst teams in the league, there really isn't too much room to disappoint. Things could go wrong with specific prospects, but on a macro level the Suns pretty much get a pass; their roster is so bad that no one should be expecting wins, leaving development and evaluation as the primary goals of the season.
In that regard, Bledsoe will understandably be the priority. He's set to be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, leaving the Suns with one year to decide how much they're potentially willing to invest in an explosive point guard still developing his playmaking skills. Those kinds of determinations are important, as are the trade negotiations that Phoenix will inevitably have regarding players like Marcin Gortat. But even the worst possible outcomes aren't in any way catastrophic, as the Suns are set to endure a low-stakes season of roster cultivation and management.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
Best-case: The Blazers play fairly well and secure a playoff berth on the strength of their offense.
Worst-case: The Blazers play fairly well and lose out on a playoff spot on the porousness of their defense.
Portland turned one of the worst benches in the league into a far more promising group during a busy offseason. But despite that change, the Blazers still don't have much upward mobility. The offense will continue to grow with the incorporation of more useful reserves, and the defense should be well served by replacing J.J. Hickson with Robin Lopez. Yet this is still a team merely good enough to compete for a playoff spot, with nothing at all guaranteed. Portland will have to claw through the crowded cast of bubble teams in the West just to have a shot at the postseason, all of which would earn the Blazers nothing beyond two extra home games. A hearty round of applause is in order for overhauling the second unit, but Portland's range of possibility is awfully slim.
Best-case: Mike Malone and Pete D'Alessandro make order from chaos.
Worst-case: A fresh, franchise-wide start is squandered in disarray.
Wins and losses are of little consequence to the Kings this season. The primary goal is to establish a winning framework for a franchise that was previously run haphazardly. That begins on a managerial level, where D'Alessandro will be tasked with sorting out a few positional logjams. Beyond that, Malone will grapple with a young playing rotation and have first crack at validating the max extension given to DeMarcus Cousins. Frankly, the Kings have a lot of housekeeping to do before they are even ready to take substantive steps forward, but setting that foundation is progress in itself.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Best-case: Superior execution and another defiant year from Tim Duncan allow the Spurs to win the Western Conference again.
Worst-case: Father time finally comes to collect.
My rudimentary understanding of time tells me that Duncan will eventually succumb to the factors of age and wear like all basketball players do. But at this point -- after watching Duncan dominate, again, at 37 -- I'm inclined to believe anything. Maybe he's simply impervious to the elements we previously thought to be universal. Perhaps his ailing joints were swapped out for bolts and hinges long ago. All we know for sure is that Duncan is playing at an incredible level when history suggests he should be riding off into the sunset, stamping a fitting coda onto an exemplary career.
That he has so much help -- in terms of both system and personnel -- has undoubtedly extended a playing prime that should have wrapped long ago. And that, more than anything, is why the Spurs are among the safer bets to make a return trip to the Finals this season. There's a solid handful of potential contenders in the West, but none drawing on the same level of continuity and established execution. All teams face questions, but those facing the Spurs have less to do with how they play and more to do with the toll that another season might take on Duncan and Manu Ginobili. The former is unquestionably more stable than the latter at this point, but in all likelihood both will be good enough for the Spurs to make another deep playoff run.
Worst-case: A season goes by without much substantive player development.
For Utah, the worst-case possibility is extremely remote. This will be a losing season for the Jazz, but a learning season. Kanter and Favors, in particular, will have a chance to claim more minutes and more responsibility, an opportunity for both players to grow into their games.
Favors, for his part, very much needs to become more comfortable with the ball in his hands. He's a good finisher and does well to convert off rebounds, but last season he wanted no part of anything that would require his own shot creation. That's a bit of a problem. Being able to catch the ball and make simple plays without panicking is essential to becoming a high-functioning NBA big man, and yet last season Favors never seemed to know where to go when temporarily in control.
Kanter, on the other hand, could very much use the defensive reps. He's a bit slower than Favors, which is part of the reason why Kanter doesn't project the same kind of gaudy defensive potential. That makes it all the more important for Kanter to be intimately familiar with the specifics of defensive rotation and the timing of defending in space -- both of which can only be gleaned through experience.