If you attempt define the phrase “wide open”, you may find an illustration of an NBA Western conference playoffs bracket. This NBA season is set to be impelling in both conferences but in the west, where there has been a two year hiatus on Finals victories, there are both teams and individuals with much to prove. In the mist of teams having something to prove stand one team set for redemption. The Western conference may be in line for more surprises than ever as there are a few veteran teams that may be ripe for the picking by one of the few talented, younger teams in the conference. Taking a glance at each division in the Western conference here are my projections for the 2013-14 season.
The Northwest division has been run by the Oklahoma City Thunder in recent years being led by all-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook will not be ready to go to start the season due an ACL tear he suffered during last season’s playoff series versus the Rockets. He is expected back within the first month of the season meaning, barring an incredibly flagrant start to the season, the Thunder should be able to hold off the Denver Nuggets for the fourth season in a row while capturing their fourth consecutive division title.
The Denver Nuggets fired last season’s NBA coach of the year, George Karl, as well as last season’s executive of the year, Masai Ujiri. Long time Lakers and Pacers assistant, Brian Shaw was hired to replace Karl as coach while Tim Connelly gained the responsibility of fielding a good team to build off last season’s 57 wins and challenge the Thunder for its first division title since the 2009-10 season. Connelly’s first order of business was sending forward, Andre Iguodala to the Warriors in the off-season while signing forward, J. J. Hickson, and guard, Nate Robinson. The Nuggets have a very talented roster constructed with many solid players. The development of shooting guard Evan Fournier and the health of Danilo Gallinari will go a long way in determining if the Nuggets can stall the Thunder’s hold on the division.
Two teams inside the Northwest division with huge question marks that will determine the outcome of their season are the Portland Trailblazers and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Blazers add center, Robin Lopez and sharp shooter, Mo Williams to go along with all-star, LaMarcus Aldridge and last season’s rookie of the year, Damian Lillard as they continue to build off last season’s fourth place finish in the division. The big question; will they trade or pay Aldridge? The answer will most likely determine whether the Blazers will compete for a playoff spot in the Western conference. The Wolves on the other hand are an anomaly because though they have finished last in the Northwest division four seasons running, the have improved every season over that stretch and have shown real promise over the past couple seasons before major injuries to key players set in. With the addition of Kevin Martin, a legit scoring threat, to play alongside Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio the Wolves can put up a fight in the Northwest division. The question with the Wolves this season is the same as the previous two seasons; can Love and Rubio stay healthy for the majority of the season? It is yet to happen, but we will find out.
The Utah Jazz are in rebuilding mode. Look forward to the progression of power forward Derrick Favors, center Enes Kanter and first round pick, Trey Burke out of Michigan University. It is safe to conclude the Jazz will finish last in this division.
The NBA division with the least amount of turnover may be the Pacific. Last season the Los Angeles Clippers won the Pacific division for the first time in franchise history winning a franchise high 56 games along the way. Though the Clippers had their best regular season ever, the disappointment of a first round playoff loss to the Grizzlies led to the dismissal of Vinny Del Negro as head coach. Henceforth, the Clippers traded a future first round pick for Doc Rivers. This is not a typo. Once again, the Clippers trade a future first round pick for a head coach who doesn’t contribute to rebounding, scoring or defense. Besides Rivers, the Clippers also acquired J. J. Redick and Jared Dudley in a three team deal with Milwaukee and Phoenix. There are enough bad teams in the NBA for the Clippers to win a bunch of games and make the playoffs but they are still the Clippers which means in a wide open Western conference, they are one of the few playoff teams with no chance of winning it all regardless of being the flavor of the month for many “basketball experts”.
The only other respectable team in the Pacific division are the Golden State Warriors led by head coach Mark Jackson. The Warriors may have something to say when it comes to winning the Pacific division. They are returning a very young, talented roster while adding depth to the roster by bring in veterans such as Andre Iguodala, Marreese Speights and Jermaine O’Neal. If Andrew Bogut can stay somewhat healthy for the duration of the season, the Warriors are going to be a scary foe for Western conference opponents come playoff time.
While the Phoenix Suns are in full Andrew Wiggins mold, the only question remaining in the Pacific division is which team will finish with a better record between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings. If the Lakers are without Kobe Bryant for an extended period of time as he rehabs from an Achilles injury, the people of Tinseltown could be watching the production of a horror film in the Staples Center. Lakers coach, Mike D’Antoni’s system will help them compete most nights but the lack of talent will cause them to lose more games than usual for the very prestigious organization. The Kings do not have much talent either. Ridding themselves of Tyreke Evans while adding Greivus Vasquez, an underrated guard, are positive moves for the Kings. They have a highly talented forward in DeMarcus Cousins if he can ever control his emotions and play up to his potential. In four seasons in the NBA, Cousins have yet displayed the ability to maintain self control and produce on a consistent basis so why believe he can do that now?
The Southwest division rivals the Central division as arguably the toughest division in the entire NBA. The Rockets, Spurs and Grizzlies all made the playoffs from this division while the Dallas Mavericks finished a respectable 41-41 considering the rash of injuries the team dealt with last season including a Dirk Nowitzki who did not find a rhythm until late season due to ankle and back issues. The New Orleans Pelicans are a young team with major talent. Anthony Davis’ growth as a player along with the play of newly acquired point guard, Jrue Holliday, will make them competitive but the health and commitment of Eric Gordon will determine whether this team will compete for a playoff spot in the Western conference.
Now back to the Rockets, Spurs and Grizzlies. With the signing of Dwight Howard to play alongside James Harden, who NBA general managers voted the best shooting guard in the league, the Houston Rockets have made themselves a Western conference favorite. How good they can be depends on how happy Dwight is, ultimately determining how much effort he gives. If Howard can be come great as the “experts” think he is and dominate the paint on both ends of the floor then they may win the west. If Dwight is who he has been, project the Rockets to win a lot of regular season games and perhaps the Southwest division, but no championship.
Apologies go to the San Antonio Spurs for seemingly not giving the incumbent Western conference champions the proper respect when it comes to the Southwest division by placing the Rockets ahead of them. The Spurs are not too particular when it comes to regular season standings as coach Popovich tends to play for match-ups as the playoffs approach. With that stated, there are no worries in San Antonio as they are set to win their usual 50+ wins while making at least one more authentic run at a championship in the Tim Duncan era. Outside of adding shooting guard Marco Belinelli to replace Gary Neal, there were not any major changes in San Antonio. The same core group of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have their minds set on redemption after last season’s NBA Finals disaster. Kawhi Leonard’s role may increase as his game continues to develop. His success will be critical to the Spurs reaching their goals this season.
The Memphis Grizzlies wanted to continue to progress with roughly the same staff, but when contract talks fell through with Lionel Hollins, the Grizzlies turned to assistant coach Dave Joerger to lead the team. A team that finished 4th in the Western conference with no significant improvements or losses to the roster in the off-season while many other teams out west made vast improvements in an attempt to crack the top eight in the Western conference could mean the Grizzlies have a slight drop off as far as regular season wins are concerned. Do not expect them to miss the playoffs but the Grizzlies reached their ceiling last season when the earned a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Final Western Conference Projections
As stated earlier, the Western conference is wide open to just about each of its playoff teams aside from the Clippers and whichever team can lockdown the eight seed. Many teams in the Western conference are athletic and some have superstar players like Kevin Durant and James Harden who are attempting to place their names among the basketball greats. Few have the wisdom and chemistry the Spurs have. Never underestimate the heart of a champion nor the hunger of a championship team left with sour taste after an NBA Finals meltdown. Of course match-ups will dictate who ultimately triumphs as Western conference champions. The Warriors and Nuggets, both good teams with great home-court advantages, are also genuine threats in the west. Nonetheless, the Spurs project to win this conference but not based on experience alone. They have the best power forward in Duncan. The best point guard in Tony Parker. Despite last season’s choke job, the Spurs have the best head coach, a solid bench and an up and coming superstar in Kawhi Leonard. Below are projected Western conference standings.
1. Houston Rockets
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. San Antonio Spurs
5. Golden State Warriors
6. Denver Nuggets
7. Memphis Grizzlies
8. Portland Trailblazers
Those are the Western conference projections where Tim Duncan and the Spurs look to win title number five. Based on the Eastern conference projections published prior, the Spurs and Heat will meet in the NBA Finals. This time the outcome will be reversed and the Spurs will win another championship. Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant will explode this season and increase his scoring with the absence of Westbrook to start the season. For rookie of the year, keep an eye on the second pick of this years NBA Draft, Orlando Magic’s Victor Oladipo.
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