Who Will Win The NBA Western Conference?
The 2013/2014 NBA season begins next Tuesday. Today on the blog Adam Digby completes his team by team previews as he examines the Western Conference.
Golden State Warriors
The most eye catching and headline grabbing team of last season, the Warriors will be under heavy scrutiny this year as they seek to repeat the drama and quality of that exciting playoff run. Steph Curry is no longer 'just a gunner', he is a legitimate threat and a player who becomes almost unstoppable when at his best.
His incredible year saw him make 45.3% of his three point attempts, and his backcourt partner Klay Thompson - who made 40.1% from beyond the arc - is no slouch either. What they have now that was missing in the past however, is strength outside of their deadly guards, with their depth now a huge asset. Previously, one injury could cripple their playoff hopes, but they now have Andre Iguodala to help should Curry miss games, while David Lee and Harrison Barnes can fill in, should Andrew Bogut need to sit out.
What those combinations also give the Warriors is a versatility matched by very few teams. The lineup flexibility centres around Iguodala as he fills in the gaps, makes the right passes and cuts to keep the system moving. What he will also do of course, is guard the opponents best perimeter player, taking pressure - and tiredness - away from Thompson and Curry, leaving them free to do what they do better than anyone.
Golden State Warriors NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
Los Angeles Clippers
After decades of being the ugly step-child, the Clippers are comfortably the best team in town, but must capitalise on that in 2014. The arrival of Doc Rivers will give them many things, but the most important will be another voice joining Chris Paul as the two men strive to lead the franchise to a title.
The coach got his star point guard on board early, convincing him to re-sign, and with a more balanced lineup, there really is no reason they should not be genuine contenders. JJ Redick and Jared Dudley (39 and 40.5% career three point shooter respectively) will space the floor more effectively than Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler did, providing the outside threat that this team previously lacked.
With Paul and Blake Griffin given more room to run their pick-and-roll two man game, their challenge rests on what they do defensively. Rivers' biggest issue is to push Griffin and DeAndre Jordan into becoming elite defenders, or else find a trade that gives him that. The coach should find a way, aided by the bitterness last season's first round playoff exit should have left, driving them even harder in 2014.
Los Angeles Clippers NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
Los Angeles Lakers
This could be a strange season for the famous purple and gold, one which could see them finish anywhere from a playoff berth to the draft lottery. Their entire season depends heavily on three ageing players who, while certain to be Hall of Famers in the future, are towards the end of their careers and recovering from serious injuries.
It would be ridiculous in the extreme to write off Kobe Bryant even now, and his comeback will only be fuelled further by anyone doing so. After posting 27.8 points per game before his injury - the best ever numbers for a player over 34 years of age - he has made too many people look foolish already.
Overall however, the biggest problem is their defence which, even with their star trio and Dwight Howard, was poor last year. With the dominating inside presence gone, things can only get worse for Mike D'Antoni in this regard, and stopping opponents in their current state will be impossible. Make no mistake, the Lakers are playing for next summer, when the big three contracts come off the books. Nowhere holds as much lure in the free agent market as their side of LA.
Los Angeles Lakers NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
The Suns were the worst team in the Western Conference last season and, after trading away their three solid scorers - Michael Beasley, Jared Dudley and Luis Scola - are unlikely to improve on that position. What they will have is an interesting backcourt as they pair Goran Dragic, who led the team in points, assists and steals last season, with the newly acquired Eric Bledsoe.
As Chris Paul's backup in LA last season, Bledsoe averaged 8.5 points and 3.1 assists in just 20 minutes per game, and seeing if he does as well as a regular starter will be intriguing. His speed and tenacity should compliment the shooting and passing of Dragic, who is likely to handle the ball more.
Up front, Channing Frye and Marcin Gortat will see regular playing time as the Suns field a youthful roster. Phoenix is another team with more than an eye on next summer's free agent/draft market. This year will be about testing these players to see which have a future in Phoenix along with new coach Jeff Hornacek.
Phoenix Suns NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
Well, they are staying in the city, but almost everything else about the Kings has or will be changing. A deal is in pace for a new downtown arena, a new ownership group has taken over from the hated Maloof family and they have appointed both a new general manager, Pete D’Alessandro, and a new coach in Mike Malone.
Even the roster has undergone a major overhaul with guard Greivis Vasquez a key addition. Malone says the Venezuelan will be central to their playing style, as he told reporters at a pre-season practice:
"Greivis is a facilitator, he's a floor leader and he's going to make plays for his teammates. That goes into changing our culture and getting guys who are willing to move the ball and pass up good shots to get great shots."
Amid all these moves, the one major constant is the presence of DeMarcus Cousins who, after re-signing with the Kings, must now be looked upon to lead the team forward. One of the most talented centers in the league, he can score and rebound in the paint as well as anyone in the NBA when he's focused, but that happens all too infrequently and the franchise rests now on his development and maturity. If he can reach All-Star status, things truly will be looking up in Sacramento.
Sacramento Kings NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
South West Division
The Mavs failed to address their major weaknesses in the offseason, not shoring up a defence which ranked as low as 20th in terms of efficiency last season. Rick Carlisle has made a career of making the best of the talent at his disposal, and that may be enough to slip this team into the playoffs.
Should they fail to achieve that - as they did last season - it is hard not to imagine pro-active owner Mark Cuban hitting the reset button on the team. With core trio Shawn Marrion, Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki all at least 36 by next summer, he is well placed to maximise the free agent market ahead of 2014-15. All three of those players are in the last year of their contract, leaving the Mavs committed to just under $35 million.
That is next year however, and for now the exquisite shooting of Nowitzki may once again carry Dallas beyond expectations. With DeJuan Blair, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert and Monta Ellis all making the move to Dallas, how quickly they gel may decide whether or not they do indeed enjoy post-season basketball.
Dallas Mavericks NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
It began with the acquisition of James Harden last season and now, thanks to the free agent capture of Dwight Howard, the Rockets will finally be ranked among the best teams in the Western Conference. They appear to be a perfect match as the centre provides an inside scoring threat to compliment Harden's outside game. This was showcased in his breakout season in Texas where he averaged 25.9 points last year.
Howard's ability in the pick-and-roll should also feature heavily in their offence, while his interior defence is a huge upgrade on anything Houston offered in 2013. If they can find chemistry, it should be enough to see them make a deep playoff run, but they lack the necessary depth beyond their star duo. One player who might also benefit from their ability is Chandler Parsons, a career 37% three point shooter who may well find himself getting numerous open looks.
They may be a year - and various trades or free agent pick ups - away from becoming a genuine threat, but the Rockets should be fun to watch as they learn to win together.
Houston Rockets NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
The Grizzlies front office decided that the best regular season in franchise history was less important than the manner in which they exited the playoffs, parting ways with coach Lionel Hollins shortly after their loss to the Spurs. Replacing him is former assistant Dave Joerger, which should offer nothing if not a smooth transition period in the new season.
His plan appears to be a slightly increased tempo, that will stop teams clamping down on the post play of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, which remains their best offensive threat. They will be aided by arrival of Kosta Koufos, who should be able to spell the pair and keep them fresh for a longer run in the post season.
As well as carrying the offence, the big men also take the lead on defence where their presence is aided by the excellent perimeter play of Tony Allen and Mike Conley. With only Indiana boasting a better record in terms of stopping the opposition hounding the perimeter, if the Grizzlies can maintain that intensity while improving at the other end, they may be a serious contender.
Memphis Grizzlies NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
New Orleans Pelicans
After giving up the Hornets moniker, the new-look Pelicans go into the season seeking a change in fortunes. After plodding through 2013, the biggest improvement needed was the porous defence, ranked 28th in the league at an efficiency of 107.6 points per 100 possessions. Trades for Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans should improve the team on both ends of the floor, especially the former who was the only player in the league to top 17 points and eight assists last season.
The Pelicans have invested heavily in Evans, handing him a four year, $44 million contract to pry him from Sacramento and will hope to be repaid in kind by a player who averages 17.5 points, 4.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game over his career. Adding those two to Eric Gordon - if he can remain healthy - and Anthony Davis, might see New Orleans make a leap in 2014. If those players can gel together quickly, their ability might make up for what they lack in experience under coach Monty Williams.
New Orleans Pelicans NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
San Antonio Spurs
Can the Spurs somehow lead the way in the West once again? Can Greg Popovich somehow manage to juggle the playing time of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to keep them fresh for another title run? At this point, doubting that they will record fifty wins and enter the post-season as one of the favourites seems churlish at best.
Marco Belinelli has replaced Gary Neal as the back up option should Ginobili continue to regress faster than the other members of the Big Three. The only other major change is likely to be the increased use of Kwahi Leonard, who played more minutes in last year's playoffs than any other Spur. Highly versatile, the third-year forward defends the opponent's top wing scorer and knocks down threes at an impressive rate of 37.5%.
Danny Green is another outside threat that will help open the inside for Duncan, but while the Spurs seem to rarely alter, this year everything around them certainly has. With their major rivals making numerous roster changes, it is apt that once again San Antonio's biggest advantage will be its chemistry.
San Antonio Spurs NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
North West Division
With George Karl and Andre Iguodala gone, new coach Brian Shaw has spent the summer trying to instil a more playoff-suited style. Slowing down the previously fast paced offence seems like a bad idea given its regular season success and the defence looking decidedly poor.
In addition to the excellent Iguodala, the Nuggets also said farewell to their best interior defender - Kosta Koufos - and look incapable of stopping opponents. Newcomers Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are also poor on defence, as is Nate Robinson.
When so much of what happens is dependent on the performances of JaVale McGee and Kenneth Faried, it seems Denver could fall hard and fast from the highs of last term. Gallinari has yet to overcome the ACL tear he suffered, but it's hard to see the Nuggets going beyond the first round of the playoffs, should they scrape enough wins together to reach the postseason.
Denver Nuggets NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
The Timberwolves will just hope to be healthy in 2014. Last year their core trio of Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Petkovic was on the floor together for a mere thirteen minutes, a fact which devastated their season and left them little chance of winning.
They ranked dead last in three point attempts in the 2012-2013 season, making just 30.5%, but seem to have addressed that issue by bringing in Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer. That duo will get plenty of good shots from Rubio's excellent passing, while the three should form a solid defensive unit.
Love has averaged 17.3 points and 12.2 rebounds since arriving in the league five years ago, while Petkovic has developed into a powerful inside scorer. Coach Rick Adelman summed up their hopes best as he told reporters:
"Things have happened over the past two years that were out of everybody's control and we have unfinished business. We've changed a lot of people, so I think the organisation is going in the right direction."
Minnesota Timberwolves NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
Oklahoma City Thunder
With Russell Westbrook suffering a setback as he recovered from the injury which ruled him out of the playoffs, the focus of all things Thunder remains Kevin Durant. The slender forward will, as ever, offer the ruthless scoring efficiency which almost saw him lead the league whilst shooting 50% from the field, 40% from three and 90% from the foul line.
With a largely unchanged roster, he will do so in a hugely familiar setting as the core of Thunder players have been together for some time. Their offence, run largely through Durant and Westbrook is formidable in the open court while their uptempo defence unsettles many teams.
OKC pride themselves on making stops and are good at getting them, as only the Pacers and Grizzlies bettered their defensive efficiency rating of 99.2 points per 100 possessions. Led by the interior presence of Serge Ibaka - who averaged a league high 3 blocks per game - they have few standout individuals but their team defence is superb.
The combination of that defence and the Durant-Westbrook partnership on offence should see OKC thrive in the West, but it is hard not to see them as weaker once again. After the James Harden trade a year ago, this summer they lost Kevin Martin and the support around the two stars looks even less reliable.
Considering they go into the season with Westbrook out, it is unlikely the Thunder will record another sixty win year, and may have to be content with being third, fourth or fifth seed come playoff time.
Oklahoma City Thunder NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
Led by the outstanding Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers still seem set to fail in emerging as a playoff team in the West. Unanimous choice as Rookie of the Year, Lillard became only the fourth first year player to average at least 19 points and six assists, joining Damien Stoudamire, Allan Iveson and Oscar Robertson, on an exclusive list of point guards.
Aldridge is no slouch either, becoming the only player to average a minimum of 21 points and eight rebounds for the last three years. But even if the pair can be at their best, there is a lack of quality around them for success to arrive just yet. The bench is incredibly weak and with Robin Lopez, Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright as the only additions, it would take a remarkable collapse by a number of teams in order for Portland to reach the post-season.
Portland Trailblazers NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
Losing Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap leaves a huge hole in the Jazz offence, a large percentage of which ran through the pair last season. Mo Williams has also left Salt Lake City, meaning it is a vastly different team for the coming season, and yet another franchise who appear to be aiming at taking advantage of next summer's talent laden draft class.
Trey Burke arrives from Michigan and spent time this offseason learning from Jazz legend John Stockton. The knowledge gained from one of the all-time greats can only help. Gordon Hayward is underrated, but not as much as Jazz fans/bloggers would have you believe.
He should earn plenty of playing time along with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Burke, as Coach Ty Corbin attempts to steer his young team through a potentially difficult season. Expectations seem at odds with the talent available, perhaps fuelled by the input of Stockton and the return to front office duty for fellow icons Jerry Sloan and Karl Malone.
Utah Jazz NBA Season Odds - Odds as at 22nd October 2013.
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