In part two of our conference power rankings, we take a look at the teams in the Western Conference who look set to make the post-season in 2013-14. The West will no doubt be a grind—solid teams like Portland, Denver, and New Orleans could all miss out—and it might take 45 wins just to make the eighth seed.
Here, as it stands today, are the top eight teams in the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder began last season looking to build on a disappointing NBA Finals defeat in 2012, but their season ended in a 5 game, second-round playoff loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. Kevin Durant’s big-game credentials were questioned, the controversial trade that saw James Harden depart before the start of the season was rehashed ad nauseam, and the season as a whole was viewed as an abject failure. The big winner amidst all the gloom and pessimism? Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, perhaps the most picked-apart player in the NBA, missed the entire Memphis series, and the basketball world finally got a real sense of what he brings to OKC, and what they lacked in his absence. No player, not even Durant, can do everything on their own.
And here’s the thing: despite last season’s disappointing conclusion, despite the loss of Harden, and despite the fact that Sam Presti should’ve amnestied Kendrick Perkins in the off-season, the Thunder still head into the 2013-14 season as the team to beat in the West. In Durant and Westbrook OKC have two top-15 players in the league—two players that made them an elite offensive team last season. Pair that with the destructive defensive force that is Serge Ibaka, and OKC have a core that can match any team in the NBA. The loss of Kevin Martin—a very capable scorer off the bench—hurts the team, however, and Scott Brooks will be hoping that one of his young players—Reggie Jackson or Jeremy Lamb—can step up to fill the void on offense.
Los Angeles Clippers
Except for maybe Brooklyn and Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers had the most intriguing and impressive off-season of any team in the Association. The Clippers addressed two important needs: 3-point shooting, and coaching. To add some fire power from downtown the Clippers traded promising guard Eric Bledsoe in a three-way deal with Milwaukee and Phoenix, and picked up J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in return. Both players have great basketball IQs and will contribute at both ends of the floor. The coaching change was just as, if not more important. Out went Vinny Del Negro (likely at the behest of Chris Paul, signed to a new max deal) and in came a top-five NBA coach, Doc Rivers. If there’s any man who can get the most of a super talented team that has underachieved in the last couple seasons, it’s Rivers.
In the backcourt the Clippers will be a force this season, but the worry remains up front. Both Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan remain liabilities late in games because of their terrible free-throw shooting, and the Clippers are thin on the ground with back-up big men if that aforementioned duo gets into foul trouble at any point during games. B.J. Mullens and Ryan Hollins don’t exactly inspire confidence. Nevertheless this current Clippers team has as good a chance as anyone to win it all this season. Their big-brother Lakers would trade rosters in a second.
San Antonio Spurs
If I was a Spurs fan I’d still be in therapy right now, seeking comfort for the most painful NBA Finals defeat in recent memory. No team came closer to winning it all, without actually winning it all. If Kawhi Leonard had made both his free-throws, if they’d managed to snare one more defensive rebounds, or if Ray Allen hadn’t made one of the most incredible shots in NBA history, I’d be writing about the defending champion Spurs right now. But alas, San Antonio fell short in a gut-wrenching seven-game Finals defeat. However, there’s still much to get excited about in the coming season.
The Spurs are written off every year as too old, and past their best, but I refuse to take part in the obituary writing. Tony Parker, as he showed last season, is probably the second best point guard in the NBA, and Tim Duncan continues to defy father time with his fantastic production at both ends. Although Ginobli isn’t the player he once was, the Spurs have unearthed a star in Leonard, who can take on much of the offensive production that Manu is no longer able to provide. Otherwise, the Spurs had a very Spur-like off-season—tinkering around the edges, as opposed to making franchise altering moves. They re-signed Tiago Splitter and picked-up Marco Belinelli who can shot from distance and can take on some of the ball handling duties when Parker sits.
You’ve got to hand it to Rockets GM, Darryl Morey. This time last year, no one knew what the hell he was doing. He’d traded away the team’s best players—the team resembled this year’s 76ers—and there didn’t seem to be much of a chance that he’d land the franchise star he so craved. And then the trade for James Harden happened and the future of the team drastically changed. Harden, who emerged as a superstar last season, was able to woo Dwight Howard to Houston this past off-season, and the Rockets now have a one-two punch to match any in the league. Stopping Houston’s pick-n-roll this year is going to keep opposing coaches awake a night.
Elsewhere on the roster, the Rockets have the super-talented, and super cheap, Chandler Parsons, one of the best young wing players in the league and a perfect fit for Kevin McHale’s up-tempo, run-and-gun system. The Rockets will look to play an inside-out game, using Howard as their anchor and spreading the floor with shooters—a better version of Dwight’s Orlando team that made the Finals in 2009. It’s probably too early to label Houston contenders in 2013-14—they’re still missing a couple pieces—but this is a team that’s going to scare anyone and everyone.
The Memphis Grizzlies enter the 2013-14 season off the back of their most successful season in franchise history: a season in which they won 56 games and made it to the Western Conference Finals. Despite a controversial trade in the middle of last season (controversial at the time) which saw Rudy Gay depart for the Toronto Raptors, Memphis recalibrated its offense around Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and the team exhibited much better overall balance. Mike Conley’s ascent into somewhere-near elite point-guard status also helped with the transition.
In the off-season Lionel Hollins, whose relationship with management deteriorated after the Gay trade, left the team and was replaced by long-time assistant coach, Dave Joerger. It remains to be seen how much that coaching change will affect the team’s chemistry—Hollins was immensely popular in the locker-room—but the group of players that took Memphis to the conference finals remain together, and will continue to be a monumental pain in the ass for the other teams in the West. Defensively the Grizzlies will continue to be elite in 2013-14 and offensively the team improved, picking up Mike Miller to provide some much-needed 3-point shooting.
Golden State Warriors
No team was more fun to watch last year than the Golden State Warriors, and no player more exhilarating than their star, Steph Curry. Curry finally had a season largely free of ankle problems and led his young team to the playoffs, where they upset the 3-seed, Denver Nuggets, and gave the Spurs all they could handle. The Warriors offense is built around Curry and backcourt partner, Klay Thompson. Together they’ve formed the deadliest shooting duo in the league, able to spot-up and shoot, and ever scarier; to shoot threes off the dribble, or drive to the basket and finish.
Where the Warriors were lacking last season was defensively and they went some way to addressing that deficiency in the off-season by adding elite perimeter defender, Andre Iguodala. Iggy can defend three positions, and will also help to take the pressure off Curry when the opposition tries to trap him, as he’s comfortable bringing the ball up the court. The question marks for this team are in the front court: can Andrew Bogut stay healthy and how well will David Lee slot back into the lineup after the team played so well in his absence during the post-season?
Okay, it’s time: the Minnesota Timberwolves will be a playoff team in 2013-14. In fact, anything less than a place in the post-season will be a massive failure. This time last season the same was said about the T-Wolves, and then the team was hit with an ungodly avalanche of injuries—Kevin Love, Chase Budinger, and Nikola Pekovic all missed a significant amount of games last season. But this year, assuming the team stays reasonably healthy, they’re going to be a threat in the West.
Point-guard, Ricky Rubio, will have an entire training camp under his belt before the season starts, and should build on his promising end to last season. He’ll certainly have some options on offense with Love and Pekovic to run the pick-n-roll with and shooters in the backcourt to kick the ball to—shooters that the team was desperately missing last year. The T-Wolves were one of the worst shooting teams in the league last season, but they added Kevin Martin, a 40% 3-point shooter, in the off-season, and are getting Budinger back after an injury ravaged season. Elsewhere coach Adelman will hope that young players, Alexey Shved, Derrick Williams, and Gorgui Deng are able contribute something at both ends.
As much as owner, Mark Cuban, would hate to admit it, the last two seasons for the Dallas Mavericks have constituted wasted years for the franchise. After the triumph of 2011 Cuban decided to break-up the roster that led them to glory—minus Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion—with the intent of landing a marquee free-agent in the past two off-seasons. That hasn’t happened, of course, and the Mavericks are moving forward with Dirk and some above average, but far from marquee, role players.
Last year the Mavericks missed the post-season for the first time in over a decade, in part because Dirk missed a good chunk of the season recovering from injury. If the Big German can stay healthy for the majority of this season, however, his elite level offense should be enough to grab the Mavericks the eighth seed. New pick-ups, Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis, are not exactly great long-term fits for Dallas, but in the here and now they will provide some valuable offense in support of Dirk. A Nowitzki-Calderon pick-n-pop, for example, certainly has mouth-watering potential.