In part two of our mid-summer power rankings, we take a look at the top five teams in the Western Conference—that is, the brutally tough Western Conference.
5. Houston Rockets
If things had gone as planned this summer for Daryl Morey and the Houston Rockets, you could’ve made a strong case for them being the most talented team in the Western Conference. A Beverley-Harden-Parsons-Bosh-Howard starting five—the starting five that Morey had in mind just a few weeks ago—would’ve been terrifying. Things don’t always go as planned, however. Bosh turned down the Rockets’ offer in order to stay in Miami, and the Rockets subsequently decided against matching the Mavericks’ offer sheet (brilliantly timed by Mark Cuban) for Chandler Parsons.
The Rockets did sign Trevor Ariza for the second time. He’s not quite the shot-maker Parsons is, but is a much better perimeter defender. The team lost valuable depth, however, in the form of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik—both were shipped out in an attempt to clear cap space for Bosh.
That said, with two superstars on the roster—James Harden and Dwight Howard—this team should still snag a high seed.
4. Golden State Warriors
It seems absurd to claim that a team that netted 51 wins in a brutally tough conference underachieved, but given all the talent on their roster, it felt like the Warriors should’ve won more games than they did last season. The team, in its current form, is perfectly balanced: plenty of elite shooting and shot-making in the backcourt, with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and two world-class defenders in Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut.
After losing to the Clippers in the playoffs, the Warriors fired coach Mark Jackson (a man unpopular with the ownership) and brought in Steve Kerr. Kerr hasn’t coached in the NBA, so it might take some adjusting to the role; however, last year’s rookie head coaches, Jeff Hornacek and Steve Clifford, didn’t take long to adapt. Personnel-wise, the Warriors signed combo-guard Shaun Livingston in the summer, and he brings some added length on the perimeter and a nifty, underrated post-up game.
All the talk in the off-season, of course, has been about the Warriors’ curious reluctance to part ways Thompson in order to acquire Kevin Love in a trade with the Timberwolves. If the front office and ownership wise up and make the deal, they’ll be a championship contender. But even without Love, the team is built to go deep in next year’s playoffs.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Much like the Houston Rockets, the Oklahoma City Thunder pushed hard to add an all-important missing piece to their roster this summer, to no avail. Pau Gasol, who signed with the Chicago Bulls, was heavily courted by the Thunder. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook even met with the player himself, pitching him face-to-face on the idea of joining them in Oklahoma. The problem, however, was financial. OKC only had a mid-level exception (around $5 million) with which to entice Gasol and that wasn’t going to get it done.
Missed opportunities aside, the Thunder, for as long as they have Durant and Westbrook on their roster, remain one of the best teams in the Western Conference. Last season they pushed the eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs, to six games; who knows how that series could have played out had Serge Ibaka not been injured for the opening two games.
The Thunder did pick up Anthony Morrow, a lights-out shooter for beyond the arc with 45 per cent for his career, to replace Thabo Sefolosha who left for Atlanta. Sefolosha was on the downslide and Morrow should do a better job spacing the floor. Scott Brooks will also hope that his young players—Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson and Steven Adams—continue to improve and can play a big role come playoff time.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
The Donald Sterling saga put a real dampener on what was a largely successful 2013-14 season for the Los Angeles Clippers. That ugly business dragged on into this summer and hangs like a cloud over the franchise. Doc Rivers has been quoted as saying that he might not be able to coach the team if it remains under the control of the Sterling family next season.
On the court, however, things look rosier for the Clippers. DeAndre Jordan has excelled under Rivers’ stewardship, while it’s needless to say that Chris Paul remains the best point guard in the NBA. Most importantly, Blake Griffin made a huge leap in his development last season—putting on an MVP-level showing throughout the year. Griffin now has a serviceable jump shot to go along with his highlight reel players, and he’s no longer a liability from the freethrow line. The team will hope that he continues on his upward trajectory in the coming season.
This summer the team picked up point guard Jordan Farmar, who impressed for the Lakers last season, to provide backup for Paul. But their biggest move was acquiring Spencer Hawes. The Clippers’ big man rotation has been an issue for a couple seasons now, and their latest pickup addresses a big need. The former Philadelphia 76er can play at both power forward and centre, stretching the floor with his outside shooting—he’s the perfect player to clear space for Griffin and Jordan around the basket.
1. San Antonio Spurs
When you win 62 games in the regular season and go on to destroy the two-time defending champions in the NBA Finals, there’s not too much you need to tinker with. The San Antonio Spurs re-signed Boris Diaw and Patty Mills this summer, both players who played huge roles in their championship run. Aside from briefly being mentioned as a possible destination for Pau Gasol, the only other notable piece of Spurs news was Tim Duncan opting in for one more (very reasonably priced) season—was there ever any doubt about that?
Last season Gregg Popovich was extremely careful with his veteran players’ minutes during the regular season—no player played more than 30 minutes per game. That ensured that come playoff time, Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were extremely fresh. Expect more of the same in the coming season—the Spurs go 12-deep for a reason.
Popovich’s decision to give his older stars ample rest is helped by the fact that 23-year old Kawhi Leonard is blossoming into a star himself—at this stage he might be the most important player on the team. Already a top-three perimeter defender in the NBA, Leonard is also beginning to develop into an extremely versatile offensive player. If the reigning Finals MVP can continue his development and take the burden off Parker and Duncan, the Spurs will be a good bet to repeat as NBA champions in 2014-15.