2016-17 Western Conference Preview

It’s more than just the Warriors.

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With the NBA season starting tomorrow, I feel that the level of excitement isn’t as high as it could be. It seems as though everyone’s resigned themselves to another Finals between the Cavs and the Warriors. Well, there are 28 other teams, many of them are going to be crappy, but some of them might have a puncher’s chance to throw a kink into what seems like our preordained Finals matchup. That’s what it’s all about, right? The hope of something unexpected in the face of insurmountable odds. Add in all of the hilarity, drama and damn fine basketball that ensues over the course of an NBA season, and there’s plenty of cause for excitement.

With all of that in mind, we’re doing what everyone else does, whether they’re professional journalists covering the NBA, or clowns like us. It’s NBA Season Preview time! A time of hope, crazy predictions, and yes, even excitement. We’re keeping it simple here and counting down the teams in each conference from worst to first, and we’ll try our best to find a reason for excitement for each and every team. Today, we’re going through the Western Conference, and tomorrow, we’ll take on the East.

15. Los Angeles Lakers (23-59)

The Lakers just stumbled through their worst season in franchise history, and they’re entering Year One of the post-Kobe era. That sounds pretty dreary, but with Kobe gone, and new coach Luke Walton to replace Byron Scott, there’s a sense of freedom brewing out in Hollywood—and not a moment too soon. With an interesting core of youngsters, the Lakers actually have some things to look forward to. Sure, they’ll have a ton of growing pains, and they’re going to be pretty lousy, but they’re finally going to start trending back upwards. D’Angelo Russell’s looked great this preseason, and he’s likely to become the leader of the next generation of Lakers which include Julius Randle (who averaged a double-double last season), Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., and second overall pick Brandon Ingram. Luol Deng is there to show the young guys the ropes. It won’t be pretty, but without the Kobe Bryant Farewell Circus looming over the team, they should be free to grow and improve.

Reasons for excitement: Aside from the youngsters, this Lakers team features a motley crew consisting of future assistant coach Metta World Peace,  Timofey Mozgov (back in a starting role) and the incomparable Nick Young, who will provide enough comic relief for fans to laugh away the pain of another season in the basement.

14. Sacramento Kings (27-55)

Starting point guard Darren Collison is suspended for the first eight games of the season because of a domestic violence incident. Rudy Gay describes the team as “basketball hell.” Ty Lawson missed the team’s flight out of Las Vegas. Owner Vivek Ranadive mouthed off about the team’s prior regime, then had to apologize for it. This might finally be the season where star DeMarcus Cousins either loses his mind, or gets traded. Or both. Other than that, things are going just fine out in Sacramento.

Reasons for excitement: They’re opening up a nice new arena this season, the Golden 1 Center. Honestly, they seem more excited about the new building than the team itself.

13. Phoenix Suns (30-52)

The Suns are one of those teams caught between needing to rebuild with youngsters, and the desire to make the Playoffs. This is almost always an unfortunate combination. They’ve got the strange backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, two fairly similar and talented players who might not compliment each other very well, both of whom missed significant time last season to injuries. There’s fourth overall draft pick Dragan Bender, and exciting second year man Devin Booker, who has a chance to become one of the next big NBA stars, but also plays in the backcourt like Bledsoe and Knight do. Then there are experienced veterans Tyson Chandler, Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley, the latter two returning to the Suns to tell stories of the Steve Nash glory days. I’m not quite sure what they’re doing down there.

Reasons for excitement: Devin Booker, who’s turning 20 this weekend, is going to be really good. Over the last 22 games of his rookie season, he averaged 21.5 points. With his rise, it might be time for the Suns to trade Brandon Knight and roll with a Bledsoe/Booker backcourt.

12. Denver Nuggets (35-47)

The Nuggets have a lot of people intrigued. They have a potentially killer front court tandem of Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic. If they decide to roll with those two in the starting lineup, incumbent starter Kenneth Faried becomes the odd man out, and could be a prime trade candidate. Danilo Gallinari is coming off his best season, but can he stay healthy? Speaking of health, Wilson Chandler will be back after missing all of last year. With no big star in town, the Nuggets will have to rely on their versatility and athleticism to create matchup problems with their opponents. It’s the same formula that led them to a 57-25 record back in their fun 2012-13 season. They’re not nearly at that point yet, but they’re heading in the right direction.

Reasons for excitement:

11. Dallas Mavericks (36-46)

This one hurts. You hate to bet against Dirk Nowtizki and coach Rick Carlisle, but this roster is going to catch up with them. After another summer of missing out on their top free agent targets (Mike Conley and Hassan Whiteside this time around), they settled on Harrison Barnes, fresh off an atrocious Playoff run with the Warriors. There are some solid veterans here: Andrew Bogut, Wesley Matthews, and Deron Williams, just to name a few. They’ll always play hard, but I’m not convinced they have another trip to the Playoffs in them, as much as that bums me out.

Reasons for excitement: Dirk Nowitzki is always worth watching. Did you know he’s going to pass 30,000 career points this season? That’ll put him with Wilt, Jordan, Kobe, Karl Malone and Kareem as your 30,000 point scorers. Keep watching this legend.

10. New Orleans Pelicans (39-43)

First of all, our best wishes to Jrue Holiday’s wife, Lauren, who underwent a successful surgery to remove a tumor from her brain. Jrue will miss the start of the season to be with his wife and their newborn daughter. Some things are more important than basketball.

As for the rest of the Pelicans, can we please get a healthy season out of these guys? Tyreke Evans is already out until December due to surgeries on his knee. Anthony Davis hurt his ankle in the preseason, but will be ready to go on opening night. Come on, Basketball Gods, can we get 75 games from Anthony Davis this year? At full strength, they could make some noise. The season hasn’t even started and they’re already not at full strength. If they can somehow stay healthy, they’ll be in the mix for one of the last couple of Western Playoff spots.

Reasons for excitement: Anthony Davis. Be careful out there, AD. The people clamor for a full season out of you.

9. Minnesota Timberwolves (40-42)

This year’s team on the rise. They’ve got the best assembly of young stars: Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach Levine and rookie Kris Dunn. Ricky Rubio’s still around to find all of them with spectacular passes. New coach Tom Thibodeau will teach them how to play defense. They’ll spend this year learning how to win, gaining confidence. I imagine they’ll lose a lot of close games and it’ll end up being the difference between a Playoff appearance and another lottery appearance. Nevertheless, they’ll be fun to watch, and exciting, and all of their experiences this season will go a long way towards beginning the next era in Timberwolves history.

Reasons for excitement: All of the above. Karl-Anthony Towns was voted by the league’s GMs as the player they’d most want to start a franchise with. It might not happen this season, but these guys are on the cusp of becoming the first Timberwolves team without Kevin Garnett to make the Playoffs.

8. Memphis Grizzlies (44-38)

Before a ludicrous amount of injuries submarined them last season, the Grizzles were a solid 39-26 with 50 wins in sight. This year, they’re returning the same core that’s led them to their recent success, and they’ll hopefully be able to stay healthy. However, they’re starting to get up there in age, and they don’t have the greatest depth. On top of that, they’re already dealing with injuries, with big free agent addition Chandler Parsons having a bum knee. Injuries seem to be part of the Chandler Parsons Experience, but in the name of basic basketball decency, can the Basketball Gods please let the rest of the squad make it through the season unscathed?

Reasons for excitement: Just the fact that Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are going to be back on the floor is exciting. Long live Grit & Grind.

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7. Portland Trail Blazers (46-36)

The Blazers surprised many last season by making the Playoffs after losing four of their five starters. Luckily for them, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum became one of the league’s finest backcourts. They proved to be a scrappy team that played well together, and that shouldn’t change this season. I don’t think there’s going to be much separation between the bottom half of the Western Playoff teams, and trying to figure out where to place them all is a pain in the ass. Anyway, Portland proved to be a worthy opponent in last year’s Playoffs, and they’re only down here in seventh place thanks to Houston and Utah getting better. That being said, there’s also no reason to think they could do even better. Once again, trying to decide where to put these teams was a pain in the ass.

Reasons for excitement: Damian Lillard going bonkers as he tries to make it to the All Star game again after last year’s snub. Also, Damian Lillard’s rap album.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder (47-35)

For the first time, the fans in Oklahoma City will be living life without Kevin Durant on the roster. It could be worse though, the whole team could have packed up and moved—am I right, Seattle? Anyway, they still have Russell Westbrook, and he’ll be angrier than ever, which is bad news for the rest of the NBA. The whole team has something to prove after Durant buggered off to the Bay Area, and it should translate to a decent season. They’ll be a terror on the boards with Steven Adams and Enes Kanter gobbling up rebounds, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens as Westbrook and offseason acquisition Victor Oladipo develop as a backcourt tandem. Nobody will want to play these guys once the Playoffs begin.

Reasons for excitement: Russell Westbrook in full on angry vengeance mode. He’s going to win several games by himself, average 30 points and rack up an unholy amount of triple-doubles. He should be an MVP candidate.

5. Utah Jazz (48-34)

Plenty of folks are planning on 50 wins from this Jazz team that’s on the rise. Unfortunately, injuries are already playing a part in their season with leading scorer Gordon Hayward out for about six weeks, plus Derrick Favors and Alec Burks are dealing with lingering issues. That’s only three of their most important players. That being said, they’re depth is much improved, with offseason additions Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw and George Hill joining the team. All three are solid veterans who will add a calming presence to this emerging young squad, something that will be key as they ride out Hayward’s injury. They’ve also got one of the league’s most dominating defensive forces in Rudy Gobert. It’s going to be a fun season out on the Great Salt Lake.

Reasons for excitement: What’s not to like about this Jazz team? I’m already looking forward to their big First Round Playoff upset of the…

4. Houston Rockets (50-32)

With new coach Mike D’Antoni in town, the Rockets have gone out of their way to provide him with a perfect roster for his offensive style. That means lots of shooting, which they added by pillaging the Pelicans when they brought over both Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson from New Orleans. It’s the perfect setting for James Harden to thrive in, and he might average 30 points a game, and close to 10 assists. Heck, he could even become the first player since Tiny Archibald in 1973 to lead the league in both scoring and assists. You heard it here first. This team is going to rack up the points, and we should see some pretty outlandish box scores out of these guys, and their opponents, because there’s not going to be much defense going on either. In fact, one of their only defensive minded players, Patrick Beverly, is going to miss up to 2o games and needs knee surgery. Despite that, these guys will just simply outscore their opponents most of the time, and in my eyes, that’ll be enough for 50 wins, the fourth seed, and a first round Playoff exit against the Utah Jazz.

Reasons for excitement: The crazy box scores their games are going to create. James Harden battling with Russell Westbrook for the scoring title. Their inevitable first round Playoff loss when their lack of defense completely and utterly screws them over in a seven game series.

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3. San Antonio Spurs (55-27)

The Thunder aren’t the only team who will be adjusting to life without a franchise cornerstone. This season kicks off the beginning of the post-Duncan era down in San Antonio. They’ve done a fine job trying to fill his shoes, adding Pau Gasol to the mix. However, they’re not going to be as crisp defensively, and they’ve got one of the oldest teams in the league, but they’re also one of the wisest. As they get older, Kawhi Leonard keeps getting better, and that’s good enough to keep them among the league’s elite. They’re the Spurs—you know they’ll find their way to 55-60 wins and be miserable for their opponents to play against. It would be silly to expect otherwise.

Reasons for excitement: The Spurs have always been more consistent than exciting, but Kawhi Leonard’s continued growth into one of the league’s best players should be enough to excite any basketball fan. He could be in the running to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.

2. Los Angeles Clippers (60-22)

Is this the last ride of the Blake Griffin/Chris Paul Clippers? Griffin can be a free agent after the season, and if they can’t improve on five straight seasons of not making it past the second round of the Playoffs, wouldn’t they at least consider making some sort of drastic change? This is one of the most talented rosters in the league, so they’re certainly capable of pulling off something special. Some teams also just have a certain persona attached to them, and the Clippers might always be “the Clippers” until they can prove otherwise, if that makes sense. It should be fun watching them try to prove otherwise with Paul, Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and JJ Redick. They can square off against any team in the league and feel pretty good about themselves. They might even have a decent bench for once, featuring the likes of Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Brandon Bass, Raymond Felton and Marresse Speights. As your excitement builds, just gloss over their woeful situation at Small Forward: Luc Mbah a Moute, Wesley Johnson and a decrepit Paul Pierce are enough to ruin everything for them.

Reasons for excitement: They’re the one team in the Western Conference that you can almost talk yourself into having a chance to take out the Warriors if 3,598 things go absolutely the right way for them… but since they’re “the Clippers,” they won’t.

1. Golden State Warriors (75-7)

Well, it’s not like they got worse this offseason. The word “unguardable” gets tossed around maybe more than it should, but early preseason returns on these guys seem to suggest that this team might actually be unguardable. They’ll be on a mission, too, after blowing their 3-1 Finals lead last season. They say they’re not going to push themselves like they did last year during their quest to break the single season wins record, but they might not actually have to. They might just win another 70+ games like it ain’t no thang. That’s why we have them penciled in for 75. If they actually pull it off, we want to be able to say that we saw it coming the whole time. That is, of course, as long as Draymond Green doesn’t derail the whole damn thing.

Reasons for excitement: Maybe Draymond Green will derail the whole damn thing. Also, it’s always great to have a villain to root against, and these guys have certainly taken up that mantle.

Well, that does it for the Western Conference. Hopefully there’s enough in there to keep us excited and interested while the Warriors boringly and predictably lay waste to everything in their path. Stay tuned, because tomorrow we’ll be doing the same thing for the Eastern Conference. We’ll be trying to find reasons to be excited in spite of another preordained, dominating team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Oh, and the regular season starts tomorrow, too. Happy NBA Eve!

Author: tomeagher

Watching too much basketball.

2 thoughts on “2016-17 Western Conference Preview”

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