Western Conference Projections

After a very busy offseason, the 2012-2013 New Orleans Hornets are set to open their season on Halloween against the perennial powerhouse San Antonio Spurs. The overhauled Hornets are one of the league’s youngest and most promising teams, and hope to improve on an abysmal 2011-2012 campaign.  However, the Hornets will face an uphill battle in a Western Conference full of quality teams.  As the Hornets are in the early stages of their rebuild, they will not be competing for an NBA Title, and so I chose to preview them with just the Western Conference.

Remember that these are REGULAR SEASON PROJECTIONS, which means it accounts for how teams match up with the league as a whole.  Some teams match up well with playoff opponents that have better records.  Playoffs are a different game.

Tier 1- Title Contenders

1. San Antonio Spurs- finished with the best record in the West last year despite missing Manu Ginobili for roughly half of the season.  The Spurs are consistently left out of the spotlight in the offseason, but they get it done year after year.  Tony Parker has quietly taken over as the Spurs’ best player, and Gregg Popovich is the league’s best coach.  Tim Duncan and Ginobili are still among the league’s best players when their legs are fresh.  General Manager R.C. Buford has been extremely creative in surrounding Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan with complementary players without breaking the bank.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder- Kevin Durant is the league’s second best player and Russell Westbrook is a dynamic scorer.  Serge Ibaka is an excellent shot-blocker with a much-improved mid-range shot.  Kendrick Perkins, though useless in last year’s NBA Finals, is still one of the league’s best 1 v 1 post defenders.  Thabo Sefolosha is a very good wing defender.  The Thunder add scorer Kevin Martin and rookie Jeremy Lamb, but lose rising star James Harden.   Eric Maynor returns to health and gives the Thunder a capable backup guard, but he cannot run the Thunder’s second unit as efficiently as Harden did.  The Thunder have assets that can be packaged to get another impact player, so do not be surprised if there is movement during the season.

3. Los Angeles Lakers- Superman (Dwight Howard) arrives in Los Angeles to create a star-studded, veteran-laden Lakeshow.  The Lakers, on paper, feature the most dynamic starting lineup in recent memory.  For a team that struggled to get consistent perimeter shooting, adding Steve Nash, one of the best shooters in NBA history, should pay dividends.  Chemistry should not be a huge issue, as great players with basketball intelligence and complementary skill sets can adjust to each other very quickly.  The bench is slightly better, but could still use improvement.  Health could be an issue. Kobe Bryant is beat up and Howard is coming off of back surgery.  It is not crazy to think that the Lakers will be conservative with their players in the regular season, even if it comes at the expense of a few wins.

Tier 2- Tough Playoff Teams

This is a deep tier.  There are so many good teams in the Western Conference this year, and many of these teams are likely to be separated by only a game or two.

4. Denver Nuggets- The uptempo Nuggets are arguably the most athletic team in the NBA, featuring high-flying athletes like JaVale McGee, Kenneth Faried, Anthony Randoloph, and Andre Iguodala.  Iguodala is a significant upgrade on the wing and should thrive in the Nuggets fast-paced system.  Ty Lawson has developed into a difference maker at point guard.  The Nuggets’ biggest struggle last year was defending the perimeter, and Iguodala is one of the league’s best perimeter defenders.  They will need Danilo Gallinari and Iguodala to shoot well from 3 point land to keep the floor spaced.  Andre Miller is a savvy point guard that still poses a matchup problem when he takes his man into the post.  If McGee starts to capitalize on his potential, the Nuggets will be an absolute nightmare of a matchup.

5. Los Angeles Clippers- Chris Paul and Blake Griffin form one of the league’s toughest tandems.  After that, the roster is full of solid, but unspectacular players.  Chauncey Billups is a clutch shooter.  DeAndre Jordan is a freak athlete that fills SportsCenter highlight reels with dunks and blocks, but struggles to make the simple plays.  Jamal Crawford brings a scoring punch off of the bench.  Lamar Odom returns to LA after an abysmal season with the Dallas Mavericks.

6. Memphis Grizzlies- Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol form one of the best scoring frontcourts in the NBA.  Rudy Gay is one of the NBA’s best athletes.  Tony Allen is arguably the league’s best perimeter defender.  Mike Conley is a good defender with a nose for the ball.  Marresse Speights is a valuable big off of the bench. The Grizzlies lost bench scorer O.J. Mayo to the Mavericks, which could lead to a weaker bench.  Jerryd Bayless is an ultra-athletic guard who will likely need to deliver for the bench to be productive.

7. Minnesota Timberwolves-  If not for a Kevin Love injury and Ricky Rubio’s knee injury, the Timberwolves could be a couple spots higher.  Love is one of the best bigs in the game, and Rubio is an excellent distributor and defender.  However, Rubio has serious work to do on his shot.  Nikola Pekovic was a revelation last year and carves out a lot of space in the paint.  Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson were horrendous last year, and their departures should do wonders for offensive efficiency.  Before his knee problems, Brandon Roy was an elite NBA talent, and if he can be 75-80% of what he once was, he could be a very good pickup.  Chase Budinger is an athletic wing who can space the floor.  Andrei Kirilenko returns to the NBA for the Wolves, and his versatility should help the Wolves.  Luke Ridnour is an excellent shooter, but is limited otherwise.  However, he is a fine player off of the bench once Rubio is healthy.

8. Utah Jazz- The Jazz sport perhaps the deepest frontcourt in the game.  Al Jefferson is a skilled post player.  Paul Millsap, though undersized, is an energetic player with skill to match.  Enes Kanter seems poised for a breakout season after losing a reported 50 pounds this offseason, but the Jazz only have so many minutes to distribute.  Derrick Favors is another excellent athlete off of the bench.  Gordon Hayward is skilled, but posted horrible defensive statistics in isolation.  Marvin Williams joins the team after a disappointing stint with Atlanta.  Mo Williams brings to a backcourt that desperately needs it.  Utah may take a step back if they choose to trade Jefferson or Millsap so their younger bigs can get minutes.

Tier 3- Small Playoff Hopes

In theory, there shouldn’t be much to separate these teams, but injuries can certainly shake this up.

9.  Dallas Mavericks- After missing out on Deron Williams in free agency, the Mavericks added two veteran bigs for the short-term.  Dirk Nowitzki is one of the NBA’s best scorers, but is not completely healthy, and if he cannot get healthy, the Mavericks will struggle.  Shawn Marion is an excellent defender on the wing and sports creative finishes in the paint.  Elton Brand and Chris Kaman can shoot from mid-range, and each is strong enough to defend in the paint.  However, the Mavericks frontcourt should struggle to defend near the perimeter, and they could be exploited here.  Darren Collison is an upgrade over an aging Jason Kidd, but is still a very average point guard.  OJ Mayo can turn over a new leaf in Dallas, and he will certainly be given more opportunity than he was in Memphis.  Vince Carter is much older and not the athletic freak he once was.  Rick Carlisle is a very good coach.

10.  Golden State Warriors- a team loaded with perimeter shooters, but with little defensive ability.  Steph Curry, Brandon Rush, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes are all excellent shooters.  David Lee is a very good offensive player, but a horrible defender.  Andrew Bogut was an All-Star caliber player before injuries stunted his production.  He is the most important member of the team, simply because he can alter shots on defense, which the Warriors need: they were horrible defensively last year.  Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack are very good backups and can bring a scoring punch to the bench.  Harrison Barnes is better suited to be a complementary scorer at this stage of his career and will get the opportunity to do just that.

11.  New Orleans Hornets- Preview coming soon

12.  Houston Rockets-  Despite signing Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, and trading for James Harden, the Rockets are a very young team with no experience together.  Lin displayed very good offensive potential with the Knicks.  Asik is an excellent defender, but a horrible offensive player.  Harden is an ultra-efficient offensive player, but will have to get used to being the focal point of another team’s defense.  Chandler Parsons can shoot and run the floor.  Patrick Patterson is trying to carve out a bigger role in the Houston frontcourt, and may have the opportunity with Luis Scola’s departure.  Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones, and Royce White have promise, but each is a rookie who will have to adapt to the NBA game.

Tier 4- The Pretenders

13.  Phoenix Suns- Steve Nash’s departure leaves a considerable void.  Goran Dragic produced in Houston, and should be accustomed to Coach Alvin Gentry’s system after previous time in Phoenix.  Luis Scola is still a creative post scorer, but a bad defender.  Marcin Gortat is an excellent pick and roll big, but it remains to be seen how effective he will be without Steve Nash feeding him the ball.  Michael Beasley was horrible in Minnesota last year, taking all kinds of bad shots.  He is athletic, but has not displayed any basketball IQ thus far in his career.  Wesley Johnson was a huge disappointment in Minnesota.  Jared Dudley can really shoot from outside.

14.  Portland Trail Blazers- a team in the midst of a rebuild.  LaMarcus Aldridge is an All-Star caliber big, but there isn’t much else around him.  Nicolas Batum is a good player, but not a number two option on a good team.  Though he is known as a good defender, Batum actually put forth horrible defensive numbers. Wes Matthews is a decent player, but is a turnover machine.  Damian Lillard looks to put up good numbers in his rookie season, but he will take time to learn how to create efficient offense.  The Blazers’ bench is barren.

15.  Sacramento Kings- a team loaded with players that take way too many bad shots.  The Kings were the 3rd worst defense last year.  DeMarcus Cousins is very talented, but has posted horrible offensive efficiency thus far, and fouls far too often.  Tyreke Evans has struggled after a breakout rookie campaign a few years ago.  Marcus Thornton can light up the scoreboard.  Isaiah Thomas was a pleasant surprise as a rookie.  Aaron Brooks joins the team after playing overseas.  Thomas Robinson was an excellent rebounder in college, and will be a very good player once he develops his offensive game.  The individual pieces aren’t so bad, but the Kings play some of the worst team basketball in the NBA, and will be bad until they can change that.

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