FanPost

Western Conference Preview

Western Conference


Pacific

Rec

Northwest

Rec

Southwest

Rec

1

LA Clippers (2)

57-25

Oklahoma City Thunder (4)

54-28

San Antonio Spurs (1)

59-21

2

Golden State Warriors (5)

48-34

Portland Trail Blazers (7)

43-39

Houston Rockets (3)

55-27

3

LA Lakers

34-48

Denver Nuggets (8)

42-40

Memphis Grizzlies (6)

48-34

4

Sacramento Kings

28-54

Minnesota Timberwolves

41-41

Dallas Mavericks

41-41

5

Phoenix Suns

21-61

Utah Jazz

28-54

New Orleans Pelicans

36-46

Pacific Division

Los Angeles Clippers

Projected record: 57-25 2nd seed

Depth Chart

PG

Chris Paul

Darren Collison

MVP: Chris Paul

Biggest surprise: DeAndre Jordan

Biggest letdown: Blake Griffin

Key to success: Turnover creating defense.

Grab bag: Blake Griffin is so entitled that he will wear sunglasses during games.

SG

JJ Reddick

Jamal Crawford

SF

Jared Dudley

Matt Barnes

PF

Blake Griffin

Antawn Jamison

C

DeAndre Jordan

Bryon Mullens

The Clippers just plain got better as a "team" during the offseason. They didn't need flash, they needed tools, and they got two useful ones (Jared Dudley and JJ Reddick) and one great one (coach Doc Rivers). Many pundits are saying that Rivers was the best "get" of the offseason, and while I don't agree with that, I do think it was a tremendous acquisition. This team is expected to make it to the playoffs and Doc has been there twice in recent memory. Looking at the roster, only two players have played in a finals; Matt Barnes and JJ Reddick, neither who you'd consider a leader. Doc can be that leader, and Chris Paul will be his conductor.

I still believe that Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league. Opposing point guards have said as much. As a defender you can't take away anything that he doesn't want to do. If he wants to score he will, if he wants to set guys up, he will, if he wants to rip you at half court, he can do that. But his single biggest asset is that he does all these things at once with the best judgment in the league. Turnovers notwithstanding, Chris Paul runs an offense better than anyone. He gets better when he has better toys to play with and one thing that was missing last year was outside shooting.

Reddick and Dudley being inserted into the starting lineup remedies that outside shooting problem right away. No offense to Chauncey Billups (who manned that SG spot last year when healthy) but his intangibles didn't make up for Reddick's awesome stroke (which is saying something since Billups was a decent long range shooter). I think of Reddick as Ray Allen-lite (minus the D), a player who Paul will find in transition, off of screens and basically anywhere he can get open. Jared Dudley is your classic "three and D" guy. His defense is a little overrated, but compared to Caron Butler, Dudley is a stopper, something that was lacking last year. Both Reddick and Dudley open up space for Paul as an operator, but also Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan down low. One criticism of Griffin has been lack of a post game. These shooters will give him a little more space and time to find one. But I don't know if he is smart enough to use it. Blake doesn't need to score 25 points per game, but he's got to produce more than he did last year. He has this entitlement about him now that makes it hard to root for him. The Clippers just need a little more substance from him which I don't believe they will get. I also completely agree with Doc Rivers' assessment of DeAndre Jordan. I think this will be his best year as a pro, especially if he gets his free throw percentage any higher than embarrassing.

With a nice bench unit, Chris Paul and the bigs, the Clippers could easily see themselves in the finals. I still have an itchy feeling that they are a piece or playoff run away as they'll have to prove to be as well-oiled as the Spurs and able to defend against the premier offenses in the west.

Golden State Warriors

Projected record: 48-34 5th seed

Depth Chart

PG

Stephen Curry

Toney Douglas

MVP: Stephen Curry

Biggest surprise: Andrew Bogut

Biggest letdown: Andrew Bogut

Key to success: Keep shootin,' tex!

Grab bag: David Lee is the best, bad player or worst, good player in the league.

SG

Klay Thompson

Kent Bazemore

SF

Andre Iguodala

Harrison Barnes

PF

David Lee

Marreese Speights

C

Andrew Bogut

Jermaine O'Neal

Everyone fell in love with this team after that fun run they had in the playoffs last year. I do think they'll be better, but not WAY better. They added Andre Iguodala, a premier defender, playmaker and athlete. Despite this addition I think that the loss of Jarrett Jack will have a more adverse effect than many believe. Iguodala can do many of the things that Jack could do, guard ones and twos (plus threes for Iggy) and handle the ball, but he's not as good of a shooter, and it remains to be seen if he can be the leader that Jack was. Another concern is that it moves Harrison Barnes to the bench. Golden State excelled in the playoffs last year when Barnes played the power forward position, but also because he was getting many more minutes. His confidence went up and so did the quality of his play. It is hard to advocate moving David Lee to the bench, but I would hate to see Harrison Barnes reduced to 15-20 minutes a game.

Another factor in their playoff run was the play of center Andrew Bogut. I think Bogut will kill it for a month, hit a slump and then be an average player for most of the season (or worse, get injured). I just don't think his play is sustainable. Jermaine O'Neal and Marreese Speights are nice bench post additions, but I still would rather have Carl Landry from last year. His hustle is something neither of the two additions bring. David Lee has looked fine in preseason, never being a player that relied on athleticism, he shouldn't show any ill-effects from the playoff injury and continue to rebound and score in the 18-10 range. He is just kind of there, hitting the shots he should make, getting the rebounds that he should get. I've never been impressed with him except that his release is very quick for a big man and he's able to get that shot from the elbow basically whenever he wants.

The fate of the Warriors falls onto Stephen Curry. A joy to watch shoot, easily the best in the league because of the variety and accuracy of his shots, Curry will determine how far the Warriors advance. No doubt there will be some injuries, but nothing severe. Curry and backcourt mate Klay Thompson will have to find a way to defend opposing backcourts if the Warriors are really intent on challenging in the west. The backcourt of the bench is unproven in Kent Bazemore and shaky in Toney Douglas, so Curry and Thompson will have all the minutes they want. I think the Warriors need another run in the playoffs before they can really be considered contenders.

Los Angeles Lakers

Projected record: 34-48

Depth Chart

PG

Steve Nash

Jordan Farmar

MVP: Kobe Bryant

Biggest surprise: Pau Gasol

Biggest letdown: Steve Nash

Key to success: Kobe's recovery

Grab bag: Several players could use PEDs on this team.

SG

Kobe Bryant

Jodie Meeks

SF

Wesley Johnson

Nick Young

PF

Shawne Williams

Jordan Hill

C

Pau Gasol

Chris Kamen

As much as people around the league hate the Lakers, it isn't good for the league when they are bad. Last year was great because they weren't supposed to be bad, they had no excuses, so the implosion was great for the league. This year though, no one really cares. The Lakers are just a middle of the road team, even when Kobe Bryant comes back from whatever illegal treatment he used this year. The thing is, when I look at this roster, say Bryant is healthy and you remove Chris Kamen and add Dwight Howard back, this is championship team. Adding Jordan Farmar to backup Steve Nash is a good move, and Nick Young (assuming he comes of the bench) is that other wing scorer that they didn't have. I even like Wesley Johnson as a "three and D" guy in that starting lineup. But sadly, there is no Dwight Howard, Bryant will be injured for at least the first month or two and you still have one of the most overrated coaches in NBA history.

I took some liberty with the depth chart on this one, I just really couldn't figure out a decent rotation. With all the talk of Pau Gasol going back to his natural position of center, I guess that means Chris Kamen is coming off the bench. I would probably prefer that Jordan Hill started at PF when proven healthy but that hasn't been the case in preseason so friggin' Shawne Williams gets the start. I am not sure what he brings other than length, but he's not the second coming of Earl Clark (which wasn't a coming at all). I really like Wes Johnson at the three here, and don't think he's a lottery bust yet. Nick Young will start at the two guard until Kobe is back but he is a nice sixth man scorer with a healthy lineup. And lastly you have Nash, who was pretty bad last year. Steve Nash just didn't look to be enjoying anything last year, was completely overmatched on defense and seemed scared to shoot on offense. He can still shoot by the way, and I hope without Kobe in the lineup he does more of it. I am not saying 19 ppg nash, but somewhere in the 14-15 range would be nice. He shoots 50% so he should probably use that. There are 25 more shots to go around until Kobe returns. Pick and roll or pick and pop with Gasol should yield some fine offense with the shooters spread off of them.

Again, the same as last year's Lakers, the defense will be bad. Even worse with no Dwight Howard back there (even if he was hurting). But, because they are the Lakers and Kobe Bryant will make his inevitable and triumphant return, they will manage to win a fair amount of games. Look for Pau Gasol to be showcased as some fringe contender (Warriors maybe?) take a chance on him.

Sacramento Kings

Projected record: 28-54

Depth Chart

PG

Greivis Vasquez

Isaiah Thomas

MVP: DeMarcus Cousins

Biggest surprise: Ben McLemore

Biggest letdown: Jimmer Fredette

Key to success: Inside out game.

Grab bag: I want to see the gasoline fight from Zoolander and Jitterbug playing whenever Isaiah Thomas enters the game.

SG

Ben McLemore

Marcus Thornton

SF

John Salmons

Luc Mbah a Moute

PF

Patrick Patterson

Carl Landry

C

DeMarcus Cousins

Jason Thompson

The Kings survived to stay in Sacramento (wasn't a fan of them moving to Seattle anyway, they need a new team up there). Maybe they can relax and play basketball now. The Kings went all in on DeMarcus Cousins, which I think they had to do. He may not turn out to be a superstar, but he's at least a star. You're not winning a championship with him as your best player, but second best? You've got a good chance. That's the problem with Sacramento right now. They have some nice pieces, pieces that would be role players on other teams and they have one prospect that could be very, very good but that's it.

Ben McLemore has had an excellent preseason; he's showcased his athleticism and most importantly his shooting stroke. Watching highlights of his release reminds me of Ray Allen (the second comparison to him so far in this preview), just so smooth and quick. And I think that's his ceiling, not too bad. Still, a team with Cousins and McLemore as all-stars is a good team, but not a contender. But right now, they just need to develop. General Greivis Vasquez was a good pickup, he'll ensure that the right people get the ball in their hands. Unfortunately it is at the expense of Isaiah Thomas who has proved himself to be the best option at the point guard position the last two years and will probably end up there again. But both Thomas and The General are good candidates to be traded to a contender who need a backup PG. Thomas is such a crafty scorer, good shooter and actually a pretty good defender that I see him as a future Derek Fisher (the left handedness doesn't hurt). This is similar to basically everyone else on the roster not named DeMarcus or Ben. Marcus Thornton doesn't have a great contract but his scoring off the bench for playoff team would look nice. Everyone else is just a role player.

The salary is low and so are the wins. Dump the ball down to Cousins and let him learn to make decisions this season, then wait for trades for picks or prospects in addition to using the draft to start building something around him while McLemore grows. Maybe in a couple years you'll have a nice group of three top players and a return to the playoffs.

Phoenix Suns

Projected record: 21-61

Depth Chart

PG

Eric Bledsoe

Ish Smith

MVP: Goran Dragic

Biggest surprise: Morris Twins

Biggest letdown: Eric Bledsoe

Key to success: Playing free.

Grab bag: Three of the five starters will be exposed as non-starters. Pick ‘em.

SG

Goran Dragic

PJ Tucker

SF

Marcus Morris

Gerald Green

PF

Markieff Morris

Channing Frye

C

Alex Len

Emeka Okafor

The Suns had a good seven year run with Steve Nash at the helm. Two years later they are poised to be the worst team in the western conference. The Suns have some assets, good young players, and their own soon to be lottery picks and a low salary. Expectations are low, and after last year, the fan base is less angry and more disinterested. There are a couple of things to be excited about and one of them is Eric Bledsoe.

Last year Eric Bledsoe was a great catalyst for the Clippers off the bench. He played "point guard" in only the way he lined up against the opposition. He put up well rounded numbers off the bench but I think many forget that Jamal Crawford was actually the primary ball handler. Especially in half court sets. When Chris Paul sat with injury Bledsoe got his shot to start. The results were mixed. The team didn't perform well and Bledsoe's production was much less efficient. Somehow he was still a hot commodity as a starting point guard and the Suns took that chance despite already have a point guard (which we'll get to in a moment).

In the preseason, Goran Dragic, the starting PG last year and Bledsoe have shared the court a lot, even starting together. This strategy is both shrewd and misguided. It is a good idea because in this setup, Dragic becomes the primary ball handler, leaving less running of the offense for Bledsoe. This should benefit Bledsoe's production as he is basically replicating his role from the Clippers with Crawford. The negative aspect of this move is that Bledsoe is still not really a "starting point guard" and he isn't learning to lead the team himself as a floor general. I am a firm believer of throwing players into the fire (sans big guys) and I don't think this is what is happening. The expectations on Bledsoe are entirely too high. He can't shoot. There aren't many successful point guards that can't shoot. Ricky Rubio can't shoot, be he can certainly pass better than Bledsoe.

The rest of the roster is young developing guys aside from Channing Frye. Alex Len and Miles Plumlee will be able to come on a little slower, and seems that they need it. The problem here is that it is hard to look at this roster and even pick out a future all-star. Bledsoe is as close as they've got, but he's only shown glimpses. No one else is even close. Dragic is probably their best player at this point, a nice big point guard that is crafty with the ball in the lane, makes the right pass and is a solid defender. There will be a lot of lineup tweaking as the season goes on and I imagine the depth chart above will maybe be ten of the 82 games played this year. This team is a classic project that will look to acquire assets and groom new coach Jeff Hornacek.

Northwest Division

Oklahoma City Thunder

Projected record: 54-28 3rd seed

Depth Chart

PG

Russell Westbrook

Reggie Jackson

MVP: Kevin Durant

Biggest surprise: Perry Jones III

Biggest letdown: Kendrick Perkins

Key to success: A third option

Grab bag: Durant will have to be LeBron to get this team back to the finals.

SG

Thabo Sefolosha

Jeremy Lamb

SF

Kevin Durant

Ryan Gomes

PF

Serge Ibaka

Nick Collison

C

Kendrick Perkins

Hasheem Thabeet

Two years ago, Oklahoma City was in the finals, playing Miami in what looked like the new Lakers and Celtics rivalry that would go on for years, always meeting in the finals. Oklahoma City made a decision to let the sixth man of the year James Harden go to the Rockets in exchange for Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, some other assets including what they deemed the most important thing, not having to pay him. The Thunder did well without Harden even as Harden blossomed in Houston as arguably the best shooting guard in the league. Kevin Martin filled the sixth man role admirably if not equally. The Thunder had the best record in the west going into the playoffs and in the first round series against Harden, Russell Westbrook is injured and the title hopes with him. It wasn't a forgone conclusion that the Thunder would have made the finals by any means, but it certainly was possible. Now the Thunder have lost Martin, Westbrook is still hurt, an unproven young guard in Jeremy Lamb must provide offense off the bench, Kendrick Perkins is rapidly declining and the West has gotten better. Did the Thunder's championship window already close? No.

Despite these missteps, anytime you have the second best player in the league in Kevin Durant, your team is going to have a chance. If the Thunder can do a little more than tread water in Westbrook's absence than Oklahoma City will still make the playoffs as a high seed with championship aspirations. It will be a much harder campaign this year. No argument can be made that the Thunder got better in the offseason, but they are still underestimated because of what happened in the playoffs last year. The starting lineup is unchanged and will continue to play great defense and rely on Durant and Westbrook for offense. Serge Ibaka is a good floor spacing big man able to hit the 15-18 foot jumpers at one of the best clips in the league, but he doesn't have a reliable low post offense. He's not a go to guy on offense by any means even if his scoring average is decent. And that's really where this team will struggle. Who will be that third scorer they've relied on for the past four seasons (first Harden, then Martin)? Some combination of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb will have to help fill that void. One silver lining of the Westbrook injury is the development of Reggie Jackson. By the second round of the playoffs, Reggie Jackson was a dependable point guard. His focus off the bench should be as a scoring guard as the other offensive options are limited.

I do think one surprise of the Thunder this year will be Perry Jones III. His draft stock fell but he has a unique skill set. I think he'll eventually end up as a 10-15 minute stretch four player in a smaller bench unit with Nick Collison playing center. PJIII shouldn't think of himself as a Kevin Durant, but more of an Al Harrington as he continues to develop his outside shot.

A lot of the season hinges on Westbrook coming back and creating that dynamism with Durant and if Perkins and the bench can step up a little the Thunder should be just fine.

Portland Trail Blazers

Projected record: 43-39 7th seed

Depth Chart

PG

Damian Lillard

Maurice Williams

MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge

Biggest surprise: Robin Lopez

Biggest letdown: Wesley Matthews

Key to success: Defense - everywhere.

Grab bag: When is someone going to bring a sign to the Moda Center saying, "It's all for you Damian!"

SG

Wesley Matthews

CJ McCollum

SF

Nicolas Batum

Dorrell Wright

PF

LaMarcus Aldridge

Thomas Robinson

C

Robin Lopez

Meyers Leonard

Much has been said about the increased depth of the Blazers' bench. While they've replaced a D-League bench with NBA players, this isn't a top overall bench in the league. The backup center leaves something to be desired, Thomas Robinson and CJ McCollum are unproven with lots of potential, but Maurice Williams and Dorrell Wright are both legit. Maurice Williams is a sleeper for sixth man of the year. He's going to get a ton of minutes (especially with McCollum out to start the year) and he'll have license to shoot whenever he wants. Dorrell Wright is another offensive player with a shooting permit. I like a bench that can score, something that the Blazers didn't have last year, and the defense can't get any worse. And the reserves last year don't look so bad as they are third stringers this year.

The bench is important, but the starting lineup is still where a bulk of improvement is going to come from. Robin Lopez is the new starting center. I really think he is going to surprise some people with his lane clogging skills and rebounding. His career year stats last year indicate, with about 5.6 rpg, that Lopez isn't a great rebounder. I expect him to get around nine or ten rebounds per game this year and average near a double-double with a couple blocks a game, and most importantly just challenge shots near the rim. Lopez is a smart guy and he knows his limits, he's not out for "his." He also benefits playing next to LaMarcus Aldridge, a top two power forward. Aldridge is probably going to put up about the same numbers as last year only at a more efficient rate, and that's just fine. Having a go to player in the post is rare in the NBA today and while pundits think that Aldridge is too content with jump shots, he spends a fair amount of time in the post.

One thing that could make it easier for Aldridge this year is the continued progression of both Damian Lillard and Nicholas Batum as playmakers. It's been a couple years now since seeing Aldridge's spin alley-oop and I hope that either Batum or Lillard can be a passer in that situation. Batum is another one of those players that probably has reached his top production, but needs to be more efficient. I'd like to see more like 16 ppg with 5 rpg and 5 apg while shooting above 45% and really become that defensive stopper every team covets. As always with Batum, it comes down to consistency. Lillard on the other hand needs to become a star that he is on the path to becoming. In preseason he has been able to turn it on at times and score at will, which is a great trait. A good player knows when that needs to be turned on and off and that will be the key to Lillard's production, but there is nothing I've seen that makes me think he can't do that. I do worry slightly that Lillard becomes less of a point guard and more of a scorer. It is still important for him to just "create" which doesn't mean he is just in the flow of the offense but beating players off the dribble and finding shooters.

I don't think a ten game increase in wins is unreasonable for this group and that should be enough to get them to the playoffs.

Denver Nuggets

Projected record: 42-40 8th seed

Depth Chart

PG

Ty Lawson

Andre Miller

MVP: Ty Lawson

Biggest surprise: Evan Fournier

Biggest letdown: Ty Lawson

Key to success: Consistent rotation, can't be different every night.

Grab bag: Shaqtin' a fool starring Javale McGee is one of my favorite movies.

SG

Evan Fournier

Randy Foye

SF

Wilson Chandler

Danilo Gallinari

PF

Kenneth Faried

JJ Hickson

C

Javale McGee

Timofey Mozgov

It was an interesting offseason in Denver. Again, this is another team that is hard to say "got better" this summer. My assumption is they got worse, and quite a bit. The good news is that they were a very good regular season team last year. Although I believe they overachieved just based on great chemistry and a lack of injuries until the end of the year, you don't win that many games without a solid infrastructure - which is now gone.

The Nuggets fired their coach, George Karl and hired a first time head in Brian Shaw. I am hoping this hire proves my theory. I've theorized that over the past two years the George Karl liked his big men, for lack of a better word, "dumb." To be clear, I only mean this in a basketball sense. Many times it isn't as obvious as Javale McGee. Sometimes it is players that are too dumb to know they aren't good at certain things and they overcome the odds to play better because George Karl put them in the simplest situation possible. I call this "Nugget Smarts." When players on teams besides the Nuggets would make dumb plays or look lost I would refer to them as a Nugget player. For example, Meyers Leonard would have fit in just fine on the Nuggets last year if you know what I mean. Well this year they lost George Karl, added more big men then can possibly play in one game and have an unproven coach. I think this spells losses and quite a big drop from last year.

Nuggets smarts isn't the only problem this team has. They overachieved last year and they lost Kosta Koufas and the defensive wings in Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer. I do think Evan Fournier is going to be a nice surprise, but that is only on the offensive side of the ball. Danilo Galinari isn't expected back soon and is one less offensive piece to start the season. The Nuggets ran all over the place on offense AND defense last year and it just won't be the same this season.

The Nuggets offense will change this year, shooting a lot more three pointers than last year (in which the shot hardly any), and Ty Lawson is a good point guard but overall the talent level is down, the chemistry will be at a lower level and teams such as Minnesota and Portland have both gotten better within the same division. It will be a challenge for Denver to repeat last season's success and harder still to make a return to the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Projected record: 41-41

Depth Chart

PG

Ricky Rubio

JJ Barea

MVP: Kevin Love

Biggest surprise: Derrick Williams

Biggest letdown: Ricky Rubio

Key to success: It has to be health

Grab bag: Best chance of getting an all-foreign lineup on the floor with Spurs.

SG

Kevin Martin

Alexy Shved

SF

Corey Brewer

Chase Budinger

PF

Kevin Love

Derrick Williams

C

Nikola Pekovic

Ronny Turiaf

There are big playoff aspirations in Minnesota this year. They are healthy, added some more pieces for Rick Adelman to work with and fans will finally get to see Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio on the floor together.

One of the problems for the Timberwolves is that for three seasons there has been the idea that, if healthy, it was a forgone conclusion that they'd make the playoffs. Again, they have some nice pieces, some players that have produced in other places and they have a good coach, but why this playoff assumption? Their best player is Kevin Love, who a couple years ago put up monster numbers and became one the league's best three point shooters. He's not a great post player on either offense or defense but he gets a pass because of his numbers. It reminds me a little of Blake Griffin, you see his highlights and that's all, like Love when you see his stats and just assume he had a huge effect on the game. He's an all-star, no doubt, a top two power forward even, but he's not an MVP candidate. Luckily the Timberwolves have a center who is a presence in the post in Nikola Pekovic. Pekovic was expected to garner some offers this summer as a restricted free agent but went relatively ignored, which was good for the TWolves as they didn't have to overpay to keep him. He's a solid center in a league without many. He's a strong body but not necessarily a defense presence, so between him and Love there is a bit of a sieve to the basket. Pickup Ronny Turiaf and rookie Georgi Dieng are better defensive presences but don't expect to get a lot of run.

The Timberwolves drastically improved their wing play adding Corey Brewer and Kevin Martin to Chase Budinger and Alexy Shved (who I thought did well despite being thrown into the fire). They also picked up Shabazz Mohammed, who I think if he gets his attitude in the right place can be poor man's (really poor) James Harden in a few years. Corey Brewer is another classic three and D guy and Kevin Martin can score help to round out the starting lineup with Ricky Rubio at the point.

I've never been a Rubio fan. I acknowledge his terrific passing ability, long armed defensive presence and his flowing hair, but it is hard for me to get behind a point guard who can't shoot. He literally didn't make a jump shot the entire season last year. Ok, that's a lie, but they were far and few between. If Kahwi Leonard and Danny Green are going to play off LeBron James and Dwayne Wade and dare them to shoot in the NBA finals, what do you think opposing defenders are going to do to Rubio (think Scottie Pippen against the Lakers in the 2000 Western Conference Finals as he played off of Ron Harper in all the passing lanes)!? Rubio has to get a least a midrange shot down or all the space Love gives Pekovic down low by playing outside will be for naught.

I am not picking the Timberwolves to make the playoffs, but I agree they have a shot. Here's hoping we get to see a full season of Rubio and Love.

Utah Jazz

Projected record: 28-54

Depth Chart

PG

Trey Burke

John Lucas

MVP: Gordon Hayward

Biggest surprise: Enes Kanter

Biggest letdown: Alec Burks

Key to success: Outside shooting

Grab bag: The Jazz will go unnoticed in Salt Lake but within a few years will be back in the playoffs as a "complete surprise."

SG

Alec Burks

Brandon Rush

SF

Gordon Hayward

Marvin Williams

PF

Derek Favors

Jeremy Evans

C

Enes Kanter

Andris Biedrins

It was bad luck that Trey Burke went down with injury in the preseason, increasing the development time it will take for this now rebuilding team. The Jazz went all in with rebuilding after a decent but not quite playoff season last year. After a gluttony of options in the post they traded away their two starters (Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap) to make way for the younglings. This was the right move for the Jazz to see what they have in Enes Kanter and Derek Favors. I think both these players have long term starting positions in the NBA and Enes Kanter has a chance to be an all-star.

The starting lineup is a list of young talent. The two we've mentioned in the post need a little time to develop, but should and will be very solid contributors this year. Gordon Hayward is a solid offensive small forward, able to create his own shot and create for teammates. Alec Burks has been clamoring for a chance and he'll have it this year. I don't believe he'll reach expectations or have a good season at all, though. Right now he's a hustle player with some phenomenal athleticism but mentally, hasn't quite figured it out. We've addressed Trey Burke and so far in preseason and summer league he hasn't looked good. He will need to adjust his game for the NBA.

The Jazz just need to be patient. Not all five of the starters will pan out, and the bench leaves a lot to be desired so there are bound to be growing pains (what the hell happened to Richard Jefferson?). The low expectations should not be cause for concern. Young teams need to learn and the Jazz should be relatively fun to watch. They won't be pushovers by any stretch but there will be a lot of mistakes, a lot of cold shooting nights and a lot of just being outsmarted and out executed by more experienced teams. Another free agent offseason and another lottery selection should give this team a chance to get back into the playoffs in a couple years.

Southwest Division

San Antonio Spurs

Projected record: 59-23 1st seed

Depth Chart

PG

Tony Parker

Cory Joseph

MVP: Tony Parker

Biggest surprise: Marco Belinelli

Biggest letdown: Manu Giniobili

Key to success: Doing Popovich things.

Grab bag: They aren't old, two players are old and one of them dominated last year.

SG

Danny Green

Marco Belinelli

SF

Kawhi Leonard

Manu Ginobili

PF

Tim Duncan

Boris Diaw

C

Tiago Splitter

Matt Bonner

Not much changed here from last season, basically exchanging Marco Belinelli (a better shooter) for Gary Neal (more all-around game). That's ok as the Spurs were a pooped pants away from winning the NBA finals last season.

Tim Duncan was rejuvenated last season, having his best year in several solid but not star level seasons. He will have to continue that play while getting plenty of rest during the regular season. The starting lineup remains the same. Say what you will about Tiago Splitter in the finals, but he was solid all season and up until the finals where the matchups just weren't in his favor. This is where San Antonio excels, though. The Spurs easily went small, Boris Diaw is a wonderful combination of size (not to be confused with strength) and agility and their matchups were as good as any teams was against the Miami Heat. A couple of new big man additions in Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayers (formerly Pendergraph) should ease the load that Duncan will play this season. Coach Gregg Popovich is just so smart. These additions are just what they needed. Players that know their roles and can spell Duncan and Splitter. The have a big for every occasion; Baynes for size and some low post offense, Ayers for toughness, Bonner for shooting and Diaw for everything else.

While watching the finals last year the biggest concern for me was Manu Ginobili. He had a few good games but he made some horrid mistakes. His level of play really suffered last year. The other side to this is that Danny Green became more than a three and D guy, he became THE scariest three point shooter in the league. He got better and better as the playoffs went on and he's still relatively young. Same goes for stud Kawhi Leonard, who can be a star. Tony Parker is still in his prime and just led his French National team to a gold medal in Europe.

With the depth of the lineup and the continued development of Leonard and Green, the Spurs should be just as good if not better than last year. You can always look to the Spurs to add a throwaway player mid or late season who somehow contributes. Despite Popovich sitting Duncan for that fateful possession in Game 6 he is still the best coach in basketball. He does the best job of keeping his main players fresh and somehow finds to win games that he has no business winning with his reserves. That again becomes crucial so that the Spurs reach the playoffs at full strength and also throws responsibility to the "fill-in" players during the season, aiding in their development.

Houston Rockets

Projected record: 55-27 4th seed

Depth Chart

PG

Jeremy Lin

Patrick Beverley

MVP: James Harden

Biggest surprise: Jeremy Lin

Biggest letdown: Omer Asik

Key to success: Go post, spread the floor.

Grab bag: 1:1 that the headline "Houston, we have a problem" will show up this season.

SG

James Harden

Reggie Williams

SF

Chandler Parsons

Francisco Garcia

PF

Terrence Jones

Donatas Motiejunas

C

Dwight Howard

Omer Asik

Well that summer worked out. The Rockets got the prized free agent, Dwight Howard, instantly transforming them from fringe playoff team to championship contender. Howard along with pickups Reggie Williams and Francisco Garcia improve the Rockets dramatically.

Dwight Howard has looked healthy, spritely and has displayed a much better touch around the basket then last year. I've heard the criticism on Howard after last season's disaster, but even hurt he managed to put up huge numbers on a team where he wasn't the first option. Healthy, he is still the best big man in the league. It has to be impossible for him to not have picked SOMETHING up from Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon this offseason, so expect to see a more refined post game. That and his improved decision making should be the difference from his stint in LA last year to his success in Houston.

James Harden emerged as one of if not the best shooting guard in the NBA last season. He can shoot, pass and drive, adding a very good pick and roll option should make him even more dangerous. The additions this summer (Garcia, Williams) in addition to Chandler Parsons help open the floor for both him and Howard to operate. One name I didn't mention was Jeremy Lin. Lin will never be a big floor spacing shooter, but he has a decent outside shot. Lin will have a much better season this year. He has looked to attack much through the preseason and now with more shooting around him and a big guy to dump it do on drives he should become more effective.

The one thing missing to the Rockets offense is the power forward. Many project disgruntled Omer Asik to play that position, which in my opinion wouldn't work well. He should be the backup center and eventually traded (if his attitude doesn't improve and he has a large contract). The Omer Asik trade piece could bring a missing piece or it might become the best center tandem in the league. Terrence Jones should be a nice stretch four next to Howard. His shooting isn't great, but it is a huge improvement over the non-shooting of Asik. He is also a good ball handler, passer and playmaker. Defensively he may be overmatched some nights, but he is strong with freakishly long arms and savvy in his post defense. More important however may be his ability to defend the pick and roll. He has quick feet and can hold his own on switches with guards. I think this is the perfect position for him in the perfect roll, very similar to his "glue" roll on the Kentucky championship team.

All of this said, the Rockets will have a few growing pains as happens whenever you add a ball demanding big man after being the fastest team in the league, and the style will change a little, but they have the personal to make a serious run at a championship right now.

Memphis Grizzlies

Projected record: 48-34

Depth Chart

PG

Mike Conley

Jerryd Bayless

MVP: Zach Randolph

Biggest surprise: Kosta Koufos

Biggest letdown: Coach Dave Joerger

Key to success: Offense - ZBo close to 20 ppg

Grab bag: Did anyone else notice that Marc Gasol won DPOY yet wasn't on the All-Defensive team behind six players (one extra)!?

SG

Tony Allen

Mike Miller

SF

Tayshaun Prince

Quincy Pondexter

PF

Zach Randolph

Ed Davis

C

Marc Gasol

Kosta Koufos

A surprising entry into the conference final last year, Memphis simplified their offense after the Rudy Gay trade and got even better at defense.

After the Gay trade, Memphis went back to its bread and butter by feeding the post. This will have to continue this year and Zach Randolph needs to be a bigger factor offensively. One issue that could disrupt this strategy is the lack of outside shooting. Tony Allen is a wonderful defender and good hustler but his outside shooting is horrendous. Tayshaun Prince is another good defender who used to have a reliable jumper that went all but ghost in the playoffs. Jeryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter became the Grizzlies best options from the outside. This is to say, it didn't work out, both Randolph and Marc Gasol were smothered down low with no release valves. The Grizzlies welcomed Mike Miller back and are essentially hoping that that is the only answer they'll need. I am not crossing my fingers as the oft-injured Mike Miller hasn't been more than a limited role player in the past few seasons.

The other addition this summer was new coach Dave Joerger. The style will remain the same but can he get in the ear of his players like Lionel Hollins? I don't think so. If things go bad this season, Joerger will be taking the blame. Memphis will put up a decent record during the regular season. Mike Conley has become a very good point guard even if he's not elite he is never completely overmatched. It will be interesting to see if Joerger and Conley can get something more out of this offense besides dumping it down low and getting the yeoman's points. Can they perhaps find another shooter, or will Bayless or Pondexter get closer to becoming knock down shooters?

Defensively they shouldn't lose a step. Marc Gasol is the anchor and they have two great wing defenders. Their ability to play defense and stop teams should win them a lot of games. Athletic players like Allen, Bayless and Pondexter can get on the break or in quick transitions for easy points. The playoffs are just a different story. Most playoff teams have a good defense and if the Grizzlies can't score, it won't matter how good their own defense is. It feels like they are one piece away. A scoring perimeter player or at least an increase in production from Prince or Conley will have to happen to ensure a return trip to the conference finals, otherwise they are a first round playoff team.

Dallas Mavericks

Projected record: 41-41

Depth Chart

PG

Jose Calderon

Devin Harris

MVP: Dirk Nowitzki

Biggest surprise: Vince Carter

Biggest letdown: Monta Ellis

Key to success: Nowitzki putting up 26 a game.

Grab bag: Monta Ellis? Bring in Baron Davis too. "These guys KILLED us in 2007!"

SG

Monta Ellis

Vince Carter

SF

Shawn Marion

Jae Crowder

PF

Dirk Nowitzki

DeJuan Blair

C

Samuel Dalembert

Brandon Wright

Dallas has been in a perpetual "reload" mode since their NBA championship. It hasn't worked out. Dirk Nowitzki, their best player is getting older and has regressed. They've lost their previous point guards, shooting guards and centers over the last two years and replaced them with players no other teams really vied for. I like the addition of Jose Calderon, a willing passer, but combining him with Monta Ellis in the backcourt defensively is playing with fire. Shawn Marion is less effective with each passing season and Samuel Dalembert is solid when not hurt, but that hasn't been often very recently.

Devin Harris is a better backcourt mate for Monta Ellis. He's a bigger, better defender but you lose the passing that Jose Calderon brings. That three man rotation should be interesting to see how it plays out. Vince Carter had a very good year last year and I expect him to play well again this year. There is an outside chance of him becoming a starter, replacing Monta Ellis who would become the sixth man. Dirk Nowitzki will have a better season after a healthy offseason and full preseason. Nowitzki has to be an MVP candidate for this team to just make the playoffs, and that's not something I think will happen this late in his career.

The frontcourt off the bench is very thin, and when you have two older players with recent injury history this doesn't bode well. Dejuan Blair has always exceeded expectations, but there is a reason he fell out of favor in San Antonio. And Brandon Wright does little more than block weak side shots and dunk when he's wide open. Dirk will ensure that they have a decent change every game, and Monta will both win and lose the Mavs games but they have to be really perfect to end up making the playoffs, especially in the western conference.

New Orleans Pelicans

Projected record: 36-46

Depth Chart

PG

Jrue Holiday

Brian Roberts

MVP: Anthony Davis

Biggest surprise: Al-Farouq Aminu

Biggest letdown: Eric Gordon/Tyreke Evans

Key to success: Backcourt chemistry/rotation

Grab bag: This team is going to be really expensive in a few years.

SG

Eric Gordon

Tyreke Evans

SF

Al-Farouq Aminu

Anthony Morrow

PF

Anthony Davis

Ryan Anderson

C

Jason Smith

Greg Stiemsma

The talent on this team is tremendous. There are three players that have a chance to be all-stars, one that already is. New acquisitions Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans have both had various successes for the past teams, Eric Gordon is paid like an all-star and Anthony Davis is budding with superstar potential. The problem is, only one of these players can be an all-star the way this team is currently constructed.

If there is a way to get Holiday, Gordon and Evans all on the court at the same time and not have it be a disaster, I am not seeing it. All three players are a ball-in-their-hand type player. I like the idea of starting Eric Gordon over Evans because it gives the starting lineup another shooter. The biggest slight against Evans is his lack of a jump shot and by bringing him off the bench with Anthony Morrow and Ryan Anderson you give him deadly shooters to find off his creativity. Another jam here is Austin Rivers, who, after a poor rookie year, played very well in summer league and preseason. He is another playmaking guard who likes the ball in his hands. Someone is getting traded, and my guess would be Eric Gordon after an early season showcase. If the team is only middling by the trade deadline and Gordon has been productive and healthy I would expect to see him traded. The Pelicans also need a true center as Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsmsa no Ryan Anderson are great options. The Bill Simmons proposed trade of Ryan Anderson for Omer Asik seems to make logical sense giving the Pelicans a good defensive center and reuniting Anderson with Howard on the Rockets as a great stretch four.

There are going to be nights where the chemistry is good and shots are falling, but when one of those three backcourt players is having an off night and they keep shooting, the other two are going to go into "get mine" mode and the whole thing is going to fall apart.

The best player on this team though is Anthony Davis. He is a much smoother player than I imagined. He's got a nice looking jump shot, good handles for a big guy and runs the floor like a gazelle. I wouldn't be surprised if he is an all-star this year. If the ball-hogging trio starting gunning, how will Anthony Davis react? Can his brow ever be unfurled? Monty Williams is going to have quite the time divvying up the playing time so that it doesn't affect the chemistry and development of the Pelicans' prized big man.



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