The NBA season may already be underway, but here is my preview of the Western Conference teams, ranked from worst to first.
15. Utah Jazz
Poor Utah. This time last year they had the longest serving and most revered coach in the NBA, Jerry Sloan, and a premier point guard, Deron Williams, running his tried and tested system. But after Sloan was ousted following a spat with Williams, who then forced his way to New Jersey via trade, there is not a lot left for the Jazz to be happy about. Devin Harris, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson are evidently talented and capable of putting up gaudy stats, but it is going to be a very tough job for Tyrone Corbin to make this team competitive in his first full season as a head coach.
14. Phoenix Suns
This is not how the Steve Nash story should end. The two time MVP should not be committing ample turnovers whilst trying to push the issue for lottery bound team. Whilst he may have lost his trademark quickness and is a defensive liability, Nash is still an offensive genius, and led the league in assists last season at the age of 37. Surely a trade to a contender is the best for everyone, giving Nash one last shot at a title and allowing the Suns to bottom out for a high draft pick.
13. New Orleans Hornets
Any off-season in which you lose your franchise player can hardly be called a success, but given the circumstances, New Orleans should be very happy with their situation heading into the new season. Chris Paul was never going to re-sign, regardless of how much money the Hornets could have offered him. Paul wants to win now, something he evidently was not going to be able to do in New Orleans. By trading him, the Hornets have made an early start on their rebuilding process, and the acquisition of Eric Gordon has set them up very nicely for the future. This season will be a strange one for the organization though as they start it without the electrifying Paul for the first time since 2004. Expect growing pains.
12. Sacramento Kings
This Kings team looked so much fun. Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton scoring at will in the backcourt, Chuck Hayes and DeMarcus Cousins banging bodies up front, and the NBA’s answer to Tim Tebow, Jimmer Fredette, coming off the bench. It was going to be great. Sure, they wouldn’t have played any defense, or made the playoffs, but this team could have been joyous. Well, unfortunately, Cousins has ruined all of that. He came into the league with a reputation of being a head case, and he duly complied in his rookie season, as the former 5th overall pick was suspended for a starting a fight on the team’s plane. But young DeMarcus has taken things to another level this season, apparently repeatedly and aggressively asking for a trade, to the point that the Kings have banished him from the team. The only option is to trade him, but Cousins’ petulance has left Sacramento with no leverage at all. Another season of mediocrity beckons, the Kings left ruing what could have been.
11. Houston Rockets
Houston definitely has the talent to make the playoffs this year as Kyle Lowry, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola are an efficient and effective trio. I just feel, however, that General Manager Daryl Morey is not happy with mere mediocrity, and that the team will hence look vastly different by the March trade deadline. He already made his intentions clear by attempting to trade Scola and Martin for Pau Gasol, in a deal that was all but done before the NBA (as de facto owners of the Hornets) stepped in. He will now be even more desperate to rebuild, as the mood in the dressing room must be dire, every player knowing they are seen as potential trade pieces in the eyes of the fiercely rational Morey.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
After being the laughing stock of the league ever since Kevin Garnett’s trade to Boston, Minnesota can finally hold their head high as they have assembled a roster of exciting young players who may just over-achieve in this compressed schedule where stamina is just as important as experience. Ricky Rubio is obviously the headline addition with his boy band good looks and wizardly playmaking skills. It is only his first season in the NBA mind, but expect him to play like Rajon Rondo, lots of spectacular assists, but ultimately not enough of a scoring threat to dominate games.
9. Golden State Warriors
In the Eastern Conference, near-miss playoff teams are often dour, defense-focused teams, scraping to 80 points every night and dragging their opponents down to their level. Not out West, where its all alley-oops! The Warriors have the best young back-court in the league, as Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry are lethal shooters who, on some nights, simply cannot be stopped, whilst up front David Lee is a guaranteed double-double. However all three players are veritable black holes on defense so whilst Golden State may be a lock for 110+ points every night, this often isn’t enough as their opponents take advantage of the up-tempo and non-physical style the Warriors play. Due to their high volume of scoring though, this team gives itself a decent chance of winning every game, more than can be said of some teams.
8. Portland Trailblazers
The Portland fans are known for their fierce loyalty to the team, a love that is equally parental and rabid, so watching Greg Oden once again be forced to miss a season through injury must have hit them hard. The former number one overall pick has missed 246 games in his four years in the league, and ultimately never looks like making the impact everyone thought he would. This pain was compounded by the disconsolate, if inevitable, retirement of Brandon Roy at the age of 27 due to a degenerative knee problem. Only three years ago, Roy and Oden were seen as future superstars who would lead the franchise to multiple championships. But now those hopes and dreams are in the past, and the Blazers must move on, and in LaMarcus Aldridge they have potentially another franchise player to savor. Maybe they should wrap him up in bubble wrap after every game though, just to be sure.
7. Denver Nuggets
This Denver team may not be able to boast any superstars, but what they lack in big-name talent, they more than make up for in depth. They easily run nine players deep, and in a compressed schedule that should be enough to get them into the playoffs.
6. San Antonio Spurs
This team is old. So old. Tim Duncan is 35 now, and it has been nine years since his last MVP season, whilst Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker are not exactly sprightly at 34 and 29 respectively. However, despite their age, the Spurs posted the best record in the league last year. Their performance in the playoffs should serve as more of an indication as to their performance in the upcoming season though, as the younger, more athletic Grizzlies bounced them out of the first round. Gregg Popovich is probably the best coach in the league now Phil Jackson has retired, and it will require all of his savvy machinations to keep this team healthy and competitive throughout the compressed schedule.
5. Dallas Mavericks
For a defending champion Dallas is not getting much respect, as people have been quick to dismiss talk of them repeating. This is out of deference and respect for Tyson Chandler, the defensive lynchpin behind the Mavericks’ shock victory last year. Chandler is a Knick now, following JJ Barea and DeShawn Stevenson out of Dallas and leaving the Mavericks desperately short. Lamar Odom has come in, but he cannot replace the leadership and toughness Chandler brought. Dirk Nowitzki is still very much unstoppable, but they cannot be seen as serious title contenders after losing three of their best players.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph were majestic in the playoffs last year as the upstart Grizzlies pulled off the shock of the first round by beating the number one seeded Spurs. And this was all without the help of the injured Rudy Gay. Memphis are fantastic, but do not expect them to shine as such in the regular season. Due to the style of their play, I can see them taking a few nights off, knowing that their height and ability to score in the paint will serve them well in the playoffs regardless of seeding. A clean bill of health should be their priority, as a playoff spot is a forgone conclusion.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
This Lakers team should be a mess. They really should be. First of all they lost out on acquiring Chris Paul, and followed this up by panic-trading Lamar Odom to Dallas in a misguided attempt to solve team chemistry issues, forgetting that Lamar was a hugely popular guy both on and off the court. Add to this the fact that new coach Mike Brown has the impossible task of following in the footsteps of 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson, and the Lakers really should be dead and buried. But despite all this turmoil, their best three players are still right up there with rest of the league, and Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are surely worth around 40 wins, regardless of context.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Lob City! Chris Paul managed to drag a frankly terrible Hornets team to 46 wins last year, and then orchestrated two shocking wins over the defending champion Lakers without running mate David West. This speaks volumes of Paul’s talent and ability to improve the play of others. With an outstanding supporting cast for the first time in his career, CP3 is an MVP candidate and the Clippers title contenders.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Despite possibly the quietest offseason out of all the potential title contenders, OKC looks to be the favorite to win the Western Conference as their young players get another year of experience whilst their aging competitors a year older. The only thing that seems like it could derail them is…themselves. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both offensive behemoths and superstars, players who like to have the ball in their hands at all times. Unfortunately that is just not possible, and the two are going to have to set aside their egos if they want to fulfill the seemingly limitless potential of this team.