Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) has his shot blocked by Miami Heat forward Udonis Haslem (40) in the first half in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
1) San Antonio Spurs
One can’t rank the San Antonio Spurs any lower than No. 1 after returning all relevant players and winning the title with relative ease last year. Further, the Spurs will benefit from the Miami Heat disbanding as an NBA power. While LeBron James may still emerge from the East with the Cavs, the Spurs have only Oklahoma City to fear in the West.
The Spurs outclass all of the lower-tier contenders with experience and their inerrant passing rituals, that expose even the most stout defenses. The Spurs put up major scoring numbers, pass like the Globetrotters, and still people throw this “boring” label around. It makes me wonder if we’re even watching the same game.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder
OKC would be world’s better if it had somehow found a way to retain James Harden, but maybe fate was what it was. Serge Ibaka was the consolation prize, and glue guys like Ibaka are necessary to win, too. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are the staples, but Reggie Jackson continues to make his ascent as a great third scorer and spark.
The Thunder are the premier team both due to Westbrook and Durant, but it needs to be the latter in late game situations who does the bulk of the work.
3) L.A. Clippers
The Clips survived the turmoil of the Donald Sterling fiasco last season, and this year promises to be far better distraction-free. The team still has insane depth and some top flight players. Chris Paul has been arguably the league’s best point guard for the last decade, and has posted the highest PER in NBA history at his position.
Blake Griffin is continually becoming a more versatile offensive threat, and after he adds a better back-to-the-basket attack, he’ll have developed the last piece in an already impressive arsenal. DeAndre Jordan may be the worst shooter since Chris Dudley, but he is an absolute monster in the paint and does the job of finishing Chris Paul lobs.
May 3, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) is defended by Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) and forward Blake Griffin (32) during game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. The Clippers defeated the Warriors 126-121 to win the series 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
4) Golden State Warriors
The Warriors struck out on landing Kevin Love and are probably the better for it. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have great chemistry as a high scoring backcourt, and David Lee has been a valuable 20/10 stalwart. Lee’s defense even improved last season, as the entire Warriors team became a top-10 NBA defense under the tutelage of Mark Jackson.
With Jackson gone and Steve Kerr in, it remains to be seen if the Warriors maintain that level of defensive intensity. Kerr is also said to be focused on getting more offense out of Andrew Bogut, who at one time posted nearly 16 points per game with the Bucks. Last season, Bogut attempted just 5.6 shots per game.
5) Portland Trail Blazers
It’s difficult to see the Blazers this “low,” but it’s a talent to how talented the West really is. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are about as solid a 1-2 tandem as a GM can find, and even with good complementary pieces like Wesley Matthews,
Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez, the Blazers just don’t have enough to hang with the top teams in the West yet.
One issue has been depth, and the hope is that maybe C.J. McCollum emerges as a spark off the bench to provide some scoring. At LeHigh in the NCAA he was an explosive scorer and is a capable playmaker; the Blazers are hoping he is eventually the third guard in the rotation behind Lillard and Matthews.
6) Houston Rockets
The Rockets fell by its stasis, essentially. Every team improves by virtue of having rising young talent or by making
May 2, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) shoots over Portland Trail Blazers center Robin Lopez (42) and forward Nicolas Batum (88) during the second quarter in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
additions, and all the Houston Rockets did was subtract Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. Asik’s defense will be sorely missed, and there is no answer for how the Rockets will counter this. Donatas Motiejunas and rookie Clint Capela are the only players behind Howard at the 5-spot, which is beyond worrisome.
James Harden also has to continue to accept his role as leader and take more defensive responsibility. In fact, the Rockets need to embrace a more defensive culture before they can be taken seriously by the likes of the Spurs and Thunder, never mind the second-tier teams just in front of them.
7) Memphis Grizzlies
The Memphis Grizzlies remain a formidable threat in the West. The team has a strong starting five, and Mike Conley is likely the most underrated point guard in the NBA. He’s a strong defender and capable leader of one of the best 4-5 tandems in the league. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph complement one another well on the blocks and are a tough cover.
The Grizz have been attempting to break through with the same team for several years, and while the chemistry is great in Memphis, it still doesn’t seem that the Grizzlies can emerge, even having the quality of a 50-win team.
8) New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans will make their first playoff appearance this season since the team became the Pellies. Surely that will excite their (still scary) mascot. Anthony Davis is on his way to being indisputably the best big man in the NBA. He’s still not even 21 years old, and already posted 21 points, 10 rebounds and a league-leading 2.8 blocks per game last season. He’s a lock to win a couple Defensive Player of the Year awards, and it’s not a stretch to think Davis may some day be a Hall of Famer. Beyond him? Jrue Holiday is a pretty nice point guard and has an All-Star appearance under his belt. If the Pelicans can resurrect the career of either Eric Gordon or Tyreke Evans, this team could make some noise.
9) Denver Nuggets
Denver has been a team on the decline, though injuries have been largely to blame. Ty Lawson received a big contract, and at his best he is worth it. JaVale McGee may be able to take on more minutes, which had typically been reduced due to his asthma. Kenneth Faried is a great, high energy 4-man, but the Nuggets realize his trade value is the highest of any Nugget. It may eventually result in them parting with Faried to obtain more resources in a rebuild. Adding Arron Afflalo is a nice move, but the Nuggets lack star power, and that’s necessary in the West, or East, for that matter.
10) Phoenix Suns
The Phoenix Suns were a great surprise team last season, but it would seem a regression to the mean is due to happen. Eric Bledsoe is still unsigned, and the Suns did draft Syracuse product Tyler Ennis. Further, Isaiah Thomas was signed, and he’s shown he’s a pretty explosive scorer in Sacramento. Gerald Green is an explosive athlete. Goran Dragic will run the show again, and that quartet is about as talented as a backcourt as any NBA team, with or without Bledsoe.
Even so, the frontcourt is mediocre enough to ruin it. Markieff Morris isn’t horrible, nor is P.J. Tucker; and Miles Plumlee is a becoming a good center…but compare it to the talents in the better teams in the West, and it’s fairly clear that the Suns will need better 3, 4, 5 options to have any chance of making the Postseason on a consistent basis.
11) L.A. Lakers
A big question mark here is the health of Kobe Bryant. But it’s unreasonable to expect Bryant to save this roster, too. Kobe couldn’t do it with Smush Parker and Kwame Brown, and things aren’t much better with Nick Young, Carlos Boozer and Julius Randle. Randle could eventually be a monster, and he does remind me of a young Anthony Mason. But that’s not a reason to expect the Lakers to overcome the lack of depth and talent. Nick Young will still shoot off his mouth though.
12) Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks originally impressed me with their offseason tinkering. Bringing back Tyson Chandler made a lot of sense, as he was a huge component in the 2011 title team. But that’s just it, 2011 was three seasons ago, and Chandler has declined some since then, as has Dirk Nowitzki.
With an aging team, the Mavs decided to go sign Chandler Parsons. But Parsons has proven to be nothing more than a third option up to this point in his career, so barring some kind of breakout year that Mark Cuban is predicting, Dallas falls well out of the playoffs.
Mar 31, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic (14) drives to the basket against Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (6) in the first half at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
13) Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota has a lot of nice pieces in place, and may not lose much of a step in the wake of the Kevin Love trade. It’s not often that a team can snag two No. 1 overall picks for a superstar (Anthony Bennett and mega-prospect Andrew Wiggins), never mind add a solid replacement for the departed player (enter: Thaddeus Young).
Ricky Rubio can get a lot of easy shots for this talented cast, and Nikola Pekovic may have a breakout season with Love out of his way. The Wolves are still a dangerous team, just less dangerous than 12 other teams in the West.
14) Sacramento Kings
The Sacramento Kings will likely never really get it together. DeMarcus Cousins is too talented to suffer through this kind of career. I wish I had more to say on this.
15) Utah Jazz
Really, the show will be Dante Exum here. Derrick Favors has always been a star in the making, but it is starting to become doubtful as to that star will ever be made. Enes Kanter is a huge mystery cloud hanging over the organization, and Rudy Gobert is just as much of an unknown.
Gordon Hayward is back, after receiving an offer sheet from the Charlotte Hornets. Hayward is a borderline All-Star type, but a borderline All-Star with a couple young prospects (Trey Burke being the other, a potential Jameer Nelson type career), it’s hard to predict this season goes any better than the last for the men in Salt Lake City.
Author’s Note: Now, it may seem that some of those predictions, power rankings—are off. If so, I challenge you to post your own set of rankings, and we’ll just see how the season shakes out.
There’s little sense in shaking fists when none of us have crystal balls to view the NBA’s 2014-15 fate.