As the Eastern Conference continues its 15 year run in inferior less entertaining basketball, the Western Conference is primed for another season of dominance. While in the past several years, aging all-stars such as Carlos Boozer and Amare Stoudemire and perceived star player Carmelo Anthony have embarked east to continue their respective professional careers, these are the anomalies as Western Conference clubs continue drafting better players, making better trades, and generally putting on a clinic on how to run professional basketball franchises.
Just in the last year alone, the influx of talent in the Western Conference dwarfs that which escaped east. Dwight Howard was traded to LA, Andrew Bogut was traded to Oakland, and Andre Iguodala was sent to Denver. In exchange for that trio, the Eastern Conference acquired Andrew Bynum, Aaron Afflalo, and Monta Ellis. Western conference aging star Steve Nash was available in trade, with Nash publicly flirting with New York and Toronto, before ultimately getting shipped a few hundred miles northwest to the pacific ocean. This situation was further exacerbated this week, when James Harden, by all accounts, publicly available on the trade market, was sent west and not east when Oklahoma City agreed to send Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin and five pack of scratch off tickets. It’s amazing that the same eastern conference doormats that have been struggling to collect wins for over a decade had little no assets to outbid a Western Conference team mired in the supposed middle round purgatory of the NBA draft. Kudos to Darryl Morey, but shame on Toronto, Detroit, Milwaukee, Orlando, Charlotte, and Washington for getting stuck in the perpetual rebuild.
What does this mean for the Wolves? A tough task to return to the playoffs while trying to claw out from their league long playoff drought, a dubious distinction they currently share with the Kings. What does this mean for Wolves fans? A season of entertaining basketball where evening matchups in professional arenas are more compelling than debating which freshman at Rupp Arena is worthy of a lottery selection.
On to the Rankings!
1. LA Lakers (0-0)
Interesting combination between the best starting lineup in the league and the worst bench in the West. Assuming good health, and forecasting their playoff rotation, this team looks like a postseason monster. Can their bevy of Aging Stars, and Dwight, maintain the West’s best record over an 82 games season? Probably unlikely, but until the bumps in the road manifest, their Reign at the top will continue.
2. Denver (0-0)
The Double D’s. Denver last season was built on its depth and decision making, where although they lacked a #1 option, their embarrassment of riches in capable rotation players allowed them to run, gun, and outlast teams en route to a healthy amount of wins. This season, Denver exchanged that second D for defense, as a full season of McGee instead of Nene and their acquisition of the league’s premier perimeter defender in AI9 figures to change their fortunes significantly in defending the basket.
3. OKC (0-0)
OKC used an impending gun to their head in February 2014 as the impetus to significantly weaken their title chances in 2013 with the trade of James Harden. This is still a good basketball team, but a close locker room is now undergoing their first significant test. Their lack of frontcourt depth wasn’t exploited last season as James Harden running the second unit could trade baskets with any lineup the opposition could trot out. Without Harden, their second unit lacks an identity, hopefully it doesn’t also lack production.
4. Minnesota (0-0)
I was tempted to put the best team ever assembled on paper #1, but let’s make them earn on it the court. This is higher than everybody but SCHOENE and Wins Produced could ever imagine. What do those two systems have in common? They predict wins based on statistics indicative of producing wins. I’ll take those odds.
5. San Antonio (0-0)
Can Danny Green repeat his career year? Can Tim Duncan return once more to the fountain of youth? Can Manu Ginobli stay healthy? Can Tony Parker stay healthy? Can Kawhi Leaonard get better? Does Gregg Poppovich ever fail to meet expectations? Maybe this is the year the slew of offseason question marks finally catch up to the Spurs. I doubt it.
6. Memphis (0-0)
Can your perimeter players handle the ball? If they can’t, you can’t beat Memphis, it’s as simple as that. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph can score in the paint and rebound the ball, but Memphis’ true strength is in generating turnovers. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, and Rudy Gay are all above average to elite at thieving possessions. However, can they hit a perimeter jump shot and can Zach Randolph return to his 2010-11 form? These are the two questions that will determine if they are a contender or first round fodder.
7. LA Clippers (0-0)
Who doesn’t love Chris Paul and Blake Griffin? Who love’s anybody else on this roster? Lamar Odom is taking some time off from Kardashian reality television to try and play professional basketball again. He turns 33 on Friday. Chauncey Billups is coming back from a season ending injury. He turned 36 in September. DeAndre Jordan’s free throw percentage is lower than Mitt Romney’s tax rate. This is a tough environment to meet Lob City’s 2011-12 built expectations.
8. Utah (0-0)
Utah is a team many people are projecting big things for. The impetus for such predictions usually starts with the veteran packed frontcourt, but then ends with rosy projections of improvement for all of its youngsters. I love the former, but have strong concerns about the latter. Can Hayward, Burks, Kanter, and Favors all be improving young players? The odds say no. In fact, the rule in regards to rookies and in general rookie contract players is that they don’t improve, so when you find one that does show year over year improvement, you hold on to them with a 5 year extension. Ultimately, this team will still be defined by what it’s missing, a competent distributor, and what everyone is projecting, improvement by young players.
9. Golden State (0-0)
Stephen Curry’s ankle, meet Andrew Bogut’s entire cursed body. Now that you met, we don’t want you ever hanging out except for the 20 games you’ll share on the court together this season. A run of good health could propel them up the ladder, but the offseason question I can’t answer resides with their popular sophomore. Klay Thompson had a rookie season where he shot the ball exceptionally well, displayed competent ball handling, but was a below average Rebounder, blocker, and stealer. Wins produced hates him, win shares likes him a little more, but the press LOVES him. Simmons and Lowe floated his name in potential Harden deals at Grantland. Is this really a budding cornerstone player, or instead, is Thompson just a role playing 3 and D guy without the D?
10. Sacramento (0-0)
This team reminds me of the Wolves B.R. (Before Rubio). Mish Mashed parts, no willing passers, lots of willing shooters, poor coaching. If this team contends for a playoff spot, it will be because DeMarcus Cousins or Tyreke Evans significantly matures and becomes a team leader that holds teammates accountable for poor offensive decision making and poor defense. The problem is the poor offensive decision making and poor defense are usually the fault of Cousins and Evans. This team is unlikely to contend for a playoff spot.
11. New Orleans (0-0)
Why oh why couldn’t Anthony Davis land in the east? Instead, he’s paired with Ryan Anderson, another eastern conference talent swipe, max contract Eric Gordon, and underrated Gustavo Ayon. If only they wouldn’t have drafted Austin Rivers, and plan to play him at point guard. Two steps forward, one step back. Watching Ryan Anderson without Dwight Howard around to draw defenses should be a fun early season league pass activity.
12. Dallas (0-0)
No Dirk (to start the season). No Jason Terry. No Tyson chandler. No JJ Barea. This team is no longer the championship team from just 2 years ago. Instead of Deron Williams and/or Dwight Howard, they recruited Elton Brand, OJ Mayo, and Chris Kaman. Their roster is filled with guys with positive name recognition and questionable basketball impact. Without Dirk, this team is a free fall. Jae Crowder can only do so much.
13. Houston (0-0)
James Harden, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, and 15 young rookie power forwards. With only one plus defender on the roster in Asik, how do they stop people? How does Asik hold up being on his own island without help defenders? Can he stay out of foul trouble? This is an interesting core moving forward, but for this season, it’s about growing into the future with relaxed expectations on the present.
14. Portland (0-0)
No depth. Rookie Point Guard. Rookie Center. Did I mention no depth? Lillard has looked great in summer league and the preseason, so did Jonny Flynn. Can Lillard finish in the paint with real NBA defenders at the rim? Can he avoid the common rookie point guard mistakes that lead to a high turnover rate? Can LMA stay motivated surrounded by Nic Batum, Wesley Matthews, and no other veterans? I don’t believe in Rookie Point Guards unless they are unicorns.
15. Phoenix (0-0)Wes Johnson. Michael Beasley.