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Predicting the 2013-14 Western Conference: Part I of III

At this juncture of the offseason, I now offer unassailable predictions of the final 2013-14 Western Conference standings All claims are based on: gut feeling, pure instinct, and a passing appreciation for R-squareds and the like.

In the first of a three-part series, I present the West’s top 6:

1. Oklahoma City Thunder

Remember how Allen Iverson back in the day was quick, cocky, and crazy talented? Most of all, how he brought everything he had, and in the playoffs he was always in contention for Best Player on the Court honors?* Russell Westbrook reminds me a lot of AI. He plays (especially in the playoffs) like the game is personal to him.

* I know the statistical arguments against AI. He was still my favorite player to watch, along with KG, for a good 6-7 year stretch. So there. I would absolutely want him on my team.

Like Iverson, I fully expect Westbrook will get hurt from time to time, and that when he comes back, it won’t just be like it never happened – it’ll be more than that. Westbrook will come back with a holy vengeance. Russell Westbrook will murder opponents this year, mark it down.

With a hate-rampaging Westbrook and superstar Kevin Durant, the Thunder will not need a true “third scorer.” They’ll rely on a combined effort from 3 of the 5 other guys on a night-by-night basis and win 60-65 games, with the highest point differential in the NBA.

Bonus Prediction: Russell Westbrook continues to get what Allen Iverson never truly did – that it’s a good thing to have a great teammate – as he improves the team-centricity of his game.

2. L.A. Clippers

It looks like Chris Paul’s secret is now completely out: his "professional demeanor" might go a little, um, overboard, as far as his teammates are concerned. He’s a tough guy to work for… er, with.

What isn’t and has never been a secret: Chris Paul is a top-5-alive basketball player. I don’t believe that Blake Griffin is a real superstar, and I don’t believe DeAndre Jordan will ever live up to his alleged blue-chip potential. But the Clippers roster, upgraded with Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick, contains a very solid seven-man rotation. Not many weaknesses, and 55-60 wins.

(Man… the Clippers? Can they really continue to be very good over consecutive seasons? This defies a lifetime of training and experience.)

Bonus Prediction: In a shocking twist around mid-March, a dozen of Chris Paul’s teammates surround him in the locker room, daggers in hand. As they close in, he is heard to say, “Et tu?”

3. Memphis Grizzlies

I hope Marc Gasol does a lot of laughing these days, thinking back to his unanimous lesser-Gasol status back when Pau got traded to the Lakers. He is a great center and his career peak might even rival his brother’s. Excellent turn of events.

But Marc is definitely not an all-time great center. And probably not an all-decade great center, at least not yet. The Grizzlies, like the Clippers, are a very solid team up and down the rotation. But they don’t have the guy who’ll win those few extra games when nobody else has it going.

Memphis, as currently constructed (and as coached the last couple years) will continue to be a strong regular-season team and a dangerous playoff opponent. I’d be very happy to have a team like this to root for every night.

Bonus Prediction: Mike Conley goes from underrated to overrated to, finally, properly rated. As a top-10 point guard, but not top-5.

4. San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs will continue to win, but this will be the year that they slip a little. I’m positive about that. Well… mostly positive. Fairly sure.

The Spurs' slipping must be Vegas’s favorite annual NBA wager over the last half-decade.

But this is really it in 2013-14. Tim Duncan’s newfound youth can’t possibly continue, right? Manu Ginobili is officially “done” now, isn’t he? Tony Parker continues to be great, but though I look forward to watching Kawhi Leonard develop as much as anyone, I don’t suspect he’ll ever make more than one All-Star team, if that.

Danny Green’s magic was a wonderful memory, and the Spurs always have so many great role players. I know I’m underestimating (as people do year after year), but I put this team at a maximum of 53 wins next year. Which to them is “slipping.”

Bonus Prediction: Another Tim Duncan age-defying season prompts congressional committees and inquiries.

5. Houston Rockets

Who knows what to make of these guys? I’m with those who believe Dwight Howard already peaked. And after seeing his welcoming ceremony, I’m still not sure basketball is his top priority in life.*

* Let me just say that, when a profession pays you massive sums of money, it should absolutely be your top priority for as long as you participate in it. Especially when the profession will only last for a relatively short period of your life.

Even so, Howard is an All Star-level center, and James Harden will definitely continue to advance his game. Throw in a couple of solid supporting players and whatever Houston ends up getting for Omer Asik… the Rockets will be very good. But not great. The conference finals will be their limit – which is of course fantastic for any team – but no more than that.

Bonus Prediction: Dwight Howard asks for a trade in January. He realizes he's made a big mistake, and wants to show his maturity by owning up to it as soon as possible.

6. Minnesota Timberwolves

Ahh… finally, here we go: your sixth seed in the Western Conference.

Kevin Love. Unlike Blake Griffin, I do see Love as a superstar – or close to getting there. When he was a rookie and a second-year player, he could be so frustrating. Awesome potential for anyone to see, but he kept getting his shot blocked again and again.

Then Kevin Love advanced in enormous ways. He proved he was willing to put the work in to meet his potential. I’m betting that he does it again in preparation for next season. I’m betting that Love re-proves his worth and his place among the NBA’s elite players. Unlike Marc Gasol, I’m also betting that Love has it in him to lead a team to victory on those nights when nobody else has it going on.

Ricky Rubio. Rubio will soon be the true ruler of the T-Wolves (if he isn’t there already). His ascension continues in 2013-14 as he hits a mere 23 years old.

My current favorite player in the NBA, Ricky Rubio is a true pro at playing the lanes and a great on-ball defender. He’s a preternatural passer who knows where every other player is at all times. Now imagine he gets just a little better with his jump shot and finishing each year. He’s moving toward All-Star selections and top-5 point guard status in the NBA.

Pek! Who will dare try to move Pek in the paint, against his will and his muscles? Only a man who does not value his own skin. Pekovic will score, and he’ll block opposing slashers and big men out of the lane on defense. I’ll take him as my #3 guy any day.

The Rest of the Crew. The Wolves have assembled a solid rotation so far this offseason. World beaters? Maybe not, but Kevin Martin can score, as can Chase Budinger and Shabazz Muhammad (presumably as a low-minutes rookie). Corey Brewer 2.0 will do a little bit of a few things, too. I know, damned strong praise around here.

I like the Timberwolves for 48-51 wins and, to top it off, a Round 1 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

Bonus Prediction: Alexey Shved changes his face, earns applause and respect.

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