The NBA regular season is so close you can taste it, and basketball nuts all around the world, including yours truly, are gearing up for what promises to be a season full of interesting storylines and intriguing match-ups.
To signal the beginning of the 2014/15 NBA campaign, let’s take a look at my early playoff predictions for the Western Conference:
1. Los Angeles Clippers
You probably think I’m crazy. We saw a similar Clippers team bounced out of the West last season in the Conference Semi-finals and again it seemed to be a premature exit for Chris Paul and the gang. After the most embarrassing minute of his career in Game Five of the Thunder series, Paul will be looking to redeem himself and only a fool would bet against CP3.
DeAndre Jordan’s confidence will only increase after the faith coach Doc Rivers showed in him last season, giving DJ plenty of opportunities for minutes in the fourth quarter. Jordan played 35 minutes per game last season, up from 24 the previous year. He also averaged a double-double for the first time in his career. Blake Griffin showed great improvement last season, finishing third behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James in MVP voting. Griffin has also been working on a corner three-point shot this offseason which could cause more headaches for the defences he’ll face.
2. San Antonio Spurs
The consummate professionals. The symphony orchestra with one helluva conductor. The Spurs did it again last year. Through exquisite team play and smart coaching, capping all players to fewer than 30 minutes a game during the regular season, the Spurs captured their fifth title in history. All Spurs NBA titles have two things in common: Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich. They’ll be back, along with their entire championship roster, which remains intact.
Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard had per game increases in his points, rebounds, assists, field goal percentage and blocks categories last season. It will be interesting to see how Cory Joseph will go as back-up to Parker in the absence of an injured Patty Mills, who’s expected to be out until around February. Mills was an igniter in the Spurs run to the title, averaging 15 minutes per game and shooting 40 per cent from deep during the playoffs. One thing is for certain, count the Spurs out at your own peril.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Reigning MVP and daddy long-legs impersonator Kevin Durant will be out of action for the first six weeks of the season thanks to a stress fracture in his foot. This creates a 30-points-per-game hole the Thunder will need to fill. Russell Westbrook gets an opportunity to step up and be the man in Durant’s absence. Westbrook will be given the keys to the offence and a chance to back-up coach Scott Brooks’ claim that he is the best point guard in the league.
Reggie Jackson says he wants to be a starter? Well this could be another opportunity for him to turn heads in a starting capacity. Jackson started 36 games last season and averaged over 28 minutes a game while upping his scoring and assist numbers considerably.
This is also an important time for Thunder reserves Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones. Both have yet to make their mark on the league and will be looking at some meaningful minutes while Durant recovers. Defensively, the loss of Thabo Sefolosha during free agency could spell trouble for the Thunder depending on the health of rim protector Serge Ibaka.
4. Golden State Warriors
The Splash Brothers and co. Former sharpshooter and five-time NBA Champion Steve Kerr has adopted the back court of his dreams in his first crack at head coaching. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will be unleashed this season with Kerr in charge, perhaps building on the 484 three-pointers they combined for last season. That’s right, nearly 500 between them. Get ready to see more three-point records tumbling thanks to this exciting duo.
Defensively, Thompson impressed Team USA coach Mike Kryzyzewski and with the help of Andre Iguodala on the perimeter and Andrew Bogut (health willing) in the paint, the Warriors could very well rank inside the top 10 in both offence and defence.
Fun fact: Either Steve Kerr or Robert Horry was on the roster of every NBA Champion between the 1993/94 season and the 2002/03 season.
5. Houston Rockets:
According to Hakeem Olajuwon, Dwight Howard is poised to have an MVP-calibre year, seemingly 100 per cent healthy after coming off the last two seasons with back problems. When ‘The Dream’ says something, you listen. Howard was fourth in rebounds last season and only missed 11 games for the year. James Harden will be in the mix for the scoring title as his last two seasons he’s averaged over 25 PPG.
Even though this year’s free agency period would not be considered a great success for the Rockets, they acquired veterans Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry, whom coach Kevin McHale praised for their leadership qualities. Ariza had his highest scoring average last season since 2009/10 when he played for, you guessed it, the Rockets. Ariza’s defensive toughness is also highly regarded, he finished 12th in steals per game in 2013/14.
The Rockets may have lost Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin and struck out on Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, but they’ll be eager to prove they are still formidable in the tough Western Conference.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers won their first playoff series in a loooooooooooooong (14 o’s for 14 years) time last season thanks to one of the most ice-cold buzzer beaters you will ever see from star point guard Damian Lillard. Each starter averaged over 10 points per game last season and this enabled the Blazers to play an exciting brand of team basketball which lead to a Western Conference Semi-finals appearance.
LaMarcus Aldridge is coming off his best season as a pro with career highs last year in points per game and rebounds per game, as well as his third All-Star nod. The Blazers also added depth to their bench in the form of ex-Lakers Chris Kaman and Steve Blake. It will be interesting to see whether coach Terry Stotts and his players are able to come out and perform similarly to last season with raised expectations on their shoulders.
7. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks and Mark Cuban surprised everyone when they went all in for former Rockets forward Chandler Parsons. Rockets GM Daryl Morey said he would match any offer sheet set for Parsons but just could not bring himself to replicate the three-year, $46 million deal the Mavs tabled. Parsons, who was a second round pick in 2011, averaged 16 PPG last season and shot 37 per cent from downtown.
Reacquiring 2011 championship spiritual leader Tyson Chandler will boost defence inside the paint and locker room morale. Dirk Nowitzki took a crazy pay cut to enable the team to make some moves this post-season. With a predicted starting line-up of Jameer Nelson, Ellis, Parsons, Nowitzki and Chandler, this team is sure to be entertaining to watch.
And plus, the acquisitions of Parsons and Chandler make for a unique arrangement of names that the Pacers can also lay claim to. Observe: The Mavs have Tyson Chandler Parsons and the Pacers have Paul George Hill.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies finally added perimeter shooting in Vince Carter for this upcoming season. Carter, who once amazed fans with aerial assaults on the rim, has established himself as a reliable outside shooter. He shot 39 per cent from three-point land last year and played in 81 games without starting a single one.
The house that grind built will be in full swing if Marc Gasol can remain healthy for a good chunk of the season. Zach Randolph got the contract extension he wanted and Mike Conley has signalled he wants to be considered a top point guard in the league, so look out for improvements across the board. Conley averaged just over 17 PPG last season which was a career high.
Quincy Pondexter, who missed a big part of last season through injury, will be keen to improve even further in his role with the Grizzlies.
Picking playoff teams in the Western Conference is like telling the difference between the Morris twins – not so easy. So here are a couple of wildcards to throw into the mix:
Phoenix Suns – Speaking of the Morris twins, this year the Suns lack the element of surprise, but with the addition of another point guard in Isaiah Thomas it will be interesting to see just how well he, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe can co-exist and share the ball. Dragic was unlucky to miss out on All-Star selection last season but was rewarded with the Most Improved Player Award instead.
New Orleans Pelicans – Anthony Davis will have a superstar year, barring injury of course, and Jrue Holiday will continue to play at a high level. If Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon can have injury free seasons, I see these Pelicans making some noise in the dreaded West.