Rockets ready to challenge Spurs, Thunder?

Rockets ready to challenge Spurs, Thunder?
October 30, 2013, 10:30 am
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Howard excited about starting lineup

A new NBA season is set to begin and the western conference appears to be just as stacked as ever. San Antonio narrowly missed out on their fifth NBA title last June and there's no reason why they shouldn't be a formidable challenge to upend this year. Dwight Howard moves from the Lakers to the Rockets. Doc Rivers comes from Boston to coach the Clippers. Kevin Durant is still the best in the west and still leads the Thunder. Each of them will be gunning for the Spurs who might finally have someone, Kawhi Leonard, ready to break into their familiar and longstanding big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. A lot to dissect in the west. Here's the predicted order of finish:

1. Los Angeles Clippers
Last year: 56-26, 1st in Pacific, 4th in West. Lost in first round.
Key Additions: HC Doc Rivers, G J.J. Redick, G-F Jared Dudley, C Byron Mullens, F Antawn Jamison, G Darren Collison
Key Losses: G Eric Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups, F Caron Butler, F Grant Hill, C Ronny Turiaf
Outlook: Bright. They nearly pulled off an even better deal than just landing Doc Rivers from the Celtics when it appeared Kevin Garnett would be joining him in Los Angeles. The upgrade from Vinny Del Negro to Rivers is plenty, though. Adding sharpshooter Redick is probably one of the best acquisitions of the offseason in the NBA. Dudley is also just the type of player that will thrive with the talent around him and there is plenty of it with the Clippers. Chris Paul has seemingly been atop the point guard rankings for half a decade, now is his chance to lead his team to greatness.
Best Case: Paul stays healthy and Griffin continues to slowly improve his game. He still has limited offensive game, but his athleticism, paired w/ Paul playmaking is too much to stop. Rivers shows them how to win big.
Likeliest Case: They will be the best in the west and will have plenty of nights off when just pummel the opposition. They will fight their way to the conference finals
Prediction: 60-22

2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last year: 60-22, 1st in Northwest, 1st in West. Lost in conference semifinals
Key Additions: F Ryan Gomes, C Steven Adams
Key Losses: G Kevin Martin
Outlook: Their championship hopes were dashed as soon as Russell Westbrook went down in their opening series against Houston. Durant is the best player in the conference, but Houston exposed them without Westbrook and Memphis easily finished them off. They will be counting heavily on Reggie Jackson not just at the beginning of the season, but likely for the entire season, unless Jeremy Lamb steps up and fills the void vacated by Martin. If Jackson finds some consistency he can help elevate the Thunder. Serge Ibaka should be a huge difference maker, but heading into this season, he’s still just that on the defensive side. He’s a monster shot-blocker who fades in and out of games way too easily on the offensive end. Their future is still bright because both Durant and Westbrook are among the league’s best. The Westbrook injury gives pause to what they might accomplish this season.
Best Case: Westbrook comes back healthy and a burning desire to show people just how awesome he still is at the point. Durant becomes the killer at the end of games he is very close to already. Scott Brooks becomes a good strategist in the playoffs; currently he is not.
Likeliest Case: They win on Durant’s talent and their defensive mindset. On most night that will be enough. They were the best team in the west before Westbrook hurt his knee, they’ll be right back near the top when he returns.
Prediction: 56-26

3. Houston Rockets
Last year: 45-37, 3rd in Southwest, 8th in West. Lost in first round.
Key Additions: C Dwight Howard, F Omri Casspi
Key Losses: G-F Carlos Delfino
Outlook: They won the sweepstakes this offseason for Dwight Howard. No one has changed the fortunes of their franchise quite like the Rockets adding James Harden and now Howard in consecutive offseasons. Both were voted best at their position in the annual NBA.com general managers survey. They are still a very young group and prone to mistakes and mental lapses. They have a very versatile group of players and likely will be capable of matching up with any team in the west, while capable of becoming a matchup nightmare to most.
Best Case: Howard is engaged and determined throughout the season and playoffs and Houston comes together quickly. They can win the west.
Likeliest Case: Like most young teams, it’s a slow process to finding postseason success. They advance out of the first round and in a tough series in the second round they get sent home.
Prediction: 55-27

4. San Antonio Spurs
Last year: 58-24, 1st in Southwest, 2nd in West. Lost in NBA Finals
Key Additions: SG Marco Belinelli
Key Losses: G Gary Neal, C DeJuan Blair
Outlook: No team remains the same like the Spurs. They’ve won the west now five times and on each of the previous four titles defenses, they’ve failed to defend their conference crown. I’m predicting they’ll stay perfect on that front. It’s not that anything will go wrong, but I just think every series will be a struggle for them. I don’t expect them to be any higher than a third seed and I think that would put them on a path to the NBA Finals that they cannot complete.
Parker is still a top five NBA point guard, but Duncan is slowing down and Manu Ginobili is clearly doing the same. They can’t be counted on to consistently deliver.
Best Case: Kawhi Leonard elevates his game and clearly becomes Spurs second best player and they win the west again.
Likeliest Case: Popovich sits players regularly throughout the season and Spurs still look like a championship contender, until they lose in the second round
Prediction: 54-28

5. Golden State Warriors
Last year: 47-35, 2nd in Pacific, 6th in West. Lost in conference semifinals
Key Additions: F-G Andre Iguodala, C Jermaine O’Neal, F-C Marresse Speights
Key Losses: G Jarrett Jack, F Carl Landry
Outlook: Boy was it fun to watch the Warriors come together late in the season and then into the playoffs with a convincing opening round series win over Denver and a sensational conference semifinal series against the eventual western conference champion Spurs. I’m not a huge fan or their changes, even though I like Andre Iguodala and I think he’s an excellent fit in Golden State. I think the loss of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry will be felt. Their top six is still outstanding and they are very difficult to match up with. Andrew Bogut is currently healthy and has a big fat extension in tow as well. His presence helped offset the loss of David Lee in their playoff series against San Antonio. It was only a matter of time before steph Curry showed he was one of the league’s best and after last season there was no denying it. A healthy Curry is deadly at the end of games. The best part of their playoff success was probably the emergence of Harrison Barnes. His numbers were only slightly improved over the regular season, but it was clear he gained tremendous confidence and his team clearly saw his talents as well.
Best Case: The momentum they gained last season carries over into this season and they are a matchup nightmare for teams that just can’t keep up with their offensive talents.
Likeliest Case: Counting on two players with such poor injury history like Curry and Bogut, is very worrisome. That’s the easiest way for their season to go awry. But give Mark Jackson some credit, he’s a much better coach, than I think a lot of people were ready to admit.
Prediction: 53-29

6. Memphis Grizzlies
Last year: 56-26, 2nd in Southwest, 5th in West, Lost in western conference finals.
Key Additions: HC Dave Joerger, F Mike Miller, C Kosta Koufos
Key Losses: F-C Darrell Arthur
Outlook: This team plays championship quality defense. Reigning defensive player of the year Marc Gasol mans the middle and their backcourt of Tony Allen and Mike Conley are probably the league’s best. I’m not 100 percent positive on which eight teams will make the western conference playoffs, but I’m certain the Grizzlies will be the worst offense among them. It is a team of dreadful shooters from long range and the injury-prone Miller will not help. I think he’ll find it just a bit more difficult to find open shots now that LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are no longer teammate of his. They also changed head coaches, and while I’m a fan of new coach Dave Joerger, I find it very unlikely that change propels them one step further in the playoffs, which would be the NBA Finals. Rather I expect their season to end in the opening round.
Best Case: They find someone, maybe Quincy Pondexter, who can become a reliable long-range shooter and they find playoff opponents that can’t push tempo.
Likeliest Case: Their offensive woes will limit them and a high-powered, more-balanced team will send them packing in the first round.
Prediction: 49-33

7. Denver Nuggets
Last year: 57-25, 2nd in Northwest, 3rd in West. Lost in opening round.
Key Additions: HC Brian Shaw, C J.J. Hickson, G Randy Foye, G Nate Robinson, F Darrell Arthur
Key Losses: G-F Andre Iguodala, F Corey Brewer, C Kosta Koufos
Outlook: A year ago at this time, optimism was high for the upcoming season. Then they exceeded those expectations in the regular season. Then they fizzled out in the opening round of the playoffs against the Warriors and parted ways with head coach George Karl. Karl led them to the playoffs in all nine of seasons. The problem was they went out in the first round eight times. Another problem last year was the loss of forward Danilo Gallinari in the playoffs due to injury. It’s now Brian Shaw’s turn and it’s still led by Ty Lawson. They win with an the up-tempo style that Lawson leads and an in-your-face presence down low with Kenneth Faried and Javale McGee. Hickson is another underrated offseason acquisition and how could you not be excited about what is in store from Nate Robinson after what he did in the playoffs last year with Chicago.
Best Case: Things don’t change and they continue to run teams off the floor and are still a defensive force in the paint as an elite shot-blocking and rebounding team.
Likeliest Case: Things do change and Shaw struggled
Prediction: 48-34

8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Last year: 31-51, 5th in Northwest, 12th in west. Missed playoffs for 9th consecutive season.
Key Additions: G Kevin Martin, F Corey Brewer, C Ronny Turiaf
Key Losses: F Andrei Kirilenko, G Luke Ridnour
Outlook: They had only 31 wins last year, which sounds dreadful. Considering how many injuries they suffered, it seems almost like a miracle. The really troubling fact, though, is 31 wins is the team’s most since the 2006-07 season. They have a formidable front line with Kevin Love and re-signed Nikola Pekovic. J.J. Barea wasn’t nearly as effective in his first year in Minnesota as he had been the year prior in Dallas. But along with Alexey Shved they have a high-energy backcourt to work with and as backups to point guard Ricky Rubio. Kevin Martin is working with coach Rick Adelman for the third time in his career and it should be good for him. However is as one-dimensional as ever. He can score, but he does virtually nothing else to help his team. This is the biggest “if” in the NBA, but “if” Minnesota is healthy, Kevin Love will lead them to the playoffs.
Best Case: Rubio regains some explosiveness, Love remains healthy and they are among the team’s best rebounding outfits and claw their way into the eighth spot in the west.
Likeliest Case: Love and Martin become their only reliable offensive players and they just don’t defend quite enough to compete nightly.
Prediction: 42-40

9. Los Angeles Lakers: Remember how much they struggled early last season? They spent one day above .500 before March. Well imagine that team without Dwight Howard or a healthy Kobe Bryant. They were old and broken down last year and that was before Bryant ripped up his Achilles tendon. The talent just isn’t there.
Prediction: 40-42

10. New Orleans Pelicans: They have a great first season as the Pelicans, but not quite enough to make the playoffs. With Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, they really have some good young talent.
Prediction: 39-43

11. Dallas Mavericks: Things continue in the wrong direction for the Mavericks who get a resurgent season from Dirk Nowitzki, but the team is just a bit too old and mismatched to keep up with the improving western conference. Loing their general manager the day the regular season begins, doesn't seem like a positive sign.
Prediction: 38-44

12. Portland Trail Blazers: Their starting five is about as talented as they come, led by Lamarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum. But the same was true last year and they had an abysmal group backing them up and it doesn’t appear anything has changed.
Prediction: 38-44

13: Utah Jazz: They pushed hard for the playoffs last year and came up just short. They led frontcourt stalwarts, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, leave via free agency and are leaving the things upfront in the hands of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. They readily admitted they are jumping into their youth movement with both feet. That’s a clever way of saying they really like the talent expected to be available in the 2014 NBA draft.
Prediction: 34-48

14: Sacramento Kings: They have now committed big dollars to the best players with Demarcus Cousins’ contract extension. I like the additions of Greivis Vasquez and Carl Landry, although Landry is injured right now. Ben McLemore should plenty of run for rookie of the year as well.
Prediction: 30-52

15: Phoenix Suns: They are stockpiling first round draft picks for the upcoming draft. This is simply not a very good team. Eric Bledsoe and Archie Goodwin are nice additions, but the Suns will be bad defensively and they will be erratic offensively.
Prediction: 25-57