Now, only hours away from the start of the NBA regular season, it is time to end the 2016-’17 season previews with a look at the wild wild Western Conference. Here we go!
Golden State Warriors: The Warriors had the greatest season in NBA history, going a shocking 73-9 en route to a second consecutive Finals appearance. And then the Bay Area came crashing down to reality. The Dubs blew a 3-1 lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers in a series no one thought they would lose. This hurt the Golden State Franchise, but this pain was quickly alleviated by a free agent signing no one saw coming: Kevin Durant. There goes the Bay Area rising again. KD shocked the world and left OKC to join the Warriors in pursuit of a Championship ring, and in doing so, has made the Warriors a perennial contender for the next two years at least. With that being said, I am positive that this Warriors team is beatable and am just as sure that they will not win more than 70 games this year. Although a 69-13 record is very much in play. Keep an eye on second year guy Kevon Looney and rookie guard Patrick McCaw.
Portland Trailblazers: The Cinderella Story of last year has to go to the Blazers, as they lost four starters to free agency yet still found a way to make it to the second round of the Playoffs. While unexpected by many, the season was a win for Portland and was in large part due to the improvement of star PG Damian Lillard, as well as reigning League Most Improved Player, C.J. McCollum. The question now is how will this team fare in 2016-’17? This team has lost the element of surprise as the entire NBA knows just how good their backcourt is, and more importantly, how good of a coach Terry Stotts is. For these reasons as well as a slightly stronger overall Western Conference, I have the Blazers pegged to win the same number of games this year, 44, as they continue to battle in a strong West. I am confident Lillard will keep up his elite play and hope the same goes for McCollum as well; a large factor of this team will be their bench productivity, something I can see being a weakness for them. My under the radar Blazers are Al Farouq Aminu and Noah Vonleh.
Houston Rockets: The Rockets had a rough season last year as they lost not only a great coach in Kevin McHale, but a solid starting center in Dwight Howard. I think 2016-2017 will be a much brighter year in Houston. I hope James Harden is angry about not being named an All-NBA player after averaging 29, 7, and 6, and takes it out on the rest of the West this year. I love the idea of moving “The Beard” to the lead guard spot, as I think he will better be able to provide for his new teammates, namely shooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, the Rockets nabbed in FA. I also believe that with extended minutes and a starting job, Center Clint Capela will thrive as a rim protecting big who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. This team is set up in a position where I think they could realistically win 45 games, but with D’Antoni as the new head coach, I fear for the Rockets defense. My under the radar Rockets are second year big Montrezl Harrell and K.J. McDaniels.
Utah Jazz: It’s finally here, this is the year the Utah Jazz become relevant again. After a year where they narrowly missed the Post Season, the Jazz are back and better than they were last year. With a team filled to the brim with not just youthful talent, but legitimate veteran ballers, the Jazz are frightening as a defensive juggernaut in the West. Before Hayward Went down with an injury that should have him sidelined until mid November, I realistically saw this Jazz team going 50-32. Unfortunately, Hayward is hurt and this also hurts the Jazz’s record; I now see Utah going a respectable 45-37 en route to a possible Playoff berth. I expect a big year from Derrick Favors, as well as rising guard Rodney Hood and possible DPOY, Rudy Gobert. My under the radar Jazz include a veteran Joe Johnson, and a returning Dante Exum.
Phoenix Suns: The Suns had a rough year last season, going 23-59 as one of the League’s worst teams. Yet many fail to realize that this was in large part due to both devastating injuries as well as internal issues. Now that both Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are back from injuries and both Morris brothers are gone from Phoenix, I think the Sun in Phoenix will begin its rise. Devin Booker is going to be one of the best scorers of the decade, Bledsoe is a very good starting point guard, Knight has a lot to offer this team, their two young power forwards in Bender and Chriss have bright futures, and I think Alex Len is poised for a breakout year. You add this with solid, and slightly overpaid veterans, in Tyson Chandler and Leandro Barbosa and I see a 35-47 season for Phoenix. I see this record being both exceeded as well as not quite reached, but am sure the Suns will improve in 2016-’17. Keep an eye on rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss, as well as guard Archie Goodwin.
Memphis Grizzlies: The Grindhouse Grizzlies made some major moves this offseason; they were successful in making Mike Conley a very happy man, hired a new coach, and, more importantly, were able to sign a solid starting forward in Chandler Parsons. I think that this is honestly the last hurrah for the Grindhouse Grizz, as they are getting older and have taken a few steps back in recent years. This year needs to be a season where they actually make waves and pose as a threat to the rest of the West, fighting for a top four seed. That will not be easy. I hope to see Marc Gasol play at an All-Star level, I am confident Conley and Parsons will play well for a majority of the year, but I also think this is the last year we see a productive Z-Bo in action. I expect Memphis to win 49 games this year in addition to making the Playoffs. Keep an eye on rookie Forward Deyonta Davis, as well as veteran Vince Carter in what could be his last year.
Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers are one of those teams that have all the talent in the world but just don’t seem to put it together when it matters; this year, it matters. LA exited the Playoffs two years ago after blowing a 3-1 lead against the Rockets, last year the Clips made a first round exit, due to injuries. The fact of the matter is that the Clippers are simply too good to be a mediocre team in the NBA and need to finally take that next step, especially in contract years for their two stars: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. I hope to see a revitalized Blake Griffin in 2016-’17, a year in which I thin he can garner some MVP consideration depending on his play; Chris Paul needs only to stay consistent, DeAndre Jordan needs to play like he actually deserves to be on the All-NBA first team, and if J.J. Redick can shoot like he did last year the Clippers will be better than they were in 2015-’16. I honestly see this LA team going 53-29, and being one of the teams to beat GSW, not once, but twice. Keep an eye on reigning NBA Sixth Man Jamal Crawford as well as a fresh face in Raymond “Big Body” Felton.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Heading into 2016-’17, the T-Wolves are looking like a team with an extremely bright future. Last years first overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, is showing potential to become one of the greatest big men of all time; the improvement of Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine in is very encouraging, and Minnesota’s signing of coach Tom Thibodeau makes this team even more scary. With this all being said, I do not think that the T-Wolves will rattle off 50 wins in 2016-’17, but will probably have a much more modest year scrapping out a very solid 36-38 wins in the West. This record will be a solid improvement from last years 29-53 season, and will be a stepping stone for Minnesota’s franchise on their way to the top. Keep an eye on the point guard situation in Minnesota, as Ricky Rubio and Kris Dunn will be vying for minutes in Thibodeau’s lineup.
Sacramento Kings: For the last three years, I have been hoping that the Kings franchise would step up and build their team into a contender around “Boogie” Cousins. Heading into 2016-’17, I am still hoping for this day. While I think the hiring of head coach Dave Joerger is a great move for Sac-town, I don’t agree with some of the other moves the Kings front office made this offseason. Overpaying older and declining veterans, Matt Barnes and Aaron Afflalo, is not the best move for this team who is looking to win now, and they should be looking win now with a talent like Cousins. I expect the Kings to win 40-41 games this year, an improvement from 2015-’16, but not a great record overall. Keep an eye on young guard Ben McLemore who is in need of a breakout year, as well as Willie Cauly-Stein.
New Orleans Pelicans: After an injury riddled season in 2015-’16, the Pelicans are itching to become contenders again. And if this team can stay healthy and new guys like E’Twaun Moore and Buddy Hield can be consistent for them, I don’t see any reason New Orleans can’t become a title contending team once again. I believe that once Jrue Holiday returns to the team, and Anthony Davis is fully healthy, this tea, will surprise some of the other squads in the West. I predict Alvin Gentry’s Pelicans going 44-38 in a stacked Conference, and I know that if AD can get his team to the Post-Season, they will be a hard machine to stop. Keep an eye on ROTY contender Buddy Hield, as well as point-forward Tyreke Evans.
Denver Nuggets: The Denver Nuggets are an interesting squad; this is a team that is capable of winning 40+ games, yet no one believes that they will, myself included. The talent is there for Denver whether it be knockdown shooters like Danilo Gallinari, or improving vets like Wilson Chandler and Will Barton, not to mention the abundance of young talent on this squad (Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris), the Nuggets truly don’t lack in any given area. But I still do not think this will be the year Denver puts it all together simply due to the timing of everything in the West. So I see Denver realistically winning 37-40 games this year, as they build upon the 2015-’16 season and look towards the future. Keep an eye on the status of Kenneth Faried as he may be moved this season, as well as the improvement in young PG Emmanuel Mudiay.
Oklahoma City Thunder: It’s fair to say the Thunder took quite an L when they lost superstar Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors, the team who bounced them from the Western Conference Finals. But I am confident the season in OKC won’t be filled with too many L’s as the Thunder rattle off a solid 44-38 record in ’16-’17. I am confident Russell Westbrook will be in phenomenal form for most of the year, but his supporting cast is in question. Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, the next best two ballers in Oklahoma, will need to step it up to help Westbrook in securing them a spot in the Playoffs. From there, I think this is a legit squad that can do some real damage. Keep an eye on rookie big Domantas Sabonis, as well as Enes Kanter who will have to embrace a much bigger role in OKC.
Dallas Mavericks: The Mavericks are heading into the ’16-’17 season worse than they were last year, but I am still confident that this team will surprise some of the other Western squads this year. Dirk isn’t showing any signs of slowing, and now Bogut can help him on defense; Harrison Barnes is a very solid young player who needs to average at least 17 points and eight rebounds if he hopes to shut everyone up about his max contract deal; while Deron Williams should stay consistent this year if he hopes to see another Playoff Series. I think the Mavs can realistically win 41 games this year, but this could prove to be difficult for one of the weaker and older teams in the West. Keep an eye on the fresh face Harrison Barnes as well as a player favorite of mine, Justin Anderson.
Los Angeles Lakers: After some offseason moves and acquisitions, the Lakers roster is looking very solid going into the 2016-’17 season. By drafting Brandon Ingram with the second pick, LA’s roster is finally starting to take form into something with great potential. I believe that a developed and smarter D’Angelo Russell will continue what he began showing in his last month of the previous season, and become a go to scorer for the Lakes whenever he’s called on. I expect D-Loading to average 16 points, six assists, and nearly four rebounds in a much improved sophomore campaign. I think a third year Julius Randle will also have a solid year in LA, running as a sort of point forward for the Lakers when needed. I think, and hope, that new head coach Luke Walton will run Jordan Clarkson in the starting five as either the two or the one-guard. His play in his first two years in the league has been nothing short of impressive, and J-Clark deserves the job. Expect to see a much improved Larry Nance getting more minutes and actually providing a lot to this young Laker team. Finally I think that Brandon Ingram will thrive under the tutelage of veteran Luol Deng, on his way to earning First Team all Rookie Honors. I see LA winning around 30-32 games next year on their way to regaining relevance in the NBA.
San Antonio Spurs: It is a sad fact that Tim Duncan will no longer be suiting up for games in San Antonio…But the season in San Antonio will be far from sad. With a strong frontcourt of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs should have consistent scoring from their two bigs, leaving their star player in Kawhi Leonard more space to operate. To express my expectations for Leonard in ’16-’17 in a succinct way, lets just say I think he may be due for more than just a DPOY trophy come the end of the year. As for the rest of the Spurs, they will do what the Spurs have consistently done, win. I expect San Antonio to win 52 games this year. Keep an eye on “Slow-mo” Kyle Anderson, as well as an aging Tony Parker.
All Stats via ESPN.com
All Images via Google.com
Records via Basketballreference.com