Why I’m Psyched for the NBA Season – Wide Open West

NBA Western Conference

Image courtesy of www.sikids.com

The NBA snuck up on me. I have chatted with many of my buddies during the last couple of weeks and they all echo the same sentiments. I’m excited for the season if nothing else because this marks the beginning of an incredible six months in sports.

The NFL and NBA overlap for 3+ months, while college football and college basketball overlap for about 6 weeks. Throw in the NHL, the first college football NCAA playoff bracket and the Iditarod in March (joking) and we have a loaded sports calendar through the late spring months.

In organizing my thoughts for the season’s tip-off tonight, I couldn’t ignore how wide open the Western Conference feels this season. With that, I break down the teams that are vectoring up, vectoring down and improving (but not enough).

The Eastern Conference doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the West does. With Kevin Durant on the shelf for the next 6-8 weeks, it’s anyone’s conference this year. With the exception of the Spurs, the conference witnessed shake-ups from the very top to the lower rungs of the playoff qualifiers from last season. Here’s how I breakdown the projected top teams in the west and where they moved during the offseason.

Vectoring Down

Houston Rockets – Added Trevor Ariza but lost Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik…while missing out on prized free agent Chris Bosh. Where are their points coming from outside of James Harden and Dwight Howard? The Rockets let nearly 35 PPG walk out the door this offseason, with only Ariza acquired to account for that enormous points total. The Rockets slide to a low seed this season unless other teams ahead of Houston implode.

Oklahoma City Thunder – Many experts are calling for Steven Adams to win the Most Improved Player Award this Year. I certainly hope so. The best memory I have of Adams is of him baiting Zac Randolph to go after him in Game 6 of last year’s first round match-up, which resulted in Randolph’s subsequent 1-game suspension and effectively ended one of the best playoff series we’ll ever see in our lifetime (4 OT games). Thank you to the NBA for murdering another

Steven Adams

Image courtesy of www.zimbio.com.

incredible playoff series with a silly suspension (remember the ’07 Suns vs. Spurs series and the Horry shove of Nash into the scorers table? Yup, that incident led to the suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw for Game 5 and changed the course of that series….Thanks!). All NBA fans were robbed in ’07 and again robbed last postseason. I digress…I just don’t think OKC has enough around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to make it to the Finals for the second time in four years. They lost (a declining) Thabo Sefolosha this offseason and prized 3rd banana James Harden in the summer of 2013 (who has since become a top 2 2-guard in the league). OKC missed out on Pau Gasol this offseason as well, who I believe would have been a huge coup for a team that has lacked a legitimate low post scoring option during the entirety of the Durant-Westbrook era.

If the Spurs are healthy come April, they’re just too big and strong down low for OKC to hold up over a 7-game series. Too much Duncan, Splitter and Boris Diaw. That is unless Adams makes a monstrous leap and plays up to the hype this season.

Portland Trail Blazers – I don’t see Portland repeating its 54-win total from last season. They just don’t have the depth to keep up with the rest of the West. Their starting five can compete with anyone but the depth of teams such as the Spurs, Warriors and Clippers ensure that Portland gets no better than a mid to low seed. I’m projecting them as a lower seed due to the improvements of the teams below them (Suns, Mavericks and Warriors) coupled with only one team ahead of them last year that took a significant step backwards (Rockets).

Improving But Not Enough

Dallas Mavericks – Not enough pundits make enough of Dallas losing Vince Carter and Shawn Marion in the same offseason. While they did add the Chandlers (Tyson Chandler & Chandler Parsons), this team will miss the veteran leadership and versatility that Vince Carter and Shawn Marion provided. No one gave the Spurs a tougher test than the Mavericks and without these two guys they lose much of their advantage (and athleticism) on the wings.

Memphis Grizzlies – I absolutely love this team but I feel that the farthest this core will go was a year and a half ago, when they beat an undermanned Thunder team in the Conference semis and were then promptly swept out of the Western Conference Finals by a peaking Spurs team. Memphis said goodbye to sharp shooter Mike Miller and welcomed Vince Carter to the team, while also getting a healthy Quincy Pondexter back this offseason. Although Vince Carter has morphed into an incredibly valuable glue-guy on playoff squads, I don’t see the soon to be 38-year old swing man as the missing piece in getting Memphis over the hump. They just don’t have enough athleticism on the wings to keep up with the Spurs (Kawai Leonard, Manu Ginobili) and the Thunder (Kevin Durant). Plus, Zach Randolph is another year older at 33 (how many more 17 and 10 seasons does he have left? Maybe 2?). I see Memphis as a #5-#7 seed, no better.

Los Angeles Clippers – Their best players are in-their prime or not yet in-their-prime. Chris Paul is 29 years old and squarely in his prime, while Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are both still harnessing their considerable talents. Griffin and Paul are each in the MVP conversation every season, while Jordan will be a perennial defensive player of the year candidate for the next half a decade.

The Clips did add Spencer Hawes this offseason, which provides much needed depth at the 4 and 5. However, the wing position continues to be a weakness for the Clippers. In a conference where you deal with Kevin Durant, Manu Ginobili, Kawai Leonard, James Harden, Klay Thompson and Wesley Matthews on a nightly basis, the glaring hole at this position will catch up to the Clips in the playoffs. Trotting out Matt Barnes, Chris Douglas Roberts and Reggie Bullock at the wing position just won’t get it done in a stacked Western conference at that position.

Vectoring Up

Phoenix Suns – The Suns have one of the most dynamic backcourts in the NBA. Gordon Dragic and Isaiah Thomas (the latter acquired via Sacramento) are both coming off of 20 PPG and 6 APG seasons. Eric Bledsoe showed the league that he is capable of leading a team, compiling a 17.7 PPG, 5.5 APG and 4.7 RPG line last season. This backcourt is the real deal and the Suns are poised to skyrocket up the Western standings and improve on last year’s 48-win total and #9 seed. They need the Morris twins (Markieff & Marcus, along with Miles Plumlee) to emerge as semi-consistent threats on the block. Without much of an interior presence, the Suns ceiling is limited to a mid to low seed.

Shaun Livingston

Image courtesy of www.zimbio.com.

Golden State – I firmly believe that Golden State will take the next step this year and win a couple of playoff series. The success of their team depends on the health of their bigs. If David Lee and Andrew Bogut can stay upright for most of the season they will remain in the championship contender conversation. If they succumb to injuries, Golden State loses the ability to matchup to teams such as Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Memphis in the playoffs.

Shaun Livingston provides the Warriors with a ton of options at the 1 and 2 positions, while Steve Kerr should get more out of his team than Mark Jackson did. Mark Jackson to me was a rah-rah guy but not a strategist and X’s and 0’s type of guys. Kerr is the latter and because of this, will get more out of his team. Both Livingston and Kerr are two of the most underrated pick-ups of the offseason (the Nets will dearly miss Livingston’s presence).

I’m only covering the teams who I think will be playoff contenders. I’m leaving out scrappy Denver with the return of Danilo Gallinari, the Kobe-led Lakers (albeit without much of a star studded supporting cast) and the New Orleans Pelicans, that sport one of the game’s best young stars in Anthony Davis.

The West is wild this year. The NBA is back. All is right in the sports world.

About Jim Armstrong

Jim is a life-long sports fan and split his childhood between the ‘burbs of Chicago and central NJ, while throwing in a summer living outside of Boston into the mix. This explains his passion for the 90′s Bulls, late 90′s/early 00′s Knicks and late 00′s Celtics (he will explain in a future post). Jim never played a minute of college basketball or football but did complete a Tough Mudder recently and continues to play in basketball leagues year-round. If this doesn’t make him an expert, then I don’t know what does. Jim crunches numbers for a living and enjoys applying these analytical skills to his sports obsessions. In his free time, Jim enjoys spending time with his family, fishing and writing.

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