It’s been said ad nauseam: the Western Conference is wild. Teams at the top are oftentimes separated from the teams as the bottom by only a few games in the postseason picture. Playoff seeds are shuffled so frequently that one win or one loss could take you from the top to losing home court advantage or vice versa. This season Jazz fans are paying particularly close attention to the playoff race as Utah boasts one of its best rosters in some time. With that in mind, here is my prediction as to how the wild Western Conference will shake down.
The champs are still the champs until someone takes their crown, right? The Warriors are essentially the same team as they were last year. The only real difference is that Jason Thompson now takes the place of David Lee, who had lost his place in the rotation due to Draymond Green’s emergence. Will the league be able to slow down Golden State’s high-powered offense or find the cracks in its top ranked defense? Until someone is able to do it, the Warriors will continue to claim the West’s top spot.
The major pieces are in place for the Los Angeles Clippers. They have an elite point guard in Chris Paul and have one of the best frontcourts in the association with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Despite unveiling a hideous new logo, the Clippers had a successful offseason by re-signing Jordan and bringing in newcomers Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson. Head coach Doc Rivers has his deepest roster since he began manning the helm in Los Angeles. The question remains whether or not the new additions will push the Clippers over the edge and into title contention. If Rivers is able to bring out the Stephenson from his Indiana days, the Clippers could be a very dangerous team.
The Houston Rockets made a splash by trading for disgruntled, and oftentimes troubled, point guard Ty Lawson. Last season the Rockets played without Dwight Howard for half of the year due to injury. When healthy, Howard is still one of the better big men in the league. The Rockets also have one of the best scorers and all-around offensive players in the league in James Harden. Houston faces two big questions: First, will Ty Lawson actually improve the team, or will he hurt it much like Rajon Rondo hurt the Mavericks last year? Second, will power forward play doom them? Currently, both projected starters, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas, are injured with the latter yet to run while recovering from a back injury. In a conference with excellent big men, instability in the front court could be the only thing to keep the Rockets from taking off.
The San Antonio Spurs will never go away. For years, teams have anticipated when Tim Duncan and company would sail off into the sunset and never be heard from again. Those teams will have to wait a little longer. While Duncan continues to find new life each season, the Spurs added some serious talent in both LeMarcus Aldridge and David West and were able to lock up sharpshooter Danny Green to a discounted contract. The only reason San Antonio won’t have a higher seed is Gregg Popovich’s propensity for sacrificing wins in exchange for rest, which most likely won’t change even with the enhancements to the NBA schedule.
The Oklahoma City Thunder played much of last season without their generational talent — no, not Enes Kanter. Losing Kevin Durant last year was an enormous blow, but in equal fashion his return sets the Thunder up for tremendous success if he is able to stay healthy. While this OKC team is extremely talented, many questions still arise. Will Kanter’s defense continue to be an issue? Are there enough shots to go around to keep Westbrook, Kanter, Durant and Waiters happy? Don’t forget that this could be Durant’s last season in Oklahoma City. How will the fear of losing him affect the front office’s in-season decisions?
The Memphis Grizzlies are a team who pride themselves on hard-nosed defense, one of the league’s top five units last season. The Grizzlies, like much of the West, posses a skilled frontcourt in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and have a solid point guard in Mike Conley. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, they could be facing the fate the San Antonio Spurs have been able to escape for quite some time — the fate of age. With a roster comprised of Randolph (34), Tony Allen (33), Matt Barnes (35) and Vince Carter (38), it is difficult to place Memphis into the elite category. Although they’ll remain competitive and find a way into the playoffs, their championship window may have already closed.
Anthony Davis — need I say more? The guy is simply a freak and will almost certainly be the recipient of an MVP award in the not-too-distant future. Furthermore, Davis will be the beneficiary of new head coach Alvin Gentry’s offensive genius. Gentry helped the Warriors make the leap from good to great last season and can do the same down in New Orleans. The biggest concern for the Pelicans is that if Davis were to suffer a similar fate as Kevin Durant did last year, they would be out of playoff contention all together. But if healthy, Davis has the skills to carry this team to the postseason.
No, it will not be the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns or Sacramento Kings who claim the final playoff spot in the Western conference. The Utah Jazz are at last poised to return to the postseason. The Jazz have a chance to be a historically great defensive team and should be able to improve offensively in the second year of Quin Snyder’s scheme. Gordon Hayward established himself as one of the best small forwards in the league and Utah has a front court that can compete with anyone in the game. Of course, the questions remain regarding point guard play. If any of the floor generals on the current roster prove serviceable, the Jazz should secure the eighth seed. If any of them can excel, Utah will be a far bigger threat than we may have imagined. Either way, this is the year the playoff drought ends for the Jazz.