In just a few months, we will see LeBron James in his wine and gold colored jersey for the first time in four years. Kevin Love, too. Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose will be back on the floor but Paul George will not. The NBA is bound to look a bit different this upcoming season, but after a quiet offseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder seem ready to take the West by storm. In 2014's regular season, OKC lost the number one spot in the West to the now-champion Spurs. Will the Spurs take number one once again or will Kevin Durant and his team in blue dethrone San Antonio? Here are my predictions.
On the Outside Looking In
For the most part, the playoff picture will look similar if not identical to last year's. The lottery bottom feeders (Utah, Los Angeles, Sacramento) will be scraping the floor, looking for another shot at the lottery. The Utah Jazz added Dante Exum to the roster with the number 5 overall pick in the draft. Exum's ability to get to the rim and his size will definitely help the Jazz, but he is not quite ready to make a considerable difference in the team's record. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant back from injury, but the 36 year old can no longer be considered the kind of talent that can elevate a weak team to the playoffs. All things aside, LA had an efficient offseason adding Jeremy Lin for practically nothing, picking up Carlos Boozer, and drafting Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, but the team still has plenty of growing left before they are ready to contend for a top 8 spot. It is safe to say Sacramento has regressed this offseason. Isaiah Thomas walked toward the door directly in front of their faces and they showed no effort in resigning him. Darren Collison will step in to fill his spot, but Collison is a question mark as well. Nik Stauskas was drafted but he may take several years to blossom.
The Denver Nuggets were a team riddled with injury last season, their first under a new coaching system in nearly a decade. If Ty Lawson, Danillo Gallinari, and Javale McGee remain healthy, Denver may snag an 8 seed. The addition of Gary Harris through the draft will definitely improve the offense and defense because Harris looks ready to play.
After losing Kevin Love, the Timberwolves lack star power, which is a needed ingredient in a playoff team. With such a young core (Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Thaddeus Young), the T-Wolves lack experience and will be somewhere in the middle of the bottom feeders.
So Close They Can Taste It
The New Orleans Pelicans could be a potential playoff team, and they have the talent to do it.The performances of Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans are key. With Jrue Holiday back from injury and Anthony Davis' potential starting to blossom, I can see NOLA making it close to an 8 seed. I just can't see them in the playoffs yet. The development of Anthony Davis will determine New Orleans' future. Can he continue to improve his offensive game and mold into the NBA's finest and most versatile big man? Also, do not forget an offseason move that has snuck by some people: the Pelicans acquired Omer Asik from the Houston Rockets. Under Dwight Howard, Asik was forced into a minuscule role that he clearly hated, but now he will be put alongside a top tier rim protector in Davis. The Asik/Davis defensive duo will become a dominant force across the league, but not quite enough to take home a playoff spot.
It truly hurts me to say this because I was rooting for them since the very beginning of last season, but the Phoenix Suns will miss the playoffs once again. They came just one game away from the 8-seed last year, but to a pre-Parsons Mavericks team. There is no question the Suns will be even better than last year, considering Eric Bledsoe was sidelined for a big chunk of the season and they added Isaiah Thomas through free agency. Phoenix even capitalized on their two first round picks, picking the offensive powerhouse in TJ Warren and the young, pass first guard in Tyler Ennis, but a West playoff spot will prove to be much more difficult than last year.
They Made It...Again
Call me stupid. Call me crazy. But the Western Conference Playoff teams will look identical to last year's. Here is how they will pan out.
The Grizzlies were within two games of missing the playoffs last year...they were also 11 points away from eliminating the Thunder. The number 7 next to their team name was extremely deceiving because for all that we know, if Marc Gasol had played 82 games, Memphis likely would have landed a 5 or 6 spot. Now with a healthy Gasol paired with Zach Randolph in the front court and the newly acquired Vince Carter knocking down threes, the Grizzlies will make the playoffs without a problem.
Will they be better? Keep an eye on Jordan Adams will be a major contributor this year. The 1st round pick--despite his lack of athleticism--was impressive at Summer League and can help on the offensive end, which seemed to be a problem for Memphis as they ranked 27th in points per game.
7. Houston Rockets
What was supposed to be a turnaround offseason became a huge blow for the Houston Rockets. The ambitious Daryl Morey gambled too hard on fishing Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh out of free agency, which lead to the loss of young marksman Chandler Parsons to the Mavericks. In the end, the Rockets landed veteran Trevor Ariza for a relatively cheap price as well as Alonzo Gee. Houston capitalized on their late 1st round pick and 2nd rounder by selecting big man Clint Capela and Nick Johnson, who stood out at the Orlando Summer League.
All in all, the Rockets are not much worse than they were last season, when they grabbed a 4 spot in the West. They struck out on Melo and Bosh, and it cost them Chandler Parsons, but I really don't think this team will fall off a cliff. They will still compete ferociously with Dwight Howard and James Harden running the offense, but the competition will be much more difficult than last year.
6. Dallas Mavericks
The first round of the last playoffs proved that the Mavericks still have a few tricks up their sleeves. The core remains the same with the ageless Dirk Nowitzki still wow-ing fans and Monta Ellis running the PG. But a trade sending Shane Larkin, Jose Calderon, and Samuel Dalembert to New York landed the Mavs Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler. Chandler will bring a defensive presence that Dalembert failed to deliver. To go along with the trade acquisition, the Mavericks also signed Chandler Parsons to a very (and some would say too) rich of a deal. They're taking a shot to move up in the rankings; will this be enough?
The Golden State Warriors will look very similar to last years squad. Free agency led Shaun Livingston to California, and a few rookies were picked up as well. Shaun Livingston is a guard that makes the right decisions, so while Stephen Curry struggles with turnovers, Livingston can make up for it with smart play.
However, the roster changes is not why I have the Warriors bumped up from a 6 to a 5 spot. Steve Kerr was hired as the Warriors' newest head coach, replacing Mark Jackson at the end of the season. This will be Kerr's first coaching job but his intelligence of the game and successful playing career makes it seem as though he will fit right in. On a team of young, developing three point shooters, Kerr will help them with their inconsistencies and ways to get open shots. He was a notorious marksman in his playing days. The new coaching edge as well as the improvement of Stephen Curry will make or break this team.
I really really like the Trail Blazers for this upcoming season. Damian Lillard seems determined to show he is a top talent in the NBA after getting cut from the Team USA roster in the FIBA World Cup. The Lillard/LaMarcus Aldridge duo will prove to be the most powerful 1-2 punch on the offensive end in the entire league. Portland also added veterans Steve Blake and Chris Kaman in the off-season.
People tend to forget that Portland tied Houston in the standings and wiped the floor clean with them in the playoffs, ending that series in historic fashion. In the 1st round, the Blazers looked like the real deal. LaMarcus Aldridge was making history with his scoring and Damian sealed the opening round with an exhilarating buzzer beater. After the first round, the Blazers looked like the most dangerous team. I think we will see the playoff Trail Blazers this regular season....I really do.
The Los Angeles Clippers will be better than they were last year, but the top 2 spots are reserved for....we will get to that later. Blake Griffin keeps on getting better every year and Chris Paul is still the consensus best PG out there. DeAndre Jordan made huge improvements last season with his inside scoring and rebounding.
Aside from the development of Grffin and Jordan, a huge impact player will be the newly acquired Spencer Hawes. Hawes has been bouncing around teams the past few years but his ability to spread the floor with his shooting has remained intact. With a guy like Jordan--who can't step out and hit a shot for his life--Hawes will truly come in handy to open up the paint for Paul and Jamal Crawford.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
Sorry Thunder fans. Not this year.
As usual, the OKC Thunder had a quiet offseason acquiring just Anthony Morrow in free agency as well as drafting Mitch McGary from Michigan. Morrow will fill the 3-point specialist role after Thabo Sefolosha left for Atlanta. Who am I kidding...Thabo was no help from three last year!!!!!
Kevin Durant will be outstanding, Westbrook too. Serge Ibaka will keep on improving his rim protecting skills. But the number one spot will be extremely tough to crack...especially after losing Hasheem Thabeet...**sarcasm**. The starting shooting guard spot is up for grabs, so whoever secures the spot has a big responsibility. I am not counting the Thunder out of the Finals run...just the number one seed.
1. San Antonio Spurs
I am going to be completely honest. I was never a firm believer in the Spurs last year. They looked weak against the Mavericks, who took them to an elimination game 7. However, after utterly demolishing the Miami Heat in the Finals, I am almost 100 percent sure they will finish number one after the regular season.
Both Tim Duncan and Pop signed a contract extension, so Timmy is feeling just fine. The roster looked nearly identical. The only significant upgrade is Kyle Anderson from the draft, who will provide excellent passing. Kawhi Leonard will be a near All Star and Tony Parker will continue to be awesome. Most people are counting the Spurs out because they are one year older...what's one year? SA is ageless.