It seems unfathomable today, but just one year ago the Los Angeles Lakers were the odds-on favorite to claim the Western Conference Championship. At the time, the Oklahoma City Thunder had foolishly traded away James Harden to the Houston Rockets, the aging San Antonio Spurs were supposedly reeling from a heartbreaking conference finals loss to the Thunder and the Lakers had acquired superstars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to compliment Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.
A year later, the disaster that was the 2012-13 Lakers season will continue into the 2013-14 campaign, as Howard took his talents to Houston in the off-season and Bryant recovers from a nasty Achilles tendon rupture. The Spurs - who almost won the 2013 NBA Championship - are presumably a year older, but we've learned better by now to count them out. And the Thunder have to get their act back together in the wake of both the Harden trade and the scary knee injury sustained by star guard Russell Westbrook in the 2013 playoffs. Oh, and the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and our Denver Nuggets have all changed head coaches, despite each team winning at least 56 games last season.
Point being, the Western Conference is totally up in the air, with some combination of the Clippers, Spurs, Thunder, Grizzlies and possibly Rockets competing for the conference crown. Not surprisingly, your Denver Stiffs brain trust has come up with some varied predictions for how the conference will shake out by season's end:
Regular Season Picks
|1||San Antonio||Oklahoma City||L.A. Clippers||L.A. Clippers|
|2||Oklahoma City||L.A. Clippers||San Antonio||San Antonio|
|4||L.A. Clippers||San Antonio||Oklahoma City||Houston|
|6||Denver||Denver||Golden State||Golden State|
|12||L.A. Lakers||Portland||Portland||L.A. Lakers|
|13||Sacramento||L.A. Lakers||L.A. Lakers||Sacramento|
Conference Finals Picks
Nate: Spurs vs. Grizzlies, Spurs win
Jeff: Spurs vs. Clippers, Spurs win
Colin: Thunder vs. Rockets, Thunder win
Andrew: Thunder vs. Clippers, Clippers win
1. Los Angeles Clippers
I've written many times that I don't think the Nuggets will ever win a championship in my lifetime. But I certainly never thought the Clippers would, either. So it pains me greatly to pick the Clips, but I think this is their year. I believe their astute off-season acquisitions of Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick, Darren Collison, Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison give them the NBA's deepest roster, and head coach Doc Rivers (one of only four active coaches with a championship ring) is the right coach to put them over the top.
Why Clippers fans should be optimistic: As mentioned above, the Clippers made a number of bold acquisitions this past off-season and they already had the NBA's best point guard in Chris Paul, one of the best power forwards in Blake Griffin, an enormous center in DeAndre Jordan and perhaps the NBA's best sixth man in Jamal Crawford. Anything short of a conference finals appearance will be a disappointment.
Why Clippers fans should be pessimistic: Not the fault of any Clipper player or coach, but from a karma perspective this franchise doesn't deserve to win anything thanks to years of (alleged) immoral dealings and supreme cheapness by the team's owner, Donald Sterling.
2. San Antonio Spurs
How the Spurs respond to a thrilling yet devastating end to the 2013 NBA Finals will be one of the most fascinating sub-plots of the 2013-14 NBA season. The Spurs had the Miami Heat on the ropes in Game 6 and due to some bizarre coaching decisions and poor play by all-time great Manu Ginobili, the Spurs grabbed defeat from the clutches of victory and ceded the series to Miami.
Why Spurs fans should be optimistic: The entire roster - plus Marco Belinelli - returns to defend their 2013 Western Conference Championship. And Tim Duncan apparently doesn't have the aging gene in his body.
Why Spurs fans should be pessimistic: At some point the music has to stop for the Spurs. Doesn't it? And while the Rockets and Clippers dramatically upgraded, the Spurs essentially stood pat despite the continued advanced aging of their roster.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder's championship window may have closed the day James Harden was traded, we just didn't know it at the time. And while the Thunder will receive a number of draft picks and some cap flexibility thanks to the trade, their bench may be too weak for another NBA Finals run.
Why Thunder fans should be optimistic: Kevin Durant is still the second-best basketball player in the world and Russell Westbrook is still one of the NBA's best guards.
Why Thunder fans should be pessimistic: Westbrook's health remains somewhat uncertain, and the Thunder didn't get Durant enough help over the summer. Despite having two top-10 players in their starting five, the Thunder's bench is weak and inexperienced.
4. Houston Rockets
Whenever Dwight Howard is involved, it's hard to predict how far his team will go. A motivated, "good" Dwight Howard can take you to the NBA Finals. But an unmotivated, "bad" Dwight Howard can sink your entire franchise and head coach. Given all the crap Howard has taken in the past two years, I'm thinking the Rockets will get the motivated, "good" Howard in 2013-14, which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.
Why Rockets fans should be optimistic: Harden and Howard are both top-1o players and even without Howard last season, the Rockets surprisingly made the playoffs in a very tough Western Conference and gave the Thunder quite a fight in the first round.
Why Rockets fans should be pessimistic: Can you really win a championship when your starting point guard is Jeremy Lin and your starting power forward is Greg Smith? And who is Greg Smith?
5. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies had their best season - by far - in 2012-13: 56 wins and a Western Conference Finals appearance. So what did they do? They didn't renew the contract of head coach Lionel Hollins. Huh? In Hollins' place will be longtime Grizzlies' assistant coach David Joerger, and I guess we'll find out this season how much of Memphis' previous success could be attributed to Joerger.
Why Grizzlies fans should be optimistic: The Grizzlies are returning the roster that netted those 56 wins and that Western Conference Finals appearance mentioned above ...
Why Grizzlies fans should be pessimistic: ... but this season, the Grizzlies likely won't have the benefit of playing a Westbrook-less Thunder team in the playoffs and the Clippers, Rockets and Golden State Warriors improved their rosters dramatically while Memphis essentially stood pat.
6. Golden State Warriors
Despite winning 10 less regular season games, the Warriors beat our Nuggets in a huge first round upset last season and have since added to an already talented roster by picking up former Nugget (and turncoat) Andre Iguodala, veteran big man Marreese Speights and reliable backup guard Toney Douglas. The Warriors won't have a 10-game differential against their 2014 playoff opponent.
Why Warriors fans should be optimistic: If center Andrew Bogut, All-Star power forward David Lee and star guard Stephen Curry can stay healthy, the Warriors have one of the best starting fives in the NBA thanks to the acquisition of Iguodala.
Why Warriors fans should be pessimistic: Bogut always gets hurt and misses lots of games. And Lee and Curry often succumb to small injuries as the regular season progresses.
7. Denver Nuggets
The rumors of the Nuggets demise by many in the NBA punditry world have been greatly exaggerated. Only five teams in NBA history have missed the playoffs the year after winning 57 games, and despite losing their two best defenders (Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer) and being without Danilo Gallinari until probably January, the Nuggets have enough talent to make the playoffs for the 11th consecutive season - the NBA's second-longest streak after the Spurs.
Why Nuggets fans should be optimistic: The Nuggets won an NBA franchise record best 57 games in 2012-13, and that was despite Ty Lawson and JaVale McGee not playing to their full potential and Wilson Chandler rehabbing from a nasty hip injury. What happens when those three players finally put it all together?
Why Nuggets fans should be pessimistic: A rookie head coach, a downgrade at starting two-guard (Randy Foye in place of Iguodala), and a mismatch of big men (four power forwards on the roster?) probably means the Nuggets drop a few spots in the Western Conference standings.
Remember those five teams I just mentioned that won at least 57 games one season and missed the playoffs altogether the next? Well one of them was the 2004-05 Timberwolves who followed up a conference finals run with nine straight years of playoff absences. That dubious streak might come to an end this season.
Why Timberwolves fans should be optimistic: Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Williams and Nikola Pekovic form a fearsome foursome capable of beating any NBA team on any night, if ...
Why Timberwolves fans should be pessimistic: ... they're healthy, something the Timberwolves haven't been able to solve for years now. In fact, they've been one of the most injured NBA teams for a decade now.
A year removed from missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, the Mavericks made an assortment of uninspiring moves this past summer that might just get them back into the playoffs, where they'll make very little noise.
Why Mavericks fans should be optimistic: Adding Jose Calderon, Devin Harris and Monta Ellis gives Dallas a more dynamic back court than they've had for some time. And Dirk Nowitzki, despite being 35, remains as one of the NBA's best power forwards.
Why Mavericks fans should be pessimistic: This is the second year in a row where the Mavericks have basically slapped a roster together around Nowitzki, hoping to pacify their star player, without any thought and long-term planning involved.
It's going to take me a while to get used to the name "Pelicans", but I like it! A lot of pundits have the Pelicans penciled in as a possible 8th seed but I'm skeptical. That said, the aggressive acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, combined with the growth of Anthony Davis and the hope that Eric Gordon may actually be healthy for once, make the Pelicans an intriguing team this season.
Why Pelicans fans should be optimistic: There are a lot of good things happening on this roster, starting with Davis who should have a standout sophomore season. And Gordon and Holiday could form one of the NBA's better back courts.
Why Pelicans fans should be pessimistic: Gordon has appeared in just 51 games in two seasons, and yet he's a max player under contract for years to come. And even though Davis showed flashes of brilliance last season, he played in only 64 games as a rookie.
On the (way) other side of the Greg Oden / Brandon Roy disaster, the Blazers have assembled a nice, young team with upside at various positions.
Why Blazers fans should be optimistic: Damian Lillard - the reigning Rookie of the Year - is awesome, as is LaMarcus Aldridge. New additions Robin Lopez and Mo Williams should help Lillard and Aldridge feel like they're on less of an island on the hard court each night.
Why Blazers fans should be pessimistic: Their head coach is Terry Stotts (career 148-217) and their bench is thin.
12. Los Angeles Lakers
Where the Lakers finish in 2014 depends largely on when Bryant returns from Achilles tendon surgery. Bryant has vowed to be back for opening night, but in the history of this nasty injury that would be totally unheard of. In Bryant's absence, much will be asked of Jodie Meeks and Nick Young.
Why Lakers fans should be optimistic: Bryant will do whatever it takes to get back on the court, and his arrival will make the Lakers instantly competitive. And even without Bryant, the Lakers still have Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman. Plus, head coach Mike D'Antoni has a full training camp this year to implement his wide open offensive system that players often love playing in.
Why Lakers fans should be pessimistic: Nash is 39, Gasol is 33, Kaman is 31 and Bryant is 35. And the Lakers bench depth leaves much to be desired - as in, they have none. The Lakers would be better off sitting Bryant for the season knowing the NBA will rig the draft lottery in their favor in 2014.
13. Sacramento Kings
Now under the supervision of former Nuggets assistant GM Pete D'Alessandro, the Kings once again open an NBA season as a Western Conference bottom feeder. But there's a light at the end of their tunnel.
Why Kings fans should be optimistic: New Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has ensured that they will remain in Sacramento and should bring desperately needed stability to the Kings franchise for years to come. And the Kings are in good hands with D'Alessandro and new head coach Mike Malone (the brains behind the Warriors recent success).
Why Kings fans should be pessimistic: Despite being lottery denizens for seven straight years, the Kings have little to show for it. Will this year's selection of Ben McLemore prove to be different?
14. Utah Jazz
During this past off-season, the Jazz made a conscious decision to get away from being a middling playoff team and play for bigger stakes down the road. In other words, they're tanking - evident by letting Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson leave for nothing.
Why Jazz fans should be optimistic: Even though the Jazz will stink in 2013-14, the new season will give youngsters like Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Gordon Hayward ample opportunity to improve their games.
Why Jazz fans should be pessimistic: Kanter and Burks have been disappointments thus far, whereas Favors and Hayward have shown ample signs of being productive NBA players for years to come. What is Utah's backup plan if Kanter and Burks don't pan out?
15. Phoenix Suns
Before writing this preview, I was hard pressed to name five active Suns. And I follow the NBA religiously! Phoenix is in Year 2 of what will likely be a multi-year rebuild and is destined for another high lottery pick at season's end in 2014.
Why Suns fans should be optimistic: Landing the 7'1" Alex Len with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft might prove to be fortuitous. And if the Morris brothers (Marcus and Markieff) pan out, Phoenix will have a tough front line.
Why Suns fans should be pessimistic: Phoenix needs everything at every position, so there's plenty to be pessimistic about this season. The days of Steve Nash routinely taking the Suns to the playoffs are long, long gone.