Once again the Western Conference is absolutely loaded from nearly top to bottom. Home court advantage is going to be incredibly important come playoff time. There should be four or five teams competing to have home court in the first round and two playing for the right to host Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals on their home floor. At the bottom there are four playoff spots for seven contenders.
Every game is going to be so important. Just because you lose a game in November, it could back to haunt you in April or May.
The Old and Young: With the rumors of retirement surrounding Tim Duncan for a few minutes after the season ended, there was a bit of doubt that the Big Three in San Antonio would be back for a run for a sixth title (their first repeat could come this season). Duncan is coming back to join Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs added the uber athletic and ultra talented Kyle Anderson late in the draft making their bench better and deeper.
Coaching: There is no better coach in all of basketball than Gregg Popovich.
Prediction: The Spurs continue to do Spurs things, they hold on to the #1 seed in the West with a 59-23 record.
Growth and Potential: The Clippers are comprised of savvy veterans, a top three power forward in the league and arguable the best pure point guard we've seen since Gary Payton and John Stockton retired. We know this team belongs to Doc Rivers, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but there is a lot of talent beyond that. Jamal Crawford can score 50 off the bench on any given night, Spencer Hawes is talented enough to start for a contender and is a match-up nightmare for most bigs in the league. There are also some young sharpshooters in Reggie Bullock and C.J. Wilcox that can develop nicely into important roles during the season.
Are They Ready?: The Clippers one hang up could be the lack of overall playoff experience from the starters. Yes, Doc has won a championship and coached another, Hedo Turkoglu and J.J. Redick all have been to an NBA Finals with the Magic and Jordan Farmar has won rings as a starting point guard with the Lakers. That is the bench. Can Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan handle the pressure of May and June?
Prediction: The Clippers are going to a fun team to watch and will ride a great season to the #2 seed and a 58-24 record.
Depth?: With Kevin Durant potentially missing the first 25 games of the season (maybe more, maybe less) we're going to see how deep and how well Scott Brooks has developed the Thunder's swing positions. The past few seasons the players asked to step in for Durant (Andre Roberson, Perry Jones) have seen very limited meaningful time on an NBA court. There are also rumors of Reggie Jackson now starting at the two guard, so that means the Thunder will rely on Sebastian Telfair to play minutes while Russell Westbrook is on the bench. Who is going to step in off the bench to contribute while Kendrick Perkins and Mitch McGary are injured?
Health?: When Durant comes back will he have a minutes limit? A Jones Fracture tends to be a recurring injury, especially in basketball. The scoring load is going to be squarely on Westbrook and to attempt to stay competitive how many minutes will Brooks play him a night? Will Westbrook's drive, desire and competitiveness be a detriment as he tries to play a full game night in and night out until Durant is 100%?
Prediction: Missing Durant is going to kill them and it could cost them home court advantage in the first round. Doesn't mean they won't be ready to make a run come April and May. They'll hit the 51-31 mark, with a lot of those losses coming early in the season.
The Next Step: LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are legit stars in the league, but they need to get consistent play from Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and the bench. Batum and Matthews need to make sure they make other teams pay for doubling up on Aldridge and Lillard. Forcing opposing defenses to unfailingly play in a man-to-man set, leaving their two stars in advantageous one on one match-ups will definitely move the Blazers up the Western Conference ladder this season.
Defense and Bench: Just two short years ago the Blazers might have had the worst bench play in the history of the NBA. Neil Olshey has focused on improving this unit through both the draft and via free agency. Steve Blake and Chris Kaman provide instant upgrades at the backup point guard and center positions, while the development of youngsters like Thomas Robinson, C.J. McCollum and Will Barton will be imperative in case of injury.
Prediction: The Blazers are going to take advantage of the Durant injury and capture their first division title (first ever Northwest Division championship) since the 98-99 season with a 55-27 record.
Guard Play: Outside of Monta Ellis the guard depth for the Mavericks gets downright scary. There is the constantly overweight Ray Felton, the old Jameer Nelson and the ageless (not in a good way) Devin Harris. Not sure why Mark Cuban went this way when he put together probably the best starting front court in the NBA, but hey, it'll be entertaining.
Defense: Tyson Chandler isn't going to be the defensive presence he once was, Dirk is Dirk at this age, Chandler Parsons tries on defense, but isn't a stopper and let's not even talk about the guards. The Mavericks don't have to be great individually on defense, but they have to put in a great effort every night on defense and not be a complete defensive civ.
Prediction: The Mavs are going to be better than they were last year thanks to the addition of the Chandlers. How good they are is completely up to their defensive effort and guard play. They tie OKC in the win-loss column at 51-31.
Can Kerr Lead?: I'm not a huge fan of coaches that come right from the booth or right from the floor to the head of the bench. There are success stories like Doc Rivers, then there are stories like Mark Jackson and Magic Johnson that didn't go so hot. Danny Ainge quit to abruptly to judge fully, while the jury is still out on Jason Kidd and Kevin McHale. Point is, no matter how smart the mind, can you trust that in leading your team?
X-Factor: With Andre Iguodala entrenched as the starting small forward for the next couple of years at least (although Kerr experimented recently with bringing Iggy off the bench). Will Harrison Barnes be able to make the most of his opportunity as the sixth man and improve his defense enough that he forces Kerr to play him in the crunch to close out games over Iggy or maybe even David Lee?
Prediction: The Warriors will once again have the sixth seed on lockdown, going 50-32.
7. Phoenix Suns
Aberration?: The Suns were projected to win 20 games at most last season and were in playoff contention all the way up to the last day of the season. Jeff Hornacek won coach of the year, Goran Dragic turned into one of the best point guards in the league, Gerald Green realized his potential finally and this was mostly done without Eric Bledsoe. Was last season a fluke or did Hornacek turn the Suns into a good team? I think it's the latter.
Dangerous: Bledsoe is going to be healthy this season, Markieff and Marcus Morris are locked into reasonable contracts and the Suns signed Isaiah Thomas to be their backup point guard. They also drafted a potential future star in T.J. Warren, who scores (efficiently), rebounds (extremely well) and plays defense (above average). The Suns could be a year or two away from being serious year in and year out contenders, but you definitely don't want to see them in the first round of the playoffs.
Prediction: The Suns are your seventh seed and will give the Clippers a scare in the first round. They will announce they are a force are a force coming and don't forget about them. It's scary that they'll get the Lakers lottery pick (if it falls just right) in a very loaded 2015 draft.
Age: We saw the beginnings of the back nine for Zach Randolph last season and that trend should continue this season as he turned 33 this summer and will be nearing the 30,000 minute mark of his career about 27 games into the season. Vince Carter will be 38 in January, Tayshaun Prince will be 35 during the season and numerous others will be pushing into their mid 30's during the season. Dave Joerger is going to need to make sure that he limits the vets minutes and develops the youth this season.
The Go-to: Marc Gasol and Mike Conley will be relied on to score and create most the points for the Grizzlies this season. Randolph should remain a pretty consistent third option, but after that where will the points come from on a regular basis? Which young guy can step up and become the next option for the Grizzlies?
Prediction: The Grizzlies should still be the eighth seed in the West, they have the talent and the defense to grind out tough, close games.
Chemistry: A story broke out this summer that James Harden and Dwight Howard didn't exactly endear themselves to their teammates during the course of the season. Acting a bit holier than thou. That rubbed some people the wrong way and you could actually see some of that disjointedness on the court last season. There was very little trust between the players and most possessions it seemed would be the Harden Isolation Show. Kevin McHale is going to have to bring some Celtic magic to these Rockets and get them on the same page or they risk not making the playoffs this coming season.
Defense: Outside of former Defensive Player of the Year, Dwight Howard, second stint man Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverly there isn't a lot of interest in playing defense in Houston. Harden said he'd put in more effort this season, well that's nice.
Prediction: I see the Rockets just missing the playoffs with some bad losses late in the season. I'm also not completely sold on McHale as a good, championship quality head coach in the league.
10. Denver Nuggets
Brian Shaw: Shaw is entering his second season with the Nuggets, he made some errors, but showed overall promise in his first season. With all the injuries the team suffered last year he kept them playing hard, not necessarily competitive (hard to make up for lack of talent and depth late in the season). With the Danilo Gallinari, Nate Robinson and JaVale McGee coming back healthy this season the Nuggets should be much improved and could compete for a playoff spot.
Defense: The Nuggets not only need to run on offense, but they probably have the deepest bench in the league. There is no reason with the depth, the youth and athleticism of the team that the Nuggets can't ratchet up the defensive pressure for 48 minutes, wear the other team down and run the team off the floor in the fourth.
Especially at home.
Prediction: The Nuggets won't make the playoff this season, but they are going to be flirting with being .500 again and should come in above it.
(Note: The Denver Stiffs crew will be providing seeding predictions a little closer to the start of the regular season from all our writers.)
Health Issues: Outside of the Nuggets I don't know if there was a more injury riddled team not named the Pelicans. When a team relies on Austin Rivers to play big minutes, the playoffs thou shalt not see. Hopefully the lower body injuries of Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon have healed fully, Tyreke Evans' hamstrings will holdup and Anthony Davis' back issue won't be anything that hinders him long term. The Pelicans, because of so many missed games, didn't come close to realizing their potential.
Next Level: If the Pelicans are to compete for a playoff spot they do need to stay healthy and Anthony Davis can finally be a name on the national stage and begin his ascent to taking the crown as the best player in the league.
Prediction: Again, this team shouldn't make the playoffs, but they'll be above .500. If things do break correctly they could sneak into the playoffs.
Right Man for the Job?: With how young this Timberwolves team is, it should be matched with an up and coming coach. Instead they do what the Timberwolves do and bring back retread, Flip Saunders. There are a few coaches in the college ranks that would have been perfect for this job, Shaka Smart and Buzz Williams immediately come to mind. Saunders tends to favor vets over rookies and there is no reason why Kevin Martin should start over Andrew Wiggins or Corey Brewer should start over Anthony Bennett. These two should be the ones along with Zach LaVine that the Wolves grow around, but I'm worried that Saunders will play Martin and Brewer too many minutes, not giving the young guys a chance to develop.
Minute Distribution: See above. Play the young guys, let them learn and make mistakes.
Prediction: 30 wins is in reach, 35 is underachieving and anything under 30 means Flip Saunders should not return the next season.
13. Sacramento Kings
Maturity: DeMarcus Cousins has promised that he would get less than five technical fouls this season. I would like to see him do it, he's on the verge of becoming a superstar in the league, he could make a legit claim at being the best center and a top 8-12 player in the league this season. Outside of Anthony Davis there is no other big that is a threat to go for a 20-20 party every game. Hopefully his time with Team USA this summer helped him on his maturity level. This could be a big jump year for Cousins.
Consistency: Outside of Cousins and Rudy Gay being the main scorers, who is going to be the third and fourth option this season?
Prediction: 30-35 wins is well within reach for this team.
14. Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe: Kobe Bryant is coming back from two brutal injuries, it'll be interesting to see if/how his body will hold up for a season and if new coach, Byron Scott, sits him out games to rest him. How Kobe goes this season is how the Lakers will go and that has potentially good and horrible affects on the Lakers for the future.
The Future: Laker and Kobe Nation want to see Kobe coming back and be the old Kobe Bryant, dominate games, 40 point nights and just do Kobe things. If he does that he'll get the Lakers just enough wins to be out of the bottom of the lottery, which means Phoenix gets their pick in a center loaded draft, a position the Lakers desperately need to address. Instead of getting a Myles Turner type player to play in Staples 41 nights a year, they'll get to play against him four nights a year for a Suns team that will crush them and constantly remind them of what could have been.
Prediction: Kobe leads this rag-tag group to just enough wins to make the Suns better next year, but finish 15+ games from a playoff spot.
15. Utah Jazz
Coaching: Quin Snyder is going to be a vast upgrade over Tyrone Corbin. Some of Snyder's best work is from the days when he was the head coach at Missouri and was labeled as the next big thing. Some personal demons derailed him a bit and finally he gets a shot to prove himself in the NBA. Snyder is a coach who is big on fundamentals and has a tremendous basketball IQ. If he can bond with the team and they can adopt his fire, we should see an improved Utah Jazz.
Youth Development: My big questions for the Jazz are this: Can Gordon Hayward live up to his max deal? Can Trey Burke and Dante Exum work together in the same backcourt? Will Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter make the jump?
Prediction: 20-25 wins and another high draft pick.