The West is again vaunted. So loaded, the Los Angeles Lakers are just hoping to make the playoffs. Imagine that. A few of the playoffs teams in the West made some moves to get even better. And the usual powers are still potent. Mix in some injuries, some coaching changes, some bad blood, and you've got a captivating season out West.
When the dust clears, here is how we see it shaking out.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Hard not to buy the hype. Again. Chris Paul has had nice talent around him since he became a Clipper. But Los Angeles' new best team added much-needed outside shooting in J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley. But their biggest addition was Doc Rivers, a championship caliber coach. If anyone knows how to maximize all that talent, it's Doc.
Strengths: The best point guard in the game, the best sixth man in the game, one of the best coaches in the game and a slew of quality role players (led by Darren Collison, who I think will be one of the clutch pick-ups off the offseason).
Biggest concern: Does Blake Griffin have another level to his game, or is this it? Especially with a zero-offense center in DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers need someone who can generate inside offense. Otherwise, they're relying on CP3 and Jamal Crawford to make everything happen.
X-Factor: J.J. Redick. What the Clippers needed was consistent outside shooting.
2. San Antonio Spurs
How can anyone still doubt the Spurs? They were too old last year and still came 26 seconds from being the champs. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green all should be better with that experience under their belts. The machine continues.
Strengths: Tony Parker and Tim Duncan can win games in their sleep. Manu Ginobili may not have much left but Marco Belinelli, and a larger role for Leonard, should cover for that. And they still have the grand wizard on the bench in Gregg Popovich.
Biggest concerns: At some point, mileage has to catch up to Duncan and Parker right? Popovich's worries about mileage might lead to lots of games off. Spurs never cared much about regular season, so it wouldn't be a surprise if they wound up coasting at No. 4 and Oklahoma City lands at No. 2.
X-Factor: Leonard was a beast in the playoffs. A big year from him makes Spurs that much more lethal.
3. GOLDEN STATE
The Warriors won 47 games last season with their starting center playing just 32 games and three rookies getting significant minutes. Now, their starting center is healthy, those three rookies have experience. Oh, and they acquired exactly the type of player their core was missing in Andre Iguodala. The Warriors should be noticeably better defensively. They have the most versatile roster in the conference, on paper. One misplaced injury kills it all, but if healthy this team will be scary.
Strengths: They will be versatile defensively and, assuming they start clicking, very difficult to defend. They have the great equalizer with the 3-point shot, thanks to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. On paper, they are deep, which is key over an 82-game season. Marreese Speights, Jermaine O'Neal, Toney Douglas, Draymond Green, Kent Bazemore, Festus Ezeli: if they get good years from two or three of these, they'll have a nice bench.
Biggest concern: They still lack inside scoring for sure. But the greatest question mark is how will they do in crunch time. Their floor general down the stretch was mostly Jarrett Jack, but he's now in Cleveland. Is Curry ready to carry the Warriors in crunch time? Another option is putting ball in Iguodala's hands, but is he as good of a shot-maker as Jack?
X-Factor: Harrison Barnes. If the playoffs were an indicator, he will feast on single coverage and mismatches.
4. Oklahoma City
A lot depends on when Russell Westbrook returns, and how long after he returns before he becomes Westbrook again. As was evident in the playoffs, Batman (Kevin Durant) really needs Robin. Plus, Kendrick Perkins has even more miles on those legs and Reggie Jackson has added responsibility, which is a big question mark. The Thunder is still a factor in the West, but maybe the departure of James Harden was the start of OKC coming back to the pack a little.
Strengths: Kevin Durant. He is a beast and after his last playoff experience, you know he is determined.
Biggest concern: Their depth leaves a lot to be desired, even with Westbrook healthy. Kevin Martin is in Minnesota, which leaves offense off the bench a major concern. Plus, they still need a second facilitator, someone who is good enough to push shoot-first Westbrook off the ball.
X-Factor: Jackson. He can play. But there is a difference between being the sleeper off the bench and a key rotation player. Scout, meet Reggie Jackson. Reggie, Scout.
No question the Grizzlies are still a formidable contender in the Western Conference. But they didn't do anything to address their weakness: scoring. Mike Miller could be big for them in the playoffs, but even if he's healthy in the regular season, he doesn't have enough left to make a noted difference. Plus, isn't it time to expect declines in the games of Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph? Hard not to think the Grizzlies have already peaked. And this talk of speeding up the pace, despite having slow players, is unsettling.
Strengths: Probably the best defensive team in the league, big and physical enough to beat most teams into submission. The Grizzlies are anchored by probably the best two-way center in the league. Under-appreciated point guard in Mike Conley Jr. thrives under the radar.
Biggest concern: One of Memphis' strengths was their experience together. But Lionel Hollins, whom the players loved, was ousted in favor of Dave Joerger. Coaching changes always equal adjustments, especially when the previous coach was good.
X-Factor: Conley Jr. has to be dominant at his position. With the switch to an uptempo pace, the burden on his shoulders has become much larger.
6. Houston Rockets
The Houston bandwagon has people hanging off it. But after last season, its hard to presume Dwight Howard alone vaults the Rockets into the top of the West. They will be better, for sure. But the acquisition of Howard did not cover every hole. And there were many.
Strengths: They have one of the game's best players in Harden and a dominant presence at center in Howard. And they can shoot the 3. They are definitely going to cause problems.
Biggest concerns: Defensively, they are susceptible on the perimeter. And with Howarf, their locker room will likely be full of drama. If nothing else, they will constantly be scrutinized. What happens when they lose four in a row?
X-factor: Chandler Parsons. He's a really good young player, but he's done his damage in a pressure-free, wide-open, gun-slinger style of play. That's great when you're the underdog. That's not Houston's environment now. Does he have another level to his game?
7. Denver Nuggets
From the third seed to fighting for one of the last spots. That's the Western Conference. If you're not getting better, you're falling. The Nuggets lost Iguodala, starting center Kosta Koufos and their genius head coach in George Karl. They have enough to be good -- Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur were nice additions -- but they will struggles.
Strengths: Denver will still be one of the most difficult places to win. They also still have the pieces to be one of the better uptempo offenses in the league, led by point guard Ty Lawson. They still have some good size on the frontline, too.
Biggest concerns: They assuredly took a hit defensively by swapping Iguodala for Randy Foye. But their biggest flaw is not being a smart team. It hurts them on offense, it hurts them on defense. It hurts them on the road, when they don't have an advantage. Maybe rookie head coach Brian Shaw changes that.
X-factor: Kenneth Faried is a great rebounder, a great finisher. He plays with energy. If he can elevate his game, become a power forward who can take over, they might surprise some teams.
8. Los Angeles Lakers
This pick is less a belief in the Lakers and more a disbelief in the other competition. Minnesota could end up here. So could Dallas. Perhaps even Portland. But who are you putting money on, those hopefuls or guys like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, who you know have done it before at a high level?
Strengths: Experience and elite (albeit aging) talent are still on the side of the Lakers. Bryant is motivated, which matters. Coming off a torn Achilles team to carry and suspect team into the playoffs is exactly the kind of stunt Bryant likes to pull off.
Biggest concerns: Their best players are on AARPs watch list, and the supporting cast is a random collection of journeymen. Individually, they might be good pieces when in the right situation. But on the Lakers, they are key contributors: Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson. How can you not be concerned about that cast?
X-factor: If somehow, Nick Young can emerge as a reliable, efficient scorer until Kobe Bryant returns, that would be huge. They really need someone who can create offense and take some of the pressure off Nash.
On the bubble:
Minnesota has the talent on its roster to get a playoff spot, but they somehow Kevin Love or Ricky Rubio winds up hurt. If the Timberwolves had gotten a chance to play together last season, perhaps this would be the year they get over the hump. Dallas was in the hunt for a playoff spot last season. The Mavericks responded by getting Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon. That might be the worst defensive backcourt in the NBA. And who knows how much Dirk Nowitzki has left in the tank. Portland is an intriguing pick. They have some explosive scorers on the perimeter in Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard and off-season pick up Mo Williams. LaMarcus Aldridge is a bonafide star down low and Nicolas Batum is a nice young player. But that's pretty much all they have. That top four isn't good enough in the West. A lot of pick are picking New Orleans as the dark horse. The Pelicans acquired Jrue Holiday from Philadelphia and former No. 1 pick Anthony Davis is growing nicely. But inexperience will be a problem.