When ranking the NBA Western Conference, it is hard not to notice that coaching may have become the biggest determinate of change. The Clippers would still have doubters if Doc Rivers wasn’t running the show. It would be hard to not at least consider the Grizzlies a Western Conference Finals threat if Lionel Hollins was still there and how does an organization part with George Karl after he wins Coach of the Year?
After our top five of the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors, there are the weakened Grizzlies and Nuggets franchises that should be able to stay in the playoff picture followed by group of hopefuls where a debate should rage about the virtue of being a one-and-done playoff team in the eighth spot versus tanking for a better draft pick in June.
Too Good To Fail?
6. Memphis Grizzlies – 56-26 last season, projected 48-34
There isn’t anything more frustrating in professional sports than watching a well-built successful franchise knock itself down a peg in order to save money. 33-year-old Tayshaun Prince is an acceptable fill-in for Rudy Gay, but he is on the downside of his career and simply can’t provide the offense Gay did for 6.5 seasons in Memphis. The Grizzlies traded Gay to save money and they moved a plethora of lesser but solid players for the same reason.
The Grizzlies still have a good roster, however and if it wasn’t for handing the heading coaching job to Hollins’ assistant Dave Joerger, it might be easier to believe this would still be a 50-win team. Memphis is going to find out just how much an experienced and successful head coach contributes to a team’s record. It isn’t likely they are going to like the answer.
It is easy to sympathize with the financial realities of operating a small market franchise, but that isn’t going to help the Grizzlies win more games this season. The question in Memphis shouldn’t be if the team can stretch to win 50 games, but rather how far below 50 wins will they end up.
7. Denver Nuggets – 57-25 last season, projected 44-38
The Denver Nuggets were a franchise in disarray this summer. The 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri left town to join the Toronto Raptors. The 2013 NBA Coach of Year George Karl was fired. Free agent Andre Iguodala spurned Denver’s offer to join the Warriors and free agent Corey Brewer opted for the Timberwolves. Danilo Gallinari is still rehabbing a partially torn ACL and hopes to return sometime in December, but the Nuggets will be starting this season without 3 of their top 5 scorers from last year and a brand new rookie head coach.
Big changes in management also mean big changes in style. The Nuggets were built to facilitate the open court style of Karl and new Head coach Brian Shaw is known for the Lakers’ triangle offense he played in and was schooled in as a player and an assistant coach in Los Angeles. Perhaps this explains why last year’s starting center Kosta Koutos was traded and JaVale McGee will be given his chance to play more than the 18 minutes a game Karl thought he deserved.
There are a lot of unknowns in Denver this season, but Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried should be able to stave off disaster and keep the Nuggets from slipping too much until Gallinari returns to provide some offensive punch. The number of wins above .500 will largely depend on Shaw, but the Nuggets are still a playoff team this season.
The Fight For Eighth
8. Minnesota Timberwolves -31-51 last season, projected 42-40
This is a roster bouncing back from injuries to Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, but each of these players have shown enough to get everyone excited to see what they could do playing together for an entire season. Minnesota didn’t wait for their best players to get healthy, this summer they picked up free agents Brewer from the Nuggets and Kevin Martin from the Thunder. A team that has been suspect on the wing for some time just got stronger.
The Timberwolves have spent nine years in the lottery and have experienced more than their share of bad luck and questionable management decisions, however, they head into this season with something new, justifiable hope. Healthy and a little deeper than in the past, it is Minnesota’s turn at the postseason again.
9. Dallas Mavericks – 41-41 last season, projected 40-42
No one believes the past two summers are what Mavericks owner Mark Cuban envisioned when he blew up his 2010-2011 championship roster. Dallas has a collection of talent for the second year in a row that screams .500-team. While this group could sneak into the playoffs if other teams stumble, the only truly redeeming feature of this roster is the less than $30 million in players’ salaries guaranteed after this season.
Dallas has a group of veterans in Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis who will put on a show, but there is no reason to expect they will do any better than last year’s Mavericks. Cuban has put his franchise on hold for another season.
10. Portland Trail Blazers – 33-49 last season, projected 37-45
There is some optimism around Portland this summer. They did pick up some players who could help the team garner a few more wins than last year.
Mo Williams is a solid veteran backup point guard and should play additional minutes at shooting guard if the Trail Blazers don’t mind letting rookie C.J. McCollum languish on the bench. Robin Lopez will be the team’s best center and let LaMarcus Aldridge play at his natural power forward position. The question becomes, how many minutes does Meyers Leonard get to play this year and which of Lopez and Leonard is the team’s center of the future. Thomas Robinson is on his third team after just one season, if Portland believes the fifth overall draft pick of 2012 has a future in the league, they have to find at least 20 minutes a night for him.
The Trail Blazers are too good to be bad and need to find minutes for their young players whether that results in wins or not. This season should have a slightly better record than last year, but winning is probably going to take a back seat to player development.
11. New Orleans Pelicans – 27-55 last season, projected 36-46
New Orleans projected starting unit of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson has an average age 23-years-old. This team’s best players are young, developing and a long ways from their projected prime and that is not usually the formula for a playoff appearance.
A lot of people suggested the Pelicans were making a run at the 2014 postseason when they exchanged Nerlens Noel and a future protected first round draft pick for Holiday, but maybe New Orleans just wanted a 23-year-old All-Star and thought they got the better of the trade. It would be hard to argue with them.
The Pelicans have question marks with their depth and potentially bigger unknowns with a couple of their starters. Eric Gordon had surgery on his ankle again in May and after playing in just 51 games over the past two seasons in New Orleans, whether or not Gordon will be the offensive player he was with the Clippers is unknown. The Kings tried to move Evans from guard to small forward and it would be stretch to say the experiment was a success in Sacramento. There is no reason to assume Evans can play small forward at a high level in New Orleans either.
In New Orleans, questions should be looked upon more as opportunities. This team has acquired some good young talent and their future is ahead of them. The current starting unit may gel and produce earlier than expected or take time to develop and future moves may be required, either way, the Pelicans are on the right path.
Risks and Obstacles
Any team hoping to land one the last three playoff spots in their conference is going to have risks and issues to deal with, but with the Grizzlies and the Nuggets seemingly locked into two of those spots, the rest of this group is really in for a fight.
Dallas will be waiting to take the last playoff if other teams stumble or decide to tank for a better lottery pick. Both Portland and New Orleans are going to be developing young players and letting the chips fall where they may. The Timberwolves, however, have the talent and the motivation to grab that last playoff spot if only that dark cloud of bad luck hanging over this team can disperse for a season and they are due, Minnesota has been waiting a long time to watch postseason action again.
Who do you think takes 6, 7and 8 in the NBA Western Conference and makes the playoffs? Which one of these teams will be first to embrace tanking? Can any of these teams crack the top five in the West? Let us know in the comments below.
Be sure to check out our Ranking of the Top Five NBA Eastern Conference Teams and our Ranking of the NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Hopefuls.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors