Ranking the top five NBA Western Conference teams just got a little harder than usual this season. The Lakers are not going to be in this group at the start of the season and it is worth noting that change all on its own. The Clippers are and don’t expect Lakers fans to be all that happy about it. However, there are more changes than just the rise of the Clippers and the fall of the Lakers. The top five in the West is under renovation.
Every team faces risks and even the best in the West can have their season disrupted by unforeseen circumstances, but these teams are pretty deep and unless they lose a key star player for a significant number of games, they should be able to hold onto solid playoff spot fairly easily.
The Top Five
1. Los Angeles Clippers – 56-26 last season, projected 62-20
The Clippers are better than last season. 28-year-old Jared Dudley is an excellent replacement for last season’s 33-year-old starting small forward Caron Butler, equivalent but younger. J.J. Redick is a big upgrade over the former starting shooting guard Willie Green. Plus, five of the Clippers top six scorers from last season are back, so this team has continuity.
However, the Clippers will win more games because they upgraded their head coach. Doc Rivers has the respect of everyone associated with the NBA. Concerns about being out-coached are gone and if top-flight coaching really does make a difference, adding 10 percent more wins to last season’s total shouldn’t even be a stretch. Look for the best team in Los Angeles to compete for the best record in the NBA again this season.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder – 60-22 last season, projected 58-24
The Thunder are contenders to reach the Western Conference Finals for the third time in four years, however, this season like last season, they are going to face some serious competition.
The team had question marks about their ability to dominate the West after losing James Harden to the Rockets and those questions were compounded by the loss of Kevin Martin to the Timberwolves this summer, however, they will still coast through the regular season fairly easily on the backs of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
This team is still deep and talented and has assets to trade if the young players Steve Adams and Jeremy Lamb are not quite ready for prime time in backup roles. Any slippage from last season will be slight.
3. San Antonio Spurs – 58-24 last season, projected 54-28
One day Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are going to pack it in after long and successful NBA careers. Unfortunately for their Western Conference rivals, that time hasn’t arrived just yet. Neither of these players are going to be better than last season, but this resilient Spurs team that looks a lot like last year’s NBA Finalist has to be the favorite to win their division once again. They are the team no one wants to meet in the playoffs.
The only reason to project fewer wins than last season is the Spurs best players are getting older. Father-time catches up to everyone eventually.
4. Houston Rockets – 45-37 last season, projected 54-28
The Rockets have joined the list of serious contenders to advance to the Western Conference Finals because they won the Dwight Howard sweepstakes. Two bona fide big-time All-Star players has been the formula to contend in the NBA and the combination of Harden and Howard is as legit as it comes.
Last season Howard played with a bad back in bad situation and he still led the league in rebounding and was fifth in blocks. Assume Howard will arrive in Houston with something to prove.
Houston still has a situation to sort out with Omer Asik as last year’s starting center is not a power forward, but Asik is a very tradable asset, so this problem is not a bad problem to have.
5. Golden State Warriors – 47-35 last season, projected 51-31
No one is going to mistake the Golden State Warriors for a defensive juggernaut, but last season Head Coach Mark Jackson got a decidedly better effort on defense out of his offensive-minded players and the Warriors won 24 more games than the year before and got to the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
The Warriors defense just took a huge step forward with this summer’s acquisition of Andre Iguodala. Jackson will be able to pair Iguodala on the wing with either Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson and give opposing offenses a look this team hasn’t been able to show for years.
Andrew Bogut looks like he will be ready to start the season and re-create his big defensive presence from last season’s playoff run and Jermaine O’Neal can help out defensively as long as Jackson doesn’t have to rely on him for big minutes.
The only obvious risk in Golden State is how well Stephen Curry’s ankles hold up and he only missed 4 regular season games last year.
Risks and Obstacles
The top five teams in the West are all deep enough to deal with reasonable injury risks and still compete for home court in the first round of the playoffs and aside from the Memphis Grizzlies, it would be a surprise if any of the other teams in the Western Conference were able to bump them into the sixth spot or lower. However, each team faces the real possibility that key players will miss games to known injury concerns and if this happens at the wrong time, their regular season standing will be affected.
Anyone in our top five could end up first in the West if the breaks go their way, however, pushing the Clippers and the Thunder out of the way is probably too big a hill to climb.
Who do you think will put forth the effort it takes to be first in the NBA Western Conference at the end of the season? Which one of these teams do you think gives up home court in the first round of the playoffs? Can any other team crack the top five in the West? Let us know in the comments below.
The muddled middle of teams competing for a playoff spot at 6, 7 and 8 will be available for discussion soon.
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