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Sorting Out the Top of the NBA’s Western Conference

The 2015 NBA offseason was a rather wild one, including major free agent moves, most notably LaMarcus Aldridge’s departure from Portland to sign with the San Antonio Spurs, and trades, such as Ty Lawson being dealt from Denver to the Houston Rockets. After the dust settled, four teams seem to be at the top of the conference; the Spurs, Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, and defending champion Golden State Warriors.

Among these four teams, who is the best of the bunch? And what other teams in the conference can catch them, if any?

Ranking the four teams should settle the question;

 

1. Golden State Warriors

Photo via: wagesofwins.com
Photo via: wagesofwins.com

The Warriors are the clear cut favorites in the West here. After winning the NBA title, they kept their entire nucleus intact. Their only major moves included drafting Kevon Looney, trading David Lee for Gerald Wallace, and flipping Wallace for Jason Thompson. Despite common belief, this is an upgrade – Lee is old and cannot play a lick of defense, while Thompson is a solid all-around player who, along with the other Sacramento Kings’ starters from last year, formed one of the best five-man lineups in the NBA last season (no, seriously, they did!)

Most importantly, the Warriors still employ Stephen Curry, who just won the MVP award last season and will look to do that once again. Along with the likes of Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, and Andre Iguodala (among others), the Warriors show no signs of slowing down this season. Barring serious injury to a key player, the Warriors should have the best team in the NBA again and should be considered the favorite to repeat as champions until someone proves them otherwise.

 

 

2. Houston Rockets

photo via www.theairgottoit.com
photo via http://www.theairgottoit.com

The Rockets were the number two seed in the West last year despite being bombarded with injuries to nearly every key player other than James Harden. Dwight Howard missed significant time throughout the season, while Patrick Beverley’s thumb injury later in the year required season-ending surgery, and he missed the playoffs. Forward Donatas Motiejunas also missed extended time, and it saw the Rockets playing a rotation not projected to play as much towards the end of last season.

Despite that, they were still able to complete a legendary comeback against the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series. Though they were curb-stomped in the Western Conference Finals by Golden State, they showed they were the second best team in the conference. And that team is only improved this year.

The main addition is obviously Ty Lawson. When he is engaged on the court and staying out of trouble off of it, Lawson is one of the best point guards in the league. His move to a true contender should revitalize him and allow him to form one of the best 1-2-3 punches in the league alongside Harden and Howard.

They also have a great supporting cast around their new Big 3. Trevor Ariza and Terrence Jones are great role players to fit in their starting lineup, and guys like Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer, Marcus Thornton, and first round pick Sam Dekker should provide a strong bench as well.

Their weakness is up front; beyond Howard, their depth in the middle is concerning. Donatas Motiejunas is a nice role player, Montrezl Harrell has potential, and Clint Capela has shown flashes of defensive prowess, but they will struggle up there if Howard goes down with another injury. Nonetheless, Houston has a fantastic base for their roster, and should put up a much better fight with Golden State this season if they meet again in the conference finals.

 

3. Los Angeles Clippers

photo via: businessinsiders.com
photo via: businessinsiders.com

Sensing a trend here? The Clippers finished third in the West last season, and I expect the same from there here. They, too, return the same core from last season with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan (whom they thought was signing with Dallas for five days before a change of heart saw him return to the Clippers).

Their major upgrades came along the fringes of their core. They upgraded their small forward position by swapping out Matt Barnes (who is very underrated, by the way, and will be a big contributor in Memphis this season) and signing Paul Pierce, he of the many clutch shots in the playoffs with the Wizards this past season. Pierce and J.J. Redick are the perfect complements in the starting lineup alongside Paul, Griffin, and Jordan. They also picked up Wesley Johnson on a one year deal, who was a surprisingly efficient wing for the lowly Lakers last season.

On the bench, they upgraded on the wings by trading for Lance Stephenson. Stephenson struggled mightily in Charlotte last season, and there are fit concerns with him playing alongside Jamal Crawford off of the bench, but I believe Doc Rivers will figure out how to utilize Stephenson properly. They may still look to move Crawford, but that is a matter for another day.

They also should have come capable backups for Griffin and Jordan; after laughably watching Big Baby Davis and Spencer Hawes struggle, both are gone. In are Josh Smith, who had a good run with Houston last year, and Cole Aldrich, a solid-yet-unspectacular backup.

All in all, the Clippers should have another fantastic team this season. They are led by the best point guard in the NBA and he has the best supporting cast he’s ever had. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it will be enough to get past a healthy Golden State or Houston squad.

 

4. San Antonio Spurs

Photo via Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Photo via Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

“What? The Spurs at fourth? Are you serious?”

Yup, dead serious. The mighty San Antonio Spurs, after their incredible offseason, will be the worst of the Western Conference’s elite (still elite, just not as good as the other three).

Why, might you ask?

Well, they had two really good moves this summer – re-signing Danny Green to a four year contract worth $11 million dollars a year, and tabbing David West for the veteran’s minimum. Wesley Mathews, who is a similar caliber player and is coming off an Achilles injury, signed for $17.5 million per year with Dallas. Meanwhile, West sacrificed a $12 million option with Indiana to join a contender. Green and West probably the bargains of the summer. They also locked up Kawhi Leonard to a long-term max extension, a good deal, but it was inevitable.

Unlike most people, however, I did not love the signing of LaMarcus Aldridge as much as many other people did. Of course, he is a great player, but the Spurs sacrificed A LOT of depth to get him – Tiago Splitter, Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes, and Marco Bellinelli all are on different rosters now. Sure, they were replaced with players like West and Ray McCallum, but those are downgrades.

I also believe the addition of Aldridge will be less of a “this guy just improves the team so much” addition and more of a “just distributes shots around differently, taking some away from other really good players” signing. He is not very efficient, shooting 46% from the field last season, and his defense is not at the level of Tiago Splitter either. He is a much better scorer and passer than Splitter, but did they really need to sacrifice all that depth to get him? I’m not so sure.

Their biggest advantage, as always, is Gregg Popovich. He is among the best coaches in league history and should be able to find some combination that works for the Spurs. I just don’t think their Alridge signing will be as big of a success as many are making it out to be. The Spurs will still be a great team, and could very well win the title; I just believe they won’t be on the level of Golden State, Houston, or Los Angeles this year.

 

Other Playoff Teams: Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz

The Thunder have the best chance to challenge for a top four spot in the West among this group now that Kevin Durant is back and healthy*. It will be interesting to see how Durant and  Russell Westbrook mesh this year after Westbrook and his barrage of triple doubles took the NBA by storm with Durant on the sideline.

The Pelicans should be improved as Anthony Davis matures another year. He will alone propel this team to the playoffs; however, their supporting cast should be better this year with another season together.

Memphis will not be any worse than last season, but they will not be much better either; the addition of Matt Barnes helps, but San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans all could easily pass Memphis in the standings, leaving them at the bottom of the West.

Utah is a young, up-and-coming team that took off after dealing Enes Kanter to the Thunder and inserting Rudy Gobert and Dante Exum into the starting lineup. Unfortunately, Exum will miss the season after tearing his ACL, a devastating blow to the Jazz. However, with Gobert manning the middle and Gordon Hayward flanking him on the perimeter, the Jazz finally will return to the playoffs for the first time in the post-Deron Williams era.

 

 

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