Last season the Golden State Warriors were invigorated by a new head coach and ran circles around the rest of the NBA, culminating with the franchise’s first title.
Other Western Conference powers are looking to follow the same script this season.
The Oklahoma City Thunder missed the playoffs last season largely due to injuries to Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Both players are healthy this year and new coach Billy Donovan has come in to inject some rhythm and movement into an offense that too often grew stagnant under Scott Brooks.
The San Antonio Spurs made an uncharacteristically big splash in free agency by adding LaMarcus Aldridge, the Los Angeles Clippers fortified an awful bench with Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith and Paul Pierce and the Houston Rockets hope they’ve finally found a point guard to take some of the pressure off of James Harden.
But with Durant back healthy and looking like his devastating old self in the preseason, Russell Westbrook coming off of a career year and Donovan bringing a fresh new perspective, it could finally be the Thunder’s year.
Of course, count the defending champions — and about four other teams in this loaded conference — out at your own peril.
A look at the West:
1. Golden State — Warriors won 67 games last year, dominated on both ends of the floor and return everyone. Going any place else for the West favorite is overthinking it.
2. Oklahoma City — The duo of Westbrook and Durant is as dynamic as any one-two punch in the league. Enes Kanter provides another scoring option in the paint, but the Thunder will have to show they’re deep enough to get through the rugged West.
3. San Antonio — Not only did Aldridge come along, but veteran David West took a pay cut of around $11 million to join up in search of his first championship.
4. Houston — If Ty Lawson can put his alcohol troubles behind him, James Harden and Co. should be right in the mix again in June.
5. Los Angeles Clippers — Arguably as much talent from top to bottom of any roster in the league.
6. Memphis — The inability to land some quality perimeter shooting in the offseason may be this team’s undoing.
7. New Orleans — Anthony Davis got his first taste of playoff basketball last season, and the future face of the league is ready for more.
8. Utah — Coach Quin Snyder and GM Dennis Lindsey have put together a defensive monster and Gordon Hayward seems poised for a breakout year.
IN THE MIX:
9. Dallas — If the banged-up Mavericks somehow make the playoffs head athletic trainer Casey Smith would be a candidate for MVP.
10. Sacramento — Could stay relevant in the playoff picture for most of the season. Could implode before January with the volatile mix of coach George Karl, center DeMarcus Cousins and point guard Rajon Rondo.
FACING LONG ODDS:
11. Phoenix — Just a weird vibe surrounding this team. Disappointed last year, Markieff Morris popped off during the summer and a lot of faith being placed in Tyson Chandler to stabilize things.
12. Minnesota — A promising young core that includes Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns is probably a year away from playoff contention.
13. Portland — When Aldridge left for San Antonio, GM Neil Olshey deftly went into rebuilding mode.
14. Los Angeles Lakers — Kobe Bryant is banged up again. Without him, the Lakers are a group of unproven youngsters and erratic shooters surrounding reclamation project Roy Hibbert.
15. Denver — PG Emmanuel Mudiay’s talent is undeniable. But he’s going to make plenty of mistakes, and the Nuggets will have to endure the bumps in the road while learns on the job.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Durant Sweepstakes: The OKC star will be a free agent after this season and the Thunder are going for broke to keep him around while the sharks circle.
Parker’s Progress: The Spurs landed the big fish in free agency, but their best chance to compete for a sixth title is getting PG Tony Parker back to his playmaking self after a down season last year.
Clippers Chemistry: While the DeAndre Jordan passion play unfolded, there were whispers that he was unhappy with his role in the offense and the demanding leadership of Chris Paul. The combustible team will have to tone down the theatrics to survive such a long and grueling season.
Old Man KG: Kevin Garnett isn’t Da Kid anymore. He’s a 39-year-old about to become the third player in league history to play a 21st NBA season and is the mentor for the young Timberwolves.
MVP Pick: Durant and Westbrook could split the OKC vote. Curry will find it harder to get the votes for a second award than his first. If Anthony Davis can elevate the Pelicans into the top six or so in the West, he could grab his first of many.
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