Column: RICK SOLEM
The Western Conference is vastly superior to the East, but the top teams don't reside here.
Here's the West from worst to first.
15. Phoenix Suns: As if they weren’t the worst team in the NBA already, they traded Marcin Gortat to the Wizards for a top-12 protected pick and the expiring contract of already-injured Emeka Okafor. Brilliant! This team has a couple of good backup PGs – Eric Bledsoe, who starts at SG, and Goran Dragic, who is actually fun to watch, but inept defensively at times. For some reason, last year, they decided it would be neat to have twins – Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris. Both are about as good as the other. Neither is very good. Miles Plumlee starts at center. He went for 18 and 15 in their opener. Last year he had 13 and 22 ALL SEASON. They may have to bench him if he keeps playing like that. Nobody else on the team is worth talking about. I’ve already written too much.
14. L.A. Lakers: This team has Pau Gasol and a Kobe Bryant coming off a torn Achilles and that is it. The team’s third-best player – barring Bryant returns in any capacity – is Steve Blake. Steve Blake? Steve Nash is no longer “The” Steve Nash. Nick Young is the team’s incumbent SG but won’t be for long. A friend of mine said of Young,"He's like Kobe, except he dribbles more and sucks." Wesley Johnson plays. Shawne Williams is the starting PF. If Kobe comes back, he’s going to shoot 64 times a game and that will be a good thing.
13. Sacramento Kings: Last year was the year of DeMarcus Cousins. Then it wasn’t. So, it’s this year. Maybe. If he doesn’t go crazy. Again. He may just be the league’s MVP. Or he’ll be suspended by the league. Or his coach. But he’s really good. And really crazy. But it’s his team. A team that’s hamstrung by having to pay John Salmons and Marcus Thornton a combined $30 million over the next two years. To offset that, they traded Tyreke Evans for Greivis Vasquez, who was third in the league in assists (9.0) last year. But to un-offset that, they signed Carl Landry for too much and too long (4 years, $27 million). And, odd as it is they signed him, he just creates a three-headed monster at PF and none of them are very good - him, Jason Thompson, Patrick Patterson.
12. Utah Jazz: One of the teams that appears all in on next year’s draft, the Jazz acquired draft picks and terrible players with expiring contracts – like Andris Biedrins $9 million – to help lose games. They drafted Trey Burke to run point. He may already be a bust. They waived goodbye to the Paul Milsap-Al Jefferson era in favor of Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, which may actually be as good a one-two punch. Gordon Hayward is an incredibly underrated SG and very fun to watch. The team will lose games, but don’t be surprised if they don’t. Young players always play hard. This team will play hard and be in games.
11. Denver Nuggets: They lost Andre Iguodala and Kosta Koufos, as funny as it is to put those two players in the same sentence. Iggy was the team’s distributer and best defender on the outside, while Koufos was the most dependable center. So, Denver goes all-in on JaVale McGee. His story has always been about potential and breaking out but this is his seventh year. He is what he is. The oft-injured Wilson Chandler will start at small forward until Danilo Gallinari comes back –if he does - from a torn ACL in April. Ty Lawson is a solid PG and they still have Andre Miller to run point when Lawson goes to SG, which will be needed with Iggy gone. Kenneth Faried is energy at PF, but he’s undersized. He and McGee are not a good frontcourt combo defensively. At SG, this team is in trouble. Right now it’s Randy Foye.
10. Portland Trailblazers: They have three players that are arguably top-three at their position that nobody really knows about in PF LaMarcus Aldridge, SG Nicolas Batum and PG Damian Lillard. The 28-year-old Aldridge quietly goes 20-9-1 (block) every year. Batum is the best “five-tool” player in the NBA. He scores – in, out and from the line - rebounds, dishes, blocks and steals. It still hurts Timberwolves fans, because Minnesota signed him to an offer sheet before last season, but Portland matched. And nobody knows about Lillard yet because he’s young and hiding in Portland, but he’s a special player. Complementing those three is Marquette’s Wesley Matthews, who scores and does little else. Aside from that, the Blazers hope Thomas Robinson, who went fifth in the 2012 draft, can make strides learning from Aldridge, while Robin Lopez mans the center position.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves: Is this the year they’re healthy? Two seasons ago, everyone got a taste of what was to come. Kevin Love-Ricky-Rubio-Nikola Pekovic. It was a beautiful thing, but none of them could stay healthy. Last year, Love broke his hand and barely played. So, this is the year, right? Three years in the making. Minnesota added Kevin Martin to shore up SG the draft never could – thank you David Kahn. Johnny Flynn? They brought back Corey Brewer. Derrick Williams, coming off the bench, still is that No. 2-pick with potential … apparently. Losing Chase Budinger, again, hurts. J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved aren’t awful backup guards, but hardly great.
8. New Orleans Pelicans: This team didn’t get in on the tank-it theme, like so many others, and in the West, that may have been the way to go. Instead, they gave both Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday $44 million each over four years. Combine that with Eric Gordon’s $45 million and Ryan Anderson’s $25 million over the next three seasons and New Orleans is all done shopping. Oddly, Evans and Anderson are coming off the bench, leaving Anthony Davis to start at PF, former Wisconsin Badger Greg Stiemsma to start at center and Al-Farouq Aminu at SF. It’s not a bad lineup, but it just doesn’t feel like it will work.
7. Dallas Mavericks: Every year they make room to sign the big free agent. Every year they lose out. This year, they missed out on Dwight Howard to their neighbors in Houston. Instead, they used that money to sign Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis – two of the most opposite players in the league. They won’t work well together … mainly because nobody works well with Ellis. Calderon is a distributor who can shoot when needed, and a perfect fit for Dirk Nowitzki. Ellis shoots at will, no matter the circumstance and, worse yet, doesn’t do so off screens, but off the dribble. In other words, Calderon is deemed useless with Ellis on the court. Shawn Marion and Vince Carter are still churning away at small forward. Devin Harris was brought back as a backup guard – a good move if (ever) healthy – while Brandan Wright was re-signed to backup Samuel Dalembert, who will probably be injured for stretches - a solid center, but not Dwight.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the game on a team that lacks scoring. Sad as it is, everything really depends on Russell Westbrook coming back. Oddly enough, he took one more shot than Durant last regular season (18.7 to 17.7). Westbrook is rumored to be back in two weeks and if he’s “himself” this team’s ranking jumps. Westbrook is a ball-hogging, shoot-first, pass second (maybe) PG, but he creates an elbow jumper for Serge Ibaka – his only asset of offense aside from dunks - and allows Durant to roam. Right now, Durant has to create with the ball, which makes the other four on the court stand and watch. That only works so long, though nobody else on this team is any good on offense anyway. Kendrick Perkins may as well have 2x4s for arms. Reggie Jackson showed flashes last year, but they’ll only be flashes again this year. Derek Fisher is still on this team (not to mention Perkins, once again. Why?). And Nick Collison backs up the big men, still, but he’s sort of the heart and soul of the Thunder.
5. Memphis Grizzlies: This team is old school and only upgraded on what always seems to almost get to the Finals. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are that impossible combo to guard underneath. Koufos was added as a capable backup. They have that all over the court. Tony Allen plays defense. They added Mike Miller to shoot 3s – the one thing that plagued this team last year. Mike Conley is the league’s best kept secret at PG and Jerryd Bayless scores in bunches to back him up. Their biggest hole is Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter taking turns at SF.
4. Golden State Warriors: This team came from a bit out of nowhere last year, but it really just depended on Stephen Curry being healthy. But they made big changes this year, losing key backups Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. They are moves that are overrated, however, as Harrison Barnes proved he’s ready for major minutes. They brought in Andre Iguodala, who will run the point like Jack did to allow Curry to run free. And he’s infinitely better on defense than Jack or Curry. SG Klay Thompson is one of the three best shooters in the NBA. Andrew Bogut is healthy – for now – and so is David Lee, after an injury hampered him and the Warriors in the playoffs. This will be the most fun team to watch.
3. San Antonio Spurs: Speaking of fun to watch, the Spurs aren't. They’re old, they’re slow, they’re boring, they’re the same-old Spurs. How long can we say that? There’s nothing to talk about with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan. You already know. Complimenting them is Kawhi Leonard, who came to light in the playoffs and will continue to shine. Tiago Splitter is as boring as Duncan, but a capable center. They’re thin up front, as Boris Diaw is still depended upon. And remember Danny Green’s 3-point barrage in the playoffs? He’ll do that from time to time again this year, but the secret is out.
2. L.A. Clippers: They’re probably a backup big man short of being outright unstoppable, but it’s close. Coach Doc Rivers will make a difference on a team already with the best player-coach in Chris Paul. Blake Griffin seems to always get criticized for his lack of a post game, but he always puts up close to 20 and 10 and he’s a very underrated passer. The two-guard is shored up with J.J. Reddick and Jared Dudley and they easily replaced Eric Bledsoe at PG with Darren Collison. And when all else fails, they bring in Jamal Crawford to crossover a couple times then throw up some garbage that somehow goes in.
1. Houston Rockets: They won the “lottery” with Dwight Howard – so we think - and now there are no excuses for the center. James Harden is the best SG in the league, Chandler Parsons may be the most underrated small forward in the West. Nobody likes C Omer Asik but he just takes out all the garbage. Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverly are capable PGs, while Harden handles the ball in crunch time. The question mark here, aside from Howard imploding the team, is a backup big man.