1. Oklahoma City Thunder (1st in west)
Projected starters: Russell Westbrook, Thabo Sefolosha (James Harden), Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins.
I don’t know if the Thunder will be able to repeat as western conference champions this season with the Lakers’ offseason additions, but I do think that they will have a better regular season record than LA. OKC didn’t lose any pieces from their team last season. In fact they were able to add Perry Jones III with a late first round pick. At one point, he was considered a top-5 pick, if not the #1 overall pick. Also, Durant, Westbrook, Harden, and Ibaka are all a year older and have more experience from all playing in the Olympics. This team should compete with Miami for having the best record in the NBA, and I think the Thunder might even have the edge.
2. Denver Nuggets (3rd in west)
Projected starters: Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee.
I really, really like the offseason moves from the Denver Nuggets. Andre Iguodala is a pretty good upgrade over Aaron Afflalo because Iguodala can be “the guy” on teams, while Afflalo was just a very good role player. The move is great because one thing the Nuggets were lacking last season was one player who can take the last second shot and know how to be a star. Iguodala has these abilities and has a lot of experience from his years in Philadelphia. Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri did a great job of finding very athletic players who can tire out their opponents and he has built an excellent basketball team. The Nuggets are also one of the deepest teams in the west with Wilson Chandler, Andre Miller, and intriguing rookie Evan Fournier coming off the bench. Denver will surprise some people this year and they are my dark horse team to make an NBA finals run. Since the Carmelo Anthony trade, in my opinion, Denver has been the best run team in the NBA.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves (7th in west)
Projected starters: Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy, Chase Budinger, Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic.
I think that the Minnesota Timberwolves will finally have their breakthrough season and make the playoffs for the first time since 2004, which is an eternity in the NBA. As long as Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio stay healthy for the whole season, I see no reason why the Timberwolves should not make the playoffs in the top-heavy western conference. In the offseason, Minnesota added recently un-retired superstar Brandon Roy, along with quality role player Chase Budinger. Additionally, Derrick Williams will have had another year to develop and Nikola Pekovic is turning into an above-average NBA center. If the Timberwolves can get to 43 or 44 wins, which I think they can do, expect them to be in the playoffs.
4. Utah Jazz (8th in west)
Projected starters: Mo Williams, Gordon Hayward, Marvin Williams, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson.
In the offseason, Utah added Mo and Marvin Williams and lost Devin Harris. Mo Williams is an average starting point guard and should play a similar role to Harris’s last season. One player to look out for on Utah is second year guard Alec Burks. This may be a breakout year for him. Watch out. One problem with Utah is their logjam at the power forward/center position. They have three players who want to start at two positions. The player left out of a starting role right now is third year player and former Net Derrick Favors. Favors has said that he wants to start this season, and if the Jazz refuse to do this he may begin causing some problems in the locker room. I don’t think the Jazz want to trade Favors, and instead would rather trade either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Expect one of them to be moved before the trade deadline.
5. Portland Trail Blazers (14th in west)
Projected starters: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Meyers Leonard.
Even though 6th overall pick Damian Lillard has looked very good in the summer league, I am expecting very little from Portland this season. Before I say anything else, I would like to say that the Gerald Wallace trade worked out very well for both the Nets and the Blazers. The Nets would not have wanted their lottery pick this season because they want to win now and Portland would have probably lost Gerald Wallace in free agency had they not traded him. Now on to the Blazers’ roster. Aside from LaMarcus Aldridge, this team is a mess. In the offseason, they re-signed Nicolas Batum to a 4 year/$46 million contract, which really didn’t make a lot of sense. That is more than the Nets payed Gerald Wallace! Also, I really don’t like Meyers Leonard, who Portland selected with the 11th pick in the draft. And backing him up is former Net Dan Gadzuric, so there is almost no assurance if anything goes wrong with Leonard. Unless Lillard can play out of his mind, this will be a long season in Portland.