1. San Antonio Spurs (4th in west)
Projected starters: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw.
I expect this season to finally be the year that the Spurs take a step backwards, but I would not be surprised at all if they prove me wrong yet again. It has been incredible watching this team the last two years finishing with a better regular season record than every other team in the western conference despite being much older and less talented than some of the other top teams. The Spurs have just about the same roster as they did last season when they were two wins away from the NBA finals. With the additions that the Lakers and Nuggets made and the Big 3 of the Thunder, it may be difficult for San Antonio to get back to the western conference finals again, but they are on a mission to prove me wrong. Tony Parker continues to be one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA and Tim Duncan is still performing at a high level. The role players know their roles and Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA. This division is not very strong this season and the Spurs should easily win it.
2. Memphis Grizzlies (6th in west)
Projected starters: Mike Conley, Wayne Ellington, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol.
The Grizzlies are looking more and more like the Atlanta Hawks of the last 5 seasons. They have a pretty good roster, but it is no more than that, and they haven’t done anything in the offseason to make it better. They added Jerryd Bayless to back up Mike Conley, but they lost O.J. Mayo, a very good scorer. Without Mayo, Memphis is very weak at the shooting guard position and a combination of Wayne Ellington and Quincy Pondexter will attempt to fill that hole. Memphis still has a pretty good front court with Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol, but none of these players have proven that they can win in the playoffs when it really counts. I am expecting another first round playoff exit from Memphis this year.
3. New Orleans Hornets (10th in west)
Projected starters: Austin Rivers, Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jason Smith.
New Orleans is a team that I think could sneak their way into the playoffs this year if everything goes well for them. By winning the NBA draft lottery in May, the Hornets acquired Anthony Davis, and I don’t think there has been a more experienced 19-year-old in the history of the NBA. As a teenager, Davis has already won a national player of the year award, a national championship, and was a contributor to a USA gold medal team. Wow. In addition to Davis, the Hornets also drafted Austin Rivers, who I think will be a very solid NBA point guard. In free agency, the Hornets made a sign-and-trade for the NBA’s most improved player and former Net Ryan Anderson. He compliments Davis nicely because he is a better shooter and offensive player, while Davis is a better rebounder and defender. New Orleans may be a little weak at center, but they added Robin Lopez to backup Jason Smith. On top of all this, they have a rising superstar in Eric Gordon starting at shooting guard. It will not surprise me at all if he averages 25 ppg this season if he can stay healthy. I don’t think New Orleans quite has enough experience yet to make the playoffs in the western conference, but watch out for them next season and every season after that.
4. Dallas Mavericks (11th in west)
Projected starters: Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Kaman.
After making the playoffs in every year since 2001, a very, very long time, I think this will be the year that Dallas will not earn a playoff birth. After missing out on Deron Williams in the offseason, Dallas was still able to make moves that appear to be good ones now, adding Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman, and Elton Brand. But I don’t really like any of these players. Collison is a below-average NBA starting point guard, Mayo is a Carmelo-like scorer (too many shots, not enough passes), Kaman can put up pretty good numbers, but he has never been on a good team, and Brand is too old to be a real contributor at this point in his career. Their best bench player is Vince Carter, who is way too old to even be a sixth man. I expect Dallas to have a slow beginning to the season, and possibly even explore trading Dirk Nowitzki at the trade deadline. Dirk will surely not like that idea, but it may be best for the organization moving forward. Dallas will be in the playoff hunt for most of the season, but I think they will really crumble down the stretch and finish under .500.
5. Houston Rockets (12th in west)
Projected starters: Jeremy Lin, Kevin Martin, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Omer Asik.
I don’t like the Rockets’ moves at all in the offseason. Their too biggest moves were overpaying both Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, two very unproven players. They also amnestied Luis Scola, who had been one of their best, most consistent players over the last 5 seasons. The Rockets could potentially have a starting lineup of Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Parsons, Patterson, and Asik. Combined, those players have played a total of 391 games total in the NBA, averaging out to about 78 games per player. That means that on average, each starter would have played less than one full NBA season. That does not bode well for Houston. Also, the team will have at least 4 rookies in the rotation, and only one proven veteran in Kevin Martin. Martin has only made the playoffs once in his 8-year career. This will not be an easy season for Houston.