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Predicting the NBA’s Western Conference

Basketball Insiders’ writers take a close look at the West and make some predictions.

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Yesterday, several of Basketball Insiders’ writers took a close look at the Eastern Conference and made their predictions. Today, we take a look at the Western Conference and make some picks:

 

Top Point Guard

Lang Greene: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. Listen. Chris Paul has the prototypical approach and Russell Westbrook is more explosive, but at the end of the day Curry should emerge as the Western Conference’s top point guard in 2014-15. Curry can score from anywhere on the floor and has improved his playmaking in recent years. Sky is the limit.

Nate Duncan: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. This might be the toughest call on the board for me, a three-way race between Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Curry was the most valuable last year because he played the most games, and he actually would appear to be less of a health risk than the other two now that he is two years removed from ankle problems. I think he is also the best offensive player of this group because his shooting ability off the pick and roll requires so much defensive attention that it opens things up for others–something that was manifest in the massive difference in the Warriors’ offense when he was on and off the court. Westbrook was amazing in the playoffs, but he is not quite at the level where he basically creates an above-average offense by himself the way Curry does. Paul was probably the best of the group on a per minute basis last year, especially once including his defense, but at age 29 he may start to slow down a bit. Curry is the pick, by a nose.

Jessica Camerato: Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs. Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry garner attention for their flashiness and high scoring ways. Tony Parker, however, takes home top honors for being a winner. What better point guard than one who can lead the team to the title?

Joel Brigham: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers. Energized by new ownership and an even more talented group of teammates, Paul should pretty easily be the Western Conference’s best floor general. He may even garner a respectable handful of MVP votes before it’s all said and done.

Moke Hamilton: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers. There are a select few who critique Chris Paul for his teams’ relative lack of success in the playoffs over the course of his career. Shame on them for not being able to enjoy one of this generation’s best point guards and one of the game’s top floor generals to take the court over the past 20 years. Paul is so clearly the top point guard in the league in my opinion, I put all of about five seconds into selecting him here.

 

Top Shooting Guard

Lang Greene: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Harden has no real interest in defense and if you have him outside of your top 10 that’s likely the reason why. But the man is one of the most prolific scoring forces the league has seen over the past 20 years and he’s just getting started.

Nate Duncan: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Harden has been much-maligned for his defense, and it has been a problem. That said, the videos highlighting his foibles have overemphasized the issue in the public consciousness. Harden is so far beyond any other two-guard offensively that his defense doesn’t dislodge him from a comfortable seat atop this list. The ability to efficiently create shots for oneself and others is the rarest and most important skill in basketball. Harden has it, and that is far more important than his defense.

Jessica Camerato: James Harden, Houston Rockets. Key word here is “shooting,” and there’s no doubting James Harden’s offensive abilities. He is one of the most dangerous players with the ball in his hands. There is no telling how high he can run up the scoreboard on a given night.

Joel Brigham: James Harden, Houston Rockets. There’s not a more versatile scoring guard in the NBA right now. The guy is just deadly from everywhere. He’s so good, in fact, that it doesn’t matter he’s so brutal defensively.

Moke Hamilton: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers. Gordon Hayward might be paid like he’s the best, but I’ve got both Klay Thompson and James Harden ahead of him and agree that an argument can be made for Monta Ellis. But at this point, Kobe Bryant is still the top shooting guard in the conference, in my opinion. In short, that designation is based on the expectation that we have not seen the last of Bryant at his best. We can only hope that to be true.

 

Top Small Forward

Lang Greene: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The only thing left for the reigning league MVP to accomplish is winning his first NBA championship. Durant’s ascent to stardom comes as no surprise, but the true respect will come after he hoists his first Larry O’Brien trophy in the air at season’s end. Will this be the year?

Nate Duncan: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. Next.

Jessica Camerato: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant is right behind LeBron James when it comes to player rankings. James is the best in the NBA at this position, and Durant rules the West. There is no doubting his dominance at small forward and on the court in general.

Joel Brigham: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The reigning MVP is a scoring machine built by the gods on Mount Olympus specifically to assist basketballs into orange netted cylinders. He improved nearly everywhere last year—as a defender, rebounder and distributor—and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be even better this year. How frightening is that? Yes, Kevin Durant could get even better.

Moke Hamilton: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder will not win a championship with Durant unless they manage to find him a low-post force, but that doesn’t mean that Durant isn’t the top small forward in the conference. He is today and may be for the next seven to eight years. What I’m more interested in seeing is whether or not Russell Westbrook ever realizes that in order for the Thunder to be great, he needs to evolve just a little bit.

 

Top Power Forward

Lang Greene: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. Sure there are bigger names you could place here out of respect or if you’re playing it safe, but Davis is on a mission and it’s perfectly fine if you acknowledge it now. Just 21 years old, Davis is already an All-Star, Gold medalist, coming off a 20/10 season and led the league in blocks per game in 2014. Respect now or respect later.

Nate Duncan: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. This comes down to Davis and Blake Griffin. Davis was actually better than Griffin a year ago based solely on his box score stats, but scored very poorly in plus/minus-based systems. I expect that to change this year, if his defense during the World Cup is any indication. Griffin will likely be a superior offensive player, but Davis will probably be a top-three defensive power forward this year, which puts him over the top. Honorable mention to Dirk Nowitzki, who is still a tremendous offensive force but is now a major liability on defense and the boards while playing a lot fewer minutes.

Jessica Camerato: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers. Aldridge will be one of the more intriguing players to watch this season. He established himself as a double-double threat and has the sky-high potential. With Kevin Love playing in the Eastern Conference, expect Aldridge’s performances to shine even more in the West.

Joel Brigham: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers. While plenty of arguments could be made in favor of Blake Griffin here, Aldridge pushed himself into another stratosphere last season by bolstering his defense, improving his rebounding and proving that he can be the team’s primary scoring option (or at least share primary scoring duties with Damian Lillard). The Blazers are great because he’s on the roster; take Griffin out of the picture in L.A. and they don’t lose as much as you think.

Moke Hamilton: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers. I actually had LaMarcus Aldridge here but opted to anoint Blake Griffin after considering that, while Aldridge is probably a better shooter, Griffin has the rare ability to handle the ball and not only create scoring opportunities for himself off of the dribble, but to do the same for his teammates and execute the final pass that leads to the score. Aldridge’s back-to-the-basket game is far superior, making this a tough call, but in the end, I’ll take Griffin, though I do acknowledge that he and Damian Lillard probably couldn’t win 54 games.

 

Top Center

Lang Greene: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings. Cousins either does it for you or he doesn’t, but he is undoubtedly one of the most prolific scoring and rebounding big men in the game today. After spending the last portion of the summer winning a Gold medal with Team USA in Spain, Cousins may be ready to take his game up a level – an All-Star level.

Nate Duncan: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets. Lost in the Rockets’ disappointing loss to Portland was Howard’s monster series. It was the closest he has looked to Orlando Dwight since his back surgery. Howard and Patrick Beverley single-handedly propped up Houston’s defense to acceptable levels during the regular season, and Howard is still a force finishing inside or punishing certain matchups in the post. Tim Duncan is a close runner up in this category, but does not play enough minutes or score quite well enough one-on-one anymore to eclipse Howard. DeMarcus Cousins was actually far above each player based on his box score statistics, but until he improves his defense (essential for a center) and efficiency he won’t be better than Duncan or Howard.

Jessica Camerato: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. It’s time to show ‘em what he’s got. This should be a breakout season for Anthony Davis, who has very quietly emerged as one of the top big men in the league. He has flown under the radar given the New Orleans Pelicans’ record, but expect him to be making plenty of noise.

Joel Brigham: Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets. Still one of the most physically intimidating players in the league, Howard is a defensive powerhouse with more-than-respectable offensive skills. He has dunked and blocked his way into Houston’s hearts, showing that his slow year with the Lakers was just an anomaly.

Moke Hamilton: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies. Dwight Howard probably impacts a game more than Gasol does, but in terms of skill, Gasol has a proven ability to stretch the floor as a center, consistently find teammates, play with his back to the basket, guard multiple front court positions and, of course, make free-throws. If I could only choose one player for my time, I’d take Howard, but if you’re asking me which of those two are the “better” player, overall, I’m taking Gasol.

 

Top Sixth Man

Lang Greene: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. The two-time Sixth Man of the Year award winner is without question one of the league’s best reserves. Expecting anything different for the 2014-15 campaign would simply be foolish.

Nate Duncan: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs. There are a ton of worthy sixth man candidates in the West, including Isaiah Thomas, Ryan Anderson, Reggie Jackson and Draymond Green. Also, watch out for Gorgui Dieng as an emerging bench player if he can build on what he did at the end of last season. But Ginobili has aged exceptionally well and was the best of these players per minute again last year. Note that I did not include Jamal Crawford. He too has aged well, but his defense is horrendous and he takes enough bad shots that he keeps the ball out of the hands of more efficient options for the Clippers when he plays with the starters.

Jessica Camerato: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. Until someone else steps in and yanks this award out of his hands, Crawford continues to be the most reliable sixth man in the game. This is his honor to lose.

Joel Brigham: Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix Suns. It’s hard to gauge how the minutes will play out with Thomas, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe all tussling over playing time at the point guard spot, but there may not be a more potent scoring point guard in the league coming off of someone’s bench. Jamal Crawford and Manu Ginobili will likely be in the conversation here (because they always are), but Thomas is younger and arguably more talented at this point, which is why he gets my vote.

Moke Hamilton: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. If I thought hard enough, I could probably think of one or two guys (like, perhaps, Manu Ginobili) that merit consideration here, but the truth of the matter is that Crawford has made a career out of being a proficient bench-scorer, just like J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks. Crawford also happens to be a two-time Sixth Man of the Year Award winner—the most recent coming last season. Clearly, I’m not the only one that feels this way.

 

Top Head Coach

Lang Greene: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. While Rick Carlisle has done a remarkable job in Dallas over the years, when it comes to Western Conference sideline generals Popovich is at the head of the class – especially coming off another championship season.

Nate Duncan: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. This is his spot until further notice. I’m guessing that is what everyone else wrote too.

Jessica Camerato: Gregg Popovich. The man of few words doesn’t require many to demonstrate his coaching greatness. His championship-winning record speaks for itself.

Joel Brigham: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. Until proven otherwise, he’s impossible to bet against. He’s maybe the only guy in the league with a real balance between actually being a good coach and knowing how to handle a roster of NBA egos. Perhaps more importantly, he also knows how to rest his most valuable players.

Moke Hamilton: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs. Seriously, though, is this something we even have to consider? You do realize that after Popovich, the second-longest tenured Western Conference head coach is Rick Carlise? He took over in 2008—12 years after Popovich. That says all you need to know.

 

Top Executive

Lang Greene: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. The moves aren’t the flashiest. The transactions don’t create mainstream headlines. But the decisions coming out of the Spurs’ front office has kept the franchise relevant even as Father Time has caught up to the core group.

Nate Duncan: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. The West has some very solid front offices, but Buford has managed to assemble a consistent 60-win team and championship contender without anyone who qualifies as a superstar at this point in their career. Most NBA observers believed that was almost impossible.

Jessica Camerato: Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers. Doc Rivers took a stand this summer in the Donald Sterling situation and reaffirmed his commitment to his team and the Los Angeles Clippers community. Rivers has a long-standing reputation as a top coach and in his role with the Clippers, he already has made positive impressions in the front office.

Joel Brigham: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. Usually when a team wins a championship with a lot of soon-to-be free agents, as the Spurs just did, it’s impossible to get everyone to re-sign since inevitably someone will have played himself into a bigger contract elsewhere. Somehow, Buford and Popovich figured out how to keep all the important pieces of this championship squad together despite the recent ring. That, and Buford’s ability to constantly make smart trades and brilliant draft picks, keeps him at the head of the pack in the Western Conference.

Moke Hamilton: R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs. It wouldn’t be fair to give this designation to anyone but R.C. Buford, but you want to know who I considered putting here? Donnie Nelson of the Dallas Mavericks. Nelson has been there with Mark Cuban tearing down and building up team after team, played an integral role in acquiring Dirk Nowitzki and eventually helped construct the 2011 title team that pulled off one of the biggest NBA Finals upsets ever. You have to go with Buford, but Nelson is nipping at his heels.

 

Top Rookie

Lang Greene: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. With all due respect to Julius Randle, who will have a great opportunity to shine in Los Angeles, Wiggins is the most hyped rookie in the class and he has the game to back it up. The question is if he’s assertive enough to bring it each and every night. Minnesota will give him every opportunity to live up to the hype and I believe the young man gets it done.

Nate Duncan: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. I have not been very high on Wiggins’ potential as a superstar, but he should be able to defend (at least individually) right away and should start at one of the wing positions. Nobody else drafted in the West projects as a surefire starter, so he has to be the pick. If the Lakers wise up and develop Julius Randle over their other dead-end frontcourt options, he could emerge as the pick here. Nik Stauskas is another dark horse if he wins the starting shooting guard spot in Sacramento.

Jessica Camerato: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. A top pick who has already been traded? Sounds like chip-on-your-shoulder motivation to me. Wiggins already had the talent, now he has the extra drive since being traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Kevin Love deal.

Joel Brigham: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. There’s zero risk in taking the top overall selection as the best rookie in his conference, but looking at the other candidates this really doesn’t even look close. Wiggins will have the opportunity to develop however Flip Saunders deems necessary on what should be a pretty bad Wolves team, and as we saw last year with Michael Carter-Williams, good players on bad teams put up pretty big numbers.

Moke Hamilton: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. I could easily go with Julius Randle here, but we simply do not know how Byron Scott is going to utilize him or how Carlos Boozer will affect him. Aside from that, Wiggins has two-way NBA talent and will have the opportunity to be “the man” in Minneapolis from day one. Wiggins may be the top rookie, but not necessarily the top sophomore. Stay tuned.

 

 

Top Sophomore

Lang Greene: Trey Burke, Utah Jazz. The Jazz handed the keys to their offense to Burke last season and the guard showed promise. In the season’s final month, Burke averaged 15.6 points and nine assists per game, potentially foreshadowing what’s to come down the road.

Nate Duncan: Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder. This is a four-way race between Adams, Trey Burke, Gorgui Dieng and possibly Rudy Gobert if his summer league and international performances are for real. But Adams is the only one of these players who might actually start for a playoff team. Without any stars in this mix, he is the pick.

Jessica Camerato: Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves. It is always encouraging when a player ends his rookie season on a note as high as Dieng did. The big man quietly recorded back-to-back double-doubles (12 points-20 rebounds, 21 points-14 rebounds) toward the conclusion of his rookie year. How will he kick off his sophomore season?

Joel Brigham: Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves. The overwhelming majority of last year’s best rookies were (and still are) housed in the Eastern Conference, with Dieng only one of two Western Conference players to make either of the NBA All-Rookie teams. Dieng had some huge games in the second half of last season, and with Kevin Love now out of the picture he’ll get plenty of minutes to build on his success.

Moke Hamilton: Trey Burke, Utah Jazz. I absolutely loved what I saw from Trey Burke last season. He has a bright future in this league as a point guard, which makes the drafting of Dante Exum a bit more questionable, but that’s a discussion for another day. Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder may be a close second here, but I’m taking Burke.

 

The Sleeper Team

Lang Greene: Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets are a team to watch in the Western Conference this season. The franchise was derailed by a plethora of injuries last season, but heading into training camp should be in much better shape. There’s plenty of depth and talent in Denver, so keep an eye on this team.

Nate Duncan: New Orleans Pelicans. I stated the Pels’ best case was 53 wins in our season preview (along with my reasoning), and if they stay healthy they can get close to that level. With Anthony Davis and Omer Asik, the defense should be outstanding after ranking in the bottom quartile a season ago.

Jessica Camerato: Portland Trail Blazers. The Portland Trail Blazers were one of the feel-good stories of the playoffs last season. Now is their time to show they are legitimate contenders, not just a look-how-far-they-made-it fluke. Behind Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, that is a very doable mission.

Joel Brigham: New Orleans Pelicans. While it’s true that they play in the toughest division in basketball, the Pelicans are sure to seriously improve on their 34-48 record from a year ago. Anthony Davis is primed to take a huge leap this season as a legitimate MVP candidate, and the addition of Omer Asik gives them arguably the most intimidating defensive front court in the league. The guard corps offers plenty of talent, as well, giving them more than enough of a chance to break through not only as a playoff team this year, but as a team that can do some damage once they actually get there.

Moke Hamilton: Dallas Mavericks. I feel like I’ve been talking about the Mavericks for the past few weeks. My taking them so seriously in the Western Conference assumes that Tyson Chandler simply had a bad season last year and that he will bounce back. It also assumes (much more safely) that Chandler Parsons will mesh with Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki. If this team still had Vince Carter, I would give them a much better chance of doing something special. For now, they have to hope that one of the key cogs of the San Antonio Spurs breaks down. With some good fortune, though, the Mavericks could surprise a lot of people this season if they themselves stay healthy.

 

Who Wins the Conference?

Lang Greene: San Antonio Spurs. As Ric Flair once quipped, “To be the man, you have to beat the man,” and this holds true in the Western Conference. The Spurs are the unquestionable top dogs. The road to the NBA title runs through San Antonio.

Nate Duncan: Oklahoma City Thunder. Given their ages, this projects to be the best combined year for Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Steven Adams should have enough experience to contribute, and Anthony Morrow provides the deadeye shooting they have never had outside of Durant. Almost everyone important on the Spurs aside from Kawhi Leonard will be a year older, and the Clippers still don’t quite have the horses on defense. Despite the Thunder’s assiduous avoidance of the luxury tax and the concomitant cost-cutting over the years, I’ll pick them to come out of the West in a very close race with the Spurs and Clippers.

Jessica Camerato: San Antonio Spurs. The San Antonio Spurs have the fundamental talent and consistency to defend their title. Sure, their veterans will be another year older, but isn’t that what people were saying last season?

Joel Brigham: San Antonio Spurs. Every year I assume their time has come and gone, and every year I’m wrong. I won’t pick against them again until Tim Duncan retires.

Moke Hamilton: Los Angeles Clippers. At some point, the Spurs have to stop being the best, right? This may be the year. The Thunder, obviously, will be there in the end and there are scores of other teams out West that can win it. Choosing one is difficult, but I look at the talent that the Clippers have, the upgrades they have made this offseason, the coach they have patrolling the sidelines, the fresh energy of a new owner and the fact that they were closer to toppling the Thunder last season than the 4-2 series loss lets on and it’s clear that there is a case to be made for the Clippers. Things need to break right and they need to stay healthy but I simply don’t know what more they need to get it done, so they are as safe a choice as anyone, really.

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