For years, the NBA’s Western Conference race has been a battlefield, contenders lobbing grenades at contenders, powerhouses flexing muscles in places where Eastern Conferences teams don’t even have places.
That won’t change this season.
If anything, the West has grown stronger, with some favorites standing pretty much pat (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Portland, Memphis), others adding major pieces (the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston, Dallas, Phoenix) and young teams growing up (Golden State, New Orleans).
It’s never wise to count out the Spurs, and they’ll be a team to reckon with as always, gunning for their second straight NBA championship and their fifth since 1999. Gregg Popovich always regards the race to the playoffs as a marathon, not a sprint, and he’ll be mindful again of minutes played to his terrific trio of future Hall-of-Famers Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
Once they hit the playoffs, the Spurs are usually rested and in full stride. And once they get there, they mean business. Since 1999, they have advanced to the NBA finals six times and gone on to win the title five times, losing only in 2013 — in seven games to Miami after the Heat’s Ray Allen led a sensational last-minute comeback to steal Game 6.
Again, there will be boatloads of competition, enough so that as many as 11 teams in the West could finish with winning records in the regular season.
Owner Donald Sterling is out of the picture in Los Angeles, and the Clippers will be running full force in their second season under coach Doc Rivers, adding Spencer Hawes and Jordan Farmar to a bench that already included last year’s Sixth Man Award winner, Jamaal Crawford.
Golden State is equipped for a serious run under new coach Steve Kerr, its terrific young backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson leading the way.
Portland kept intact its youthful, talented starting five that features All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, and Houston, Memphis, Phoenix and Dallas are teams that could approach or surpass the 50-win mark.
Then there is Oklahoma City, treading water until Kevin Durant returns following foot surgery that will keep him out of action for at least the first month of play. If the Thunder can stay afloat until Durant’s return, they’ll be a factor once the postseason hits.
A look at how the Western Conference regular-season race will shake down this season, with predicted record in parenthesis:
1. PORTLAND (52-30). Trail Blazers have added veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to bolster a weak bench in support of one of the best starting units in the NBA. Predicted record: 52-30.
2. OKLAHOMA CITY (49-33). The onus is on Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and crew to hold fort until Durant gets back into rhythm. 49-33.
3. DENVER (39-43). The Nuggets were besieged by injuries last season, but even with Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried and Javale McGee, they won’t be good enough to make the postseason.
4. MINNESOTA (34-48). Kevin Love is gone, and the Timberwolves will be overmatched in the stocked West many nights as Flip Saunders re-takes the coaching helm.
5. UTAH (28-54). The Jazz were impressive in the preseason under first-year coach Quin Snyder, but the roster is simply not strong enough to make a dent in the playoff picture.
1. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (55-27). The Clipper lineup, one through nine, is as talented as any in the league.
2. GOLDEN STATE (53-29). Andrew Bogut’s health and defensive influence will be a critical factor as the Warriors try to take another step toward a title run.
3. PHOENIX (47-35). With Isaiah Thomas, Eric Bledsoe and the Dragic brothers, Goran and Zoran, the Suns have one of the deepest backcourts in the league.
4. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (36-46). Even with a healthy Kobe Bryant, the Lakers will be also-rans again.
5. SACRAMENTO (20-62). Even with DeMarcus Cousins posting large numbers, the Kings will again be in the sad-sack category.
1. SAN ANTONIO (53-29). The Spurs will lose more games than they did a year ago, but rested and proven, are poised for a long playoff run again.
2. HOUSTON (50-32). The Rockets lost Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, but Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry qualify as capable replacements.
3. MEMPHIS (48-34). The oft-underestimated Grizzlies have a core that includes Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley and should be dangerous in the playoffs.
4. DALLAS (46-36). The Mavericks are old enough to field a killer 30-and-over team, but coach Rick Carlisle will steer them to another successful campaign.
5. NEW ORLEANS (42-40). The Pelicans, behind emerging star Anthony Davis, are on the come but will still finish last in the strongest division in the NBA.
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