In the Western Conference, there are six locks to make the playoffs barring serious injury: Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors. Most people will agree that those are the six best teams in the West and I believe that they’ll be head and shoulders above the competition. Meanwhile, most people agree that the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz will be near the bottom of the Conference, while the Dallas Mavericks will have to fight a serious uphill battle just to make it into the conversation.
While the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets still might make a run at April’s festivities, I believe that there are three wild cards that can really make some noise out West. Here they are, in order of most probable to least probable:
If the Wolves are completely healthy, they’ll be the most exciting team to watch next season. In the offseason, they were able to beef up their wing positions, signing both Kevin Martin and Corey Brewer, while also drafting Shabazz Muhammad in the first round. It appears as though Nikola Pekovic will probably stay in Minnesota because there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for him and if he does, the Wolves will be an even more dynamic force.
Unlike prior years, the Wolves have a boatload of depth heading into next season. Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Kevin Love and Pekovic look like they’ll be the starters, although the 3-spot is open for competition. Then, J.J. Barea will backup Rubio and will serve as the leader of what’s going to be a very talented second unit. Alexey Shved and Chase Budinger will provide depth at the wing positions and if something happens to those two, Muhammed will be waiting either in the D-League or the end of the bench. In the frontcourt, Dante Cunningham and Derrick Williams will spell Love and Pekovic, giving Minnesota the a lot of flexibility in their rotation.
This is going to be a make-or-break year for both Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio. If the two youngsters can play 82 games and be at the top of their games, they will emerge as a dynamic duo reminiscent of Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire. However, if both struggle to stay on the floor because of injuries, they’ll be labeled “fragile” or “overrated,” and those are just the PG (parental guidance, not point guard) labels. The story for the whole season will be if these two can stay healthy. If they can’t, the team will struggle. If they can, then they’ll be a lot of fun to watch and not too much fun to play against.
Kevin Martin should fill it up at the 2-spot, while Corey Brewer should emerge as the team’s defensive stopper. Shved will likely be a little more comfortable in his second NBA season, as his energy and charisma are perfect for a backup role. Dante Cunningham plays his heart out and he never seems to do anything that makes him look too bad, although his lack of size at 6’8” strangles his game with limitations.
After a season in purgatory due to all the injuries, the team could break out and start to play head-to-head with West’s elite if everyone stays healthy.
Portland Trail Blazers
With Damian Lillard a year older and the bench sporting at least four NBA players, the Trail Blazers could emerge as one of the upstart teams in the West. Last season, the Blazers had the worst bench that I’d ever seen; their leading scorer off the bench, Meyers Leonard, averaged 5.5 points per game and also led bench players in minutes with 17.5 per game (not including Eric Maynor, who they traded for in February). Outside of Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and J.J Hickson, the Blazers had absolutely no one last season. Somehow, the team was able to stay near .500 almost the entire year before losing their last 13 games of the season.
LaMarcus Aldridge has proven to everyone what he is and there’s no question that he’s a premier player in this league. However, he isn’t a clutch shooter and that’s where Lillard comes in. Lillard has the potential to be the next great point guard and he plays light years ahead of his age. Although Kyrie Irving has earned considerably more praise from the media, I would take Lillard over Irving at this point. In his first NBA season, Lillard played the most minutes in the league and didn’t miss a game, unlike Irving, and Lillard combined leadership with success, also unlike Irving. The Blazers handed their team to Damian Lillard and he took the reigns right away; you’ve got to love a kid who can do that.
This year, the Blazers’ starting lineup will be pretty much the same, except Robin Lopez will replace J.J. Hickson (which means similar statistical output from their center position, but now a lot more hair). Coming off their bench, rookie combo guard C.J. McCollum could press Wesley Matthews for minutes early and often. Around the draft, the Blazers traded for second-year big man Thomas Robinson, who could be a nice match next to Aldridge in smaller lineups. Portland also brought in veteran point guard Mo Williams to help spell Lillard and Dorell Wright, who is a serviceable, solid-shooting wing. In the frontcourt, the team is hoping Meyers Leonard can step it up and if he doesn’t, he’ll probably still see minutes because they have no one else inside (you couldn’t expect them to fill all the holes in that bench, could you?).
This season will prove if a foundation of Lillard, Aldridge and Batum can work. Batum’s probably never going to be a consistent player and no one really knows why, but Aldridge and Lillard could become the premier tandem Portland has been looking for since Rasheed Wallace and that amazing nine-man rotation blew that Game 7 lead against the Lakers (it still haunts me … and I’m sure every Blazers fan, too).
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are by far the biggest long shot to make the playoffs here, but it isn’t impossible; they just need a lot of things to go right for them. Here are the variables for the team in order of most likely to least likely:
Anthony Davis begins to assert himself as a premier defender and a 16-18 point per game scorer. Davis is supremely talented, but failed to wow the world in his first season in the NBA. If Davis comes into camp with more meat on his bones, a more polished post game and more confidence with his jumper, the Pelicans will see immediate improvement on both ends of the court. Davis is poised for superstardom, but it’s unclear what kind of leap he will make from his rookie to sophomore seasons; the bigger the leap, the better the team.
Tyreke Evans starts looking like the guy who averaged 20/5/5 in his rookie season. No one knows what to expect out of the enigmatic Evans, but there’s no denying that he has a lot of talent. There’s a chance that he never improves his outside shooting and can never be a solid wing, as he played mostly point guard in his rookie campaign. Playing alongside his former AAU teammates and under a strict coach should help him, but there’s no guarantee that either of those things will. New Orleans invested a lot of money in Evans, but was there monetary leap of faith enough to force Evans to reevaluate his game? Only time will tell.
Eric Gordon stays healthy for more than 75 games and averages more than 20 points a game. Gordon is still only 24 years old, so there’s still a chance that he sheds the “fragile” label and becomes a productive player in this league. There’s no denying that he can fill it up from outside when he’s fully healthy, but that’s one of this biggest “ifs” of this season. Like Evans, playing with his old AAU buddies could provide some sort of solace for the youngster, although their impact is useless if he’s playing on bum knees.
Austin Rivers emerges as a solid combo guard and the best player on the Pelicans’ bench. Last year was downright disastrous for Doc’s son, as the former 10th overall pick topped 15 points just once all of last year (you knew it was bad, but not that bad, right?). To make matters worse, Rivers made it abundantly clear that he’s not a point guard, while also appearing to be too small to body up against the NBA’s average-sized shooting guards. I was never on the Austin Rivers bandwagon and after last year, it’s hard to believe this guy is going to be anything more than Doc’s son five years down the line. Maybe he’ll prove me wrong; the Pelicans are hoping that he does.
Tags: Anthony Davis Austin Rivers Chase Budinger Damian Lillard Derrick Williams Eric Gordon Jrue Holiday Kevin Love Kevin Martin Lamarcus Aldridge Minnesota Timberwolves New Orleans Pelicans Nikola Pekovic Portland Trail Blazers Ricky Rubio