By Sam Agnitsch
Opening night has finally arrived. We’ve been painstakingly breaking down the Thunder all summer, roster projections, playoff outlooks, cupcake metaphors, the works. Now let’s take a look into the crystal ball again and see what the future holds for the Western Conference playoff picture. What should teams expect this season? How will the playoff picture unveil itself? Will Sacramento end the postseason drought (no)? Go ahead, indulge.
- San Antonio Spurs (60-22) Now maybe this is a case of sour grapes. It’s quite possible on some Freudian level I’m elevating those sons of ‘Vich’s because of my own angst towards that super team in Oakland…then again maybe not. The Spurs have always been a solid regular season team under genius basketball curmudgeon Gregg Popovich, this season should be no different. There are question marks heading into the season, mainly with the departure of legend Tim Duncan and the addition of Pau Gasol into the front court. Rumblings in the off-season about the overall mood of last year’s big addition Lamarcus Aldridge have some wondering if he’ll still be around before the deadline but barring some serious breakdown, I’d be surprised to see any major moves. Look, we’ve seen this act going on two decades now. The Spurs will be the Spurs and the only way to beat them will be to do just that. With Kawhi Leonard officially taking over “face of franchise” duties you can be sure there won’t be any handouts from this crew. Biggest Concern- Point guard play
- Golden State Warriors (57-25) Wait just a minute Sam, are you trying to tell me that the Warriors, the super best friends of basketball, aren’t going to walk on water all season to an 82-0 record? That’s right, I said it. Despite what you’ve had shoved down your throat all summer from places like ESPN and well basically just ESPN, the Warriors are not perfect. In fact, if you really look at it, they took a large risk essentially breaking up the team to get Durant. Mark my words, this will not be an easy transition for the former champs. There will be an uncomfortable getting to know you period for the squad. Things like reigning in egos, figuring out how to defend the paint and how to counter athletic bigs on the glass are just a few of the major concerns heading into the season. Getting rid of Bogut/Ezeli has forced this team to play small and unless veteran journeyman Zaza Pachulia all of a sudden figures out how to be a rim protector or Javale Mcgee develops a fully functional brain (judging by the rat tail, it’s a hard sell), this team will encounter problems in a conference featuring several high caliber centers (Adams, Jordan, Pau, Boogie). The biggest question to me has got to be how this team responds to adversity. We already know Durant is thin-skinned when it comes to criticism just based off the way he’s handled his own offseason, but what happens when Draymond Green inevitably explodes? Or Klay Thompson stops getting any shine? Or Kevin stops being the guy in late game situations? Even Lebron’s Heat struggled mightily at times in their inaugural season. Bumps will certainly be had along the way, how will this team respond to them? Especially with such massive regular season expectations? Biggest Concern– Rebounding/protecting the rim.
- Los Angeles Clippers (55-27) Seems like we’ve been down this road before with Doc’s Clipper bunch. There’s really no way to sugar coat this, with Chris Paul getting older and his contract situation coming up, this might be the last chance this group has to make a run at the title before the whole thing gets blown up. The good news is the Clips haven’t been this healthy in a long time and with Blake Griffin looking outstanding so far this preseason, this could be the year they assert themselves into that “legitimate contender” group. They are a serious problem to match up with for any team when Doc has all his pieces to play with. Mo Speights was a nice addition to the frontcourt and should provide a floor spacer for the other bigs but this group is and will always be about health. Biggest Concern- Durability
- Oklahoma City Thunder (50-32) Perhaps the biggest question mark of any team in the league, the Thunder head into the season much like Henry Hill leaving the police station after he made bail. Uneasy, nervous, exhilarated, take your pick. The truth is no one knows what to expect outside of Russell’s Tyson-esque fury towards rims and Kyle Singler’s weird haircuts. It’s a unique time to be a Thunderer, which makes it all the more exciting with the crop of youngsters infused into the lineup after KD’s departure. There’s a deeper sense of collectivism with this bunch, Russ of course leading the way, but how that translates to wins and losses remains to be seen. This team is the equivalent of blunt force trauma, between Russ/Oladipo combination attacking the rim and the deep stable of frontcourt bruisers, rest assure subtleties will not be their strong point. After an offseason dissected by virtually everyone (this website included), I think I speak for the world when I say let’s get this thing started already. Biggest Concern-3 point shooting
- Portland Trail Blazers (49-33) The bad news is Portland might possibly have a worse front court situation than Golden State, which says a lot. The good news is the backcourt is brilliant, led by MVP contender Damian Lillard and rising star C.J. McCollum. The flame throwing tandem forces defenses to stay honest outside the arc, with new addition Evan Turner joining the mix alongside underrated resignee Allen Crabbe off the bench. Meyers Leonard still hasn’t panned out like they had hoped but adding former Warrior Festus Ezeli could bolster a frontline that basically just consists of one of those damned Plumlee kids (there’s no way of telling which one). Biggest Concern- Rebounding/Rim Protection
- Memphis Grizzlies (48-34)-Flying in way under the radar, which is honestly how they prefer it, we have the always tough Memphis Grizzlies. Resigning point guard Mike Conley was obviously huge, if for anything else to keep him away from the Spurs, but finally having a healthy Marc Gasol is the real addition here, as evident by the immense drop-off this team suffered without the big Spaniard last season. Also joining the bunch is swingman and medical frequent flyer Chandler Parsons, who when healthy, could add a floor stretching element the Grizz have been lacking for awhile. Round it all off with stalwarts Tony Allen and Zach Randolph and you’ve got that familiar Grizzly toughness with a slightly different offensive flare. Biggest Concern-Outside Shooting
- Utah Jazz (46-36) Every year since basically the 2011 draft, the NBA community has collectively held its breath on when the Jazz were finally going to take that next step in the post-Sloan years, needless to say, we are still waiting. Look there’s no denying the Jazz have amassed some nice talent, especially recently with the likes of Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood, Derrick Favors etc. But is this group ready to come together as a team under Quinn Snyder? The real x-factors that will determine the Jazz playoff picture really depend on the injured. Missing Eagle Scout Gordon Hayward with a finger injury definitely hurts, even if it’s expected to only be a few weeks. Also of note is Aussie phenom Dante Exum’s return from an ACL tear, figuring out George Hill’s role and overall just meshing the young talent with veterans such as Joe Johnson. It’ll be an experiment for sure but if Utah can come close to reconciling its extremely talented roster with actual NBA wins we could see this team jump up in standings significantly. Biggest Concern- Finding a team identity.
- Minnesota Timberwolves (44-38) The T-wolves finally make it back to the postseason to claim the deeply contested 8th Similar to the Jazz in a lot of respects, Minny is overflowing with potential on paper and have a budding superstar in Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins ain’t too shabby for a running mate either. The biggest questions revolve around the continued development of pieces like Zach Lavine, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad but the Intrigue doesn’t end there. With veteran assets like Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic being essentially made obsolete by the growth of Dieng and the addition of ready now point guard Kris Dunn in the draft, things could get real interesting around the trade deadline. If Minnesota can hang around the playoff hunt long enough, they could potentially make some moves to really put them over the hump. Biggest Concerns- Shooting and Consistency
Houston Rockets (43-39) Overrated GM and annoying fantasy basketball manager Daryl Morey really doubled down on this no defense thing, bringing in Mike D’antoni to coach the squad. Defense was basically a light suggestion under his predecessors but with D’antoni it’s practically a basketball slur. Things will get exciting with Harden potentially in the “Big O” triple double race alongside Westbrook but that’s basically it.
Dallas Mavericks (43-39) Cuban is going all-in on Harrison Barnes climbing out from the Warriors shadow and into all-star territory. The Mavs otherwise are just wasting another year of Dirk’s career. They have a tough, hardnosed squad that does many things well, just nothing great. Plus, as sexy as the starting lineup might look on paper, it’s completely betrayed by their mediocre bench.
New Orleans (40-42) The Pelicans seem to be writing the manual on leaving their All-World players on an island. Once again, the brilliance of Anthony Davis will be alone shooting star on an otherwise uneventful team.
Sacramento Kings (30-52) Boogie Cousins. That is all.