Yes, the Minnesota Timberwolves are very unlikely to take part in April's festivities -- I'll give them a 3 percent chance -- but I'd like to point out that the Kevin Love for Thaddeus Young, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett trade is a short-term wash and a long-term rip off. Maybe Ricky Rubio puts together his best season as a pro, Bennett proves to be a solid reserve, Wiggins proves to be an impact defender immediately while also providing 15-18 points a night, Nikola Pekovic and Gorgui Dieng turn out to be one of the best one-two punches at the 5 in the league and the rest of the squad stays healthy, helping the Wolves reach between 45 and 47 wins.
Crazier things have happened.
That leaves six playoff teams from last year: the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, battling for the next spots. In addition to those six, the New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns will all be in the mix.
I see the Western Conference playoffs shaking out like this:
5. Thunder (a top-tier team that'll have a miserable start and depth issues all year)
Here's why the rest of the contenders will (narrowly) miss the playoffs. Without exception, each of these teams could give a higher seed a run for their money given the right matchup, but somebody has to be out:
After starting the season 24-5, the Blazers were just 30-23 down the stretch. Now, 30-23 is nothing to be ashamed of, but if you take into consideration the fact that even with a ridiculously hot start they only finished six games up on the 9th place Suns, it might be a cause for concern.
As most of the teams in the Western Conference have improved, even if it's just slightly, the Blazers have once again failed to address the depth problems that have hampered them for years. Steve Blake, Chris Kaman, Dorrell Wright, Thomas Robinson and C.J McCollum make up the team's second unit, with Darius Morris also an option. Hmmm. It's a cliche to say that any team is one injury away from falling apart, but in Portland's case, that injury wouldn't have to be to either of its stars.
If Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum or Robin Lopez go down, they're screwed. For a guy like Lopez, who has played 82 games the last two seasons but had never played more than 67 any year before, especially after coming off a season where he averaged a career-high 31.7 minutes a night, his likelihood to get injured is boosted. The same goes for all the other over-worked starters.Terry Stotts has the most stressful job in the West; he has to say things to himself like "okay, if Lopez gets hurt we'll just go to a center rotation of Kaman, Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard." Those three make D-Mo, Joey Dorsey and Tarik Black look like All Stars.
I'm pulling for the Suns. I really am. I hope the best for them, but last year, they snuck up on people. The same thing won't happen this year, and they're pretty much the same team, save from the additions of Isaiah Thomas and two rookies who figure to get little burn and the loss of Channing Frye (although I'd like to add that I love T.J Warren and he should get a shot to play).
Losing Frye is going to be a bigger departure than people may think, as a veteran presence is always a positive thing for a young team. Couple that with the fact that Frye had the ability to play backup minutes at the five on a team that had (and still has) limited interior depth, allowing the second unit to play five-out ball. We know by now that Miles Plumlee is tough but better suited for a backup role and Alex Len's impact will likely be minimal once again. That leaves Anthony Tolliver, who just shoots 3's, to do a decent amount of dirty work inside, and the Morris Brothers to pitch in more. Yeah, Phoenix will have a bunch of badass small-ball lineups, but they can't guard guys like Aldridge and Griffin.
Something tells me that Denver is going to sneak up on people, but I just don't know if it'll be able to find the chemistry and I'm not sure if Brian Shaw is the man for the job (I'm not usually into recycling coaches but I think Rick Adelman would have fun with this team). With 14 FUCKING ROTATIONAL GUYS this team is loaded with options, but will Shaw be able to find the right combinations and utilize his depth efficiently? This team could top out at 55 wins and it wouldn't shock me, but it's just hard to imagine how their unique roster will gel. We know less about Denver than any of the other playoff contenders, so keep your eye on them early in the year, and if they come out swinging, watch the fuck out.
You've seen who I have in the playoffs and you've seen who I have on the outside looking in, so now let's relate this back to the boys in H-Town.
What Sets Houston Apart
Houston has two bona fide NBA stars in James Harden and Dwight Howard, and Daryl Morey has done a solid job of surrounding them with role players who fit both the team's offensive and defensive philosophies, while also making up for their star's deficiencies (Houston could never be a championship-level team if it didn't have two premier defenders surrounding Harden on the perimeter). With those two stars, the Rockets have a leg up on about half the teams in this highly contested conference.
Also, Houston won't have to deal with the same kind of adjustments that they did last year, when Howard first donned the red and white. Yes, the bench has been revamped and will take a little time to gel, but the foundation of this team has already been laid. Teams like Denver and New Orleans will have to integrate so many new players into their respective rotations, most of whom were injured last year, which puts them behind the eight-ball early in the season. In a conference like this, a bad month is going to make all the difference for those last four or five spots.
Houston also has the advantage of being able to attack from both the perimeter and the post. By now we know that the Warriors and Thunder are overly dependent on jump shooting, which leads to streaky play, and Memphis is overly-dependent on interior scoring, making it harder for it to make up for early-game deficits or stretch out leads.
With all that said, Houston needs to prove that it is a top 10 defensive team. I believe the Rockets will take that leap this season, which will make them one of only a handful of teams that will rank in top 10 both offensively and defensively.
Worst matchup: Clippers
The Clippers have just owned the Rockets since the Harden Era began. Last year, LA swept Houston, averaging 116 points a game and winning by an average of 13 points. Maybe this year Houston's ability to defend opposing 4s will improve if Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas take the next step, but that won't alleviate all the problems.
DeAndre Jordan is a monster defensively, which helps the Clips neutralize Dwight Howard, and agile, scrappy guys like Matt Barnes have had some success against James Harden. Also, Jamal Crawford has had some fantastic games against us in the last two years, and our inability to defend a pair of backcourt scorers simultaneously certainly works to LA's advantage (not too many teams throw out top-tier offensive players at both guard positions). I'm not saying that Houston wouldn't stand a chance in a seven-game series, especially since CP3 is to May what Clayton Kershaw is to October, but LA is just a team that it'd be nice to dodge come May.
Best matchup: Golden State Warriors
For whatever reason, the Rockets have been extremely effective against the Warriors since Harden came to town. I'd like to have some expert analysis for you here, explaining why Kevin McHale's offensive scheme has a way of drawing the Warriors' interior defense into confusing situations and Houston's defensive strategy eliminates corner 3s, forcing Golden State's shooters to slide up to the wing, thus ruining its' spacing, but none of that is true (but I bet if I wrote it someone would have believed it).
More than anything else, I think Beverley makes Stephen Curry's ankles shake. I mean, can you blame him? Beverley is constantly throwing his body under risen shooters, not because he's a dirty player, just because he plays with reckless abandon, and when you play with reckless abandon as a guard, you're gonna tear a few MCL's and break a few ankles (not with a crossover though). Even with an improved squad, I'll take Houston in a seven-game set over Golden State.
The Bottom Line
The depth of the Western Conference is absolutely unprecedented. The East sucks more than the Chappelle Show only having two seasons, but it'll improve in the next two or three years, at least to the point where they have six solid squads (Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets,Washington Wizards are already on the right track to joining the LeBrons and the Bulls). With the one-and-done rule in place, the draft has become less of a crapshoot; with the influx of foreign players and the emphasis on international scouting teams have more options than ever; with the improvement in medicine (especially if you spend a summer in Europe for some "alternative" surgery) guys are playing longer; and with a new CBA that's shortened contract lengths, teams have an easier time recovering from bad signings.
All of these things have culminated in what will be the most entertaining story line of the NBA season; who's making the playoffs in the West? I've never seen parity like this among second-tier teams (I only put a healthy OKC, San Antonio, Cleveland, LAC in the elite category -- sorry Bulls fans, you're the ultimate wait-and-see franchise right now), and almost all of them are playing in the same conference.
The West is going to be like John Wesley-Harding, The Sundance Kid, Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp and Robert Ford all in a metal-walled room with unlimited ammo and only a few weak spots in their bulletproof armor, bullets flying off the walls, gun smoke in the air and bloody trigger fingers.
Someone's going to shoot themselves in friendly fire (chemistry issues), someone's going to call for reinforcements (pull off a trade), someone's going to shit their pants (have a down year), someone's going to catch the first bullet (injuries; OKC already did), someone's going to see a side of them they never saw before (young players making the leap) and someone's going to slip the slow knife quietly between the bones (that's just what the Spurs do; but it's also a Dark Knight Rises reference).
Start the games.