- There will be three races in each NBA conference this season, and each of them will be highly competitive. The first is at the top, where a handful of teams have loaded up to try to unseat the Miami Heat as champions. Then there's a battle for the last two or three playoff spots in each conference, which figures to be more crowded than usual too. And, yes, there are a couple of teams in each conference fighting primarily to improve their chances in next year's loaded draft lottery.
- While a handful of useful free agents remain unsigned, for the most part we know what teams will look like next season. That makes it time to take a tentative, early look at how each conference shapes up. Today I'll look at the Western Conference, and Thursday Tom Haberstroh will follow up by ranking the East.
- 1. Oklahoma City Thunder (2012-13 finish: 1st place)
- There are questions to be answered in Oklahoma City, specifically how the Thunder will replace Kevin Martin's scoring punch off the bench. Is Jeremy Lamb ready to step into that role after winning MVP of the Orlando Pro Summer League? Can Reggie Jackson pitch in after starting in place of Russell Westbrook in last season's playoffs? And might Mike Miller help provide an answer?
- Assuming Scott Brooks can figure that out, the Thunder return the rest of a rotation that had the NBA's best point differential last season (+9.2 PPG), making Oklahoma City the slight favorites in the West.
- 2. San Antonio Spurs (2012-13 finish: 2nd)
- The Spurs' offseason has been relatively quiet. They re-signed Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter and used their midlevel exception to sign Marco Belinelli as a replacement for Gary Neal and Jeff Pendergraph to be their fifth big man.
- The age of Ginobili and star Tim Duncan is certainly a concern. Nevertheless, doubt San Antonio at your peril. The Spurs have proved as much with year after year of consistent success.
- 3. Houston Rockets (2012-13 finish: 8th)
- Having added Dwight Howard -- unquestionably the best center in the league as recently as two years ago -- without surrendering any key pieces, the Rockets are clearly the biggest movers in the West. Howard and James Harden give Houston a core that can compete with anyone.
- There are still some issues around the edges, particularly at power forward. Kevin McHale will have to determine whether Omer Asik can play with Howard or if youngsters Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas are ready to step into larger roles. If they prove capable, the Rockets could move even higher.
- 4. Los Angeles Clippers (2012-13 finish: 4th)
- By upgrading their wing rotation -- trading Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler for J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley -- the Clippers have substantially improved their starting lineup. Signing Darren Collison and bringing back Matt Barnes has also mitigated some of the loss to their second unit. And Doc Rivers for Vinny Del Negro could prove a crucial upgrade come playoff time.
- Yet the Clippers may not have moved up at all in the West because the other contenders also have loaded up. L.A. can enhance its spot by adding another option up front off the bench to go with Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens.
- 5. Memphis Grizzlies (2012-13 finish: 5th)
- The biggest change in Memphis is on the sideline, where Dave Joerger was promoted to replace Lionel Hollins. The Grizzlies balanced their frontcourt better by swapping Darrell Arthur for Kosta Koufos, but otherwise bring back last year's rotation with the same strengths (post play, defense) and weaknesses (shooting). Signing Mike Miller could help Memphis space the floor.
- 6. Golden State Warriors (2012-13 finish: 6th)
- Where you stand on the Warriors depends in large part on how much you believe their playoff run will translate. If Andrew Bogut can stay healthy and Golden State's young players maintain their improvement, the Warriors could make it six contenders in the West.
- f Bogut misses extended periods and Harrison Barnes plays more like he did during the regular season, adding Andre Iguodala may not be enough improvement for a team that had the conference's eighth-best point differential (+0.9 PPG) and lost two key reserves (Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry) to climb into the top tier.
- 7. Denver Nuggets (2012-13 finish: 3rd)
- While the rest of the West's elite have loaded up, Denver has suffered several key defections, starting with the braintrust of Masai Ujiri and George Karl. The Nuggets will also try to replace Iguodala by committee, and while adding Randy Foye and Nate Robinson beefs up their perimeter shooting, the defense has taken several hits.
- Denver is now counting on the duo of Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee up front, a combo that has struggled to stop opponents. And it's unclear when Danilo Gallinari will return from a torn ACL. So the Nuggets aren't certain to make the playoffs.
- 8. Minnesota Timberwolves (2012-13 finish: 12th)
- The biggest improvement the Timberwolves can make will be better health. After losing more games to injury than any team in the past four years, Minnesota should be at full strength. Rick Adelman also has more shooting at his disposal with the addition of Kevin Martin, though the defense could be weakened.
- Assuming the Timberwolves lock up center Nikola Pekovic, a restricted free agent, they'll be at the top of the race to go from the lottery to the playoffs.
- 9. Portland Trail Blazers (2012-13 finish: 11th)
- The Blazers are right on Minnesota's heels after a solid offseason that saw GM Neil Olshey rebuild their bench on the cheap. Only second-year center Meyers Leonard figures to remain in the rotation from last year's historically bad second unit, while Robin Lopez slides in for J.J. Hickson to solidify the starting five.
- If rookie C.J. McCollum contributes immediately and Thomas Robinson plays like he did in Las Vegas Summer League -- where he was a terror on the glass -- Portland will return to the playoffs after a one-year absence.
- 10. Dallas Mavericks (2012-13 finish: 10th)
- After two years of patience, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban opened his wallet this summer, paying Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis and Samuel Dalembert a combined $64.5 million. It's not clear that investment made Dallas a better team.
- A Calderon-Ellis backcourt presents major defensive issues, and the Mavericks will continue to rely heavily on the aging Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas was a playoff-caliber team after Nowitzki got healthy last season, but again can't afford injury to its star.
- 11. New Orleans Pelicans (2012-13 finish: 14th)
- The Pelicans have improved as much as anyone in the West by adding Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans to their backcourt. That still may not be enough for a playoff run in the Crescent City, given New Orleans finished 18 games behind the eighth seed a year ago.
- Better health for Anthony Davis and Eric Gordon also could help close that gap, and if Davis is able to make a leap (and defend opposing centers) in his second season, the Pelicans will be in the mix for the eighth seed.
- 12. Los Angeles Lakers (2012-13 finish: 7th)
- Consider this group the Interim Lakers, because only three players -- Nick Young (player option), Steve Nash and Robert Sacre -- are signed through 2014-15. Kobe Bryant is also part of the Lakers' future; the rest of this group is attempting to make a playoff run before hitting free agency next summer.
- With Pau Gasol playing more at center now that Dwight Howard is in Houston, the fit should be better with Mike D'Antoni's system. Still, the Lakers' chances of the eighth seed hinge on Bryant returning on or ahead of schedule and showing few ill effects from last year's ruptured Achilles. That would mean defying the ugly history of Achilles injuries.
- 13. Utah Jazz (2012-13 finish: 9th)
- By letting Randy Foye, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Mo Williams all walk in free agency, Utah effectively swapped its bench for its starters. That group, including talented youngsters Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter, might have contended for a playoff spot with support from a new veteran second unit.
- Instead, the Jazz swallowed dead salary from Golden State to secure two future first-round picks, making it clear that this is a rebuilding season.
- 14. Sacramento Kings (2012-13 finish: 14th)
- The Kings aren't settling for another trip to the lottery. They were active in free agency before landing Carl Landry, who followed coach Mike Malone and owner Vivek Ranadive inland from Golden State to Sacramento.
- Greivis Vasquez gives the Kings a setup point guard for the first time since Mike Bibby, and rookie Ben McLemore supplies needed shooting. But the Kings haven't improved enough to consider the playoffs a realistic possibility just yet.
- 15. Phoenix Suns (2012-13 finish: 15th)
- After years of resisting, the Suns finally committed to a rebuild during last season. Dealing for Eric Bledsoe and drafting Alex Len improves the team's talent, which was rated dead last in Insider's most recent Future Power Rankings.
- For now, though, Len is coming back from surgery on both ankles and Bledsoe will play with Goran Dragic in the backcourt. Phoenix is the odds-on favorite to finish last in the Western Conference and add another talented prospect to the core in next year's draft.
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