Before I start, I feel it’s important to make certain assumptions about these rankings.
1. No other serious acquisition will be made in the West. Could a blockbuster trade still happen? Possibly, but not likely. (And someone signing Shaq or T-Mac would not be considered a “serious acquisition.”)
2. This is barring any major injuries, and assuming they don’t exist, (*cough* Yao *cough*) even though the very thought of a season without serious injury is about as likely as Michael Beasley being a good fit in Minnesota and David Kahn winning GM of the year.
3. These rankings are based on how good these teams will be “on paper.”
So, with all that said, here are my ridiculously early off season Western power rankings:
1. Lakers: As much as it pains me, I don’t see any way to put them anywhere but No. 1. They are the defending champs, they have experience, defense, length, the most clutch player in basketball and the best coach of all time. Adding veterans like Steve Blake and Matt Barnes helps to bolster what was an awful bench last year. They are the best team in the league and I’ll be praying to the basketball gods all season that they don’t three-peat.
2. Mavs: Dallas is always the ultimate “on paper” team with a stacked lineup, but losing Dampier could really hurt them. That should have been a wake up call for those of you not paying attention, and for those of you who were, I’m sure you got a good laugh out of it. Seriously, as awful a contract as that Haywood deal was, it was important to lock him up. The solid defensive combination of Haywood and Chandler compliment Dirk’s game well. Kidd is what he is at this point in his career, but the guy is still an amazing point guard, and if Butler could become the big time wing scorer that Dirk has always needed, they could finally get over the hump and end up in the Finals (but they won’t).
3. Blazers: I’ll get hell for this, but I’m dead serious. This is the paradigm of the “if we could just stay healthy for a full season” team. Look at least year as an example. Roy missed 17 games, Pryzbilla missed 52, Oden missed 61 (combined in three seasons, he’s played a full 82 game season while Durant is the scoring leader and the face of USA basketball… I’m just saying). And that team STILL managed a six seed and a decent first round series with the Suns. They’re young, they’re deep and they have arguably the best defensive front court in basketball. Even if Rudy Hernandez doesn’t come back, this team doesn’t need him. With super talented wings like Batum, Matthews and Babbitt around the offensive powerhouse duo of Roy, Aldridge, it would not shock me if this team was as high as No. 2 next season.
4. Thunder: I’d like to place them higher, as they’re the sexy pick and they’ll only undoubtedly get better next season. To get it out of the way, Durant + Westbrook = Awesome, and that formula should work for the next decade. Jeff Green is a nice third option, but the Thunder needs somebody else to step up. James Harden is almost there, but they could really use a force underneath on both ends of the floor. Their lack of a front court defense was their downfall in that epic series against the Lakers, and I’m not sure adding Aldrich is enough to fix their problems. Ibaka is the wild card. He’s raw, has some serious defensive chops and had some great games in the post season for a 20-year old. If he takes the next step, there’s nothing stopping the Thunder from making a deep playoff run. (And did I mention I have a giant man crush on Durant?)
5. Rockets: This is really what you’re all waiting for, but I’ll try to keep this as brief as possible. Houston won 42 games last year, and with teams more evenly matched in the West next season, I think they need to improve by about 10 games to get into the 4-5 range. In 2008-2009, Yao played 77 games and was 10th in the league, averaging 15.6 estimated wins added. As long as Yao plays 60+ games, I think he adds 10 wins by himself. The Rockets struggled mightily last season against bigger teams and his length, the addition of Miller and development of Hill and Patterson should help mightily. Defensively, Houston gave up 102.7 points per game last season, far more than in seasons past. In 08-09, they gave up 94.4, and I legitimately think Yao makes THAT much of a difference, so I expect 5-8 fewer points per game with him in the lineup. Offensively, I’m really excited to see how Martin’s game will help Yao, as well as the development of Budinger as a sixth man off the bench. Houston does not have an elite defense like Boston or Orlando, and they don’t have elite scorers or a “go-to” guy like Miami or LA. What they have is chemistry, depth, versatility and unselfishness. It won’t get them a top two seed, but I could see them as high as No. 3 next season. To play it safe, I’ll put them here at No. 5.
6. Nuggets: In the same way I don’t trust Dallas in the playoffs, I trust the Nuggets even less. Even if Karl comes back, I mean it when I say the Nuggets have little to no chance at winning the West next season. Throw in the fact that Billups is a year older, Martin a year crazier and the distraction of Melo’s free agency, and I think this team will digress a bit. They are still dangerous with one of the best scorers in the league, one of the best veteran leaders and some versatile big men in Hilario, Harrington and Martin. However, if Houston is a team which benefits from chemistry, I think the Nuggets are the Bizarro Rockets. Melo and JR Smith are fairly selfish players, Martin seems to be the new Ron Artest and I just don’t like Al Harrington. He’s played with five teams in as many years, can score from pretty much anywhere on the floor, but doesn’t put up much of an effort on defense and gets pushed around by any legit 4. I still think they put up 50 wins next year, but I don’t think they’re as good or as together as the teams in front of them.
7. Jazz: The Jazz are such a tough team to judge because it’s hard to tell Al Jefferson’s value when he’s been in Minnesota his entire career. Is he as good as Boozer? Talent-wise, definitely. As a competitor, I don’t think so. Also, Jefferson will REALLY struggle defensively if he is forced to play center with Okur possibly missing time. If he did play the 5, Kirilenko could play the 4, opening up a spot at SF for Haywood to prove himself with a lot of minutes at SF. Bell was also a nice addition, but he is what he is at this point in his career, a good shooter and solid veteran defender who gives you 20-25 minutes off the bench. This team has talent, but they’re also looking at a completely new squad. Out with Boozer, Korver and Matthews, in with Jefferson, Haywood and Bell. It will take them time to gel, but if they do I really think they could be two or three spots higher on this list. Deron Williams is the best point in the league (and yes I’m willing to argue it), and he has the pieces around him to make this work. The big question at the 5, as well as the loss of a couple of key players could hurt this team early in the season.
8. Spurs: The Spurs have been one of the few constants in sports for the last decade. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have quietly been the most successful trio in basketball over that time, and despite age and injuries, this group still has something left in the tank. George Hill and DeJuan Blair have been two young bright spots, and their development is key to the squad (as is James Anderson), especially if Duncan or Parker get injured (which they will). The biggest question mark has to be Tiago Splitter. His signing has been heralded as genius by so many analysts, and the Spurs certainly have a track record with signing foreign players (I sure appreciate Scola). If he can bulk up and become the true center this team needs, then it could help spell minutes for old fogies Duncan and McDyess. From a roster perspective, it’s hard to find holes on this team, and they certainly have the defensive chops and the hardware to be dangerous. From a talent perspective, however, I just think they’re a step below the previous seven. If Splitter is as good as advertised, they could be much higher, but if he’s worse, I would not be surprised to see the Spurs miss the playoffs.
9. Suns: It’s hard to leave the Suns out because of my love for Steve Nash, and how much of a fan favorite they were in the postseason. They even got me to like Amare Stoudemire momentarily. However, the key players on this team are getting old, they SERIOUSLY lack an inside presence with Amare gone, and I don’t think they added the right guys to replace what he does offensively. Can Hedo, Warrick and Childress make up for his 23 points per game? Of course. But they can’t make up for his inside game or his intensity. Warrick certainly has that “poor man’s Amare” look about him, but he’s 28 and if he was going to break out, he would have done it by now. Playing with Nash will help, but it’s not going to make him an elite big. Playing with Nash may not help Turkoglu, who thrives with the ball in his hands as a point forward, as he played in Orlando. We saw how much he struggled in Toronto deferring the playmaking to Calderon, and he’s going to have to learn to be more effective as a spot up shooter. If he could, he and Richardson could make a deadly scoring wing combo. All the other pieces are in place from last season: Nash, Richardson, Frye, Hill and legendary Goran Dragic, but this team is getting old and is going to seriously struggle inside. I still believe Nash should have jumped ship when he had the chance… this is one franchise who is on its way out of prominence…
10. Grizzlies: It’s pretty bad when you consider a 40-42 record a step in the right direction, but for the Grizzlies, that was certainly the case last season. Randolph’s return to dominance and Gasol’s emergence were both surprises, while Thabeet seemed like a serious bust. Re-signing Gay probably had to be the first step, even though they had to overpay him (by a LOT). He, Mayo and Gasol form a nice young core. But the thing that has seriously limited this team for a while and will continue to is its lack of a point guard. Memphis was tied for dead last in assists per game last season at 18.8. I think it’s almost safe to say that after three mediocre seasons, the Conley experiment is over and they need to move on. I love Xavier Henry as a prospect, but considering that Majo and Gay have the 2 and 3 locked down for the foreseeable future, I don’t get that pick unless they hope to turn Mayo into a point (which he is not). If they had taken Bledsoe or Avery Bradley in this draft, then I’d be more excited about this group, as a team can never improve unless it tries to fix its weaknesses. Still a lot to like here, and if Thabeet can become a defensive force, I could legitimately see the Grizzlies being a perennial playoff team in a year or two.
11. Clippers: The curse of the Clippers got to Blake Griffin his rookie year, but he’ll get his chance to prove himself this season, and I think he’s the make or break piece to the puzzle. Veteran pieces like Baron and Kaman are in place, while Gordon proved his rookie season was no fluke. Bledsoe and Aminu were both good pickups, and the talent in the youth of this team is pretty impressive. Defenisvely, the Clippers weren’t that bad last season, but offensively they were dead last in the West. The biggest problem is from beyond the arc, as they were also last in the West in 3-point percentage despite being 14th in the league in 3-point attempts. They have to settle less often for threes and get easier baskets inside. Griffin could do a lot to fix that problem. If he could be a 15/8 type player next season as a “rookie,” I would not be the least bit surprised if the Clippers returned to the playoffs next season.
12. Hornets: The Hornets thrive on Chris Paul, plain and simple. When he was out last season, Darren Collison filled in admirably, but it wasn’t good enough. He averaged 22 and 8 in February, but the Hornets still were only 5-8 during that time. They were even worse in March and April, when he still was putting up impressive numbers. Marcus Thornton was also a pleasant surprise last season, providing a much needed scoring presence from the wings. However, all that being said, this team still has some serious holes. West is what he is, a solid scorer with a great mid-range game for a big guy who doesn’t really scare anybody in the post, while Okafor is solid defensively but fairly useless on offense. This team needs to find a big man who can score inside, and neither one of those two is it. New Orleans also desperately lacks a legit wing scorer. An undersized Thornton is nice, but the rest of their wings are a mess. Peja + Posey = meh, at this point in their careers and no one is drooling over Julian Wright. As crazy as it sounds, New Orleans should move Paul…(awaits gasps and scoffs)… They have a solid point guard for the future already set in Collison, and they have so many other holes on this team. Moving him and Okafor’s gross contract could net them a serious wing scorer or a big who can actually be dangerous in the paint. As it is, they’ll still win games with Paul, but this is no better than a .500 team, and I’d be shocked if they made the playoffs.
13. Kings: Several teams changed their makeup this summer, but no team got bigger than the Kings. I can’t remember ever seeing a team add three 6-ll players in one offseason, but the Kings have managed to do so with Dalembert, Cousins and Whiteside. However, I think it’s easier to confuse “length” and “talent.” Just ask the Grizzlies and Thabeet. Dalembert is a below average center on both ends of the floor and Whiteside is ridiculously raw. Cousins would have to REALLY go off as a rookie for the Kings to have any serious chance at the playoffs. And even with two potential RoY players in back to back seasons, they desperately need a wing scorer. Casspi is at least a solid starter as SF, but he can’t be this team’s second or third option offensively. Evans, Casspi, Landry, Cousins and Thompson have a pretty bright future, but the Kings are a long way from consistently winning basketball games.
14. Warriors: Of all the rookies I had a chance to watch last season, Stephen Curry impressed me the most. He was a slow starter, but in April he averaged a ridiculous 26.5 PTS and 8.1 AST while shooting .472 on 3-pointers and .895 from the line. Sure it was only an eight game stretch, but that’s still disgusting. The most impressive thing about him isn’t his uncanny ability to run the floor or his insane rookie shooting percentages, but instead that he already has that killer instinct. In a March thriller with the Lakers that I happened to catch, he single-handedly kept the Warriors alive with big play after big play (though they lost 124-121). With the selling of the team and the addition of Lee, the Warriors are another of those “glass half full, bright future” teams. Unfortunately, before they do anything they have to move Monta Ellis, as I don’t think you can succeed as a team with two nearly identical players in the back court who can’t play defense. Losing Maggette doesn’t help them much either, as they’re really thin on the wings now. Udoh is another interesting young player to watch. No chance at the playoffs whatsoever.
15. Timberwolves: I remember arguing with a Timberwolves fan after the Wolves draft last season when they took Rubio and Flynn back to back. He argued with me that GM David Kahn had a plan, and that it would work. I wonder if that plan involved moving their best player (Jefferson) because of a supposed “log jam” in the front court, only to turn around and add one of the biggest draft busts and character problems in the league the last few seasons (Beasley) at the same position. How does that make sense? Also, how do you tell people that you want to add guys to make the triangle offense work, when you turn around and do the exact opposite by taking guys who don’t? It’s okay, at least they added Darko Milicic and two more mediocre point guards in Ridnour and Telfair. That helps, right? It’s a shame, too, because with talented guys like Love and Brewer, and an elite Euro prospect like Rubio awaiting overseas, you can almost see a pretty good team coming out of this group. Suppose for a second that Kahn HADN’T taken Rubio and Flynn back to back, but instead taken someone like Demar Derozan with that second pick in 09…. How does Rubio, Derozan, Wes Johnson, Corey Brewer, Kevin Love and Al Jefferson sound? Not a bad start… Instead, they have Johnny Flynn, Brewer, Johnson, Love, Beasley and Milicic. I think it’s safe to say the Wolves have become the new laughing stock of the league. It’s okay Minnesota, if Kahn gets fired, I heard Isiah Thomas is looking for work.