Dwight Howard being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers obviously shook up the NBA as a whole, but what impact will it have specifically on the Western Conference? Does it place L.A. above the Oklahoma City Thunder? Above the San Antonio Spurs? Both finished not only finished with better records than the Lakers last year, they also advanced further in the postseason.
What about the other Western Conference team who was involved in the transaction, the Denver Nuggets? How is their positioning impacted by what went down? Does the addition of Andre Iguodala help this squad enough to propel it to top-four status?
And how about on-the-cusp teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, how do they factor into the equation?
First up, here is what the Western Conference looked like last year:
1. San Antonio Spurs
2. Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Los Angeles Lakers
4. Memphis Grizzlies
5. Los Angeles Clippers
6. Denver Nuggets
7. Dallas Mavericks
8. Utah Jazz
Last season Utah beat out the Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns for the final playoff spot, but it’s hard to envision any of those three squads making the postseason this year. Both the Suns and Rockets traded away their best players, and the Jazz didn’t do anything that would (on paper) put them above a healthy Minnesota Timberwolves group. The Golden State Warriors might be in the running for the playoffs, too. Heck, depending on Anthony Davis’ skills, even the New Orleans Hornets might contend for the No. 8 seed.
Here is our projection of the 2012-13 standings:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
Experience and young legs should keep the Thunder ahead of everyone next year. L.A. will need time to mesh. San Antonio will need to preserve itself for the postseason. OKC, really, is the only team in the West who is both good enough and fresh enough to hold on to the No. 1 spot from the beginning to end of next season.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Dwight Howard probably won’t play to start the season, and there are some questions about how all of the new pieces will come together when everyone is in fact playing. That coupled with Mike Brown’s random decision to adopt the Princeton offense will inevitably lead to growing pains. We still have the Lakers emerging from the West, but they won’t finish with the top record.
3. San Antonio Spurs
If you thought Gregg Popovich was irritating about preserving his guys last year, just wait until you see him this year. His core pieces are a year older, Tony Parker almost lost an eye this summer, two of his best guys played in the Olympics, and the Lakers are actually a legitimate threat this season. Pop knows he’s not getting homecourt, so there is zero reason for him to let his guys expend their energy. San Antonio is still good enough to be third in the West, but this team won’t even bother aiming for Nos. 1 or 2.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Health will make or break this squad. If Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are healthy, L.A.’s other team has the depth to look strong in 2012-13. If either of those guys misses extended time, though, the Clippers could dip to anywhere from six to eight in the West.
5. Denver Nuggets
Bottom line: Andre Iguodala is an upgrade. So long as the scoring output from Al Harrington is replaced sufficiently (it will be), this team will be really good next season.
6. Memphis Grizzlies
This team will go as far as the chemistry between Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph takes them. If these two can play to their maximum abilities together, the Grizzlies could be the fourth best team in the conference. If they don’t mesh or injuries take down either one, it wouldn’t at all be shocking to see Memphis not even make the playoffs.
7. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks are going to be a better team next year than they were last year, but that’s not saying much. This team needs another star to take some pressure off Dirk Nowitzki and, until it gets that star, sixth or seventh in the conference is kind of their ceiling.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves did really well for themselves this summer, so really it’s all about health now. If Ricky Rubio and everyone else gets right, then this team is most definitely a playoff team. If not – the Golden State Warriors could easily sneak into this spot.