“What a Time…”: 2015-16 Western Conference Preview

The San Antonio Spurs are looking to rule the West...again. (Sebum Im/Getty Images)
The San Antonio Spurs are looking to rule the West…again. (Soobum Im/Getty Images)

The Western Conference is a free for all! At least seven teams have a legitimate shot of advancing to the Finals and winning it all, including the defending champion Golden State Warriors, revamped San Antonio Spurs, and star-studded LA Clippers.

Here, you’ll find brief season outlooks for each team.

Enjoy!


#15 Minnesota Timberwolves

Andrew Wiggins (Getty Images)
How will Andrew Wiggins capitalize on his Rookie of the Year campaign a year ago? (Getty Images)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: F/C Karl-Anthony Towns (Kentucky, 1st overall), G Andre Miller (free agent, SAC), F Tayshaun Prince (free agent, DET), G Tyus Jones (Duke, 24th overall, via trade w/ CLE), F Nemanja Bjelica (Fenerbahce Ulcer), F Damjan Rudez (via trade w/ IND)

Key Losses: G Gary Neal (WAS)

TDIT (Top DOGs In Training): Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns | Star UnderDOGs: Ricky Rubio | Salty DOGs: Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince


#Flip

(David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
(David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Wolves will play with heavy hearts all season long following the untimely passing of their President, and Head Coach, Phil “Flip” Saunders. It is a difficult time for anyone associated with basketball, especially in Minnesota. Flip’s tremendous presence will be missed but his legacy lives on forever, as the Wolves continue to evolve into a special group.

On the basketball side, Minnesota is headed in the right direction with Andrew Wiggins, Ricky Rubio and Karl-Anthony Towns (2015 #1 overall pick). They are still a very young crew bound to experience countless growing pains but veterans Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince, and, of course, Kevin Garnett, will contribute leadership all year long.

Minnesota will play inspired basketball in 2015-16 (and beyond). KAT is a Rookie of the Year candidate and Andrew Wiggins is already developing into one of the game’s biggest two-way stars. A playoff berth isn’t feasible but Minnesota is equipped with enough weapons to compete hard each and every night.


Projected Starting 5:


Player to Watch:

Zach

G Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine is an exciting, aerial artist but he’s out to prove he can run an offense and play both guard spots effectively. The plan is to have LaVine rotate in as a combo guard off the bench to begin the season but look for a potential trade involving Kevin Martin, who is more valuable as a Sixth Man on a contender.

LaVine is eager to demonstrate better patience, an upgraded handle, and more consistency from outside. Coach Sam Mitchell will utilize him with Rubio and Wiggins to create more opportunities on the break.

Projected Stats: 14 points/game, 4 assists/game, 42% FG


Season Prediction:

-Minnesota continues to cultivate its young talent, Towns finishes in the top 3 of the ROY race and the team retains a top 3 lottery pick.

5th, Northwest Divison (15th, Western Conference), Will Miss Playoffs


#14 Denver Nuggets

Emmanuel Mudiay is ready to lead Denver into the future. (Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports)
Emmanuel Mudiay is ready to lead Denver into the future. (Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: G Emmanuel Mudiay (Congo, 7th overall), F Nikola Jokic (Serbia, 2014 Draft Pick), F Mike Miller (free agent, POR), Coach Mike Malone

Key Losses: G Ty Lawson (HOU)

Star UnderDOGs: Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried | TDIT (Top DOG In Training): Emmanuel Mudiay | Salty DOGs: Mike Miller, Jameer Nelson


#RunAndGun

Danilo Gallinari should put up big numbers in Mike Malone's new system. (Glenn James/Getty Images)
Danilo Gallinari should put up big numbers in Mike Malone’s new system. (Glenn James/Getty Images)

Denver is moving into the future with a new face of the franchise, Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay is as sharp as a razor on offense, possesses great athleticism and features countless intangibles running the show. So far, he’s held his own opposite top notch PGs in the West and is the perfect player to help the team break away from the Ty Lawson era.

Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are three important vets Mudiay can lean on. With new head coach Mike Malone at the helm, Denver is sure to return to its “run and gun” attack. However, it’s tough to deem them a playoff team, especially considering they really struggled to defend (27th in opponent’s PPG) both on the interior and the outside.

Second-year guard Gary Harris (raw, two-way guard), Jusuf Nurkic (interior scorer), Joffrey Lauvergne (rebounder, interior scorer) and Nikola Jokic (shooter, versatile forward) are all captivating and could significantly speed up Denver’s trajectory. There still isn’t a bonafide star on the roster (yet) but Mudiay, Harris, and Nurkic will surprise.


Projected Starting 5: 


Key Number: 43%

Mike Malone

Mike Malone

Denver shot just 43% from the field  in 2014-15, good for 26th in the NBA. Much of that poor shooting can be attributed to a lack of shot creators/shot makers but it also says a lot about Brian Shaw’s questionable offensive tactics.

Mike Malone is prone to playing more “skill” players, so look for different combinations all season. Mudiay will have the keys to the kingdom from the jump and the freedom to get out and run.


Season Prediction:

-Emmanuel Mudiay wins Rookie of the Year but the Nuggets fall back in the standings.

4th, Northwest Division (14th, Western Conference), Will Miss Playoffs


#13 Los Angeles Lakers

Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers could be a little better than you think! (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)
Kobe Bryant and the LA Lakers could be a little better than you think! (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: G D’Angelo Russell (Ohio State, 2nd overall), F Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming, 27th overall), F Anthony Brown (Stanford, 34th overall), C Roy Hibbert (via trade w/ IND), F Brandon Bass (free agent, BOS), G Lou Williams (free agent, TOR), G Marcelo Huertas (FC Barcelona), F Metta World Peace

Key Losses: G Jeremy Lin (CHA), F Wesley Johnson (LAC), F Ed Davis (POR), G Wayne Ellington (BKN), F/C Jordan Hill (IND, G Ronnie Price (PHX), F Carlos Boozer

Top DOG: Kobe Bryant | TDIT (Top DOGs In Training): Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell | Salty DOGs: Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace


#LastRide

Kobe dubbed Julius Randle as
Kobe dubbed Julius Randle “Lamar Odom in Zach Randolph’s body.” (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

The end is near for legendary superstar Kobe Bryant, a fate most Laker fans are beginning to accept. The championship window is wired shut for the purple and gold, as they rebuild for the future while trying to stay relevant in the present. Kobe has hinted this may be the last ride of his illustrious career. Can LA fight for a playoff spot with the Black Mamba leading the way?

Let’s put it this way…if the Lakers are in playoff contention come April, it will be a result of a few factors:

  • Julius Randle is under control and stays healthy all season
  • D’Angelo Russell shoots a decent percentage and eases into his natural, lead guard position
  • Byron Scott’s defensive schemes and rotations are in sync. Roy “Mr. Verticality” Hibbert accepts a starring role as a rim protector and both Nick Young & Lou Williams share the ball off the bench.

Yeah, the odds are not in LA’s favor. The most likely scenario sees Kobe Bryant showcasing a few more quintessentially Kobe moments, with a few flashes of brilliance from the young guns.


Projected Starting 5:


Young Guns:

Lakes Media Day Basketball

D’Angelo Russell & Jordan Clarkson

D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson have the highest upside of any Lakers backcourt in years. Defensively, they are far from a finished product but they seem to be ahead of the curve as playmakers.

We profiled Kobe Bryant’s upcoming 20th season about a month ago. In the article, we stressed how important it is for Russell and Clarkson to control ball-handling and shot initiation, leaving Kobe with a new role as a “souped-up” Paul Pierce.

If the two young guards can take pressure off Kobe, LA’s chances look a little brighter.


Season Prediction:

-Kobe’s swan song is a healthy season filled with nice moments. Unfortunately, it will also lead to less than 35 wins.

5th, Pacific Division (13th, Western Conference), Will Miss Playoffs


#12 Dallas Mavericks

Dirk (Brad Penner:USA Today Sports)
The Mavs will take a step back in 2015-16. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: G Wesley Matthews (free agent, POR), G Deron Williams (free agent, BKN), C JaVale McGee (free agent), F Jeremy Evans (free agent, UTA), C Zaza Pachulia (via trade w/ MIL), G John Jenkins (free agent, ATL), F Justin Anderson (Virginia, 21st overall)

Key Losses: C Tyson Chandler (PHX), G Monta Ellis (IND), G Rajon Rondo (SAC), F/C Amar’e Stoudemire (MIA), F Al-Farouq Aminu (POR),

Top DOG: Dirk Nowitzki | Star UnderDOGs: Chandler Parsons, Wesley Matthews | Salty DOGs: Deron Williams, Raymond Felton, Devin Harris, Zaza Pachulia


#OldHorses

Deron Williams is hoping fir a career revival in the Big D. (Jerome Miron/USA TOSAY Sports)
Deron Williams is hoping for a career revival in the Big D. (Jerome Miron/USA TOSAY Sports)

DeAndre Jordan’s decision to return to Los Angeles pretty much ruined Dallas’s upcoming season. After reneging on a verbal commitment in a crazy, drawn-out saga, Jordan left Dallas scrambling to pick up veteran/unproven centers to alleviate the pain. Tyson Chandler is now a member of the Suns, so Dirk is left with an unknown commodity to protect the paint down low.

Signing Wesley Matthews to a $70 million deal was a risky move but when healthy, he is one of the better two-way wings in the league. Chandler Parsons is back and looking to to stay healthy after playing in only 66 games in 2014-15.

The X-Factor, however, is former All-Star Deron Williams. Williams should be motivated by a few circumstances, including his release by Brooklyn and playing in his home state of Texas. Deron’s chemistry with Dirk and the rest of the gang will be managed by Rick Carlisle, one of the master “lineup creators” the NBA has ever seen.

But can the Mavs duplicate another weird mix of vets on the way to a title? Don’t bet on it.


Projected Starting 5:


One Man’s Trash…

John Jenkins (David Liam Kyle:Getty)

John Jenkins

Dallas, as aforementioned, is banking on another interesting blend combination of veteran castoffs to take them over the top. This situation will either yield an exciting, scrappy bunch or an epic disaster. Among them are John Jenkins (not retained by ATL), JaVale McGee (released by PHILLY) and D-Will (bought out by BKN).

Jenkins, a former first round pick (2012), proved himself as a long-range shooter and scorer during the preseason and is a sleeper candidate for Most Improved Player.


Season Prediction:

-The Mavs are who we think they are: a borderline playoff team with no interest in playing defense.

5th, Southwest Division (12th, Western Conference), Will Miss Playoffs


#11 Portland Trailblazers

Damian Lillard could easily become the league's next scoring champ. (Getty Images)
Damian Lillard could easily become the league’s next scoring champ. (Getty Images)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: C Mason Plumlee (via trade w/ BKN), F Ed Davis (free agent, LAL), F Noah Vonleh (via trade w/ CHA), G Gerald Henderson (via trade w/ CHA), F Maurice Harkless (via trade w/ ORL), G Pat Connaughton (Notre Dame, 41st overall)

Key Losses: F LaMarcus Aldridge (SAS), G Wesley Matthews (DAL), G/F Nicolas Batum (CHA), F/C Robin Lopez (NYK), G Arron Afflalo (NYK)

Top DOG: Damian Lillard | Salty DOG: Chris Kaman


#DameTime

CJ McCollum's scoring prowess is needed on this young Blazers squad. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)
CJ McCollum’s scoring prowess is needed on this young Blazers squad. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s Dame Time in the Pacific Northwest! Portland’s star guard re-upped with a max extension and is now THE MAN, a role he’s fully embracing. Over the summer, Dame organized a few offseason workouts with his young squad to build camaraderie on the floor. That gesture alone shows the 25-year old star gets it and is ready to guide Portland into the future.

The only returning starter from last year’s playoff team, Dame is in position to have an historic season both scoring and distributing the ball. His already high minutes total, and usage rate, will be through the roof as he challenges for both the scoring title and First-Team All NBA honors.

Lillard’s supporting cast is extremely young and inexperienced but there are a few breakout candidates. Third-year guard CJ McCollum looks like a mini-Dame with the way he can score from inside and out and make plays.

Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee and Moe Harkless are all nice options in the front court but need to work on overall consistency. Coach Terry Stotts knows patience is the theme for the 2015-16 season. If Lillard is a true superstar, like we expect him to be, the fight for the 8th seed could get a lot more interesting.


Projected Starting 5:


Breakout Candidate: 

CJ

CJ McCollum

CJ McCollum is fully healthy and raring to go. His shot creating ability is top-notch for someone who hasn’t had a true role his first couple of seasons in the league. Right now, CJ can step in and provide 16-18 points/game and draw attention from Dame.

A slippery scorer with a silky J, CJ catches fire with ease and is almost impossible to stop when the flame is lit:


Season Prediction:

-Dame Time is in full effect but the Blazers are a year away from playoff contention.

3rd, Northwest Division (11th, Western Conference), Will Miss Playoffs


#10 Sacramento Kings

Can the Kings get on the same page this season? (Kelley L. Cox/Getty Images)
Can the Kings get on the same page this season? (Kelley L. Cox/Getty Images)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: G Rajon Rondo (free agent, DAL), F/C Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky, 6th overall), G Marco Belinelli (free agent, SAS), F Caron Butler (free agent, DET), C Kosta Koufos (free agent, MEM)

Key Losses: F Carl Landry (PHI), G Ray McCallum (SAS), G Nik Stauskas (PHI), F Jason Thompson (GSW)

Top DOG: DeMarcus Cousins | Star UnderDOG: Rudy Gay | Salty DOG: Rajon Rondo


#DysfunctionalOrNah

Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins are an interesting fit to say the least. (Rich Pedroncelli/Getty Images)
Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins are an interesting fit to say the least. (Rich Pedroncelli/Getty Images)

DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and George Karl under the same umbrella. It’s a dream scenario for fans who enjoy any semblance of controversy, dysfunction, or comedy. Sure, there is a small chance the trio is on the same page from here on out but early returns have been iffy.

As a basketball fit, Sacramento could succeed with Rondo, who is trying to revitalize his career in a contract season. At his peak in Boston, Rondo bought into the idea of sharing the ball with his accomplished teammates and took the lead as a defensive stopper on the perimeter.

Hopefully, his UK connection will work wonders with both DeMarcus Cousins (2015 All-Star; avg. an insane 24.1 points/game and 12.4 rebounds/game a year ago) and fascinating rookie Willie Cauley-Stein. Boogie has looked good during the preseason and is finally comfortable with Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore and Darren Collison alongside him.

Chemistry is the main factor for Sactown, as they certainly have enough pieces for a playoff push.


Projected Starting 5:


Key UnderDOG:

Kosta Koufos is an undervalued pivot in the league. He’s a willing post defender and is the perfect “fill-in” big in the rotation. Last year, Koufos averaged 5.2 ppg & 5.3 rpg in just 16 minutes/game!

No one is saying he should play 30+ minutes a night but Koufos can spell both Cousins and Cauley-Stein for nice stretches during the flow of the game. His screen-setting (and 15-foot J) is perfect for Darren Collison in the second unit.


Season Prediction:

-George Karl keeps his squad functional but Sacramento’s suspect defense seals their fate.

4th, Pacific Division (10th, Western Conference), Will Miss Playoffs


#9 Phoenix Suns

A new Big 3 out west? (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)
A new Big 3 out west? (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: C Tyson Chandler (free agent, DAL), G Devin Booker (Kentucky, 13th overall), F Jon Leuer (via trade w/ MEM), F Mirza Teletovic (free agent, BKN), G Sonny Weems (free agent, CSKA Moscow)

Key Losses: F Marcus Morris (DET), G/F Gerald Green (MIA), G/F Reggie Bullock (DET), G Marcus Thornton (HOU)

Star UnderDOGs: Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight | Salty DOG: Tyson Chandler


#RunningInPlace

Jeff Hornacek's Suns need to make the playoffs for the coach to earn a new contract. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Jeff Hornacek’s Suns need to make the playoffs for him to earn a new contract. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

The Suns are stuck in purgatory for the third season in a row. In year 1, Jeff Hornacek’s creativity was a sight to behold, as he turned the Eric Bledsoe-Goran Dragic backcourt into a dynamic, offensive force. In year 2, however, Phoenix inexplicably decided to sign another ball-demanding guard, Isaiah Thomas, to join their already formidable crop of floor generals.

To no one’s surprise…it didn’t work out! Now, Bledsoe is joined by Brandon Knight and rookie Devin Booker in the backcourt. Booker, selected 13th overall out of Kentucky, is a sharpshooter in the mold of a young Klay Thompson. Knight just re-signed for $70 million, so there’s a chance Booker receives limited minutes to start the season.

Up front, TJ Warren will try to supplant PJ Tucker as the starting small forward, Markieff Morris will do his best to stay calm and focused following a tumultuous offseason, and Tyson Chandler will try to rebound from a subpar showing defensively.

Phoenix has a few variables in play but unless the defense improves (allowed 103.3 ppg a year ago), another lottery appearance is in the cards.


Projected Starting 5:


Youth or Experience?

TJ Warren

TJ Warren

TJ “Rush Hour” Warren is a bucket-getting machine. He’s a true throwback player who does most of his damage from the foul-line down instead of launching threes at a high rate.

PJ Tucker is a bulldog but is more of a stopgap starter than anything else. Warren’s intangibles could give him the edge by December, particularly if Phoenix struggles to score out of the gate.


Season Prediction:

-Eric Bledsoe nearly misses an All-Star berth & the Suns nearly miss a playoff spot.

3rd, Pacific Division (9th, Western Conference), Will Miss Playoffs


#8 Utah Jazz

Gordon Hayward and the Jazz will make a strong push for the postseason in 2015-16. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)
Gordon Hayward and the Jazz will make a strong push for the postseason in 2015-16. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: G Raul Neto (Brazil, 2013 Draft Pick), F Trey Lyles (Kentucky, 12th overall), C Tibor Pleiß (Germany, 2010 Draft Pick), C Jeff Withey (free agent, NOP)

Key Losses: G Dante Exum (ACL tear, out for season), F Jeremy Evans (DAL)

Star UnderDOGs: Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks | TDIT (Top DOGs In Training): Rudy Gobert


#SweetTune

Not many shots get past Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors on the interior. (Danny Bolinger/Getty Images)
Not many shots get past Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors on the interior. (Danny Bolinger/Getty Images)

Despite losing Dante Exum to an ACL injury over the summer, Utah is still in excellent position to capture a playoff spot. Their starting five, sans Exum, is a staunch, defensive lineup who is turning the corner on offense.

“Turning the corner” is a nice way of putting it, as Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are only scratching the surface in of their potential in Quin Snyder’s system. Alec Burks’s return from a injury (shoulder) gives Utah another shot creator who can play lead guard in a pinch.

And off the bench, versatility is the name of the game. Rodney Hood, one of the league’s more NBA-ready rooks a year ago, has added more moves off the dribble to complement his accurate, lefty stroke.

Trey Burke, entering year 3, will resume his Sixth Man role (rookie Raul Neto will get the starting nod), one he is very comfortable in these days. Burke actually shot efficiently the past couple of weeks and is finally playing at a reasonable speed.

Snyder’s young starting five is one of the highest upside units in the NBA. With three possible stars (Gordon, Derrick & Rudy), everyone’s favorite “sleeper” pick is ready to live up to the hype.


Projected Starting 5:


Best Player You’ve Never Heard Of…

Raul Neto

Raul Neto

Raul Neto is a magician on the floor. Well, magician-in-training at least! A flashy PG who plays under control, Coach Snyder has slotted him as the Opening Night starter over Trey Burke.

Neto impressed all preseason with his aptitude reading (and reacting) defenses and creating shots once initial plays broke down. On the other end, he’s an absolute nuisance on D and gets after it in a low stance.

For now, Neto’s an unknown to most casual fans…but not for long!


Season Prediction:

-Utah shows improvement en route to one of the West’s final spots.

2nd, Northwest Division (8th, Western Conference), First-Round Exit


#7 New Orleans Pelicans

FEAR THE BROW. (Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports)
FEAR THE BROW. (Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: G/F Alonzo Gee (free agent, POR), G Nate Robinson (free agent), C Kendrick Perkins (free agent, CLE), G Ish Smith (free agent, WAS)

Key Losses: C Jeff Withey (UTA), G Jimmer Fredette

Top DOG: Anthony Davis | Star UnderDOGs: Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday  | Salty DOG: Kendrick Perkins


#Brow

Anthony Davis and Alvin Gentry may be the perfect fit. (Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports)
Anthony Davis and Alvin Gentry may be the perfect fit. (Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports)

It’s almostttt Anthony Davis’s league…we’re about a year away! In October 2016, Davis will be referred to as the best player in the universe and the reigning MVP. But will he also add “champion” to his nameplate? Ehh, it’s pretty unlikely.

Hiring Alvin Gentry was the first step to help AD and the Pels go from good to great, the toughest challenge for any middling team. Last year’s offense was bottom-5 in pace of play, which Gentry will have fun ramping up.

But get this: Anthony Davis is already HITTING THREES, a scary thought across the league.

*They said if he added a 3, he’d be unstoppable. They said if he added a 3, he’d be unstoppable* – every PF’s famous last words 

AD’s fragile teammates, Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon are X-Factors, once again, in 2015-16. Holiday and Evans already started the year on the injured list, so there’s that. Without any upcoming prospect or recent draftee on the roster, it’s up to AD to impose his will and carry the load.

Hey, it’s been done before. Ask LeBron to name 80% of his teammates from the 2006-07 Cleveland Cavaliers (Eastern Conference champs) who made an impact.

The Pelicans are miles away from a title shot but Davis is far too good to produce anything less than a playoff appearance.


Projected Starting 5:


Depth Chart:

PG: Holiday-Cole-Smith-Robinson

SG: Gordon-Evans

SF: Cunningham-Pondexter-Gee

PF: Davis-Anderson-Babbitt

C: Asik-Perkins-Ajinca

-Cole played very well after coming over from Miami at the deadline; he’s highly competitive and could eventually make plays with Holiday if the pair stays healthy

-The Pelicans could use another shooter on the perimeter to go with Anderson, Babbitt and Pondexter


Season Prediction:

-Anthony Davis wins MVP, leading New Orleans to another playoff appearance despite numerous injuries down the roster.

5th, Southwest Division (7th, Western Conference), First-Round Exit


#6 Memphis Grizzlies

When, if at all, will the Grizz breakthrough in the West? (Getty Images)
When, if ever, will the Grizz breakthrough in the West? (Getty Images)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: F Matt Barnes (via trade w/ CHA), F/C Brandan Wright (free agent, PHX), G Andrew Harrison (Kentucky, 45th overall, via trade w/ PHX), F Jarell Martin (LSU, 25th overall)

Key Losses: C Kosta Koufos (SAC), G Nick Calathes (Panathinaikos), F Jon Leuer (PHX)

Top DOG: Marc Gasol | Salty DOG: Zach Randolph, Vince Carter


#SameOldSameOld

Zach Randolph still has a lot left in the tank. (Brandon Dill/AP)
Zach Randolph still has a lot left in the tank. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Grit, grind, repeat. Grit, grind, repeat. Grit, grind, repeat. At some point, Memphis may need to consider an alternate approach. You know, one that involves a premium on scoring the basketball.

Since Tom Thibodeau is no longer employed by the Chicago Bulls, Memphis stands alone as, “Team Most Likely to Score 80 points and Win.” Their defense remains unshakable (allowed a mere 95.1 ppg in 2014-15), with Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Mike Conley forming, perhaps, one of the best threesomes in the league.

It’s the same old story, however. Memphis is tougher than you on most nights. They are highly disciplined and embody the hard-working persona of their city. But in the postseason, it hasn’t translated to success, even though they are always fighting in the trenches towards the end of ballgames.

Where’s the irrationally confident shot-maker? Or situational sharpshooter you can’t afford to leave open down the stretch? (This can’t be why Matt Barnes was acquired!).

Instead, Memphis is moving forward with the same core group and is banking on defense and post play to carry them over the top. It’s an interesting strategy but, in the end, the narrative could sound all too similar after another early playoff exit.


Projected Starting 5:


Knockdown?

VC

Vince Carter

Memphis has the same problem every year…not enough shooting to win in the postseason. Conley’s injury aside, Golden State roasted the Grizz last year with outside shooting from many different sources.

Is 37-year old Vince Carter really the best shooter on the team? Or is it Courtney Lee? Or second-year guard Jordan Adams? The fact that there is no clear cut answer says a great deal about Dave Joerger’s bunch.

To contend, Memphis CANNOT finish next to last in three-pointers attempted like they did in 2014-15. This isn’t the 90s!


Season Prediction:

-Memphis is as tough as ever but can’t score enough buckets when it matters most.

4th, Southwest Division (6th, Western Conference), First-Round Exit


 #4 Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are LOADED. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)
The Clippers are LOADED. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: F Paul Pierce (free agent, WAS), G Lance Stephenson (via trade w/ CHA), F Josh Smith (free agent, HOU), G Pablo Prigioni (free agent, HOU), F Wesley Johnson (free agent, LAL), F/C Cole Aldrich (free agent, NYK), F Branden Dawson (Michigan State, 56th overall, via trade w/ NOP)

Key Losses: F Matt Barnes (MEM), C Spencer Hawes (CHA), F Hedo Turkoglu, F Glen Davis

Top DOGs: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan | Salty DOGs: Paul Pierce, Josh Smith


#FullyLoadedClips

DJ, Blake and CP3 look to go much deeper in the postseason. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
DJ, Blake and CP3 look to go much deeper in the postseason. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

NO MORE EXCUSES. For Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, there’s no more “what-ifs,” or “one player away.” After an offseason that saw DJ flirt with Dallas, LA witnessed quick the championship window is closing.

But with DJ’s return, LA is a powerhouse once again. Do they have the mental edge to surpass teams like Golden State, San Antonio, Houston and OKC? If they didn’t before, Paul Pierce will provide it..and then some!

Pierce is the perfect fit for LA, bestowing veteran leadership, an emotional presence and an unmatched clutch gene. Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson and Wesley Johnson also join the fray…three talented players who haven’t always lived up to expectations. That said, swapping out Matt Barnes for this trio is a significant upgrade.

Los Angeles finally has a bench, which means Doc Rivers is not forced to play the corpse of Hedo Turkoglu in a Game 7 any longer!

Seriously, this has to be the year Chris Paul reaches the Conference Finals, right? If not, wholesale changes will occur in La-La land, starting at the top.


Projected Starting 5:


THE Closer:

Paul Pierce (Getty Images)

Wesley Johnson slots in as the starting small forward to begin the season but that’s mainly to boost his confidence and develop him into a stopper.

Paul Pierce is the perfect closer for this lineup because he is more than comfortable knocking down shots either creating for himself or spotting up. If last April’s heroics are too distant, here’s a look at his one-man comeback v. the Blazers last week:


Season Prediction:

-LA draws a rough first-round matchup and is a casualty of their difficult conference.

2nd, Pacific Division (4th, Western Conference), First-Round Exit


#3 Houston Rockets

James Harden is in line to challenge for MVP honors again. (Getty Images)
James Harden is in line to challenge for MVP honors again. (Getty Images)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: G Ty Lawson (via trade w/ DEN), G Marcus Thornton (free agent, PHX), F Sam Dekker (Wisconsin, 18th overall), F Montrezl Harrell (Louisville, 32nd overall)

Key Losses: G Pablo Prigioni (LAC)

Top DOGs: James Harden, Dwight Howard | Star UnderDOG: Ty Lawson


#WeHaveLiftoff

Houston's dynamic duo has plenty of help this season. (Getty Images)
Houston’s dynamic duo has plenty of help this season. (Getty Images)

There’s a couple of key storylines to watch in Houston this season: the health of the front court and how well Ty Lawson and James Harden can coexist in the backcourt.

Dwight Howard played in only 41 regular season games and emerging forward Donatas Motiejunas missed the entire playoff run. Motiejunas, along with fellow lefty Terrence Jones, spaces the floor extremely well and is an X-Factor next to Harden and Howard.

Trading for Ty Lawson gives the Rox another shot creator but he is not a defensive ace like Patrick Beverley. Beverley moves to more natural reserve role but Coach McHale could shuffle the lineup to play he and Lawson together, while sliding Harden to the 3 and Trevor Ariza to the 4 in certain sets.

Houston is deeper than a year ago (added Marcus Thornton to boost the bench) and Harden will have free reign to control the pace of the offense. Another MVP-type campaign is on the horizon but will it translate to a championship appearance?

If Dwight and co. play at a high level as the year winds down, The Beard has a chance to close the deal.


Projected Starting 5:


KJ

KJ

KJ McDaniels

Second-year swingman KJ McDaniels showed brief glimpses of his impressive game prior to being traded to the Rox in February. He had a few jaw-dropping, volleyball spikes, er blocks, on guys and threw down some crazy dunks in transition.

Houston has some depth on the wing but McDaniels has the athleticism to convert on the break and defend his position. He’ll make a strong push for consistent minutes:


Season Prediction:

-James Harden is trumped by his old squad in Round 2.

1st, Southwest Division (3rd, Western Conference), Second-Round Exit


 #2 Oklahoma City Thunder

A healthy Russ & KD is a scary thought for the rest of the conference. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)
A healthy Russ & KD is a scary thought for the rest of the conference. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: G Cameron Payne (Murray State, 14th overall), Coach Billy Donovan

Top DOGs: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook | Star UnderDOGs: Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter | Salty DOG: Nick Collison


#AllOrNothing

Billy Donovan is the fresh voice OKC needed. (Layne Murdoch/Getty Images)
Billy Donovan is the fresh voice OKC needed. (Layne Murdoch/Getty Images)

OKC might be the last team standing when it is all said and done. When you have two of the league’s top-5 players during their prime, the possibilities are endless. Honestly, the Thunder would have been in contention last year had Kevin Durant stayed healthy.

They return (basically) the same roster in 2015-16, including recent additions Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters. Kanter, now a $70 million man, is as strong as an ox and has touch both inside and out. He’s a walking double-double and could have a monster year with Durant and All-World guard, Russell Westbrook.

OKC is afforded the luxury of running offense through either Durant, Westbrook or Kanter. And on the defensive end, coach Billy Donovan can slot Serge Ibaka next to Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and co. to get stops. From top to bottom, OKC has impact performers.

KD and Russ are surrounded by their best supporting cast since 2012. Not many contenders have two, true superstars in the lineup. For that reason alone, OKC is always on deck to blast the door wide open.


Projected Starting 5:


MVP Me:

AP THUNDER TIMBERWOLVES BASKETBALL S BKN USA MNWestbrook put up ungodly numbers last season as he almost led OKC to the 8th spot. A complete freak of nature, he bullied his way to a league-best 28.1 ppg, 8.6 apg, & 7.3 rpg. Westbrook’s numbers are best explained as “Jason Kidd’s all-around game mixed with an unrivaled, overwhelming athletic ability the league has never seen.”

You won’t find many people who believe Westbrook has a shot to compete for MVP honors while Durant shares the same court. However, don’t count him out. An underrated aspect of Russell’s game is his propensity to adapt to his situation while putting his own spin on things, meaning lots of dimes and more than a few explosive performances like this:


Season Prediction:

-OKC has three All-Stars (Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka) and advances to the Conference Finals.

1st, Northwest Division (2nd, Western Conference), Will Lose In Conference Finals


#1 Golden State Warriors

Back to back?? (Getty Images)
Back to back?? (Getty Images)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: F Jason Thompson (via trade w/ PHI), G Ian Clark (free agent, DEN), F Kevon Looney (UCLA, 30th overall)

Key Losses: F David Lee (BOS), G/F Justin Holiday (ATL)

Top DOGs: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson | Star UnderDOGs: Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut | Salty DOG: Leandro Barbosa, Shaun Livingston


#QuestToRepeat

Stephen Curry is starting to become a transcendent figure. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Stephen Curry is starting to become a transcendent figure. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors are looking to go backkkk to backkkk, which would have been a crazy thought a year ago. Before the 2014-15 season, so many uncertainties surrounded this promising, yet largely inexperienced group led by Steve Kerr, a rookie head coach, and Curry, a budding superstar without much on his resume.

67 victories, an MVP trophy and Finals victory later, the Bay Area is buzzing about a potential dynasty starting to take place. The Dubs actually could turn into one, which is a crazy proposition in today’s landscape of the NBA. They return all 5 starters and almost every Key UnderDOG off the bench, including NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.

To make matters more interesting, Draymond Green (shooting consistency), Klay Thompson (aggressive driving down the lane) and Harrison Barnes (ball-handling, shooting consistency) each have room to improve. Stephen Curry and Steve Kerr are the faces of the franchise but the Dubs are a well-oiled machine with an endless supply of fuel.

GSW’s depth, moxie and confidence just might produce another banner year. Once a transcendent competitor like Steph Curry gets a taste of the highest honor professional basketball has to offer, anything less is an unacceptable reality.


Projected Starting 5:


Silencing Doubters:

Iggy

Depending on who you ask, Golden State caught a lot of breaks on the way to the top and aren’t true champions. Yeah, that couldn’t be further from the truth…

The Dubs dominated opponents on the way to 83 total wins (regular season & postseason), the 4th highest win total in league history. They were a top-5 team on both ends and contained the best player on the planet, on the game’s greatest stage, when it mattered most. The level of disrespect for a near 70-win team featuring the MVP is utterly ridiculous.

No need to worry, Dub Nation, Steph and co. will use it as added motivation on their quest to repeat.


Season Prediction:

-Golden State advances to the Semifinals but is ultimately done in by Tim Duncan and the Spurs.

1st, Pacific Division (1st, Western Conference), Second-Round Exit


#5 SAN ANTONIO SPURS

Kawhi Leonard's growth is the key to San Antonio's season. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)
Kawhi Leonard’s growth is the key to San Antonio’s season. (Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports)

Key Acquisitions & Draft Picks: F LaMarcus Aldridge (free agent, POR), F David West (free agent, IND), G Ray McCallum (via trade w/ SAC) G Jonathon Simmons (free agent)

Key Losses: G Marco Belinelli (SAC), F/C Aron Baynes (DET), F Jeff Ayres

Top DOGs: Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard | Salty DOGs: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, David West


#Remix

As long as Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovic are around, the Spurs are title contenders. (Getty Images)
As long as Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are around, the Spurs are title contenders. (Getty Images)

The San Antonio Spurs made the biggest splash of the summer when they signed star forward LaMarcus Aldridge to a max contract. It’s a welcome deviation from the normal, “Spursian” way of handling free agency: targeting mid-level players stateside and importing prospects from overseas.

Signing Aldridge sent a rippling effect in the West and may have shifted the power of balance back to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs. Tim Duncan may be in his last few rounds with Father Time but scored a knockdown after a few haymakers last season. Not only did Duncan make the All-Star team in 2015, he averaged a remarkable 18 points (on 59% shooting) and 11 boards during their 7-game playoff run.

That said, a few questions remain. Can Kawhi Leonard become a more aggressive presence offensively? Will Aldridge accept a lesser role and become a willing passer out of the post? How much gas does Tony Parker have left in the tank? (lowest points & assists average since his rookie season)

The Spurs don’t have as much depth as previous seasons but is as talented as anyone in the conference. They may get off to a rough start as rotations and roles are sorted out but by April, Pop’s squad will be geared up for a title run.


Projected Starting 5:


Ginobiliiiiiiiiiiiiii:

Manu G.

Manu Ginobili looked like a shell of his former self during last year’s playoffs, averaging only 8 points/game on 35% shooting. He struggled finishing his usual plays in the lane and was not a reliable option from outside.

It’s tough to gauge how much Manu has left in the tank in his final season, but there’s no question about it…San Antonio won’t be able to win another championship without his intangibles.


Season Prediction:

-The Spurs will advance to the ultimate stage and narrowly miss out on championship number 6.

2nd, Southwest Division (5th, Western Conference), Will Lose in NBA Finals


#DOFGAME #DOG

-Jabari J.

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