May 16, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (left) instructs point guard Tony Parker (9) during the third quarter in game six of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Spurs defeated the Warriors 94-82. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2013-14 Western Conference Projection: Thunder Slip to 5th Seed, Grizzlies to 7th; Pelicans, Trail Blazers Make Playoffs

          You can’t just have one half without the other, so with me predicting the Eastern Conference last week, the Western Conference had to be done! So here’s how I think the Conference will shake out next year, with accompanying reasoning:
1. San Antonio Spurs:
Until someone can give me a logical explanation as to why they shouldn’t be in the top spot, I am going to continue to give the Spurs the credit they deserve and put them at the top spot. Think the core is too old? Tony Parker and Tim Duncan both had great years. Think they lack scoring past the big three? Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are quickly developing into legitimate scorers. Think they’ll be hurt by the loss of playoff hero Gary Neal? They signed the ultra-accurate sniper Marco Bellinelli. Think they just aren’t good enough to be the top seed? Gregg Popovich is still their head coach.
2. Los Angeles Clippers:
This team is deeper than the Marianas Trench. Even though they acquired Reggie Bullock, Jared Dudley, Byron Mullens and J.J. Redick, and with all due respect to Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers biggest move in the offseason was to bring in Doc Rivers as their new head coach. Chris Paul should contend for the MVP award, the bench should be the best in the league and the young big man duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan should continue to develop. Rivers won a championship with a trio of superstars in Boston, and with a similarly talented (but deeper) team in Los Angeles, expect this team to make a title push.
3. Golden State Warriors:
Everybody knows Stephen Curry, but it’s the supporting cast around him that will push the Warriors to near the top of the conference – they’re REALLY good. David Lee remains one of the most underrated players in the league, acquiring Andre Iguodala provides toughness and another source of offense and Klay Thompson should only get better after a (slightly) disappointing year. With only one player (Jermaine O’Neal) currently over 30 years old, the team should continue to develop as well; Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli should all improve their play greatly in their sophomore seasons. If this team retains their current players, expect them to be near the top of the conference for years to come.
4. Houston Rockets:
Even with the acquisition of Dwight Howard, there are a number of questions that still make me wonder with this team. Is Kevin McHale really a championship caliber coach? Can they beat the big teams with Jeremy Lin at the point? Can Howard stay healthy/happy for an entire year? Who will start at power forward? COULD THEY REALLY BE PAYING OMER ASIK OVER $8 MILLION TO BE A BACKUP?!?! With all overpaid athlete references aside, this will be a fun team to watch. Harden should be great again and possibly even better than before (can you believe he’s only 23?). I believe Terrence Jones and Donatas Montiejunas, both power forward candidates, will develop into decent players and that Chandler Parsons is quietly evolving into a top-flight player. With so much talent, it’s hard to imagine this team not at the top of the conference, but with what happened with Howard in LA, I think there will be some growing pains in getting where they want to be.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder:
I’m actually an OKC fan (believe me, I was there through the days of Robert Swift and Mouhamed Saer Sene), but my reasoning for the step back has to do with the loss of a third legitimate scoring option. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will be great, but even if they average 27.5 points each, 55 points won’t win an NBA game. Jeremy Lamb may be a very good player long term, but as of right now he can’t replace the production Kevin Martin was giving them last year. Ronnie Brewer, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka are all good athletes and defenders, but none can give consistent scoring every night. All of their young guys — Steven Adams, Grant Jerrett, Perry Jones, DeAndre Liggins and Andre Roberson — need some time to bake before they can be productive NBA players. Westbrook and Durant will keep this team above water, but they better hope the young guys develop fast if they want to remain at the top of the conference.
6. New Orleans Pelicans:
I really like the moves to bring in Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans; not only because it shows they want to win immediately, but because it shows they want to be good for a long time. Currently, EVERY player on the roster is under 28 years old, and they suddenly have a very nice three-person backcourt with Holiday, Evans and Eric Gordon. In addition, I expect Austin Rivers to rebound from his disastrous rookie season. I mean, it can’t get much worse, can it? Anthony Davis should build on what  I believe was a very successful rookie campaign and reach a superstar level this year, pushing this team into the playoffs.
7. Memphis Grizzlies:
Here’s my thinking: Even though the team hasn’t lost any huge players, losing Lionel Hollins will, in my opinion, hurt the Grizz greatly. I know David Joerger was an assistant under Hollins the previous year, but I see problems occurring in transition between coaches. In addition, defensive ace Tony Allen and post threat Zach Randolph are both over 30. If either of them see their skills diminish, this team could be in trouble, particularly with Randolph, who is essential to the scoring of a team that is already a bit weak offensively. Now, there is still good stuff on this team. Marc Gasol is arguably the best center in the league, Mike Conley is developing into an elite level point guard and they got a steal getting Jamaal Franklin with the 41st pick in the draft. With good defense and an improving bench (see Quincy Pondexter, Ed Davis, Franklin and Kosta Koufos) this team should still get into the playoffs, but it will be a struggle.
8. Portland Trail Blazers:
If there are five guys to feel for in the league last year, it’s Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson. Seriously, it’s hard to put into words how bad the Trail Blazers bench was last year. “Terrible” or “brutal” barely scratches the surface. So what do they do? They help out the bench! Drafting high-octane guard C.J. McCollum should provide instant offense, and athletic guard Will Barton should develop into a decent bench player. I also love bringing in Thomas Robinson for almost nothing, who I think will be much better than his rookie year showed (the poor guy never got playing time), and Allen Crabbe, the talented guard from California. Hickson is gone, but Meyers Leonard, who had a decent rookie campaign (despite limited play time), or Robin Lopez, should fill in nicely to solidify a very good starting five. Perhaps I’m overestimating how much contribution the bench will make; even so, I think the starters will be enough to carry this team on a down year in the West.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves:
This ranking is completely dependent on my hunches that Derrick Williams will have a breakout year and that Kevin Love will be healthy. After Williams finally started getting significant playing time last year, he started to show some of the talent that made him get drafted second overall. Bringing in Kevin Martin was a very good move, giving them a consistent second scoring option to Kevin Love. Even if my hunches are correct, there are other question marks on this team. Nikola Pekovic has yet to be re-signed to a contract. Ricky Rubio and Alexey Shved can’t shoot. Shabazz Muhammad had a disastrous summer (I’m just talking about his play) and is looking like there was a very good reason for his stock falling. At the best they could sneak into the playoffs; if everything falls apart they could finish near the bottom.
10. Denver Nuggets:
Another team that I will be severely handicapped due to the loss of the incumbent head coach, this time with an even greater impact. In my opinion, George Karl was really THAT good. On top of that, they lost wing Andre Iguodala and Danilo Gallinari is coming off ACL surgery. For a team that doesn’t play great defense, losing two of their top scorers will hurt. On the bright side, the Gallinari injury should allow sharpshooter Evan Fournier to get more playing time, they still have a decent nucleus of Kenneth Faried, Ty Lawson, Gallinari and Wilson Chandler and made a good move bringing in big man J.J. Hickson who is coming off a superb year in Portland. I think this team will eventually right the ship but will be a mess until then.
11. Sacramento Kings:
In my opinion, the Kings made the best move in the offseason acquiring Greivis Vasquez, bringing the art of passing the ball to a city that evidently the philosophy didn’t reach. In all seriousness, this team does seem to be generating an identity, something that they lacked the past few years. They’re actually making a cohesive team rather than a bunch of shooters who don’t like to pass. To me, if they want to become a playoff team, I would make every effort I could to get rid of Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton and Isaiah Thomas to drop meaningless shooters and free up time for Ben McLemore and build a team around Vasquez, DeMarcus Cousins and McLemore (who I think will be a superstar). Picking up Patrick Patterson (from last year) and Carl Landry were very good moves in that they bolster the frontcourt with guys that don’t need a bunch of shots. As aforementioned, this team seems to be headed in the right direction, but they need to drop dead weight before they can make a big jump.
12. Los Angeles Lakers:
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. With an aging (and ailing) 34-year-old Kobe Bryant, a 39-year-old Steve Nash and a 33-year-old Pau Gasol, this franchise seems about a year or two out of complete rebuilding mode. Chris Kaman is a decent player, but he’s no replacement for Dwight Howard. Even Andrew Goudelock is gone. You could say they just don’t have any GOUDELOCK right now. See, even the jokes made about this team are awful. Anyway, even if Kobe, Gasol and Nash are healthy, the bench isn’t very strong; only Nick Young and 37-year-old Antawn Jamison are legitimate scorers. If there were ever a year for Wesley Johnson to salvage his career, this is it, as nobody in this senior-citizen’s roster is going to take playing time from him.
13. Dallas Mavericks:
Not sure what to make of this hodgepodge mashup of players, but I don’t think it will be very good. It kind of feels like they are in limbo between whether to tread water or go into complete rebuild mode. Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki are all 35 or older and seem to be near the end of their ropes. However, they are still around, as well as high volume shooter Monta Ellis, with young talents Shane Larkin, Ricky Ledo, Jae Crowder and Rodrigue Beaubois. They added a very good passer in Jose Calderon, but getting him and Ellis may be counterproductive, as it will limit the playing time of Larkin and Ledo. It’s really a confusing mix, and I don’t envy Rick Carlisle for having to deal with it.
14. Utah Jazz:
Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors got a present better than a million dollar inheritance when they found out that Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap would be leaving Utah. After struggling to find playing time behind one of the best big-man combos in the league, Kanter and Favors will finally get significant playing time and the chance to develop into elite big men. This team will not be good – in fact they will be REALLY bad – but with a bunch of young talents (Kanter, Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Rudy Gobert) in line to get a lot of playing time, it will at least be interesting to see if any of the talent lives up to the hype. Also, is Jeremy Evans going to get any playing time this year, or will it be another season where the only time we know he exists is the slam-dunk contest?
15. Phoenix Suns:
Let’s find a good word to describe this team… bad? Nope, that’s an understatement. Awful? Okay we’re getting warmer… Okay! I got it! Putrid! This team is putrid. With a runner-up finish in the summer league they show that they have talent for the future (Archie Goodwin looked like he could be quite good), but as for right now, the situation is bleak. I honestly can’t get over this roster. I mean, they might as well start out giving every guy on the roster 20 minutes per game and see who performs. To me, the two best players on the roster are both point guards; Goran Dragic is a very good point guard, and Eric Bledsoe is explosive and may break out this year. I am a bit interested in who will end up getting the most playing time in the frontcourt – can Alex Len stay healthy? Will Marcus and Markieff Morris make a good duo? Can Len get playing time with Marcin Gortat already at center? With so many question marks, no true scorers on the roster and no identity whatsoever, this team seems destined to be in the cellar of the conference.
          So that’s that. If you’ve come this far, thank you very much! I really appreciate it. As always, please feel free to voice your opinion in the comments below. Hope you enjoyed reading!

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