NBA Western preview: Spurs didn't change anything
In predicted order of finish.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Coach: Scott Brooks, 7th season with Thunder.
2013-14 record: 59-23, 1st place in Northwest Division. Lost in Western Conference Finals
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Kevin Durant, 32.0; Rebs — Serge Ibaka, 8.8; Asts — Russell Westbrook, 6.9.
Key losses: F Caron Butler, G Thabo Sefolosha G Derek Fisher
Key additions: G-F Anthony Morrow, F-C Mitch McGary
Pressure is on ...: Scott Brooks. At some point, the NBA world will conclude the shortcomings of the Thunder don't revolve around Russell Westbrook. Brooks had this great team for so long and now the clock is ticking on Durant's contract.
Rising star: G Reggie Jackson. He's playing for a contract and he'll get extra opportunity with Kevin Durant out for the first several weeks of the season. He's talented and explosive.
The skinny: Will Durant's missed time cause the Thunder to lose valuable ground in the Western Conference, or will the added responsibility given to Russell Westbrook keep the Thunder afloat?
Portland Trail Blazers
Coach: Terry Stotts, 3rd season with Trailblazers.
2013-14 record: 54-28, 2nd place in Northwest Division. Lost in 2nd round.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — LaMarcus Aldridge, 23.2; Rebs — Aldridge, 11.1; Asts — Damian Lillard, 5.6.
Key losses: G Mo Williams
Key additions: C Chris Kaman, G Steve Blake
Pressure is on ...: LaMarcus Aldridge. Entering the last year of his contract, he's blossomed into arguably the best power forward in the NBA. He's helped revitalize basketball in the Pacific Northwest, and if the Blazers take a step back, he'll take the lion's share of blame.
Rising star: G Damian Lillard. He followed up his surprising first year with a consistent second year, capped off by eliminating the Houston Rockets with a game-winner in the playoffs.
The skinny: Everything went right for the Blazers but their ceiling was barely getting out the first round to get swept by the Spurs next. They lack depth and may take a step back in the deep Western Conference.
Coach: Brian Shaw, 2nd season with Nuggets.
2013-14 record: 36-46, 4th place in Northwest Division.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Ty Lawson, 17.6; Rebs — JJ Hickson, 9.2; Asts — Lawson, 8.8.
Key losses: G Aaron Brooks, G Andre Miller, G Evan Fournier
Key additions: G Arron Afflalo, G Gary Harris
Pressure is on ...: C JaVale McGee. He spent last year on the sidelines with a fractured left tibia in what was supposed to be his breakout year. His history of careless plays and unfulfilled talent must come to an end, and soon.
Rising star: F Kenneth Faried. He opened more eyes this summer with Team USA. More than an energy guy, he's feeling more confident with his back to the basket and a midrange game. He just received a contract extension, which could turn out to be a bargain for Nuggets.
The skinny: The Nuggets still play fast, but Shaw has visions of playing the Phil Jackson triangle offense. Problem is, this team has no identity and plenty of players with similar talent. Sounds prime for a shake-up, or an up-and-down season.
Coach: Quin Snyder, 1st season with Jazz.
2013-14 record: 25-57, 5th place in Northwest Division.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Gordon Hayward, 16.2; Rebs — Derrick Favors, 8.7; Asts — Trey Burke, 5.7.
Key losses: F Marvin Williams
Key additions: G Dante Exum, G Rodney Hood
Pressure is on ...: Gordon Hayward. He signed an offer sheet with the Hornets before the Jazz matched a max deal nobody believed he was worth. Coming after a down year where he shot just 30 percent from 3-point range, he must be more efficient across the board to help the Jazz's development.
Rising star: G Alec Burks. It took the Jazz a couple years to realize Burks isn't a point guard, but he can make plays for teammates. He doubled his scoring average last year, and is a matchup problem in a league starving for good shooting guards.
The skinny: It's a slow rebuild in Salt Lake City for the past few years and this year looks to be more of the same with Snyder taking over for his first pro job. Trey Burke will have competition from Australian guard Dante Exum, but the two could take pressure off one another in a year where nobody expects anything.
Coach: Flip Saunders, 1st season with Timberwolves (10-year stint from 1995-2005).
2013-14 record: 40-42, 3rd place in Northwest Division.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Kevin Love, 26.1; Rebs — Love, 12.5; Asts — Ricky Rubio, 8.6.
Key losses: F Kevin Love
Key additions: G Andrew Wiggins, F Anthony Bennett, G Zach LaVine, G Mo Williams
Pressure is on ...: Ricky Rubio. Indirectly, Rubio could be pointed as the reason for Love's departure, considering management didn't want to give Love a five-year contract years ago because they were saving it for Rubio. But he hasn't had the effect on the floor, although he's an excellent passer. Doing more with a younger team will be expected
Rising star: G Andrew Wiggins. The first pick in a draft full of stars, he had the unfortunate designation of being used as a pawn for the Cavaliers trading for Kevin Love. But he's the best all-around player in the draft and perhaps the one sure-fire franchise player, if he can live up to it.
The skinny: It's the start of a long process for the Timberwolves, again, after losing a franchise centerpiece to trade, again (Kevin Garnett in 2007). Saunders is an excellent X's and O's coach, but coming down from the front office feels like more of a responsibility than a choice.
Los Angeles Clippers
Coach: Doc Rivers, 2nd season with Clippers.
2013-14 record: 57-25, 1st place in Pacific Division. Eliminated in second round.
2013-14 leaders: Pts —Blake Griffin, 24.1; Rebs — DeAndre Jordan, 13.6; Asts — Chris Paul, 10.7.
Key losses: G Darren Collison, F Danny Granger
Key additions: C Spencer Hawes, F Ekpe Udoh
Pressure is on ...: Chris Paul. The best point guard and leader in basketball hasn't made it to a conference finals as he approaches age 30, and made critical mistakes down the stretch of a couple playoff games last May. He's entrenched there, and at some point the pass he's been issued will disappear.
Rising star: F Blake Griffin. Although the numbers look the same, he really improved his game last season, becoming a better defender, rebounder and all-around scorer. No longer just a highlight machine, he's in the conversation for best power forward in the game.
The skinny: The negative air around the team has been lifted with the dismissal of former owner Donald Sterling, and they have enough in the way of coaching and personnel to make a Finals run, but can they overcome both Oklahoma City and San Antonio?
Golden State Warriors
Coach: Steve Kerr, 1st season with the Warriors
2013-14 record: 51-31, 2nd place in Pacific Division. Eliminated in 1st round.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Stephen Curry, 24.0; Rebs — Andrew Bogut, 10.0; Asts — Curry, 8.5.
Key losses: F-C Jermaine O'Neal
Key additions: G Leandro Barbosa
Pressure is on ...: Steve Kerr. Controversially, he was management's selection over a successful coach (Mark Jackson) who was adored by the players and fans. Kerr has never coached, but considering he was pursued by Phil Jackson and played under Gregg Popovich and Jackson, the expectations are higher for him than any first-year coach.
Rising star: G Klay Thompson. The best two-way guard in the NBA by far was the reason Golden State didn't make a deal for Kevin Love before Cleveland swooped in. An excellent shooter who worked his way to being an elite defender, he's the best shooting guard you don't think of off-hand.
The skinny: The Warriors had a "flashy" offense but didn't finish in the top 10 of most categories, rather being a stout defensive team. They battle injuries to their frontline, and a few precious games can mean the world in the West. But they can get hot and sneak into June.
Coach: Jeff Hornacek, 2nd season with Suns.
2013-14 record: 48-34, 3rd place in Pacific Division.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Goran Dragic, 20.3; Rebs — Miles Plumlee, 7.8; Asts — Dragic, 5.9
Key losses: G Leandro Barbosa
Key additions: G Isaiah Thomas, F TJ Warren
Pressure is on ...: Eric Bledsoe. He and the Suns were at a stalemate this summer before the Suns gave in to pay Bledsoe what he could've likely gotten as an unrestricted free agent. But he missed a lot of time in his breakout season last year, and has Isaiah Thomas playing alongside him and Dragic
Rising star: F Markieff Morris. On the same team as his twin brother Marcus, he's the better version of the two. He doesn't start but his efficiency and versatility for a team that plays small is hugely important, especially when he's used at center.
The skinny: The Suns are entertainingly unconventional, and added more it with the addition of Thomas, who could play three point guards on the floor at once. They barely missed out on the playoffs last May with 48 wins, and could find themselves on the outside looking in, through no fault of their own.
Los Angeles Lakers
Coach: Byron Scott, 1st season with Lakers.
2013-14 record: 27-55, 5th place in Pacific Division.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Nick Young, 17.9; Rebs — Pau Gasol, 9.7; Asts — Kendall Marshall, 8.8.
Key losses: F Pau Gasol, G Jodie Meeks, C Chris Kaman
Key additions: G Jeremy Lin, F Carlos Boozer, F Julius Randle
Pressure is on ...: Kobe Bryant. Pressure? Bryant eats pressure for breakfast. But the declining superstar is taking up a huge chunk of the salary cap, and speculation abounds that superstar players don't want to play for the Lakers as long as Bryant is still playing alpha dog. Not to mention Father Time is catching up to him, recovering from two serious injuries. He'll get his shots up, if nothing else.
Rising star: F Julius Randle. The comparisons to Memphis' Zach Randolph seem a bit overplayed, but the lottery pick has worlds of talent and can be a matchup problem for bigs because he can put the ball on the floor and take defensive rebounds to go end to end.
The skinny: Byron Scott was trumpeted by Lakers alumni as a return to old glory, but old glory won't be achieved with old Kobe, creaky Steve Nash and Swaggy P (Nick Young). Unless something miraculous happens, prepare for pain in Lakerland. They don't have nearly enough to compete in a stacked conference.
Coach: Mike Malone, 2nd season with Kings.
2013-14 record: 28-54, 4th place in Pacific Division.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — DeMarcus Cousins, 22.7; Rebs — Cousins, 11.7; Asts — Isaiah Thomas, 6.3.
Key losses: G Isaiah Thomas
Key additions: G Darren Collison, G Nik Stauskas
Pressure is on ...: Rudy Gay. Fairly or not, Gay has been branded as a scorer and nothing more, and that teams get better when they get rid of him. Memphis and Toronto last year are the glaring examples his detractors use. If he's able to help turn the Kings around, he reverses the narrative.
Rising star: G Ray McCallum. McCallum didn't get much attention last year but meshed well with Gay and DeMarcus Cousins last year when thrust into the starting lineup last April, averaging 12.6 points and 6.6 assists. He'll start out as a reserve, but he no longer has to prove he can play at this level.
The skinny: Talent has never been the Kings problem, and they made a play for Josh Smith over the summer, to make a potential deal for Smith's buddy Rajon Rondo look more palatable. They'll still hunt for deals and try to improve their defense, the only way to move up in a tough conference.
San Antonio Spurs
Coach: Gregg Popovich, 19th season with Spurs.
2013-14 record: 62-20, 1st place in Southwest Division; Won NBA title
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Tony Parker, 16.7; Rebs — Tim Duncan, 9.7; Asts — Parker, 5.7.
Key losses: None
Key additions: None
Pressure is on ...: Popovich, if anyone. Only because repeating is the one thing Pop hasn't been able to achieve during his illustrious career of coaching the Spurs for two decades. A repeat would not only give him six rings, but firmly place him in the "Greatest of All Time" discussion — one he wouldn't want to involve himself in, either way.
Rising star: F Kawhi Leonard. The Finals MVP stepped up last year, emerging from the shadows of the older, more celebrated Spurs to take the mantle against the Miami Heat. No longer underrated, he'll likely warrant All-Star consideration with his play, and be the main reason the Spurs are able to keep their run going.
The skinny: Tim Duncan still stirs this drink, and was as effective at 37 as he was at 21. As much as Pop created the Spurs way, Duncan is the system, and everything else revolves around him. The drive for six rings is on, and they'll have to deal with being the hunted better than they have in previous years. Getting to the Finals three straight years is an arduous task.
Coach: Kevin McHale, 4th season with Rockets.
2013-14 record: 54-28, 2nd place in Southwest Division. Eliminated in 1st round.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — James Harden, 25.4; Rebs — Dwight Howard, 12.2; Asts — Harden, 6.1.
Key losses: F-G Chandler Parsons, G Jeremy Lin
Key additions: F Trevor Ariza
Pressure is on ...: Dwight Howard. The best big man in today's game takes plenty of criticism from multiple directions, and he fled from Los Angeles to Houston because they were more ready for a title. He has a first-round exit and more questions in the time since. If not now, when?
Rising star: F Terrence Jones. They searched a long while for someone to place next to Howard as a complement and they found something with the 2012 lottery pick who started to blossom with more playing time. Tough, rugged and with an ability to make a mid-range jumper, Jones can help the Rockets in the long-term.
The skinny: Leadership has been the question surrounding the Rockets. The combination of Howard and James Harden never revolved around production but intangibles, accountability and in Harden's case, his lackluster defense. If he doesn't commit, this team goes nowhere no matter how talented it is.
Coach: Rick Carlisle, 7th season with Mavericks.
2013-14 record: 49-33, 4th place in Southwest Division. Eliminated in 1st round.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Dirk Nowitzki, 21.7; Rebs — Samuel Dalembert, 6.8; Asts — Monta Ellis, 5.7.
Key losses: F Shawn Marion, F-G Vince Carter, G Jose Calderon, C Samuel Dalembert
Key additions: F-G Chandler Parsons, C Tyson Chandler, G Raymond Felton, G Jameer Nelson
Pressure is on ...: Monta Ellis. Nowitzki unashamedly called Ellis the team's best player last year, unofficially passing over the mantle without much fanfare. Ellis can do it all from both guard positions, and is still just 29 years old. He shed some of the negative attributes associated with him last year; now he can show he can lead the Mavericks to a surprise finish.
Rising star: F-G Chandler Parsons. Parsons fled the Rockets for an in-state rival, and came to camp slightly overweight before Carlisle recanted his criticism. Most of his numbers were down in the playoffs last year but he's still highly regarded given his athleticism, shooting and youth (25), meaning he still has room to grow.
The skinny: Carlisle's coaching and some strong play enabled the Mavericks to give the Spurs their toughest matchup last spring, a seven-game series in the first round. They've had another roster re-do, but re-acquiring Chandler to boost their interior defense could pay dividends this year.
Coach: David Joerger, 2nd season with Grizzlies.
2013-14 record: 50-32, 3rd place in Southwest Division. Eliminated in 1st round.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Zach Randolph, 17.4; Rebs — Randolph, 10.1; Asts — Mike Conley, 6.0.
Key losses: F Mike Miller, G Jerryd Bayless
Key additions: F-G Vince Carter
Pressure is on ...: The bigs. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are the backbone of this consistent franchise, but time is running out. Randolph was suspended in a Game 7 they could've won against Oklahoma City, so that has weighed on him all summer. Gasol is approaching free agency, and signs point to him finishing his career elsewhere.
Rising star: G Mike Conley. Nobody expected him to be this good, particularly as a leader. After looking like a bust his first few years, he's developed into the coordinator of this tough and grimy Grizzlies team and an improving shooter and he's getting better at reading the floor.
The skinny: Could the Grit-n-Grime Grizzlies be a Western Conference casualty due to the depth? But if they emerge with another 50-win season, they'll be the toughest out in the West come playoff time. Adding Carter could prove to be an underrated move.
New Orleans Pelicans
Coach: Monty Williams, 4th season with Pelicans.
2013-14 record: 34-48, 5th place in Southwest Division.
2013-14 leaders: Pts — Anthony Davis, 20.8; Rebs — Davis, 10.0; Asts — Jrue Holiday, 7.9
Key losses: G Anthony Morrow, G Brian Roberts
Key additions: None
Pressure is on ...: Monty Williams. After a stellar first year, the bloom is somewhat off his rose and you wonder how much patience ownership will have for him after they acquired Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans in recent years, but no playoffs.
Rising star: F Anthony Davis. The best player not named "James" or "Durant" resides in the Big Easy. So long as he's healthy, he's a combination of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan in their primes, quick and long with a polished game. This will be his coming-out year
The skinny: Mismatched talent, to be sure. Pelicans management has to start thinking about Davis' future sooner rather than later, and if they go another year without sniffing the playoffs, you have to wonder in which direction this train will go next.