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The NBA’s Western Conference has been the far more competitive half of the league since the San Antonio Spurs claimed their first championship in 1999. Since the start of this century, the West has produced 12 NBA champions, as opposed to just six for the East. True to form, the moves this offseason saw several superstars and All Stars head from east to west, with only one All Star talent (Gordon Hayward), going east. The rich keep getting richer.
The West has some new faces for this next go-round, and with them come new questions. Here are the 5 things to watch out for in the torture chamber that is the NBA’s Western conference this season:
1. Can ANYONE Stop the Golden State Warriors?
We start with the same question we’ve been asking since last summer when Kevin Durant joined Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in the Bay Area. We’re still asking it, because thus far, no one has been able to stop them. The Warriors coasted through the playoffs last year, going 16-1 en route to their second title in three years. This summer, the Warriors added Nick Young and Omri Casspi, lost none of their core, and actually got better. It feels unfair at this point.
Yes, the Warriors are the absolute favorites to win the title this year, but don’t rush to pencil them in just yet, despite how stacked this roster looks. Keep in mind, over this remarkable three year run, Golden State has been unbelievably lucky in terms of injuries. Sure, there have been some missed games here and there, and Curry was clearly hurt in the 2016 Finals when they lost to Cleveland. But overall, this team has dodged the major injury bug. They are overdue for their fair share of bad luck.
On top of that, other teams got better this Summer. Oklahoma City stocked up an arsenal, Houston added Chris Paul,the young guns in Minnesota could be dangerous, and Kawhi Leonard is healthy. Golden State is deep enough to survive a big injury, but things will get harder. All things being equal, no one will stop the Warriors. But let’s see if all things are equal come playoff time.
2. How Good Can the Oklahoma City Thunder Be?
Last season, Russell Westbrook was incredible as he captured the MVP award. He averaged a triple-double, a feat only accomplished once before, by the great Oscar Robertson. For Oklahoma City to have had any chance each night, Westbrook had no choice but to do everything for this team. The roster was so bereft of talent, it all fell on Westbrook’s shoulders.
The Thunder recognized the problem and responded accordingly, acquiring both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony via trades this summer. They now have three top-25 players. On paper, this team should have the pieces to be the toughest challenger the Warriors will face. One of Golden State’s few weaknesses has been the inability to stop penetrating point guards, and Westbrook in particular has always given them trouble. George’s defensive ability, along with specialist Andre Roberson, gives OKC the defenders to match up with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. Carmelo Anthony playing power forward may present Draymond Green with a rare challenge.
This team can be very good. However, the Thunder have a track record of running poor offense. Their system under Scott Brooks, and to a lesser extent under current coach Billy Donovan, seems to have relied heavily on isolation basketball. If Donovan uses that strategy here, despite the immense talent of his big three, this team will never be more than pretenders. Golden State isn’t great only because they have great players. They are great because they get very easy shots for great players. If OKC can figure out how to run a system that gets easy looks for Westbrook, George and Anthony, the Warriors may actually have something to worry about in the West.
3. Will Chris Paul and James Harden Actually Work?
James Harden has always been a terrific player (at least on the offensive end), and for several years was the best shooting guard in the NBA. Last season, Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni moved Harden to point guard, and it was as if someone had taken off the training wheels. The best shooting guard in the league was even better running the show. Harden averaged 29 points (2nd in the league) and 11 assists (first in the league), while finishing second in MVP voting. And then this summer, the Rockets went out and acquired Chris Paul, and moved Harden back to shooting guard. Makes sense, right?
I’ve always been a huge fan of Chris Paul, and I think in general, if you can acquire him, you always do it. However, Houston already had a point guard who was a dominant scorer and remarkable play maker. Was Paul, who has averaged 18.7 points and 9.9 assists per game for his career, the best possible option? Yes, Paul makes them better, he would make any team better. But he didn’t fill any needs Houston had. They still don’t really have a slashing threat or any kind of low post scoring option. Houston will be exciting to watch, and you can expect some beautiful passes each night with Harden and Paul in the back court. But will this be style over substance, as so many Mike D’Antoni teams have been in the past? We’re about to find out.
4. Are the Minnesota Timberwolves Dark-Horse Contenders?
Starting at the beginning of last season, most NBA fans realized that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ time was probably coming soon. With exciting young players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach Lavine, it seemed inevitable this core could be a problem in the west in about 3 to 4 years. Minnesota went 31-51 last season, reinforcing the notion that they were on their way, but not ready yet. Then on draft night, Minnesota traded Lavine (and other considerations) to the Chicago Bulls for Jimmy Butler. With one move, the Timberwolves pressed fast-forward on their timetable.
Butler is one of the best two-way players in the league, and has been a favorite of coach Tom Thibodeau since their time together in Chicago. With Butler alongside Towns and Wiggins, this team may be very good right now, forget a few years from now. They still need to fill out their depth better, and Towns and Wiggins still have room to improve. But don’t be surprised to see the Timberwolves snagging a playoff spot.
5. Will the New Orleans Pelicans be a Beautiful Train Wreck?
Along with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Denver Nuggets, the New Orleans Pelicans are one of the teams that were lottery bound last year that many expect to earn a playoff berth this season. The reason is simple: New Orleans boasts the best big man combination in the league. Last season, the Pelicans acquired DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings via trade. Pairing Cousins, arguably the best center in the NBA, with Anthony Davis, the league’s best power forward, gave New Orleans a potentially devastating front court. It was a bold strategy in a league skewing towards smaller lineups, and this year, we’ll see if it pays off.
Due to the trade being mid-season, Cousins and Davis never got the chance to fully gel. Now with a training camp under their belts, the Pelicans hope these two can punish opposing teams inside. New Orleans also went out and acquired Rajon Rondo this summer. Rondo has been one of the NBA’s best play makers for the past decade. Cousins and Davis need someone to get them the ball, and a passer like Rondo solves that problem. It could work. It could also go spectacularly wrong.
Rondo has a history of being a bit of a headache, having been suspended for conduct detrimental to the team at multiple stops. Cousins had more than his fair share of controversies while with the Kings. Rondo will miss the start of the season with injury, but when he returns, these two together could be a time bomb waiting to go off. Winning cures all ills, and if New Orleans is playing well, I expect it to all be fine. But if they are struggling, watch out for some terrific meltdowns. I hope it doesn’t happen, if only for poor Anthony Davis’ sake.