2015–16 NBA Outlook Pt. II

Sky is the limit for the Thunder with a healthy Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But what role will Durant’s pending free agency play this season?
A complete breakdown of each team in the Western Conference for the 2015–16 season

You won’t find mercy in the Western Conference. It hasn’t been found in year’s past and with teams reloading left and right, it probably won’t for years to come. According to the Bovada Vegas odds, five of the top six favorites to win the championship play here. This conference is not for the feint of heart. Golden State was historically great last year. You think 2014–15 MVP Stephen Curry and co. will let up the gas now? There’s also the perennial ageless contenders in San Antonio, but this time, they have LaMarcus Aldridge. The Rockets and Clippers look as good as ever with both making numerous improvements to their bench this summer. And what about the sleeping giant in Oklahoma City? Will a healthy Kevin Durant help catapult them back to the top of the conference? Now let’s throw in Memphis, who can play with anyone, Dallas, who seems willing to pay anyone, and improving teams in Utah and Phoenix. Did I even mention Damian Lillard or DeMarcus Cousins yet? What about the last two number one overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns? You know Anthony Davis is ready to build his empire here too right? Hell, even Kobe is still jacking up shots on the Lakers. Prepare for another blood bath in the Western Conference ladies and gentlemen.

Predictions include each team’s expected win total according to the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook and whether or not I think each team will go over or under that total


15. Minnesota Timberwolves

Despite trading franchise cornerstone Kevin Love and coming off a 16 win season, there’s plenty reason for optimism in Minnesota. With the horrendously sad news of Flip Saunders passing, veteran assistant Sam Mitchell will be challenged with the responsibility of guiding a young team headlined by Rookie of the Year, Andrew Wiggins, top overall pick, Karl-Anthony Towns, and veteran, Kevin Garnett.

It’s pretty clear that Minnesota made the right decision trading Love to Cleveland. You can tell because if Glen Taylor called David Griffin to offer Wiggins for Love right now the Cavs would say yes in about .0004 seconds. Wiggins is one of the most promising second year players in some time and the prospect of playing with Towns definitely sets the foundation in place for future success.

But don’t be quick to sour on the other Timberwolves prospects either. Second-year high flyer, Zach LaVine has won the starting shooting guard job over veteran Kevin Martin (someone who could definitely be trade bait for a contender) and Shabazz Muhammad is healthy after improving as a wing scorer last year. While Garnett’s primary objective is to mentor young Towns, surely Gorgui Dieng will be helped by his presence as well. Throw in veterans Tayshaun Prince and Andre Miller, not to mention a healthy Ricky Rubio, and you have a pretty interesting recipe in Minnesota, even if they don’t win a lot of games.

14. Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers face a tough dilemma in the 2015–16 season. They aren’t going to be very good, especially in the West. After two straight years in the playoffs it’s likely back to the lottery for Neil Olshey and Terry Stotts.

Portland was near the top of the standings in the West with a nucleus of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez, but when Matthews went down with a ruptured achilles things got wonky. The Trail Blazers stumbled some down the stretch before quietly bowing out to Memphis in the first-round of the playoffs. Failed attempts at cultivating a bench became the blame but the truth of the matter was that Matthews getting hurt really just took the wind out of their sails.

Then Olshey sent Batum — coming off the worst season of his career — to Charlotte for Gerald Henderson (expiring deal) and former top-10 pick, Noah Vonleh, who couldn’t crack Steve Clifford’s rotation. With Matthews rehabbing and entering max deals from Sacramento and Dallas in free agency, any hope of retaining their nucleus went down the drain when Aldridge opted to leave $30 million on the table in Portland to sign with the Spurs.

So Portland will come into the year solely looking for talent to build on. Unlike most teams near the bottom of the league, the Trail Blazers already have something so difficult to come by, a superstar. With Lillard the Blazers will be in a bunch of games. He may even lead the NBA in scoring. But Portland won’t make the playoffs as Stotts fully expects to give guys like Vonleh, C.J. McCollom, and Allen Crabbe every opportunity to prove they belong in the rebuilding plans. Also look for guys like Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Mason Plumlee to take on expanded roles after joining the team this summer. Ultimately the Trail Blazers won’t be very good and will have to endure a slight rebuild after the Aldridge departure.

13. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers deserve some credit for adding talent in free agency. With Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, and Lou Williams as clear upgrades over Jordan Hill, Carlos Boozer, and Jeremy Lin, they’re better on paper. Unfortunately for the Lakers, and fortunately for Lakers despisers, the reality is that things will get worse before they get better.

The return of a healthy Kobe Bryant brings mixed feelings. On the one hand, even a 37-year-old Bryant offers the Lakers “star power,” and that’s vital in Los Angeles. He’s going to make a lot of highlight plays. There will always be a buzz when he takes the court. But it will consistently come at the expense and development of the team, because he is Kobe after all. The reality of the situation is that the Lakers and Bryant enter the 2015–16 season at a stalemate knowing that neither side can function without the other. Without Bryant, the Lakers aren’t interesting, and even the most savvy LA fans would riot if his departure was unceremonious. Without the Lakers, Bryant doesn’t have the platform to play the way he wants to play. He’ll never be the veteran presence on a contender. Or a scorer off the bench. He doesn’t know how to play any other way, because after all, it’s Kobe. And Kobe is going to be Kobe even at the expense of the team.

The shining glimmer of hope for the future could be the Lakers’ downfall too. Even with Kobe firing up shots, the success of the season will hang on the development of Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, and D’Angelo Russell. They are the future in LA (at least for know). Each guy has had their ups and downs in the preseason, but there’s still reason for optimism across the board. Unfortunatley for the Lakers, they still play in the Western Conference, and that means a lot of losses. Worse yet, their 2016 first-round pick will be conveyed to Philadelphia if they finish outside of the top-3 in the draft, putting the Lakers in the unenviable position of being bad enough to miss the playoffs, but not bad enough to keep their pick.

12. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets seem to have it figured out when it comes to rebuilding. They won the Carmelo Anthony trade four years ago, and may have won another with the Ty Lawson deal. Lawson’s departure put an end to any of Denver’s playoff hopes, though it could pay dividends for the franchise in coming years. But it will take this year being ugly to get there.

Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay will get plenty of minutes but he can’t shoot, and point guards who can’t shoot don’t usually win games. In an ideal world, Gary Harris would emerge as starting caliber shooting guard, but last year’s play doesn’t inspire the most optimism. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari are back but neither guy truly moves the needle. Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic provide new coach Michael Malone an opportunity to have one of the better young front courts in the league. But trade rumors surrounding Faried and injury concerns to start the season with Nurkic make even the most certain thing a question mark heading into 2015–16.

The Nuggets won’t be good, but like many teams in their position they’ll at least be interesting. Mudiay will score a ton and probably win Rookie of the Year, Faried and Gallinari will have those weeks where they average double-doubles, and they’ll get up in down the floor like they always do in Denver. With as many as four first-round picks coming in 2016, the Nuggets will get better soon, but not this year.

11. Sacramento Kings

Either the Sacramento Kings — and owner Vivek Ranadive — live in a fantasy land or they really believe that the Kings can compete right now. It’s a false sense of reality that spawned from a 9–6 start (and more importantly, a positive net rating and a defensive rating that was in the top half of the league) a year ago before all-world center DeMarcus Cousins got injured. When Cousins went out, the Kings dropped seven of nice games, Mike Malone (the only coach Cousins had ever really warmed up to) was fired, and the Kings were back to, well, being the Kings.

For a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in nine seasons, there’s no where to go but up right? With the 25-year-old Cousins as a cornerstone, the Kings will have one of the best low post performers in the league. Throw in rookie Willie Cauley-Stein and free agent addition Kosta Koufos and you have one of the best front court rotations, not only in the Western Conference, but in the NBA. Rudy Gay quietly had a productive season in Sacramento a year ago. He was rewarded with a three-year $40 million extension that caused some chagrin among the snarkier NBA analysts. But ultimately it came down to Sacramento’s inability to sign quality free agents. They dangled $64 million in front of Wesley Matthews, and he chose to sign with Dallas, for less (this is tricky though because he agreed to $54 under the condition that Dallas would get DeAndre Jordan. When that fell through, Mark Cuban was forced to honor his original offer of $70 million). Even the team’s prized free agent this summer, Rajon Rondo, only signed with the Kings once it was clear that there were no better offers coming in.

The frustration for Kings fans comes with a lack of sense for the direction. They just don’t seem to have a plan, and that falls on Vivek and President of Basketball operations, Vlade Divac. They hired George Karl even though his style couldn’t be less conducive to the makeup of their roster. They traded last years lottery pick, Nik Stauskas, for… They signed Rondo to play with a team that already can’t shoot even though the league has so clearly shifted toward an emphasis shooting and small ball styles. Even Cousins, the one undeniably salvageable talent they have, has been floated around in numerous trade rumors over the last eight months. I just don’t like the Kings, I don’t like their direction, because at this point nothing really makes sense.

10. Dallas Mavericks

Since shocking the world and winning a championship in 2011, Dallas has become a pretender playing the part of a contender. The truth is, Dirk hasn’t really been good in four seasons. Longtime role players like Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, Devin Harris, or Tyson Chandler have either moved on, been traded, or struggled to stay healthy. Rick Carlisle has done an excellent job, considering that his team is built around a 37-year-old power forward. It just always seems like Dallas is trying to do too much. Whether that’s overpaying for Chandler Parsons, bringing in Amare Stoudemire, or trading for Rajon Rondo, GM Donnie Nelson has lived stuck in between contending and setting up a succession plan for the future once Dirk retires.

I guess the Mavericks never really have been about succession plans though under Cuban. Besides Dirk, who’s the last young player who to grow and develop into a contributor? It wasn’t Devin Harris. They traded him for Jason Kidd right before he became an All-Star. It wasn’t Steve Nash either. He was Dirk’s best friend in the league and they still let him go to Phoenix where he’d win two MVP’s and become a Hall-of-Famer (not to mention become the head of a team that would present Dallas with problems in the playoffs for years to come). The Mavericks haven’t had a first-round pick play for them since Maurice Ager played 32 games as a rookie in 2006. Before that, it was Josh Howard in 2003. Is it really fair to criticize Nelson and Carlisle for building their roster through free agency? Some would argue that they owe it to Dirk to keep trying. So Dallas swung and missed with DeAndre Jordan, and overcompensated by bringing in Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews (for four-years $70 million, yuck, even with the new cap), and a bunch of guys like Javale McGee, Sam Dalembert, and Zaza Pachulia, all guys who would have cracked the mid-70’s in your NBA 2K12 ratings.

I just want to be clear, I love Wesley Matthews, but I hate this move for Dallas. Cuban has always been the guy who’s been willing to open the checkbook, it’s just always for the wrong guys. And it’s been easy, considering that he’s had the luxury of lining them up next to Dirk for nearly two decades. But with Dirk in the twilight of his career, the Mavericks are coming off as a team that’s too desperate to remain relevant in the top-heavy West. A year ago Dallas had the best offense in the NBA until they traded for Rajon Rondo. They snuck into the playoffs as the seven seed before quietly bowing out to Houston. This year they’ve let Rondo walk and acquired Williams, a player who some may argue, is worse than Rondo.

I just don’t understand what the Mavericks are doing. With DeAndre Jordan, they have a starting five that I could potentially get behind. Without, I can’t help but notice each guy’s’ deficiencies. Williams is past his prime. Matthews is paid and coming off an achilles tear. Parsons is a nice young player but are we sure he doesn’t spend more time on magazine covers than he does in the Mavericks practice facility? Dirk is old. The centers have all been given up on so many times that I don’t even think Carlisle can save them. I don’t even want to waste precious paper space on their bench guys. There really isn’t much else to say. I predict a massive disaster looming in Dallas. Maybe Carlisle and Dirk are good enough to string together a respectable 40 win season. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. Not with Utah, Oklahoma City, and Phoenix all looming just outside the playoff picture.

9. Utah Jazz

Utah hasn’t made the playoffs since 2012. The last time the Jazz missed the playoffs for three straight years was 1980–83, the team’s first seasons in Salt Lake City. Under Jerry Sloan the Jazz had the the most formidable pick-and-roll combo in NBA history, Karl Malone and John Stockton, and more importantly, they were winners. Last year the Jazz didn’t win a lot of games, but they slowly started to develop the same winning atmosphere that made them so successful through the 90’s.

It all starts with coach Quin Snyder who demands excellence even if it’s not realistic. Snyder doesn’t care how young his team is, and still expects them to play defense. Behind Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert — an early favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year — the Jazz can definitely guard the ball down low. The question will be whether Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks (generally considered a pretty sub-par defender), and whoever is at point guard can pick up the slack. The Jazz will likely be a middle of the pack defensive team statistically, but make no mistake, they will defend.

There’s a lot of optimism in Utah about a return to the playoffs. While I agree with many of the same reasons for optimism, they seem one or two pieces away from making that leap. The Jazz were 19–10 after trading Enes Kanter a year ago, and that’s encouraging. But they also still play in the Western Conference. And they have the worst point guard situation in the NBA. Trey Burke will get the nod but Raul Neto has been interesting in the preseason. Snyder needs Burke to improve and while it will be in a “throw to the wolves” type of treatment, he’ll have the opportunity to play enough to sink or swim, especially without second-year guard Dante Exum. Beyond Hayward the Jazz really don’t have anyone who can stretch the floor either. And that’s imperative if still want to play big. Overall there’s plenty of reasons to be excited in Utah. The foundation is set, they just need some more help in the backcourt. The Jazz will be frisky though and with a few breaks here and there they may even make the postseason. It’s just too early to feel confident about that right now.

8. Phoenix Suns

When it comes to talking about the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Suns don’t seem to have a lot of fans. And why should they? After being the league’s cinderella team in 2013 and nearly making the playoffs, they took a major step back from a season ago. This included trading Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Morris, and a top-5 (now only top-3) protected pick from the Lakers for what amounted to be Brandon Knight and the money to sign Tyson Chandler, a 33-year-old defense only center. Talk about bad planning.

Unfortunately for Phoenix fans, Chandler’s signing probably comes at the expense of Alex Len’s development even if it does make their defense marginally better. Chandler was brought in a last second effort to help the Suns secure free agent LaMarcus Aldridge who ultimately went form one Western Conference foe and landed with another. Aldridge on the Suns was probably a pipe dream, but he did take two meetings. That’s more then anyone thought right? So if Aldridge considered Phoenix a desirable destination, why can’t I consider them as a playoff team?

Sure, the Chandler signing has it’s drawbacks, but at worst he’s a guy who can bang with the Gasol’s, Duncan’s and DeAndre’s of the West. He can also finish at the basket on the pick-and-roll. And most importantly, he gives the Suns a guy who can be their locker room leader, something they haven’t really had since Nash. I also really like Eric Bledsoe. He hounds opposing point guards as well as anyone in the league, and it doesn’t give up much on offense either. Though Brandon Knight probably isn’t worth the amount Phoenix gave up for him, there’s nothing more valuable then being in the right situation. On his third team in four seasons, Knight finally got the contract extension — five-years $70 million — he’d been looking for. Perhaps this is one of those cases where paying someone actually inspires them, especially since he’s never really felt at home since entering the league. Markieff Morris initially reacted poorly to his twin brother’s trade. But after a healthy preseason, he seems ready to go. If Phoenix can finally find someone to make their presence felt offensively on the wing — whether that’s T.J. Warren, Archie Goodwin, or rookie Devin Booker — coach Jeff Hornacek will finally have someone to play along with defensive standout P.J. Tucker.

A lot of people would classify the Suns as a franchise stuck in a place where no team wants to be: too good to rebuild and not good enough to contend. But I don’t see it that way. I see a dynamic backcourt that plays both end of the court, a healthy dose of perimeter talent just waiting for the opportunity to shine, and enough assets to potentially strike a deal if any disgruntled superstars become available. Morris, Goodwin/Booker/Warren, and a first-round pick? Find me a better trade package than that.

7. New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans took advantage of two things last year. They took advantage of a depleted Oklahoma City team to secure the final playoff spot in the Western Conference on the final day of the regular season. They also took advantage of having the league’s next best superstar — and maybe already the league’s best player — Anthony Davis. Though a sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Warriors wouldn’t be enough to save Monty Williams’ job, the Pelican fans have plenty of reason to be excited for their future under former Warriors’ assistants Alvin Gentry and Darren Erman.

So let’s start with the good things in New Orleans. Aside from Davis the Pelicans have a ton of flexible guys that can make plays on both ends of the ball. Tyreke Evans, often criticized for a lack of efficiency and an all-around underwhelming career after winning Rookie of the Year in 2009, was quietly pretty good last season. Eric Gordon also stayed healthy. Yes, you read that right. He wasn’t bad either, connecting on 45% of his threes. Alexis Ajinca, someone who was once the lowest rated player in NBA 2k12 (42), developed into a decent backup center. The coaching staff will be better too. Erman should help with a defense that underachieved and Gentry will make a decent offense around Davis even better.

But there’s a lot to be concerned with in New Orleans as well. For one, the team probably won’t truly be healthy until 2016. Evans just had knee surgery and will miss eight weeks. Luke Babbitt will start the year gimpy and Norris Cole is out indefinitely with a high ankle sprain. Omer Asik and Ajinca won’t start the year either, leaving Davis as the only serviceable center. That isn’t even mentioning Jrue Holiday’s 18 minute per game restriction, Gordan’s prevalent injury history, or the fact that Davis has only played 64, 67, and 68 games during his first three seasons. In addition, are we really sure that these pieces fit together even when everyone is healthy? If it kind of feels like Dell Demps is whiffing on the beginning of Davis’ prime by mortgaging multiple first-round picks for Holiday, Evans, Asik and his newly christened five-year $60 million extension, don’t worry, you aren’t the only one. At least they have Davis locked into the richest contract in NBA history, five-years $145 million.

The key now for Demps and the Pelicans, is to make sure that signing, the next big star Anthony Davis, doesn’t go as poorly as it did for the Texas Rangers in 2000 when they signed Alex Rodriguez (a guaranteed star in the same way as Davis) to a deal worth $252 million only to see him dominant on mediocre teams until he forced a trade to the New York Yankees in 2004. New Orleans can’t afford to underachieve, not with Davis, not in today’s NBA where players don’t feel the same loyalty and obligation to stick it out with the franchise that drafted them. Even with question marks regarding the roster makeup Davis is probably good enough to lead the Pelicans, as some analysts would predict, as high as the five seed in the West. But with so many injuries to start the year and a daunting first month of the schedule, it just doesn’t seem plausible that they would be able to win enough games. But be assured, no matter where New Orleans lands in the playoff picture, no one wants to face Davis in the first round you can bet that.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

Everyone wants to write out Memphis, but they just keep winning. In an era that’s shifted the game out towards the perimeter, the Grizzlies just keep pounding it inside. They’re like the hipsters of the NBA, collecting vinyl records and DVD’s in favor of the popular and more convenient streaming services. Mike Conley is constantly praised for being underrated even though he’s very clearly been one of the ten best point guards for a couple of years. Randolph, though aging, put up another standout campaign as well. With Gasol predictably taking the max to stay home in Memphis, the Grizzlies are well on their way to another 50 win season…right?

If old dogs don’t learn new tricks, then Memphis isn’t going to do anything about their lack of three point shooting. It’s as safe a bet as any to say that the Grizzlies will be below league average from behind the arc, even if they decide not to play Tony Allen as many minutes as usual with the addition of Matt Barnes. Actually, the biggest challenge for Memphis will be finding the appropriate rotation between Allen, Barnes, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, and the ageless Vince Carter. Between the six candidates who desire ample playing time, there are six candidates who do one or two things great, but nothing else well enough to warrant significant playing time. For Allen and Barnes that’s shooting, for Carter it’s defense, and for Green and Lee, consistency. Coach Dave Joerger will once again try and pus the right buttons to form a formidable starting five alongside Conley, Randolph, and Gasol. Who that will be? No one knows.

Even with all things pointing in the direction of another successful season, fans in Memphis are growing restless. While the team personifies a city built on toughness and grit, there’s only so long that they can be appreciated as a dark horse in the West before someone points at that they really haven’t done anything significant. It kind of seems like Memphis is always pushing someone to their breaking point on the way to their title run, doesn’t it? Even at optimal strength they need to get more dynamic. And though few would disagree with that sentiment, they still probably won’t and they’ll still win a bunch of games and put a scare in the eventual champs somewhere in the playoffs. It’s just a shame that even as the oldest team in the league, they’ll probably go down stubbornly clinging to the methods and tactics that got them here in the first place, without ever having played for a championship.

5. San Antonio Spurs

Any concerns about San Antonio contending in 2015–16 after a disappointing first-round exit at the hands of the L.A. Clippers went out the window when the R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich pulled off the move of the summer by acquiring All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldrdige. Even with Aldridge in the fold, the Spurs were still able to resign their young star Kawhi Leonard, three-point specialist Danny Green, along with the ageless Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. In an underrated deal, the Spurs also got David West to sign for $10 million less than he would have made by taking his player option in Indiana. Throw in a healthy Patty Mills, the versatile Boris Diaw, and the Summer League MVP Kyle Anderson, and you have another recipe for success.

There’s still two big questions in San Antonio. One is how will Aldridge’s presence, and ball stopping play, fit in the Spurs system built on ball movement and good shot selection? The other is how good will Tony Parker be after looking abysmal in games this summer with the French National Team? Neither of these can be answered until they take the floor on opening night. But the one thing that is certain is that the Spurs are the Spurs. They’re going to contend, no question, but they will punt on regular season games in a heart beat if it means putting them in a better position to win a playoff game. We’ve seen over the past three playoffs that the San Antonio can win on the road. They can’t however, win without a full team at their disposal.

While Aldridge’s presence has rightfully caused a lot of excitement, it came at the expense of guys like Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes, Tiago Splitter, and Marco Bellinelli. This is nothing to take lightly. Those guys knew the Spurs system in and out and they could overachieve whether they were playing 25 minutes a night, or if they were playing 10 minutes a night. It didn’t matter to them, the only thing that did, was winning. Before I pencil in San Antonio as title favorites I want to see how Ray McCallum, David West, and Jonathan Simmons come off the bench. I also think the Spurs have one more veteran wing player to acquire, whether that be through a trade, or through a buyout somewhere along the way. They still seem one playoff proven guy behind Leonard, Green, and Ginobili short of winning a title.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s do or die time in Oklahoma City, even with a new coach, and two of the league’s top five players. Everyone in the NBA wants to win their division, then their conference, and then go on to win the Finals. But it feels like the Thunder sort of have to. Point blank, they have to win to keep Kevin Durant. This season is all about making sure that Durant knows his best interest is to stay in Oklahoma City. And that’s controversial at the moment.

We know Durant can coexist beside Westbrook and Ibaka — a trio that when healthy still has yet to lose a playoff series — but the rest of the roster, remains unclear. The Thunder will have to count on last seasons’s midseason additions, Enes Kanter and Dion Waiters, to help them reach the Finals for the first time since 2012. That’s a tough ask for three players who’ve done very little in their careers. Kanter was exiled from Utah for failing to buy into his defensive responsibilities. That’s hardly a criminal act by general NBA standards, but when he was resigned to a controversial 4-year $70 million deal this summer, it became a point of emphasis for Thunder naysayers. In Waiters, the Thunder have a guy who, at his best, can score in bunches. But at his worst, Waiters is among the least playable guys in the league. He has been lamented for his atrocious shot selection, and his pouting on the court when the ball doesn’t come his way, on numerous occasions. Still, he’s three years removed from being the fourth overall pick, and even though it’s rare, there are moments where he looks like a formidable piece on a quality team. With limited options at shooting guard, he kind of has to get a look.

Even with Durant limited to 27 games — 26 of which came prior to the All-Star break — the Thunder still managed to hang in the playoff picture until the final night of the regular season. Russell Westbrook went full-fledged attack mode and ended up nearly carrying the team the postseason himself. If Durant’s truly healthy, there’s little doubt that the Thunder will find themselves back on the right side of 50 wins again. But adjusting to a new system, new role players, and constantly facing the scrutiny of Durant’s pending free agency will be a challenging road to navigate. Like many of their counterparts in the Western Conference, the Thunder are pretty much championship or bust in 2015–16.

3. Golden State Warriors

Relax Golden State fans, relax. I still believe the Warriors are the best team in the league. I still think Steph is going to be firing threes at a historically accurate rate. I still think they’ll defend and share the ball with unprecedented unselfishness. I still think Draymond will be doing Draymond things over an 82 game course. I just don’t think the Warriors are going to win quite as many games as a year ago.

I talked about it in pt. 1 of this column with Atlanta, it’s very hard to win 60 games in back-to-back years It’s a task that will be even more difficult with the Clippers, Spurs, and Thunder improving. You’re won’t convince me that Steve Kerr being out to start the season isn’t worth something. While getting healthy is obviously the top priority, the drop-off from Kerr to Walton could be significant. Kerr commanded a different level of respect as a former player then Walton will because his playing days ended long enough ago that he wasn’t mistaken for their peers. Walton played against guys like Bogut, Iguodala, and Livingston, valuable role players who’s ability to buy into Kerr’s team first philosophy was paramount in the team’s success a year ago.

If I’m the Warriors I have more questions then answers. When does Harrison Barnes turning down a $64 million extension after Klay Thompson, Green, Curry, and Livingston all took discounts to help keep the team together become a thing? Can guys like Bogut with a spotty injury history stay healthy for a full season again? Everyone celebrated David Lee’s sacrifice but maybe his presence was a motivational factor for Green and Barnes to play well enough to keep their starting jobs? I’ve got questions, but would anyone be surprised to see Golden State win 60+ games again? I wouldn’t.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

Teams always go into the off-season with a plan. Suck at defense? Get some rim protectors. Need some scoring off the bench? Go get an inbetweener guard that shoots the three and can run the pick-and-roll. For the Clippers, that off-season need was bench depth. The Clippers’ biggest downfall in 2014–15, and especially the playoffs, was being forced to play guys like Hedo Turkoglu, Austin Rivers, Glen Davis, and Spencer Hawes significant minutes. That’s a recipe for disaster. And after a triumphant seven game first-round series over the defending champion Spurs, it finally bit them in the ass against Houston in round two.

So enter stage left, veteran Paul Pierce, a favorite of Doc Rivers who even at 38-years-old provided plenty of leadership and big shots for the Wizards a season ago. He’ll certainly help crunch time small ball lineups with Griffin at five throughout the season. And coming in stage right, comes Lance Stephenson. A year after signing a lucrative free agent deal with Charlotte, Stephenson has been exiled to Los Angeles (a New York kid, of all places…) where he’ll look to recapture the magic that made him a fixture on the Pacers the previous three seasons. He can provide toughness and energy at three positions and can also handle the ball if needed. But wait, there’s more. The Clippers also signed Josh Smith, Pablo Prigioni, and Wesley Johnson. Smith in particular isn’t a guy who can be counted on for 30+ minutes anymore, but the Clippers saw first hand how valuable he can be as a mismatch nightmare off the bench. Prigioni can provide toughness when Rivers isn’t hitting shots. And Johnson can fill the Matt Barnes role by providing tough defense, good enough shooting, and always being willing to foul a guy to stop a layup.

In two years with Doc Rivers at the helm, the Clippers have won 113 games, navigated the Donald Sterling saga, and kept DeAndre Jordan from leaving L.A. for Dallas even when it was all but certain that he would. But even with Chris Paul (30), Griffin (26), and Jordan (27), the Clippers are the fourth oldest team in the league. While the desperation to win now isn’t necessarily at the same level as it is in Oklahoma City, the clock is definitely ticking.

  1. Houston Rockets

When GM Daryl Morey acquired Dwight Howard to play alongside James Harden two seasons ago, the Rockets officially put the rest of the league on notice. They weren’t just here to be some happy-go-lucky three-point shooting team that would win 50 games and get bounced in the first-round every year, they were here to contend for a title.

The Rockets dealt with numerous injuries throughout the regular season. It started in November when Patrick Beverley missed a handful of games with a bad hamstring. Then he got back, and Terrance Jones went out for 41 games with a contusion. Howard missed 37 games with bad knees too. And even when Jones and Howard came back, they lost Donatas Motiejunas and Beverley (again) for the rest of the season. If it wasn’t for Harden’s individual brilliance and the savvy mid-season acquisitions of guys like Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, and Pablo Prigioni, the Rockets surely wouldn’t have been able to secure the #2 seed in the playoffs. After making quick work of the Dallas Mavericks, the Rockets soon found themselves down 3–1 to the L.A. Clippers in the second round. But then something happened. The Rockets won three straight including coming back from a 19-point deficit in the second half of Game 6 in L.A. All though the Rockets were bounced by the Warriors in only five games, the Rockets seemingly took that next step. Two years ago, they were upset by Portland during the first-round in five game, last year, they were three wins from the Finals, somewhere Houston hasn’t been since 1995–96 with Hakeem Olajuwon.

After winning an already impressive 56 games as an unhealthy team a year ago, I predict a major increase in performance for Houston in 2015–16. But it all hangs on the health of Dwight Howard and new point guard Ty Lawson. The sentiment that Howard may revert to “his former self in Orlando” is probably over. He just isn’t that guy anymore and the Rockets don’t really need him to be. Instead, they just need him to play the way he did throughout the postseason where he averaged 16.4 PPG, 14.0 RPG, and 2.3 BPG. The Rockets know what they have with Harden and Ariza on the wing. They have two guys who can score and one guy who can defend. While he made strides a year ago, Harden still is a below average defender. That could play pivotal in whether or not Kevin McHale decides to start Lawson or bring him in as an energy, change-of-pace guy, off the bench. Lawson’s play will determine whether or not Houston can win the West. If he’s who he was before his trouble in Denver, be prepared now, the Rockets are going to win a lot this year.

My obligatory picks for the following:

NBA Executive of the Year

R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs
David Griffin, Cleveland Cavaliers
John Hammond, Milwaukee Bucks
Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets
Pat Riley, Miami Heat

This award is one of the easier ones to pick. With the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, R.C. Buford secured not only an All-Star caliber player, but a cornerstone for the future of the franchise once 39-year-old Tim Duncan actually decides to hang it up.

Coach of the Year

David Blatt, Cleveland Cavaliers
Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
Fred Hoiberg, Chicago Bulls
Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

This is always a toss up because it’s so political. Last year Steve Kerr was probably snubbed and Gregg Popovich is probably snubbed every year he doesn’t win. In what amounts to be a popularity contest, I‘ll have to go with McHale. But full disclosure, I wanted to chose Rivers, but I just know he’ll never win because the Clippers are so “annoying.”

Rookie of the Year

Mario Hezonja, Orlando Magic
Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons
Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets
Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers
D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Justice Winslow, Miami Heat

Okafor is going to have the opportunity to put up huge numbers on a putrid Philadelphia team. I wouldn’t be surprised to be the first rookie since Blake Griffin to see him average 20 and 10. I like Towns and Russell too but they just won’t outscore Okafor.

Sixth Man of the Year

Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Jeremy Lin, Charlotte Hornets
Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

This is my least favorite award because it’s so consistently given to the player that scores the most points coming off the bench. Scoring isn’t everything, but in Isaiah Thomas’ case, it is. He’s probably going to lead a playoff team in points per game, and in my book, that probably earns you this award.

Most Improved Player

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons
C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards

If my prediction of Phoenix making the playoffs is to come true, the Suns are going to need someone that takes a big leap. Whether that’s a collection of talent across the board or someone like Bledsoe, or Brandon Knight for that matter, winning the Most Improved.

Defensive Player of the Year

Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat

Kawhi Leonard was a very reasonable pick to win DPOY last year. A lot of the players listed above will have great defensive seasons this year. But there’s only one guy I can count on to play with the same chip on his shoulder for 82 games no matter what. It also helps that he can defend all five positions on the floor.

Most Valuable Player

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
James Harden, Houston Rockets
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Hold your horses Anthony Davis. Hang tight LeBron James. Best player on the team with the best record usually leads to winning the MVP. It happened last year with Curry and it will happen again this year with Harden, who finished second in last year’s vote.

Projected Playoff Outlook

Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland over Chicago
Western Conference Finals: Golden State over Oklahoma City
NBA Finals: Cleveland over Golden State
Finals MVP: LeBron James

No explanation required, it’s Cleveland’s time, LeBron’s season. The Cavaliers paid $292 million to keep their team intact. It’s win or bust.