The season has yet to start, and during this time, even the worst projected teams come out of training camp eager to get the season going. Everybody's thinking positively (well, almost everyone) because everyone's starting with a fresh slate. There's still an air of "anything is possible" that vanishes once a team falls 15 games under .500.
This post and the following will introduce the Western Conference teams with nothing but optimism ranking them in the order of how they would line up if everything went perfectly. We start with teams 15 through 9 and will end with the top 8 in two days.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder:
Bringing up the rear is the newly moved, newly named ex-Seattle Supersonics. I still can’t get myself to call them the…Th…Th…Nevermind. This team, even through a crystal clear, optimism-filled lens, still projects to be the bottom feeder of the West. Of course, the shining ray of hope for this club is the talented youth littering their roster, headed by last years Rookie of the Year, Kevin Durant. He started to figure the NBA out in a really emphatic way in the second half of last season and if that continues as rapidly as it did (his post all-star break shooting was 47 percent, as opposed to his pre-41 percent) he could push for an all-star birth—especially with Monta Ellis and Manu Ginobili starting the season injured, and T-Mac and Brandon Roy perennial IR visitors. Durant should improve in every statistical category this season and should average around 24-25 points a game. Jeff Green should also get better, though his statistics might not take as noticeable of an increase. He’s a jack-of-all-trades type who will increase production across the board. Russell Westbrook will eventually wrest the starting point guard position from Earl Watson (who will continue his strong play from last season) if he doesn’t begin the season as the starting 1 and will post moderately good numbers for a rook and be a dark horse candidate for rookie of the year. Think 12 and 6 with 1.5 steals. Nick Collison, with his workman-like attitude and surprising athleticism should average a double-double. One, if not two, project centers (Swift, Petro, Sene, Hardin, Ibaka) will emerge with a solid season. If Robert Swift can just stay healthy (already hurt again, however) he’s got super size and a great feel for the game. Joe Smith will help guide a very young team and help the development of D.J. White who has a very similar game. Chris Wilcox needs to learn defense and at 26, could still be in the team’s future, though that seems unlikely right now. He’s got the athleticism and leaping ability to be an enforcer type, so the best might still be hidden in there somewhere. The Soni…er, the Thunder has youth and energy and a skies-the-limits-mentality along with a new city. Still, their upside doesn’t seem as bright as the Grizzlies this season. Plus, their new name sucks balls.
14. Memphis Grizzlies:
Next up, in the back, is the Grizz. I love this team despite never having seen them play together as currently constructed. Rudy Gay should have a monster year. As the unquestioned star of this squad, he’s looking at averaging 23-25 points per game with 7-8 boards and a steal and a block. O.J. Mayo will win the rookie of the year averaging 18, 5, 5. He’s not as quick as other guards, but he’s a great competitor and has already begun to take a leadership role on the team. He’s got great defensive awareness and could become the go-to scorer in crunch time, despite Gay’s tremendous talent (remember, Rudy’s only two years older than Mayo). Conley should improve on his so-so rookie campaign. He’s added muscle but retained all of his quickness. Rookie points usually struggle, but the talented ones make big strides in year two. Conley is definitely talented. He put up decent numbers while playing injured as a rookie and his shot looks a lot better this season. So, look for a much-improved year from him, like 11 and 8. The Grizz will look to run a lot, so Conley’s assist numbers will benefit from the “Steve Nash” boost. He and Lowry will form a lethal duo at the point guard spot and stability at the point will help get this team rolling in the right direction. J Critt will back up Mayo and get spot opportunities manning the point. He’ll show more flashes of brilliance and average around 8 to 10 points if given enough time. The Grizzlies bigs Darko Milicic, Marc Gasol and Hamed Hadaddi are all 23, young, and largely unproven in the NBA. Haddaddi’s got upside skill and Milicic will finally turn the corner this year and be the basket protector the Grizz sorely lack. He’s worked on his game, and has two bigs to bang with during practice. He won’t play like the number 2 pick overall, but he’ll certainly quiet the “bust labelers.” Gasol is going to surprise people. He was the MVP of the ACB (the best league outside the NBA), can pass, has a nice shooting touch, is enormous and he laid Chris Bosh out in the Olympics. He’s skilled and tough and could potentially be a dark horse candidate for the ROY. Don’t rule out him averaging something like 12, 9 and 3. Darrell Arthur and Hakim Warrick, though both rail thin, should flourish playing with Conley and Lowry in an up-tempo offense. With championship credentials, Antoine Walker will embrace his diminished playing time and act as a guide and mentor to this young team. Marko Jaric will showcase his soon-to-be blushing bride as inspiration. The Grizz will act as spoilers on many nights, catching some really good teams by surprise. They’ll also have nights where they score in the 120s. They don’t have a shot at the playoffs, but they will most certainly give Memphis something to get excited about.
13. Sacramento Kings:
Kevin Martin should ascend the shooting guard ladder and finally make the all-star team, showing that guys can succeed through hard work and discipline even if they lack raw athleticism. He’ll now get to shoot upwards of 20 times a game and thus up his scoring totals to around 27-28. The rest of his game will have to flesh out if the Kings are going to have any success, so expect him to start averaging around 4 assists per game. Because his greatest skill is efficiency (he’s a new school player) and he is now the main offensive weapon, his game will have a trickle effect and influence the rest of the team who, in turn, will become more efficient. The team will run much more smoothly than it did last year with Artest’s slowed down, one-man post show. Rookie Donte Green will get open looks and with his shooting ability, should be able to convert in an offense that should be much more free-flowing. He’ll have a great rookie campaign and though he’ll get very few looks for ROY, his game will show that he deserves a lot more. Critics are down on Beno Udrih (John Hollinger from ESPN), but the dude can shoot and create his own shots. He’ll up his scoring and assists totals by default. Think 16 and 7. Spencer Hawes and Brad Miller will form a nice duo of centers. Hawes will display why he is the center of the future. He’ll put up 12 and 8. Miller might take a little step backwards, but otherwise he will continue his strong, solid play contributing in points, rebounds and assists. Think 12, 8 and 5. 24, 16 and 5 from the center spot is elite. John Salmons and Francisco Garcia, two wing players in their late 20s, will get the opportunity to live up to what are right now, bloated contracts with Artest out of the picture. Both showed flashes last year when Artest was injured, and now will get to split up his minutes. Don't be surprised to see Salmons split time at all three perimeter positions. He’s a good ballhandler and passer. Likewise, Garcia can handle the rock and really shoot. This team is filled with aging, quality, though not special veterans, some solid young players, and one all-star level talent. The only reason they rank ahead of the other two, young, talent-filled teams, is due to their coach, Reggie Theus, who proved last year that he can make a glass of tasty lemonade from a rotten lemon (Artest), a broken blender (pick an injured player, Bibby, Artest, Martin, Abdur-Rahim) and a packet of pure, unadulterated sugar (K-Mart). Let’s see what kind of lemonade he can make with apples and oranges.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves:
Al Jefferson will take another step forward. He’ll get better at reading double teams and as a result his assists will go up thanks to all the readily available shooters around him. He put up the 12th best PER in the whole league at 22.80 last year and amassed averages of 21, 11 and 1.5 blocks on 50 percent shooting. Those numbers should all rise due to another year of maturity but also the additions of Mike Miller and Kevin Love. Those two, plus the duo of Rashad McCants and Randy Foye, give the Wolves a starting lineup with four legit long ball threats. Think of the Wolves as a blossoming version of the Orlando Magic and you start to see why this team could surprise. On a personal level, with Amare Stoudemire moving back to the power forward position, Chris Kaman pairing with Marcus Camby, Tim Duncan a potential candidate to sit out, and Yao Ming a perennial IR member, Jefferson should make the all-star team this year. Mike Miller, who was once a ROY, has plenty of game and could work as the point-forward at times (a la Hedo Turkoglu). And, for everyone who thinks Kevin Love won’t make it because of his size and lack of athleticism, just remember that the third greatest power forward of all time, was only 6-4. Love might not have Barkley’s athleticism, but he ain’t 6-4 (though he ain’t 6-10 either) and is a better passer and shooter from distance. Now, don't go getting all riled up saying I think Love is going to be Sir Charles-esque, I’m just saying that talent overcomes size. Rany Foye is also going to have a breakout season. He’s picked up the nuances of playing the point guard position as his court vision and decision-making have looked stellar in pre-season play. His shooting will nicely compliment this newfound skill. The bench is a little thin, but don’t sleep on Corey Brewer, Sebastian Telfair and Rodney Carney. Carney and Telfair, and to a lesser extent, Corey Brewer should all see their production go up as bench players as opposed to not-ready-yet starters. Carney, before being traded, started to blossom with the 76ers, playing like he had figured things out and looks like he could solidify himself as the first wing off the bench. He’s super athletic and has range. The other two who should both see a spike in their production are Craig Smith and Ryan Gomes who bring energy and grit off the pine. This team will definitely win some tough games against tough opponents. What they give up for in size in the middle, they surely make up for with a long ball attack. They’ll shoot a lot of threes, and Jefferson will average 25 and 12 and Minnesota fans will completely forget about Kevin Garnett (okay, maybe that’s too much optimism).
11. Golden State Warriors:
I think this team has an outside possibility of making the playoffs, but two things have to happen for that to be true. The first is that everything in this column has to come to fruition. The other is the couple of teams ahead of them need to have things go badly for them. If everything goes perfectly (as we know will not be the case), this team is on the outside looking in. Losing Monta Ellis is obviously the major reason. Upside, by the way, doesn't perform Jesus-like miraculous healings. It does mean, however, that when Monta comes back, he’ll be at full strength. That being said, until Ellis returns, this team will be run through Marcus Williams or C.J. Watson. Now, Williams has got talent, some people compare him to Stephon Marbury, but whether you think that’s a compliment or a diss is beside the point (Marbury’s looked good in preseason). He could be putting up 12 to 15 and 8 to 10 assists. C.J. Watson, whom Nelly recently said is his starter, is rocking preseason. He’s looked confident and has run the offense nicely. Regardless, who starts (though that is a huge factor) the focal points of the offense will be Jackson and Maggette. Nelly Ball will be very good to Maggette who could average 25 plus points per game and shoot near 50 percent. His three point shot markedly improved last season, and he’ll get plenty of chances to jack up a bunch this year. BWhile he’ll still get to the basket, the idea is that he’ll be given easier opportunities with solid passers like Williams and/or Watson and Jackson feeding him the ball. Maggette, a prolific foul shooter and expert at getting to the line, helps this team because he stops the games when he gets there. Freethrows give a running team time to rest. S Jack will have to have a big year as the veteran presence and leader of the team. He’s confident that the Warriors will make the postseason, but the question marks come from the young kids. Biedrins, if given the playing time (not a guarantee with Turiaf now on board) will be an easy double-double machine. I’m envisioning 12 and 12 with a high shooting percentage and a much improved freethrow percentage. He’s only 22 and he’s steadily gotten better every season. He could challenge Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard for the rebounding crown this year. Brandon Wright will also get burn and could literally blow up. Anthony Randolph, a near clone of Wright, could see some minutes if injuries sprout up. Both Wright and Randolph have shown flashes this preseason, but both also look lost at times (Randolph might spend his time in the D League). The other issue, if both remain on the roster, is their playing time and how it will be divvied up between them. Then there’s the group of intriguing young guards, any of whom could step up if given the minutes. Watson, Azubuike and Bellinelli all bring different aspects to the game, though Azbuike is hands down the most intriguing. This team will once again be a high octane, run-n-gun squad. They’ll score a lot of points, and based on that fact alone, they will be in most games. If the team can hang in the playoff hunt by the time that Ellis comes back, this team has a real shot to make the playoffs with all the upside, youth, talent on the roster and the crafty leadership of Don Nelson.
10. Denver Nuggets:
The Nugs will score a lot of points. A lot a lot. That’s for sure. Subtracting from the starting lineup Marcus Camby and Anthony Carter (who’s a stellar bench guy) and infusing J.R. Smith and a healthy Nene will make last year’s supercharged offense look like the Pistons. In fact, Iverson/Anthony/Smith will literally shoot for the NBA’s highest scoring trio next year, easily pushing 70 plus combined points. Iverson will be playing for a contract so look for him to be a consummate team player. As a point guard, his assists will hover near the double-digit mark. Melo had an up-and-down Olympics, but his gold medal and the experience he had in China and over the past few years has shed a huge ray of positive light on him. Look for him to regain his superstar form and really work on both ends of the floor. He should even get a couple of fringe MVP votes. I’m thinking 27, 8, and 3. J.R. Smith is the guy to look out for though. Being the third option is a blessing for him because he can benefit from all the kickouts he’ll receive. Did I mention he’s deadly from beyond the arc? He’s going to average at least 18 points if he comes anywhere close to what he did last season. Nene is no Camby, but that can be taken both ways. Nene’s a terrific offensive force, capable of an array of moves around the basket and surprisingly, subtle athleticism. He should score in the mid-teens and pull down 8 or 9 boards per contest. He can’t play defense like Cambyman, but then, not too many people can. His offensive contributions, however, if not completely lost on his perimeter trio, will give the offense a legit low post scoring threat. The team will be more athletic and probably play even faster than last year. Chucky Atkins also returns from injury, and while not sexy by basketball standards, the dude brings scoring and stability to the point guard position. Hunter, Anderson and Balkman will bring energy and some form of defense off the bench, despite being limited offensively. The Nugs should have five players averaging over fifteen points a game because Linas Kleiza will continue his steady improvement. Lots and lots of points will win more games than it loses, but that’s about the best outlook I can give this team that has no capable defender outside of Kenyon Martin. And K Mart is more of an excellent one-on-one defender as opposed to a “presence.”
9. Los Angeles Clippers:
Baron Davis is back home and ready to put up a big year. Baron’s a game changer who’ll average 20 and 9. He can do everything when he wants to or is properly motivated. Upside dictates that he will be both and that Dunleavy will loosen the reigns on the offense, while tightening them on the defensive side. With the duo of Camby and Kaman, the Clippers will ascend to the top of the league in rebounding and defense. They will have the ability to suffocate teams in a slow-down, grind-em-out style and then pummel them with fast-breaking. But the whole Clippers season will be represented by Al Thornton. Thornton is a bit old for a second year player, but he’s still got crazy upside. He should continue to improve like he has every year, and average around 18 points per game. He’s got great athleticism, and though overmatched as a 4 last year, he’ll be better suited at the 3 even if he won’t be quick enough for a lot of guys he’ll be guarding. That’s what’s so wonderful about the safety net of Camby and Kaman. Add to that Thornton’s crazy athleticism that should result in defensive statistics this year as he will be free to roam and he’s definitely the difference between solid and great for the Clips. Ricky Buckets is looking for redemption and has been productive everywhere he’s been, save last year in Miami. He’s only 28, is very athletic, has improved his 3-point shot (40 plus percent) and contributes in assists as well. He and Baron had a couple of productive years together way back when the Hornets were still in Charlotte. The Clips also have two rookies with a lot of upside. Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan bring the crazy range and the crazy big man athleticism. Sure, the loss of J-Will hurts, but in the long run, it will give Gordon more of an opportunity to play. Gordon’s gritty defender as well and Jordan can bring the blocks. Let’s not sleep on Mike Taylor who looks like the steal of the draft (at 55) up to this point. If he can carry that solid play into the regular season games, then J-Will won’t be missed at all. Jason Hart is a good third-string point guard. He’s a good defender, and obviously, this season will be all about the defense. Ridiculous upside (no relation to that blog) would see the Clippers as a premiere defense. I mean, look what Camby did for the Nuggets last year (he kept them in the middle of the pack despite playing with AI, Melo and J.R. Smith who are all deathly allergic to defense). Now, he’s being joined by Kaman and BD. That trio alone makes this defense really good. Add to that veteran Cuttino Mobley, Gordon and Jordan’s potential, a locked in Tim Thomas, Thornton and Ricky and a motivated coach Dunleavy the Clips could be very, very dangerous.