The '16-'17 NBA season ended the way most said it would, with the Golden State Warriors hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy in June. I'll admit, I was in the minority, as I picked Cleveland to repeat(I mean, they do have the best player on earth). But GS proved to be too strong, beating the Cavs soundly in five games. The Warriors, and their new friend Kevin Durant, finished the season 67-15. It was six games shy of tying their NBA record 73 wins in 2016, but this time they came away with a championship. Year one for a super team is usually a feeling out period, but not in this case. Other than the blowout loss in the season opener vs the Spurs, the Warriors looked virtually unbeatable. Two time MVP Steph Curry willingly accepted a lesser role to accommodate KD, and everyone else followed suit. The end result was Curry making amends for a sub par 2016 Finals performance, and KD walking away with Finals MVP.
The task is simple for Golden State in 2017-2018; Repeat or bust. With every member of the Fantastic Four just entering their primes, we are looking at a potential mega dynasty the likes of which we haven't seen since Bill Russell and the 60's Celtics. It's up to the other top tier western conference teams to make sure that doesn't happen. But do they have what it takes to knock off the champs? Here's what I think.......
1. Golden State Warriors
'17-'18 record 69-13
The Warriors not only dominated last year's regular season and postseason, they got better in the off season. That's bad news for the rest of the league. Adding vets Omri Casspi and Nick Young will give the Dubs even more long range firepower off the bench. GS's depth is unmatched. Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, David West, Zaza Pachulia, Patrick McCaw, and Javale McGee are all returning. Steve Kerr looks to be healthy, which means he might be roaming the sidelines for all 82 games. And if that's not the case, the best coaching staff in all of basketball will have his back.(pun intended.)
2. Houston Rockets
'17-'18 record 58-24
The Rockets are in the arms business. Houston tried to acquire every big name player available this off season. They ended up with Chris Paul, arguably the best point guard for the better half of a decade. This move slides MVP runner up James Harden back to the shooting guard position. Putting The beard back in his natural spot will lighten his load, but will it slow down the Rockets feverish pace? H-Town was the most prolific three point shooting team in the league, and players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Trevor Ariza had a collective field day playing in Mike D'antoni's fire at will offense. Clint Capela also had a breakout year, anchoring the defense while being the beneficiary of Harden's lobs off pick and roll. Will the addition of CP3 catapult the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals(A party Paul has yet to attend) or will Houston have a problem?(See what I did there?) I'm predicting another second round out.
3. San Antonio Spurs
'17-'18 record 55-27
Many people believe that if Kawhi Leonard didn't injure his ankle in game 1 of the 2017 Western Finals, the Spurs would've knocked off the Warriors and represented the west side in The NBA Finals. But as my dear old dad would say, "If if was a fifth, we'd all be drunk." It's unfortunate that The Claw got hurt, but all Coach Pop and his squad of grizzled vets can do now is focus on the new season. There hasn't been a down year in San Antonio since David Robinson suffered a season ending injury in 1996, and don't count on a down year any time soon. The Spurs have been in title contention for 20 years, because Pop is the best coach in the league. Leonard has blossomed into a legit MVP candidate, and is the best perimeter defender in the NBA. The Spurs have had a formidable front line since forever, and they continue that tradition with LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol returning to action. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli both took another dip in the Lazarus Pit and are looking to make one more run at a title. The Spurs also made a splash in free agency, acquiring Rudy Gay, who is coming off a season ending Achilles injury. Can The Spurs remain healthy and make another deep playoff run? I say yes. Unfortunately, the epic battle in the second round against Houston will leave the Spurs spent, which spells trouble when they meet the Dubs in the WCF again.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
'17-'18 record 52-30
I affectionately call Russell Westbrook "Nutzo." The guy is an absolute maniac on the court. His uncanny ability to go balls to the wall for seemingly every minute of every game is what willed the Thunder to a 47-35 record and a playoff berth, even after losing Kevin Durant. Usually when a franchise loses their best player, the team plummets to lottery land. This wasn't the case in Oklahoma City. The Thunder finished the season just 8 wins shy of their 2015-16 record, all due to Westbrook's historic season. Russ became only the second player in league history to average a triple double, and broke the single season triple double record, recording an astounding 42 trip dubs. Every one of those triple doubles were needed. OKC went as far as Russ could take them. They were dismal when he was not on the floor. Victor Oladipo was supposed to be the second option, and he showed flashes of potential, but it just didn't work. Russell had to do everything in order for the team to just compete, and he had to be special almost every night for the Thunder to have a shot to win. Westbrook's heroics earned him regular season MVP honors, but OKC was sent home in the first round, losing 4-1 to Houston. Enter Paul George. The 27 year old former Pacer is a top 15 player in the league. A sidekick he is not. PG is every bit a superstar. The question is, can Westbrook fall back just enough for him and George to mesh? Or will it be Russ and KD part 2? I think it will be the former. Russ loves the spotlight, but I think he likes to win just a little bit more, and PG can help with that. The Thunder still need outside shooting in the worst way, but they have improved. If they enter the postseason firing on all cylinders, they could cause problems.
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
'17-'18 record 50-32
That's right, ladies and gents. I have the T Wolves making a huge leap and entering the playoffs as the 5th seed. Coach Tibs can finally preach defense the way he wants to, because former Chicago Bull Jimmy Butler has joined the young, dynamic tandem of Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns. Towns is showing signs of all time great potential, as he averaged an astounding 28 points and 12 rebounds per game in just his second season. Wiggins is becoming a legit two-way star in his own right, and the combination of Wiggins and Butler should give opposing teams nightmares on both ends of the floor. Add the ageless Jamal Crawford to provide scoring off the bench and desperately needed locker room leadership, and you got a playoff team that's only just beginning to realize it's potential.
6. L.A. Clippers
'17-'18 record 47-35
I'm being generous with this projection, because I don't think Clipper Nation is relevant anymore after the departure of Chris Paul. Let's be honest, they weren't winning a title with him, so I understand the move. But this roster is nothing to write home about. CP3 is in H-Town, JJ Reddick is in Philly, and Jamal "I'll never retire" Crawford is in the Twin Cities. That leaves embattled superstar Blake Griffin and the offensively challenged Deandre Jordan to run the show. Doc Rivers is still one of the best coaches in the business, but this might be too daunting of a task to overcome this season. Luckily, the Clips have hired front office legend(and NBA logo) Jerry West to work his magic and hopefully put the Clippers back in serious contention. Until then Clipper fans, brace yourself for a less than a stellar season. You guys should be used to that.
7. Portland Trail Blazers
'17-'18 record 45-37
It's funny how so many experts count out the Blazers. Some media outlets don't even have them making the postseason. You'd figure by now that this only motivates "Big Game" Dame Lillard and CJ Mccollum. They've overachieved ever since LaMarcus Aldridge fled for greener pastures in San Antonio, and they will continue to prove the doubters wrong. Are they title contenders? Hell no. But they'll make the playoffs. Count on that.
8. Utah Jazz
'17-'18 record 42-40
The loss of Gordon Heyward to Boston will definitely hurt Utah offensively, but their claim to fame has been on the defensive end. Rudy Gobert is still the anchor of said defense, and the Jazz have bolstered their defense even more with the addition of Thabo Sefolosha. Former T Wolf Ricky Rubio also joins Quinn Snyder's club, and Alex Burk, Dante Exum, Derrick Favors, and Rodney Hood make up a young and talented group. ISO Joe Johnson is back to give scoring punch and late game heroics off the bench.
9. New Orleans Pelicans
'17-'18 record 39-43
DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are the best power forward-center combo in the NBA by far. But unfortunately, this isn't your father's NBA(or even mine, to be honest). To win in today's league, outside shooting is paramount, and the Pelicans just don't have that. New acquisition Rajon Rondo should provide great leadership and intangibles, but it also takes Jrue Holiday out of his natural position. The lack of spacing and shooting will be an ongoing issue this season for Alvin Gentry's team. And we haven't even mentioned health(Physical and mental).
10. Denver Nuggets
'17-'18 record 39-43
The Nuggets acquired Paul Milsap this offseason. That should provide much needed perimeter scoring. Young big man Nikola Jokic is the real deal, and he should improve his scoring and rebounding this season. Mudiay and Murray should continue to improve at the guard positions. The Nuggets will compete for a spot, but will ultimately fall short of a playoff berth.
11. Memphis Grizzlies
'17-'18 record 35-47
Vince Carter and Zach Randolph are gone. Marc Gasol may be on the move as well. Mike Conley is the most underrated PG in the league, but lack of scoring will be the downfall of the Grizzlies. The Grindhouse will no longer be feared by opposing teams.
12. Dallas Mavericks
'17-'18 record 33-49
Dirk is entering his 20th season, and he's still arguably the best player on the team. That's not good for the Mavericks. Dallas is in rebuilding mode, but that doesn't really start until Dirk hangs it up. The Mavs do have some young talent. Harrison Barnes should end up as the team's leading scorer. Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell had breakout games last season. And the future seems to be bright with Dennis Smith Jr.
13. L.A. Lakers
'17-'18 record 32-50
Magic is running the show now! The Lakers are back!! Not so fast. Yes, Earvin Johnson is the boss now. Yes, the Lakers drafted their next potential superstar in Lonzo Ball. Yes, the Lakers have a ton of young talent. But they're not back yet. They won't be in contention for another 2-3 years, unless LeBron James comes to town next season.
14. Phoenix Suns
'17-'18 record 29-53
Devin Booker is the only bright spot for this ball club. It's back to the lottery for Phoenix.
15. Sacramento Kings
'17-'18 record 25-57
This is what happens when you trade a top 10 player for nothing.
Stay tuned for the eastern conference predictions! And make sure you download every episode of NBA Panel on ITunes.