Western Conference roundtable: Taking stock of the offseason
Western Conference roundtable (cont.)
As free agency winds down, five SI.com NBA writers take stock of the good and the bad from the offseason in the Western Conference and assess how all of the wheeling and dealing has affected the pecking order. (Click here for our evaluation of the Eastern Conference.)
Ben Golliver: This formula isn't complicated: No. 6 offense last season + best defensive center in the NBA (when healthy) = very, very good. The signing of Dwight Howard should pay dividends immediately for what was a mediocre defensive team, and the presence of both Howard and Omer Asik will give Houston at least one rim protector on the court at all times. The biggest problem for Houston is that "very, very good" is usually not enough to make it out of the Western Conference. With the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and Warriors to consider, and the Grizzlies still in the mix, I'm not yet willing to anoint the Rockets as a top-four team in the West. But I do think that the Rockets' ceiling is a run to the conference finals.
Lee Jenkins: They are among a handful of teams that can win the West, provided Howard is completely recovered from back surgery and thoroughly committed to the pick-and-roll offense he was so reluctant to run with the Lakers. Houston is probably one player away from championship aspirations, and that player is likely a power forward. The Rockets can pair Howard with Asik but they will risk marginalizing them both, as the Lakers did when partnering Howard with Pau Gasol.
Rob Mahoney: Championship-worthy, or near enough to do damage in the West. Houston still has way too much to iron out with its system and player usage to be called a conference favorite just yet. But the Rockets have a top-five offensive player in James Harden, two of the league's best defensive big men in Howard and Asik and some nice supporting types to fill in the gaps. If Howard is ready to pick up where he left off late last season and coach Kevin McHale is able to balance a post presence with the team's open floor game, Houston has a chance to be a pretty special team.
Chris Mannix: A top-four team in the conference. But the Rockets are still (at least) one move away from being a true title contender, a move that is expected to involve Asik. The Rockets can offer up all the rhetoric they want about keeping Asik, but playing him much with Howard could prove challenging, and they know that Asik, who would be an upgrade for 15-20 teams at center, has value. If the Rockets eventually deal him, what they get in return will determine just how good they can be.
Ian Thomsen: In theory, they ought to be terrific. They have every right to claim that Howard and Harden are the best at their positions, and that forward Chandler Parsons and the rest of the team will benefit from the newfound space. But think about the teams that reach the NBA Finals -- disciplined outfits that benefit from the committed leadership of their stars. I'm not saying that Howard and Harden can't provide that leadership, but they have to prove it, and until then it cannot be taken for granted that they'll do for Houston what LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kevin Durant and other stars have done for their Finalist teams.
Golliver: The trade that sent Andre Iguodala from Denver to Golden State, mostly because that single move changed the outlook for two of the top-six teams in the West last season. Plummeting to the playoff bubble is a very realistic possibility for the Nuggets, who lost general manager Masai Ujiri, coach George Karl and Iguodala this summer. Meanwhile, the Warriors followed up an entertaining postseason jaunt by adding Iguodala, replacing Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry with Toney Douglas, Marreese Speights and Jermaine O'Neal, and getting a great summer-league performance from Kent Bazemore, who could push for minutes. The totality of those moves could be enough to vault them into the West's top four.
Jenkins: The Clippers, having landed snipers J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to space the floor, can now score with any team in the West. Their viability as contenders hinges on their ability to defend, the reason why Rivers was such a crucial acquisition. In Boston, Rivers relied on Kevin Garnett as defensive maestro, and he will miss him dearly. In L.A., Rivers will need to fill that role from the sideline, prodding DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin to follow him.
Mahoney: The addition of Iguodala has the potential to turn Golden State into a fringe championship contender. A spot on such an explosive offensive team will allow Iguodala to fill a low-pressure role as a cutter while saving his energy for lockdown perimeter defense. If that weren't enough, Iguodala's wide skill set should both smooth over the loss of Jack and enhance the Warriors' ability to cover defensive ground in their small-ball lineups.
Mannix: I'm tempted to say Iguodala to the Warriors, but the loss of Jack and Landry mitigates the acquisition. I'd like to say Rivers to the Clippers, too, but we're talking about a team that won 56 games last season. I'm going to go with the Pelicans' acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, which, when coupled with a healthy Eric Gordon, gives coach Monty Williams plenty of firepower. New Orleans still has a hole at center, but all of that young talent (including 20-year-old former No. 1 pick Anthony Davis) could make the Pelicans a playoff contender.
Thomsen: It has to be the Clippers' trade for Rivers. He brings championship hope to a franchise that was known, not so long ago, as the worst in pro sports, and to a star in Chris Paul who has never played beyond the second round. The Clippers have beefed up their rotation with shooters since Rivers took over, but his biggest impact will be on Griffin, who is going to be encouraged to fill out his game as a mid-range shooter and low-post scorer. Sending a first-round pick to Boston is going to be worthwhile price for the Clippers to pay for Rivers.
Golliver: Fly Pelicans, fly. As outlined here, New Orleans is the only lottery team that can really claim to have made two high-profile additions (Holiday and Evans) without any major defections. There are questions -- especially surrounding their interior defense and how Evans will fit into the rotation -- but GM Dell Demps has assembled a young, exciting and very talented roster: All of the Pelicans' core pieces are 25 or younger and are locked into their current deals for at least two seasons. It would be asking a lot for the Pelicans to leap from 14th in the West last season (when they finished 18 games behind the No. 8 seed) to the playoffs in 2013-14, but they should be noticeably better.
Jenkins: Trail Blazers. Portland wasn't flashy as much as opportunistic. The Blazers drafted another polished guard from a mid-major college, CJ McCollum, who has plenty in common with running mate Damian Lillard; they snared power forward Thomas Robinson when the Rockets had to clear salary-cap space for Howard; and they added center Robin Lopez to fortify their flimsy interior defense. The top six spots in the West are spoken for, but the Blazers should not be a lottery team this season.
Mahoney: Pelicans. They gambled in giving up two first-round picks -- one of which was already used to draft Kentucky's Nerlens Noel -- for Holiday, but I see them as an immediate playoff contender. It'll take some time for all of the pieces to coalesce, but the potential exists for a versatile, balanced offense to take shape from a core of Holiday, Davis, Anderson, Gordon and Evans. Phoenix deserves a mention, too, as new GM Ryan McDonough managed to snatch up Eric Bledsoe and two first-round picks at minimal cost.
Mannix: Pelicans, for the reasons outlined above. Demps has a terrific young core that should develop into a perennial playoff team over time.
Thomsen: Mavericks. The Pelicans improved, but they're at least another year away from contending for the playoffs. The team with the best chance of escaping the lottery is the Mavericks. Even though they failed to land Howard or another elite star, they filled out their lineup with a new backcourt of Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon to go with Dirk Nowitzki, who is going to be hungry to get back into the postseason. This should be a bounce-back year for Dallas.
Golliver: Lakers. No explanation needed besides this. See you guys next summer.
Jenkins: Nuggets. In addition to the Executive of the Year and the Coach of the Year, the Nuggets lost the player who made them a solid defensive team. Iguodala is gone -- to Golden State, of all places, which was jostling with Denver for positioning in the West -- and the Nuggets have fallen from contention. They will still score a lot of points and win a lot of games (at home), but they won't be as balanced as they were with Iguodala.
Mahoney: Jazz, by design. An argument could be made for the Lakers, but L.A. has really gone from a team that clawed for a playoff berth last season to one that would be lucky to do so this year. Utah, on the other hand, finally let Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap go to start fresh, banking on Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Trey Burke as viable long-term prospects. That core won't be good enough for a ninth-place finish in the West (or come particularly close) but should benefit from extensive developmental opportunities.
Mannix: Jazz. Utah lost four of its top-five scorers this summer, absorbed the contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins in exchange for five draft picks and appears perfectly content to let Favors, Burke, Hayward and Kanter grow together on the job next season. It's not the worst strategy in the world; the Jazz do have some tantalizing young talent. But after finishing two games out of the final playoff spot last season, they will be nowhere near it in 2013-14.
Thomsen: Nuggets. Denver is going to have a hard time making the playoffs without Iguodala and a full season from Danilo Gallinari (who is recovering from knee surgery) while new coach Brian Shaw revises Karl's program. The Nuggets' long-term prospects remain promising, but Gallinari's early-season absence is going to create problems for a team that figures to have trouble scoring in the half court.
Golliver: I'll still take the Thunder over everyone. I've been of that mind for the last two or three seasons. Their quiet offseason must be frustrating for Thunder fans, but we shouldn't forget how great OKC was last season before Russell Westbrook's knee injury (historically great, according to their point-differential numbers). Going from Kevin Martin to the unproven Jeremy Lamb is a downgrade, following the Harden-to-Martin downgrade, but the Thunder have enough size, skill, physicality and depth to match up with anyone, and they have Kevin Durant, who is clearly the best player in the conference. After OKC, I'll go, in order: Spurs, Clippers, Warriors, Rockets and Grizzlies.
Jenkins: Six sounds like a lot, but that's how many teams will enter training camp thinking they have a realistic shot at the Finals. Oklahoma City, with a healthy Westbrook, still leads the group. San Antonio, Houston and the Clippers make up the second tier, with Memphis and Golden State in the third. The six aren't separated by much. An injury here, a breakthrough there, and any could emerge from a crowded race.
Mahoney: Muddled, to say the least. If things go right for a few teams on the cusp, there could be as many as six legitimate championship contenders: the Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, Rockets, Warriors and Clippers. Beyond that, another five teams -- the Nuggets, Mavs, Blazers, Pelicans and Timberwolves -- could realistically compete for the final two playoff spots, sending the entire conference into a spiral of infinite possibility.
Mannix: I'm not willing to bury San Antonio yet, not with Tim Duncan looking so good late in his career, not with Tony Parker still in his prime, not with virtually the entire core of last season's Finals team (minus Gary Neal, plus Marco Belinelli) returning for another run. I like a healthy Spurs team ahead of Oklahoma City after Martin left the Thunder to sign with Minnesota. The wild card is the Clippers, who made significant offseason additions. If Rivers can blend all that talent like he did in Boston -- and remember, he coached a team that got no offense from its center to a championship -- the Clippers could emerge as the most formidable team in the West.
Thomsen: Westbrook's return should put the Thunder back at the top of the West, especially because their top three players -- Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka -- are young and continuing to improve. Kawhi Leonard's emergence will keep the Spurs in contention, and the Clippers, Rockets and Warriors will all be in mix to win 50 games. I'm thinking the Grizzlies and Lakers will be back in the playoffs as well, which leaves Dallas, Minnesota and Denver to fight over the No. 8 spot.