WESTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

Clippers radio broadcaster Brian Sieman previews the Western Conference with a rundown of each team in the West and how they may fare this season as compared to the Clippers.

After accomplishing as much as the organization did last year, a great deal of optimism loomed for the Clippers as the summer progressed. After acquiring Chris Paul last December, they did the best job possible of composing a roster ready for battle alongside Blake Griffin and Paul. The mentality reminded me of how I pick my fantasy football team: Do I pick the best players available or do I get the positions I need? In a year where the offseason was fewer than two weeks, you don’t have a choice. You grab what you can like you’re in one of those vacuums that has an assortment of bills flying around, some of the $1 variety, others a larger denomination. The Clippers grabbed what they could, and had more than a few Benjamins in their pockets. They perhaps had the best “offseason” in the NBA in 2011 and while the volume of talent was better than anything a Clipper fan had seen, it has been trumped.

Last year’s roster of 15 essentially had eight spots committed to two positions: point guard and power forward. In fact, at one point, Eric Bledsoe was the fifth guard on the roster (mostly due to a knee injury he suffered in the offseason). This summer, the front office, comprised of Vinny Del Negro, Andy Roeser, and Gary Sacks, did an outstanding job of finding great balance and versatility without breaking the bank. With a combination of veterans who have “been there and done that” with superstars in their prime, who are desperate to win, this season and the foreseeable future, for that matter, is going to be special.

The depth, athleticism, and versatility will be the best in the NBA. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a 60-win season. There are always problems, but with this set of tools, Del Negro has everything at his disposal. The Clippers are legit title contenders.

BEST OF THE WEST

Oklahoma City:It is impossible to not have them as preseason favorites to win the conference. With a trio of players in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden who haven’t even come close to their prime and just off their first NBA Finals appearance, this team is the biggest obstacle for the Clippers, and the rest of the West.
Lakers: This summer, the Lakers did what they always do: found a way to get the job done. Whether it’s trading Vlade Divac for what would become the greatest Laker there is (Kobe Bryant), or it’s sending Kwame Brown off in return for Pau Gasol, the Lakers did it again. While the window is small for THIS group of Bryant, Steve Nash, and Dwight Howard, they will be relevant as long as Howard is around.
San Antonio: After playing what many believe was the best basketball in the last 20 years in the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Spurs ran into a Thunder cloud. OKC may have found the way around San Antonio, but I'm not sure the rest if the league has the same tools. Until the “Big 3” of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker retire, it is a safe bet that they will keep your hands full.
Denver: Maybe a dark horse for some this year. They don’t grab a lot of headlines due to the fact that they are the anti-Heat: zero superstars, two-deep at every position. They promise once again to be a high-octane squad that can’t run fast enough. They led the league in pace last year, and I’m not sure that was good enough for Head Coach George Karl. This might be the best team the Nuggets have ever had.

THE BOTTOM 4 PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Dallas: With Dirk Nowitzki out for up to six weeks, the Mavericks will need to depend on a pair of former Clippers to keep them afloat out West. Chris Kaman has been good, but plagued by injuries, and Elton Brand has never looked the same since tearing his Achilles in the summer of 2007. Once Nowitzki comes back, they will pose some serious matchup issues.
Memphis: They were the No. 4 seed last year, and could have been a little higher had Zach Randolph stayed healthy. A lot of people are bullish on the Grizz, and you can understand why. With Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, and Randolph, that front line is second to none. Having said that, their record with Randolph and Gay playing in the same lineup has not been stellar. It will be an interesting study.
Utah: Much like Denver, they are deep without a massive star on the squad. Playoff experience for a bench that had three 20-year-olds will prove to be big this year. If they can keep their head above water the first couple of months with a road-heavy schedule they will be in the running for a six seed or higher.
Minnesota: The Wolves have been handed a tough start. Already faced with the prospect that Ricky Rubio might be out until the new year, now their other star, Kevin Love, is going to be out until around Christmas due to a broken hand. Had they been healthy I would have felt very strongly about the Wolves being a playoff team. The additions of Andrei Kirilenko and a one-legged Brandon Roy are big. If there is a coach who can pull it all together it is Rick Adelman. The Wolves could be one of those teams that make a huge run in March and April and a potential tough out in the first round.

TEAM TO WATCH

New Orleans: The Hornets were decimated with injuries last year that included Eric Gordon (the centerpiece of the Chris Paul trade) playing fewer than 10 games. If they can stay healthy, they are a legitimate threat behind No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis to make the postseason. If they do, the unibrow will become the No. 1 fad in the French Quarter.

UNCERTAIN FUTURE

Portland: They always seem to find a way to get the job done. LaMarcus Aldridge is a beast and high hopes for newcomer Damian Lillard will make the Blazers require your best effort to win, especially in Portland, one of the toughest places in the league to play.

QUESTION MARKS

Houston: They did everything they could to land Dwight Howard, but were left at the altar. GM Daryl Morey sometimes makes you wonder if he’s playing a different game then other GM’s (in a good way). He’ll need some magic to restore the Rockets. Signing Jeremy Lin for that kind of money is either going to be brilliant, or a blunder.
Phoenix: Losing Steve Nash marked the end of an era. The Suns are now faced with rebuilding without any major assets. It will be tough.
Golden State: Many people feel the Warriors could be a playoff team, but I’m not so sure. Stephen Curry still has ankle issues and Andrew Bogut has yet to play for the squad. A bright spot is Klay Thompson. He’s a big time shooter and a nice pick up in last year’s draft.
Sacramento: There is some talent, but I’m not sure if it all works together. DeMarcus Cousins, for all his trouble, is the real deal and will be an All-Star soon. “Mr. Irrelevant” from 2011, Isaiah Thomas, was a big surprise last year and will have a lot of help with their first round pick Thomas Robinson. But finding a place for Tyreke Evans has been tough. He’s a talent, but a tweener; not a point guard, but needs the ball to score.