HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Adding Dwight Howard to a Los Angeles Lakers team that was one of the top teams in the Western Conference was supposed to vault the Lakers into the championship elite last summer.
It never happened. Howard and Steve Nash failed to move the needle for the Lakers, who had to claw their way to a seventh seed in the playoff chase, only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
So please forgive me for not crowning the Houston Rockets prematurely. They’ve got Howard in the fold now, adding the best big man in basketball to an explosive core that includes All-Star James Harden and a solid supporting cast.
Legitimate playoff outfit?
But contenders … not so fast my friends.
They should be in the mix. And as coach Kevin McHale told NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury, they should be able to “play with anybody.” Playing with the best and beating the best come playoff time, however, are two very different things. Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers, who thought they had arrived last season and were disposed of in the first round of the playoffs.
We’ve already delivered our projections, based on what we know now, for the Eastern Conference playoff-chasers for the 2013-14 season. These are the projections for the Western Conference:
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Any suggestions that the Thunder would be better off without Russell Westbrook at the controls were answered in the playoffs. The Inside The NBA crew (above) knows as well as the rest of the NBA-watching masses. OKC was a shell of its regular-season selves without the All-Star point guard, who suffered a knee injury in their first-round series against Houston. Kevin Durant is a behemoth, the second best player in the league behind LeBron James, but no one superstar is going to climb the Western Conference mountain on his own. The Thunder are in a precarious position because all of their competitors seem to be making power moves to catch and surpass them. Without sufficient cap space to deal themselves, they have to rely on a rock-solid core group maintaining their respective positions. That means Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have to show better than they did in the playoffs. Reggie Jackson has to play a more prominent role this season and appears to be ready for that. And Jeremy Lamb has to move into a regular spot in the rotation as well. Rookie Steven Adams, the 12th pick in the Draft, is more of a project right now. But the Thunder don’t need him to be an impact player. Not if everyone stays healthy and Westbrook returns to form.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
When training camp begins, the Spurs will probably still be answering questions about the championship they let slip away. Two 30-second intervals during Games 6 and 7 of The Finals got away from them and cost Tim Duncan title No. 5 and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili title No. 4. And make no mistake, that trio, and Duncan in particular, is the key to the Spurs getting back to that stage again. If Duncan can crank out another fountain-of-youth, All-NBA-type performance like he did this season, the Spurs have a shot to rule the Western Conference again. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green emerged during the playoffs as more than just young prospects. Leonard could be a legitimate All-Star candidate himself if he picks up where he left off in The Finals. The Spurs always find a way to mine the Draft and free agency for young talent to incorporate into their system. But they won’t need as much assistance with both Ginobili and Tiago Splitter sticking around in free agency. Keeping their biggest stars healthy and rested, something coach Gregg Popovich paid for dearly last season, is of the utmost importance. As long as they do that, a top-four spot in the playoff chase should be a given.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
With all apologies to Howard and even Chris Paul, the biggest fish of the free-agent summer of 2013 was coach Doc Rivers — not one of the players projected to be the big prize. The fact that Rivers was under contract for three more years in Boston when the summer began makes what the Clippers did even more remarkable. Not only do the Clippers get one of the best coaches in the game, they got a senior vice president of basketball operations who paid immediate dividends by keeping Paul in free agency and helped them add J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley in trades. They had to move backup Eric Bledsoe and veteran swingman Caron Butler to make it happen, but they replaced him with Darren Collison. And they still have the key component from that explosive bench crew in Jamal Crawford, whose role could increase dramatically without Butler, Chauncey Billups or retired veteran Grant Hill in the mix. The one glaring issue they have is their frontcourt tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They weren’t up to the challenge against the Grizzlies and it cost the Clippers in a first-round defeat. Are they willing to accept the challenge Doc will pose to them? He won’t allow them to be outworked on defense and will demand they show the toughness that has eluded them in the past.
Welcome to paradise Jeremy Lin. Now you can officially put Linsanity behind you and play the role of facilitator. The real superstars are on the roster now, as both Harden and Howard will be the opposition’s focus every night. Lin, Patrick Beverly and Chandler Parsons have clearly defined roles on this team before they ever hit the floor together in an official capacity. Howard makes life easier on all of the Rockets’ specialists and role players, not to mention his fellow starters. Guys like Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Smith and even Omer Asik, should he stick around and back off his trade demand, will find out just how different life can be with a healthy, happy and motivated Howard operating in the middle. Despite two straight down seasons (by his own lofty standards), he still led the league in rebounding and looked like he had shaken off the ill effects of his back surgery. McHale has to pull this all together quickly to ensure these young Rockets don’t get swallowed up by the expectations sure to come with their newfound celebrity.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
Adding Andre Iguodala essentially at the expense of Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack, two key veterans who gave the Warriors superior bench production and quality locker room leadership, might not seem like a steep price to pay for some. But when you already have Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes on the roster … let’s just say that is a luxury most teams wouldn’t indulge this early in the process of trying to build a contender. The Warriors showed us some serious flashes of being a big-time player in the Western Conference for years to come with the work they did in the playoffs. They had the Spurs plenty nervous in the conference semifinals. But their shortcomings came back to bite them in the end. And they didn’t solve those issues in the Draft or free agency. Andrew Bogut and David Lee will have loads of work to do this season, provided they both make it to training camp. Both of their names surfaced in trade rumors leading up to the Draft and through the first week of free agency. Lee is an All-Star and, when healthy, an absolute force. But Bogut, due to injuries, has only shown glimpses of what he’s capable of. And at this stage of his career, a $14 million spot starter is certainly not a luxury the Warriors can afford.
How important was Lionel Hollins to the Grizzlies during their run to the Western Conference finals? We’re going to find out this season. Because for all of the promise Dave Joerger brings to the position, there is no denying the impact Hollins made on Zach Randolph and reigning Kia Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. And even Hollins couldn’t get them in a comfortable groove against the Spurs. The Thunder proved that nothing is guaranteed from one season to the next, not with injuries and the race for the top spot being as competitive as it has ever been in the rugged Western Conference. Bringing this group — Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, too — back intact might not be sufficient for returning to the Larry O’Brien final four tournament. The Grizzlies didn’t have the flexibility to tinker with the roster in free agency. The one change they could have made that could shake things up was to replace Hollins. By doing so with a guy who is familiar with this roster gives them some advantage that a completely fresh face would not have recognized. It won’t take long to see if Joerger has a handle on those intangibles. And if he does, the Grizzlies will climb this list.
The Nuggets will survive a tumultuous offseason that struck three significant blows to a team that seemed to be on the rise before yet another first-round playoff exit. The NBA’s Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, bolted for Toronto. The league’s Coach of the Year, George Karl, was relieved of his duties. And Iguodala is set to be signed and traded after agreeing to terms on that deal with the Warriors. That would normally be enough to knock a top team all the way back down to the lottery. The best move they’ve made so far this summer was hiring Brian Shaw to replace Karl. He’ll bring a steady hand to what was a shaky situation. The Nuggets will have an active and talented frontocurt rotation to work with in Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, Darrell Arthur and free-agent pickup J.J. Hickson. Wilson Chandler will step in for Danilo Gallinari, who continues his recovery from knee surgery, and Evan Fournier, Corey Brewer and Randy Foye will provide depth on the wing. Ty Lawson and Andre Miller combined to form one of the league’s best 1-2 punches at point guard and they should be allowed plenty of freedom to operate in the system Shaw will employ. The Nuggets will continue to play at a tempo that suits their talent and home environment. They shouldn’t lose anything defensively either. Shaw isn’t the wild card that some of these other new coaches (Jason Kidd, Brad Stevens) could be in other situations. So don’t expect the Nuggets to crumble just because they’ve lost a few familiar faces.
No team endured more maddening injury issues this season than the Timberwolves. A healthy Kevin Love, however, changes their playoff outlook dramatically for the 2013-14 season. With their talent and dept, a legitimate run for the final playoff spot is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Ricky Rubio should be full healthy this season and the Timberwolves retained Chase Budinger, added Kevin Martin and have to do whatever it takes to keep restricted free agent Nikola Pekovic in the fold. Sure, it’s been a professional sports eternity since the Timberwolves last breathed playoff air (Kevin Garnett was still wearing the uniform in 2004). But coach Rick Adelman finally has the horses to make some serious noise. The franchise’s new head man, Flip Saunders, was the coach of that 2004 team that made the Western Conference finals, so he knows exactly what it takes for a Minnesota crew to cash in on its promise. It starts with Love and Rubio, their two biggest stars, staying healthy and playing up to their immense potential, both individually and as a dynamic duo.
JUST MISSED THE CUT: Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers