In the Western Conference this year, there are six teams that are obvious locks for making the playoffs: the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs.
Last year, those teams made up the No. 1 through No. 6 seeds in the West. The seventh and eighth seeds went to the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks—two teams who were on the brink of not making the playoffs at all and made major shakeups this summer that could lead to their eventual downfall from their spots in the playoffs.
This shakeup is in large part due to the major strides taken by the Golden State Warriors and the Minnesota Timberwolves. These four teams are going to be battling it out for the last two available spots in the West.
Which team will make it in the end? Let's compare each of their assets side by side.
1. Stephen Curry—Golden State Warriors
2. Ricky Rubio/Luke Ridnour—Minnesota Timberwolves
3. Mo Williams—Utah Jazz
4. Darren Collison—Dallas Mavericks
When you look at the starting point guards, two obvious stars stand out: Stephen Curry and Ricky Rubio. While you could debate who will have a better season, one point becomes glaringly obvious: Rubio will not be available until late December.
While Rubio is a better distributor, Curry is a much better player and (fingers crossed), he should be available for the entire season. In this aspect, he gets the edge over Rubio and the clear edge over two months of Luke Ridnour.
Between Mo Williams and Darren Collison, it comes down to players who had breakout seasons quite some time ago. Both are looking to rekindle that with their new teams after losing their starting roles on their previous teams.
I give the edge to Williams here because he had a great season with the Clippers in a bench role, while Collison proved himself to be less of a point guard than George Hill, who himself is not really a point guard.
1. O.J. Mayo—Dallas Mavericks
2. Klay Thompson—Golden State Warriors
3. Brandon Roy—Minnesota Timberwolves
4. Alec Burks—Utah Jazz
Ah, the group of uncertainty.
While it almost feels unfair to compare each of these players side by side because of the amount of uncertainty that each of them has, the one with the least uncertainty may just take the cake.
And that cake belongs to O.J. Mayo.
While he never really found a good role with the Memphis Grizzlies, I have no doubt in my mind that he'll shine with the Dallas Mavericks. A career 15 PPG is not a bad stat to have, despite the fact that it went down last season to nearly 12.
He's a better defender than people give him credit for, and most of that slack should be picked up by Shawn Marion anyway.
Klay Thompson and Brandon Roy also averaged around 12 PPG in their most recent NBA seasons. Now Thompson is expected to build upon that, and hopefully regain his form as the player who was getting nearly 20 PPG at the end of his rookie season. Thompson, however, plays very little defense.
Now people in Minnesota are just hoping that Roy can be the Roy who put up 12 PPG in his final season in Portland. He's not going to be the All-NBA second-team player that he was in 2009, but if he can just be the guy he was a couple years ago, he'll be a huge upgrade for Minnesota.
Probably not better than Mayo or Thompson, though.
And Alec Burks...hopefully, he'll just have a breakout year in Utah.
1. Shawn Marion—Dallas Mavericks
2. Andrei Kirilenko—Minnesota Timberwolves
3. Gordon Hayward—Utah Jazz
4. Harrison Barnes—Golden State Warriors
The question is between two veteran defenders—Shawn Marion and Andrei Kirilenko. While the two were very comparable in their primes, Marion was easily the better of the two with three more All-Star game appearances to prove it.
While Marion is four years older than Kirilenko, he has been playing for the Mavericks for a while now. Kirilenko is not only adjusting to a new team in Minnesota, but also adjusting to the NBA game again. He will need some time to figure it all out.
If he plays like he did in the Olympics, the clear advantage would go to Kirilenko, but right now it has to go to Marion.
While Gordon Hayward had a breakout sophomore season last year, he's nowhere near the caliber of player that Kirilenko or Marion are, especially when it comes to experience. And Harrison Barnes is, well, a rookie.
1. Kevin Love—Minnesota Timberwolves
2. Dirk Nowitzki—Dallas Mavericks
3. Paul Millsap—Utah Jazz
4. David Lee—Golden State Warriors
It's an age-old question: youth vs. experience. It's the reason Touch of Gray is such a popular product.
Kevin Love is simply the best power forward in the game right now. Other than an impossible-to-block fadeaway, there's no aspect of Dirk Nowitzki's game that surpasses Love's right now, including shooting from the three-point line.
Love just came off an amazing run in the Olympics, where he was a major contributor in the final minutes of a close gold-medal game. While I highly considered giving this one to Nowitzki for his ability to lead a team, it's an advantage for the Timberwolves, who have the best power forward in the league right now.
Paul Millsap is a great player and makes major contributions on the defensive end. His ability to steal the ball is extremely surprising for a big man, and he's a team leader for Utah. While David Lee can score in bigger punches, that's about all he contributes.
1. Al Jefferson—Utah Jazz
2. Andrew Bogut—Golden State Warriors
3. Nikola Pekovic—Minnesota Timberwolves
4. Chris Kaman—Dallas Mavericks
We've got three All-Star hopefuls and one former All-Star.
Chris Kaman has been on a steady decline since he was picked as an All-Star so many years ago. Despite his obvious chemistry with Dirk Nowitzki, he's not above any of these centers.
While Nikola Pekovic had a breakout year last season and has the ability to be a presence on both sides of the court, he hasn't reached the levels that Al Jefferson or Andrew Bogut have reached yet.
When you look at Bogut versus Jefferson, you're looking at players who are primarily based on one side of the court—Jefferson on offense, and Bogut on defense.
Jefferson has become a premier scorer in the league and can be a 20 PPG and 10 RPG player night in and night out. His moves in the post have become as close as you can get to unguardable, and he's become a team leader for the Jazz.
Bogut has become a great center known for two things: intimidating defense and injuries. I'd love to give Bogut the advantage here based on his amazing defense and that the Warriors need it out of him. In his prime, he was on the All-NBA third team at one point in his career.
The problem is it has been too shaky to depend on him for any amount of time.
So you have to hand it to Jefferson.
1. Rodrigue Beaubois, Vince Carter, Jared Cunningham, Dahntay Jones, Dominique Jones, Delonte West—Dallas Mavericks
2. Kent Bazemore, Jarrett Jack, Charles Jenkins, Brandon Rush—Golden State Warriors
3. J.J. Barea, Malcolm Lee, Luke Ridnour, Alexey Shved—Minnesota Timberwolves
4. Randy Foye, Kevin Murphy, Jamaal Tinsley, Earl Watson—Utah Jazz
While I wouldn't want any of these groups of players as my favorite team's backup backcourt, there are some clear front-runners here.
Dallas has a backcourt of stacked mediocrity. All of their players wouldn't crack #NBARank's top 150, but each can make solid contributions to any team off the bench.
Golden State has a great duo in Jarrett Jack and Brandon Rush, whose breakout years made them highly touted free agents this year.
While Minnesota has the clear point guard advantage over all three teams, its lack of any help at shooting guard causes it to drop to No. 3.
As for Utah, it has aging point guards who have got something left in the tank, but not a lot.
1. DeMarre Carroll, Jeremy Evans, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Marvin Williams—Utah Jazz
2. Chase Budinger, Dante Cunningham, Greg Stiemsma, Derrick Williams—Minnesota Timberwolves
3. Andris Biedriņs, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green, Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry, Jeremy Tyler—Golden State Warriors
4. Elton Brand, Jae Crowder, Bernard James, Brandan Wright—Dallas Mavericks
Which team with a former top-three draft pick will come out on top? The team with three of them. The Utah Jazz have a terrific bench with Marvin Williams, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
That group hasn't quite lived up to expectations they had when they were drafted in the top three picks, but they have proved to be solid contributors on a good team.
Minnesota comes in second with its backup lineup of Chase Budinger, Derrick Williams and Greg Stiemsma. Budinger and Stiemsma are known contributors on the offensive and defensive sides of the court. Williams is a star on the rise.
While he hasn't lived up to the expectations he had as the No. 2 overall pick, people forget he still managed an All-Rookie second-team selection and two appearances at the All-Star break: the Rising Stars Challenge and the Slam Dunk Contest.
Golden State has the highest number of players in the backcourt, but a lot of those players used to have value and are on a steady decline. Andris Biedriņs, Carl Landry and Richard Jefferson were once thought not only as starters in the league, but potential All-Stars.
While none of them ever made it, they are looking for fresh starts this year in different roles on the Warriors. Let's hope one of them can learn defense.
As for Dallas, Elton Brand and Brandan Wright had great seasons last year, but they are still lacking in the center and small forward department with several players looking to play out of position.
1. Rick Carlisle—Dallas Mavericks
2. Rick Adelman—Minnesota Timberwolves
3. Tyrone Corbin—Utah Jazz
4. Mark Jackson—Golden State Warriors
It's completely obvious who the top two are and who the bottom two are. Experience in the league as head coaches for more than one season separates Rick Adelman and Rick Carlisle.
Carlisle is going to get my nod for top coach because he's got an NBA championship on his resume. While Adelman has a nearly identical win percentage in nearly double the amount of games coached, he has always been the coach to lead good teams to even better records, not great teams to that final win.
Tyrone Corbin has the experience of leading a decent team to a playoff berth before, and he's got the ability to do it again. Mark Jackson has coached the fewest games of any coach in the league other than the two new coaches in Orlando and Charlotte.
If you award four points for first place, three for second, two for third and one for fourth, the points add up as follows:
Point Guard: 1
Shooting Guard: 4
Small Forward: 4
Power Forward: 3
Point Guard: 4
Shooting Guard: 3
Small Forward: 1
Power Forward: 1
Point Guard: 3
Shooting Guard: 2
Small Forward: 3
Power Forward: 4
Point Guard: 2
Shooting Guard: 1
Small Forward: 2
Power Forward: 2
Golden State: 18
So it looks like the clear advantage this year goes to the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves. When you look at them side by side, the Mavericks and Wolves have a clear path to the future with uncertainty with some newcomers, but locks at the power forward and coaching positions.
The Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz are going to be those teams on the outside looking in: lacking that one clear piece to put them over the edge.
It's going to be a tight playoff race as it always is in the Western Conference. Injuries are going to dominate which teams are going to finish in the bottom of the West. We could see some surprises, both good and bad, from the new players that each team has acquired this offseason.
On paper, though, it looks like the seventh and eighth seeds will currently belong to the Timberwolves and Mavericks.