The Western Conference was incredibly competitive last season, with half a dozen teams in legitimate position to reach the Finals when the playoffs started. After several gigantic trades and signings took place over the summer, the conference figures to be even tougher next year.
Now that most of free agency has settled down and the bulk of each team's rosters are set, here's a prediction of how the conference will shake out by the time the playoffs come around. The teams are ranked in reverse order, from No. 8 to No. 1.
On the assumption that Nikola Pekovic will eventually re-sign, the Timberwolves are poised to have a bounce-back season. Their 2012-13 was as rough as it gets, with injuries gutting them before the season even started.
This year they’ll head into opening night with a healthy Kevin Love (one of the league’s 10 best players), a healthy Ricky Rubio (an underrated defensive player), Pekovic in the middle (most likely) and some legitimate offensive firepower filling in the cracks.
Kevin Martin, Chase Budinger, Corey Brewer and Shabazz Muhammad are all new faces, but the first two already have previous experience thriving in Rick Adelman’s offense. Their defense should be shaky, especially with the loss of perimeter safety net Andrei Kirilenko, but the Timberwolves should have a top-10 offense next season.
For a team that played Sasha Pavlovic, Will Barton, Joel Freeland, Victor Claver and Ronnie Price in legitimate minutes last year—and still managed to win 33 games with a rookie point guard leading them in total points—the move from JJ Hickson to Robin Lopez at center is the type of change that alone should be worth several wins next season.
Lopez is a 24-year-old seven-footer coming off the best season of his career, where he was one of the league’s 10 best shot-blockers and averaged double figures in scoring. Adding him is huge.
Elsewhere, the Trail Blazers upgraded one of basketball's least productive benches. Former lottery pick Thomas Robinson is on board—with potential to break out on his third team in two years—as is the floor-spacing sniper Dorell Wright and rookie combo guard C.J. McCollum.
This team will be noticeably better next year, and we haven't even mentioned All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
If everyone can stay healthy, the Golden State Warriors could have a top-five offense next year, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson assuming increased responsibilities and new addition Andre Iguodala as a point forward facilitator helping everything run smooth as can be.
Harrison Barnes will look to build on his breakout playoff performance, and the front office did a fantastic job replacing Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry with Marreese Speights, Jermaine O’Neal and Toney Douglas.
This team could still lack back-line protection, with the fragile twin towers of O’Neal and Andrew Bogut currently standing as the only healthy centers on the roster, and Curry’s shaky ankles might be a problem until he retires.
But if everything falls into place, nobody will want to face the Warriors in a seven-game series next year, especially if they can manage home-court advantage.
Built on the foundation of defensive tenacity and grueling back-to-the-basket offense, the Memphis Grizzlies are coming off the best year in their franchise’s short history.
Their one big question mark heading into the summer was would they be able to re-sign free-agent guard Tony Allen—one of the best defenders in the league and a microcosmic symbol of Memphis’ roster—at a semi-affordable price.
The answer turned out to be yes, with a four-year deal, keeping the team’s starting five intact. Elsewhere, they upgraded their frontcourt by dealing Darrell Arthur for Kosta Koufos and finally added another three-point shooter, Mike Miller, at a bargain rate thanks to the league’s amnesty process.
On paper the Grizzlies will be better, but a change at head coach creates more questions than answers, especially when the playoffs roll around. And too much is dependent on Zach Randolph, who just turned 32 and is coming off an embarrassing Western Conference Finals.
Memphis will be tough as ever, but that might not be enough in a conference that got noticeably better.
They’ve paired Chris Paul (arguably the best point guard of the past decade) with Doc Rivers (one of the three or four best basketball coaches in the world), added depth in areas of need on the wing by trading for Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick and replaced the soon-to-be-humongously-expensive Eric Bledsoe with a humbled, super-cheap Darren Collison.
That’s not a bad offseason for a team that at times last year looked like the best in basketball. They still have a serious problem defensively in the back line, with little depth apart from Byron “Matador” Mullens and Ryan Hollins, but if Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can each make strides on both ends of the floor, this group could be special.
A motivated, healthy Dwight Howard is one of the five best players in the world and a force no team can handle on the defensive end.
Surrounding Howard with James Harden (one of the five best scorers in the league) and a bevy of role players who can either shoot, get to the rim, use a screen, move the ball or protect the rim whenever Howard needs to rest (if he’s willing to buy in, don’t underestimate the importance of Omer Asik in a Marcin Gortat-esque role).
In 2009, this recipe brought Howard’s Orlando Magic all the way to the NBA Finals, and that was a team that didn’t have anyone nearly as unstoppable off the bounce as Harden.
Those two have potential to create the league’s most dominant pick-and-roll action, and if other pieces can step it up a bit defensively (Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Harden, most notably), the Rockets might already have a roster built to compete for a championship.
After coming within seconds and inches of winning the NBA championship in June, basketball’s most consistent team of the past 15 years will return Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili next season, with the first two still playing some of the best basketball of their careers.
Apart from world-beating talent and the best basketball coach alive, what makes San Antonio so successful is their roster continuity. Few pieces who weren’t a part of last year’s run to the Finals are gone, and few will be added into the fold. Basketball is all about chemistry, and turning a roster over is always risky.
Still in the fold are Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, two young, three-point shooting athletes on the wing who should be even better next season—especially Leonard, who appears on the verge of hitting his All-Star potential sooner than later.
All the Oklahoma City Thunder did this summer was lose free-agent talent and fail to bring any in. But for 2014, who cares? They still have the second-best player in the world and another top-10 player locked down at point guard.
Neither player has hit his prime yet. Any team with those two components is probably going to contend for a title, and with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook getting even better next year, a healthy Oklahoma City Thunder still projects to be the most potent team in a bottomless Western Conference.
Throw a constantly developing Serge Ibaka into the mix and the Thunder are as talented in their starting lineup as anybody. If Reggie Jackson continues to improve as a scoring option off the bench, slowing the Thunder down should be one of the hardest tasks in basketball next year.