The Western Conference is once again loaded. The only change from last year is that the Los Angeles Clippers, not the Los Angeles Lakers, sit near the top. There will be plenty of important games throughout the season, but five stand out immediately.
The Pacific Division will be headlined by the Clippers and the run-and-gun Golden State Warriors. The Houston Rockets look like another contender in the West. Once again, the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs look like title contenders too.
The Clippers will have a difficult road if they want to lock down home-court advantage next spring, but winning these five games should give fans an idea of where the team projects to finish this postseason.
Game one of the season, the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers will face off. However, it will not be your familiar Lakers-Clippers matchup. The Lakers have lost Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant will still be recovering from his Achilles injury and they look nothing like what they were the previous seasons.
Meanwhile, the Clippers had, arguably, the best offseason of any team in the league. Having added J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley to an already dangerous offense should make the Clippers one of the top scoring teams in the NBA.
This matchup seemingly signifies the changing of the guard in Los Angeles, at least for this season. The Lakers are going to have their work cut out for them in order to slow down the Clippers' high-octane offense.
The Clippers need to show they are capable of spreading the floor and punishing teams that double Chris Paul or Blake Griffin by knocking down open threes. Defensively, the Clippers need a strong performance from DeAndre Jordan, much like they will the rest of the season.
Doc Rivers will certainly want to see his pillar in the paint protect the rim defensively and play Pau Gasol one-on-one. It will also be the first chance for fans to see their new coach in action.
It will not be the first meeting of the season between the two Pacific Division foes, but it will likely draw the largest audience. A Christmas evening duel between two of the most high-powered offenses in the league will be one of the more exciting games of the holiday season.
The two teams look like they are in an arms race against each other. The Golden State Warriors made a remarkable move by picking up Andre Iguodala to slot next to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Iguodala will provide a long, athletic wing stopper that is capable of causing havoc on teams, especially against the Clippers’ perimeter attack.
It goes without saying, but the Clippers will need to defend the three-point line like it is the rim. The Warriors absolutely shot the lights out last season against teams, and one of the areas of concern that the Clippers’ management tried to address this summer was their perimeter defense.
Furthermore, it will be the second meeting of four on the season. Winning this game and potentially taking a leg up on a division rival would be quite the Christmas present for either team.
The only out-of-conference game on this list, but it comes at home against the defending champions. The Los Angeles Clippers have had success against the Miami Heat the past two seasons, winning two-of-three games.
The real question surrounding the Clippers is how effective they are defending a balanced Heat attack. Can Blake Griffin defend Chris Bosh or LeBron James when the Heat goes small? Can Jared Dudley and Matt Barnes slow down LeBron? How does the Heat defense react to a spread Clippers offense?
Which team wins means little, but both will be tested on both ends of the floor. Doc Rivers should have his defensive system in place, and the offense will hopefully be running smooth under Alvin Gentry.
Undoubtedly, this game will have serious playoff implications for both teams. The Houston Rockets re-tooled their team last season after trading for James Harden. They doubled-down this summer by signing Dwight Howard. Together, the duo might pose the most serious threat to the Los Angeles Clippers in the conference.
The entire key to each game in this series, especially this final one, will be the play of DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers’ centers. Dwight Howard will surely command double-teams, but if Doc Rivers can morph Jordan into the type of defensive anchor he hopes Jordan can become, the Clippers will fare much better defensively playing Howard straight up.
Offensively, both teams are similar. They spread the floor, run pick-and-roll action and want to isolate their star big in the post one-on-one. However, the x-factor here is obviously Howard. He is capable of changing the entire defensive culture in Houston, which desperately needs it.
On paper, this late-season affair could mean the difference between a one or two seed in the conference. Both teams are set up for success in the foreseeable future, and both have more-than-adequate role players surrounding their stars.
Much has been made about Doc Rivers coming over from the Boston Celtics to coach the Clippers, and these are the type of games Donald Sterling is paying Rivers handsomely to win.
Rivers’ defensive system emphasizes loading up the strong-side of the floor, which should pose a serious threat to the Oklahoma City Thunder, because Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant normally attack from the top of the key or the wings. Rarely are they ever separated on each side of the floor, and if they are, it is usually to create lanes to attack.
That said, the Clippers also invested much of their salary cap on the perimeter. Matt Barnes, Darren Collison, Chris Paul and Jared Dudley will be heavily relied upon against the Thunder to keep them from attacking off the dribble.
Finally, much of the success the Clippers are going to have against the elite teams in the conference will be thanks to Chris Paul or Blake Griffin. Too often, Paul has had to become the savior, but if the Clippers want to win a title, Griffin needs to share that role with him. The Thunder lack the defensive forwards to check Griffin, and he needs to punish them accordingly.