Jordan Hill is a bit delusional.
We definitely could be in the top three in the West. I don’t see why not. Kobe is making progress with his rehab [surrounding his left Achilles tendon]. I wouldn’t be surprised if he comes back at the beginning of the season or in training camp.
I don’t know if he will. But I wouldn’t be surprised. I have faith in everything he can do. I believe in the Mamba. The sky’s the limit for him.
Sorry, Jordan, but I see why not.
The big man's entire reasoning centers around Kobe, who has to come back from his Achilles injury and lead the team to...the third seed in the West?
Just to jog Hill's memory, that would mean that Kobe needs to play light-years better than he performed in 2012-13, when he had a renaissance season that still left the Lakers in seventh place. And that was before the Lakers replaced Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace with Chris Kaman and Nick Young.
That's not going to happen. Of course, I'm not going to go to the other end of the spectrum and predict that the Lakers will finish 12th. I'd rather not prompt a passively aggressive tweet from the "Black Mamba."
But I'm still not going to hesitate to put these nine teams in front of them.
2012-13 Record: 57-25
Big Acquisitions: Nate Robinson, J.J. Hickson
The Denver Nuggets did not get better during the 2013 offseason, but they had enough of a cushion that they still come in ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers in any sort of Western Conference power rankings.
Losing general manager Masai Ujiri will hurt, but not during the present. He built the roster that's in place, so there's no fear of bad personnel moves until more time elapses. It's replacing George Karl with Brian Shaw and watching as Andre Iguodala left that will hurt this team most.
That said, the Nuggets made some solid moves. They added serious bench-scoring potential in the form of Nate Robinson and upgraded the frontcourt rotation by adding J.J. Hickson.
This is still a deep team, and Ty Lawson looked like a truly elite point guard at the end of the 2012-13 season. During the second half of the season, he averaged 18.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game while shooting a scorching 50.4 percent from the field.
That's the version of Lawson that needs to show up, especially now that he'll have more ball control than ever without Iguodala in the lineup.
With Lawson, a hopefully healthy Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler, this remains a team that can keep up with just about anyone. And there's still the benefit of playing at the Pepsi Center, the home arena at which the 2012-13 Nuggets lost only three times.
Chances that the Lakers are better: It could happen, but it won't.
2012-13 Record: 47-35
Big Acquisitions: Toney Douglas, Andre Iguodala, Jermaine O'Neal, Marreese Speights
The Golden State Warriors no longer have the element of surprise, but they don't need it either.
Following the complicated acquisition of Andre Iguodala, one that involved moving plenty of expiring contracts and then convincing the swingman to join the team, the Dubs aren't just playoff contenders.
They're title contenders.
Iggy's positional versatility, perimeter defense and ball-handling skills will help push Golden State to the next level, but it's still all about the "Splash Brothers."
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will continue raining in threes with such great frequency that the NBA might have to start thinking about changing the nets at halftime in fear of wear-and-tear-created rips. Curry is coming off a season in which he set the all-time record for threes made in a regular season, and he's poised to top that mark in 2013-14.
With either Thompson or Harrison Barnes coming off the bench and sparking a second unit that also boasts Toney Douglas, Marreese Speights, a resurgent Jermaine O'Neal (thank you, Phoenix Suns medical staff), Draymond Green and Kent Bazemore, a summer league breakout player, the Dubs have to be considered dark horses for the championship.
Chances that the Lakers are better: About the same as the chances Curry forgets how to shoot three-pointers.
2012-13 Record: 45-37
Big Acquisitions: Dwight Howard, Marcus Camby
Remember the dominant Orlando Magic teams that were centered around Dwight Howard?
This Houston Rockets squad is basically an upgraded version of the old Magic. That Orlando team could be beaten by letting Howard go one-on-one and focusing on shutting down the perimeter players. The Atlanta Hawks proved that in the playoffs.
But Houston won't let that same strategy work.
James Harden is better than anyone Howard played with while a member of the franchise that originally drafted him. Opposing defenses won't be able to let him play in isolation, or else, they'll seriously regret that decision. And Add in Chandler Parsons and the point guard combination of Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin, both of whom excel running pick-and-rolls.
Now you can see why this team will be so offensively dominant. And with both Howard and Omer Asik anchoring the defense in the paint, there's defensive upside present as well.
Houston may not be the best team in the Western Conference—not until they develop chemistry, at least—but it's certainly in the conversation.
Chances that the Lakers are better: Inversely proportional to the awesomeness of Harden's beard.
2012-13 Record: 56-26
Big Acquisitions: Darren Collison, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock, Byron Mullens
Go ahead and place your bet in Vegas if that's your sort of thing (but no illegal sports gambling, please): The Clippers will finish with the best record in the Western Conference. It'll happen for three main reasons.
First, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have to improve at least a little bit. I've tempered my expectations about their long-term growth over the last year, but both are still young enough that they almost have to keep getting moderately better as the seasons progress.
Secondly, the Clippers brought back all key pieces, replaced Vinny Del Negro with Doc Rivers and added a quartet of sharpshooters: J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Reggie Bullock and Byron Mullens. Three-point shooting wasn't really a weakness during last year's campaign, but it wasn't a strength either.
That changes after a nearly perfect offseason.
Third, Chris Paul.
Chances that the Lakers are better: Somehow even lower than DeAndre Jordan's free-throw shooting percentages.
2012-13 Record: 56-26
Big Acquisitions: Jamaal Franklin, Mike Miller
Mike Miller might actually make a significant impact for the Memphis Grizzlies, considering the utter dearth of perimeter threats on the rest of the roster, but that's not exactly why they're featured here.
The true reason is that they return virtually every member of the defense that was more suffocating than any other unit in the NBA, with the slight exception of the Indiana Pacers.
Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are all back in the starting lineup, which means that it's once more going to be a battle to score even a handful of points each time an opponent steps into the grindhouse.
The Grizz earned the fifth seed in the Western Conference last year, losing a tiebreaker to the Los Angeles Clippers, and they should be in just about the same situation going forward. Lionel Hollins might be gone, but not much else has changed, and the additions of Jamaal Franklin and Miller should only mean positive things.
Good luck game-planning for that stellar Memphis defense. You'll need it if you're part of the West.
Chances that the Lakers are better: Only if everyone on the Memphis roster overindulges in some delicious barbecue every day.
2012-13 Record: 31-51
Big Acquisitions: Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, Ronny Turiaf
The Minnesota Timberwolves would have made the playoffs in 2013 if they'd been able to stay even remotely healthy, but injuries to just about everyone kept the team at home after the 82nd game.
Expecting the 'Wolves to stay completely healthy would be falling for the gambler's fallacy, but it's not too unlikely to expect karma to reward them at least a little bit. I'm sure at least someone will remain healthy this year.
If that's the case, Minnesota is set not just to make the playoffs, but potentially to advance into the second round.
Ricky Rubio has emerged as one of the best playmakers in basketball, Kevin Love is a premier rebounder and scorer from the power forward position and Nikola Pekovic is just a physical behemoth. And the rest of the roster ain't too shabby either.
This is a deep team with talent at each and every position. Now Flip Saunders just needs to trade a second-round draft pick for some injury-imp repellent.
Chances that the Lakers are better: Directly tied to the 'Wolves' health.
2012-13 Record: 60-22
Big Acquisitions: Steven Adams
The only negative aspect of the Oklahoma City Thunder's offseason was that they failed to replace Kevin Martin. Instead, the Thunder are relying on either Reggie Jackson or Jeremy Lamb to step up and account for the lost production?
Could it happen? Certainly, and I believe in Jackson. But it's a risky move for a team that is expected to remain one of the Western Conference's true powerhouses.
Nothing more needs to be said.
Chances that the Lakers are better: Just stop. Seriously, knock it off.
2012-13 Record: 33-49
Big Acquisitions: Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Will Barton, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez
The Portland Trail Blazers hung around in playoff contention until the middle of the season, when the stars' heavy minutes and the roster's lack of depth caught up to them. They finished 33-49, well shy of a postseason berth, allowing them to identify two primary problems.
First was the lack of defensive presence at center. Too much responsibility was heaped up on LaMarcus Aldridge's shoulders, and that pressure has been alleviated by the acquisition of Robin Lopez.
Lopez might not be the most glamorous big man, but he's a fantastic defender, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), the Stanford product allowed 0.81 points per possession during his final go-around with the New Orleans Hornets, good for No. 72 in the NBA. On PnR plays, he ranked seventh by allowing 0.58 points per possession.
There's one solution. The other—one needed to fix the lack of depth—was found by acquiring the laundry list of players you can see up above.
Depth is no longer a concern, which means that Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum can now carry this team into true postseason contention.
Chances that the Lakers are better: Solid. I'd say it's just under 50/50 in favor of the Blazers.
2012-13 Record: 58-24
Big Acquisitions: Marco Belinelli
The San Antonio Spurs are coming off a season in which they advanced to the NBA Finals and came within one free throw and/or rebound from winning a title.
Who'd they lose exactly?
Gary Neal and Tracy McGrady. Hardly big losses when you replace them with Marco Belinelli.
Age will continue to be a concern for the Spurs, but Tim Duncan seems rather impervious to the clutches of Father Time. Manu Ginobili wishes he could say the same, though even if he does decline, Kawhi Leonard will be there to pick up the pieces and take on a bigger role.
Let's not underestimate the Spurs for the bazillionth time.
Chances that the Lakers are better: Just no.