I did my 2013-2014 NBA Power Rankings for the Eastern Conference after the draft, but, for the Western Conference, it didn’t make sense to do these early rankings until the biggest free agent landed. And, with Dwight Howard going to the Houston Rockets, that did make a big difference in my rankings. The landscape in the Western Conference is wide open. We all saw the mortality of the Miami Heat; they were pushed to the brink of elimination by the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs. With that in mind, I think the top six teams in my early 2013-14 power rankings are all true NBA title contenders. 2013-14 is shaping up to be a very exciting season. Here are my rankings for the Western Conference after the draft and Howard signing:
1. Los Angeles Clippers. I never thought I’d see this day, let alone write about it, but I think the Clippers right now are the best team in the West. Chris Paul would’ve left if he didn’t think the Clippers could take it to the next level. Besides having one of the best point guards in the game and an athletic front court, the Clippers added deadly perimeter shooters in Reggie Bullock and J.J. Reddick. If Doc Rivers is the coach the Clippers assume he is, he should guide this team to the top of the Western Conference.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder. Chris Paul might be the best point guard in the Western Conference, but Kevin Durant is the best player. Durant couldn’t carry the team by himself after the load was put upon him with the Westbrook injury in the playoffs. A healthy Westbrook alongside Durant should put the Thunder back up to where they were last season.
3. Houston Rockets. Yes, Dwight Howard does make that much of a difference. A happier Dwight Howard should increase his production from last season with the Lakers, and James Harden proved he was a bonafide NBA superstar with his performance last season. It’ll be interesting to see the team’s final moves; it is being widely reported that Omer Asik wants out of Houston now with the team adding Howard.
4. San Antonio Spurs. Yes, I know the Spurs were literally a missed free throw away from being NBA Champions. But, their Big Three of Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker, will have another year of mileage on them next season. The Spurs have nice young players, though, to complement them in Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, who they re-signed, and three-point sharpshooter Danny Green.
5. Golden St. Warriors. The Warriors broke through last season taking a playoff series from the Denver Nuggets, and I expect the Warriors to build upon that in 2013-14. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson will be joined by Andre Iguodla, coming over from the Nuggets. If the Warriors can get full seasons out of David Lee and Andrew Bogut, this will easily be the best Warrior squad since the Run T-M-C days.
6. Memphis Grizzlies. I haven’t been enamored with the Grizzlies’ offseason. They did bring back Tony Allen, but they have stayed pat so far. With big names being added left and right, Memphis hopes to build upon last season Western Conference Finals team with the same core of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph. If the team does take a step back, the front office will come under fire for getting rid of Lionel Hollins after his 56 win season and 2 playoff series wins last year.
7. Portland Trailblazers. Quietly, Portland has had a very good offseason so far. In the draft, they added C.J. McCollum, a deadly three-point shooter out of Lehigh, and acquired Allen Crabbe, out of Cal, in a trade with Cleveland. They kept their trading hats on and, in pending deals, have landed Thomas Robinson from Houston and Robin Lopez from New Orleans. Add that to LaMarcus Aldridge and last year’s Rookie of the Year Lillard, and I can easily see Portland making it back to the playoffs.
8. Dallas Mavericks. This is just a gut feeling, but I can’t see the Mavericks missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons. They missed out in the Dwight Howard derby, but they did add the PG they coveted in Jose Calderon. Dallas is also in the mix for some of the top remaining free agents: Monta Ellis and Andrew Bynum.
9. Los Angeles Lakers. Hate to kick a team when they’re down, but the Lakers will need to make a move or two to get back into the Western Conference Playoffs. The whole season, as the roster is constructed now, depends on when Kobe comes back and how strong he’ll come back. I don’t doubt Kobe’s will power, but this will be eighteenth season, and the Lakers were a bottom half of the Western Playoff team with him. Will they re-tool sans Howard or improve their position for the Andrew Wiggins derby?
10. Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets made a great move in hiring Brian Shaw as their head coach. However, the rest of their offseason hasn’t gone their way so far losing Andre Iguodala to the Warriors. In more bad news for Denver, Danilo Gallinari might be out until February after surgery on his left ACL. Denver earned the No. 3 seed last season, but it might be a step back in Shaw’s first season.
11. New Orleans Pelicans. New name, new aggressive offseason attitude. The Pelicans made a splash on draft night, picking possible No. 1 pick Nerlens Noel and trading him to Philadelphia for Jrue Holiday. They added another starter in a sign-and-trade with the Kings adding Tyreke Evans. If Eric Gordon can stay healthy (he’s appeared in 53 games for New Orleans in two seasons), the Pelicans will improve from last season’s 27 wins.
12. Minnesota Timberwolves. Like the Pelicans, Minnesota has been aggressive in the offseason. They drafted Trey Burke, then flipped him to Utah for two later first round draft picks (Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng). The Wolves have also been active in free agency keeping Chase Budinger and signing Kevin Martin from Oklahoma City. Minnesota improved to 31 wins only having Kevin Love for eighteen games; another step-up could be on the horizon with a healthy Love.
13. Utah Jazz. The Jazz played for a playoff spot on the last day of the season, but I think they have fallen back since. They lost both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap, meaning the future is now and they will rely on Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, who is coming off a dislocated left shoulder. They are also unlikely to retain veteran PG Mo Williams, meaning they would turn to a combo of Randy Foye and rookie Trey Burke. It’ll be a younger Jazz squad, trying to survive in an improving West.
14. Sacramento Kings. The Kings might have landed who turns out to be the best player in the draft in Ben McLemore. They are also going all-in on DeMarcus Cousins, letting Tyreke Evans go to New Orleans. Cousins is a great talent, but can the Kings keep him happy?
15. Phoenix Suns. Phoenix had the worst record in the Western Conference last season, and I don’t know if they have improved enough to get out of the cellar. They’ll have a new coach in former Sun Jeff Hornacek, and a new big man in C Alex Len, out of Maryland. Phoenix added a couple of potential starters in a trade with the Clippers landing highly-prized PG Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler. On paper, the Suns should be better than their 2012-13 counterparts, but it may be another long season in the desert in 2013-14.