Q: How does Kevin Durant's return shift the balance of power in the West?
A: I'm not sure it does with the exception that they will certainly make the Playoffs if he stays healthy. But that roster just doesn't scream contender: Aside from Westbrook and Durant, who do they really have? Dion Waiters (always disappoints), Serge Ibaka (overrated in my opinion), DJ Augustin (nice backup, but how relevant on a roster with Westbrook?), Enes Kanter (solid player, nice potential)....and that's kind of it. Kyle Singler? Andre Roberson? Nick Collison? I'm just not blown away by the Thunder and let's not forget they have a rookie head coach in Billy Donavan. Will he be able to adjust to the NBA or will he fan out like Rick Pitino or John Calipari? When I look at the rest of the West - Golden State, San Antonio, the Clippers, the Rockets - I just feel like OKC just stood still and are hoping that Durant fixes their issues. I'm not sure he will. Time will tell...
Q: Are the Spurs still contenders?
A: LaMarcus Aldridge was a fantastic signing and much needed, but there are still some big questions in San Antonio and they all start with the name "Tony Parker." Tony Parker basically averaged 14/5 last year in only 68 games and just looked off all season. Then in the Playoffs, he averaged a lousy 10.9 ppg and 3.6 assists while shooting a pathetic 36% from the field and getting annihilated by Chris Paul (22.7 ppg and 7.9 assists). Can he find himself again? If not, that leaves a huge hole at point guard. Patty Mills is a nice player, but can he fill in that gap? Also, trading Tiago Splitter was uncharacteristically bold by the Spurs. Will it pay dividends? Can Tim Duncan, always a brilliant defender and rim protector, protect the rim alongside the offensively minded Aldridge? Will it hamper them in any way?
Those are all pertinent questions, but here's my personal answer: Gregg Popovich. The guy is the best coach, maybe ever, in the National Basketball Association. If anyone could figure it out, it's him and I'm sure before Splitter was even traded he was devising a scheme to utilize Duncan/Aldridge on both ends. The Spurs will be fine as long as Tony Parker isn't washed up. He did look good in Eurobasket, but that's not the NBA. Let's see what he looks like when the season begins.
A: Don't kid yourself. I have respect for Kobe Bryant, but that roster is young and frankly, Kobe is not. He's also coming off two serious injuries and is 37 years old and entering his 20th season in the league. If you're expecting Kobe to come out and play 38 minutes a night and average 30 per game, you're going to be disappointed. Granted it's the preseason, but the way he's moving and the way he's playing, he does look like Wizards-MJ. That's not to say he's bad or he won't have moments, but he's just not going to be prime Kobe. That's okay. It's to be expected!
The rest of the Lakers roster is...interesting. Hibbert became something of a joke last season, but can still be a force in the middle on defense. I love D'Angelo Russell and think he'll be a nice player in this league one day. Julius Randle always impressed me at UK and I could see some of the versatility that made people think Derrick Coleman would be a superstar once upon a time. He has that kind of skillset and that's going to be fun to watch if he stays healthy. Lou Williams is always a quality sixth man, Jordan Clarkson showed some flashes last year, and it's hilarious that they signed up a washed up Ron Artest. (Note: I will never call him 'Metta World Peace.' It's ridiculous. He's Ron Artest. Just like 'Chad Ochocinco' was Chad Johnson.) I expect this to be another transition year for the Lakers and maybe Kobe's final hurrah. We'll have to see.
Q: Are we really just kidding ourselves in thinking that somebody else can win the West outside of Golden State?
A: I actually asked this same question during the Playoffs last season:
The Clippers tried to improve adding Paul Pierce, the volatile Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, and literally holding DeAndre Jordan hostage until he re-signed with them - which, I'm still not ready to discuss. What an embarrassing franchise. I don't know if this core can commit enough on defense to win a championship (last year they were 15th in Defensive Rating). They will still be interesting, but I'm skeptical.
The Rockets also improved on the surface adding the troubled Ty Lawson, Marcus Thornton, and....oh wait, that's really it aside from rookies Montrezl Harrell from Louisville and Sam Dekker. Explain to me again why the Rockets should be considered a legitimate contender? How you can trust Dwight Howard, who may slowly be losing his mojo, in a Playoff series with his abysmal free-throw shooting? They also lost Josh Smith who did some nice things for them. I'm not high on the Rockets.
I think the Warriors are the clear favorites and will likely win the West and probably repeat as champion. They were that good last year and I think they're bringing that same excellence back this season.
Players To Watch
- Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz): Rudy had a nice Eurobasket tournament averaging 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks for France. I think he's going to become something of a force this season for the Jazz and we'll see him become more consistent on both ends of the floor.
- Andrew Wiggins (Minnesota Timberwolves): He showed something post All-Star break averaging 20 points and 4.9 rebounds in 29 games. I'm really excited to see what he can bring to the table and very interested to see how he operates with Karl Anthony-Towns. The T-Wolves may be on the verge of a resurgence.
- Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans): Seriously, why wouldn't you want to watch Anthony Davis? Now that Monty Williams is gone, I think we're going to see Anthony Davis take another step towards becoming the best player in the NBA. For some reason, Monty Williams would always go away from him in key moments. I think Davis makes this his team and takes another leap. I think we'll see more consistency from him on the defensive end as well and he'll become an elite defender and not just a rim protector. Enjoy watching Anthony Davis. He's truly remarkable.
- Golden State Warriors
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- San Antonio Spurs
- New Orleans Pelicans
- Houston Rockets
- Memphis Grizzlies
- Utah Jazz
That's it for the Western Conference Preview. Coming next week: The Eastern Conference.
Brandon Pence is the founder and former editor of the Chicago Bulls blog "The Bulls Charge." He currently contributes to ChiBullsZone.com and writes independently. You can follow him on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook