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NBA preview: Breaking down tiers of the Western Conference

Empire of the Suns writers Kevin Zimmerman and Bryan Gibberman discuss the Western Conference and where the Phoenix Suns could finish by the end of the regular season. After already projecting the Suns to do quite well relative to the rest of the Arizona Sports staff, they attempt to break down the hierarchy within the conference.

THE TITLE CONTENDERS

Kevin Zimmerman: We can get the first few contenders out of the way quickly. Golden State returns as the favorite with the only real major loss being David Lee. The core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, (NBA Finals MVP!) Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green remains, as does most of last year’s bench unit.

By default, I think a reloaded San Antonio team falls into this tier, with LaMarcus Aldridge joining the old threesome of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. How far the Spurs go may have as much to do with Aldridge’s integration as it does with how turnover on the bench shakes out.

After that, I’ve got two more teams as likely contenders (I won’t tell you who, yet), and I feel like adding a third. Is this unreasonable?

Bryan Gibberman: I’m putting the Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder above everyone else to start the season. Golden State played at a historically good level last year, while the Thunder should have better injury luck. During 2014-15, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined to only play in 94 total games. In the 713 minutes they did play together, Oklahoma City outscored teams by 9.3 points per 100 possessions.

Even if the Warriors do regress, that still leaves them room to reach extremely high heights. They were the first team to have a double-digit point differential since the Boston Celtics in 2007-08 and accomplished the feat in a better conference.

Zimmerman: Agreed on the Thunder. Assuming they’re healthy, it’s intriguing to see what Billy Donovan can do with them offensively, and I don’t think they regress much on the other end (let’s pretend the rest of those dudes make up for Turkish monument Enes Kanter being cemented into the earth).

Anyway, I wanted to put the Houston Rockets up in the first tier and wouldn’t be surprised if they finished the regular season ahead of the Spurs. But maybe they haven’t earned that yet because even though James Harden is really freaking good and the defense took a step forward last year, I can’t trust Dwight Howard to be healthy and/or dominant.

THE SECOND TIER

With the Rockets, I’m also high on the Grizzlies, as usual, and think the Clippers will be super exciting but not built to win in the postseason. What do you think about this grouping of three?

Gibberman: I have the Rockets, Clippers, Spurs in the next tier and in that order too. If someone wanted to put any of the three with the Warriors or Thunder I wouldn’t hold it against them.

Houston and Los Angeles both have strong starting lineups and good depth. I like how the Rockets fit together better than the Clippers, who are a little bit awkward and could use another spot-up shooter.

I’m worried about Tony Parker with the Spurs. If he can’t play at a high level in the playoffs it’s hard to see them making it through three death match rounds even with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge.

I’m not nearly as in on the Grizzlies as you are. I’d put Memphis closer to falling out of the playoffs than getting the top-seed.

FIGHTING FOR A PLAYOFF SPOT

Zimmerman: I guess at some point the aging Grizzlies will fall below expectations. Now we get to the interesting group of teams, where I think we can agree the Phoenix Suns find themselves. Last year’s Western Conference playoff picture included the Trail Blazers and Mavericks.

Portland losing LaMarcus, to me, isn’t being taken seriously enough. I’m not as high on Damian Lillard as a lot of people (I put him in a Goran Dragic territory in terms of impact) and worry how he’ll produce when teams can key on him without his pick-and-roll partner. I’ll let you get into the Mavericks if you want, but I don’t see either of those teams making the postseason. Is it stupid to bet against Rick Carlisle and Terry Stotts? Probably, but I’m going that direction.

Gibberman: I’m going to have both the Mavericks and Trail Blazers out of the playoffs this season. With the Mavs, Dirk Nowitzki is a year older and they have way too many injury questions. Portland does have some interesting talent, but I don’t see them competing for a playoff spot. Being slightly better than people are expecting? Sure, that sounds reasonable.

I’m grouping the Suns with the New Orleans Pelicans, Utah Jazz and the Grizzlies. The Kings are a little bit below.

Zimmerman: Sacramento just seems like a flammable situation and at the very least will take time to figure out how some interesting pieces — namely Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins — can fit together. Utah is interesting, but even coach Quin Snyder admitted during the preseason the Jazz’s success at the end of last was due to who they played.

Even assuming the Pelicans take a step forward under Alvin Gentry (which I’m doing), there’s still another spot open in the Western Conference playoffs. I think the Suns are actually sort of a safe pick if we assume five teams are locks and the sixth and seventh are taken by New Orleans and Memphis. What are the chances the they make it? 50-50, better or worse?

Gibberman: I have the Suns at 50 wins and the sixth-seed so I obviously see Phoenix making the playoffs at higher than a 50-50 proposition.

I believe Snyder was more just trying to send a message to his team than I’m actually worried about Utah. They do need to prove they can compete at a high level on a nightly basis, but that roster is too talented to not be good.

I’m worried about the Pelicans. The injuries are already piling up (Editor’s note: To Gibberman’s point, Ish Smith led the team in minutes played (38) in the Tuesday night opening loss to Golden State) and they’re so dependent on Anthony Davis — even though that’s a really good player to have to rely on. It’s still asking a lot.

In Sacramento, whether Rondo is even a viable NBA player anymore is up for debate. He has to prove he can have a positive impact and it’s very possible backup Darren Collison is a better player. It’s going to take some magic from George Karl to make everything work.

Zimmerman: Regarding the Suns, I guess it’s easier to focus on the playoff drought than the fact Jeff Hornacek got 37 wins out of a team where the best player forced a trade, players got hurt and roster imbalance and chemistry issues plagued them all year long. I think 10 wins of improvement isn’t necessarily going out on a limb. I don’t think the bottom half of the playoff teams will be as good as past years, and I’m putting my money on 47 Suns wins and probably the eighth seed with that.

Basically, I think we’ve come to a conclusion there’s a lot of parity from the fifth or sixth playoff spot down to the the two- or three-best non-playoff teams in the Western Conference.

LOOKING TOWARD THE LOTTERY

I actually don’t even consider the Blazers or Mavs in that middle rung but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and put them just behind that group that should vie for the sixth through eighth seeds. What do you see from the teams out West we’ve got left — the Nuggets, Lakers and T-Wolves? Any chance for a Kobe resurgence?

Gibberman: What constitutes a Kobe resurgence? Kobe will be back on a court shooting a basketball. Is that a resurgence?

The more Bryant plays, the worse the Lakers will be. This is a hard concept for many to grasp, but when he plays the style he does, and not efficiently, it’s impossible to overcome. The dude shot 37 percent last season 20.4 attempts. That’s so so so so so bad.

Outside of Bryant, there is some young talent I’m looking forward to seeing with Los Angeles. Seeing what Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell can be is intriguing.

Some teams suck for draft picks and have horrible luck — other’s are the T’Wolves. Minnesota isn’t going to be good yet, but Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins will have them heading in the right direction soon.

The Nuggets are similar to the Blazers, neither team is going to be good, but they’re watchable.

Zimmerman: Let’s close with this: You mentioned Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and D’Angelo Russell … Can you give me one player on a crappy Western Conference team that will single-handedly force you to watch a game?

Gibberman: Damian Lillard scoring binges are going to be League Pass Alert-worthy this season. He’s going to be an unabashed chucker with that roster and some nights it can end up being glorious. Who would you go with?

Zimmerman: I think the Nuggets will be little fun otherwise, but Emmanuel Mudiay learning on the fly will be something to watch. When people throw out the phrase “flashes of potential,” there’s a lot more reason to follow along when a player sees enough court time to make as many or more mistakes as flashes of potential. He’ll have that.


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