The Blazers made some sneaky good offseason moves this year (as expected), but are still a longshot for the NBA playoffs. This is because they weren’t the only ones to improve, and the West is absolutely stacked this coming season. Here is a breakdown of the top contenders and why a multitude of teams will be fighting tooth and nail for the bottom seeds.
#1) San Antonio Spurs
It’s difficult to knock a team that was a few blown plays away from a championship when they don’t make any major offseason changes. They retained Manu, but chopped his salary in half, using a good chunk of the difference to re-sign Tiago Splitter (a bold, but reasonable move for their future). Their most underrated move, however, was wooing Marco Belinelli onto their bench. The former Chicago shooting guard would be a starter on many other teams and will contribute right away if (when) Ginobili is injured.
#2) Oklahoma City Thunder
OKC hasn’t changed much either. Why mess with success? They topped the Western Conference last season, but fell to the Grizzlies in the 2nd round after losing Russell Westbrook to a torn meniscus in the previous series. Westbrook will be back to full health this year, and out for blood. Kevin Durant is coming off a historic 50/40/90 season, and you know the duo is hungry. Their biggest setback (if you can call it that) is losing Kevin Martin to the Timberwolves, but he was not as integral to the team’s success as often suggested.
#3) Los Angeles Clippers
The Clips were very busy this offseason. First they acquired Doc Rivers as their new coach (about 20 steps up from Vinny Del Negro), which made Chris Paul eager to re-sign. They then moved Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler in a 3-team trade that brought J.J. Reddick and Jared Dudley to Los Angeles. Their cleverest move was convincing Matt Barnes to take a pay cut in order to sign Darren Collison to replace Bledsoe. Their core remained intact, but they added some fantastic depth and are primed for a deep playoff run.
#4) Memphis Grizzlies
You better believe this defensive powerhouse is sticking around. They re-signed Jared Bayless, re-signed Tony Allen, and, perhaps most impressively, acquired Kosta Koufos for Darrell Arthur and the draft rights to Joffrey Lauvergne (highway robbery). Now Marc Gasol has a legitimate backup for a change, and the Grizzlies have more flexibility to tweak the lineup in order to ease the pressure on a still dominant, yet aging Randolph. Memphis also signed Mike Miller after he cleared waivers, but I don’t think his back will allow him to have the impact many are anticipating.
#5) Houston Rockets
No, I do not have the Rockets leading the West, much less in the top half of Western Conference playoff teams. Chemistry is by no means instantaneous, and they still have their share of problems. That being said, the Rockets are the grand prize winners of free agency with the Dwight Howard signing. Despite the Laker drama, Dwight was the best center in the league last season, hands down. He is a much better fit with Houston anyway, and I look forward to seeing what he can do with Chandler Parsons to spread the floor for him. If Howard grows a James Harden beard, I may concede the possibility for greater success.
#6) Golden State Warriors
The Warriors mark the last of my Western Conference playoff “locks” for 2013-2014. They pawned off the ludicrous contracts of Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson on the Utah tankinators, while at the same time snatching Iguodala from the rival Nuggets (for less than the Nuggets offered him, too– Ouch). On paper, they are vastly improved, but their success hinges on the health of Stephen Curry’s ankles, which I am unconvinced can muster up another 78 game season. With Jarrett Jack now in Cleveland, their lack of high-level facilitator insurance is concerning.
This is where things get hazy. There are only two spots left and we still have the Lakers, Mavericks, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, Kings, Pelicans, Suns, and Jazz. So let’s order them by tier:
Legitimate low seed contenders:
Mavericks, Blazers, Nuggets, Pelicans, Timberwolves
Fringe low seed contenders:
Teams we laugh at to make ourselves feel better:
The season is a long way off, so there is no way of knowing what will happen (the beauty of basketball), but we can make an educated guess that 5-7 teams will be competing for the last two spots in the Western Conference playoff bracket. Here is why the Blazers should be worried:
#???) Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks were in the playoff hunt until the bitter end last year, and despite going all in on Dwight Howard and losing, they got better in the offseason. Free agent signee, Jose Calderon, is a talented facilitator and the single most underrated 3-point shooter in the NBA (fight me on this). Monta Ellis (also acquired as a free agent) is absolutely intriguing to me. He has been overrated for so long that fans now underrate him severely. Sure, he’s not as good as he thinks he is, but he is a damn good shooting guard, and an upgrade to Dallas’ arsenal. Plus, no more Chris Kaman. Win-win-win.
#???) Minnesota Timberwolves
The Timberwolves are essentially a great roster that had to put their plans on hold for a year due to injury. Rubio, Love, and Budinger all missed significant time last season, but are now healthy and ready to go. The Timberwolves even replaced last year’s gamble, Brandon Roy (I know, it hurts me too), with former Thunder guard, Kevin Martin. They did lose Andrei Kirilenko to a suspect deal with the Nets, but they added Shabazz Muhammad in the draft. There is a lot of potential there, and fighting into a low seed is not out of the question.
#???) New Orleans Pelicans
If Anthony Davis looks as good this season as he did in the USAB mini-camp, the Pelicans have a bright future ahead of them. He is joined by Jrue Holiday (acquired from the 76ers for Nerlens Noel and a 2014 pick), Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans (acquired in the 3-team trade that sent Robin Lopez our way), and Ryan Anderson in the anticipated starting lineup. I think they will struggle to find chemistry (especially with Gordon and Evans), but from a raw talent standpoint, they have many players capable of big numbers. If they function well as a team, they could steal 8th.
#???) Denver Nuggets
Yes, they shot themselves in the foot. Both feet, actually. By letting Executive of the Year, Masai Ujiri, walk, and firing Coach of the Year, George Karl, they lost the faith of Andre Iguodala, who left for Golden State. BUT, they are still a very deep team. Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Nate Robinson, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, J.J. Hickson, and JaVale McGee are just a handful of their go-to guys. If their new head coach, Brian Shaw, can’t make that work (he can), I will be utterly dumbfounded.
#???) Portland Trail Blazers
Lastly, we come to the Blazers. They’ve made huge, well documented, strides in the offseason, but still have a long way to go. McCollum, Crabbe, Claver, Robinson, Leonard, Barton, and Freeland are all projects. Whether or not they can reach the post-season is heavily dependent on how quickly these players develop. After examining the competition, it seems like a stretch. Still, anything can happen, and it only takes one positive surprise to change a team’s projected tier. Expect the worst and hope for the best. The low seeds are anyone’s game.