The loaded NBA Western Conference.  You’ll hear that again and again, and it’s true.  The West is so compacted with good teams, that I have seven “sure things,” leaving just one spot up for grabs in the playoff race.

The West also features three, maybe four teams with legitimate title aspirations and, as always, raises the question, “can whoever wins the brutal fight to come out of the West have enough left to beat the Eastern rep in the finals.

The Sure Things

Los Angeles Clippers:  I’m not 100% sure the Clippers are ready to emerge as #1 in the West, but I think the time is right for someone to do it, and as I explain hereafter, I don’t think it will be San Antonio again or Oklahoma City.  The Clippers have a coach with championship cred, two bona fide awesome superstars in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul and interior defense to die for.   This season, they’ll also be shed of the giant albatross of Donald Sterling hanging around their necks.  Maybe that new found freedom will be enough to take them to the promised land.  Don’t be surprised if this is a team that makes a trade deadline acquisition to shore up a key area as part of a serious championship run.

San Antonio Spurs:  Last season, the Spurs had the bitter memory of blowing what they had to believe was a series they should have won against the Heat.  I think that knowledge carried them through their remarkable playoff run to their even more remarkable championship.  If you say you think Popovich, Duncan, Parker & Ginobili have another title in them, I doubt anyone will argue with you.  This is a team that will be right there again.

Oklahoma City Thunder:  Remember last year, when Russell Westbrook missed a bunch of games and Kevin Durant played so well that he won the MVP.  Get ready for a similar scenario this year.  With Durant starting the season out with an injury, expect Westbrook to light it up right and left.  Unfortunately, that won’t help these two superstars learn how to win the crucial series in the playoffs, and I suspect Scott Brooks’ job may be in jeopardy after this season is over.  It’s one thing to lose to the Spurs, but if anyone else knocks them off. . .

Golden State Warriors:  Injuries to Iguodala and Bogut held this team back last year, and they still made the playoffs and gave the Clippers an epic run for their money.  Now they add some backcourt depth and, if this team stays healthy, represent the ultimate inside-outside nightmare for opposing teams to defense.  Personally, I think Mark Jackson got hosed but it wouldn’t be the first team we saw a new coach take over an existing good team and put them over the top.

Memphis Grizzlies:  How does everyone keep overlooking the Memphis Grizzlies?  It happens year after year, despite the fact that the frontcourt combo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol give literally every other pairing in the NBA fits.  I don’t think Memphis did enough in the offseason (namely, adding Vince Carter) to move them beyond the first or second round, but there’s little chance they won’t get that far.

Houston Rockets:  Candidly, the inside/outside combination of James Harden and the wrongfully much maligned Dwight Howard is enough, by itself, to get Houston back into the playoffs.  It’s a bit of a shame they weren’t able to land a third piece like Rajon Rondo to add to the mix because if they ever manage it, Houston will be a bona fide title contender.  Rondo could still be on the move this year, but even if the Rockets nab him, adding a major piece midseason doesn’t usually translate to a deep playoff run that same year.

Portland Trailblazers:  Portland went out in the offseason and did what they needed to do, namely, a significant shoring up of a very weak bench by adding veterans Steve Blake, Chris Kaman and Dorell Wright.  That leaves only the question of whether flashy Damian Lillard and steady LaMarcus Aldridge can both recreate their season best performances from a year ago.  I’m sorry, did you SEE the playoffs last year?

Bubble Teams

New Orleans Pelicans:  I had the Pelicans pegged to be poised for the playoffs a year ago, but injuries got in the way.  So here they are again, with Anthony Davis on the precipice of becoming the next great NBA superstar, an all-star caliber backcourt of Jrue Holliday and Eric Gordon and a multi-talented athletic Tyreke Evans out on the wing.  The one big addition?  Bringing in Omer Asik to rebound and play defense in the middle.  They probably overpaid for Asik, but you can’t underestimate just how much his presence could mean to a newly freed up Davis.  If this team can get it figured out, they’ll be murder.

Dallas Mavericks:  The Mavericks are counting on two big additions:  Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler, to help put them in the upper echelon.  I think their hopes are misguided.  Chandler was integral to Dallas’ championship run a few years back but two years and two injuries later and it’s just not realistic to think he can still be a game changer in the middle.  Meanwhile, I fear the Mavs bought fools’ gold in Parsons, who will have a lot of pressure on him to produce.  Then again, I thought Dallas was crazy to bring in Monta Ellis, but he’s absolutely flourished in Big D, so maybe Parsons will prove me, and a lot of other people wrong.

Phoenix Suns:  The Suns got oh-so-close last season, but I doubt they’ll make a serious run this year.  While a deep and talented backcourt remains the Suns’ strength, the team failed to address shortcomings in the frontcourt that cost them last year, and didn’t realistically do enough to replace Channing Frye, whom they let walk.  Phoenix will probably be fun to watch this year, but barring the unforeseen, they’ll again be on the outside looking in.

Dark Horse

Denver Nuggets:  Owing to a plethora of injuries, the Nuggets only won 36 games in 2013,  but apparently that’s caused everyone to forget that they won 57 games in 2012 and hadn’t missed the playoffs since 2003 before that.

While they lack an explosive go-to scorer and have since the departure of Carmelo Anthony, Kenneth Faried is relentless inside, Ty Lawson is a veritable pest on the perimeter and the roster overall is so deep that there doesn’t appear to be even nominal playing time for either of the Nuggets’ first round draft picks.  Ignore Denver at your own risk.

No Shot

Los Angeles Lakers:  Let’s be realistic.  The Lakers won just 27 games last season, so adding a maybe-healthy Kobe for his swan song and the first year of Julius Randle is NOT going to be enough to turn this team into a playoff team or even a playoff contender.  Let’s be further clear: I’m sure some free agents didn’t want to play with Kobe.  He dominates the ball and has a tendency to call out teammates when they lose.  When he was the best player in the league and the Lakers were a title contender, he could get away with that, but who wants to finish 11th and get called out on a nightly basis by some loudmouth jerk?  Not Carmelo, that’s for sure.

Sacramento Kings:  You know a team is in trouble when they draft the same position in back to back years in the top 10.  Remember when the Kings’ biggest problem was DeMarcus Cousins’ shitty attitude?  Now Cousins’ solid play is one of the few bright spots for a franchise whose greatest recent victory came courtesy of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson.

Minnesota Timberwolves:  The Timberwolves won’t be making a playoff run this year, but with hyper athletic rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach Lavine joining athletic new arrivals Thaddeus Young and Anthony Bennett, and with human-passing-drill Ricky Rubio running the point, the T’Wolves certainly should be entertaining.  If Wiggins can step up and fulfill his immense potential, Minnesota might actually wind up having gotten the better of the Kevin Love trade.  Imagine that.

Utah Jazz:  With a fair amount of productivity coming out of their frontcourt, the Jazz needed a shot in the arm for their backcourt.  That might come in the form of teenage Australian rookie Dante Exum, whose highlight reel surely has Utah fans drooling, but can this guy go from the Aussie league to the NBA playing against men, not boys, and still look so dazzling?  The Jazz are still several years away, so they can afford to wait for Exum and his game to grow up a bit.


[Featured image via NBA]