The Western Conference changed quite a bit over the summer. What appeared to an easy transition of the Thunder taking complete control over the West has been put on hold as teams revamped their rosters and took measures to reestablish themselves.
So what’s the landscape look like this season? Is another division title a given? Is the West better than it was? And what’s the journey back to the Finals going to be like?
1. True or False: The Northwest Division is tougher this season than last.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: True. The Nuggets appear to be fairly improved, to the point of maybe being a Western dark horse contender. The Jazz were a young playoff team last season and should make more strides after an offseason and a few additions. The Blazers are in total rebuild mode, but you never know with them. With LaMarcus Aldridge and Nic Batum still in place and Damien Lillard having a bunch of potential, who knows, maybe they make a little push. But where the Northwest really has improved is with the Wolves, who look to be a sure-thing playoff team. Instead of walkovers, the Northwest is mostly full of playoff teams. The Thunder are still clearly the top dog, but it might not be a cakewalk.
Patrick James, Daily Thunder: True. But I don’t think it matters. Minnesota and Utah are like the Thunder in that they are among the few teams in the league that could have gotten better by doing absolutely nothing this offseason. When your key players are still on the south side of 25 years old, you get better just by waking up every morning and working hard. So those teams will be improved, and Denver’s moves starting with last season’s swap of Nene for JaVale McGee have given George Karl a good group for his style. But there’s no one in the division that can touch the Thunder. OKC will easily win the division.
Clark Matthews, The Lost Ogle: True. Portland is the only team that got noticeably worse during the offseason. Utah, a team that should benefit from growing together, held pretty steady. Meanwhile, the Wolves have put together some nice pieces that should meld together pretty well assuming Ricky Rubio comes back healthy, and the Nuggets scored Andre Iguodala just for helping the Lakers fleece Orlando.
2. True or False: The Western Conference is deeper this season than last.
Young: True. I feel like I can only zero in on three or four teams that should be out of the conversation by January (Hornets, Blazers, Kings and Suns). The Warriors should be better. The Wolves are better. The Rockets should be about the same, maybe better. And the upper tier is still stout with the Spurs likely to be in the conversation, the Mavs rebounding well, the Lakers obviously rising, the Grizzlies, the Nuggets and the Clippers. That’s a lot of solid to really good teams.
James: True, in every respect. Last season the West was actually pretty thin at the top. The bottom four seeds were clearly better as a group than the East’s bottom four. But there was virtually zero chance that anyone but the Spurs or Thunder were going to win the conference. Now you add the Lakers and potentially even the Clippers and Grizzlies to that group of Finals contenders, plus the teams competing for the low seeds are likely to be better this year than last year. The Thunder’s matchup in the first round will be no easy out.
Matthews: False — On the whole, I think the Conference will be similar to last season. For every team that improved, another took a step back.
3. True or False: The road to the Finals is easier this season than last.
Young: True. You could certainly sell me on false though. Because while the Lakers are clearly a formidable challenge, getting to that Western Conference Finals showdown shouldn’t be too awful difficult for OKC. Especially considering they’ve gained a wealth of experience last season and gotten over the hump of actually getting to the Finals. It’s honestly kind of a wait-and-see thing, because it really depends on if the Spurs finally slip and if the Mavs did enough to recover. If not, the road to the Finals may simply be about beating the Lakers four times, which is a lot easier than getting through the defending champs, the Lakers and a team that hadn’t lost in 60 days.
James: False. The road to the Finals is never easy (well, except maybe for those New Jersey Nets teams in the last decade). And even though the Thunder are going to be a better team this year than last year, it’s still a deep and experienced Western Conference. I don’t buy the Lakers as favorites, especially when two best players are as moody as they are. The Thunder should be the favorite to win the West. But it’s far from a cinch.
Matthews: False. Nothing ever gets easier. Obviously, the Lakers have made some moves that could make them a formidable hurdle, and anyone predicting that the Spurs will finally succumb to age and relinquish their spot in the heirarchy are kidding themselves. Add in that the Thunder are the defending Conference champs and now they have a target on their jersey–they will have to work harder this year if they want to return to the Finals.