Once again, a disclaimer that I am fully aware how ridiculously early these predictions are, and am similarly aware that there are multiple more moves to be made this offseason before everything settles into a position where we can fully begin to analyze what the season will look like. With that said, here are my thoughts on the current playoff landscape as we exit the acquisition period of the offseason and enter into the somewhat inactive portion.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder- Far too many people are sleeping on the Thunder heading into next season. Granted, an early postseason exit and a quiet offseason can generally do that to a team, but it would be unwise to discredit the superiority of the powerhouse that the Oklahoma City franchise has built. What is startling is that despite the great strides that their three young stars made last season, with each posting career seasons, all three are still years away from the age at which most players peak physically and statistically. The X factor here will always be the continuing prowess of Kevin Durant, who last season, was tenths of a point away from becoming the first player ever to lead the league in scoring while also posting a 40- 50- 90 season. Russell Westbrook seems to have reached his statistical potential, but if he can harness his energy and become more efficient, he can combine with Durant, Serge Ibaka, and the young blood of Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb to create a two- way juggernaut in the West.
2. Los Angeles Clippers- I was much higher on the Clippers than everyone else heading out of the first few weeks of free agency, because I saw a team that saw its two biggest weaknesses, two- way perimeter players and coaching, and got top- tier replacements at both of these spots. The acquisitions of Doc Rivers, JJ Redick and Jared Dudley, as well as the retainment of Matt Barnes, catapults the Clips to at least subcontender status in the coming year. The only question I had was the frontcourt defense in crunch time lineups, which was one of the team's biggest problems last season. But a solution that confirmed my decision to rank them so high is a closing lineup of Chris Paul, JJ Redick, Jared Dudley, Matt Barnes and Blake Griffin. Offensively, they would have multiple shot creators, solid shooting, and an inside presence. Defensively, they have multiple versatile defenders, toughness, rebounding, and great length. Rivers' willingness to give Barnes these crucial minutes could be the deciding factor that places LAC high in the conference them or pulls them down a few spots as DeAndre Jordan struggles with free throw shooting and pick and roll defense.
3. Houston Rockets- I'm not going to try to lie to you and tell you that this isn't about Dwight, because it is almost entirely based upon the addition of Dwight Howard to an already formidable playoff team. Coach Kevin McHale developed a system well- suited for his players last year, and if he can get Dwight to buy into it, as well as convince Asik that a bench role will be just as fulfilling as the starting role he earned last year, the Rockets will be a dominant force in the West. A healthy Howard is definitely capable of holding together a team's defense for long stretches, and the players around him are better than any of the Orlando rosters that he carried late into the playoffs for many years. He and James Harden will create an unstoppable force that can wreak havoc on both sides, and the armada of athletic shooters, led by Chandler Parsons, will lead to supreme success in the upcoming season.
4. San Antonio Spurs- While I actually do believe they will finish below the Warriors in the standings, I won't let myself fall into the trap of going into yet another season in which I am too low on the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard's increasing development on both sides of the ball, as well as another season of an in-his-prime Tony Parker, running Greg Popovich's system flawlessly, is almost a direct route to 50 wins. Players like Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, and Marco Bellinelli will understand and perfect their roles, and San Antonio will be formidable once again come April. The only question mark is the consistency of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. The roster is constructed with no real replacements for either of these players and the skill sets they bring. This is especially true for Duncan, who will be backed up by a combination of Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, and Jeff Pendergraph.
5. Golden State Warriors- What an amazing offseason it has been for the Dubs. They dumped both of their albatross contracts in the form of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins, making room for the acquisition of Andre Iguodala. To fill out the bench, they signed Marreese Speights, a tough player who has proven himself as a solid reserve who is a force in the paint, and Toney Douglas, a combo guard who is a tenacious defender and capable shooter and ballhandler. They will also likely get improved seasons from young players such as Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli. If the training staff can help maintain the health of Andrew Bogut, David Lee and Steph Curry, this roster will be incredibly deep and versatile.
6. Memphis Grizzlies- Last year really was a golden opportunity for Memphis. They remained healthy throughout the season, peaked at the right time, and seemed to have a great chance at defeating San Antonio for a trip to the Finals before inopportune slumps from Zach Randolph and Tayshaun Prince seemed to dampen any of the high hopes they may have had. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will surely continue on their rises to stardom, but one must wonder if Randolph's best and healthiest days are now behind him, and if Tayshaun Prince can be counted on as a starter at this point in his career. If players like Quincy Pondexter and Tony Wroten can take some of the burden off of the starters, Memphis has a good chance at resuming their reign as contenders in the West. Otherwise, a low playoff seed and likely first round exit looms for them.
7. Portland Trailblazers- In my mind, two Western Conference playoff teams lost their spots this summer. Denver, who lost their best player and almost their entire braintrust and replaced them with players who all fit an awful mold of all- offense, no- defense bench players. And the Lakers, who lost Dwight Howard and Metta World Peace and constructed a roster that clearly has no intentions of competing this season. Portland, however, seems to be on the right track towards success. The addition of Damian Lillard last season finally filled out their starting lineup, so they took to their bench this offseason, drafting CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe, and acquiring Dorrell Wright, Thomas Robinson, Robin Lopez, and Earl Watson. Their second half slump last season can largely be attributed to fatigue by their starters and a lack of dependable role players to make up for it. They fixed this problem, and will therefore probably avoid the slump this year, making the playoffs and vaulting over Denver and LA.
8. New Orleans Pelicans- This spot will probably be a wildcard between Minnesota and New Orleans, but I lean towards New Orleans because of their youth and much more consistent health situation. The Pellies added two all- star caliber young wing players this offseason in Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans, addressing their consistent issue with wing scoring. They now have a more polished point guard and a lethal weapon of a sixth man. Anthony Davis will probably start at center, and whether or not you agree with that decision, it can't be argued that he will continue to grow into the Kevin Garnett- type potential he has. They will be an excellent floor- spacing team, with several capable ball handlers and shooters. With a good dose of health, development, and chemistry, New Orleans should have its first playoff birth since CP3 departed.