The World Series is in full swing, the NFL regular season is nearing its halfway point and even the 2015-2016 NHL season has commenced. It’s both a busy and thrilling time of year for sports journalists and fans alike.
For those who fancy taking in some of the world’s best talent on the hardwood, the NBA season started on Tuesday. Opening night featured two nationally-televised contests, each one including one of last year’s NBA Finals contestants. An Eastern Conference showdown between the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks kicked off the season for real at 8 p.m. Eastern time, while arguably the two favorites in the east — the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls — tipped off shortly after 8 o’clock as well. A rematch of one of last spring’s Western Conference first round playoff series took place around 10:30 p.m. Eastern time, as the defending-champion Golden State Warriors hosted the young and hungry New Orleans Pelicans (the Dubs won).
As it’s seemingly been the case the past few seasons, the east really appears to only have a few legitimate title contenders — the Cavs, Bulls, and maybe the Miami Heat. The group of big dogs out west meanwhile is stacked with dangerous teams that could make a great case for going all the way next spring, per usual.
This post will take a stab at which teams we believe have the best shot from the superior conference to make a run to this season’s championship round. Here are the top five contenders in the Western Conference, ranked in order of likelihood to make it to the finals.
Honorable mentions: Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
2014-2015 season: 45-37 (did not qualify for playoffs)
Even without franchise superstar Kevin Durant for 55 games last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder — really Russell Westbrook and company — nearly made the playoffs. Westbrook proved for weeks, if not months at a time last year that he can be one of the best all-around players in the league.
Even without Durant, the Thunder were competitive and now with No. 35 back and healthy, the OKC should once again be in the mix for Western Conference supremacy. They have great size and defense with Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams down low and are full of youth and energy.
While the team may not have added many big names to the roster of players in the off-season, there will be a big change on the sideline in the name of Billy Donovan. Even if it takes the former Florida Gators coach a bit of time to adapt to the differences between the college and professional level, with the talent on his squad, the Thunder should be just fine.
4. Houston Rockets
2014-2015 season: 56-26 (lost in Western Conference Finals)
As much as Dwight Howard may disagree, the Houston Rockets — unlike the Thunder — do not have two certifiable superstars. Despite this sentiment, the one elite player that Houston does have is pretty darn good. And his beard is nothing to scoff at, either
Almost in sync with Westbrook, James Harden was playing at an otherworldly level last season and nearly captured the regular season MVP. There’s no reason to think that Harden’s spectacular play won’t continue as he’s still just 26 years old.
The Rockets are far from a one-man show though as Howard is still likely a top-five center in the game, Trevor Ariza can be deadly from outside and when Terrence Jones was healthy last year, he was solid too. Then you have the very underrated Patrick Beverley running the point as one of the best on-the-ball defenders at his position. What sets Houston apart from OKC and some of the other contenders in the west is their bench. It was a strength last season and should only get better with the additions of Ty Lawson, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
2014-2015 season: 56-26 (lost in Western Conference Semifinals)
Patience is beginning to wear thin in LA. The Los Angeles Clippers have made the playoffs each of the past four seasons; this comes after missing the postseason the previous five years and 13 out of the previous 14 campaigns. That’s the good news. Despite four consecutive trips to the tournament, the team has not made it past the second round. That’s the bad news.
Last May, Chris Paul and the Clippers finally appeared to be headed over the proverbial hump that is the Western Conference Semifinals. After a beat-down of the Rockets in game five of the series, LA was just one win away from the Western Conference Finals. Then, the choke happened.
With more motivation than ever, look for Doc Rivers’s men to make their way back to where they were last season and maybe, just maybe, CP3 can make his first finals appearance. The team has the same core in the fold — plus the retaining of DeAndre Jordan and the addition of Paul Pierce, which should only make them better.
2. San Antonio Spurs
2014-2015 season: 55-27 (lost in Western Conference First Round)
If you look at the San Antonio Spurs projected depth chart for the upcoming season, you have to be thinking, that’s just unfair right? Future hall-of-famers Tony Parker and Tim Duncan will be sharing the court with an absolute stud in Kawhi Leonard and newcomer LaMarcus Aldridge (who may end up in Springfield, Mass., someday as well.) Then to top it off, you have a guy who can light it up from three-point land with the best of them in Danny Green.
Aside from the talent, what is certainly most admirable and impressive about the Spurs is their consistency. Where the New England Patriots and St. Louis Cardinals seem to always make their respective playoffs, San Antonio always makes their playoffs as well. And aside from a couple of “off” years like last season, they always seem to advance far in the tournament.
With Aldridge joining an already special group of players, it would be stunning if the Spurs did not finish with a top four seed in the Western Conference.
1. Golden State Warriors
2014-2015 season: 67-15 (Won NBA Finals)
Projected 2015-2016 starting lineup: PG Stephen Curry, SG Klay Thompson, SF Harrison Barnes, PF Draymond Green, C Andrew Bogut
Many NBA experts have labeled the Spurs as the favorites in the west, and there are plenty of reasons why that prediction seems reasonable. Until the Golden State Warriors are dethroned as NBA champions though, we believe that they are the team to beat.
Head coach Steve Kerr (still taking a leave of absence due to an injury) and the rest of the Warriors organization have a perfectly blended roster of young, exciting players and savvy, smart veterans. While they did sport the league’s MVP last year, Stephen Curry is far from the only weapon in the lineup.
Some called the Warriors lucky in their championship victory over the Cavs, due to the fact that Cleveland played sans two of their big three. The Dubs really shouldn’t have any critics left after what they accomplished last year, but if they do, they could very well silence them all this season.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127.