With the free agency period all but over, here' s my early read on how the Western conference's now-crowded elite will finish in 2013-2014. These prognostications are for the regular season only, and are subject to change when the leaves do the same.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Last Season: 58-24, #7 offense, #3 defense
The Case: Was last season a last hurrah? Why should it be? Tony Parker is still in his prime. Kawhi Leonard is emerging as a true two-way star. Danny Green and Tiago Splitter are plus-size role players still on the upswing. And Gregg Popovich still manages his regular-season rotation with the big picture in mind, while still piling up wins, better than any coach in the league. And this is still as balanced, versatile, and battle-tested a roster as any in the conference.
The Caveats: The Spurs aren't actually that old anymore, but age is a question mark with two core contributors. Can Tim Duncan, at age 37, really have another All-NBA season? Can Manu Ginobili, at 35, stave off what seemed to be a swift decline this past spring to remain a quality sixth man if no longer a third “star”?
2. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Season: 56-26, #4 offense, #9 defense
The Case: The Chris Paul/Blake Griffin fulcrum of last year's 56-win team returns, now with a major upgrade on the sideline (Doc Rivers) and an improved two-way wing combo in JJ Redick and Jared Dudley. A decent bet to field the NBA's best offense this season.
The Caveats: The Clippers have not yet addressed their issues of frontcourt depth, toughness, and gravitas, with the callow starting combo of Griffin and DeAndre Jordan currently backed by finesse centers Ryan Hollins and Byron Mullens and undersized swingman Matt Barnes. How much will this hurt in the regular season? Probably not too much, thus this placement. But it's the reason the Clippers' post-season hopes come with an asterisk until further notice.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
Last Season: 56-26, #18 offense, #2 defense
The Case: They lack the ostensible “stars” contenders are supposed to have, but how about the conference's top returning defense, top returning rebounding team, two playoff proven post scorers, an emerging two-way point guard, and what may be shaping up — pending one last move — as the conference's best bench?
The Caveats: Okay, the lack of starpower still suggests a ceiling. Even with the addition of Mike Miller, they still project as a (well?) below average shooting team. Back-up point guard will be a question mark until it isn't. And as much confidence as the franchise seems to have in first-time coach Dave Joerger, he still has to prove it. The Grizzlies probably need to boost their offense into the Top 10 to be a legitimate title contender. Even after a promising offseason, that could be a tall order.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Season: 60-22, #2 offense, #4 defense
The Case: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are arguably the league's most talented duo and with them in the lineup last season, even without James Harden, the Thunder compiled the conference's top regular-season record. The team only faltered in the playoffs when Westbrook went down to injury. With him back, the Thunder reclaim their rightful place atop the conference pecking order. And that top five defensive ranking last season? A warning shot to the rest of the league. Backstopping any potential slide? They're the only top-tier contender in their division, all but guaranteeing a top-four seed.
The Caveats: Maybe I'm too swayed by watching Kendrick Perkins up close in last season's playoffs, but I'm skeptical. The Thunder may have had the conference's best record last season, but they were only four games better than the fourth-seeded Clippers and fifth-seeded Grizzlies. Those teams got better this summer. The Thunder, in losing third scorer Kevin Martin and only adding rookies (Steven Adams, Andre Roberson) and journeymen (Ryan Gomes), have ostensibly gotten worse. It doesn't take much to erase a four-game gap. Durant and Westbrook are amazing, but the lottery-level supporting cast around them and Serge Ibaka now seems too raw (Adams, Roberson, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones) and cooked (Perkins, Gomes, Derek Fisher). I foresee a mild decline, at least in the regular season. In the post-season? They're the anti-Clippers: The prospect of 45 minutes a night from both Durant and Westbrook makes them more dangerous.
5. Houston Rockets
Last Season: 45-37, #6 offense, #16 defense
The Case: If Dwight Howard gets back on track — and he averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, and 58% shooting last season in a “bad” year — then he and James Harden might form the league's best guard/big man tandem, with Chandler Parsons as the perfect do-it-all third leg. Retaining a Top 10 offense while adding a two-time Defensive Player of the Year to last year's 16th-ranked unit suggests the balance of a contender.
The Caveats: That defense was below average last year with Omer Asik in the middle, and Asik is an elite defender in his own right. There's reason to doubt whether Howard, at this point, can be that much better that last season's “very good, not great.” Other contenders have more continuity than Houston, with its constantly churning roster. And yet this team still feels like it has one more move to make (presumably with Asik).
6. Golden State Warriors
Last Season: 47-35, #10 offense, #13 defense
The Case: Followed a break-out playoffs with a smart, interesting offseason given their financial limitations. Andre Iguodala is an elite defender who mitigates the loss of top assistant Mike Malone, increases lineup flexibility, and brings point forward skills that will fit in well with the team's hot shooting backcourt and help cover for the loss of Jarrett Jack. Toney Douglas can spell Steph Curry as a shooting specialist who can defend the one. Marreese Speights can approximate the pick-and-pop game they lost with Carl Landry's departure. And Jermaine O'Neal — if healthy — can replace the injured Festus Ezeli's size and defensive presence in the middle. Curry has a chance to Leap into the superstar realm.
The Caveats: They just depend way too much on two apparently brittle players a premium positions in Curry and center Andrew Bogut. Even with Iguodala on board, it's questionable if this defense can build on last season's advances.