I've already previewed the Eastern Conference for you. Spoilers: They're mostly gonna be bad, but Chicago and Cleveland will probably be good.
The West, though… Jesus, the West. The #9 team in the West last year (Phoenix) would have been a three seed in the East, and was arguably also better than the Eastern 2-seed (Phoenix went 2-0 against Indiana and their win percentage when healthy was better than Indy's). Of the nine really good teams in the West, none got obviously worse over the offseason. San Antonio stood pat (not a bad call when you're the top dog), OKC shuffled some deck chairs on the Titanic, LAC replaced Collison with Farmar and- more importantly- got an owner who isn't a Captain Planet villain. Memphis replaced Mike Miller with Vince Carter, Dallas lost Calderon and Carter but added Tyson Chandler Parsons and Jameer Nelson, and Portland added Chris Kaman because they had a really great idea for a Hannah-Barbara themed group Halloween costume and they needed somebody to be Captain Caveman. Houston lost Parsons and Lin but added Ariza; that's probably a step back, but at least they have somebody to guard James Harden's man now. The Warriors did nothing much worth talking about, but they thought REALLY HARD about trading for Kevin Love. Phoenix chose not to overpay Channing Frye (that's good!) but then overpaid Eric Bledsoe and Isiah Thomas (that's bad!). They followed that up by adding three rookies and stashing European sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanovic (that's good, probably!) but the three rookies they have this season are at their deepest positions (that's bad!). They also got Anthony Tolliver (that's meaningless!).
Beyond that bunch, Denver's finally healthy and the Brow might be good enough to drag New Orleans into a surprise playoff appearance. The Lakers suck (RIP, Steve Nash) but probably don't know it yet, so that should be a fun horse to watch ESPN beat to death. Sacramento is an entertaining dumpster fire, Minnesota will have lots of cool alley-oops in their thirty point blowout losses, and Utah has a bunch of guys born to be the fifth or sixth best guy on a team that's a lot better than Utah. Predictions below!
1) Los Angeles Clippers
Why they're gonna make me look smart: The Clippers might have won the West last year if not for an unfortunately timed internal scandal and the traditional Chris Paul injury. They've got two of the best ten players in the league in Griffin and Paul, they've got a top five coach in Doc, and Steve Ballmer is apparently splurging for all the top of the line training/analytics stuff there is, even if he is banning the players from using Apple products (Glen Davis got confused and thought he was just banning apples, but he wasn't worried about it because apples are hard to deep fry so he never eats them regardless). Morale figures to be at an all-time high, and Deandre Jordan may make another leap under Doc's tutelage, and even if he doesn't Spencer Hawes is the best third big man they've had in the Paul era, so the days of Hedo Turkoglu or Byron Mullins trying to guard Z-Bo in crunch time are behind them. The Clippers have all the classic ingredients of a title team, including two elite stars, a bench spark plug (Crawford), a bruising perimeter stopper (Barnes, though LAC often plays him at the 4), an elite-ish rebounding rim protector (Jordan), and a bunch of savvy role players with loads of NBA experience (Reddick, Farmar, Hawes).
Why they're gonna make look dumb: Every year I pick the Clippers to win the West, and every year they make me look dumb. Blake and Paul are both great at getting injured at the exact wrong time, and if Barnes gets himself chucked out of the wrong playoff game their next best perimeter defender is either Paul (if the guy being guarded is less than two inches taller than him) or Reddick (who's game, but not at Barnes' level), and Barnes is very nearly a mortal lock to get himself chucked out of a playoff game. The West is a beast, and one injury could be the difference between a one seed and a four seed. Also, Chris Paul's probably the best point guard in the league, but he's only about 80% as good as his reputation.
2) San Antonio Spurs
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Because the universe hates me. Because the good die young (RIP again, Steve Nash!), but assholes live forever. Because Greg Popovich is the Grigori Rasputin of the NBA. Because the duo of Tony Parker and Danny Green are efficient basketball machines built by Nazi scientists designed to suck the joy out of watching sports. Because Manu Ginobili somehow still gets calls, despite being (notoriously) the worst flopper in NBA history. Because Kawhi Leonard is the world's first pot-smoke fueled robot, and that robot is surprisingly good at basketball. Because Tim Duncan is secretly immortal Achilles, forever waging his war to avenge Patroclus, and it's illegal to shoot an NBA player in the heel with an arrow. Because Boris Diaw is so much better than he was when played against the Spurs in '07 that it makes me cry. And, finally, because if somebody's going off against the Spurs there's a solid ten percent chance Diaw will just eat them.
Why they're gonna make me look dumb: Because I've saved up enough money to hire a guy to shoot Manu Ginobili. I told him to miss, but as long as he gets within six feet or so Manu will sell it like he hit him square in the forehead, and miss the 2014-2015 NBA season trying to convince the coroner that he's actually dead. Also, because the Kawhi-Bot got baked watching Shark Tank reruns and is now inexplicably demanding a maximum contract extension on the strength of his 21 MPG/12.8 PPG performance last season. Yes, you won a Finals MVP that could arguably have gone to five different members of your team, Kawhi-Bot, but generally max contract guys are expected to, you know, make All-Star teams or score more often than Gerald Green or Jimmy Butler.
3) Oklahoma City Blunder
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Durant's still the second or third best player on the planet (depending how much you care about defense), and it's really hard to deal with this team when they're healthy. Ibaka and Westbrook are both overrated, but they're also both very good. Adams figures to be a massive upgrade over Kendrick Perkins this year, and Kendrick Perkins is likely to be the subject of an inverted "Celtic Pride" style kidnapping by OKC fans this season, particularly if Scottie Brooks is still starting him come January or so. They're not likely to be much higher than the three seed on account of Durant (and to a much lesser extent, Anthony Morrow) missing the beginning of the season, and because I don't trust Westbrook's knees even a little bit. I also don't especially trust Westrbook's judgment, particularly in crunch time.
Why they're gonna make me look dumb: Maybe Westbrook- free of Durant- is actually an unholy force of basketball domination, a never-ending onslaught of Allen Iverson aggression in an NFL tight-end's body. Maybe Serge Ibaka can do something on offense besides usually make uncontested sixteen footers. Maybe Reggie Jackson is better than we think, but not so much that he gets in Westbrook's way. Maybe Durant comes back fresh and psychopathically motivated. Maybe Scottie Brooks learns how to draw up late-game possessions. Or maybe, just maybe, Oklahoma's not quite as good as we like to pretend, on account of not having any great perimeter defenders or much of a bench to speak of, and they'll get their butts kicked in the playoffs by San Antonio, or Memphis, or LAC, or even Phoenix (who weirdly seems to have their number, going 2-1 against them last year despite not having a real front court or Eric Bledsoe).
4) Golden State
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Steve Kerr might be a good coach; it's always risky to bet on a rookie, but he's got the best pedigree you could ask for, coming up under Phil and Pop, and with loads of front-office experience in Phoenix. More importantly, Harrison Barnes can't possibly suck as much as he did last year, Klay Thompson's playing for a contract, and Stephen Curry is already one of the five deadliest shooters we've ever seen. Iguodala can annoy the Durants and the Chris Pauls of the world, and when healthy, Andrew Bogut is still a top five interior defender. Despite Curry and Lee being hacks defensively, the Golden State starting lineup last year had the best +/- numbers of any five man unit that played a meaningful number of minutes, and they've shored up the bench somewhat by bringing in Shaun Livingston, who can do everything but shoot.
Why they're gonna make I look dumb: Four of their five starters have had injury trouble over the last two years, and there's no guarantee the defense will survive the coaching change. While Jackson was an iffy Xs and Os guy, he got more effort on that end out of this roster than you'd really expect; if Kerr can replicate that while innovating the offense, they'll be incredible, but that'd be a tall order even for a veteran coach. They don't have a single two-way front court player, and Curry's pretty turnover prone to be the team's primary ball handler (though Livingston should help there).
5) Houston Rockets
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Harden's game is excellently suited to the regular season, where everybody gives 40% less of a crap about defense and the refs aren't under a national microscope; since Harden flops more than anyone but Ginobili, this is good news for the bearded one. Ariza gives them a bonafide perimeter defender and spot-up threat, though he's notoriously inconsistent in non-contract years. Dwight Howard's still a top three center in the league, though it's largely by default.
Why me gonna dumb look: Harden's the most overrated "star" in the league and Howard's in the top ten. McHale's a dud as an in-game couch, and without Jeremy Lin they've got nobody they can count on to initiate the offense but Harden, and Harden's idea of offense is "well, either I shoot a pull up three, or I drive and flap my arms like Big Bird and hopefully get some free throws." Speaking of free throws, Dwight still can't make them. Dwight's still going to take more dumb shots out of post ups than his talent warrants, and Harden's likely to remain a defensive traffic cone. Houston still has no power forwards to speak of, and they're poorly equipped to handle an injury to, well, anyone.
6) Memphis Grizzlies
Why they're gonna make me look smart: Gasol is the best two-way center in the game when healthy (though his rebounding could be better), and he figures to be healthier this year than last. Randolph is slowing down but remains a low post gorilla, and Vince Carter is an upgrade over Mike Miller (though they'll miss Miller's shooting).Perhaps more importantly, with Carter joining up and Quincy Pondexter coming back, there should be some addition by subtraction in the form of less Tayshaun Prince.
Why dumb me look: I overestimate this team every year, both their best guys are injury prone, and they're not a sexy team that the NBA wants to build a Finals around. I'm not saying there's a conspiracy or anything, I'm just saying Z-Bo got suspended for some bullshit last year when it looked like they might be Oklahoma, and that they've had at least one really questionable loss, officiating wise, for the last four years. I'm not even a Memphis fan, either; I don't have a rooting interest here, they just tend to get screwed over at the worst possible time and I'm starting to wonder if that's not a coincidence.
7) Phoenix Suns
Why they're gonna make me look smart: When totally healthy last year, they projected to a 60ish win team and they've arguably improved. If Chris Paul isn't the best point guard in the NBA right now, Goran Dragic is (Westbrook truthers feel encouraged to unload in the comments). Eric Bledsoe on defense is like if Raja Bell was twice as athletic and high on Adderall. Isaiah Thomas once kicked my ass in a pickup basketball game in college, so I personally think he's pretty good. Hornacek's apparently a great coach, and the Suns' particular style of play is a nightmare to deal with in the regular season with limited scouting, as their two point guard offense (and Dragic's general craftiness) is good in a different way than most teams/players are good. The upside of having your three best players play the same position is that you're considerably less vulnerable to injury than every other NBA team. Plus, they're only a Plumlee away from being the basketball Brady Bunch, and that is adorable (Hornacek is Alice, obviously).
Why they're dumb make me dumb dumb: There's about a forty percent chance that losing Channing Frye is going to wreck their entire offense. Bledsoe is about two thirds as good as everybody thinks he is, and about half as good as he thinks he is (basically, he's inverse Westbrook; awesome but occasionally stupid on D and just ok (but still kinda stupid) on offense. He's bizarro Wesbtrook, and I need him to immediately grow a beard so I can cite it as proof). Thomas can't guard anybody (seriously, even I've scored on him once, and I suck). None of our front court players are top 15 in the league at their position. Most NBA players will be harder for Thomas to score on than I am (exception: David Lee). Dragic's too much of a nice guy so we're probably in for another season of watching Bledsoe's crappy late-game decision making choke away every close game that isn't against Oklahoma, despite Dragic being a generally excellent clutch performer. Mostly, they're likely to miss the playoffs because it would hurt me and God is apparently a Spurs fan (and therefore probably a dick, too).
8) Dallas Mavericks
Why they're gonna make me look smart: They're probably not. The West is a crapshoot, and if I could I'd take the field over Dallas (or over Phoenix, for that matter). But I can't, and Dirk is really good, and Carlisle's really smart so… as long as Dirk doesn't get hurt, they should maybe probably be ok?
Why dumb looky me: Because their best players are all old or Monta Ellis, and because the West is a nightmare deathtrap of flaming horror. Losing Dirk for five games could be enough to keep them out of the playoffs, that's how stupid it is. Because Dirk is OLD. Like, Kobe/Garnett/Nash old, and we've all seen how well that goes for people who aren't Tim Duncan. Because Tyson Chandler hasn't been good for at least two or three years and probably isn't about to reverse that trend that on account of also being really old and held together mostly by staples and used chewing gum. Because there are going to be close games where they have to count on Monta down the stretch. Because they're in the hardest division in the NBA, wherein the worst team still has Anthony Davis, and the best team just curb-stomped a 2-time defending champion (including the best player in the game today) in the NBA Finals.
One sentence each for everybody else. Well, technically two, with funny picture captions.
Last year, the Blazers started hot, had great injury luck, and were secretly not that good, and they didn't get any better.
They'll win about six games they shouldn't because of elevation, and that might be enough to sneak into the playoffs if one or two of the teams above them get nailed by the injury hammer.
New Orleans Pelicans:
Anthony Davis is almost as awesome as his hype would suggest, Ryan Anderson is ok, and the rest of their team is mostly just three guys who are basically the same guy; they'll be entertaining, but they probably won't be good
Demarcus Cousins is secretly the best center in the league when he's got his head on straight, and all the buzz coming out of FIBA is that he finally has his head on straight; unfortunately, most of his teammates, his coach, and his owner all still have their heads somewhere else…somewhere smelly.
I dunno, man, Rudy Gobert looked pretty good in FIBA and Gordon Hayward is probably better than he looked last year, plus Dante Exum's got me so confused that I honestly believe he could be anything from the next Sebastian Telfair to the first guy to dunk from the three point line to win the NBA Finals for the eleventh consecutive time.
The Timberwolves will have some fun dunks, and some fun passing, but they're such a non-entity that I legitimately forgot to put them in this article till five hours after it went live.
Los Angeles Lakers:
If Kobe plays all 82 games, they'll be better than this, but he won't, and even if he does, their coach is the Grandpa Simpson of NBA coaches, and in his day they didn't shoot all those newfangled three pointers; they shot one pointers, in the snow, at night, and they liked it!
Super Premature Playoff Predictions:
Cleveland Lebrons all over Detroit, though the Pistons steal a game after Stan Van Gundy has Brandon Jennings killed.
Chicago beats the Hawks in a better-than-you'd-think series, but Pero Antic keeps three of Joakim Noah's teeth on a necklace as trophies.
Washington beats the Raptors in four games and everybody realizes that you're probably kinda screwed if Kyle Lowry is your best player.
Miami sneaks by Charlotte when Dwyane Wade mysteriously shoots seventy-eight free throws in the final two games to advance to….
Remember than time when Lebron spent a week just dunking on the Miami Heat? No? Talk to me in a year.
Also, Chicago gets revenge on Washington from last year because I want to believe in Rose and I don't care what stupid history says about chronic knee injuries.
Cleveland beats Chicago in the Eastern Finals mostly because of Rose's chronic knee injuries.
The Clippers beat Dallas in seven games even though it should have only taken them five.
The Spurs beat the Suns because I'm not allowed to be happy and Tim Duncan is probably a Terminator sent back in time to prevent Phoenix from ever having a reason to think it's in any way a desirable place to live. But, bonus prediction, if the Suns end up matched with OKC somehow, they'll win.
Memphis beats Oklahoma because I predict it every year and might have a learning disability, but also because they feel like they got robbed last year and will have a little extra edge. NBA conspiracy theorists should be rooting for Oklahoma, naturally.
Golden State beats Houston and somebody makes a surprisingly catchy EDM remix of that James Harden interview where he says he's the best player in the world.
The Clippers beat Golden State because it's the same series it was last year (Livingston and Hawes cancel out) but without Donald Sterling hogging the spotlight.
Memphis beats the Spurs because I've spent too much of this article admitting how good the Spurs are and I need them to fall. But no, really, San Antonio wins in seven when Timmy inexplicably gets 18 rebounds in the clinching game.
The Clippers beat the Spurs in the Western Finals because apparently I'm not sick of being wrong about the Clippers winning (or the Spurs losing) year after year after year.
The Clippers go on to win the title in a victory over racism, unless they're injured or Chicago isn't, in which case I guess racism wins? Wait, no, I picked the Spurs to lose the WCFs, didn't I? Ha! Suck it, racism!
Oh, and Blake Griffin is your dark horse MVP pick, but if they pick the guy who's actually the best player in the league it'll still be this genius:
Nick Feldman is only a part time Zeitgeek, but he's a full-time writer. You can read some of his other stuff, including snarky TV reviews and hardboiled crime fiction, over at www.nicksblogamericain.com