So we’re a few days away from the start of another NBA season, which seems ridiculous because it feels like the NBA Finals just ended. But that’s the nature of the NBA now; it’s become a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year league. Even in the supposed doldrums of August when the league is supposed to be hibernating, we’re getting round-the-clock coverage of who’s doing what, who’s going where, who’s dating who. It can get pretty overwhelming, but fortunately, none of that matters now because real, meaningful basketball is once again going to be played.
So as we kick off the 2016-2017 NBA season, we’ve compiled a list of questions surrounding each team in the West Conference. Think the Warriors are going to waltz their way to a title? Who’s their biggest threat? Do they even have a threat? What happens to the Oklahoma City Thunder now? What’s the offensive limit to a Mike D’Antoni-coached offense with James Harden running the point? Can the Minnesota Timberwolves make the leap? Dive in and find out.
Can the Warriors live up to expectations?
What exactly are the expectations for the this team? 74 wins? 82? When you have the summer that Golden State just had, we're not sure there’s anything left to say except “see you in June.”
Can the L.A. Clippers break the second-round glass ceiling?
How many times have we seen the Los Angeles Clippers look like world-beaters and championship contenders, only for the team to undermine itself at the worst possible time? On paper, the Clips have the talent to get the second seed in the West, but the question surrounding Chris Paul and company is their ability to break the second round hijinx that has prevented the team from becoming the real contenders that they should be. If there was an award for getting in your own way at the most inopportune time, the Clippers would be multiple-time champions by now. Fortunately for them, the Western Conference is in a state of upheaval this season and like in season’s past, the same narrative holds true with this team: This season is as good a chance as any for LA to finally break through and reach the conference finals, that is if they don’t trip over themselves trying to get there.
“Can Russell Westbrook produce one of the greatest fantasy stats of all time?”
We don’t think we’re talking enough about how devastating Russell Westbrook can be this season. We don’t think people can even comprehend what Westbrook can turn into if he has unilateral control of the ball. Seriously, we saw a brief glimpse of it two seasons ago when Kevin Durant was hurt and Westbrook unleashed an assault on triple doubles the likes of which we haven’t seen since the heyday of Jason Kidd. Now you’re asking him to do it for an entire season with absolutely no consequences? We're prepared for anything when it comes to this guy. 50 points? Check. 20 rebounds? Yep. 20 assists? Sure. 20 turnovers? Uh-huh. Just remember: If you picked first in your fantasy draft and you didn’t pick Russell Westbrook, you should be ashamed of yourself.
“Can Kawhi Leonard elevate himself to the top level?”
It seems strange to wonder if the guy who finished runner-up in MVP voting last season still has another gear to tap into, but that’s where we are with Kawhi Leonard now that he’s officially the new franchise player of the San Antonio Spurs. Is there a more perfect marriage between franchise player and team than Leonard and the Spurs? Quiet, unassuming, and a havoc on both ends of the floor. That’s what Leonard has become and as good as he already is, it still feels like he still has another gear to tap into that can elevate his status as one of the game’s true superstars. The Spurs are officially his team now; let’s see what he does with that responsibility.
“Was Portland's success last season an aberration?”
No. The Portland Trailblazers are good. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are arguably the second-best backcourt in the NBA next to the Splash Brothers. They have quality players in every position. They have a nice mixture of wings and bigs that can play multiple positions. And they have the most underrated coach in the NBA in Terry Stotts. Yep, Stotts is an underrated coach now, which proves that coaches are always the most delicate hires in the NBA. If his system fits his players, he has a chance to succeed. If it doesn’t, well, look at how Stotts did in Atlanta back in 2002 to 2004. He’s good for this Blazers team and Lillard and company have bought into his system. Look for that kind of success to continue this season, which brings us to another point: the Northwest division is going to be a bloodbath. Brace yourselves.
Will the ageless Dirk Nowitzki finally slow down?”
Don’t count on it. Father Time may be hot on the heels of the German superstar, but when was the last time you saw a Hall of Famer stave off rapid decline in production because his game was perfectly suited to handle it? Ray Allen, perhaps? Maybe Jason Kidd? The point here is that barring injury, Dirk will still be Dirk, albeit with a dramatically lesser workload than what we’re used to. It won’t be good enough for another deep playoff run, but the Mavs should still find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt, largely because Dirk still finds ways to get it done.
“Do Memphis Grizzlies' Mike Conley and Mark Gasol have anything left on the table?”
You better believe it. More than any other team that has two stars, Memphis relies on Gasol and Mike Conley the most. Without one, the team loses a crutch; without both, well, they might as well start making plans for the Draft lottery. The good news is that both Gasol and Conley look healthy enough to carry the load again for a Memphis team that’s not getting enough attention. If “sleepers” were still in vogue, the Grit N’ Grind definitely qualifies.
Can the Rockets outscore everyone on their way to title contention?
What happens when you make James Harden your point, have guys like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and Ryan Anderson spread the court for him, and have a somebody like Clint Cappella setting (illegal) screens all game? You have a team that’s going to score a lot of points. Oh, did we mention Mike D’Antoni is their new coach? It’s the same Mike D’Antoni that pioneered the “seven-seconds-or-less” offense that helped those Phoenix Suns teams score a gazillion points. He’s also the same Mike D’Antonit that has shown little regard for the finer points of preventing the other team from scoring a gazillion points. We don’t know what we're more excited about: Houston somehow scoring 180 points in one game, or Houston giving up 180 points in another game. Both those things are in play!
“What should we make of the Nuggets?”
This is the team that we're having trouble the most. What are the Denver Nuggets really? On the one hand, they have an intriguing crop of young players that should make leaps this season. On the other hand, their two most prominent players are Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, two vets who play the same position and are both oft-injured. They have another household name, Kenneth Faried, but he’s perpetually on the trading block. The good news is that the Nuggets actually have a pretty intriguing eight-man roster and for the team to succeed, a lot will depend on how Gallinari, Chandler, and Faried can mesh with a young core led by Emannuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and Jusuf Nurkic.
"What’s life going to be for the post-Kobe Lakers?”
Liberating, we assume.
“Is this the year the T-Wolves make the leap?”
The league’s current hipster team is getting all sorts of pre-season buzz, and on the surface, the darling label seems to be justified. We don’t think we’ve ever said that about the Timberwolves since KG’s heyday, but hey, the team has some bonafide studs and it’s got a highly-regarded coach that’s known for driving his players to the ground. Whoops. Asking the T-Wolves to make the leap to contender status this soon is a tall order and we're not buying it, at least not yet. We are talking about a core group of guys that are 25 years old and younger. Give the team a season or two to build up its roster around Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach Levine, Georgi Deng, and Kris Dunn, and let the kids mature and we’ll start talking.
“Can Anthony Davis finally have an injury-free season?”
We were prepared to make a bold proclamation for this season. We thought Anthony Davis would finally put together an injury-free season on his way to averaging 28-10-4-1-3 and winning the MVP. Then he sprained his ankle playing in a pre-season game in Beijing. Whoops. Fortunately, the injury isn’t severe enough to force him to miss any time. But it’s not a good start for someone who was a season removed from posting one of the greatest individual seasons of a player in the history of the NBA. So let’s say a little prayer to the basketball gods that the Brow finally plays more than 70 games in a season.
“Is Phoenix Suns young gun Devin Booker the league’s next great shooter?”
When you’re a rudderless team that’s likely to contend for the worst record in the league, you take your victories anyway you can get them. The Suns actually have a decent team, but if you’re trying to piece together this puzzle, you get so many overlapping pieces that even trying to make sense of what you have is an exercise in futility. Fortunately, they Booker, who many believe is the next great shooting guard in the game. They also have two intriguing rookies in Dragan Bender and Marquis Criss, and two point guards that could make for good trade baits come the trade deadline. But most of all, they have Booker, and while we're fully aware that we mentioned him already, like the Kings this season, there’s really only him that’s worth talking about.
“Will DeMarcus Cousins last the season as a Sacramento King?”
Let’s see. Demarcus Cousins is entering his seventh NBA season and he’s never made the playoffs. He’s set to play for his sixth head coach. His team has no point guard. His second banana—Rudy Gay—has told everyone his plans to get the hell out of Sacramento when his contract expires next year. If any of you are wondering why “Pouting/Snarling DeMarcus” is projected to be the next great meme of the Internet, there are your answers. Oh, and no, we don’t think he’s a King by season’s ends.
“Can the Utah Jazz back up the preseason hype?”
It’s not quite as obnoxious as the hype surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves, but there is a popular sentiment that the Utah Jazz will be good enough to not only make the playoffs, but to actually win the Northwest Division. The Jazz, after all, came within a game of grabbing the eight seed in the West last season, and that’s when the team had been ravaged by injuries. It’s already dealing with some knicks and knacks to some key players this early, but if it can stave off the injury bug for a significant part of the season, Utah has the talent and the depth to live up to expectations.