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Op-Ed: Five questions for the NBA's Western Conference

By Daniel Reynolds     Oct 3, 2014 in Sports
With the 2014-15 NBA season set to start at the end of the month, it's time to ask five questions for the Western Conference.
For a look at the five questions for the Eastern Conference read here.
1) Will the San Antonio Spurs remain on top?
We may as well start at the top. For almost 20 years, the story of the Western Conference has revolved around the San Antonio Spurs. There have been breaks in the narrative of course, years when Los Angeles, Dallas or Oklahoma got to be the star of the show, but the tale always seems to turn back to them. So it is after two straight trips to the Finals, a thunderous 4-1 series win last year, and the fifth title in the Tim Duncan era.
What have the Spurs got this year? Well, as the league shudders in terror, they have the same team as last year. Yes, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan are a year older, but so too are Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills and Danny Green. Couple them with a coterie that also includes Matt Bonner, Boris Diaw, Aron Baynes and Marco Belinelli, and you have the continuation of a championship calibre team. While it will be difficult to fill the void left by the eventual retirement of the big three in San Antonio (they will retire, right?), Gregg Popovich and company keep marshalling their forces in different ways to adapt to the changing mores of the league.
Need to play big and slow? The Spurs can do that. Want to run and gun? The Spurs can do that. Need to contain powerful perimeter players? The Spurs can do that. How about grappling with big men in the post? Bombing threes from the corners? Assisting on every field goal attempt? The Spurs can do everything and I'm not going to be the one to try and change the story now.
2) Is this the year the Oklahoma City Thunder win it all?
Much like the Spurs a decade ago, before everyone involved in that organization became a household name, the Thunder are built with a top heavy structure. At the top are the reigning MVP Kevin Durant, the league's best guard Russell Westbrook, and the dynamic forward Serge Ibaka. Beneath that pinnacle is a series of structural blocks that can be slotted in as needed (with Kendrick Perkins, incumbent starting centre, somewhere near the bottom). The only thing that seems to keep bringing them down is bad luck and bad timing.
In the 2012 Finals, they were too young. In 2013, Westbrook was injured. In 2014, they ran into the Spurs of destiny. Now they sit with the same young core, with a fourth member — Steven Adams — hell bent on joining in, and the aforementioned structural blocks ready to construct a title-winning season all over again. They've added Anthony Morrow to provide the shooting that the offensive blackhole Thabo Sefolosha never could. They've also grown more confident with Reggie Jackson, a key contributor for last year's team.
The problem as always for the Thunder is in those playoff crunch time moments. It's the times when we wonder why Coach Scott Brooks is still trotting Perkins out there, or why Westbrook is having difficulty getting the ball into Durant's hands. It's when we look past the first 6-7 guys on the roster and ask: who?
The 2014-15 Oklahoma City Thunder will win a lot of regular season games this year. They will go into the playoffs and win a around or two. But will they win an NBA title? The structure may not be sound enough for that.
3) Are the Los Angeles Clippers ready for the big time?
This should be the year the Clippers finally make it to the NBA Finals. Look at the team on paper: leader Chris Paul, human dynamo Blake Griffin, wrecker DeAndre Jordan, good soldiers in J.J. Reddick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford and Spencer Hawes, and coached by the winning Doc Rivers. What's not to like about the Clippers?
The question this year, as with last year, is who will be protecting the rim and playing interior defense when it matters most? Or, better yet, who can do that and also hit free throws? It seems like a petty thing to ding a pair of world beaters like Griffin and Jordan — two athletic marvels who can careen around the court with the best of them — for something as small as foul shots, but the Clippers big man question is still unresolved. If Jordan can't stay on the court in crunch time, that leaves the Clips with the option of only Hawes, or a small lineup with Glen David (or Hedo Turkoglu?). This is a rebounding and defense problem. And while the backcourt firepower is almost unmatched in the league (with Crawford, Paul and Reddick ready to shoot the lights out), the forward core will have to rely on Hawes, a long bombing big man, and Barnes, a stringy agitator, to drive the team to the big show.
This is all nitpicking stuff, I admit. Last year, the Clippers were dealt a bizarre, distracting hand with the outgoing Donald Sterling fiasco. With the new Steve Ballmer ownership group, and a team that looks to be complete in almost every way, the Clippers should have enough talent to push past their small big man problem.
4) Can the Golden State Warriors break out?
The Golden State Warriors are trapped in the Western Conference. That's really the only explanation. In the East, as has been a common refrain, they'd probably be running the table, mixing it up with all-comers and pushing for a shot in, at least, the Conference Finals. Instead, Steph Curry and friends are stuck battling it out in the middle of the blood sport arena that is the West.
They've kept the roster largely intact, opting for Klay Thompson over Kevin Love, retaining Andrew Bogut and David Lee, and believing that Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes are still the answer in lineups both big and small. The difference is that now Steve Kerr, an enterprising and analytic sort, has joined the team as coach to replace Mark Jackson's former fire-and-brimstone approach.
The Warriors are a similar team, yes, but in a conference where a few wins separate the top from the bottom, perhaps a different approach is necessary. We've seen over the past two years (David Lee injuries aside) how far the Warriors can go. Curry and Thompson will continue to splash away, Andre Iguodala will do his Iguodala thing, and Bogut will hopefully keep his tinman body together. But with Kerr perhaps now the numbers will flip in the team's favour. Maybe the ceiling they've had – powered by a dynamite offense and reasonable defense – the last couple of seasons goes up a few inches.
In the Western Conference, that may be all they need to survive.
5) Do the Houston Rockets have what it takes to hang on?
More than almost any other team in the league, the Houston Rockets have had some notable players. When every team is looking for the next big superstar, the Rockets have gone through the Yao Ming-Tracy McGrady era almost directly into the James Harden-Dwight Howard era, with teams featuring everyone from Goran Dragic to Ron Artest to Omer Asik.
So General Manager Daryl Morey knows what he's doing. He amasses talent and draft picks and waits for the right time to strike. He missed on Pau Gasol (thanks David Stern!), and Chris Bosh (who returned to Miami), but the pairing of Harden and Howard remains potent. The question is: has he done enough to fill in the roster around them?
After letting their budding wing star Chandler Parsons walk this summer, the Rockets' marquee addition was a return of Trevor Ariza, now a few years older and a far more known commodity. There are no surprises where Ariza is involved; he'll get you corner threes and some solid perimeter defense. Coupled with super pest Patrick Beverley, and the able-bodied Terrence Jones, things for the Rockets start looking up. After that however, it starts to get dark. Key reserves off the bench for Houston? Francisco Garcia and Jason Terry. Yikes. And that's before we get to the Harden enigma.
For all of Harden's magic on the offensive end, the team still lives or dies on far too cavalier an attitude. Everybody wants to win, sure, but it is hard not to notice Harden's indifference on defense and, when coupled with Howard's general immaturity, the flimsy competitive tone of this Rockets team. Despite being a destination for many NBA players, this version of the Rockets will need to send away for reinforcements.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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