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With the NBA season set to tip-off, it's time the WhatIfSports NBA simulation engine produces its 2010-2011 forecast. Today's article will focus on the Western Conference.
The teams are ordered by their predicted finish in the conference, listed from worst to first (all projected win totals are rounded up). As with all our simulations, these predictions/projections are based on the statistical make-up of each team.
Western Conference Breakdown
15) Sacramento Kings - 24 Wins
This sentiment might not translate in the Win/Loss column, but Sacramento's upside is off the charts for the '10-11 season. At the heart of the Kings' nucleus is reigning Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans, coming off a campaign of 20.1 points, 5.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds, and 1.5 steals. Evans wasn't the only draftee to impress in '09-10, as 2nd-rounder Omri Casspi showed flashes of brilliance on the offense end. Sacramento pulled off another potential steal in this year's Draft with Kentucky big man DeMarcus Cousins, who fell to the 5th pick. Cousins has been imposing in the preseason, notching marks of 14.3 points and 8 rebounds in seven contests. With Cousins and Evans, along with '09-10 breakout star Carl Landry, the Kings will be far from a pushover in the competitive West.
14) Minnesota Timberwolves- 29 Wins
Minnesota management made multiple mystifying moves this summer. One head-scratcher involved franchise forward Al Jefferson to Utah in exchange for backup Kosta Koufos and two Draft picks. The Timberwolves continued to confuse by acquiring the services of Martell Webster and Michael Beasley, despite having a plethora of swingmen on their roster. There was also the perplexing signing of the immortal Darko Milicic for $20 million, or about $18 million more than the next highest bidder. And we haven't discussed the decision to pass on DeMarcus Cousins in favor of Wesley Johnson. Minnesota's a franchise without an identity, which always spells for disaster in the NBA. The Timberwolves have a hidden gem in Kevin Love, a talented forward with elite court vision and knack for rebounding. But without a true established star on the squad, look for the team from the Twin Cities to flounder this season.
13) Houston Rockets - 31 Wins
Yao Ming returns after a year-long absence from the court, thanks to ankle issues. However, Yao's expectations are tempered, as Ming's minutes will be monitored throughout the season. Veteran Brad Miller was brought in to bolster the big man position, and last season's procurement of power forward Jordan Hill should alleviate any post concerns for the Rockets. The Rockets also re-signed underrated Argentinian Luis Scola, one of the league's best glue-guys. While contending for the Western crown is likely out of the realm of possibility, a healthy Yao makes the Rockets a playoff contender. A development to keep an eye on will be the psyche of shooting guard Kevin Martin, who's allegedly upset over inclusion in possible Carmelo Anthony trade rumors. If Martin's mood turns sour, the Rockets season will take a turn for the worse.
12) Los Angeles Clippers - 31
One does not normally associate "optimism" with the Los Angeles Clippers. Yet the return of Blake Griffin, who was sidelined with a stress fracture in '09-10, has the Clipper faithful envisioning of playoff aspirations for the upcoming campaign. The 2009 #1 pick has wowed in his preseason performances, averaging 17.3 points and 12.3 rebounds. But the former Sooner isn't the only inspiration behind the Clipper sanguinity. Guard Eric Gordon shined for Team USA in Turkey, showcasing his assassin-like ability behind the arc. Some pundits believe Gordon has a similar skillset to Ray Allen, a sentiment echoed by fellow Clipper teammates. The Clips also acquired Ryan Gomes in the offseason, a solid starter who toiled away in anonymity in Minnesota the past three seasons. The X-factor for Los Angeles will be Baron Davis, who has yet to live up to expectations since arriving in the summer of 2008. If Davis can revert to his 2006-2008 form, the Clippers could be a force to be reckoned with in the West.
11) Memphis Grizzlies- 31 Wins
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The Grizzlies were one of the surprises in '09-10, competing for a playoff spot until floundering near the end of the season when center Marc Gasol went down with a neck strain. Part of this revival was thanks to the play of Zach Randolph, who turned in a career season and earned his first trip to the All-Star Game. The Griz have a formidable starting five with Randolph, Gasol, swingman Rudy Gay, and guards O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley. While this unit matches up with any in the league, the bench of Memphis leaves much to be desired. Sam Young demonstrated his penchant for scoring in limited action last season, and Darrel Arthur has proven his abilities as a serviceable backup. But the early returns on 2009 2nd overall pick Hasheem Thabeet indicate the former UConn Huskie will earn the infamous label of "bust." Thabeet appeared lost on the offensive end, and struggled athletically to keep up with other players. If Thabeet doesn't show improvement, the 7'3 center could be headed for the D-League. Again.
10) New Orleans Hornets- 35 Wins
The big news out of NOLA this offseason was the alleged trade demands of franchise star Chris Paul. The PG became disillusioned with the roster's makeup and questioned the team's commitment to winning. Making matters worse were rumors of Paul and Carmelo Anthony joining Amar'e Stoudemire in New York to create a superteam to rival the Heat. The Hornets responded by acquiring defensive specialist Trevor Ariza from Houston and scorer Jerryd Bayless from Portland. Paul still has All-Star David West in his arsenal, and a healthy Peja Stojakovic should equate to a return to the postseason. However, if the Hornets' season heads south, don't be surprised if the Paul trade rumors resurface and the All-NBA PG gets his wish.
9) Golden State Warriors- 38 Wins
A new coach. A new star player. A new owner. Even new uniforms (albeit throwbacks). But will the change in culture correlate to more success in the win column for Golden State? The attainment of All-Star David Lee appears to make the Warriors playoff contenders on paper. Supporting this sentiment is the Golden State backcourt, which features explosive scorers Monta Ellis (25.5 ppg in '09-10) and Stephen Curry (17.5 ppg). Coach Keith Smart is also viewed as an upgrade on the sidelines, as some believe Don Nelson was mailing in the past few seasons. While no one is questioning the Warriors' ability to light up the scoreboard, it remains to be seen if Golden State can be disciplined enough on defense to become a playoff contender. If the Warriors can overcome this perception, Golden State will be a factor in the Western Conference playoff equation.
8) Denver Nuggets- 46 Wins
It's not a matter of "if." Only "when" and "where" are the remaining questions regarding Carmelo Anthony's final playing destination for the '10-11 season. Making it clear that he has no intentions of signing an extension with the team, the Nuggets are exploring every possible avenue of action in order to receive adequate compensation for their leading scorer's services. The bigger inquiry remains the future of the franchise sans Anthony. Besides guards Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson, the roster is constructed of journeyman and past-their-prime veterans. If the team suffers early season setbacks, a full-on fire sale is likely.
Western Conference - Northwest
Western Conference - Pacific
Western Conference - Southwest
7) Portland Trail Blazers - 48 Wins
The Trail Blazers were one of the feel-good stories of the '09-10 season, as the team won 50 games despite a mirage of injuries to their roster. But after a tumultuous offseason that saw the upheaval of GM Kevin Pritchard and trade demands of disgruntled Spanish star Rudy Fernandez, Portland's projection remains unclear. At the center of this uncertainty is former #1 Draft pick Greg Oden, who is still in the rehab process and won't be returning to action until December. Yet in spite of the absence of the Buckeye big man, the Trail Blazers have appeared feisty in the preseason. Brandon Roy, who averaged 21.5 points and 4.7 assists last season, appears to be back to form after a meniscus tear. Fernandez looks to be taking his frustration out on the floor, shooting .525% behind the arc, and offseason signee Wesley Matthews has been a consistent scoring presence off the bench. If they can avoid the injury bug, Portland can do some damage come April.
6) San Antonio Spurs- 48 Wins
With Tim Duncan starting to show signs of decline last season, the San Antonio brass addressed the situation by signing center Tiago Splitter, the 2010 Spanish League MVP. The Brazilian big man should provide the Spurs with more leeway in giving Duncan ample rest throughout the season. Furthermore, Duncan focused his offseason on a strength-building regiment in order to combat the wear-and-tear of the season. Manu Ginobili is back to full strength, and San Antonio added scorer James Anderson via the Draft. But with PG Tony Parker's impending free-agency, will this be the last run with San Antonio's Big Three intact?
5) Oklahoma City Thunder - 49 Wins
The Thunder were the breakout team of '09-10 thanks to Kevin Durant, who led the league with 30.1 points per game. Yet while Durant emerged as one of the league's elite, Oklahoma City is far from a one-man show. Russell Westbrook validated his 4th overall selection in 2008 by posting averages of 16.1 points and 8 dimes, as well torching the Lakers for 20.5 points per game in the playoffs. Jeff Green more than proved his worth as a complimentary player, and rookie Serge Ibaka turned into a Tasmanian devil on the defensive end. After an initial slow showing, James Harden became a valuable asset off the bench. If 1st round pick Cole Aldrich can solidify the post for Oklahoma City, the Thunder will pose a threat to Laker supremacy in the West. More importantly, Oklahoma City's nucleus is young and still developing, meaning the Thunder will be a contender for years to come.
4) Phoenix Suns - 52 Wins
Joe Johnson. Boris Diaw. Tim Thomas. Grant Hill. Jason Richardson. Channing Frye. Can miracle man Steve Nash rejuvenate another player's career in Hedo Turkoglu? The Suns hope so, as their season's trajectory depends on the output of the playmaking forward from Turkey. To fill the void of the departed All-Star Amar'e Stoudemire, the Suns brought in Hedo, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress, as well as giving an expanded role to 2nd-year forward Earl Clark. While it's easy to discount Phoenix with the exodus of Stoudemire, it's best not to bet against a Nash-led squad.
3) Utah Jazz- 52 Wins
Did the Jazz actually improve with the loss of Carlos Boozer? Many believe the answer is a resounding "yes." The addition of Al Jefferson and increased playing time of Paul Millsap gives Utah more strength and defense in the post. The Jazz did lose a key component in Wesley Matthews, but Raja Bell and C.J. Miles are more than viable candidates to pick up the slack. Deron Williams continues to impress for Utah, and many believe the former Illini took the mantle of "Best PG in the Game" from Chris Paul last season.
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However, if the Jazz intend to battle the likes of LA, Dallas, and the rest of the Western contenders, Utah will need more consistency from former All-Star Andrei Kirilenko. After a few down years featuring injuries and discord with Coach Jerry Sloan, Kirilenko appeared to regain his defensive mojo before succumbing to a calf problem in May. An AK47 return to prominence is a must for the fortunes of the Jazz this season.
2) Dallas Mavericks - 55 Wins
The 2010-2011 Maverick roster might be the most talented squad assembled in the Dirk Nowitzki Era. Although currently injured, Rodrigue Beaubois burst on to the scene in '09-10, giving Dallas one of the better backcourts with Beaubois, Jason Kidd, and Jason Terry. The offseason addition of Tyson Chandler should open up the floor for Dirk, and Caron Butler will be more adjusted to the Maverick scheme after last year's mid-season trade. Questions surround Shawn Marion's level of play, but the Mavericks are loaded enough to overcome possible shortcomings from the SF position. Dallas will need to show more focus and consistency on the defensive end to challenge for the Western crown. Additionally, Kidd will be forced to take a backseat for the first time in his illustrious career. Resolving these inner issues is the only obstacle in Dallas' way of competing for a Finals appearance.
1) Los Angeles Lakers - 58 Wins
How did the Lakers celebrate their second straight title in the offseason? By enhancing their defense with Matt Barnes and Theo Ratliff, and finding an ample backup guard in Steve Blake. It also appears Los Angeles struck gold with 2nd round selections Devin Ebanks and Derrick Caracter. The health of center Andrew Bynum is an ongoing concern, as well as the status of a lingering knee issue with Kobe Bryant.
Yet a healthy Lakers squad should contend for their third straight championship ring. Although the West has improved considerably in the last two seasons, the Lakers are still the odds-on favorite to be vying for the Larry O'Brien Trophy come June.
Check out the 2010-11 Eastern Conference Preview.
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