||08-21-2012 02:37 PM
ESPN Insider Western Conference predictions
1. Oklahoma City Thunder: 57.9 wins, 0.3 games worse
Oklahoma City's projected age (weighted by game minutes) for this season is 25.8 years, which ranks 22nd in the league. To give some context, the teams just behind the Thunder are Sacramento, Toronto and Washington. In other words, OKC sports a collective age typical of a franchise in rebuilding mode, yet the Thunder are coming off a Finals appearance.
The sky is the limit, especially considering the growth potential Oklahoma City still has on the defensive end, where it is projected to rank 11th. This is a squad that could win 60-65 games this season if healthy and focused.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: 54.8 wins, 9.6 games better
The Lakers' projection keeps nudging forward with every signing Mitch Kupchak makes to round out the league's oldest roster. Most of that optimism can be traced to the acquisitions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. The Lakers project to jump from 10th to seventh on offense and 12th to fifth on defense.
3. Denver Nuggets: 51.1 wins, 2.2 games better
The Nuggets will be one of the league's most interesting teams to follow. Already fielding one of the NBA's deepest rotations, Denver bolstered its upside by upgrading from Arron Afflalo to Andre Iguodala. Iggy gives Denver one of the top five defenders in the league and a guy who should flourish in George Karl's frenetic system.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves: 51.0 wins, 16.3 games better
Only Brooklyn projects to make a bigger jump than the young, talented and suddenly deep Timberwolves. For all the abuse that general manager David Kahn has taken in the past, he had as good an offseason as any executive in the league. Minnesota has 12 legitimate NBA talents on its roster, giving Rick Adelman the versatility to play any style that suits him at any given time. And, yes, this projection takes into account the fact that Ricky Rubio will miss anywhere from 30-40 games while recovering from his knee injury.
5. San Antonio Spurs: 50.7 wins, 9.3 games worse
The league's most consistent franchise is once again displaying an amazing amount of continuity by bringing back about 98 percent of its minutes from last season, although DeJuan Blair has been rumored to be on the trade market. Still, the Spurs overachieved a bit last season based on their point differential, and their aging core is one year older, which means wilting playing time projections for Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
6. Los Angeles Clippers: 49.1 wins, 0.6 games worse
This whole super-team fad is fairly new, so we're still not sure about the best method for filling out the roster for such a model. The Clippers have as much foundation talent as anyone, but the rest of the roster looks like a bunch of names. Jamal Crawford may or may not be an upgrade from Mo Williams, while recognizable but tepid players like Ronny Turiaf, Caron Butler, Willie Green, Ryan Hollins and Grant Hill -- the league's oldest player -- round out the bench to no real effect. A return to form by Lamar Odom would be a huge boost for the Clips.
7. Utah Jazz: 42.9 wins, 0.1 games worse
Utah has a lot of really nice, young pieces, but as the franchise continues to evolve, it remains to be seen how it's all going to fit together. With so many efficient interior scorers and a growing collection of 3-point shooters, the offense projects to be top-five in the league. However, the defense lags, and it will as long as the Jazz count on Al Jefferson to anchor the middle.
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 42.2 wins, 4.9 games worse
Small-market teams have to make hard decisions as they age and their core pieces become more expensive, and so it was for Memphis, which had no choice but to allow O.J. Mayo to walk. Jerryd Bayless will be asked to fill his role as a bench scorer and may be well-suited for the role. Memphis is woefully short of outside shooters, however, and projects to make the fewest 3-pointers in the league.
9. Dallas Mavericks: 38.2 wins, 5.7 games worse
The Mavericks' placeholder roster screams average, but with Rick Carlisle at the helm, you certainly can't rule out a run at a playoff berth. Despite the turnover in personnel, the Mavericks managed to remain long in the tooth, with a projection as the fourth-oldest team in the league.
10. Golden State Warriors: 34.7 wins, 3.3 games better
The Warriors fancy themselves as a playoff contender. We do not. Golden State has questionable depth despite the presence of veterans such as Richard Jefferson, Carl Landry and Brandon Rush on the roster. Harrison Barnes projects to be one of the worst players in the league. Indeed, his ability to outperform that forecast is the key to Golden State taking that longed-for step toward the postseason.
11. Sacramento Kings: 34.1 wins, 8.4 games better
The Kings seem to be headed in the right direction, but it has seemed like that for a few years now, and the results never quite measure up to the expectations. To say that this is a pivotal season for Tyreke Evans is an understatement.
12. New Orleans Hornets: 33.2 wins, 3.6 games better
There is no doubt that the Hornets are on the upswing and the long-term picture is bright. While New Orleans has a really exciting core, it remains very young and raw. Austin Rivers could help matters by exceeding a horrific forecast, but even if he does, chances are that Ryan Anderson is going to fall short of his projection now that he's no longer joined at the hip with Howard.
13. Portland Trail Blazers: 33.1 wins, 6.1 games worse
The last epoch of Blazers basketball was utterly ruined by injuries, so Portland has effectively hit the reset button and projects to have a younger roster than all but four other teams in the league. Right now, this is just a franchise searching for an identity.
14. Houston Rockets: 29.4 wins, 12.2 games worse
The Rockets cleared the decks for a run at Howard, and once that didn't work out, they were left with the next-best thing for a team trying to escape the middle: flexibility. Houston projects as the league's worst offensive team, one that will get an inordinate amount of its scoring from a starting backcourt of Jeremy Lin and Kevin Martin. In that sense, this Rockets squad harkens to some of the lesser Rudy Tomjanovich teams that were led by the duo of Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley.
15. Phoenix Suns: 27.8 wins, 12.5 games worse
We're not exactly sure what the plan is in Phoenix, but the Suns are moving forward with a roster devoid of core players. They won't just be bad. They'll be boring. We'll have to see what the future brings.
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