The Best Reside in the West

In the third and final installment of my NBA power rankings, I’ll discuss the top 10 teams going into this NBA season. I’ll also give some award and playoff predictions.

Canada, eh?:

10. Toronto Raptors: I couldn’t really think of a category to put the Raptors in, so they get their own category since they are the only team that plays in Canada. Barring any significant injuries, I don’t see any way the Raptors don’t win the Atlantic division and get the No. 3 seed in the East. They are right below the Cavaliers and Bulls and far ahead of the other Eastern Conference teams. They return the same core as last year and added Lou Williams to improve their bench. Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan are a top five backcourt in the NBA and I think Derozan will get serious MVP consideration this year. Jonas Valančiūnas will be one of the most improved players in the NBA and become a top center in the league. Toronto should enjoy another successful season, but still won’t have a fan in Barney Stinson.

The West is tough…really tough:

9. Houston Rockets: The Rockets had one of the rougher off-seasons in the NBA, losing to Portland on a buzzer beater in the playoffs and then sacrificing depth in the hope of acquiring Chris Bosh in free agency. It seemed like they had Bosh locked up, but then Bosh decided to take the max in Miami and left Houston without a new Big Three in James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Bosh. Houston lost Chandler Parsons to the rival Mavs, which will hurt, but replacing him with Trevor Ariza won’t be a huge loss. The Rockets, like the other teams in this category, will be hurt because they play in the West. The Harden-Howard combination would be good enough to make it out of the Eastern conference, but there are too many good teams in the West. It’ll be a bloodbath getting out of the West and Houston will have to improve its defensive intensity if it wants to make a run in the playoffs.

8. Memphis Grizzlies: A questionable suspension of Zach Randolph prevented the Grizzlies from pulling off the upset of the Thunder in the playoffs last year. With a healthy Marc Gasol and the addition of Vince Carter, the Grizzlies are a dark-horse team in the West. The Zebo-Gasol tandem down low is a tough matchup for any team, but just like Houston, they don’t have enough to get out of the West.

7. Dallas Mavericks: The picture of Mark Cuban signing Chandler Parsons in an Orlando nightclub was one of the lasting images of the offseason. The Mavs gave the Spurs their toughest test in the playoffs, pushing the eventual champs to a tough seven game series. Bringing back Tyson Chandler and acquiring Jameer Nelson and Raymond Felton will add some more depth to this team. On paper, a lot of people feel Dallas can make a serious run to the championship. The Dirk and Rick Carlisle combination is one of the best player-coach combinations in the NBA. All things seem to be a go for Dallas to be a serious contender in the West, and the key for this Mavericks team will be if their guards can matchup defensively with the elite guards of the West.

6. Golden State Warriors: The Warriors were in the thick of the Kevin Love trade rumors, but they decided to keep Klay Thompson and the Splash Brothers together. Even though the players loved playing for Mark Jackson, getting Steve Kerr as coach will be an improvement and he’ll be able to un-tap this team’s potential unlike Jackson. I believe Kerr will finally be able to get the most out of Harrison Barnes and turn him into the star he was projected to be. With Barnes in the starting lineup, this allows Andre Iguodala to come off the bench and be a shutdown wing defender and slasher, which is the role he plays best in. Getting Shaun Livingston in the offseason was a huge steal and his versatility will help the Warriors offense be even more potent. The key for this team will be the health of their big guys David Lee and especially Andrew Bogut. Bogut is the team’s best low post defender and he’ll be needed come playoff time. The Warriors can finally reach their full potential this season if they can remain healthy.

Title Contenders:

5. Oklahoma City Thunder: The Thunder would be No. 1 on this list every year if they hadn’t traded James Harden away. That will go down as one of the worst trades in NBA history and will be the reason why the Thunder won’t have multiple championships. However, the trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka is still good enough to get any team to the Finals. They failed to upgrade their bench again this offseason, with their biggest move being Anthony Morrow when they could have gotten Aaron Afflalo or Pau Gasol. Even with all these negatives, when healthy, the Thunder are a top team in the league. Durant’s the reigning MVP and Westbrook is a matchup nightmare for any team. If going into playoff time the Thunder are at full strength, they could definitely win the title. But remaining healthy has been OKC’s Achilles heel the last few years.

4. Los Angeles Clippers: The pressure is on in Lob City this year to take the next step and advance past the second round of the playoffs. Now that all the off-the-court drama from last year is over with, all eyes are back onto the on court product. Blake Griffin should have another monster season and can give LeBron a serious run for league MVP. This is a huge year for Chris Paul. He’s been in the league ten years now and he still hasn’t made a conference finals. There’s no doubt CP3 is an elite point guard and a superstar, but this is the year to quiet the critics and make a run in the postseason. The addition of Spencer Hawes gives the Clippers a serviceable backup big man and a player who can stretch the floor. Expectations are at an all-time high for the Clippers, as they are now the best team in L.A, which makes me cringe to say as a Lakers fan.

3. Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose coming back is huge for this team, but it’s the additions of Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, and Nikola Mirotic make this Bulls team a deep and scary one. Adding those three guys along with Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah give Chicago one of the top frontcourts in the NBA. But it all circles back to D Rose. He was the youngest player ever in league history to win MVP, and it seems like that was centuries ago. Tom Thibodeau did a great job coaching this team last year, but it was evident in the playoffs that the Bulls missed that playmaker on offense to take them over the top. If Rose is able to return to form along with the Bulls already stout defense, Chicago will be a very dangerous team.

2. Cleveland Cavaliers: Offensively, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love will be a spectacle to watch every night. The rest of the roster cold be filled out with men’s league players, and they’d still put up big numbers. However, while everyone wants to crown the Cavs champs already, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have a combined zero playoff minutes. Both of these guys have been on bad teams their whole careers and never have played in big games. In addition, Irving and Love aren’t what you call lockdown defenders. LeBron will be forced again to cover the other team’s best player. There will be some hiccups with this Big Three just like Miami had in 2011, but as the season progresses, Cleveland will turn into the unstoppable force everyone is projecting them to be. LeBron will be on a mission to bring a title to Cleveland and by playoff time no one will want to play Cleveland.

1. San Antonio Spurs: Reigning champs? Returned the same roster as last year? Still have the best coach in the sport? Seems like the favorite to me.

Award Predictions:

MVP: LeBron James

Runner up: Blake Griffin

Dark-horse: Demar Derozan

Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer

Runner up: Doc Rivers

Dark horse: Quin Snyder

Rookie of the Year: Jabari Parker

Runner up: Nerlens Noel

Dark horse: Adriean Payne

Sixth Man: Ryan Anderson

Runner up: Isaiah Thomas

Most Improved Player: Harrison Barnes

Runner up: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Playoff Predictions

ECF: Cavs over Bulls in 7

WCF: Spurs over Clippers in 5

Finals: Spurs over Cavs in 6

Follow Tyler on Twitter @TylerDarwick and listen to him on WIUX B-Side Sundays from 8-9 pm