The Oklahoma City Thunder- The Thunder seem like an obvious candidate to be a force, but are overlooked fairly frequently when discussing the powers in the Western Conference. There are legitimate reasons for this, mostly based on health, but the Thunder are probably going to be formidable this year.
During the offseason, GM Sam Presti finally fired Scott Brooks as coach, replacing him with longtime Florida coach Billy Donovan. Like most college to NBA coaches, Donovan will probably struggle quite a bit during his first season in charge. Put simply, it is a different game. While Donovan was considered a great coach at Florida, and he might very well become an excellent NBA coach down the line, it is unreasonable to expect greatness in his "rookie" season. His rotations, however, could be an improvement right away, as Brooks' worst quality was his weird lineup decisions.
Roster wise, this is the same team as the second half of last year, but that is largely a good thing. The Thunder finished 45-37 in a brutal Western Conference despite Russell Westbrook missing 15 games, Serge Ibaka 18, and Kevin Durant 55. While it is reasonable to expect some injuries, the Thunder were destroyed by them last season. Durant's were the most worrisome, because he had foot issues, and those are never good, particularly for tall players. If he is healthy this season alongside Ibaka and Westbrook, the Thunder will win 60+ games. It is that simple.
The rest of the supporting cast is also much stronger than it has been in previous years. Older and useless players such as Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins are no longer on the roster, and their rotation is now mostly comprised of in-their-prime veterans. DJ Augustin, Anthony Morrow, Kyle Singler, Nick Collison, and Enes Kanter is a very strong bench, albeit terrible defensively. As a whole, the Thunder have a great mix of shooters, defenders, and hustle guys to throw into various lineups to see what sticks.
Outside of coaching and injuries, there are a couple potential trouble spots. Enes Kanter was just signed to a 4 year 70 million dollar deal. He is also perhaps the worst defensive big man in the NBA. This could lead to struggles on the court and maybe in the locker room. Dion Waiters is also on the roster and in line to play minutes, which is never a good thing. He was one of the worst players in the NBA period last year, and his attitude issues suggest he won't change his style of play. Nevertheless, a healthy Thunder squad is as good a bet as any to be the 1 seed in the West.
The Utah Jazz- The Jazz may have just suffered a setback of sorts as young PG Dante Exum went down yesterday with a torn ACL. While Exum was awful offensively his rookie season (like most rookies are), the Jazz were counting on him to at least be a solid rotation player this season, and he was probably going to start at point guard. His defense was a key to the Jazz' success on that end towards the end of the year as well. The loss of his upside also limits the ceiling of this Utah team.
This is particularly bad news for the Jazz because guard depth was already their biggest issue. Trey Burke had a bad sophomore season, and his lack of size and athleticism does not bode well for his long term NBA prospects (as a starter anyway). Alec Burks is a pretty solid combo guard, but he has yet to play big starting minutes for a good team. Rodney Hood had a promising rookie campaign as a 3 and D guard, but he is not someone the Jazz want to rely on heavily so soon in his career.
Why are the Jazz a team to watch then? Because their frontcourt is incredible. Gordon Hayward is one of the best non Durant/LeBron small forwards in the league, an efficient 20 point a game scorer who is a very good passer and defender as well. The Derrick Favors/Rudy Gobert combination is not a strong one on offense, as neither can really provide spacing, but the defensive force is so good as to render offense secondary. The Jazz went 19-10 after the All Star break last year largely because they give up only 92.5 points per 100 possessions. Again, depth is an issue, as Trevor Booker is the only proven NBA rotation player behind those two, but the Jazz do have some intriguing young guys up and down their roster.
The Jazz could be a 40 win team if their prospects don't pan out, a sub 30 win team if even one of their starting frontcourt goes down for an extended period, or a 50 win team if everything goes as planned and the team is relatively healthy. They are going to be very interesting, that is for sure.
The New Orleans Pelicans- Much like the Thunder, the Pelicans spent the off season mostly re-signing their own players. Anthony Davis got a massive contract extension, Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca will hold down the center position with almost 80 million dollars of new money, and Jeff Withey, Luke Babbitt, and Dante Cunningham were brought back on smaller deals.
On the surface, bringing back the band of a 45-37 win season which didn't involve major injury issues like the Thunder is an odd move. The flip side is that the Pelicans started out pretty slowly, but got better over the year with smart additions like Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter, and Norris Cole (who they will probably re-sign). None of them were true difference makers, but all are solid rotation players who gave them good minutes, particularly Pondexter. If Ryan Anderson is healthy and has a bounce back season shooting three pointers, the Pelicans will probably have a much better supporting cast throughout 2016. Jrue Holliday and Eric Gordon are an underrated backcourt, and had nice years after previous injury plagued seasons.
However, the main reason to fear the Pelicans is Anthony Davis. The Brow. The best young player in the NBA. Davis is a ferocious player on both ends who still has almost unlimited potential to improve, especially on defense, where people think he is better than he really is (though he is plenty good already). If rumors of his shooting more three pointers is true, the NBA should be scared. Barring injury, he is just about a lock to win an MVP within the next three years. It could happen as soon as next year.
Finally, the Pelicans changed coaches, removing the much beloved (by the Pelicans' players, and by people in general) Monty Williams for the equally adored Alvin Gentry. Gentry was a good head coach with the Suns, and has been one of the best assistants in the NBA over the past couple years with the Clippers and Warriors, where he got much credit for helping them to the championship. Gentry likes to play a fast tempo offense, and Anthony Davis is a perfect centerpiece for that. The Pelicans probably won't be good enough to crack the top 5 in the West, but absolutely nobody will want to play them in the playoffs.
Sidenote: My thanks to Steve for allowing me to write for this blog. It is an honor and privilege to write at Clips Nation, and it has been a fantastic experience so far for many reasons. I am extremely excited to see where Lucas goes with this blog and community, and I know it will be extremely well done.