NBA Free Agency Recap: The Effect on the Western Conference’s Top Tier

Posted: 07/13/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

A ton has happened since the last time I wrote about basketball on the day of the draft. All of free agency, including a day that was considered one of the craziest in basketball history, has passed, as well as a few trades and some devastating move (the Joel Embiid news yesterday). But instead of going step by step through all of it and determining whether or not we should blame DeAndre Jordan for changing his mind and/or feel sorry for Mark Cuban, I’m going to take a big-picture view. The Eastern Conference, the inferior conference, didn’t really change that much; DeMarre Carroll heading to the Raptors, Monta Ellis going to the Pacers, and Greg Monroe joining the Bucks were the three biggest moves that involved a player switching teams. But the far more interesting conference had some major shakeups, with LaMarcus Aldridge joining the Spurs and a couple of playoffs teams suffering through sub-par weeks. Here are a couple of thoughts I have on the Western Conference:

First and foremost, it’s looking like there’s a clear top tier, featuring six teams who with Cleveland are probably the league’s seven most talented teams. Why are those six the class of the conference (and the NBA)? Let’s start at the top:

The Golden State Warriors are the reigning champs, are coming off a 67-win season, and, most importantly, barely lost anything. Usually, as soon as teams win championships, they start to decline because of money problems. Good players win championships, and when they win, they want new, bigger contracts. But although the Warriors are deep into the luxury tax, they’ve been able to keep their core together. Trading David Lee, a rarely-used big who will be paid $15.5 million next season, will save the Warriors a lot of money without hurting their team much. And with the resigning of Draymond Green, Golden State has ensured that the core of Steph Curry (the biggest bargain among superstars in the NBA), Klay Thompson, Green, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, and Andre Iguodala will return. They’re the champs, and they’re going to be pretty darn good again next year. I wouldn’t expect another 67-15 season, but they aren’t going anywhere.

The Warriors’ WCF opponents, the Houston Rockets, seem set to be pretty good, too, albeit probably near the bottom of this top six. The Rockets tried to get Aldridge, but that was always a long shot, and in retaining Patrick Beverley and Corey Brewer, Houston has ensured that they will have a ton of depth next season. Assuming the Rockets can resign Josh Smith, which seems pretty likely (although the Kings are making a serious attempt to steal Smith), they’ll have perhaps the deepest roster in the NBA. When guys like Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, both pretty solid prospects, are just depth picks, you know you have a good roster. James Harden and Dwight Howard are still the headliners, and the Rockets haven’t found a third star to pair with those two, but it’s important to note that Houston is basically adding Beverley (injured last playoffs), Donatas Motiejunas (injured), Dekker, and Harrell to a team that was one of the last four standing last season. And even if Smith leaves, the Rockets will have a multitude of athletic wings and power forwards that should give them the most depth in the NBA.

The Memphis Grizzlies, forever overlooked, continued to be overlooked. Aside from Marc Gasol’s max deal, very little that the Grizzlies did was noteworthy to the average fan. But there’s no doubt that Memphis, a 55-win team last season, got better. Branden Wright, a valuable rotation big, was a steal, as the Grizzlies got him for a deal less expensive than Kosta Koufos, the backup big he’s replacing and a clear step down from Wright, got. Wright can play with either Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and his pick-and-roll prowess will work well in this offense. The Grizzlies also managed to trade for Matt Barnes, the former Clipper who played big minutes as a starter for LA last season. Barnes is experienced, and can take over when Jeff Green is having one of his many cold streaks. He’s also tough as nails, and will (I assume) be an important figure both on and off the court, especially come playoff time. The Grizzlies lost nobody, so their offseason, like Houston’s, was more about retention. They didn’t make many headlines, but they’ll be very good again.

For about a week, it seemed like the Los Angeles Clippers would become an afterthought. Not only was DeAndre Jordan leaving, but the Clippers also didn’t have the cap space to sign a replacement. They were without any big men and were facing the real possibility of starting the season with Paul Pierce at power forward and Blake Griffin at center. But Jordan changed his mind and will return to the Clippers, who all of a sudden look like one of the best teams in the NBA. It remains to be seen how this team reacts to blowing a 3-1 series lead against Houston in the second round last season, but given that it has guys like Chris Paul, Griffin, and now Pierce, I think they’ll be just fine. And while I didn’t like the Lance Stephenson trade, Stephenson does give the Clippers some more oomph off the bench. It’s still not a deep team, but the Pierce signing was a bargain and huge for a team who had just traded away their gritty wing (Matt Barnes). And having Jordan back is obviously huge; DeAndre doesn’t have much of an offensive game, but he’s the best rebounder in the NBA and a pretty darn good defender. I think the relationship problems between he and Paul are overstated, and I think this team will enter the playoffs with a top-three seed. Will that lead to more postseason success? That remains to be seen.

Somehow, the Spurs managed to keep Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, and Danny Green, while adding LaMarcus Aldridge and David West. The Duncan and Green signings were among the biggest bargains in the NBA, and the frontcourt of Leonard, Aldridge, and Duncan ranks among the best in the NBA. But everyone thinks San Antonio is the favorite to win the Western Conference now, so I won’t harp on that. Instead, I’m going to preach caution when it comes to the Spurs. Tony Parker is still a key, because he’s the team’s only above-average point guard (Patty Mills and Ray McCallum are fine but shouldn’t be running the point as starters for winning teams). And since Parker seems to be in the midst of a swift decline, this season is a crucial one for him. Will he stay healthy and help the team secure a top-two seed, or will he play poorly or get injured again? Given that Manu Ginobili is also on his last legs, the backcourt is actually pretty thin. Then again, that might not matter when you have starting wings like Green and Leonard and an extremely deep stable of bigs, including Duncan, Aldridge, West, and Boris Diaw. The Spurs will obviously be a factor in the playoffs, but I expect Coach Pop to limit his stars’ minutes, leading to a slightly depressed win total.

The team who’s made the biggest jump is the Oklahoma City Thunder, and this has nothing to do with free agency. The Thunder will be back in the top tier because they are getting the second or third best player in the NBA back from a foot injury. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook can mask a boatload of weaknesses. I expect Durant to have a huge year this season, and I think Westbrook’s going to play as well as he ever has. I’m also bullish about the frontcourt duo of Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter. I think they fit well together because Ibaka is a good shooter and tremendous defender while Kanter is a very skilled big man offensively. It’s the type of pair that you don’t see very often, and I expect the two to perform very well together. The Thunder did add Cameron Payne, a suitable backup point guard, in the draft, and they should expect improvements from Mitch McGary and Kyle Singler off the bench. Four starting spots are locked up, and the shooting guard spot will likely be filled based on who has the hot hand. In Anthony Morrow, Singler, D.J. Augustin, and Andre Roberson, the Thunder have a bunch of guys who can start alongside Westbrook. I think OKC is going to have a huge year, finishing with a top-two seed and performing very well in the playoffs.

(Early) Projected West Standings:
1. Oklahoma City Thunder
2. Golden State Warriors
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. San Antonio Spurs
5. Houston Rockets
6. Memphis Grizzlies
I think all six will finish 55-63 wins. After that…
7. New Orleans Pelicans
8. Utah Jazz
9. Dallas Mavericks
10. Phoenix Suns
11. Denver Nuggets
12. Sacramento Kings
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
14. Portland Trailblazers
15. Los Angeles Lakers

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