JON KRAWCZYNSKI, AP Basketball Writer- The Western Conference has been a meat-grinder for years, which makes any attempt to forecast a playoff field before the regular season has even started even more challenging.
Last season, the Rockets sneaked in as the eighth seed with a robust 45 victories. And that’s actually the fewest number of victories for the No. 8 seed in the West during an 82-game season since 2007. The conference is deep and loaded again this season and that could mean it will take 50 victories to get into the field, like it did for the West in 2008 and 2010.
With that in mind, here is one semi-educated guess on what the Western Conference playoff field will look like come April:
1. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: Doc Rivers’ arrival should give this talent-laden roster the last piece of the puzzle, a proven leader who can draw up a play in the closing moments.
2. SAN ANTONIO SPURS: Too old? Please. With Tony Parker still in his prime and Kawhi Leonard emerging as the next Spurs star, doubt Timmy, Pop and the rest of them at your own peril.
3. HOUSTON ROCKETS: Dwight Howard is surrounded by shooters, just like he was in Orlando when he led the Magic to the finals.
4. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: The most entertaining team in the league added Andre Iguodala and has a healthy Andrew Bogut from the start to set screens for Steph Curry.
5. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: Probably too low, here. But there is concern about Russell Westbrook’s knee. And the loss of Kevin Martin off the bench could be big.
6. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: New coach Dave Joerger has big expectations in taking over for Lionel Hollins. If Mike Miler can stay healthy, Grizz will be dangerous again.
7. DENVER NUGGETS: Won 57 games last year, but Masai Ujiri, George Karl and Iguodala are gone, and Danilo Galinari is out with a knee injury.
8. MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: One of the league’s unluckiest franchises should end the league’s longest active playoff drought at nine seasons IF Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic can stay healthy.
DARKHORSE: Here’s a team to keep an eye on that could throw the above projections out of whack.
— PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: GM Neil Olshey fortified the team’s biggest weaknesses this summer. He found a center in Robin Lopez and bolstered the worst bench in the league by adding Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and rookie C.J. McCollum. If LaMarcus Aldridge’s left knee issues prove to be minor, they will be right in the mix.
LONG SHOT: A lot of things need to go right, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
— NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: If Anthony Davis makes the leap that he is expected to make and the interesting three-guard rotation of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon mesh, the Pelicans will be a handful.
THE BIG MISTAKE?: The above field is missing an awfully big name, which could make this forecast look incredibly silly when the dust settles.
— LOS ANGELES LAKERS: If Kobe Bryant recovers from his blown Achilles sooner than expected and Pau Gasol and Steve Nash stay healthy all season, it’s hard to see how the Lakers would miss the playoffs. Betting against Kobe is a fool’s errand. Betting against a 33-year-old Gasol with knee issues and Nash, who will turn 40 in February, that’s a little less crazy.
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