A team-by-team look at the Western Conference:
BEN BOLCH'S PICKS (in predicted order of finish)
NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE
(new players listed in bold)
1. Golden State
2014-15 finish: 67-15
Steve Kerr provided about the only drama of his cheery existence as Warriors coach when he recently took a leave of absence to recover from two back surgeries. Interim Coach Luke Walton won't try to change a thing, of course, after a season in which the team won its first NBA title since 1975. Every starter and key backup returns to help what should be a strong repeat bid.
2014-15 finish: 56-26
As if to underscore the opportunity presented by Jordan's return and the addition of an actual NBA-caliber bench, the Clippers might want to adopt a familiar slogan: Now or never. They seemingly have everything needed to finally make it past the second round of the playoffs so long as Pierce, 38, doesn't endure a Steve Nash-like decline and a bench with overlapping pieces doesn't implode.
3. Oklahoma City
2014-15 finish: 45-37.
Remember the Thunder? It was only three years ago that the franchise made the Finals, with many happy returns expected. Then James Harden was traded, various body parts of Durant and Westbrook broke down and it was see-ya-playoffs last spring. Oklahoma City should return under new Coach Billy Donovan, assuming its stars stay off the injury list and Durant's looming free agency doesn't become a season-long distraction.
4. San Antonio
2014-15 finish: 55-27
Projecting the Spurs' finish in the standings can be hard for reasons that have nothing to do with talent. Coach Gregg Popovich likes to rest his aging stars, leading to a handful of losses that push his team lower than it should be based on its personnel. Adding Aldridge and West figures to give San Antonio its deepest frontcourt since David Robinson teamed with Duncan.
2014-15 finish: 56-26
Lawson gives the Rockets the playmaker they wanted to complement Harden, who often tried to carry the team's entire offensive burden himself. Of course, there's a catch: Lawson must overcome the personal issues that led to another arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. If he's successful, the Rockets could be contenders even in the loaded West.
2014-15 finish: 55-27
The Grizzlies are like a car company that keeps rolling out the same model year after year, updating only the stereo system and temperature controls. Fortunately, it's been a fairly successful model. The vocal Barnes should add some acoustics and Wright some highlight plays off the bench, but this will again be a team that largely goes as far as Gasol, Randolph and Conley take it.
7. New Orleans
2014-15 finish: 45-37
The Pelicans should no longer plod along, instead adapting to the style of new Coach Alvin Gentry, the architect of supercharged offenses with the Clippers and Golden State. Gentry will have plenty of talent to mold to his liking, starting with the league's most dynamic young center in Davis. It also helps that the team's roster has remained essentially intact from last season.
2014-15 finish: 39-43
The Suns' fortunes figure to be volatile until the felony aggravated assault case involving Morris and his departed brother Marcus is resolved. Markieff Morris also has some making up to do with Suns fans after criticizing the volume level inside US Airways Center and asking to be traded. Newcomer Chandler figures to bring a steadying presence on defense and in the locker room.
2014-15 finish: 38-44
Top reserves: Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, Elijah Milsap, Raul Neto, Joe Ingles.
If only making the playoffs were as simple as getting Burks back from the shoulder injury that limited him to 27 games last season and picking up where the Jazz left off, when it finished the season by winning 21 of its last 32 games. It isn't. This is a team with plenty of emerging talent but enough youthful hiccups to make it a borderline postseason pick. Here's guessing the Jazz just misses.
2014-15 finish: 50-32
Dallas' season went kerplunk on a summer's day in Houston, of all places, when DeAndre Jordan backed out of a commitment to the Mavericks and re-signed with the Clippers. The team's subsequent free-agent signings felt like parting gifts for a losing game-show contestant. Matthews looks like he's ready to return earlier than expected from an Achilles' injury.
2014-15 finish: 29-53
The "Jersey Shore" creators couldn't have conjured a crazier cast than what's been assembled here. There's a hot-headed point guard (Rondo), an intrusive owner (Vivek Ranadive) and a coach (George Karl) who had to apologize to Cousins in the wake of some careless wording about his biggest star being tradable. The combustion point could be reached at any moment.
2014-15 finish: 16-66
Interim Coach Sam Mitchell recently revealed his team's mantra: It's not losing, it's developing. Of course, don't expect that to be part of any midseason season-ticket renewal campaign when the Timberwolves' losses double their win total. The upside will be watching the development of No. 1 overall draft picks Wiggins and Anthony-Towns while hoping President and Coach Flip Saunders makes a full recovery from cancer.
2014-15 finish: 21-61
Projected starters: D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Kobe Bryant, Julius Randle, Roy Hibbert.
What is likely Bryant's final season won't be much different than the two immediately preceding it. He'll have to fight fatigue and his aging limbs while trying to avoid another season-ending injury. The talent around him is better with some young and promising players alongside a few serviceable veterans. But the Lakers probably will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season, something that has never happened in franchise history.
2014-15 finish: 30-52
Coach Mike Malone no longer has to worry about a meddlesome owner. His roster could be another matter. The coach who was unceremoniously dumped despite showing promise with Sacramento gets a do-over with a hodgepodge of leftovers from the George Karl and Brian Shaw eras, plus rookie point guard Mudiay. It's likely to result in another Rocky Mountain low.
2014-15 finish: 51-31
It's R.I.P. City after the Trail Blazers were left to replace four of five starters, not to mention Kim Hughes after the overly blunt assistant coach was fired for conceding free agent LaMarcus Aldridge was headed out of town. The team is spinning its rebuilding efforts as going young, which is little more than code for not having any better options beyond Lillard.