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    Thunder, Rockets, Spurs emerge as top contenders to beat Warriors in stacked West

    Oct 13, 2017
    After a wild offseason, the West got stacked in an effort to beat reigning champion Warriors. AP

    FROM Paul George and Carmelo Anthony moving to Oklahoma City, Chris Paul’s arrival in Houston, to the world champion Warriors, a team-by-team look at the Western Conference by division ahead of the season tipping off on Tuesday (Wednesday, Manila time):



    LAST SEASON: 40-42, missed the playoffs.

    COACH: Michael Malone (third season, fifth NBA season).

    PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Gary Harris (14.9 ppg), G Jamal Murray (9.9 ppg, 2.1 apg), F Wilson Chandler (15.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg), F Paul Millsap (18.1 ppg, 3.7 apg), C Nikola Jokic (16.7 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 4.9 apg).

    KEY LOSSES: F Danilo Gallinari.

    KEY ADDITIONS: Millsap, F Trey Lyles, F Tyler Lydon, F Josh Childress.

    PLAYER TO WATCH: Milsap. The All-Star signed a three-year deal worth about $90 million. He should fit in seamlessly with fellow big man Jokic.

    OUTLOOK: The Nuggets improved by seven games in 2016-17, but still missed the playoffs for a fourth straight season. Murray, Jameer Nelson and Emmanuel Mudiay are competing for minutes at point guard. If one of the trio can take command at the point and the Nuggets can improve on the defensive end, Denver could make the leap to a playoff-caliber squad. As Jokic says, the Nuggets have a lot of good pieces; they just need to learn to play together.

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    LAST SEASON: 31-51, missed the playoffs.

    COACH: Tom Thibodeau (second season, seventh NBA season).

    PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Jeff Teague, G Andrew Wiggins, F Jimmy Butler, F Taj Gibson, C Karl-Anthony Towns.

    KEY LOSSES: G Ricky Rubio, G Zach LaVine, G Kris Dunn.

    KEY ADDITIONS: G/F Jimmy Butler, F Taj Gibson, G Jamal Crawford, G Aaron Brooks.

    PLAYER TO WATCH: Butler was brought in from the Bulls via trade to speed up to the team’s development. He is the prototype for a Thibodeau player — intense, demanding and defensive-minded. His ability to make shots late in games should also help a team that struggled mightily to close out opponents last season, and his familiarity with Thibodeau should help the younger players on the team absorb more of the coach’s teachings.

    OUTLOOK: Playoffs or bust, which sounds crazy for a team that has not made the postseason since 2004. The West is stacked, but Thibodeau made the moves he did with the express purpose of ending the longest active playoff drought in the league. If the second unit can prevent huge drop-offs from what is expected to be a formidable starting five, the Wolves should finally be able to remind their long-suffering fans that the season does not end in mid-April.

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    LAST SEASON: 47-35, lost in Western Conference first round.

    COACH: Billy Donovan (third season).

    PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Russell Westbrook (31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg), G Andre Roberson (6.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), F Paul George (23.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg), F Carmelo Anthony (22.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), C Steven Adams (11.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg).

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    KEY LOSSES: G Victor Oladipo, C Enes Kanter.

    KEY ADDITIONS: George, Anthony, G Raymond Felton, F Patrick Patterson, G Terrance Ferguson.

    PLAYER TO WATCH: Anthony. He has been the focal point of the offense throughout his career, and even at 33 years old, he still is an elite scorer. He plans to bring that scorer’s mentality, and Westbrook and George say the team needs it. There will be days that Anthony doesn’t get the touches he’s used to. How he handles that will largely determine whether Oklahoma City is able to find a rhythm.

    OUTLOOK: George and Anthony will provide the scoring help Wstbrook so desperately needed last season. George and Roberson are elite perimeter stoppers, and Westbrook and Adams are capable defenders. Adams is an emerging force in the paint, and Felton and Patterson are critical additions to the bench. The Thunder are poised to challenge Golden State for Western Conference supremacy.

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      LAST SEASON: 41-41, lost in the first round of the playoffs.

      COACH: Terry Stotts (sixth season with Portland, 10th NBA season).

      PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Damian Lillard (27 ppg), CJ McCollum (23 ppg), Maurice Harkless (10 ppg), Al-Farouq Aminu (8.7 ppg) and Jusuf Nurkic (10.2 ppg)

      KEY LOSSES: G Allen Crabbe, G Tim Quarterman, C Festus Ezeli.

      KEY ADDITIONS: C Zach Collins, F Caleb Swanigan.

      PLAYER TO WATCH: Nurkic. The seven-footer known as the Bosnian Beast lost about 35 pounds over the offseason in an effort to become quicker and more agile. A fan favorite, Nurkic suggested going into this season that the Blazers should become the NBA’s Bad Boys, drawing inspiration from the Detroit Pistons of the 1980′s and early ’90s. A key for Nurkic — and the Blazers — is whether he can stay healthy.

      OUTLOOK: The Blazers made few changes in the offseason, sticking with a nucleus of backcourt duo Lillard and McCollum, along with Nurkic, who joined the team via trade last season and helped fuel a push to the playoffs. The questions for the Blazers is who will start with that trio at the beginning of the season. Rookie Caleb Swanigan has been turning heads while Noah Vonleh recovers from a shoulder injury.

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      LAST SEASON: 51-31, lost in Western Conference semifinals.

      COACH: Quin Snyder (fourth season).

      PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Ricky Rubio (10.6 ppg), G Rodney Hood (12.7 ppg), F Joe Ingles (7.1 ppg), F Derrick Favors (9.5 ppg), C Rudy Gobert (14.0 ppg).

      KEY LOSSES: G/F Gordon Hayward, G George Hill, F Boris Diaw.

      KEY ADDITIONS: Rubio, F Thabo Sefolosha, G Donovan Mitchell, F Jonas Jerebko.

      PLAYER TO WATCH: Hood enters his fourth season on a contract year with much more responsibility on his shoulders. When Hayward and Hill left they took a combined 38.8 points per game with them and the Jazz didn’t sign any true scoring threats. Hood, a slick-shooting lefty, has his sights on the most improved player award.

      OUTLOOK: The Jazz will be challenged to secure a second consecutive playoff berth, which would mean back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time this decade. While the West got deeper, the Jazz lost their lone All-Star and top two scorers. Utah will remain one of the best defensive teams in the league with Gobert as the anchor, but scoring will be difficult.

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      LAST SEASON: 67-15, won the championship.

      COACH: Steve Kerr (fourth season).

      PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Stephen Curry (25.3 ppg, 6.6 apg, 4.5 rpg), G Klay Thompson (22.3 ppg), F Kevin Durant (25.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 4.8 apg), F Draymond Green (12.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 5.5 apg), C Zaza Pachulia (6.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg).

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      KEY LOSSES: G Ian Clark.

      KEY ADDITIONS: G Nick Young, F Omri Casspi, rookie F Jordan Bell.

      PLAYER TO WATCH: Young is still getting up to speed but his teammates have been urging him to shoot when he has a chance.

      OUTLOOK: With so many returners and great depth, the Warriors should dominate again — if they can keep their edge. Kerr is challenging them to do many things better than they did during last season’s run to a second title in three years. Durant has a year in the system and is coming off his NBA Finals MVP honors, he seems poised to take his game up another notch — with probably slightly less scrutiny than he faced a year ago after leaving Oklahoma City. Durant and the Warriors look like to the team to beat once again.



        LAST SEASON: 23-59, missed the playoffs.

        COACH: Earl Watson (second full season).

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        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Eric Bledsoe (21.1 ppg), G Devin Booker (22.1 ppg), F T.J. Warren (14.4 ppg), F Marquese Chriss (9.2 ppg), C Tyson Chandler (8.4 ppg, 11.5 rpg).

        KEY LOSSES: G Leandro Barbosa.

        KEY ADDITIONS: G Troy Daniels, F Josh Jackson.

        PLAYER TO WATCH: Jackson. He was the fourth overall pick in the draft out of Kansas and has made an immediate impression with his scoring, defense and rebounding in the preseason. His tough persona fills a Suns need, too. Just 20 years old, he fits right in with the Suns long-term plans build from within and eventually climb back into contention.

        OUTLOOK: The Suns are resisting any urge to add high-salary veterans, if they could, for a quick fix to maybe contend for the last one or two playoff spots in the tough Western Conference. Instead, they are sticking with the young core that they hope will develop into a contender, although it may take a few years. Booker, already a prolific scorer, will look to expand his game and continue his development as one of the NBA’s top players. But wins could be few and far between in this, the franchise’s 50th year.

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        LAST SEASON: 32-50, missed the playoffs.

        COACH: Dave Joerger (second season, fifth NBA season).

        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G George Hill (16.9 ppg), G Buddy Hield (10.6 ppg), F Bogdan Bogdanovic (14.6 ppg for Fenerbahce in Turkey), F Zach Randolph, (14.1 ppg), C Kosta Koufos (6.6 ppg).

        KEY LOSSES: F Rudy Gay, G Darren Collison, G Ty Lawson, G Arron Afflalo, G Ben McLemore.

        KEY ADDITIONS: G De’Aaron Fox, Hill, Randolph, F Justin Jackson, Bogdanovic, G Vince Carter, G Frank Mason III, F Harry Giles.

        PLAYER TO WATCH: The Kings got the point guard they wanted in the draft when Fox was there at No. 5 after a stellar freshman season at Kentucky. He is a skilled ball handler with the ability to get to the basket and Sacramento hopes he will improve his outside shot now that he’s in the NBA.

        OUTLOOK: More than half the projected opening roster will consist of players on their rookie deals making this another rebuild year in Sacramento. The Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2006 but hope they finally have some foundation pieces to build around with Fox, Bogdanovic, Skal Labissiere and Hield.

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        LAST SEASON: 51-31, lost in Western Conference first round.

        COACH: Doc Rivers (fifth season, 18th NBA season).

        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Patrick Beverley (9.5 ppg), G Austin Rivers (12.0 ppg), C DeAndre Jordan (12.7 ppg), F Blake Griffin (21.6), F Danilo Gallinari (18.2 ppg).

        KEY LOSSES: G Chris Paul, G J.J. Redick, G Jamal Crawford, C Marreese Speights, F Luc Mbah a Moute

        KEY ADDITIONS: Beverly, Gallinari, G Lou Williams, G Milos Teodosic

        PLAYER TO WATCH: Teodosic. He may be one of the most intriguing new players in the league. The 30-year-old rookie and six-time all-Euro-League point guard finally makes his NBA debut on a team that lost one of the league’s best point guards in Paul. Teodosic is a wizard passing the ball, but the Serbian shot only 44.0 percent in Europe and is hardly known for his defense.

        OUTLOOK: The Clippers may get off to slow start. They are one of league’s great mystery teams. The Clippers are expected to start the season with nine new players. They lost their starting backcourt (Paul, Redick) and small forward (Mbah a Moute). The turnover should offer plenty of intrigue in a division where every team seems to play for second behind the defending champion Warriors.

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        LAST SEASON: 26-56, missed the playoffs.

        COACH: Luke Walton (second season).

        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Lonzo Ball (rookie), G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (13.8 ppg), F Brandon Ingram (9.4 ppg), F Julius Randle, (13.2 ppg), C Brook Lopez (20.5 ppg).

        KEY LOSSES: G D’Angelo Russell, G Nick Young, F Metta World Peace, F Tarik Black, C Timofey Mozgov, G David Nwaba.

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        KEY ADDITIONS: Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Lopez, F Kyle Kuzma, G Josh Hart.

        PLAYER TO WATCH: All eyes are on Ball, the heralded playmaker with the attention-grabbing father. The Southern California native starred at UCLA for one season before becoming the second overall pick and the centerpiece of Magic Johnson’s vision for an up-tempo, high-scoring Showtime offense.

        OUTLOOK: The Lakers appear to be improved after the worst four-year stretch in franchise history, but only a stunning rookie season from Ball is likely to get them anywhere near playoff contention this year. Magic hopes the Lakers will show enough promise this year to entice big-name free agents to Hollywood in the summer.




        LAST SEASON: 33-49, missed the playoffs

        COACH: Rick Carlisle (10th season, 16th NBA season).

        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Dennis Smith Jr. (rookie), G Yogi Ferrell (11.3 ppg, 4.3 apg), G Wesley Matthews (13.5 ppg), F Harrison Barnes (19.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg), C Dirk Nowitzki (14.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg)

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        KEY LOSSES: None.

        KEY ADDITIONS: Smith.

        PLAYER TO WATCH: Smith was taken ninth overall, highest draft position for Mavericks since getting Nowitzki in 1998. Already touted by Carlisle as point guard with skills Mavericks have never had at that position, Smith will have to assimilate to NBA game quickly for team to be competitive. Turns 20 in November.

        OUTLOOK: Mavericks will have to overachieve to avoid missing playoffs in second straight season for first time since abysmal decade of 1990s was wrapping up. They need big contributions from center Nerlens Noel. He will come off bench because of the way the roster is constructed, but has plenty to prove after failing to get long-term deal and settling for $4.1 million qualifying offer as restricted free agent. Barnes’ continuing development as go-to scorer can help make things more enjoyable for Nowitzki, who joins Kobe Bryant as the only players with 20 seasons for one franchise.

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        LAST SEASON: 55-27, lost in Western Conference semifinals.

        COACH: Mike D’Antoni (second season, 14th NBA season).

        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Chris Paul (18.1 ppg), G James Harden (29.1 ppg), F Ryan Anderson (13.6 ppg), F Trevor Ariza, (11.7 ppg), C Clint Capela (12.6 ppg).

        KEY LOSSES: G Patrick Beverley, G Lou Williams, F Montrezl Harrell, F Sam Dekker, F Kyle Wiltjer.

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        KEY ADDITIONS: Paul, F P.J. Tucker, F Luc Mbah a Moute.

        PLAYER TO WATCH: Paul. It will be interesting to see how D’Antoni’s offense runs with both Paul and Harden in it. Paul gets a fresh start in Houston after being dogged by criticism in recent years for failing to get the Clippers out of the second round of the playoffs. The Rockets expect him to be the piece that gets them into the conference finals after coming up just short of them last year.

        OUTLOOK: After being eliminated by the Spurs in the conference semifinals, the Rockets made a bold move by trading for Paul to give Houston another All-Star to play with Harden and try to narrow the gap in the Western Conference. The defense should be better after not only adding Paul, but also Tucker to a unit that lost defensive specialist Beverley in the trade with the Clippers.

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        LAST SEASON: 43-39, lost in Western Conference quarterfinals.

        COACH: David Fizdale (second season).

        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Mike Conley (20.5 ppg), C Marc Gasol (19.5 ppg), F JaMychal Green (8.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg), F Chandler Parsons (6.2 ppg), G Wayne Selden Jr. (5.1).

        KEY LOSSES: F Zach Randolph, G Tony Allen, G/F Vince Carter.

        KEY ADDITIONS: G Mario Chalmers, G Ben McLemore, G Tyreke Evans, F Rade Zagorac, F Ivan Rabb, G/F Dillon Brooks.

        PLAYER TO WATCH: Parsons. He signed a four-year, $94 million deal a year as the player the Grizzlies hoped finally would be the outside shooting threat they’ve so wanted for years. But Parsons wound up playing only 34 games shooting just 26.9 percent from 3-point range before being sidelined in March by yet another knee surgery, this time on his left knee. His pay, combined with the big deals given to Conley and Gasol, limited how much Memphis could spend this offseason.

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        OUTLOOK: The Grizzlies’ streak of seven straight playoff appearances could come to an end. The Western Conference is more competitive and Memphis needs Parsons to be healthy and shooting at his best to complement Conley and Gasol. Fizdale needs several young Grizzlies to quickly develop to keep opponents from smothering Conley and Gasol.


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        LAST SEASON: 34-48, missed the playoffs.

        COACH: Alvin Gentry (third season, 15th NBA season).

        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Jrue Holiday (15.4), G E’Twaun Moore (9.6), F Dante Cunningham (6.6), F Anthony Davis (28), C DeMarcus Cousins (24.4).

        KEY LOSSES: F Donatas Motiejunas, G Tim Frazier.

        KEY ADDITIONS: G Rajon Rondo, G Tony Allen, G Ian Clark, F Darius Miller, G Frank Jackson.

        PLAYER TO WATCH: Davis is the key to everything for New Orleans because of his dynamism, which allows him to score from inside and out, run the floor and defend the perimeter as well as block shots in the lane. He might not score as much this season while sharing the ball with DeMarcus Cousins, but he hopes to be more efficient.

        OUTLOOK: If Davis and Cousins mesh well, if Holiday improves as a scorer, and most importantly, if New Orleans doesn’t have much more bad luck with injuries, the Pelicans could contend for a Western Conference playoff spot. After two sub-.500 seasons, there will be urgency to do so. Otherwise, the regime of general manager Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry could end and Cousins could walk in free agency.

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        LAST SEASON: 61-21, lost in Western Conference finals.

        COACH: Gregg Popovich (22nd season).

        PROJECTED STARTING FIVE: G Dejounte Murray (3.4 ppg), G Danny Green (7.3 ppg), F Kawhi Leonard (25.5 ppg), F LaMarcus Aldridge, (17.3 ppg), C Pau Gasol (12.4 ppg).

        KEY LOSSES: C Dewayne Dedmon, F David Lee, G Jonathon Simmons.

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        KEY ADDITIONS: F Rudy Gay, C/F Joffrey Lauvergne, G Brandon Paul, G Derrick White.

        PLAYER TO WATCH: Leonard. The Spurs will need another year of growth from their quiet MVP candidate after he set career highs in scoring and assists while earning All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team honors. The Spurs had a rather quiet offseason after numerous Western Conference teams upgraded through trades and the draft. Leonard’s growth could come from his ability to distribute the ball more, especially with veteran point guard Tony Parker expected to miss the first month and a half while recovering from surgery on a ruptured left quadriceps tendon.

        OUTLOOK: The Spurs are essentially the same team that won the Southwest Division last season and led Golden State by 21 points in Game 1 of the West finals before Leonard was lost for the postseason to an ankle injury. A 21st straight postseason appearance is almost a given and it is hard not seeing them contend for a sixth NBA championship even with the West getting stronger.

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        After a wild offseason, the West got stacked in an effort to beat reigning champion Warriors. AP
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