NBA Masterclass: Western Conference Foreshadowing

The NBA is tipping off on Tuesday with new faces in new places, a few stars who went home (Billups and Brewer), a plethora of top coaches are gone but not forgotten and the Western Conference is in flux (You can check Phife Dawg's Eastern preview here). Let's break it down.

1. With Russell Westbrook out during the first, D-Wade and his fashion coordinator became the top non-basketball storyline and Kevin Durant discovered Serge Ibaka was nothing more than an over-sized stretch-4. How wide-ranging of an impact will Westbrook’s aggravated knee injury have on the Thunder’s season?

Did you know that no team has ever won the title without paying the luxury tax? I mention that because Durant will also be starting the year without Kevin Martin. If you don’t remember Kevin Martin was the one saving grace from the Harden trade and he’s in Minnesota now. Why? Because the Thunder’s management doesn’t want to pay the luxury tax. They avoided it by a few G’s. Durant may not be able to bench press 185, but he’ll be forced to carry the Thunder on his back for a while.

In doing so, this may be the year Durant finally sneaks out with his first Most Valuable Player Trophy. It’ll have to be a consolation prize for the NBA title he won’t win thanks to management’s insistence on choosing cheapness over luxury tax and championships.

2. The Clippers are a tragic franchise. What obstacle will Clippers have to overcome if they hope to become a Western Conference champion?

The Clippers underwent a complete identity shift. Blake Griffin’s knees have always felt like a microfracture waiting to happen, but like Amar’e, keep your eyes peeled for how well he defends this season in the short-term.

This restructured Clippers roster feel like one of your Mom’s DVR'd makeover shows. They’ve undergone drastic plastic surgery, a lap band procedure, been outfitted with a whole new wardrobe and now they’re about to reveal their new look to friends, family and the world.

Maestro Doc Rivers has already acquired the shooters to space his floor on offense. He’s staking his defensive savant reputation on getting the Clippers to play more physical. Mike Woodson attempted a similar transformation in New York and for a brief period it was an unmitigated success. Then, old habits kicked back in. We’ll see how long it takes until they revert back to their old form. If they hop in the wayback machine and play possum defense like they did under Vinny del Negro DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin could find themselves on the chopping block by next summer. Worst case scenario is that we discover Rivers is lost without K.G. quarterbacking his team defense.

3. Who is 2013-14's Stephen Curry aka the non-rookie ready to bust out?

Gordon Heyward is on the come-up out in Utah. On second thought, half of Utah’s roster is getting buzz. Shabazz Muhammad is just getting buzzed. Eric Gordon was drafted ahead of Curry in the ’09 Draft and like the Warriors guard he’s battled a litany of injuries that have kept him off the floor. Could this be the year he follows Curry’s lead?

4. Last season, the Nuggets were the NBA's highest-scoring team, ranked second in rebounds, third in assists and then everything went South. Will the Nuggets still be playing on the most memorable 4/20 in history?

The Nuggets should change their names to the Denver Ski Slopes because things went downhill quickly this summer for a franchise that was the third seed in the Western Conference Playoffs. The Nuggets were the most intriguing team of last season because they had no max-contract stars, and no weak links, played great defense and scored efficiently. In the playoffs though, their lack of a true go-to scorer was their downfall. Then, they lost their two best perimeter defenders (Andre Iguodala to the squad the eliminated them and Corey Brewer to Minnesota), let their Coach of the Year walk and watched the NBA’s Executive of the Year. Does that sound like a terrible offseason of epic proportions to you?

Instead of hitting the self-destruct button and “Riggin’ for Wiggins”, they gave $27 million to combo guards Randy Foye, Nate Robinson and forward J.J. Hickson. I should have stopped at Nate Robinson and Javale McGee on the same roster. Where are they going to find the minutes for all those guards? TSL suspected they had hit their ceiling against Golden State. Turns out they had. They responded by lowering it.

The Nuggets’ regular season finale is on April 16. Toke up Denver fans. It’s going to be a stressful year.

5. Will Monta Ellis drive Nowitzki out of Dallas or help propel the Mavs towards the playoffs?

Monta Ellis has made some perplexing statements in the preseason. On Media Day, he inadvertently coined “Monta Ball” to define his unique brand of poor shot selection and as the preseason winded down opined that his shooting percentage was being affected by his unselfish streak.

Ellis has been chucking for years, but he’ll have his grandest stage yet in Dallas. Originally, he sought to hitch his wagon to Dwight Howard’s and when that fell through, he and the Mavericks became each other’s back-up plans. Dirk Nowitzki is a free agent after the season and the loquacious Mark Cuban hasn’t been as vocal about keeping Nowitzki around to rebuild as Jim Buss has with Kobe.

Tyson was always looking for knockouts and swung like a madman until he landed that blackout blow. That defines Ellis’ playing style. Unfortunately, he’s a heavyweight pugilist built like Floyd Mayweather. If Ellis keeps talking like he’s hosting Being Mike Tyson, and carries that mindset into the season the Mavs will be D.O.A. and Dirk will start exploring his options around the All-Star break. Houston beckons.

6. Which 2013 lottery team has the best chance to crack the top eight seeds out West?

The New Orleans Pelicans went all in on the offseason. Sure, they didn’t attract any A-List talent, but Jrue Holiday is outside that elite point guard territory. One season buoyed by a supporting cast of Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Morrow, Tyreke Evans in addition to Eric Gordon and he might get his upper echelon clearance approved. He may not even be New Orleans’ best player if

That’s a ton of young, diverse talent in the front court and backcourts. The question is whether it’s too much. Can a temperamental and injury-prone Eric Gordon co-exist with Tyreke Evans stealing his minutes and shots. Most likely, a few of these guys will be dealt down the road, but in 2014, they’ll be relevant in the playoff race.

7. Is this the year, Sac-Town's Boogie Man starts terrorizing the Western Conference?

I have to see it to believe it from the big fella. Two years into his career he hasn’t made much of a dent in the win column, doesn’t get along with coaches, he hasn’t had a players’ coach that can get through to him since John Calipari and yet, the Baby Shaq comparisons have been flying around for years. I’m putting my faith in Cousins on layaway.

Listening to new coach Michael Malone, he sounds a lot like a young Scott Skiles. Like Rondo and Brad Stevens in Boston, they’re saying all the right things publicly, but we’ll see how much that changes if they end the first month below .500 again. Seems like the wrong squad hired Rasheed Wallace to become an assistant coach. If Shaq really wanted to help the franchise he’d leave the owner’s box and imitate what Houston is doing with Dwight and Olajuwon by taking Cousins to the Summer School of Shaq.

8. Who is the biggest turd in the West?

The Phoenix Suns are doing everything in their power. The Suns are in the midst of a foreclosure auction and on Friday, it continued with the trade of Marcin Gortat, Shannon Brown, Kendall Marshall and Malcolm Lee. Don’t sleep on Sac-Town though.

9. Who is the Western Conference impact player most-likely to get traded during the season?

Pau Gasol is perennially on the trade block, Zach Randolph may get the hook if Memphis realizes their window to a title has been significantly and Kenneth Faried is also being whispered about in trade rumors. However, Omer Asik may be the player who get his wish during the season. He’s become a redundancy since the Rockets signed Dwight Howard and he’s unhappy as a backup.

Gasol’s expiring contract is of more value to the Lakers than what he can garner them in any trade, but if Ed Davis proves he has the ability to assume the starting four position from Z-Bo as the Grizzlies go a little more up-tempo this season, he could be next.

10. How far will Dwight and Harden advance into the playoffs during year 1?

It depends on what the Rockets can get for Asik when that time comes. Getting spurned by Josh Smith was a humbling moment in the midst of a whirlwind year for the franchise. As currently constituted, I’m not sure they’re a championship caliber roster yet. They've got shooters spacing the floor just as Howard did in Orlando and their pick and roll will be devastating, however, Jeremy Lin’s contributions at the point guard position leave much to be desired.

The Conference Finals are a possible, but Lin getting burned by Tony Parker or Westbrook will keep the Rockets out of the postseason.