Jerry Zgoda’s Western Conference Power Rankings

 

1. L.A. Clippers

It’s a players’ league, so how much difference does a coach make? You’ll find out this year after the Clips upgraded to Doc Rivers and built a team nearly as deep on the bench as it is star-studded at top.

 

2. Oklahoma City

Don’t believe the reports of an early demise: Yes, Russell Westbrook starts the season injured, which either could temporarily stifle the Thunder or give the great Kevin Durant the stage from which he walks away with another scoring title and an MVP award.

 

3. Houston

GM Daryl Morey stripped the Rockets down and rebuilt them in the image of Dwight Howard and James Harden. Now all Kevin McHale must do is get the big guy focused again. And don’t sleep on Chandler Parsons.

 

4. San Antonio

They came within seconds of winning it all last time, but one of these years the greybeard Spurs will flame out, won’t they? Not quite yet, or not if upcoming young’uns Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have anything to say about it.

 

5. Golden State

A trendy pick to continue their meteoric rise now that Andre Iguodala is on board. But they’ll miss Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry and it won’t be as easy this time around.

 

6. Memphis

Staples, Minn.’s own Dave Joerger takes over for Lionel Hollins as coach, looking to keep the Grizzlies’ formidable defensive backbone with that bruising frontcourt while also quickening the offensive pace.

 

7. L.A. Lakers

Howard’s long gone and the Lakers wait for Kobe Bryant to return from his ruptured Achilles’. Even with Pau Gasol and Steve Nash still around, everything rides on Bryant’s return to health. And never bet against the Mamba.

 

8. Timberwolves

Nobody’s waited longer to get back to the NBA playoffs than these guys, nine seasons and counting. The returns of Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant get more attention, but don’t forget about a guy named Kevin Love.

 

9. Dallas

So much depends on Dirk still being Dirk. The aged Mavs won’t play much defense, but with Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Sam Dalembert added, they’ll score big time.

 

10. Portland

The Blazers are Wolves West with injuries, and even when healthy, the Blazers’ defense is just as iffy. But Damian Lillard is the real deal and LaMarcus Aldridge, for all his flaws, is underrated. Adding Mo Williams helps bolster what was a really weak bench.

 

11. Denver

George Karl’s gone. So is Iguodala and others, not to mention GM Masai Ujiri. New coach Brian Shaw’s team still has talent — it’s Ty Lawson’s team now — but 57 victories are in their rear-view mirror.

 

12. New Orleans

The Hornets are gone, the re-made Pelicans are here, and with Anthony Davis ready to blossom into a superstar, their time is coming fast, just not quite yet.

 

13. Sacramento

The ultimate risk-reward play:  New Kings ownership guaranteed mercurial DeMarcus Cousins $62 million gambling he’ll grow up and play like a franchise player. If he plays like he did in preseason, he actually might be underpaid. But if …

 

14. Utah

Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are gone, so the Jazz is hitching its salary cap to lotto picks Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. Wolves fans will feel better about that draft-night trade until Trey Burke returns from a season-starting injury.

 

15. Phoenix

The Suns could have this year’s version of a Rubio-Ridnour backcourt by starting point guards Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic for rookie coach Jeff Hornacek, who probably will wish he had Charles Barkley on his side once again.