By: Scott Brock-Wilson and Justin Lynch
The countdown sees its first taste of the top-5.
Click on the previous sets of rankings to view them:
#30-#21: 30 and 29, 28 and 27, 26 and 25, 24 and 23, 22 and 21
#20-#11: 20 and 19, 18 and 17, 16 and 15, 14 and 13, 12 and 11
#10-#1: 10 and 9, 8 and 7
6. Los Angeles Clippers
Last Season: 56-26, Second Round Loss
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Wesley Johnson
Key Offseason Losses: Matt Barnes, Glen Davis, Spencer Hawes
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Chris Paul
SG: J. J. Redick
SF: Wesley Johnson
PF: Blake Griffin
C: DeAndre Jordan
Key Role Players:
1. Paul Pierce
2. Lance Stephenson
3. Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Josh Smith
SBW Season Outlook:
This might have to be the Clipper’s year because the fan base has such high expectations after the big offseason moves that were made. The Clippers are lucky enough to have three different players considered among the top five at their position. But, last year the Clippers roster lacked depth. Their bench was pretty much just Crawford and Rivers, considering Spencer Hawes was their next best bench player.
Crawford and Rivers combined to average 22.9 ppg; The rest of the bench players that played in over 25 games combined for 19.6 ppg. Rivers took time to get adjusted to LA but picked it up in the playoffs by increasing his three points percentage from 30%-37%. However, these two were not enough to carry the entire bench to the Conference Finals, so the Clippers went out and addressed their need.
Then they signed Smith, who was one of the main reasons they lost that series against the Rockets. Smith scored 34 points over the last two games of the series. That includes his 19 points on 4-7 from three and six boards in a huge game six. Smith will add some much needed depth along the front line.
The Clippers took a flyer on Stephenson. There isn’t much downside, but a huge upside. Two years ago with the Pacers he averaged 13/7/4, but last year when he made the transition to the Hornets, it seemed as though he was actually a negative to the team. He had a dramatic decrease in his production averaging only 8/4/4 in almost 10 minutes per game less. But, Stephenson is only 25! He can still turn it around, and everyone knows how high his ceiling can be.
Their failure in the playoffs last year was embarrassing and showed they were lacking some leadership within the locker room. So the Clippers went out and signed the veteran Pierce to a bargain of three years for 10 million dollars. He can help Paul take control of the team in situations such as the Western Conference Semifinals last year. Now Pierce shouldn’t be expected to do much in the regular season, but it’s a guarantee that he’ll show up in the playoffs. Pierce averaged 14 and four last year in the playoffs while making some very clutch shots.
The more underrated signing for the Clippers was that of Johnson. Johnson is a solid role player thats biggest contribution to the team will be the fact that he allows the Clippers to bring Pierce, Stephenson, and Crawford all off the bench, where they are much better suited. This way Doc can more easily limit Pierce’s minutes in the regular season. And Johnson is no slouch himself, he is a lengthy defender that nearly averaged double digit points in just under 30 minutes of playing time with the Lakers last year.
I have yet to mention their big three or Redick yet. Everyone knows what Redick gets paid to make threes. He shot a career high 43.7% from three last year while attempting a career high of 5.9 per game.
The biggest offseason saga in the NBA was Jordan. This was straight out of a Disney Channel movie. But, let’s skip to the ending. He decided to bring his 11 points and his league-leading 15 rebounds per game back to LA. He is their defensive anchor with his crazy ability to protect the rim and block shots (2.2 bpg). And he is incredibly durable. He has played all 82 games the last three seasons.
Last season Griffin fell off from his 3rd place MVP season of 2013-14. Griffin’s rebounding has been down (17.6 rpg), but then again who’s rebounding wouldn’t be when they are next to Jordan every night. Griffin also disappeared when needed in the Conference Semis against Houston. He will need to show up in big situations this year.
The third captain on this team is obviously Paul. He is a top three point guard without a doubt. Paul led the team in steals (1.9) and the league in assists (10.2). He also shot an amazing 48.5% from the field, which was fourth among all guards. Paul has been questioned about his leadership at times though, especially during last years playoffs. This is his year to prove that he can take his team all the way.
The Clippers have the potential to win it all, and that is the expectation in LA. With a great coach and a great team, everything may align this year. However, first they have to make Western Conference Finals, which they have never done.
JL Best-case scenario:
The depth on the wing is all the Clippers needed to get over the hump. Griffin takes another step into superstar status, and DeAndre continues rebounding like Wilt. Chris Paul leads a team full of misfits to the top seed in the West. Paul Pierce hits dagger after dagger as the Clippers slice through the West. They meet the Cavs in the finals where Lance does Lance things and blows into LeBron’s ear while holding him to 30% shooting. The Clippers frontcourt overpowers Mozgov and Love, and Chris Paul eats up Kyrie’s shoddy defense. The Clippers reign supreme and bring Pierce a title to retire on.
JL Worst-case scenario:
It turns out that a locker room of Doc Rivers, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson, Austin Rivers, Josh Smith, and DeAndre Jordan isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Chemistry issues haunt the team all season. Lance still is unable to hit the ocean from a boat, and makes his 17% from three last season a habit. Wesley Johnson, J. J. Redick, and Paul Pierce get chewed up defensively on the wing by the best of the West (Kawhi, Thompson, Harden, Durant, etc). Chris Paul finally starts to show signs of aging. The team underperforms, but still gets a top-four seed. However, they are upset in the first round by an up-and-comer like the Pelicans or Jazz. The offseason comes with everyone calling for Rivers’ job, Rivers panic-trades Chris Paul and the team enters into NBA mediocrity.
Projected Record: 56-26
5. Houston Rockets
Last Season: 56-26, Lost in Western Conference Finals
Key Offseason Acquisitions: Ty Lawson, Sam Dekker, Marcus Thornton
Key Offseason Losses: Josh Smith, Pablo Prigioni
Projected Starting 5:
PG: Ty Lawson
SG: James Harden
SF: Trevor Ariza
PF: Terrence Jones
C: Dwight Howard
Key Role Players:
1. Donatas Motiejunas
2. Patrick Beverley
3. Corey Brewer
JL Season Outlook:
The Rockets crack our top five coming off an injury-riddled season that still saw them reach the Western Conference Finals. Donatas Motiejunas (D-Mo) and Pat Beverley were out, while Howard was reportedly playing with a torn MCL and meniscus. All of these guys are back, plus they acquired Ty Lawson for a pu-pu platter of bench warmers. The Rockets are loaded up and ready to do some damage in the West.
This teams ebbs and flows with their MVP candidate, James Harden. Since being traded from OKC, Harden has averaged 26 points, six assists, and five rebounds/game. He’s finished top-5 in MVP voting the last two seasons, and even took some pride in his defense after being ridiculed on the internet for his brutal defensive habits. Harden makes the offense go, getting to the rim at high rates and creating more points off of his drives than anyone in the league. Harden is an underrated passer as well, and his ability to find the open guy as he sprint-dribbles to the rim is something people tend to overlook. He’s also constantly at the free throw line, putting the other team’s bigs into foul trouble.
Harden will have a new partner in the backcourt this season as Ty Lawson relegates Pat Beverley to the bench. Lawson lead the league in drives to the basket last season, and is quietly a top-12-15 point guard in the league. Lawson’s assists/game have gone up every year of his career, peaking at 9.6/game last season despite all of his issues on and off the court in Denver. He’s now in his prime, at 27, and with more talent around him, he should have a field day offensively.
These two don’t come without some negatives, however. Both Harden and Lawson are ball dominant, and though both can knock down a three, neither are lights out shooters from beyond the arc. Both will be helped by the terrific spacing in Houston, but the guys will have trouble playing together if they cannot adjust to having the ball in their hands less. Defensively, though Harden improved, he still isn’t locking anyone up, and Lawson, though he has good steal numbers, is too small to really defend at a high level. Without Pat Beverley to take the opponent’s biggest threat, this defense could suffer, and they may be forced to go small-ball with D-Mo or even Trevor Ariza at the four to make room for Harden, Lawson, and Beverley.
But I’m not sure that would be all that bad. D-Mo is a 35-year-old, 7-footer, whose only job pretty much is too be a bad matchup and stretch the floor with his shooting. D-Mo’s absence was huge for the Rockets last season, as it thrusted Terrence Jones into more minutes that the team wanted, ultimately hurting their offense because of Jones worse fit into their scheme. Personally, I like Jones’ game. He’s just 23 years old and an awesome shot blocker (2/game) for being just 6’9”. Though he has no midrange shot, attempting just 19 midrange field goals all of last season, he is the definition of sneaky-good from three. He shot 38% on above-the-break threes last season, a function of the Rockets efficient offense, but also the beginning of a potentially evolving Jones. D-Mo and Jones will fill in the four spot, while Ariza’s 3-and-D ability locks him into being an every night starter, and Corey Brewer will provide relief in either the two or three spot as needed.
The man in the middle is Dwight Howard. Now 29 and with a history of back issues, Howard is not the guy he used to be. His 16 points/game were his lowest since his second year in the league, nearly a decade ago (2005-2006), his blocks/game (1.3) were the lowest of his career, and his rebounds (10.5/game) were his second-lowest of his career. Combine this with the fact he only played 41 games (again, a career low), and you might start to worry about Howard. But look at those stats again. 16/10.5/1.3 are really good numbers for a center in this league. He still can protect the rim, and when he’s on in the post, it’s tough to stop, Yes, a lot of his athleticism is gone, but with his knees seemingly healed, Howard might be better this year than he was last year. Regardless of his effectiveness, as long as Howard is healthy for the postseason he is the second-best player on this team, and being the second-best player on a title contender is worth something.
This team is deep in the backcourt, but shallow up front. Their one injury away from playing Clint Capela huge minutes, something I’m not sure anyone wants. However, this team is for real, and they will be on the shortlist of title contenders when the playoffs open.
SBW Best-case scenario:
The Rockets dismantle the loaded West in the playoffs, as Harden wins the MVP. Howard stays healthy and is a double-double machine down low, averaging 20 and 12. Lawson is exactly the man they needed to make sure everyone got their touches. D-Mo and Beverley come back and return to form as crucial members off the bench. In the Finals they meet the Cavs, but Beverley and Ariza are reasonably able to control LeBron and Kyrie, as Harden averages 30 per game leading them to a title.
SBW Worst-case scenario:
Lawson get nailed for another DUI and finds himself in Jail. Howard cannot find his way onto the court as he has many types of injuries including a nagging back. D-Mo and Beverley return, but cannot seem to get it back their expected performance in the more diminished role now coming off the bench instead of starting. Ariza and Brewer struggle hitting the open threes, leading to frustration, as Harden tries to do it all on his own. The team gets a top-five seed as they had too much talent to fall farther, but get blown out in the first round, leading to questions about whether the Rockets can ever make it to the finals with Harden and Howard leading the way.
Projected Record: 56-26