NBA preview: West's new one? Clippers are title contenders

The SportsXchange

Two years into his championship rampage, it's clear who's paid the steepest price for LeBron James' success.

NBA Western Conference coaches.

The conference will have five new coaches (a full one-third of the teams) when the NBA tips off its 2013-14 season Oct. 29. That follows a season in which there were four changes.

The last coach to eliminate James in a playoff series - Dallas' Rick Carlisle - is one of just four Western coaches still employed in the same job since that date (June 12, 2011). Interestingly, two of the other three - Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich - had their title hopes dashed by James in the NBA Finals the past two seasons.

The pressure to win - or at least get to the Finals - has gotten so great in the West, three coaches who won more than two-thirds of their regular-season games last season weren't invited back. Denver terminated George Karl and the Los Angeles Clippers axed Vinny Del Negro after firsts-round playoff failures, and Memphis shockingly parted ways with Lionel Hollins even after the Grizzlies reached the Western finals last season.

The 2013-14 newcomers - the Nuggets' Brian Shaw, the Clippers' Doc Rivers, the Grizzlies' David Joerger, Sacramento's Mike Malone and Phoenix's Jeff Hornacek -- can only hope things go as well for them as they have for Golden State's Mark Jackson and Houston's Kevin McHale in the past two seasons.

Jackson took a Warriors team that lost 46 games in 2010-11 and not only won 47 games last season, but also reached the Western semifinals.

McHale has had winning seasons in both years since taking over the Rockets. His club was eliminated by top Western seed Oklahoma City in last year's playoffs.

If there is another handful of changes next off-season, it'll be understandable given the high expectations brought about by perceived problems within last year's top two squads. Oklahoma City will have to go early on without injured standout Russell Westbrook, and up-and-down San Antonio has to deal with a "down" year in its even-odd cycle after having reached last year's Finals.

Here's a division-by-division breakdown of the Western Conference, with teams listed in my predicted order of regular-season finish.

Pacific Division

1. Los Angeles Clippers. No stretch to call last year's 56-win team Western favorite given improved depth (Darren Collison, JJ Redick, Jared Dudley and Bryon Mullens) and a big-time upgrade at coach in Rivers. Re-signing Chris Paul makes it all possible.

2. Golden State Warriors. How up-and-comer got Andre Iguodala without giving up anything of substance one of off-season's biggest mysteries. Better depth should help keep Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut fresh come playoff time.

3. Los Angeles Lakers. Mike D'Antoni tops most "Watch" lists for potential in-season changes in part because season opens without Kobe Bryant (Achilles). Hard to see how last year's 7-seed is better with Bryant hurt, Steve Nash a year older and Chris Kaman replacing Dwight Howard at center.

4. Sacramento Kings. Club attempting to build off neighboring Golden State's success, stealing a part-owner (Vivek Ranadive), coach (Mike Malone) and key player (Carl Landry). Alas, some things never change - re-invested good money ($62 million) into a bad guy (DeMarcus Cousins).

5. Phoenix Suns. Fans should have fun scoreboard-watching as Suns own 2014 first-round picks of Minnesota and Indiana (as well as their own). Club will try two-point guard approach (Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic) that has failed elsewhere.

Northwest Division

1. Oklahoma City Thunder. Less of title contender now that chief sidekick for Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka is ... Steven Adams? Comforting thought while Westbrook (knee) sits out: In-division competition weakest among Western divisions.

2. Portland Trail Blazers. Not hard moving up when two teams ahead of you (Denver and Utah) are in serious reverse mode. LaMarcus Aldridge predicting 33-win team will make playoffs? With Mo Williams now flanking Damian Lillard, more likely than you'd think.

3. Denver Nuggets. Longtime assistant Shaw finally gets his team, but one that surely will miss versatile Iguodala. Kenneth Faried leads what figures to be uphill climb for playoff spot with Danilo Gallinari (knee) also missing at season's start.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves. Healthy Kevin Love makes improved team playoff contender. Injured Love means another losing season. Career average: 21.4 absences per year. Conclusion: Doesn't look good.

5. Utah Jazz. Good-bye, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. Hello, Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Uh oh. Soon: Good-bye, Tyrone Corbin. Hello, lottery race.

Southwest Division

1. San Antonio Spurs. Much made of development of Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter, but title hopes still revolve around health of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Since first title in 1999, average wins in odd years: 58.3 (with three additional titles); in even years: 55.2 (no titles).

2. Memphis Grizzlies. Even with Hollins gone, little has changed following 56-win season and trip to Western finals. Promoted assistant Joerger must count on same production from Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, three projects Hollins successfully developed.

3. Houston Rockets. Howard and James Harden give McHale big-little combination comparable to any in league. Something Rockets have that few others can match: Huge bargaining chip (dependable center Omer Asik) if deadline upgrade is needed.

4. Dallas Mavericks. Carlisle co-favorite with D'Antoni and Corbin in first-fired sweepstakes as he attempts to sell offensive-minded newcomer Monta Ellis on defense. Dirk Nowitzki just another player now on club closer to bottom than top of strong division.

5. New Orleans Pelicans. Dell Demps early candidate for Executive of the Year after major upgrade featuring Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. Even nickname (Pelicans) is new for 27-win team with aspirations of break-even season.
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