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Handicapping the Western Conference: The Also-Rans

We begin the Western Conference analysis with some teams that are probably good enough to make the playoffs if they played in the East ... and also the Lakers.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Taking a close look at the Nuggets, Timberwolves, Kings, Jazz and Lakers, five clubs who have considerable talent on their rosters but very little star power outside of Kobe Bryant and Demarcus Cousins. (Also, nobody in this bunch plays much defense.)

15. Los Angeles Lakers

2014 Record: 27-55

Coach: Byron Scott

Significant Additions: F Carlos Boozer (waivers), G Jeremy Lin (trade), F Ed Davis (free agent), G Wayne Ellington (free agent), G Ronnie Price (free agent), F Julius Randle (draft/sort of)

Significant Subtractions: F Pau Gasol (free agent), G Jodie Meeks (free agent), G Kendall Marshall (waived), G Kent Bazemore (free agent), C Chris Kaman (free agent), G Jordan Farmar (free agent)

Projected Starters: C Jordan Hill, F Carlos Boozer, F Wes Johnson, G Kobe Bryant, G Jeremy Lin (4/10):
Oof. There is no basketball problem that gets solved by adding Boozer to it besides "There's not enough senseless screaming on our team." Steve Nash was supposed to start for them but he's out for the year with a nerve problem. Honestly though he was done anyway. Bryant will probably take more shots than the other four guys combined.

Projected Reserves: F Nick Young, F Xavier Henry, G Ronnie Price, F Ryan Kelly, F Ed Davis, C Robert Sacre, G Wayne Ellington (3.5/10):
Julius Randle, the seventh overall pick of the draft out of Kentucky and projected Z-Bo clone, broke his right leg in the opening game and will be out for the season. Fortunately he's only 19 and still has his whole career in front of him. Nick "Swaggy P" Young has a busted thumb and will be out a few weeks and Kelly has also missed the beginning of the season with a sore hamstring. I'm looking forward to the comedy value of Bryant and Young playing together because why else would anyone think it was a good idea for this team to be on national TV 40 times?

Coach/Front Office (4/10):
I'm inclined to believe much of Henry Abbott's story about Bryant in ESPN the Magazine. GM Mitch Kupchak has been at this for too long to be caught by surprise about the team's inability to sign any free agents. He's mostly just doing what he can but he's being held hostage by Kobe and bad ownership. I like to think that he's basically tanking on the sly and it won't surprise me at all to see the Lakers come away with Jahlil Okafor in the lottery next June, so in that sense, losing Randle will work out well for them. Byron Scott, meanwhile, thinks three pointers are the devil, which is proof positive that you don't have to watch the NBA to coach in it. It's amazing how name recognition gets you jobs in pro sports.

Team Ranking: 38.5

Did You Know: I actually have the first draft of Abbott's story that they email all the important NBA bloggers who really know what's going on. One quote from an unnamed team executive that didn't make the final version: "When Kobe got wind that Karl Malone was looking at his wife a certain kind of way he decided to tank the Finals, just so 'The Mailman' would retire without a ring. It helped get Shaq out of town too. Two birds with one stone. Straight Machiavellian, that Kobe."

14. Utah Jazz

2014 Record: 25-57

Coach: Quin Snyder

Significant Additions: G Dante Exum (draft), F Trevor Booker (free agent), G Rodney Hood (draft), F Steve Novak (trade)

Significant Subtractions: F Marvin Williams (free agent), F Richard Jefferson (free agent)

Projected Starters: C Derrick Favors, F Enes Kanter, F Gordon Hayward, G Alec Burks, G Trey Burke (4.5/10): All five Jazz starters are 24 or younger so you get the idea that this is a nucleus they're trying to patiently grow and build, but while the plan sounds nice in theory, you have to wonder what a realistic ceiling is when none of the five look like they'll ever develop into All-Stars. They reluctantly matched Hayward's offer sheet with Charlotte but while he's a toolsy guy who can do a little bit of everything, he just can't shoot it very well. Kanter seems to be the biggest reach. They're trying to develop him into a stretch four and it's just not working.

Projected Reserves: F Trevor Booker, G Dante Exum, G Rodney Hood, C Rudy Gobert, F Steve Novak (4/10): Booker, 27, is the wise old head on the team and he'll provide some interior scoring when Favors is getting a blow. Aside from him though it's more youth, with Exum and Hood drafted to "the backcourt of the future," in case Burks and Burke don't pan out. They both provide ideal size and athleticism than the starters but are raw projects. Gobert, meanwhile, can reach seemingly to Colorado and Utah's best bet defensively would be to play him as much as possible and slide Favors over to the four.

Coach/Front Office (4/10): General Manager Dennis Lindsey, formerly of the Spurs is collecting assets with eight intriguing pieces that are 24 or younger. They're all talented, without question, but the question is whether they can ever become a cohesive basketball team on both ends of the floor and if they can do it without any of them blossoming into a legit A-list star. The Jazz will never draw prime free agents, so he has no choice but to keep drafting in the lottery and hoping to get lucky, the way they did with Karl Malone and John Stockton 30 years ago (!). In Snyder he has someone who's intense, driven and experienced in coaching youngsters, from all his years leading collegiate and D-league teams. His time in the Spurs system with Austin will ensure that he preaches ball movement and team play, but Snyder's personality is such that he tends to lose guys after a year or two.

Team Rating: 42.5

Did You Know: Dante Exum was born after David Robinson won an MVP award, which makes me want to kill myself.

13. Sacramento Kings

2014 Record: 28-54

Coach: Mike Malone

Significant Additions: G Darren Collison (free agent), G Nik Stauskas (draft), G Ramon Sessions (free agent), F Omri Casspi (free agent), C Ryan Hollins (free agent)

Significant Subtractions: G Isaiah Thomas (free agent), G Jason Terry (trade), F Travis Outlaw (free agent)

Projected Starters: C DeMarcus Cousins, F Jason Thompson, F Rudy Gay, G Ben McLemore, G Darren Collison (4/10): Cousins is an offensive beast. He's developed that jumper to the point where he's basically unguardable. But he plays with three guys who are basically the worst starters at their positions in the league. I'd like Gay more if he was at the four, because at least there he can cause some mismatches, and I think they'll go to that sooner rather than later.

Projected Reserves: G Nick Stauskas, G Ramon Sessions, F Carl Landry, F Reggie Evans, F Derrick Williams, C Ryan Hollins, F Omri Casspi (6.5/10): I'm a lot higher on their bench, where Stauskas and maybe Evans will supplant the starters before long. Heck, Sessions might be better than Collison. Malone has no excuse not to find some kind of viable rotation because there are pieces here so he should theoretically be able to find a couple of hot hands and not overplay anyone but Cousins.

Coach/Front Office (2.5/10): The brain trust here is Pete D'Allesandro, who used to be an agent, and Chris Mullin, who failed as an executive at Golden State. I have little faith in them, even less in Mike Malone, based on what I've seen so far, and owner Vivek Ranadivé means well but seems meddlesome. At least he's willing to spend.

Team Rating: 44.5

Did You Know: Ranadivé was quoted last year saying that he wants the Kings "to be like the Spurs, but exciting." You know what would be exciting? To see how long the Kings could hang in with the Spurs if Pop gave Tony Parker the game off and had Becky Hammon run point.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves

2014 Record: 25-57

Coach: Flip Saunders

Significant Additions: F Andrew Wiggins (trade), Thaddeus Young (trade), G Mo Williams (free agent), F Anthony Bennett (trade), G Zach LaVine (draft)

Significant Subtractions: F Kevin Love (trade), F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (trade), G J.J. Barea (waived), G Alexey Shved (trade)

Projected Starters: C Nikola Pekovic, F Thaddeus Young, F Andrew Wiggins, G Kevin Martin, G Ricky Rubio (5.5/10): It was quite a coup for them to get Young in a trade. He's not much of a drop-off from Kevin Love as a post-scorer and he and Pekovic give the T-Pups one of the better inside scoring combos in the league. Rubio and Martin are an interesting combination in that one is pretty good at everything except shooting and the other can only shoot and do NOTHING else. Wiggins at this stage is strictly an athlete and will be overmatched in most aspects of the game, but maybe playing with Rubio will help him look better than he is. This squad will have their issues defensively because nobody can defend the rim. You also wonder how much they can space the floor. They struggled mightily with that even when Love was there.

Projected Reserves: F Corey Brewer, G Mo Williams, C Gorgui Dieng, F Anthony Bennett, F Shabazz Muhammad,   F Chase Budinger, G Zach LaVine (5/10): Not much shooting to be found with this lot, either. They can start Brewer to make Martin more of a scoring sixth man, but then there's no shooting at all in the starting lineup. Brewer and Dieng are quality defenders though and Williams is still one of the better backup points in the league.

Coach/Front Office (3.5/10): Saunders is both the coach and the GM, which sounds like a terrible idea and a franchise that has no real plan. I'd look to play Wiggins, Dieng, Bennett, Muhammad and LaVine as much as possible, develop the young guys. As with Utah there's some talent here, but it's just hard to see how it meshes together without one unifying alpha dog. Maybe since he's his own boss Flip won't feel that pressure to win as much so he can afford to play the kids, lose games and wait around for the draft.

Team Rating: 49.5

Did You Know: It's going to be quite emotional when Love makes his return to Minnesota for Cleveland's one visit. The arena will be sold out. Because of LeBron James. The fans will have creative, funny signs. Again, for LeBron James. There will be a touching video tribute. The video will show highlights of Love... getting toasted on defense by LeBron James. The video will conclude with owner Glen Taylor begging LeBron James to consider the poor Timberwolves after he's done saving Cleveland.

11. Denver Nuggets

2014 Record: 36-46

Coach: Brian Shaw

Significant Additions: G Arron Afflalo (trade), G Gary Harris (draft trade), C Jusuf Nurkic (draft trade),

Significant Subtractions: G Evan Fournier (trade), G Aaron Brooks (free agent), F Jordan Hamilton (free agent)

Projected Starters: C Timofey Mozgov, F Kenneth Faried, F Danilo Gallinari, G Arron Afflalo, G Ty Lawson (6.5/10): Another squad stuck in Western Conference purgatory, where each starter seems above average --Mozgov is the worst of the five and he's definitely better than most Eastern bigs-- but as a whole they're just mediocre because no one is elite, especially defensively. Faried improved his stock with the World Cup, but his size prevents him from being of much use in his own end. Lawson is perennially underrated, but can't seem to make his teammates better. If Gallinari can recover his form after missing 1.5 seasons with an ACL tear and if Afflalo can play like he did the first half of last season at Orlando, they might surprise enough to be an eighth seed, and those are two huge "ifs."

Projected Reserves: F Wilson Chandler, G Randy Foye, C JaVale McGee, F Alonzo Gee, G Nate Robinson, F Darrell Arthur, C Jusuf Nurkic, G Gary Harris (4/10): Chandler's streaky as they come from the three, but maybe they'll ask him to do less of that with Gallinari back in the fold. Foye can play either guard spot, which is useful because Robinson isn't too interested in distributing. McGee and Nurkic will allow Shaw to keep that three-headed center rotation that George Karl was so fond of, so there'll be plenty of fresh bodies (and fouls) for that pace the Nuggets like to play at. There's athleticism here, and energy, but just not much shooting or sense.

Coach/Front Office (5/10): I don't know anything about Nuggets GM Tim Connelly, but I liked his trade of Fournier for Afflalo and think he won the draft day swap of Doug McDermott for Harris and Nurkic as well. He had big shoes to fill when he replaced Masai Ujuri and so far he seems capable of doing just that. I'm less sold on Shaw, but I'll remain open-minded to see what he can do with a full deck.

Team Rating: 54.5

Did You Know? It is theorized, in some quarters, that the Nuggets will have a significant home-court advantage because it is legal to smoke marijuana in Colorado and thus it's assumed that opponents will take the opportunity to take ample advantage of that. Yes, finally, NBA players will be able to experiment with this "weed," they've heard their friends talking so much about.

to be continued ...