The Western Conference, like much of the NBA, has been ruled by Golden State the past two seasons. With the Warriors adding Kevin Durant to their stable of thoroughbreds, odds are they will be on top again. But does that mean the rest of the conference will abandon hope of unseating them?
Of course not. So, who are the contenders?
Well, there is the team that held a 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the Western finals, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The only problem is this version of OKC is missing several pieces from last season's squad that won 55 games and gave two historically good teams - the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs - all they could handle in the playoffs.
Russell Westbrook will be expected to carry the load offensively with Durant on the Warriors and Serge Ibaka shipped off to Orlando. Victor Oladipo, the player the Thunder got for Ibaka, should help replace some of the missing offense, but that depends on how well he and Westbrook mesh.
Down the road in San Antonio, the Spurs are prepping to start the season without Tim Duncan for the first time since 1996. And while the legend's five NBA championship rings speak for themselves, the Spurs have a solid replacement for him in Pau Gasol. Veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still around, and MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard continues to get better year by year. And as long as coach Gregg Popovich is on the bench, the Spurs will be a threat.
Then there is the Los Angeles Clippers. After a rough start to the season and internal drama involving Blake Griffin, LA's current top NBA franchise got on a roll late in the year and looked like it could pose a challenge to the Warriors.
Alas, it was not meant to be as both Chris Paul and Griffin went down in Game 4 of the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Clippers' season effectively went with them. They largely bring the same crew back this season, so they should be good for another 50 wins, but will LA be able to break through and make it to the conference finals?
Outside of those three teams, the Trail Blazers have the best chance to make some noise. Their young backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum is one of the best in the league, and they have some good young post players who are coming of age. Despite losing to the Warriors in five games, Portland played Golden State hard and found a way to win one game. That says a lot about their potential.
The Minnesota Timberwolves are talented but young, while the Houston Rockets' meek surrender to a Curry-less Warriors in the first round last season provided a perfect illustration of why they have little chance of competing at the top of the conference.
It is tough to make a case for anyone dethroning the Warriors in the Conference Finals. That said, the West will be worth watching this season.