West Is Best

Nate Levinson, Sports Editor

The 2014–2015 NBA season began this past Tuesday, kicking off what should be the most entertaining season in recent memory. With the Western Conference as loaded with good teams as ever and LeBron James making his triumphant return to Cleveland, this year’s edition of the Association features no shortage of headlines.

While the Eastern Conference has nowhere near as much firepower as that of the West, it possesses an arguably more intriguing race for the No. 1 seed between the Cavaliers and the Bulls. I have little doubt that the Cavaliers will steamroll their way to the conference finals, but that’s where their season will get interesting. With Derrick Rose returning to the Bulls and looking as close to his old self as could be expected this early in the season, Chicago looks once again primed to challenge LeBron for supremacy in the East.

What gives me a bit more confidence in the Bulls this year as compared to years past is their improved offense. Pau Gasol should be a clear improvement over Carlos Boozer on both offense and defense, and Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott give the team two big men who can stretch the floor. McDermott is especially intriguing as he looks to carry his strong Summer League and preseason play into the regular season in a bench role. Rose, Gasol, Joakim Noah and the rest of the Bulls’ team are still clearly an inferior offensive team to the Cavs, but the question is whether their defense is good enough to make up the difference.

Outside of the Cavs and the Bulls, the East has no real title contenders. Still, the Hornets, Wizards and post-LeBron Heat should make at least some noise and push for 50-plus wins in the regular season. At the very least, it will be interesting to see how Carmelo Anthony takes to Phil Jackson’s triangle offense in New York.

The Western Conference is a completely different story, as it has 10 teams that have a shot at not only making the postseason but also winning a series.

The overall landscape of the conference shouldn’t change too much this year from last year, as the Spurs, Clippers and Thunder are still the three best teams as long as Kevin Durant makes a full recovery from his broken foot.

Until the Clippers or Thunder prove otherwise, the Spurs do stand alone as the favorite. They seem to be getting better with age, and Kawhi Leonard will be more of a beast on both ends of the court than ever this season.

I understand the thought that this is the Clippers’ year, but I still don’t have faith that Blake Griffin and Chris Paul will stay healthy for a full season.

As for the Thunder, a Scott Brooks-led team just isn’t going to win the finals — I don’t care how good Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are.

One of the more intriguing teams in the West is the New Orleans Pelicans, and the hype for this team has only grown after Anthony Davis’s opening night line of 26 points, 17 rebounds and 9 blocks. Obviously he won’t put up numbers like that every game, but Davis could easily make a run at the MVP award and establish himself as one of the top three players in the NBA this season. For the former to come true, however, he’ll need a sizeable amount of help from teammates Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon. Davis is a monster and at the very least can get the Pelicans close to the playoffs, but I still think they’re a more consistent second scoring option away from being a legitimate contender. His teammates just can’t stay healthy and aren’t steady enough players on the defensive end.

I’d love to say the Kings have a shot at the postseason, since there’s no telling what DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins would do on a national stage, but the team made the head-scratching decision to let Isiah Thomas leave via free agency and only stands a chance of winning consistently if it scores 110 points a night. Still, it would be remiss of me to write an NBA preview without mentioning the night-to-night spectacle that is Boogie Cousins.

As for the remaining teams in the West, the Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Grizzlies, Mavs and Warriors are all solid teams that should come close to 50 wins apiece, but they’ll ultimately fall short of the conference finals once again.

Regardless of how the playoff picture plays out, this NBA season is primed to be one of the more entertaining ones in recent memory, as LeBron has changed the landscape of the East once again and the West will host high scoring close games on an almost nightly basis.

My one issue with the NBA season is that it always seems to drag on for too long, and, by a long shot, the most exciting part of the season is the playoffs. The hope is that there are enough buzzer beaters, behind-the-back passes and crazy dunks to keep fans interested. I’m sure there will be.