The quality at the top end of the Western Conference may never have been higher. Last season's runner-up may be no worse, but still slip while a few familiar faces will be back atop the standings. And a couple of talented young teams look primed to make a jump. So let’s take a look at how the conference will finish and why, including predicted records.
1st - Golden State Warriors
The biggest challenge for the champs figures to be motivation. Their superstars in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson should be better, while the likes of Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes are comfortable of where they fit in this beautiful picture.
They led the league in defensive efficiency and were second in offensive efficiency, making them one of the truly elite teams we have seen. They struggled handling the phenom that is LeBron James early in the NBA Finals but once they got on top in the series, the result was never in doubt.
Rebounding remains pretty much their only weakness, but then again that is only a weakness in relation to how brilliant they are in all other facets of the game. They will most likely win 65-70 games and barring a major injury should repeat as champions.
Likely starters: Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green, Bogut
Key reserves: Iguodala, Marreese Speights, Festus Ezeli, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa.
Regular season: 68-14
2nd - Oklahoma City Thunder
There is no more talented duo than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and that includes the Splash Brothers. Durant enters this season coming off a serious injury and if he can get back to his former self then there is no doubt that this is a title contender. Serge Ibaka completes arguably the best trio in the league and role players Enes Kanter, Steven Adams, Kyle Singler, D.J.Augustin and Mitch McGary can be relied upon to consistently contribute.
One role player who cannot be relied upon for consistency is Dion Waiters, but if he can deliver anywhere near his potential then their weakest area (shooting guard) could well become a strength. The defense is far from elite but the offensive firepower and athleticism more than makes up for this deficiency. Both Durant and Westbrook are nearing their peak; if both stay on the court, the Thunder are as strong a title contender as anyone.
Likely starters - Westbrook, Anthony Morrow, Durant, Ibaka, Adams
Key reserves - Augustin, Singler, Kanter, Waiters, Nick Collison
Regular season: 63-19
3rd - San Antonio Spurs
Key role players Marco Bellineli, Aron Baynes, Tiago Splitter and Cory Joseph departed the Spurs in the off-season, but given they were replaced by LaMarcus Aldridge, David West and Jimmer Fredette it doesn't figure to be a problem for the four-time champs.
They are the team who play the game the way it should be played - no player worries about numbers, stats or reputation but instead they play within a system of spacing, passing and shooting which is unmatched. Despite being 39 years old, Tim Duncan shows no signs of slowing down and the all-time great will benefit greatly from having Aldridge and West supporting him.
If there is one concern, it is their health and age but that concern is alleviated by the depth at all positions. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are continually questioned as they near the end, but the San Antonio system hides their defensive deficiencies. If they slip offensively, the Spurs may be forced to turn elsewhere but there are options at every turn. A deep playoff run is all but assured, how deep that run goes remains to be seen.
Likely starters - Parker, Danny Green, Kahwi Leonard, Aldridge, Duncan
Key reserves - Patty Mills, Ginobili, Boris Diaw, West, Matt Bonner
Regular season: 60-22
4th - Los Angeles Clippers
Last season's first round loss to the Houston Rockets was a choke job. Blowing Game 7 after leading by 23 points and being 3-1 ahead in the series may leave scars, with DeAndre Jordan the first casualty of a demoralising loss as he bolted for Dallas. He then had a change of heart, and one has to ask how he will be welcomed back to the Clippers given the reported volatile nature of his relationship with star point guard Chris Paul.
In Jordan and Blake Griffin, the Clippers have as good a big man combo as there is in the league and with Paul are yet another Western Conference team with a high-calibre triumvirate. The Clippers added Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson in a definitive statement about their confidence in their wing strength. All four figure to play significant roles along with J.J.Redick and provide the Clippers with as strong a top eight players as anyone in the league.
Coach Doc Rivers will want to be at his shrewd best to massage egos and manage the talent at his disposal, with plenty of players who need the ball to be effective and only so many minutes to go around. Bringing in Pierce, Smith and Stephenson are extremely risky moves and the Clippers have little room for error in such a powerful conference.
Likely starters - Paul, Redick, Pierce, Griffin, Jordan
Key reserves - Jamal Crawford, Smith, Stephenson, Johnson, Cole Aldrich
Regular season: 59-23
5th - Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizz pushed the Warriors as far as anyone last season, leading them 2-1 before falling in six games in the second round. They should improve this season with Jeff Green having a summer camp and new acquisitions Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright likely to enter the rotation and make an impact immediately.
That's the new, but the strength of Memphis is in what everyone knows they will do - execute, defend and hound or as most tend to say; grit and grind. Frontcourt duo Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph remains among the league's best, while point guard Mike Conley was ravaged by injury last season but is the poster-child for low-profile but high performing players.
Veterans Tony Allen, Vince Carter and Courtney Lee fill specific roles but will all need to play as well as they can at this stage in their careers to support a strong core.
Likely starters - Conley, Lee, Green, Randolph, Gasol
Key reserves - Barnes, Wright, Carter, Allen, Beno Udrih
Regular season: 56-26
6th - Houston Rockets
James Harden believes he is the best player in the league, and his performances last season made a decent case for that being true. He led the Rockets to the Western Conference finals where they fell well short against the Warriors, but Harden is at the peak of his powers and will be confident of at least replicating that performance.
The additions of Ty Lawson and Marcus Thornton provide scoring punch and depth in the backcourt, lessening the load on Harden and releasing the pressure valve on Patrick Beverley, Jason Terry and Corey Brewer who are either too injury-prone or inconsistent to be relied upon. Dwight Howard remains our generation's biggest tease, but in a frontcourt with Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas and Terence Jones he can concentrate on defense which remains his strength. Of course, the main challenge with Howard is staying fit, as always.
The Rockets may not be much worse than they were last season, but the lack of consistency outside Harden and to a lesser extent Ariza means they will fall down the pecking order and may well face a first-round elimination.
Likely starters - Lawson, Harden, Ariza, Jones, Howard
Key reserves - Beverley, Motiejunas, Thornton, Brewer, Clint Capela
Regular season: 53-29
7th - New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis might only be 23 years of age but he is arguably already the best all-round player in the NBA and is set to embark on a period of dominance over the next decade. There is nothing that Davis cannot do, and he will single-handedly improve the Pelicans as he continues to develop into the next Tim Duncan.
Having said that, the Pelicans look likely to improve at every turn. Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon have had their injury concerns but the trio have the potential and talent to form one of the brighter backcourts in the league, and Ryan Anderson provides instant offense on the bench. With Davis and Omer Asik in the frontcourt, defense does not matter as much for Anderson or any other small forward for that matter.
New coach Alvin Gentry comes from Golden State and is considered a mastermind of their offensive brilliance; while this side doesn’t match the Warriors for talent, there is enough strong shooting and talent to surround Davis to make one think this could be a Western Conference sleeper in 2016.
Likely starters - Holiday, Gordon, Evans, Davis, Asik
Key reserves - Dante Cunningham, Norris Cole, Kendrick Perkins, Anderson, Alonzo Gee
Regular season: 51-31
8th - Utah Jazz
The youth theme that runs through the Pelicans can again be found in Salt Lake City, where the exciting Jazz are set to return to playoff basketball. Despite the loss of young point guard Dante Exum to a serious knee injury, the spread of talent at Utah is remarkable. Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Trey Burke are joined by first round draft pick Trey Lyles in the most talented young core this side of Milwaukee.
The Jazz were the league's stingiest defense last season, conceding almost three points per game less than any other team and dominating the rebounding battle. The catalyst for these areas of strength was Gobert, who was a revelation and figure to be even better with another season under his belt.
The front-court of Gobert, Favors and Hayward is the envy of most other teams but even their brilliance won't be enough to secure a post-season berth if the back-court under-performs. While Burke, Burks, Hood and Raul Neto are unlikely to all thrive, it seems likely that at least two will improve enough and display the consistency needed to edge the Jazz into the eighth playoff seed.
Likely starters - Burke, Burks, Hayward, Favors, Gobert
Key reserves - Hood, Neto, Lyles, Joe Ingles, Trevor Booker
Regular season: 44-38
9th - Dallas Mavericks
DeAndre Jordan agreed to join Dallas, and then backed out on that agreement. In that moment the Mavericks hopes plummeted so they went after Deron Williams. Sure, Wes Matthews will be a quality addition and Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons remain top-quality players but there are so many question marks around the roster.
The main one is how a three-headed centre monster of Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and Samuel Dalembert will compete with the likes of Davis, Duncan, Aldridge, Jordan, Howard, Gasol and Hibbert in the Wild West. If all three play as well as they can, they can provide a decent enough 48 minutes but on exposed form this is very unlikely.
If Nowitzki's career was a marathon, we would be seeing the German legend enter the final 2km and his legs are all but gone. This club could concede around 110 points a game unless coaching master Rick Carlisle can engineer something amazing, but the offensive talent ensures they won't entirely bottom out.
Likely starters - Williams, Matthews, Parsons, Nowitzki, Pachulia
Key reserves - McGee, Dalembert, Jose Barea, Devin Harris, Charlie Villanueva
Regular season: 41-41
10th - Phoenix Suns
No team has had more talent run through its back-court in the last two years as the Suns. Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas are gone, and Brandon Knight and Eric Bledsoe now run the show. Put those two alongside any other back-court in the league, and they measure as an above-average duo. Elsewhere, it's a different story as Tyson Chandler and Markieff Morris are the best of the remaining players and there is role players as far as the eye can see.
That mix can work for an elite defensive team, but there are not many of them on this roster. The Suns ranked 26th in points conceded per game and 18th in defensive efficiency and while Chandler's addition will help in this area, it is just as important that they expose young centre Alex Len as it is play Chandler for huge minutes. With this exposure comes the growing pains of continual fouling and developing defense.
The playoffs look beyond this team and while they will continue to play up-tempo offense, they will struggle to cover the off-season losses of Marcus Morris and Gerald Green. First round draft pick Devin Booker will be looking for playing time early on, but is in a logjam for minutes as a shooting guard.
Likely starters - Knight, Bledsoe, P.J.Tucker, Morris, Chandler
Key reserves - T.J.Warren, Len, Ronnie Price, Mirza Teletovic, Archie Goodwin, Booker
Regular season: 39-43
11th - Sacramento Kings
The Kings are one of the bad-news stories of the NBA, and play in front of a passionate fan base pleading for a return to successful times. This season could see them back on the right track for the first time in a long, long time. In DeMarcus Cousins they have an elite two-way talent behind only Anthony Davis as far as quality young big men are concerned, and who seems poised to make a jump into super-stardom. Rudy Gay provides a top second option on offense, and it will make for intriguing viewing if Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison can play together in an (albeit undersized) back-court.
In Marco Belinelli, Caron Butler and Kosta Koufos the Kings have quality veteran depth while Ben McLemore and first round draft pick Willie Cauley-Stein has impacted the pre-season and may even start from the first game of the season proper. If Stein and Koufos can hold down the fort at centre, Cousins can slip across to power forward which will improve their defensive substance. If all goes right for the Kings they could contend for the playoffs, but if they implode then this could turn really ugly.
Likely starters - Rondo, Collison, Gay, Cousins, Cauley-Stein
Key reserves - McLemore, Belinelli, Butler, Koufos, Quincy Acy
Regular season: 38-44
12th - Los Angeles Lakers
Arguably the league's most famous franchise has been in a state of flux over the last few seasons, and the on-court results have been putrid. To that end, consecutive early draft picks have been used on Julius Randle and DeAngelo Russell who are likely to bring Lakers fans back through the turnstiles. There is also a guy called Kobe Bryant will be determined to prove that he is not finished at age 37, and as this generation's best competitor it would be brave to bet against him returning as an effective player.
Point guard Jordan Clarkson was a shining light last season and the additions of Brandon Bass, Metta World Peace, Roy Hibbert and Lou Williams add intrigue to an already interesting team. If Hibbert can re-establish himself as the dominant defender he has been in the past at Indiana, and Randle recovers fully from injury then the frontline is imposing. Furthermore, the backcourt can score in bunches but probably can't defend anyone!
Likely to entertain, the Lakers will score plenty of points but could be among the league's worst defensive units if Hibbert does not deliver at an elite level
Likely starters - Clarkson, Bryant, World-Peace, Randle, Hibbert
Key reserves - Russell, Williams, Young, Bass, Tariq Black.
Regular season: 30-52
13th - Minnesota Timberwolves
When you talk youth, you talk Minnesota. Years of mediocrity and their decision to trade away the closest thing they have had to a franchise player since Kevin Garnett (Kevin Love) has seen them have the last two #1 picks, which they have used to draft Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony-Towns. Both are going to get every chance to show their wares, as are fellow young guns Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine and Gorgui Dieng.
The Timberwolves could easily throw those five players out and given a vision for the future, but they fact that they have Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, Tayshawn Prince, Kevin Martin and Nikola Pekovic on the bench makes it likely they will mix youth and experience as the season progresses. Throw in former Euroleague MVP and Rubio's Spanish teammate Nemanja Bjelica and the depth of quality will be there on any given night.
The team will at times be exhilarating on offense, dynamic on the fast break, terrible from the outside, dysfunctional defensively and smashed on the boards. This is a team built for 2018 and beyond, and any progress this season is a bonus.
Likely starters - Rubio, LaVine, Wiggins, Garnett, Towns
Key reserves - Russell, Williams, Young, Bass, Tariq Black.
Regular season: 28-54
14th - Portland Trailblazers
When you lose four members of your starting five and replace them with a bunch of role players, success will be tough. For Portland, they face this reality headed into this season. Damian Lillard remains and is an offensive juggernaut, but even he will struggle to carry the entire load. Young shooting guard C.J.McCollom looks likely to leap into starting calculations to give the Blazers a back-court they can rely on for the next decade, but it is slim pickings aside from that.
The front-court will see youngster Meyers Leonard get first chance at replacing LaMarcus Aldridge at power forward, while he will likely be flanked by newcomers Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee. Solid players they are, but they will be expected to be so much more than that.
Most will concede that Portland are not expected to do too much, and this young team might flourish without expectations and have a far better year than most expect. The reality is that you need talent to win in this league, and while the Blazers have potential it will take a while to gel (perhaps a couple of seasons).
Likely starters - Lillard, McCollom, Aminu, Leonard, Plumlee
Key reserves - Gerald Henderson, Moe Harkless, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh, Allen Crabbe
Predicted record: 25-57
15th - Denver Nuggets
Remember when the Nuggets made the conference finals? Remember when Ty Lawson was a star? Both seemed to have been a recent memory, but one seems a lifetime ago and one is no longer Denver's problem. Lawson was traded over summer, leaving Denver with one of the weakest rosters in the league and no sign of anything resembling a star.
Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried are the best of this lot, but both come with question marks heading into season 2015/16. The point guard responsibilities fall on rookie Emmanual Mudiay and while he will be brilliant at times, consistency is sure to be an issue. The centre position is reliant on the oft-injured Josef Nurkic, relative unknown Joffrey Lauvergne and journeyman J.J.Hickson, which again represents a high-risk combo despite Lauvergne's outstanding pre-season form.
Shooting guard represents one position with some experience and the Nuggets will hope the best bits of Wilson Chandler, Randy Foye, Gary Harris and Will Barton will combine into what they need. Above all, the future is the focus for Denver and this season will present coach Michael Malone with more than the odd headache
Likely starters - Mudiay, Foye, Gallinari, Faried, Lauvergne
Key reserves - Chandler, Harris, Barton, Hickson, Nurkic, Jameer Nelson
Predicted record: 22-60