Four Corners: Who is winning the Western Conference in 2015-16?

With the draft and the bulk of free agency now behind us, it's time to start taking stock of what's transpired this summer and how it all figures to impact the upcoming NBA campaign.

This week, we discuss: Who is winning the Western Conference in 2015-16?


Dan Devine: Warriors. San Antonio might boast the NBA's best frontline and its best pair of wing defenders, but the Spurs need one of Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili (and ideally both) to bounce back from their worst seasons in more than a decade to run the best version of Gregg Popovich's offense. Oklahoma City gets Kevin Durant back to pair with Russell Westbrook and an incredibly deep big-man rotation, but how confident can we be that the Thunder will run at peak effectiveness for the next eight months when we've seen one significant injury scuttle each of their last three seasons?

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Doc's communication commentary aside, I've got some concerns about how the new-look Clippers will fit together for the long haul. Memphis looks roughly the same, and while their sameness is awesome, it is also not markedly better than what fell short last year. Houston might have enough talent to go all the way, but its primary differentiation from last year's model is a risk (even if only mitigated and short-term) that could upset a rotation good enough to make it to last season's conference finals.

The Warriors, meanwhile, played at an unparalleled level on both ends of the floor for all of last season. They return a shade under 92 percent of the total minutes and 93 percent of the total points from last year's title squad, per Mark Porcaro. They can slide several capable players (all-the-way-back-from-injury big man Festus Ezeli, physical specimen James Michael McAdoo, steady veteran addition Jason Thompson) into more significant roles as needed/warranted. Their four core pieces (MVP Stephen Curry, All-Star Klay Thompson, DPoY runner-up Draymond Green and about-to-get-paiiiiiiid swingman Harrison Barnes) are all young, healthy and improving. Even without Alvin Gentry, who decamped after last season to take over the New Orleans Pelicans, they've got arguably the best coaching staff in the league, led by Steve Kerr, who proved last year to be the perfect man for this particular job.

Any, and perhaps even all, of the other elite Western teams could take down the Dubs if their "ifs" break right. But as tough as it is to repeat in the NBA, I'll take the champs' "ifs" over anybody else's until given evidence that I should think differently.

James Harden readies for his role. (Getty Images)
James Harden readies for his role. (Getty Images)

Kelly Dwyer: Good basketball.

Golden State was no joke.

They didn’t go through the Spurs. The Cavaliers were missing several limbs, the Clippers pissed away their shot at the Conference finals, and the Thunder didn’t even make the postseason. That’s fine and dandy, but Golden State is still the team that won 83 of 103 games between October and June, beating teams by an average of 10.1 points per contest during a 67-win regular season.

That five-year run of sterling-level parity in the West, following Los Angeles’ last championship in 2010, is over. No longer should you be able to call that bracket, rife with championship-level team, a coin flip proposition between seeds one through six (or, in some years, “one through eight”). The Warriors are the favorite because they’ve earned as much.

That still doesn’t mean that any sane person should be put one-third of one month’s rent on any of these teams to win in June at that point. Basketball Gods willing, this should also be the case come April if each of these next level squads – the Warriors, the Spurs, the Thunder, the Clippers, the Rockets – make it to the postseason fully healthy.

With the speed of the NBA’s news cycle cruising in overdrive, no team was caught by surprise by the Warriors after Thanksgiving. Various other Western contenders dealt with their regular season injury woes in 2014-15, but the Warriors didn’t pick up many (if any) gimmie wins. That shouldn’t figure to change in 2015-16, and the W’s may very well dash their way toward 67 wins again, and another year of averaging double-digit winning margins.

That bracket is still going to be a killer, though, and even if the Warriors are downed by a team with 15 fewer regular season wins in a playoff series we really shouldn’t be considering any defeat an “upset.” Entire seasons can be upended in two weeks’ time during the playoffs, and we’re not even referring to the odd hamstring pull or wrist sprain changing the course.

It could just come down to two very, very good teams battling it out at top strength, with one franchise pulling off four wins in seven tries. And the West, once again, has five of these monsters.

(And maybe more.)

Stephen Curry clamps down. (Getty Images)
Stephen Curry clamps down. (Getty Images)

Eric Freeman: Golden State Warriors. It is very easy to construct a scenario in which the Warriors do not repeat as conference and league champions. All their closest rivals have added excellent players, 2014-15 may have been an especially charmed season, and there is no guarantee that they can match the same on-court chemistry and improvement that carried them to the best year in franchise history. For that matter, they faced a series of playoff opponents that lost key contributors to injury and avoided several teams that figured to give them their sternest postseason tests.

Whatever. The ability to make worthwhile arguments against one outcome and for another does not mean that it is not also an over-complication of the situation. The Warriors were overwhelmingly the best team in the league from wire-to-wire and faced few challenges in part because they rendered any potential problems moot with the quality of their play. While the Warriors certainly didn't deal with as many disruptions as many title teams do, they were also especially well equipped to dismiss those that did arise.

Consider the conference semifinals series against the Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA Finals vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers. Both teams presented Golden State with problems to be solved — Memphis with intense defense and a slow-down offense and Cleveland with a more extreme version of the same, plus the added conundrum of LeBron James. In both cases, the Warriors took two consecutive losses before solving the conundrum with atypical defensive tactics and small-ball lineups. Although Steve Kerr and his staff deservedly received credit for refusing to guard Memphis wing Tony Allen and playing Draymond Green at center despite usual starter Andrew Bogut's track record, those moves would not have been possible without Golden State's hyper-versatile and loaded roster. They simply have more ways to win than anyone else. The operative question of those series was not if they would come up with solutions, but when they would.

We don't know a lot about the Warriors, in part because they turned into a title-winning outfit seemingly overnight. For now, though, everyone is playing catch-up to them. And while new challenges will assuredly arise over the 2015-16 season, that history of problem-solving bodes well for the team's future. The Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, and Rockets are all serious contenders, but every reason to discount the champs relies on the possibility of a problem rather than observed evidence of one.

Tim Duncan shares his space. (Getty Images)
Tim Duncan shares his space. (Getty Images)

Ben Rohrbach: San Antonio Spurs. Despite injuries costing three of their five starters a total of 82 games, the Spurs fell one game shy of the No. 2 seed this past April — a five-point loss to a future MVP playing for his own playoff life on the final day of the regular season — and who the heck knows what would’ve happened then.

As it was, the Spurs earned a No. 6 seed and a first-round date with the equally loaded L.A. Clippers. That series also required a ridiculous game-winning shot by one of the game’s great players in the final seconds of Game 7 to oust the defending champs.

That’s the razor’s edge that is the Western Conference. The Clippers, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies all upgraded their rosters; the Oklahoma City Thunder presumably return a healthy Kevin Durant to a team that barely missed the playoffs; and the Golden State Warriors run it back with one of the most dominant teams in league history; but no team reinforced its rotation quite like San Antonio.

In four-time returning All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio added the best available unrestricted free agent on the market — before re-signing reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard to a max contract and bringing back Tim Duncan, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili on below-market salaries. For those of you counting at home, that’s three of the 12 players receiving MVP votes last season (Aldridge, Leonard and Duncan) on the same team in 2015-16. In fact, the Spurs’ summer was so good that David West willingly paid $11 million to play for them.

That isn’t to say San Antonio has all the answers. How will Aldridge work himself into a machine that’s been operating on full throttle for more than 15 years now? How will newcomers Jimmer Fredette and Ray McCallum replace the departed Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph on the backcourt depth chart? And how will a 33-year-old Tony Parker respond to two straight seasons of precipitous decline? Thankfully, they have basketball genius Gregg Popovich to answer those questions.

Previously, as we've woven:

Which Western Conference contender is the most vulnerable?

Which Eastern Conference contender will make it up to No. 2?

Which young player will make the biggest leap to stardom?

Which coach will be on the NBA's hottest seat in 2015-16?

Which rookie landed in the best spot?

Who will be this season's most entertaining trainwreck?

Which 2015 All-Star will miss out on selection this season?

Who will win the 2015-16 Most Improved Player award?