A team-by-team look at the Western Conference:
BEN BOLCH'S PICKS (in predicted order of finish)
NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE
(new players listed in bold)
1. Golden State
2014-15 finish: 67-15
Projected starters: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes.
Top reserves: Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Festus Ezeli, Marreese Speights.
Steve Kerr provided about the only drama of his cheery existence as Warriors coach when he recently took a leave of absence to recover from two back surgeries. Interim Coach Luke Walton won't try to change a thing, of course, after a season in which the team won its first NBA title since 1975. Every starter and key backup returns to help what should be a strong repeat bid.
2014-15 finish: 56-26
Projected starters: Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Paul Pierce, J.J. Redick.
Top reserves: Jamal Crawford, Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson.
As if to underscore the opportunity presented by Jordan's return and the addition of an actual NBA-caliber bench, the Clippers might want to adopt a familiar slogan: Now or never. They seemingly have everything needed to finally make it past the second round of the playoffs so long as Pierce, 38, doesn't endure a Steve Nash-like decline and a bench with overlapping pieces doesn't implode.
3. Oklahoma City
2014-15 finish: 45-37.
Projected starters: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Andre Roberson, Steven Adams.
Top reserves: D.J. Augustin, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow.
Remember the Thunder? It was only three years ago that the franchise made the Finals, with many happy returns expected. Then James Harden was traded, various body parts of Durant and Westbrook broke down and it was see-ya-playoffs last spring. Oklahoma City should return under new Coach Billy Donovan, assuming its stars stay off the injury list and Durant's looming free agency doesn't become a season-long distraction.
4. San Antonio
2014-15 finish: 55-27
Projected starters: Tim Duncan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green.
Top reserves: David West, Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili.
Projecting the Spurs' finish in the standings can be hard for reasons that have nothing to do with talent. Coach Gregg Popovich likes to rest his aging stars, leading to a handful of losses that push his team lower than it should be based on its personnel. Adding Aldridge and West figures to give San Antonio its deepest frontcourt since David Robinson teamed with Duncan.
2014-15 finish: 56-26
Projected starters: James Harden, Dwight Howard, Ty Lawson, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones.
Top reserves: Corey Brewer, Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas, Clint Capela.
Lawson gives the Rockets the playmaker they wanted to complement Harden, who often tried to carry the team's entire offensive burden himself. Of course, there's a catch: Lawson must overcome the personal issues that led to another arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. If he's successful, the Rockets could be contenders even in the loaded West.
2014-15 finish: 55-27
Projected starters: Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee.
Top reserves: Tony Allen, Brandan Wright, Matt Barnes, Beno Udrih, Vince Carter.
The Grizzlies are like a car company that keeps rolling out the same model year after year, updating only the stereo system and temperature controls. Fortunately, it's been a fairly successful model. The vocal Barnes should add some acoustics and Wright some highlight plays off the bench, but this will again be a team that largely goes as far as Gasol, Randolph and Conley take it.
7. New Orleans
2014-15 finish: 45-37
Projected starters: Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Omer Asik, Dante Cunningham.
Top reserves: Ryan Anderson, Tyreke Evans, Alexis Ajinca, Norris Cole.
The Pelicans should no longer plod along, instead adapting to the style of new Coach Alvin Gentry, the architect of supercharged offenses with the Clippers and Golden State. Gentry will have plenty of talent to mold to his liking, starting with the league's most dynamic young center in Davis. It also helps that the team's roster has remained essentially intact from last season.
2014-15 finish: 39-43
Projected starters: Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Tyson Chandler, Markieff Morris, P.J. Tucker.
Top reserves: T.J. Warren, Mirza Teletovic, Alex Len, Ronnie Price, Sonny Weems.
The Suns' fortunes figure to be volatile until the felony aggravated assault case involving Morris and his departed brother Marcus is resolved. Markieff Morris also has some making up to do with Suns fans after criticizing the volume level inside US Airways Center and asking to be traded. Newcomer Chandler figures to bring a steadying presence on defense and in the locker room.
2014-15 finish: 38-44
Projected starters: Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert.
Top reserves: Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, Elijah Milsap, Raul Neto, Joe Ingles.
If only making the playoffs were as simple as getting Burks back from the shoulder injury that limited him to 27 games last season and picking up where the Jazz left off, when it finished the season by winning 21 of its last 32 games. It isn't. This is a team with plenty of emerging talent but enough youthful hiccups to make it a borderline postseason pick. Here's guessing the Jazz just misses.
2014-15 finish: 50-32
Projected starters: Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons, Deron Williams, JaVale McGee.
Top reserves: John Jenkins, J.J. Barea, Charlie Villanueva, Zaza Pachulia, Devin Harris.
Dallas' season went kerplunk on a summer's day in Houston, of all places, when DeAndre Jordan backed out of a commitment to the Mavericks and re-signed with the Clippers. The team's subsequent free-agent signings felt like parting gifts for a losing game-show contestant. Matthews looks like he's ready to return earlier than expected from an Achilles' injury.
2014-15 finish: 29-53
Projected starters: DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, Ben McLemore, Kosta Koufos.
Top reserves: Darren Collison, Marco Belinelli, Omri Casspi, Willie Cauley-Stein.
The "Jersey Shore" creators couldn't have conjured a crazier cast than what's been assembled here. There's a hot-headed point guard (Rondo), an intrusive owner (Vivek Ranadive) and a coach (George Karl) who had to apologize to Cousins in the wake of some careless wording about his biggest star being tradable. The combustion point could be reached at any moment.
2014-15 finish: 16-66
Projected starters: Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Karl Anthony-Towns, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Garnett.
Top reserves: Kevin Martin, Tyus Jones, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad, Nikola Pekovic.
Interim Coach Sam Mitchell recently revealed his team's mantra: It's not losing, it's developing. Of course, don't expect that to be part of any midseason season-ticket renewal campaign when the Timberwolves' losses double their win total. The upside will be watching the development of No. 1 overall draft picks Wiggins and Anthony-Towns while hoping President and Coach Flip Saunders makes a full recovery from cancer.
2014-15 finish: 21-61
Projected starters: D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Kobe Bryant, Julius Randle, Roy Hibbert.
Top reserves: Nick Young, Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, Tarik Black.
What is likely Bryant's final season won't be much different than the two immediately preceding it. He'll have to fight fatigue and his aging limbs while trying to avoid another season-ending injury. The talent around him is better with some young and promising players alongside a few serviceable veterans. But the Lakers probably will miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season, something that has never happened in franchise history.
2014-15 finish: 30-52
Projected starters: Emmanuel Mudiay, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Joffrey Lauvergne, Randy Foye.
Top reserves: Wilson Chandler, Jameer Nelson, Darrell Arthur, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic.
Coach Mike Malone no longer has to worry about a meddlesome owner. His roster could be another matter. The coach who was unceremoniously dumped despite showing promise with Sacramento gets a do-over with a hodgepodge of leftovers from the George Karl and Brian Shaw eras, plus rookie point guard Mudiay. It's likely to result in another Rocky Mountain low.
2014-15 finish: 51-31
Projected starters: Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee.
Top reserves: Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, Mo Harkless, Allen Crabbe, Gerald Henderson.