Five more days.
A new journey toward the Larry O’Brien Trophy being handed off to one NBA team begins Tuesday, making today the perfect time for a way-too-early Western Conference Finals prediction, as promised last week.
Admittedly, the west takes much more careful consideration than the Eastern Conference, since one East team, Cleveland, is essentially a lock for a conference finals visit. At least five teams in the West – Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma City and the LA Clippers – deserve to be considered pre-season contenders to represent the conference in the Finals.
Only one team can go, though, and we should have already seen it playing the Warriors in last year’s Western Conference Finals: the Los Angeles Clippers.
Somehow, the Clippers choked away their 3-1 series lead over the Rockets in the conference semifinals after an incredibly clutch first-round victory in seven games over the Spurs. A draining series with SA prevented the Clippers from continuing to chase around 3-point shooters on the Rockets, and Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Terrence Jones got the better of Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan down low. The Clips simply couldn’t endure with their thin bench.
But GM Doc Rivers finally decided to help coach Doc Rivers out over the summer and added players that will allow his starters some relief. One of the reasons the Rockets beat them joins the Clippers this year: Josh Smith. LAC traded Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes, a guy who can’t shoot, for Lance Stephenson, a guy whose scoring ability off the bench will be a welcome contribution. Despite his past antics, I feel like he will have respect for Doc and Chris Paul, and play his role. And adding Paul Pierce, the second-best, still-active wing drafted in the 1990s (behind Kobe Bryant), provides more locker-room leadership and an all-around dependable player.
Doc’s best move over the summer, though, was planting the subliminal messages in Deandre Jordan’s head that I’m convinced kept him from darting to Dallas. The greatest mystery is how Rivers made all these moves while somehow keeping his son on the roster.
Everybody from last year’s team is back to help Blake Griffin in his prime and the greatest point guard of an era, Chris Paul, take a trip to the Finals. Deandre must have known staying would be the right choice.
Paul finally has the squad he needs to meet his NBA destiny and solidify his place among the all-time greats with a visit to the Finals, no matter who he meets in the Western Conference Finals.
Though the Spurs now have Lamarcus Aldridge and David West to join the perpetually-improving Kawhi Leonard and the great big-three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Paul already showed he could lead a team with no bench over the Spurs. It’s a guard oriented league right now, and Paul has aged better than Tony Parker. He can outmatch him. That’s all the Clippers need to win. Their bigs are plenty good enough to prevent the Spurs’ bigs from beating them.
When it comes to the Thunder, it’s hard to count out Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant is back and essentially coming off a year of rest for his legs. And he’s joining a Westbrook coming off his scariest year ever. If these two are healthy, they can carry this Thunder team almost anywhere. The only thing holding OKC back is a first-year NBA head coach in Billy Donovan. Not that I think Donovan is a bad coach, but it will simply take him a year to fine-tune his systems to optimize perhaps the deadliest duo we’ve seen. Any NBA hiccups will be exploited by vets like Doc Rivers and Gregg Popovich.
Defending Lob City’s case against the Warriors might be more difficult considering they’re coming off a championship and Steph Curry’s emergence as an elite point-guard. Still, he has never beat Chris Paul in the playoffs. Paul is one of the best defenders in the league, and we saw Matthew Dellavedova trouble Curry in the playoffs last year when he was devoted solely to stopping Curry’s jump shot. CP3 will be able to outplay Curry enough to advance in a seven-game series.
So, there you have it: my prediction is the Los Angeles Clippers versus Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. What happens in that series will be for a later column. For now, let the games begin.
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @samlounz.