Western Conference 2017-18 roundtable preview, part 1

With tip-off of the NBA regular season rapidly approaching, Pelicans.com gathered a handful of writers from some of the Western Conference’s most intriguing teams to preview the 2017-18 campaign.

Here is Part 1 of a three-part series with writers from Denver, Minnesota, Portland and Golden State joining New Orleans for a look ahead at what’s to come in the ultra-competitive West:

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In terms of the team you cover, what is the biggest story to watch this season?

Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com: After two straight non-playoff years, few NBA teams are entering 2017-18 with as much urgency to win now as New Orleans. Dating back to the summer, that’s been a common theme of discussion for Pelicans players, with Anthony Davis saying, “We’re tired of losing. The entire organization – players, front office, coaches – we think the time is now. So we’re treating this like this is the season.” The top of the roster is extremely talented, with Davis joining three other recent All-Stars in the starting lineup (though Rajon Rondo will miss the initial stages of the regular season). Now it’s time to deliver tangible results on the court.

Chris Dempsey, Nuggets.com: The biggest story for the Nuggets is a two-fold issue: How much better does the team’s prized free agent acquisition, Paul Millsap, make the Nuggets? And how well – and quickly – will he mesh with burgeoning star Nikola Jokic? The Nuggets were in need of veteran star power, and a player that can help positively impact the defensive end of the court, and Millsap is expected to be both. The former Atlanta Hawks forward ingratiated himself quickly to the team by holding an August minicamp at his gym in Atlanta and then playing well right out of the gate in the preseason.

Kyle Ratke, Timberwolves.com: Whether or not the Wolves can make the postseason for the first time since 2003-04. This roster is extremely talented. Had the Wolves done nothing this offseason, they might have made a run into the postseason. But with the additions of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford to join Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, 2017-18 looks like it’ll be the year the Wolves finally get back. Of course, on paper, that’s easy to say. But early in preseason, this group already looked pretty comfortable together.

Casey Holdahl, TrailBlazers.com: How the team looks with Jusuf Nurkić for a full season. Portland went 14-6 after acquiring the 7-0 Bosnian center, along with a first-round pick, prior to the 2017 trade deadline, which helped the team secure their fourth-straight playoff berth before a non-displaced tibial fracture in his right leg ended his season prematurely. The question heading into the 2017-18 season is whether the start to his career in Portland was a harbinger of things to come or a post-trade anomaly. His play in the preseason would seem to indicate the former, though.

Tim Roye, Warriors.com: How the Warriors respond to the challenges of the improved teams of the West while at the same time handling the physical and emotional fatigue of three straight years in the Finals. It’s a great problem to have but only a handful of teams have played in the Finals four straight years for a reason. The amount of pressure to repeat will be formidable and that could be a factor as well.

What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about your team’s chances this season?

Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com: You can argue – and many have this offseason – that New Orleans boasts the NBA’s most talented players at both the power forward and center positions, in the duo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. With a combined seven All-Star appearances over the past four years, the pair of 6-foot-11 bigs have the ability to overwhelm opposing frontcourts when they’re clicking. They only got to play 17 games together last season after Cousins was traded to New Orleans, but gradually improved as a combination and carried over that progress into this preseason.

Chris Dempsey, Nuggets.com: The Nuggets enter this season as a team on the rise. Coach Michael Malone’s team improved its win total by seven games last season, going from 33 to 40 and finishing just one game out of the Western Conference playoffs. The Nuggets have a star in the making in center Nikola Jokic, they have a proven productive veteran in Paul Millsap, and they have some of the better young players in the league in guards Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez and a rejuvenated Emmanuel Mudiay. There also continues to be quality depth on the roster at multiple positions.

Kyle Ratke, Timberwolves.com: Depth and defense. Most are going to just look at Butler, Towns and Wiggins. That’s fine, but the Wolves bolstered their bench this offseason. When you have Crawford, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng all coming off the bench, that’s pretty dangerous. And defensively, adding Butler and Gibson to the starting lineup should help immensely. It would be a huge surprise if the Wolves defense didn’t take a huge step forward. You can bet that’s what Tom Thibodeau is expecting.

Casey Holdahl, TrailBlazers.com: Again, it’s Jusuf Nurkić. After the All-Star break last season, the Trail Blazers rattled off the second-best record, were fifth in offensive efficiency and 10th in defensive efficiency, with much of that improvement attributable to the fourth-year center. Other causes for optimism include Evan Turner being more comfortable in Portland in his second season and the play of rookie forward Caleb Swanigan.

Tim Roye, Warriors.com: Obviously, the fact that you have four All-Stars as your core coupled with a coach, in Steve Kerr, who has the unique ability of setting the perfect tone for this team lends one to be optimistic. Golden State has 207 wins over the last three seasons and I believe they are one of the best teams of all time. Every season is about staying healthy and responding to the adversity that arrives over 82 games. If the Warriors are healthy, they can play with anyone.

What is the biggest concern for your team entering the season?

Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com: If everything falls into place, New Orleans will have decent depth, but may need several reserves to step into bigger roles than they’ve ever had before. Guard Ian Clark, second-year forward Cheick Diallo and returning-to-the-NBA forward Darius Miller are examples of players who may need to come through for a second unit that doesn’t have much veteran experience beyond E’Twaun Moore and Tony Allen. In addition, small forward bears watching, with starter Solomon Hill sidelined until perhaps February due to a hamstring injury. Dante Cunningham is one option to fill in for Hill; he’s done a serviceable job in that role, despite being more of a natural power forward.  

Chris Dempsey, Nuggets.com: There are two concerns for the Nuggets heading into this season. First, is improving on the defensive end. They allowed 111.2 points per game last season, which was fourth-most in the NBA; and opponents shot 47.7 percent against them, which was second-highest in the NBA. So, there is work to be done. Also, the Nuggets will look to reduced turnovers per game and the points they allow off of those turnovers. Improvements in those areas – with everything else staying the same from last year – will give the Nuggets a real chance to vault themselves among the best in the conference.

Kyle Ratke, Timberwolves.com: I think the start of the season will be a huge test for these guys. With only three preseason games, there’s a concern on how they’ll mesh early. This team has three new players in their lineup. That’s extremely rare. But the plus is that two of them have played for Thibs before. Some of the guys told me that sacrificing isn’t something they’ve talked about. It’s just come natural. We’ll see if that’s the case in the first few weeks of the season.

Casey Holdahl, TrailBlazers.com: In a word: defense. The Trail Blazers have boasted one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA during Terry Stotts’ tenure in Portland, and have shown flashes at times of being at least an average defensive team. But those flashes have been just that, resulting in Portland ranking near the bottom of the league in defensive efficiency for much of last season. To qualify for the playoffs again this year, they’ll need to be improved on that side of the ball from the jump.

Tim Roye, Warriors.com: The biggest concern is always health and the new schedule will eliminate the need to rest multiple players on a single night, so that will help. As I mentioned in the question about biggest story, I believe fatigue on and off the floor is something that the Warriors are concerned with and will monitor during the season. There is also the stress of being the team that everyone is gunning for.

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