Western Conference 2017-18 roundtable preview, part 2

In Thursday’s part 1 of our Western Conference roundtable preview, we examined the biggest stories for each team entering this NBA season, as well as the most significant reasons for optimism and concern. Here is the second edition of the three-part preview:

What’s one thing about your team that may have been underreported nationally this summer?

Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com: There is a wide gulf between what many national analysts are predicting for this team compared to local excitement and expectations. New Orleans’ annual preseason open practice drew 6,500 fans to the Smoothie King Center, by far the team’s biggest attendance for that event. Pelicans fans have suffered through a rough past two years, but they’re energized by the February arrival of DeMarcus Cousins, as well as the free-agent addition of Rajon Rondo, both well-known names to every basketball fan in the region. While some media predictions have New Orleans finishing as low as 10th in the West, many along the Gulf Coast believe this club can make a major jump in the conference pecking order.

Chris Dempsey, Nuggets.com: I’d say Gary Harris’s improvement year-over-year has been underreported for a while. Last year, his contributions to a Nuggets team that nearly made the playoffs were underappreciated nationally, but had some within the organization pushing for him to be included among the NBA’s most-improved players. Harris shot 50.2 percent from the field, ranked in the top 10 in the league in 3-point percentage at a career-high 42 percent – and averaged career highs in assists and rebounds as well. Added onto his offensive improvements has always been Harris’s ability to be a difference-maker on defense. He continues to be one of the most underrated players in the league.

Kyle Ratke, Timberwolves.com: Obviously everyone and their neighbor Steve has covered all the new signings for the Wolves. But don’t sleep on how much better those signings will make Towns and Wiggins. Butler and Gibson will hold those two responsible defensively on the court, something that will be huge. Both players have the tools to be great defenders. With Thibs at the helm and two great defensive players on the court with them, there are no excuses.

Casey Holdahl, TrailBlazers.com: While nothing major comes to mind – there seems to be more “national media” covering the NBA than locals at this point – I’m not sure people realize just how good CJ McCollum really is. After winning the Most Improved Player award in 2016, the 6-4 guard out of Lehigh was even better last season, and all indications are that he’s poised to take another step forward in the first year of a new four-year, near-max contract. The impact that a healthy Ed Davis, who tried, with little success, to play through a shoulder injury last season, also ranks as a low-key storyline going into this season.

Tim Roye, Warriors.com: I believe it would be the sacrifice that Kevin Durant made with his contract in order to keep the Warriors team intact. I don’t believe that we have seen a player of that magnitude, in the prime of his career, make such a gesture in order to keep teammates close after only playing with them for one season. It’s a testament to the culture that surrounds this team right now.

Not including your team, which Western Conference clubs are you most looking forward to watching play this season (one from your division, one from a different division)?

Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com: The Southwest Division is always loaded, considering that Memphis is a perennial playoff team and the Texas franchises have all been title contenders at some point this decade. The Southwest squad I want to see most is Houston, with its new All-Star backcourt duo of Chris Paul and James Harden. I’m also very intrigued by Minnesota, a team many believed would improve greatly last season but was probably still too young. The Wolves had a great offseason. Also on my League Pass favorites list will be Oklahoma City, Denver and both L.A. teams.

Chris Dempsey, Nuggets.com: I’m just going to eliminate Golden State from this because I think they’re an easy target. We all want to see the most entertaining team in the league. So, to give this question a degree of difficulty, aside from them I’ll go with the new-look Oklahoma City Thunder with the Paul George and Carmelo Anthony additions, and Minnesota, which added Jimmy Butler, Jamal Crawford and Jeff Teague. Let’s just be honest, I’m looking forward to seeing pretty much every team in the conference. I think there is a reason to watch them all. It’s a cop out, I know, but I’m a basketball junkie.

Kyle Ratke, Timberwolves.com: From the division, I’m excited to see the Nuggets. They nearly made the playoffs last season and with Paul Millsap joining Nikola Jokic in the frontcourt, these guys will be fun. The only problem is the rest of the West also got better. Outside of the division, I’m really interested to see the dynamic between Chris Paul and James Harden in Houston. It’ll be interesting to see how those two play together.

Casey Holdahl, TrailBlazers.com: The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the more intriguing teams in the NBA after the acquisition of Jimmy Butler. It seems like people have been expecting the Timberwolves to make “the jump” for at least the past two seasons, though such assumptions have proven premature. But in Tom Thibodeau second season, this might actually be the year they return to the playoff race. It’ll also be interesting to see how the combination of James Harden and Chris Paul works in Houston. If everything works out just right, they might have what it takes to force Golden State… into a six-game series.

Tim Roye, Warriors.com: I am curious to see how Chris Paul fits in with the D’Antoni system and with James Harden, so the Rockets are at the top of my list. That backcourt is one that presents a tough matchup with two of the most dominant players in this era. In the Pacific, the Sacramento Kings made some noise with the drafting of De’Aaron Fox, who I think could be really good and combined with their veteran signees make them a story to keep an eye on.

Also not including your team, which Western Conference rookies are you most looking forward to watching play this season (one from your division, one from a different division)?

Jim Eichenhofer, Pelicans.com: The crop of Southwest rookies has often been unattractive in recent years, because a few of the teams always pick in the mid- to late-20s, while New Orleans has dealt several of its first-rounders. This season is an exception, however, with No. 9 pick Dennis Smith of Dallas generating legitimate buzz, due to his talent and athletic explosiveness as a point guard. That position was already extremely deep across the league; I’m interested to see how other West lottery picks Lonzo Ball and De’Aaron Fox fare. Ball’s passing and Fox’s quickness should be fun to watch.

Chris Dempsey, Nuggets.com: Easy question for me. I’m most looking forward to seeing L.A. Lakers rookie point guard Lonzo Ball. I watch a ton of college basketball as well, and I live in Pac-12 territory so I was able to see Ball a lot during his one season at UCLA. To me, his game is tailor-made for the NBA. He’ll make his Lakers teammates better, and they’ll quickly get to the up-tempo style of basketball they’ve wanted to play under coach Luke Walton. I am also very interested to see how De’Aaron Fox plays in Sacramento, Dennis Smith in Dallas, and Jayson Tatum with the Celtics.

Kyle Ratke, Timberwolves.com: From the division, Donovan Mitchell intrigues me in Utah. He was an absolute stud and there’s a good chance we look back and wonder why he fell to 13. Outside of the division, I really like Dennis Smith Jr. from Dallas. I think he’ll end up wining Rookie of the Year and could be the next wave of talent in Life After Dirk.

Casey Holdahl, TrailBlazers.com: Utah guard Donovan Mitchell has been considered by many to be one of the most NBA-ready prospects out of the 2017 draft. With Dante Exum potentially sidelined with a shoulder injury, Mitchell should have an opportunity to make a push for playing time early. Dennis Smith Jr. and Kyle Kuzma also qualify as intriguing prospects. I’m curious if Smith can live up to the hype and whether there’s a reason Kuzma didn’t go at least 10 spots higher.

Tim Roye, Warriors.com: I want to see how Dennis Smith makes the transition to the NBA while playing for Coach Carlisle in Dallas, as I was impressed by him in summer league. He showed poise, which is great for a point guard. Josh Jackson of Phoenix is a dynamic talent and he seems to fill a need for the young Suns. Josh went to high school in Napa so I am familiar with him and will monitor his progress this season.

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