NBA free agency is shaking up Western Conference
In the span of three weeks, covering three updates, this is how Las Vegas oddsmaker Bovada adjusted its odds of the Denver Nuggets winning the NBA title next season:
June 21 • 25-1
June 28 • 33-1
July 5 • 40-1
That's not the direction any organization wants to be headed, but this hasn't been a typical offseason for the Nuggets or for most other NBA teams. While the Nuggets have struggled to make the improvements necessary to remain among the Western Conference's elite after a NBA franchise-record 57 wins, other teams have made moves that push them closer to the top. So, although the Nuggets haven't definitively lost ground, other teams appear to be getting better.
And that doesn't bode well for Denver, which has a new general manager and a new coach.
The Nuggets, who will make official Wednesday the acquisitions of big man J.J. Hickson (free-agent signing) and guard Randy Foye (sign-and-trade) now that the league moratorium on signings has ended, finished third in the Western Conference last season. As things stand, it's difficult to make a case for the Nuggets being better than seventh in the West.
That has less to do with the Nuggets and what they've done, or not done, than it does the six teams ahead of them: Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Houston, L.A. Clippers, Golden State and Memphis.
None of the six got worse, and Houston and Golden State upgraded.
Houston landed free agency's biggest prize, center Dwight Howard, which immediately vaults the Rockets into contending status. Golden State added swingman Andre Iguodala, who will help raise their defensive profile while weakening a rival, the Nuggets, whom they defeated handily in the first round of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City hasn't been active in free agency, but gets Russell Westbrook back from torn meniscus and will be no worse than a co-favorite to win the West. The Clippers, with new coach Doc Rivers, added a shooter (J.J. Redick) and a high-level reserve guard (Darren Collison) and retained Matt Barnes for toughness off the bench. San Antonio, which came within seconds of winning the NBA championship, re-signed its own free agents (Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter) and added another shooter (Marco Belinelli) to make their offense even tougher to defend. In re-signing three-time all-NBA defensive team guard Tony Allen, Memphis has most everyone back from its Western Conference finals team.
Given the improvements New Orleans and Minnesota have made, the Nuggets at this point figure to battle those two teams for the seventh or eighth playoff spot.
Wild, to be sure.
It's shaping up to be the most competitive Western Conference race since 2009-10, when the No. 8 seed won 50 games. But unlike that season, there are more legitimate threats, from both conferences, to advance to the Finals than there have been in several years. A case can be made for any of the top six teams in the West, and add to that defending champion Miami, the team the Heat beat in the Eastern Conference Finals Indiana the Chicago Bulls, who get Derrick Rose back, and the retooled Brooklyn Nets and a full third of the league appears to be capable of making a Finals run.
Part of the increasing parity is due to the fact teams are looking to get under an ever-tightening luxury tax level ($1.50 for every $1 over the salary cap next season). In some instances, players are taking less money to go into situations they feel are a better fit for them. Iguodala and Howard both did that. Players are getting more savvy about the decisions they make.
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