Major stars make up the major stories in the race for the playoffs. In the Western Conference, that means Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will be the deciding factors for the final standings. If we can agree on those constants, then what are we to make of the variables?
The storylines in the West last season — at least the interesting ones — were about the little details: Goran Dragic played at an All-Star level, Dallas' offense thrived under a strange backcourt pairing of Monta Ellis and José Calderón and Reggie Jackson stepped up in Russell Westbrook's absence.
Star players will dictate the standings over the course of the year, but it’s the minutia that makes the difference between finishing first and fifth. It’s also what decides who finishes ninth or falls out of the playoffs altogether. The big names will be poured over, again and again, but maybe it’s time we look at what smaller factors could go into how things play out in the 2014-15 NBA season.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at four sneaky details that will decide the Western Conference.
Markieff Morris as Frye’s replacement
Last season, Channing Frye was largely unguardable by some of the bigger teams in the NBA. Frye hit 160 3-pointers for Phoenix on 37 percent shooting and the lanky 6-11 power forward put teams like Portland and Golden State on edge, their centers too clunky to guard him on the arc and their power forwards too slow-footed to match him on the dribble.
Now, Frye is in Orlando and the Suns are left without one of their major players from a surprising season in which the nontraditional backcourt duo of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic flourished. A big help in that success came from the ability of the team around them to shoot and disrupt teams on both ends of the floor. This season, expectations are high in Phoenix and many are hoping they can find their way to the playoffs.
Markieff Morris will have to step up and deliver to provide consistency in Jeff Hornacek’s offense, which could prove troublesome. Morris shot just 31 percent on 3-pointers last season, while his brother, Marcus, was far more efficient. If Morris can become a consistent shooter, the Suns will continue to be a nightmare to guard for opposing teams.
Parsons’ effect on Dallas pace
The Dallas Mavericks made a splash by stealing away Chandler Parsons from the Houston Rockets this summer. Although Mark Cuban’s team lost Shawn Marion and Vince Carter on the wing, the younger Parsons will provide both defense and shooting in their absence.
Parsons’ effect on Dallas’ pace could be significant. Last season the Mavericks were 15th in pace and 19th in fastbreak points per game. In Houston, Parsons worked well with James Harden as they started Houston’s high-powered transition game and it could be much the same for Dallas. With Harden as the passer, Parsons got out in transition and his speed, size and shooting ability created serious issues for people trying to guard the Rockets.
Monta Ellis, Jameer Nelson and Devin Harris are all similarly adept at getting out on the break. In kicking up the pace with Parsons, Dallas could find themselves easy, efficient buckets that would save some wear-and-tear on an aging Dirk Nowitzki.
Anderson’s return to New Orleans
The Pelicans’ Ryan Anderson was injured in a horrifying accident back on Jan. 3 in which he herniated a disc in his spine. He’s now back and ready to play for New Orleans, where his ability to space the floor alongside the wing lineup of Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and Jrue Holiday heading into this season will be a crucial.
Anderson’s 3-point shooting will play a big part of getting burgeoning star Anthony Davis some room to operate and keep opposing defenders honest as Holiday runs the pick-and-roll. Evans is going to handle the ball a lot when Holiday is out of the game, which will leave it to Anderson, Eric Gordon and John Salmons to bomb from deep.
Rotationally, Anderson is also important as his involvement at the power forward position allows Davis to slide over to center when Omer Asik comes out of the game. If Anderson can again be productive alongside Davis, the Pelicans could easily challenge for a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference.
The health of Portland’s starters
Portland had an incredible string of luck last season with breakout performances by every single starter on their way to the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference in 2013-14. Unfortunately, Blazers starters also played in 397 of an available 410 regular season games, which will prove unsustainable moving forward.
Portland was last in bench scoring last season and their top two most-used lineups that featured a majority of bench players were also some of their worst defensively. Trail Blazers starters have played a heavy load of minutes and moving forward, coach Terry Stotts will either need to lighten the load to try and alleviate strain and injury concerns.
Portland’s upgrades this offseason were Chris Kaman and Steve Blake, so the Blazers’ playoff hopes would immediately be in serious trouble if any starter misses significant time.