2013 NBA Western Conference Preview: The Dwight Howard Effect And Kobe's Injury Headline Tipoff

10/22/2013 11:07 am ET
  • Jordan Schultz The Huffington Post Sports Columnist, The Schultz Report
AP

The NBA season tips off on Oct. 29, and as is par for the course, the drama has already begun. The Western Conference features an abundance of question marks and marquee storylines. For example, if, and when, will Kobe Bryant be healthy for the Lakers? How good can Golden State become with the addition of Andre Iguodala and a healthy Stephen Curry? And we can't forget about Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets, who believe they are title contenders right now.

Here are five of the key Western Conference storylines heading into the 2013 season.

1) What's Next For Kobe?

Alas, Dwight Howard is gone, but the problems in Titletown persist. Kobe Bryant is 34 years old and trying to return from a ruptured Achilles suffered during the final weekend of the regular season. But despite his age, Bryant turned in a stellar season, mostly without the help of anyone else. Consider that a mere 33.2 percent of his baskets were made with an assist, per NBA.com -- the lowest rate of his career. And we can only speculate when he will return, but the health of Steve Nash will likely determine how successful both he and this Lakers team can become. Remember, aside from Pau Gasol, this team will be relying a ton on veterans like Chris Kaman and Nick Young for offensive firepower. Under 35 wins seems to be a virtual lock.

2) The Dwight Effect

Houston signed Dwight Howard to do a lot of things, namely to improve a woeful defense that ranked 28th in the NBA in points allowed last season. This isn't entirely dissimilar to the Lakers' philosophy when they obtained Dwight, but without elite perimeter quickness, the defensive experiment failed. Houston signed veteran Ronnie Brewer to help take the defensive pressure off of James Harden. Backup point guard (for now) Patrick Beverley is a harassing on-ball pest who could -- and should -- supplant Jeremy Lin in the starting lineup. But no matter what, there remains an immense amount of pressure on Howard. He'll be asked to be a superior rim protector and eager pick-and-roll big man -- a role he seemed reluctant to take on during his tenure with the Lakers.

stephen curry

Warriors point guard Steph Curry continues his ascent as one of the game's greats. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

3) Get Your Dubs Up

Golden State was really good last year, but the Warriors might just be great this year. That is the significance of adding swingman Andre Iguodala, one of the best two-way players in the game today. From a perimeter standpoint, this team is equal parts athletic and versatile. Stephen Curry's Herculean performance in the playoffs and the improved scoring ability of Klay Thompson will blend nicely with Iguodala, who, at his core, is a defensive stopper and third offensive option. Don't forget about second-year man Harrison Barnes, who also emerged in the postseason as a capable inside-out scorer who can occasionally play the four spot. The question for Mark Jackson's team is whether or not the front line can hold up. Center Andrew Bogut has played in a mere 56 games over the past two seasons, and All-Star David Lee hasn't exactly proven himself to have a clean bill of health.

4) Where Does OKC Fit In?

While Russell Westbrook is expected to miss some time, this remains a contending team assuming he fully recovers from the torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. The question marks here don't surround Westbrook or Kevin Durant, but rather who will become the third scorer now that Kevin Martin is gone and if the Thunder has enough interior talent. Former first-rounders Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb are nice young talents, and Serge Ibaka remains a pick-and-pop guy. Lottery pick Steven Adams is an absolute behemoth at center -- but is very green, which means more time for the anemic Kendrick Perkins.

5) Most Improved

The Los Angeles Clippers will be better, but you knew that. What about New Orleans and Minnesota, both of which boast talented young rosters that should yield more wins. For the Pelicans, Anthony Davis is fully healthy and will thrive running screen-and-roll with his new point guard, Jrue Holiday, a nifty distributor. As a rookie last season, Davis finished a healthy 72 percent of his attempts at the rim, per HoopData.com, a clip that will almost certainly improve with Holiday. New Orleans also added Tyreke Evans, an uber-talented wing who told The Huffington Post back in June that he would be willing to come off the bench. Even still, this was not a move that I championed.

The T-Wolves' playoff hiatus is the longest active streak in the NBA, but that could change in 2013. Point guard Ricky Rubio, 22, enters his third season, while All-Star Kevin Love is healthy once again. Perhaps the biggest key to Minnesota's success is Kevin Martin, who signed a four-year, $30 million offer. An excellent 3-point shooter, Martin should bolster the league's worst long-range shooting outfit from a year ago.

For more NBA 2013, check out the Eastern Conference preview here.

Email me at jordan.schultz@huffingtonpost.com or ask me questions about anything sports-related at @Schultz_Report. Also, be sure and catch my NBC Sports Radio show, Kup and Schultz, which airs Sunday mornings from 9-12 ET, right here.

YOU MAY LIKE

CONVERSATIONS