Road to playoffs remains full of potholes for West challengers

Improvement seems logical for Suns, but that won't necessarily be good enough to crash postseason play.

If Eric Bledsoe is healthy and still on the same page as Suns coach Jeff Hornacek, it seems logical to expect continued improvement in Phoenix, but that won't necessarily translate to a spot in the playoffs.

Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports

As the off-season smoke begins to settle, let's take a look at the rearranged NBA real estate in the ultra-stacked Western Conference.

Our lens is that of Phoenix Suns' fans, who saw their team make a huge leap to 48 victories last year and miss out on the playoffs by one slim game, despite being able to make use of their dynamic double-point-guard lineup for only 34 games.

The logical next-step progression goes something like this:

Clinging to the belief that Eric Bledsoe will return (with something to prove and, hopefully, within a team context), the addition of Isaiah Thomas perpetuates the small-ball agenda, and mass career-year duplication from the likes of Goran Dragic, Markieff Morris, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee is reasonable, the Suns should be playing next May . . . right?

You can insert the eye roll here.

We're bitterly aware that a Western Conference playoff landing won't come easily. The Suns' conference playmates aren't exactly slouching toward mediocrity.

With the draft and most of free agency in the rearview mirror, the landscape could be considered even more dangerous than ever.

Anyway, with the disturbing notion that the Suns could be a better team and not make any late-April headway, let's look at what they will be up against.

LOCK STEPPERS

San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan and the Spurs aren't fading into the sunset anytime soon.

Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE

Tim Duncan, still putting the mental in "Big Fundamental," will return to the defending champs along with reenlisted free agents Boris Diaw and Patty Mills.

Injury will keep Mills sidelined until the season's second half, which -- in a perfect Gregg Popovich development -- should only make him extremely fresh for the playoffs.

Oh, yeah . . . the also landed UCLA sophomore Kyle Anderson (a potential understudy to Diaw in a dish network of point forwards) with the last pick in the first round.

Motto: Catch-22 us if you can.

Oklahoma City Thunder

While people in D.C. are imagining Kevin Durant in a Wizards' jersey, the rest of us would be silly to imagine sufficient slippage while he's still representing OKC.

If Coach Scott Brooks finds more time for rapidly-improving center Steven Adams -- which means a corresponding Thunder-fan bonus of less time for Kendrick Perkins -- the Thunder could . . . well . . . let's just use ink with their playoff reservation.

Motto: We love Russell Westbrook . . . we really do.

GOING STEADY

Los Angeles Clippers

With Spencer Hawes in the boat, the Clips now have a big man who can make free throws in the fourth quarter and rebound well enough to stay on the floor.

Hawes is good enough to play offense in any quarter (although he can't guard a bear in a phone booth), providing Chris Paul with a legitimate floor spacer.

A key will be the performance of one former UCLA PG (Jordan Farmar) replacing another (Darren Collison). Even if that doesn't go well, getting rid of the Clippers after 82 games might be harder to accomplish than losing an owner. (Not really.)

Harden and Howard will keep Houston among the elite, even without a third big wheel.

Bill Baptist / NBAE

Motto: Sterling dropped by Silver bullet.

GO AHEAD AND EXHALE

Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard and James Harden said losing Chandler Parsons won't be a big deal, so we'll believe them.

Count the Rockets in.

True, the draft didn't seem to provide any immediate help, while free agency did bring Trevor Ariza to take over for Parsons. Now that he's been paid, how much will he provide?

The Rockets aren't great at point guard (offensively), but with Harden creating skillfully off the bounce and resting up on defense, will it matter?

Motto: Doesn't anyone really want to play with Dwight?

Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard will just keep rising, especially with that crazy Boost foam in his new Adidas sneakers.

Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is in a contract year, and center Chris Kaman has been hired to score in the post when Aldridge sits down. If Kaman had his old hairstyle, he and Robin Lopez could have been featured on a billboard promising to "Keep Portland Weird."

Steve Blake moves in for Mo Williams on a bench that was better last year and will improve with Kaman.

Steve Kerr's biggest challenge as the Warriors' coach could be keeping this guy healthy.

Russell Isabella / USA TODAY Sports

Unless Coach Terry Stotts botches some analytics, the Blazers will be tough to keep out of the postseason.

Motto: Offer sheet for Roy Hibbert? Never happened.

BANANA-PEEL POTENTIAL

Golden State Warriors

Mark Jackson coaxed the Warriors into defense and the playoffs but reportedly didn't play well with other within the organization.

His job was taken by Steve Kerr, who shouldn't have much of a problem keeping the Warriors in the postseason if center Andrew Bogut remains healthy.

Big if.

If Kerr can figure out how to incorporate FA acquisition Shaun Livingston without further downgrading the involvement of Harrison Barnes, Golden State could be better.

But maybe he'll be a rotten coach and Bogut, well . . . we never root for injury.

Motto: Our Thompson gun is not for sale.

Memphis Grizzlies

The relationship co-starring Coach Dave Joerger and owner Robert Pera seems to be just ducky, but the draft-free-agent yield was a modest return of Jordan Adams and Vince Carter.

This suggests less defensive gusto on the wings (OK, so Mike Miller wasn't exactly Michael Cooper, either), although Quincy Pondexter's return to health could mean D-League time for Adams.

Unfortunately for Suns fans, the Grizzlies don't move quickly enough to slip on a banana peel, and their regular-season success rate with a healthy Marc Gasol was crazy good.

Maybe Gasol's upcoming free-agent audition will wreck harmony. Hey, it's better than hoping he gets hurt again.

Motto: We're still capable of hiding Zach Randolph on defense.

Dallas Mavericks

We're truly reaching here.

With Chandler "Moneybags" Parsons, Tyson "Escape From New York" Chandler and a host of other veteran newcomers, the Mavs are expected to be even better than last year's crew.

But the Suns and their loyalists always can hope that losing old (emphasize old) pal Shawn Marion and deadeye point guard Jose Calderon will be more painful than Mark Cuban's at-game wardrobe.

Motto: Dig our hybrid . . . Tyson Chandler Parsons.

LOOK OUT BELOW

Denver Nuggets

The decision to replace Coach of the Year George Karl with rookie Brian Shaw looked worse than it should have because the Nuggets were forced to rotate the tires on the team gurney.

Danilo Gallinari missed the entire season, JaVale McGee played in five games, Nate Robinson was out for 38 and Ty Lawson missed 20.

Add the return of Arron Afflalo and the Nuggets -- who lost all four games with the Suns last season -- could provide much more resistance . . . even if they don't challenge.

Motto: Let's trade Wilson Chandler to Dallas.

Los Angeles Lakers

We're not really expecting much of a victory surge from the franchise that brought you "Showtime," but the Lakers should be as interesting as heck.

With Robert Sacre as the only card-carrying center on the roster, they may actually have enough minutes for rookie Julius Randle and the four other power forwards they signed in July.

Motto: Follow Jack Nicholson on StubHub.

NOTHING HAPPENIN' HERE

New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves

Jimmer Fredette is now a Pelican, Rudy Gay is still a King, Gordon Hayward is a newly handsomely rewarded Jazzman and the Timberwolves haven't quite yet made up their minds on remodeling plans. Let's move on.

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