By Rahul Lal
In a wild offseason, many stars transitioned over to the Western Conference. We saw Paul George and Carmelo Anthony join Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. Paul Millsap left Atlanta to team up with budding superstar Nikola Jokic in Denver, Jimmy Butler reunited with former coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, bringing along a few veterans to fill out a young squad. All in all, the Western Conference is stacked, and basketball fans should anticipate one of the most competitive seasons in years.
Here’s a breakdown of each team by division, with a loose projection of where they will end up by season’s end.
Watching Paul Millsap play alongside Nikola Jokic is a site to behold. The Nuggets play such an eye-opening brand of basketball, almost reminiscent of a Barcelona soccer match. Expect a steady increase in production out of Jamal Murray and the newly extended Gary Harris. Scoring won’t be a problem in Denver, but defense might. Overall, this Nuggets team is on the rise in the West and projects to a top-six seed.
The Wolves have been a tough team to peg — they have added in superstar Jimmy Butler, along with Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford while holding on to key guys not named Ricky Rubio. Karl-AnthonyTowns will continue to get better, if that’s even possible, and Andrew Wiggins is still a really solid player. The Timberwolves should get it together, it’s just a matter of whether it takes 15 games or 30. Expect them to be in the four to six-seed range come playoff time.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder made a massive splash in the offseason, acquiring both Paul George and Carmelo Anthony from their undesirable situations in Indiana and New York, respectively. Of course, questions need to be answered about how ego conflict and shot distribution will work out. But it’s an incredible feat to acquire two stars without giving up any first-round picks, and shedding two massive contracts. I’d expect them to be a similar tier as Like Minnesota and Denver, OKC will probably be a lower-seed playoff team next April.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers might be on the outside looking in as it relates to the playoffs this year. They’re a great team, but outside of last year’s acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic, they haven’t really improved. They may struggle to be better than last year given the rapid rise in competition around them. But don’t ever count out Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who are among the best backcourts in the NBA.
The Utah Jazz lost their best player Gordon Hayward in the offseason. And like the Blazers, they’ll compete and probably fall short of an eight-seed in the West. The level of competition will just be too much. While Rudy Gobert is an absolute monster and should put up career highs in just about everything, the Jazz might look to develop chemistry, as much as they can, with Ricky Rubio, rookie Donovan Mitchell and a host of solid role players.
Golden State Warriors
The Warriors are obviously the returning champs, and all they did over the offseason was bring back their key players and add more players who can be maximized within their system. This team is the easy favorite to repeat, and this isn’t even a question. Anything less than another NBA Finals appearance will make the season a disappointment for such a dominating team.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers can be better than you think this season. Yes, losing Chris Paul, JJ Reddick and Luc Mbah a Moute is really going to sting. But bringing in Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic, along with a blossoming Austin Rivers isn’t half bad. Adding Danilo Gallinari for a scoring punch to go with Blake Griffin gives them a very versatile front court, with DeAndre Jordan as the anchor down low, as always. If healthy, the Clippers will fight for a playoff spot, maybe as high as a six seed.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers don’t really seem to have a direction. They can stick with the plan and develop the young guys, but the rumors are always strong on free agents interested in joining up in Los Angeles. Regardless, this team, with one of the most famous rookies, Lonzo Ball (and his dad), should be fun to watch. Mixing the progressing Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram, the surprising Kyle Kuzma and contract-year veterans like Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should be an interesting experiment all season long. Unfortunately, the team will likely struggle, winning fewer than 30 games.
Fans should be really excited with the youth movement in Phoenix right now. After Josh Jackson fell to them in the NBA Draft, the Suns now have young players at each position, all with high potential. Jackson has the most possible upside, but Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender are all great players in their own right. Word around the block is that Alex Len will be let go following the season, so now is the time for the team to really assess their talent and see who’s in Phoenix to stay and who isn’t. Eric Bledsoe seems to be at the beginning of deadline deals just about every year. Phoenix isn’t a playoff team yet, but the roster is developing nicely.
The Kings have a really peculiar roster on paper. By bringing in established vets like George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter, it screams “eight seed!” By drafting bright, young players De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles to pair with Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein, it looks like they’re building a roster for the future. The best hope for this team is still winding up somewhere in the late lottery come next year’s draft, while the veterans teach the young guys a thing or two along the way. If the rookies can learn from their positional counterparts, the Kings will be in a great situation moving forward.
The Mavericks had the steal of the draft in Dennis Smith Jr. Given his talent, he could’ve gone top five, depending on the skill set each team was looking for. As always, it was a matter of preference. Smith lit up Summer League with his scoring and has since shown in preseason, on an actual NBA roster, the same eye for getting buckets. The Mavs may struggle to make the playoffs, but fans will enjoy seeing Smith turn into a potential star alongside the consistent Harrison Barnes and their living legend Dirk Nowitzki. Seth Curry’ preseason injury and indefinite return will be a big blow to the team.
These Rockets are one of the only legitimate threats to the Golden State Warriors in the West. Bringing in Chris Paul will go a long way, as they now have two point guards who can average 10 assists per game. One concern is their dynamic, the possibility that the two ball-dominant guards won’t fit together. But playing in a D’Antoni system, both will get used. Adding in defenders like PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute strengthens their perimeter defense.
The Grizzlies may be facing a fall from grace, going from playoff contender to lottery hopeful. Unfortunately, outside of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the roster is fairly dry. Coach Fizdale is still one of the best in the NBA and could get this team to outperform their talent level. Would that be enough to dent the postseason in a stacked Western Conference? Probably not. But it should provide some optimism for fans in Memphis.
New Orleans Pelicans
After seeing Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins play well together last season, I believe in this team. And adding a healthy Jrue Holiday to the mix certainly ups their talent. The clock is ticking in New Orleans, however, with Cousins becoming a free agent in the coming offseason. And questions still abound. For example, how will Holiday and Rajon Rondo play together?
San Antonio Spurs
Let’s just not underrate the Spurs from day one, this time. If not for a Kawhi Leonard injury in the Western Conference Finals, we could’ve actually seen Golden State challenged — a feat made even more impressive given LaMarcus Aldridge’s inconsistent play. The Spurs are still here, they’re still very talented. Leonard will make his play for top-three player in the NBA, as his team looks finish the regular season as a three or four seed.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.