Ranking Warriors' competition in West after Kawhi Leonard trade
Through all the megadeals and movement in the NBA over the past couple years, with Kawhi Leonard's change of address to Toronto being the latest, the Warriors continue to sit a level or two higher than their Western Conference brethren.
The defending NBA champions are ever more comfortable in their exalted status now that the once-mighty Spurs have become, for the first time in more than two decades, Just Another Team. This shapes up to be that rare season in which, even with wizardly coach Gregg Popovich, they struggle to make the playoffs. Behind All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan (acquired for Leonard), the Spurs have a limited ceiling but still will be in the race.
So, here’s our ranking of the Western Conference contenders to the Warriors for the 2018-19 season, in the wake of Leonard being traded Wednesday ...
7. Trail Blazers
As long as Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are in the backcourt, Portland will be a dangerous team. The problem here is the frontcourt. If big man Jusuf Nurkic can get over his maddening inconsistency, the Blazers are a legit playoff team.
Still, the weaknesses at the forward position remain. How did Blazers management address it? By drafting guard Gary Trent Jr. and then adding guards Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas and Wade Baldwin IV. It’s puzzling.
Go ahead. We dare you to figure out this team’s plan.
One of the scarier teams in the league last season, Denver was in the playoff race until the very last day. The Nuggets can score with any team in the league. Nikola Jokic has established himself as a top-five center, and Paul Millsap is a horse at power forward. Will Barton replacing Wilson Chandler at small forward is a slight upgrade. The young backcourt of Gary Harris and Jamal Murray will be bolstered by the addition of veteran Isaiah Thomas.
With better defense and any contribution from talented rookie Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets should be a load for any opponent.
In running the Trail Blazers off the floor in a first-round playoff sweep last April, New Orleans created an overload of excitement that wasn’t curbed until the team fell to the Warriors in five games in the conference semifinals. The Pelicans lost Rajon Rondo, one of the game’s noted double-edged swords, in free agency and will replace him with Elfrid Payton, who still has a chance to be a solid player. The addition of big man Julius Randle is a nice complement to the great Anthony Davis.
If Davis stays healthy and Jrue Holiday recaptures his All-Star ability, the Pelicans must be taken seriously.
Utah’s hallmark long has been continuity, and it remains so, as the team made no key changes and brought back key free agents Derrick Favors and Dante Exum. Rudy Gobert remains a beast in the paint, Joe Ingles crushes the 3-point shot, and Ricky Rubio now dares opponents to leave him open.
The key here is Donovan Mitchell, though. If the dazzling combo guard can improve on a tremendous rookie season, the Jazz have the goods to nab a top-four seed, one seed higher than their No. 5 last season.
The widely expected addition of LeBron James vaults the Lakers from relative obscurity into the mix for a top-four playoff seed. Though still young, the Lakers showed signs of growing up last season (24-20 over final 44 games), and we expect James to get the most from his teammates.
A shooter and an elite defender away from making a serious run at the Warriors, Los Angeles has gone all in on veterans (Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee) who have played in big moments.
They had a 3-2 lead on the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. They posed a lot of problems that the Warriors had to scramble and caucus to solve. Houston’s rise was partly built around the addition of Chris Paul but mostly around an improved defense, with Paul being part of that equation.
Paul’s health always is a concern, and the Rockets' best defenders, Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, have left the building. It’s imperative that the Rockets retain Clint Capela, but they look like a weaker bunch even if they do.
Surprise, surprise. The most stunning development of the offseason occurred in Oklahoma City, where Paul George decided to remain. His presence, along those of former MVP Russell Westbrook and quality big man Steven Adams, represent a formidable core.
If elite defender Andre Roberson successfully returns from knee surgery, OKC has 50-win potential. Moving Carmelo Anthony (with the Hawks showing interest) for a quality starter might be enough to exceed 50. Often overlooked is how stellar this team’s defense was before Roberson went down.