Ranking the NBA's Western Conference teams
Ranking the NBA's Western Conference teams
BOSTON – Golden State had an unprecedented regular season run a year ago, winning more games (73) than any team in regular season NBA history. But you talk with anyone from that team and they’ll tell you it was a disappointment because in the end they came up short of the only true measure of success for a team that talented – an NBA title.
That label belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers who became the first team in Finals history to win it all after losing three of the first four games.
So what did Golden State do this summer?
Oh, not much.
They just went out and signed Kevin Durant, the best player by miles on the free agent market this summer.
So now the question isn’t whether Golden State can get back to the NBA Finals for a third year in a row, but whether they can actually set a new record for regular season wins along the way.
As good as Golden State is on paper, there are a handful of teams out West that will need a miracle and then some to beat the Warriors this year have rosters that can challenge for one of the top spots in the Western Conference.
And then there are others that will struggle in every sense of the word.
Here’s a look at how the Western Conference stacks up.
15. Los Angeles Lakers
D’Angelo Russell showed glimpses of being the kind of lead guard that the Lakers desperately need as they try to move on following Kobe Bryant’s retirement. Brandon Ingram has the potential to help folks forget about the Black Mamba, but Ingram's likely to have his share of ups and downs like most rookies. Bringing in Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov gives them better depth and upgrades their overall talent base, but the Lakers have too many holes and not enough talent to catapult them beyond bottom-of-the-West status.
14. Sacramento Kings
Talent isn’t as big an issue with the Kings as whether that talent can play effectively together. DeMarcus Cousins remains Sacramento’s best player, and will surely have his name tossed around in trade rumors if the Kings get off to a slow start. The Olympics have been a great platform to see how Cousins can handle himself when surrounded by really good players. He’s still an emotional player, but hasn’t had the kind of mental meltdowns we’ve grown accustomed to seeing him have. Adding Arron Afflalo provides some much-needed leadership inside the Kings locker room, and will soften the blow offensively if the Kings are able to finally trade Rudy Gay. But like the Lakers, this team will spend most of the season watching good teams play and not become one.
13. Denver Nuggets
Shooting was one of the more problematic areas for the Nuggets last season, and they sought to address that through the draft by selecting Kentucky’s Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley from Florida State. Both should help a Nuggets team that ranked 25th last season in 3-point shooting (33.8 percent). Danilo Gallinari is one of the more under-rated shooting bigs in the NBA and should look to assert himself even more this season. But the player to keep an eye on is Emmanuel Mudiay. He has the kind of size (6-foot-6) and power for a point guard that with some experience, could make him into one of the better young players at his position. Denver also has a couple of nice big men in Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. Strides will continue to be made under Mike Malone, especially on defense where they ranked 25th in the NBA last season with a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 106.4. But there are just too many teams out West that are just better which will have Denver on the outside of the playoff picture.
12. New Orleans
The Pelicans were ravaged by injuries most of last season which made it next to impossible for them to play their way into what they were hoping would be back-to-back trips to the playoffs. Anthony Davis continues to be the man for the Pelicans. The all-star forward/center was the only player in the NBA to average at least 20 points (24.3), 10 rebounds (10.3) and two blocked shots (2.0) per game last season. The Pelicans were the ninth-best 3-point shooting team last season and should be even better with the addition of Buddy Hield. Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans should each make a greater impact this season if they can stay healthy. And while it may seem a bit pessimistic to harp on the health of New Orleans’ players, after the injury-riddled season they are coming off of, health is far and away the biggest concern for them heading into this season.
The Suns will once again find themselves on the doorstep of the playoffs, but not quite ready to kick it in and get a trip to the postseason. Phoenix hauled in a pair of teenage big men in the first round by selecting Marquese Chris and Dragan Bender. But the key for them will be the play of Eric Bledsoe and how he’ll perform after spending most of last season out with a knee injury – the third time he has had a major knee injury during his six NBA seasons. The one bright spot that the Suns will certainly lean on more this season is Devon Booker who came on strong at the end of the season to give Karl Anthony-Towns a short-lived run for the league’s Rookie of the Year award. Phoenix also added veterans Jared Dudley and former Celtic Leandro Barbosa to the mix. Better days are very much on the horizon for the Suns, but there’s too much youth on this roster for them to withstand the ups and downs that will surely come their way this season and still win games.
The Rockets are doubling-down that they have the kind of roster that can simply outscore opponents. James Harden will get lots of shot attempts, obviously. Two of Houston’s newest signees, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, both came over from New Orleans where each had their struggles defensively but proved they could flat-out score. And as much as this team struggled defensively a year ago, they’re bound to be even worst this season. Aside from Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer, defensive-minded players on this roster are few and far between. And while offense may win you games, defense is what gets you into the postseason and keeps you moving from one round to the next - something this shot-happy bunch probably won't have to worry about this season.
This may be one of the more exciting teams in the NBA, a description I thought I would never make for a team coached by ex-Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau. His teams in Chicago were always about defense, defense, defense. But with the players he has in Minnesota, Thibodeau has to let them run looser than he’d like. This is a young team and young teams have young players who want to be on the floor playing. Karl Anthony-Towns. Andrew Wiggins. Zach Lavine. All have superstar potential, and they play with a youthful exuberance. It will be interesting to see how Thibodeau handles his new team that’s filled to the brim with young people. They will be better than they were a year ago and should be among the teams fighting for the last playoff spot.
8. Oklahoma City
Russell Westbrook is a bona fide superstar whose numbers are likely to be even better with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka gone to Golden State and Orlando, respectively. The Thunder will need Steven Adams and Enes Kanter to continue their ascension as players as well as newcomer Victor Oladipo to become a legit number two (or number three depending on Kanter’s play) scorer to Westbrook. Kudos to Sam Presti and the rest of the Oklahoma City front office for convincing Westbrook to bypass free agency this summer and re-sign a long-term extension to stay. They have a star who will be around for years to come. But can they surround him with enough talent in an already challenging Western Conference to be anything more than just a playoff team?
The Jazz got a lot older this offseason by adding a trio of battle-tested veterans in Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw and George Hill. The development of their young players seems to have reached a point where they needed some more seasoned guidance in order to take that next step which is to get to the playoffs. In comes Johnson, Diaw and Hill with the latter two having won NBA titles with the San Antonio Spurs. Even with the addition of veterans, this team will still be led by Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood who was one of the league’s most improved players a year ago. On paper, it adds up to a team that’s on the cusp of the postseason in what’s going to be a critical year as Utah tries to do enough to convince Hayward to want to sign a long-term contract this summer when he’s likely to opt out and become a free agent.
In terms of surrounding Dirk Nowitzki with good players, the Mavericks were in roll-the-dice mode this summer. After an underwhelming performance in the NBA Finals, the Mavericks signed Harrison Barnes to a max contract that will pay him more than $22 million for this upcoming season. That in itself would be the big offseason addition right? Not really. As Mavericks fans will discover (and Golden State fans already know), Andrew Bogut is a game-changer with what he can do defensively from the center position and should fit in nicely with Rick Carlisle's defensive system. Dallas also returns Wes Matthews and former Celtic Dwight Powell, who should have a more prominent role this season. The Mavs have enough talent to where they should be in the playoffs. But beyond getting to the postseason, don’t look for Dallas to make much noise this year.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
Every team has a limited window to compete for a championship and the Clippers seem to be at that point right now. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul could conceivably hit the free agent market this summer. Frankly, it's far from a given that they will return, either. Griffin’s career has been marred by a slew of injuries, some through the course of play while others were self-inflicted. Depending on how this season plays out, he may be in the market for a fresh start. And Paul knows the window for him to play a meaningful role on a title-contending team is shrinking. If the Clippers don’t make a deep playoff run this year, he too may be looking to take his talents elsewhere akin to what Kevin Durant did this past summer. The Clippers have the kind of star power to compete with Durant and Golden State. But their lack of depth which was an issue last season, will ultimately seal their fate. Former Celtic Paul Pierce isn’t close to being “The Truth” that Celtics fans know and love so well. Another former Celtic, Brandon Bass, should help, but his role is yet to be defined. Jamal Crawford is still an elite sixth man, but he too has lost a step courtesy of Father Time. J.J. Redick’s shooting helps but again, it’s not enough to lift this team back into the title-chasing conversation. Because of that, don’t be surprised if the Clippers look to shake up their roster (Griffin to Boston perhaps?) sometime prior to the trade deadline if they are out of contender status shortly before the trade deadline.
The Grizzlies quietly went about strengthening their roster in both the short and long-term with some of the moves they made. Mike Conley is the league’s best player to have never been named an All-Star, a distinction he should be able to discard after this upcoming season. Memphis also went out and landed Chandler Parsons who has been injury-riddled in the past couple of years but still produces in a multitude of ways when healthy. Veterans Marc Gasol and ex-Celtic Tony Allen will continue to anchor a Memphis defense that has been among the league’s best in recent years. And of course Zach Randolph will continue to be a force scoring on the block as well as rebounding the ball. And the draft night additions of Wade Baldwin IV and Deyonta Davis provides a couple of young, promising players that Memphis won’t have to rush on to the floor because of the team’s depth ahead of them. The Grizzlies are not title contenders, but they have enough pieces to where them securing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is not out of the question.
3. San Antonio
Tim Duncan may not be walking through that door anymore for the Spurs, but by no means does that mean they will fall off. Near the end of his time in San Antonio, Duncan was a shell of the player that will be remembered as one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game. San Antonio began preparing for this day last summer when they acquired LaMarcus Aldridge. Pairing him up with Kawhi Leonard along with perennial Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker is enough to keep San Antonio in the upper tier of the West. But what makes San Antonio so special is that as you go down their roster, you find guys like Danny Green and Patty Mills and David Lee and the new “old” guy, 36-year-old Pau Gasol who is still a double-double threat every time he steps on the floor. San Antonio won’t be the same with Duncan now retired. In some areas, they are actually better, which gives them one of the best shots of any team to knock off the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
One of the biggest surprises in the NBA last season, the Blazers won’t be so fortunate to sneak up on teams this season. Damian Lillard is an All-Star and his backcourt partner C.J. McCollum (they kill teams on an nightly basis with all that damn scoring they do) lead the way for one of the youngest, most exciting teams in the league right now. And this summer, they paid big money to keep their core guys around (McCollum, Mo Harkless, Allen Crabbe) as well as add big-time talent in Festus Ezeli and former Celtic Evan Turner. Ezeli gives them another physical body around the basket while Turner provides the Blazers with another ball-handler to a roster that’s extremely versatile. Increased depth along the frontcourt with lots of interchangeable parts on the perimeter will create some matchup nightmares for opponents.
1. Golden State
Even if they had not acquired Kevin Durant, Golden State would still be the team everyone in the West would be chasing this season. No one knows for sure just how much losing Andre Bogut (to Dallas) and Festus Ezeli (to Portland) will hurt this team especially from a defensive standpoint, but they have Durant so … I think they’ll be OK. The challenge for Golden State has more to do with them internally than any outside force or opponent. Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all superstars in the NBA, each with their own way of putting their imprint on games. While all indications are that they should not have any problems meshing, it remains to be seen what happens when they have to play in real games. But unlike most super teams that are formed, three of these guys (Green, Thompson and Durant) are getting a feel for each other right now as part of Team USA’s men’s Olympic basketball team. Playing on such a star-studded team forces players to work the game without the ball in their hands as much. That kind of experience can only help once they rejoin the Warriors and begin preparation for this upcoming season. Just as last season was a title-or-bust year for Golden State, the same holds true now. Anything less than a championship will be a disappointment in the eyes of some, a failure on their part. They have more superstars on their roster than any other team. They have players with championship experience. Their role players have shown the ability to step up when needed and step aside when asked to. Add up all those factors and it seems as though a second title in three years is theirs for the taking.