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Western Conference Preview: Ranking the teams in tiers

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Tom Haberstroh joins Brother From Another to talk about how the Warriors can proceed from Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole and what Golden State can do to make it work for them.

Much like the East, the Western Conference is deep — but it may be even more brutal.

There are legit contenders at the top, but the depth means some solid teams that would be playoff locks most years could miss the postseason altogether — or pivot midseason to chase Victor Wembanyama.

Let’s break down the Western Conference by tiers to see just how brutal it is. (Note: These are tiers ranked by title contention, not regular season finish — I think Dallas could finish top four in the West but I don’t see it as a title threat.)

CONTENDERS

Golden State Warriors
Los Angeles Clippers

The Warriors are an obvious inclusion, and while they have some adversity and tension to overcome now thanks to Draymond Green’s right cross, there should be no doubt the Warriors are in the mix to repeat as champions. Don’t be shocked if Stephen Curry puts up monster regular season numbers, even by his insane standards. The inclusion of the Clippers will have some readers shaking their heads — we see you, Lakers fans — but they absolutely deserve to be here. The Clips have the deepest roster in the West, a two-time Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard, an All-NBA level player in Paul George, plus a roster filled with versatile, quality role players that gives Tyronne Lue options. The only question is will they finally be healthy? Will Leonard and George be ready to go in the playoffs? If so, the Clippers can beat anyone.

FRINGE CONTENDERS (WE HAVE QUESTIONS)

Memphis Grizzlies
Denver Nuggets
Phoenix Suns

These teams could jump up to the top tier and have the potential to come out of the West, but they have big questions to answer (more than the ones in the tier above). With Memphis, this feels like a season the team plateaus — progress is never linear. The Grizzlies lost depth with Kyle Anderson and DeAnthony Melton leaving, and are banking on internal improvement to make up for that, but will it be enough? Long term, no team in the West has a brighter future than Memphis (New Orleans is the only competition), but this feels like a speed bump season in the short term.

Denver is finally healthy with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back in the fold next to two-time MVP Nikola Jokic. They have quality depth with Aaron Gordon, adding Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the growth of Bones Highland, and others. The two questions are will Porter’s back hold up for a whole season, and can this team defend at a high enough level with Jokic at the five to win it all?

If Phoenix fans are ticked their team is not up with the full contenders, they have a legitimate argument — this team won 64 games last season, the one after reaching the Finals. But the defensive collapse at the end of the playoffs was a major red flag, Chris Paul is not getting any younger, there are questions about distractions with Deandre Ayton plus the team being sold, and around the Suns the West has gotten better. It just feels like they take half a step back. Maybe the Suns will prove me wrong and push themselves up a category by the end of the season, but I’m not entering the season sold they are a true contender anymore.

PLAYOFFS OR BUST

Dallas Mavericks
Minnesota Timberwolves
New Orleans Pelicans

These are teams fighting for the sixth seed (and avoiding the play-in), or at least getting the seventh or eighth seed and having an easier path through the play-in — anything less than making the real playoffs should be a disappointment for these three. The Mavericks, with Luka Doncic surrounded by good shooters and enough defense, may win enough regular season games to look like they belong in a higher tier, but I think the loss of Jalen Brunson really hurts them come the playoffs. I do not believe this team is a title contender, as constructed.

The Timberwolves have gone big and paid a steep price to plug Rudy Gobert into the middle of their defense — that will make them better. Minnesota will take a step forward. But come the postseason there will be big questions about if they can hang with the best in the West, teams that will target the weaknesses of a Karl-Anthony Towns and Gobert front line. I think that lineup can be exploited in a series. The one wild card with Minnesota is how big a leap Anthony Edwards makes, he could change the dynamic.

No team may be more entertaining to watch this season than Zion Williamson and the Pelicans. CJ McCollum provides not only outside scoring but the locker room leadership this team needs, Brandon Ingram is a bucket, and they have quality role players. I’m not sold that their defense is championship level, but they are a team on that path in a few years.

PLAY-IN TEAMS

Los Angeles Lakers
Sacramento Kings
Portland Trail Blazers

These are three teams fighting for the final two play-in spots. The Lakers are the one team capable of moving up a tier — we don’t question LeBron James’ play, effort or commitment to winning, he will do his part. But is Anthony Davis ready to be the best player on both ends of the floor for a playoff team over 82 games? Can he stay healthy? And Russell Westbrook... he’s going to have to show with actions he fits in. Darvin Ham will be a good NBA coach, but this roster will test him.

The Kings are desperate to break their 16-year playoff drought and put together a solid roster around Domantas Sabonis and De’Aarron Fox, but I’m not sold they will defend well or consistently enough to make the playoffs. If Damian Lillard is all the way back in Portland he could lift this team to the playoffs, but it’s very heavy lifting with a nice-but-not-thrilling roster (again, in a brutal and unforgiving West).

LOTTERY BOUND

Utah Jazz
Houston Rockets
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs

Houston will be an entertaining team with Jalen Green and Jabari Smith, but the hard lessons of how to win in the NBA are coming. Danny Ainge made his intentions clear with this team and they are not done dealing — Lauri Markkanen, Jordan Clarkson, Mike Conley, Michael Beasley and other veterans could be on the move. The Jazz will get weaker as the season moves along. The Thunder were going to lose a lot of games anyway, but the loss of Chet Holmgren for the season makes them a little less interesting to watch. Teams are going to call about a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander trade. I like Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell in San Antonio, but this is more about Gregg Popovich getting to teach, not wins.