It is unbelievably difficult to predict the outcome of this upcoming Western Conference regular season. A few certainties come to mind, but only two teams seem unwaveringly destined to miss the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks are not ready to make the jump yet, with promising times ahead, and the rest of the conference is a crapshoot. On the top end of the standings, we can confidently say that the Warriors and the Rockets will capture the top two spots, but as we saw in the standings this past year where three wins differentiated the third seed and the ninth seed, we are guaranteed to see an extremely close battle. Here is how things may pan out:
Golden State Warriors:
Boogie won’t be ready for an NBA return until at least after the All-Star break, but that won’t stop a team of four more all-stars from remaining atop the league. The team will experiment with interesting rotations all throughout the season as they prioritize keeping their Hamptons Five lineup healthy, which could result in some surprising losses. This will come as no reason for worry, given that the Warriors are sure to step up come playoff time. Today’s NBA dynasty should have no problem continuing their reign.
Last year, we saw the Rockets finish seven wins higher than the Warriors in the regular season, amassing the best record in the league by far. While the title for best record may be in jeopardy based on the nightly competition that they should face in comparison to the Celtics, Houston should still finish comfortably in first or second in the West. As long as they re-sign Clint Capela and add Carmelo Anthony to fill the void left by Trevor Ariza’s departure, the Rockets should continue to be the team with the best chances of taking down Golden State.
Oklahoma City Thunder:
Less is more for OKC, who certainly got a lot better by getting rid of Melo. While their roster is currently noticeably devoid of shooters, the talent on the team is certainly undeniable. On paper, the Thunder should have no problem being among the league leaders in defense (Westbrook, George, Roberson, Patterson, Noel, Adams), and added an underrated NBA point guard in Dennis Schroder. Props to GM Sam Presti for making a stagnant Thunder team better while also monumentally decreasing their luxury tax bill. If this team finds its stroke, they could certainly make a run that we would’ve expected last season.
Los Angeles Lakers:
Any team with LeBron James on its roster immediately becomes a contender. The best player in the world has possibly his most interesting supporting cast ever going into this season, and one can only imagine that this season is serving as a setup season for the Lakers. The King has committed long term, and LA has several wildcards on one-year deals (Beasley, Rondo, Stephenson, KCP, McGee). Couple that with possibly the most promising young core in the game (Ingram, Kuzma, Ball, Hart), and we will surely see some intriguing basketball coming out of LA this year. It remains to be seen how far LeBron can take this rag-tag bunch come playoff time.
Portland Trail Blazers:
We can’t overlook the fact that Portland took the third seed in the West last season, but I’m not a big fan of the moves that they have made in the offseason thus far. The Trail Blazers are limited in the players that they could attract to such a small market, but they have stockpiled (undersized) guards and completely ignored their needs at the wing. Sure, it’s reassuring to have so much backup for Lillard and McCollum (Curry, Baldwin IV, Stauskas, Trent Jr., Simons), but in a constantly improving Western Conference, I’m not sure a starting lineup that includes Al Farouq Aminu and Mo Harkless will be enough. Look for Portland to underperform despite their lofty expectations, thus forcing a full rebuild come next offseason.
On the Rise
I love the identity of this Jazz team that prides itself on defensive stability. This team has solid depth but lacks star power and a scoring punch. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are certainly all-star caliber players, but Gobert is somewhat of an offensive liability and Mitchell lacks experience. That didn’t stop the latter from making a ton of noise in the playoffs last season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lead his team to yet another playoff berth.
New Orleans Pelicans:
The Pelicans’ commitment to position-less basketball is one of the most refreshing aspects of any NBA team. Elfrid Payton has plenty to prove this season, while AD looks poised to be one of the league’s most likely MVP candidates. The dominance that he showed in the playoffs last year speaks to the fact that he could be the next best player in the NBA. Mirotic and Randle each have the requisite ability to make up for the talent lost when Boogie decided to ruin the NBA, but New Orleans will have to fight on a nightly basis if they want to come out of the West in the toughest conference we have probably ever seen in the NBA.
When we talk about the Timberwolves, we need to think about the healthy Timberwolves. When Jimmy Butler wasn’t sitting on the sidelines, this team was slotted in as the third seed in the West. After his injury, they fell down the standings, but Butler is expected to stay healthy this upcoming season and KAT is looking to take another step in his career. Minnesota may be a bit less deep than they were last season, but they bring back all of their starters and could make some noise in the West with a legitimate big three.
The Nuggets missed out on playoff contention this past season in dramatic fashion, but they should find their way back into the race this upcoming season. This team has had probably one of the most successful free agencies, extending Jokic, drafting MPJ, and bringing on Isaiah Thomas. Their young core should continue to develop nicely and I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw Isaiah revitalize his career in Denver. Paul Millsap also missed most of the past season, and will be looking to find his rhythm in a comeback season. Expect big things coming out of Denver.
This Phoenix roster certainly has the talent to compete, but we don’t know how quickly they could be making that jump. With a bevy of young talents (Booker, Ayton, Jackson, Bender, Chriss, Bridges, Okobo), Phoenix certainly has a bright future; the question is, how long will it take them to develop into contenders? With excellent veteran presence coming from Tyson Chandler and Trevor Ariza, we could see a huge jump in wins coming out of Phoenix. Sadly, however, it likely won’t be enough to beat some of these other powerhouse teams into the top eight spots.
Many teams are likely counting the Grizzlies out given their nightmare of a season in 2017-2018, but we forget about how much Mike Conley means to this franchise. Their window continues to shrink as Marc Gasol continues to age, but new recruits like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson could turn this team around quickly. Nobody really knows what to expect from the Grizzlies this upcoming season, and despite being in prime position to improve on last year’s win total, they should still fall short of playoff contention.
Los Angeles Clippers:
The Clippers have a ton of above average players, with not a single player who can be labeled as a star. They’ll surely be extremely difficult to play against on a regular basis, featuring some of the best depth in the league at pretty much every position. However, if they have any chance of making the playoffs, they need a player like Tobias Harris or Danilo Gallinari to step up and provide more of a scoring punch. They won’t be earning a spot in the top eight with Lou Williams as their leading scorer. Despite so many “if’s”, it is also worth noting that the Clippers were one of the most injured teams last season, and could be much more successful this year if healthy.
San Antonio Spurs:
We can never count the Spurs out when Pop is coaching. This team obviously lost their best player recently, but has retained depth at every spot on the floor. In addition, keep in mind that this team won 47 games last year essentially without Kawhi, so technically, DeMar DeRozan is surely an upgrade. Expect the Spurs to contend until the very end of the season, where they could just barely miss out on contention on the fact that their team is simply less talented than the other ones.
Western Conference Standings Projections
1. Houston Rockets
Houston will once again care more about the regular season than Golden State will, which will therefore result in the first seed. When Chris Paul is healthy, the rockets are arguably unstoppable, and present a legitimate threat at dethroning the Warriors.
2. Golden State Warriors
We must remember how late Boogie will come back, leaving GSW relatively thin at the center position for most of the regular season. They’ll still probably win more than 55 games, though, if not 60.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
The friendship that Russell Westbrook and Paul George have developed speaks for itself. I think that without Melo, this duo will exhibit incredible chemistry to lead them to a resurgent season where they capture the third seed. Keep in mind that the team underperformed last year, and still got the fourth seed.
4. Minnesota Timberwolves
Minnesota simply needs to live up to their talent. Questions about Butler’s long-term commitment to the T-Wolves still remain, but winning solves everything. If Andrew Wiggins can finally make that next step and Karl Anthony-Towns keeps developing, the potential of this team is limitless.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
AD for MVP, I’m calling it now. Anthony Davis is going to will this team all season long; they likely won’t have much success in the playoffs, but they’ll sure be a fun team to watch during the season. I’m excited to see how Julius Randle fares on his new team, as he showed some stellar play in his contract year with the Lakers.
6. Utah Jazz
Despite finishing fifth last season, the Jazz will likely take a step back next year once they see that the rest of the West has come to play. Regardless, they’re sure to be in the playoff picture. Look for Utah to offer max money next offseason after they’re butted out in the first round.
7. Los Angeles Lakers
How about a first-round matchup between GSW and LeBron? The King is notorious for taking it easy during the regular season and stepping it up come playoff time. LeBron’s Cavs finished in fourth place in the East last year, and in a more competitive conference, he could drop even further. This team is built to take on the Warriors, not to beat the rest of the league. Keep in mind that I’m expected seeds 3-10 to be incredibly close, as well.
8. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets could finish higher depending on how well Isaiah bounces back, but the fact remains that their best passer is their center. The Nuggets will easily be among the league’s best in points per game, but could also improve on the defensive end. However, it is undeniable that their team is tailor made for today’s NBA, and it’ll be interesting to see how high Nikola Jokic’s ceiling really is.