The Western Conference, just as it has been the past decade or so, is incredibly competitive. Figuring out the teams that should make the Playoffs was easy enough, but outside of the top three, the order could shake out in many ways. The same goes for the bottom half of the conference. A lot of these teams are young and on the come-up, how they fall in the standings will be based on their growth this season. It took me quite a while trying to figure out certain team’s placements; I definitely switched this order up multiple times before coming to the following rankings.
- L.A. Lakers
In this year’s Western Conference, I can honestly see twelve out of the fifteen teams really being in Playoff contention. Unfortunately for Lakers fans, D’Angelo Russell isn’t leading them to more than 25 wins. Finally clearing out Kobe’s contract allows this team to finally gear up for the future, and they have solid pieces in Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, and Randle; but it’s just not going to click this year. Luke Walton is a good coach, but it will take this young team some time to figure it out. Hope Luol Deng has fun babysitting this season.
- Phoenix Suns
Remember when the Suns finished 8th in the West and they seemed like the interesting, up-and-coming team? That seems like ages ago now. Devin Booker is going to be amazing, but this team still has a lot of question marks. Bledsoe and Knight are both starting caliber guards that can’t play together, and they drafted two high potential players that play the same position. If I were running the Suns organization, I would do everything in my power to secure another top-5 pick in this upcoming draft, and begin planning my presentation for DeMarcus Cousins in the summer of 2018.
- Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets are just on the outside of Playoff contention in my eyes. They have one of the better young cores in the league, but in an incredibly deep Western Conference, in which it usually takes a plus-.500 record to secure a Playoff spot, I just can’t see it. Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay make up an intriguing backcourt, and picking between Jokic and Nurkic is their biggest problem. They shouldn’t come into the year with Playoff aspirations, instead they should focus on the near future.
- Sacramento Kings
I really don’t like the Kings. It’s not because of the players they have, the coaching staff, or even their gross color scheme. It’s because they are a horribly run organization, and they’ve ruined the start of DeMarcus Cousins career. Cousins is the only reason I put them here at 12, instead of at 13 behind the Nuggets; he can singlehandedly win the Kings enough games to get them the 8th overall draft pick. Trade DeMarcus, move the team to Seattle, and allow other (smarter) people to run the front office.
- New Orleans Pelicans
Without Anthony Davis, this team could lose a lot of games. Healthy, they should push towards 41 wins; and that might still not be enough. Buddy Hield could storm into the league and prove to be a great outside shooting complement to A.D., but if not, he has yet to show potential for growth. Jrue Holiday is a great point guard when he’s healthy, the only issue is that the healthy moments are few and far between. Solomon Hill was the big free agent siging this summer, and while he has shown he can be an alright two-way wing, he’ll be asked to pick up a lot of the slack. Terrence Jones could look good playing next to Anthony Davis, not sure how much we’ll get to see that though.
- Minnesota Timberwolves
If this was the year 2020, I’d probably have the Timberwolves in the first overall seed. Luckily for us NBA fans, it’s 2016, and we get to watch this incredibly exciting, young squad grow together. Rubio will be dealt eventually, as long as Dunn proves that he is as good as we all think, but there’s no rush for that to happen. Speaking of Kris Dunn, the rookie is the oldest of their young core of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Zach LaVine. If this team stays together, their four best players could all be in their primes at the same time; pair that with years of playing together, you have the potential for a dominant franchise. Coach Thibodeau will try and turn Wiggins into a first-class defender, and will show Towns how to further expand his game on that end. Best bet of the year? Karl-Anthony Towns making an All-NBA Team.
- Dallas Mavericks
Rick Carlisle is an amazing coach, Dirk Nowitzki always proves those that say he’s “too old” wrong, and I actually think Harrison Barnes is better than most do. But they will fall just short in this campaign. Last year, the Mavs ended with a 42-40 record, good enough for the 6th seed. This season, I think reaching .500 could come down to the final game for this squad, and even that might still be futile. Bogut and Matthews are injury risks, and if they miss a lot of time Mark Cuban’s club could fall even further back in the standings.
- Houston Rockets
Mike D’Antoni coaching a run-and-gun offence based around James Harden? Sign me up! This offence is going to be exciting, as long as Harden buys into the system. Media day just passed and one of the bigger news items of the day was the fact that Harden could be starting at the point. This would mean that he and Eric Gordon would fill the guard positions, with Ariza, Ryan Anderson, and Capela manning the forward and center spots. The floor spacing this team will operate with will be enviable by most franchises; however, the defense is going to be another story. Harden is mocked viciously on the Internet for his defensive faux pas, Anderson is a sieve on defense, and Capela isn’t ready to carry this team on that end. Harden is an MVP-caliber player and can will this team into the postseason, and if this team can put up 125 points per game they could move up further in these standings.
- Portland Trailblazers
Media members and pundits thought the Trailblazers were lottery bound; that they didn’t stand a chance of making the Playoffs. Then they managed to reach the second round and put up a decent fight against the Finals-bound Warriors (thanks to some injury help from the Clippers). This Portland team didn’t lose anyone this summer, instead they gained further bench help by acquiring Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli. C.J. McCollum is the reigning Most Improved Player, and his backcourt mate Damian Lillard will look to push himself into the top-5 points per game leaders in the NBA. This team is still too young to make any real noise, but I can envision Damian Lillard leading the charge towards a championship one day.
- Utah Jazz
The Jazz are going to be this year’s bandwagon team, and for good reason. Barring injury, this team is poised to make a big jump this season. Bringing Joe Johnson, George Hill, and Boris Diaw into this young core adds much needed veteran leadership. Their small-ball closing lineups should come to be feared throughout the league, and they should be able to push for an even higher spot in the standings.
- Oklahoma City Thunder
Unleash the beast. Russell Westbrook is going to be going for the jugular all season, especially when the Thunder host the Warriors. Without Durant, the Thunder will definitely take a step back, however I don’t think it will be as big of a step as some think. Steven Adams looked like one of the best centers in the league in last year’s Playoffs, and the acquisition of Victor Oladipo makes the Thunder’s backcourt one of the most athletic in the league. The outside shooting will definitely take a dip this season, but the defensive potential of Oladipo, Roberson, and Adams could push this team further up the standings. Oh, and watch for Domantas Sabonis to close games by the end of the year, on route to making an All-Rookie team.
- Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley signed the highest contract in NBA history. While this “record” will quickly be broken, it does sound odd. The common NBA fan consistently forgets Mike Conley, and now that he’s signed such a large contract he’s going to have to prove that he really is underrated. Wade Baldwin was a good draft selection for them, with backup point guard being a weak spot for years. Chandler Parsons has a history of injuries, but if he can maintain his health he will be looked to provide a large chunk of the offence. Marc Gasol is still a top big man in the league, Zach Randolph appears to be slowing down, but even with a new coach in David Fizdale, I see the grit-and-grind Grizzlies obtaining home-court advantage in the first round of the Playoffs.
- L.A. Clippers
The Big 3 of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan are all healthy, and that’s a statement that could not have been said much last season. They signed Alan Anderson to bolster their wing depth, and that’s a move that I quite like. Even though he’s on the wrong side of 30, he can play multiple positions and add spacing to lineups that feature Jordan. The Clippers always seem like they’re on the brink of making a deep postseason run, we’ll have to wait and see if this is that year.
- San Antonio Spurs
It’s going to be strange seeing this Spurs team without Mr. Fundamental Tim Duncan, but finally acquiring Pau Gasol will help them out in the short term. Kawhi Leonard is an MVP-type of player, Danny Green should have a bounce back season, and the Spurs are still the Spurs. With Oklahoma City definitely taking a step back, the second seed will be theirs to lose.
- Golden State Warriors
Just like the Cavaliers out East, the Warriors should walk away with the Western Conference crown. While they did lose some depth from their bench, any team on the planet would have done so in order to acquire Kevin Durant. Replacing Barnes with Durant makes the “death lineup” absolutely terrifying, they managed to hold onto Shaun Livingston, and they signed Zaza Pachulia to ease the Bogut departure. I don’t think they’ll come close to their historic win total from last season, but this team should be in the range of high-60 wins.