OK, over the past week we’ve broken down the incredible amount of player movement in the Western Conference and how it could impact the Mavericks.
The LA teams, in no particular order, are favorites to get to the NBA finals. But the Clippers and Lakers are by no means head and shoulders ahead of Houston, Denver, Utah and maybe Golden State and Portland.
Only 82 games will tell us exactly who won this summer. But that won’t stop us from handing out our offseason power rankings.
Here’s how we have the Western Conference pegged, at the moment. And let the bashing begin on Twitter (@ESefko) and via email (email@example.com).
1. Los Angeles Lakers: Most experts believe the crosstown Clippers have earned the right to be the preseason favorite in the West, but in reality, it’s the Lakers. And there are several reasons why. First, if you’re going to start your team with two superstars, would you rather have LeBron James and Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. James just keeps on going and while he may have to manage his minutes a bit this season, he and Davis get the nod in this book. Throw in Kyle Kuzma (still can’t believe New Orleans didn’t extract him in the AD trade), DeMarcus Cousins, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Danny Green and that’s a pretty solid surrounding cast, pending the recovery of Cousins from injury. A deserving top pick.
2. Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard might be as good as any player in the league right now and he’s in his prime. But the dreaded “load management” could make life tough on the Clippers. As cutthroat as the West is going to be, can teams afford to give away a certain number of games to rest stars for the postseason? And the Clippers don’t have quite the supporting cast around Leonard and Paul George as the Lakers do. Pat Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are solid. But the Clips will be asking Landry Shamet, Ivica Zubac and Maurice Harkless to carry big loads. That’s risky.
3. Houston: Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on P.J. Tucker’s shoulder when he and Clint Capela talk about how they’re going to clean up all the defensive miscues of James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon? The Rockets are going to score a bunch. So will their opponents. And while the wins will pile up, you have to wonder just how the chemistry is going to work between Westbrook and Harden. They were first and second in the entire league last season in terms of who has the ball in their hands the most. Can we reasonably expect one to defer? And while Chris Paul and Harden coexisted – for awhile – Paul could make a 3-pointer consistently. Westbrook cannot. Going to be fun in Houston, but extremely volatile, too.
4. Denver: The Nuggets won 54 games and were the second seed in the West last season. They have done nothing to suggest they won’t be just as good this season. Except for the fact that other teams around them keep getting better. Adding Jerami Grant will help and if they get anything out of Michael Porter, it’ll be a bonus. But mostly the Nuggets are hoping their young core continues to grow and play the sort of defense that made them so tough last season. And they have to be an energy team. Being No. 2 in offensive rebounding last season proves how active they are when they are at their best.
5. Utah: This is how tough the West is. A team that won 50 games last season adds Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis – and still can’t move up higher than fifth in the preseason rankings. The Jazz would seem to have everything they need to make a push for the championship. The question is whether Donovan Mitchell can emerge as a legitimate star. That’s really all this team is missing. They have great lieutenants in Rudy Gobert, Conley and Joe Ingles. What they need is that one guy they can dump the ball to and know that something good is going to happen. Mitchell will have more help around him, and remember, he averaged more than 23 per game last season. But he needed 20 shots per game to get it.
6. Portland: A considerable amount of turnover took place on this team, mostly with smart, but under-the-radar moves. But they still have the monstrous backcourt to lead them. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum are probably the best offensive backcourt in the league with Klay Thompson likely out for the season at Golden State. The Blazers have brought in Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, all of whom likely will have large roles. And the return of Jusuf Nurkic could happen later in the season. Still, it’s hard to see the Blazers recapturing the run that took them to the conference finals last season.
7. Golden State: Yes, we know. There is no Kevin Durant. No Klay Thompson. No DeMarcus Cousins. No Andre Iguodala. All are gone. But the Warriors still have Steph Curry. And Draymond Green. They added two pretty solid pieces in D’Angelo Russell and Willie Cauley-Stein. Through the years, we’ve learned to bet against Curry at your own risk. The Warriors were the top seed in the West last season. They still have two of their best players – two legitimate all-stars – to rival any twosome in the West. So while the Warriors are no longer in the conversation about winning it all (until Thompson’s return), they will be a tough out during the regular season.
8. Sacramento: OK, we know that people are going to see this and immediately question the validity of these rankings. But hear us out. The Kings went from 27 wins two seasons ago to 39 wins in 2018-19. Now, do we expect another 12-win improvement. Not a chance in a dog-eat-dog West. But with Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley a year older, this team will be better. And Harrison Barnes, as we know, will always be steady. Adding Trevor Ariza, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Cory Joseph will give some veteran support to the young core. This team has been built smartly and it wouldn’t surprise us if they end up in the playoffs – or battling for a spot right down to the very end.
9. San Antonio. It’s extremely difficult to place the Spurs out of the top eight. But let’s face it: Unless Tim Duncan turns back the clock, takes off the assistant-coach suit and puts on a uniform, this team is going to have a difficult time making the playoffs. LaMarcus Aldridge is always solid and DeMar DeRozan is, too. But did the Spurs do enough in the offseason to reasonably expect to move up from the No. 7 seed they had last season? DeMarre Carroll is a Spurs kind of player. And they’ll get point guard Dejounte Murray back after a lost season to a knee injury. But will it be enough in a much-improved West? We are skeptical, to say the least.
10. Dallas. The heart wants to put the Mavericks higher than this. But the simple fact is that the they are starting the season with too many “ifs.” They will be playoff contenders if Kristaps Porzingis returns to the form that helped him be an all-star before wrecking his knee in 2017-18. And if he can play a lion’s share of minutes. And if Tim Hardaway Jr. can still be a solid shooter and scorer after leg surgery. And if Delon Wright, Seth Curry and Jalen Brunson can solidify the backcourt alongside Luka Doncic. And if the trifecta of Boban Marjanovic, Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber can ably man the center spot and help solve a rebounding problem that has been several seasons in the making. It’s just a lot of question marks. Hence, the low rating.
11. Minnesota: It’s been a fast fall from grace for the Timberwolves, who were in the playoffs two years back and won just 36 games last season, a number they will be hard-pressed to reach this season. Hard to believe considering they have one of the best big men in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns and a volume scorer in Andrew Wiggins. But they don’t have a whole lot else to get excited about unless rookie Jarrett Culver bursts on the scene. A lot of people will be surprised if the Wolves don’t deal one or both of their stars at some point this season, even though they both have monstrously bad contracts.
12. New Orleans: As they say, you better get your hits on the Pelicans now because they figure to be a rough bunch to handle in a year or two. Rookie Zion Williamson is going to be the face of the franchise and the Pelicans know they have a five-year window to build around the young phenom and show him that New Orleans has long-term staying power. And Williamson surely has seen the ways of Anthony Davis and knows that, if things go well, he can be the next Drew Brees (OK, Drew Brees-light) in New Orleans.
13. Phoenix: You can only go so many years with high lottery picks before you get better. That hasn’t happened for the Suns as they have missed the playoffs for an amazing nine seasons. And only one of those nine has produced a winning record. They are destined for at least one more painful year. But they do have two good players in Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker. Adding Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric will help with some offensive punch, but this team remains years away from being relevant in the Western Conference.
14. Memphis: The Grizzlies are probably two years behind the Mavericks in their complete rebuild. They no longer have the grinding players like Mike Conley and Marc Gasol that helped them spend seven consecutive seasons in the playoffs. Now it’s all about how Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks fit together for the future. The Grizzlies are going to take a lot of lumps this season. But they have made the decision to rebuild and if Morant turns out to be the point guard they hope, they’ll have a fighting chance to expedite the process.
15. Oklahoma City: They have more draft picks in front of them than a bartender at happy hour. That’s good for the future. It will be disastrous for this season. The Thunder have treated their fans to nine playoff trips in the last 10 seasons, including one visit to the NBA finals. Now the fan base gets to see how the other half lives. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with attendance, especially during football season. It also will be interesting to see who steps up for the Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steven Adams, Darius Bazley? Anyone?