The loaded Western Conference has not given way just yet. With some All Stars shifting from the East to the West, the discrepancy between the two conferences has grown once again. This year, there are plenty of competitive teams that might not make the cut. Here’s my look at the 2017-2018 Western Conference, separated by tiers. The list is in order of my predictions of the regular season standings.
Tier 1: The Warriors
Golden State is coming off a championship, three straight finals runs, and the most successful playoff run ever in their 16-1 slaughter of the Playoffs last year. There isn’t a team in the league that comes close to them. Just look at this lineup:
Steph Curry / Shaun Livingston
Klay Thompson / Nick Young
Draymond Green / Omri Casspi
Kevin Durant / Andre Iguodala
JaVale McGee / Zaza Pachulia
This group of 10 players could reasonably be separated into multiple playoff teams in the West. At this point, there’s no reason to believe the Warriors won’t win the 2018 championship. As for the regular season, this Dubs team will probably throw down 70 wins. They are just that good.
Tier 2: The best teams that aren’t the Warriors
Last year’s 3rd seed, the Rockets swapped Patrick Beverly and Lou Williams for Chris Paul – a hell of an upgrade at the point guard position. This move received a lot of buzz – CP3 and James Harden are both known to have the ball all the time. Having them start for the same team could produce some problems – or it could be great. I’m a believer in this team. Coach Mike D’Antoni proved himself last year when he orchestrated one of the best offenses in league history with only one All Star player in Harden. Add one of the greatest offensive players in the history of the NBA to that squad? I like it. Chris Paul is too intelligent of a player to let his number of touches get in the way of a W.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder are, arguably, the most interesting team in the league this year. GM Sam Presti had an offseason for the ages, adding Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, as well as signing Russell Westbrook to a 5-year extension. Westbrook, the 2017 season MVP, averaged a triple double and carried the team to 46 wins last year. OKC essentially swapped out Enes Kanter and Victor Oladipo for PG and Melo, which is absolutely a net positive. The starting five now boasts three possible Hall of Famers, a fantastic defender (albeit atrocious scorer) in Andre Roberson, and center Steven Adams in the paint. The main worry surrounding the team is that the egos of the big three will collide. This could be a serious issue; last season Westbrook put up the highest usage percentage in NBA history. Now he has to share the ball with two other ball-dominant players. Westbrook isn’t the only one with a big head either – both PG and Carmelo are rumored to have freezed out teammates for stealing the limelight. In New York, Melo may have ostracized Jeremy Lin during Linsanity. And in a loss last year, George blasted teammate CJ Miles for attempting to take the last shot of a game. On the flip side, this roster is chock full of talent, and talent wins games. I am more than comfortable putting them at third in the West.
San Antonio Spurs
There is a fear among NBA analysts of doubting the Spurs, as there should be. San Antonio hasn’t won less than 50 games in any season this century, making the playoffs year in and year out. Questions arise, though, after San Antonio lost some depth when they let go of Jonathon Simmons and Dewayne Dedmon. Furthermore, their roster keeps aging; Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker are all now well into their 30’s. Lastly, LaMarcus Aldridge is a big question mark for San Antonio. Last year the big man fell apart in the playoffs, but has committed to a better season this year. In addition, the Spurs acquired forward Rudy Gay, who has bounced around the league averaging 19.3 points and 6.1 rebounds a game for the past four years. While Gay has put up good numbers, there’s a reason why teams aren’t clamoring for him; also, if the Spurs are looking to make a dent in the playoffs (which they are), the 31 year old veteran has only played seven playoff games in his career. Doubts aside, I believe in the Spurs for one reason: head coach Gregg Popovich is the best in the entire league. It makes sense to doubt the Spurs when they lose breakout role players like Simmons, but Pop is the guy that turns those players into somebodies. From the front office to the coaching staff, San Antonio knows what they are doing. I could see them picking up a diamond in the rough as they usually do, or even retooling before the trade deadline.
Tier 3: Playoff Teams
Leading the pack of the teams-in-the-west-that-really-wish-they-were-in-the-east, the new and improved Timberwolves are looking for their first playoff appearance since 2004. The Wolves finagled a few picks and underdeveloped players into the acquisition of Jimmy Butler – which, to me, already improves their record by eight games. Zach LaVine was the only real loss that Minnesota endured, but the young squad still has all the potential you could ask for. 2014 first overall pick Andrew Wiggins will finally have a veteran scoring guard to look up to in Butler. Wiggins has struggled to live up to his expectations as a two-way player, but this year is different for Minnesota. Jimmy is the real deal, and now that he’s reunited with Tom Thibodeau, a huge weight must be lifted from Wiggins’ shoulders. Not to mention, 2015 first overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns is a total beast. In the 25 games after last year’s All Star break, Towns averaged 28.4 points and 13.3 rebounds a game at 21 years old. This kid is the real deal. Throw in point guard Jeff Teague as a replacement for Ricky Rubio and add Taj Gibson to the frontcourt mix and this team has more than enough pieces to make their mark on the West.
After signing PF Paul Millsap this summer, Denver looks ready to be a playoff team. The Nuggets won 40 games last year, added one of the best power forwards in the NBA, and have plenty of pieces to fill out the depth chart. Guards Will Barton and Gary Harris are stars in the making, and I expect Kenneth Faried to be traded during the season for some retooling. The main issue with the Nuggets’ roster is their gaping hole at point guard; Emmanuel Mudiay is not capable of running an NBA offense. Fortunately, Denver’s frontcourt of Millsap and Nikola Jokic is one of the best offensive duos in the league.
Los Angeles Clippers
Chris Paul is out and Lob City is officially over. But the Clippers aren’t going to be significantly worse, at least for the time being. The CP3 trade yielded them Patrick Beverley, who was on the 2017 first team all defense alongside Paul, as well as Lou Williams, the 2015 Sixth Man of the Year. PF Blake Griffin finally has the opportunity to prove his ability to lead an offense, and the addition of Sam Dekker will aid center Deandre Jordan on the defensive end. Unfortunately, for now, rookie guard Milos Teodosic is out indefinitely with an injury. Lastly, the Clips have mended their gap at SF by acquiring Danilo Gallinari. The forward has had issues staying on the court, missing more than a third of his games over the past three years, but has averaged 16.7 points and 4.7 rebounds when he does play. While I am not a believer in coach Doc Rivers, the Clips have enough pieces on their roster to pull out a winning season.
The Blazers had a relatively quiet offseason. They shipped Allen Crabbe, who was not living up to his $19 million/year contract in any capacity, to the Nets along with a pick to clear up cap space. They then drafted Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan, two promising rookies at center and PF respectively. Led by guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland is always a solid team. The two are one of the deadliest backcourts in the NBA, averaging a combined 50 points per game. And, in the 20 games that he played for the Blazers last year, Jusuf Nurkic put up 15.2 points and 10.4 boards a game. Having the big man for an entire season will add on to the already robust lineup that Portland brings to the table. In other news, Dame D.O.L.LA. dropped his new album.
Tier 4: Not Quite There
New Orleans Pelicans
New Orleans is an interesting case; two of the best players in the league are on this team. and I just can’t see them making it through the season without falling apart. The top-heavy roster starts off sounding fantastic with DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis leading the pack, then trails off big time. The duo make up what is ostensibly the best front court the league has seen in a decade. After that, Jrue Holiday is about the only respectable player on the team. Year after year, the injury bug rolls through this team and it crumbles. With Alvin Gentry, who is my pick for the worst coach in the league, still steering the ship, I anticipate this happening again.
Gordon Hayward and George Hill are out, putting the Jazz in the bottom half of the hard-hitting Western conference – but the Jazz are not hopeless. Center Rudy Gobert is the driving force behind one of the best defensive teams in the league, and the multitude of additions the Jazz made in the offseason will keep them competitive. Ricky Rubio is the new starting point guard and will be desperately needed to facilitate Utah’s offense. Rookie guard Donovan Mitchell has had an encouraging display in both the summer league as well as preseason, and high-scoring SG Alec Burks is finally back to full health. Unfortunately for the Jazz, Dante Exum is likely to miss the majority of the season once again due to a preseason injury. For more on the Jazz, I wrote a more in-depth piece on their recent history here.
RIP to the “Grit and Grind.” Tony Allen and Zach Randolph have both left the Grizz, ending one of the strongest team identities in the NBA. The team has some serious holes in its depth chart now. Chandler Parsons only played 34 games last year, and the minutes he does play are hardly worthy of his $23 million/year contract. James Ennis, Jarell Martin, and JaMychal Green should not be depended on as much as they will be this coming season. But Memphis is not going to have a bad year – Marc Gasol and Mike Conley proved themselves to be bona fide ballers in last year’s playoffs. Coach David Fizdale did a better job than I had anticipated, and their season ended in a hard fought six-game series against the Spurs. Now that he has one season now under his belt as the head coach, I think Fizdale is going to keep the ball rolling. In the West, however, that’s just not good enough.
Tier 5: “Rebuilding”
Coach Rick Carlisle can make something from nothing, and he’ll have to do it again this year. The Mavs are the quintessential rebuilding team – they clearly don’t want to tank while Dirk Nowitzki is still on the roster. With the 9th pick in the draft, they grabbed PG Dennis Smith Jr., who I think will be great for the team in the future. Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel are the key players for Dallas this season, but how much can you expect those guys to do in the West?
The Lakers have sucked since the 2013-2014 season and aren’t at the point where things will turn around, but this Lakers squad is fun. Magic Johnson is in the front office, Lonzo Ball and co. are either the best or the worst thing to happen to the NBA this year, and Kyle Kuzma is starting a revolution of going off in games that don’t count. Full of potential, drama, and off-court shenanigans, the Lakers are, at the very least, entertaining. This cutesy phase will be over soon, though, when LA becomes good. And in a few years, they’re gonna be really good. For now – I can’t see this roster putting together a winning season. LA traded D’Angelo Russell for former Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez, leaving them with only seven awesome young guys to develop. Lopez is a great big man, and this is a contract year for him, so you can expect the Lakers to nab a few more close games just by virtue of having a solid veteran on the team. Ultimately, the rebuild is not over. Julius Randle hasn’t hit his stride, 2nd overall pick of the 2016 draft SG Brandon Ingram has not yet broken out, and Lonzo is just 19 years old. I think that Coach Luke Walton is a phenomenal player developer, so I trust that this team will be good in the future, but it’s not happening this year.
For once, I don’t hate everything that the Kings did this offseason. They selected PG De’Aaron Fox and C Harry Giles in the draft (Giles is a risky pick), signed George Hill as the new starting point guard, and picked up old man Vince Carter as a vet. The team is gearing up for the future; they don’t have any star players that are going to win them games, but they have some up-and-comers in Willie Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield. Don’t expect anything crazy from this squad.
The Suns are just bad. That’s okay, though, because expectations are pretty damn low. Phoenix is in the midst of tanking, and the fruits of their dubious labor caused them to snag forward Josh Jackson fourth in the 2017 draft. This addition goes well with their timeline; Phoenix has one of the youngest rosters in the league. Devin Booker dropped 70 points in a game last year – that’s exciting, right? The point is, it gets worse before it gets better.
Photo: Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle