The NBA finally tips off this week, with plenty of shake up across the Western Conference. The Warriors have been to four straight finals (winning three) and are almost unbackable favourites to do so again. Here’s my take on the West.
Golden State Warriors
From a talent standpoint, there’s almost no historic comparison. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are the superstars, but Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala complete ‘The Hamptons Five’.. Yet somehow the Warriors got stronger, pulling off the heist of the offseason, signing DeMarcus Cousins to a discounted deal as he recovers from a torn Achilles. Cousins likely won’t be available until the New Year and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same Boogie. Yet if he’s anywhere near close to the player he’s been through 8 seasons with Sacremento and New Orleans (21.5 points per game, 11 rebounds), then the Warriors look even more unstoppable, if that’s possible.
Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz
All four of these teams have optimism, but all four have flaws. Most fans of these teams would be happy to reach the Conference finals, where they can at least give themselves a shot at toppling the champ. The Rockets came closest last year, as they blew a 3-2 lead in the Conference finals, including losing game 7 on home court. Their biggest issue though is that they don’t appear to have improved their roster. Salary cap pressure forced them to part ways with Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, both key defensive contributors while capable three point shooters – a requirement for the Rockets style. Their replacements look underwhelming. Michael Carter-Williams, Marquese Chriss, James Ennis and (gulp) Carmelo Anthony have been added, but will need to improve from 2017-18.
The Lakers did make a notable addition. LeBron James signed with a Western Conference team for the first time in his career, as he looks to continue his own incredible NBA finals streak of eight in a row with the Cavaliers and Heat. While his signing automatically improves a young Lakers roster, the failure to lure another prized free agent probably limits their ceiling. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are intriguing young players still learning their way in the NBA, while the rest of the roster is more cartoonish than Space Jam. Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee could be high comedy, even if fails to translate into wins.
One of those prized free agents was Paul George. After basically forcing his way out of Indiana, George opted to re-sign with the Thunder, despite the chatter he was intent on joining the Lakers. Last year the Thunder were one of few teams to experience success against the Warriors, splitting their four regular season matchups. They positioned themselves as something of an anti-Warriors – a team built on the old school ability to stop opponents scoring. With Kiwi favourite Steven Adams anchoring the defense and elite wing stopper Andre Roberson partnering with George, the Thunder looked a tricky matchup for any playoff opponent. That was until Roberson tore his patellar tendon in January, leading to the Thunder exiting the playoffs in a first round loss to the Jazz. Health will again be the big question this season, with star Russell Westbrook having lingering knee concerns, while Roberson isn’t due back until after Christmas. They’ll be reliant on new addition Dennis Schröder to help their bench offense, while Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson will be called upon in Roberson’s absence.
As for the Jazz, they caught everyone by surprise last season in making the second round of the playoffs. With Gordon Hayward departing, it seemed a rebuild was in order for the Jazz, only for rookie Donovan Mitchell to emerge as a bona fide star. They’re a largely young side outside of Australian Joe Ingles and have elected to roll things back, with Duke rookie Grayson Allen the only notable addition. They’re also incredibly well coached by Quin Snyder. However, health is again the question mark. Rudy Gobert won NBA Defensive Player of the Year last year, despite playing just 55 games. Getting him to play more than 70 games will be key, something he’s managed just twice in five seasons.
The Wildcards: Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans
These are two sides built around incredibly talented centres. It’s hard to see either getting to the NBA Finals, but they’re both dark horses who could make playoff runs if things break for them. For the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap need to stay healthy, while they’ll need another leap from third year guard Jamal Murray. Isaiah Thomas is an intriguing signing who could add spark via the bench, while Michael Porter Jr could be the steal of the draft if his back troubles subside. The Pelicans shocked everyone in last year’s playoffs, sweeping the Blazers in the first round, before ultimately falling to the Warriors in five games. Anthony Davis carries the side on his shoulders, but has never really had the supporting cast to make this team elite. However, they found an identity last year as they upped the pace following Cousins’ injury, with Jrue Holiday emerging as an elite two-way guard. With Julius Randle and Elfrid Payton signing in the off-season, that high tempo game should continue.
The Playoffs?: San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trailblazers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks
That effectively leaves one spot left in the West. San Antonio come into this season for the first time without any of their big three, following Manu Ginobili’s retirement and Tony Parker signing with the Hornets. They also lose Kawhi Leonard, after he was traded to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. He joins LaMarcus Aldridge as the keys to their offense, but preseason injuries to Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV hurt their guard depth. Gregg Popovich is still their coach though, so don’t write them off. The Blazers finished as the 3rd seed last season, before being swept by the Pelicans. They come back with the same core, but whether that’s enough remains to be seen. There’s potential that they blow it up to ensure something in return for Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum. The Timberwolves have had plenty of off-court drama with Jimmy Butler demanding a trade, but he’s still there for now. That may be a good thing if he can inspire Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins to care more about winning, but it may also prove a disaster for the team chemistry. The Clippers look like a team in no man’s land – which is not a great place to be in the NBA. The old Lob City trio is gone with DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul departed, with the so called Goon Squad in its place. Lou Williams will be spurred on by his All-Star snub, while Tobias Harris could be in for a big year given his looming free agency. The Mavericks are likely big improvers, depending on if you believe in Luka Doncic hype or not. I absolutely do, Jordan is a great signing and Dennis Smith Jr. should make a leap in his second season. Surprising everyone to sneak into the playoffs would be a great way for Dirk Nowitzki to sign off on his career.
Not This Year: Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings
It’s been a sad spiral for the Grit n’ Grind Grizzlies. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley still remain, but Conley’s injury last season resulted in a sad 22 win season. I expect improvement on that, thanks to Conley’s return, savvy signings in Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple, as well as rookie addition Jaren Jackson Jr. The playoffs though? That seems a stretch. For the Suns, it’s probably not even in their thinking. They’re a young side outside of Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson and will be looking to develop #1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton, newly extended guard Devin Booker and wings Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges. That leaves the Kings. Who continue to be the Kings. De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles and Marvin Bagley III are worth watching, but the roster continues to look like it was assembled by a 10 year old.
Playoffs – Warriors, Jazz, Rockets, Lakers, Nuggets, Thunder, Spurs, Pelicans
The rest – Blazers, Mavericks, Timberwolves, Clippers, Grizzlies, Suns, Kings
Warriors beat Jazz in Western Conference Finals
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