For the last five seasons, the West has had the Golden State Warriors juggernaught presiding over it. That team, built around Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, won five consecutive Western Conference titles, with three of those resulting in being crowned NBA champions. Last year they stumbled in the NBA finals, almost literally. Both Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Klay Thompson (ACL) suffered long term injuries in games five and six respectively, as Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors hoisted their first Larry O’Brien trophy. Now, with the Warriors unit decimated, Leonard joining the Clippers, and a number of other changes to rosters across the conference, it’s almost impossible to predict just how things will shake out. Strap yourselves in, because this season is going to be fun, as we bounce into the wild, wild west.
The Favourites: Los Angeles Clippers
As open as things are, the bookies love the Clippers as favourites, and it’s easy to see why. Kawhi Leonard signed as a free agent and Paul George joined via trade from the Thunder to add to an already talented roster. Defensively they figure to be exceptional, and given some of their contracts, look a prime candidate to improve with another trade. The biggest question mark is George’s health. He’ll miss roughly the first quarter of the season due to surgery on both his shoulders, which will put the emphasis on Leonard and Lou Williams to carry the side offensively. Leonard’s workload figures to be managed through the season too. They seem a lock for at least home court advantage in the first round, and if they’re healthy will be tough to beat in the playoffs.
The Heavyweights: Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers
The Rockets have long been one of the bridesmaids, but never the bride, as they’ve struggled to usurp the Warriors. Four out of the last five seasons the Warriors have eliminated the Rockets from the playoffs, but this season will be seen as their opportunity. James Harden remains one of the league’s dominant offensive players, and now reunites with Russell Westbrook as a result of another Thunder trade. Just how the two ball dominant guards will fit together remains to be seen, and defensively they may struggle. However, that doesn’t matter quite so much during the regular season and they will score plenty themselves. The Lakers were the other team to pull off a blockbuster trade, pairing Anthony Davis alongside LeBron James in a deal with the Pelicans. LeBron’s first season in Los Angeles was largely disastrous, but now that he’s paired with an elite big man, the potential is there for him to again go deep into the playoffs. I’m not convinced, given some of the other holes in the roster.
The Smokeys: Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets
Two teams flying somewhat under the radar, but who have a lot in common. The rosters are deep, they’re well coached, and they experience excellent home court advantage in Salt Lake City and Denver. The Jazz look to have improved their roster from last year through acquiring Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic and Jeff Green, which will help take pressure off third year guard Donovan Mitchell. For the Nuggets, they’ve had less roster overhaul, but will be looking to build on last season’s run to the conference semis. Nikola Jokic is the star of the team and a potential MVP candidate, but has an able supporting cast. The addition of Jerami Grant will help them at both ends of the court, while there’s plenty of intrigue around Michael Porter Jr. Back injuries caused him to fall in the draft and then miss what would have been his rookie season, but he now looks set for a spot in the rotation and could be an x-factor.
The Wildcards: Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder
It feels strange to have these two teams here, but it really is a case of not knowing what to expect. The Warriors are unlikely to have Klay Thompson for much of the season, if at all, while Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala are also gone from the so called “Hamptons 5.” Any hope they have of a successful season rests largely on Stephen Curry’s slender shoulders, although D’Angelo Russell joins the team to help take some of the offensive load. The Thunder have an almost completely new roster, although Kiwi favourite Steven Adams remains. Chris Paul, Shai Gligeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari slot in, giving the Thunder a capable starting side, but it would seem that further trades could be on the cards. If the present roster remains all season, they could challenge for a playoff spot. If another trade happens, they could finish near the bottom.
The Regulars: San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trailblazers
Another season of Gregg Popovich coaching the Spurs, so surely another season in the playoffs, right? Plenty wrote them off last season, due to a roster seemingly ill fitted for the modern NBA, and some key injuries early in the season. Yet again though, there they were come playoff time. Dejounte Murray is back healthy to run the point, while the acquisitions of DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles seem particularly Spursy. The Blazers meanwhile are coming off a trip to the Western finals last year, but are another that people seem keen to write off. Damian Lillard will again be the focal point of the team alongside CJ McCollum, but the rest of the roster has had an overhaul. The key to a run to the playoffs will be their bigs. Hassan Whiteside needs to check his ego at the door after a stint in Miami filled with issues, while Zach Collins will be asked to make a leap in his first year as a probable starter.
New Kids on the Block: Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans
This is where the West really gets intriguing. The Mavericks are without Dirk Nowitzki for the first time in seemingly forever, but it’s two other Europeans who could help propel them to the playoffs in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Health is their biggest question mark, particularly with Porzingis, as he returns from a lengthy layoff due to a torn ACL. If the pair can stay on the court, this team has huge potential. The Kings meanwhile are coming off their best season in seemingly forever, even though they still fell short of the .500 mark last seen in 2005-06. Yet, their young roster is developing together around De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley III, while the veteran presence of Cory Joseph, Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon will be a big boost. For the Pelicans, all the hype is around the number one pick in the draft Zion Williamson. Injury will keep him out up to two months to start the season, which is a cruel blow for a team poised to jump back into the playoffs. They’ll need Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram can keep the team in the hunt until his return.
The Rest: Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns
The Timberwolves have disappointed in recent seasons, with the Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins combination unable to haul them into the playoffs. That seems the likely case again, although rookie Jarrett Culver is one to watch. The Grizzlies are a young team with lots of potential thanks to number two pick Ja Morant and one of last year’s breakout stars in Jaren Jackson Jr. However, they’ll need another season or two to marinade before coming into contention. As for the Suns, well, they look like they’ll be destined for another season near the bottom of the standings. Ricky Rubio will help take some playmaking pressure off Devin Booker, but there’s not a lot on the roster to get excited about.
Playoffs – Rockets, Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, Lakers, Warriors, Blazers, Mavericks
The rest – Spurs, Kings, Thunder, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Suns
Jazz beat Clippers in Western Conference Finals
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