The Western Conference is, as always, going to be a brutal proposition for teams vying for June glory. And while the Portland Trail Blazers seem to have no trouble making the NBA playoffs with Damian Lillard in tow, the superstar’s emphasized urgency to win at the highest level has reduced any wiggle room this team might have previously had.
Based on trades, the draft and free agent moves already in the books, the West hierarchy appears to have become pretty clear — unless another big deal is still to be executed.
As a result, I’ve divided the 15 teams into five distinct tiers, highlighting how the Western Conference hierarchy might look this season. Franchises in each category are in no particular order.
Teams expecting to at least make the Western Conference Finals with a real shot at the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Last season’s Western Conference champions have improved slightly, retaining Chris Paul while poaching wing Landry Shamet from the Nets. The Suns have been a different team since the start of the Orlando Bubble with GM James Jones continuing to round out a roster filled with stars, versatility and exceptional role players able to compete on both sides of the basketball.
The geriatric Lakers have added Russell Westbrook and a list of capable shooters at the vet minimum. LeBron James and Anthony Davis will always be a handful but with the addition of the durable Westbrook, this team is a better regular season proposition and a nightmare for opponents come playoffs. If this team is able to stay injury free, it’s going to be hard not seeing them play off for NBA Finals contention.
The Jazz brought back Mike Conley Jr. while essentially swapping Rudy Gay for Georges Niang. Donovan Mitchell is also another year older and interestingly, they’ve replaced Derrick Favors with everyone’s favorite former Blazer, Hassan Whiteside, so we’re not too sure how that one will play out. Conley Jr.’s hamstrings had a serious impact on the Jazz’ Conference Semifinal loss to the Clippers. If he and the roster can remain reasonably healthy come playoffs, they’re going to be hard to stop.
Franchises with decent enough rosters but missing an injured player or still a star away from stamping their claim at the top of the tree.
Before the Kawhi Leonard injury, the Clippers were an out and out contender. But even without the two-time Finals MVP, this team is stacked so it really depends on which Paul George shows up come playoffs. The retention of Nicolas Batum, Reggie Jackson, and the additions of Eric Bledsoe will help the Clippers stay deep. Who knows, Leonard might return from his partially torn ACL ligament late in the season. But even if he doesn’t, this is still a dangerous team.
The Nuggets are a confusing team. Similar to the Clippers, they are missing a key player in Jamal Murray. But with reigning MVP Nikola Jokic returning, never count this Denver team out. Michael Porter Jr. will have another year of improvement and with the retention of Will Barton and the addition of renaissance man Jeff Green, watch for the Nuggets to be up there. Please note, despite losing to Denver last season, the Nuggets might be Portland’s best opportunity to jump into this category.
The Mavericks have returned essentially the same team, bringing back Tim Hardaway Jr. and Willie Cauley-Stein and adding Reggie Bullock. However, I’m not sure the Mavericks new front office is done trying to upgrade this roster — there’s been some reported interest in former Heat point guard Goran Dragic. Luka Doncic will have another season in the books and divisive big Kristaps Porzingis has had time to heal some of those ailments that held him back last season.
Making up the playoff numbers
Squads trying their best to avoid the play-in tournament but will struggle to displace those above.
Sorry to all Blazers fans but unless new coach Chauncey Billups can magically transform this team’s defensive woes, the Blazers are not in the top two contender categories. At best, they might be able to snare a playoff berth without going through the dreaded play-in nightmare, but I repeat, at best. With a healthy Damian Lillard, the Blazers are always a chance in the postseason but as Lillard himself has highlighted, this team might not be good enough for anything more than a chance.
The Warriors welcome back Klay Thompson from a hellish 24 months of injuries while bringing in Otto Porter Jr. and a couple of lottery draft picks. Thompson’s ability to return to his best at age 31 is the question. Otherwise, it’s more Steph Curry and Draymond Green, playing with a group of role players and kids.
The Grizzlies have the capacity to vault into the next group up but the health of players like Jaren Jackson Jr. will be key. I’m bullish on the ability of Memphis’ young core of Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke to take that next step. In fact of the three teams in this tier, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Grizzlies surprise us.
Last play-in spot/on the cusp
Three franchises with young cores hoping to be on their way up and make that next step into playoff contention.
The Pelicans are a mystery. Their offseason was underwhelming, saying goodbye to Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams, and Bledsoe and welcoming Devonte’ Graham and Jonas Valanciunas. However with Zion Williamson, and to a lesser extent, Brandon Ingram still on board, internal development could be enough to see New Orleans make the play-in and cause some headaches.
The Kings got marginally better bringing in Tristan Thompson to support returned big man Richaun Holmes. They also added Summer League co-MVP Davion Mitchell to the glut of guards including De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, and Tyrese Halliburton. I just can’t get too excited about the Kings because history has told me not to. This could be the season they return to the playoffs but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
I debated on whether to include the Timberwolves in the category below. But Coach Chris Finch was able to unlock positive elements to this team toward the latter end of last season. Karl Anthony-Towns and D’Angelo Russell need to stay healthy and Anthony Edwards needs to take that next step. If these things happen, they could be headed for a play-in slot but a lot still needs to be proved.
Franchises with eyes on next year’s draft and acquiring picks and young assets. They’re not trying to win.
The Spurs are officially re-building. No DeMar DeRozan, no LaMarcus Aldridge, no Rudy Gay — and who else gives Zach Collins three years and $22 million (yes, we know half of this is non-guaranteed)? This roster is young, except for Doug McDermott of course, so let’s not hold out too much hope. But with Gregg Popovich still at the helm anything is possible.
Oklahoma City is doing what it does best, stockpiling picks and developing young talent. The only real veteran on this team will be Derrick Favors and even he’s likely to be moved this offseason or at the deadline. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Australian Josh Giddey are the picks of the bunch bit don’t expect this team to be contending any time soon.
The Rockets have gone full re-build in the aftermath of James Harden’s departure. John Wall, Eric Gordon, and Christian Wood are the only established players on the roster and don’t be surprised if the first two get moved over the next six months. Oh, can’t wait to watch Jalen Green.
The Blazers have a lot of doubters to prove wrong this season. This one included. I’m not hoping this team falls flat on its face come playoffs but all signs indicate that’s where they are heading.
An achievable goal for this team should be to avoid the play-in tournament, which means displacing one of the Clippers, Nuggets, or Mavericks. This is not unachievable, especially if the Nuggets stall without Murray.
But even with a finish between fifth and eighth, this is not going to be enough for Lillard to give this roster a glowing endorsement.
There is still time for Portland President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey to swing a trade but going on previous experience, this seems unlikely.