As great as the Western Conference has been in years past, its spectacular to think that it can be even better next season. With San Antonio reloading, the return of Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, and Golden State’s continued greatness, the West isn’t going anywhere.
1) Golden State Warriors
Sans David Lee, Golden State brings back virtually the same championship winning roster. Only challenge here is the Warriors going from the hunters to the hunted in a Western Conference that’s gotten much better at the top. I do expect Golden State to have another excellent regular season. Maybe not 67 wins great but maybe 59-63 could be realistic.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder
The return of Kevin Durant at full strength and with Russell Westbrook cementing his name among elite players in the NBA last season is why I have them ranked this high. Lets not forget, Serge Ibaka is still one of the better stalwart defenders in the league. The only question for me is how will first year coach Billy Donovan adjust to NBA life. Otherwise I see an angry Durant and company exploding to near 60 wins in what is possibly this core’s last season together (depending on Durant’s free agency prospects next summer). This squad will be one of the most interesting to watch in ’15-’16.
3) San Antonio Spurs
While they are the story of NBA West this offseason, many people do tend to forget with big additions come big challenges. I’m sure when people look at this list they will ask themselves why I have the Spurs at #3. I expect San Antonio to go through a early learning curve before putting it all together middle to late in the season. Ultimately the true value of adding LaMarcus Aldridge, David West and others will be realized in the postseason because as we know, Greg Popovich doesn’t really put much value in the regular season.
4) Los Angeles Clippers
Now that we can put that whole DeAndre saga behind us and focus on what his return means for the Clippers, it’s exactly what nearly everyone said when the news dropped of him going to Dallas. Jordan means more to the Clips than he would’ve to the Mavs. Not to be forgotten, Los Angeles added future Hall Of Famer Paul Pierce and everyone’s favorite talented knucklehead Lance Stephenson. Make no mistake about it, the Clippers are still in the championship conversation.
5) Memphis Grizzlies
There were moments last season when I felt that the Memphis window was closing. This summer they’ve re-signed Marc Gasol to a max deal and were at one point in talks to acquire Joe Johnson via trade which would have addressed their wing/shooting issues. Memphis is the wild card outside the West’s Big 4. If they draw the right matchup they will make noise. A team to keep an eye on next season.
6) Houston Rockets
It was a major accomplishment for this team to reach the Western Conference Finals last season. Some, including myself, may have viewed it as a bit of an over achievement. But the fact of the matter is James Harden came into his own last year finishing as the runner up for League MVP. Now comes the challenge of duplicating last season’s 56 win success in a much stronger NBA West.
7) New Orleans Pelicans
First year coach Alvin Gentry brings some recent championship success in Golden State to a young and up and coming Pelicans roster. Led by Anthony Davis who many feel will be the next player in line to take the torch as “best player on the planet” honors, New Orleans does have a workable roster with good talent that can make another playoff push. Now how far they go ultimately determines on how well Davis continues to develop . ‘Nawlins is still a few seasons away from entering top four status out West.
8) Utah Jazz
My dark horse for next season. The Jazz have a very talented young core who, in the second half of last season, was one of the hottest teams in the league and were it not for playing in the West, might have been a playoff team. While the Jazz didn’t make any significant free agency acquisitions, with a few teams expected to drop back in the pack next season, with guys like Rudy Gobert and Gordon Heyward, Utah has a golden opportunity to make a serious playoff push.
9) Phoenix Suns
A team loaded on potential, Phoenix can make a lot of noise in the NBA West if they play their cards right. Re-signing Brandon Knight at $70 million for 5 years might have been questionable to some but there are nice building blocks in the ‘Valley Of The Sun’. Alex Len continues to develop and Phoenix was able to retain Eric Bledsoe after much speculation about his future with the team. While the Suns also drafted G Devin Booker, ultimately Phoenix should be in the conversation vying for the 8th seed.
10) Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs may be the biggest question mark of all in the West. After a commitment then de-committment from DeAndre Jordan last week, Dallas now goes into next season where their biggest offseason acquisitions include Wes Matthews and ZaZa Pechulia. With a older Dirk Nowvitzi and the losses of Rajon Rondo, Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler via free agency, this may finally be the year Mark Cuban has to accept the rebuilding tag on his franchise. The signing of disgraced Nets G Deron Williams may actually turn out to be a positive stop gap with a team in obvious transition.
11) Sacramento Kings
For all the offseason dysfunction that’s been displayed in embarrasing fashion between ownership, DeMarcus Cousins, and George Karl, on paper Sac Town actually has a semi decent roster. This free agency period they added Rajon Rondo on a one year bargain which will help Rudy Gay and Boogie Cousins. Also, Kostas Koufus, while slightly over paid, does give the Kings an insurance policy. Having drafted another big man, Willie Cauley-Stein can actually keep Sacramento competitive and they’ll have a fall back option should they put Boogie Cousins back on the trade block. The Kings could actually be as good as 42 wins and as bad as 21 depending on team chemistry. They are one of the more interesting teams of 2015-16 and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Or is it?
12) Los Angeles Lakers
While the Lakers did strikeout on all the marquee names during this free agency period, I feel that they recovered well. Adding defending 6th Man of the Year Lou Williams, Brandon Bass and former Indiana Pacer Roy Hibbert are solid acquisitions. With the return of Kobe Bryant, Julius Randle and D-Angelo Russell looking to make strides in his rookie season, it is not far fetched to see this Lakers squad win between 30-35 games. And who knows? If something breaks their way in the West, a postseason berth maybe!?!?
13) Minnesota Timberwolves
The T’Wolves are team loaded with young talent but loads of questions in terms of when they finally make that upward trend toward a postseason berth. The team drafted Karl Anthony-Towns with their top overall pick in the draft. Couple that with Andrew Wiggins making huge strides in his rookie season, Minny could be in line for a 30 win season or better. The health of PG Ricky Rubio weighs heavy for future success with this franchise.
14) Portland Trailblazers
The Blazers are the team that on paper took the biggest step back this offseason. While they committed to Damian Lillard by paying him the max at 5 years, $120 million, this summer will be remembered as the one where Portland lost four of their five starters led by LaMarcus Aldridge. Sure they added names like Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh on the cheap, but there is a learning to curve to be had here. With that, Portland falls from legitimate Western Conference contender to lottery club member.
15) Denver Nuggets
This franchise is a mess. Doesn’t help that their best player, Ty Lawson, got arrested twice for suspicion of DUI’s in a six month span. Add in a failed Brian Shaw coaching stint and you have a team in disarray. First round draft pick Emmanuel Mudiay has looked impressive in Summer League which presents the opportunity to put Ty Lawson on the trading block. Ultimately this is a team in transition that may have productive players, but playing in the West is a problem where even the “bad teams” are starting to trend upward. Expect the Nuggets to be a cellar dweller for at least for one season.