Part two of a two-part series of articles in which News sports writer Cory Smith gives the outlook for the 2017-18 NBA season. Part one, featuring the Eastern Conference, ran on Wednesday and is available read on the newspaper’s website. Today, we’ll cover the power-packed Western Conference, and whether anyone can challenge the defending champion Golden State Warriors.
SPOILER ALERT: The West is really, really good. As has been the case for the past few years, there will be a collection of teams that will fail to make the playoffs in the West that could destroy a handful of playoff teams in the East.
1. Golden State Warriors
Who else? With four superstars in Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, not to mention a gaggle of quality role players, Golden State is the favorite to repeat and win the championship yet again. For perspective, Golden State went 16-1 in the playoffs last year and managed to improve in the off-season. The Dubs added sharpshooters in Omri Casspi and Nick Young while maintaining, well, everyone important. The Warriors’ second unit could beat a number of Eastern Conference teams.
2. Houston Rockets
Houston, in my opinion, is the biggest threat to Golden State in the Western Conference. Mike D’Antoni’s team shoots a LOT of threes. The Rockets may not have star power at four positions like Golden State, but they do tout the record for the most 3-pointers made in a season (2016-2017). Houston also had the highest percentage of threes made last season. James Harden was an MVP finalist last year and is now teaming up with one of the game’s best point-guards in Chris Paul. What lifts Houston over the next two teams is depth. Against the Warriors, the second unit is just as important as the first, and D’Antoni has plenty of weapons to work with. Chris Paul may be sidelined, but the Rockets are still second-best in the West.
3. San Antonio Spurs
In classic Spurs fashion, San Antonio rode under the radar this off-season but managed to stay afloat in the West. The last time the Spurs finished below second in the conference was 2010-2011. Kawhi Leonard was an MVP finalist last season and is back following an injury that kept him out of the Conference Finals. Not to mention Gregg Popovich has rallied LaMarcus Aldridge, recruited Rudy Gay, and kept the Spurs at or above 50 wins for nearly two decades.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
The 2016-2017 MVP needed help, so OKC went out and got it for him. With Carmelo Anthony and Paul George now sporting Thunder jerseys, Oklahoma City looks to take control of the Western Conference. Unlike many sports most vocal pundits, who consider OKC’s biggest problem being that there is only one ball to be shared between three scoring machines, my issue with the team is depth. Carmelo Anthony is 33 years old and plays defense similar to that of a six-year old at times. Steven Adams is seven feet tall and 255 points. Eventually, players will need a break. What makes the three teams above so great is their mixture of superstars and role players. OKC dispensed their supporting cast to obtain Melo and PG13. Imagine the Warriors’ second string going up against Raymond Felton, Alex Abrines, and Jerami Grant?
5. Minnesota Timberwolves
The league’s most improved team will undoubtedly be the Minnesota Timberwolves. The T-wolves exchanged a portion of their young talent gold mine for veteran stars and role players alike. Minnesota was kept the core of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns while adding Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, Jeff Teague, and Jamal Crawford. Tom Thibodeau had a year to work with Wiggins and Towns and worked with Butler and Gibson. It’s feeding time in Minnesota.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
Not sure whether to invest in young talent or recruit a superstar, the LA Clippers did neither. Instead, the lost Chris Paul and paid Blake Griffin entirely too much money to inevitably get hurt (again). The Clippers are still a very good team and could rise even higher if Blake Griffin expands his range and DeAndre Jordan learns how to shoot a free throw. LA added a defensive specialist in Patrick Beverly and sixth-man of the year candidate Lou Williams. LA also added their best small forward in years in Danilo Gallinari. The Clips may win close to 50 games, but any playoff aspirations will be squandered by the stacked Western Conference. They are the best team in LA if that counts for anything.
7. Denver Nuggets
One team that has flown under the radar of the casual fan until recently has been the Denver Nuggets. Denver has one of the games hottest young stars in Nikola Jokic and managed to recruit Paul Millsap in the off-season. Denver has shown faith in Gary Harris by recently resigning the 23 year-old to a four-year, $87 million contract. The Nuggets have depth at every position, but must learn to play defense. The Nuggets allowed the fourth-most points to opponents last season. Despite this, the Nuggets look to strike gold and make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
8. Portland Trailblazers
Rounding out the field in the West and earning the right (read: punishment) to face Golden State in the first round of the playoffs is the Portland Trailblazers. This rating is entirely based on the progression of Jusuf Nurkic. The eight spot was honestly a toss-up between Portland, New Orleans, Memphis, and Utah. Damian Lillard are two stars that are often overshadowed in the stacked West, but are one of the most efficient duos in the league. Nurkic is a promising young talent that was acquired by Portland during the 2016-2017 season. Only playing 20 games with Rose City, Nurkic helped the Blazers achieve a 14-6 record. If the Bosnian Beast can’t contribute to Portland in scoring and rebounding, they can kiss the eight seed goodbye.
JUST MISSED THE CUT:
New Orleans Pelicans – I love Anthony Davis. I think he is an MVP-caliber player that is perfect for this generation of big men that can stretch the floor. Acquiring Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo helps the Pelicans with depth issues, but won’t be able to push the team into the playoffs. It’s time to start building around Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, or the Pelicans are going to miss their window of opportunity.
Memphis Grizzlies – The Grizzlies haven’t missed the playoffs since 2009-2010, which will just make this season more disappointing. Zach Randolph and Vince Carter moved to Sacramento and Marc Gasol is past his prime. The team still has Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons and may win 40 games, but no more. The best thing that could happen to the Grizzlies would be for the league to realize that Memphis isn’t in the western United States, and move them to the East.
Utah Jazz – Utah was the five-seed last year for the first time since 2009-2010 and even defeated the Clippers in the first round. Rudy Gobert is the star of the team with support from Rodney Hood and the recently acquired Ricky Rubio. However, the loss of Gordon Hayward was a huge blow for the Jazz and will keep them out of the playoffs.
Los Angeles Lakers – LA hosts a slew of young talent that will get the Lakers in the playoffs one day soon, just not this one. Lonzo Ball is good, no doubt about it, and both Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are trending up fast. Things are looking good for the Lakers for the first time since Kobe Bryant retired. A few more pieces will get the franchise back on track.
Dallas Mavericks – Dirk Nowitzki will be back for another year as a mentor to young talent. Seth Curry and Harrison Barnes were the main contributors to the Mavs’ 33 wins last season and will continue to be the focal points. Dennis Smith Jr. is being called the biggest steal of the draft, at least giving the Mavericks something to build on.
Sacramento Kings – On paper, the Kings are a really good college basketball team. With 10 players 25 or under, the future may be bright for Sacramento. Not a great sign, though, when 147-year-old Vince Carter is the second-leading scorer. The longest playoff drought in the NBA will continue for another year. Not much else to say for the time being.
Phoenix Suns – Devin Booker scored 70 points in a game last season. I defy you to think of another Suns highlight from Phoenix last season. The franchise is overpaying Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley while also drafting poorly, a recipe for disaster. To make things worse, Eric Bledsoe is on the trading block. No way the Suns win more than 20 games this season. I heard Charles Barkley was getting in shape, maybe it’s time for a comeback. Until then, a Kentucky Alumni game is all that will happen in Phoenix.