The NBA is back. Since Kevin Durant joined Golden State in the summer of 2016, the champion was all but decided before the season started. Injuries and a historic playoff run by Kawhi Leonard allowed Toronto to topple the Warriors in the Finals last June. Then all hell broke loose.
A free agent frenzy unlike anything professional sports has ever witnessed, this season is as open as any in the league’s history. Ten teams lay claim to legitimate title aspirations. Can LeBron and Anthony Davis join forces to win the King another title and restore the mystique of the Lakers franchise? Will Kawhi become the league’s unquestioned best player with another title in a third city? How will Giannis Antetokounmpo respond to his MVP season and disappointing playoff exit?
The following are my wild guesses as to the order of finish and records of the Western Conference teams. I’ll do the Eastern Conference on Monday. My extended Cleveland Cavaliers preview is here.
1. Denver Nuggets 58-24
By finishing second in the Western Conference a year ago, the Nuggets young core established themselves as a contender. Nikola Jokic is an MVP candidate. A wizard with the ball in his hands, he’s a 7 footer unlike anything the league has seen. Jamal Murray took a leap in his development in the playoffs, finding a consistency as a leader that many believed he lacked. By trading a 1st round pick for Jerami Grant, they acquired a versatile 3 and D threat at a position of weakness. The buzz surrounding Michael Porter Jr. this off season has built to a steady roar. If he’s capable of contributing, the Nuggets rise from an interesting playoff team into a title contender. The roster continuity of the 2nd seed in last year’s playoffs should allow the Nuggets to stack wins while their rivals in the conference fight early season growing pains. Tough to see them winning the title, but it won’t be a shock if they’re the 1 seed come April.
2. Los Angeles Clippers 55-27
The coup pulled by the Clippers in July, trading a nest egg of draft picks and up and comer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for Paul George and signing Kawhi Leonard to a free agent contract, netted them the best roster in the NBA and the favorites label for the title. Leonard established himself as a top three player in the league, willing the Raptors to the title, manhandling opponents on both sides of the ball. George is a rung below his new teammate on the NBA hierarchy, a consensus top three MVP candidate until a shoulder injury late in the year stymied his campaign. With Leonard, George, and Patrick Beverley, L.A.’s defense will choke opposing offenses in crunch time. While George is out to begin the season, rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and Kawhi again scheduled to be load managed throughout the year, the win total in the regular season may suffer. The title, however, goes through the L.A. team you don’t hear about.
3. Los Angeles Lakers 51-31
The city’s other title contending team has again built a hodge podge roster around LeBron James. This year differs from last, however, because of Anthony Davis. The most skilled big man in the NBA fits perfectly with LeBron, giving the Lakers two of the top six players in the league. This L.A. team’s title chances are murkier, however. James will turn 35 this season and has shown no desire to play defense since his Cavs title in 2016. Will missing the playoffs last year and the Davis addition rejuvenate LeBron? The roster surrounding the two superstars is suspect; asking for contributions from guys like Jared Dudley and Dwight Howard is tough. Kyle Kuzma must improve while learning to play alongside Davis, and someone from the group of Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope must play with more consistency than they’ve shown in their careers. Danny Green should be helpful when the playoffs roll around. For the Lakers to max out this season, Anthony Davis needs to be an MVP candidate and LeBron must dial in for the regular season. A title is possible, but things must fall precisely.
4. Houston Rockets 50-32
The most bizarre, yet exciting, transaction of the off-season was the trade of Russell Westbrook to the Rockets for Chris Paul. A marriage of the two most ball dominant players in the league will be fascinating. Russ must learn to do something positive on offense when James Harden has the ball for this experiment to work. The rest of the roster is untouched, though adding Thabo Sefolosha could give the team a defensive lift late in games. Expect plenty of wins in the regular season, but can Harden and Westbrook, who have struggled to advance in the playoffs, come together when the stakes are highest? I have my doubts.
5. Golden State Warriors 48-34
With the departure of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s injury, Steph Curry will be a show unto himself this year. He may lead the league in scoring and should be an MVP finalist. The Warriors roster is thin, however, after Curry, Draymond Green, and last year’s breakout All-Star D’Angelo Russell. a bench unit of Glenn Robinson III, Alec Burks, and Alfonzo McKinnie will cause this team to get blitzed in non-Curry minutes. If Klay Thompson can return soon enough, say late February, to round himself into playoff form, they will be a tough out. They are champions and proved as much by pushing the Raptors to 6 games in the Finals despite the plethora of injuries they sustained. Who wants to face Steph, Draymond, and Klay in a seven games series, regardless of their teammates?
6. Utah Jazz 47-35
A underrated off-season netted the Jazz the perfect running mate to Donovan Mitchell. Mike Conley is a veteran who can run an offense, play without the ball, shoot threes, and hound point guards on defense. A team that has relied too heavily on Mitchell to score in crunch time now has another option in the fourth quarter, sacrificing nothing on the defensive end. If that wasn’t enough juice for the offense, Bojan Bogdanovic, another sly addition, gives them a third ball handler used to stepping up during tense moments. His exploits with an under-manned Pacer team in the first round of the playoffs last year against the Celtics proved as much. With Rudy Gobert, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, manning the middle, the Jazz may be more formidable on that end of the court than the Clippers. Another team with title aspirations, if they can add another shooter at the trade deadline, the Jazz will have as legitimate a shot as anyone.
7. Portland Trail Blazers 46-36
We mention the Blazers each year as a team that could miss the playoffs. They then surprise, ending the season with home court in the first round. The culture Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard have built in Portland is impressive, and a Western Conference Finals appearance last year attests to that. Lillard is underrated, a top fifteen player in the league and one of its best leaders. He and C. J. McCollum form the best backcourt in the league, non Steph and Klay division. This year’s iteration of the Blazers is heavy on guards and centers; a big with range could improve their ceiling. Watch them as a trade destination for Kevin Love.
Seven could prove too low for them. If Jusuf Nurkic can return around the All-Star break recovered from his devastating leg injury, Portland will prove pessimists wrong again.
8. Sacramento Kings 43-39
Perhaps the most exciting team in the league last year, the Kings will again be a League Pass darling. Their up tempo playing style and dynamic young back court are impossible to turn away from. De’Aaron Fox could be the best point guard in the league in five years, and Buddy Hield is an electric shooter and scorer. Can they make the leap from spunky upstart to playoff contender? Marvin Bagley holds the team’s ceiling in his hands. If he becomes a 20-10 force, the Kings will ditch their 13 season absence from the playoffs and be a pesky out for one of the league’s contenders.
9. San Antonio Spurs 41-41
Predicting the Spurs to miss the playoffs is a fool’s errand. It’s been twenty-two years since the Spurs weren’t playing in May, and it’s hard to imagine Gregg Popovich, one of the three greatest coaches of all-time, not on the bench come playoff time. LaMarcus Aldridge continues as a mid-range wizard, one of the best in the game at scoring in spots the league has shied away from. The problem for them is their other semi-star, DeMar DeRozan, thrives in the same areas. For the Spurs to succeed, their young back court of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White must flash. Murray received breakout player hype last year before tearing an ACL and missing the year. White made strides last year, topped by his 36 point effort in Game 3 of their first round series against the Nuggets. Can the duo, under Pop’s guidance, extend the Spurs ridiculous playoff streak?
10. New Orleans Pelicans 38-44
By maximizing the return the team received for Anthony Davis, David Griffin turned New Orleans into one of the most envied situations in the league. Winning the Zion Williamson lottery didn’t hurt, either. Zion is the most anticipated rookie since Davis, catapulting the Pelicans to must watch status along with the L.A. teams. Alvin Gentry’s frantic playing style will benefit both Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. While LeBron elevates many he plays with, some buckle under the scrutiny he brings (Rodney Hood). If Ingram can make the leap from good to great scorer, think 25 a game, he could win the Most Improved Player award. The trade from Los Angeles should benefit Ball as well, calming the noise and allowing him to develop. He and J. J. Redick are a perfect pair. Perhaps the most underrated point guard in the league, though, is Jrue Holiday. An elite defender, Holiday is also a dynamic scorer and distributer. If Zion is as good early as many think he will be, the Pelicans may avoid the growing pains young teams fight.
11. Dallas Mavericks 36-46
Luka Doncic will be a perennial MVP candidate soon. His playmaking is elite; he can score at all levels. Joining with Kristaps Porzingis is a dream; they are the perfect complement to each other’s games. If Porzingis can return healthy and stay that way, the combo can be one of the best twosomes in the game. At 7’3”, Porzingis is a dominant paint defender and a knockdown three ball shooter. His ceiling is limitless, hampered only by his injuries. The roster surrounding them, however, is garbage. Tim Hardaway Jr., J.J. Barea, and Dwight Powell don’t inspire hope in a stacked conference. Dallas will be an exciting watch; just don’t expect them to win enough to crack the top eight.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder 33-49
Will Chris Paul remain here the entire season? An obvious trade candidate, his absurd contract, due 38, 41, and 44 million the next three years, scares away trade partners. Danilo Gallinari is a useful player, plagued by the injury bug however, as are Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder, though all are on disgusting contracts too. While they may surprise and win enough games to remain on the periphery of the playoff race, the Thunder dove headfirst into a rebuild this off-season, receiving a massive haul of first round picks for Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Too many to list here, the pick cache acquired by the Thunder will accelerate the rebuild whether they use the picks or package them in trades. Westbrook will always be an icon in Oklahoma, the star who wanted to stay after the other bolted. It was time for a trade, however, and each side will benefit in the long run.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves 27-55
A team that should be entering prime contention years, the young core in Minnesota hasn’t matured. Andrew Wiggins has underwhelmed, an inefficient scorer who can’t dribble and never developed into the defender most thought he was destined to be when drafted. Now being paid max money through 2023, Wiggins’ combination of contract and skill set is as undesirable as there is in the league. Karl Anthony-Towns used to be mentioned in the same breath as Joel Embiid, yet despite his dynamic offensive game, Towns hasn’t shown the propensity to play defense or lead an NBA franchise. They need an attitude adjustment in Minnesota before they can be considered playoff worthy again. The Wolves front office is hoping that rookie Jarrett Culver can become the player Wiggins has refused to, an all around scorer who defends.
14. Phoenix Suns 24-58
By acquiring the point guard they have been desperate for since ridding themselves of Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas, the Suns are hoping Ricky Rubio will stabilize their young roster. Established as a potent scorer, Devin Booker must now learn to choose his spots and learn to play without the ball, as Rubio will now initiate the Phoenix offense. An athletic freak, DeAndre Ayton needs to improve defensively in his second year, becoming the disrupter in the paint he seemed to be coming out of college. Will the Suns be able to run offense through him in the post? Ayton will have to improve on that side of the ball as well, though Rubio’s brilliant passing acumen will get him easy buckets. The Suns off-season was sporadic, trading a 1st round pick for Aron Baynes and Ty Jerome for reasons unknown and reaching for Cameron Johnson in the draft. The front office seems to be flailing. Their only shot at relevancy is Booker and Ayton becoming All-Stars, a tough ask.
15. Memphis Grizzlies 18-64
With the trades of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies embraced their reality. The Grit and Grind days of Memphis basketball are over. The beginnings of the rebuild have been a success, with Jaren Jackson Jr. showing flashes in his rookie year before going down with injury. He shot the three well at 36%, and with his length and athleticism is poised to take a leap in his second year. The key to the Memphis rebuild will be this year’s second pick in the draft, Ja Morant. An outstanding playmaker, his quickness and off the dribble shooting ability will put an extraordinary amount of pressure on opposing defenses. Add in the athleticism of their second first-round pick, Brandon Clarke, and the Grizzlies are ditching their old plodding ways for a faster paced style of play. They should be a fun watch. While they will struggle this year, allowing the youngsters to develop and procuring another high draft pick will pay dividends.