When you add the best player in the world and the top four rookies in the incoming class, the already superior NBA Western Conference will be great in 2018-19.
It might not be better than ever.
Golden State and Houston remain the best teams in the NBA. But the Warriors’ key acquisition was a 300-pounder coming off Achilles surgery and the Rockets brought aboard a 34-year-old has-been who ranks among the league’s biggest defensive liabilities.
It’s clear an up-and-coming Boston team is far closer to wrestling away a championship from the Warriors than Cleveland was the past two seasons.
Most of the rest of the top teams in the West in recent years either going nowhere (Portland, Oklahoma City) or in serious decline (Minnesota, New Orleans, San Antonio, Los Angeles Clippers). The door has opened for two rather nondescript clubs — Utah and Denver — to move way up, and for a 47-loss Los Angeles Lakers squad immediately to become a player simply by adding LeBron James.
Here’s how the West pans out this season:
5. Denver. The Nuggets improved six games last season despite the fact that Paul Millsap, guaranteed $90 million to lead that charge north, was limited to 38 games because of wrist surgery. Denver has a star at all three levels — guard Jamal Murray, forward Millsap and center Nikola Jokic — and now complement them with two potentially dynamic players coming off serious injuries — guard Isaiah Thomas and forward Michael Porter Jr. A No. 3 seeding in the Western playoffs isn’t out of the question.
4. Los Angeles Lakers. No team will be more intriguing this season than the Lakers. The potential is there to win big now by trading from their young foundation in order to get a star sidekick for LeBron James, or stand pat while James makes his first year in LA an 82-game recruiting mission. James sounds patient at the moment, but if cracks appear in the Golden State and Houston armor, don’t be surprised if he convinces management to take shot at his ninth consecutive NBA Finals. Coach Luke Walton might need that kind of run to survive James’ scrutiny.
3. Utah. Don’t count out the Jazz this season. They are being molded in the Duke tradition of consistency and team-bonding. Not coincidentally, it’s former Duke starter Quin Snyder directing the Jazz’s rise back into the NBA’s elite, with a roster that now includes former Duke national champ Grayson Allen.
2. Houston. Like last year, it’s quite possible the Rockets will finish the regular season with a better record than the Warriors. And like last season, exhausting that extra effort in a generally meaningless endeavors could be a mistake. Other than figuring a way to cover up Anthony on defense, Mike D’Antoni’s grandest task this season will be to make sure Chris Paul is at 100 percent when the ultimate showdown with Golden State arrives in May.
1. Golden State. There’s already talk of Kevin Durant joining James in LA next season. Klay Thompson is another pending free agent. And DeMarcus Cousins … yikes. Make no mistake: The Warriors are far more vulnerable mentally than last season, and that’s saying something for a team that was criticized at least once a week by its coach for not trying and led the league in technical fouls when it believed even the referees were out to get them. Or the “Fab Four” just might be adding Mick Jagger for a farewell tour the likes of which we’ve never seen. Tune in. It could be much more entertaining than the seemingly predictable ending would indicate.
The others (in alphabetical order):
Dallas. Those picking Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year haven’t seen Deandre Ayton play this preseason.
Los Angeles Clippers. Are the Clippers the destination darlings of the 2019 offseason? Clippers fans are asking: Can we just fast-forward to July and find out?
Memphis. When we last saw a healthy Mike Conley, the Grizzlies were a 43-win team. They aren’t anymore.
Minnesota. The bottom of the West has improved to the point where the Timberwolves, depending upon the size of their fire sale, can’t be written off as a contender for the No. 1 pick in June.
New Orleans. Poor Dell Demps. He did a brilliant job piecing together a nice run out of nowhere last year, but it won’t likely happen again.
Oklahoma City. Dennis Schroder was a steal … if the club didn’t already have a point guard who can’t shoot from the perimeter.
Phoenix. A terrific young center. Two playoff-tested forwards. The Suns aren’t the worst team in the West anymore. Heck, they’re a point guard away (hello, Timberwolves?) from being a big surprise.
Portland. Standing pat means going nowhere in the West. The playoffs are no sure thing.
Sacramento. Could a top college team compete in the NBA? Heck, the Kings are the College All-Stars, and they can’t.
San Antonio. Those who advised Gregg Popovich to ride into the sunset on the back of Tim Duncan’s horse in 2016 are looking smarter by the day.
–Dave Del Grande, Field Level Media