Mid-Summer Power Rankings: LeBron James' arrival adds intrigue to Western Conference
The Golden State Warriors are still the overwhelming favorites to win the 2019 NBA championship. If anything, their chances have increased with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins and with Trevor Ariza’s departure from Houston.
But LeBron James’ arrival in L.A. makes the Western Conference all the more interesting, given how many other West teams are built to win now and some particularly intriguing urgency in places like Denver, Minnesota, New Orleans and Portland.
The biggest question is whether James’ arrival makes the Lakers a lock to reach the playoffs. His teams have been no worse than a No. 4 seed in each of the last 13 seasons, but all of those teams were in the East (which has had a losing record vs. the West in 18 of the last 19 years). James isn’t getting any younger, and the Lakers’ roster isn’t an ideal fit given the youth of the pieces that were already there and lack of shooting with the pieces that were added after James made his decision.
Throw in all the personalities involved and the Lakers are the biggest story in the league. But there’s intrigue up and down the Western Conference. Here’s how we see the West stacking up with this summer’s player movement having slowed to a crawl.
For these mid-Summer rankings, we’re looking at each conference separately. The Eastern Conference rankings were published last week and the “Last Week” rankings below are based on how West teams did in the playoffs and regular season.
- April 9: Cavs and Warriors look vulnerable as regular season closes
- This time last year: West makes power moves to increase conference imbalance — The Rockets, Thunder, Wolves and Nuggets all added stars in the offseason (though OKC had yet to trade for Carmelo Anthony). Blake Griffin re-signed with the Clippers after a free agency pitch that included t-shirts with Griffin as part of a group that included Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. And we ranked the Spurs a little too high (3) and the Blazers a little too low (17).
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Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
OffRtg: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
DefRtg: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
NetRtg: Point differential per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league averaged 99.6 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 106.2 points scored per 100 possessions last season.
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NBA.com’s Power Rankings, released every Monday during the season, are just one man’s opinion. If you have an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail or contact him via Twitter.
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Last Week: 1
2017-18 record: 58-24
Pace: 101.9 (5) OffRtg: 112.2 (1) DefRtg: 104.2 (9) NetRtg: +8.0 (2)
Key addition(s): Boogie
Key departure(s): Swaggy and Pierre
Key question: When do the playoffs start?
The next 12 months will probably be more interesting in regard to how a year with the Warriors (along with his recovery from a devastating injury) affects DeMarcus Cousins' value than how much he helps them in their pursuit of a third straight championship. They've generally been at their best with Draymond Green at center, but Andre Iguodala's age (he'll turn 35 in January) and Nick Young's departure affect their ability to play small, and in the conference finals against Houston, they were better with Green at the four (plus-14.5 points per 100 possessions in 170 minutes) than they were with him with no other bigs on the floor (plus-5.0 in 109 minutes). Until Cousins returns, they could be more bored with the regular season than they were last year.
Last Week: 2
2017-18 record: 65-17
Pace: 99.7 (14) OffRtg: 112.2 (2) DefRtg: 103.8 (6) NetRtg: +8.5 (1)
Key addition(s): James Ennis
Key departure(s): Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute
Key question: How much did they lose with Ariza's departure?
Chris Paul's injury in Game 5 of the conference finals will be one of the biggest "What ifs" of the Warriors dynasty, and, even without Paul, the Rockets held leads of at least 15 points in both Games 6 and 7. Given how close they were to beating one of the best teams we've ever seen, how did they let Ariza get away so easily when Chris Paul's contract (which will pay him $44 million when he's 36 years old) is such a win-now decision? Ennis is five years younger and $13 million cheaper than Ariza, but isn't as eager a 3-point shooter and has just six games of postseason experience. Without Ariza and Mbah a Moute, the durability of P.J. Tucker, who has missed just nine games over the last six seasons and was the best 3-point shooter in the playoffs (minimum 50 attempts), is all the more critical to this team's success.
Last Week: 3
2017-18 record: 48-34
Pace: 97.8 (25) OffRtg: 106.2 (15) DefRtg: 101.6 (2) NetRtg: +4.6 (5)
Key addition(s): Grayson Allen's ambiguously dirty antics
Key departure(s): Silly Rookie of the Year ads
Key question: How much better can Donovan Mitchell get?
Jonas Jerebko is the only departure from a team that had the third-best point differential (that of a 55-27 team) in the West last season (and got only 56 games from Rudy Gobert). And as good as Mitchell was in the playoffs, he could be even better after a summer of work. He was the best finisher at the basket among rookies his size over the last 10 years (see below), but shot just 29 percent on pull-up 3-pointers (only four players attempted more) and his assist-turnover ratio (1.35) was below average (1.74) among the top 50 guys in usage rate. Mitchell will turn 22 in September and the oldest guy in the Jazz's top nine (Joe Ingles) will turn 31 in October.
Last Week: 5 ↑
2017-18 record: 48-34
Pace: 99.2 (16) OffRtg: 107.6 (10) DefRtg: 104.7 (10) NetRtg: +2.9 (8)
Key addition(s): Paul George's commitment, Andre Roberson's health
Key departure(s): Carmelo Anthony
Key question: Who's the fifth guy?
The Anthony trade may be addition by subtraction and a healthy Roberson is a huge boost for the Thunder defense (which will get Russell Westbrook out on the break more often). But, especially with Roberson on the floor, they'll need somebody to be a threat as Anthony's replacement. Patrick Patterson was a disappointment last season, Jerami Grant isn't much of a shooter and it's unclear if Westbrook and Dennis Schroder can coexist. Still, the bottom line is that no other team has two players as talented as George and Westbrook under contract for four more years (luxury tax be damned).
Last Week: 8 ↑
2017-18 record: 47-35
Pace: 98.3 (22) OffRtg: 110.8 (4) DefRtg: 108.4 (23) NetRtg: +2.4 (9)
Key addition(s): Whispers of drama, Anthony Tolliver
Key departure(s): Two of the guys Thibs trusted off the bench
Key question: How long is this core going to stick together?
We shouldn't forget that Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are only 22 and 23 years old, respectively. Their best years are ahead of them and they each have room to grow on both ends of the floor. Jimmy Butler should be healthier and Tolliver should be an upgrade on the second unit. So there's reason for optimism here. Yet it feels more like a fragile situation, given Butler's ability to walk away next year, the bottom-10 defense, and the lack of both depth and perimeter shooting. Maybe Wiggins (34th in true field goal percentage among 36 players with at least 1,000 field goal attempts last season) is more comfortable in his second season alongside Butler.
Last Week: 9 ↑
2017-18 record: 46-36
Pace: 99.1 (17) OffRtg: 109.6 (6) DefRtg: 108.8 (26) NetRtg: +0.8 (14)
Key addition(s): Isaiah Thomas, big money for Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic
Key departure(s): The frontcourt logjam
Key question: Can they defend?
This will be a terrific offensive team. The Nuggets ranked sixth offensively last season with a point guard -- Jamal Murray -- who turned 21 in February and with Paul Millsap missing 44 games. But to compete in this conference, they probably can't rank in the bottom 10 defensively for a sixth straight season and they probably can't count on a healthier Millsap to be the only solution to their issues on that end of the floor. Maybe there was some noise in the league's highest opponent 3-point percentage last season, but the Nuggets are one of only two teams (the Suns are the other) that has ranked in the bottom five each of the last three years and also allowed their opponents to take a league-high 26 percent of their 3-point attempts from the corners.
Last Week: 4 ↓
2017-18 record: 48-34
Pace: 102.7 (1) OffRtg: 107.7 (9) DefRtg: 105.6 (12) NetRtg: +2.1 (10)
Key addition(s): Julius Randle
Key departure(s): DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, Elfrid Payton's hair
Key question: Will Randle and Anthony Davis get in each other's way?
The Pelicans ranked fifth defensively after Cousins was lost for the season and eviscerated the Blazers' top-10 defense in the first round. Payton is a huge question mark, but the addition of Randle and a healthier Solomon Hill gives them some lineup versatility with Jrue Holiday playing more minutes at point guard. Nikola Mirotic should complement both Davis and Randle, but how well they complement each other could raise this team's ceiling. The Cousins-Davis pairing worked well enough, but Randle has taken 81 percent of his shots from the paint over his career (compared to 64 percent for Cousins) and while Davis has expanded his range over the last three years, he still took more than twice as many mid-range shots as 3-pointers last season.
Last Week: 11 ↑
2017-18 record: 35-47
Pace: 102.6 (3) OffRtg: 104.2 (22) DefRtg: 105.6 (13) NetRtg: -1.4 (21)
Key addition(s): LeBron James and the Misfits.
Key departure(s): Brook Lopez, Julius Randle
Key question: How is this going to work?
There's no better way to improve your team than by adding LeBron James. And there's no weirder way to complement James than by adding Michael Beasley, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson. Yes, the Cavs needed more playmaking around James last season. But surrounding James with shooting is the simplest way to build a top-10 offense. The Lakers ranked 29th in 3-point percentage last season and, despite all the additions they made, are one of only three teams that doesn't have a player who ranks in the top 50 in 3-point percentage (among players with at least 500 3-point attempts) over the last three years. But this will be fun to watch, largely just to see how Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma develop around the best player in the world.
Last Week: 7 ↓
2017-18 record: 47-35
Pace: 97.2 (29) OffRtg: 105.5 (17) DefRtg: 102.4 (4) NetRtg: +3.1 (7)
Key addition(s): DeMar DeRozan, Marco Belinelli
Key departure(s): Kawhi Leonard, Uncle Dennis, Danny Green, Tony Parker
Key question: Can DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge play off each other?
With the departures of Green and Kyle Anderson, the Spurs' streak of six straight seasons as a top five defense will probably come to an end. They played only 17 percent of their minutes with neither of those guys on the floor last season. The offense could recover from its first below-average season in 10 years with the addition of DeRozan, but it remains to be seen if he and Aldridge can score efficiently and complement each other. They are two of six players (minimum 2,500 field goal attempts) who have taken at least 45 percent of their shots from mid-range and neither is known as much of a playmaker (though DeRozan improved in that area last season). It might be a my-turn-your-turn situation and there might not be enough shooting around them.
Last Week: 6 ↓
2017-18 record: 49-33
Pace: 98.8 (19) OffRtg: 106.1 (16) DefRtg: 104.2 (8) NetRtg: +1.9 (11)
Key addition(s): Questions about the long-term viability of the backcourt
Key departure(s): Quality depth
Key question: How can this team get better?
It's weird to think that last season's No. 3 seed has to improve to stay in the playoffs, but that may be the case with the Blazers, who finished just three games ahead of the ninth-place Nuggets, got waxed in the first round, and lost three of their top four reserves in free agency. They were a plus-109 in 1,474 minutes with at least two of the three guys they lost -- Pat Connaughton, Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier -- on the floor and a plus-104 in 2,477 minutes otherwise. Hope for improvement comes from Zach Collins, who has shown signs of being an impact player offensively, and the idea of a comeback season from Seth Curry, who shot 41 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers two years ago.
Last Week: 14 ↑
2017-18 record: 22-60
Pace: 97.3 (28) OffRtg: 101.8 (27) DefRtg: 108.4 (24) NetRtg: -6.6 (27)
Key addition(s): Mike Conley's health, Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson
Key departure(s): Tyreke Evans
Key question: What happens if they don't win?
The additions of Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple indicate a desire to compete with a healthy Mike Conley and a more engaged Marc Gasol. In their 10 seasons together, the Grizzlies have had the point differential of a 54-28 team with both Conley and Gasol on the floor. But it's a long way up from ranking in the bottom seven on both ends of the floor, the depth of the Western Conference will make that climb all the more difficult, and they'll need to give Jackson Jr. time to develop. They will be better, but if the Grizz aren't looking like a playoff team come January or February, the front office will have some franchise-altering decisions to make.
Last Week: 10 ↓
2017-18 record: 42-40
Pace: 101.1 (7) OffRtg: 107.7 (8) DefRtg: 107.7 (19) NetRtg: +0.0 (18)
Key addition(s): Marcin Gortat, Luc Mbah a Moute, a pair of Lottery picks
Key departure(s): DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers
Key question: Can Lou Williams carry the offense again?
Williams kept the Clippers' offense in the top 10 even from the point they traded Blake Griffin. But from that same point, they scored a brutal 100.9 points per 100 possessions (a rate which would have ranked 26th) with the Kia Sixth Man of the Year off the floor. So they really need Danilo Gallinari to stay healthy and/or Tobias Harris to step up, because they're not getting much offense from anywhere else. Their rookie guards appear to fifth and sixth on the backcourt depth chart (another year for Milos!), but in this conference, playing the kids may become a priority sooner rather than later. With a bunch of vets on the final year of their contract (and Avery Bradley having a small guarantee in 2019-20), there will be an opportunity to retool next summer.
Last Week: 13
2017-18 record: 24-58
Pace: 97.5 (27) OffRtg: 104.1 (23) DefRtg: 107.4 (18) NetRtg: -3.3 (22)
Key addition(s): Luka Doncic, DeAndre Jordan
Key departure(s): Halftime hot dog consumption
Key question: Can Dennis Smith Jr. be a threat from the perimeter?
Doncic should take some of the playmaking duties from Smith Jr., who ranked second among rookies in usage rate. But there's still a need for Smith Jr. to improve his pull-up game. According to Second Spectrum tracking, his effective field goal percentage of 34.5 percent on pull-up jumpers ranked 73rd among 76 players who attempted at least 250. A point guard who can shoot off the dribble can open things up for everyone else, including the roll man (Jordan) who the Mavs signed to a one-year, $23 million contract. Though this team is still suffering from a lack of quickness, Jordan's ranginess should help on defense, where this has been a worse-than-average team for the last six years.
Last Week: 15 ↑
2017-18 record: 21-61
Pace: 102.6 (2) OffRtg: 100.8 (30) DefRtg: 110.6 (30) NetRtg: -9.7 (30)
Key addition(s): DeAndre Ayton, Trevor Ariza, coach Igor Kokoskov
Key departure(s): The Alex Len Era
Key question: Can Brandon Knight play?
The Suns have upgraded their talent, but it's unclear why they brought in Ariza to take minutes away from Josh Jackson and Mikal Bridges, and they didn't do much a point guard, where they have four guys -- Knight, Isaiah Canaan, Shaquille Harrison and Elie Okobo -- who played a total of just 806 NBA minutes last season. This team is still a long way from being competitive in the West, but there's nowhere to go but up (on either end of the floor) and the slate is clean for Kokoskov to start building a foundation for the future. Hopefully, part of that is getting the ball moving, as no team has assisted on a lower percentage of its field goals over the last five seasons than the Suns (52 percent).
Last Week: 12 ↓
2017-18 record: 27-55
Pace: 97.1 (30) OffRtg: 101.1 (29) DefRtg: 108.9 (27) NetRtg: -7.8 (28)
Key addition(s): Marvin Bagley III
Key departure(s): Vinsanity
Key question: Is there a star among their first and second-year players?
With the departures of George Hill (in February), Garrett Temple and Vince Carter, the Kings have more time for the kids. That group includes Harry Giles, who was once the No. 1 player in his class, was kept on the shelf all of last season, and showed signs of being a disruptive defensive force in NBA Summer League. Of course, his shot selection might not make the Kings any less mid-range heavy than they already were. It will be up to playmakers De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic to get this team better shots, though, defensive improvement would allow Fox to get out in the open floor more often. He was a good finisher at the rim for a rookie his size, but ranked 36th in fast break points per 36 minutes among players who played at least 1,000 minutes total.