Mid-Summer Power Rankings: Clippers sit atop new-look Western Conference
Utah, Denver round out top three after busy offseason of player moves
The Western Conference has had a better cumulative record than the Eastern Conference in 19 of the last 20 seasons, winning 57 percent of inter-conference games during that span. Things like this are supposed to be cyclical, but its hard to see the West not making it 20 of 21 this coming season.
Once again, this conference is deep, with 12 teams that look like they would be sure things to make the playoffs in the East.
It should be noted (for those clamoring for a 1-16 playoff format) that, though the West has had the better overall record, the eighth-place team in the East has had a better record than the ninth-place team in the West in three of the last four seasons (after the ninth-place team in the West had a better record in 11 of the previous 13).
The LA Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz all made major upgrades. The Denver Nuggets are returning a young core that won 54 games last season, while the Portland Trail Blazers have the two best players back from a team that went to the conference finals. The Houston Rockets still have James Harden, the San Antonio Spurs still have coach Gregg Popovich, and the New Orleans Pelicans did not go into a full rebuild when they were forced to trade their best player.
The Golden State Warriors lost Kevin Durant and will be without Klay Thompson for at least most of the season. But the five-time (Five Time!) defending Western Conference champs still have the league’s most dangerous offensive weapon and (when engaged) its best defender.
Here’s how we see the West stacking up with a wild summer of player movement having calmed down.
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 8: Warriors remain favorites … and East remains wide open
- This time last year: James’ arrival adds intrigue to Western Conference — LeBron James joined the Lakers, who surrounded him with some square pegs. The Warriors added DeMarcus Cousins and the Thunder secured Paul George’s commitment for at least three more years. Kawhi Leonard was sent to the Eastern Conference and Jimmy Butler had yet to make a big fuss in Minnesota. So the Wolves were ranked way too high and it was hard to see the Kings’ improvement coming.
* * *
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 100.7 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 109.7 points scored per 100 possessions this season.
* * *
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.
* * *
Last Week: 6 ↑
2018-19 record: 48-34
Pace: 102.7 (7) OffRtg: 111.4 (9) DefRtg: 110.4 (19) NetRtg: +1.0 (13)
Key addition(s): Board Man, Paul George
Key departure(s): Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari
Key question: What will be their closing lineup, and how much of it will we see?
At full strength, the Clippers will have a starting lineup that features two of the league's best players, along with a second unit that features two of the league's top reserves. We'll see how much Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell play together, and if that group is best complemented with perimeter defense (Patrick Beverley), shooting (Landry Shamet), versatility (Maurice Harkless), or another big (JaMychal Green). That coach Doc Rivers has so many options beyond a pair of elite, two-way stars is why the Clippers should be the championship favorites as things stand. But it remains to be seen how much their best groups play together in the regular season with Leonard likely on another load management program and with George (after two shoulder surgeries) not necessarily ready for the start of the season.
Last Week: 3 ↑
2018-19 record: 54-28
Pace: 98.5 (26) OffRtg: 112.1 (7) DefRtg: 108.1 (10) NetRtg: +4.0 (8)
Key addition(s): Jerami Grant
Key departure(s): N/A
Key question: How do they get better?
The Nuggets are the only team that has seen an improvement in point differential per 100 possessions in each of the last four years, going from minus-3.3 in 2014-16 to plus-4.0 last season. Eight of their top 12 players (including Grant and Michael Porter Jr.) are 25 years old or younger. But this is already the only Western Conference team that ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season. Individuals will continue to improve, but it will be interesting to see how that translates to the team's numbers. Can they get to the basket and to the line more than they did last season, when they ranked 20th in the percentage of their shots that came from the restricted area and 27th in free throw rate? On defense, can they do a better job of running their opponents off the 3-point line after ranking 29th in opponent ratio of 3-point attempts to mid-range attempts? Improvement can come on the road (where they've had a losing record for seven straight seasons) and in the playoffs. It's not Sixers-without-Embiid level struggles, but the Nuggets were outscored by 47 points in 61 minutes with Jokic off the floor in their conference semifinals loss to Portland.
Last Week: 7 ↑
2018-19 record: 50-32
Pace: 100.8 (14) OffRtg: 110.3 (14) DefRtg: 105.3 (2) NetRtg: +5.0 (4)
Key addition(s): Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanovic, A new bench
Key departure(s): Ricky Rubio, Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder
Key question: Can Conley help them close?
For five straight seasons, the Jazz have underachieved, meaning that they've won fewer games than their point differential says they should have won. Last season, they had the second-best point differential in the West, but were 15-18 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes. That led to them being the No. 5 seed as they got knocked out in the first round. Over the last five seasons, Conley has had a clutch assist-turnover ratio (2.46) much better than the league average (1.37), while Bogdanovic has had a clutch effective field goal percentage (51.1 percent) much better than the league average (47.1 percent). The bottom line? The Jazz have added a threat off the dribble and upgraded two perimeter positions offensively. Both should make them tougher to defend down the stretch of close games and help Donovan Mitchell's efficiency. He saw an improvement in his effective field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers -- to 46.7 percent (middle of the pick among high-volume, off-the-dribble shooters) from 43.4 percent as a rookie -- but a dip in overall effective field goal percentage (from 50.6 percent to 49.3 percent).
Last Week: 10 ↑
2018-19 record: 37-45
Pace: 103.6 (4) OffRtg: 107.4 (24) DefRtg: 108.9 (13) NetRtg: -1.6 (22)
Key addition(s): Anthony Davis, Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Frank Vogel
Key departure(s): Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram
Key question: How well will they defend?
This should be the league's most improved offensive team, because of where it's coming from (last season's Lakers were the first bottom-10 offense that LeBron James has ever played for) and what it's added (Anthony Davis and shooting). But it's fair to wonder if the Lakers can climb back into the top 10 on defense, where they were before Lonzo Ball got hurt last season. Two seasons ago, the Pelicans were strong defensively (allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions in 1,095 minutes) with Davis and Cousins on the floor together. But Cousins struggled defensively after returning from his torn Achilles, Davis is coming off a season where he was disengaged, and James (whose defense has been a little too stationary over the last two seasons) isn't getting any younger. If James is playing more small forward than power forward (because Davis doesn't want to play center), is he going to be able to guard on the perimeter?
Last Week: 4 ↓
2018-19 record: 53-29
Pace: 98.4 (27) OffRtg: 114.9 (2) DefRtg: 110.1 (17) NetRtg: +4.8 (5)
Key addition(s): Russell Westbrook
Key departure(s): Chris Paul
Key question: Will there be more slippage on defense?
Westbrook's fit in the Houston offense, and his ability to coexist with the only guy (Harden) who's had a higher usage rate over the last 23 seasons, will be more fascinating to watch. It's not clear that Westbrook's explosiveness will make up for his poor perimeter shooting when he doesn't have the ball in his hands as much. But the Rockets have ranked first or second in offensive efficiency in each of coach Mike D'Antoni's three seasons in Houston. Plus, minutes will be staggered so that only one of Harden or Westbrook will be on the floor for about half the game. Having two of the top three guys in drives per game last season will put a ton of pressure on opposing defenses. More important is that the Rockets' own defense doesn't take another step backward. Last season, the Rockets allowed 108.8 points per 100 possessions in the 58 games in which Paul played and 113.0 per 100 in the 24 games that he missed.
Last Week: 1 ↓
2018-19 record: 57-25
Pace: 101.7 (10) OffRtg: 115.0 (1) DefRtg: 108.6 (11) NetRtg: +6.5 (2)
Key addition(s): D'Angelo Russell
Key departure(s): Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Expectations
Key question: How is Russell going to fit in?
Durant is gone and Klay Thompson is recovering from a torn ACL. But Stephen Curry remains the foundation of success on offense, both Curry and Russell shoot well off the catch, and if there's a coach that can keep the ball moving (the Warriors have led the league in assist percentage in each of the last four seasons), it's Steve Kerr. Russell -- 164th in free throw rate (13.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field) among 178 players with at least 500 field goal attempts last season -- doesn't get to the basket or to the line very often. But neither does Thompson (171st at 11.3 per 100). Thompson, Durant and Iguodala will be missed more on defense, where the Warriors have already regressed over the last two seasons. Without the margin for error that they've had the last three years, Draymond Green can't wait until April to get in shape and return to Kia Defensive Player of the Year form.
Last Week: 2 ↓
2018-19 record: 53-29
Pace: 100.0 (18) OffRtg: 113.7 (3) DefRtg: 109.5 (16) NetRtg: +4.2 (7)
Key addition(s): Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside
Key departure(s): Seven of their top 11 guys in playoff minutes
Key question: Is Zach Collins ready for a larger role?
Al-Farouq Aminu is gone, Jusuf Nurkic is recovering from a broken leg, and Whiteside is far from reliable. So there's a need for Collins (a former No. 10 pick who turns 22 in November) to make a leap in his third season. He had good rim protection numbers (on par with Nurkic) last season, but there will be a need for more offense from the remade frontline. The Blazers saw the second-biggest improvement in offensive efficiency (an increase of 5.3 points scored per 100 possessions) from 2017-18 to last season. The Evan-Turner-for-Bazemore swap, while a downgrade in regard to playmaking, is an upgrade in regard to both 3-point shooting and overall scoring (Turner was in the bottom 30 in points per 36 among 276 players who logged at least 1,000 minutes). But Collins actually had the third-most points last season among healthy players returning to the Blazers). To remain in the top 10 offensively, the Blazers may need him to score both inside and out. After making 13 corner 3-pointers in 1,045 minutes as a rookie, Collins attempted only 11 in 1,356 minutes last season.
Last Week: 5 ↓
2018-19 record: 48-34
Pace: 98.9 (22) OffRtg: 112.2 (6) DefRtg: 110.5 (20) NetRtg: +1.6 (12)
Key addition(s): Assistant coach Tim Duncan
Key departure(s): Davis Bertans
Key question: How good can their young backcourt be?
A year ago, Dejounte Murray was primed for a breakout. But he tore his ACL in early October and it was Derrick White who had the breakout season, highlighted by a 36-point performance in Game 3 of the Spurs' first-round loss to Denver. Now, the two third-year guards, who played just 74 minutes together (including playoffs) as rookies, could be the Spurs' starting backcourt for years to come. Their timeline doesn't exactly align with that of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, but the Spurs played more and better with DeRozan at small forward last season (plus-2.4 points per 100 possessions in more than 2,000 minutes) than with him at the two (-4.2 per 100 in less than 600 minutes). The bigger difference in the numbers was on defense, where the Spurs need to recover after falling to 20th in the league after six straight seasons in the top five. Their increase of 6.4 points allowed per 100 possessions from 2017-18 to last season was the fourth-biggest increase for any team in the last 10 seasons.
Last Week: 9
2018-19 record: 39-43
Pace: 103.9 (3) OffRtg: 109.6 (17) DefRtg: 110.8 (21) NetRtg: -1.2 (18)
Key addition(s): Coach Luke Walton, Veteran role players
Key departure(s): Willie Cauley-Stein
Key question: Is there space for Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles to grow?
The Kings just paid a lot of money for a bunch of complementary pieces. They gave Harrison Barnes $85 million after going 11-17 with him over the last two months of last season. They gave Trevor Ariza $14 million after he saw a big drop in 3-point percentage while playing 2,349 minutes for two of the four worst defensive teams in the league. Dewayne Dedmon and Richaun Holmes are solid, but did the Kings need them both? And will all the vets stifle the development of the Kings' young core? De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic can each get better (they both ranked low in pull-up effective field goal percentage last season), but there's more intrigue surrounding the Kings' young bigs. If Bagley and Giles can emerge from that crowded frontcourt with some additional polish on offense and awareness on defense, it could be a second straight successful season ... even if it's a 14th straight season without a playoff berth.
Last Week: 12 ↑
2018-19 record: 33-49
Pace: 103.9 (2) OffRtg: 110.7 (12) DefRtg: 112.0 (22) NetRtg: -1.3 (20)
Key addition(s): New executive president David Griffin, Zion Williamson, J.J. Redick, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram
Key departure(s): Anthony Davis, Julius Randle
Key question: Can Ingram take another step forward?
The Pelicans know what they're getting from Redick, Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors. And while Williamson is the future, he'll likely be more of a finisher than a creator as a rookie. Ingram has seen increases in usage rate, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage in each of the last two seasons, and he was more efficient last season (both in regard to scoring and assist-turnover ratio) when LeBron James was off the floor. He's still just 21 years old (he turns 22 in September) and is the biggest variable (especially when you take his health into consideration) for a team that could actually get better after trading one of the league's biggest talents. There's certainly room for improvement on defense, where the additions of Ball (whose injury had a huge effect on the Lakers' ability to get stops) and Favors (who ranked as the league's best rim protector last season) will help.
Last Week: 8 ↓
2018-19 record: 49-33
Pace: 103.4 (6) OffRtg: 109.8 (16) DefRtg: 106.5 (4) NetRtg: +3.4 (10)
Key addition(s): Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, All the picks
Key departure(s): Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Jerami Grant
Key question: For how long will they hold onto Paul?
The makings of a good team -- some competent vets and some young athletes that will benefit from Paul's playmaking -- are here, especially if Andre Roberson returns to being one of the league's best perimeter defenders. But given the general direction that the Thunder are going, it's all pretty tenuous. Even before the Westbrook-for-Paul deal, they sold off Jerami Grant (just 25 years old and coming off a breakthrough season) to lower their luxury-tax bill. As things stand now, Paul is in the way of Gilgeous-Alexander getting the playing time he needs (with Dennis Schroder also in the picture and owed $31 million over the next two seasons). After the All-Star break last season, Gilgeous-Alexander saw big jumps in both effective field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio.
Last Week: 13 ↑
2018-19 record: 33-49
Pace: 99.6 (19) OffRtg: 108.7 (20) DefRtg: 110.1 (18) NetRtg: -1.5 (21)
Key addition(s): Delon Wright, Seth Curry
Key departure(s): Dirk Nowitzki
Key question: Does Kristaps Porzingis pick up where he left off?
Though he hasn't played a game in almost 18 months, the Mavs had little choice but to give Porzingis a max contract. When last we saw him, Porzingis was shooting 39 percent from 3-point range (including 42 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers) and ranking as the league's best rim protector. Even if he's at full strength and can get the Mavs back to being a better-than-average defensive team (which they've been just once in the last seven seasons), there doesn't seem to be enough around Porzingis and Luka Doncic to end a three-year playoff drought. Seth Curry is a much better 3-point shooter than anybody they had on their roster last season (when they ranked 27th in 3-point percentage), but there's still a lot of pressure on Doncic to make plays off the dribble.
Last Week: 11 ↓
2018-19 record: 36-46
Pace: 100.9 (13) OffRtg: 110.6 (13) DefRtg: 112.2 (24) NetRtg: -1.6 (23)
Key addition(s): New president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, Jarrett Culver
Key departure(s): Taj Gibson, Derrick Rose, Dario Saric
Key question: Is it too late for Andrew Wiggins?
The Wolves could climb out of the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency (where they've resided for five straight seasons) if Robert Covington stays healthy and if Josh Okogie's offense improves for him to play more minutes (he ranked 177th in effective field goal percentage among 178 players with at least 500 field goal attempts last season). But roster improvements came only on the edges and, while Karl Anthony-Towns is only 23 years old and five years from free agency, another lackluster year from Wiggins (who was only a slightly more effective shooter than Okogie) would be deflating. A new front office, a full training camp with coach Ryan Saunders on the bench, and a lack of Jimmy-Butler-in-your-face practices can't hurt.
Last Week: 14
2018-19 record: 33-49
Pace: 97.1 (30) OffRtg: 105.6 (27) DefRtg: 108.0 (9) NetRtg: -2.4 (24)
Key addition(s): Ja Morant, A lot of contracts
Key departure(s): Mike Conley
Key question: What do they have in Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.?
More trades have the Grizzlies employing an even more motley crew of vets (including Dwight Howard and Andre Iguodala for the time being) than they had at the end of last season. But the focus going forward is obviously the two top-four picks of the last two Drafts. Morant and Jackson don't have to prove that they're the next Conley and Gasol, but some Trae-Young-to-John-Collins-esque chemistry would be good to see in Year 1. Jackson isn't the finisher that Collins is, but he's a more versatile scorer and the better rim protector. The 52.5 percent that opponents shot at the rim last season when Jackson played is the best rim protection mark for a rookie (who defended at least 200 shots at the rim) since Giannis Antetokounmpo's 51.2 percent mark in 2013-14. The Grizzlies could be in store for a third straight season in the bottom five in offensive efficiency, but full seasons from Jackson and Kyle Anderson could keep them from slipping too much defensively.
Last Week: 15
2018-19 record: 19-63
Pace: 101.2 (12) OffRtg: 105.3 (28) DefRtg: 114.2 (29) NetRtg: -8.9 (29)
Key addition(s): Coach Monty Williams, Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric
Key departure(s): Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren
Key question: How much difference can a point guard make?
Rubio should help the Suns on both ends of the floor. There's some optimism in the small-sample-size numbers (plus-0.3 points per 100 possessions) of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton on the floor with another competent guard (Tyler Johnson). Booker is a better-than-average shooter in regard to both off-the-catch and off-the-dribble jumpers. However, the difference in effective field goal percentage between his catch-and-shoot jumpers (56.5 percent) and his pull-up jumpers (45.6 percent) was greater than the league average last season (when he took almost three times as many of the latter). But the Suns have a long way to go just to be something other than the worst team in the West. Their point differential per 100 possessions last season was more than three times worse than any other Western Conference team and they finished 14 games behind the 14th-place Mavs. Another season outside the top eight will result in the sixth playoff drought of 10 years or more in NBA history.
* * *
John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.