Folks say it every year: Competing in the West will be tough. Well, this year, that notion goes next level.
Competing in the West will be tough-er. That’s because this is the Year Of The Comeback, where very good teams will welcome back previously-injured centerpieces and therefore loom as very dangerous threats. Count the LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets and the New Orleans Pelicans in that select group and tell those medical staffs to take the rest of the day off.
Overall, then, the West is bringing lots of depth and also a handful of teams that can realistically envision the taste of champagne in June. This promises to be both an emphatic and entertaining season within the conference, where the only unquestioned winner will be the viewers, who get to gobble up all the glorious basketball.
LA Clippers: Now that their injuries are in the past — at least they hope — the biggest threats to the Clippers are perhaps two or three teams in the West and stigma. The Clippers have the top-shelf talent and depth to overcome the first two. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and friends are antsy and anxious to see what new addition John Wall is bringing, but that stigma thing is pretty tricky … and oh so sticky to the franchise. Can the Clippers distance themselves from their unlucky past and finally reach the promised land?
Golden State Warriors: Rarely does a championship team return the next season with untapped upside, yet such is the case for the Warriors, who’ll throw the kids into the mix and hope for the best. So that’ll be the test, then: whether Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga and James Wiseman can keep up with franchise stalwarts Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson and learn from them. Even better, can one or more of them make the generous leap of importance like Jordan Poole did last season? A repeat title may depend on it.
Denver Nuggets: Simple addition says when you add Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray to two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic, it equals a Big Three, 50-plus wins and a deep postseason run. Those two previously injured talents can and likely will make a reasonably big difference with the Nuggets and vault them into title conversation. The only way this doesn’t happen is if there’s an injury setback with Murray and/or Porter, or the supporting cast, led by newcomer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, comes up weak and meek.
Phoenix Suns: Two seasons ago, they won the West. Last season, they finished with the best record in the NBA. This season, they return the meat of that rotation, which means the Suns will have a major say in how the West is won. Devin Booker has the ingredients to be an MVP finalist, Deandre Ayton isn’t sweating over his contract anymore and Mikal Bridges really wants that Kia Defensive Player of the Year award. Can Chris Paul keep defying age? Given the hike in competition in the West, the Suns will need to be better than the last two seasons in order to represent this June.
Other Playoff Teams
Memphis Grizzlies: It’ll be a task to top what they did last season — 56 wins and stretching their postseason into May — because the Grizzlies won’t sneak up on anyone this time. That, plus injured forward Jaren Jackson Jr. possibly being out until January will leave them lacking a supreme defensive player for a few months. Everyone anticipates Ja Morant blossoming into a top-10 talent (if he isn’t there already), and Desmond Bane is playing for a contract next summer, so the Grizzlies will be in the mix. Then it’ll come down to matchups and whether Jackson will be ready to flex in springtime.
Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic is one of the preseason favorites for Kia MVP. Let’s get that “debate” out of the way. Now, whether the Mavericks can make any noise in the 2023 playoffs will be decided by the players orbiting around Luka. They’ll miss Jalen Brunson to an extent, but Spencer Dinwiddie has the tools and experience to fill the vacancy. Plus, don’t forget that Tim Hardaway Jr. will make an injury return and new addition Christian Wood might be the best frontline player Doncic has ever had in Dallas. The Mavericks could reach the West finals again … or lose in the first round.
Minnesota Timberwolves: This will be Year One of the Rudy Gobert experiment and there’s plenty on the line for the Wolves to make all of that Draft capital they surrendered to get Gobert from Utah worthwhile. How he and Karl-Anthony Towns mesh will dictate how effective the Wolves will be in their quest to overwhelm opponents with size and mismatches. That said, their best player is Anthony Edwards. He demonstrated as much in the 2022 playoffs and the youngster is thirsty for respect and a spot on the All-NBA team.
New Orleans Pelicans: Well, they did make the playoffs last year without Zion Williamson, so it makes sense that this ballistic player’s return will, at the very least, make it a roundtrip for New Orleans, right? In addition, the Pelicans will see a full season from CJ McCollum (who arrived at the trade deadline last season) and it appears Brandon Ingram is ready to make a string of All-Star teams. This is a young and feisty team that, three years after unloading Anthony Davis, is saying the hell with the future — the future starts now.
Keep An Eye On
Los Angeles Lakers: Seriously? A team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis is ticketed for, at best, the Play-In Tournament? Well, LeBron is pushing the limits of age and excellence, and AD hasn’t appeared in 75 or more games since 2017-18. Plus, there are even graver questions surrounding Russell Westbrook, who flopped in his first season in L.A. and seemingly has lost his ability to make a jumper outside of 10 feet. And we haven’t even addressed the annual issues about defense. The Lakers will need to put it all together, and also hope that a contender in the West stumbles, in order to exhale about their playoff chances.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Blazers improved more than most teams this offseason and will need to fight to reach the playoffs. Gary Payton II and Jerami Grant are nice additions and will help generously on defense and offense respectively. The Blazers also anticipate the return of Damian Lillard, who dealt with a bad abdominal muscle last season as his absence caused the team to crater without him. Maybe Portland can be a spoiler. But that seems like the ceiling for the Blazers.
Not This Year
Utah Jazz: Hey, if you’re gonna break it down, then break it all down and start over. The Jazz are in regroup mode — that’s a nice way of saying they’re rebuilding — and suddenly those annual trips to the playoffs are a thing of the past. The key to the season is to groom Collin Sexton to someday take over, develop such youngsters as Walker Kessler, Jarred Vanderbilt and others and see if anyone wants to take the remaining vets (Mike Conley, hello) off their hands at the trade deadline for more Draft capital.
Sacramento Kings: Can Keegan Murray win Kia Rookie of the Year? If so, that’ll go a long way in shortening the l-o-n-g playoff drought suffered by the Kings, who for decades made lousy choices in the Draft and dealt with those setbacks. So the hope is Murray stops that trend and the Kings at least flirt with the idea of making the Play-In Tournament. Newcomers Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk should help in that regard, too.
San Antonio Spurs: The generation gap between Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ rotation this season is more massive than the odds of the Spurs doing anything special. That’s OK, though, as there’s a plan here and the Spurs are painstakingly trying to do the right thing. They’ll throw minutes to Keldon Johnson, Josh Primo and Jeremy Sochan, watch them grow … and then bottom out and hope for a high pick in the 2023 NBA Draft (also known as the Victor Wembanyama Sweepstakes).
Houston Rockets: The assemblage of young talent is expanding and looking fairly impressive, but the downside to this are the baby steps. The Rockets are still years away from contention, which means another year of development for Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. Houston would be thrilled if both are matched, talent-wise, by No. 1 pick Jabari Smith Jr. It would mean the blueprint and the arrow are both pointing in the right direction.
Oklahoma City Thunder: It’s a bummer that Chet Holmgren will sit this one out, as the No. 2 overall pick must rehab from a foot injury. This is more of a pause in the plan than a setback for OKC, though. The Thunder will simply continue the search for gems and hope a handful will still be around in a few years when Phase II of rebuilding begins. Shai-Gilgeous Alexander has already proven himself a keeper. Now it’s up to Josh Giddey to step forward and Lu Dort and Darius Bazley to keep improving.
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