If you ask a handful of teams to describe what will take place this season in the Western Conference, the consensus answer might be the “Wide, Wide West” because of the scope and the teams that’ll make their own argument for winning it.
The Los Angeles Lakers did so two seasons ago before injuries derailed them last year. The Utah Jazz had the best record in the NBA last season, while the Phoenix Suns are the reigning West champs. And the Golden State Warriors, who had a chokehold on the conference for a good half-decade, will welcome back Klay Thompson form injuries. And this list doesn’t include the Denver Nuggets and LA Clippers, who would be instantly transformed if Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, are back to normal after dealing with their own injuries.
On the opposite end of the West are teams either stuck in rebuilding mode or starting that process. So in some ways, a typical season awaits … and so does mystery and drama.
Los Angeles Lakers: If they can survive the regular-season marathon and keep their Big Three healthy for the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine the Lakers falling short of The Finals. There’s just too much high-level talent here, starting with LeBron James (of course), who welcomes the chance to give the ball-handling chores to Russell Westbrook. Those two and Anthony Davis bring a diverse skill set that can (and should) overwhelm most challengers.
Utah Jazz: Last season, the Jazz had the best record in the NBA and are qualified to repeat such a feat. Bolstered by Rudy Gobert’s defense, a ton of 3-point shooting and the heroics of Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz bring the ingredients necessary to win 50-plus games and travel deep into spring. But they’ll either need to keep hitting those deep shots or learn how to mix in some mid-range buckets to take the next postseason step.
Phoenix Suns: Not much has changed with the Suns since summer, but when you reach The Finals with a relatively young team, major change isn’t necessary. In order to make a return trip, Phoenix just needs to grow from the experience, lean on Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, and cross its fingers that Chris Paul’s body clock keeps ticking slowly.
Other playoff teams
Denver Nuggets: Will Jamal Murray pick back up where he left off after knee surgery? That could be the difference between Denver merely making the playoffs and reaching the conference finals and beyond, should he return for the final stretch. Denver is in good hands regardless of that because it has reigning Kia MVP Nikola Jokic in the fold. Add in Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon — both of whom the Nuggets would like more from in 2021-22 — and the core is solid.
Golden State Warriors: Klay Thompson is coming back as you may have heard. That’s swell news for the Warriors, who’ve been in a holding pattern for two seasons without him. Now we’ll see if he’s back to splashing again with Stephen Curry and can help the team return to the upper crust of the West. For that to happen, the Warriors will need more than Thompson — namely, a growth spurt from at least one of their young hopefuls (with big man James Wiseman the most likely candidate).
Dallas Mavericks: Dallas is running it back with mainly the same crew that couldn’t escape the 2021 first round. Although with Luka Doncic not yet reaching his prime, the Mavericks can go deeper in the playoffs. Much will depend on the durability of Kristaps Porzingis and whether new coach Jason Kidd can coax something extra from a solid-but-unspectacular supporting cast.
LA Clippers: Their staying power depends on the recovery of Kawhi Leonard following offseason knee surgery. If he’s done for the season, then it’s the Paul George experience, featuring cameos by Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Serge Ibaka, Terance Mann and, perhaps, new addition Eric Bledsoe. If Kawhi makes an unexpected return and reverts to form, pencil the Clippers in as contenders.
Keep an eye on …
Portland Trail Blazers: The addition of Larry Nance Jr., who brings energy and defense and an interior presence, makes the Blazers a better team. But of course, the question is, does that make them good enough for Damian Lillard? His mood will be the soap opera following Portland this season until he gets traded or gains confidence in this group. A full season with Norman Powell should help the latter.
Memphis Grizzlies: The next logical step for Ja Morant is making the All-Star team and the next one for Jaren Jackson Jr., assuming he stays healthy, is building a rep as a promising big man. Along with Dillon Brooks and a batch of youngsters, the Grizzlies are right at the doorstep of respectability. This could be the surprise team in the West.
Not this year …
New Orleans Pelicans: Suddenly, just a few years after drafting him, the goal for the Pelicans is to keep Zion Williamson happy — which will be hard to do if they don’t win. It helps that Brandon Ingram is his teammate, and it’ll help more if new center Jonas Valenciunas collects double-doubles and new point guard Devonte’ Graham has a breakout season and develops into a solid No. 3 option.
San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history in 2020-21. But, such a swoon is life for coach Gregg Popovich without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and the rest playing anymore. There’s no star on the roster. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker will keep them competitive, but how much will newcomers Doug McDermott and Zach Collins help push them toward the Play-In Tournament?
Houston Rockets: There will be lots of excitement, and unfortunately lots of defeats, for a Houston team making the slow but sure turn toward rebuilding. That’s because the Rockets have given the keys to the franchise to the precocious and restless kids. Top Draft pick Jalen Green should fit right in with Christian Wood, Kevin Porter Jr. and Kenyon Martin Jr., all of whom are clearly the future here. Sorry, John Wall.
Sacramento Kings: If Luke Walton is still the coach by season’s end, that means he found a way to do several things. First, he’d satisfy the playing-time whims of three young guards in De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton and rookie Davion Mitchell. Second, he’d put Marvin Bagley III in position to finally have a breakout season. Third, he’d have spruced up the league’s worst defensive team and steered the Kings to at least the Play-In Tournament with hopes of ending a 15-year playoff drought. Good luck to Luke.
Minnesota Timberwolves: In a best-case scenario, Karl-Anthony Towns delivers another solid season … and becomes the team’s second-best player after Anthony Edwards. That would mean the Wolves are at least moving in the right direction with those two building blocks. The tough decision they must reach by the trade deadline: Is D’Angelo Russell a keeper or a goner?
Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander aside, the Thunder are banking on all those stashed, future first-round Draft picks to lead their search for the next face of the franchise. Don’t laugh: this is an organization that previously drafted three Kia MVPs (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden). In the meantime, until such a savior arrives, the process will be painful.
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