There has never been a conference quite like the West this season. Fourteen teams legitimately have reason to believe they can make the playoffs this year, and despite the NBA adding a play-in tournament, not everyone is going to be able to make it. As a result, we decided to treat the West like we did the East and look at the best and worst-case scenarios for every team.
Best: Luka Doncic wins MVP and they make the conference finals
Worst: Last year was too much too soon and they fall back to earth
There is *a lot* of hype surrounding the Mavericks this year, and much of it involves the expectations on Luka Doncic, who is expected to ascend to the MVP conversation this season. He is capable of doing it, and Dallas is going to be a really, really good team — one of the more unheralded moves of the offseason was them acquiring Josh Richardson, and even though it cost them an outstanding player in Seth Curry, he should thrive on the Mavs now that he’s no longer given a perpetually-shifting role in Philadelphia.
Having said this, not having Kristaps Porzingis as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn meniscus will be hard. No one else really has the offensive game to be a reliable second option next to Doncic on a nightly basis, and while the Mavericks are a team that can certainly MacGyver their way to a good offense in the meantime, it will be worth watching. Still, all eyes come back to Doncic, and the expectations on him are quite high. If he plays up to what he’s believed to be capable of doing, Dallas is going to have something to say in the West. If not, they’re at worst a play-in team, but would they be able to get out of it if he’s not able to force his way into the MVP conversation?
Best: Finally get over the hump and make the Finals
Worst: They stall out and get bounced early
The only team to make it to the conference finals each of the least two years, Denver is extremely close to making the final leap and becoming a title contender. Two guys will be crucial in making this happen: Jamal Murray, who needs to show his leap into superstardom in the Bubble was not a fluke, and Michael Porter Jr., who has to go from “occasional nuclear scorer” to “matchup nightmare who can consistently take over games and make a big step forward on defense.”
We know what Nikola Jokic is going to do, and the team’s supporting cast is solid. Gary Harris finding his pre-injury form would be huge, Will Barton doing Will Barton stuff would be huge, Paul Millsap fighting off Father Time for one more year would be a welcomed addition, and Monte Morris will do all the unheralded stuff off the bench. Murray and Porter will be the ones tasked with answering the biggest questions.
Golden State Warriors
Best: Title contenders
Worst: It just doesn’t work and they miss the play-in tournament
If you want to talk about a wide range of options, let’s talk about the Warriors. There is a scenario where everything falls into place. Steve Kerr is still a wonderful coach. Steph Curry is Steph Curry. Draymond Green bounces back in a big way. James Wiseman is ready to anchor this defense and be a delightful two-man game counterpart with either of the two aforementioned players. Kelly Oubre and Andrew Wiggins thrive in roles where they aren’t asked to do as much, and the various bench guys who played a ton last year and got valuable reps are better than expected — think Eric Paschall, or Damion Lee, or Marquese Chriss.
The downside is that the Warriors can’t defend anyone, Steph alone can’t kickstart their offense, and this jumbled version of a team does not have the horses to compete. Golden State looked bad last year before Curry went down (an admittedly very small sample size), and the mind cannot help but wonder if this is a team at the end of the line. Expectations are high in the Bay as always, and it probably isn’t unreasonable to think that they’ll try to do something if stuff isn’t working. But it does legitimately feel like anything could be possible with the Dubs right now.
How the hell is anyone supposed to project what the Rockets will be this season? Maybe they make James Harden happy and he stays! Maybe they don’t and he gets traded! Maybe they get a lot back for him! Maybe they get pennies on the dollar! Maybe Harden doesn’t move despite wanting to and the team has that cloud hanging over them all year! These are the James Harden questions, and doesn’t consider things like “a first-time head coach” or “John Wall is back after two years of being injured” or “P.J. Tucker’s contract situation” or any other number of things. So let’s just shrug and move on, because Houston is the single most fascinating (and opaque) team in all of basketball this year.
Los Angeles Clippers
Best: Win title
Hold this thought!
Los Angeles Lakers
Best: Win title
Worst: Don’t, but at least they’ve won one before
The Los Angeles teams both have the bar set at the exact same place. Outside of the Bucks, these are the only two teams that are in the “title-or-bust” conversation, while other teams merely have championship aspirations. It’s a delicate line, but it could be the difference between making gigantic offseason decisions or staying the course if you come up short.
The Lakers, to their credit, probably wouldn’t feel like they have to blow everything up under almost any circumstance. They know this group can win a title, and unless something totally unforeseen happens, there is no reason to not stay the course. Still, having LeBron James means the expectation is for you to win a championship, and you can argue pretty convincingly that acquiring Dennis Schröder in the backcourt and Marc Gasol/Montrezl Harrell in the frontcourt made them better. The difference between the teams, though, is the lack of an existential crisis around not winning one this year.
As for the Clippers, whew. They had, legitimately, one of the NBA’s most spectacular failures last season in the Bubble, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets and looking horrible while doing it. They fired their head coach (Ty Lue is now coach), did a little shaking up to their roster (Harrell and Landry Shamet out, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard in), and still have one of the best postseason performers of his era (Kawhi Leonard) and someone who was an MVP contender before needing surgery on both shoulders (Paul George). They should be right there in the title race. It is fascinating to think of what happens if they cannot get over the hump, because unlike their Staples Center neighbors, they do not have the goodwill built up to say “at least we’ve won before.”
Best: Collective step forward and they don’t need the play-in tournament
Worst: Can’t take that step, miss the play-in tournament altogether
Memphis was a blast last year, and then, Jaren Jackson Jr. got hurt and the team just ran out of gas once it got to the NBA’s Orlando Bubble, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in the play-in game. Ja Morant is just wonderful, and the team might have my favorite young core in the league, as they have a whole bunch of young dudes who play hard and compliment one another well.
Like all young teams, how they respond to expectations and how they take whatever step they can off of a successful prior campaign is the question. The team is basically built on having a ton of Draft Twitter darlings, and all of them — Morant and Jackson, Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton, even newcomer Desmond Bane — can play. Their “veterans” are one legitimate veteran in Jonas Valanciunas and then a bunch of younger dudes who have been around for some time, like Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen, and Dillon Brooks. Is this enough to take that step forward and earn the six seed? Are they stuck in the play-in tournament? Or is the West so loaded that Memphis is going to end up a lottery team?
Best: League Pass darlings who just get the 6-seed
Worst: Swiss cheese defense keeps them from the play-in tournament
Boy, these Timberwolves have the potential to be an absolutely destructive offense. D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns might carve teams up in the pick-and-roll, and God knows what they’ll get out of Anthony Edwards, but he has the potential to be a hilarious microwave scorer almost right away. And what happens if Jarrett Culver and Naz Reid and Josh Okogie take steps forward? Or if Ricky Rubio throws a zillion delightful passes that makes Russell and Towns’ lives easier? They could be a blast, and there’s a path forward for this offense be supercharged.
And then, there’s their defense, which, yikes. Russell and Towns have never exactly been Gary Payton and Dikembe Mutombo on the defensive end of the floor, and while guys like Culver and Okogie can defend, teams are going to hunt Russell (and possibly Edwards depending on how locked in he is on that end) and go at Towns. Being the kind of team that can outscore anyone might be Minnesota’s calling card. Can they do that enough to make the play-in tournament?
New Orleans Pelicans
Best: Everything clicks and they get a top-6 seed
Worst: Miss the play-in tournament
Stan Van Gundy was a really good hire here. He should, theoretically, help solidify their defense a little and know to get out of the way with this offense, which is going to be must-watch. There is no reason to miss a single Pelicans game this year, because year two of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram looking to build off of last year’s campaign has the potential to be electric. Also, Steven Adams is here now! Everyone who runs off of a Steven Adams screen and then has to run off of a Zion screen will need to take the next day or two off.
A major question is what happens if they really miss Jrue Holiday. Lonzo Ball is what he is, and it’s fair to wonder if that’s as a full-time point guard who gets the job done for a playoff team. Kira Lewis is going to be good, but asking him to contribute right away could be tricky, as it is for any rookie point guard. Eric Bledsoe gives them a veteran presence, which should help. Also, how will Adams survive their fun-and-gun style? Will Williamson be able to stay healthy and in shape? Can Ingram build on last year? If this team turns into a jumbled mess of a roster — which could very well happen — then it’s not hard to see them getting lost in the sauce out West.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Best: Show a whole lot of promise
Worst: Look aimless all year
The rebuild is on in Oklahoma City. Really, the record is beside the point here, because the Thunder are almost certainly the only team in the West that would be shocking if they made the playoffs. While Al Horford and George Hill bring reliable veteran presences here, the mind wonders if they’ll end the year here.
The Thunder do, however, have a lot of talented youngsters worth keeping an eye on. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is getting the keys after playing alongside Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder, while guys like Hamidou Diallo, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley, Theo Maledon, and NBA Draft Twitter icon Aleksej Pokusevski will get chances to play through mistakes and develop. There is a plan in Oklahoma City, and if it comes to fruition, I suspect we’ll point to this year as being the one where some of the foundation was put in place.
Best: Push for a top-4 seed
Worst: Bounced in the play-in tournament
I wrote this section after purchasing any and all Phoenix Suns stock. This team is well-coached and has a budding star in Devin Booker next to a guy who should be an outstanding backcourt mate for him in Chris Paul. Having Paul will let Booker take on a Bradley Beal-type role where he can play on or off the ball at his leisure, which is a pretty dangerous thing for the Suns to have in their back pocket. The rest of their starting five is delightful — Mikal Bridges is a nightmare to get defended by, Jae Crowder brings some veteran savvy, and Deandre Ayton made strides defensively last season.
They have some interesting depth on the bench, and it is not hard to see everything clicking and competing for the right to host a playoff series in the first round. The worst-case scenario more or less assumes that Paul and Booker don’t work, Bridges can’t hit a shot, and Ayton regresses, but the median outcome is that the Suns are a very respectable basketball team, something that has not been the case in Phoenix in a hot second.
Portland Trail Blazers
Best: Make a run to the conference finals
Worst: Bounced in the play-in tournament
Don’t look now, but Portland might have figured out its issue with a total lack of threes and fours last season. Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic are going to do what they always do, and while Enes Kanter certainly has his limitations, he is a fine insurance policy as a backup big until Zach Collins gets back from ankle surgery.
Going out and adding the duo of Derrick Jones Jr. and Robert Covington is fascinating, and they have options beyond them in Rodney Hood and Carmelo Anthony at those spots. The team can opt to go small, too, and let Gary Trent Jr. get a little run next to Lillard and McCollum. Portland is a team that always plays hard and takes a ton of pride in being in the playoffs, so them getting there in some capacity seems likely, particularly because a play-in tournament strategy of “we have Damian Lillard and you do not” is a damn good one. Still, avoiding the play-in tournament is a priority, if only because of the randomness of it all, and if they avoid the L.A. teams in the first two rounds and can stay healthy, the Blazers have a legitimate path to the conference finals for the second time in three years.
Best: Make the playoffs any way they can
Sacramento has to make the playoffs one of these years, right? There is more than enough talent on this team that has played together for long enough, even with the loss of Bogdan Bogdanovic this offseason, that Sacramento can do something. The backcourt duo of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield is good enough — even if the latter and head coach Luke Walton seem to, uh, have some issues that need to be worked out — Marvin Bagley is talented, Harrison Barnes is a reliable pro, Richaun Holmes impressed last year, and the bench includes fascinating rookie Tyrese Haliburton, sharpshooting big man Nemanja Bjelica, and a handful of other guys who belong on an NBA court.
No matter how the Kings do it, the goal is to make the playoffs. They can be the 10-seed in the play-in tournament and get lucky twice, it does not matter. The franchise has not made the postseason since 2005-06, the longest streak in the NBA right now. It has to change. Unfortunately for them, this is a brutally tough year to gun for the playoffs, and there are big questions that need to be answered — Is Hield’s future in Sacramento a long-term one? Can Bagley give them consistent production? — if they’re gonna make it.
San Antonio Spurs
Best: MacGyver their way to the 6-seed
Worst: Miss the play-in tournament
The last time San Antonio missed the playoffs in back-to-back years was never. It has literally never happened in the franchise’s history. As always, it’s hard to foresee Gregg Popovich not figuring something out — what that something is, of course, is tricky. This is hardly the most talented roster the Spurs have had, and banking on young guys to take steps forward while LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay give them just enough veteran savvy seems to be the move. There are a lot of “ifs” here: They can make the postseason … if Dejounte Murray and Derrick White can be a reliable backcourt, or if Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson can be intriguing wing scorers, or if Devin Vassell can be a solid three-and-D option right away, or if Jakob Poeltl takes a leap as a consistent rim protector. It’ll be hard to make the playoffs, but it’s the Spurs. This is just what they do.
Best: They’re the team we thought they’d be last year
Worst: Bounced in the play-in tournament
Remember when Utah was a sexy pick to potentially win the Western Conference last year? And then remember how they started slow, then caught fire, and then eventually got to the Bubble and came a few RPMs on a Mike Conley jumper away from making the second round to take on the Clippers? Man, that was fun! Anyway, the Jazz are back and are still quite good. Their starting five — Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, Rudy Gobert — can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone in the league, and they go eight deep, with Derrick Favors returning to bolster the frontcourt rotation.
It is not hard to imagine Utah being a menace this season now that they have a year of the Conley experiment under their belts. If it does go awry, in part due to a lack of a consistent guy who can just get a bucket (something I don’t think will happen because Mitchell was a monster in the Bubble), they could limp to the play-in tournament and get bounced by a frisky team like, say, Memphis or New Orleans.