Ever since Jordan left Chicago, the balance of power has resided out west. The Western Conference reign of dominance has been never fleeting with waves of Lakers-Spurs-Warriros dynasties with just sprinkles of NBA champions coming from the Eastern Conference. Exclude LeBron and that list gets cut in half for success out of the East.
Looking at the landscape of the West, it will be a dog fight yet again. So, how exactly are we supposed to make distinctions among the top seven teams in the NBA’s Western Conference? All seven from last year doubled down going all-in on this year. And the bad teams improved.
Nobody made these moves to win 45 games and lose in the first round. Expectations are high all over the West, even for a few teams I don’t even project to crack the top seven. A few teams are going to be terribly disappointed come April, and that could have some serious ramifications for the next offseason.
In the meantime, get your popcorn and appreciate the race we might have. It projects to be close enough for the gods of randomness to have a field day. It’s theoretically possible we have 11 teams tied at 44-37 on the last day of the season.
More probably, factors like injuries, shooting variance and unexpected breakout years tilt the playing field in favor of a few teams and away from some others. Nonetheless, the margins among the top seven in particular project to be razor-thin, portending both a regular-season chase for seeds and home-court advantage that could go to the final day of the season, and another topsy-turvy postseason with little to distinguish “favorites” from underdogs.
I’m not picking a seven-way tie, although I was tempted, because I do see at least some small margin between first and seventh in the regular season. But with only five games separating these teams in my projected standings, the capriciousness of random variance could easily offset any difference:
But before we get to the elite, lets dig through the mud and sort through 8-15, which will feature some massive disappointments and regression to a few of last years cinderella stories.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (26-56)
When you trade the face of your franchise, you more often than not hit rock bottom and rest there for a few years. The Portland Trailblazers will be no different.
Let’s start with the fact that this franchise is clearly willing to suffer abject humiliation if it advances its lottery odds, so it’s possible the Blazers play perfectly decent basketball for three months then finish the season 1-27 in their final 28 games or something. But of greater relevance at present: We just don’t know what other moves this team might have up its sleeve to offload veteran players such as Malcolm Brogdon or Robert Williams in the wake of the Damian Lillard and Jrue Holiday trades.
Even without Lillard, this roster doesn’t lack talent, but one would certainly describe it as incomplete. Being effectively frozen out of free agency while it resolved the Lillard situation was unhelpful; Portland has at most nine players you could envision playing rotation-caliber minutes without straining a muscle, and even that count includes two rookies. Depth will be a major concern.
But lets not act like this is the “Trust the Process” 76ers, because its not. This team has talent, but nothing top end that can carry a team for a full game, let alone a 82 game season.
A potential frontcourt of Grant, Deandre Ayton and Williams is nothing to sneeze at. Ayton, in particular, could be a lot better in Portland than he was in Phoenix. I’ve always wondered how much he could score with his face-up game if he became a focal point of an offense. He might not be super-efficient that way, but he offers a decent floor for a team that could desperately use one.
Portland also has backcourt talent worth getting excited about, even if it needs more time to jell. Scoot Henderson likely will take over as the point guard after going third in the 2023 draft, and while his shooting is a question mark, his athleticism and passing is not. Like Ayton, he might end up as more of a volume midrange shooter than a highly efficient scorer, but Henderson should be a decent-to-good starter by the second half of his rookie year.
Next to him, high-flying 2022 lottery pick Shaedon Sharpe can coast through games at times, but he put together an impressive closing stretch last spring, averaging 23.7 points over the final 10 contests and posting a 57.3 true shooting percentage after the All-Star break.
Somewhere in this mix, Anfernee Simons averaged 21 points on 58 percent true shooting at the age of 23, but could be the odd man out of the future and present back court.
No matter what, Ayton, Henderson and Sharpe will be here all year, and Williams likely will be too, so this team won’t be unwatchable. They should land somewhere in the mid 20 win column and at least be a presentable NBA product.
14. Houston Rockets (33-49)
I think Houston is in great shape to exceed expectations this season. But you know how you get in the position too exceed expectations? By always under delivering to the point people stop buying in and start undervaluing your worth. Well that is where I stand with Houston.
You can only be that promising young team with immense talent for so long before your honeymoon period is over. Jalen Green should be progressing like an Anthony Edwards. Instead he’s giving off Timberwolves Zach Lavine. And that might be the least of their issues right now.
Houston is in the midst of a balancing-act season where it is trying to move up in the standings but doing it while still figuring out which young players are the keepers.
The offseason was a pretty dramatic thinning of the herd for an ostensibly rebuilding team: Recent draft picks Kenyon Martin Jr., TyTy Washington, Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher were shown the door, with only Martin bringing back any compensation in return.
Nonetheless, more decisions remain. Take Alperen Şengün, for instance, who had some breathtaking moments as a passer from the low post and rebounds and scores at a high rate but also had some breakdowns on defense that were … breathtaking in a very different way. Can he defend enough to be a starting five? Can his offensive skills blossom enough that his defense won’t matter, as something of a Nikola Jokić Lite? Or will his limitations guarding in space forever consign him to the bench in fourth quarters?
Similarly, draft picks Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore have much to prove in the shooting department. Thompson, in particular, is a high-wire athlete who has never shot the ball consistently but could be a plus-defender right away and has enough handle to potentially operate as the Rockets’ backup point guard. In a somewhat similar vein, Whitmore fell in the draft because of concerns over his interviews, knees and bull-in-a-china-shop offensive approach, but he was one of the best rookies at summer league. Between Thompson, Whitmore and Eason, the Rockets have three of the most athletic young forwards in the league, but there may not be room on the floor for more than one at any given time.
The max contract for Fred VanVleet and ensuing sign-and-trade for Dillon Brooks used all of Houston’s cap space; the Rockets won’t be a cap room team until at least 2025 and would have to decline VanVleet’s option to do it. So I ask what was the purpose of these max deals if it doesn’t elevate your team in the slightest?
Houston handcuffed itself to mediocracy for the foreseeable future, especially if Green and Jabari Smith Jr. don’t start resembling a Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. esque level of play.
13. Utah Jazz (34-48)
Remember that thing about disappointing seasons, well the Utah Jazz are coming crashing back to reality this year.
Lauri Markkanen had a surprise breakout littered with poster dunks and made the All-Star team, Walker Kessler proved to be a worthy successor to Gobert’s mantle as one of the league’s elite rim protectors, and the Jazz are now sitting on six first-round picks and three pick swaps from Minnesota and Cleveland.
Markkanen and Kessler are part of the future, obviously, but everyone else here is still fighting to be in that picture. Start in the backcourt, where the Jazz seem badly over-indexed on shot-thirsty guards. Talen Horton-Tucker is just 22 but is on the final year of his deal; will he ever score efficiently, or is he just a volume shot misser? Collin Sexton scored efficiently enough in his 48 games (61.6 percent true shooting) to make you believe in his sixth-man prospects, but can he stay healthy and play even remotely passable defense? Can he ever credibly play point guard? Jordan Clarkson got a rich contract extension in a renegotiated deal that could also set the Jazz up to trade him, especially given his skill overlap with Sexton and Horton-Tucker. He’s the best of the three but also by far the oldest at 31.
The team, as it stands, is not particularly bad and will once again challenge for the Play-In for most of the year, but given that the West has 11 teams that consider themselves playoff-caliber, it will be an uphill battle to break through. That’s especially true given the odd on-court fit of the talent this year, with no real point and a lot of shot-happy perimeter players starving Markkanen and Collins. Mike Conley will be missed.
12. San Antonio Spurs (35-47)
Before we talk about the 7-foot-4 French unicorn in the room, let’s discuss the rest of the Spurs.
They were awful the past few years after two decades of dominance. And it looks like that run of terrible basketball will come to an end very very soon.
But they’re not going to go from unwatchable to a playoff team in Wembanyama’s rookie season (or at least I don’t think) but I’m also not ruling that out entirely.
Beyond the arrival of Wembanyama, the Spurs have a few other reasons for optimism. Devin Vassell, the 23-year-old shooting guard, played only 38 games last season but could be a top-15 player at his position with his combination of solid defense and 3-point shooting, especially after adding more off-the-dribble downhill attacks to his repertoire in an injury-shortened third season. Locking him up on a fair extension with no options for the five seasons after this one was an organizational win.
Keldon Johnson is undersized for the four and needs to shoot more consistently, but he is a very strong downhill driver who likely will spend more minutes at his natural small forward spot due to the presence of Jeremy Sochan, who was an inconsistent teen a year ago and must improve as a shooter but showed obvious tools as a defender and off-dribble attacker that could make him a long-term starter. He’ll likely get first crack at the job this year. At the point, Tre Jones is probably a bit overstretched as a starter, but he’s a solid game manager who gets the ball to the right spots, and the analytics numbers suggest he’s a much better overall player than you might think.
The Spurs also have some veteran depth thanks to taking in players from other teams’ salary dumps. They somewhat surprisingly cut Cameron Payne, but Devonte’ Graham, Cedi Osman and Doug McDermott remain. All are likely short-timers who might be moved by the trade deadline, but they do provide a floor that didn’t exist a year ago.
Nonetheless, development is the order of the day. The Spurs likely will find minutes for Blake Wesley and Malaki Branham in the backcourt, both of whom are just 20, although neither made much of an impression a year ago and both desperately need to improve their decision-making.
Finally, Wemby. He’ll have some adjustments to make in terms of strength, physicality and playing style, but he’s also a basketball alien who did something unimaginable virtually every time I see him play.
Even now, he might be good enough to vault the Spurs higher than they might prefer in the standings. He destroyed the French league as an 18-year-old, then looked improved in multiple areas during his preseason games for the Spurs. By the second half of the season, he may be one of the best players in the conference. Obviously, the sky is the limit long-term as long as he doesn’t get hurt.
If Wembanyama delivers, that alone should keep the Spurs out of the lowest rungs of the standings. While it’s unrealistic to expect the Spurs to contend for a playoff spot given the depth of decent-to-good teams in this conference — and San Antonio’s disincentives to join them right away — jumping to a respectably bad 30-35 wins definitely seems in the cards.
Oh and Greg Popovich is still running the show. He got his next star player in house and I think that is going to further ignite the fire within to keep pushing forward.
Spurs just miss the play in, but make the playoffs in 2024-25.
11. Sacramento Kings (39-43)
All cinderella stories come crashing back to reality one way or another. This year is just that for the Kings.
A fall all the way to 11th and the lottery sounds shocking, but these standings are so compressed that it’s still only a handful of games away from a top-six seed. The more realistic way to interpret this is that somebody among the 11 West teams that are truly trying this year is going to end up missing the Play-In and I think the Kings are the most susceptible to that claim.
The Kings had no major injuries to anyone in their 10 man rotation last season on the way to a unfathomable 3 seed after a decade plus of missing the playoffs. That luck combined with suprise element of oh these guys are actually good for once won’t happen again. Teams are going to be ready for the Fox-Sabonis duo this year. They won’t be able to sneak up on the good teams this year and the bad teams will give them their best effort every night.
This season is going to be a grind, one I’m not sure this core is ready to endure.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-42)
I actually have no clue where to place the Thunder this year if I’m being totally transparent.
Oklahoma City has some strong arguments for why it might make a charge up the standings: The Thunder were a decent team last season, they are extremely young and thus likely to benefit from improvement up and down the roster, and they add Chet Holmgren to a roster that was effectively centerless in 2022-23.
That said, I remain somewhat skeptical of the Thunder’s immediate upside (as opposed to their longer-term upside, which remains immense). For one, I just don’t see the internal motivation to start pushing chips in quite yet, at least not while they’re still figuring which of these recent first-round picks are the keepers. Using cap space to swallow five non-performing contracts (Dāvis Bertāns, Rudy Gay, Victor Oladipo, TyTy Washington and Usman Garuba) was a pretty significant tell on that front.
With potentially five more draft picks joining the roster next year (the Thunder will almost certainly trade up or trade out and actually use fewer on draft night, but humor me) and a slew of future choices on the way in the next half-decade (six second-round picks in 2029!), the other part of the puzzle for Oklahoma City is to fairly rapidly identify which of their draftees justify long-term development, roster spots and contract extensions.
It’s a problem every team would love to have, but it is the one downside of the Thunder’s draft pick bounty: The limitations of the 15-man roster, and eventually of the salary cap, will hit fairly hard in the next few years if they aren’t extremely judicious about thinning the herd as they go. You can see already the Thunder have worked to extend their salary-cap timeline by committing to long-term, middle-class extensions for Lu Dort and Kenrich Williams, but it’s coming for them either way.
So, who are the keepers here? Certainly Jalen Williams seems likely to be one of them after a banner rookie year. He may very well be the Thunder’s second-best player this season and may have already surpassed Josh Giddey as on-ball Plan B when Gilgeous-Alexander is off the floor. Holmgren will get every chance to prove he’s part of the long-term plan as well, especially with the paucity of size on the rest of the roster.
For the others, it’s prove-it time. Even for Giddey, I would argue, given the potentially clunky fit of his game if the Thunder’s other talent forces him to play off the ball. That decision can wait two years if need be, but others seem more immediate. Aleksej Pokuševski will be a free agent after the season; there may be only one survivor between he and Jaylin Williams behind Holmgren.
Tre Mann already seems crowded out by the other guard talent, especially with the Thunder needing to evaluate 10th selection Cason Wallace. Is Ousmane Dieng anything? Is there room on this roster for both Dort and Aaron Wiggins? Is Isaiah Joe’s shooting deadly enough to extend him after the season?
There’s a season that will be going on in the meantime, and some interesting storylines surround it here: Can Holmgren push Wembanyama for Rookie of the Year? Can Gilgeous-Alexander get into the MVP discussion? What are the limits on Jalen Williams’ ceiling? But the context of it for the Thunder is entirely about what they could potentially be in 2024-25 and beyond, with one more year of growth and, perhaps, one giant offseason trade with some of those draft picks. In a Western Conference neighborhood likely to be much tougher than the one of a year ago, returning to the Play-In would be a solid achievement.
9. New Orleans Pelicans (41-41)
There are no bad predictions when it come to this year’s Pelicans. You could tell me literally anything about what might happen to this team in 2023-24 and I would believe it. A top seed in the West and an MVP run for Zion Williamson? Sure. Massive injuries to the starting 5 and being a top 3 pick can also happen. But for me, I’ll split the difference and have them as a .500 win team, sneaking into the play in.
Why? Because if not now then when?
Certainly, the upside of his team is scary, as shown during the first 35 games of last season. Williamson rumbled to the rim at will, and the Pels had just enough shooting and defense around him to make them dangerous. They started the year 23-12 with Williamson in the lineup and seemed a threat for the West’s top seed; then they lost 25 of their next 35 games and needed to rally in the final two weeks just to make the Play-In.
It would help if their two All-Star players could ever actually be teammates in the same game. Williamson only played 29 games last season — the third time in four pro seasons he failed to clear 30 — and Brandon Ingram participated in just 45. In one of the NBA’s most amazing stats, the two have been paired in New Orleans for four years and played just 93 games together.
The supporting cast isn’t even worth mentioning if these two can’t play in 65 games with each other this season. But the clock is winding down in NOLA and its time their two stars step up.
8. Dallas Mavericks (42-40)
In the wake of April’s embarrassing last-ditch tank to preserve a top-10 protected pick, 2023-24 feels like a huge year in Dallas, and I’m not sure how well it’s going to go. There is definitely the potential for the bottom to fall out if Luka Dončić decides he’s had enough and would rather be elsewhere, but don’t worry: The always-dependable Kyrie Irving is here to save the day.
Luka this and Kyrie that.
I’m tired bro.
This isn’t a realistic duo if the goal is to win. If this was an individual talent show or a pickup game at the park, the Mavs would reign supreme. Hell even a reality tv show would get great ratings with these two running the show, but winning games at an elite level? Yeah miss me with that.
Dallas’s depressing finish last season exposed all the holes on this roster beyond the top two names, and it’s unclear if any element of that improved in the offseason. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though: The Mavs turned the 10th pick into pick Nos. 12 and 24, while also flipping Bertāns into the slightly less onerous contract of Richaun Holmes, turning Reggie Bullock into Grant Williams via a sign-and-trade and re-signing Dwight Powell on a bargain deal. The Mavs did some discount shopping to land Seth Curry, Dante Exum and high-flier Derrick Jones Jr. for the bench.
And I’m here to tell you none of that matters.
It’s hard to come up with another Mav who would start for more than a small handful of the league’s other teams. Dallas’s third-best player is … Grant Williams? I guess? The rest of the roster is dotted with one-way players who have obvious limitations
Irving, of course, presents his own problems. A hugely talented offensive player, he teams with Dončić to make the Mavs an elite attack almost regardless of which three other players share the court with them, at least on the days when Irving is a) healthy and b) not blowtorching his team’s chemistry.
Dallas got 66 All-NBA-caliber games from Dončić last season and still went 38-44; the Mavs never recovered from the own goal of losing Jalen Brunson to free agency.
The Mavs are on the verge of losing Luka and they don’t even recognize it. At this moment I would say there’s a better chance Luka requests a trade by 2025 than he and Kyrie win a playoff game together.
7. LA Clippers (46-36)
How long can the Clippers keep this up? LA has theoretically been all-in ever since it acquired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in 2019, sporting one of the league’s most expensive rosters every year, shelling out massive luxury-tax checks and shedding draft picks and expiring contracts for more veterans to keep it going another year.
The end result, after re-signing most of those veterans, is an old, expensive team that depends heavily on the increasingly frail Leonard and George to carry it. While the Clippers’ depth remains above average, the lack of either a third impact starter or an elite point guard leaves them at a disadvantage relative to most of their Western peers, especially in the many minutes that one or both of Leonard and George are, um, sidelined.
Leonard showed both sides of that coin during LA’s brief playoff run, dominating Game 1 in Phoenix to remind everyone how good the peak version of Playoff Kawhi remains, then sitting out the final three games with a knee sprain while the Clips humbly submitted. He’s played 52, 0 and 52 games in the three post-bubble seasons, while George has played 54, 31 and 56. Forget getting both of them to play 60 games in the same season; can they even get one?
The best-case scenario version of this team still can hunt 50 wins and be a menace in the playoffs, especially if the Clips can come out with a viable third star in the trade market. The Clips, it should be noted, also have pledged to take the regular season more seriously this time around and have thus far backed up their words in the preseason.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to have too much faith in 70-game seasons from George and Leonard until we see it happen, and the organization seems to share our ambivalence. Note, in particular, that extensions for either haven’t happened yet, even though both can be free agents after the season.
Steve Ballmer isn’t writing nine-figure luxury-tax checks to the league so he can lose to Phoenix in the first round, and the Clippers could eject from their current stratospheric payroll situation with lightning speed if they so choose. I don’t expect this team to start slowly, but if it does, things could be awfully interesting.
6. Minnesota Timberwolves (46-36)
It’s amazing yet true: One year after making one of the worst trades in NBA history, the Timberwolves are likely to be one of the league’s best teams.
While giving up Walker Kessler and five future firsts for the right to overpay Rudy Gobert through 2026 is an all-time stinker that will sting this franchise with a vengeance in the second half of the decade, they haven’t had to pay the piper yet.
Instead, this is the last year when everything is still fun: Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels are each on the final year of their rookie deals, and Karl-Anthony Towns’ extension hasn’t kicked in yet. Minnesota was able to spend its exception money, re-sign Naz Reid and still keep a couple million in wiggle room below the luxury-tax line. That all changes a year from now, but the present looks good.
Partly, that’s because the front office did a tremendous job digging out from the Gobert disaster over the last 12 months. Trading for Mike Conley and Nickeil Alexander-Walker stabilized the backcourt at midseason, while offseason moves to add Troy Brown and Shake Milton further solidified the bench.
Of course, much of the reason for optimism is the emergence of Edwards, an elite athlete still figuring out how to use all his tools. This summer, the FIBA version of Anthony Edwards showed both the best and worst of his game — taking over as a go-to guy because of his ability to create a shot at a moment’s notice but finishing last on the team in true shooting because of his iffy ability to read the game and pursue high-percentage opportunities.
The other reason Minnesota started slowly last year was the poor frontcourt chemistry between Gobert and Towns, but they had seemed to work out many of the kinks by the time the playoffs started. It’s still an unnatural fit, with Towns shoehorned into a perimeter role on both ends of the floor and Gobert’s hands and finishing as a roll man having markedly declined from his peak in Utah. One still wonders if the best endgame for the Wolves is to move off Towns before his $216 million extension kicks in next year in exchange for somebody who is a better positional fit for this roster.
So, Minnesota fans, enjoy these last precious days of your brief Edwards-era summer before the harsh winter comes.
5. Phoenix Suns (48-34)
We all know about the stars, and we’ll get to them in a second, but one of the key questions for Phoenix is whether the roster is now too top-heavy. The Suns had a tremendous free agency in terms of identifying minimum-contract role players who could help them this season, but the depth still took some hits with the loss of Cameron Payne, Landry Shamet, Jock Landale and Torrey Craig.
Drew Eubanks is a solid rim protector, and, in addition to Gordon, Damion Lee and Yuta Watanabe are secondary perimeter shooting threats who aren’t toast defensively. Acquiring Grayson Allen — who could be the fifth starter — adds another reliable shooter, one who has a bit more on-ball juice than the others I’ve mentioned. Keep an eye on Nassir Little too, who has struggled to stay healthy but offers an athletic jolt at either forward spot.
The bench won’t be good by any means and that scares me when their stars are injury prone.
Ultimately, I’m more bullish on the postseason version of this team than I am the regular-season one. That’s where the 35-year-old Durant can go 40 minutes every night and team with Booker and Beal to put real heat on defenses. The first 82 games still have too many questions about depth and durability to predict an easy ride, however, especially with the addition of another historically frail player in Jusuf Nurkić. It’s pretty easy to see a scenario in which the Suns end up with a middling seed and then have to blast their way through a tough bracket — much like a year ago. The good news is that they have enough top-end talent to pull it off.
4. Golden State Warriors (48-34)
I have too much respect for the Warriors to outright predict them falling off drastically, but before I praise them, can we acknowledge how similar their offseason has been to the 2021-22 Lakers?
Bring in a declining HOF point guard in Chris Paul (Westbrook), while sending out their top youngster Jordan Poole(Kyle Kuzma). Just something to monitor.
The Warriors are running it back with the league’s most expensive roster. At least this time they’re coming at it honestly, with the merciful death of Two Tracks and a renewed focus on maximizing the dwindling primes of the Steph Curry–Draymond Green–Klay Thompson triumvirate.
Golden State also helped itself at the margins with minimum deals for Cory Joseph and Dario Šarić; if the oft-injured Gary Payton II can make a healthy return as well, the second unit should be much stronger than last season’s despite Donte DiVincenzo’s departure.
While Two Tracks is dead, Golden State could also get more out of 2021 first-rounder Jonathan Kuminga, who was deep-sixed from the playoff rotation but is the Warriors’ best hope for an energy jolt this season. Despite playing two NBA seasons, he just turned 21 this month, and his top line offensive numbers (59.0 percent from 2, 37.0 percent from 3, 4.2 assists per 100 possessions) are notably good for a player this young.
Overall, it’s hard to get excited about the peak version of the Warriors as more than a puncher’s chance contender, one that could perhaps sneak through if everything breaks just right. The Warriors certainly have advantages compared to a year ago — Curry and Andrew Wiggins had extended absences last season, there is no pressure to force minutes to James Wiseman, Kuminga might break out and Paul is likely to give them more than Poole did a year ago. If a quality backup two emerges from recent draft picks Moses Moody and Brandin Podziemski, so much the better.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see the ceiling here. It’s been an amazing dynasty, but the youngest of the three key players behind it will be 34 in March, and Curry is the only one who projects to play at an All-Star level this season. It’s difficult to see this team missing the playoffs, but it’s also nearly as hard to see it getting past the second round.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (50-32)
The Lakers in the LeBron era have been one of two things, elite or a clown show. There has been no in-between with this pairing. Once they rid themselves of the mistake that was Westbrook, the Lakers got back on track to running an elite program.
They did more good work this summer — and a lot of it, actually, first by crucially bringing back Austin Reaves on a bargain deal, then somewhat less crucially shelling out $51 million to keep Rui Hachimura. Gabe Vincent is a talent downgrade from Dennis Schröder but should provide more shooting, something this team desperately needs, while Taurean Prince and bargain backup Christian Wood should also help spread the floor. Jaxson Hayes will be an instant garbage-time legend with his dunks and might even help in the earlier parts of the game given how much this team runs. Cam Reddish? Don’t get your hopes up, but it was a flier for the minimum at a position of need.
The key in all this was that they moved off Westbrook last year without having to sacrifice all their draft capital, and between the trades and offseason exception money they acquired enough rotation-caliber pieces (Hachimura, Russell, Vincent, Jarred Vanderbilt, Wood, Prince) that the depth chart doesn’t just say “LOL” after the first five names.
Adding Russell’s shooting was an underrated piece to the puzzle; he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the Lakers desperately needed a long-range threat like him. Finding and developing the undrafted Reaves into a fairly legitimate third option was obviously the capper, continuing a decade-long track record of draft wins for this organization.
Additionally, L.A. may have found another in-house solution in the backcourt after 2022 second-rounder Max Christie emerged with a strong summer league. The 20-year-old did little of note in his first season, at either the NBA or G League level, so his play in both Vegas and Sacramento was a revelation.
That said, the Lakers also lost Schröder and playoff dynamo Lonnie Walker IV this offseason, and questions about the quantity and quality of shooting persist. This was the league’s 20th-ranked offense a year ago despite leading the league in free-throw attempts; alas, they were 26th in 3-point frequency and 25th in accuracy. Exchanging Westbrook for literally anybody helps that, obviously, as does adding perimeter threats such as Wood, Vincent and Prince.
Deeper on the roster, the Lakers’ draft history is very strong, but this season’s selections didn’t exactly quicken my pulse. First-rounder Jalen Hood-Schifino is trying to thread a tight archetypal needle as “non-shooter who doesn’t really get to the rim much,” while Max Lewis is the more traditional second-round gamble on a toolsy wing whose production hasn’t matched his YouTube reel. Seeing either play in any of the first three quarters of a game this year will likely require a drive to El Segundo.
Overall, the biggest issue facing this team is the same as last year: whether there is enough regular-season juice to get their two superstars to a favorable playoff position. This feels like a much more coherent team from top to bottom than it did 12 months ago, and, despite James’ age, we’ve all learned to never doubt him in games that matter in May.
Let’s not forget to mention that this teams stars are angry with how they were embarrassed by Denver in a Conference Finals sweep. I expect a locked in duo early and late this season. In between expect Reaves and company to carry the work load.
2. Memphis Grizzlies (52-30)
Look the Ja Morant memes and suspension will catch the headlines, but under all of that is a very good to great basketball team. It is 10 deep, with no truly glaring weakness. Add the youth mixed with veteran leadership plus desire to prove others wrong, and this team is winning north of 50 games this year.
Yes in the grand scheme of things, Ja Morant needs to get his act together, but even in the games he misses, a Marcus Smart-Desmond Bane-Jaren Jackson Jr. core would be likely to win more than half its games. The Grizzlies also still have chips they can put in play to make upgrades in-season, including all of their own future first-round picks, which is something few West contenders can say.
Where I worry about Memphis more, as ever, is in the postseason. The Lakers showed how the Grizzlies’ key weaknesses — outside shooting, scheme variability, big wings — can be exploited in a short series, and the heavier reliance on starter minutes in the postseason means their depth won’t save them. Swapping out Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones for Smart still leaves the Grizzlies awfully small on the perimeter in crunchtime; inserting Kennard solves the shooting problem but creates even more size issues.
While we’re here and discussing trades, here’s another factor to keep an eye on: Next year’s Grizzlies project to be about $20 million over the luxury-tax line, pushing into second-apron territory. Are the small-market Griz willing to spend that kind of money? If so, is that willingness contingent on a certain degree of success this season?
For a great many reasons, this feels like a big season in the trajectory of this version of the Grizzlies, and the regular season is only part of the story. But even with Morant sitting out the first 25 games, I like the Grizzlies’ odds of emerging from the regular season at or near the top of the West standings.
1. Denver Nuggets (55-27)
Listen when you have the best player in the world, coming off a championship in which you dominated on your way to, you by default get the top seed projection.
The Nuggets have the best player in the league and the best starting five, which is a really good place to start a title defense. Nikola Jokić is a dominant, efficient, giant point guard who shreds any double-team and also shoots 64 percent from floater range; surrounded by knockdown shooters and a pick-and-roll point guard, good luck stopping these guys. Your only real hope against the Nuggets is to outscore them.
However, losing Bruce Brown will leave a mark, and it’s fair to ask if Denver’s roster is just too thin to reach the finish line. The Nuggets effectively had six starters last year, with Brown playing 28.5 minutes a game in the regular season and 26.5 in the playoffs. Any lineup with five of the six good Nuggets in it smoked the opposition. When they went deeper, cracks appeared almost immediately.
Those cracks will come earlier and more often this season. With Brown and Jeff Green gone and Vlatko Čančar lost to a torn ACL, my numbers rated this as the worst bench in the league. The Nuggets are supporting their starting five with the very young and the very old, but it’s not clear if any of the other 10 players on the roster are truly rotation-caliber. The best hope is likely forward Christian Braun, a good defender and athlete who stepped into a minor role during the playoff run but is a non-threat from the perimeter and has limited utility as an on-ball creator.
The Nuggets also brought in a couple of replacement-level veteran depth pieces. They paid 33-year-old Reggie Jackson their entire taxpayer midlevel exception despite hardly using him after he was acquired last spring; the hope is that he can straighten out his shot and give them competent backup minutes. Denver also brought in 34-year-old Justin Holiday, a theoretical 3-and-D guy who struggled mightily in Atlanta and Dallas last season.
So, yeah, there are some questions. But circle back to the big picture: This is an elite starting five, one that may only look better as Murray comes into his own. He was still working his way back from an ACL injury last season, but the playoff version of him is an All-Star. On the down side, keeping all five starters healthy and in working order is critical for a realistic title defense, and Michael Porter Jr., in particular, will always be a concern on that front.
The Nuggets are a credible threat to repeat if they can make it to the postseason intact, but amassing wins in the regular season will be a slog due to their depth issues, and I can’t help but think this year’s roster is one player short of what they need.
The Nuggets’ offseason moves were quite possibly the best way to maximize the entirety of the next half decade, but it’s hard to argue they maxed out their odds of repeating this year. Certainly the Nuggets have to be on the short list of title contenders, with the best player in the league and an unstoppable Murray-Jokić two-man game. In a highly competitive West, however, it’s fair to question whether they’re deep enough to glide through four straight rounds the way they did a season ago.