Who’s Best in the West: Power Ranking the Stacked NBA Western Conference

Who’s Best in the West: Power Ranking the Stacked NBA Western Conference
Wed 10th July 2019

This has been one helluva week in the NBA. Since free agency opened nearly 10 days ago on the 30th of June we’ve seen the league’s entire identity flipped, moulded, re-tooled and eventually spat out in to something near-unrecognisable.

Of course, Kawhi Leonard’s stunning piece of behind-the-scenes orchestration to set himself up in LA with Paul George will headline the NBA’s news cycle for a while to come. As it should. We have never seen a championship-winning superstar in his prime leave the team he just carried to the promised-land, let alone in the circumstances Kawhi did.

The Board Man certainly had the last laugh.

But, even setting aside the ongoing soap opera that is basketball in Los Angeles, it’s arguable that the Western Conference power dynamic has never shifted so dramatically as it has in the last month.

A dynasty fell in Golden State; we’ve seen contenders rise and fall in Utah, Oklahoma City and Denver; and even lottery teams take enormous steps towards their championship dreams.

What better time to take a step back, survey the landscape and power rank all 15 teams in the West.

15. Memphis Grizzlies

Don’t take this the wrong way, Memphis fans. Your team will be good, it just isn’t very good right now.

The combined loss of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol in the last 6 months – while wholly necessary for the rebuild – puts this roster in a position from which it is going to be exceedingly difficult to win games in season 2019-20.

Of course, the addition of number 2 overall pick Ja Morant is going to ease the pain significantly, as will watching budding two-way superstar Jaren Jackson Jnr mature in to his absurdly athletic frame. Outside of those two though, it’s relatively slim pickings for the moment. Newly-acquired Grayson Allen could turn in to a handy role-player; Kyle Anderson is probably above average; Josh Jackson (recent acquisition from Phoenix) may yet reach his potential and the 27-year-old Jonas Valancunias is the kind of basketball-savvy centre worth their weight in gold in today’s NBA.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


14. Phoenix Suns

Please do take this the wrong way Phoenix fans: what the hell is your team doing?

Whilst he’s still only 22-years-old, if Robert Sarver and co. continue at this rate there’s every chance they’ll find a way to waste the prime of Devin Booker’s NBA career. And, make no mistake, Booker is the sole reason this team has climbed off the bottom of these power rankings. Any team with a man who can do this simply can’t be at the bottom of any list. It’s illegal.

Whilst you may think the Suns are going through a rebuild, their recent roster moves suggest otherwise. First they acquired the ageing Aron Baynes (32); then traded DOWN in the draft to take a guy (Cameron Johnson) probably a round earlier than they should have; then over-paid the 28-year-old Ricky Rubio (three-years $51 million); then traded the 20-year-old Josh Jackson to the Grizzlies for a packet of peanuts and a soda. Oh, and they also got rid of 25-year-old fan-favourite TJ Warren to Indiana.

W. T. F. Sort your sh*t out Phoenix.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


13. Oklahoma City Thunder

No team in the NBA has gone from hero to zero in this last fortnight more so than the Thunder. Yeah, their situation has reversed even more drastically than the Leonard-less Raptors.

After two first round playoff exits in the last two years the upside for OKC fans is at least they don’t have to sit through the pain of failing to meet expectations anymore. Without Paul George, the truth is their roster really isn’t very good. Oh, and that already-not-very-good roster may also be about to lose Russell Westbrook (destination currently unknown).

With Westbrook this team probably slots in somewhere from 7-12 in the rankings. Without him they’re a bona fide lottery team, and at this point in time there is legitimately no sense in Sam Presti’s organisation hanging on to the Brodie and trying to run it back. Expect them do everything they can to offload Russ, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams in the coming weeks.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Terrance Ferguson, Nerlens Noel and Dennis Schroder is not a terrible set of young players to build around, and with an unprecedented bounty of picks from the Clippers the Thunder are in a great position for the future. They’re just not going to be in a great position for this year.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


12. Minnesota Timberwolves

It’s hard to pin-point exactly where the Minnesota Timberwolves are going wrong. They’ve got a superstar centre in Karl Anthony-Towns, above-average rotational point-guards in Tyus Jones and Jeff Teague and a former number-one draft pick in Andrew Wigg.. Ah. Yeah. That’s the problem.

Wiggins’ 5 year $147,710,050 deal looked poor at the time it was signed and looks even worse now. It’s easily in the top 5 most untradeable contracts in the league. Without him blossoming in to the second star they’d hoped Minnesota are effectively hamstrung by that money to go along with KAT’s $158 million behemoth.

The Wolves struck out on D’Angelo Russell in free agency, but there’s a small glimmer of hope they may be able to land Russell Westbrook whilst also ridding themselves of Wiggins. Such a move would plaster over the cracks and launch them up the rankings briefly, but outside of KAT this roster is starting to look thinner by the second.

KAT’s pre-agency is also coming up at the end of next season, so if the Wolves don’t make some moves quickly they may be stuck in basketball purgatory for a looooooong time.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


11. San Antonio Spurs

Yes, this roster has been average for a while now. And, yes, this roster keeps finding a way to make it to the playoffs. But at some point there has to be a tipping point for the Spurs – the league is too even – and we’re tipping it’s this year.

At 29 and 33 respectively, Demar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are still a formidable duo, and the return of highly-touted Dejounte Murray plus continued emergence of Derrick White should (in theory) mean the Spurs are an improved team from the one that went 7 games with the Nuggets in Round 1 of last year’s playoffs.

In theory. The Spurs have done precisely nothing as yet in free-agency while the rest of the West has built around them. Coach Popovich’s mid-range gamestyle will surely only decrease in effectiveness with the influx of young shooters in to the league and frankly the 2017 Kawhi saga seems to have damaged the revered San Antonio brand. We can only see them moving backwards in years to come.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


10. Dallas Mavericks

It’s instructive that despite the youth of this team, 11 still feels too low as a ranking. We just can’t find a way to squeeze the Mavs above any other the upcoming teams, yet.

Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis may become one of the league’s most fearsome duos in the upcoming seasons, but we currently have no evidence of that. Seth Curry, Boban Marjanovic and Delon Wright are all astute free agent signings but are yet to show they can be consistently good players at the NBA level. Tim Hardaway Jnr is a volume scorer but also a complete enigma. And, it’s worth noting that the Mavs struck out on all of Kemba Walker, Al Horford and Danny Green.

This team is close, but until we get some concrete evidence of their true capabilities we’re still on the fence. They need one more quality piece. We’ll leave you with Doncic’s 2018-19 ROTY mixtape. Just cos.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


9. New Orleans Pelicans

It is remarkable that a team could finish last year with a 33-49 records, change management, lose the best player in the history of the franchise and still come out of the whole situation looking like winners.

Welcome to New Orleans. Sure, winning the most important NBA Draft Lottery in the last decade helped, but new GM David Griffin has made a variety of quality moves over the offseason to drag this team in to genuine playoff contention.

The Davis trade couldn’t possibly have gone any better, with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart all ready to step on to the court straight away and contribute and a haul of future draft picks set to burn a hole in Griffin’s pocket. Free agent signings JJ Redick and Derrick Favors are exactly the type of veteran presences a young team like this needs, while athletic centre Jaxson Hayes at No. 8 and guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker at No. 17 are perfect rookie-foils for the hype of Zion Williamson. I mean, just look at this from Hayes in Summer League:

Outrageous. In one short summer the Pelicans just became everyone’s second-favourite team and a must-watch on League pass.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


8. Sacramento Kings

After years of shoddy management, horrendous on-floor play and the ups-and-downs of the Boogie Cousins era, stability is finally returning to Sacramento.

If the Pelicans are to jump in to first-place as must-watch TV for neutral fans, they’re going to have to unseat the incumbent Kings. It was glorious to see De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles mature before our eyes last season, and in the end it should be a disappointment to the Kings players and staff that they were unable to hold on to a playoff spot in the final six weeks.

The Kings overpaid to retain Harrison Barnes in free agency (a necessary evil) and also added Dewayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza. These are not the moves of a team that thinks it’s far away from competing. Firing Dave Joerger and hiring Luke Walton in his place was another bold decision but, again, one that screams of a franchise that genuinely believes it is close, and intends to make the most of the flexibility afforded by Fox, Hield and Bagley all sitting on cushy rookie deals.

If that aforementioned trio can make the leap from stardom in to superstardom, this Kings team has the depth and experience to make a splash in the playoffs.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


7. Golden State Warriors

Quelle horreur! The 5-time-in-a-row finalists down at number 7, what gives!?

The basketball gods giveth, and they taketh away. Klay Thompson out for (at least) the majority of the regular season with an ACL injury is a massive blow. That loss was at least marginally offset by the addition of D’Angelo Russell in free agency, but then compounded by the departure of Andre Iguodala to clear cap space for Russell.

Thompson, Iguodala, Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins go out of this team, to be replaced by Russell and… Willie Cauley-Stein?

Yeah. Out of all the Western playoff teams from last season the Warriors have suffered most drastically on paper. That’s leaving entirely alone the fact that Steph Curry and Draymond Green are both surely beginning to exit the primes of their careers, and Golden State’s vaunted role-players (Shaun Livingston, Andrew Bogut etc.) looked like shells of their previous selves in the playoffs.

If Steph, Russell and Green can find a way to keep this team in stasis until March next year then anything can happen in the playoffs. But that is a huge load to carry. If the Warriors can find a way to squeeze in to the top 8 teams in the West it will be a fantastic result for Steve Kerr et al.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


6. Portland Trailblazers

After being swept in the conference finals by the Warriors last season, something had to drastically change in Portland for the Blazers to take the next step towards championship contention.

Replacing Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Seth Curry, Jake Layman and Enes Kanter with Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Tolliver and Mario Hezonja, while well-meaning, is not what the doctor ordered.

People with good inside knowledge of the NBA expect second-year forward Anfernee Simons to take a step forward this year. It certainly looks like they’re on the money after he dropped 35 in the Summer League earlier today:

Bazemore and Whiteside are handy rotational additions (particularly while Nurkic gets healthy) but are also hardly the type of players who can lift the Blazers over their final hurdle.

There’s a ceiling on this Lillard / McCollum combo, and it’s tough to see Portland making any meaningful leap forward unless Nurkic or Simons or Whiteside can become a third star in a hurry. That seems unlikely. Portland are a playoff team but it would be a surprise to see them make it out of the second round.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


5. Houston Rockets

The caveat on any discussion involving the Rockets is: “provided Daryl Morey doesn’t do anything weird.”

E.g.: the Rockets are a top 10 team in the NBA provided Daryl Morey doesn’t do anything weird. Like, oh I don’t know, try and trade for Russell Westbrook.

It’s fair to say the reports of Houston’s demise have been grossly exaggerated. Sure, they lost to the Warriors in the playoffs for the third year in a row, but for a good two months of the season we were all ready to pronounce them as champions.

A second-round exit is also a lot better than it sounds given Houston would not have had to face the Warriors until the conference finals if they could’ve just beaten OKC in their final game of the year.

Whilst they haven’t added anyone of note in free agency (despite some disturbing rumours about Jimmy Butler) the core starting five of James Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela is plenty good enough to contend. For now, it seems Morey is content to run it back. Fair enough too. This roster is close.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


4. Los Angeles Lakers

Hang on – a team with Anthony Davis and LeBron James is only ranked fourth in the West? Have we gone mad?

3 Los Angeles Lakers

Well, yes and no. LeBron and AD may be one of the best duos in the league’s history, but (unfortunately for the fans) they can’t play 48 minutes each per game. If the Raptors’ magical championship run taught us anything, it’s that every team needs to have at least 7 reliable players in the rotation in order to be a true contender.

The Lakers currently have LeBron, AD, Kyle Kuzma, DeMarcus Cousins, Avery Bradley, Danny Green, JaVale McGee, Quinn Cook, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo as players likely to be seeing meaningful minutes.

It goes without saying that maybe only 3 or 4 of those guys (besides LBJ and AD) can be genuinely relied on for crunch-time minutes. The rest… Well, at least Lance Stephenson isn’t returnin– Oh. He probably is.

Waiting for Kawhi to decide was a smart move, but it also derailed LA’s chances of picking up a third star and/or some decent roleplayers. When the going gets tough there is just going to be too much for LeBron and AD to do.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


3. Denver Nuggets

Of all the contenders in the West, the Nuggets had the most low-key free-agency.

That said, they did sign Jamal Murray to a 5-year $170 million extension; an overpay to be sure, but a necessary one. Murray showed in the playoffs he can be a genuine star in the league. Nikola Jokic, Murray and Gary Harris are a star young trio to build around, but it’s Denver’s depth which makes them so attractive.

Will Barton, Juan Hernangomez, Trey Lyles, Paul Millsap, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig are all role-players who are all capable of starting-level minutes, Jerami Grant as a back-up centre was a huge acquisition, while former projected number 1 overall draft pick Michael Porter Jr is back and (relatively) healthy after taking a year to recover from a back injury.

The Nuggets will be hungry after laying an egg in the conference semis against Portland last season. They’re ready to take the next step.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


2. Utah Jazz

We’ve lauded the Jazz’s praises at every turn this offseason, and for good reason. They’ve had a remarkable run of success in trading and free agency.

Mike Conley is obviously the centrepiece of Utah’s renaissance as an infinite upgrade at the point from Ricky Rubio, but Bojan Bogdanovic is a huge addition in free agency, as is Ed Davis as a budget replacement for Derrick Favors.

Rudy Gobert remains the league’s premier defensive stopper with his second DPOY, Donovan Mitchell is a scoring superstar, Joe Ingles is a low-key baller, Dante Exum could still be anything off the bench and Royce O’Neal is a brilliant glue-guy. On paper, Utah have all they need to challenge for western supremacy in the coming years.

The Jazz are going to be fun to watch.

Projected 2019-20 Record:


1. LA Clippers

When you’re a team that shocked all expectations to make the first round of the Playoffs, pushed Golden State to 6 games and then added two of the best 7 players in the world, you’re going to be top of most lists.

Kudos to Steve Ballmer and his Clippers. This has been a remarkable couple of years; from the demise of Lob City to the rebirth of a team which could (and should) push towards at least the NBA Finals.

Losing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danillo Gallinari (as well as a swathe of draft picks) hurts a little bit, but it’s fair to say the pain will be dulled by the brilliance of George and Leonard.

Aside from those two, Patrick Beverley Landry Shamet, JaMychal Green, Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac and Lou Williams are all quality role players and are up there with the best supporting casts in the league.

Little brother no longer.


Projected 2019-20 Record:


Written and produced for Sportstips.com by Eddie Dadds

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