A Western Conference Roundup

By Spencer Bowen

Post-draft and pre-free agency, let’s check in on the rest of the West’s chances to contend with the Warriors Grond-level Juggernaut.


Pacific

Los Angeles Clippers

No Chris Paul but yes Blake Griffin (for now), the Clips exist in a kind of Bulls-esque contend-and-rebuild twilight zone that will probably prove disastrous. Jerry West needs some time to iron out a once-promising team that was tragically managed into the ground by Doc Rivers. They were never a true rival to the Dubs, and LA does not project as a rival anytime soon.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Fightin’ Lonzos had a solid draft and are not very surreptitiously clearing a gigantic salary landing strip for a big-name star (LeBron?!?!?) in summer 2018. LA has some intriguing pieces, including the makings of a deathly backcourt. As of now? Not a threat. Maybe they’ll be able to beat Golden State when Klay Thompson, immobilized in the right corner at age 46, is still shooting 40% from downtown.

Phoenix Suns

Despite missing out on a chance to assemble an entirely Kentucky two-deep in the backcourt by swooping on De’Aaron Fox, I like what the Suns are doing. Yes, they’ve been kind of a mess ever since Steve Nash and his saintly hair departed Arizona, but Dragan Bender, Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson, and Tyler Ulis average less than 20 years old. The Suns, not unlike the Bucks, smell like a team that could give the Dubs problems with their raw talent and athleticism now and actually contend in about three years.

Sacramento Kings

After a shockingly solid draft, the Kings might be watchable. They’ll be good this year in the same way that “America’s Funniest Home Videos” is good: it’s about enjoyment, not quality.


Southwest

Dallas Mavericks

Dennis Smith Jr. at no. 9 was a nice pickup for Dallas. However, this team will not contend in the West until after my beloved Dirk Nowitzki retires. The Mavs do not have enough offensive firepower to make the playoffs, let alone challenge Golden State. The time to build young, promising talent around Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel is now.

Houston Rockets

Chris Paul and James Harden? Two ball-dominant perimeter players on the same team?? It won’t work! It’d be like pairing dribble-dominant Steph Curry with high-usage Kevin D- oh, wait.

Houston will be amazing. This team was probably the biggest threat to the Warriors last year until Deathly Hallows-seeker James Harden discovered the Cloak of Invisibility during Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals against San Antonio, and they just got better. They’ll miss Patrick Beverley’s defense, but the combo of two knock-down shooting point guards and the prospect of playing every damn possession with at least one All-NBA perimeter player on the floor is pretty scary. If there’s a team that can make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs to however many lightyears ahead the Dubs are, it’s Houston.

Memphis Grizzlies

I have an odd affection for the Grizzlies. Maybe it’s the strangely lovable ZBo. Maybe it’s  Mike Conley, the guy who makes you look up the players who got named All Stars at guard in the West because you’re so outraged that he didn’t make it and then you see how many preposterously talented guards are in the West so then you kind of shrug and feel bad for Mike Conley. Maybe it’s because Justin Timberlake has a small ownership stake. Despite their lovability, these teddy bears are built to win maybe one series in the playoffs, not to win the West.

New Orleans Pelicans

Besides the Bucks’ continued effort to play lineups featuring players with last name-length to match their wingspans, the Pelicans’ Boogie/Brow experiment will be the most fascinating personnel puzzle of the 2017-18 NBA season. I like the Frank Jackson pick, but this team remains in desperate need of perimeter athleticism and a semblance of outside shooting. But if Davis and Cousins average 55 combined every night, will anything else matter? There’s probably not a higher ceiling / lower floor team in the West.

San Antonio Spurs

Pop + Kawhi = concern. Always. This is like mass x velocity = momentum. It just is. Don’t fight it. It’s been said a trillion times, but it bears repeating: the Spurs + Kawhi vs. the Warriors = not a sweep. Be wary!!


Northwest

Denver Nuggets

Did you know that Roy Hibbert is still an NBA player? It’s true! He’s hiding amidst the Rocky Mountains in Denver, Colorado! Remember the seemingly antediluvian period when Hibbert revolutionized the NBA and the Pacers were going to challenge the LeBron-era Heat?

Anywho, the Nuggets are another collection of young talent (Jokic! Murray! Hernangomez??????) that needs to shed some older weight (Chandler! Nelson! Plumlee!) and make a couple of savvy moves to contend. I really like Mike Malone, but they need to decide whether to double down on Jokic’s awesome passing and run a scary, pace and space offense through him at the expense of defense or let Jokic’s individual skills compliment a gritty and physical defensive team. A contender? Sure, in 2020. Not 2017.

Minnesota Timberwolves

We’re talking about playoffs?????!

Oklahoma City Thunder

Can Billy Donovan get Russell Westbrook some help – and will Russ take it? Westbrook’s individual carpet bombing of the NBA did a lot for OKC’s excitement value but very little for their ability to beat good teams. Is OKC content with 45-37 every year?

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland needs to make some trades. I still cannot fathom why they signed Evan Turner, a perfectly talented isolation scorer but an abysmal fit for the Blazers roster, for $16M a year. The Blazers, as per usual, have enough scoring to hang around with the Warriors but not enough to outshoot the Big Four consistently. McCollum and Lillard need to go quadruple-inferno for a fighter’s chance, and it’s never happening four games out of seven. Sneaky scary possibility: Noah Vonleh, still just 21, starts to develop some Draymond Green-like passing and defense skills. That’s probably the only way this team, as currently assembled, begins to mount any realistic threat to the Champions.

Utah Jazz

It’s the Gordo Show. It sure seems like Gordon Hayward will depart for Boston or Miami, and Grant Hill may follow him out the free agency door. Utah has some intriguing pieces – Derrick Favors is still good, Dante Exum has oodles of potential, Donovan Mitchell was a nice draft pick – but without Hayward and Hill, their chances of making the playoffs again may be slim.


Cover photo courtesy of SI.com

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