By Ryan Houlihan, Staff Writer and John Daly, Staff Writer
NBA Western Conference: The power of the NBA has been held in the West for a decade now. The only teams able to successfully take down the Western powerhouses have been LeBron’s Heat and LeBron’s Cavs.
This year, the West is bursting with eight teams that could legitimately advance to the finals. With the dynasty in Golden State close to extinction, the field has become wide open for the next dynasty to take over.
Three new superteams were formed this offseason: the Los Angeles Clippers with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Los Angeles Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the Houston Rockets with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Outside of that top three, don’t overlook the Warriors with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and D’Angelo Russell, the Nuggets with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, and the Trail Blazers with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. With so much talent in one conference, it should make for an exciting season where anything can happen.
- Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers were one of the NBA’s best stories last year. Considered by many to be a team that was still a work-in progress, it was a surprise when they earned a spot in the playoffs and totaled 48 wins, especially after trading star Tobias Harris to the 76ers.
Unfortunately for them, they were matched up with the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. Despite the odds, they played the Warriors extremely tough, taking them to six games before losing the series 4-2.
It was great to see a team that had just recently been removed from the Donald Sterling horrors and the departures of stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan doing so well.
Head coach Doc Rivers got the most out of a young team without any big-name superstars. He once again showed why he is considered one of the best coaches in the game.
Rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was outstanding and showed signs of being a future star in this league. Meanwhile, guard Lou Williams won the Sixth Man of the Year award for the third time in his career. Teammate Montrezl Harrell also had a breakout year, finishing runner-up to Williams for Sixth Man.
During the offseason, owner Steve Balmer made arguably the biggest power play in NBA history, signing Kawhi Leonard to a three-year $103 million dollar deal and trading Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and seven future first round picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Paul George.
The move instantly made the Clippers a title contender; Leonard and George are both MVP-caliber players and are two of the best two-way players in the game. Along with Patrick Beverly, the Clippers will be impossible to score on. Throw in Lou Williams and Harrell’s scoring off the bench and this is possibly one of the best teams in the NBA.
The Clippers will be competing with the Lakers, Bucks and 76ers for the title. A new LA rivalry under the same roof: Lebron James and Anthony Davis versus Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. It doesn’t get much better than that.
- Houston Rockets
James Harden’s historic regular season was overshadowed by another playoff disappointment under coach Mike D’Antoni. The Rockets were eliminated once again by the Golden State Warriors, losing in game six in the second round of the Playoffs. Even without Kevin Durant, the Warriors were able to win two games to close out the series.
Questions still remain, including if James Harden and Mike D’Antoni can ever find success when it matters most. Losing can bring out the worst in people, as was evident with the beef between Harden and point guard Chris Paul. It was safe to say that the Chris Paul/James Harden experiment was over in Houston.
In July, the Rockets dealt Chris Paul and four future draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder for superstar point guard Russell Westbrook. The move reunited Westbrook and Harden after they previously played together in Oklahoma City.
While Russ is an MVP-caliber player, it was a huge risk pairing up Harden with another ball-dominant guard, considering the last one (Paul) did not work. The remaining Rockets mostly stayed intact and they now have a strong supporting cast behind Harden and Westbrook through Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker.
The bench became a bit thin after losing Gerald Green for the season to a foot injury, but D’Antoni voiced his belief that rookie Chris Clemons could help replace Green.
Clemons attended Campbell University, where he accumulated the third-most points in NCAA Division I history. In the end, the addition of another ball-dominant guard through Russ will only complicate the Rockets’ postseason issues. D’Antoni’s offense is simply not built for postseason success. Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire of the early 2000’s Suns, which also featured D’Antoni’s “seven seconds or less offense,” can attest to that.
While the Warriors (the Rockets kryptonite) may not be the same, the Western Conference gained two new superteams to add to an already loaded field. Harden and D’Antoni have yet to prove they can win on the biggest stages. Houston might win a couple playoff series, but the ceiling is a Western Conference Finals berth.
- Denver Nuggets
Last season, we saw the Denver Nuggets continue to garner respect as their young players further developed their game. The team finished with the second best record in the West (54-28) before being eliminated by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the playoffs.
The guarding duo Jamal Murray and center Nikola Jokić is one of the best and most underrated duos in the NBA. Jokić is a one-of-a-kind center because of his unique ability to pass the ball and shoot from long range despite his size. He finished the last season averaging 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks. He led the team in each of these categories except blocks last year. Jokić will have to be a leader to such a young team despite only being 24 himself. The young players around the star center will look to him as a role model and he must be ready for that added pressure. Murray finished last year with a career best stateline of 18.2 points per game, 4.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 0.9 steals.
This season will also show us the impact of rookie small forward Michael Porter Jr. After being drafted 14th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, Porter Jr. missed all of last season due to back and knee injuries. He has made the most out of his limited minutes in preseason games this season with his most recent game totaling 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 steal in only 21 minutes. He should earn many more minutes once the regular season begins.
The Nuggets have another exciting young player through center Bol Bol. Bol is the son of NBA legend and two-time NBA blocks leader Manute Bol. Clocking in at a measly 7’2”, Bol Bol doesn’t quite live up to his father’s 7’7” frame. However, he will be sitting for some time as he recovers from a foot injury. When he finally debuts on the court, expect Bol to bowl over the competition in time.
Denver currently commands a 3-0 record during the preseason and has a strong chance to contend for the top of the West.
- Los Angeles Lakers
The first year of the LeBron era in Los Angeles was a complete disaster. From missing out on the playoffs for the third time in James’ illustrious career to the Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson drama, the season was disappointing to say the least. Johnson stepping down and the firing of head coach Luke Walton were two of the major changes that occurred in the past few months for the Lakers.
Most notably, LeBron was successful in recruiting Anthony Davis to come to L.A. as the Lakers shipped off young talents Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round draft picks for the Pelicans superstar forward. This marked the end of the Lonzo Ball era in L.A. as the former second overall pick in the 2017 draft failed to live up to high expectations with poor shooting, a lack of offensive aggressiveness and constant injuries.
LeBron got the help he desperately needed from Davis, who is arguably a top five player in this league. James and AD will be one of the league’s best duos and instantly make the Lakers title contenders.
To fill out the rest of their roster, L.A. re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, and veterans Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee. The Lakers also acquired strong role players by signing three-point specialists Avery Bradley, Danny Green, Quinn Cook, and Troy Daniels and veteran forward Jared Dudley. The Clippers may have the better supporting cast and better all-around team, but LeBron and AD are the better duo. Come postseason, there is nobody better right now than playoff LeBron. It is championship-or-bust in L.A. for the next couple years.
- Utah Jazz
Last season, the Jazz finished with a record of 50-32, which was 5th best in the Western Conference. They were one of the best teams in the NBA defensively, led by center and two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. Utah ranked fourth in opponent’s points per game and second in defensive rating. Offensively, Donovan Mitchell had little help and was forced to shoulder the offensive load for most games.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Jazz drew a tough opponent in the Houston Rockets, who quickly got on top of Utah and won the series in five games. Despite the first round exit, it was a solid year for a small-market franchise competing in a loaded Western Conference. Although Los Angeles grabbed most of the offseason headlines, the Jazz still had an impressive summer. Utah sent away Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, Grayson Allen and draft compensation for Memphis Grizzlies star point guard Mike Conley. Conley is an experienced veteran and has made a name for himself as a defender, distributor and leader for his position. Most importantly, adding Conley was an upgrade from previous point guard Ricky Rubio.
Utah also signed Indiana Pacers small forward Bojan Bogdanovic to a four-year, $73.1 million deal. Utah added some much needed scoring with Bogdanovic, who shot 41.3% from 3-point last year. Signing Bogdanovic meant the end of power forward Derrick Favors’s long tenure in Utah. Favors was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans for two future second round draft picks. The Jazz also signed guard Emmanuel Mudiay, forward Jeff Green and center Ed Davis to bolster their bench.
Even with the strong offseason the Jazz had, it is going to be tough to compete with the powerhouses in the West come playoff time. The Jazz will continue to be a top defensive team, but it is tough to imagine that the signing of Bogdanovic alone will lift the offensive burden off Mitchell. With so much talent in L.A. and Houston and the Jazz without a true superstar, the ceiling for this team is the second round of the playoffs.
- Portland Trail Blazers
The 2018-19 season ended in dramatic fashion for the Portland Trail Blazers when they were swept by the number one seeded Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals. They finished with a record of 53-29 to place them as the third seed in the Western Conference.
The main offseason addition for the Trail Blazers was the addition of center Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside is a valuable defensive presence and was one of the league’s best shot blockers of the 2019 season. He contributed 12.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks each game last season. Whiteside is filling in at the center position while Jusuf Nurkic is out for the first half of the season after suffering a gruesome leg injury at the end of last year. The main issue for Portland is that Whiteside has a reputation for getting injured, specifically with knee injuries. Either way, he is an upgrade compared to Enes Kanter, who did not have much of a presence on defense with only 0.4 blocks and 0.4 steals per game.
The guard combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has been a deadly duo in recent years. Lillard and McCollum averaged a combined 46.8 points a night with 5.4 threes last year. Portland put on a show during the first few rounds of the playoffs. They did away with the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games after a beautiful buzzer-beating three pointer from Lillard sent the Thunder home. Next, the Blazers barely squeezed by the Denver Nuggets in seven games. As they got to the Warriors, it was clear they may not have been ready for that level and were swept. We’ll see them make the playoffs again this year, but they will continue to fall behind the top-tier teams of the conference.
- Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors finished the 2018-19 season as the first seed in the West and a record of 57-25. The squad took two games from the Toronto Raptors before surrendering the series and the championship.
During the offseason, the Warriors lost many important players. Superstar forward Kevin Durant moved to the Brooklyn Nets, forward Andre Iguodala was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies and DeMarcus Cousins signed with the Los Angeles Lakers. These players averaged a total of 48 points per game for the Warriors.
Golden State will enter this season missing Klay Thompson as he nurses a torn ACL suffered in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. He provided an additional 21.5 points per game last year. The Golden State offense will have to see which players will step up to fill those roles.
Luckily for Warriors fans, the team was able to acquire a valuable piece in guard D’Angelo Russell just as his substantial contributions of 21.1 points, 7 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game for the Brooklyn Nets were being noticed by the league. Coming out of his first season as an NBA All Star, Russell will most likely come off the bench to lead the second unit with the quality and talent of a starting guard.
We could also see Russell step up to expand his points per game dramatically. The Warriors will catch their stride as the season progresses under coach Steve Kerr, but don’t expect to see the absolute dynasty that we’ve seen in recent years.
- Sacramento Kings
The Kings were a pleasant surprise in the 2018-19 season. The team was contending for a playoff spot before they struggled down the stretch. They ended up at 39-43, which placed them in ninth in the conference. It marked the 13th consecutive season they missed the playoffs.
But Sacramento looks poised enough to snap this streak in 2019-20. The team hired Luke Walton as their new head coach after firing Dave Joerger. Although his tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers was hectic both on and off the court, Walton proved he could effectively coach young players before LeBron James joined the team last year. The team should flourish under Walton’s coaching.
The Kings are led by their young stars De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley III. Fox was in the Most Improved Player conversation last season as he averaged 17.3 points, 7.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds during his second year. He remains one of the fastest and most entertaining players in the NBA.
Bagley III should see an expanded role under Walton. The Duke product averaged just 25 minutes a game last year, but still managed to average 14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and a block. If they can stay healthy, Bagley III and Fox have the potential to form one of the best guard-forward combos in the league.
Hield shot 42.7% from behind the arc and averaged 20.7 points per game. He can score from anywhere on the court, but offers very little in every other statistical category.
Along with this strong core, young players Harry Giles and Bogdan Bogdanovic should also provide quality minutes for the team. In the offseason, Sacramento re-signed Harrison Barnes and signed veterans Cory Joseph, Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon. The players should provide necessary leadership for the young team. The Kings are going to play fast and win games because of their offense. If Walton can get them to play better defensively, they could make some noise in the playoffs. Sacramento will be in the hunt for a playoff spot once again, but they unfortunately play in the loaded Western Conference and could end up on the outside of the playoff picture for the 14th consecutive season.