How Does the NBA’s New-Look Western Conference Stack Up?
By now you have probably read an article, tweet or blurb on the Western Conference’s superiority heading into the 2017-18 NBA season. Why? Because breaking down the new-look Western Conference is one of the most interesting and compelling things to do at this point in the offseason. Even after last season, during which the West produced the league’s top three records, the conference is now even stronger.
During the 2017 offseason, several teams in the Western Conference have added All-Star players. The Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Houston Rockets all traded for a standout, while the Denver Nuggets signed one of their own in free agency.
This begs the question: How do these new-look teams stack up to the other playoff contenders? Everyone knows 29 organizations are looking up at the Golden State Warriors, but what about the ones fighting for the conference’s seven remaining postseason berths? There are conceivably three squads that could finish at each and every spot, setting up an exciting and challenging regular season.
Without further ado, let’s break down the West into tiers. This is not a prediction of where teams will end up in the standings, but rather an analysis of the ones best suited to compete for an NBA championship.
This one is easy.
The Warriors won 73 games in 2015-16, added Kevin Durant last summer and cruised to a title this past season. Then you consider the fact Durant took a significant pay-cut to help his squad bring back Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
So far this offseason, they’ve retained all their aforementioned key pieces, drafted Jordan Bell and signed both Omri Casspi and Nick Young.
Casspi is a good three-point shooter (career 36.7 percent) and capable defender. Young is a great shooter and entertainer. Bell is an intriguing prospect who many draft experts were high on. The rookie seems capable of handling a minor role this season, as well.
Now, you realize the Warriors will most likely be better than they were last season. Gulp.
Now this is where things get interesting.
Could you put the Thunder in this tier? Absolutely. However, considering the Rockets were eight games better than the Thunder last season and improved nearly as much, Houston should still be considered the better team.
Of course, the big question surrounding the Rockets is now the fit of Chris Paul and James Harden. Many have concerns about two ball-dominant guards sharing a backcourt and coexisting. However, Paul himself is intrigued by playing more off-ball next to Harden, and the bearded guard has experience playing off-ball as well.
It also doesn’t hurt that Paul had a 69.1 effective field goal-percentage (eFG%) last season on catch-and-shoot attempts, including 49.3 percent on relevant threes. Harden was less effective on these attempts (57.2 eFG% and 38.3 percent on threes), but both are threats playing off the ball.
Then you consider that the Rockets now have two of the three best pick-and-roll passers in the league surrounded by plenty of shooters, and you can start seeing how this will work in Houston.
44% of Houston's half court offense was created out of the pick & roll last season. The Rockets now have 2 of the NBA's top-3 PnR passers pic.twitter.com/GvOcx6xTjW
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) June 28, 2017
Paul’s mid-range shooting will also be valuable for the Rockets in the playoffs, when teams like the Spurs contest threes and shots at the rim while leaving the mid-range open for business. Last year, they looked to avoid such shots, but having a player of Paul’s caliber connecting from that zone will open up the offense even more.
Moreover, the Rockets re-signed Nene and added P.J. Tucker to provide defensive versatility and a tough mentality. Tucker is the exact player the Rockets needed—a defensive stopper who can guard multiple positions. Nene was fantastic in a backup role last season and is a respected teammate, so bringing him back was key for Houston.
For the Spurs, they haven’t added any players, but they haven’t lost any (yet). If they just run the same squad back in 2017-18, they will surely win 55-plus games, because they’re the Spurs.
It really is that simple.
Of these three teams, the Thunder are the closest to the second tier and truly competing in the Western Conference. However, the Nuggets and Timberwolves aren’t far behind.
This offseason, Oklahoma City traded half a bag of saltine crackers (Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) for Paul George and signed Patrick Patterson to a very reasonable three-year deal. George is the ideal second star to pair with Russell Westbrook, and a decreased offensive load will allow him to regain his status as an elite defender.
Patterson slots in perfectly at the 4 and has developed a consistent three-point shot (37.3 percent in the last four seasons) to go along with his above-average defense. The significance of a Thunder team with a severe shooting deficit adding both George and Patterson without sacrificing defensively cannot be overstated. Plus, the new power forward will earn around $7 million less than Taj Gibson next season, making it an even more worthwhile signing for Oklahoma City.
Meanwhile, Denver was able to land the second-best free agent to change teams this summer in Paul Millsap, and negotiating a team option for the contract’s third year makes the deal even more incredible. Millsap is a perfect fit next to Nikola Jokic in the frontcourt, as he can provide interior defense and even more offensive versatility. The four-time All-Star is a nearly 33 percent shooter from beyond the arc and one of the best defenders in the league—something the Nuggets really needed.
They lost Danilo Gallinari to the Los Angeles Clippers, but they still have Wilson Chandler and a plethora of young power forwards to make up for the loss. Plus, it’s worth repeating: They added Paul freakin’ Millsap, perennially one of the most underrated players in the league.
Finally, the Timberwolves are looking to build a defensive juggernaut with the signing of Gibson and the trade for Jimmy Butler. Both newcomers are intimately familiar with head coach Tom Thibodeau’s schemes and provide excellent defense to go along with their toughness and veteran experience.
Swapping Ricky Rubio for an older and more expensive Jeff Teague wasn’t the best move, but the new point guard does provide more shooting for a team that now desperately needs it. Though a lineup of Teague, Andrew Wiggins, Butler, Gibson and Karl-Anthony Towns will be cramped, it should have enough offensive firepower to make things work.
Depending on the defensive growth from Towns and Wiggins, the ‘Wolves will most likely earn most of their victories with a tough, physical defense (just the way Thibodeau likes it). Minnesota won 31 games last season, but a jump to 50 isn’t out of the question.
This tier includes all the teams that will be fighting for the final two playoff spots. Each is a clear rung below the other playoff teams in the first three tiers, but all could conceivably make the postseason in 2017-18.
The Clippers lost Chris Paul, but they were able to land a surprisingly strong return in Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. Then Los Angeles re-signed Blake Griffin and added Danilo Gallinari, firmly establishing itself as a playoff team in the West next season (barring major injuries).
The Jazz lost Gordon Hayward for nothing, but they still have a playoff-caliber roster. They were able to trade for Rubio, and adding him to a team including Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert will make for an outfit no one wants to face. Quin Snyder should coach this team to the promised land once again.
The Grizzlies lost some of their “grit-and-grind” with the departure of Zach Randolph, but this team is now better suited for the modern NBA by signing Ben McLemore to add some shooting. And who knows? Maybe they’ll get something from Chandler Parsons this season after an injury-riddled first go-round. With the Nuggets and Timberwolves making dramatic improvements this offseason, it’ll be harder for Memphis to sneak into the playoffs, but a Marc Gasol- and Mike Conley-led team will certainly put up a tough fight.
Because of their 2016 free-agency spending spree, the Blazers didn’t have many options this summer. They did nicely in the draft to add Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan but are generally bringing back the same team as last year. Unfortunately, that outfit was 41-41 and very poor defensively. With several teams below them improving, the Blazers will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs again next season.
Finally, we get to see the DeMarcus Cousins-Anthony Davis pairing for more than 17 games. The Pelicans were able to re-sign Jrue Holiday, but they still haven’t put together a playoff-caliber roster around their two star big men. Quick: Name a competent wing player on the Pelicans! See what I’m talking about?
With all that said, I’d bet on the Jazz and Clippers snagging those final two playoff spots.
The final tier includes team that are certainly lottery bound.
The Mavericks have quietly built a nice young core in Seth Curry, Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel (once he’s re-signed) and the recently drafted Dennis Smith Jr. However, that core isn’t good enough to take Dallas to the playoffs, as other teams have made dramatic improvements this offseason. However, the Mavs aren’t that far away from breaking through with their current construction.
The Kings finally decided to rebuild when they traded DeMarcus Cousins away last season, and so far, the deal hasn’t looked all that bad. The Kings finally have a young core in De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles to go along with young bigs Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere. Plus, the signings of veterans George Hill and Zach Randolph should help instill a strong, winning culture in Sacramento over the next few years.
The Lakers are Big Ballers! After drafting Lonzo Ball, they’ve decided to save their cap space in hopes of luring one or two All-Stars during the Summer of 2018 (cough cough Paul George cough cough). They’ll be bad once again in 2017-18, but they will be set up to strike in next year’s free agency.
Finally, the Suns are deciding to go all in on their youth movement (as they should). They were able to add Josh Jackson to an intriguing young core that includes Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, T.J. Warren and Tyler Ulis. Just like the Lakers, Phoenix will be bad again this season. But slowly and surely, it’s developing a nucleus capable of taking it back to the playoffs.
In the end, it’s safe to say the Western Conference will be a bloodbath in 2017-18. It wouldn’t be shocking for the No. 8 seed to require 50 wins, and there will surely be one or two deserving playoff teams left out of the mix due to the sheer amount of playoff-caliber rosters. So saddle up, because we’re headed for a season filled with endless excitement in the NBA’s stronger half.
Follow Eric on Twitter @ericspyros.