The landscape of the NBA is ever-changing. Take a quick peek at the 2017 NBA All-Stars. In just two years, an astounding 17 of the 24 players have changed teams at least once, with several players having been on multiple teams since. Just in the past few weeks, an all-time-high six players who earned All-NBA honors this past year have switched teams.
There’s been a seismic shift in the NBA power struggle. The Anthony Davis trade to the Los Angeles Lakers sent shockwaves throughout the league, and was only the beginning of a wild summer. Kevin Durant spurned the Golden State Warriors, and chose to team up with Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets. Kawhi Leonard left the defending champion Toronto Raptors, and he and Paul George instantly made the Los Angeles Clippers contenders. And all of a sudden, the NBA seems to have a hint more of the parity that fans crave so much, with this new era rising from the ashes of superteams.
For the first time in a long while, we have a large horde of contenders, all looking to prove themselves and show off their fancy new star players. And while the season doesn’t start for another three months, let’s try an all-too-early look at how the Western Conference playoff seeding might shake up. That is, if no more major moves are made in an already-wild off-season.
8. San Antonio Spurs
Never count out Gregg Popovich. In a Western Conference loaded with stars, the Spurs quietly added DeMarre Carroll to a team that finished seventh in a crowded West last year.
The progressive growth of Derrick White and Dejounte Murray will be one of the main reasons Spurs fans can be excited about their young backcourt. And DeMar DeRozan is still in his prime coming off a solid season scoring 21 points per game on an efficient 48% from the field.
A few teams will be in the hunt for that eight-seed, and the new-look New Orleans Pelicans could surprise people late in the season. Especially if Zion Williamson becomes anywhere close to what the media thinks he’ll be. But the Spurs have a young, growing squad in another year together, an established go-to scorer, and the best coach in the game. They’re a good bet to snatch that last playoff spot.
7. Golden State Warriors
After dominating the past five years–reaching five straight Finals and winning three championships–the Golden State Warriors find themselves back in reality. With the departures of Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, the Warriors no longer have the length or the depth they once boasted in their dynasty run.
And with Klay Thompson’s injury keeping him out until at least mid-season, it’ll be up to Stephen Curry and a young cast to usher in a new era into the newly-minted Chase Center.
The Warriors’ biggest move this offseason was to snag D’Angelo Russell in a sign-and-trade for Durant. Russell’s ability to create his own shot off the dribble will be immensely useful to a young Warriors’ team. And it’ll prevent teams like the Toronto Raptors playing the box-and-one defense solely to stop Curry.
The addition of Willie Cauley-Stein will also help the Warriors out down low, as they may be short on big men. One reason they may have gotten him is because Cauley-Stein has excelled in the pick-and-roll, as has Russell. The Warriors will have to change the way they play, but with Russell and Curry running the show, expect the Warriors to pick and roll their way to the seventh seed.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
In this past playoffs, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum showed the world they’re not ready for the Portland Trail Blazers to be first round fodder every year. Lillard sent the Oklahoma City Thunder packing in dramatic fashion, and the Blazers gritted out a seven-game series win over the higher-seeded Denver Nuggets.
They added Hassan Whiteside, but await the health of Jusuf Nurkic, who’ll miss the first few months due to injury. The Blazers were poised for a deep playoff run before Nurkic went down in March with a season-ending leg injury. Even without him, Lillard and company proved they can still hang with the best.
Whiteside, in the meantime, should be able to complement the Blazers’ shooting backcourt well in a fresh start that should rejuvenate him. And once Nurkic comes back, the Blazers could be deadly.
Expect them to be a dangerous six-seed, and possibly even make a deep playoff push with a fully healthy squad this time around. With a determined Dame out to prove he shouldn’t be overlooked, anything is possible for this team.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Acquiring Anthony Davis gives LeBron James the second star he always wanted in L.A. They missed out on Paul George last year, and whiffed on Kawhi Leonard this year. But Anthony Davis is a generational star who’s still only 26 years old and just entering his prime.
Pairing Davis with LeBron will take some of the pressure and scoring responsibilities off of James, who’ll turn 35 in December. General Manager Rob Pelinka did a decent job filling out the rest of the roster. DeMarcus Cousins, who showed flashes of his former All-Star self while on the Warriors, could have a chance to work his way back with the Lakers. If he becomes anything close to resembling the player he used to be, he’ll be a steal for a Lakers team that was aching for a third star.
Danny Green, Quinn Cook, and Avery Bradley also joined the team, and round out a solid roster with simultaneously a lot of hope and a lot of question marks. They’ll be an exciting team that might not be as focused on the regular season with James aging and needing some “load management” breaks throughout the year.
4. Houston Rockets
After yet another series loss to the Warriors, the Houston Rockets took a gamble by exchanging Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook. The former MVP gives Houston a powerful second punch next to James Harden.
The Rockets are firm believers in analytics, which is why they once again led the NBA in made three’s last year, breaking their own record for most made three’s in a season. And that’s what makes this move so interesting. Chris Paul was a solid three-point shooter and a good on-ball defender. Westbrook, however, is not an inefficient three-point shooter (29% last year), and while he has quick hands to get steals, he’s far from a tough on-ball defender.
But what Westbrook lacks, he makes up for in other areas. He’s a force to be reckoned with driving to the rim, and that can be a vital weapon for a Rockets’ offense that hunts for good three-point opportunities. While he won’t be dancing and stepping back for triples like Harden, Westbrook can get to the rim almost at will, and the spacing the Rockets offer should open up the floor nicely for him.
The jury is still out on whether or not this Rockets team will be successful in the playoffs. But they have enough firepower to pile up some good regular season wins.
3. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz were one of the big winners this off-season and have set themselves up for a title run. Adding to a team that owned the fifth-seed last year, they acquired veteran point guard Mike Conley via trade and signed sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic.
The Jazz have long been searching for a playmaking point guard to complement Donovan Mitchell. And they’ve found one in Conley. Even at 31 years old, Conley can still put up some numbers. He averaged a career-high 21 points per game last season with the Memphis Grizzlies. And he can finally provide Utah with a second playmaking guard.
Quin Snyder’s Jazz teams have always boasted a good defense the past few years, and had the second-highest defensive rating in the NBA last year. It’s the offense that can struggle to keep up at times with their superb defensive play. But Conley, mixed with Bogdanovic’s 42.5% three-point percentage last season, should tremendously help an offense that ranked 14th in offensive rating last year.
With Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert patrolling the paint, Mitchell and company should, at last, have both the defensive prowess and the offensive punch needed to win in the playoffs. And they finally have the Jazz as a legitimate title contender.
2. Denver Nuggets
While other teams throughout the West have hunted big-name players, the Denver Nuggets have followed the route of continuity. They believe they already have the depth and talent to compete for a championship. And they’re not wrong.
Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Nikola Jokic all return for their third season together. Last year, the team broke through for 54 wins and a number-two seed in the Western Conference. They were one of the few teams to end the season in the top ten in both offensive and defensive rating. But their playoff inexperience hurt them as they fell to the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round.
This year, with another year of experience and chemistry under their belts, they should run that free-flowing offense to perfection. They added Jerami Grant to bolster their depth at the wing, and college standout Michael Porter Jr. is expected to make his NBA debut after missing his rookie season due to injury.
Led by a potential MVP candidate, the Nuggets already have all the tools needed to make a deep playoff push. Expect next year to be another high-achieving season for their young talented team.
1. Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard had the NBA world in the palm of his hands as they awaited his decision. The Raptors, Lakers, and Los Angeles Clippers all awaited anxiously to find out which one would automatically be boosted to title favorites. Kawhi had been looking for a second star to play with on the Clippers, and they delivered by trading for Paul George.
And so Leonard and George, both two-way stars, now team up on a Clippers team that already took a fully-healthy Warriors superteam to six games in the first round. Leonard and George join scrappy point guard Patrick Beverley, Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, and promising young big man Montrezl Harrell. Landry Shamet, Maurice Harkless, and Ivica Zubac round out a rotation that boasts playmaking, scoring, three-point shooting, and solid defense all around.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell diced up the Warriors’ defense in the playoffs with their pick-and-roll. It became their go-to play in crunch time, and the Warriors had no answers. Now with Leonard, fresh off of leading the Raptors to a championship, and George, fresh off of an MVP-level season, the Clippers have all kinds of scoring options and playmaking up and down the roster.
Their perimeter defense will be scary good, and their offense will become a well-oiled machine once their two new superstars have acclimated. The Clippers are serious championship contenders, and they may finally be able to break out of the Lakers’ shadow.
The Clippers aren’t just the best team that plays in Staples Center; they very well may be the best team in the league.