The 2016-2017 NBA season is finally here and you can expect the wild, wild Western Conference to be as competitive as ever! A certain super team will surely take the number one spot, but you can count on it being a battle for the remaining seeds! There will be playoff newcomers looking to prove the doubters wrong, playoff veterans looking to maintain their yearly spot, and some bottom-feeder teams in the process of building future dynasties!
1. Golden State Warriors
After setting an NBA record of 73 wins and 9 losses, the Warriors went on to lose to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Now they’re back with a vengeance after making a surprise signing of one of the league’s most talented players; 4-time scoring champion Kevin Durant. It’s a mighty scary for the rest of the league when your team’s third scoring option is Klay Thompson.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Tim Duncan is retired while Tony Parker & Manu Ginóbili are only getting older. However, this is the same kind of conversation that has been had for years and Gregg Popovich still finds a way to have always succeed. Kawhi Leonard was recently ranked the fifth best player SLAM’s Top 50, LaMarcus Aldridge now officially has the keys to the front court, and Pop has a new veteran toy in Pau Gasol. The only other questionable mark on this San Antonio team is depth, featuring a not-so-impressive second unit. But if there’s one man you can trust to help develop mediocre in amazing, it’s the greatest basketball coach in the world, Gregg Popovich.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Oh how badly I wanted to put the Clips at the number two spot in the Western Conference, but I just can’t shake the thought that they’ll once again find a way to underachieve, despite another star-studded lineup. If you can get past that, then I’d be hopeful for a big season considering that Austin Rivers was looking very strong near the end of the last season. They also made some strong additions in Brandon Bass, who I felt was grossly underused as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Marreese Speights, who was catalyst in the Golden State Warriors’ second unit last year.
4. Portland Trail Blazers
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Trail Blazers in 2015-2016, but instead it was Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum who took the league by storm, leading this young, talented team to a second-round playoff appearance. This Blazers squad is built off of youth, potential, and chemistry, which has clearly become a dream situation for head coach Terry Stotts. When players like Al-Farouq Aminu, Mason Plumlee, Allen Crabbe, and Maurice Harkless start to come into their own, the rest of the league is going to have a problem. The big question surrounding this team though; are the free agency signings of Evan Turner and Festus Ezeli going to be enough to give this team a legitimate title run?
5. Utah Jazz
What an interesting team the Utah Jazz are. Overall, you could argue that this team could finish as good as second in the Western Conference, but you could also argue that they could miss the playoffs entirely. They feature so much talent and depth, but it’s really just a question of staying healthy and putting all the pieces together. After spending years battling injuries, Dante Exum looks healthy and ready to showcase why he was selected fifth overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. Trey Lyles is a strong most improved player award candidate with a valuable prototype skill set. And then there’s Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, and Rudy Gobert. It makes me nervous that this team has barely missed out on the playoffs for multiple years in a row now, but with some veteran additions in Joe Johnson, Boris Diaw, and George Hill, this team is primed to make a run in the Western Conference.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder
Say what? But Kevin Durant is gone! So is Serge Ibaka! Vent your doubts to Russell Westbrook, I’m sure he’d love to prove your wrong. While practically everyone expects Westbrook to have a great, maybe even historical, individual season, many are doubting the Thunder’s overall chances at success. During Durant’s absence in the 2014-2105 season, Westbrook kept the Thunder above .500, going 22-19 despite KD (and a whole lot of other talent) missing time due to injury. It’s Russ’ team now, and he has some tools to work with. Enes Kanter and Steven Adams have both come into their own, providing some strong frontcourt talent. Victor Oladipo, who was seemingly limited in Orlando, joins Westbrook in the backcourt. Domantas Sobonas and Ersan Ilysova both provide some intriguing skill sets that aren’t typical for a power forward. It’ll be a fun year for the Thunder, and that will extend into the postseason.
7. Memphis Grizzlies
Injuries. Injuries. Injuries. Did I mention injuries? That is exactly what will be the downfall of this Memphis Grizzlies team. This team is equally stacked with talent as they are stacked with injury prone players. Marc Gasol seems to run into issues every other year, Zach Randolph hasn’t played an 80-game season since 2009-2010, something always seems to come up for Mike Conley, and their big offseason signing of Chandler Parsons is practically a walking, talking, and three point shooting injury liability. If this team can avoid major injuries to starters, they can make a case for the fifth seed. If things continue as expected in Grizzlies, they could miss the playoffs.
8. Houston Rockets
I have gone back and forth with the thought of this team for weeks now. How good could this James Harden-lead team be? A fourth seed? But with absolutely no defense, maybe this team will be passed up by the likes of Dallas, Minnesota, and even Denver. Dwight Howard was not a good fit in Houston, that’s not the problem here. What concerns me is that this team could very well average 120 points a night and still have a losing record. James Harden will have a monster season under new head coach Mike D’Antoni, and will surely be put in the MVP conversation. However, this Houston team seriously lacks depth and their defense, or lack thereof, will be their eventual downfall. Don’t expect this team showcase the same kind of success that D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns did many years ago.
9. Dallas Mavericks
If all goes as planned for the above teams, it will be the Dallas Mavericks that find themselves on the outside looking in. It’s another year for Dirk Nowitzki, who turned 38 years old in June. Andrew Bogut hasn’t played over 70 games since the 2007-2008 season, and, especially after a rough preseason, I just don’t quite think that Harrison Barnes is ready to take the next big step in his promising career. Rick Carlisle is one of the best in the business, and will certainly keep this Dallas team in the playoff conversation all season long.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves
It’ll be a close one for the Wolves, who I expect to finish just behind the Dallas Mavericks. Tom Thibodeau takes over the head coaching reigns from Sam Mitchell, who had previously stepped in for the late Flip Saunders. This team is stacked to the brim with All-Star caliber potential, with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins leading the pack. However, I think that they’re just one year away from becoming not only a playoff team, but a title contender. All eyes will be on KAT and Wiggins this season, but it’s the development of Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and Nemanja Bjelica that will decide this team’s future. If these young guns can pull it together, I can see them leapfrogging the Mavericks, competing for the eighth seed, or even the seven spot if Memphis can’t stay healthy.
11. Denver Nuggets
If you’re a Nuggets fan, you have a lot to be happy about. Denver has a great amount of young talent including practically every position. To say that Emmanuel Mudiay struggled during his first season in the NBA would be a grotesque understatement; but there’s still a lot of hope for the ever-talented Congolese point guard. Rookie combo-guard Jamal Murray is one of the most promising talents of the 2016 NBA draft, and should develop nicely. The international frontcourt combo of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic is surely one to be reckoned with in the coming years. The Denver Nuggets are a Minnesota Timberwolves junior who will make some strides this season, but will find their true success in the coming years.
12. Phoenix Suns
Like the Timberwolves and Nuggets, the Phoenix Suns are another team full of young, high-potential talent. Eric Bledsoe is a borderline All-Star when healthy, Devin Booker is looking more and more like a future All-Star, and Dragan Bender & Marquese Chriss are two very intriguing rookie power forwards. Now for a taste of reality: Bledsoe has faced serious injury in two of his three seasons in Phoenix, Booker, albeit a great shooter, still has some work to do on the other parts of his game, and Bender & Chriss are rookies who have yet to prove that they’ll have any kind of instant impact. With that said, this team has a lot of inconsistent talent. The Suns will get some big surprise victories, but will also suffer some inexcusable losses. It’ll be a year or two before the Suns get back into the playoff conversation.
13. New Orleans Pelicans
It was tough putting a team with a currently healthy Anthony Davis, knock on wood, at the 13 spot, but I have my reasons. Injury concerns are alive and well for the Pelicans, as they are every year. After undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, it’s been confirmed by head coach Alvin Gentry that Tyreke Evans will miss 6-8 weeks of regular season basketball. Jrue Holiday remains out indefinitely as he stays by the side of his pregnant wife, who just recently had surgery to remove a brain tumor. Also, there isn’t a great deal of talent on this team after those three. Soloman Hill, Terrence Jones, Omer Asik, and rookie Buddy Hield all battle over the ‘fourth best’ title on the team. Not exactly ideal.
14. Sacramento Kings
Just a year ago, I had high hopes for this DeMarcus Cousins-led Kings team. Now, the very thought of this team’s future makes me nervous. As they look to move Rudy Gay, I suspect that it’s time that they start looking to deal Cousins out as well. Boogie has two years left on his contract, and there is absolutely no way that he’s going back to Sacramento. It’s time for the Sacramento Kings to move their star player in exchange for some valuable resources for a better future in California’s capital.
15. Los Angeles Lakers
While I expect the Los Angeles Lakers to have the worst record in the Western Conference this season, Laker fans can’t be upset with the future of this team. Brandon Ingram, 19, D’Angelo Russell, 20, Julius Randle, 21, and Jordan Clarkson, 24, are all youngsters who show gobs of promise. With the correct mindset under head coach Luke Walton, the high-potential young guns of this Los Angeles team will get all the playing time needed to develop into something special in the coming years. While this team is far from the disaster that they were in their previous two seasons, the Laker faithful will need to wait a little while longer for the competitive return of LA’s most decorated basketball team.