By Hocine LOUKKAF on 9/27/2021
Once again, the Western Conference is loaded with the Warriors probably back in business while the Suns and Lakers, with opposite strategies, are also targeting the NBA Finals.
#1 Phoenix Suns
With the starting five coming back and Paul as young as ever, the Suns have the right to remain ambitious. Last year’s finalist has kept all its main players, losing only Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter. They even succeeded in improving the team as they recruited McGee, Payton and Shamet, three very solid rotations who will help the starters. They may not be as hyped as the Lakers but they have leaders with Paul and Booker, size with Ayton and very good wings with Bridges, Crowder or Johnson. A mix of youth and experience that could lead them to win the Conference once again.
#2 Golden State Warriors
Still bothered by the absence of Klay Thompson, Curry did his best to make his team win games without his Splash Brother. And he did it pretty well as the the Warriors almost made it to the playoffs. Yet, the playoffs are not the goal for a club that win three championships in the last six years as its main players are aging. With Klay and Wiseman hopefully healthy and a very nice recruitment with solid vets (Bradley, Iguodala, Porter, Bjelica) and two potential steals in the draft (Kuminga at #7 and Moody at #14), Kerr will have more options and more shooters. A trade could also happen as the Warriors have plenty of young assets and must still handle Wiggins’ huge contract.
#3 LA Lakers
Some experts are talking about the Lakers’ offseason as a success but I have mixed feelings about it. The staff has kept only three players of last year’s team, which had to deal with injuries and losses before losing in the first round to the future finalist, and will need to create chemistry with all the newcomers. The main trade has brought Westbrook, a player who needs the ball and force the issue too much on offense and who will have as back-up another similar non-shooting (albeit more team-oriented) player with Rajon Rondo. The roster is loaded with experience with Anthony, Ariza, Howard and Jordan but may lack a young big man with offensive upside if Davis misses too many games. Finally, while the management has rewarded Horton-Tucker with a $30m contract, he will be in competition with Monk, Ellington and maybe also Nunn at the SG spot. Vogel must create a hierarchy and pray that Davis remain healthy for the lakers to succeed.
#4 Utah Jazz
Like the Suns, Utah has kept its nucleus and bring subtle changes to its roster. Gobert and Mitchell will still lead the team as the seven main players are coming back. Gay and Whiteside make up for the departures of Niang and Favors while Paschall could also help at the PF spot. The Jazz may have found a diamong in the draft as Jared Butler slipped to the 40th spot due to health concerns. He could add scoring and passing off the bench while elarning behind CoNley and Clarkson. The Jazz may lack a notch of talent or depth but their team chemistry might be enough to send them to the Finals.
#5 Denver Nuggets
With Jokic, Porter or Gordon still improving, the Nuggets have the tools to avoid the sweep they endured from the Suns. Yet, they will have to wait Murray’s return and have lost another solid starter, Paul Millsap. Denver may have found a steal in the last draft with “Bones” Hyland, a scoring PG with range whose game resembles a lot Murray’s. The main question will be at PF as Millsap was Jokic’s henchman inside, not the easiest player to replace. The Nuggets gambled on Jeff Green and may give more playing time to Bol, who may lack the toughness but has tremendous size and skills.
#6 LA Clippers
The Clippers had to learn how to play without Kawhi and it will be the same this season as there’s no timetable for Leonard’s return on the court. They keep a good core from last year led by Paul George with solid vets like Morris, Batum, Ibaka or Jackson. They’ve lost Rondo and Beverley who didn’t perform so well in the playoffs and will welcome a former Clip, Bledsoe. They may have also found a nice gem in the draft with former HS standout and spectacular SG Keon Johnson, an elite athlete who could become a two-way player in the league and maybe a star if he can develop a reliable shot. It’s hard to imagine the Clips reaching the Conference Finals…except if Kawhi comes back sooer than expected.
#7 Dallas Mavericks
In the loaded Western Conference, Dallas had a quiet, maybe too quiet, summer. Owner Cuban can count on First-Team All NBA Doncic but Porzingis struggled heavily against the Clippers in the first round and may not be the second star the franchsie needs. Moreover, Josh Richardson has left for Boston and neither Bullock, Brown or Ntilikina seem to be as impactful as the new Celtic.
#8 Memphis Grizzlies
For three or four years now, the Grizzlies management has very intelligently built a young and deep roster with two potential stars with Morant and JJJ and the perfect players to help them. Once again this summer, they found the good picks to keep improving the team with a mix of experience (Adams, Culver, Dunn) and hungry young players who may grind for playing time. Among them, rookie Ziaire Williams may prove the doubters wrong while Aldama and Pons may have the skills (stretch big for Aldama, defensive Swiss knife for Pons) that would give them a role in this roster.
#9 Portland Trailblazers
Year after year, as McCollum and Lillard are aging, the Blazers struggle finding the third player that may take the team to the next level. This has been the case this summer as ten players are joinging the team but only as bench contributors or limited starters. The only move that would leave to young talented blood would be to trade Lillard and a lot has been said about a possible Simmons/Lillard trade but nothing has happened for now and the roster may remain the same when the season starts.
#10 San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs had one star and they traded him. There’s talent in this roster but no top 30 talent and too many outside players (five of their six first round’s picks over the last five years). Apart from Murray and maybe Johnson at SF, it’s hard to make a hierarchy between White, Walker, Vassell, McDermott and surprising 12th pick Josh Primo, another young and raw guard. In the meantime, the paint is pretty quiet with Young, Samanic, Poeltl, Eubanks or the oft-injured Collins. A playoff berth would already been a success for the once title-contending Spurs.
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