The last couple of years have brought parity back to the Western Conference as the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns won their first conference finals of the last decade. The Western Conference is still the NBA’s superior conference, but the East is starting to catch up. This year’s Western Conference will be fun, as there are six or seven teams with a chance to win the West.
15. Houston Rockets, 19-63
The Houston Rockets were the worst team in the West in 2020-21 and only improved through the draft this offseason. The addition of Jalen Green will make the team more fun, but he’s just a rookie so it’s tough to set realistic expectations before the season starts. It’s a completely new period in Houston upon the trade of franchise cornerstone James Harden. It’ll be another year at the top of the lottery for Houston, but it can be a fun season with Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder, 22-60
The Thunder were also atop the Western Conference for the past decade but decided to move on from all their stars a couple of years ago. They have a franchise point guard in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with some other young players like Luguentz Dort, Tre Mann, and Darius Bazley. The Thunder have stashed picks by trading all their veterans, so they have one of the youngest teams in basketball. It’s shaping up to be a long season in Oklahoma City but they’re making steps towards a successful future.
13. Sacramento Kings, 25-57
The Sacramento Kings are in the longest playoff drought in basketball, as they haven’t appeared in the playoffs since 2007 and haven’t won a playoff series since 2004. It seemed that their rebuild was coming to a close, but the combination of De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, and Buddy Hield hasn’t amounted to any success. The Kings look nearly the same as last year, and improvement from Tyrese Haliburton won’t be enough for the Kings to be good.
12. San Antonio Spurs, 27-55
Another team that dominated the West for two decades, the Spurs are also entering a rebuild. They moved on from Kawhi Leonard three years ago, receiving Demar DeRozan in return. Now, DeRozan has moved on, and the Spurs are left with Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson to carry them into a new era. The Spurs have some good pieces on their roster, but they haven’t played together and are all still developing. If one of their young players can play like a star, the Spurs may be in play for a play-in spot, but otherwise, it’s going to be a rough season for San Antonio.
11. New Orleans Pelicans, 37-45
With Zion Williamson hurt to start the season, the Pelicans are behind the 8-ball before the season even starts. The Pelicans will need a huge performance from Brandon Ingram, especially after Lonzo Ball‘s departure in free agency. Outside of Williamson and Ingram, there’s a severe lack of talent on this roster, and the acquisition of Jonas Valanciunas won’t be enough to offset that.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves, 40-42
It’s been an eventful few years for Minnesota, who have transitioned from the Tom Thibodeau/Jimmy Butler-led teams into another rebuild. They kept Karl-Anthony Towns but shipped off Andrew Wiggins. They have a good chance at making the playoffs with a lineup that consists of Towns, Anthony Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell. The Wolves will make life hard for some of the top teams, but they lack the depth to threaten the West’s top teams. They’ll get their chance in the play-in tournament, but they’ll likely bow out there.
9. Memphis Grizzlies, 42-40
The Memphis Grizzlies finished the 2020-21 season with a 38-34 record and the 9th best record in the West but knocked out the Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament to clinch a playoff berth. They’re the 9th best team in the West again, with the same eight teams ahead of them. 22-year-old point guard Ja Morant is the future of the franchise, and they’ll have Jaren Jackson Jr. for a full season this year. They have the perfect role players with Desmond Bane and Kyle Anderson, but they’re missing the 2nd star that a real contender needs.
8. Los Angeles Clippers, 43-39
The Clippers are missing their superstar forward Kawhi Leonard, which turns them from a contender for a top-3 seed to a possible playoff miss. They’re a play-in team in these projections, but only need one win to get into the true playoffs. The Clippers kept moving without Leonard in the 2020-21 playoffs due to the huge contribution of Paul George. They brought back “Mr. June” Reggie Jackson, but he’s not known to show up in the regular season. If Kawhi is back, they could win the championship despite having just the 8th best record in the West.
7. Portland Trail Blazers, 47-35
Superstar point guard Damian Lillard has carried Portland to eight straight playoff appearances, and this year will be no different. He hasn’t had the necessary help to make it deep in the playoffs, outside of the 2018-19 season, when they made it out of the 2nd round for the first time since 2000. The Blazers brought back all their key pieces from last year except Carmelo Anthony, who left in free agency. The Blazers’ success doesn’t depend on Lillard, who always performs. Whether Portland makes a run in the playoffs will come down to their role players, Norman Powell and Robert Covington.
6. Golden State Warriors, 48-34
The Golden State Warriors may be the single hardest team to project entering the 2021-22 season due to the uncertainties regarding Klay Thompson. Thompson hasn’t played in a game since the 2019 NBA Finals, and he won’t return until midway through the season. There’s room for development with their young core, but the Warriors have missed the playoffs two years in a row. Stephen Curry put himself in MVP consideration last season and may do it again, but how much can he take the Warriors without Klay Thompson in the first half?
5. Denver Nuggets, 48-34
The Denver Nuggets have the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic on their roster but they’re missing their second-best player, Jamal Murray, who tore his ACL last season. Jokic, who averaged 26.4 PPG, 10.8 RPG, and 8.3 APG, will be great once again, but the rest of their roster is underwhelming. The success of the Nuggets will come down to the development of Michael Porter Jr., who has the potential to be the second star that the Nuggets need.
4. Dallas Mavericks, 50-32
The Mavericks were the 5th seed in 2020-21 and took a 2-0 lead over the Clippers in the first round. They lost that series, but it provided more experience for Luka Doncic and the rest of this young roster. The Mavericks still haven’t paired Doncic with a second star and lost some depth over the offseason. They had high expectations last year but didn’t quite live up to them after a slow start. Doncic is one of the best players in the sport, but the cast around him isn’t good enough to place them higher than 4th.
3. Los Angeles Lakers, 56-26
The Lakers were the 7-seed in the Western Conference last season and lost to the Phoenix Suns in the first round. Although they added Russell Westbrook this offseason, it’s tough to see a team with this many veterans holding up all season. They’re still led by LeBron James, who is still one of the best players in basketball in his age-36 season. This team is similar to the one that won it all two years ago, and they’re the favorites to win the Western Conference once again in 2021-22.
2. Utah Jazz, 56-26
The Jazz have made the playoffs in five straight years, as Donovan Mitchell has emerged as one of basketball’s best young stars. They were the number one seed in the Western Conference in 2020-21 but lost to the Clippers in the 2nd round after blowing a 2-0 lead. For Utah, it’s the same group of guys as the past couple of seasons, with Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Mike Conley. They shoot the ball as well as anyone, and they have a deep bench, consisting of Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, and they acquired Jared Butler through the draft.
1. Phoenix Suns, 58-24
There’s no dominant team in the Western Conference this year but the Suns look like the best team entering this season. Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and DeAndre Ayton are all returning, although Ayton didn’t get the contract extension he was looking for. Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cameron Payne are all back too, as they retained almost the same rotation from last year’s playoff run. This could be the year that the 24-year-old Booker takes a step towards superstardom and establishes himself as one of the best players in the NBA.
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